BioMorphic Typography is Diane Gromala’s term for a family of fonts that continually morph in real-time response to a user’s changing physical states, as measured by a biofeedback device. Part of a larger initiative, Design for the Senses, the goal is to develop approaches to experiential design that focus on the senses and “the history of the body.” The first in the type-style family of this dynamic text is “Excretia,” meant for display on computer screens and wearable liquid crystal displays, upon which the user’s/writer’s autonomic states are graphically indicated—for example, the characters “throb” as one’s heart beats.
First presented at the Profile Intermedia Conference in Bremen, Germany, BioMorphic Type™ challenges the traditional expectations of typography as a static form, which offers little direct, bodily feedback to the reader. A sequence of postscript data is hooked up to an input device that measures heart rate, breathing, “viscosity of the eye,” brain activity, and muscle activity. The output from these sensors then controls the activity and resting state of the typeface being manipulated. While these dynamic texts are to be experienced in a “live” interaction between a connected user/reader and a screen, looping examples of Excretia can be viewed on the internet, and Jay David Bolter’s and Diane Gromala’s book, Windows and Mirrors, contains static print images. In these examples, Excretia consists of dripping, looping organic forms of serif capital letters that appear to sprout and melt.
BioMorphic Type™ adds an additional layer of significance to a text, for it emphasizes the bodily nature of writing and computational biofeedback systems. It emphasizes self-reflexivity; as the biofeedback reshapes the words typed, the focus shifts from what is written to how the words and letters themselves transform according to the body. Bolter and Gromala stress that the type foregrounds the material side of writing that had been downplayed and even suppressed in centuries of printing and in the first decades of computing (Windows and Mirrors, 169).
Although these texts are an expression of digital technology, Excretia has something in common with the calligraphy of the handwritten manuscript: “how it looks and what it says can never really be separated. The letterforms in a text set in Excretia are never entirely transparent, as the shapes of the letters become part of the text itself” (Windows and Mirrors, 165). The words and images may be inextricably joined, yet BioMorphic Type™ differs from traditional calligraphy in terms of control, “skill,” and direct bodily engagement with the writing surface. While BioMorphic Type™ is conceived as reflective of pre-modern writing in which the text is an indexical trace of the writer’s body, the physical hand plays no part in the design process (other than through the keyboard); the surface is not touched. The mark of a calligrapher is indicative of a training, ability and style; there is little room for control with the BioMorphic typist. The indexes of the body shift from surface gesture to the functions of internal organs, and if there is any level of skill involved, it shifts from a control of motor functions to an awareness of visceral states. Yet because such somatic processes as heart rate and skin response are not under the writer/user’s conscious and easy control, there is no simple correspondence between the her body and the transforming image on the screen. Bolter and Gromala stress that the meaning the user ascribes to his physical state is always changing, just as Excretia changes. Even if users try to manage their writing by controlling their respiration, unpredicted, “spiky” moments occur, in which the letters form interference patterns that are themselves vivid and almost pictorial (Windows and Mirrors, 167).
If BioMorphic Type™ reflects the writer the way that printed or static type does not, reuniting the act of writing with a physical awareness, it may not be intuitively clear what exactly these morphing shapes indicate. If the wavering line of manual calligraphy, for example, indicates the shaking hand of the writer, how does the “spiky” movement correspond to a change in respiration or heart rate? Bolter and Gromala note that galvanic skin response is also used in the polygraph machine; however, unlike a lie detector, BioMorphic Type™ does not attempt to generate a single meaning (Windows and Mirrors, 166-67). Rather than a perfect or single reflection, they visualize this interface “as a myriad of refracting planes in the transpositions and changing angles of the letter forms” (Windows and Mirrors, 168). The correspondence between body and text may be visualized, but remains, it seems (perhaps necessarily), illegible.
The writer is hooked up to a biofeedback device, which measures her heart rate, respiration, and galvanic skin response. As she writes, these continuous streams of data affect the visual character of the typeface. The words “throb” as her heart beats; they grow tendrils and spikes if she becomes “excitable.” The text she has already written may continue to change, or she may choose to freeze it to reflect her state at the very instant of the writing—in effect, to create a biological-typographical record (Windows and Mirrors, 166). The text consists of a sampling of many typefaces, which is thus collected as a “type-family.”
Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
BioMorphic Type™ is designed to tell the user/writer in some way who she is, as the words on the screen come (almost literally) from “within.” The type mirrors, however obliquely, somatic processes; it is designed to respond “directly” and in “real time” to the body, integrating the user/performer into the scripting of the digital art. However, it is unclear the degree that these responses are legible to the user/reader. What kind of “insight” does this dynamic text offer?
The examples available online and in Windows and Mirrors are evocative of a Baroque, post-punk aesthetic of zines which use a cut and paste, chaotic playfulness. The words may transform to such an extent that they are all but illegible. But, if what is actually written is secondary to how one’s somatic processes transform the text, why use typography at all? Why not incorporate basic shapes and colors? In what ways may the textual content detract from or contribute to the indexical transformations of the type?
Resources for Further Study:
- Baetens, Jan. “A Remediation’s Remediation?” Rev. of Windows and Mirrors, by Jay David Bolter and Diane Gromala. Electronic Book Review. 22 July 2004.
- Bolter, Jay David and Diane Gromala. “Colophon: Excretia and reading as a Reflective Experience.” Windows and Mirrors: Interactive Design, Digital Art and the Myth of Transparency. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.
- Gromala, Diane. Home Page
- Gromala, Diane. “Re-embodiment Dancing with the Virtual Dervish: Virtual Bodies.” Riding the Meridian: Women and Technology Issue. Feb. 2000.
- McLaughlin, Kelly. Rev. of Windows and Mirrors, by Jay David Bolter and Diane Gromala. Iowa Review Web. 1 June 2004.
- Sparks, Tristam. “TYPE:Excretia.” RESTLESSEYE. 1 May 2006.