Touch is a fundamental part of human development and well-being. It’s one of the first senses that humans develop in the womb, approximately around the eighth week of gestation. Several studies point out its reference to cognitive and emotional development in children and its lasting impacts throughout our lives. This awareness that we are living in a crisis of touch has already been present for a while: records show that social touch was already excluded from our lives and in a deficit way before the pandemic hit. Given the current Corona epidemic, physical distancing became the norm, and touch was simply pushed away from public space.
This conversation with the artist Karina Smigla-Bobinski approaches, precisely, matters of touch. These territories are embedded in Smigla-Bobinski’s practice in artworks such as ADA, a floating sphere that throughout the interaction with an active audience inscribes her presence in the limits of the gallery walls, or Kaleidoscope, a touchable lightbox with free-flowing ink, that endlessly forms new shapes activated by human contact. On this subject of touch, her work is in the tradition of artists such as Trisha Brown, Rebecca Horn, Marina Abramovic, Lynn Hershman Leeson, or Stelarc. The intimate and interactive nature of her work is, thus, a springboard to explore how these feelings of reciprocity and connection arise in her work in such a participatory way.
Ana Teresa Vicente (ATV): Your practice has a reciprocal quality where the viewer’s body interacts with the pieces themselves. There’s an active exchange. How do you see the importance of touch and its many nuances in your work?
Karina: This interplay between body awareness and the digital technology in which we are embedded nowadays, is crucial. We are already so much into the virtual stuff so that all the technical devices seem to push us apart from our bodies.
ATV: It’s like a collaborative involvement with viewers or participants. They’re not viewers anymore, they’re active participants, right?
Karina: Exactly. So, they switch from viewer to collaborative participant. Why do I want visitors to be active? Simply because this is the best way in this day and age. First, I prefer discussion, not a monologue. Secondly, I want to make an impact, but I also want the participants to make an impact on me too. That was one of the reasons why I decided to balance it back, by involving the body in the process. More precisely, the body of the participants becomes an active interface generating the art experiences. The classical artistic process starts with the artist in a creative process which culminates in an artwork, where the creative process ends. After that, the piece of art remains in this status in a gallery or museum, and the public can participate here only in a passive way. So, everything that happens next happens only in the head of the viewer. We call it Kopf-Kino (mental cinema). However, the mechanism of my work opens the process of creation to the public. I leave the artwork in an open state and invite the visitors to become a creative part of my installation and to fulfill the artwork. We call that Open Source, right? So, in this ongoing creative process, the participant is equal to me as an artist.
It was not me who developed the dance performance with ADA, but a dancer in Vancouver (Canada), who visited the exhibition and just started to dance by herself.
After that, more and more dancers felt encouraged to try their own pas de deux’s. It was also not me who got the idea to make music out of the ADA-sound, but a musician, who visited the exhibition in Munich. He discovered ADA’s acoustic quality and made us realize it.
I am looking forward to seeing where the imagination of the collaborators will take us with ADA next. I love the fact my art doesn’t exist without the participants putting their hands on it. Michelangelo is supposed to have said that “to touch is to give life“, and this is exactly what happens here. It’s the people who bring the installations to life. And this is what makes this art form so vibrant. One could talk for hours and you never will know how it is to pet a wet dog, until you let your fingers slide into the fur and you smell it, right? ;-D
ATV: In a way, that is exactly how we experience the world: with our entire bodies and not just with our eyes.
Karina: Exactly. The lockdowns caused by Covid have greatly limited our body experience for so many of us. For me, it’s even worse because this is the way I communicate. Touch is often the key ability for interaction and so for the experience. It can be so much more than the tomb smear on the mobile glossy surface. Touch can happen with your entire body. However, right now I’m doing my quick artistic research on The Future Of Touch. It starts with a small comment just after the first lockdown in March 2020. At this time, ADA was exhibited at OMM Museum in Turkey. Shortly after Turkey got under lockdown too I found a nice comment on the internet which said: “ADA will teach us to touch and to socialize again“. This small comment turned out to be like a butterfly effect. I spoke about it in a live video with the OMM Museum on Instagram. An artist duo, Caitlind r.c. Brown & Wayne Garrett from Canada took this idea and made an interdisciplinary Zoom as artist’s discussions with keynote presentations by an artist (me), a scientist, and a philosopher who work in that field (https://incandescentcloud.com/2020/05/11/the-future-of-touch/).
