Please touch this…

Posted filed under Experience, Projects.

Reading Time: 8 minutes


Image by George Margelis, 2019

This article has been adapted from a talk delivered at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol (26/10/18), as part of the Friday lunchtime open talk series.

This book was written in an urge to remember, reflect, mourn, overthink, celebrate, and seek meaning in the transparent, or otherwise irrational dynamics of human relationships; while extending the sense of self and feelings. Please treat it with the greatest of care and respect, it is fragile and alive, it feels and it breathes like any other soul.

In this book, the human hand is as important as love. The words on these pages reflect the way by which the idea of you often haunts corners of my mind, echoing the transition and ephemerality of your effect on me; revealing the diminishing value of words expressed on impulse that vanished into the aether, as they were never intended or belonged to anyone, not even to us. My writing will greet your eyes with the same sensuality as the palm of my hand once gently pressed against your face.

(opening text, To You by Yiota Demetriou)

I have created an interactive artist’s book that combines elements from performance, philosophy, creative writing, experience design, tactile art, science, and pervasive technology. It responds to the reader’s body heat. In it is a series of love letters that were never sent, addressed To You, the reader. It is a quasi-semiotext (e.g. books like I Love Dick), poetry written in prose, interweaving philosophical notions of love, attachment, loss (Sartre, Barthes, Camus,  et al.), with autobiography and fiction. I have been contemplating human contact, communication, closeness, and tactictility/materiality for a while now (thinking postdigital).

The book is presented as an intimate reading experience hidden in the pages of an apparently unreadable book. The content draws parallels between the intense erotic delusions played out in the exchange of love letters, and the dynamics of human relationships. Imbued with warmth from a reader’s gentle touch, its black pages gradually become translucent. The writing becomes visible, and traces of fingerprints are left on its pages. Unlike many reading experiences, this book responds to body heat by inviting the reader to lovingly caress it.

The book’s design and the way it invites the reader to engage with it reflects its very content and the way in which it was conceived. It makes visible all those ritualistic and performative aspects experienced when writing a love letter. If you have never written a love letter, I urge you to write one now and return to this article later.

Image by George Margelis, 2019

Creating a book was not my intention. It became a book. The narrative was born out of something highly personal: love letters, as mentioned, that were never sent. A conversation with myself attempting to rationalise and put into perspective what had happened in a relationship. A mode of healing I suppose, by questioning the human condition, the different dynamics at play, and simultaneously negotiating vulnerability with oneself.

At the time, I was conceptualising my performance project, Love Letters (2012-), which some of you might have encountered through an article that was previously published here on The Writing Platform, or might have even participated in:

Whilst writing the former article, I reencountered and refamiliarised myself with schools of thought around the ritual of reflective and reflexive writing, writing letters (not only love letters!), autobiography, attachment theory, etc. These notions influenced my writing, not at least the conceptualisation of my performance project, but also my letters, the way in which I discussed, and wrote about my own situation.

Within the intuitive process of the content itself flourishing into a collection, and further into a book, the content was re-written, re-configured, layered, reconstructed, and interrogated several times. It eventually became something that was less about me, or what had occurred, and instead something about being human; finding a space where so-called ‘vulnerabilities’ can live in their raw form, without having to apologise. In the book, I use a Greek word to describe this experience, Apogymnomeno/(a). I couldn’t find a suitable term in English to deliver the depth of its meaning, another untranslatable viscerality. I suppose it’s because I communicate in English, I think in English, but I feel in Greek.  The challenge was to navigate and distance myself from the content without the writing losing its emotionality or rawness.

Image by Yiota Demetriou

The other challenge was the presentation of the content. I wanted the book’s material form to reflect its content; a love union between form and text that work together, responding to each other through exterior interaction. The book had to be alive. It had to resonate with the erratic eruption of feelings, the non-linearity of life, the difficulty of relationships, the chaos and irrationality of emotions, the vulnerability and rawness of things.

While I was thinking about love letters, particularly how love letters are written and encountered, I was inspired by Sartre:

“Love letters are awaited with impatience: it is not so much for the news they bring (supposing of course that we have nothing special to fear or to hope for), but for their real and concrete nature. The stationery, the black signs, the smell, etc., all these replace the weakening affective analogon […]” (Sartre, p.145).

In a way, the experience of reading To You and engaging with it reflects Sartre’s thoughts. For Sartre, love letters awaken an affective analogue, a physiological or psychological element that is a constituent of a person’s imaginative state. This is the ideal and subjectified reality or imaginary affection of the lover for the beloved. It is the subjective idea that the lover holds of the recipient of the love letter, which serves as a substitute when the beloved is absent. This emerges from within the person engaged in the physical and conceptual ritual of writing the love letter. For example, at the moment when the beloved becomes absent, the lover’s desire transforms into an irreal object – something produced, not by the beloved’s existing image or presence (beloved-as-real), but by the lover’s idea of them, which is trying to fill in the gaps of their beloved’s presence (beloved-as-imagined). As this irreal object becomes difficult to imagine because of the physical absence between the lover and the beloved, it confirms the lover’s desires. Due to the physical absence, the affection and love between the lovers reverts into a type of ‘deprived’ or empty love, “a love for love’s sake, a love that is in love with nothing other than itself” (Kearney, p.68). In this sense, the lover uses their ‘analogon’, their own perception, to make present to themselves that which is absent, the imagined beloved. The very practice of writing love letters makes this emotional process of a relationship between the lover and the beloved transparent.

