A certain awareness regarding artwork accessibility for blind or visually impaired people has been witnessed the last years. For the people of this informal community, touch is the primary way to acquire information, access a work of art and complete their mental image of an object. Museums, galleries and public art spaces are progressively organizing alternative visits, based on the tactile experience, such as touch tours and handling sessions using specially designed replicas, facsimiles, tactile diagrams and relief structures. The redefinition of their approach stems partly from a general avowal: art apprehension is predominantly visual. Although touch is unanimously considered a mother-sense it has long been detached from the art experience. Regaining contact with our tactile self seems a necessity and in some instances, museums and curators advocate for a non-segregational frame for these alternative visits. Everyone, not only people with visual disabilities, seems to enjoy experiencing textures, weight, and the feel of objects in art or historical depictions. These visits should be open to the general public.
Furthermore, art practitioners readapt themselves to this new situation and a growing number of visual artists re-orient their practices challenging our sense of touch. The use of soft materials in contemporary sculpture, like fur, felt, foam, fibers and fabric is an evidence of the decision to rehabilitate our haptic sensibility in the art field. For artists following more militant pursuits, touch can be a kind of political arena. By the use of tactility in their work, these artists deal directly with accessibility issues by means of tactile canvases, Braille alphabet usage or simply by organizing their production in regard to specific communities with visual disabilities.
Shapereader is a tactile language, specifically designed to allow the creation of universally accessible narrative works of tactile literature for, and from a visually impaired readership. While it has been mainly created for the purposes of a blind community, the Shapereader repertoire can also be experienced by the acquainted regular user. Shapereader advocates for new publishing grounds and challenges the visual predominance of language and storytelling experience. Through circumvention of the reader’s visual sensorimotor stimuli, it activates the repressed tactile-sensory realm and offers a new diegetic experience by transposing semantic and syntactical structures cognizance to the reader’s fingertips. 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.
Museu da Imagem e do Som de São Paulo (MIS) and Des Grafica.Seattle (November 2016)
University of Washington, Disability Studies Department with Short Run.León (September 2016)
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (MUSAC) Exhibition and workshop.Helsinki (August 2016)
Aalto University, Department of Media.Liège (July 2016)
Université de Liège. Poetics of the Algorithm, Narrative, the Digital, and ‘Unidentified’ Media, organized by the Research Group ACME.Holon (June 2016)
Print Screen Festival. Design Museum of Holon, Israel.Tel Aviv (April 2016)
Shapereader Workshop at the Binyamin Gallery, with Asylum Arts, Keren Katz and Eran Hadas.Athens (February 2016)
Onassis Cultural Center. Exhibition and workshop.Angoulême (January 2016)
International Comics Festival of Angoulême (FIBD) at the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image.Rennes (November 2015)
Spéléographies at the Champs Libres.Vienna (October 2015)
Semmelweis Art Award for Shapereader. Balassi Institute.Jerusalem (May 2015)
Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design.Baltimore (April 2015)
Introduction of Shapereader to the National Federation of the Blind.New York (April 2015)
New York Comics & Picture-story Symposium at the New School of Parsons.New York (April 2015)
Comics & Disaility panel, MOCCA Festival organized by the Society of Illustrators. Moderated by Bill Kartalopoulos.Mulhouse (March 2015)
Presque La Même Chose-Collective exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mulhouse.Hannover (November 2014)
Eine neue Visualisierungsmethode der Sprache: Taktile Erzählung für Blinde.Hannover Symposium of Visual Linguistics with Nadia Paraskevoudi researcher in linguistics.
For requests regarding exhibitions, poster presentations or the Shapereader Workshop, please write to:
27, Dautzenberg street
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, Production LTD and Giannnis & Vaggelis Dimaras, 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