QofR: Haptic reading

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

I was really interested in the notion of artists' books as a conceptual space for interactive experience and decided to explore this further. Since their conception in the mid 20th Century, artists' books have acted as a media in which to test the boundaries and definitions of art - in particular how art is displayed and viewed. The artists' book is not entirely comfortable in either the gallery or the library - something that artists keen to reject conventions were quick to hold on to.

Emblematic of this idea is Duchamp's Prière de toucher, designed for the cover of Le Surréalisme en 1947, the catalogue that accompanied the Surrealist exhibition of that year. In collaboration with Italian artist Enrico Donati, Duchamp purchased 999 pre-fabricated foam and rubber breasts, which were then hand-painted to look more realistic and adhered to a circular pace of black velvet and attached to the cardboard slip cover for the catalogue. A blue-bordered label on the back of the catalogue playfully invites readers to 'please touch', a request that becomes a demand as readers are literally forced to fondle the artificial breast in order to access the contents inside. Not only is this a typically mischievous inversion of the conventions of the gallery, but it highlights the role of the book form as an eminently touchable object, one symbolically tied with a subversive tradition.

The Fluxus network used the book form to circulate its artworks, which they saw as anti-commercial and more democratic than the art gallery. The MoMA exhibition on Fluxus Editions states:

Along with collective authorship and self-representation, the tension between material and concept—the thing and the thought—was of main concern. In graphics and text, many Fluxus Editions propose actions or ideas and were intended to be held, read, and manipulated by their users.

Audience interaction was key to many of the artists involved in Fluxus, who were more interested in the artistic process than the finished piece; the book form enacted this interactive dialogue, encouraging the viewer to open, sift, shuffle and play with its contents. Each edition of Fluxus contained envelopes bound together by metal bolts, each containing printed works by a single artist. The whole book is contained in a wooden case sprayed with the title, used in part to facilitate sending it in the post.

Beyond undermining the strict traditions of the art gallery, a form that actively encourages physical interaction holds an unusual status among art. As I touched on briefly in a previous blog, sensate engagement leads to an enhances experience that has an effect on both our emotional and cognitive responses. While artists' books may engage various senses (like smell or sounds), it is their ability to combine the visual with the manual that is their most consistent characteristic.

Haptics is defined as 'the use of technology that stimulates the senses of touch and motion, especially to reproduce the remote operation or computer simulation the sensations that would be felt by a user interacting directly with physical objects.' It is possible to infer why this field of research has proliferated in recent years from the second half of the definition. Much of the technology we use day to day, relies on touch-based manipulation - whether we are scrolling, pinching, or tapping a screen, understanding of UX haptics is key for producers of tech. Perhaps ironically this has raised the profile of touch, focusing an interest on non-visual ways of learning and understanding the world that emphasise the importance of embodied experiences and resist the dematerialised, digitised existence encouraged by tech.

Recent research has explored the role of our motor functions in the act of reading. Anne Mangen argues that 'all reading is multi-sensory... involving and requiring manual dexterity - that is, skilful handling by our fingers and hands.' The advent of digital books has heightened this awareness - 'the reading process and experience of a digital text are greatly affected by the fact that we click and scroll, in contrast to tactilely rich experience when flipping through the pages of a printed book.' According the Mangen, the intangibility of the digital text makes us 'read in a shallower, less focused way'.

Our urge to click is an example of haptic capture of the visual and auditory modalities, with the corollary sensory–motor dominance of the haptic and tactile over the cognitive and perceptual. The links in a hypertext fiction present themselves as an experiential potential, a latently accessible actualisation of something currently unavailable, which becomes readily accessible with the click of a mouse.

Basically, because we can't see what the hyperlink represents (its a kind of invisible potential), we think it could be more interesting than what we're reading, so our motor senses overwhelm our cognitive process i.e. our attention. This doesn't happen so much when we read a physical book, because the whole of the book is present to our eyes and hands. Even if we can't see the back page when we're reading page 42, we can feel its presence, so the urge to flick to it is less enticing.

While this is all a bit complicated and scientific for me, what is does confirm is that materiality isn't just about making an artistic point, or a gimmicky attempt to attract attention. We really can change the cognitive processes of a reader by encouraging them to engage in manual interplay with a physical object.

So what does this mean for the artists' book? In her MA thesis, Philippa Haskins writes, 'Haptic interaction with an artists' book is the most fundamental of the transactional possibilities that the work offers,' starting at the moment of opening. Haskins goes on to reference Gary Frost's argument that artists' books provide a 'haptic domain where the study of touch as a mode of communication is at work. Such evaluations call up deeply embedded perceptions and sensory skills where the hands prompt the mind and where the reader's understanding can be far removed from the intentions of the artist... The role environment of this experience is tactile, manipulative, confined, tricky and surprising.'

The artists' book, unlike a normal text-based book, is as much a sculptural object as it is a conduit for meaning. Because handling is so key to the artists' book, it makes sense that both their form and content should have equal meaning and importance, and the form should interact with the content. Not only will an artist make choices over content (inclusion of text, images etc) and tactility (paper type, non-traditional media, size, shape), but they can also think about the mechanics of the work (paper engineering, locks/wrappings, binding or loose sheets, pop ups, pull outs, cut outs etc). All three elements combined will contribute towards the readers' experience and will have an equal voice is communicating the artists intention and drawing the reader into an ongoing dialogue.



  1. Anon, 'Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions', moma.org [online], updated January 2012. Available from: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2011/fluxus_editions/

  2. Frost, Gary, 'Reading by Hand: The haptic evaluation of artists' book', The Bonefolder, 2.1 (2005), 3-5

  3. Hamer, Joanna, 'Codices: A redefinition of readers, writers, books and poetry', unpublished MA thesis, Vassar College 2012, Available here: https://digitalwindow.vassar.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1113&context=senior_capstone

  4. Haskins, Phillipa, ‘Experiencing Artists’ Books: Haptics and Intimate Discovery in the Work of Estelle Liebenberg-Barkhuizen and Cheryl Penn’, unpublished MA thesis, University of KwaZulu-Natal 2013. Available from: https://ukzn-dspace.ukzn.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10413/10828/Haskins_Phillipa_2013.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

  5. Mangen, Anne, 'Hypertext fiction reading: haptics and immersion', Journal of Research in Reading, 31.4 (2008), 404-419

  6. McDonald, Lisa, 'Marcel Duchamp', softsculpture.com [online]. Available from: https://nga.gov.au/exhibition/softsculpture/default.cfm?IRN=189001&BioArtistIRN=8663&MnuID=3&ViewID=2

  7. Rothenberg, Jerome and Steven Clay ed., A Book of the Book: Some works and projections about the book and writing (New York: Granary Books, 2000)

  8. Yudin, Ekaterina, ‘Anne Mangen on the Technologies and Haptics of Reading’, MastersofMedia.com [online], updated 22 May 2011 [cited on 15 March 2021] http://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/blog/2011/05/22/anne-mangen-on-the-technologies-and-haptics-of-reading/

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