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‹artist› Bérénice Serra ‹/artist›, ‹title› Swipe — writing copybook ‹/title›, ‹date› 2020 ‹/date›.

Swipe, writing copybook

"Swipe" has become the established term to refer to the set of operations on digital devices involving sliding a finger across the surface of a touch screen. Sliding to open, scratching to erase, or moving right to accept are all actions resulting from the mutation from mechanical keys to touchpoints and finger choreographies. Typing text has not been exempted from such a mutation. Indeed, gestural text entry keyboards, more widely known by their commercial names Swype or Swiftkey, allow writing by sliding a finger from the first to the last letter of a word on a screen keyboard.

The artwork Swipe, by Bérénice Serra, records these tactile choreographies to raise the gestural text entry method into more than a tool, namely into a writing system in itself. The movements thus become monograms.

This writing copybook proposes practical and poetic exercises in order to learn this system, outside of its digital environment, as a way to remodel cursive writing.

The essay "Swipe ou l'écriture tout court" written by Bérénice Serra and Gianni Gastaldi, at the end of the notebook, was published in the journal Formules, on the occasion of the 22nd issue directed by Lucile Haute and Allan Deneuville.

Bérénice Serra

Born in 1990, Bérénice Serra is an artist and researcher based in Caen (FR) and Zürich (CH). She teaches publishing and digital practices at the École supérieure d'arts & media de Caen/Cherbourg, in Normandy. Her practice, both visual and theoretical, focuses on the notion of publication in the digital age.

Design and development: Bérénice Serra
Texts: Bérénice Serra & Gianni Gastaldi
Date: juillet 2020
Last update: october 2021
Acknowledgements: Allan Deneuville, Lucile Haute,
Lorène Ceccon and Isabelle Daëron
Translation : Barbara Sirieix


Part A. three principles of swipe writing


[1] The fact that we call this computer "telephone" is just an anecdotical fact.
[2] It is assumed that more than 45% of the world population is using a smartphone in 2021 (source: Newzoo, ID 330695).
[3] UA description of the origins of their work can be found in Kristensson’s website:
[4] About 40 words per minute instead of 30 (Palin et al., 2019; Reyal et al.,).
[5] The artwork Swipe was presented at Shadok-Fabrique du numérique (Strasbourg, 2019) as well as at Ars Electronica festival (Linz, 2019) For more details about the work, see
[6] Hjelmslev, Louis. Prolégomènes à une théorie du langage. Paris : Minuit, 1971, § 12.
[7] For instance, the word inevitable produces on a computer keyboard something like "ijnhgredfvbhuiuytrezazerfvbnjklkjhgre".
[8] Saussure (de), Ferdinand. Cours de linguistique générale. Paris : Payot, 1916, p. 165.
[9] Ducrot, Oswald ; Schaeffer, Jean-Marie. Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences du langage. Paris : Seuil, 1999, p. 23-41.


Ducrot, Oswald ; Schaeffer, Jean-Marie. Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences du langage. Paris: Seuil, 1999.

Foucault, Michel. "La Peinture Photogénique". Dits et écrits. Paris: Gallimard, 2001, pp. 1575-1583.

Hjelmslev, Louis. Prolégomènes à une théorie du langage. Paris: Minuit, 1971.

Palin, Kseniia ; Feit, Anna Maria ; Kim, Sunjun ; Kristensson, Par Ola ; Oulasvirta, Antti. "How Do People Type on Mobile Devices? Observations from a Study with 37,000 Volunteers", Proceedings of the 21st International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services. Taipei: Association for Computing Machinery, 2019.

Reyal, Shyam ; Zhai, Shumi ; Kristensson, Per Ola. "Performance and User Experience of Touchscreen and Gesture Keyboards in Lab Setting and in the Wild". Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Séoul: Association for Computing Machinery, 2015.

Saussure (de), Ferdinand. Cours de linguistique générale. Paris : Payot, 1916.

Zhai, Shumi ; Kristensson, Per Ola. "Shorthand Writing on Stylus Keyboard". Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Lauderdale: Association for Computing Machinery, 2003.


From this perspective, what we call "digital" appears only as the successful wager on the performative dimension within text itself, forcing the traditional forms of textuality to become nothing more than the surface of this new textuality, whose performative depth is constantly ready to be revived.

Hence this constant tension found within digital practices, between the internal performative dimension of textuality (codes and programs) and that emanating from human expression which, although on the surface, still governs the evolution of the writing of natural languages. A tension whose resolution has been invariably sought through an anthropomorphization of the machine, of which the notion of "intelligence" is today the most presumptuous, if not the most revolting of the expressions.

