Art has always been fundamentally intertwined with technology. New techniques and materials have constantly allowed artists to innovate and create new types of works. Our new series, which kicked off with a look at "datamoshing," examines the impact of digital technologies on art and looks at how artists are creating entirely new forms of art using these modern electronic tools. In this installment we examine the rise and fall of ASCII art.
Developed in the early 1960s ASCII, or the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, comprises 128 specified characters used to represent text in computers and telecommunications equipment. Almost as soon as the ASCII standard was developed there were pioneers generating visual art from it.
The idea behind text-based artwork can be traced back to the 19th century, when creative thinkers utilized typewriters to create pictures from artistically deployed combinations of letters and numbers.
Across the early 20th century, typewriter art appeared in many niche art circles, and in 1948 the magazine Popular Mechanics notably published a "keyboard art" instruction manual describing the technique as "doodling with a typewriter." In the 1960s, an alternative movement arose dubbed "concrete poetry," which saw poets generating forms of visual art out of letters and words.
But it wasn't until the 1980s with the advent of internet bulletin boards that ASCII art as we know it truly took off. In these early digital days, artists used creative combinations of ASCII characters to add stylish signatures to posts akin to digital graffiti. Referred to by one writer as "the golden age of ASCII art" these underground artistic pioneers experimented with novel forms of text-based communications.
As graphic-based internet navigation evolved across the 1990s, ASCII art moved to the outskirts of the digital world. The technique still thrived in alternative circles, from online MUDs and newsgroups to IRC, but it remained a decidedly "niche" exercise.
A dedicated community kept the dream alive and in recent years the technique has gained a certain degree of retro nostalgic street cred, with the creation of apps and websites that could artificially translate any image into ASCII at the click of a button.
Becoming essentially a computer-generated aesthetic, we can now find numerous websites devoted to variations on ASCII art, from recreating the original Star Wars in ASCII, to a coder that created an entire ASCII interface for Google Street View.