In Conversation with Rachel Nackman
May 2012, New York
Rachel Nackman: How did you begin making drawings with a typewriter?
Allyson Strafella: I started using a typewriter when I was in college. I would go to the school library every day and use the typewriter there as a way to process my thoughts. The writing was very stream-of-consciousness; I set no rules for myself, had no structure—I just put words down. In school, written language was always tough for me. How do you use language? How do you use words? I always felt a pressure to do it correctly and formally. So when I started showing up at this typewriter each day with no rules, it was total freedom. I could just write.
Then one day I sat down and thought for a little too long before I started to write. For me, the writing was supposed to be about not thinking, about just writing whatever my thoughts were. I didn’t want to become too conscious of what I was writing; that was what I was trying to avoid. So on this day when I had sat and thought for too long, I just absentmindedly hit the dash key. That particular key has a repetitive keystroke, and when I held it down, it made a really nice dotted line across the paper. Then I did it again and again. It eventually turned into a grid. Somehow I felt like I had fallen into my world.
In school, I always felt like I was trying to find my center. What is my work? I was always working from the outside in, trying to define it. That first typewriter drawing allowed me to start working from the center out. If you’re floating out in the world, always drifting, it’s hard to find wherever it is you’re grounded. You can’t make a decision until you know what you want to do. But once you know what you want to do, everything can happen more easily. With the typewriter drawing, I felt like I had broken through my fear of traditional language and had found my own visual language. Drawing, mark making, and form: that’s my language. I just happen to use a machine meant to be used for English words.
RN: Can you describe the process of making a drawing like factor (2007; fig. 1)?
AS: I use a typewriter as a tool for making marks. When I started to make the typewriter drawings, I was thinking a lot about rhythm and pattern. As I was typing, I would think about the keys hitting and the sound. I was also thinking about the forms on the paper—whole forms and what happens if you remove a piece from a form and put it somewhere else. This drawing is a little bit like that, in that it has the original circle form, and then there’s a piece of the circle that’s taken away and moved to create two forms. I think much of the process here is in thinking about forms, pulling forms out of forms. I always like things that are either slightly off-center or incomplete.
RN: When you begin making a drawing like this, you choose one mark that’s repeated throughout, and you also make decisions about the form that those collective marks end up creating.
AS: Over time I’ve come to use primarily one key on the typewriter: the colon. I pretty much know that’s what I’m going to use when I start making a drawing. As for the form the colons create, I always think that the last drawing leads to the next drawing—in some ways, it is a linear evolution.
I’m interested in circles because a circle is a form that goes against the linear structure of the typewriter. I like the idea of making a circle as well as I can, using a machine that doesn’t really do circles. I also like circles that are just slightly incomplete, so it isn’t a fully formed sphere. Factor falls into a series of drawings in which I was playing with the circle, the sphere, and the linear structure of the machine. A lot of the time my process is just thinking about the form—imagining the sphere, what it does, where it goes.
RN: Does knowing ahead of time what the component of the mark is going to be—the colon—allow you to focus only on building form?
AS: Probably. I think that’s why I’ve become so committed to the colon—because I know what it’s going to do. I like the density of the mark it makes. Through this dense building up of marks, the paper breaks open, which I love.
I know the possibilities, but I don’t always know the outcome. How much will the paper tear? How dense will it be? I use a machine that has a built-in structure, but I try to manipulate that structure subtly by holding the typewriter carriage—which allows me to adjust the space automatically placed between key strikes. It’s inconsistent because I interfere with the machine.
RN: You’re manually kerning, and the spacing becomes irregular because you’re doing it, as opposed to the machine doing it.
AS: Right. Even the machine has its irregularities. I always thought that I loved straight lines—lines that were clear and beautiful and uniform. But the typewriter makes a really beautiful line that is not straight. It moves, it has a current through it, something that shifts and vibrates. It has its own inconsistencies, and then I get to bring in my hand.
RN: And the typewriter is mechanical—not digital.
AS: That’s right. People always ask me why I don’t use a computer to do this. Well, the computer is sort of sterile. It’s a machine made to achieve as much perfection as possible. I can’t get the tactile quality of the typewriter’s marks with a computer. The typewriter is so physical, and I love that element: the physical gesture of a key hammering into the paper.
