Without Words: An Interview with Tim Gaze

Interview by Michael Jacobson

MJ: Give me a little background on who you are? I know you consider yourself to be an author instead of the more general term artist.

TG: When I was 16, I realized that I wanted to be a writer. At the time, I played Dungeons & Dragons & other role-playing games, & read a lot of fantasy fiction, science fiction & reference books on mythology. My ambition was to write Celtic fantasy novels.

In my 20s, I wrote abortive fragments of a Celtic fantasy novel & a thriller.

At the age of 30, I left my office job, & began to "be" a full-time writer. An open-minded artist named Stuart Collins taught me a lot. He introduced me to William S Burroughs' cut-up novels, suggested that squiggles could be deftly made & beautiful, & desensitized me to having my precious words completely absorbed into collaborative texts.

From 1996 or so, I began looking for like-minded people overseas. Kostelanetz's Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (which is in the State Library of South Australia) listed Erik Belgum's address. I wrote to Erik, who sent me a few things, including his satirical magazine Exile. Exile included a copy of Selby's list, a legendary list of names & contact details of experimental poetry magazines from around the world. Only a few of them included email addresses. Jim Leftwich was one of them. He & I have been in more or less constant contact ever since. We've published each others' work on numerous occasions, & collaborated on asemic pieces.

Getting back to your question... When I returned from a visit to Indonesia (Ambon & West Papua & a couple of days in Bali) in 1998, I intended to write a book on an Indonesian theme, perhaps a collection of translations of Indonesian folk-tales & magic lore. However, to my surprise, I began to make squiggles & pictographic symbols, rather than concentrating on writing words.

My primary intention with all this asemic stuff is to compile books, printed in black & white, influenced by typographic design, rather than being art books. I'm pointing these books towards publishers of fiction & poetry, & aiming to attract an audience interested in stimulating new ideas, as well as fans of graphic novels. I like the idea of mass-produced books of simple, enjoyable material.

I have an idea that simple black marks on white paper penetrate the mind deeply & quickly. If this is correct, a humble paperback book has great power, beyond its traditional use as a container for words.

I'm less interested in asemic works which use colour, which are slanted towards art galleries, & which might be sold as originals on the art market. They're a valid part of the asemic spectrum; it's just other people have more expertise & interest in this area than me.

When I started making visual works on A4 office paper, I thought: what could I do, in order to make a piece of paper worth keeping? What kind of beauty or interest or significance needs to be on the page, for it to be a "keeper"?

The same goes for humble, stapled zines & booklets: how much interesting content is sufficient, so that someone would keep an 8 page, folded over, stapled zine, made of ordinary white paper?

MJ: What is asemic writing and how did you arrive at that style of expression?

TG: The best definition of asemic writing I've managed so far is on page 1 of asemic movement #1 (download from Vugg Books, vuggbooks.randomflux.info, filed under "Tim Gaze"). [you're welcome to quote my spiel in full. attaching a separate doc.]

A short definition of "asemic writing" is: something which looks like a form of writing, but which you can't read.

If one wants to be pedantic, a more technical term than "asemic writing" might be found, to describe the area I'm working more perfectly. However, I believe in the notion of etymological fallacy: words can acquire new meanings, sometimes different (even opposite) to the meaning of the roots from which they are formed..

Once several people begin to use the term "asemic writing" in a particular way, the term acquires a new, consensus meaning, regardless of what dictionaries might have to say.

As shorthand, "asemic" & "asemics" are coming to mean "example(s) of asemic writing".

The word "asemic" is short, easy to learn, & hasn't been burdened with any other strong connotations. It will do nicely, for now.

MJ: What are some of the ideas of asemic writing that serve as a foundation for you?

TG: We humans don't think in words. There's a deeper level, which only condenses out into words as the final stage. This is my belief. If this is true, then we need something other than words, to illustrate our true thoughts. Some of the asemic writing feels true to me, in ways that words cannot achieve.

