The Presence of Touch

“The Presence of Touch,” curated by Anne Wilson and Joan Livingstone, features eight artists whose work straddles the fields of textile, sound design, computer technology, sculpture, performance and video. These artists share an interest in exploring the connections between touch and new technologies, the material and the immaterial, the senses and the intellect, and textiles and virtual culture. The main question underlying the show is: How can the sense of touch be accessed in an age dominated by media that privileges the visual and the nontangible? In response, the artists emphasize materiality, textile processes, the body, and the ways in which direct engagement of the senses helps us navigate the way we live now.

The exhibition is organized into two sections: documentary and installation. In the documentary section, the performance work of Paul Sermon and Regina Frank, both based in Berlin, appear on video. In Telematic Dreaming, Sermon uses the ISDN digital telephone network and video cameras to create a sense of touch between two separate interfaces (each consisting of a person in a double bed) in separate locations. Through the magic of the telepresent image, the subjects virtually interact in the intimate, yet, in this case, strangely distanced, setting of the bedroom. They touch with sight, and thus, the experience of being touched transfers from the hand to the eye.

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In Hermes’ Mistress, Frank sits inside an extremely long, red, ball gown and sends messages via the Internet on her laptop. She then uses small lettered beads to sew her communications into the dress. The slow process of sewing beads contrasts with the rapid pace of telecommunications. She believes that dresses serve as a second skin, a permeable boundary between the self and others that transmits messages about sexuality, identity and economic status. As such, the dress is an alternative mode of communication. In Hermes’ Mistress, it literally serves as a web page.

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Like Frank, Erwin Wurm, an artist from Vienna, is interested in the identities of particular textiles. His Pullover series, which combines video and installation, raises questions about the relationship between clothing and the human body. For the installation portion of his piece, Wurm hangs a dozen sweaters that are folded, twisted and stretched into grotesque shapes. There is a whimsy and warmth in this piece, however, perhaps due to the memory of so many human bodies.

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Ingrid Bachmann designs interactive environments that challenge viewer-participants to fuse the electronic and physical, the mind and body, old and new technologies. In Knit One, Swim 2, a pair of fourteen-foot aluminum knitting needles, attached to a computer monitor, hangs from the ceiling. To activate the piece, you have to grab the needles and simulate a rowing (or swimming) motion. Through a system of weights, pulleys and digital technology, the action of the needles alters the image of a female swimmer on the computer screen. While “working out” with the needles, my eyes mesmerized by the movement created on the screen, I was reminded of Brenda Longfellow’s experimental film Our Marilyn, which recreated Marilyn Bell’s 1954 record-breaking swim across Lake Ontario. This visual-filmic association reinforces one of the main ideas behind the exhibition: our senses are interdependent and to interface with new technologies means that all our senses (even those that are dulled or impaired) need to be stimulated.

Anne Ferrer’s two installations, Tango (Male and Female) and Dormitory (Boy’s Room), Dormitory (Girl’s Room), reflect her concern with sexuality, materiality, and the body (both human and animal – her studio in Paris is a former butcher shop). In Tango the viewer is confronted by two huge, fabric, pig carcasses harnessed in leather, linked by chain snout to snout and hanging upside-down from the ceiling. Their “death-defying” dance locks them in an ongoing, intimate, yet terrifying struggle. My anthropomorphic imagination cut to Marlon Brando lying dead on a dance floor after a struggle with his lover in the final scene of Last Tango in Paris. Both dormitory installations, placed at opposite sides of the room, consist of six small pigs lying on cots. The forms, meticulously constructed in silk, satin and cotton, appear to be both fragile and sinister in sleep or death(?); sexual violation permeates the scene.

Giving shape to bizarre, yet familiar forms, Montreal sculptor Stephen Schofield also plays with the notion of skin/fabric and its permeability – its alternately fragile and resilient characteristics. For the most ambitious of his three installations, Tarjuman (Arabic for “translator” or “guide”), he filled large, fabric forms with sand, dipped silk in boiling sugar syrup, sewed the ends of the fabric into industrial tubing, and ran six vacuum cleaners backwards to inflate the structure. The effect is startling: the structure, much like Ferrer’s ambiguous forms, is both soft and heavy, vulnerable and protected; it looks like a swollen, encrusted bed with rabbit ears for a headboard.

In Very Nervous System, Toronto-based artist David Rokeby forcefully illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s idea that new technologies extend and heighten human senses. At first glance, the installation looks like an empty, blackened room with surveillance cameras. When a visitor enters, however, both space and body are transformed: video cameras, image processors, computers, synthesizers and a sound system track the body’s movements and almost instantly reproduce these movements as sound. The result is a veritable symphony of encounter between the human body, physical space and technology. Indeed, Rokeby’s goal is to create spaces that fully engage the body, that are motivated by intuition rather than logic. More than any other piece here, Very Nervous System called upon the full range of my senses. Each time I “touched” space and received sound back, I learned to adapt to an unexpected environment.

Despite this show’s focus on touch, I interacted with each piece (with the exception of two) with my eyes rather than my hands. Still, I believe that my need to rely on vision (and the memory of certain films), testifies to the show’s effectiveness. After all, our interactions with new technologies demand that we depend on all our senses. And, it is these interactions that reinforce the reciprocal nature of our current reality: we shape and alter new technology even as it shapes and alters us.

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