Essay: Touch and art spectatorship

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
  • Reading time: 20 minutes
  • Price: Free download
  • Published on: July 20, 2019
  • File format: Text
  • Number of pages: 2
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There is a double sense of the sense of touch. It is both a physical interaction and an affective encounter. It’s not just the interaction but the investment which comes with touch. It has the power to move you, to (metaphorically) touch you.

I feel that there is a lack of affective touch in the way that we encounter art. In the following pages I will begin to contextualise why our sense of touch is slipping away; the relationship that touch has to our other senses; how we can re-frame our cultural understanding of the five distinct senses as one sensory perceptual system; and finally how touch, when incorporated into art spectatorship, can begin to overcome the object-subject dichotomy allowing you to experience the work in a more organic and sensory way.

In the first half I will then explore how we can touch without touch: replacing the disembodied eye of spectatorship for an embodied, participative encounter with artworks. The second will examine the extremes: the experience of a physically tactile participation with artworks, and a psychological sensory experience with an artwork which extends beyond the visual into the mind’s eye.

Interspersed through the text are a number of quotes and an interview. Dip in and dip out as is useful. Think of them as images, as signposts. I hope they add feeling. Prière de toucher…


There is a strange friction, a misalignment, a discrepancy in our contemporary condition. Against a culture of excess, there is a poverty of touch. We are in a sensory overload from over-stimulation: As I write from my flat in Peckham I am distracted by a constant stream of images from emails, texts, Instagram, and adverts which bound and rebound around me; the resounding noise of Rye Lane drifts in through my window (so I play music over the top to deaden it out); various candles, diffusers and perfumes compete with the faint hum of the street; and while my hands swipe and tap at the screen or keyboard I’m surrounded by a tactile sensorium of soft sheets, squishy pillows and the cold metal surface of my desk. It is as though everything is up in the air and a little out of reach. My subjectivity is fading in the sea of information and excess. There is a loss of indexicality, and with it authentic, affective encounters are slipping away.

Apart from (sexual) intimacy, explorative touch is increasingly repressed by society. From early childhood we’re told: Don’t touch that! Don’t put that in your mouth you’ll get sick! Don’t pick your nose! Don’t play in the mud! Francis McGlone, Professor in neuroscience and a forerunner in the field of affective touch research, highlights how ‘we have demonised touch to a level at which it sparks off hysterical responses, it sparks off legislative processes, and this lack of touch is not good for mental health.’ Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami and author of Touch (2001), coined this predicament as ‘touch-hunger’.

Real interactions have fallen by the wayside, superseded by digital communications. New media gives emphasis to novelty over compassion and comprehension. We often miss meaningful messages and hardly ever connect with ourselves or our bodies. We no longer go online, we are online. And despite constant connectivity streaming to the palm of our hands, we are statistically loneliest generation to date… So much for instant gratification. Our fleeting brush with visuals seem inauthentic, intangible. As Mark Greif states in his critique on contemporary life, we live in ‘dishonest times’.

“Today people feel insecure… Insecure financially, in terms of identity, of place. Sometimes politically insecure or disembodied in the digital world they experience.”

– Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

The connection between individuals online is synthetic: disembodied and physically distant. There is a specifically digital anxiety and loneliness that pervades the occupation of virtual space over real space. Without physical encounters and social touch our sensory perceptions atrophy. Our deprived bodily sensorium craves nearness and touch.

There is a contemporary feeling of detachment – a void – a separateness. This psychological and physical distance is reflected in the way we engage with art. The rift between the viewer and the work is symptomatic of the gap between our actual experience and the theoretical culture which explains it away. This distance widens and solidifies with each white cube presentation, every barrier and each indecipherably dense gallery text. As we fall out of touch with each other, we fall out of touch with our subjectivities, and with the artworks. How we can reclaim, or even re-learn, how to experience artworks through touch? Not simply by touching with the hands, but touch with the eyes, and even feeling beyond the visual.


Our lack of touch is often pitted against visual excess. Constance Classen speaks to the imbalance of visual overload and touch-hunger stating, ‘while there are many representations of touch, there is often nothing actually there to feel’. The streams of images from advertising, television and the Internet readily appeal to our sense of touch, yet the lack of physical presence means the appeal is ‘unaccompanied… by actual tactile gratification’. Our distance from the images makes us alienated and out of touch with the visual world.

