Judaism and Japan: Looking for ASCII art theory

I’ve worked a lot with text-based works lately. There is surprisingly little research on ASCII art and related things. That’s why, together with A Bill Miller, I’ve written an academic article on ASCII art which will hopefully be published after the summer. It’s also quite difficult to find good archives or exhibitions. So me and Raquel Meyers started a tumblr at text-mode.tumblr.com where we select some of the best works in teletext, ASCII, Shift_JIS, RTTY, Petscii, etc.

ASCII art, text-mode art, unicode graff or whatever you want to call it, is still quite an open field (atleast over here in alphabet-land). And, I might be wrong, but I can see an increased interest for it; after pixel art romantics and after the language-mania of social/humanistic science. Objects, biology and realism are becoming relevant again. So it’s time to see what happens with text when it’s used and understood as objects rather than symbols.

One important precursor that is rarely discussed is micrography, which shares some traits with contemporary digital text art. It is a Jewish form of calligram where graphics are built up from hebrew text characters. It came from the biblical hate towards images. In short: text is the only way, and images are not allowed. Doesn’t leave much choice for a visual artist. Great!

Israel’s ASCII art moneyz

It is not only an old and obscure rule. Israel’s bills are still made in accordance with this, as shown in the picture above (zoomed in here). So then the images are actually not images. There are several modern examples of micrography, which often overlaps visual poetryconcrete poetry, etc.

Unlike artists of the early 20th century who used text (Picasso, dadaists), micrography was basically a functional necessity. In that way it is similar to a lot of modern text art, that uses text-based media (Twitter, SMS, textboards). Another similarity is that the symbolic meaning of the letters are irrelevant in micrography (so in that sense it’s actually not a form of calligram). The text characters are selected for their appearance, not for what they represent. This is why, in 2SLEEP1, music was credited as instructions and graphics as objects.


Working with our text-mode tumblr over the past months, I’ve come to realise that a lot of the best text art is from Asia, mostly Japan. One explanation is that Japanese and Chinese are more popular than English online, so it’s a matter of quantity. Another explanation is that text-based media, like 2channel are extremely popular in Japan. It creates memes and characters that appear also in mainstream media. Perhaps a text-based medium can become more popular in Japan because there are more nice-looking and useful characters, but probably also because Japanese writing/reading works differently than here. Is Japan a more “text-based” culture, maybe?

I’ll leave you with an example of Shift_JIS ANSI, which is rather new to me. Colours and Shift_JIS characters ftw! Eat cheese, please!

By Gatchaman

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