This text is excerpted from PARACHUTE #87, Summer 1997, pp. 4-11.
Relational Sense: Towards A Haptic Æsthetics
In Jerry’s, an upscale coffee shop on Prince Street, Deep Throat (1996) by Mona Hatoum appears, at first, as a typical linen covered table set with a plate, glass and attendant silverware. As people queue up for a table, they are surprised to find that the surface of the bottom of the plate is actually a video image which depicts interior views of her body. Channels of digestion are explored with medical probes equipped with miniature cameras and lights. What are customarily exploratory medical procedures, including endoscopy and colonoscopy, become the medium of art practice. Hatoum, numbed by anæsthetic, retains her agency and directs the doctor. Thus she incorporates a shift from contact perception (the pain of being penetrated by this technology) to the painless “view.” In this sense, dulling what would certainly involve the painful invasion of her innards, Hatoum’s sense of interoceptive touch is rendered “anæsthetic.”8 While Wurm is portrayed as full, corpulent, and bursting out of his shirt, Hatoum’s digestive tract is represented empty, pristine and clear.
Deep Throat implicates interoceptive aspects of haptic perception in some quite fascinating ways. Interoception encompasses awareness of movement and intensity within the body, including the gurgles, and shifting of our innards. To the viewer, the feeling of “being full” after a large meal, or feeling pangs of hunger entail haptic perception. With Hatoum’s Deep Throat, viewing what is normally only felt by individuals within their own bodies, can be shocking and quite possibly nauseating when actually seen. The “scopic probe” carries our attention like a jerky subway ride through the dark caverns below the surfaces of the artist’s body, revealing and testifying to her guts. The views are discontinuous and constantly moving.9 Greatly magnified, the scale of interior body shifts from the known and felt proportions to those of a much larger dinner plate. The proportions of interior space are presented on a scale which effects a kind of claustrophobia, rendering the body at once knowable and estranged. Hatoum’s concern is with the phenomenology of the body’s interior spaces: its interior atmosphere, an immanent itinerary that must be followed. No whole view is possible.10
Moreover, the installation is situated at the gateway to the restaurant, the liminal entry into the experience of dining: a carefully managed theatre of food. Upon arriving, the hostess asks you how many are in your party. Typically groups are trotted through well-traveled paths and deposited at tables with the perky greeting “Enjoy your meal.” You may have to wait on a busy Saturday, and it is at this point, the shift from the outside world into the cocoon of pampered restaurant experience, that Hatoum’s serving up of her interior skin intercepts the hungry patron, themselves in a state of haptic anticipation: desirous of a nourishing meal and perhaps feeling the fatigue of a grueling gallery schedule of moving from show to show, climbing stairs, and manœuvring through crowds on a SoHo art day. The restaurant is usually an oasis, a “time out” from the pressure of taking in all the galleries. Hatoum has staged Deep Throat so that the warm ambience of the restaurant and the cold scientific vision of the invading camera encounter a rather vulnerable beholder. The flickering images are positioned on the plate’s surface, that pedestal for nourishment, displacing the meals which would otherwise be presented. The plate itself becomes a kind of looking glass into the interior body, a brittle boundary to the intestines where – in one’s own body – a meal may be following the same breakneck pace around the curves, bends, squiggling interior skin. The fibre-optic view does not permit a visual field: no figure, no ground, no discernable object. In the body’s negative space verticality and horizon line are indiscernible: there is no perspective except that of constant movement. At one point, the view moves over distorted teeth to reveal a mouth, and for a moment, the exterior skin of the lips.
Deep Throat evokes questions concerning art’s assimilation. What do we actually take in when we look at art? Which experiences of beholding will be digested in memory? What will spark a conversation over lunch? Deep Throat displays the hidden place below the table cloth, not as the arena where footsie is played, but that interior place where the contiguous gastro-intestinal surfaces on view actually reside during dining, where consumption is felt, but not seen.
