Comic book artist creates tactile graphic novel for blind readers

Post date: 
Friday, 15 July 2016

"Shapereader" is a sculptural style developed by graphic artist  Ilan Manouach, in an attempt to translate words and meanings into tactile formations. 

It was designed from scratch with the goal to transpose works of graphic literature to a blind and visually impaired readership. Shapereader aims to challenge the visual predominance of graphic storytelling. While it is mainly addressed to people with visual disabilities it can also be experienced by the acquainted regular user, in the same way that Braille is accessible to anyone who learns to read it.
By not concentration on the visual as a means of association, the Shapereader code is designed to activate  it activates the reader’s repressed tactile-sensory realm for a totally new understanding of a story.  Six hand-held, laser-engraved communication boards allow the reader to understand the Shapereader language. They carry the index for 210 different shapes, providing the tactile equivalents for the specific features of the story. They are divided into groups according to their meaning and function: characters, props, settings, actions, affections as well as graphic and textual devices forming the well-known toolbox of graphic storytelling craft.
The first narrative work to use the Shapereader repertoire is Arctic Circle, a 57-page original graphic novel relating the story of two climatologists digging in the North Pole searching for patterns of climatic change inscribed on ice columns.
Arctic Circle consists of:
  • 57 wooden plates (50cm x 35cm x 0.6cm)
  • 6 communication boards (50cm x 35cm x 0.6cm)
  • 210 different patterns from the Shapereader tactile repertoire and more than 6000 patterns for the totality of the story
Manouach is to hold a weekly class in Finland to test how well blind, partially sighted and sighted people can understand the language. He acknowledges that  "a certain awareness regarding artwork accessibility for blind or visually impaired people has been witnessed the last years. For the people of this 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 has mainly been experienced visually. Touch, although considered a mother-sense, has long been dissociated from the art experience. Regaining contact with our tactile self seems more and more a necessity in a visually driven culture." 
Essentially, art should not only be able to be enjoyed by those who have all 5 senses working correctly, in fact, the other 4 are often neglected. As art grows more fluid, so should the definition of how to experience it as an audience. Already, sculptors are beginning to incorporate tactile fabrics into their work, and smells and sounds are now seen as part of exhibitions. 
Shapereader is still very much in its experimental stages, but it will be exciting to see if a new tactile way of telling stories takes off, both for the sight-impaired and non-sight impaired. 
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