RN: Is the experience of making a drawing immersive for you? Where is your mind when you’re making these drawings?
AS: A lot of times my mind is in the drawing or thinking about what the last drawing was and where it might lead. In the middle of making one drawing, I might get an idea for something that I want to make afterward. When I first started using the typewriter, my mind was a lot slower and more present in the drawing. I was totally engaged. Everything else fell away. My consciousness has since shifted, and now I think about other things while I’m drawing. Usually those other things are related to what’s in my studio—other things that are lying around or things that I’m looking at.
The things that I look at fuel my thoughts. A lot of the time I’m thinking about architecture, or structure, or nature. My work is generally seen as abstract or minimal, but while I’m not rendering the landscape in traditional ways, I am completely informed by it. If I could, I would be out in nature making beautiful botanical drawings. But that’s not my language.
RN: On your website you have a number of resource videos. Can you tell us a little bit about them?
AS: I took those videos when I was traveling in India. In one video a man is pulling a string; he’s drilling, and he’s rigged up the string to run a basic tool to drill a hole. It looks like he’s playing a musical instrument. There was something there that seemed connected to the sensibility of the typewriter. In today’s world, almost every machine is made with the intention of the user not having to do a lot to get something done. Today you just push a button and something happens. Those little resource videos, for me, are about real machines.
I think that’s what I was looking at in India: ways of getting things done using invented methods of making that are part machine and part human hand or human body. The custom typewriter that I built is sort of like that. We cannibalized a Smith Corona, and then I worked with a machinist to build a carriage that is thirty-six inches long. In a way, it’s overbuilt; I think we both realized that. It was complex to figure out how to reroute the machine to do certain things. But there’s something humorous about that to me. Here I am, so committed to these old machines, to the point where I’d want to build my own machine rather than use a computer, like people are always suggesting. Using the typewriter to make works of art is more like building sculpture than making two-dimensional drawing.
RN: Your interest in using machines is not about efficiency; it’s about how the machine can be used as an extension of your own body.
AS: Yes, right.
RN: One thing about your videos that’s really striking is the sound—the rhythm and the repetition. I wonder if that repetitive quality is a major part of the intrigue of your process.
AS: Exactly. When I first started making typewriter drawings, I was very aware of the sound of the keystroke; it was like a film projector, that wonderful sound of the film going around, clicking. Those sounds seemed to be so much a part of the process, the making and the viewing and the seeing of things. The sound of the typewriter, the rhythm and the counting, has evolved into a sort of formal consciousness. It is a form of meditation, I would say.
That sense is still there when I make drawings, but it’s almost like I know too much about my tool now. I’m still aware of the sound and the rhythm, but at this point I want to make the drawing and get the image. I’m always so anxious to see the form I’ve made that sometimes I drift away from the rhythm and the sound.
RN: How much of the form can you see while you’re making it? Or is the process really about listening to the rhythm of the typewriter and intuiting where to stop each line?
AS: Initially it was exactly that: listening and counting in my mind and intuitively knowing where I wanted to stop. As the drawings have evolved, I’ve come to think so much more in advance about each drawing, whereas initially it was more spontaneous. Now I think about the rhythm and the sound, but more preparatory thought has gone into the form, so I’m trying to get to that form. I might draw on the back of the page as a guide, if there’s something I want to make sure to accomplish, rather than letting it be.
RN: What side of the paper do you see while you’re making the work? What sorts of papers do you put into the machine?
AS: I use a lot of carbon paper: colored carbon and black carbon. Initially I was working with just white paper and black carbon, and the carbon sheet goes on top of the paper. There is always an element of surprise. Sometimes I’m anxious to finish the drawing because I want to see it. I don’t really see it in the typewriter. It’s like being a little kid—you can’t wait, so you keep peeking. I keep pulling back the carbon and looking as I go along. If I peek a little bit, it keeps me moving. But I never really know what’s going to happen until I take the drawing out and peel back the carbon.
Then usually I am left with two drawings: I have the carbon and I have the drawing on paper, the positive and the negative. When I’m making the drawing, I still feel the excitement of wondering, “What is it going to be?” If it doesn’t quite come out how I imagined it, do I sit with it, or do I cut up that drawing? Is the drawing somewhere in there? Do I need to find it or crop it? I’m open to all of that. If a drawing is not what I thought it would be, I don’t disregard it.