Between Page and Screen, Hands: What it Means to be an Embodied Reader

Anne Royston

Rochester Institute of Technology

(Published September 18, 2019)


In 2011, Chris Fritton of Buffalo-based Ferrum Wheel Press published a small-edition, handmade codex comprised almost entirely of letterpress-printed QR codes. The colophon, sole exception to the QR code rule, includes the author, press, and edition size but not the title, states that the book “is readable only by mobile phone apps.” Scanning the front cover reveals the title: Why We Lose Our Hands. (The tension between QR code and English-language title leads to some indexing confusion on WorldCat, as well as in some local libraries.) It’s a provocative title, and to reach it requires labor distributed among human and machine readers. Like “human” and “machine,” reading is another tricky word; as Mara Mills argues, it signifies a repetitive, often physical or haptic process, while also gesturing towards the more thorny, layered, nonprocedural, often uncomfortable sense (for example, what we really mean when we ask our students if they have read). The latter tends to be what we think of as a human-dominated idea of reading, working in tandem with a more machinic idea of “reading” (or what our students might mean when they assure us they have, indeed, read).

Fritton’s piece stands at this intersection of multiple kinds of reading, themselves spanning digital and print (more shaky terms in this 2019 age of publishing and platform). The piece, when scanned, is recognizable, given its lineation, as poetry. In a clever medial inversion, hand letterpress printed QR codes are met with digital letterforms on a facsimile of the physical: the old Apple “Notes” application’s reverse remediation of a standard yellow notepad. The poem recalls the circumstances of its making and its reading, hand and hand-operated logics; the speaker refers to his “gauze-covered hands,” and to another person with “brown paper bags/ over his hands.” Using one’s hands—your hands, you implicated reader—is complicated, messy, and necessary to reading. And this is true regarding the phone as well as the codex, the former an example of a complex apparatus that at once enables reading and is itself a reader. As N. Katherine Hayles points out, differentiating “executable” from readable, “Once entered into the machine [code] has as its primary reader the machine itself” (Mother 50). Yet under the bright gaze of the screen, we often overlook the hands that access the camera and other manipulation required for machines to read; the eye scanning that leads to phone scanning; and the subtle cues, like lineation, that help the human reader make sense of the work. In the context of the mobile device there are two readers, but the distinction between the two is not easy or stable.

Entangling different kinds of machine technologies—letterpress printing, bookbinding, coding, handheld mobile devices—and ways of reading, Why We Lose Our Hands provokes an awareness of hands and, figuratively, the threads they bring together. At the same time these threads should be considered loosely held, performing their own kinds of work and affecting the complex dynamics of reading. In pieces like Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen, J.R. Carpenter’s The Broadside of a Yarn, and Emily Dyer Barker’s “Public Spectacle Essays,” hands are critical to the making, as well as consuming, of these works, which utilize QR or AR (augmented reality) codes in conjunction with print media.

While QR codes create an additional wrinkle in our reading, their use works not to alienate the reader from the English-language text, but instead to demand a particular kind of attention. Reading print-digital works requires focus sustained across multiple platforms, where the QR code transforms each page into a mystery, and each translated code rewards the patient reader with curiosity satisfied. As noted at the Western New York Book Arts Center (WNYBAC), where Fritton produced Why We Lose Our Hands, what is known as a “Quick Response” code actually draws out the reading process. Paradoxically, the “Quick Response” forces the reader to slow down, as the page takes longer to read than it would in English-language text. The extended reading process also undercuts Fritton’s colophon’s claim that the work can be read “only” with a mobile phone app. The book requires the handling of a human, who positions and scans, and then reads: a deliberately physical experience that a quick flip through a conventionally printed codex often takes for granted.

Such complex readable forms, combining text and code, characterize Hayles’s conception of what she terms the “Computational Universe,” which is “producing and also produced by recursive loops that entangle with one another” (Mother 4). This emphasis on recursivity, “producing and being produced,” recalls a genre of writing that also speaks to print-digital works: poetry. Discussing the “distributed existence” of a digital poem, Hayles comments that “the poem ceases to exist as a self-contained object and instead becomes a process” (“Time” 181). Hayles here is following poet and media studies scholar Loss Pequeño Glazier, who conceives of poetry as poesis, making. “Rather than focusing on the information of the text,” Glazier argues, “poetic practice has explored the conditions that determine information, the procedures, processes, and crossed paths of meaning making, meaning-making as constituting the ‘meaning’” (32). Among genres, this thinking goes, poetry is singularly equipped to explore the kinds of variable communication new media technology enables.

Glazier’s poetic genealogy includes Emily Dickinson, Robert Creeley, and Ron Silliman, as well as other Objectivist and Language-affiliated poets—a group that might take William Carlos Williams’s “No ideas but in things” as a philosophy. This genealogy constructs itself, loosely speaking, around a sense of the word as material. Glazier extends materially oriented poetics to contemporary e-poetry, asking: “Thinking of Creeley’s ‘form is never more than an extension of content,’ what avenues of content have been opened by such vastly different possibilities for ‘form’?” He adds that “The medium gives the poem added potential for ‘making’” (34). The “medium” of new media is particularly apt for the making that is the essence of poesis.

