"Ballpoint" is an exhibition at London's Pentagram Gallery organized by my partner Angus Hyland and featuring the work of "artists, illustrators and designers invited to make an artwork using only ballpont pen." The participants include Ron Arad, Nicholas Blechman and Christoph Niemann, Paul Davis, Marion Deuchars, Jeff Fisher, Alan Fletcher, Benoit Jacques, Uwe Loesch, and Ian Wright.
The exhibition, which runs through June 25, prompted an interesting note from Dan Hedley. Hedley, who describes himself as having recently completed a Ph.D on "the strategic use of branding in Renaissance literature," pointed out a passage from a 1973 interview with theorist Roland Barthes. "It would appear from the interview," says Hadley, "that not only is M. Barthes no friend of the ballpoint, but he is rather critical of those who are."
M. Barthes admits, "I have an almost obsessive relation to writing instruments." As his pronouncement goes on to betray, however, this obsessive relation is itself (in Hedley's words) "obsessively particular, and not a little snooty:"
"When felt-tipped pens first appeared in the stores, I bought a lot of them. (The fact that they were originally from Japan was not, I admit, displeasing to me.) Since then I've gotten tired of them, because the point flattens out too quickly. I've also used pen nibs -- not the 'Serjeant-Major,' which is too dry, but softer nibs, like the 'J.' In short, I've tried everything except Bics, with which I feel absolutely no affinity. I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a 'Bic style,' which is really just for churning out copy, writing that merely transcribes thought."
Writers are notoriously obsessive about the tools of their trade, investing perfectly sharpened pencils, specific brands of writing papers, obsolete manual typewriters and such with nearly magical qualities. Barthes, who readily admitted "as soon as I see a new pen, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them," was certainly in their number, and his distaste for ballpoints is certainly a precursor to the profoundly conflicted feelings that so many writers have towards their computers.
It is interesting to think how much is lost when a work of literature is converted from messy, quirky, all-too-human manuscript into printed document: authoritative, polished, impersonal and remote. Designers are certainly complicit in this transformation, and, indeed, take pleasure in it. Might one say that we are undisputed masters of Barthes's smooth, plastic, dependable, throwaway "Bic style," no matter what medium we work in?