After five millennia, the practice of writing still serves the enduring human need to communicate messages and information from place to place and time to time. Writing systems are encoded with cultural heritages and require preservation. Quasi: Experimental Writing Systems is an exhibition (opening November 16) about invented and imaginary writing systems. “Klingon, Elvish and Kryptonian are popular contemporary examples, but they represent only a fraction of a much broader landscape,” writes curator Lavinia Lascaris about the exhibition she curated at Art Center’s Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography. “Unlike writing systems that have evolved organically over generations of collective usage, the projects showcased in the exhibition present new configurations of signs and symbols, meticulously crafted at distinct points in time, each born with intention and purpose.”
The urge to craft a writing system is inspired by a variety of personal, social and cultural factors. “A few examples from an inexhaustible list of creative impulses are encoding messages through cryptography, preserving endangered languages,” she continues, “methods for faster writing, writing devoid of semantic content, investigating historical symbolism and its contemporary relevance, even channeling otherworldly entities through automatic writing.”
This “secret vice” of inventing languages—as J.R.R. Tolkien refers to it—exposes us all to linguistic operations outside of our everyday experience and reveals a fascination with otherness where mythology and utopia are recurring themes.
Lascaris notes that Quasi has personal roots in her life. Around the age of 8, as a reaction to a loud and active home, she designed an encrypted cipher based on the Greek alphabet for writing private thoughts. A decade later, she developed a “mild obsession with the stories set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the fictional languages drawn from his vast backdrop of mythic narratives. Another 10 years on, amidst a career change, my journey into typography began, revealing its intricate connection to language.” This evolved into a research project that addresses typography, linguistics and fiction.
Quasi views the invention of writing systems as “a speculative process and an exercise of discovery to uncover new quasi-realities within our systems of communication,” Lascaris explains. “Playing with language and fostering linguistic diversity contributes to an ongoing dialog about imagination and re-worlding, and their potential as rebellious processes to disrupt existing power structures and reshape our collective narrative.”
The works in the exhibition are rooted in this intersection. Delivered as font design projects, art books, scrolls, drawings, sculptures and other artifacts, some works are intentionally designed to be functional writing systems, allowing potential usage by others, while some exist in a realm where functionality becomes entirely irrelevant: Calder Ruhl Hansen’s D16 Syllabics is an abugida (syllabary writing system where consonants have built-in vowels) drawing from Canadian Aboriginal syllabics; Coline Besson’s Arrakis, inspired by Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune, is a sand plate inscribed with a rectilinear interpretation of the Arabic Kufic script; and Sound Clouds and Syllabaries by Ilka Helmig and Johannes Bergerhausen introduces a series of drawings capturing patterns of exhaled smoke generated during vocalization of syllables. Many of the projects in Quasi remain works-in-progress, mirroring the perpetual evolution of language itself—a fluid entity that lacks a definitive version and adapts in tandem with societal shifts.