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Typography and Generative Art

Graphic designer turned generative artist Emily Edelman compels us to question the meaning of written text beyond its overt layer—the message. Having in the past explored themes related to typography, communication, scale, colour, and the contrasts between physical and digital design theories, she now presents works in the form of systems of text, the understanding of which requires not a dictionary but instead an open heart and soul. Experimenting with the concept of asemic writing leads her to the praxis of generating text that conveys meaning, which is predominantly aesthetic rather than semantic in nature. 

In conversations with Anika Meier, Edelman uncovers the layers of meaning beyond text, considers the significance of divergence between the physical and digital realms for the creative process, and discusses the possibilities of using code as a tool.

Anika Meier: After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in Graphic Design, you spent 10 years in experiential storytelling. Art is also about storytelling and communication. What did you learn from experiential storytelling that is now helpful for you as an artist?

Emily Edelman: Through my work in experiential storytelling, I learned that I love the challenge of creating with an audience in mind. That has carried through to become an essential part of my art-making. My art isn’t just for my personal satisfaction; it's a constant conversation.

I also learned to think about some practical and artistic dimensions of storytelling. For example, a story can be concise and immediate or long and winding. There’s room for both, and it’s an entirely different audience experience, which deserves consideration in each work.

Emily Edelman

AM: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

EE: For a long time, I was staunchly a designer, not an artist. I thought, Designers solve problems and communicate. That was my training and career, so that’s the box I was in. I became an artist when I realized that, as an artist, I could connect something within myself to others. And within that motivation, the challenges remained of balancing concept and form and of making the audience an integral part of the story.

I seek to bridge the two worlds and blur the lines between them. Design is about system making and breaking, iterating, and storytelling, all of which are inherent to the generative thinking I use as an artist.

AM: How did you get from graphic design deep into generative art?

EE: Graphic design revolves around systems and the dynamics of making and breaking rules. In that practice, I’ve always felt drawn to the ideas of exhausting possibilities and endless iteration. A design might start with some carefully chosen constraints like font, message, and image, but the ways in which they can harmonize are infinite. The early Art Blocks projects and the new challenge of on-chain long-form generative art were immediately tempting for my style of creative process.

Emily Edelman, Illuminated #9, 2022.

AM: In your work, you often combine typography and abstraction. It’s a balanced push and pull. Looking at the history of art, are there artists that have influenced your practice?

EE: Text and typography are forms of abstraction. It doesn’t represent anything tangible in our world; it’s a visual system humans invented to communicate and record ideas. I’m fluent in English, and I love looking at non-English languages that also use the Roman alphabet. There’s a tension between legibility and abstraction. I know the sounds the letters are supposed to make, but I can’t always decipher the meaning. Text in other alphabets is another level of abstraction, and of course, that’s a personal experience. The fact that two people can look at the same system and interpret it so differently reflects the diverse realities we all inhabit.

I love the texture of text, and I also love to narrow in on one character to explore the nuances of its points and curves. Displacing a recognizable character from its everyday use or inventing an entirely new character transforms it from a functional tool to a sort of "character object". In the same way, Claes Oldenburg creates massive sculptures of everyday objects, elevating and celebrating their familiarity outside of their function. Robert Indiana does this with letters in the form of large outdoor sculptures. Tara Donavan’s QWERTY achieves a similar effect with repetition. Vera Molnár has studied the aesthetic possibilities of the texture of text, while others like Enzo Patti show us how text can evoke so much without requiring legibility.

AM: When integrating text into your visual artworks, is it important for you that there is semantic content, meaning letters and words, that could potentially be decipherable?

EE: It’s not important to me that my generative text conveys an overt message, as long as the aesthetics and formal constraints effectively tell their own complete story.

Asemic writing—illegible mark-making in the pattern of handwriting—has a long history. It’s been used as a cathartic exercise in which the act of scrawling is released. It’s been used as a memory tool; the imitation of note-taking is enough to remember the content without actually referencing legible notes later. And it’s been used aesthetically to create texture or composition in the form of art. All these give new functionality to the form of text.

Emily Edelman & Dima Ofman & Andrew Badr, Asemica #151, 2021.

AM: You call yourself an artist and a maker. I have an edition print from you in my collection. How important is the physical component of your artistic practice?

