6 Amazing Creatures Created From Typewriter Parts
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Any time that I move apartments, I empty out drawers and discover a menagerie of abandoned technology. Apparently, I have some impulse to preserve my old devices for posterity. I’m saving my iPhone 1 so that one day my future children can one day sell it for a fortune on Antiques Roadshow. And won’t my future grandson get a kick out of this Walkman? Really, though, it’s just clutter and junk that I haul around for the sake of some incipient sense of nostalgia. But artist Jeremy Mayer discovers beauty and inspiration in old, discarded machines. In fact, when Mayer looks at defunct typewriters he sees octopi and people and penguins. Although he destroys typewriters for his art (and only ones beyond repair), Mayer appreciates their legacy and the lives of the people who once used them.
Following the gallery below is an interview with an artist.
Where’d the idea come from and how’d you get started?
I’ve always loved sci-fi, machines, etc., and I’ve also always been intensely interested in biology and animals. Since I was very young, I’ve practiced my own made-up zoomancy, particularly watching birds, and I think I’ve applied the same practice of divination to machines. I think many people think of machines as something outside of nature, and I’ve never been able to make that separation in my own mind.
The typewriter has always been the one machine that really spoke to me as a living thing, or something that, in its form, held many of the same shapes and processes as living things.
Every machine does that for me, but somehow typewriters were always there when the thoughts were strongest. When I was 23, I finally got to take one apart, as I’d wanted to take apart my mother’s Underwood No. 5 since I was ten years old. At the time I was working on Rube Goldbergish drawings that I thought of as techno-baroque, with swirly organic bits substituting for machine processes. I got hold of an Olivetti portable and found some of the same forms I was painting and drawing were embedded in the guts of the machine, and that was that. Been making stuff from typewriter components (only typewriter components) ever since; it’s been almost 20 years now.
As we move towards digital devices and cloud-based technology, there’s a growing appreciation and nostalgia for the physical objects of our past. Why work with typewriters specifically?
Those of us who learned to type on a typewriter have an interesting relationship with them. Most of us were pretty excited to make the transition to computers when the time came, but there’s still a gut connection to them. The sounds, the smell, the activity of typing remind us of that time period. The new interest in typewriters that the younger generations have, who learned to type on computers, and have no experience of a time before the Web, and who have a waning relationship with nature, has to do with the fact that their primary experience with machines is that of electronic actuation. There’s an esoteric dance of electrons going on that few people really understand. But when you hit a key on a typewriter, you see the results of your effort. You can see how that letter got to the paper. It’s real, it’s physical. It’s novel.
In my mind, typewriters are the mascot or fetish object for this transition of tech that we’re experiencing.
I could wax ecstatic about that for much longer, but the biggest motivation for me to take them apart and make stuff from them is that they’re just very intensely interesting inside-out.
Where do you get the typewriters from, and do you ever wonder what’s been written on them?
I get them at thrift stores and yard sales mostly. My friends at California Typewriter in Berkeley, CA (yes, there are still a few typewriter repair/sales shops out there) give me ragged and unusable machines. Since I’m the first person many of my friends think of when they see typewriters, I’ll often get a text with an image of a machine from a friend who is at a thrift store or yard sale, asking if I want it. I like to get them serendipitously. I very rarely seek out specific makes and models. I just dream about them and hope they come to me.
I do get to see what’s been written on the typewriters I destroy. Sometimes when I get a machine there is a piece of paper still in it, usually covered with stuff that got typed at the thrift store like “The quick brown fox…” or some other pangram, or kids spelling out expletives. Sometimes though there are eviction letters, love letters, receipts, memos — you name it — either rolled up in the platen or on a piece of carbon paper in the case under the typewriter. The platen holds every impression of every letter ever typed on the machine.
Many memories, emotions, pieces of people’s lives got pushed through the words that got typed. Their DNA is on the keys and the platen knobs, and in the strands of hair tangled in the machinery.
I think about all of that as I dismantle every single one.
Are the typewriters functional before you take them apart?
When I started this in the 1990s, I killed them all (except say, a Blickensderfer, or an Olivetti Valentine). Now, the ones that I get that are functional are very close to being too expensive to repair, and very common. There are a lot more typewriters out there than one might think, though there are many less out there since I started doing this. Hundreds get tossed into landfills or get recycled every day. The keys have become a commodity for jewelry makers. They cut off the keys and throw the rest away. I use the whole buffalo, so to speak.
Very rare machines and cherry machines are set aside to type another day.
Your work both destroys and revitalizes typewriters. How do you feel about working with these machines?
Though I tend to anthropomorphize machines, I still see machines as less than people. That’s an important thing to me.
People get shocked that I destroy typewriters, as if they were a living thing. The junked ones I use aren’t alive. They’re dead wood.
We made them as a mirror of our own appearance and physical processes, and that’s something I’m interested in showing by doing this. Machines come from us but are not alive. I love typewriters, but they’re just a transitory technology for saving our experience. I always say to those who claim to prefer the typewriter to a computer because they are “forced to slow down and deliberate, to focus on just writing,” that they could chisel it into stone or scratch it out on paper to the same effect with longer lasting results. The typewriter was useful for a while, but certain tech is transitory and temporary. The typewriter is less so than say, an 8-track deck, but still temporary.
The typewriters that survive me and the key-cutters will be cherished as ingenious and reliable machines that were a ubiquitous and accessible medium for documenting the human experience for over a century. I’m all for that. I love typewriters.
Do you have a form in mind when you start a sculpture, or does an octopus emerge from a series of mechanical pieces?
These days I do bigger stuff, so I usually have a plan. For smaller work, it sometimes starts out with a component that begs to be a tentacle or a testicle or a ventricle. The whole sculpture accretes around the one component that was the most obvious.
Where can your work be found?
I have work mostly in private collections, but I occasionally do group shows or museum shows. I did a very fun show in Paris last year that was on a boat on the Seine. I haven’t worked with a gallery in a few years, thanks to the Web. I’m just doing commissions these days.