But of course, print-digital works are not equivalent or reducible to a category of digital literature. In fact, to our eyes they may appear much like artist’s books, which, in Johanna Drucker’s well-known formulation, “integrate the formal means of [their] realization and production with [their] thematic or aesthetic issues” (Century 1). At the same time, Drucker—herself a hybrid maker-theorist working with analog and digital inscriptions—constantly reminds the reader that all reading practices, even digital ones, are grounded in material. In What Is?, among other writings, Drucker takes aim at the myth that “digital code is immaterial, permanent, and stable” (126). Besides the nod to arguments by, for example, Matt Kirschenbaum, Drucker notes what she calls the “first error, the failure to engage with materiality as embodiment” (ibid). Print-digital works, whether as codices, broadsides, or webpages, possess the self-reflexive material forms that fulfill Drucker’s definition, but they also incorporate the labor-intensive old media practices that often characterize artists’ books. Fritton and Barker’s projects are both letterpress-printed by hand, and Borsuk and Bouse’s book was originally also letterpressed before entering production as two small-press editions, first by Siglio Press and then by SpringGun. This first edition was also hand-bound, as is Fritton’s codex, while Carpenter’s maps are folded by hand. Print-digital works implicate the haptic in their procedures of making, an emphasis on being handled that carries over to the processes of reading.

The always-material word also suggests a larger argument about the intersection of print and digital, gesturing at how the two fields of contemporary artists’ books and digital literature share multiple affinities and similar discourse. These fields pride themselves on interdisciplinarity and flexibility, yet still hesitate around work that combines elements from both. But these works are already speaking to one another, demonstrating how the idea that language is always material benefits from considering the tenuousness of “old” and “new” media definitions (as seen in work by Charles R. Acland or Lisa Gitelman, for example). Using old media techniques like letterpress in combination with new media techniques like QR codes, print-digital works remind us how old and new are themselves shifting spaces, palimpsests of meaning that define and redefine one another. The complex multiplicity of materiality recalls “intermedia,” a term originating with Dick Higgins that Hayles and other digital theorists repurpose. Higgins, a noted book artist of the Fluxus school, argues for the importance of intermedia, a hybrid approach to genre and media, in his 1969 classic FOEW&OMBWHNW, itself a multicolumnar collage of essay, poetry, and experiment. Originally reserved for genres and media amongst themselves, Hayles expands “intermediation” to include “this entanglement of the bodies of texts and digital subjects” (Mother 7). Entanglement suggests an irreducible situation: as Drucker refuses the idea of material print and immaterial code, Hayles refuses the either-or of human and digital, and insists that “media effects, to have meaning and significance, must be located within an embodied human world” (ibid). If QR codes seem to suggest alienation, ways to lose our hands, these works counter that supposition by actively requiring our hands and our handling—and they dramatize that need for embodiment through their material form.

There are many ways to approach this “embodied human world,” most which highlight the multisensory nature of experience. As scholars like Andrew Piper and Cecilia Lindhé point out, touch becomes especially crucial to the digital environment, with transformative possibilities for how we read. Lindhé cites Mark Paterson: “By exploring tactical and auditive aspects in relation to ancient rhetoric and digital interfaces, one can also begin to ask with Paterson ‘whether it is possible to go beyond the ocular centric in traditional aesthetic and literary practices, and consider other modes of experience and forms of attention, such as those made available by touch’” (Paterson 2007 quoted in Lindhé). Shifting attention from the visual to the tactile or haptic “rejects discourses that try to transcend the body,” as well as provides new perspectives from which to consider how we read, especially in an age of what feel like newly immersive medial experiences (Lindhé).

In print-digital works, however, touch transcends even this purpose. Print-digital works, however, stress touch that furthers immersion not for its own sake but premised on curiosity, on desire. These are profoundly human stakes for digital communication technologies, and we glean a sense of them through considering the semantic content—lyrical, collaged, crowdsourced—of print-digital works. While their material forms require a multisensory and embodied reader, their semantic content sheds light on what it means to be that reader. Being an embodied reader is not simply a question of mechanics, not just a question of how we use our hands, but why. Being embodied is being emotional, affective, psychological, wanting to hear and be heard. It is not only recognizing how the boundaries of the body—its senses like touch—create our experiences, but also recognizing how we rush towards those boundaries, driven towards the world.

