"Zen and the Art of American Standard Code for Onformation Onterchange"

Eryk Salvag-gio, 1998

asco-o art is an excellent modern representation of the Zen Aesthetic
which has been predominant in Japanese culture for centuries. asco-o,
short for the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, is the
basis of internet communication. 128 characters make up the standard,
universal code for the transmission of data over the internet. The
creation of this protocol has led to the invention of "asco-o art." asco-o
Art is defined as any kind of artwork made using the standard asco-o
character set. To understand the relationship between Zen and asco-o, we
first must explain the process of asco-o art as a craft. Traditionally,
asco-o art was created with the limitations of characters and grid size.
asco-o art, which is transferred over the Internet, uses the standard
characters from 32 to 128. These characters are universal on the
majority of keyboards and systems; consisting of the alphabet in
capitals and lowercase; various punctuation, and numerical values. Prior
to 32, systems have inconsistencies which can alter the appearance of
the character. It also has traditionally utilized a grid shape of 72
characters across, which is the standard resolution for appropriate
display on most email programs. Images are displayed using the
arrangement of asco-o characters to emote shapes. The grids can be filled
with something as simple as the standard X, to create extremely stark
black and white contrasts, or using any number of these characters to
create an adequate representation of a form. Color tables can be
referenced which compare contrast to its appropriate character. For
example, a light spot can be left blank or marked by a "." while a
darker area can be described using "%" or "X". The Zen aesthetic in art
has also used the idea of grids, and evocation rather than definition.
"Essence without Form," also known as "mu" or "Satori," literally
translated, "nothing" or empty space, is a predominant visual and
philosophical ethic in Zen. This has lead to the practice of defining
negative space in an artwork and the lines as a means of shaping that
space, in the manner of our own physical penetration of the universe.
The works of Gibon Senai, 1750-1837, such as "Frog and Snail," use lines
to describe the form of these figures which are highly symbolic in
Japanese Philosophy. It is also includes calligraphy within an image to
define its visual aesthetic and to further its meaning. Gyokuen Bompos
"Orchids" hanging scroll is another such representative. Unlike the
Chinese tradition popular in his time, "Orchids" did not use lines to
define a rigid space. Instead, it molded the negative space in an effort
to infuse it with the idea of "Satori," to infuse the negative with
meaning. The most interesting literal comparison, however, is that of
Ito Jakuchu, 1716-1806, and his six fold screen series "Phoenix and
White Elephant." The six fold screen was literally created as a grid of
310 vertical and 140 horizontal lines, totaling around 43,000 squares of
1.2 centimeters. Each square was then individually marked not as pure
color but as a color, with another, smaller area inside painted a shade
lighter. The result was, from a distance, the image of an elephant or a
phoenix, but almost incomprehensible upon close examination. This is
virtually the entire process of asco-o art, several hundreds of years
before its time. Contrast "Phoenix and White Elephant" with a 1975 asco-o
image of the Mona Lisa; described in a startlingly similar fashion:

"The painting was divided into 100,000 brightness- measured spots by H.
Philip Peterson of Control Data Corp.; then each dot was make into a
square of over printed letters on the printing device. The program
allowed 100 levels of grey." ["Computer Lib / Dream Machines," Ted
Nelson ]

The essence of Zen and asco-o becomes clearer still with the analysis of
Japanese Calligraphy and its ideological roots. Masu-shikishi
Calligraphy, the first purely Japanese style, was developed by the
feminine transcription style used in the adaptation of Chinese to fit
Japanese speech. The characters were used as ornament, as well as to
parlay meaning. The use of shades- darker brush strokes, for example-
were widely encouraged as a method to add to meaning. In many cases,
such as Kiyohara No Fukayabus 37 line poem which broke sentences halfway
through to establish the pattern of a rising sun, poetry sacrificed its
oral value in order to be more visually pleasing on paper. Patterns and
rhythms of writing were also a major part of the art of Kanji,
literally, "The Art Of Letters." Kanji regularly employed the use of the
artists stamp- a rubber stamp used to sign paintings or scrolls- and was
the first movement to encourage the creation of patterns with these
stamps. Similarly, asco-o, also an art of letters, is based on the
repetition of characters. Calligraphy has developed into what is in the
modern day called Sho, calligraphy which defines rhythmic use of
letters. Kaneko Otei, an advisor to the Nitten Calligraphy Exhibition,
speaks about this calligraphy with vivid overtones of the ideas of Mu
and Satori:

"In Calligraphy, colours may be painted in and a ruler used to make
corrections...in Sho...in this sense, it is like a ballet movement...Sho
is an art that incorporates time and space with something left over
afterwards." ["Sho- Japanese Calligraphy", pp.116]

