While traveling solo through the snowy wilderness of Lapland, Finland, artist Ilan Manouach, known for his work with “conceptual comic books,” came up with an idea for a graphic novel: A story of two climatologists exploring the North Pole. But unlike traditional graphic novels, this one would be designed for blind readers.
Graphic novels, as primarily visual narratives, are usually inaccessible to the visually impaired. Even if a comic is translated into braille, or read aloud, much of the story’s illustrated scenery and emotional texture is lost. To make comic books accessible to the blind, Manouach devised an entire new language composed of sculptural, touchable symbols and patterns, which are pieced together to tell a story. “I wanted to produce a sensual work that could bypass verbovocovisual stimuli, solely by the universal use of touch,” Manouach told Hyperallergic. A grant from the Finnish Institut Kone allowed him to complete the project.
The result is Shapereader, a system of tactile ideograms, or “tactigrams:” haptic equivalents for objects, actions, feelings, characters, and other features of any story. They’re raised shapes on wooden board, and have more in common with Chinese pictograms than with braille letters or the Roman alphabet, in that they’re textural depictions of what they represent.
Arctic Circle, a 57-page graphic novel, is the first narrative work designed with the Shapereader system. Here, anxiety is represented by a series of ridged zig-zags; arctic moss by clusters of leaf shapes; falling snow is translated into circular blobs. A walrus is a bunch of jagged concentric diamonds, and Sir Alfred Cook, one of the main characters, is a series of horizontal stripes. In designing tactigrams, Manouach aimed for simplicity and distinctiveness — the shapes had to be easy to memorize by touch.
The tundra of Lapland served as inspiration for Arctic Circle. “My whole visual landscape consisted of layers of dense snow imprinted by different animal traces, leftovers of a frenetic night activity,” Manouach says. Readers feel their way through the textural narrative, piecing together the story of two climatologists exploring the North Pole, research an ice column containing records of climate change in past ages. On their journey, they encounter traders, human rights activists, and Inuit dwellers. “They hope to decipher [the ice column’s] cryptic patterns, pretty much the same way the readers of Arctic Circle engage with the work,” Manouach says.
Artic Circle doesn’t resemble a “book” in any traditional sense: It’s composed of 57 wooden plates, carved with tactigrams that together tell a story. Six “communication boards” serve as an index for deciphering the sculptural code. There are a total of 210 different patterns from the Shapereader tactile repertoire, which combine into more than 6,000 permutations in the story as a whole. For those without impaired vision, the book’s plates serve a secondary purpose as abstract visual art pieces; the patterned narratives, in amoeba-like shapes, resemble op-art collages or monochromatic spins on Joan Miró’s whimsical compositions.
Can readers actually piece together the narrative by touching these abstract patterns? According to Manouach, the system is intuitive and doesn’t involve any technical training to learn. In a series of workshops around the world, Manouach is documenting different responses to the work, as well as teaching participants to build their own narratives works using the Shapereader system. He’s in talks with the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, the CNIB in Ontario, the Iiris Library in Helsinki, the Braille Ligue in Belgium, and the Talking Book and Braille Library in Washington about proposal for the integration of Shapereader in educational programs for the visually impaired. Arctic Circle isn’t yet available to a wide audience, but it will be on view in an exhibition Seatlle’s Washington University in September.