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The notions of “trace” and “line” in the light of letter art. Perceptions of the written mark in the Western alphabetic context


In the Western world, writing is often associated with the ideas of “line” and “trace”, to such an extent that this association could appear natural. However, the history of writing indicates that our idea of the line has more to do with alphabetic reading (the successive addition of elements: letters>syllables>words) and the verbal space than with the actual inscription. The notion of trace, whenever related to writing, is often associated with the gesture and the implement that produced the graphic form, leaving out the shape’s visual presence. Our paper consequently proposes to examine the definition of these two notions in their relation to writing.

Modern Latin calligraphy, which has devoted itself to the creative investigation of trace–making for a century, seems to suggest that the trace and the line do not naturally belong to alphabetical writing, but have to be invented. Before becoming an art of dynamic strokes and  lines in motion, this practice developed strategies to “unlearn” the mechanical and conceptual principles and habits underlying alphabetic handwriting. The evolution of modern Latin calligraphy indeed reminds us that historically, alphabetic writing means composing a visually continuous shape by connecting fragments (strokes, letters, or groups of them), while movements of the body have to be disciplined in order to meet the requirements of legibility, giving pre-eminence to uniformity over variation. We also find demonstrations of these characteristics in palaeographic studies from the last fifty years. We propose to discuss three examples, each revealing a singularity for the definition of the trace or the line: light calligraphy using long exposure photography (where the support reveals a previously invisible trace gestured in the air); calligraphic drippings (where the graphic line is not the exact trace of the combined hand and tool movements anymore); live performances with realtime video projections (where the act of tracing and the resulting line in motion are disconnected, yet shown simultaneously to the audience).

These artworks show that when the image reveals a moving line’s own temporality – and not only the pace of the writing hand – the graphic trace leaves the verbal field, escapes the laws of reading, and integrates the space of the visible.

Our paper will refer to letter practitioners (Noordzij, Burgert), semiotic (Jeanneret) and palaeographic (Smith) studies about trace or writing and their materiality (Christin, Noland).1


Burgert, Hans-Joachim. 2002. The Calligraphic Line: Thoughts on the Art of Writing. Trad. par BrodyNeuenschwander. Bruges : B. Neuenschwander.

Christin, Anne-Marie. 1995. L’image écrite, ou, La déraison graphique. Flammarion.

Galinon-Mélénec, Béatrice et Yves Jeanneret. 2011. L’homme trace : perspectives anthropologiques des traces contemporaines. Paris : CNRS éditions.

Noland, Carrie. 2006. Digital Gestures. In New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, éd. par Adalaide Morris et Thomas Swiss, 217-244. Cambridge, Massachussets: MIT Press.

Noordzij, Gerrit. 2005. The Stroke. Theory of Writing. Londres : Hyphen Press.

Smith, Marc H, éd. 2007. Écritures latines du Moyen Age : tradition, imitation, invention.

Bibliothèque de l’école des chartes, Tome 165 (2007). Paris, Genève : Droz.