Unreadable Text Art

A year ago, we discussed the idea of QR Code and unreadable digital text - and this spring, we began work on a QR-based net.art project that uses the unreadability to retell a classic cryptographic mystery. Here is another aesthetic experiment in unreadable encoding - a poem often accused of illegibility, rendered in columns of custom binary.

Sai Sriskandarajah's "The Waste Land" encodes T. S. Eliot's famous poem as a binary wall-hanging, using small and large squares to indicate ones and zeros. The image was created using Processing, and is featured in NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) Spring Show 2006.

One of the things that interests me most about this work is how the claims about visual art function in a literary context. Is this image artful in a way that a raw QR code or Shotcode isn't? The indications are that, rather than a unique image of conversion, "The Waste Land" encompasses a whole conceptual set of possible representations:

The finished product has no set dimensions; the only requirement is that it should be printed and hung on a wall. It may also be presented in a long, narrow format, like a tickertape, which may be displayed horizontally or vertically.

Rather than scale or aspect, it is the individual units of code and their rendering that is important - this is a form of writing. Particularly interesting when considering such artistrty is the decision to choose one's own coding system rather than using some standard - Sai's code, which she terms "arbitrary," is reminiscent of Kac's unique approach to encoding the alphabet in DNA - in particular, in the similar decision to remove spaces and punctuation marks rather than encode them.

Sriskandarajah arrives at this piece at the end of a series of experiments with binary encoding and DNA (quad) encoding in painting. In the background to her piece profile, she comments on the move from painting to Processing:

This piece is based on work I have done as a painter. In the past, the entire process, from selection of text through encoding and rendering with ink on paper or paint on canvas, was carried out by hand. Typically, a piece consisting of ten lines of verse took as long as 40 hours to create. The text-encoding program represents my first attempt to pass some of the work along to a computer, and in so doing to allow for generation of these code works on a much larger scale.

Her earlier series, listed in portfolio simply as "Works on Paper", includes [More....]