Playing with the Written Word: A Review of ABRA: A Living Text

This past summer, scholar and artist Christina Corfield introduced me to Edward Bellamy’s prescient book, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (Ticknor & Co.). In his book, which was published in 1888, Bellamy describes musical telephones, disposable paper clothing, and open publishing platforms for any citizen interested in writing (and the benefit of no censorship or requirement of approval from a country’s governing body). Bellamy may have successfully predicted Internet services such as Spotify, Amazon, and a vast number of publishing platforms such as WordPress or Tumblr.

While books and publishing have significantly changed since 1887, I’m certain Bellamy would spend a countless amount of hours marveling at the mobile technology we have today. Reading and writing are, literally, at our fingertips. Within seconds, anybody with a smartphone or tablet can publish a photo, moving image, or narrative of whatever they desire for the entire world to access.

The familiar streaks of natural oils from our fingertips on a pitch-black, shiny surface serve as a visual reminder of the human body’s connection to small high-powered devices. For some people, this tethering ushers in the age of singularity when we become intertwined with technology. Yet, with the massive amount of applications to produce digital books and publications, what happens to the senses over time? What happens to the feel and touch of books? What happens to how information is consumed, and how is text-based art created?

As an only child, my mother intentionally did not buy me a Gameboy or any electronic toy (with an exception of a computer for educational purposes) until I was well into junior high. With access to the Internet, I snuck in time to go onto AOL chatrooms and felt those were the most memorable ways I learned how to communicate, albeit with strangers. I learned how to craft language to stay friendly, but simultaneously enigmatic. Writing has always been an activity I immersed myself in since I was raised as an only child. My mother bought nothing but books and encouraged me to draw and write stories as opposed to watch television. As imaginative as I was, I often hoped the characters and words would lift off of the page and somehow come to life. From reading C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, I desperately wanted to conjure an alternate universe for these characters, and perhaps introduce a few of my own into the storyline. Growing up, I felt a profound desire to re-write stories that would be more reflective of my experiences and include myself in the narrative somehow.

As mobile technology gets increasingly slimmer, more robust, and smarter, haptic technology seems to be the necessity in our postmodern existence. Our devices have replaced human interactions, with heads looking down onto small screens and eyes adapting to minuscule font sizes to read. You may be reading this post on a smartphone right now. Despite your preferred method of engaging with text, moving image has also proven to be something that seems to be morphing and changing with every update and enhancement. If we think about technology as a medium for creativity, as opposed to something that commands us, something magical can happen.

Something magical did happen—the project ABRA, created by Kate Durbin, Amaranth Borsuk, and Ian Hatcher, reinvigorates the imagination and allows users to not only create their own adventure, prose, or poem, but enables a different way of creating and playing with the written word.


Courtesy of the Artists

At its core, ABRA is a spellbook. This application presents a fresh perspective on how we read, and integrates our understanding of how to create words, stories and narratives with this technological interface. The multiple pages and spells that have culturally and historically been attributed to voluminous anthologies are the things that make up fairy tales. Yes. However, ABRA offers its user the possibility to create something wondrous using the capacity of touch interaction as a medium for creative inquiry for novel objects and performances.


Courtesy of the Artists

The collective state that, “ABRA began as a collaborative book-length poem created by Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin. During the writing process, Amaranth and Kate wrote poems separately using a series of constraints, then wove them together and edited them side by side. As they constructed these conjoined poems, a new voice emerged, that of ABRA herself. In order to perform as ABRA, they began to create a series of conjoined costumes, each an avatar whose various aspects reflect references within the poems.” The poets created an avatar for an entity that originates within the digital realm. This transmutation and embodiment of ABRA allows for endless possibilities. The translation from digital to physical beings uses the application as a method for creating experimental writing and performance.