An earlier work by Hatoum, The Light at the End (1989), also involves the viewer in a haptic encounter. The beholder comes into a darkened space, and gradually becomes aware of the glow of six vertical, red-hot heating elements. As you move closer, you sense their heat, and the smell of hot metal radiating from its metal frame. Here Hatoum’s economy of materials evokes the domestic – the elements of an electric stove – which simultaneously encompasses a threat. Yet I find the reduction of Hatoum’s work to binarist paradox – so often used in the critical writing on her work – to actually miss the point (i.e., fascination/terror, repulsion/attraction, etc.) because these polarities cannot account for the dimension of æsthetic connection that is so compelling in situations she provides. For me, this work, is about something else, about the immanence of risk, about negotiating the relationship with the work through distal touch, whether approaching just close enough to sense an increased temperature, pleasuring oneself with the warmth, or pushing the edge of more intense heat closer to its source. Here it is the field of play and intensity in the climate of the relational space that comprises its haptic æsthetics.
Serving food is the modus operandi of Elaine Tin Nyo. On a cool, sunny Saturday in September, she hosted The Bake Sale (1996) on a sidewalk of Grand Street. The edible confections were homemade by artists and gallery personnel from throughout SoHo. Robin Khan contributed Hostess Cupcakes, iced to resemble pert breasts and beautifully boxed in pairs. D.T. Almog provided cookies, each iced as a miniature painting. Tin Nyo used the systems already in place in the art world to form a microcosm of art’s commercial relationships. Galleries were requested to invite their artists to participate, to price the goodies and to determine how the profits were to be used.
Tin Nyo’s artistic practice involves cooking and throwing parties. She explores the culture of food consumption, rituals of sharing, the sensorial involvement of smell, taste, touch and visual presentation in the consumption of food. Here the art is not only assimilated visually, but actually ingested by beholders. As an archivist of food’s provenance, she photographically documents each edible and creates a file with a corresponding recipe. As well, she brings forward the political aspects of the “not-so-tacit social contracts of the inviter and invited” that a key element of collective consumptive pleasures. But it is in the artist’s witnessing of food being consumed that a haptic æsthetic is most evident. As the audience is being “fed,” Tin Nyo is very consciously observing the beginnings of the transmutation of edible art into the materiality of their bodies. At the core of the artist’s project lies an interoceptive politics which centers on the tactics of cooks to attract, include and actually become those who eat their food.
Martin Kersels’ installations have strong haptic implications in his use of weight, climate, temperature and affect that access the skeletal frame through intensely amplified resonance. Kersel’s æsthetic practice explores issues of control and the body which extend to issues of acceptance, threat, and trust. Physically, he is a very big guy at six feet, six inches and, at 300 pounds, he is overweight. No doubt, the awareness of his own size and how his presence impacts upon others are implicated in the work. His involvement with issues of weight may be considered autobiographical in this sense, as a kind of performative “self-portraiture” where the effects and arrangements of particular technologically imbued objects stand in for the artist himself. Formally, Kersel’s work is developed to impact upon the haptic sense – not only the kinæsthetic aspects of one’s movement, balance and presence in space – but on the tactile affect of distal resonance and vibration as well.
Kersel’s early work with the Shrimps, a Los Angeles-based performance art troupe, involved movement-centered performances which have been described as “group tantrums.”11 One is documented showing a group of men dressed in diapers acting like big babies. The pre-discursive aspects of the haptic sense are evoked here; until four months, all infant perception is mediated through interoceptive processes.12 Often performances deliberately focused on “an awkwardness of movement, an awkwardness of situation, an awkwardness with the self, and an awkwardness between relationships.”13 Kersel’s situational framing of “awkwardness” recalls seventies conceptual art. Tripping Photos (1995) is a series which records himself intentionally stumbling in L.A. streets. His Falling Photos (1994) show him kneeling over backward in the manner of encounter group exercises to promote trust. Tossing a Friend (1996) depicts the artist in the act of throwing six of his friends, each launched a total of fifteen times. For Kersels the consensual aspect of what might be an awkward arrangement is significant. The binding force of friendship mollifies what might appear as an act of aggression which becomes, rather, an activity of confidence and fun.