The perspectives on the textuality of our time that a practice of digital writing like Swipe's can offer could therefore provide precious leads against the atavistic fascination to make computers speak. It could remind us that computers already have their own language, which does not need to ape ours to be subject to the same principles. And which perhaps lacks nothing to be natural either. It could also remind us that a poetry of its own is to be sought, there, outside of any caricature, like here, somewhere other than in the words. And remind us also that the key to this alliance resides, perhaps, in bringing together all these digital experiences of the textuality with that, if not immediate, at least spontaneous experience of writing in natural language. In other words, in writing tout court.


In the limit, one could imagine an initial vocabulary made up only of elementary gestures for irreducible units (letters for example), and let this vocabulary grow dynamically according to the frequency of combinations of these units in the users’ practice. Given the different levels of articulation through which this principle operates, this process would make this writing system directly sensitive not only to lexical but also grammatical and stylistic transformations in the language.

All these aspects point to one last essential property of language revealed by Swipe. If gesture keyboard entry can be seen as a writing system in its own right, this means above all that it is capable of becoming the expression of a natural language. But a language is not natural because it is spoken by humans. It’s natural because it is performed and by being performed it changes. It is the merit of historical or comparative linguistics to have understood this fundamental property at the turn of the 19th century and to have made it a constitutive principle of natural languages: a language is a tool of communication; and like any tool it wears out, leading to changes in the whole system, thus becoming a record of cultural traces. However, the perspective of historical linguistics on this change is, if not negative, at least pessimistic: usage only affects the language system by eroding it. Therefore, the history of languages is only that of their decline. It was not until Saussure that this change was understood as the source of a creative power, manifested in the fact that mechanisms of resystematization are at work at each point in the evolution of a language [9].

These mechanisms are precisely what gesture keyboards have to offer to a new writing system. Unlike typewriting, the practice of gesture keyboard entry does not only lead to an increase in speed – a purely technical and quantitative improvement. The performance of a system like Swipe offers a specific openness that becomes creative because it is directly linked to reorganizing effects of the whole system. Think about the overall effects generated by the incorporation of a new sign into the vocabulary. The integration of a new pattern forces the whole system to redefine the margin of possible variation for all the figures which occupied until then the space of the newcomer. A wholly new aesthetic is implied in these shifting processes and, at the crossroads of the linguistic and the figurative, poetry of a new kind suddenly becomes possible, with mechanisms still unknown, inviting us to even more openings.


But this sequence does not result from the identification of breakpoints in these paths either, since the absence of solution for a continuity in the paths only improves the performance. The final identification of a word out of the unstable multiplicity of possible paths is attained otherwise, by using the capacity the resulting figures have to discriminate an element among a finite list of words. More precisely, a finite list of words being given (i.e. a vocabulary), each word is mapped to its own prototypical pattern, so that any path performed on the virtual keyboard can be associated with the closest pattern in such a domain, and thus select the corresponding word. Therefore, the possibilities considered by the system are drastically reduced, because the size of the vocabulary is several orders of magnitude smaller than the set of possible paths on the screen keyboard.

This mechanism has a double advantage. On the one hand, it eliminates spelling errors, at least as they exist in a traditional alphabetic system, since the words produced are systematically chosen from a vocabulary that contains only linguistically correct forms. On the other, it leaves a lot of room for individual variation in the writing of words, since a path only fails to discriminate the correct word when the resulting figure is sufficiently close to the pattern associated with another word in the list, a situation that is all the rarer since additional means can be used to avoid confusion (such as other words in the context). This individual variation can then open the space for a true calligraphy, with an expressive power sorely absent in traditional typewriting.

Yet, this inexorable limitation of the graphical to a finite list of possibilities, the forced passage from the continuous to the discrete, from geometry to algebra, constitutes much more than a technical tinkering. Just like the principle of stratification, it concerns the very essence of language. For, as Shannon showed, communicating information in a language amounts to little more than picking a term among a finite set of unevenly distributed elements. Such a view is not unlike Saussure’s when, putting forward a conception of linguistic units in terms of "values", he affirmed that “values in writing function only through reciprocal opposition within a fixed system that consists of a set number of letters" [8]. Significantly, he proposed the example of three possible written variants of the letter t, as disparate as possible and yet identifiable provided that they can be distinguished from other letters such as l or d (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Variations of writing of the letter t. Saussure, 1959, p 119.

Part B. three writing exercices


Following an approach of structural semiology [6], the monograms should rather be conceived as figures, i.e. atomic units of expression whose reciprocal relations constitute the ground of a sign system. But, unlike usual figures (such as characters), these figures are also signs since they are necessarily tied to content.