Echoing the “you” addressed by Fritton’s narrator, a “you” that is the created poem but also the traditional lyrical object of desire, print-digital works concern themselves with connection, community, and collaboration as subjects. They rely on community participation in a manner reminiscent of Serge Bouchardon’s writings on intersubjective digital media, but at the same time present what is often explicitly emotional content, expressing a longing for successful communication. Hands become the figure for manipulating pages and cameras, but they are also the figure for reaching out, touching, linking: the digits in the digital. How, these works ask, does contemporary technology convey desired information, promote understanding? Instead of positioning current technology as rampantly antagonistic to human concerns, as some contemporary discourses do (a title below, War on the Human, conveys this kind of defensiveness); or, conversely, embracing the neutral and transparent tools of technological utopianism; print-digital works set up camp between these two extremes. Exploring the interplay between page and screen, these works stress the need for human touch through their material forms, while their semantic content suggests an analogical desire to understand and be understood.

Exchanging Letters

A multilayered love story, Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen develops a haptic-executable, digital-human network of reading. Like Fritton’s Hands, Between is a print book comprised entirely of AR codes, accessible with the help of a web browser running Flash and a camera. A website specific to the book reveals the English-language text, which hovers, as the title indicates, between the print page and the digital screen.

As with other print-digital works, Between identifies as poetry. Closely following Glazier’s concept of poesis in her reading of the work, Tatiani G. Rapatzikou locates its poetics in process, which extends from the work’s “interpretative potential” to the “readers’ practical engagement with it” (101). Rapatzikou argues that the “prosthesis” of the AR code reader reconfigures conventional reading practices at a physical level, which raises the possibility of reconfiguring “human cognitive abilities and perceptual capacities” in general (109). Through its overlapping codes and interpretive processes, which belong to both human and machine reader, Between thus exemplifies the possibilities of fundamentally new ways of reading. Élika Ortega also speaks to Between’s medial complexity, citing a Haylesian entanglement of old and new media and their varied readers. Ortega’s incisive reading of Between notes “the bringing together of different media and/or interfaces that guide specific reading conditions, and which cannot be broken down into its individual components without crippling the textual configuration of the work.” At the same time, Rapatzikou focuses on Between’s “different configurations and ways of seeing and understanding the creative potential of poetic and digital joined actions,” while not giving much consideration to how its medial concerns are enacted through its semantic content (112). Ortega, likewise, argues that “the main aesthetic as well as theoretical exploration of the project lies in the layered reading experience much more so than in the verbal poems themselves.” A reading of the poems “themselves,” however, reveals the stakes for the multimodal reading experience, implicating a fully embodied reader in the process.

Perhaps part of why it’s tempting to fly over the English-language poems, when you finally have them at your fingertips, is that they, as letterforms, are themselves prone to fly. Unlike Hands’s online component,maintaining a stable screen of text in Between is nearly impossible. The reader becomes acutely aware of their hands as they struggle to manipulate each page into a position from which the text can be read. If the reader moves too quickly, the letterforms escape from view; as the reader approaches the best angle for reading, the letterforms fall away. The body of these letterforms is ghostly, suggesting the transience of communication, a tenuous connection apt to disintegrate at any moment. Like audio signals vying with static, the letterforms hover, barely achieving dimension in space.

Many pages are letters—not letterform, but epistolary form, missives exchanged between P[age] and S[creen]. Between pages of letters, pages of moving poems refuse to stabilize even when the reader is still, instead rearranging in positions and transpositions. Recalling Drucker’s maxim on artists’ books, their semantic content is self-referential: the Oulipean-like anagrams of “to spin pin into spin” and “she hears shears ear” point to their own functions and processes, as well as those of the reader, who “hears” as the word “shears.” Moving and “spinning” in time and space, the poems create a kind of n-dimensional concrete poetry: “a rose/eros” even directly recalls Augusto de Campos’s visual rendering of the famous Gertrude Stein quote, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” “Eros” also returns us to the epistolary letters that link P and S. As in Fritton’s work, the “you” signifies the poem’s creation, but also the lyric “you,” the object of desire whom the speaker addresses. Similarly, Borsuk and Bouse’s work takes a dual subject, not only the potential within an intermedial poetics as process and product, but the story (intimate bordering on sensual) that spans screen and page. Attempting communication, the page and the screen are cast as characters. They are letters as well as actors in an unfolding drama of desire.

Like the poetic lineage Glazier invokes, the poem exhibits a post-Language style through sound-driven language that, despite its tendency towards parataxis, feels alive—and feels. “Dear S,” the poem begins, “I fast, I fasten to become compact, but listen, that’s only part your impact…It’s my character to pin” (Between). Imploring the addressee to “listen,” P attempts to make itself understood. There is mention of “last night on the patio,” and an invitation to “spread out the pentup moment.” In this charged atmosphere, the page reaches out to the screen, even as it fails to achieve the “compact” data a screen may call up. Unlike the screen’s flickering connections, the page, a print medium, admits an impetus to “pin” or fix its “characters” in place. In contrast, the screen’s responses tend towards the fluid, the spinning letters and rearranging words of the dimensional concrete poems, although not exclusively. “You only get a portion of the stuff that makes me up,” S writes. “The rest hides,” presumably in the circuit boards and copper materials of the computer. But S’s somewhat lofty tone also hides something, P supposes: an emotional component. As the exchange progresses, the reader comes across an etymology for what’s happening: “Scaramouch, scrimmage, skirmish,” and, associated, “screen.” This etymology is shaped like a shield, something which protects, but which can also be hidden behind. The dialogue is cast as a skirmish, which itself is cast as a “screen” for feeling.

