LOS ANGELES/BEIJING — The sanlunche (三轮车), or tricycle, is ubiquitous in Beijing. A cart dragged along by either a human-powered or electric-powered bicycle, it zips around alleyways and highways alike, carting whatever it is the rider placed in back.
So why not place a calligraphy machine? I saw this in Beijing many months ago but recently discovered photographer and videographer Jonah Kessel’s excellent short film on Canadian media artist Nicholas Hannah’s Water Calligraphy Device (水书法器), a tricycle-toted machine that spits out writing programmed in the computer installed on the handlebars. While the device could create any kind of shape, Chinese writing is ideal for a machine on a moving vehicle, as it has traditionally been written vertically.
“When they start seeing the machine they’re like what is that, you know?” Hanna says in the video of curious passersby. “It doesn’t have the same grace and beauty [as brush calligraphy] because it’s mechanized and automated.”
But I remember coming across some of his characters one night. They weren’t obvious at first — they looked like stray cooking oil or some other liquid — but as I walked over them, I started to make out the words, plotted onto the ground like a dot matrix printer. The writing had a strange beauty of its own, a quirky update of the old practice of writing calligraphy on the ground.
Here’s a clip Hanna uploaded of a prototype, dragged along in a handpulled cart in Beijing’s Beihai Park: