Tucker McLachlan

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Typography Ghost Stories

August 2017

Unicorn Riot / anonymous Canadian union official

I was honoured to present at the 19th annual TypeCon, and spoke about my research into graphic design, land ownership and colonial entitlement in North America. Included below are my notes and slides for the talk.

Our Horizon
In November 2015, the city of North Vancouver implemented a bylaw requiring all gas stations ‘to apply warning stickers about the relationship between driving and catastrophic climate change.’ The effort was designed by a non-profit called Our Horizon.

Our Horizon
Explosion photographer unknown

These stickers draw on the visual language of contemporary cigarette packaging. They make it impossible for drivers to ignore the consequences of our choices and way of life.

They take on the ‘slow violence’ of fossil fuels. The American writer Rob Nixon has described slow violence as the opposite of immediate, explosive, spectacular, and therefore easily represented. To use Nixon’s words, these stickers succeed in dramatizing a violence ‘that is typically not viewed as violence at all’—‘a violence of delayed destruction’ ‘that occurs gradually and out of sight.’

By the following October, a group called Smart Fuelling, a public relations effort produced by industry associations backed by Imperial Oil, Chevron, Shell and others, had persuaded North Vancouver to take a different approach.

Smart Fuelling
This is the visual language of denial. A visual language designed precisely to prevent anyone filling up their tank from being jolted into heightened awareness. As the oil companies understand so well, there’s more at stake here than cheerful green vector graphics can convey.

Colin Powell, Department of State
This is a slide from the PowerPoint presentation that Secretary of State Colin Powell made to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, shortly before the United States invaded Iraq. In his presentation, Powell argued that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction it was hiding from inspectors, and was refusing to disarm.

Colin Powell, Department of State
US Marine Corps

Powell made his argument visually, by labelling satellite photos, typesetting telephone conversations, and visualizing the testimony of Iraqi sources.

This is one such visualization of a mobile biological weapons facility, a combination of trucks for producing anthrax. After the invasion began, the CIA acknowledged that the testimony behind their renderings was pure fabrication; that these images modelled a kind of perverse speculative practice.

Reflecting on Powell’s presentation, the German artist, writer and filmmaker Hito Steyerl has noted that his slides illustrate the way ‘documentary forms can take effect as a kind of government through the production of truth.’ She writes that the area of the documentary involves ‘structuring the field of possible actions,’ ‘suggesting, proposing, evoking, preventing or reshaping actions.’ She goes on to argue that documents do not adhere to a status quo, but rather seek to induce a target state.

Neither the Smart Fuelling sticker nor Colin Powell’s slides are particularly compelling pieces of graphic design, if by ‘compelling pieces of graphic design’ we mean work with visual originality, style, and decent typesetting. But if we look at them instead for the kind of world they call into existence—a world in which truth is moulded in the interests of those with vast concentrations of power and wealth—they become fascinating artefacts of conquest; graphics that operate almost as a means of low intensity warfare.

This is a kind of design that is easy to overlook and difficult to canonize: a realm of forms that aren’t immediate, explosive or spectacular—forms we might describe as traces of slow violence working through aesthetics. I like to think of these as typography ghost stories, and I’d like to hold up a few others from the past.

Virginia Historical Society
On December 23rd, 1853, a woman named Ann Singleton was given permission to travel to and from the grocery store. This was her written pass.

Slaves had to have passes when they were off the plantation. Slave passes provided a way for white planters to restrict and monitor Black mobility, using paper, ink and written language.

Artist unknown
Passes worked in tandem with slave patrols, teams of white men armed with whips and guns who would confirm that a pass was valid or deliver a series of lashes and return the slave to their owner. As the American writer Christian Parenti has so eloquently described, this early infrastructure of surveillance depended on ‘the racially defined contours of white literacy and black illiteracy,’ relying on handwritten notes as a kind of embryonic travel document that only whites could read and write.

The system was vulnerable, of course, to slaves who did learn written language, and could forge passes of their own. Parenti writes that literate slaves like Frederick Douglass became collective assets in their time, forging documents both for themselves and for others.

Virginia Historical Society
In response to slave literacy, passes hardened into print, developing standardized fields during the civil war for basic biometric information. If handwriting had been an obstacle that literate slaves could overcome, typography presented a visual authority and complexity less susceptible to resistance—a way to fix a slave’s identity, mobility and status with greater certainty than written passes had allowed. Typography was very effective for controlling the movements of slaves.