Language is a tribal influence on humans.. If we can find ways to surpass individual languages, humans will feel more included in a unified whole.

Sometimes, I entertain the idea that non-verbal writing can stimulate people to develop telepathy.

MJ: Is there a spiritual dimension to asemic writing?

TG: First, what do we mean by spiritual? At the very least, there seems to be more to life than money, material possesions & worldly success. In my world-view, spirits exit. They're part of the flora & fauna of the universe. Rational words don't seem to be able to capture the non-physical parts of existence. On occasion, certain types of asemic writing seem to successfully do so.

There used to be a practice of making spirit writing by clever-men of the BaKongo people of Zaire. Each medium had their own distinct "language", & could interpret their own writing. (One could argue that it's not truly asemic.) Not sure if this still goes on.

The late J. B. Murray (known in the art market as J. B. Murry), was an African-American man who never learned to read & write English, but who received a gift of writing a personal "spirit writing", late in life. He could interpret his writing by reading it through a glass full of water which he had blessed.

Some Taoists practice similar forms of spirit writing. I've read about a practice in Taiwan, where an entranced seer makes marks, a second observer calls out Chinese translations, & a scribe records them (in written Chinese, I presume). Again, not truly asemic, but interesting & influential to me.

Japanese calligraphers who are part of the Zen calligraphy tradition, such as Nantenbo (or Nantembo), made raw, playful, exuberant brush-strokes. Some of their works push legibility to the limits. Their writing is meant to be a recording of energy, rather than a simple transcription of words.

For me, asemic writing used to be an intense, power-filled activity. Each stroke I made with a Chinese brush or marker pen was made in a moment of utter certainty. A friend once said that I looked as if I was doing martial arts. It was difficult for me to relax sufficiently to make this kind of art, with someone else present.

More recently, I'm more relaxed when making writing & abstract art. The results tend to be less intense, & sometimes crude-looking.

Buddhism seems to be the nearest fit to my approach to life. Some sort of relaxed Ch'an Buddhism is the tradition I feel most affinity with. Used to think I was more of a Taoist.

I practice a "wet" path: If I feel like drinking beer or smoking ganja, I do so. Alcohol & other mind-altering substances can be used as sacraments. They can be used to help open you up, so that you can see deep inside yourself.

MJ: Your book Noology seems to be a bridge between abstract expressionism and asemic writing, and you have mentioned using different languages in the text, can you elaborate on your writing process?

TG: Sometimes I feel an urge to create. It's as if I have a fuel tank that takes several days to fill up, & I discharge it by creating.

I create using different materials & techniques, in different rooms of my house. For example, there's one room with paint & a table & many pieces of paper & other paraphernalia in it. I only tend to go in there spread out paint & make abstract shapes, then print off them (i.e. decalcomania), quickly or slowly, once or multiple times, cleanly or with a smudge. A certain number of these pages look more like writing than others. This activity requires me to stand up, & even though it's slow & methodical, it feels very intense & takes a fair bit of energy for me to get started. It only holds my interest for as long as I'm making brand new, unfamiliar shapes, which I haven't seen before. If too many familiar faces appear, it feels like a chore, & I stop.

Much quicker, & usually sitting on a chair, I make large marker pen symbols (such as the ones you posted in August 2008 at thenewpostliterate.blogspot.com). I might rotate the page after making each stroke. Usually, I have no plan, & just keep adding strokes until a page feels full.

A few years ago, roughly 2000 to 2004, I did a lot of raw calligraphy, using a Chinese brush & bottled ink, on ordinary office paper. Consciously trying to achieve a sense of balance, & an Asian sensibility in these. The Oxygen of Truth chapbooks were published right in the middle of this period. These were done standing up.

For several years, I've collected the little pen doodles I make, when talking on the phone, or concentrating on other things. On occasion, I copy these at larger scale, using a marker pen, or perhaps combine motifs from a few doodles into a more complex composition.

