The Prismatic Typewriter

The Olivetti Lettera 35 typewriter is a bona fide endangered species these days.  The clunky clack-clacking word processor that filled Italian offices circa 1970 is mostly relegated to curio shops, hobbyist attics, and eBay now.  I hadn’t seen any in years and yet as I enter a darkened corner of the M.I.T. Museum, one appears before me like a phantom out of thin air thin air.  I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m coming around to holograms.

My brain knew, on some level, not to trust my lying eyes.  It understood that what I’m seeing is actually a light interference pattern transposed on to a reflecting surface by a split laser beam. Yet the spectral image is so tantalizingly lifelike that it isn’t so hard to imagine an author’s fingers tapping away at its keys.  A single page – crinkled, ink-stained, and the only “real” thing about the exhibit – rests above the ribbon spool; it contains the faded text of a Jorge Luis Borges poem.  Borges would certainly recognize the motif; the plot of his 1942 story “Death and the Compass” turns on a cryptic page found in a murdered man’s typewriter.

Suffice to say, Dora Tass’s Perturbing Object casts a spooky spell.  As mixed media art, it’s a commentary on modern day communication, a riff on the notion that words and ideas are transmitted via intangible means.  As science, it’s an example of holography’s enduring power to entice the eye as it interacts with that most fickle substance, light.  The artist has clearly gone to great (wave)lengths to calibrate the 3D image fidelity; this is no cheap parlor trick like Pepper’s Ghost, which uses lights and mirrors to create a hologram-like effect.  Unlike two-dimensional media, each piece of a transmission hologram, no matter how small, contains the entire image.  I tilt my head and the refraction contorts, adjusting to my glance.  A half step to one side and it dissipates entirely.  I play with other angles, searching for the precise point where my brain sees a typewriter instead of an empty wall.

Tass’s artwork is surrounded in the hall by holography displays from other international artists.  Wandering through, I admire a bust of Aphrodite; a cascade of color-morphing leaves; a molten obelisk; and the most prominent display, a tight-lipped visage of Queen Elizabeth.  But walking home, I keep returning to that typewriter; it takes up quiet residence in my thoughts.  We think of holograms as vaguely futuristic (even though they’ve been around for the better part of six decades).  But will they become the way that humans experience the recent past, too?  Our cultural artifacts preserved in virtual verisimilitude?  The bulkiness of an Olivetti transformed into pure light?

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