Lately, a general public awareness pointing to the conditions of the discrimination in arts for people subsisting under handicaps is a long overdue response from the part of the art world. For the persons with visual disabilities, access to visual arts is particularly problematic: Despite the museum's efforts in restructuring physical access and reevaluating alternative means to providing information, touch is the only way for the members of this community to complete the mental image of an art object. Museums, galleries, public art spaces, and educational establishments have been progressively reconfiguring their programme, and policies. The redefinition of their curatorial and social approach stems from a general avowal: the role of art as catalyst for the production of new social realities has been progressively met with disbelief and accruing disillusionment, revealing it to be no different than the society that produces it; instead of redistributing the sensible, the visual arts have had their shared part in reproducing the conditions of society’s normative privilege structures.
The social turn of contemporary curatorial practices, partly motivated by a critical displacement of art’s supposed transparency, accounts for much of the recent participatory projects distributed more evenly along demographics. Consequently, and in regards to visual disabilities, museums have slowly integrated alternative visits, educational programs grounded on tactility, touch tours and handling sessions using an array of newcomer objects in the museographical apparatus: replicas, facsimiles, tactile diagrams, relief structures, etc.. Broadly speaking, visuality’s role as the undisputed conduit of art experience for the generic audience has also been gradually eroded, giving rise to a growing number of works that challenge our sense of touch; the use of soft materials in contemporary sculpture, like fur, felt, foam, fibers and fabric is an evidence for a need to rehabilitate an haptic sensibility towards an embodied understanding of the aesthetic experience.
Shapereader is a community-specific tactile conlang (constructed language). It was initially designed for the purposes of visually impaired users in regards to tactile textual production. It consists of an expanding repertoire of free-floating tactile ideograms (tactigrams) intended to provide haptic equivalents for all the semantic features, the conceptual functions and textual attributes. Shapereader is unbound by the particularities of ethnic and native alphabets and Braille code. Its design, based on criteria of simplicity, easiness of memorization and distinguishability, addresses all users, regardless of their nationality, language, educational level, or subsistence under any visual handicap. By circumventing the verbovocovisual apparatus, it transposes semantic and syntactical structures cognizance to the reader’s fingertips. Shapereader promotes an embodied textual experience. The creation of Shapereader has been generously funded by the Finnish Institue Koneen Säätiö in 2013 for the Art & Multilingualism grant call. Shapereader and the graphic novel Arctic Circle have both been designed by Ilan Manouach.
Shapereader is an innovative project, that has been growing internationally. Unbound by the particularities of ethnic and native alphabets of the Braille code, Shapereader is addressed to all readers, regardless their nationality, language, educational level, or the subsistence under any visual handicap. It allows for a universal dissemination as it makes use of the raw tactile sense, and doesn’t involve any technical training except of some simple mnemotechnics that can be learned on the go, as the Shapereader workshops have demonstrated so far. The Shapereader exhibition comes with a built-in scenographic set that can accommodate, with minimal adjustments, a variety of different venues and audiences. A prolonged period of trial-and-error experimentations with different technologies and substrates, established a know-how that allowes larger curatorial manoeuvres, ranging from monumental, perennial outdoors installations to intimate, portable, light and practically disposable instantiations.
Shapereader consists of an ever expanding repertoire of anaglyph shapes called tactigrams designed to provide haptic equivalents for objects, actions, affections, characters and so on. Created from scratch, their design is based on criteria of simplicity, easiness of memorization and distinguishability. For example, a category of shapes assigned to affections includes primary states such as joy, fear or sadness as well as more complex ones such as coercion, remorse and unease. Each affection is available in three incremental intensities and this change of magnitude is intuitively translated by the gradual thickening of the shape’s core pattern. These affections can be combined synergetically allowing for an unprecedented realistic, fine-tuned and rich description of the emotional states of the plot’s characters. These shapes are distributed spatially according to the basic assumptions of contiguity and proximity. Semantic clusters, not unlike linear syntactical structures, determine the belonging to the same group: i.e. the shape that stands for a specific person will be more likely surrounded by patterns that describe both the person’s affective state, his actions and/or the elements that he is interacting with. Due to possible misconstruing, this configuration structurally allows for a more diffused and open-ended syntactical arrangement.
The first narrative work to be built upon the Shapereader repertoire is Arctic Circle, an original tactile novel of 57 pages, written in English, narrating the story of two climatologists digging in the North Pole. In the midst of an imbroglio of conflicting interests from traders, human rights activists and impoverished Inuit dwellers, the two protagonists are pursuing research for an ice column that contains records of climate changes of past ages. They hope to decipher those cryptic patterns, pretty much the same way the readers of Arctic Circle engage with the work.
