Texts, Textiles & Digital Technologies: A brief look at one poem & one artist’s book by Dieter Roth

[English below] Der Text richtet seinen Blick auf Parallelen zwischen Textil- und Textstruktur und zieht zum Bauhausjahr einen überraschenden Vergleich zwischen Dieter Roth und Anni Albers. Die Libri selecti der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek beherbergen einen der umfangreichsten Bestände von Dieter Roths Künstlerbüchern.

Maggie Rosenau

Dieter Roth’s typographic poem idee (1960) comprises a set of six variations on white paper. Two sheets are printed in black, another two in red. The last two sheets display combinations of one red variation set over one black variation. Upon examination, it becomes clear the single colored pieces work together to make these last two full compositions. Each is constructed from identical language materials but presents a different design. Initially, these compositions do not appear as poems at all, but ratheras something fabric-like. The poems look like a weaving.

One of the two full compositions that comprise Roth’s poem idee
Photo taken by the author with permission at the Dieter Roth Foundation, Hamburg
© Dieter Roth Estate Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Etymologically, the word “text” derives from the Latin textus, meaning woven fabric. We might do well to also recall the term “intextus,” as included in Dick Higgins’s glossary of terms for pattern poetry:

Intextus: an inscription or text or even interior verse which is contained within another poem; for example, the text that lines up on an acrostic. Literally the term means “woven,” and the description of an intextus as woven into its overall text is apt.[i]

Just as weaving is done by inserting the weft (yarn that runs crosswise) into the warp (yarn that runs lengthwise), long threads of single letters pass in Roth’s poem in horizontal directions and appear to interlace vertically, creating visual patterns and structure as well as words. What is more, these words reference techniques used in printing and textile art: binden (to tie or bind), setzen (to set), drucken [to print], schneiden (to cut), etc.

The poem’s visual aesthetics denote a connection between textile production and mechanical writing machines. Considering the historical context in which this piece was created, this connection could reflect concrete poetry’s intent to integrate technology, semiotics, and culture. Early theorist like Max Bense, who taught “information aesthetics” at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm [Ulm School of Design] asserted parity between the genre and industrial design. First-generation concrete poets produced works that make explicit formal connections through metaphorical qualities of architecture as well as repetition and permutation. But theirs was not the first program to establish a heterogeneity of various methods and fields—art, media, and technology—for the purpose of social progress and a new modern aesthetic. This was also daily practice at Bauhaus. And indeed, the textu(r)al characteristics of Roth’s poem are strikingly reminiscent of textile art produced elsewhere by members of the school, specifically the work of Anni Albers.

A key member of the weaving department at Bauhaus from 1923 until the school was forced to close in 1932, Albers is described as being “acutely aware of the semantic function of thread and textiles in the context of art and design” and is known for having investigated the thread “as a carrier of meaning, not simply as a utilitarian product.”[ii] Albers’ series of “pictorial weavings,” for example, imagines both ancient and contemporary enciphered symbolic language. Titles such as Open Letter (1958), Code (1962), Scroll (1962), Haiku (1961), Epitaph (1968), directly refer to written texts. The long, vertical dimensions of these textiles are also reminiscent of structures that contain writing—namely ones that predate the codex form. Each of these pieces integrates lines of fibrous woolen thread into the surface of the weaving that one “reads.”

Similarly, as a poem patterned after a utilitarian object, Roth’s idee plays with the relationship between text and textile. The reader sees, too, that within the poem’s visual arrangement, the meaning of its production process is carried. Furthermore, just as Roth had done, Albers explored the relationship between fibers and text through the use of a digital writing system, creating blocks of visual texture out of repeated and interlaced symbols. Of specific interest for our purposes, at Black Mountain College, where Albers led the weaving department from 1933-1949, typewriter studies were part of Albers’ course curriculum for textile design. Her own “Studies on the typewriter” explores the possibilities for textu(r)al design within the strict laws dictated by the mechanics of the typewriter.

Albers’ series thus shows how the machine is able to imagine textile designs by breaking them down—as it does language in the concrete poem—into a set of data. The aesthetics of this visual information is digital—meaning “something that is divided into discrete, countable units.”[iii] The term ‘digital’ is associated with adjectives like modern, clean, sterile, logical, numeric, as well as with binary systems, and the German notion of Zerlegbarkeit [decomposability]—the ability to easily disassemble or take something apart. Text and textiles connect in both Albers’ study and Roth’s poem by the digital mechanics of the respective machines they used: the typewriter and the monotype system (a two-part machine that communicates by perforated paper tape). When we consider how textile and text design might be governed by the laws of the machine, further connections can be traced within the history of these crafts. It may be interesting to Roth and Albers’ readers that the mechanical loom, for example, is a machine that has a similar relationship to digital aesthetics and technology. Invented in 1803 by Joseph Marie-Jacquard, the mechanical loom uses a binary system of holes on punch-cards—just like the monotype system—as a way to control the design of textiles made by the machine. This innovative way to store data actually led to the basics of modern computing.

