Deconstructing Vuk Cosic: Data as Language

Vuk Cosic, ASCII Unreal.

Deconstructing Vuk Cosic: Data as Language

Sandra Araújo

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Image is a powerful mean of communication/expression that has served various pretexts, purposes and contexts throughout History. From the primitive expressions, the hieroglyphics, the representation of sacred art, the monumentality of Gothic buildings and the representation in specific media such as painting and sculpture until its dematerialization in digital format and dissemination in virtual realities. The image as artistic representation has become increasingly complex. It has interchanged, readjusted and updated itself together along with technological evolution/innovation, thus successively questioning the foundations of Western culture. Is it legitimate to ponder on the relation of representation as knowledge of symbolic domain in the work of Vuk Cosic? In my opinion, it seems unavoidable to reflect on the 21st century’s desire to go beyond books, literature and the transparent use of language in its various linguistic ‘frames’. That opposes the creative impulse to expand (or abolish in a more radical way) the rules of conventional behavior in order to provoke some form of change in the world in which we live in. However, this desire for change / transformation is not new. Indeed it seems to renew itself periodically (or cyclically) in movements such as (Italian and Russian) Futurism, Dada, Lettrism, OuLiPo, Situationist and Pop Art, avoiding any discussing on the validity of its character of rupture or simple technical-ideological evolution. More than establishing the world as a relationship scaled by the attempt to seize and dominate the presence, it is necessary to transpose it to the so called Derrida’s ‘metaphysics of presence’. “Electronic writing brings a complete renegotiation of the alphabet / icon ratio upon which print-based thought is built”1 and for that reason there’s a need to equate this proposal within the possibilities of digital language.

works by Vuk Cosic

ASCII History of Moving Images2 (1998) and ASCII Unreal3 (1999) were produced and submitted in digital form, and are therefore limited to the imposition of the computer interface. The size of the screen imposes a physical limit to the display, creating a frame effect for the work. The type of browser and the version used may or may not provide / limit some visualization features, due to the technology’s improvement and constant update. However, the construction of works in HTML (HyperText Markup Language) allows them to run in all types of browsers, by its universality. Another aspect to consider is the monitor resolution, defined by the user.

Cosic’s fascination for ASCII4 seems to come from his precocious immersion, involvement and active participation in a popular subculture of computer addicts (BBS, ASCII art, hacking and cryptography). In ASCII History of Moving Images he proves his interest in what makes art historical. Although I do not want to get into extensive and unnecessary biographical considerations, we cannot be oblivious of the fact that he completed his superior studies in Archaeology in Belgrade (former Yugoslavia) and afterwards emigrated first to Trieste (Italy) and then to the capital of the young and independent Slovenia. This recent nation, autonomous since 1991, was the first of the Balkan Republics to abandon its ASCII History of Moving Images, Star Trek socialist structure, inherited from the dismembered Yugoslavia after an armed conflict in that region. The movement of net art5 seems to have given its first steps and quickly flourished in the former socialist countries of the East. That event it’s due partly to the necessity and freedom acquired by long-distance communication network and the low cost and accessibility in the production and dissemination of online art works. Similarly, Jacques Derrida would go through a similar process of deprivation of liberty in colonized Algeria, when he was excluded from school because of his Jewish ancestry and the systematic and widespread persecution of Jews during World War II.

Then, Cosic converts scenes of classic movies and TV shows, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the pornographic film Deep Throat6 (renamed as Deep ASCII) and the science fiction series Star Trek into short animations. He uses software created by himself to transform each frame of the original into an image, where the ASCII characters play the role of Benday7 pixels or dots, creating figures, shadows and objects on the screen. The frames are then run in quick succession, reviving the original work. In ASCII Unreal, he interconnects with the ASCII element (fundamental and characteristic in his works) and his interest in computer games. He appropriates himself of scenarios of the popular first-person shooter game and changes one of its levels by removing all the concrete elements of the three-dimensional space and replacing them with surfaces constituted by letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.

