ASCII nude was made in 1967 by a pair of programmers working at
Bell telephone laboratories who complied with a request by management
for a mural to decorate the wall of an office. The result - infamous
at the time - was a crude 8 level image of a reclining female nude,
12 foot in length and composed of mathematical symbols.
Mural by Leon D. Harmon and Kenneth C. Knowlton. 1966
The technique represents an early attempt to reproduce
digital greyscale images on paper by using the tonal values of
ASCII characters. the ASCII character set is simply an internationally
standard group of numbers, letters and punctuation marks that are
used in programming and computer communication. Each character
in the set, sorted from the darkest to the lightest, can be used
as a ‘palette’ to reproduce areas of corresponding
tone from a photograph. Viewed from close range, the final picture
appears to the eye as a confusion of text elements, but from a
distance, it emerges as a gestalt impression. In terms analogous
to digital imaging, we might say that each character in the grid
is acting as a pixel (the word is an abbreviation of the term picture
element) and as such, its syntactical arrangement on the page is
for the purpose of conveying tone and has no corresponding semantic
order. Large scale ASCII art, like most computer art from the sixties,
was eclipsed by the ascendance of the desktop computer in the early
eighties and remained in the shadow of the subsequent waves of
supersession and redundancy that still characterises computer production.
Today, it is considered an anachronistic novelty - a sign of computer kitsch
ASCII art not only survives, but evolves and is still
seen in e-mail and news groups in the form of small and ingenious
pictures that depend for their effect on a mixture of tonal, line
and letterform characterisations. Although it is a marginal and
slightly arcane form of art, there are websites devoted to the
display and discussion of such images.
Few would recognise it as such, but ASCII-art’s other incarnation
has been as the emoticon which is commonly included within the
body of a text messages as pictorial equivalent of a vocal inflection.
Emoticons are essentially ASCII images but in the form of a highly
reduced and stylised caricature of human facial expressions.
One of the most common is a wink ;-) which,
when viewed sideways, indicates friendly irony.
Regular ASCII-art images use a fixed-width rather than proportional
fonts to define the pictorial form. Fixed-width fonts are are so
named for the fact that each character on the screen or the page,
occupies an equal amount of horizontal space and maintains a fixed
distance from its neighbour.
A fixed-width font is useful when printing programming data onto
paper because the fixed column-and-row nature of the array ensures
that the location of any character can be quickly identified. in
ASCII art, the letters themselves maintain their positions in a
fixed grid which is essential for viewing the image outline. A
proportional font, on the other hand is one in which the proximity
between letters is tailored for the purposes of economy and aesthetics.
Its role in print typography is to harmonise the close arrangement
of letters and to facilitate the ease with which the eye scans
the line. Traditional poetry is set in a proportional font so that
letters may be bedded comfortably together as words which in turn,
comply with syntactical rules so that cadence and rhythm may be
clearly expressed by means of stops, line breaks, indents etc.
Concrete, pattern and sound poetry extend and make fluid the range
of expressible effects by only provisionally accepting the rules
governing the serial flow of text, the gravity of the baseline
or the uniform scale of letters. Provisionally, because the tension
or pleasure in concrete poetry often consists of shaping a differential
between the typographic/syntactic rules and those responsible for
mimetic/pictorial representation. Each poet handles this differential
in his or her own fashion.
(See George Herberts, Guillaume Apollinaire
or e. e. cummings)
If a proportional
font is substituted for the fixed-width font in the body of an
ASCII art image, then the constituents of the text/image become
obliged to comply with the rules of typesetting. Each pixel acquires
kerning and tracking values (altering the space between letters)
and is subject to leading (the space that separates lines) according
to the dictates of the word processing software. The image's logic
can be further compromised by removing horizontal white space from
between words and paragraphs which otherwise forms invisible packing
that defines the outline of the picture. The result is an image
transformed into a single paragraph which may be typographically
In the works below, titled Submission
(right), the figure is left, centre and forced justified.
| Click here for a simplified (and animated) rendering of a detail: Scrolling
figure employed as a nude in Submission and as a skeleton
in Pu Hua is derived entirely from a computer-synthesised
human form. The exhibition Women at the Darren Knight
gallery in 2001, included a set of three images in which the body
paragraphs were force justified, meaning that the type elements
are obliged to fill the width of the line. In the work Bodymap,
the body text paragraphs were force justified, meaning that the
type elements are obliged to fill the width of the line.
The treatment of the body is almost the antithesis to Submission.
The surface features in this work are spread thinly across the
picture plane like a skin that has been seperated from the volume
of the body and stretched onto a rack.
Series of 18, edition of 2. Electrostatic print on cartridge
paper. Each piece aproximately 30 x 100cm
The subjects of Eighteen Types are taken
from photographs of two Tokyo bar-girls by the Japanese photographer,
Nobuyoshi Araki. Each of these two women are represented as an
ASCII image set in nine different typefaces and has been magnified
from an image captured from the computer screen. The image as it
exists on the screen is a dual impression - on the one hand it
represents the instructional data of the file, on the other it
is an impression in light that is only an approximation of that
data. When the screen image is magnified or enlarged, it represents
not a change in the file data but rather a modification of the
way that data is approximated for viewing.
below have been typeset, then reduced to create a low magnification,
screen impression. They represent an extreme approximation of the
ASCII figures as they have been abbreviated within a short serial
edition: photo > text > screen > print. At this end of
this series, the figures become completely abstract, depicting
line and paragraph blocks rather than individual letter shapes.
The text used in the work Untitled
(orgasm), has been taken from that part of a pornographic
story in which the female narrator describes experiencing climax.
The climax itself is an event that is hidden from view and must
give itself away to the reader of the story as a series of phatic
gestures - groans, cries and profanities (...oh god, oh fuck,
i gasped...), or is described metaphorically - as the shape of
a landscape (a plateau, a runway, an ocean) or a movement (a
rushing, a spin, a flight, an explosion). A photograph of course
has a connotative function - it must convey the invisible event
by means of a facial expression, a particular pose or by means
of a caption. in the interpretation on the left, the descriptive
letters are arranged in an unpunctuated parade-ground formation
which camouflages the narrative trajectory. next to it on the
right is an ASCII transliteration of the photo that corresponds
to the same event in the written narrative. like other works
in the ASCII series it is a form composed of letters, but these
letters have no literal significance - they simply represent
in an abstract and vaporous arrangement, the picture which in
the story is designated as the illustration of the orgasm.
Inkjet on paper, 30 x 60cm