This guest ‘thinking piece’ illustrates the aim of the online exhibition Digital Touch, to surpass narrow notions and definitions of touch to highlight possibilities of different kinds of intimacy, care and contact which can be felt through the screen.
With the demand for social distancing and self-isolation in response to COVID-19, the pandemic forces us to reconsider what it means to touch. As intimacy and contact move beyond the physical space into the digital, how do we touch beyond close proximity?
The online group exhibition Digital Touch (6 – 31 August, 2020) curated by Carlos Pinto and myself, Georgia Perkins, showcased twenty-two contemporary artists whose diverse practices engage with digital and physical touch; questions of the real according to what is considered tangible and intangible; as well as ways in which touch can be experienced through the screen. In collaboration with the digital platform Conscious Isolation, the exhibition existed as a series of continuous long-length films on Instagram Live, and was complemented by workshops and artist panel discussions.
Building on my ongoing research into ways of touching beyond close proximity, the exhibition was informed by a series of performative reading groups that I hosted with artist-researcher Ofri Cnaani, called ‘Dizzying Feeling of Touch’, in collaboration with Sirius Art Centre from April to May 2020. We read texts such as Karen Barad’s essay ‘On Touching’ (and explored quantum haptic entanglements, which looks to connections between multiple beings, spaces and times, as well as the possibilities and impossibilities of touch according to Quantum Field Theory), plus Tavi Meraud’s writing on intimacy and surfaces.
Touch, care and remote communication in times of physical distancing
Digital Touch began by highlighting the ways in which touch and care were affected during the pandemic, as well as the hardship faced in care homes during this time. EK Gerdin-Miosga’s piece Touch & Fidget (2019, Fig 2), reflects on her position as an art facilitator for a neurological rehabilitation centre, and the use of fidget blankets in care homes which are used to relieve anxiety and stress for residents with dementia. Similarly, Ffion Evans’ work Play (2020), explores ways in which textural, personalised objects may ameliorate stress, and its benefits for mental health and patients with dementia.
For Ryo Tada, an innovation and experience designer, the digital technology device ‘FULU’ (2019, Fig 3) centres around ways in which remote and digital touch communication allow for digital/physical connections during a time of social distancing. FULU can record touch, such as the feeling of the hand of your loved one, stroking the fur of your dog, or feeling waves on the beach, wherever you are in the world.
Empathy, care and intimacy online
The exhibition explored the potential of digital communication and online interaction to facilitate empathy, care and intimacy through Taina Cruz’s work on digital cosmic healing on the internet (How to Breathe Ecstasy, 2020, Fig 4), as well as Nicole Ruggiero’s work with digital emotions and relationships online (I Wish, 2018).
The intertwining of digital and physical intimacies was also explored in Rhiannon Hunter’s film The Thinnest Slice (2020), which engages with a closeness to the micro-moments experienced in dialogue with her surroundings, captured through the interface of the screen.
江峰 Jiang Feng’s Organ Play 器官嬉戲 (2019) explores this theme through the sensual choreography of the body and skin, while the collective Scenocosme’s work Distances (2020) looks at ways of touching at a distance. Complementing this, Janine Goldsworthy’s Assemblage (2020) focuses on the intersections of bodily and technological life, and the intertwining of the self, body, environment, emotions and felt senses.
Overcoming screen ‘flatness’ and touching under the skin
Pointing to different kinds of intimacy, Digital Touch asked the questions ‘in what ways can we overcome the ‘flatness’ of the screen in order to feel another?’ and ‘how can we think of touch, in a way that moves beyond the friction of surfaces being perceived as monolithic boundaries?’
In Anna Mays’ video Microscopic Probe (2020, Fig 5) and BORA’s film Digestion (Fig 6), the artists look to the possibility of touching under the surface of the skin, and navigating the interiority of the body. For Mays, this includes using a microscopic probe to navigate through the mouth orifice, and for BORA, visceral depictions of eating and digesting food. A continuation on the subject of intimacy and the visceral, can be seen in Andree Martis’ Feel Love Here (2020), which looks at visceral images seeking to celebrate femininity in all its complexities and to question conceptions of gender itself.
