At the crossroads of disability studies, design, comics studies and art, Shapereader was initially designed for comics readers with visual impairment. It is built on a growing repertoire of tactile ideograms (tactigrams) that provide haptic equivalents for all the semantic features of a comics narrative. Shapereader transposes semantic cognition to the reader’s fingertips. Its research was funded by the Kone Foundation in 2015 and its ongoing outreach plan for raising awareness has been unfolding in a variety of formats, contexts and collaborations. It is a transdisciplinary, inclusive project that promotes an embodied, non-retinal, narrative experience with an international outreach unique in the history of comics. More information can be found on the Shapereader website.
In 2021, and in the middle of the global pandemic, Shapereader’s tactile resources are put to use in the field of sonic experimentation and musical notation during a residency at the Vooruit Kunstencentrum. Eighteen performers from a variety of backgrounds, were invited to question the normativity of conventional notation tools, discuss the de-emphasizing of vision in regards to reading music and explore the manifold ways sound can be translated and stimulated by touch. The installation and the two music performances commemorate a certain mutuality, subscribed within a larger sensorial frame of acknowledging the physicality of surfaces, consistencies and forms, a sense of touch which might never be the same again. This is an international coproduction between the Onassis Foundation (GR), Vooruit and C-Takt (BE). The following documentary showcases Shapereader and its tactile resources as a speculative tool of musical notation.
A product of a collaboration between a comics artist, Ilan Manouach and an AI engineer, Ioannis Siglidis, The Neural Yorker is an AI engine that posts synthetic cartoons on Twitter. It is based on a GAN-derived model, developed by Applied Memetic that has been trained on millions of data units whose collection occurs on a variety of different indexing regimes and systems of classification and labeling. The multitude of epistemic regimes is not only thematized here as a metaphor or a theoretical perspective on the increasingly aggregate nature of knowledge production in our computational age, but becomes an operational procedure in the construction of the very same synthetic cartoons.
Media accumulation is productive in its capacity to expand our relation to memory, to contribute to the awareness of different regimes of attention, to broaden our understanding on the environmental footprint of the artistic and publishing production and to rethink the performative aspects of information management as contingent to artistic sensibilities, in terms of what Paul Stephens calls “the poetics of information overload”. Additionally and as creative processes are increasingly shaped by technological affordances, the comics industry is already facing the complex nature of developments in artificial intelligence. The online abundance of digitised media content, available through third-party groups of comics fans, the increasing convenience of programming language frameworks and machine learning libraries, the secularisation of knowledge through e-learning and the plummeting prices in specialised hardware is contributing to reach a critical point where artificial intelligence will profoundly shape the ways we produce, consume, archive and distribute comics artefacts. A more wide adoption of synthetic media, generative processes and predictive algorithms will not only reconfigure existing readerships and markets, but will ultimately force a radical realignement for the practitioners’ artistic ethos and contribute to the formation of new reader sensibilities.
This work is not about AI, but about the occupation of digital space. It’s not You, it’s Me was part of the exhibition You & AI, Through the Algorithmic Lens (curated by Irini Mirena Papadimitriou) that took place in Athens in June-July 2021 and was organized in Athens by the Onassis Foundation. It is an art intervention taking place simultaneously in the media, online, and as a big scale, site specific installation. The piece investigates how AI is changing the dynamics of self-representation and identities, and how technological mediation produces its own types of performativity and practices of othering. Through a communication campaign, the project invites members of the audience to post a selfie by attaching to the #greece2021 – this is an existing hashtag, part of a media campaign with the mission to celebrate the 200 years of modern Greece. It’s not You, it’s Me occupies that very same hashtag space but instead, presents a collective snapshot of an “extended demos” consisting of both real and fake intensities: citizen selfies are mixed with decontextualized faces from other humans posted by globally distributed micro-labor force, as well as synthetic faces of non-existing humans posted by programmed bots. The durational video work, presented through a large-scale screen installation, invites the viewer to negotiate meaning through different distributions of reality over fakeness in the latent space of a nationalist fiction.
Peanuts minus Schulz brings together a selection of comic strips home-brewed by over one thousand deskilled microworkers from twenty different countries commissioned through digital labor services. The operation consists in the reproduction of iconic comic strips using a number of variations devised by Ilan Manouach. Artist and researcher Ilan Manouach advances conceptual comics as an artistic practice devised to disrupt the myth of the solitary genius through the glorification of craftsmanship and fictions of artistic ethos and integrity. Conceptual comics aims to distance source artworks to make the claim for an expanded agency, in this case for the sake of microworkers as a whole. The operation Peanuts minus Schulz reveals the mechanisms at work behind creativity in the making and the potential of the art form in flux when it is informed by the peripheral vision of the interconnected precariat.