Many moments in Between explore this bivalent meaning of screen, as that which hides or keeps something from view, and, simultaneously, the apparatus or “prosthetic” that helps make the poem visible to its human reader. Borsuk notes: “A screen is a shield, but also a veil—it’s sheer and can be shorn.” If “skirmish” is related to shield, it is also related to its natural counterpart, the sword that “shears.” As the two characters attempt to understand one another, they reveal facets of their own characters, their attempts at negotiating self-definition reminiscent of our attempts to define communication that mingles old and new media. The screen is self-protecting, but it points to this fact, suggesting a desire to be seen and heard. The page, meanwhile, is anxious to stabilize meanings. “Let’s name this pagan pageant, these rows of lines or vines that link us together,” P urges near the poem’s end, to which S replies: “Page, don’t cage me.” If “that way is carnage, carnal carnival” linked to the embodiment of the page, the page’s ability to cut (“paper cuts”) and do harm also frightens the screen. The page’s closeness to, even dependence on, the fingers, suggest an inevitably human (and intimately physical) affiliation.

The skirmish ends coyly, but favorably: the last page reads, “P.S. A co-script posthaste postface:/ there is no postscript. Sleep tight,” with additional Ps and Ss scattered in disarray that also might suggest the “post” of postcoital. P and S, it appears, have “co-scripted” this ending, which captures the doubleness of script as writing and as code. “Postface” reads as a statement that “facing off” has ended, which is also the end of the book as the dialogue comes to a close. Of course, the dialogue itself functions as a kind of en face translation between media, Higgins’s intermedia exploded into Haylesian intermediation. “Postscript” also speaks doubly here, indicating the written addendum as well as PostScript, a (somewhat outdated) page description language in computing. Regardless of medium, the poem suggests, “there is no postscript,” no way in which language is over. On the contrary, it increases and proliferates beyond expectation, driven by the constantly renewing need to hear and be heard.

Between makes the reader a party to the proliferation of language, which requires the AR code reader to be readable. At the same time, the human hand becomes an agent that passes letters between P and S—indeed, it is nearly impossible to avoid the visual intrusion of hands on-screen as the reader manipulates the text. Our status as messenger is complicated by our status as third party to the conversation, which requires us to operate even as it excludes us to the position of voyeur. From voir, “to see”, voyeur solidifies the link between hands and eyes: as Lindhé’s title states, taking a cue from F.T. Marinetti, “A visual sense is born in the fingertips.” Between suggests that so, too, is a sense of enabling communication, an impulse to facilitate understanding. As the work unfolds and recombines, the story between P and S expresses the desire to be understood, even loved, that drives its multifold technologies.

Navigating the Self

Jason Farman remarks that the goal of much site-specific storytelling, or locative narrative, “is to ‘defamiliarize’ people with their places and the technologies that mediate these places” (5). According to Farman, “the result is often a deeper sense of place and a stronger understanding of our own position within that place” (ibid). But what if our positions are constantly shifting—or if the place is constantly changing?J.R. Carpenter’s The Broadside of a Yarn contemplates these as mutually informative questions, deeply linking place to personhood and positing instability not as a stop on the way to full self-awareness but as a state of being in itself. If the drama in Between plays out around understanding the beloved, Broadside seeks something even closer to home and possibly more elusive: to understand oneself.

Broadside’s print component comprises 500 A3-sized copies of manipulated and collaged maps, each folded by hand and originally installed, as well as distributed, in the Inspace gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland in November 2012 (“Broadside”). Incorporated into the designs, although decidedly not the centerpiece of them, are QR codes, which lead to a dizzying array of sources, all related to the sea and navigation (suggesting the broadside as print product, but also as ship), as well as the passage between Scotland and Nova Scotia (where Carpenter was born). Additionally, the digital materials have been manipulated and collaged. Carpenter refers to the project as an “assemblage” that combines print media, digital tactics, and human activity. Here, new and old media successfully combine to “de-familiarize” the reader’s relationship to place, but their effect, far from stabilizing, instead reminds her of these terms’ fragility.

As the reader navigates her place in space, she also navigates different conceptions of space, each produced by print or digital aspects of the work. Broadside’s two-dimensional print maps recall the representation of Cartesian space that feels outmoded to many of us, while the QR code places its reader in a type of space—cyberspace—in which a new kind of representation is developing. QR codes figure digital space, as they literally serve as a map to a URL (the reassuringly named Uniform Resource Locator). But successfully navigating from print to digital space is not the only end of the work. As Carpenter explains, “Embedded within the highly visual cartographic space of this printed map are QR codes which link mobile devices to computer-generated narrative dialogues intended to serve as scripts for poly-vocal performances” (“Broadside”). These performances, implicating the voice as well as the hand, mark far points of the network of reading, an immersive reading experience that leads the reader back to the body. What begins with the hand ends with the voice.

