Xenoglyphs and Asemic Writing: The Joy of Creating Alien Symbols

Artwork from allysongrey.com

For several years, I have found myself drawn to the practice of asemic writing (artistic, meaningless writing, which has the appearance of a genuine language). However, I didn’t know there was a specific term for the practice – or that it belonged to an artistic trend – until quite recently. When drawing, or just mindlessly doodling, I have an urge to form symbols, or some type of script, either on their own or as part of some psychedelic artwork. In an article on asemic writing, I touched on my fascination with this type of writing that has the appearance of alien characters (known as xenoglyphs), as well as the meaningless symbols that have been inspired by the use of psychedelics. 

The latest album from electronic music producer Iglooghost, called Lei Line Eon, was accompanied by xenoglyphs the artist had created, which complement the alien music of the album, and which additionally constitute musical notation for Iglooghost’s fantastical idea of ‘Lei Music’. This is:

a type of music based around specific combinations of sounds & airbound emissions that are intended to summon an entity. Tearing strange beings into the human world from invisible zones, instrument-players gather to perform screeching, clattering compositional experiments. The entities’ appearances will differ and shift vastly depending on the instrumentation, timbre, tempo etc. Their visual forms are theorised to be of near-infinite variations. When Lei Music is performed in a safe & intermediate condition – the calls, whirs & howls of the entities will be adapted as a functioning element of the piece.

Iglooghost’s 2015 EP Chinese Nü Yr was based on a story about a gelatinous worm called Xiāngjiāo who travels through portals in nonsensical lands. The artist built on this story with his album Neō Wax Bloom (2017), introducing new characters, as well as xenoglyphs that you can see on the cover art. These glyphs are not asemic, however, as Iglooghost has assigned English letters to them, so you could use them to write meaningful words and sentences (as the artist has done). His 2018 double EP Clear Tamei/Steel Mogu again features xenoglyphs (some of which are asemic as far as I can tell), which look different from his previous alien characters. 

Asemic xenoglyphs from Iglooghost

Iglooghost’s asemic xenoglyphs from his latest album are striking and palpably distinct from his earlier alien symbols. These ones are much more sharp, curved, and Tetris-like, giving a much stronger impression of alienness. The xenoglyphs that Iglooghost has created also vary somewhat in style, as you can see from the entries on his site about Lei Music (you can see different symbols in the moving glyphs in entry 1, entry 2, and entry 4). 

In my previous article on asemic writing, I considered what makes some writing ‘alien’; the question of why some symbols more alien than others. The farther removed that asemic script is from real languages seems to be a factor; perhaps the main one. It is difficult, though, to say what features in particular set xenoglyphs apart from real scripts. Xenoglyphs tend to rely on geometric shapes, but then so do scripts such as Chinese and Korean. The alien nature of xenoglyphs may, then, arise from the use of geometric shapes in a novel, unfamiliar fashion. Part of this novelty and foreignness can be achieved by combining aspects of different languages (such as Chinese and Viking runes). I have also noticed that xenoglyphs, such as Iglooghost’s, are often intricate, like digital code, and almost glitchy, suggestive of a hi-tech alien civilisation. 

Asemic xenoglyphs from Joshua A.C. Newman

In addition, symmetry and the unique placement of geometric forms (lines, squares, circles, triangles, and dots) can allow artists to create xenoglyphs that bolster a sense of fantasy. The skill in creating xenoglyphs is to make them seem genuinely part of an invented alien/sci-fi world. It is unclear, of course, what precisely sets apart asemic xenoglyphs from asemic non-alien glyphs. Any distinction is subjective and up to both the artist and viewer to decide, but it does seem that some markings lend themself more to science fiction than others.

I have spent some time experimenting with asemic writing, specifically, the creation of xenoglyphs that have the appearance of a genuine language. I posted these xenoglyphs on various subreddits: r/DMT, r/LSD, r/psychedelicartwork, r/neography (dedicated to constructed writing systems), and r/worldbuilding (dedicated to the creation of new worlds and universes). The responses were interesting. 

Many users in the DMT and LSD subreddits found the alien symbols eerily familiar. They had seen them in some of their psychedelic experiences. Other users noted how the xenoglyphs had the style of Arabic, Chinese, Nagari, Burmese, ancient Maya, Enochian (an occult language), runes, ideograms, and sigils (symbols used in ritual magic, representing the practitioner’s desired outcome). I can see some of these styles, and some scripts (e.g. Arabic, Sanskrit, and Hebrew) are definitely influences. There are pareidolic (face-like) and gestural elements too, parts that hint at eyes, mouths, and noses, as well as faces, limbs, and figures engaged in expressive gestures.  

Some asemic xenoglyphs I created

I like to imagine that these xenoglyphs belong to hyperdimensional elves, adorning the tiled walls of their shimmering, Willy Wonka-esque palaces, much like the hieroglyphics you find carved into ancient Egyptian structures. Some people asked me about my process of creating these xenoglyphs, which is not something I’ve given much thought to; although, in my earlier post on asemic writing, I mentioned I write them in an automatic (unconscious) way, similar to Allyson Grey and Luigi Serafini. (I use the term pseudographia to refer to both the practice of creating – and the urge to create – automatic asemic writing.)