«The objectives and outcomes are light years away from what is generally discussed in the context of digital comics. (…) It is the tremendous merit of Ilan Manouach to help focus on the real stakes of the digital turn in comics (and art in general), which are not technological but cultural, that is artistic, social, economic and political.» – Jan Baetens, Leonardo Reviews
France: JBE | 700 pages | softcover edition with flaps | 2021 | 225mm x 160mm
The Cubicle Island Pirates, Microworkers, Spambots and the venatic lore of clickfarm humor is a conceptual comic book project, an experiment with the distributed ramifications of digital labor. The book collects hundreds of desert island cartoons, a genre that reached its peak of popularity in 1957, possibly as an expression of a Cold War fear of the nuclear bomb. I have detexted the original text captions and I solicited microworkers, through the interface of a popular digital labor platform, to submit a funny text between 50-70 words for each one of the cartoons. Microworkers are considered to be the operators of the smallest unit of work in a virtual assembly line. The term microwork describes a series of small tasks that are completed by many people over the Internet to comprise a large unified project, such as this book. Microworkers are most often asked to complete tasks for which no efficient algorithm has yet been devised. Microwork describes the deployment of human labor, and occurs in platform-mediated, zero-hour contract regimes that benefit minimal transactional frictions and the absolute circumvention of applicable minimum wage laws. As a labor force, microworkers find themselves in an important moment in the History of Labor; a stepping stone to Artificial General Intelligence’s exponential acceleration of technology that promises a new era in social and economic abundance.
The Cubicle Island is a durational performance based on 50 years of desert island press cartoons that highlights the extreme isolation that comes with new regimes of work in the making of an international class of precarious cognitive workers. Without sacrificing the cartoon’s semantic complexity and reader engagement, the book puts the emphasis of comics in their digitally distributed, partly human labor. The percolation of the comic strip units through the reader swarm of the digital factories and their cheap algorithmic surrogates, calls into question the primacy of the punchline and the drawing as the defining factors of the cartoon format and the comic industry. The Cubicle Island labors silently through the products of an extremely deskilled textual workforce, both human and non-human, and embraces the epistemic and technological accelerationism put forward by the interconnectedness of the global precarious. In the age of surveillance capitalism’s selective transparency, it thematizes new formations of labor and leisure. Limited print run, published by La Cinquieme Couche (BE) and Forlaens (DK). 1500 pages | hardcover edition | 2020 | 178mm x 254mm | SOLD OUT
Compendium of Franco-Belgian Comics was built following a personal typology of graphemes drawn from a shared reservoir of the 48CC Bande dessinée tradition. The acronym 48CC is a denomination that stands for hardcover, full-color, 48-pages comics books and refers to the industrial standard in bande dessinée. The name was contemptuously christened by the alternative publisher l’Association in order to point to the product of a normative and just-in-time book industry that dominates the French speaking comics publishing landscape. In Compendium one can find a variety of comics proto-memes, metanarrative devices, paratextual elements and building blocks of the European BD that have been extracted from forty-eight different comic books, scanned from cover to cover. The book reads as an orchestral score whose elements, freed from the imperatives of their specific narratives, are newly layered according to the instrument families of a large ensemble. Their arrangement is directly inspired by different compositional techniques of orchestral music and can also be understood as a hybrid between graphic scores in mid-century contemporary music, concrete poetry and poema proceso, scrapbook traditions and comics. The book appeared under the following titles:
Abrégé de bande dessinée franco-belge (Belgium: La Cinquieme Couche, France: L’Endroit, Switzerland: Hélice Hélas), Compendium of Franco-Belgian Comics (Greece: Topovoros, Israel: Gnat, Italy: Fortepressa, Brazil: Antilope) and Visuelt kompendium over konventionelle genretræk i den fransk-belgiske tegneserielitteratur (Denmark: Forlaens). 48 pages | hardcover edition CMYK | 2018 | 250mm x 350mm | SOLD OUT
Katz is a pirated edition of Art Spiegelman’s seminal graphic novel Maus. Katz is an exact copy of the French edition of Maus, with the difference that all the animal characters, have been redrawn as cats. The book was printed on November 2011 and it was seen in public for the first time in January 2012 during the International Comics Festival of Angoulême which ran under Spiegelman’s presidency. Two weeks before the book officially hit the book stores, the lawyers of Flammarion, the copyright holders of the French translation sent to the authors a cease-and-desist letter containing a five hundred page document containing comparison spreads from both Maus and Katz, interviews from Ilan Manouach, and his correspondence with Art Spiegelman. Refusing to take into account the conversational nature of the operation and its very limited printrun, Flammarion framed Katz as a counterfeit product and sought an injunction against the small Belgian press. The destruction of the totality of the print run took place in Brussels on March 15th 2012, in a specialised paper destruction facility.