Broadside thoroughly entangles human and digital, ephemeral movements and performances, and stable maps and webpages. Navigating this entanglement of media—reading— is not at all a sure thing. How to handle maps from which north has been excised, from which other elements have been cut away? QR codes, readable from any cardinal direction, provide no assistance. Lines on the print maps suggest coastlines, casting the two voices that dominate the text as voices of sea and shore. But even navigating (a word which calls to mind an old browser) the print-digital coastline rarely reveals a stable object. Sea and shore, print and screen, are all fluid, with code and human readers often encountering new content with every navigation. While the print maps are almost entirely image-based, the QR codes deliver their readers to carefully assembled suites of texts. Broadside’s “selected bibliography” mentions Scottish archival materials such as maps and 17th-century guidebooks, as well as literary investigations of navigation: Edward Lear’s poem “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Secret Sharer” (in tandem with Freud’s writings on the uncanny). Adding another layer of remediation, many of these literary investigations form the basis for works by Carpenter that simultaneously exist as stand-alone pieces: “Notes on the Voyage of Owl and Girl,” “There he was, gone,” and “…and by islands I mean paragraphs”are self-sufficient works of digital literature from around the same time, while “Once Upon A Tide” was published elsewhere a few years later (Luckysoap). Each of these pieces has its own bibliography as well. Remediation here takes the form of collage, with sections extracted, grafted, and arranged in what feels like a gently pulsating, constantly expanding whole. As a project, then, Broadside also functions as a map, through which the reader may navigate a selection of Carpenter’s cartographically obsessed oeuvre.

Further complicating Broadside, some of Carpenter’s stand-alone works offer different experiences on web and mobile. “There he was, gone,” for example, is a visually complex digital literature piece on a web browser, with different text lines moving at different speeds across a photograph on a map background. Scanned with the QR code reader, the stripped-down work takes the form of a text block, in which some chunks of text slowly change while others remain stable. Handheld, the mobile version also gestures to the voice, emphasizing the stage direction at the top that indicates: “To be read by two voices.”

Some pieces to which Broadside points are unstable, remediating themselves from platform to platform or with every reading. Other pieces of the project shelter more neatly under its auspices—or at least that’s what their URLs, including “broadside” as a term, suggest. Broadside -specific pieces also tend to have greater navigational control for their users. “Trading Lip For Ear,” which remediates and reassembles Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” and Freud’s idea of the uncanny, is a robust example of a Broadside­-specific piece that dramatizes, as its title suggests, speaking and listening. In it, Carpenter becomes a kind of carpenter, building a script from pieces of text like the timber beams of the boat in the corresponding print map. Here, as throughout the piece, doubling is a critical concept. It occurs at both medial and semantic levels: J. (R.) C(arpenter) and J. C(onrad) trade voices like winds, Carpenter animating Conrad’s characters by resetting them in a dialogic form. Similar to “There he was, gone,” instructions like “To be read by two hushed voices, heads together” preface the body text, which comprises a few lines of dialogue traded between the Captain and the Sharer. The Captain’s last lines include “asides,” which traditionally offer a glimpse into the mind of a character, much as the associated print map shows a cutaway hull that reveals the inside of a ship. As the dialogue between the Captain and the ghostly Sharer repeats, taking on new variations, the reader’s mobile screen offers a set of navigational tools: “Fast,” “Slow,” “Stop,” “Step,” and “Uncanny,” which incorporates Freud as a third voice. The first two commands operate as promised, moving you through the text at different speeds; “Stop” allows you to linger on a piece of text, while “Step” moves you forward. The Freud channel, though, introduces another voice into the text that, instead of clarifying the connection between the two speakers, further complicates the distinction between inside and outside. If the uncanny is linked to the phantasmal for Freud, it is also linked to repetition: “Anything that reminds us of the inner compulsion to repeat is perceived as uncanny,” one text node reads. To repeat is to double, even if inexact, an obsession for both J. C.s.

Remediation allows the internal and external to entangle in this work, which is mirrored again by the two speaking parts. The reality of the relationship between the Captain and the Sharer, both here and in the original, is deliberately ambiguous, suggesting one body and two minds. If Conrad doubles as Carpenter, this doubling is also modeled in the text, in which the Captain doubles as the Sharer. The Captain meditates, for example, “It was as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror” (Conrad 9). Or, again: “My double followed my movements” (Conrad 10). Freud provides an appropriate gloss: “The self my be duplicated, divided and interchanged” (sic). Carpenter’s transcription error feels suggestive here, pointing to an instability of identity: who is the me of the “my”? Dialogue becomes an attempt at navigation, locating oneself in a relationship to another, even if this other is another part of oneself, met again—or for the first time.

