A to Z

Series of projects begun in 2011 based on the premise of making a visualisation for every word* listed in the Concise Oxford English dictionary, starting at “A”, and proceeding in alphabetical order. In total, around 10,000 visualisations will be made, taking an estimated 35 years to complete.

A to Z is an umbrella work comprising a series of successive semi-independent projects defined by a particular letter of the alphabet; each introduces some new conceptual parameter or media restriction, whilst adhering to the basic parameters of the overall work.

The work originally developed out of an interest in utilising randomness as a generative tool, inspired in part by a well-known technique for encouraging lateral thinking, which is to pick a word at random in the dictionary and apply that to whatever subject-matter is being investigated – thus breaking out of the constraints of conventionally linear, logical thought.

A to Z deliberately pushes the rationale behind this technique to an absurd level, where there is nothing left except the non-linear thought; divorced of any context, the efficacy of the operation is called into question. What remains is a farcically large collection of sequential images, whose meaningfulness is undermined by the excessive faith in semiotic cogency that drives the project’s relentless marrying of words and images.

* Rules

1. Words should be visualised in alphabetical order, starting at “a”.

2. One visualisation should be made of each word.

3. Every word listed in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (7th edition, 1982) should be visualised, with the following restrictions:

(i) Unfamiliar words (i.e. words outside of the vocabulary of the artist) should be discarded.

(ii) Only nouns should be visualised.

(iii) Proper nouns should be discarded, unless they are listed without capitalisation (e.g. “aboriginal” should be visualised, but not “Apollo”).

(iv) Obscure, technical, specialist, or scientific words should be discarded (unless they are in general usage).

(v) Only one visualisation should be made per word listed (i.e. per headword). Only one sense of words with multiple senses should therefore be chosen (e.g. “boot” should be visualised either as “a tough leather shoe”, or as “the luggage compartment of a car”).

(vi) Only one of a group of closely-related derivatives listed as separate headwords (e.g. “critic”, “criticality”, “criticism”) should be visualised. Orthographically similar words whose meanings are distinct (e.g. “affect”, “affectation”, “affection”) should, however, be visualised separately.

(vii) Compound words should be discarded, unless they are written without spaces or hyphens (e.g. “courtyard” should be visualised, but not “court martial” or “court-house”).

(viii) Synonyms should be treated as separate words (e.g. “achievement” and “accomplishment” should both be visualised).

(ix) Only one visualisation should be made of words listed separately under alternative spellings (e.g. “cipher” and “cypher”).

(x) Foreign words which have not been naturalised into English (i.e. those with headwords in italics) should be discarded (e.g. “aperitif” should be visualised, but not “aficionado”).

4. Except where specified for a given letter, there is no restriction on approach, style, size, media, or interpretation .

A to Z: An Interview with Dave Ball is an extended interview with Melanie Zagrean of Galerie Art Claims Impulse about the project. Originally live-streamed in 2021, a 30-minute edited version is now available to watch.

A is for Artist: Drawing by the Book, a feature on A to Z by Sofia Martinelli, was published in Berlin Artparasites in 2013.

A to Z: Visualising Every Word in the Dictionary in Alphabetical Order was an exposition published in VIS: Nordic Journal for Artistic Research in 2022.

A to Z features as a case study in my doctoral research project The Use of Tactical Absurdity in (Post‑)Conceptual Art Practice, which was completed in 2020.

Doing Things Alphabetically: Sartre’s Autodidact and Tactically Absurd Practice, an essay exploring links between A to Z and Sartre’s novel Nausea, was published in Writing Visual Culture, Vol. 9, in 2020.

Dear Exhibition Visitor is a text written for solo exhibition A to Z: The First Seven Years at Gallery Oldham in 2018–19.

Limited edition prints are available from Galerie Art Claims Impulse.

A to Z has been shown at When Words Fail, HilbertRaum, Berlin in 2023; Emotionally Confronted Through Distance, Feldfünf, Berlin in 2021; He Told Me to Remain Silent, Galerie Art Claims Impulse, Berlin in 2020; Dave Ball: Tactically Absurd, Winchester Gallery, UK in 2020; A to Z: The First Seven Years, Gallery Oldham, UK in 2018-19; Media Ambages, HilbertRaum, Berlin in 2015, Picaresque, Ha Gamle Prestegard, Naerbo, Norway in 2014; A to Z: From Aardvark to Axle, Galerie Art Claims Impulse, Berlin in 2013; and The Picture Show, Galerie Jaap Sleper, Utrecht, Netherlands in 2013.