Asemic, letterforms, Rants

Rant #5 An Asemic Outing

According to Wikipedia, the word asemic means “having no specific semantic content”. The term asemic writing or asemic art can be applied to many visual styles, but in layman’s language, it means false or imagined letterforms, text or writing, or simply the use of literary formats for visual purposes. The writing is usually unreadable, but used to create the effect of visual communication. Asemic writing allows the reader/viewer to interpret the context and arrive at their own unquestionable conclusions.

Tim Gaze, a designer and publisher of asemic writing sums it up beautifully on his website:

“It looks like writing,
but we can’t quite read it.”

You can view or download several of his asemic magazines here as well as follow some of his links.

I stumbled upon the term asemic on an old post at the (sadly now defunct) the nonist as I was looking for something else. This link will take you to a post where the author admits to his first discovery of the term. I am staggered to say that I had the same type of experience where I had, for some time been using letterform and grammatical structures to create images; indeed, I filled several pages in a notebook just a couple of days before:

I had been creating asemic writing then. It’s good to have a name for it. It’s good to know that I was not the only one scrawling away, for page after page, totally unreadable writing. I haven’t posted anything here before because I really thought that I was a bit wierd. I feel as if I have just ‘come out’ about my asemic tendencies. I have considered the obvious contradictions between my often obsessive typographic fixations and the freeform, wayward habits of these non-typographic doodlings and explorations. I am ok with my typoholism; I see myself as a self-medicating typoholic these days. But this, this is something else. I am quite excited by the idea of publishing this post as it will probably mean that I am commiting myself to a more public exploration of my newfound (well, new-named) orientation!

I have long been interested in the work of non-western graphic designers, especially those who work with arabic, asian and non-latin letterforms. I have been lucky enough to have attended a couple of Icograda conferences where non-western designers have presented their work, their cultural influences (I will never forget the film showing the morning traffic in Beirut by Halim Choury!) and craftsmanship, and have always tried to consider these ‘angles,’ particulary in teaching environments. My students will know about my appreciation of the work of Oded Ezer, Hassan MassoudyReza Abedini (and Catherine Zask too), and I will confidently state here that I know that many of my students, past and present now count these people amongst their influences and inspirations.

I am humbled by the visual eloquence of non-western designers, and their visually linguistic cultures. I am also ashamed of my own ignorance during my schooling and regret not treating the learning of foriegn languages seriously. I don’t regret much, but I do regret that.

I am a product of my birth, environment and schooling, until I left college. I am proud of who I am and where I came from, but can with real honesty say that my schooling left a lot to be desired.  I can also blame myself for this, but thinking about this now as an educator, I have a better understanding of my role. I was, at least, encouraged to think at college, and that Mike, Alwyn, and Peter passed on one or two wisdoms that I, as a naive, ignorant and self-assured young punk acually learned from. Absorbed. Absorbed at the time and didn’t actually learn from, but have come to realise twenty five years after. Thanks guys. Sorry as well – I didn’t show you much respect!

The picture above shows a view of one of the buildings at Newfield Comprehensive School in Sheffield, just prior to it’s fairly recent demolition. It’s a stark contrast to the last images. I’m glad it’s gone – and I feel lucky to  have come as far as I have – it could have sapped the life out me just as it did thousands of others who filled it over the years.

This point brings me neatly to the subject of ignorance in another context. I have recently had the honour of observing the Chinese master watercolourist and calligrapher Chen Hong, and closely observed him deftly scribing beautiful Chinese characters that mean nothing to me linguistically, but take on a more important , almost talismanic quality because of my own lack of understanding of the language. Indeed, although he told us that he was writing poetry, he could have been putting down his last grocery shopping list for all I knew. This too then, is asemic writing to me (by default or ignorance) as is the work of others who choose to utilise their written language in their own art, either by choice or culture.

Of course, we can travel back in history, and pre-history, to where language was evolving and where ordinary people were recording their experiences and instructing their offspring, to potential leaders, mystics and spiritualists who were aiming to demonstrate their dialogue with deities, spirits and the arcane, to find examples of proto-language, lost languages, deliberately secretive languages (just consider the stonemasons and masons for instance), expounding religions, inciting rebellion and making themselves heard to a select few for whatever reason.

There are some great stories about the deciphering of ‘forgotten’ languages (the Rosetta Stone, the Voynich Manuscript-more of which later…) as well as the re-interpreting of old translations of ancient texts (The Rubayat of Omar Khayam) and many populist films have been made where ancient texts are a key element in the plot (The Mummy, National Treasure) and the deciphering or translating of text (the DaVinci Code, all the Indiana Jones films.) There are great tales of how ‘minority’ languages have made big impacts in word affairs – (consider the story about the US army during WW2 who made use of two native american indian soldiers from a tribe whose language was totally verbal – no written language – were given the task of radioing sensitive information across to one another from the mainland to the Pacific bases. The Japanese, who were excellent code-breakers did not have any reference to begin to understand their language and never cracked it)–  all these have made the subject kind of sexy. Not that it needed to be any sexier for me; I appreciate and accept the implied romance and glamour. (Mrs Lestaret would say that I need it, too.)