text is image / medium is text and image

The struggle between icon and alphabet is not new and “if writing is the medium of absence and artifice, the image is the medium of presence and nature, sometimes cozening us with illusion, sometimes with powerful recollection and sensory immediacy.”8 In a similar matter, Derrida proposes mainly a conflict between writing and orality, asserting word as image, saying that text can be read as an image. However, the conventional, traditional and fixed method of reading a book should be questioned, not by technology, but by the writer / artist through the use of writing itself (typography and topology), in order to renew our system / process of reading. Then, Vuk Cosic’s claim of exploring image as a medium becomes feasible by revealing its intrinsic nature. By one way or another it presents itself to us as universal through the use of ASCII characters and the ASCII Unreal historical validation of the films themselves. Nevertheless Cosic was not the pioneer in the use of ASCII characters to create images.

When computers still had little graphic capacity it was common for users to produce drawings on the screen forming lines and shapes with letters, numbers and other ASCII symbols. In the 90s it was common practice among Internet enthusiasts to decorate the end of messages with these ASCII drawings, done manually or with the use of software that converts images into ASCII art.

Cosic’s consideration for the use of ASCII is developed as a critique of the utilitarian logic of the new media and a celebration of their lack of objectivity by spreading a crude method of production to an almost absurd limit, creating animations with a retro-futuristic aesthetic. The unreserved expansion of computer games is seen as a primary means of that nonobjective accession, especially in the Western world. By subverting the conventions of a game that uses realistic three-dimensional graphics, which intend to immerse the player in a hyper-real Cartesian space with movements and camera points of view similar to the cinema, it operates a transcoding between one kind of language to another, interrupting and deconstructing visual codes and conventions that we have taken for granted and universal.

The irony and apparent marginalization in taking the pornographic film Deep Throat to himself can be viewed in a spirit of non-compromise between existing systems and ideological structures and the utopia of convergence between art and everyday life. Net art itself is characterized as a movement of impermanence and immateriality, in a state of imminent materialization. Can we relate the notion of undecidability and différance in associating Cosic’s work to movies and TV series, i.e. the film’s transition from analog to digital support, with the subsequent manipulation and transformation of the image for its metalanguage? The visibility of the digital file’s metalanguage can be interpreted as a visual misprint in the image, which, although subverting the representational characteristics of the film, as light, colour, texture, etc., does not interfere directly on the relation of thought to the representation of reality. However, that which builds the representation, and in this case is subverted to the domain of the subject that envisions / perceives the work of Cosic, becomes both the representation and the inner limitation of ASCII History of Moving Images, Deep Throat representation. Paradoxically, this work reveals its identity, but subtracts from itself when it annuls the function/meaning of the original film – metalanguage is undressed from the support and representation is covered. This irony shows a tension between two situations that seem to co-exist and reveal themselves simultaneously. This aspect of undecidability is an important attempt by Derrida to question the notion of dualism, as it underlines the impossibility of the work to be biased towards any of the polarities of a dichotomy, i.e., the presence and the absence, the visible and the invisible are dynamic tensions that do not work in opposition to each other, but rather are inherent to each other. The ASCII element comes before the subject as a psychologically unexpected fact because space perception is composed of text that is not likely to be read / interpreted, and in fact provides information for the representational space. The integration of the Cyrillic alphabet as a representational space is noteworthy and surely not innocent. It replaces the spatial notion of Western rules of perspective, whose principles date back to the Renaissance, as the representation of reality, for the Slavic linguistic system that has its origins in the medieval period. Thus, Cosic appears to be aware of the encoding between meaning and language, showing similar interest in letters and characters as shape and significant, rather than just taking them for their conventional symbolic role of representation of certain sounds.

Derrida reflects on this movement within representations, deconstructing the neglected aspects of an existing system, analogously to the process that Cosic effected with the two works in question. In this deconstruction there are inevitably points of ambiguity and indecision that betray the stability of the meaning that the author tries to impose with his text.