By its very definition ‘visual culture’ has sidelined all other senses. And yet to call out this imbalance, or this lack, presupposes that the senses were ever in harmony. They weren’t. In Western traditions this bias dates back to Aristotle who declared that ‘I see’ constituted ‘I know’; this was upheld by monotheistic religions; Descartes championed the mind-body division; the Enlightenment privileged sight over touch; and in Capitalism, lived body experience is replaced by the passive act of looking. Concurrently, as the power of sight is celebrated, the perceptual abilities of touch are encoded with primitivism. ‘Tactile’ becomes synonymous with ‘unsophisticated’ or ‘non-rational’. But in spite of the negative connotations, touch is a deeply ingrained and intimate sense and that is what makes it authentic. In his tactile experiments, Jan Švankmajer notes that ‘instinctive experiences of tactile perception will always throw us back to the deepest layers of our unconscious’. Touch is phenomenologically connected to our emotional understanding of the world, touch allows us to feel (physically and psychically), and it refutes the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. After all, the notion that vision is truth is a little hard to digest in an age of virtual realities and digital fakery.

The balance of touch and vision needs to be redressed, the relationship should be more symbiotic, employing both senses to benefit the fruition of embodied perception. The union of touch and vision is critical to our perception of art: as a blind visitor of Tate’s Touch exhibition in 1980s expressed, ‘I couldn’t relate to the touch exhibitions… if you have no vocabulary you cannot relate to [sculpture]’. Lets expand and pluralise our perception of art to include the full sensorium. Let the non-visual redraft the visual. Vision is a distance sense, let’s pull it closer.


Considering the helpful symbiosis of vision with touch, is our division of the senses even necessary? It seems senseless to delineate our sensory system into five distinct senses – touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. We could argue the division in innumerable ways.

Our term ‘touch’ doesn’t cover a single sense so much as an entire somatosensory system. A system which can perceive the distinct touch-feel of pressure, pain, texture, vibration, weight, or temperature. On top of this, the somatosensory cortex is further mapped with a point-to-point correspondence with our body map, which establishes the sense of proprioception, the sense of one’s body position and movement. This division is still simplistic, our somatosensory system can establish balance, both crude touch (a feeling of touch which can’t be localised) and fine touch (which can), and affective touch (which enmeshes sensory information with coded emotional reactions).

To put it simply, the five senses are never sensing alone, at every moment we are processing information through a complex perceptual web. Consider taste: as we eat we perceive sweetness and saltiness, but also texture, pressure, and heat, sensations we would normally subscribe to touch. It goes without saying that eating is imbued with emotional sensations, we might be thrown back into happy memories of being covered in sticky, melted chocolate when baking as a child, or uncomfortably reminded of a horrible memory of throwing up on something with a similar taste. The smell of food tempts your tastebuds before it has reached your mouth. Even sight is a part of taste, reportedly the blind restaurant in London, Dans Le Noir, is incredibly tasteless.

To divide the senses is arbitrary, small children don’t comprehend or need this separation. They have a sensing body, and they interpret and perform with objects and the world instinctively – children do not even know the parts of their bodies until they are taught it by naming each piece. Without these labels the body is what Jean-Luc Nancy designates as a ‘body of sense’. ‘An open space’, he writes, a space or place then that, ‘isn’t full or empty, since it doesn’t have an outside or an inside’, it just ‘makes room for existence’.


Our highly symbolic, ocularcentric world is by-product of the Capitalist disposition to make meanings easily consumable. This has encouraged a clear subject-object hierarchy where a spectator perceives and consumes the translatable signs of foreign objects. Touch is both objective and subjective. As we touch we project a sensation outwardly, outside of our bodies but we also perceive sensations internally and feel it on the skin. A heightened sensitivity to touch can begin to overcome the dichotomy of object and subject, paving the way to cultivate feeling.

An alternative to symbolic representation prevalent in capitalism could be mimesis. Mimesis originates from the Greek mimeisthai, meaning ‘to imitate’. Mimetic perception shifts the relationship between subject and object and, as Laura U. Marks states, provides an ‘immanent way of being in the world, whereby the subject comes into being not through abstraction from the world but by compassionate involvement in it’. Mimesis is a model for embodied perception and is important to Marks in relation to film. The audio-visual media of film lends itself to mimetic perception as the viewer is fully immersed in spectatorship. This embodied immersion can be replicated with primarily visual art forms too.