Thomas MacKellar
Vonte Shipman

Around the same time, Thomas MacKellar published The American Printer: A Manual of Typography, and reflected that ‘sentiments in print look marvellously different from the same ideas in manuscript.’ As the media historian Lisa Gitelman explains in her recent book, Paper Knowledge, he was ‘warning printers that authors receiving proof sheets’ and seeing their writing in print for the first time were liable to make annoying and costly alterations. While he wasn’t referring to slave passes at all, I think his comments are equally relevant in this context.

This past June, a black man in Jacksonville named Devonte Shipman was ticketed for jaywalking and not carrying ID, so-called ‘infractions’ worth a total of $201. Though the specific laws, styles and printing technologies had changed, Shipman experienced the same, centuries-old logic of the slave pass—a racially charged encounter in which the absence of an identifying graphic artefact legitimized an arbitrary act of dominance on the part of the state.

Saskatchewan Archives Board via Tamarack Productions
North of the border, after 1885, the Canadian government designed similar passes to limit and monitor the movements of Indigenous people. As Alex Williams has documented in his excellent film, The Pass System, anyone leaving the reserve for any reason required a pass approved by an Indian Agent, outlining why they intended to travel and how long they would be gone.

Unlike passes in the states, the Canadian pass system was put in place against the law. In treaties designed to ensure access to territory, the Canadian government had guaranteed Indigenous nations that they would continue to be free to move across their lands. We know from archival sources that the government officials behind the pass system—including Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald—knew it was illegal. In the absence of legal basis, ‘printedness’ itself became its foundation of authority, performing an unofficial policy through presentation and blurring the boundary between typographic aesthetics and actual law.

Alexander Morris
Library and Archives Canada

The treaties made prior to the pass system are themselves an expansive collection of ghost stories, in which the tools of our trade made land theft seem legal and consensual.

To take just one example, there are two radically different Canadian records of an agreement with the Cree, Assiniboine and Ojibway known as Treaty Six, over an area of more than 120 thousand square miles in and around southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Throughout the negotiations, the Canadian team kept minutes of what was said, and later published them in a volume called the Treaties of Canada.

In these notes the Canadians said explicitly that they hadn’t come to barter or trade for the land; that they were only there to offer gifts. They assured their negotiating partners that the Queen’s government would always take a deep interest in their wellbeing.

By contrast, the written, English treaty that was signed records an absolute land surrender never mentioned in the minutes, in which the Indigenous nations willingly ‘cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada ... forever, all their rights, titles and privileges’ to the land. This is the only record of the agreement that Canada acknowledges. Canada’s claim to the prairies is not far off from an alternative fact.

Library and Archives Canada
The negotiators brought the handwritten treaty with them from Ottawa, with the bulk of it written in advance. After it had been signed, a print edition was made that could circulate more widely. Typography served very successfully to proliferate the land surrender as though it were truth, affirming among settlers on the ground a sense of rightful entitlement to the area at the expense of its longstanding Indigenous peoples.

British Columbia Provincial Archives
Around the same time, on the west coast, settlers were claiming British Columbia according to the logic of another graphic document known as a pre-emption.

The historian Paige Raibmon relates how the colony passed a Land Ordinance in 1861 that allowed settlers to claim land simply by sketching it and writing a short description. Raibmon explains that ‘because most of the land was unsurveyed’ when the government wanted to encourage settlement on and around Vancouver Island, settlers were asked simply to submit their sketches and writing to the surveyor general in Victoria for registration. ‘Other than a small administrative fee, no payment was required until the area was surveyed, at which point four shillings and two pence per acre was due.’

As Raibmon describes, this process of sketching, writing, and registering loose descriptions of territory brought Indigenous land into an alien system of property ownership, inventing real estate value and the perception of ownership through simple graphic forms.

Both treaties and pre-emptions involved British people creating typographic artefacts that could provide a rhetorical foundation for their otherwise unfounded claims to Indigenous land.

Manitoba Provincial Archives
If we’re looking for the roots of this pattern, we can go back two hundred years prior, to 1670, when the King of England granted a royal charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company. This charter claimed to grant the company control over all the lands and waters draining into Hudson Bay, an area to be known as Rupert’s Land that covered more than 40% of what has since become Canada.

