An Interview With Tim Gaze, a Pioneer of Asemic Writing
Tim Gaze is an Australian artist who currently resides in the Adelaide Hills. Since the late 90s, he has been an active poet, writer, publisher, and performer. He is also notable as an artist specialising in asemic writing (expressive mark-making that has the appearance of a language).
In 1997, Gaze, along with fellow artist Jim Leftwich, applied the term ‘asemic’ to the quasi-calligraphic works they were creating and sending out to various poetry magazines at the time — and thus a movement was born. His books include the graphic novel 100 Scenes, glitch poetry collection noology, Glyphs of Uncertain Meaning (which I reviewed here), and his most recent collection of work, Cascade, published by Hesterglock Press this year. You can get an idea of Gaze’s style from this excerpt from the introduction to Cascade, written by artist and poet Niko Vassilakis:
A wobble in the eye, the idea of letters, a malfunctioning language, ribbons of defect, amended and converted alphabet, symbology borne happenstance, international communiques, glitch-driven logic, disintegration bop, associative swarm, visual obfuscation, sabotaged text, broken and misspelled, subverted markings.
Some other phrases from Vassilakis that seem to encapsulate Gaze’s work — and asemic writing, more generally — include “unreadable manifestos”, “divine scribble”, “religious jotting”, “signs derived from signs”, “nude meaning”, “applied alien templates”, “grapheme grenades”, “future language event at hand”, “the transmogrified letter”, “compulsive scrawl”, and “an undiagnosable calligraphy”.
I discussed with Gaze his involvement in the asemic writing movement, what this art form means to him, and how his relationship with it has changed over time. (At the end, I’ve also included some pieces from Cascade.)
Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Tim. I was hoping you could first share a bit about your background as an artist and when you started becoming interested in asemic writing.
Thanks for the invitation, Sam. I’m a self-taught writer, poet, and artist. At the age of 30, in 1995, I quit my day job to attempt to make a success as a writer. I tend to be attracted to more unusual books or music and wanted to learn about what existed outside of the standard picture of literary creation that I’d been exposed to growing up. I educated myself as best I could, by visiting local university libraries and public libraries. The State Library of South Australia had a copy of Richard Kostelanetz’s Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, which included snail mail addresses for a few of the poets and writers mentioned in the dictionary.
In corresponding with one of these people, Erik Belgum, he sent me the satirical poetry magazine Exile, which he co-edited. Exile included a copy of Selby’s List, an alphabetical listing of contact details for experimental poetry magazines from around the world, compiled by Spencer Selby. At that stage, circa 1997, very few poets used email. One of the few in that iteration of Selby’s List who did was Jim Leftwich. After I sent him an initial contact email, we were in frequent communication via email and snail mail for a number of years. I’ve talked at length elsewhere about the effect his work in Lost & Found Times no. 39 had on me. It introduced me to an area that I decided to pursue quite deeply.
Selby’s List made me much more worldly and was one main way I learned about visual poetry, and among the visual poetry, a few rare examples of asemic writing. In those days, asemic writing had to be hunted out.
Back in the late 90s, you and fellow visual poet Jim Leftwich started describing your writing-esque artwork as ‘asemic’. What was the asemic writing movement like at that time?
Jim and I have both tried to record how we first learned the word “asemic”. The short version is that another editor, John Byrum, used the word to Jim, and Jim used it in an email to me. For a few years, until the early 2000s, I recall using “asemic text”, then eventually “asemic writing” became the most common term.
I take a fair bit of credit for making asemic writing into something resembling a movement. The earliest way that I spread asemic writing was by means of a pamphlet containing work by me, Jim and a friend’s teenage son named Tom van den Bok titled asemic volume ~ 1, published circa 1998. Actually, there’s also an uncredited snippet of Clemente Padín in that one. It was fun, made in ignorance that it was the first move into something that would become a more focused cultural movement. Although it was a 4-page A4 pamphlet made from a double-sided A3 sheet, I could fold it smaller, to mail as an ordinary letter overseas. I mailed several of them to poets, artists, and other potentially interested people.
The pamphlet evolved into a stapled A5 little magazine, then into a perfect bound paperback. Most of the works which ended up being published in Asemic magazine resulted from me chasing artists. Only a few were unsolicited submissions. Along with contacts among experimental poets and small press publishers, I sought to build bridges with people with an interest in various forms of calligraphy, and also people in the visual arts. A small proportion of my random mailings received a warm and positive response. Asemic magazine has been extremely international. Over 6½ issues, contributors from all continents (except Antarctica) have been included.
I have no qualms about including my own work in my publications. Part of the reason for publishing in the first place has been to give a home to things I have created which wouldn’t sit comfortably elsewhere. One of Jim Leftwich’s publications was titled xtant. That title chimes with me: he’s making the contents of the magazine extant; they’re at large in the big wide world. They’re born, if you like.