Attempt to Raise the Temperature of a Container of Water by Yelling at It (1995) centres on the artist’s attempt to change the “temperature” of water through the vibrations of his voice. A large glass cylinder of water contains an underwater speaker and an electronic thermometer. On a nearby table the temperature of the water is displayed on the thermometer’s LED and disk readout. The underwater speaker is wired to a tape of Kersel’s voice, which repeats: “I am trying to raise the temperature of the water by yelling at it.” Kersel’s voice increases in deliberateness, volume and conviction. The artist’s words are audible as they resonate through the water in the beaker into the gallery space. From time to time, gallery personnel assured me, the temperature actually does raise a bit, the result of the sound waves from the recorded voice, which like a primitive microwave, speeds up the water molecules and generates heat.
Two other works by Kersels implicate the haptic sense on beholders more directly. Brown Sound Kit (1993) consists of a machine designed to transmit a sound which purportedly has the effect of releasing the bowels of human beings. This machine has fascist origins in Nazi technologies designed to render individuals incapable of resistance. A similar machine was reportedly used by the French military to dissipate crowds of students during the Paris riots of 1968.14 Kersel’s Brown Sound Kit is displayed as an arrangement of speaker, amplifier, oscillator and orange fibreglass carrying case, evocative of its potential rather than actual, haptic effects. In actual operation, the oscillator would produce an amplified tone which is heard, but primarily felt. Brown Sound Kit is displayed “unplugged.” While the display of this haptic technology “to unplug” gallery viewers immediately and literally evokes some rather hilarious bathroom humour – especially given the tight-assed normativity of gallery viewing – this installation also raises more serious issues pertaining to the coercive control of bodies.
King Kong (1996) is a participatory sculpture that requires the viewer to stand on a platform, rigged to a subwoofer, and watch a video monitor bracketed high on the wall. The video loop begins, depicting the silhouette of a primate head from behind. We observe his view as if looking out a window. The video imagery scans a landscape of hills, and suburban houses of what is evidently Los Angeles. At the same time, we are being vibrated by the sounds of a kind of “cooing” vocal intonation, amplified by the subwoofer, resonating up through our feet into our very bones. It has the effect of simultaneously soothing and unnerving the beholder. The experience is quite exhilarating – like being held in a cheerful King Kong’s palm – as well as uncanny in a gallery setting conventionally geared to the visual sense. The video loop ends as the image swirls and fractures. The camera appears to fall as the sound cuts abruptly. This piece intriguingly evokes both the visual and haptic senses. The scopic scan of the video arouses curiosity. Just what is this primate head looking for in this landscape? While, at the same time, by the vibration below, we already know. This is L.A. and the tremor produced by the voice mimics the seismic vibrations of earthquakes experienced and those anticipated to come. Here King Kong stands in for the power of nature, the alpha male of earthly support. While the landscape appears lush, suburban, and pleasantly benign, the vocalized tremors – as the falling camera view intimates – proclaim the coming “big one.”
Elizabeth Grosz has said that “touch has no memory.”15 And it is true that touch implicates what is most clearly the performative present of æsthetic experience. Nevertheless, memory and touch are intimately tied, especially in the power of touch to invoke memory.
The haptic presencing of images on the skin’s surface is brought forth in Josefa Mulaire’s work. In the series of photographs entitled Cut, the artist carves images into shaved, pink flesh. They are visible as incised, bleeding lines. The images recall the innocence of children’s drawings, but the oozing, scarlet, strokes suggest otherwise: the disruption of the protective barrier of the dermis. Many of the images refer to benign forms of penetration: a finger in a hole, a straw in a glass of liquid, a jack-in-the-box. For the artist, they work as sexual and metaphorical references to the traumas of being born to the new, or of being violated. They are a testimony to self-transgression constitutive of a sad (if obvious) epidemic of internalized abuse. Here is a cultivated form of slasher culture, where techniques of rendering images through pain act as a kind of homeopathy for larger hurts: especially where photographic documentation records these rites, and exhibition reveals them. At once iconic and indexical, the images are felt intensely as they are drawn. And it is this haptic aspect that fascinates me because these images look very much like line drawings by the blind.