To some degree, all of these processes are means of probing my deeper, non-verbal self.

Familiar motifs emerge, if I work with these unplanned, spontaneous methods often enough. I also copy rough-looking or unbalanced motifs, & make them look deliberate & planned, which seems to give them more force. An indistinct, unbalanced squiggle is transformed into a deliberate, deft composition.

Back to noology... I enjoy the far-out photocopier art by the likes of Reed Altemus & Billy Mavreas. In the back of my mind, I'd wanted to attempt something similar with my scanner, but only got around to it less than 2 years ago.

What I now call "glitch poetry" comes from leaving the scanner's lid open, & moving pages around as the scanner beam is moving. This might be shaking a page from side to side, sliding it back & forth, lifting it up, rotating it, or swapping between different pages. Then, I might splice together my favourite bits, using a paint program.

The shaking process feels musical, similar to bending a string on a guitar.

I should mention that the best results come from scanning pages full of truncated marks. I prepare a few pages of simple marks, like half-formed symbols, using a marker pen. Short straight line segments & curves. It's amazing how much richness you can generate from such sparse starting material.

As well as the similarity to electronic glitch music, my scanner method could be likened to distortion or reverb, as well. Overlaying or assembling parts of images in a paint program is similar to multi-track recording.

MJ: How is Lettrism, the French avant-garde movement, related to asemic writing?

TG: Lettrisme (I prefer the French spelling) gave us the notion of hypergraphy: creating compositions which use letters, symbols (including newly invented symbols), images & anything else. Hypergraphies can be in any genre & any realm of culture: visual art, calligraphy, poetry, animations, t-shirts, print advertisements, graffiti, or whatever.

Asemic writing (which uses unknown forms of writing, & indistinct shapes which resemble writing) forms part of the universe of possibilities of hypergraphies.

The living Lettristes I've communicated with seem to be on the same wave-length as me, although with their own focus on where to put their works.

It's a shame that, in the English-speaking world, Lettrisme is bracketted into French studies or History of 20th Century European Avant-gardes. I can see some fertile connections between Lettriste ideas & Semiotics, Philosophy of Language, Art Theory, Literary Theory, & so on.

The Brazilian process/poetry (poema/processo) movement strikes me as having complementary aims & achievements with Lettrisme, & many of the contemporary asemic artists. Poets such as Wlademir Dias Pino, Alvaro de Sá, Neide de Sá, Regina Pouchain & Avelino de Araújo, all created or still create poetry which touches upon both hypergraphy & asemic writing.

The idea of a process/poem is that it is open to any interpretation by the reader. The poem, as written, is incomplete, to be completed by the act of interpretation. This strikes me as being co-operative, democratic & honest, in contrast to literary theory, which seems like a cold-hearted dissection of a text, ignoring an individual reader's personality & mood when reading.

The usual modes of literary analysis taught at Universities strike me as being similar to the way animals are judged at an agricultural show.

MJ: Is asemic writing becoming a movement?

TG: A few years ago, Carlos M Luis used the term "asemic movement" in an email to me. I was dubious, at first.

In 2008, considering that a post-grad architecture student has created a design titled Asemic Scapes, an artist in London has intervened with asemic writing at Deptford High Street railway station, Portuguese & Turkish translations of the term "asemic writing" are in existence, & more & more poeple are using the term "asemic", just to think of a few examples, maybe we can begin to speak of a movement.

I'm thinking more of a cultural movement, a visible change in society, rather than a particular group of artists. T-shirt designs with smashed up letters have been common here for a few years. Animated curlicues which resemble writing have been used in sophisticated television advertising for a few years, as well. I consider these to be manifestations of a large-scale trend by humans away from words, & towards non-verbal forms of visual communication. The artists who designed these t-shirts & animations probably aren't aware that there's a term for what they're creating, & that it is part of a larger trend or tendency.

