Touch (2009)

I wrote this in TAFE, and according to the date on the file it’s from October 2009. Stumbled upon it when tidying up my computer (preparing for Linux D:) and quite like it! I remember writing it in a bit a bit of a frenzy, just getting it done before the last minute it was due. I remember holding and fiddling with something small in my hand (a pen lid? that little red dinosaur I used to have on my keyring?), and writing then removing a post-conclusion based around that.

The senses are the tools organisms evolve to give themselves an understanding of the world around them.

The dominant sense, by a long margin if we measure by our cultural output, is sight. Regard television, the Internet, advertising, the emphasis on the visual facet of architecture, cinema, Youtube, fashion, the written word, and so-on. Secondary is the sense of hearing: Music, spoken language, police sirens. The other three—taste, smell, and touch—are relegated to acting as support senses. Probably, non-coincidentally, because they are the slower of the senses.

Of course, to expect to understand a sense in isolation of the others is against their function. The written word is more powerful when we hold a book in our hand. We have more than one sense because we need more than one sense. They are primarily a preservation mechanism. They are able to act as failsafe to each other. We can smell rotten meat before we can see it; our ears become primary in the dark. The system has evolved to cover its own arse, like any pre-modern engineer, or builder will tell you a system should do.

Touch, in fact, is not even a product of evolution. It is present even in single-celled organisms1. Touch is the point from which the other senses emerge, and is still existent in their function.

Touch is the first sense we develop, in utero. It is comforting and submissive; and also dominating and discomforting.

If touch is so primary why is it not used in art in any role more than the memory of touch? From the museum’s point of view there is the aspect of preservation. But what about artists? Touch is the most direct sense. The sense most tied to objects, and, more specifically, to the physical and the non-abstract. Michael Brenson, in his essay The Story of the Hand2, links the visual to recognition, attraction, and analysis; and the tactile to intimacy, immediacy, and empathy (and, I would add, the sensual). The visual lets us see things as a whole, and grants us a distance. It enables reflection. The tactile is personal. It creates a material connection with the object (or the space), it is present. Neither is better than the other.

An art gallery is a safe, sterile place. Removed from the world, it affords us a different way of experiencing the world, and the distance to reflect on it. I don’t know whether this arose because of the predominance of the visual in art, or vice versa, but I believe it gives us a narrow view.

Duchamp gave the gallery a transformative power, he invited the world inside this narrow view, rather than expand the spectrum. This was an important step, which was a defining part of the skip of the 20th century. I feel it is due for art to pay him back, and transform the gallery. The art gallery is irrelevant to most people: it’s just a building that has ‘art’. Art is irrelevant to most people as anything more than a piece of craftsmanship; a symbol of labour. I don’t mean to rank art against craft. They are different things, that is all. There is no gain in being elitist about it; art does not have a particular value unless people think it has particular value.

The world is full of visual stimulation. Most correctly put it is now full of more kinds of visual stimulation that in its past. To reflect on this is important, perhaps particularly now. But we need new ways of doing so. One gains a new understanding of his own country by living somewhere else. What does the absence of the visual teach us about the visual world? What does it teach us about the rest of the world? There will, I expect, be several unanswered questions in this essay. Excuse them.

The sense of touch is not safe, it is not sterile, it does not fit within a museum or gallery. Rosalyn Driscoll is the foremost student on the use of touch in art. Her book: By the light of the body, is an important study, conducted through her art, her questioning of its participants, and her research into the scientific side of touch. She reasons that touch holds the greatest potential for surprise. Something touched can cause us real harm, and give us real pleasure. Driscoll encourages participants in her pieces to experience them first blindfolded, then with eyes and hands combined. With only the sense of touch a time factor is introduced. Driscoll has found that touch experiences things in a linear manner. without sight the hand is not able to get a whole picture. It is not able to jump from one location to the next, as the eyes do. The hand moves constantly over an object, able only to understand parts. It takes time to explore the whole work, and it enlightens a usage memory that is normally subconscious.

Driscoll mentions the, often occurring, surprise of what the objects actually look like. Their materials, their forms and their scale. When the eyes are closed ‘the body disappears’, our consciousness becomes the size of the objects in our perception; which gives an unusual perception of scale. Driscoll compare’s it to a child’s way of drawing, where a mother may be rendered the same size as a house.

Jorge Restrepo is another artist who has use touch primarily in work. He created an exhibition of flat, white, painting like objects, made to be explored, blindfolded, with the hands. Even the descriptions were in brail.