Inspired by that I decided to make my own quick artistic research about touch before, in, and after Covid-19, as an exchange of ideas but also as a time document. It’s an ongoing project where I want to spread my tentacles to other artists or philosophers, writers, brain scientists, dancers, and choreographers to see the subject from many perspectives, like in a cubistic manner. This is about getting a bigger idea of what exactly touch is to us.
ATV: Interactive art has been a prolific artistic territory, expressively placing human bodies in the centre of a series of relations and connections. Do you consider that the pandemic will influence the way you make art, namely by changing the relationship between the viewer/participant and the artwork, or between the participants themselves?
Karina: I think yes. I think my approach will be better understood and appreciated now. All the time before Covid I was talking about these relations and explaining why I choose to involve the body and touch into my work. So, this is something that I really like about it. This crisis lets us feel how it is to be reduced to… to get stuck in virtual worlds. It looks like this was needed to recognize how important the body experiences are to us, our life, even for the development of thoughts and so for understanding the world.
ATV: At first, I thought that the pandemic would really change our relationship with the world and propel us to take concrete actions in order to deal with the environmental crisis. And I thought that a meaningful change would totally be possible, that we would actually become aware of what we are doing to our planet. But nowadays, seeing things opening up and everyone going on with their lives just as normal as possible, I’m starting to doubt if that is going to actually be true; if we are going to take the necessary steps to change that. Either way, the fact that everyone’s so acutely aware of the position their body occupies in space and how much we need to connect with each other, is already a step forward.
Karina: In “On Revolution” Hannah Arendt warns against changes that can backfire if they are forced but not followed by realistic and better alternatives. However, this time we need to act quickly because time is running out. For now, the jury is still out but it doesn’t look good for us. Anyway, the fact that everyone is aware of their body in space and recognizes how much we need to connect in person with each other, is already a small step forward. That reminds me of an installation I developed back in 2012. The interaction here is converted into an enormous balloon equipped with gloves that look like inverse tentacles. The outputs generate lighting patterns on the balloon’s surface caused by different types of touches inside of the balloon.
People have to squeeze the space between them, in order to reach each other’s hands and to create the light effects. Nevertheless, I think when people will join my installations now, they will do all these actions more consciously. Perhaps this could be my contribution as an artist to support positive changes, by encouraging people to be aware and conscious of their bodies and their actions, and of the consequences these actions have? The good thing is that people recognize in such experimental art spaces that his or her one action matters and that it can produce wonderful outputs. Patti Smith sings about it in “People Have The Power”.
ATV: This song gives me goosebumps! Yes, to keep people aware and conscious… and to be present.
Karina: Right, present! When you touch, you are in the moment, in the here and now. You cannot touch and be in the past or in the future. And the “now” is the place where we produce new knowledge through experiences. I think experience through the body in the here and now, is something that we cannot jump out of and stay human. So, this is why we want, and need, to go into it again and again and again.
What I also really love is… I understand and agree with the regulations of social distancing, of wearing masks, all the stuff we have to do, in order to keep ourselves safe and to protect others. I am already fully vaccinated. However, there were a few situations, like the anti-abortion legislation in Poland or the death of Mr. Floyd in the US, where many considered the mental health of society to be more important at the moment. Demonstrations on the internet don’t work, so they went out on the streets and demonstrated by being present together. Wonderful!
ATV: The pandemic exposed other problems that exist in our society in such a blatant way. I’m really grateful that people are not fearful and do not stay home close behind doors just to protect themselves, and they still fight for their beliefs safely with masks and physical distancing, for example. I’m so grateful that people are not just fearful of others.
Karina: Exactly. At the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to read The Plague by Camus again. It was such a pleasure to read this book again. I have read it at school but at that time it was only a part of literature for me. However, an abstract story became real this time. It gave me comfort to read the brilliant descriptions of behaviour patterns… the fear, the superstition, the focus on numbers or panic buying, but also the courage of people, social commitment, and collaborations to support the others. I also discovered “Decameron”, by Giovanni Boccaccio. Every night I heard a chapter of the audiobook. Some of these stories are so funny, some are sweet, some horribly kitschy… I imagine that the comfort I felt listening to my grandmother’s fairytales is similar to the kind of comfort that the young storytellers in the novel expected on each of the nights they spent together. These are patterns that still exist. So, we humans haven’t changed a lot… sometimes I think we haven’t changed at all. ;-D
ATV: There is something in the way we relate that is fundamentally the same.
