Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 26, 2008

The 3-D Alphabet and The Bubble Project

Tomorrow I’ll be discussing two projects by Ji Lee in relation to media ecologies and participatory art. Both these works—Univers Revolved and The Bubble Project—explore the relationship between text and image, and both are situated at the disintegrating border between commercial design and fine art. If you get a chance, explore the two sites via this link.


Univers Revolved is a virtual 3-D alphabet that Lee created by rotating the leftmost point of each letter in the Univers font (a sibling of Helvetica) around the Y-axis. Conceptualized rather naively by the artist as a means of helping users think “beyond the conventions of their familiar reading method,” this font nevertheless provides a unique way of activating the latent “materialist energies” of the letter. “For Rudolf Arnheim,” Matthew Fuller tells us, “the announcer’s voice should behave like polite typography” (32). Univers Revolved might then be understood as the impolite typographical corollary to the digitized and mechanized voices of the pirate broadcasts Fuller discusses. The impoliteness is UR’s insistence on the materiality of the letter and the suggestion of alternate typographical universes. UR expands radically on the “literal art” or lettrist mode of new media poetics outlined by Morris in her introduction to the topic (“New Media Poetics,” 20). But UR does so not in time as The Dreamlife of Letters does, but in space.

It also maximizes rather than minimizes the role of the user. In addition to navigating the site in various manners, the user can download the font and put it directly to use. He or she can build with it. My example below is a UR version of the final stanza of William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say”: “Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold.” Somehow the pair of e’s in “sweet” takes on a new feel when spatialized; the word seems even sweeter, more sugary, because the letters look like stacks of candy. Go here to download, install, and play with the font on your own computer (it’s super easy).


Univers Revolved is then at least as much a tool for prying open the gaps and fissures Fuller discusses as it is a conclusive “result” of media-ecological tinkering. It was born through the integration of visual and typographical design models and the application of 3-D imaging software to typically “flat” materials. But more significant is the way the font-in-use forces the Microsoft Word user to rethink the pre-loaded fonts and the roles of typography and graphemes in general. Or am I back to the language of Lee’s blunt mission statement? Anyway, I’m curious to hear other’s reactions, especially to writing in this font. Does this alphabet constitute a medium different from its source fonts (Univers, Folio, Helvetica, and Akzidenz-Grotesk)? If so, after writing/building with it for a bit, do you begin to consider other text forms differently? More generally, is Lee’s cute, streamlined aesthetic problematic or appropriate? Might we critique it along the lines that we did Dreamlife? Recalling that though the font is free the book and posters cost hefty sums, how does the “look” of the font and Lee’s site relate to the commercial side of the endeavor?


If there’s time I’ll also discuss The Bubble Project, an empty speech-bubble template that the user can print and attach to public advertisements. The original run was 30,000 sticker copies, which were adhered by the author and pals to ads throughout NYC. Folks were then free to write whatever they wanted in these bubbles, and the altered ads were later photographed. I won’t say much about this work, except to point out that here a project planned for the streets of New York (the “street bubbles”) reemerged on the internet as “online bubbles.” Most interesting in this respect is that the online manifestation of the project seems to have reached a “critical point” (to borrow De Landa’s term) not attained in the original. The online version allows the user to add quotes to a speech bubble grafted onto a celebrity image. After the first few months, though, the bubbles were infected by viral comments, and the user comments began appearing less frequently. The appropriateness of Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise hocking Viagra, penis enlargements, and diet pills is uncanny. Lee’s simple intervention produced a wholly unexpected result: user participation is obviated as media learns to make fun of itself. Um… yay?

–Jeremy Schmidt



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