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‘Il Pleut’: ASCII, Apollinaire & Joyce
The second part of a three-part series on Rhizome explores art with its lineage in American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII)—but wait, this is about Apollinaire, first! A few of our favorite calligrammes are presented here. And the emotionally complex, code-based emoticon, second! For instance:
Following in the footsteps of Baudelaire—and paving the way for the Surrealists and the French New Wave—early 20th-century artist Guillaume Apollinaire cultivated a cerebral taste for the most sensational elements of modern life. A poet by calling and a publicist by trade, Apollinaire seized on the outrageous whether he found it in the avant-garde (he coined the term “Cubism” in praise of early paintings by Braque and Picasso) or mass culture (he called the serialized tales of fictional super-villain Fantômas “one of the richest works that exist.”) Apollinaire’s poetry fed on the chaos of Paris in the early 1900s. Take this representative passage from 1909’s “Zone”:
You read handbills, catalogues, posters that shout out loud:
Here’s this morning’s poetry, and for prose you’ve
got the newspapers,
Sixpenny detective novels full of cop stories,
Biographies of big shots, a thousand different
Lettering on billboards and walls,
Doorplates and posters squawk like parrots.
Apollinaire’s 1918 book Calligrammes delved further into its source material, imitating its typographic forms to create pictograms in which the text echoes the image. For obvious reasons, the calligrammes are notoriously hard to translate, but to give you some idea: the following picture of a woman wearing a hat is made up of a text about a woman wearing a hat:
Glossing Calligrammes in a letter to a friend, Apollinaire wrote that they were “typographic precision made in a period when typography is winding up its career brilliantly, at the dawn of the new means of representation, cinema and the phonograph.” If Apollinaire was correct that typography was witnessing a brilliant period, he was wrong that it was winding up its career.
An example of ASCII art:
Writer Tom McCormack eventually merges the two:
ASCII art only ever flourished as a truly popular genre in the form of emoticons, which in the 2000s were eclipsed by the Japanese Corporation SoftBank’s supplemental character set of “Emoji.” (Emojis will be the subject of the next and final installment of this series of essays.)
ASCII art persists now mostly as a connoisseur’s medium.
[. . . .]
Personally, my favorite piece of ASCII art, also undated, is a map of Leopold Bloom’s path through Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses. A painstaking labor of love, and a work that knots together its form and subject to make visible the conditions of its own historical occurrence, the image recalls the dream of a city knit together by people’s stories and desires—a world wide web that never came to fruition.
Jump to the piece to see that marvel.