A few persistent thoughts about asemic writing
by Tim Gaze



Asemic writing is a visual stimulus that makes one think, for however brief an amount of time, that one is looking at writing. Then, when you try to read it, you can’t find any words.


I have a particular interest in asemic writing that is black and white, on paper, and to a large extent, reproduced rather than original.


Black and white are fundamental, and very powerful. A black and white form cannot be simplified, but can be dressed in any of a multitude of colours. A form rendered in only black and white can be considered to be a kind of template.


Paper is an ancient medium. According to legend, a Chinese eunuch named Cai Lun (Ts’ai Lun) invented paper. Certainly, paper was adopted first in China, then traded as far afield as Arabia, before finding its way to Europe. It is a more global medium than, for example, canvas, which is a relatively recent Western European invention.


If an original piece of writing is written in black ink on a white page, it can be reproduced with high fidelity. Another way of saying this is that minimal information is lost due to the reproduction process.


More fundamental than talking about asemic writing is to ask the question: what is writing?, which leads to the further question: what is reading?


Reading seems to operate at the level of habit. When legible words are placed in front of us, it’s difficult and takes an effort of will not to begin reading those words.


Reading (or attempting to read) is a complex, multi-stage process, although we usually assume we’re talking about a clearly legible text with sensible, easily comprehensible words. The very first stage is to recognise something as being readable. How long does this appraisal take? A fraction of a second.


An alternative definition for the English noun writing would be: any visual stimulus which activates the person viewing’s reading habit.


Asemic writing can occur accidentally, such as when the wind and rain move sticks and other debris into shapes suggestive of letters or other symbols.


There are at least 3 broad approaches to deliberately making asemic writing:

imitations of cursive handwriting;

extending the repertoire of written symbols to include unknown ones;

damaging the legibility of what would otherwise be legible writing.


Everybody is familiar with illegible or least difficult-to-read cursive handwriting. The legendary Doctors’ handwriting on prescriptions for medicine is an example. To create asemic handwriting, one can simply push to write more quickly than the hand can comfortably manage, and you’ll skid off the road into asemic territory.


Chinese cursive is written vertically, from top to bottom in columns from right to left, rather than in horizontal lines from left to right. In ancient Egypt, a cursive script called demotic developed from the sheer difficulty of writing complex pictographic hieroglyphs. Cursive is fast, and can cover a lot of territory, both on the page and in terms of rapidity of capturing ideas.


The Belgian poet Christian Dotremont invented a method of writing asemic, pseudo-Mongolian writing: he wrote some French words in cursive on a translucent piece of paper, then rotated it and freely moved his brush over what he could see on the other side, writing downwards instead of across. Anyone can roughly imitate writing systems that they don’t know. The results will probably look hilarious to someone who can fluently read that script.


There is a multitude of symbol systems beyond the written word. To mention a few: cattle brands, hobo signs, Bliss symbols, alchemical symbols, electrical circuit symbols, house decoration signs, Stonemasons’ marks, tribal tattoos, even the separate traditions within prehistoric rock art. We can still create new symbols, although sometimes they are unintentionally similar to symbols which are already in use.


Creating one’s own family of symbols, without a fixed meaning, is part of the Lettriste technique of hypergraphies, making compositions using elements beyond just the familiar letters and numbers. Finding your own symbols could be completely rational and cold-blooded, or it could be a personal spirit-quest.


Some symbols are so ubiquitous that we develop a numbness to them, and largely ignore them. The rectangle is a universal symbol which is deeply written into contemporary human culture. The shapes of screens (such as mobile phones and computer monitors) and the shape of a typical piece of paper imply a rectangle. This rectangle is present in every use of that medium. The rectangle is typical in books, 2-dimensional visual art, photographs, movies. It would be refreshing to encounter asemic writing which is framed in some way other than in a rectangle.


Unicode is an attempt to represent almost every extant writing system in the world in a standard digital format. In fact, every one of the Unicode characters has been assigned a unique number or combination of numbers. ASCII was an earlier scheme to assign common characters used in English, along with a few from European languages, a unique numerical code.


Part of my attraction to asemic writing is that we can invent new characters, beyond even the 113,021 in the current version of Unicode. Thus, a scheme like Unicode can never represent all possible symbols.


A further consequence is that the task of recognising letters is taken away from the reader when every symbol is mapped to a unique numerical code. Recognising letters in a piece of writing is an early stage in attempting to read something. Characters represented in Unicode preclude the potential for enjoyable ambiguities or complete misreadings.


Another way to think about asemic writing is to consider information theory. The best-known assumption about passing information is that a message must be perfectly encoded. Misspelled words or missing words subtract from the total amount of information in the message. This is the mode of information which Unicode attempts to streamline.


Contrary to this, consider the message as being latent in the person receiving. The sender transmits a stimulus – a kind of rich noise – to the receiver, who decodes it according to her or his trained reading habits.


Pareidolia is a term for the human tendency to see concrete pictures in ambiguous shapes. People see animals or faces in clouds, and so on. An easier term would be pattern-completion. Because we have such a well-developed ability to perceive patterns, shapes such as inkblots or illegible calligraphy can stimulate one’s mind to imagine what it thinks the missing details of the image might be.


There doesn’t seem to be much research into pareidolia. Eventually, I suppose Cognitive Scientists will look into it. Cognitive poetics is a growing area, while cognitive approaches to art appreciation or image studies aren’t as common.


The inkblot paintings by Victor Hugo and Henri Michaux are one step removed from asemic writing. Victor never tried his hand at asemic writing to the best of my knowledge, but Henri certainly did.


Elsewhere (e.g.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asemic_writing#/media/File:Asemic_chart.jpg), I’ve published my idea that asemic writing sits on a continuum between legible writing and abstract images. Where something sits on this continuum is dependent on the person looking: one considers an example to be an abstract blob, while another can see a resemblance to writing but cannot read any words, hence it is asemic writing.


Damaging legible writing in order to render it illegible or only partly legible can be accomplished in a number of ways. If you begin with an object such as a page of written words, anything which physically alters that piece of paper has the potential to diminish the legibility. One could spray water at it, burn it, spray corrosive liquids at it, tear it, crumple it, punch holes it it, cut pieces off it. An old Chinese game was to place a piece of calligraphy into a container of water, which causes the ink to gently float out of the paper to form pleasing shapes in the water and the gradual disintegration of the original writing.


The designer of the music magazine Ray Gun, Dave Carson, often used typefaces which had slices taken out of the top or bottom or both. One interview was published in wingdings.


Collaging material with perfectly legible writing on it quickly tends towards producing asemic writing. So does glitching anything with text, such as when a digital television malfunctions while the credits are showing.


I’m throwing many ideas together here, unencumbered by academic style or references. I hope the train of my thoughts is digestible.




Mount Barker, South Australia

May 2015


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