A book specifically created for the smartphone, Visual Editions’ ‘Seed’ by Joanna Walsh offers a different kind of sensory experience, subverting how we view art and how we read books, carrying with it nostalgia for a purist tactile experience
‘Tactile art’ is pretty much history. Or maybe not. Let me explain. The word ‘tactile’ refers to the sense of touch. Basically, there are two possibilities of tactility in the arts – in the making of art for the artist and in the viewing or engagement with it for the rasika (art lover). For me, as an artist, the tactility in the making of art is critical – it is the intelligence of the hands, and the playfulness and pleasure in the sense of touch. When I am sculpting or painting, the creative process is imbued with the tactile journey my hands make and the resources of my mind. Whenever I am close to any sculpture my hands itch to touch it, which is why I have always encouraged people to see and feel my work with both their eyes and their hands, unless the work is too fragile or easily breakable. This openness to enable tactile experiences is rare in today’s art world. By and large for viewers there is no tangible tactility possible – signs, guards and CCTV cameras are used in exhibition spaces to prohibit that experience. We also find that more artists are working in non-tactile mediums and processes – photography, computer-generated images, more mechanically made conceptual installations.
For me, the sense of touch is very powerful. Perhaps, as an artist who is committed to the process of making art with my own hands, I might be more aware than the average person of the ability of the hands to express ideas and feelings. In my processes of making art, the hands seem alive in a delicious intelligence and rich in sensitivities. But this is also true beyond the making of art. Think of the experience of a massage with a mechanical squeezing or vibrating gadget, as compared to a massage by a masseur with well-trained and sensitive hands. Or the use of one’s hand to touch someone to say, ‘I love you’ or ‘get well soon’. Or the ability of the hands to decipher objects touched in darkness. The pleasure in feeling a piece of weaving or a sculpture and even the reading of a book in Braille. Tactility is something subtle and more interesting. It is not without reason or basis that we say we were ‘touched’ when we have an intense or moving experience.
Most people do not appreciate the centrality of the hand–brain connection. The engagement needs of the fingers and hands have shaped many capabilities of the human brain – such as eye–hand coordination. Consider the act of throwing a rock or a spear at a fleeing animal. The tactile sense of the hand–brain cognizes the weight of the object to be thrown, the eye–brain cognizes the distance and speed of the moving target, and the hand–arm–body translates this into, hopefully, successful action. To understand tactility, it is important to recognise that the fingers and hands aren’t mere input/output devices for the brain. Our tactile sense is one that encompasses mechanical tasks emotionality, and even aesthetics. And so, when Seed by Joanna Walsh (https://seed-story.com/) was suggested, I thought that was an unusual and interesting idea. Because Seed is an e-book (by London-based Visual Editions), one that is designed to be read on a smartphone. How, I wondered, might this be an example of tactile art? Perhaps, these days it might be considered reading an e-book like Seed a tactile experience because we use our fingers to tap and manoeuvre through a book that is specifically designed to be read on a smartphone?
To be honest, I don’t like to read on the small screen of a smartphone, or to engage with art through its limited visual canvas. So, I am not really the target reader for this sort of a book. But I did take a look. My response? The drawings are gorgeous, yet dissatisfying because they are small. I wanted to see them better but couldn’t enlarge them. The creating of the narrative arc through visual means, rather than the typical linearity of chapters in the usual format of books was nice, but hardly overwhelmingly exciting. In fact, the format felt constricting because of the limited sensory canvas of a smartphone screen. In any case, using fingers to tap and swipe on a smartphone is hardly a use of tactile intelligence. It is merely the use of fingers to do a mechanical task. For me, the medium used did not enhance the tactile aesthetic experience in any way.
In my view, the doorways to beauty through our tactile sense are of greater significance than usually understood, both in the perception of beauty and in its creation.
When Alexander Baumgarten introduced the term ‘aesthetics’ (a word derived from the Greek ‘aisthetikos’, meaning ‘of sense perception’) in 1735, his initial definition of the term was ‘a science of how things are known by the senses’. Later, he refined his definition of what he considered to be a new subject of philosophy to ‘the science of sensitive cognition’. Our senses are cognitive instruments – each of them is a remarkable means for us to relate, survive and flourish in the world. The perception of beauty through the visual and other senses plays a critical role in evolutionary well-being.
In my view, the doorways to beauty through our tactile sense are of greater significance than usually understood, both in the perception of beauty and in its creation. This is why handmade things – weaves, pots and art – have textures and resonances of beauty that are lost in mechanical or digitally made things and art.
All forms of art, including smartphone e-books, are eventually a means to get in touch with the world and with ourselves. All the paths created by our senses – including the tactile – enable us to connect with the world around us. Artists use sensory expression to communicate ideas and feelings. An absolutely wonderful book that explores this terrain is Centering: In Pottery, Poetry and the Person by M. C. Richards. In it she evocatively explains a potter’s truth, which is a fine description of this form of tactile art: ‘If I begin at the centre, firmly and gently, and if I open my clay firmly and gently, pulling the walls out from the centre, opening wider and wider, as wide as the clay will allow, this crescent will form within me like a grace.’
The movement of art towards a more cerebral conceptualism marks a turning away from the cognitive intelligence of all our senses, not just the tactile. Bringing art forms into the small screens of smartphones represents another shrinking of the world of our senses. It is, alas, another kind of reductionism that I rue. But, I suppose, in a manner of speaking, art, in all its forms, is a bridge between the visible and invisible worlds, and when any art stirs our consciousness, physically or virtually, we could consider it a tactile experience and a tactile art form. As for me, I prefer to remain a purist about tactility in art, and seek it through the hands and physical touch rather than through conceptuality or virtual reality.