Another action I took which pushed along asemic writing — rather more quickly, cheaply, and effortlessly — was setting up the first, very basic website for asemic writing, www.asemic.net, in June 2000. From its inception, it was hosted for a long time by an old friend who had a number of internet businesses, and in recent years is hosted by the people who run SCRIPTjr.nl.
If I remember correctly, Michael Jacobson first heard the term “asemic writing” from www.asemic.net, having searched the internet for Max Ernst and his book Maximiliana. Part of my spiel from this site was quoted in Aussie art magazine ArtLink, vol. 27 no.1 but my words were attributed to Henri Michaux. The whole spiel was also copied verbatim and posted on several websites without attribution, which certainly led to a wider knowledge that there is something called “asemic writing”.
One of my projects which I had high hopes for, in terms of spreading the word, and encouraging analysis, was an e-journal, freely viewable, titled Asemic Movement. In three editions, I included some heady stuff, including a new translation of Kruchenykh’s A Letter as Such, and a translation of a Tang Dynasty poet’s appraisal of Zhang Xu’s wild calligraphy.
My central aim, that asemic writing would become widely known, and become a familiar “thing”, has been successful. The fact that people talk about a movement is evidence of this.
Since the late 90s, the asemic writing movement has grown rapidly, with loads of new artists appearing on the scene, and all different kinds of styles and mediums being used. How have you noticed the field change in the past few decades?
The biggest change for me personally is that I’ve moved away, and now observe it from a slight distance. In the late ’90s through to the mid-2000s, snail mailing physical books, magazines, pamphlets, and originals was the main way that asemic writing was disseminated. Most of these items were swapped or gifted, with no money changing hands. I forgot to mention that Selby’s List was an early example of an open-source cultural network. Through publishing Asemic magazine, I heard from a few people who said they’d been doing this strange pseudo-writing for several years, and had no idea that it had a name, or that other people did it, and thanked me.
I should also mention people who independently heard about asemic writing. I remember seeing Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s works for the first time in Gestalten, and wondering why I hadn’t heard of him before. Marco Giovenale was creating his asemic sybils for a year or two before we were in contact.
Hearing from Michael Jacobson, circa 2007, began an acceleration of asemic writing being made and talked about on the internet. He publishes asemic writing by a huge range of creators at The New Post-literate blog and set up an asemic writing group on Facebook. More recently, his publishing imprint Post-Asemic Press is providing a venue for several books of asemic writing.
My impression is that over the past decade, there has been an increase in works of fine art which include asemic writing, and the term “asemic writing” is increasingly used in art publications.
More recently, there is so much asemic writing published online that I’ll never see all of it, and many of its makers won’t be aware of me. A wide range of media, from analogue writing tools to typewriters to human-operated software — and even artificial intelligence algorithms — have been used. Asemic writing is on the road, out in the world. It’s very much a plural thing now.
You mentioned in your book Glyphs of Uncertain Meaning that the Belgian artist Henri Michaux has been a particular influence on your style. What do you appreciate the most about his work and ideas?
Mainly, his blot paintings and his invented signs feel familiar and natural to me. First I saw his Mouvements, reproduced in a volume with his poetry. The juxtaposition of these hand-painted, slightly Chinese-looking, and very animated signs with regular typeset poetry made an impression on me.
In some ways, I feel like a writer more than a poet, and certainly don’t feel like an artist. I probably share a way of perceiving with Michaux. It’s possible that Michaux’s brain and mine are wired in a similar way. I’m not sure how much I’m into his ideas, other than the example of being an explorer.
My way of approaching Chinese writing culture has been to expose myself to books on calligraphy (some in English, some bilingual, some in Chinese), prehistoric rock art, magical diagrams, Chinese graphic design, scholars’ arts such as scholars’ rocks, garden aesthetics, and philosophies such as Taoism. Michaux visited China and wrote a book about the Chinese writing system, Idéogrammes en Chine, which I’ve glanced at (the English version) but never properly read. My own impression of the overall nature of Chinese writing was largely formed from John DeFrancis’ The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.
How do you feel that your own artwork has evolved since you began engaging in asemic writing? Have your intentions shifted?
Yes, my focus has slowly shifted over the years, so that I’ve pretty much stopped making asemic writing. From the late ’90s through to maybe 2008, I created many A4 pages of glyphs and other markings, using all manner of writing instruments, such as pens, pencils, marker pens, calligraphy brush with bottled ink, and others. For short periods, I have delved into a range of writing systems or symbol systems. I wrote both regular Hangul characters and also improvised mutant forms of Hangul, to give one example.