Six hand-held communication boards and three large-scale panels allow the reader to get acquainted with the Shapereader repertoire. They carry all the tactigrams (tactile indexes) for 210 different shapes, providing equivalents for the specific features of the story. These shapes are sorted to groups according to their semantic content and function so that they can be easily traced by beginner readers: characters, props, settings, actions, affections, graphic and textual devices.
The Shapereader Workshop is a unique occasion for visually impaired artists and non blind participants to meet and create side by side, a tactile narrative artwork. The workshop culminates in a language-based wall installation. The participants, suggested to deal with issues meaningful to the community, contribute story parts and collectively weave them into a simple storyline. The group will be then given a small set of the Shapereader repertoire consisting of hand-sized wooden tablets carrying different geometric engravings. On the course of the workshop, we will learn how to circumvent visual stimuli, activate our tactile sense as a cognitive tool by identifying the different shapes. The tactigrams (tactile pictograms) will be then attributed specific functions and will provide homologies for our story’s characters, actions, affections, settings, etc. Then, by the end of the workshop, the tablets will be placed on a metal board, resulting into a wall narrative installation. The group will be free to decide whether they will share with the public the installation’s index or not.
The goal of the workshop is not simply to reflect the community’s expression by a collectively built story, following well known paradigms such as Barthes’ Death of the Author, crowd-based storytelling or the fundamental ambiguity of the producer/consumer relationship in internet. The Shapereader Workshop provides the very same genetic material for a storytelling craft, a repertoire of empty symbols that will be reiteratively attributed other meanings and functions according to each community’s specific needs, preoccupations and issues.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Paper: Shapereader and User Diversity in Contemporary Comics
ICAF, St. Ambrose University
Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, MA Program
Produced by the Saari Residence
Pavillon Guest of Honour
Wallonie Bruxelles International
Good Printing Show
Curated by Yasmina Reggad
Isabelle van den Eynde Gallery
Fumetto Comics Festival
2016São Paulo (November)
Des Grafica Fair
Museu da Imagem e do Som (MIS)
University of Washington
Disability Studies Department
Short Run Comics FestivalLeón (September)
Exhibition and workshop
Aalto UniversityCDepartment of Media.Liège (July)
Poetics of the Algorithm
Narrative, the Digital, and ‘Unidentified’ Media
Université de Liège
Research Group ACME
Print Screen Festival
Design Museum, Israel
Workshop at the Binyamin Gallery
Produced by Asylum Arts
with Keren Katz and Eran Hadas
Exhibition and workshop
Onassis Cultural Center
International Comics Festival of Angoulême
Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image
Semmelweis Art Award
Bezalel Academy of Arts & DesignBaltimore (April)
Introduction of Shapereader to the National Federation of the Blind.New York (April)
New York Comics & Picture-story Symposium at the New School of Parsons.New York (April)
Comics & Disaility panel, MOCCA Festival organized by the Society of Illustrators. Moderated by Bill Kartalopoulos.Mulhouse (March)
Presque La Même Chose-Collective exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mulhouse.
Eine neue Visualisierungsmethode der Sprache: Taktile Erzählung für Blinde.Hannover Symposium of Visual Linguistics with Nadia Paraskevoudi researcher in linguistics.
Ilan Manouach would like to specially thank the Finnish Foundation Koneen Säätiö for believing in this endeavour from the beginning and especially Hanna Nurminen, Anna Talasniemi and the Saari.
This work would not have been possible without the help of friends and colleagues such as Siobhan Kathleen Bledsoe, Antonis Kalagatsis, Eija-Liisa Markkula and the Iiris Library, Lamb and Lamp, Bend, Xavier Löwenthal, Evgenia Kountouri-Tsiami, Nadia Paraskevoudi, Vassilis Pitoulis, Keren Katz, Eran Hadas, Nefeli Dimitriadi, Bill Kartalopoulos, Pinelopi Gerasimou, Dimitris Theodoropoulos, Hiboux Architecture, Nefeli Mirodia, Dimaras Brothers, Katerina Tseliou, Sofia Donna, Alexia Sarantopoulou, William Heine, FabLab Imal, Dimitris Papalexopoulos, Iakovina Kontiza, Ruy Mackenzie, Stephane Beaujean, Timo & Dimitra and Myrto Xanthopoulou, Francesco Ruiz, Stephane Beaujean.
Website by Lamb and Lamp