Karina: Yeah. After all these plagues, people just started to really enjoy life. So, I think this will happen soon too… for a while. 😉
ATV: Even before the pandemic, several strategies had been developed to bridge the gap of touch between people – such as the appearance of professional huggers, AI sex spot bots (which are mostly “enveloped” in female forms which is entirely another question), or the creation of simulacra or interfaces. I had given as an example, this device that resembles skin and that you have to squeeze and pinch. It’s a different way of interacting. Most of my examples portray unidirectional relationships. In some ways, this is an “asymmetrical reciprocity”, as Iris Marion Young puts it. Here, the word asymmetrical can be seen as a territory of active exchange, yes, but one where reciprocity is not always guaranteed: “opening up to the other person is always a gift; the trust to communicate cannot await the other person’s promise to reciprocate” (Young 1997, 352). If, as Giuliana Bruno states in her book “Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media” when we touch something we are touched back in return if there is immersion and reciprocity in the way humans relate to each other and the world, is there creation of a distinct connection when machines mediate this relationship? Is it possible to achieve an individualized but related, embodied relationship with machines? If this relationship or connection between humans and machines is not possible, what do you think is lacking in order to attain it?
Karina: ADA as an art machine does not need hardware or software… but we can say that the museum provides the hardware — the exhibition space — and I provide the software — the balloon with charcoals. The visitors are the users who give the commands.
However hard the visitor tries to control ADA, to drive her, to domesticate her, they notice very soon that she is an independent performer. ADA is constructed not to follow you 100% and can be gentle or not impressed at all or even rude. Once you set the balloon into motion it is pretty unpredictable, so you have to deal with it as a partner. Even though it’s obvious that this is a PVC balloon with willow charcoal on it, many people speak about “her” not “it”… even me.
I think the problem starts when the creators want to hide all the techniques to achieve an illusion of a human-like relationship with all those human-looking devices and human-acting AI. This is manipulation that withholds important information and robs you of control. Mostly a simple touch could expose them as such. However, if we do not educate our body perception with real inputs, we can quickly become confused and end up in a matrix-like reality. So, the problematic and unhealthy relation starts when the apparatus should let us feel they are conscious beings. You spoke about AI sex spot bots… I prefer a sex surrogate than a sex doll. A toxic relation starts when the technology spies on us and when the AI creates a user profile, in order to predict and influence our behaviour.
A wonderful embodied relationship with technology begins by creating e.g. a prosthetic apparatus to replace missing body parts, to support our weak senses, or even replace them if needed. It is a perfect relation when a blind person gets an implant that lets them see again. It is also wonderful to get a bionic prosthesis you can control intuitively. The list is endless.
However, I also create art apparatus which provide an individualized and embodied relationship. But I won’t lie. I am more like a wizard, who totally openly shows how this magic works and how easily we can get confused by our senses.
The impressionists did the same thing almost 200 years ago. We are wizards, who openly show how light and optics work.
My work gets even further once the participants become wizards too. I always say: I dig the hole to the wonderland but jump into it, you need to do it by yourself. I make them realize how easily you can achieve this, but at the same time how difficult it is to fully understand what is going on. What is actually real and what is constructed by our body-mind relation. It’s not enough to pinch yourself to see if something is true.
Kant already reverses the relation between the world and humans: Not only do we orientate ourselves according to the world, but the world is shaped by the conditions of our senses and also by our thinking and cognition. When we recognise the world, we must always reflect on the fact that we imply something onto the things as well. Everything that surrounds us (objects/phenomena/passage of time) are things that do not simply exist in the world but appear as such in the world insofar as we co-structure this world through our senses and cognition. We are trapped in the black box of our body and have a few membranes through which we can see, hear, smell, taste… and touch. The exchange between the inside and outside happens through these few insufficient senses nature developed for us.
However, I think that the vision can be seen as a different kind of touch because when you learn about the evolution of the eye you know that the eye has been developed out of skin cells that have been specialized for light sensitivity.
When we look from this perspective we could think even further and so also hearing, smelling and tasting can also be seen as other different sensitivities of our biggest organ: the skin. Perhaps touch was not enough to survive, so nature had to develop further strategies of touch… something that could provide important information by indirect contact from a distance by smelling, hearing, or seeing. In German, we have the phrase “mit Augen abtasten” which means “to palpate something or somebody with the eyes”. In English, we say “it touched me” if something like a picture or a song makes you feel strong, like how you felt with Patti Smith’s song.
