Round Table: Text and Image

Karolina Zapal

I am a native Polish speaker, and I filter a lot of my language through another language. Meaning, when I write, I filter language twice. When sitting down to write these opening remarks, the word that came to me is “photograph” and its Polish equivalent “zdjęcie.”

“Zdjęcie” in Polish means photograph but “zdjąć” means to take down, to take off, to remove, to put off, to work off, or to strip. There’s a variety of translations here, but it would be interesting to frame “image” in each one’s light: to take a photograph as a way to take something down, to record it, to work it off. Maybe to feed an image into a text means to strip it raw.

Or maybe it’s the opposite; text takes the lead. Text takes down the image, takes off from the image, removes the image, puts off the image, works off the image, strips the image… But unfortunately, text in Polish is simply tekst, a “ks” replacing the “x.” No further analysis here.

It is also possible that neither one leads the other.

I’ve always been fascinated with how text and image affect each other when they come together in a piece of art. The question is: what verb exists between text and image? The word “image” stems from the Latin word “imago,” which is related to “imitate.” That’s a possible verb. “Text” comes from Latin “texte” meaning “tissue, literary style” and from the verb “texere,” which means “to weave.” The image imitates text, while the text, or this delicate “tissue,” weaves in the image.

Of course there are countless verbs to describe the relationship between text and image. One of the ones I’m concerned with is “to represent.” How much does image want to represent text versus how much does it want to accept its own being? And vice versa. Is representation still at play when the two completely evade each others’ consciousness? Is representation a fragile state, one that could offend if misused, or more of a stable state—welcoming a right to subjectivity? And is representation even the right word?

I’m going to pose one more thought tissue before introducing our panelists. There’s “image in text” & “text in image,” but what about working within the context of “image as text” or “text as image”? After a brief reflection, I figure two things need to be at play in order to see text as image. The first is to encounter the language as foreign. Because foreign letters are not understood, sound and purpose alike, they reveal themselves as lines and curves, as “thorns,” like in Caroline Bergvall’s Drift. They are a conglomeration of strokes, and the reader processes them as such due to a lack of foreign literacy. The other requirement for text to be discerned as image is for the reader to be keenly aware of one’s own reading process. Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s collaborative book, Between Page and Screen, inspires reading presence due to the physical discomforts of holding up print to screen. For those of you who haven’t experienced this, I’ll read an excerpt from the website:

The pages of this artist’s book contain no text—only abstract geometric patterns and a web address leading to this site, where the book may be read using any browser and a webcam. The poems that appear, a series of letters written by two lovers struggling to map the boundaries of their relationship, do not exist on either page or screen, but in the augmented space between them opened up by the reader.

Something similar must be at work to appreciate Bergvall’s text. The reader needs to make a conscious decision that what one’s looking at is image, not simply a text that is other. Although “text as other” encourages important insight, it doesn’t incite the same experience as trying to digest all meaning all at once, as contemplating an image has the capability to do. I think it is also plausible that the effect be felt first, after which an understanding of image comes to light. But for either of these cause-and-effect relationships to take place, the reader must be aware that what one is doing is reading, and how.