Can heat and touch-sensitive book To You replicate human connection?

Can heat and touch-sensitive book To You replicate human connection?

When British-Cypriot multimedia artist, performance maker and academic Yiota Demetriou went through a tough period, she wrote love letters—never sent—to help her through it. Afterwards she decided to turn them into an innovative, interactive book about love and loss addressed to 'You', the reader, with help from book artist/designer Tom Abba. 

We talked to Demetriou about how and why the project was created.

What is To You?

To You is an artists’ book in an A5 paper-based concertina form that is heat and touch-sensitive. The book presents an intimate reading experience, as its pages—that are full of poetic love letters written in prose—are covered in black ink, which at first glance makes them seem unreadable, until they are warmed by human touch.

The book is an objection of devotion and a metaphor for relationships—expressing, manifesting and almost materialising the insecurity and vulnerabilities that come with love, loss, and grief. The intimate letters hiding inside the book only reveal themselves when the reader establishes an affectionate connection by touching its black-inked pages. 

Why did you create it?

In the beginning came the letters, my own vessel of consolation, that weren’t intended for the world to see. Instead, I wrote these having someone significant in mind, but never sent them. I began writing in 2015 and 2016, through a period of depression, grief and loss. I soon came to realise that the letters were more about understanding relationships and loss, and accepting the vulnerability of my own emotions; which I also describe in the book as “Apogymnomeno/(a)”. This is a Greek word (my first language is Greek) that expresses what the book conveys, meaning: “vulnerable emotions or experiences that are startling, raw, humiliating, naked, intimate, overtly exposed and almost unsettling in their own familiarity”. 

When a friend read the letters and strongly encouraged me to take them out into the world, as with any writing project I started to restructure and re-layer them. My aim was to omit anything specific that had happened and to extend the reflective tone, making the letters more relatable, with an emphasis on emotion. 

After consulting with friends, family, and colleagues, and editing the content until it was more suitable for a wider audience, I started to think about how people could read it. I had a restless urge and vision for body and text to merge, and for these elements speak to each other. I wanted the book to almost take a live form and somehow react as humans often respond, only revealing its secrets and heartfelt thoughts when an intimate connection is established with another body that is also able to feel.

Due to my artistic and academic professional background, I’m obsessed with people’s stories and how these are performed through tellings, listening, or reading, and engaged with. At the beginning of this project, many people really didn’t understand what I was trying to do and I received so many negative and unconstructive responses. But I was lucky enough to have people that encouraged me and to be part of artistic and technological networks that just got me. Little did I know, at that point, that the vision would become a reality when I found a way in which the book could respond and reveal its intimate thoughts via touch—simulating intimacy with human contact.


(R-L) Artist and author of Yiota Demetriou testing the protype (image by George Margelis 2019) and To You

How does it work? How is it different from other books?

There’s an obvious element of tactility that goes into touching any type of a hard-copy book and even interactive digital books these days. The difference with this book is that the way it asks to be read and engaged with reflects its content and the way in which it was written. 

The book is covered in black thermochromic ink that activates when conditioned through thermal conduction; basic school physics—the transfer of heat from one body to another creates a reaction. This ink is a liquid crystal technology. At specific temperatures the liquid crystals re-orientate to produce an apparent change in colour. That’s what happens when people touch my book—the black pages become translucent and the love letters are readable. The scientific mechanics behind how the ink works are almost poetry to my ear as a metaphor for human connection. That's why it's different from a ‘normal’ book. 

How did you create it? What technology was used?

Thermochromic ink has been known to be used in thermometers or battery testers as the thermochromic liquid crystals (TLCs, as they're known) give a relatively accurate measurement of temperature within certain bands. I wanted to explore how this type of technology can be pushed further and used differently. It was really important to me that the words in the book took a human manifestation to them. I wanted the content to reflect the form, and vice versa. Because the content is so personal and it’s about vulnerability and emotion, there’s almost this inherent shamefulness in being exposed. I thought, 'what if the book has a similar effect where, in order to show its vulnerability and expose its secrets, it needs that labour of devotion to the words so they can be revealed?'.

I envisioned 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, 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. This ink can also perform quite erratically!

Were you influenced or inspired by any other interactive storytelling projects?

My professional background in both academic research and artistic works is focused on interactive storytelling and creating experiences, so I’m constantly exposed to amazing projects. And as a curious person, in my spare time I experiment by deconstructing and hacking whatever materials I can get my hands on. So I can’t really identify which specific project inspired or influenced the technical making of To You. What I can say is that I like semiotext autofiction works like I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, and I read a lot of existential philosophy because of my work. 

Saying that, I think I was inspired mostly by remembering my own selection of analogue interactive children’s books, the kinds with scratch and sniff elements, etc. I can’t remember any using the type of ink that I used for my book, and obviously To You isn’t a children’s book, but it's the engagement and playful aspects that drew me to think about the plethora and potential of these works. 

What was the greatest technical challenge in producing it?

Challenges: imposter syndrome, limited time and money. I also had access to networks but no access to resources, workspace or specialised printing equipment. Also the precarity of my day job, made it difficult to continue with the project, financially speaking. 

Until I found what I wanted to do and how to do it, my front room became a lab. Eventually I had a workable prototype that I could show people, making it easier for them to understand what I was trying to achieve. That’s when my co-conspirator Tom Abba came into the picture. Tom is a well-known designer, and book artist. He really encouraged me to produce a small run of the book as a limited edition, and mentored me through this process. 

Together we approached a number of printers, but most of them turned me down because of the nature of the project. It was challenging, quite risky, and expensive. What I’ve done is innovative in many ways, but this ink isn’t new and it isn’t really used for books because it’s very expensive, it’s specialised and its mostly used for marketing purposes on smaller surfaces. Many printers did not have the ink, they didn’t feel comfortable printing outside their comfort zones (which I completely understand), or would not take on such a short-run of books.


Artist Laura Kriefman experiencing To You, and the book itself (images by George Margelis)

Who is your target audience?

Anyone really, who is curious and has a short attention span, and who, I suppose, likes to read and play, like myself. Also, individuals with an interest in art and technology. 

Due to its limited number, the book is a collector’s item. Many have purchased To You for their own art collection, or their personal artists’ books or rare books collection. One of the first prints was actually bought by the Bavarian State Library for their rare books collection. So it would be great to see if other specialised libraries, in the UK or internationally, would be interested to house a limited copy of To You in their collections. 

A number of audiences have also purchased To You as a gift for a significant other, and a lot of people have said that it is the ultimate Valentine's Day gift. 

A target audience, that I didn’t expect was the printing industry. I know it's an obvious one, but because I received a lot of rejection in the making process, I didn’t think that they would find it interesting. But they did! 

But I guess it's also for those who have an interest in human relationships, and resonate with the feelings expressed in these letters. I hope the combination of my writing and the way it seeks the affectionate touch of its reader offers some relief, as it did for me whilst writing it. 

What has the response to it been?

To You, was first launched at the Bluchip Gallery (Larnaca) inCyprus, where I grew up, garnering significant national publicity. The Bristol launch took place at the Arnolfini, where visitors could engage with samples of the book and place orders. A limited run of 150 copies of To You are available to purchase through either galleries (if local) or via the book’s website. Since then it was also featured in Bristol 24/7 and a German article

I’m quite humbled by the response so far, and the encouragement and support that I’ve been receiving from people ever since I put the word out.