“Abra: A Living Text” by Amaranth Borsuk, Kate Durbin, Ian Hatcher

  • ©2015, Amaranth Borsuk, Kate Durbin, and Ian Hatcher, Abra: A Living Text
  • ©2015, Amaranth Borsuk, Kate Durbin, and Ian Hatcher, Abra: A Living Text


    Abra: A Living Text

Artist(s) and People Involved:



Creation Year:



    IOS App

Artist Statement:

    Abra: A Living Text is an interactive artwork distributed as a free app for iPhone and iPad that invites readers to play with a constantly-mutating and evolving text. Pushing at the boundaries of the book, Abra presents a text that refuses to be held to the page, refuses singular authorship, and allows the reader / viewer to make it their own. Game-like, but not a game per se, Abra is a text toy that takes advantage of algorithmic processes to decentralize authorship and create an unpredictable, unruly, generative text.

    The recipient of an NEA-funded Expanded Artists’ Books Grant from the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, Abra: A Living Text is an exploration and celebration of the potentials of the book in the 21st century. Coupling a limited-edition hand-bound book printed with heat-sensitive ink and other features that animate print together with a free iPad and iPhone app in which readers can bring the text to life, Abra blurs the boundaries between the page and tablet as touchscreen interfaces, encouraging readers to see the book as an ever-changing form whose mutation they can participate in. The artist’s book and app can be read separately or together, with an iPad inserted into a well in the back of the book.

    For consideration for the exhibitions at ISEA2016, we submit the free app, which contains the same text as the artists’ book, but which does not simply remediate it. Rather, the app takes advantage of the touch-screen interface to make Abra a customizable experience that is different each time it is read.

    The app, programmed by Ian Hatcher, and collaboratively designed with authors Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin, makes reference obliquely to print’s history and future. It presents poems in colors that emulate those of medieval manuscript illumination, floating on the black screen. A dial composed of rainbow-hued ornaments from a 17th-century typeface allows one to navigate through the text, which mutates helically from one verse to the next. When words are shared between lines and across stanzas, they are kept visually intact and animated to new positions, shifting into place as the dial is spun. One stanza swallows the next, an ouroboros that leads from the Abra’s first to last word: “heaving”.

    As the text heaves itself into being, readers may change it as well, selecting from a toolbar at the top of the screen a number of “spells” they can cast with their fingers. “Mutate” changes words when they are touched, substituting language and emoji from the app’s lexicon based on relative symbolic similarity. “Erase” removes those words the reader touches, leaving gaps in the text. “Prune” both trims away words and closes up the space. “Graft” lets readers type in any language or symbolic set their device is capable of handling, including emoji, allowing them to paint their words into the text.

    These words are added to Abra’s lexicon and can appear at will when the autonomous mutation setting is active. The “Cadabra” button casts an unpredictable spell, drawing randomly from a range of algorithmically-determined behaviors that include visual re-arrangements, animation, word transformations, selective censorship, and erasure attuned to sound and language.

    When they have shaped the text to their liking, readers can share their creations using built-in screen capture and social media buttons. Abra is thus a collaboration between Amaranth Borsuk, Kate Durbin, Ian Hatcher, and a potentially infinite number of readers. The seed text – a series of conjoined poems by Borsuk and Durbin that meditate on mutation and excess, rely on unruly images that merge the digital and natural worlds, and reflect upon the hive-minded nature of collaboration itself – refuses to stay on the page. This living text adapts to its reader, absorbing new language and images and incorporating them into the constantly-changing text.

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