(REVIEW) Between Page and Screen, by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse
In this review, Max Parnell considers the linguistic and technical challenges and provocations that occur when reading augmented reality texts, specifically Between Page and Screen, by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse (Springgun Press, 2018).
> Considering that the fusion and melding of different media with text is far from a new phenomenon, the fact of having stumbled across this new work (book, website, augmented reality software?) in a review in the MIT Technology Review hinted at its technological prominence.
> I think the first hurdle I faced in trying to review this work, the challenge in trying to define this piece, functions as a pertinent springboard. When I commenced my analysis of the Between Page and Screen (BPaS), its very definition proved to be problematic, as it isn’t wholly clear which element to first address. Should BPaS be referred to as a book, a website, an Augmented Reality (AR) engine or all three? Does focusing first on the printed book unjustly take attention away from the technological prowess of Brad Bouse, the AR designer? These were questions that surfaced before I had even considered the text itself, perhaps the most crucial element to any poetry review. Even when considering ones relation to the piece, it’s not clear whether to refer to oneself as the user, viewer or reader. Any one who experiences BPaS is at once a user of the website and operator of the webcam triggered AR, whilst too being the reader of the augmented text.
> In an essay entitled 'Not a case of words: Textual Environments and Multimateriality in Between Page and Screen', Élika Ortega examines the possible permutations of Between Page and Screen (BPaS), noting the different ways in which we can conceive of this intermedial phenomenon. Perhaps the most obvious approach, and the one that the creators themselves adopt, is to consider the work first and foremost as a book, its text requiring activation via a webcam on a computer screen. This can be inverted to conceptualise the work as a website with an application that reads the codes printed in a book via webcam. The third permutation, as Ortega notes, is to view the work as an Augmented Reality engine embedded in a website designed for reading printed codes in a book. What this conceptual exercise demonstrates to us as reader/user/viewer, beyond showing how the work’s multiple elements function only in unison, is that each user’s expectations will vary depending on how they first come into contact with the work. To use my own case as an example, to come across a book of poetry on the MIT Technology Review instantly shaped how I received and approached the work. I think it’d be fair to assume that when I usually purchase a book of poetry, I normally do so due with a curiosity regarding the texts that make up a certain collection. Visual aesthetics of course play a part in my decision making, with a certain cover or inclusion of imagery consistently affecting what works I choose to read and how I approach them.
> With that in mind, it’s interesting that what sparked my interest and caused me to almost instantly order a copy of BPaS had little, if nothing to do with the content of the text nor with the design of the book. As someone seeking to find new modes of blending current technologies and media with my own work, it was the AR aspect of this piece that triggered my purchase. Thus to pinpoint which of the above permutations fits my initial approach, it has to be the third one Ortega mentions: there being no doubt in my mind that I purchased access to a piece of AR technology, the book being necessary to activate this engine.
> Yet this is not to downplay the quality or worth of the actual text: it is both conceptually enticing and eloquently written. It is just that these qualities, in my approach, came as secondary to the technology.
> Examining the book itself, a slim, visually and tactually pleasing collection consisting almost entirely of code, the viewer is forced to reevaluate what place text actually holds in this object. Whilst having the feel and traditional appearance of a book, the majority of its content, blank pages with black geometric patterns, can be inspected but not read. The only elements that can be read, and which assist the perceiver’s conceptualisation of the object as a book, are orientational fragments such as editorial notes, references to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European, the creators’ bios and excerpts from reviews printed on the back cover. So whilst the object itself contains many of the conventional traces of the book, the text itself remains concealed: meaning that the object circumvents being conceptualised as a book, but instead is understood as part of a multimedia system, whose pages function in the creation of a ‘textual environment’ (1) , as Ortega puts it.
> In order to read the poems of BPaS, the user has to navigate to the creator’s website, clicking the link ‘read the book’.