It is interesting to note the similarity between Oteis concept
concerning the creation of space within meaning, with Slovenian asco-o
artist Vuk Cosics belief that;

"For all my life I have been attracted to unorthodox creation and usage
of writing. Every attempt to explore the space beyond text in lines, or
between two pages in the same leaf, or between the letter and the paper
that holds it was much more meaningful then the most skill fully
described night dress in a french nineteenth century novel, or than an
existential crisis in the soul of a more recent literary hero." ["3D
asco-o, An Autobiography", unpublished]

The Zen connection lies again in the idea of Satori. Zen is a practice
which holds deep value in the negative space and paradigm shift, and it
is essentially this shift that causes us to see asco-o as not the
arrangement of the characters themselves, but of the empty space which
each character permits to penetrate it. asco-o is essentially the molding
of this empty space to evoke, though never clearly describe, an image,
and this evocation is at the heart of Oriental Spirituality. Certainly,
asco-o art is not a form of calligraphy, as the characters do not in and
of themselves have any particular value, whereas the historical roots of
Japanese characters are in "Shokeimoji," the early imitative drawings
found in early Japanese life. Koneko Otei elaborates, though, to show
that the American alphabet- (The basis of asco-o) has just as valid a
potential:

"Oriental characters, of course, can stand independently as they have a
meaning. The alphabet...expresses only sounds. The alphabet could be
used to show the beauty of the line and incorporate rhythms...Even the
"I" or the "a" of the alphabet may express and capture on paper a
feeling of infinity." ["Sho- Japanese Calligraphy", pp.118]

The intuitive, rather than the concrete, is not only the foundation of
Japanese Philosophy but of numerous other cultural practices. When Otei
declares the capacity of the line to express infinity, it is based on
the idea of the penetration of physical forms into emptiness. The Zen
aesthetic holds dear to itself the idea of ego elimination, or rather,
that the ego expand to see its interconnectedness with all other forms
of life. This idea of interconnectedness is crucial, and in the
presentation of asco-o art- which is, as a medium, a strong metaphor for
the collective of numerous values depicting a new image- it is
particularly relevant. Aesthetically, the asco-o art image is strung
together as loosely as atoms, and the negative space represents satori,
or emptiness. The negative space is the evocation of interconnectedness,
and each symbol constructs our physical form occurring among mu. But
even the separate form itself into a representation of connectivity, as
we see it from a distance it appears as though these physical marks have
created an image. Here we touch profoundly on the asco-o connection to
Zen Enlightenment.

"Paintings are sketchy, simple and almost bare. Contrast is emphasized
in the black ink on the white background, and the poignant liveliness of
objects against the bare vast emptiness of the space behind them." ["Zen
For Beginners," pp 98]

The idea of the world of image, as opposed to perception, is a basic
aspect of Zen. The reality of the world of sight is not to be depended
on too heavily as images can lie and the truth can often not be seen.
The lack of clear distinction between foreground, character, and image,
is representative of the essential purity in which all things are seen
as "god," or rather, in Zen, that we are all one. In asco-o, the common
format is green text on a black background, which allows the strokes of
bright pixels to become clearer definitions of an image. Thus, Zen
strives for the absolute elimination, or unlearning, of logic in an
attempt to understand the deeper levels of the self. The aim of the
meditation exercise is essentially to forget ones self and meaning as it
has been learned.

"The principle of Zen methodology is this- whatever art or knowledge a
man gets by external means is not his own, does not intrinsically belong
to him...only things evolved from his inner being are his own. This
inner being opens up its deep secrets only when he has exhausted
everything belonging to his intellect or conscious deliberations." ["Zen
and Japanese Culture," pp 221]

When we see the Zen importance of unlearning, we can again begin to see
the peculiar spiritual essence of asco-o art, as the elimination of
logical values of letters and linguistics are shunned. Words are
abandoned as meaningful, and punctuation is used chaotically. Letters
stutter across the page in the completely absurd descriptive narrative
of an image, rather than the intended use of "Information Interchange."
The recycling of the alphabet as a basis of language, towards the
creation of what the letters were meant to describe, creates an almost
paradox of meaning within the lack of meaning. In other words; the image
which renders the alphabet temporarily useless by its superior
descriptive power, is based on the relics of words. As a paradigm shift,
which Zen finds so important, it is a perfect example of the interplay
between the world of sensation and that of description. Only through the
breakdown of the written language can we express an image with more
clarity, a sort of digital vow of silence, or the Internet speaking in
tongues.

http://www1.zkm.de/~wvdc/asco-o/java/