Touch to Feel

Oliver Laric, Mansudae Overseas Project, (2013,) 
Nicole Morris, Your Love Will Fade, (2012) 

Catalog essay for TTTT, curated by Sarah Williams at Jerwood Encounters in London. (pdf)


A smartphone just launched called “Pyongyang Touch.” It looks like a common Samsung or Apple model but it is available only in North Korea. Hardly anyone in the country will ever see one of these devices, let alone “touch” one, but those few will be initiated into customs and rituals unique to our time. These gestures are instinctive — swipe to scroll, pinch to minimize. It is the way we played with make believe books and microscopes as children. Hands customize what is on the screen. Touch until the screen reflects what you wish to see.

“Pyongyang Touch” doesn’t connect to the internet. That is forbidden. But it gives users the power to manipulate a screen environment like clay. After experiencing it, the physical world no longer seems like something static. Touch screen gestures are so natural that it is not unusual to watch toddlers swipe a television or shake a book to update the image. We are no longer divided by these gestures. Somewhere a kid in North Korea might be patting at a TV now saying, “this screen is broken!”

The origin of an object in the exhibition TTTT is also, improbably, Pyongyang. Oliver Laric’s Mansudae Overseas Project is a copy of a bronze sculpture the artist ordered from a commercial art manufacturing studio in the city — its website operated by an Italian liaison. The network activity (visiting the website, contacting its administrator) that led to the construction of this object is as invisible in physical space as the policy that made it complicated (postal service sanctions and other logistics.) Border control and internet censorship divide us from North Korea. We might be standing on the same sedimentary rocks but no one meets us in the digital overlay. Physical miles seem like years away.

Nicole Morris’ Your Love Will Fade begins with shadows and shadow puppets. No one casts a shadow on the internet, and you can’t touch either. A woman’s flesh, bound in a strappy dress, is shown in contrast with rough textures, sounds, and surfaces which indicate friction. The idea for every piece she makes begins with clay. Viewer squeeze in to see the projection of the film behind hanging fabric. Nicholas Brooks and Heather Phillipson also construct physical barriers to see their work, with screens and ladders, respectively. Cécile B. Evans is exhibiting an installation including 3D printed items that she selected from a study of the top 100 most familiar objects — a comb, scissors, and a screwdriver. The familiarity comes not just from the look of these objects but also our expectation of what each weights, the surface texture, and way we handle the objects; the qualities we register by touch. Benedict Drew and Johann Arens further interrogate the contrast between navigating the physical world with your eyes and navigating a screen surface with your fingers.

Artists in the exhibition TTTT are inviting us to consider textures that are only experienced offscreen. Digital and physical worlds might appear interconnected, but for now, to touch, to feel something other than flat glass, means to put the gadgets away. In time, we will move away from the screen, and the internet will pump through everyday objects. Interfaces of the future could feel like grass, snakeskin, denim, or rubber. We will mime fingerpainting in the air soon enough. The physical world will be as malleable as what we see now boxed in bezels. Until then, we live in anxious crosshatches: the space between the world we create with our fingers and the world we sense from touch.

Common words took on new meanings after the internet. Now to “search” for something, is less about yearning, than research. Used outside an onscreen context, “search” becomes a metaphor for the algorithmic function to find something specific, but it is a word as old as language. There is no synonym — quest, pursue, examine — that quite fits the shape of the desire we described before we went online. The word “touch” is likewise recalibrated, with a focus on the motion of touching rather than sensing the texture of something. The uniformly smooth surface of a “touch interface” has no friction. Touch is never the point of a digital experience, not the way that code is written for us to hear or see. We touch surfaces that do not tug back or prick our fingers. We touch to alter images, to turn the volume down. We touch to engage other senses.

No wonder a phone is frequent bedside companion. The last thing to touch before sleeping. Wake up and touch. Handling that object all day long with delicate fingertip gestures creates an unusual intimacy. Touch to feel in control of the screen world, to orientate your way through space. It changes your postures and body. When my phone is in my bag or my pocket, sometimes I catch myself holding my right hand clenched still like a claw. I have spent so much time holding a flat rectangle my muscles contort in this resting pose, an empty space where my phone is otherwise.

An elite few in North Korea wake up and touch their phones first thing in the morning. In a satellite image, the country is a black patch between networked glittering garland weaves of light in neighboring South Korea and China. It is as dark as the Sea of Japan, with just one bright spot at the capital city, Pyongyang. That’s where the smartphones are sold. The smartphones without internet. Mapped there is a tyranny beyond our imagination, and to privilege online representation above physical encounters, or weigh each the same, is to allow us to forget it.

A screen only represents texture. It offers just a shadow of an approximation of what it is like to experience tactility. There is emancipatory imaginative power in the capacity to move digital objects with fingers. However, to register the substance and feel of things, as the exhibition TTTT reveals, means to hold your hands out to touch.