Tintin Akei Kongo is the translated version of Tintin au Congo in lingala, the official Congolese dialect. The book is an exact fac-simile of the commercial edition and follows the industrial standards and layout of classical comics. The goal of this endeavour was not simply to construe the artist’s tasks through a redefinition of the possible interventions, by commissioning a translation himself; neither to emphasize the importance of discursivity and self-referentiality as a way to address comics both as a language and a form of logic. The goal is neither to fill a historical error by making accessible this work in the language of the mainly interested, the oppressed, the insulted. One should never forget the implicit consensus that stands behind the choice of languages for translated works. The fact that the original edition hasn’t found its way to the African market with a Congolese edition, reminds the reader of Tintin Akei Kongo that distribution of cultural products is not solely governed by profit and market values. Adding lingala to the 112 different translations of the Tintin Empire, Tintin Akei Kongo reveals blind spots in the expansion of the publishing conglomerates.
Belgium: La Cinquième Couche | 64 pages | hardcover edition | 2015 | 165mm x 220mm | exclusively sold in Congo | SOLD OUT
The conceptual comic book Noirs that engages with the original Les Schtroumpfs noirs‘ cultural industrial production and decision-making is a facsimile of the original edition: the same cover, the same number of pages and the same format. Noirs comes as closely as one can get to the original edition, except of one single difference; its colours. Offset colour separation is the industrial standard for printing comic books based on the act of breaking down a composite colour graphic into basic single-colour layers (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) that are printed separately, one on top of the other. In Noirs, the four different colour plates have been uniformly replaced by four plates of cyan, resulting in one single monochromatic composition. Noirs suspends for a moment the reading process. The book blurs the different stages of contamination in the characters of the original plot making the difference barely legible. By deprogramming the expedient efficiency of colour-coding, this facsimile edition argues for a state in which the distinctive category of ‘contamination’ and the fiction of normalcy becomes moot. In Noirs, reading and decoding mechanisms rely instead on features related to a contextual reading. The book follows Lennard Davis’s concept of the ‘deafened moment’ in disability studies, construing deafness, not as an essence but as a dynamic modality (contextualised) that occurs to everyone, in time; the author gives the example of the reader as someone that expresses this dynamic tension, stating that ‘all readers are deaf because they are defined by a process that does not require hearing or speaking. Similarly, Noirs produces such a moment; a moment that transcends categories of health and sickness, not with the goal to rebuff or iron out the specifics of different conditions, but instead to reveal how many of our assumptions about what is normal are embedded with assumptions about attributes related to colour, race and other majority identitarian features.
Noirs sheds light on the industrial fabrication of a book through the lenses of offset printing technology. Offset, a supposedly transparent and mechanic process, is revealed as a meaningful signifying device. By bottlenecking the different colours into one monochromatic composition, Noirs claims that the mere act of intervening in the printing process, exercising the most minimal amount of intervention possible, constitutes a craft by itself, not unlike the institution of deskilling practices in conceptual art. The goal of this endeavour, apart from reaffirming the toxicity of comics as traditionally addressing the lower common denominator, is to problematise the innocuous naturalisation of the ideological potential of colour through a formal experiment into a language (offset technology) acting upon another language (the book’s content).
What does site-specificity mean in comics? La Ballade de la Mer Salée is a remake of a colonial classic of graphic literature based on the celebrated series of the Corto Maltese adventures penned by Hugo Pratt. The book is a fac-simile of the Casterman edition, whose production was entirely commissioned to a person of undisclosed identity, born and currently living in the Polynesian archipelago, the semi-fictional geography of the original storyline. Tracing each page of the book becomes an act of retaliation against the ghosts that constructed and perpetuated a colonial view of the world where the superiority of Western Christian values become fodder for an entire genre of white man comics and his nineteenth century colonial adventures.