DUBAI: Five years ago, Michael Ang and Palestinian calligrapher Hamza Abu Ayyash created a tool to project calligraphy live in urban spaces. Called the Infl3ctor, it took the act of writing on paper and projected it onto the sides of buildings, creating ‘digital calligraffiti’.
Originally created for a project organized by the Berlin-based Public Art Lab, Infl3ctor has managed to merge calligraffiti and media art. “I was called in to help solve this problem of finding something where people can write calligraphy on buildings in real time,” says Ang, a Canadian artist and engineer known for his light objects and interactive installations. “And we had this idea of creating a writing table, where everything you write in black is projected in white. So when you make a stroke with a pen or splash the page with ink, it goes straight up to the wall.
The Infl3ctor has since traveled the world and was at the center of a recent activation at Louvre Abu Dhabi, where visitors’ Eid messages were projected onto the walls of the museum and shared with family and friends. According to Alia Al-Shamsi, Acting Head of Cultural Programming at Louvre Abu Dhabi, the event – presented as part of “Abstraction and Calligraphy – Towards a Universal Language”, which runs through June 12 – represented a “different way for people to experience the art form” and to “see how calligraffiti evolved from traditional calligraphy”.
Perhaps more importantly, however, it revealed one of the many ways calligraphy has adapted to the modern era. Rather than remaining caged by tradition, some practitioners have sought to free calligraphy from the constraints of pen and paper. For Ang, that meant using the Infl3ctor to create temporary spatial interventions that not only embody the beauty of calligraphy, but allow viewers to be present in the moment.
“Part of my practice is to use current technology in a way that we connect more with the present moment, with our surroundings and with each other,” says Ang, assistant professor of interactive media at NYU Abu Dhabi. “So this pen-on-paper drawing process is almost like a respite, or a refuge, in this super stimulating digital realm. “
This focus on the present is of paramount importance to Ang. Although his artistic practice is linked to the technological world, which tends to “dissociate us from ourselves and our environment”, at the heart of his work is the desire to expand the possibilities of human expression and connection.
“When you write characters by hand in a calligraphic style, you can’t help but create your own unique phrase,” he says. “And there is this idea very present in Chinese calligraphy that you can measure a person’s character through the expression of their calligraphy, because every part of your being is expressed through the movement of the writing. . And I think that’s part of why people react so strongly to projected calligraphy.
Calligrapher, muralist and living artist Diaa Allam, who worked as a town planner before becoming a full-time artist in 2017, shared the stage with Ang at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Like Ang, he developed his own style, using his own interpretation of Arabic letters and specializing in a three-dimensional quality calligraphic style. “I think it comes from my experience as a town planner,” says Allam, who has been involved in live calligraphy for six years. “I was able to build something different and that has that architectural feeling.”
“When I first got into calligraphy, I liked the feel of Arabic letters,” he adds. “I loved their strength and flexibility at the same time, and the way you can manipulate them to create shapes, faces, animals, whatever you want. The possibilities are endless. And that’s what I adapted when I started. I wanted to offer the beauty of Arabic calligraphy to the world with my style.
Interestingly, prior to the creation of the Infl3ctor, Ang had no prior calligraphy experience. He had studied computer engineering at university in Canada before moving to the United States and working for several startups in Silicon Valley, creating software that was used by millions of people. “It was really amazing to build things that were used by a lot of people,” he admits. “Creating things that you really thought were on the edge of these big changes that were happening, in the sense of how important all this software and networks was going to become to everyone.
“But after doing that, I was like, ‘OK, it’s fun building big things, but what else can we use technology for? Can we use it for more human-centric applications? Can we use it in a way that doesn’t disconnect us from where we are now, but actually connects us? “
So he created the Inverse Parasol in 2005, which explored how light changes our perception of space and how we communicate with each other. It was to be the start of an artistic career that would use existing technology to create human-centered experiences.
“A lot of people say I have that kind of hacker aesthetic, in the old school sense of trying to figure out a technology so that you can reuse it for something smart,” Ang says. “I mean, the Infl3ctor, it’s actually super simple, right?” We just take what you write and project it. We are expanding it. But everything is really designed to amplify, or enhance, human expression through the pen. “
It is this human expression that Allam wishes to deepen, both through abstraction and the examination of his own artistic struggle. “It’s not easy to be accepted in this field (calligraphy),” he says. “They like to play by the rules – and it was a really tough fight for me. In the first four years, wherever I submitted my work, I was rejected. So I made the decision to stop applying anywhere and just work to improve myself and only use social media to reach the public. It was my decision for many years and it paid off. “
Now he is experimenting with the abstract. “It’s more about the movement of your hand,” he says. “Using the skills you’ve learned a long time ago to simplify movement and create shapes – not necessarily letters – gives you a sense of uniqueness. There is uniqueness because you can’t repeat the shape in the exact same way.