The stratification of language

The writing system that emerges in this way is endowed with remarkable properties. Starting with the fact that alphabetic typewriting on a keyboard recovers one of the main features of cursive writing, or even of the principles governing ideographic or pictographic writing. As in the latter, grasping words as simple expressions (i.e. not composed, however complex they may be) reminds us that the units of language, insofar as they have a meaning, constitute more than an arbitrary sequence of insignificant characters. They are endowed with a formal cohesion which distinguishes them from a manifold of other combinations of the same characters which do not have the fortune to belong to a language. Yet, this unity is not ultimately determined by extralinguistic contents, like ideas in the case of ideograms or the shape of objects for pictograms. For it is always the alphabetic regime which orients, through the typewriting grid guiding the gestures, the articulatory principles of the resulting symbols.

But where do the monogrammatic figures get their formal unity from then? Here lies one of the major originalities of the gesture keyboards, namely the importance of the repetition in the establishment and the evolution of the system. Indeed, as long as each monogram depends for its construction on the letters it is composed, the unity of these figures is kept on hold, as just one possibility among so many other random paths through the keys of a keyboard. But as we have seen, as soon as the same path is performed a sufficient number of times, a gradual transition can be expected from a path punctuated by the characters to independent unified traces of continuous gestures. This way, the written expression of words, as autonomous units, is directly correlated to the probabilities of words in language. Writing does not merely represent linguistic units, but actively contributes to their identification.




Among the series of new scriptural forms associated with the emergence of the digital, there is one which, from this viewpoint, deserves special attention: gesture keyboard entry, more commonly known as “Swipe”. The term swipe refers to all the operations which imply sliding a finger on the surface of the touch screen of a digital device. In the context of text entry, it refers to a writing technique that allows users of digital devices to write the words of the intended text not by typing each letter — a practice inherited from mechanical keyboards —, but by sliding the finger through the different corresponding keys. So, to write the word unavoidable, one places the finger on the keyboard’s zone corresponding to the letter u , then successively slides it through the letters n, a, v and so on, until the last, e, without losing contact with the screen’s surface.

Introduced originally in 2003 by Per-Ola Kristensson in collaboration with Shumin Zhai (2003) – one student at Linköping University (Sweden), the other researcher at IBM [3] – gesture keyboard entry was included in many different applications that shipped with touch screen tablets and smartphones. Since then, it has been adopted by the primary companies developing operating systems for laptops, like Apple, Google, or Microsoft who integrated these systems as a native feature. The development of this technology was motivated by the need for digital devices to respond to the demand for speed and ergonomics required by handwriting practices. The empirical studies showed that this new writing method allowed an average increase of 30% in speed over typewriting on touch-screen [4]. The simplicity of the method, at least when one is already familiarized with the keyboard layout, provides a virtually flat learning curve. Also, the usage of this technique significantly reduces typing errors.

All these characteristics, focusing on the method’s efficiency, provide a purely technical image of the purpose of gesture keyboards. However, upon closer inspection, the interest of this form of writing cannot be reduced to a strictly technical advantages as a user interface.



Indeed, the last decades have witnessed a profusion of expressive means in digital writing practices, which transgress in every way the limits supposedly imposed by the typing interface of portable devices: emojis, gifs, photos, videos, memes, drawings, screen captures, hypertextual links, maps, sketches, annotations, voice recordings... All these scriptural practices constitute a variety of openings for digital textuality whose source lies in the typewriting’s incapacity to satisfy the needs and principles of everyday spontaneous writing — such as expressivity, figurality, speed or evanescence — monopolized until recently by handwriting.

Paradoxically, the moment typescript began the total and unequivocal conquest of writing during the digital revolution, writing found itself more than ever freed from all the constraints that keys, gears, sticks, springs, joints and lead types had placed upon it. From this perspective, this moment is comparable to the one following the emergence of photography a century and a half ago. But not according to the sense media-theoretical perspective could project upon this event, namely the continuation of painting by other means, and the consequential capture of the image in new conditions and constraints at odds with the sense of the pictorial medium, forced henceforth to fight against its own obsolescence. We should rather think here about the period – situated by Michel Foucault between the years 1860 and 1880 (Foucault, 2001) – when the unregulated intertwinements of pictorial and photographic practices led to a frenetic circulation of images, a true carnival for the eyes. A period in which, if only during the blink of an eye, the image was liberated from media constraints as it suddenly became plural. This moment was liberating for the image as much as it was for painting: far from being substituted, displaced or subjected to the needs of the new photographic medium, painting released itself from the injunctions of representation, which it had assumed as its own nature for centuries.

The same is true of textuality under the influence of the digital. Indeed, the last two decades have been celebrating the Saturnalia of writing. Emojis, gifs and memes are certainly the most spectacular expression of this phenomenon. Through the image, they introduce a kind of spatiality and dynamism which are generally and by principle absent in typewriting.


Part C. essay by Gianni Gastaldi & Bérénice Serra