 Whilst I was searching for more general asemic information on the web, I came across  a number of references to the Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious 15th/16th century vellum book that has never been deciphered, and alleged to be a very elaborate hoax.

The entire manuscript is available for download on various websites, and can also be viewed in good scale and resolution here, and read views and theories here , here and here, amongst many others on the web.

I find that both concepts of authenticity and hoax plausible but leave too many unanswered questions to be able to come to a conclusion. This is only natural as I have recently found out about this, and I hope to be able to spend more time with it before offering up any real opinion of my own. But what a fantastic thought – a detailed and illustrated manuscript containing the thoughts and knowledge of … an extinct race? A mysterious cult? A breakaway religion? Settlers from a place that left no other records behind? The eloquent ramblings of a deranged monk? Or did someone take the time to create an entirely new language and carefully scribe it using ancient methods and authentic materials just make a few quid and fool the elite collectors, scholars and ‘experts?’ I like the idea of both, but why on earth would it result in this particular book. And why has it survived for so long/been the subject of so much investigation if it is a hoax? I’m no amatuer conspiracy theorist, but I like this idea.

It was whilst jumping from link to link, looking for full versions and more academic analysis I kept coming across the name Codex Seraphinianus in a number of related blogs, posts and reference links. Well now, this got me going!

The Codex Seraphinianus was create during the late 1970’s by an Italian artist/designer called Luigi Serafini and is, for want of a better description, an Encyclopaedia Britannica of a fictional and fantastical place, highly illustrated and annotated, but all in a completely fictional script. I was stunned. I wanted a copy of this book, I really did. My birthday was approaching and I had already justified it as a birthday present to myself – well, after all, it’s not every day that a boy’s forty-two, eh? More research on the internet revealed that original copies were quite rare and there had been a paperback (I’m not a book snob, but this had to be a ‘proper’ book!) but I had a quick look if Amazon came up with anything – well, you never know…

At this point, I could safely rule out being the owner of a decent copy on the grounds of religious belief – like many a devout follower of the Northern Skinflint cult, I made many vocal rounds of the traditional rosary including; Oh Jesus!; Christ!; Good God!; and ‘I’m not paying that much!’ Now and forever, Amen. This is a book I really want. The fact that I can’t afford it obviously makes it more desirable, but I know I that want a copy. Not just to say that I have one – I want to hold it, open it to a random spread and enjoy it’s eccentricity, absurdity, graphic beauty and craftsmanship. I even suggested to my students that they may wish to club together to buy me a copy for my birthday, but even split between them it was too much. If anyone has a copy and is foolish kind enough to loan me theirs, just for the enjoyment, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

A few links later I found a full PDF version on the internet (a Google search will find one for you!) and I have begun to examine its content at a more leisurely pace. Not that this is a substitute for the book of course, I still want one – more so now – but this is all I have.

Ok, back to the main thread. The Codex contains visual and written information about flora and fauna, peoples and places, cultures, and science and technology amongst other things:

All 370 or so pages of it! And all in this unfathomable, unique but very ordinary script:

The thing is, that although the script is unreadable, it is legibile. I can understand what it should be saying. The whole concept is exceptionally well observed – it shouldn’t work really – this is no more than a big April fools prank – but the sheer scale and structure of the book give it credibility that goes beyond this. It even has an index at the back – I am assuming it is an index because it looks like one. And that’s the point. It looks like one.

There is implied meaning in these pages. They use the visual/grammatical conventions of modern language, and conform to an accepted format without having specific meaning. We can follow their general direction through the the visuals, and place meaning upon ther formations on symbols that acompany them. We can understand titles, subtitles, captions, sub- and superscripts, references and incidentals. This is an amazing and intelligent work, that goes far beyond it’s fictional content.

I admit that I am obviously in awe of this work. It is new to me and follows the discovery that my personal imaginings are not isolated; that others have explored and experimented with fictional written languages – way beyond my indulgent doodles – and produced volumes of work that as collectable as conventional books, or even more so, given that only a limited number of people may still hold them in such esteem for their graphic content/inventiveness/percieved intellect/visual quality.

So where next for me and my asemic doodles? Well I needed to do something beyond the sketchbook so I did a little development on-screen:

Using the simplest of the ‘characters’ I had produced recently I created a vector line version and began to explore line qualities:

I even toyed with the idea of a ceramic 3D letterform in the style of the ampersand and ligature I made last year:

I doubt that I will go this far, but I am now thinking about putting together an asemic alphabet. You’ll be the first to know, honest.

6 thoughts on “Rant #5 An Asemic Outing

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