“Trading Lip For Ear’s” frequent emphasis on doubling invites the reader to enter, too, her hand on the compass. Even with all these navigational tools at hand—maps, instructions, and QR code readers—she will, however, not quite succeed at locating herself. Carpenter notes how situating one’s past and present is also a spatial quandary, a present and past that links “New Scotland” and “Old Scotland,” and which continues to shift despite the proliferation of mapping (and storytelling) accoutrements. But it’s crucial to remember that the navigational tools are only part of the work. In fact, Carpenter directly states that the broadsides “are representations of the work, not the work itself” (“Broadside”). In a project problematizing location, locating the “work itself” is no less of a problem. The best option may well be to abandon navigation altogether in favor of a different script. “Like the printed broadside ballads of old, the public posting of The Broadside of a Yarn signified that it was intended to be performed,” Carpenter reminds us of the original installation (“Broadside”). From this perspective, the project suggests a different kind of navigation, one where the reader envisions their own role as one of many in a performance, enabled by the dialogic nature of the text.

Like Bouchardon’s new media as intersubjective object, collectively determined, Broadside muses that attempting to reach beyond one’s personal perspective, rather than self-interrogation, may be a more reliable way to come to understanding. As the Captain seeks to know himself through his Sharer double, Broadside’s dialogic form emphasizes the performance that links together multiple readers. The performance itself is sometimes actual—at least one full performance has taken place—and always potential—Carpenter notes the project remains “ongoing” (Broadside”). (This potential-actual pole also mirrors the Captain-Sharer dynamic that toggles between real and unreal.) Crossing space and time, such a performance might link a reader to another reader even without their awareness.Discussing the influence of locative media applications on cognitive mapping of a place, Didem Ozkul and David Gauntlett point out that

Within this process of representation and creating a self-narrative of one’s everyday life through location information, a tool commonly used for identifying routes—the map—comes to be used as an interface, where users can create their own geotagged stories of their lives. (113)

In this view, locative media enable ever more robust mapping. Carpenter’s piece mines the tension between the potential of locative technology, the paper maps of the installation complicated by the QR code’s tantalizing promise of “more information online” for the reader, and the problem of knowing or understanding one’s location in a fluid system. Broadside is critical of the fixedness any kind of map, old or new technology, promises. At the same time though, it looks past the map, emphasizing the abilities of and possibilities for the embodied reader in a performative space. A map, after all, is a kind of script: it must be executed by its reader, achieving its purpose at the moment it’s left behind. With its collage of text, image, and script, Broadside creates what Lindhé terms a “space-body-word-image-nexus,” which provides the premise for performativity. Touch and voice both exceed the boundaries of self in the search for others, which doubles the search for self-understanding.

Reading Networks, Reader Communities

As artworks or artists’ books, print-digital works rehearse the history of the QR code, usually with a critical eye. The QR code was first developed in 1994 by Denso Wave, at the time a subsidiary of Toyota, for tracking vehicles and parts in manufacturing (“History”). Its main domain, as any consumer will recognize, is corporate marketing: through a (usually free) app on the consumer’s phone, scanned QR codes invite their user to explore more about a product online. For Fritton, Carpenter, and Borsuk and Bouse, using an advertising tool in the service of art feels subtly political, a comment on the book as possessing its own kind of value. Yet the QR code’s roots in advertising are not so different from the origins of the broadside, which was originally a large printed announcement, argument, or advertisement prominent in the 18th century. In contrast to these historical ephemera, the contemporary broadside is, while still letterpress-printed, more likely to bear a poem printed by a fine or university press, intended to be framed and displayed.

Drawing on aspects of both the prosaic, mass-produced advertisement and the poetic object, Emily Dyer Barker’s intermedial broadside series is possibly the most collaborative and distributed of our print-digital works. Collectively titled the “Public Spectacle Essays” as noted on her Kickstarter, the series spans three related projects: “How To Write A Crazy Love Letter” (February 2012), “Acceptable Reasons To Cry In Public” (November 2012), and “I Miss Everything About You” (July 2015). Through their conceptualization, process, distribution, and documentation, these essays explore the affordances of old and new media and the kinds of communities these media enable. Like Fritton’s work, Barker’s broadsides explore the tension inherent in letterpress-printing a QR code intended to be read by machines, its executable component directly dependent on hand printing. Here, the sense of poetics as process and the concept of poetry as media directly overlay each other, as the process of making comments on the objects made. Further complicating the reading network is the notion of the series itself. “How To Write A Crazy Love Letter” contains six broadsides, each with its own title, and a seventh broadside produced as a colophon. Each broadside, in addition to its title, QR code, and accompanying text, notes its number in the series, drawing the reader not only along the axis from printed text to digital text but from one printed text to the next. “Acceptable Reasons To Cry In Public” and “I Miss Everything About You” each contain four individual broadsides, likewise marked. Unlike a bound codex, however, the possibility of reading an entire series is entirely dependent on how the reader encounters the work. These are ergodic and radically locative pieces, located in disparate environments that require non-trivial labor—and some luck—to traverse.

