Letter from the Editors

As the human species renegotiates between presence and proxy, we are advised to “keep in touch,” despite being prepared for conditions that make the act of touching, whether each other or our shared surfaces, taboo. At the beginning of 2021, we considered how COVID-19 may have impacted touch—as a sense of perception, a language, and as modes of mediation. In a world where touch became tenuous, even precarious, we were compelled to examine it as insidious, as a language to which we had limited access, one whose lack filled our imaginaries as physicality—we found refuge in distance. Collaborative digital environments, online meetings, messenger apps, channels, threads, feeds, streams, and virtual realities have been some of the ways we have made contact through these distances.

Of course, in reaching out, one first reaches a screen.

This is why it comes as no surprise that many of the works in this issue deliberate on digital mediation as a throughline. Though habituated now, many digital interactions that are interfaced through the flatness of our screens may be anything but flat. In A Robust Flatness, Natasha Chuk frames digital mediation as a multi-layered, sensorial experience. In shrouding the mediation process, Zoom’s dominance is predicated on convincing us that the boxes that house our names, our faces, and/or share our voices are the closest option to being in each other’s presence. By contrast, the artists and writers in this issue acknowledge the rift between the simulation and its referent. Recognizing the inexactitude between here and there allows covert cracks to open up into an entirely new field of participation and examination. 

Understanding how touch has been mediated through digital interfaces requires us to step back and consider the body’s relationship to touch and the body’s role in perceiving touch. This issue contains work that grapples with whether touch and the body can be separated from each other and the ways in which touch might exist as a sense beyond skin-to-skin contact, dwelling in the sonic or serving as an extension of our emotions. We must also contend with the physicality of the artificial, from that of a prosthetic to interactions with artificial intelligence. What is it to touch without feeling, or perhaps, with a new understanding and experience of feeling? In an increasingly transhumanist existence, do the possibilities of how we share and experience touch necessitate a redefinition? Does the occurrence of touch and even pleasure by proxy provide a new framework for embodied experience? The works in this issue contemplate and provide clues to these questions but perhaps more importantly, provoke further consideration and new questions. 

Here at the edge of one year’s end and another’s beginning, while still in the midst of a pandemic that has forcefully reoriented our relationships and habits, we welcome these new questions. Posed through image, lyrical prose, didactic observation, poetry, and haptically-charged audio work, they allow for numerous means to examine a concept that is at once expansive, intimate, and occasionally ineffable. The artists within offer the possibility of re-encountering and even redefining touch. We have accepted their invitation and offer you the opportunity to add your questions, encounters, and redefinitions to ours. 

— The Editors