Restrepo’s work, like much of the tactile work I have found is made with a strong consideration for the relationship between sighted people and the blind. They are often one-off works. Blindness organisations in Australia, the USA, Britain, and continental Europe, award prizes for works.

So far my work I have only explored touch at a very superficially level:

I have used a discarded bedside table, covered in reproductions of discarded photographs. More images are revealed when the only remained drawer is slid open.

I have also been working on a sculpture project of miniatures of figures (taken, again, from discarded photos) cast in toy plastic to resemble a set of Christmas bon-bon prizes. They are made to be touched, rearranged, played with. By displacement they create new meaning for the participant/s, and for any in the future.

Both these pieces use this to give these abandoned (or lost), but highly personal items, a sense of history, and thus life. They are animated, in the most Latin sense of the word. I have noticed an interest in working with things. Susan Stewart concludes her essay on Antony Gormley with the line:

Where is the frontier today? It is not, as Daedalus imagined, in transcendence, but rather in a recognition of the finitude of our lives on a finite earth.

What is more finite than the thingyness of things? What is a better way to illustrate the finite than by something with a life, and a life we are a part of? What are museums afraid of by allowing an object a tangible history? There does not need to be a Mona Lisa anymore.

In the future I want to involve the whole body, and as much of the sensory system as possible. I want to understand what can be communicated through different combinations of sense. I want to create a work to be a world. I imagine installations containing cave like forms. Made of different materials. using light, colour, sound, smell, texture, movement. Intimate spaces that play with the position of the body and its relationship to the world. Movement, in regard to its essential relationship to creation, and touch, fascinate me. There is an inherent language in the tactile(like, of course, the other sense), but not an artistic one. This one of the most exciting things. Even if in sound and vision the artistic language is built upon the natural one, and even if the old dictionary of metaphors is not omnipresent, they are still clutter, and baggage, and a dull feedback loop. I want to create a closer understanding in the participant of the life of the art object.

The closest current analogue to this is the way immersion works in games. Immersion primarily through doing. Most evident in the games of children, and successively less-so in role-playing games, and then video-games. An interesting parallel is the decrease in the involvement of the imagination in the same sequence. I am unable to say what importance the imagination will have in my own work. It is certainly a strong way of connecting something to an audience because it makes the viewer a participant in the work, and in the making of the work, much like touch is able. A game does not exist without a player: it is just a set of rules. I wonder to what degree this will apply to my work.

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.


I believe that the greatest way to experience a work is to be a part of doing it. To make a picture is a stronger experience than viewing one, to be a dancer in the ballet must be significantly more of an experience than being a spectator.

This is, of course, most often not possible! The visual arts, in particular, must take this into account. Music is able to bridge this gap through dance (and somewhat less through proximity, for those who can afford front row seats); and sculpture would benefit from allowing us to touch.


Herder, Johann Gottfried., & edited and translated by Gaiger, Jason (2002). Sculpture. University of Chicago Press.

Brenson, Michael. (2004) Acts of engagement: writings on art, criticism, and institutions, 1993-2002. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Katz, David, & Krueger, Lester E. (1989) The world of touch. Lawrence Erlbaum Assosciates.

Driscoll, Roslyn (date Unknown) By the light of the body. Excerpts available. From:

Notess, G. R. (1997). On the Net: Internet Search Techniques and Strategies. ONLINE Magazine, 21(4). Retrieved November 18, 1999, from

(Author unlisted) (2006), Jorge Restrepo: Tactile Art, Absolute Arts, From:

Cone, Laura (date unknown), Sensory Play For Toddlers, iparenting, From:

Sheng, Alien (2009), Baby sense of touch, ArticleBliss, From:

Henry, D. B., Tolan, P. H., & Gorman-Smith, D. (2001). Longitudinal family and peer group effects on violence and non-violent delinquency. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 30, 172-186.

Angier, Natalie. (December 8, 2008). Primal, acute and easily duped: our sense of touch. The New York Times.

Stewart, S (2007) Blind Light: A Book About Antony Gormley, Hayward Gallery Publishing.

Gunther, H.,& O’Modhrain, S. (2002). Cutaneous Grooves: Composing for the sense of touch, Journal of New Music Research, 31

Norton, R. E (1991), Herder’s Aesthetics and the European Enlightenment. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

1 Natalie Angier.

2 Michael Brenson.

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