The series’ production values read as an homage to broadside culture. Printed with a combination of wood type (“over 100 years old”) for the title, handset metal type (“also very old”), and photopolymer plates (“brand new”) for the QR codes, Barker views these media as historically as well as aesthetically located (“Crazy”). The sheer number of broadsides printed also declares these as a kind of ephemeral object, or at least, one to be used in a manner consistent with advertising broadsides of old, despite their letterpressed content: the edition for the first series totals an astounding 2,473 broadsides, with the second and third editions set at a slightly more modest 350 per broadside (for a total of 1,400 per series). As the edition size indicates, the broadsides are intended to be executed, like a code or a script, as a public installation.

As in Broadside, where the object doubly functions as itself and as part of a larger performative work distributed in space and time, the “Public Spectacle Essays” deem themselves “multi-city letterpress poster installations” (“Cry In Public”). After the first series, Barker enlisted Kickstarter backers as “curators” who would receive a set of broadsides for a nominal fee with the instructions to install them and document the result. In the second series, the collaborative potential is even greater: as part of the process, Barker crowdsourced and curated the text for the broadsides (“Cry In Public”). The project relies on varying degrees of participation, including a robustly active version in which reader becomes co-author. Though multiple avenues, Barker’s project attempts to implicate the widest possible public. Brought online by prior involvement, word of mouth, or by the QR code, readers become community members with myriad roles, creating a project with increasing global span. Meanwhile, documentation steadily amasses online, where readers submit pictures of where they see the broadsides using created hashtags. Each series itself has designated Twitter or Instagram feeds, which often include additional text that extends the scope of the project even further.

The “Public Spectacle Essays” utilize a wide range of media, but they maintain a deliberateness about that usage. Despite the robust web presence, Barker does not provide PDFs of the broadsides themselves, insisting on the tangibility of the physical object and its almost Benjaminian link to its haptic origin. She remarks, “The exhibition examines the contrast of extravagance with ephemera—taking something made by hand (at physical cost) and posting it in a public place where it is vulnerable and temporary” (“Miss”). “Extravagance” is conveyed in the work’s design by its range of colors (including metallics), while the websites also offer different remediations: once scanned, the QR codes reveal a typewritten text; additional texts online are designated by also being typewritten and scanned. As an intermedial project, then, the “Essays” create a complex logic. The broadsides generate digital responses, which are then remediated into analog (typewritten) texts, before being transferred back online. The process of transfer is a scan: not coincidentally, the same action of a mobile phone required to read the original broadsides. The work continually touches its haptic origins at the same time it spreads through digital methods. The first project’s colophon is even handwritten in pencil on yellow notebook paper (not the iOS notebook, but the wood pulp kind) and scanned to the project’s website, a prominent display of work by hand and a reminder of how language is embodied both in media and in oneself. As is the case when using pencils, erased sections of text hover as ghosts, emphasizing the incompleteness of any remediation.

While the “Public Spectacle Essays” intermingle old and new media to communicate their content, their content also considers communication: where it succeeds, where it breaks down. Barker’s self-effacing titles playfully display their preoccupation with emotional state as “spectacle,” whether it be crying in public, composing a message of ardor, or lingering on a melancholy past. Taken as a whole, the broadsides explore the turbulence of emotional states with humor and empathy, emphasized by their use of second and first person. The broadside titles under “How To Write A Crazy Love Letter,” for example, include “You must be able to face crippling regret” and “The situation must already be out of hand.” Body text for “Acceptable Reasons To Cry In Public” describes how emotions are sparked by trivial and traumatic occasions. One broadside ends, “You can’t get the gas pump to work. You saw an old man at the grocery store buy one can of cat food, a pint of milk, and a candy bar. You are somewhere besides the apartment you share with your estranged husband.” When scanned, the online text (again, typewritten) provides a simple gloss, a pause amongst the litany of emotions the broadsides profess; rather than an overarching thesis statement, the online component simply adds further nuance to the piece. This subtly shifts the attention from finding any real conclusion to the pleasures of reading across media that suggests different subjectivities and perspectives. The tactile-readerly pleasure is further complicated as the reader becomes implicated in the spectacle. Reading multiplies into a haptic performance, born of the work’s material form and the psychological performance of empathy.

The emotions prompted by the “Public Spectacle Essays” are deliberately physical inscriptions in space, often public space. In fact, the project was born when Barker saw, spray-painted on the side of an expressway, the five words that would become the title of the final series: “I Miss Everything About You.” Barker notes, “In a society with almost unlimited electronic means of publication, the five hand-written words were a witness for the power of language to create a physical site of connection” (“Miss”). Hence the “spectacle” of the essays, which suggest that it is possible for “complete strangers [to be] pulled into another person's intimate grief—just by sharing the public space” (“Cry In Public”). As for all the print-digital works under consideration here, material form is in service of larger questions about how we understand one another. Public space, shared space, becomes the ground for the sharing of emotion.