When I moved to the countryside, around 2006, I began to experiment with printing off acrylic paint which had been smeared onto a surface, sometimes altered by making marks using a hard object like a chopstick in the wet paint. I printed a back-to-front image from the paint, by pressing a fresh sheet of paper onto it. The pressing action could be a single firm touch and then lift off or could involve dragging the paper to smear the paint, or several short touches of parts of the page, rotating the page between touches. Intriguingly, some of these resulting abstract monoprints (or decalcomanies) resembled broken or distorted or incomplete writing.
Along with making these abstract prints, I started researching experimental comics. A friend from asemic writing networks, Billy Mavreas, introduced me to Andrei Molotiu, who was compiling Abstract Comics: The Anthology. To my surprise, he really liked some abstract comics I had made from cut-out pieces of monoprints laid on my scanner and included them in the anthology. In the 2010s, a number of people were involved in both abstract comics and asemic writing. To name two: Satu Kaikkonen and Rosaire Appel. There are probably many more creators in both realms now.
Much more recently, particularly from 2017 to 2019, I have worked in sound poetry, by making home recordings, performing live on a few occasions, and hosting an internet radio show titled Sound Poetry etc. Although, on reflection, it’s been a slow and long-term immersion. I started experimenting with voice recordings around 2001 and performed a complete sound poetry set in 2009.
The area of sound poetry that interests me the most is parallel to asemic writing. A sizable proportion of people making sound poetry (or poésie sonore, poesia sonora, lautgedichten, text-sound, etc.) use pieces of linguistic sound which are smaller than words, or use sounds which are not typical of speech, therefore avoiding languages and semantics. It’s pretty easy to see similarities with asemic writing made from incomplete fragments of letters, or with signs which don’t resemble any familiar writing system.
At the time of replying to your questions, I’m resting from sound poetry, putting energy back into books, and trying to get some attention for Cascade, Glyphs of Uncertain Meaning, and Spraypaintings. In the future, I’d like to have more of my pages of coloured glyphs published. There’s a Chinese influence in many of them, something like stylised Chinese graffiti tags.
Artists will have different aims when it comes to the asemic writing they create. But what do you think that asemic writing can achieve that makes it distinct from other forms of abstract art?
These days, I think we have to talk about asemic writing as being many different things. One way to receive asemic writing is as an antidote to the cheapening and dehumanising of written language by various forces.
In my early attempts to explain asemic writing, I made the claim that it could be used to express internal states which are impossible to express in words. I can reasonably claim this for my own creations, but not for those created by other people.
There’s the potential to study the eye movements of people looking at asemic writing. I’m fond of using my intuition and I’m moderately anti-rationalist. I’m uncomfortable with asemic writing being measured and analysed in this way, but it is inevitable that it will happen.
In Asemic Movement 1, retired chemical scientist Patricia Bralley describes her asemic writing practice as being a form of miniature t’ai chi movements. So, her asemic writing is a recording of chi energy.
Asemic writing has been used to signify the alien. Weird symbols are used in science fiction to give the impression that they’re from a non-human civilisation. Some would say that these alien symbols are depictions of an artificial writing system, comparable to a ConLang, such as Klingon, and are not asemic. My response would be: aliens wouldn’t always write rationally and with correct grammar. Isn’t it possible that aliens could have asemic fun with their writing, too?
Are there any artists in the scene that you’re currently a big fan of?
I’m not paying too close attention to current asemic writing. I’ll turn your question around and mention some vocalists whose work I’ve enjoyed recently. Charmaine Lee produces a range of colours using multiple microphones, each routed through different effects. Her album KNVF showcases some of her work. Tatiana Roumelioti has recorded some jarringly original sound poems on her EP Asemic Sound Experience. She also pursues explorations in asemic writing.
Jaap Blonk has released many albums of sound poetry, each composed in its own style or with its own logic, and is recently also delving into asemic writing in his books Possible Gardens and the forthcoming AsemiQuads. I’ll also mention Chris Tonelli’s book Voices Found: Free Jazz and Singing, which is the first in-depth study of wordless vocal improvisations emerging from free jazz and crossing over into sound poetry.
What are you working on at the moment? And do you have anything exciting in store for the future?
At the moment, I’m researching edible plants which are native to the area I live in. The Kaurna and Peramangk indigenous groups ate several local plants including a staple vegetable called the native yam daisy. European colonisers fenced off land which had previously been accessible to all and introduced hoofed animals such as sheep and cattle, which destroyed many pastures of native yam daisies. In a small way, I hope to stimulate more people to grow and appreciate these food plants.
There’s a pre-history of asemic writing which hasn’t been examined in much detail. Peter Schwenger’s book Asemic: The Art of Writing is a good start. I have notes for a history of asemic writing, mostly just artists’ names and relevant works, which could be useful to anyone wanting to construct a longer and broader history of a thriving 21st-century cultural activity. To mention just one example which deserves to be talked about: the European art movement Art Informel included quite a few works related to contemporary asemic writing. At some point, I’d like to be involved in a group effort to construct a more detailed history of asemic writing.