ATV: Mark Patterson in “Seeing With Hands Blindness Vision and Touch After Descartes”, describes an interesting situation: a patient’s first reaction after going through cataract surgery and thus recovering sight, was that the objects touched his eyes the same way his hands would perceive objects around him. His recovery was like nothing seen before, “a near-instantaneous collocation between tactile, auditory and visual sensations” (Patterson, p. 61). There was, however, across model transfer from touch to vision. The real world did not correlate with this idea after he was acclimatized to this new visual world in this and there was a disappointment in this: “it was the promise of correlating his tactile experience with his new visual abilities that most impressed him” (Patterson, p. 67). And I bring forward this idea of the relationship between touch and vision as ways of connecting with the world. If, in order to see, we need distance, in order to touch we must come closer (Barker, p. 27). Then there’s a connection between proximity and distance seeing and touching. Some of your artworks have this connection too, you need to come closer to interact with them but also some distance in order to see. How do you see this relationship unfolding, especially now that physical distancing is required? Will touch remain an integral part of your practice?
Karina: Yes and no. Under the lockdowns, touch became more a theoretical subject if we speak about my art because exhibitions were not taking place. But my art practice has become even more haptic. I tried to use this “free time” to put my hands-on work that had been waiting for too long to be done, like experimenting or creating new artworks in my studio but also writing down and illustrating my lectures on colour and composition to create a sort of a handbook for art students. For example, as a professional painter, you have to know about the theories of colour and composition.
However, the most important thing is to know how to express yourself. For this, you need to find your artistic language, your own colour palette. Therefore, you need to know what all the colours mean to you, what they feel like to you. And exactly for this purpose, I conceived exercises on what I call “subjective colour theory”. Synaesthesia is a crucial part of the procedure, where I break the visual sense and let them imagine being able to experience colours in a new way by hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching them. However, I don’t mean here to test yellow as a citric taste by that. Such superficial symbolic associations you have to overcome as an artist and dig deeper into yourself. It’s a scientific discovery on unconscious perceptions withdrawn from cultural influence.
ATV: We’ve been restricted to vision now because we were connecting just as we both are now, through flat screens. I feel that the sense of presence – that someone is present in the same room as you – is still very much lacking. Vision alone is not sufficient to establish a relationship with the world, right? it’s what we’ve been discussing so far. So, what other ways can we achieve or find to establish this active connection? I had seen these virtual reality meetings, they create this kind of illusion of presence and that, for me, brings forward these questions of mediation, and how technology can help us to feel the presence of other creatures, not only humans. How can we escape this “flattening” of our experience, for example, with this transition to online exhibitions where we see the artworks just as a flat representation on the screen? Some artworks do not translate very well to that medium. They may require that you really interact with the piece and that you experience it in a bigger space. So, documentation and this flattening of the experience does very little for rendering these works in a suitable way. So, there are two questions here, not only the illusion of presence that we may or may not be able to achieve with technology, but also how we can portray artworks in a better way and escape this flattening of our experience.
Karina: Yes, our communication with the world happens on so many layers. It happens in so many dimensions and I could imagine there are some we haven’t yet discovered. We just explore a mental map, a sort of a GPS, a comprehensive positioning system in our brain… or proprioception, also called kinaesthesia, the body ability which makes us able to move freely without consciously thinking about our environment. Super exciting discoveries!
When we just reduce our interaction into only two dimensions on the flat screen, how much less information do we get out of this? It’s like putting a river into a pipe.
But art can use it and can give a form to that “pipe“. I did it in my paintings and also in my interactive installations like ALIAS, SIMULACRA, WORMHOLE, or TÊTE-À-TÊTE. In ALIAS I use this “pipe” to implant an alien – the other – into you. It is not very nice but it’s salutary.
ATV: A bit like if they were Matrioshka shadows! We affect each other, even if from afar.
Karina: Yes, here standing in front of an illuminated wall one can see his/her own shadow filled with a person apparently watching him/her in return. The fact the participants meet the blueprints of their own filled out with a stranger is surprising but also disturbing. Exactly this makes the flat video-figure appear almost real. And so, the boundary between reality and illusion seems to blur for a moment.
In WORMHOLE, it becomes a communication tunnel throughout the earth. In TÊTE-À-TÊTE it transforms into a megaphone of your own dark site.
In SIMULACRA this “pipe” turns into a spyhole.
However, it brings us opportunities too. Could you imagine how the situation under the lockdowns would be without the internet? It’s such a blessing to sit here in front of my laptop and talk to you… I still cannot really touch you… but we are “in touch” through sound and vision. A few days ago, I spoke with an art professor from New Hemisphere, who told me about his observations. He has to communicate now with the students through Zoom and this situation is terrible not only for him but also for most of the students. They terribly miss being together in a studio and discussing the matter relying on originals. But he discovered that some of the introverted students have overcome their shyness and are more easy-going now. So, there are people who really feel more comfortable getting in touch through this medium. Who knows, perhaps we will gain some knowledge out of this.