In view of this hesitation, we have good reason to question whether the ASCII element can be taken as word / reason (logos) on the true assertion of its meaning, or just as a possible interpretation of the same, i.e., the rational process whereby the meaning is revealed to us. It is not unreasonable to say that “the medium is the message”9, referring in this case to the role of the medium as the enhancer and the effect of the subject itself. Or saying it in other words, that the medium as an extension of the body, senses and mind of the subject is a source of transformation. Thus, it is justifiable to associate the personal and social consequences of any medium, i.e., of any extension of the subject, resulting largely from the introduction/interference in our experiences as extensions of ourselves, or by the use of new technology.

relationship between technology and syntagm-paradigm

However, I ponder whether this representational simultaneousness of representation and its language is not just a reflection and consequence of technological progress and exclusive of digital media. It’s also not certain, if the notions of paradigm and syntagm, as defined by Saussure will be valid in the work of Cosic or in the reading/interpretation of the new media more generally. In this sense, Leonel Moura says that “innovation is not in itself a form of art, as shown by the counter example of scientific and technological innovation.”10 Although art is interconnected with technological knowledge and development, such as optics (photography and film) and the consequent questioning of the concept of aura derived from the possibility of reproduction, it becomes necessary to differentiate the criteria for objectivity in science and art to establish the objective and refutable character of the former and the irrefutable and non-instrumental character of the latter. For Karl Popper, science is never true, but simply refutable, and its distinctive nature is based on its vulnerability to experimental refutation, scientific theories being accepted provisionally until proven wrong. By accepting this premise as valid, I can infer that art is based on a random experimentalism of implicit/explicit nature, and a form of knowledge that evolves based on the random recombination of unverifiable assumptions.

On the same note, I make an exception for the concern in the work of Cosic with regard to the prospect/imminence of technological obsolescence and its effect as a cultural artefact. Taking into account the (im)possibility of reading arcane/archaic computer formats, paradoxically to the challenge of deciphering ancient manuscripts, becomes implicit.

Syntagm was defined by Saussure as the combination of minimal forms in a linguistic unity, arising from the linearity of the sign, i.e., it excludes the ability to pronounce two elements at the same time, because a term is only valuable from the moment it is contrasted with another element. Paradigm emerges as a “reserve bank” of the language, making its units to oppose, because one excludes the other. If we take these definitions and apply them to the model of systematic and functional reality “one may say that it is not spoken language which is natural to man, but the faculty of constructing a language, i.e., a system of distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas.”11

On the subject of language and its articulated faculty, he concludes, “it is a system of signs in which the one essential is the union of sense and sound pattern, both parts of the sign being psychological.”12 Derrida applies to this idea the deconstructive strategy of exposing and subverting the action of binary opposition between presence/absence and orality / writing, opposing the idea that orality is the symbol of a mental experience and writing is the symbol of a symbol that already exists. He disagrees with this hierarchy established by the dual nature, proposing an arbitrariness of the sign where the signifier does not necessarily have a relation with the meaning. The meaning, in a broad sense, always refers to other signs, and we can never exactly establish a sign which refers only and exclusively to itself. When we adapt this Derrida notion to the works of Cosic, the first consideration to take into account is how writing differs from its own sign, and that this absence is in fact its own determination. The presence of ASCII, assuming the function of writing, should not only be viewed in accordance with its linguistic and semiotic perspective, but also as a symptom of a broader situation in linguistic representation that influences its own meaning, body and perception included.

Moreover, I must reflect on the formal model of the new media into which the works of Cosic fall. The relationship between the structure of a digital image and the visual language of contemporary culture, and the particular fact that it operates under the existential assumption of a database, therefore digital image is formed by different layers (database) that can be manipulated separately, and it is possible to assemble them, forming a narrative.

