Asemic Experiments

I’ve been keeping busy this past week, but I’ve found my attention wandering a bit from more strictly photographic projects. I wrote earlier this summer about how my attention tends to drift at times, and this week, I’ve been spending a little bit of creative time away from the camera. It’s actually been a little hard for me to diversify myself in that way, actually. I’m the sort of person who does many things, yet have elected to only show one facet of myself here in the website, so I’ve spent the past several days working on some other projects.

Mostly these have taken the form of drawing– I’ve been trying to give my sketchbook more attention these past few days, and getting back into a more regular practice. Though it doesn’t really show here on the website, my sketchbook was really my primary artistic output for several years, and I’d like to cultivate that more– I like having it be a part of my life.

I’ve also been exploring a new (or possibly old– I’ll explain later) artistic avenue for myself. As you might know, I neither speak nor read Dutch, but am surrounded by it here in the Netherlands. Essentially all of the signage I see on a day-to-day basis is in Dutch, except for perhaps a few advertising slogans here or there. It’s not totally unintelligible to me, of course. I’m learning words every day, and there are many similar words that remain recognizable enough to interpret. Still, I’m more or less illiterate here, and it gives one a new perspective on things that we often take for granted. There are many bookstores here, for example, and every time we pass them I feel a little tug to go in and browse, only to remember that I can’t read the books on the shelves (except in the occasional “english books” section). Without mastery of the language, the books transform into mere objects– in the absence of illustration, I have little clue what a block of text may say. For me, there is one genre: mystery.

Being immersed in this environment of functional illiteracy has made me think of something that has been swirling around in my head since this past April, when I was in San Antonio at the PCA/ACA convention, and ended up attending a panel with Lorie and Dean Adams. We attended many panels together, but we were drawn to the panel because the topic of discussion was on the subject of hoarding and collecting, but what we ended up finding was the rare discovery of something totally new that none of us had ever heard of: asemic writing.

What is asemic writing? It is writing without a semantic connection to, well, anything. Basically, it is something that looks like writing, but has no meaning. I am far from an authority on it, of course, but from the presentation in San Antonio, I gather that is text-like imagery that evokes a more emotional response than a linguistic one. I’m not really fully clear what “counts” as asemic writing, and what doesn’t. I suspect the definition is actually fairly porous, and varies from person to person– sort of the “I know it when I see it” definition. For example, the Voynich manuscript was mentioned in the presentation of being an example of an asemic work, as well as works numerous contemporary artists, and there was a spectrum of “legibility” in the works. Some looked very textual, looking like perhaps the shaky illegible handwriting of children pretending to write, while others looked far more abstract, like colored circles of varying size, or the lines of a seismograph. In the case of the contemporary examples, where the author/artist is known, it can be very definitive to say that a work is asemic or not, but in the case of the Voynich manuscript, one wonders if perhaps it does have meaning, it’s just that it’s not interpretable to any living viewer.

And what of musical notation? To a musician, it is a semi-textual form that can be interpreted not to form an intelligible linguistic message, but a sonorous one. If one cannot read musical notation, then it is essentially meaningless, although I suspect that most people would be able to identify it as music regardless, and therefore be able to apply some basic meaning to the “text”.

I also wondered about dead or lost languages, that nevertheless have some written version that still persists, even if it is no longer readable. This was the case for ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics for some time, and although they are readable now, could they have been described as asemic before the discovery of the Rosetta stone? Is the asemic criteria something that is based on the reader/viewer, or the creator?

At that presentation in San Antonio, I realized that this was a subject that was very familiar to me, but I wasn’t aware that it existed. I’ve liked text since I could read– I think I took to reading pretty quickly because I liked the idea of de-coding something. In third grade, I remember checking out a book about hieroglyphics, and carefully transcribing them to make a translation key. I have (and continue to have) and enthusiasm for imaginary alphabets– and real alphabets, for that matter. In fact, part of the reason why I took Japanese in college was to learn a language that departed from the familiar structure of the Latin alphabet and delve into something that seemed far more abstract.

Since San Antonio, I’ve been carrying around that notion of asemic writing, thinking about it from time to time. Here in the Netherlands, surrounded by unreadable signs, I realized that, for me, many of them have an utterly asemic character. Yes, they have meaning, but not to me. It’s made me ponder the nature of text, and the meaning we derive from it, so it has encouraged me to make my own forays into text-based art.

I invented an alphabet, and made a couple of test images… or perhaps they’re test texts. The first example is over to the right (or perhaps higher on the page, depending on how you’re viewing it), and the second is a little further below. I don’t know that they can be strictly considered “asemic” since they do have a link to meaning, but I think they certainly constitute a version of calligraphy. It’s something of an undiscovered country for me, but it’s been a lot of fun to explore a bit off of the well-worn path of more broadly practiced arts.

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As for the meaning of the texts, I’ll leave that up to you, at least for now. Maybe they don’t have a meaning, and I’m just telling you that they have a meaning to make you think that they have a meaning, and thus encourage you to invent a meaning. Whew! All this thinking about semantics and direct and implied meaning can get a little confusing. Regardless, be sure to let me know if you’ve got a theory or figure it out. And, for that matter, let me know what you think of it in general, whether by e-mail or via Facebook. This is kind of an experiment for me, and the first non-photographic work that has made a public appearance on this site, so I’m interested in feedback. In the meantime, I’ve discovered that inventing alphabets is a lot of fun, so I’ll probably have to do some more of that.

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