Asemic Writing and Drawing

Workshop 1: exploring uncertainty in the company of artists, poets, makers

by Ricarda Vidal and Harriet Carter

This blog continues the conversation about asemic writing, drawing and translation, which we started in the summer.

On 4th November 2021 we travelled to Ledbury to conduct a workshop exploring asemic writing through drawing in the Barrett Browning Institute, home to the Ledbury Poetry Festival. We were joined by 10 writers/artists/practitioners who came equipped with art materials and a curiosity for the unknown.
The objective of the workshop was to invite everyone to join us in our exploration of “the fruitfulness of incomprehension”[1] and to productively embrace uncertainty. In concrete terms, this meant taking part in a series of timed drawing exercises before eventually creating an asemic text.

discussing drawings and creating texts

We began by looking at examples of asemic writing (Codex Seraphinianusby Luigi Serafini, experiments in asemic writing in Sam Woolfe’s xenoglyphs,Grasping the underlying: asemic writingby artist Konstantina Benaki, Manuscript of Nature by Cui Fei, Nueve Newsletters & Un Reportaje by Mirtha Dermisache, as well as Harriet’s work and Ricarda’s attempts (see earlier blog post) and discussing the difficulties in producing writing without alphabet, the challenge of consciously avoiding meaning, of not making signs, but instead simply marks.
In order to facilitate the move away from meaning-making, description, representation, we decided to approach asemic writing not from the basis of writing, but as a form of drawing. Harriet took the lead here and put together a series of timed drawing tasks which each required us to relinquish control of pen and paper. Both of us took part in all the exercises. But while these were familiar to Harriet and to those participants with a background in the fine arts, it was not something Ricarda would use on a regular basis.

Harriet: These drawing exercises were means to explore our placement in space and time, to respond to how we might embody this in mark-making. The exercises are a useful tool in attempting to distance one’s subjectivity, to remove any agenda and focus instead on the very essence of mark-making.

Ricarda: We began with a 1-minute drawing of an object in the room, followed by drawing the same thing in 30 and then 10 seconds. This was still fine – there was the certainty of the object, a concrete thing, which could be looked at and copied. And it was also liberating – nobody would expect me to deliver a masterpiece in a few seconds. After that we were asked to make a drawing of something in the room in a continuous line. This was my favourite exercise – I really enjoyed linking up the different objects in the space, tracing unexpected connections between them and the surrounding furniture, the windows, the walls.
The following task was more difficult: we were asked to draw an object at the edge of our vision. I hadn’t realised how difficult it could be to draw something without actually looking at it. My obsession with the deep immersion and the close looking inherent to the translator’s gaze felt like a bit of an obstacle here – until I remembered that “looking” involves more than just the eyes. Looking straight past the object I tried to draw became a way of perceiving its presence in other ways. However, I still found it hard not to cheat, not to try and catch a glimpse as I struggled to find a way to draw presence without shape.  
In the next step, we were asked to make a 360˚ drawing of the room around us including its atmosphere, its sounds. Now vision really had to take a backseat as we had to focus on our other senses. How to draw invisible things? How to draw feelings? The limitation to 1 minute required us to act quickly, not to spend too much time worrying but to let the hand do the job without letting conscious thought interfere too much. Perhaps here was a way to capture what Pinker calls “mentalese”, thought before language, or even better, thought before thought? Now that we weren’t asked to look at anything in particular, there was less pressure to draw accurately, to copy, depict, represent. I was quite pleased with my attempt. And yet, when I compared it with that of others, I realised how pictorial it was, how much I still tried to depict what I saw with my eyes rather than what I experienced with the other senses. Nonetheless there were some good bits, marks that I had drawn to capture sounds.

The final task was to combine the different restraints and make a 5-minute drawing. We then asked everyone to form small groups of 2 or 3 and create an asemic text on the basis of their 5-minute drawings. This generated a lot of discussion and yielded very different results.

The aim was to generate a text without meaning. It is perhaps important to remember here that the drawing tasks which were aimed to get us away from trying to capture meaning and to open us up to the task of mark-making, had taken up less than half an hour – half an hour is not much to unlearn everything you know about writing. And so, the biggest difficulty we all faced was to not interpret the drawings created from each other’s independent mark-making exercises and instead to regard them as meaningless building blocks for our joint asemic texts.

Move the slider to see Harriet’s asemic text on the left and Ricarda’s on the right.

Harriet: Indeed, Ricarda and I paired up and attempted to generate a text. We constantly found ourselves slipping into an analysis of what we had done in our independent mark-making exercises to feed our asemic text! I think this comes from a need to seek reassurance from a framework: to plan and execute.

Ricarda: It only really worked once Harriet had come up with the idea of making a stencil which we could apply randomly to our drawings in order to decide on the individual elements that were to form the basis of our asemic text.

Harriet: In the end we created our asemic text by extrapolating forms from each of our 5-minute drawings via the stencil. Our decisions on where to place the stencil were decided entirely by what stood out, which is interesting in itself due to the palimpsestic nature of the drawings…

In the second part of the workshop, which took place on 24th November, we took what we had learnt during the creation of the asemic works and applied this to their reading. And, as you can read in our next blog entry [here], we were very pleasantly surprised at how successful we had been in the creation of our asemic texts. They were no longer depictions/ descriptions of the room but had indeed become marks in their own right. Marks, of course, can be read and filled with new meaning – and they certainly were! – but this is fine. Because, as some of you may have suspected all along: so far, we tend to agree with Peter Schwenger’s conclusion that

“There is no such thing as asemic writing.
In fact, there is no such thing as asemic anything.
Everything is readable, i.e., can be and will be given meaning.
The asemic is an unattainable ideal.
In striving toward it, many mutations of writing and drawing
(and other practices: photography, to name but one)
Will come into being. This is the true value of the asemic.”[2]


[1] Clive Scott, “Synaesthesia and Intersemiosis: Competing Principles in Literary Translation”, in Madeleine Campbell & Ricarda Vidal, Translating across Sensory and Linguistic Borders: Intersemiotic Journeys between Media, Palgrave: 2019, p.88
[2] Peter Schwenger, Asemic: The Art of Writing, University of Minnesota Press: 2019, 150

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