dot-font: Hot Metal & Cool Type
The purpose of the annual ATypI conference is to meet friends and colleagues, make new connections, trade professional news and views, and take the pulse of the typographic community worldwide. The actual program almost doesn't matter, although it usually turns out to be a stimulating mix of talks, panels, presentations -- even when as this year it was thrown together at the last minute.
Historical Publishing Center
The character of each year's conference is strongly influenced by its locale, and this year's host city of Leipzig set its mark on the event. Americans and Western Europeans may not think about Leipzig very much, given that it spent nearly half a century as part of East Germany, outside our field of attention. But at the turn of the last century, Leipzig was the heart of Germany's printing and publishing trade, with 200 publishers in the city and an annual trade fair that dominated the industry. Even after the country was divided, Leipzig served as a center of typography and printing for the countries of the Eastern bloc.
Today, at the end of the tumultuous 20th century, Leipzig is a palimpsest of cultures, histories, and architectural styles -- from the Thomaskirche, where Bach was Kantor, through numerous surviving 19th-century and imperial, Weimar, and Nazi-era buildings to the squat determinism of the official buildings of the German Democratic Republic. The city now shows the signs of the sporadic boom of capitalism, and tensions between old-time residents and new arrivals with lots of money are readily evident. (The roots may be quite different, but the nature of the conflict is obvious to anyone who's familiar with neighborhood resistance to the "dot-com invasion" in San Francisco. Empty, run-down, or boarded-up buildings stand next to chic new restaurants in titanium and glass.)
Leipzig's typographic history was shown off at the printing museum (Werkstätten und Museum für Druckkunst), whose head, Eckehart SchumacherGebler, was co-chair of the conference. The other co-chair, Erik Spiekermann of MetaDesign and FontShop in Berlin, could be said to represent the liveliness of Berlin and the typographic heritage of the West.
Talk, Talk, Talk
Half of the programming was held at the museum, where talks ran alongside hands-on workshops and demonstrations. (The museum is a living workshop, a professional repository of craft, knowledge, and hard physical equipment, rather than a public-oriented place for managed edutainment.) The other half of the program was held at the Konsum Zentral, a former East German food mart that now functions as a conference and exhibition center; large talks were held in the bullet-shaped main room on the top floor, which alternated between darkened closeness (when the power-operated shades came down -- noisily -- for slide presentations) and a brightly lit view out over the city through the windows on three sides. The two venues were a fairly long walk apart (and a good distance from the hotels in the city center), but the conference ran shuttle buses back and forth all day, and the city's extensive system of trams got people around efficiently.
Some of the program was in German, some was in English, and the usual heroic effort was made (for the main track of programming) to provide simultaneous translations between the two. This is never satisfactory, but it's better than nothing. In general, the translators did seem familiar with typographic terms (though there was perhaps a philosophical question of whether to translate "Fraktur" into the literal "broken type" or leave it as the recognized German term), but trying to listen through the haze of translation was a frustrating process. Even though I speak almost no German, sometimes I just left off the headphones and listened to the cadences of speech of the German-speaking presenters. At first I was annoyed that neither of the two translators was a native English-speaker, which meant that the English-speaking members of the audience had to deal not only with the lag time of simultaneous translation but with awkward constructions and questionable word choices -- but eventually I realized that at least the German-speakers in the audience wouldn't have to deal with this particular problem. Ideally, you'd have different people translating in the two directions, so that you'd always hear a native speaker of your own language. But that would be, I suppose, the most expensive option -- given that it would require twice as many translators.
The multilingual history of Leipzig typography was evident in several of the talks, including two on different approaches to digitizing Arabic typefaces (one by Adil Allawi, of Diwan Software in the UK, and the other by Tom Milo, of DecoType in the Netherlands), a talk by Dermott McGuinne of Dublin on a German connection to Irish type, Theo Neteler's discussion of the oriental and occidental typefaces in the Offizin Haag-Drugulin, and a talk by Gerry Leonidas of the University of Reading on "Leipzig and Greek type design."
This was, of course, only one aspect of the program. As always happens with multiple programming tracks, there were inevitably two items I wanted to see on at the same time.
The Social & Cultural Program
Evenings were full. The opening night saw a reception and jazz evening at the historic Moritzbastei, a ruin aboveground with a huge, cascading series of cellars that have been turned into a complex of bars, restaurants, and cafes. Although I was out to dinner and missed the first part of the evening, the band was still playing and a few handfuls of typographers were still drinking, talking, and laughing when I stopped in near midnight.
The traditional "gala dinner" was held on Saturday night in another underground location, the Auerbach Keller, which served as a setting in Goethe's Faust. The Auerbach Keller is much less cellar-like than the Moritzbastei -- more just a big restaurant with a few archways to remind you that you're directly under a galleria-style shopping precinct -- but it provided a good place to eat hearty and mingle with fellow diners. The obligatory short speeches were given a slightly surreal flavor because, from some parts of the pillar-infested space, you couldn't actually see where the voice of the speaker was coming from.
Type is Sexy
The surprise venue for nightlife was a student bar created just for ATypI, called "type is sexy." Some of the graphic-design students from the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig turned a downtown storefront, which was in the process of being renovated and will eventually open as a boutique, into an impromptu destination. The bare whitewashed walls came off on your clothes if you leaned against them; a simple bar was set up, with beer and Afri cola; and a TV played a loop of the credits to the James Bond film Goldfinger (which, ironically, was later shown on my Air Canada flight back to North America). The music was loud, and like all public spaces in eastern Germany, it seems, this one was full of smoke. But the life of the conference was there. Software geeks and wizened type pros got down to the beat, and the students who organized this watched in bemusement as the international typographic elite danced themselves into a sweat and got seriously silly.
I spent most of one night standing there (inside at first; outside when the noise got to be too much) talking with Robin Kinross, of Hyphen Press in London, and Günter Bose, a professor at the Hochschule. Bose, who is originally from the West and spent ten years as a publisher in Berlin (Brinkmann & Bose), was fascinatingly articulate about the nature of Leipzig and the opportunities it offered. "I could get a job in Berlin at a school with much more money and a higher profile," he said, "but the students there don't want anything more than to make money. Here, they have" -- he used a German word that I didn't quite catch -- "the fire, the need to make something." He was pessimistic about the future of the city, as the influx of money destroys the fragile energy that he's found there, but he knows where he wants to be while it's here.
In my next couple of columns, I'll tell you about how Günter Gerhard Lange was presented with both the TDC medal and the quick brown fox; about the independent forum on OpenType and related new font technology; and about the question of what blackletter type means in the political context of Germany of today.
Just so you can begin planning now, the next conference will be in Copenhagen, at the end of September 2001.
Doyald Young in Paris
Apropos of ATypI, ATypI-France has organized a talk and book signing in Paris by Doyald Young, well-known lettering artist and author of Logotypes & Letterforms and the recently published Fonts & Logos. The talk will take place at 7 p.m. on October 18, at the Ecole de Communication Visuelle (ECV). The signing happens two days later, at 6 p.m. on October 20, at the Librairie Artazart.
Read more by John D. Berry.
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