I'm trying to stimulate a widespread explosion of awareness of & interest in asemic writing, comparable to the punk explosion in the late '70s. An unstoppable chain reaction, similar to the exponential release of neutrons when a critical mass of fissile material is assembled.

MJ: Does secrecy and mystery factor into your writing, for example, codes?

TG: I can't recall deliberately incorporating codes, or substituted symbols for letters of words, in anything I've made.

I did publish one or 2 things in Asemic magazine which could be described as codes. A page I found in a Goodwill store among some second-hand records that's in Asemic #, for example. That one might be a code, or it might be an ancient writing system which I haven't yet identified.

Giving a reader a sense of mystery... yes, that's one possible reaction to a piece of asemic writing that would make me happy.

MJ: Asemic writing seems to have a fragmented history. Would you begin with the Voynich Manuscript for a modern history?

TG: I'm not all that interested in the so-called Voynich Manuscript (Voynich was the owner of the ms for a while). My guess is that it was created by a monk, under threat of being accused of heresy, who kept his speculations about the workings of the world in code.

In Tang Dynasty China, ca. 800 c.e., 2 men pushed cursive brush calligraphy to the point of illegibility. "Crazy" Zhang Xu used to get excited after drinking wine, & write exuberant but illegible cursive. The younger "mad monk" Huai Su also found renown as a writer of loose cursive calligraphy. These men are still famous. I could claim Christian Dotremont, with his "logogrammes" to be a modern Western participant in the same, broad tradition. I could even add myself.

There's a Chinese legend that humans invented writing after observing natural phenomena such as marks on the bark of trees, animal footprints, patterns on animal skins (from insects to tortoises to birds to mammals to their own fingerprints) & so on.

I can imagine ancient humans making marks in the dust with fingers or sticks. Some of it would have been playful or self-expressive, some of it would have been with an intention to communicate information. This is probably the oldest root of asemic writing.

You could also say that Nature, since time began, has been manifesting asemic writing. It just needs a human to see the writing, & recognize it.

The stages that people (children or adults) undergo, when learning to write, also result in asemic writing.

MJ: Is the natural world reflected in your writing?

TG: Jackson Pollock said "I am Nature". In one sense, anything done by a human is natural.

In another sense, I am trying to channel forms from the natural world into my creations, both by imitating natural forms, & using chaotic processes which are partly out of my control, such as decalcomania..

I'm often thinking of the 4 primal elements: earth, water, air, fire, & how I might express such fundamental concepts using marks on paper. There's a 5th Western element, spirit or quintessence or perhaps ether, which is beyond my understanding.

Meanwhile, I'm also trying to understand the Chinese system of 5 elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, water.

An African author, Patrice Malidoma Somé, lists yet another conception of 5 elements. Can't remember them all. One of them is "nature".

Although I haven't reconciled these different sets of elements, I feel that my creations contain something elemental, simple, fundamental, which points back to Nature.

MJ: What made you decide to start Asemic Magazine, and what do you seek to do with the magazine?

TG: When I made a 4-sided pamphlet, & called it asemic volume~1, I wondered if it deserved the name of art. All I knew was I liked this kind of work, & that it was more far-out than other visual poetry I'd seen. I'd been experimenting with copying Chinese characters with a pencil, & didn't know if they were legible. It felt naughty: did I really have permission to use Chinese writing, having never studied it?

I kept finding more & more examples of what I was starting to call "asemic writing", initially in poetry publications, but eventually in histories of 20th century art movements, & then in books about calligraphy.

Thanks to the generosity of people in the mail art network, freely sharing their visual poetry & art, Asemic magazine #1, followed by #2,1 (that's a European decimal point), came together quickly & easily.

At some stage between 1999 & 2001 (can't remember exactly when), I came to the conclusion that this asemic area is gigantic, & that scholars haven't paid it any close attention.