Individual answers to these questions are incorporated into the project as well: Barker requests and encourages documentation of encounters. One Kickstarter backer relates, “My daughter and I pulled on our coats and posted them around town in the fading afternoon light. It was a strangely moving experience” (“Cry In Public”). For these readers/curators, the experience becomes inseparable from the work, extending Glazier’s poesis to a radically ongoing process in which work is placed in the hands of readers who distribute it in varying spaces, at varying times. In one case, two readers who come across the broadsides digitally follow the QR code to reveal GPS coordinates, which they then physically follow to the original site of the graffiti (“Crazy”). The graffiti has been removed, but a QR code is present, plastered on the side of a concrete barrier. These readers then create a video essay about the experience and post it online, engendering even further reaction. In this moment it is impossible to separate the various texts from the experience of them, which the documentation provides in a remediated form. The embodied nature of that experience, however, holds as much weight—possibly more so—than any medial representation of it.

Physical and digital space, linked by human agents, constantly remediate each other in Barker’s project and all print-digital works. Occupying a unique position between the electronic and the artist’s book, print-digital works implicate an extensive network of reading, a Haylesian feedback loop that involves both machine and human. Seeking to know others and oneself, these works turn to surprising and compelling combinations of old and new media, destabilizing the definitions in the process. But destabilization is not their end goal. Rather, their entangled composition argues for a more thorough consideration of the embodied reader: far from losing our hands, they become indispensable as we manipulate a print map, a mobile phone, a website, or the pages of a codex. While tactility and other sensory explorations create an immersive experience for the reader, these works are interested, too, in more than just immersion. They insist on touch, a sense which, in Paterson’s formulation, “is a sense of communication. It is expressive, receptive, can communicate empathy” (1). These ideas are mirrored in the semantic content of print-digital works, which are preoccupied with the emotional and psychological aspects of communication. Their subjects—lyrical, dialogic, epistolary, performative—reflect their human concerns.

Works Cited

Barker, Emily Dyer. “Acceptable Reasons To Cry In Public” (Kickstarter). November 2012. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1074336773/acceptable-reasons-to-cry-in-public.

---. “How To Write A Crazy Love Letter.” January 2012. https://howtowriteacrazyloveletter.wordpress.com.

---. “I Miss Everything About You” (Kickstarter). July 2015. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1074336773/i-miss-everything-about-you.

Borsuk, Amaranth and Brad Bouse. Between Page and Screen. Siglio Press, 2012.

Bouchardon, Serge and Asunción López-Varela Azcárate. “Making Sense of the Digital As Embodied Experience.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 13.3. September 2011. https://doi.org/10.7771/1481-4374.1793.

Carpenter, J.R. “The Broadside of a Yarn.” Luckysoap, 2012. http://luckysoap.com/broadside.

---. Luckysoap. http://luckysoap.com.

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Sharer. Open Road Media, 2016.

Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books. Granary Books, 1995.

---. What Is? Nine Epistemological Essays. Cuneiform Press, 2013.

Farman, Jason. “Site Specificity, Pervasive Computing, and The Reading Interface.” The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies, edited by Jason Farman, Taylor and Francis, 2013, pp. 3-16.

Fritton, Chris. Why We Lose Our Hands. Ferrum Wheel Press, 2011.

Glazier, Loss Pequeño. Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries. University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. University of Chicago Press, 2014.

---. “The Time of Digital Poetry: From Object to Event.” New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, edited by Adalaide Morris, et al., MIT Press, 2007, pp. 182-209.

Lindhé, Cecilia. “‘A Visual Sense is Born in the Fingertips’: Towards a Digital Ekphrasis.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, 1 July 2013. http://digitalhumanities.org:8081/dhq/vol/7/1/000161/000161.html.

Mills, Mara. “What Should We Call Reading?” Flow, 3 December 2012. http://www.flowjournal.org/2012/12/what-should-we-call-reading/.

Ortega, Élika. “Not a case of words: Textual Environments and Multimateriality in Between Page and Screen.” Electronic Book Review, 1 January 2017. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/multimateriality.

Ozkul, Didem and David Gauntlett. “Locative Media in the City: Drawing Maps and Telling Stories.” The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies, edited by Jason Farman, Taylor and Francis, 2013, pp. 113-127.

Paterson, Mark. The Senses of Touch. Oxford, 2007.

Rapatzikou, Tatiani G. “Reading Machines and Reading Subjects in Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen.” War on the Human: New Responses to an Ever-Present Debate, edited by Theodora Tsimpouki and Konstantinos Blatanis, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, pp. 100-115.

White, Michelle. “History of QR Codes.” http://www.mobile-qr-codes.org/history-of-qr-codes.html.

Return to Table of Contents