Roland Barthes interprets the concept of syntagm and paradigm of Saussure, establishing syntagm as the combination of signals that have space as support, while paradigm is a combination of units that have something in common, like in theories or groups in which relationships can be established. Those elements used in a composition (explicit, real) are syntagm, while paradigm is a set of reference for those objects (implicit, imaginary). Although paradigm is the database of choices from which the narrative is constructed, syntagm is the narrative. The new digital media reverses this relationship, and the paradigm (database) is materialized, while syntagm (narrative) is dematerialized.13 The narrative takes place through a set of links relating to the database. Paradigm is privileged because it enables interaction and selection of the subject in relation to content. Despite the fact that in a limited way, pre-programmed and always referential to the database. Nevertheless a difference is established in the relationship of this situation in analogy to how language constructs a sequence choosing successive words from a paradigm with other words. This way the user of digital media creates a sequence of screens through successive choices (clicks) of available icons. This logic emulates cinematographic language and thus sequential narrative, adopted by Cosic in his choice of films and iconic series in ASCII History of Moving Images. Also in the logic of computer games that similarly use cinematographic language in the construction of their sequential narrative, but in this new assertion of paradigm and syntagm, the simultaneous display of various elements becomes possible.


The works of Cosic seem to substantially embody a new model of expansion in the field of reading art. They become a model of self-criticism of digital media by the media, implying a self-reference movement in relation to their own language. They are not only limited to demonstrating its retinal approach, but cover it and simultaneously reveal its conceptual nature. To some extent, it seems almost like an expansion of the modernist program in its exploitation of the plastic language of digital media, but ‘beats it’ by the reflective ‘attitude’ towards the inclusion of other issues beyond the purely formal. This duplicity seems to be the material physiognomy of the philosophical thought of Derrida. According to that, in a dissemination process, the simultaneousness of the penetration and subtraction, i.e., the inevitability of the representational sense we want to transmit and, inherently to the movement of “hiding”, the foundation of representation / sign itself. “This limit is surpassed in productive imagination: self-intuition, the immediate relation to oneself such as it was formed in reproductive imagination, then becomes a being; it is exteriorized, produced in the world as a thing. This singular thing is a sign.”14 – This reflection seems to be the operative mode in which the digital media exerts its function. Its binary/algorithmic language runs a priori an abstraction / reproducibility of penetration and subtraction (polarities + and – ) without excluding or compromising the subsequent as a sign performing representational possibilities (figurative / abstract), or even making both dimensions visible. Unlike analog support, including painting and sculpture, the support itself operates by exclusion. That means that only one dimension, the abstract materiality of the medium, or the representability of an object / sign (either figurative or abstract), is visible or likely to be demonstrated.

The projects of Cosic involving ASCII show largely how digital computers have operated on the transformation of image: code and image are visible simultaneously. The artist is ‘translating’ the media itself, recoding and reconfiguring images as text. ASCII has become a sort of hieroglyph on the move!

Sandra Araújo (b. 1976) is undergoing the MA - Theory and Critic of Art program at Faculty of Fine Arts – University of Porto researching in the intersection between art-science-technology.

  1. Richard A. Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1994), 34.
  2. Available at
  3. Available at
  4. American Standard Code for Information Interchange
  5. Vuk Cosic accidentally discovered the term in 1995 when he was trying to decipher an email mangled in transmission and these were the only readable words.
  6. Directed by Gerard Damiano and released in 1972.
  7. A method of adding a tone to a printed image by imposing a transparent sheet of dots or other patterns on the image at some stage of a photographic reproduction process.
  8. W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 114.
  9. Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Routledge, 2001), 9_29.
  10. Leonel Moura, “Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” Jornal de Letras (2006).
  11. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1986), 10.
  12. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1986), 14_15.
  13. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2001), 231.
  14. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: The Harvester Press, 1982), 78.
Gerrit Rietveld Academie
St. John\'s University
SACI Florence Italy