One example: Roland Barthes wrote articles about Mirtha Dermisache, Cy Twombly, Henri Michaux & André Masson, all of whom made things which could be considered to be asemic writing, but didn't add them all together, as part of a single stream. Heck, Roland even did a bit of asemic writing himself: his contre-écritures, which are hard to find.

MJ: How has the internet affected distribution of the idea of asemic writing?

TG: The internet has virally spread the term "asemic writing" & various understandings of what it is, much more rapidly than my mailed parcels of little magazines.

I've seen third hand quotes of my spiel from www.asemic.net. The Wikipedia entry for Asemic Writing (mostly written by you) has been copied far & wide. Nicky Hirst, who did the asemic art at Deptford railway station, quoted Wikipedia in her statement.

There seems to be a continuous, unstoppable spread..

Email, & translator software such as Babelfish, enable me to interact with people in Cuba, Brazil & many places in Europe, to name a few examples, casually, quickly, without having to formally study another language or own dictionaries.

(I do research Spanish-language poetry, art history & so on, [as well as other languages] & occasionally refer to dictionaries in order to refine my knowledge, but that's another story. Every language focuses on different artistic heroes & different moments in history. The big names in English-speaking histories are sometimes unknown in other languages; the reverse is also true.)

MJ: What projects are you currently working on?

TG: I'm just about to begin an on-line encyclopedia of asemic writing.

It's a book I've been thinking about for years, & been holding off, in anticipation of interest from a publisher.

Now feels like a good time to get on with it, & give it away for free.

One of my ambitions is to make some works as dense& rich as the Where's Wally books. Detailed pages, that you can spend a long, enjoyable time exploring. Doesn't feel as if I've done it, yet.

Every few weeks, another burst of marker pen symbols, or decalcomania, or computer-made assemblies of symbols, or scanner remixes, or collaborative works comes out of me. When I have a strong enough bunch of compatible works, I publish them in a little book, paper or electronic.

MJ: Where would you like to take this in the future?

TG: Like you, my ambitions are quite big.

When this area is widely known, & doesn't have to be explained from the ground up every time, that will be one achievement.

If I'm not mistaken, the asemic needs to be acknowledged by literary theory, art theory & art history, philosophy, semiotics, & maybe a few other academic disciplines.

I've been looking for an animator or film-maker to collaborate with, to produce some sort of moving abstract & asemic work. No joy so far.

Until there's an explosion of asemia, reaching millions of people, many of my big ideas remain speculation. However, once 1 million people have all offered their different reactions to aspects of asemic writing, we'll start to understand the value & meaning of these works more deeply. It could be that only a few of us value them highly. However, I suspect that they will have broad appeal. Time will tell.

I have a huge quantity of unpublished works lying around my house. Once a decent-sized publisher, with global reach, emits a volume of some of my better works, I'll feel more fulfilled, & will perhaps relax a little.

Asemic magazine is still going strong, but it's possible that I'll get tired of it, if submissions of genuinely original works dry up. We'll see.

I've searched high & low for a "gallery of ideas", rather than an art gallery, to show asemic writing to a broad public. Haven't found such a place yet. I envisage exhibitions of works by renowned people such as Henri Michaux, along with ourselves, children, Art Brut, photos of accidental asemic writing made by Nature, & anything else. Cutting across genres, & the professional/non-professional divide.

Longer-term future: when the dust settles from all of this asemic activity, I'll write a fantasy book, for children. If I still have the gift for writing narrative in words, that is.

Eventually, I'd like to live away from dense population, in a place full of trees.

About the interviewer: Michael Jacobson is a writer and artist from Minneapolis, Minnesota USA. He is the author of a trans-symbolic novella called The Giant's Fence, along with an ebook called Action Figures, and a limited edition chapbook called A Headhunter's Tale.
He curates The New Post-literate: A Gallery Of Asemic Writing.

Interview originally appeared @ Dogmatika