Text Savvy: Agata Ostrowska types maniacally, but honestly
By Bill Clarke
Although she had been showing her work for several years, Toronto-based Agata Ostrowska first came to wide attention when she created a buzz at the 2009 Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. (She received an honourable mention in the printmaking category.) A graduate of Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), Ostrowska uses an antique typewriter to create stream of consciousness tone-poems. She then painstakingly reconfigures the text backwards, in columns of red and black ink that add an element of geometric abstraction to her paintings. Here, Ostrowska talks with Magenta editor Bill Clarke about Beat poetry and embracing mistakes.
Bill Clarke (BC): Where did your interest in working with text come from?
Agata Ostrowska (AO): I was born in Poland and remember, as a little girl, examining poster art. Perhaps, that was my earliest visual influence because typography played such a great role in the posters' visual aesthetics. Then, when I came to Canada, having to learn English was another moment in my life in which language was a big focus. We all use language daily, but something different happens when we see it on paper. I often find myself pondering over a sentence, or just a word. Words have precise definitions, but they can mean so many different things at the same time, can be used in so many different ways. And then, you throw in your audience, who will have their own interpretation that is probably different than yours.
BC: Where do these torrents of words come from?
AO: Sometimes I wish I knew exactly where the words come from! Definitely, it's stream of consciousness. I would very much like to tap into the unconscious more. It typically starts with a word, or a short sentence, and goes from there. The idea is not to think about it too much. There definitely is a start, in that the text starts somewhere, and it ends where the paper ends. But, everything in-between is unplanned, aside from the use of the red text, which is typically a repeated word or phrase, and is often the title of the piece. The minute the writing feels forced, or I am trying to be poetic or trying too hard, I just get up and walk away. Sometimes it pours out, sometimes I get stuck.
BC: Do you expect people to read the texts in their entirety?
AO: No, the text is not meant to be read from the beginning to the end. It's more like a detailed painting where you see something different each time. However, if you do read it in order, you can sometimes figure out where I got distracted or walked away, or came back and started off from a completelydifferent angle.
BC: I've read your work described as "unhinged" (by R.M. Vaughan, the former art critic at the Globe & Mail). Would you describe it that way?
AO: I think he also referred to it as obsessive-compulsive and maniacal. I think all these descriptions are true to some degree. The work has aspects of me being obsessive and compulsive, and it takes me places that are sometimes disturbing or where I feel rather vulnerable. The work is very personal, but the themes are universal. And, I think we are all somewhat unhinged, in one way or another. That's what makes us human and the world interesting.
BC: Your choice of such an iconic colour palette – black, white and red – does remind me of Soviet poster art, but also another text-based artist, Barbara Kruger. Do you have any artistic influences or other text-based artists you admire?
AO: Other than poster art and book covers, I was never particularly drawn to text-based art while studying printmaking. My taste in art is a bit eclectic, and I think I have many influences. I am often drawn to Conceptual art.
Recently, I have been re-examining the work of Douglas Coupland. I find it very interesting how his writing and visual work complements and crosses over. One of my biggest influences is the Beat generation. William Burroughs and his “cut-up technique” of writing is a great inspiration. But, I do not consider myself a conventional writer and, in the end, my work is as much about the visual aesthetics as the writing. As for my current choice of palette, the typewriters I employ in my work, use a standard ribbon that only writes in black and red.
AO: My very first formal text piece Understanding Stephen Hawking/Not Understanding Stephen Hawking from 2002, contained text in reverse and had to do with the concept of a palindrome. It just seemed like such a natural part of the work that it just continued on in most of my text work since. The reverse text translates the writing into unreadable gibberish, but it also offers balance, and it is like a reflection where the interpretation takes place. I enjoy the stream of consciousness writing as much as typing backwards. One requires focus of the mind, the other is more the focus of the body. I find typing backwards very meditative, and a way to reflect on the piece I have just written.
BC: Why did you choose this laborious method of making the work?
AO: I could not create the work I do in any other way than by using a typewriter. It starts with me, an antique turn-of-the-century typewriter machine and a piece of paper. You can't help but feel like a writer when you hear the tapping of the keys. Using the typewriter is somehow beautifully permanent. There are so many mistakes, errors.
BC: Why don't you correct the typos?
AO: Because that's what the work is about – imperfections, and accepting them. Sometimes they are true grammatical mistakes, sometimes my fingers slip off the keys. Though I use liquid paper when I catch myself making a mistake, there is no spell-check and there is nothing auto-correcting me. I can't easily erase and edit or forget what I just wrote. That's what allows me to tap into my stream of consciousness. I am okay with the fact that I sometimes forget how to spell simple words, or write sentences that could be re-written better grammatically. I just love the process. I am also a closet Luddite.
BC: As an artist working with words, what do you think about the changes that language is undergoing in this age of emailing and texting?
AO: That's a tough question. Perhaps, it makes my work even more relevant in that writing seems to be an increasing means of communication. However, there is this constant need for things to be served up quickly and in short-hand. My work requires time from a viewer. You have to walk up, look for a moment and read a small section of each piece to fully appreciate it. People don't seem to have that kind of patience these days.
BC: Do you think your work has a sense of humour?
AO: I think so. I hope the work makes people laugh; it makes me laugh sometimes. I tend to be sarcastic, so there is probably some sarcasm in there, too. I don't try to be, or to not be, funny. I am trying to be honest. That can be humorous sometimes. And, there are the grammatical errors.