Courtesy of the Artists

Spell-seekers, poets, and writers can take great pleasure in the fact that one is able to mutate, graft, prune, erase, cadabra, and share their poetry and writing with the world through ABRA. Or not. I think that’s the beauty of maximizing the use of such a tool. The work can be as public or as private as the writer wants it to be. In a world that is so hellbent on documenting everything, there’s something beautiful and sublime about seeing one’s writing changing faintly and looping in emojis as a way to code and codify writing. ABRA, much like a chatbot, builds her vocabulary and transmutates text based on the frequency of use.

For example, if by selecting the command “mutate,” tapping on the word, “heaving” morphs into “ravishing,” and so forth. The user is also able to “graft” onto the existing poetry written by Durbin and Borsuk. The process and discovery of tapping and touching become a form of meta-writing and creation. Where one or more people can start to create language and meaning all on their own. From form to content, the app allows for creation that figuratively helps integrate the productive uses of mobile technology. Haptic technology doesn’t have to mean something purely for information seeking or swiping left and right for our desires. ABRA allows us to see a new way of creating that integrates the body, our touch, and fingertips in a way that truly propagates a message of possibility and potential, while also encouraging and perpetuating what book creation can achieve.

Durbin and Borsuk also created a physical book iteration of ABRA  (1913 Press, 2016). They describe the book as a:

foil-stamped cover based on an image by artist Peregrine Honig, which readers will discover emerging from the book’s creamy pages. While the book contains the same text as the limited-edition artists’ book and iOS app, it is not simply a remediation of the text. Animating the printed page, the poem’s stanzas meld one into the next, each recycling language from the preceding. Illustrations by visual artist Zach Kleyn grow and mutate like a flip-book, eventually reaching across the gutter to meld with the text.

Another physical book project formed from the creation of ABRA is a hardcover limited-edition book constructed by Amy Rabas at the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago. As listed on the artists’ site, “the artists’ book invites readers to see the page itself as an interface that invites touch and interaction. Animating across its surface, the poems mutate in an ecstatic helix of words that blur the boundary between text and illumination. Your iPad can be inserted in the back of the book creating a continuous touch-screen interface. ABRA invites readers to feel blind impressions, heat-sensitive disappearing ink, and laser-cut openings that allow one to see and interact with the poems mutating on the screen below.”

Courtesy of the Artists

Courtesy of the Artists

While the app can serve writing practices as well, I am most interested in other creative and radical ways ABRA can be used for people to send and share secret messages, or how it would help facilitate the creative writing process. The inevitable creation of a tool such as ABRA opens up how mobile devices can further expand as tools for the creative writing process. Since ABRA becomes personalized over time, there are no boundaries, and there is no feeding into a mass of algorithms.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other applications that follow suit, since ABRA has proven to be a medium in and of itself, and is thus helping to change the course of literature and poetry. Does ABRA have the capacity to assist writers in taking their practices to new levels of presentation and representation into physical manifestations of the digital? To perhaps create an entirely new avatar of ABRA? The answer is up to the user. The possibilities are boundless, and this tool will force writers and artists to consider their process, as an increasing number of the global population are creating from their devices.

Overall, the human formations of ABRA are the most extraordinary and striking aspects of the project. The collective reminds us that “ABRA sprung, not fully formed, but fully forming, from the minds of two poets who wanted to braid their aesthetics and poetics – one language-centric, concerned with words’ slipperiness and mutability, and the other richly and erotically corporeal, concerned with feminist representation and pop culture.” Borsuk and Durbin’s creation of ABRA‘s avatars as an entanglement of bodies and intertwined poetics of the individual artists themselves succeed in the creation of ABRA as a “post human prophet” (“ABRA: Expanding Artists’ Books into the Digital Realm,” 2016). The representations of ABRA’s avatars as conjoined twins show the potential of ABRA as a catalyst for performative work.


ds_2Dorothy R. Santos is a writer, editor, curator, and educator. Her work appears in art21, Hyperallergic, Rhizome, and more. She is managing editor of Hyphen Magazine, a news and culture magazine focused on Asian America.

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