ATV: The pandemic also exposed the fact that we haven’t achieved in the development of our technology something that has this embodied experience through the digital medium. We already had holographic technology, for example, which kind of achieved what it promised in terms of “presence”. I don’t recall seeing that many artworks nowadays using that technology. So, there were some promises of having or feeling this “presence” of something or someone but then it never became true. Maybe this pandemic will push things into that territory?
Karina: Maybe. In my work SIMULACRA, I speak about the image of the body we create in our mind. How we perceive it and what happens when we transform it into a virtual one.
The homunculus models show in such an impressive way the ‘map’ of body areas in our brain and how out of these parts we create an image, a representation of our body.
In SIMULACRA on the white screen, you see through magnifying glasses also parts of a body, like hands appearing from the white space, then touching the surface and disappearing again into the white. Our brain makes sense of this by putting the puzzle together and producing an idea of a body swimming in a milky liquid. In reality these are light impulses going through the two small two holes (eyes) in front of your head and become a story of a swimming body in your brain.
In 2007 Henrik Ehrsson together with a group of neuroscientists at Karolinska Institutet induced out-of-body experiences, using virtual reality and an experimental set-up. This Institute makes so many great experiments and discoveries about the brain, the body, and our senses. (http://www.ehrssonlab.se).
Our brain is such a tricky wizard! It jumps between and mixes or even interchanges the real and the virtual worlds. We don’t feel that one is more important than the other one. In normal life, we don’t even recognize the difference between them… or do you feel the difference between, for example, the colour red and magenta? The body is our base, and an interface where everything meets together and consciousness arises.
ATV: That is not just rational.
Karina: Of course not.
ATV: There’s something else.
Karina: When the people interact for example with ADA, they cannot use the knowledge from previous experiences because this experience is totally new for them. At this moment, they just switch into intuition. This is one of the moments where your body leads you and you just follow. I think this is why the people feel relieved and mesmerized by that. This is such a wonderful experience to be one with your body, and to be in this moment in the here and now.
However, ADA seems to respond also to one of a very touchy human instinct. They seem to be driven by the same desire as the first human beings: the desire to leave a sign, as proof of one’s own existence.
A long time ago people left their marks in the form of negative prints of their hands on cave walls (e.g. La Castillo in Spain or Lascaux in France). It’s an incredibly intense experience to know that 40,800 years ago somebody put his or her hand on this exact spot on the wall. I feel really touched by that. For me, this is touch through time.
Similarly in ADA people left their marks in the form of lines on the walls, floor and scaling by touching and pushing the spiky balloon. These are coding memories of their body movements. If you scrutinize the drawing you can decode each line to comprehend what body behaviour had caused it. You can even go further and draw conclusions on the temperament or sometimes intention of the participant.
A dance performance at The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh created a new coding technique of the movements and a new layer of memory by directly touching the walls. The dancers clapped their hands and feet on the scribbled walls and took a layer of coal dust away by that. These produced negative hand or food stamps, which remind me so much of the negative handprints from the Stone Age. Touch is an indigenous human capability.
ATV: This desire to leave a mark, to touch others, resonates with the Origin of Painting found in Pliny the Elder. When the origin of the representation is mentioned, in the episode concerning the drawing of the shadow of the lover who will be absent, highlights precisely the relationship between presence and absence, the symbolic character of the line and the marks, and the relationship between the passage of time and memory, through the representation of something that belongs to the past (Stoichita, 1999, p. 18). There’s not only the desire to touch but also to leave a mark. Together with that desire, the embodied relationship present in your works also speaks to this fundamental human trait: the desire to connect. In your work, both affecting as much as it is being affected by are mutually present. They constitute the sensory encounter each piece responds to and is reciprocated to, in an ever-evolving way. Although physically apart, our exchange through video chat over the course of this very particular year, brought to light the generative power of touch and its entanglements, both in the physical and virtual worlds.
Barker, J. M. (2009) The tactile eye. Touch and the Cinematic Experience. London: University of California Press.
Young, M., Iris. (1997). Asymmetrical Reciprocity: On Moral Respect, Wonder, and Enlarged Thought. Constellations 3, no. 3. Oxford and Malden: Blackwell Publishers.
Paterson, M. (2016). Seeing with the Hands: Blindness, Vision and Touch After Descartes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Stoichita, V. I. (1999). A Short History of the Shadow. (A.-M. Glasheen, Trad.). London: Reaktion Books.