An important characteristic of artists’ books is their interactivity. The artist often creates an experience for the reader that encourages performance, either in constructing or staging the piece, or in rehearsing parts of the text. A book can become a miniature stage set, unfolding to reveal sequences that can be extended, figures added, scenes reorganized. The reader is asked to participate in performing the drama, making choices about how it will unfold, much as earlier toys invited participation. Sometimes, this participation takes tangible form, and readers can visibly transform book structures into stages ripe for narrative action. In other cases, participation may be verbal or perhaps spiritual, and the interaction takes the form of an invocation or dramatic reading.


Tom Burtonwood published Orihon, thought to be the first 3D printable book, as a freely-downloadable file via the Makerbot site, Thingiverse, opening access to his work to anyone with the tools and technological skills to print it. The title refers to its accordion-style construction, a format that originated in China in the Tang Dynasty (618-908 CE). He made or collected 3D scans of cultural objects in museums to create a narrative sequence of masks. Here, the 3D print functions as a performative exhibition space, allowing its reader to reassemble and re-curate, perhaps even to add to the narrative with additional scanned masks.

Components: Head of an Ogre by Tom Burtonwood (Ogre Mask, China. Tang dynasty, ca. second half of 8th century, Art Institute of Chicago); Boddhisattva by Jason Bakutis (Head of a Bodhisattva, Tang dynasty, ca. 710, Metropolitan Museum of Art); Olmec Colossal Head by Kacie Hultgren (Olmec Stone Head replica, American Museum of Natural History); Mayan Head by Tom Burtonwood (Mayan Mask, The Field Museum); Torso of an Emperor, Roman Imperial by AMinimal Studio (Marble torso of a Roman Emperor, ca. 1-50 CE, from the Temple at Salona in Dalmatia; sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 2010); Art Institute of Chicago Lion by Tom Burtonwood (Edward Kemeys, Lion, 1893).

Grimm’s Fairy Tale Theater: Hänsel & Gretel

Bettina Pauly’s accordion-style theater presents the tale of Hänsel and Gretel through a series of panels that invite readers to interact through cut-out figures and pop-up engineering in the spirit of earlier miniature theatres.

In the Mines

These tiny, engraved cut-out sets depict mining scenes that can be rearranged to feature any of six activities, from the descent into the mine to filling wagons with ore. While the scenes were almost certainly meant for children and were therefore probably educational in nature, they were also built as miniature theatres.

Historiscope: A Panorama & History of America

Milton Bradley produced this scrolling panorama set inside a theatre just after the Civil War. Celebrating distant, early American history throughsixteen scenes from 1492 through Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, the Historiscope’s panorama was arranged on two scrolls that could be cranked to reveal a visual history through the box opening, which was designed to resemble a stage with gaslights and box seats. Youthful impresarios could read aloud the educational lecture and sell the accompanying admission tickets for a full experience.


Dystopia is a staged panorama of a deserted town, an eclectic collection of buildings modeled on historic urban structures. While it folds flat into a codex-like structure, it also springs out, demanding that the reader interact with it to pull out and rearrange buildings to form new combinations, always (fruitlessly) searching for a happier group. The sepia-toned stage set never quite produces a satisfying result.

The Sleeping Beauty

This carousel book, produced for children, creates a charming three-dimensional staging for the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. Each of six scenes is constructed from four levels of die-cut paper to enhance depth and dramatic narrative.

Previous Section | Next Section