Workshops and lexicon-building
The expanded meaning and lexicon for touch, which can be experienced remotely, digitally and inwardly, was further explored through Lili Golmohammadi’s research workshop ‘Writing and Designing Digital Touch-at-a-distance’. Workshop participants were invited to prototype ways in which touch can be incorporated within digital communications, and to conceptualize and contribute to the development of a ‘Touchy Vocab’. Q+I’s ongoing project 10×10 (2020, Fig 7) and the workshop ‘Word/interpret/draw/show/construct’, produced a combined text and image lexicon through building a WhatsApp community during lockdown; words included ‘connection, mask, test, language, exhaust.’
These lexicon-building workshops created interesting parallels with Liat Berdugo’s The Zoom Series (2012-13, Fig 8), where she looked at ways of creating a lexicon of gestures on digital and physical touch. Multiple works including The Original Zoom, Self-Rotate, and Scrolling Myself Down a Wall responded to patented finger movements and the commodification of gestures in digital technologies.
Touch beyond human frameworks
Interconnectivity, care, and ways of looking at touch beyond a human framework were explored in Hannah Rowan’s work Anatomy of Ice (2020, Fig 9), Paulo Arraiano’s Towards the Last Unicorn (2019, Fig 10), Shall We Dance (2019), and Ines Norton’s Asseptic Synestesia (2020, Fig 11).
These three artists focus on haptic entanglements between bodily, ecological and technological systems, whether through using a hydrophone under water in Svalbard (Rowan), an attunement to jelly fish and octopus tentacles (Arraiano), or watching snails move across an image of a leaf on a digital touch screen (Norton).
Digital and physical shapeshifting
Questions of the real, the tangible and intangible can be seen in relation to memories of touch and shape-shifting between digital and physical entities in Olia Svetlanova’s New Dream (2019, Fig 12) and Shinuk Suh’s How Real is Reality (2020, Fig 13) where sensations of touch and warmth in relation to the hand are transformed though synthetic, silicon materials. In contrast, Felix Scholder’s Shōki Play (2019) pushes the boundaries of an individual VR experience to include others through physical props and set design.
What is considered real is further conceptualised in the multidisciplinary work of Freya Tewelde’s Boxing Series(2020, Fig 14), with a focus on repetition and distortion of existence, and Ali Phi’s work with the particle system engine ‘TouchDesigner’. Phi creates voids which are haptic and quantum entangled to the particles within it; in contrast to classical physics which sees the particle, field and void as separate, Karen Barad argues that in Quantum Field Theory, these elements are inherently touching. This can be seen in works such as LIMA (2015) and AM (2015) and the online performance 1/2RE:LEFT:V (2020, Fig 15).
This blog post has demonstrated some of the ways in which Digital Touch explored and challenged what can be considered tangible and intangible, and what feelings of being in and out of touch are, in an effort to undermine the dichotomy of ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ touch in relation to haptic and felt tensions which can be experienced both physically and digitally.
Georgia Perkins is a doctoral researcher in the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths University. Her research focuses on writers of New Materialism, Environmental Humanities and Post-posthumanism such as Karen Barad, Stacy Alaimo and Donna Haraway, to think of intimacy, kin-making, and transcorporeality across multispecies. She has recently worked on a series of workshops called ‘Dizzying Feeling of Touch’ in collaboration with artist-researcher Ofri Cnaani and Sirius Arts Centre, looking at texts by Karen Barad, Karen Sherman and Tavi Meraud. Perkins has also recently published an E-Flux reader on Dizziness, and will be speaking at the conferences Beyond Borders for the LSFRC research group in September, and the Indeterminate Futures/Futures of Indeterminacy at the University of Dundee in November 2020.