On Asemic Writing

Michael Jacobson

So what exactly is 'asemic' writing?  

Personally, I think asemic writing is a wordless, open semantic form of writing that is international in its mission. How can writing be wordless, someone may ask. The secret is that asemic writing is a shadow, impression, and abstraction of conventional writing. It uses the constraints of writerly gestures and the full developments of abstract art to divulge its main purpose: total freedom beyond literary expression. The subcultural movement surrounding asemic writing is international because the creators of asemic works live all over the world. It's a global style of writing we are creating, with the creators of asemic works meeting up on the Internet to share our works and exchange ideas.

What does it look like? 

The forms that asemic writing may take are many, but its main trait is its resemblance to 'traditional' writing—with the distinction of its abandonment of specific semantics, syntax, and communication. Asemic writing offers meaning by way of aesthetic intuition, and not by verbal expression. It often appears as abstract calligraphy, or as a drawing which resembles writing but avoids words, or if it does have words, the words are generally damaged beyond the point of legibility. One of the main ways to experience an asemic work is as unreadable, but still attractive to the eye. My point is that—without words, asemic writing is able to relate to all words, colors, and even music, irrespective of the author or the reader's original languages; not all emotions can be expressed with words, and so asemic writing attempts to fill in the void.

Can you tell Asymptote a little about how you got to your present 'asemic' work? 

I have been creating asemic writing for about 20 years now, but only seriously for the past 15 years. It is now my main form of artistic expression. I learned the word 'asemic' from the Australian poet Tim Gaze and we have been partners-in-crime ever since. Tim is the calm Buddhist sage of the movement. I am the crazed-astronaut-monk exploring internal-space and cyberspace with the most heavily distorted writing I can muster. My earliest influences, besides my mother reading to me, were the false writing systems in comics and cartoons. In my teen years and early adult life I read a lot of conventional novels and poetry. Then in my 20s I began to create what at first I called 'alien' writing. Around this time I also became interested in the history of writing, especially the more visual forms of writing like hieroglyphs and, to be more specific, the generously beautiful Rongorongo script.

I had been a bad conventional writer and a not-so-great painter. I just wasn't very satisfied with my creative work. I was writing a novel about some patients in a hospital who formed a religion around chloroform. I would write a hundred pages and maybe have one good page at the end of the day. Anyway, slow going. To make a long story short, I began to experiment with lines in my painting and shapes in my writing. Then I had an epiphany; I created a 16-page chapbook with a textual body of newly invented symbols and a glyph for the title. I made a hundred chapbooks on red paper and gave them away at bookstores, tattoo parlors, and record shops. They all disappeared. Feeling successful, I began to work on a longer piece. I can remember where I was: it was Little Falls, Minnesota, at a park on the banks of the Mississippi River. I was sitting by myself making up symbols in a 6 x 9 inch notebook, and some kids came up to me and asked me what I was writing. I showed them my work. They thought my symbols were "super cool!" So I decided then and there that I was going to do a longer piece. This was in 1999.

Can you talk about some projects? 

In 2001 I finished an 80-(infinity & nothing) page calligraphic monster of a manuscript, which at first I entitled Jatulintarha (named after a Finnish labyrinth) and eventually settled on its English translation The Giant's Fence.


The Giant's Fence was put out as a chapbook in 2001. A few years later, in 2005, I released it as a perfect bound book. Forward to 2008, when I created my second novella Action Figures, which is a book of asemic hieroglyphs. I call my books novellas because they do tell my story in an abstract way, or my lack of a story. Lots of pain and joy anyway. 2008 was an important year for another reason: I began to publish asemic work at my blog gallery The New Post-Literate. Tim had been publishing Asemic Magazine since 1999, but I was looking to have a platform which would publish full color asemic works in real time. Some of the early artists I posted were Derek Beaulieu, Tim Gaze, Henri Michaux, Luigi Serafini, Marco Giovenale, Sheila Murphy, Timothy Ely, Cecil Touchon, Jean-Christophe Giacottino, and Mirtha Dermisache and many others. I named the gallery The New Post-Literate because I believe in the evolution of writing, and I feel that asemic writing is the next logical step after conventional literacy. Asemic writing is never going to replace words, but I believe that it does pose an interesting challenge and rivalry to purely verbal communication.

Can you sketch a history of this kind of writing? 

Yes. There is a long history of people creating unreadable works. One could probably go back to the beginning of time. Tim introduced me to 'crazy' Zhang Xu, a Tang Dynasty calligrapher, who excelled at cursive script. Zhang was creating wild illegible calligraphy almost 1200 years ago. Other older works that I discovered along the way are the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript and the Rohonc Codex, though these works fall more into the category of cipher mysteries than asemic writing. But who knows, Luigi Serafini admitted recently that the Codex Seraphinius is asemic. All of the works previously mentioned I find aesthetically pleasing, and I am fascinated by the prospect that they could turn out to be proto-asemic text—computers will tell!

The twentieth entury brought about many examples of artists and writers creating unreadable wordless writing. Henri Michaux was the Godfather of the form, with his work Narration (1927) being an early example of wordless writing. In the 1950s there's Lettrisme, Brion Gysin, Morita Shiryu and Cy Twombly, all of whom expanded the definition of writing into highly visual and illegible forms. Someone will write a book on all of this, Peter Schwenger, perhaps. The asemic writing Wikipedia article has a list of some of the more notable writers and artists of the past who assisted in creating the asemic platform we may all land upon today. In the 1980s I am thinking of Xu Bing's A Book From The Sky, and the installations of Gu Wenda.

And what about the contemporary situation? 

1997 was the year of genesis for the current movement of asemic writing. It's when visual poet Jim Leftwich and Tim Gaze connected and started sending out quasi-calligraphic works to poetry magazines and calling them asemic. I was doing something similar in '98, but I didn't make contact with them until 2005, when I had the resources to officially publish and had gained Internet access.

Today asemic writing is a full-blown movement. There are almost 1800 people in the Facebook group, with 50 or so who are hardcore and madly into it. There is going to be an anthology of asemic writing put out by Uitgeverij out of the Hague, Netherlands, in late 2013. On the backburner is a film about asemic writing, which I am not working very hard on, with Quimby Melton who is the editor at SCRIPTjr.nl. There is Nuno de Matos a.k.a. Matox and José Parlá a.k.a. Ease who have brought graffiti into asemic writing, there is also a robot that performs asemic writing live, and there are architecture models which incorporate asemic writing in the design process.

What about the future? 

Recently, life has been as blurred as my asemic writing. I am getting set to send out my asemic kinetic film/novella Mynd Eraser (2012) to the London Underground film festival, and I get to spend the summer with my children. If anyone is interested in showing asemic writing at The New Post-Literate, I am always on the lookout for great new work from people I have never heard of. And just google the term 'asemic writing' if you would like more information, or do an image search. There is a great mountain of asemic work on the web and it is all just a click away.