Hudson's Bay Company

To this day, the Hudson’s Bay Company provides educational resources that describe the charter as just ‘five pages of parchment’ that ‘made a group of English gentlemen the “true and absolute lords ... of almost half of North America,”’ language that wilfully erases the sovereignty and presence of the nations who were here first, and have been for thousands of years.

Of course, the Hudson’s Bay Company isn’t the only culprit here. Canada recognized the company’s claim when it purchased Rupert’s Land for 300 000 pounds in 1869, equivalent to about $87 million dollars today. As part of the deal, the company was given title to 45 000 acres around its existing posts, and the right to claim five percent of all land across the fertile, resource-rich southern Canadian prairies.

Today, 87 First Nations in Canada live with boil water advisories, while the Hudson’s Bay Company controls more than six billion dollars in land—a real estate empire founded on a graphic artefact, a decorative, symbolic, rhetorical assertion of empire produced almost 350 years ago.

These stories are not widely remembered. Before I wrap up I’d like to go back to the pass system and talk a little bit about memory, and what we choose to remember, and choose to forget.

From what we know, the pass system in Canada seems to have ended in the 1940s, after an official named Harold McGill circulated a memo ordering all passes back to Ottawa to be destroyed.

By the 70s, these passes had been so thoroughly erased from the memory of the state that it couldn’t remember whether they had even existed at all. The Canadian Department of Indian Affairs commissioned a Study of Passes for Indians to Leave their Reserves, which found a small number of passes held in a private archive in Alberta, confirming that ‘such passes did,’ indeed, ‘exist.’

University of Saskatchewan Archives
In a newspaper article published last year, John Leslie, a former Indian Affairs manager, suggested that the destruction of the passes probably wasn’t deliberate, and that it was likely more a matter of ineptitude than conspiracy.

He explained that recordkeeping was handled poorly until the late 1950s, with documents stored in barns at the mercy of mice and rats; that Indian Affairs contributed five tons of documents to emergency paper drives during the Second World War; that a basement flood congealed troves of records at one point in the 1960s, any of which could be the reason why the passes could not be found.

Unicorn Riot / anonymous Canadian union official
His explanation reminded me of Facebook, blaming its automated filters, when confronted last fall about censoring a live stream from Standing Rock. It also reminded me of our previous Canadian government, gutting seven ocean research libraries, literally trashing irreplaceable collections of baseline environmental data dating back to the 1880s, while claiming the materials were being digitized to provide greater access to all Canadians. They haven’t been. The convenience of these accidents and this forgetting is intriguing.

Reflecting on a similar absence in memory in the War issue of Form, the design writer Barbara Eldredge has pointed out that guns are absent from all American collections of contemporary design, despite their cultural significance.

Global News

She quotes the rationale of Arthur Drexler, former head of Architecture and Design at the MoMA, who wrote in 1984 that although ‘deadly weapons are among the most fascinating and well-designed artifacts of our time, ... their beauty can be cherished only by those for whom aesthetic pleasure is divorced from the value of life—a mode of perception the arts are not meant to encourage.’

Drexler was making the moral argument that we shouldn’t put guns on display in design collections because they do so much harm—that to display guns would glorify them, or treat them as beautiful; that collections are only for the beautiful, and that we should therefore leave the ugly and the harmful out sight and out of mind.

ABC News, Virginia Historical Society
This is a view that equates design with goodness: that refuses to accept the possibility that design can be sinister, destructive, ugly, problematic, and still excellent design, still crucially important to display and discuss as such.

I think we would rather forget about slave passes, treaties and charters, not talk about how remarkably successful they’ve been at creating and normalizing our culture of white supremacy; how they exemplify what Robin Kinross has described as the ‘rhetoric of neutrality.

These are understated graphic forms of tremendous violence that can seem somehow outside the scope of our field, and unsettling in their implications. What would it mean if we recognized slave passes and carding as typography? What would change in our collective practice if we remembered and passed on these stories with the same attention we pay to the people and the work we’re most proud of? If we attended to the grief of design alongside the joy?

In her classic essay, ‘The Crystal Goblet,’ Beatrice Warde argued that printing should be invisible—that ‘type well used is invisible as type.’

We might ask why the typography of dispossession is so unseen, and so unremembered, if not that there’s something deeply typographic about it—an invisibility asking us to notice.