Thoughts on Visualist Notation

notationMy most recent gig as visualist—appearing with my students under the name meme™ (media experimental ensemble)—raises this question for me: Is the visualist creating the literature of visualism?

My immediate response is, no, I don’t seem to see much of this craft being written down, or transcribed, or notated. There are, of course, performances captured on video, so there is certainly that record. But like performance art of the 1980’s, visualism is being practiced, but perhaps not always documented through notation, and a part of this emerging symbolic form will be lost, or —more to the point— not be saved in a form that invites future visualists to recreate it.

There is value to creating a notation system. Sure, music notation has served the Western world for a bit more than a thousand years (with a number of important modifications along the way, of course). Dance notation has been less pervasive—Laban method notation is taught at many universities, but most choreographers rely on a video record for preserving the basic steps and the nuance of their dance.

If much visualism is improvisatory, then, like jazz (remember that?), we might use notation on a need-to-know basis, sketching out the vocabulary, and the parameters within which they can be tweaked. Important structural elements—and what’s structurally important might vary from artist to artist—are less maleable, perhaps, than ornamental, embellishing elements.

Maybe all this is too precious or too fussy. Maybe all we need to do is zip up our clips and soundtrack, add a few cryptic directions in the ‘Read Me’ file, upload it to a Creative-Commons-friendly repository like, and say, ‘Have at it!’. After all, this might be a post-notation age (I recently played a video of Cage’s Third Construction for my students, who were amazed that every note was written down, because it sounded so improvised to them.). Still, wouldn’t you be interested to see what visualists fifty years from now will do with your material? 

– – – – – 

OK, so for my initial attempt at visualist notation, I’m borrowing from the long history of graphic notation via conceptual and experimental music. There may be an introductory page of instructions, plus a key or legend to translate the notation elements. The notation itself is just a set of visual references to the succession of events, mapped to a timeline.

One conceit I use, which might be the first thing to go once other visualists start investigating this, is an attempt to mimic the controller (the NuVJ), with two video banks on either side of the page, with effects and other global settings or instructions in the middle. The timeline becomes vertical, not horizontal, which I’m not too thrilled with, but again, I’m open to suggestions.

Download all my work files (in Adobe Illustrator and InDesign) here.

So, any thoughts on this?


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