While I feel I create these xenoglyphs unconsciously and spontaneously, I do have certain preferences when creating them. I start by drawing them in pencil, and create most of them in one go; that is, I draw each one without really pausing to consider what stroke to make next. Sometimes, however, a glyph will appear that isn’t aesthetically pleasing – it may feel cluttered, not intricate enough, or discordant with the other symbols – and in this case, I erase it, or part of it.

More experiments in asemic writing

I try to make each xenoglyph unique. And while I do not consciously aim to make them all appear as part of a single writing system, they end up having that quality. I think that’s due to repeating patterns, used in variations. The patterns in the glyphs could theoretically be used in endless variations, and part of the creative joy of drawing them is experimenting with these remakings. The patterns I’ve noticed I rely on include circles, squares, triangles, square spirals, spiral curves, symmetry, and curved, swooshy lines similar to those found in Arabic. Some glyphs also contain a repetition of a pattern, but at a different scale or angle. Some glyphs are more block-like or curved than others, but the repeating patterns help to create a sense of coherency and meaning. The artist Taner Ergin also creates asemic glyphs through the iteration of basic geometric shapes and forms in different combinations. He states that he makes his glyphs “from a stream of consciousness flow state.”

When drawing xenoglyphs, my preference is for quick strokes and fine lines, but again, the process of creating these glyphs feels impulsive, not based on an attempt to recreate symbols I’ve seen in a psychedelic experience or imagined, nor based on any serious forethought. The placement of straight lines and blocks against more curvy, calligraphic strokes in each symbol likewise feels intuitive. Some experiments in doing this feel more aesthetically pleasing than others. Disparate forms and styles need to fit and complement each other, like the straight lines and curves of an appealing physical structure. I think the unusual and organised arrangement of distinct writing systems – say, Arabic-esque and Viking rune-esque scripts – can engender a style that appears simultaneously familiar and strange.   

Trying out more variations

An aspect of asemic xenoglyphs that is still odd and surprising to me is how often they appear in people’s psychedelic experiences. Based on responses to my xenoglyphic art, people who have used compounds like LSD, DMT, and psilocybin state that they have perceived alien symbols, hieroglyphics, runes, and sigils. It is a mystery to me why these symbols so frequently appear (perhaps those brain areas related to language are stimulated). 

For example, there is a universal reading network, known as the visual word form area (VWFA), which is specialised to see words before we’re exposed to them. Could this system be triggered under the influence of psychedelics and lead to the visualisation of word-like images? Studies have shown that when Japanese subjects were asked to imagine writing complex kanji ideograms, the VWFA was activated. Perhaps, then, a psychedelic stimulating this brain region and/or other regions involved in language could lead to perceived images of strange writing.

After examining patients who report hallucinations of text, researchers say the hallucinations matched the known specialisations of the VWFA, but ultimately rejected the idea that the VWFA was responsible for this effect, given that these patients had alexia: an ability to recognise or read written words or letters, resulting from damage to the VWFA. Instead, they suggested that the experience is related to the cortical network involved in the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenia. However, these pertained to hallucinations of correct, meaningful written sentences of phrases. How are we to explain hallucinations of asemic, alien writing? Patients with damage to the temporoparietal cortex, which serves the function of language, have experienced hallucinations of written words, but again, these words are meaningful. 

Brain scans of people perceiving alien symbols on psychedelics could shed light on exactly what brain regions are implicated. I have previously outlined how geometric hallucinations are generated in the brain, including under the influence of psychedelics; it may be that the cross-wiring of different systems in the brain (visual, language, and meaning) could be leading to the perception of asemic alien symbols that appear meaningful. Hallucinated geometric shapes might combine with memories of existing writing to create a sense of an alien language, which visionary artists (such as Grey) then recreate in their artwork. 

The perception of alien symbols during psychedelic experiences is not universal; it can occur in some experiences but not others. Yet when they do occur, they can present an opportunity for creative or inspired individuals to bring these symbols – or some semblance of them – back to the real world in the form of drawings, paintings, or digital art.

It is intriguing to note that the VWFA is next to the area of the brain (the fusiform face area) that processes faces – and both areas seem to be connected. Might this have something to do with why asemic writing can turn out to be pareidolic, having the appearance of both writing and faces? Perhaps both brain regions are engaged in the creation of pareidolic asemic writing. There are, however, several brain areas involved in writing tasks. Would all the regions activated in writing meaningful words also be activated in the case of writing asemic xenoglyphs?

For whatever reason, I find there is something therapeutic and satisfying about drawing alien symbols. Maybe it is to do with the mindfulness and focus involved in making these glyphs symmetric, clean, and intricate, as well as creating something novel, unusual, and aesthetically pleasing. Normally, writing is considered therapeutic because it allows you to express your thoughts and get them off your chest. But there is some research indicating that asemic writing can be therapeutic, too, facilitating self-expression and temporarily improving mood. This matches my experience. For me, there is a joy in meaningless writing, especially when imagining it belonging to an alien civilisation.

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