Index > Group works > ASCII art
The first 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 justified.
In the works below, titled Submission (left) and Pu Hua (right), the figure is left, centre and forced justified.
Click here for a simplified (and animated) rendering of a detail: Scrolling ASCII

The original 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.


Eighteen Types
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.

The series 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.



Untitled (Orgasm) 2001
Inkjet on paper, 30 x 60cm
Contact: Darren Knight Gallery