Mean Less: My Experience With Asemic Writing


I want my artistic production to mean less and less until it is pure, holy aesthetics. I aspire to be an asemiotician.

Deep down, I know that making something that is meaningless is a hopeless endeavour. Everything we create inherits significance from its context: who made it, where it was made, how it was made, where it is being interpreted, unforeseen cultural shifts.

But I still try. I try to make no sense in my embroidery, with pixels, or with atmospheric elements in my comics.

Asemic writing is much like abstract art. It attempts to be unknowable. Asemic means “not semantic” as in a thing has no meaning.

(You can read a good piece about asemic writing here: http://reallifemag.com/definition-not-found/)

sky writing (tyler callich, 2016)

I’d like to discuss my process and experience creating asemic or semi-semic pieces. Many examples today of asemic writing use automation to generate anti-content. I try to make asemic things by hand, from my brain. When I write, I channel something pre/post-linguistic and non-figural. I let scrawls flow. Sometimes, like a host of chimpanzees at a writer, I churn out something intelligible on accident. Either I notice it right off or someone comments later on. It’s inevitable, if embarrassing. But I accept that when we create anything, we create meaning, both intended and unintended.

glyphic square (some accidental signifiers) (tyler callich, 2016)

My biggest inspiration is Xu Bing and his A Book from the Sky, a 600+ page collection using 4,000 fictitious, meaningless characters modelled around Chinese characters. A secondary influence is the script in the Codex Seraphinianus, which resembles something more alphabetic. Both of these texts cause my soul to brim with joy.

For me, asemics is three things:

Challenge

Trying to write things that don’t mean anything is harder than you think. Try to make a sign that doesn’t mean anything to anyone. Now try to make two. Now three… It might seem monotonous, but the task seems to get harder the deeper you go. It keeps me attentive to my thoughts.

Rebellion

As a writer, I feel pressure to always craft some new opinion or interpretation on the world. To infuse it with my personal style and point of view. Asemics is an inscrutable rejection of content as content.

Hope

I’m a Quaker, and we hold Meeting for Worship in rapt silence waiting for god to speak. I’ve waited and never spoken god’s word, but I do feel holiness when I wait. Stitching and drawing these meaningless scribbles is a kind of waiting. I don’t know if I am waiting for something to be revealed to me in a kind of automatic writing, but I am not holding out for it. I just want to keep doodling my soul and worship the space I create.


slime time: asemics is slippery (tyler callich, 2016)

Meaninglessness, just like meaning, is a slippery creature. As I write the illegible, I ask myself questions, such as

  • “Does this secretly mean something to me?”

I’ve studied Japanese, Chinese and Korean, so sometimes I feel myself drifting towards East Asian styles (square shape, radicals, etc). But that method is orientalist, dangerous, reductive, so I do my best to avoid it.

  • “Is this meaning coming from my subconscious?”

This question take some time and distance. For example, stitching the Leviathan Cross (🜏) without realizing. Or, just yesterday, I was making a shape. It looked too like a ㅈ, so I made the arms longer, but it looked K-like. I closed an end off and it looked like an R. I was stuck in a cycle of signification.

  • “Could this mean anything to anybody else?”

This is probably the trickiest question. I never orient my pieces until they are complete, so the shape could easily be, , or . Alone, any of these could elicit several different meanings. Whether a single stroke or shape has some associative meaning alone is less important than whether it has meaning in context. However, I do try to avoid anything resembling a letter, character, or sign, and I try to be as encompassing in those categories as possible.

puzzle dungeon glyphs (Airplane Food #1, tyler callich, 2016)

If you can read any of this, oops, I didn’t mean it.

-Tyler