Touch gives blind and sighted persons alike the sense of three dimensions. The philosopher Denis Diderot wrote of how a blind acquaintance was able to recognize a friend from a drawing traced on the skin of his hand, using the skin as a canvas.16 Individuals, blind since birth, have the capacity to recognize raised-line sketches – or tactile pictures – such as a line drawing of a dog chasing a car. A fascinating aspect of research on art by the blind has been the crux of accounting for how this translation from three to two-dimensional representation is possible for individuals who have never seen.17 The aspect of memory is crucial to recognizing drawings which involve patterns traced by a stylus moving in time on the surfaces of the skin. A kind of mnemonic reversal occurs with Mulaire. While her images are drawn from memory and exist as visual media, their power is in the haptic punctum of the painful touch it took to produce them.
Memory and tactility are prominently activated in the work of Danica Jojich, especially in two commemorative sculptures. In these works, touch – in its proximal haptic sense – grants access to the dead. To Honour (1994) is a monument to those who have died during the AIDS crisis. A bronze cast of a packaged condom is contained in a blue velvet box. Inside the box, next to the condom, is a photograph, mounted on a tag, the kind to designate the ownership or provenance of objects, or even the identity of the dead. Inside the box’s lid, in silver words on a blue label, are instructions: “To Honour/A token, kept close at hand, to caress.” Both the photographic image and the label indicate how to engage with the sculpture: beholding through holding. The awareness of touching keeps one focused in the present. To hold the bronze condom is to experience its cool metal temperature, its weight and hard surface texture. Jojich intends that the act of touching the sculpture assist in accessing the memory of lost loved ones and in this way accelerate the grieving process. Her texturing of memory to ritual tactility can be likened to the grounding that prayer with a rosary invokes.18 Here the devotional touch is oriented to a felt presence, but absent body. What is asked is the willingness to connect through an intermediary object rendered sacred through its practices for use. There is an aspect of absurdity to being asked to hold something that didn’t save someone in order to remember them. For Jojich, it is precisely this confounding of rationality that enables feelings of loss and reminiscence to surface.
In another project, part of the larger, more complex, installation, Marble Pillows (1995-96), Jojich uses the pillow as an emblem of memorial. After her father died, Jojich placed a carved, marble pillow on his grave. When her mother is eventually buried beside him, another marble pillow will be placed for her. Marking the top of the plot, a headboard of marble – carved to resemble a marriage bed – will join the two. The pillowed double bed as a headstone refigures the grave as a place of domestic comforts, rest, dreaming and succour. Employed by the artist as a meditation in the transitional period of grief, the cool, smooth, feel of these memorials is intended to release the hold of the past and the fear of the future. Touching the marble pillow (or the bronze condom) insists on the present and on a constant returning to the present. Here, the act of touching is “what remains.”
Imitate Touch (1990) is one of the many billboard projects Les Levine has produced over the last decade. The piece depicts the forearms of Adam and God of Michelangelo’s fresco The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel which renders the birth of humanity through an act of contiguous touch. Installed by a freeway in the hinterland of Knoxville, Tennessee, the significance of Levine’s billboard lies in the evocation of its context in Bible-belt country where the command to “imitate touch” carries religious overtones: to follow the Christian path, to simultaneously inspire and embody the divine. In a more secular sense, to “imitate touch” is to open attention to the place of connection in art practice itself: the sensing of contact, influence or affect which pose the linkages and possibilities of creative process. In a scientific vein, experiments in brain research have shown that the act of imagining an action activates the same processes in the brain as actually enacting it. In this sense, then, to “imitate” or simulate touch might in fact provoke a tactile experience as far as brain synapses go. Read from a distance, the billboard requests sensorial translation from decoding the visual to emulating the tactile. I conclude with this work as a reminder that the haptic and visual senses are not in fact isolated, but rather, are implicated in each other. The issue is not to replace the visual by the tactile, but to explore the complexity of the senses in æsthetic experience.