In relation to painting, it is by Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei’s concept of the ‘third’ or ‘ideal dimension mimesis’ which we can realise full immersion. This is where the painting projects a ‘unique stratum of imagined being that, though borrowing from the world of ordinary experience, is irreducible to it’. To be mimetic, this ‘unique stratum’, or the projection of the painting must have an authentic rub, it must be believable. A painting must not be objectively analysed and inscribed with academic meaning, but must be perceived as a thing which means in itself, its physicality and presence are sufficient and valid. The mimetic representation then is not just an image, but an experiential threshold to evocations of other sensory and cognitive experiences.

Our ability to understand a the unique projection of a painting hinges on the complex relationship between our psychic and corporeal sensations. Jean-Paul Sartre addresses in his essay Being and Nothingness, observing that from the time they learn to talk, very young children are able to understand the value of tactile words, such as ‘soft’ or ‘slimy’, when applied to the descriptions of feelings or to people. It is in this phenomenological way that we can grasp, appreciate, and empathise with the unique projection of an artwork.


‘Sense itself will float, in order to stop or start at its limit: and that this limit is the body, and not as a pure and simple exteriority of sense, or as some unknown, intact, untouchable matter, thrust into some improbable transcendence closed in the densest immediacy… not then, finally, as “the body,” but instead as The Body of Sense.’
– Jean-Luc Nancy

In the hope of challenging a gaze of mastery, I look through the lens of mirror-touch synaesthesia. A neurological condition, where the physical sensation of touch is experienced through the observation of touch to others. Mirror-touch was discovered at a conference in 2003 when an audience member announced, ‘I think I have synaesthesia, I can feel touch just by looking at someone being touched’. As the boundary between what is internally felt and externally encountered blurs, the traditional subject-object dichotomy collapses. Mirror-touch synaesthesia offers us a model for a more empathic, holistic mode of art spectatorship. Substitute the disembodied eye of the spectator for a fully engaged synaesthetic subject who co-constitutes the artwork.

The word synaesthesia derives from the Ancient Greek word syn meaning ‘together’, and aesthesis meaning sensation. This translates as perceiving together, evocative of a commingling of the senses. The complex cross-wiring of the senses manifest in synaesthesia offers us rich and exciting models for engaging with art (and the world). Artists have often been inspired by and appropriated synaesthetic aspects in their work; two examples being Wassily Kandinsky’s experiments with translating sounds into colour, and Martin Kippenberger’s playfully titled work, Put Your Eye in Your Mouth. These conjure a vivid, cross-modal sensorium.

Synaesthetes profess their unusual mode of seeing with pride. The phenomena is now considered socially significant, even gifted: homogeneous perception is passé. The growing recognition of synaesthesia in the Information Age can in part be attributed to our growing digital communications. Social media and internet forums connect us and provide a platform to discuss personal peculiarities. However, as our synthetic online communications grow, so does a feeling of digital isolation. An irony: this feeling of isolation has been the basis for increased neurological and social interest in synaesthesia. With regard to our relationship with art, I focus on the most social and newly discovered synaesthesia: mirror-touch.

1.6% of the population is thought to experience mirror-touch synaesthesia, though this extreme form of empathy manifests at different degrees. It is triggered by an over activation of the mirror-neuron system, a system present in all of us. It’s the reason we ‘catch’ a yawn, mirror the mannerisms of a friend, or flinch if we see someone slam their hand in a door. The touch felt by mirror-touch is not general or vague, it’s real. Mirror-touch synaesthete Fiona Torrence actually passed out from the extreme pain felt from a punch to the face as she observed a mugging from the safety of her car. People with mirror-touch do not need to have experienced a feeling (a gunshot/ a broken bone etc.) to feel the pain. Some suggest that mirror-touch is an explanation for ‘old fashioned squeamishness.’ Each shared sensation is coloured by emotion, synaesthetes are hyper-empathetic and are finely attuned to micro changes in facial expressions as a result. Artistically, mirror-touch invites new perspectives on embodied spectatorship and empathetic modes of seeing.

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