poems told by touch

The “mother of all senses”–touch is the sense which became differentiated into the others. The skin is the most ancient and largest sense organ of the body, yet few arts engage it directly. In his 1921 The Manifesto of Tactilism, Futurist Filippo T. Marinetti outlined a radical new “Art of Touch”. It is in this spirit that I propose to bring “poems told by touch” to Bumpkin Island via the construction of a small tactilist theatre.

a tactilist theatre

Visitors to this artist’s “homestead” are greeted by the theatre’s director, a well dressed man, sporting white gloves and a bow tie. The director, a strong advocate of the tactile arts, ushers the visitors to the “feeling” area, and briefs them on how to best appreciate the works they are about to experience. A theater for touch, as opposed to sight or sound, necessitates a more active role for the audience, who must reach out to engage the work.

The show begins at the perimeter, where the audience is confronted with a series of tactile boards or “hand journeys” –planks affixed with items collected from the island and its shores and arranged in abstract or suggestive successions based on their tactile values. At each board, individuals explore the combinations of textured objects with their hands and fingers in a prescribed direction. In this manner, various tactile poems or psycho-geographies of Bumpkin Island are revealed. Small, battery-powered fans and vibrating motors add an interactive element of surprise to these manual landscapes.

The climax of the tactilist theatre lies at its center where the audience will explore time and place through collaborative touch. Sitting in a circle, the audience rests their hands on a long, running tactile ribbon which produces tactile sensations with different rhythms. The ribbon is composed of objects, chosen for their tactile qualities, found on Bumpkin Island and woven together with strings, wires, yarns, and grasses. As the ribbon is pulled through the circle, the rhythms of the participants combine and compete with the rhythms of the textured connected objects for an original tacto-temporal experience of the island. It may be possible to place these ribbons on small rotating wheels and accompany them with sound and light.

process: education of the sense of touch

Creating art for the sense of touch requires a reorganization of the senses. Prior to visitation by the public, the artist will undergo the training necessary for those who wish to practice the tactile arts as described by Marinetti’s manifesto:

  1. It will be necessary to keep the hands gloved for many days, during which the brain will attempt to condense in them the desire for varied tactile sensations.
  2. To swim underwater, in the ocean, trying to distinguish tactilely the plaited currents and different temperatures.
  3. Enumerate and recognise every evening, in absolute darkness, all of the objects in the bedroom.

Beginning one week before departing for the island, the artist will wear gloves 24 hours a day. The lack of tactile information during this period creates a longing that ultimately accentuates one's sensitivity to touch. The second (swimming in the ocean) and third (recognition of all objects in my bedroom/campsite in complete darkness) will take place while in residence on Bumpkin Island and will fine tune the artist's sensibilities to the local conditions. These experiences will be recorded via a written journal, made available to visitors, who will be encouraged to add their own tactile impressions to the record.

Erik Conrad’s work investigates the relationship between the sensate body and individual/collective experiences and understandings of space. Through interactive and site specific works, he asks participants to both question and contemplate their sensory experience. His works exploring the relationship between gesture and vision, as well as mobile tactile displays have been presented and exhibited internationally, including ImageRadio: Interactive experiments in public space [MAD Emergent Arts Center, Eindhoven, Netherlands], Responsive Architectures [Subtle Technologies, Toronto], SIGGRAPH, What Matter(s)? [Critical Digital, Harvard GSD], CHI 2006, Journées de la culture [Place des Arts’ Hall des Pas perdus, Montreal], Hybrid Vigor [Beall Center for Art and Technology, Irvine, CA] and the International Symposium for Wearable Computing (ISWC), among others. In addition, he has a peculiar and intimate knowledge of Spectacle Island.