While idee is a precisely measured and woven composition, Roth exploits the capacities of the monotype system to construct a tapestry-like poem that is readable. However, Roth also pushes hard against any clear or conventional, matter-of-fact semantic meaning. Material and textural qualities are foregrounded, thereby establishing a visuality that frustrates individual words. Like most of Roth’s books and poetry, this is one that resists reading. Presented like a tactile object, idee is broken down into discrete units and works like a game: the textual content is revealed through a process of very concentrated looking. Playing with the notion of reading, the poem works like a word search. What is the reader to look for? Woven into this seemingly material acrostic are not only words that relate to the process of the poem’s construction (e.g. binden, setzen, drucken, schneiden); we also spot the name hochuli. A master printmaker and book designer, Swiss artist Jost Hochuli had something in common with Roth. Both men were as  critical as they were inspired by the school of “Swiss Typography.”[iv] Like Roth, Hochuli “was never suitable as a doctrinarian” to Concretism’s functional, no-compromise grid-typography; he instead became more interested in the reader’s relationship to the material and eventually devoted himself to making books.[v]

By weaving Hochuli into his poem, Roth effectively places himself next to another artist who questioned and eventually departed from Concretism’s strict rules, as articulated by Gomringer, Bense and other early proponents of Concretism. What is more, Roth salutes his contemporary with a book version of this poem. Roth’s artist’s book reklam (1960) is twenty-seven pages of blank black and red matte paper, along with sheets of glossy white paper with printed text. The cover is made of transparent vellum. Each 15 x 15cm page presents a 6 x 6cm die-cut square. These squares are arranged into each page so as to appear to move in a sort of clockwise rotating fashion through the book. The transparent cover reveals some of the material content as well as a small hole the die-cut squares collectively make down the center.

Dieter Roth, reklam (1960).
Images courtesy of Sohm Archiv, © Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
© Dieter Roth Estate Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Most of the textual content is identical to that of which the poem is also constructed—binden, setzen, drucken, and hochuli—but to this book version Roth adds the word lumbecken [to adhesively bind], which signifies a method specific to this object’s production.

Conceptually, idee is a woven piece of art. Words in the poem are contextualized by the fiber-like texture the poem-object emulates. Likewise, words that appear in reklam are contextualized by the book-object. In both cases, semiotic signs connect to the physical object. As a result, language and material enjoy a specific reciprocity more explicit than what we find in other concrete poems of the 1950s and 1960s.  Together with this reciprocity, it is the heterogeneity of language, media, and industrial arts exhibited by a digital aesthetic that gives Roth’s work a sophisticated edge.


[i] Dick Higgins, Pattern Poetry: a Guide to an Unknown Literature (Albany: State University of NY Press, 1987), 231.

[ii] Virginia Gardner Troy, “Thread as Text: The Woven Work of Anni Albers,” Anni Albers (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1999), 28.

[iii] Florian Cramer, “What Is ‘Post-digital’?” in Postdigital Aesthetics, eds. David M. Berry and Michael Dieter, (London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2015), 17.

[iv]J. Christoph Bürkle and Jost Hochuli, Jost Hochuli: Drucksachen, Vor Allem Bücher = Jost Hochuli: Printed Matter, Mainly Books (Sulgen: Niggli, 2002), 33.

[v] Ibid., 33-34.

Zur Autorin
Maggie Rosenau recently earned her PhD in Germanistik at the University of Colorado Boulder. She also holds professional certification in Museology. Her dissertation, titled “The Blank Space: Implications of Semiotic Nothingness in The Postwar Swiss Avant-Garde”, situates the works of Bolivian-Swiss artist Eugen Gomringer and German-Swiss-Icelandic artist Dieter Roth in their historical moment and argues for their social and political relevance. Pieces concerning the intersection of poetry and public spaces have appeared in ToCall, sync and The Volta. Other work on Roth has been published by Zucker Art Books. Forthcoming is a peer-reviewed article on Roth’s poem “Variations on 44” as well as a series of erasures poems, which will appear this year in Erase the Patriarchy by University of Hell Press.


Diesen Artikel zitieren: Maggie Rosenau, “Texts, Textiles & Digital Technologies: A brief look at one poem & one artist’s book by Dieter Roth” [in English], in Kunst zwischen Deckeln, 2. Juli 2019, https://bookarts.hypotheses.org/260.


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