For both Sartre and Roland Barthes, the lover’s anguish over the beloved’s absence and the longing for their presence is desire, which uses imagination to cover the voids created by an absence. In this sense, it is only the imagination writing love letters to itself, responding to its desire with its own desire. The aspects of presence, absence, and embodiment are central themes that To You engages with, and perpetually returns to and interrogates, throughout its narrative.

First Prints, 2017

The book is printed in thermochromic ink that manifests these ideas and aids their materialisation. Through a lot of trial and error I eventually ended up with an object, “that was less like reading a book and more like handling a precious treasure”, as a colleague has commented. She also said:

Somehow you already feel a personal connection. Pressing your hand to the black pages, your body heat creates a flare of white appearing between the web of your fingers, and you feel as though secrets are being shared in the dark. You see the object you are holding take the impression of your own body, and yet you see only windows onto the words below. Like a lover, there is great intimacy of a hand pressing the page, and yet the text underneath retains its enigma. Zoe Heron (†) Comedian, Multimedia Performance Maker, and Academic.

Another person, who experienced the book during its prototype testing, commented:

What’s fascinating about the overall experience of reading and touching, especially the aspect of covering and uncovering or unraveling thoughts through this type of interaction; and the way the book is put together, in concertina form, is the possibility to connect with the more ‘irrational’ aspects of being human. The moment I pressed my hands onto its dark pages, was also a moment of paying attention to the flow of emotions inside of me: the content becomes transparent from my own warmth; emotionality that is sometimes frowned upon is suddenly allowed. These seize to be dark by my own engagement with it as if reclaiming my own state of being. Like relationships, of any type, the book echoes the effort needed to sustain them – so the book can almost feel comfortable to open up and talk to you.  Francesca Prandelli, Journalist.

The design of the words in the book follows a signiconic approach. Text and image merge to provide the reader with a new perspective that has as much to do with semiology and language as it does with experience and emotions. In this way, the book attempts to materialise the emotions behind words. This emerged through conversations with my co-conspirator, (I think that’s a suitable title), Tom Abba, a well-known book artist/designer (based in Bristol), and fellow erotographomaniac. To You allowed space for collaboration, a space for another voice in the piece, where Tom’s contribution to the visualisation of the text, amongst other things, became highly significant to the work – “much as the work itself is a voice communicating with an (absent) voice”, he says…

Image by George Margelis

All components that make the book what it is, indicate the necessity of affection through touch, and thus the significance of the human hand as an organ both of performance and of perception. As I said in the beginning of this article, “I have been contemplating human contact, communication, closeness, and tactility/materiality for a while now”. For Aristotle, the hand is the “tool of tools”. It is strength, power and protection, generosity, and hospitality. For Quintilian: “The hands may almost be said to speak. Do we not use them to demand, promise, summon, dismiss, threaten, supplicate, express aversion or fear, question or deny? Do we not use them to indicate joy, sorrow, hesitation, confession, penitence, measure, quantity, number, and time? Have they not the power to excite and prohibit, to express approval, wonder, shame?”. I find it interesting reading up on the symbolism of hands, and explaining how this is associated with my overall artistic practice, but this is perhaps a subject for another article.

The book’s design makes it difficult to read. You need to give it warmth, you need to give it love and attention, you need to make an effort. Sometimes it is not easy, you need to touch it… you need friction… You will put it down, pick up it, make a cuppa and warm your hands up; you won’t read it all in one sitting. That’s what it is really about; physical bodies relating to the work. The letters return to the idea of physicality, tactility, materiality. The book asks to be touched, it seeks intimacy and attention. This is revealed through its very first lines: “In this book, the human hand is as important as love.

To You, will be made available for purchase soon! To keep updated and find out more about the book, follow Yiota on Twitter @yiota_demetriou, or visit the book’s site: Sign up to the book’s mailing list via the site above, to follow its journey.

The project is supported by Dr. Tom Abba (Bristol-based Book Artist and Designer), and Prof. Kate Pullinger (Novelist and Academic) through the Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries (@CCCIBathSpa), at Bath Spa University.

Dr Yiota Demetriou is a multimedia artist, memory curator, experience maker, audience/UX researcher, and academic of performance and digital media. She is a resident at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol and loves all things collaborative, human-centered, and grassroots, and suffers from erotographomania; the practice of writing a lot of love letters. She researches creative technologies, immersive and performative practices and spaces, installation and sound art, autobiography, heritage, curation, and ethics of audience participation, engagement, and involvement. Yiota has taught across the Universities of Bristol and Bath Spa, and has worked as a research fellow at Bath Spa University, UWE, and Brunel University of London. She creates and curates people-centered experiences, and creatively leads/consults on projects based on participatory human-centered design, including UI and UX.  See more of her work here: Follow Yiota on Twitter: @yiota_demetriou  

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