Till Gathmann


My research project is to trace the story and its historical circumstances of the self-taught letterform historian and expert on the letter V, Alfred Kallir (1899–1983). Kallir, born into a Jewish family in Vienna, witnessed the decay of the Habsburg Monarchy, and hoped for a career as a violinist in the USA—a shattered dream, which was followed by his employment as a manager for the international corporation Witkowitz Steel Works in Czechoslovakia, Amsterdam, and London, where he witnessed (and possibly worked against) the destruction of the company through Hermann Göring’s greedy hands.
This chapter is closed in 1941 in England, when he threw himself into his life-long project, an obsessive but poorly acknowlegded research —inspired by the spreading of Winston Churchill’s two-fingered victory sign—on the genealogy of letterforms and their “hidden meaning.”
My research focusses on the biographical questions of the representability of historical circumstances, and their influence on the thoughts and actions of Kallir, which—proving the mode of artistic research—provides strong reflections on my own interests, desires, and my selective approach to subjects and objects. Of importance here is a perspective informed by psychoanalysis where, in this context, the term “transferrence” is highly significant to me. As reformulated by Pontalis/Laplache, “transference uses specific objects and operates in the framework of a specific relationship established with these objects.” Though primarily evident in analytic practices, Freud initially identified transference as a process within the Traumarbeit (dream work): ‘… an unconscious idea is as such quite incapable of entering the preconscious and […] it can only exercise any effect there by establishing a connection with an idea which already belongs to the preconscious, by transferring its intensity on to it and by getting itself ‘covered’ by it. Here we have the fact of ‘transference’ …” (Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a): G.W., II–III, 568; S.E., V, 562).
To act out, structure, and transform this particular moment within the research process, I chose to develop a series of performances. Each consisting of a methodological part being confronted with particular results of actual research, the performances aim to address my personal involvement with the specific objects in a bodily relation, publicly forcing myself into a figure of authorship, failure, and obsession—a mimetic gesture torwards Kallir himself. The performances are also site and time specific, and involve different techniques, but with a preferance for drawing.
The last step in the completion of my research will be a book, which resembles and confronts foremost biographical and historical elements of Alfred Kallir’s life, with a strong emphasis on representability and construction. Since my professional occupation is book design and typography, formal questions will be answered with formal means, though always aware of the dialectics of form and content. The initial emphasis on the relation of text and image that Kallir focussed upon—the genealogy of writing from image, the legibility of images—will be put into practice in the reflection upon recent questions (primarily, but not only) of the use of photography and typography in literature.
Figure from: Alfred Kallir, V is the War Aim, Oxford [booklet].