EE: Extremely. We are physical beings living in a physical world. That said, I don’t see such a solid line between digital and physical. Painting, embroidery, and digital art all have a base physical module that defines the medium and begs creative decisions. In digital art, there are still physical modules like pixels, glass, hardware, light, and the environment. So the screen inevitably brings physical characteristics with it.

AM: Do you approach working on a project differently when you know it will be part of an IRL exhibition?

EE: Materiality, scale, and display are always worth considering from the start of a project, and I feel lucky when I know from the outset where the work will be displayed. Scale, a powerful tool in any medium, is particularly interesting to me. We humans look out onto the world from our human-sized perspective, so we have different relationships with things smaller than us and things bigger than us. There’s room for narrative and drama, relatability, and human experience when varying scale within an artwork or installation.

My project, AGAR, is about shifting the scale of pixel art. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to show outputs that were tiny in frames as well as gigantic as floor-to-ceiling fabric tapestries. Illuminated was made for the screen; the gradients take each shape from a colour to white, and wherever there is white, we see the brightest areas of the screen’s light, creating literal illumination. One day, I’ll display ILLUMINATED in a really dark room on small seductive screens that call a viewer to get closer.

Emily Edelman & Dima Ofman & Andrew Badr, Asemica #221, 2021.

AM: You ask the following question on your website, calling it your "constraint" when creating artwork, but don’t give an answer: "How can you write an algorithm that outputs consistent beauty and consistent surprise?" Do you have an answer to this question?

EE: There isn’t one answer. That challenge defines the medium. I think most generative artists would say it’s about creating a system of rules that communicate with each other and interplay well—and then defining where, within their combining ranges of possibility, you want to place more emphasis. When possibilities are too broad, you risk losing consistency; too narrow, and you lose surprise.

AM: Are constraints liberating?

EE: Yes. There’s nothing scarier than a blank, white page. But it's worth noting that fear can also serve as a powerful motivator.

Emily Edelman, Twos (test outputs), 2023.

AM: What else is important to you when creating artwork?

EE: The art that is the portfolio: the artist’s arc, the thematic period. I ensure the line between my projects tells its own story. Steve Pikelny is so good at this. So are William Mapan and Maya Man. Their work is recognizable as their own, and their projects communicate with one another within the wider portfolio.

I’ve explored themes of typography, communication, scale, colour theory, and the relationship between physical and digital design theories. These each play a part in most of my recent work, though this list is ever-evolving and the story will always shift.

AM: Is code a medium or a tool for you?

EE: In a world where I stick to definitions that serve me, a medium is defined by its physical module. So, digital art, which is composed of pixels and light, is a medium. Code, on the other hand, is a tool. Painting is a medium, and a paintbrush is a tool. I recognize there are many ways to slice this, and I invite anyone reading to challenge this division.

Emily Edelman, Illuminated #4, 2022.

AM: Do you think it’s important that generative artists are capable of coding their own work?

EE: My first long-form generative series, ASEMICA, was coded by two creative partners, Dima Ofman and Andrew Badr. I wrote an algorithm in English in the form of a detailed, complicated flow chart. The process was extremely structured and precise, and it felt so natural—like recording a type of creative thinking I already employed, regardless of medium.

I eventually recognized that learning how to code could be a long, gradual process, that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and that I could learn what I needed to learn to implement a vision.

AM: When and how did you learn how to code?

EE: After ASEMICA launched in November 2021, I started making more art and eventually left my design job. I signed up for a coworking space and spent a few months working through Daniel Schiffman’s materials. I discovered that code is like any tool—you can experiment, you can improve, and you can make happy mistakes. It was freeing and addictive to realize I could program repeat actions with designed elements and create magic with language. And get my hands dirtier in the process.

Emily Edelman, Illuminated #2, 2022.

AM: Which advice would you give emerging artists who consider learning to code?

EE: Anna Lucia says it so well: go to YouTube and search for Daniel Schiffman. Specifically, watch the entire CODING TRAIN series and pause frequently to work alongside the lessons.

Recognize the power of code to iterate within an idea. You aren’t creating a brushstroke; you are creating the instructions for a brushstroke you can manipulate and repeat in endless ways.