The conception of the æsthetic implicit in these works goes beyond its typical use as a marginalized shorthand describing particular formal or stylistic conventions. The æsthetic, as a means of connection and sensorial engagement, can be recuperated and mobilized as a much more complex, wide-ranging and dynamic idea. As I have tried to suggest, æsthetic analysis can elucidate the significance of art’s sensorial aspects in the production of knowledge. Without “æstheticizing” or eviscerating the role of power, a haptic æsthetics can account for performativity in acts of production and beholding. The perception of relationship and sensorial affect insists on æsthetic experience not as an exclusively transcendent phenomenon, but as one with powerfully immanent dimensions.
Jennifer Fisher is a writer living in Montréal.
The author would like to thank Constance Classen for her insightful comments and suggestions.
1. Mary J. Gregor, “Baumgarten’s Æsthetica,” Review of Metaphysics #37, December 1983, pp. 357-385.
2. See, for example, Christine Battersby, “Situating the Æsthetic: A Feminist Defence,” in Thinking Art: Beyond Traditional Æsthetics, Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne, eds., London: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1991; Silvia Bovenschen, “Is There a Feminist Æsthetic?,” trans. Beth Weckmuller, in Feminist Æsthetics, Gisela Ecker, ed., London: The Women’s Press, 1985 (1976), pp. 23-50; Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994; and Hilda Hein, “The Role of Feminist Æsthetics in Feminist Theory,” The Journal of Æsthetics and Art Criticism, 48:4, Fall 1990.
3. Michèle Barrett, “The Place of the Æsthetic in Marxist Criticism,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds., Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 697-715.
4. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Æsthetic, Oxford: Basil and Blackwell Ltd., 1990.
5. J.M. Loomis and S.S. Lederman, “Tactual Perception,” in Handbook of Perception and Human Performance, K. Boff, L. Kaufmann, J. Thomas, eds., New York: Wiley, 1986.
6. John M. Kennedy, Drawing and the Blind, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993.
7. While I’m aware that Wurm’s weight gain is quite likely faked, I choose to work with it “as if” it were true.
8. Susan Buck-Morss describes how the rise of anæsthetics coincided with the cultural symptom of modernist shock in “Æsthetics and Anæsthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered,” New Formations #20, Summer 1993, pp. 123-143.
9. Deep Throat is continuous with Corps étranger, a work involving similar views of the body commissioned by the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
10. Hatoum states: “[P]reviously my strategy was much more politically straightforward, but today my work tends to be more subtle and more about creating an atmosphere in a space that you can relate to than relating to a specific situation in the world.... I tend to deal with the phenomenology of the space.” Cited in Eve-Lotta Holm, “Light Sentences, Ars 95 in Helsinki: Mona Hatoum,” Material #24, 1995, n.p.
11. David A. Green, “Need Your Love (Martin Kersels),” Art Issues, March/April 1996, pp. 15-17.
12. Grosz, op cit., p. 92.
13. Kersels cited in Howard Halle, “Heavy: An L.A. Artist Shows that Size Matters,” Time Out New York, September 1996, p. 32.
14. Green, op cit., p. 16.
15. Elizabeth Grosz, during a meeting of a reading group in feminism and cultural studies at the home of Renée Baert, Spring 1994.
16. Diderot cited in Kennedy, op cit.., p. 292.
17. Kennedy, op cit., p. 8.
18. Margot Bouman, “Danica Jojich,” Parachute #78, Spring 1995, p. 54.