> This approach completely switches common reading rituals: whether that be sitting down to open a printed book, activate an e-reader, or opening a file on a computer screen. Needing to activate your webcam and seeing yourself on screen holding the book draws attention to what it is to experience this piece, as the observer now enters the process of ‘unlocking’ the poems. The physical task of showing your webcam the codes feels slightly awkward, which adds a playful notion of learning to read into the experience, as you become more adept at positioning the code to gain the best angle to view each piece. As the outer rim of the screen glows the same shade of pink as the book’s cover, the poems sprout out of the page, floating quite literally in the space between page and screen.
> Having mastered this new reading/unlocking technique, the user is then granted access to the love affair that exists between two characters, or letters, P and S. These letters, rich with innuendos, homophones and paronomasia, allow for the visual aesthetics of the words’ literal constructions and collapses to mirror the very linguistic deconstructions and lexical reshaping of the text itself. That is to say, as the screen renders, the letters spring up from the code, falling into their respective positions. When the reader then stops allowing the webcam to read the code, either intentionally or not, the text clusters shatter — collapsing in all directions and leaving the user left looking back at themselves in the webcam. The letters gain pace both as the user races to follow the wordplay whilst also trying to maintain a steady handle on the book to keep the text in tact. Consistent with this visual construction-collapse, the letters themselves contain a profusion of anagrammatic reconstructions, with the author rehashing words either visually, or within the letters themselves:
I lied – not idle. I’d sidle up to either side that held me. Let slide my I. Oh yes. – S
Widely familiar with new media writing and a member of the Electronic Literature Organization, Amaranth Borsuk recognised in an interview with Salon the necessity for the AR to be coherent with the textual elements of this piece, noting the risk that artists can run if using new media just because it’s available. It was because of this that the conceptual relationship between P and S came into being, creating the conversation between two letters, but also between the page and the screen as the title suggests. Borsuk also explores in this interview the etymologies of both the words ‘page’ and ‘screen’, and why their two linguistic roots made for an interesting conceptualisation of romantic compatibility. ‘Page’, as Borsuk tells us, comes from the roots pag- and pak-, meaning to fasten or join together, giving us words about connection, such as ‘pact’, ‘peace’, ‘appease’, ‘pacify’, ‘pawl’, ‘pole’ and ‘peasant.’ The Latin root pagina is defined as ‘trellis’, ‘so at its heart, the page is metaphorically a trellis to which lines of writing are affixed’, (2) Borsuk points out.
> The root for ‘screen’ is (s)ker-, meaning to ‘shine’, coming from a form that means to ‘cut’, with the metonymic connection being that many cutting implements have a sheen. Some words given to us by that root about protection and defense are “scabbard,” “shield,” “skirmish,” “shear,” “score,” “carnage,” “carrion” and “charcuterie” (from the Latin root caro, for flesh). (3)
> When paired together as two different personalities, certain crossovers from between the two etymologies, with ‘screen’ giving us ‘share’ and the other form of ‘sheer’, meaning translucent. On the behalf of ‘page’, we find aggressive terms such as ‘impale’ and ‘impact’.
> Thus what this pairing offers the reader is a wealth of potential linguistic experimentations that Borsuk so deftly undertakes throughout this collection. By visualising the construction and deconstruction of language through this AR engine, the relationship between the two characters opens up into an examination of the heritage of each letters, showing both the longevity of such linguistic roots whilst also visualising the fragility of such words through their literal collapse between the page and screen.
Amaranth Borsuk in Reading, Revolutionized by Buzz Poole in Salon, 2012.
Amaranth Borsuk & Brad Bouse – Betweenpage and Screen, Siglio Press 2012.
Élika Ortega in Not a case of words: Textual Environments and Multimateriality in Between Page and Screen, published in Electronic Book Review, 01-01-2017.
(1). Ortega, Élika, in Not a case of words: Textual Environments and Multimateriality in Between Page and Screen, published in Electronic Book Review, 01-01-2017 http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/not-a-case-of-words-textual-environments-and-multimateriality-in-between-page-and-screen/ [accessed 26/11/2018].
(2). Borsuk, Amaranth, in Reading, Revolutionised, in Salon, 16/04/2012 https://www.salon.com/2012/04/16/reading_revolutionized/ [accessed 26/11/2018].
Text & Images: Max Parnell