I don’t know how all this looks to you, but I think I might have gone a little bit mad. I mean, look around you – all these endless drawings, all these photos, all these words. What on earth am I doing? This is really not normal. This is insane.
But the thing is, once I’d told everyone I was going to draw every word in the dictionary, once I’d started doing it, I couldn’t just stop, could I?
So I’ve just sort of carried on: making drawings, making more drawings, making even more drawings, making photos, and then... well, and now I’ve been doing it for seven years. And now here they all are in the gallery. Rows and rows and rows of them, all over the walls, everywhere you look. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to find it all a bit overwhelming. This is really, really not normal.
It started as quite a fun idea. I thought it would be good to do something a bit ridiculous. I quite liked telling people that it would take thirty-five years to do the entire dictionary; it seemed like a good gag. People always laughed when I said that. But really, it’s gone way beyond a joke.
The fact I’ve been doing it for seven years does at least mean that I’ve only got twenty-eight years left to go. But that’s not really much of a consolation, is it? Twenty-eight years is still quite a long time. I’ll be sixty-eight by the time I’ve finished – I’ll be an old man. I will have spent my entire working life doing it.
The thought of that is making me feel a bit sick.
But hey-ho, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, and all that. So, anyway, I thought while you’re here, I might as well tell you some of the reasons why I started this thing. A lot of those reasons are actually quite rational and well-thought out. It was never supposed to be the work of a madman.
You see, this whole project, this whole plan to visualise everything in the dictionary, it’s actually a kind of experiment to see what happens when you turn logic on its head and do something that’s completely absurd – but really do it, rigorously, and in all seriousness. If there is an “insanity” in the A to Z project, it’s an extremely rational kind of insanity: it’s a kind of device, something that I use.
Because what I’m really interested in are the structures of reason and sense and meaning, and the way they tend to become invisible and get stuck, and on a certain level, stop making sense at all. For me, absurdity is a way of shining a light back on everything we normally think of as not absurd. It unpicks the meaningfulness of the world we’ve constructed around ourselves, calls it into question, and shows that maybe it doesn’t have to be this way.
This whole A to Z thing developed originally out of an interest in utilising “randomness” as a generative tool. I’d been looking into lateral-thinking techniques for fostering creativity: one well-known strategy is to open a dictionary, pick a word at random, and try to relate that word to whatever it is you’re working on at the moment, which is supposed to take you out of your straight-jacketed linear thinking.
I wanted to push the logic of this technique to an absurd level, where there’d be nothing left except the non-linear thought. So basically I picked up the dictionary that happened to be on my bookshelf at the time (a 1982 edition of the Concise Oxford, which had once belonged to my dad), and started on page 1.
Looking through the list of words on that first page, I realised quite quickly that I’d need some sort of filter, so I came up with a list of rules that meant I could ignore words like “a”, “AA”, “aardwolf”, “aba”, “abaft” and “abatis”. It felt like the right thing to do, because what I was really interested in were not such lexical obscurities, but rather words that stood for the things and concepts that made up the world that I lived in.
Sure, some of these choices might seem highly subjective or even arbitrary, but what you have to remember is that that dictionary on my shelf, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (to give it its full title), is itself an edited – and authored – selection from the 750,000 (or 2 million, depending on how you count them) words in the full Oxford English dictionary. Anyway, I’d worked out that my own selection criteria would leave something like 10,000 words to be visualised, which, given the amount of time it took to finish those first few drawings on page 1 (“aardvark”, “abacus”, “abandonment”, “abatement” and “abattoir”), seemed like a sufficiently large and insane-enough number.
Alphabetical order is, if you think about it, entirely arbitrary. “A” is followed by “b”, and “b” is followed by “c”. Sure, it’s an order that makes words easy to find, but in the end it’s just a convention, and one that doesn’t have very much to do with the actual things and concepts in the world that the words refer to. There’s really no logical reason why “apple” should follow “applause” or “cheese” follow “cheer”; we just accept it because that’s how the words in our language are spelt. It’s a rather baseless way of ordering things, but it is at least systematic – and that’s partly why it’s so appealing to me. Working through the dictionary like this offers an unexpected freedom: I never have to worry about what to do when I arrive at the studio. The dictionary always has the answer.
In a way, it’s about avoiding that terrifyingly arbitrary choice that every artist has to make about what to make work about. I’ve never forgotten being confronted with this at art school, when our first project brief basically asked us to “make some work.” Right at the beginning of our careers we were being forced as art students to confront a suffocating wealth of possibilities and pick a theme or a medium to explore and be interested in. Other people seemed quite happy to go with their intuitions, but I could never quite convince myself that what I’d chosen was justified. What about all the other equally legitimate subject-matters that I had, by implication, decided not to be interested in? And what about all those things I didn’t know anything about?
Early dictionary-makers too, struggled with this problem. Anyone who’s seen that episode of Blackadder where our hero is forced into a desperate late-night attempt to rewrite Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary word by word, after Baldrick has thrown the original manuscript into the fire, will recognise the apparent ludicrousness of the task. But this was the time of the Enlightenment, when a single educated man could, in theory, become well-versed in all facets of human knowledge. Johnson really did write an entire dictionary – alone, over the course of nine years. Not surprisingly, it’s full of value-judgements and witty asides, and lacks the “objectivity” of dictionaries as we know them today (he famously defines “oats” as ‘a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’).
Clearly, people don’t do this kind of thing any more; nobody today would seriously sit down and attempt to write a definition of everything in the world. Now of course, we find out about things from Wikipedia, whose millions of entries are kept up to date by (according to their own figures) 72,000 active contributors. There is so much knowledge out there now that the only possible way of making sense of it all is to work collaboratively. No sane individual would ever dream of trying to account for all of it by themselves.
But that’s just it – who wants to be sane, if being “sane” means failing to notice that there’s something magically compelling about the idea of a Blackadder sitting at his desk by the fire and earnestly trying to come up with a definition of the word “a”?
So yes, okay, I admit it: I do quite like the idea that A to Z is an insane project. It is insane, but in the end, I chose to do it. And there’s definitely something I quite like about doing it. But at the same time, I’m actually terrified by the idea that it’s going to take the rest of my working life to finish it. And will I even finish it? Do I even want to finish it? What on earth have I started here?
But anyway, enough of all this idle speculation – I’ve got to get on. I do hope you enjoy looking at the show. But as you can imagine, I’ve got quite a lot of work to do. The rest of the dictionary, in fact. With a bit of luck I’ll be finished by the year 2046.