A pictogram is a form of knowledge; a pictogram that reconstructs another existing work is the stretching of the epistemological potential of a work, also a way to explore the author as the producer (See Walter Benjamin, 1934), raising the question of how a creative work stands in its technique of production. In the pictogram exercises presented at The Ventriloquists … Thinking Narratively (4-19 July 2020), reading and re-reading is to enrich info-graphics and data representation by combining the methods of music scoring, cartography, story-boarding and chronology-making, each with its own conceptual emphasis in presenting pictures of realities. Here, one pictogram offers glimpse of these concepts. 解構式的圖形是知識的具體表現;重塑已存在的作品的圖形是對現有作品的知識能量的擴展,同時也是對班雅明的「作者作為生產者」的想法的一種回應,關注個別的作如何站立於一個時代的技術生產當中。這裡以一個創作為例。

To visit previous posts in the Ventriloquists Series (no. 00-11), click HERE.


Published in 1972, Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili (the Invisible Cities) raises the question: How do we know what we know? What does it mean to know a city? Zhang Zhihui’s pictogram analysis reveals the the question of knowledge structurally by highlighting Calvino’s generative approach to narration. The cities (perhaps the same city), as multi-faceted phenomena, are nestled in a dialogic framework as a Q-&-A between Marco Polo (the traveler) and Kublai Khan, the emperor who learns about the world by listening to reports of merchants who pass by. Distributed across and between the 9 dialogues (9 chapters) are the description of 55 cities (reported to the emperor) falling into 11 types: 1) Cities & Memory; 2) Cities & Desire; 3) Cities & Signs; 4) Thin Cities; 5)  Trading Cities; 6) Cities & Eyes; 7) Cities & Names; 8) Cities & the Dead; 9) Cities & the Sky; 10) Continuous Cities; and 11) Hidden Cities. A key question is: what exactly does “type” mean in these 11 types? Here’s a simple way to articulate Calvino’s assertion: these 55 cities, whether they are different cities or the multiple of one (Venice), are different approaches to know, from empirical details, geographic orientation, attention to the interpretive capacity of objects as signs and symbols, selective foci, use of metaphor to signify a place’s general ambience, to imaginative accounts and questioning. These approaches are one way or other empirically rooted, valid accounts of a place, thus destabilising any singular authoritative interpretation. Calvino’s novel is not about perceptual interpretation, but its multiplicity, the result of which is to keep open the loop of reading and re-reading, thus also that of writing and re-writing, a city. What The Invisible Cities asserts is not relativity, but the phenomena — the perceptual and experiential surfaces — as the point of anchorage for knowledge production.

| Linda C.H. Lai (July 2020)



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Zhang Zhihui 張之匯: The Compass of the Invisible Cities
a pictogram

Calvino’s Invisible Cities describes fifty-five non-existent cities while expressing the philosophical understanding of the city, society, and individual between the words and lines. Although these cities are fictitious and exaggerated, we can always feel that their characteristics or the metaphors used for them all seem familiar, as if we can find a correspondence in our lives one by one. 

From outside to inside of the “compass” pictogram are the communication between Marco Polo and the emperor, visualized representation of a city, deeper foreshadowing from the text, and each city’s name/nickname. I want to retain Calvino’s pathos in the book so that when viewers see my pictogram, their imagination will be similar to when reading the original text. 




After reading The Invisible Cities, I was utterly impressed by Calvino’s colossal construction. He not only describes the fifty-five non-existent cities, but also expresses the philosophical understanding of the city, society, and individual between the words and lines. Although these cities are fictitious and exaggerated, we can always feel that the characteristics or metaphors in the cities seem to be familiar, as if we can find a correspondence in our lives one by one. In other words, the characteristics of these fifty-five cities add up to the real world, which makes this book more connotative and worthy of study. 

I made this pictogram for two purposes. 

The first is to present this vast city construction system clearly. Calvino disrupts the narration of the cities, which makes them seem they are all parallel and disconnected. I want to sort out the cities and make them visibly distinct. Meanwhile, I want to figure out the conversion relationship between images and text. Since Calvino only describes the cities with words, different people may have different interpretations and imaginations of all the cities. I hope that I can find a common visualized interpretation of Calvino’s text. 

The second is to tap deeper connotations. In the text, the communication between Marco Polo and the emperor as well as the cities’ descriptions are much expressed philosophically. Polo and and the Khan are the only characters appearing in the book with a historical origin. They have completely different personalities and identities, so their views often collide during their discussions. Basically, the discussion was based on the emperor’s text and Polo’s answer. I want to convey to the audience the intuitively felt philosophical aspect of this book. The above two points have contributed to the content appearing in the pictogram. 


In my opinion, the map represents reality and the compass represents ideal. The map can only be drawn through continuous exploration, fieldwork, physical calculations, and the accumulation of explorers’ experiences. The compass is linked to the unknown while feng shui masters and navigators are all using the compass to try to explore what proves to be in their minds. I want to use this to imply the contradiction of reality and fiction from the book. And when these fifty-five fictional cities are merged on a map, where the compass points to is our present world.

My pictogram shows all the information of each sample city, from left to right is the visualized version, deeper foreshadowing from the text, and city name/nickname. Only hand drawings and nicknames are presented after my personal interpretation, the rest of the content is derived from the original text with my re-structure and combing. I want to retain Calvino’s own feelings in the book so that when viewers see my pictogram, they can expand their imagination just like they do when reading the original text.  (Zhang Zhihui)