Be in Touch

“Everything is a metaphor until the body abuts it.”
– Claire Schwartz


The phrase “be in touch” reaches out from a situation about to become more distant – where touch, actually, will no longer be possible – to ask for a form of contact in the uncertain future. Contact is the literal condition of touching; figuratively, it’s the event of sending a message. If I ask you to be in touch, I am asking for a kind of contact that turns tactility into communication.

The part of the brain related to touch is called the postcentral gyrus, from which this exhibition takes its name. The postcentral gyrus holds a virtual map of sensory space, a map with glitches in its borders. The map is subject to revision and can generate false sensations. The phenomenon of phantom limb can occur when nerves associated with an amputated body part send signals to the brain as though it were still attached. Pain often takes the place of the lost digit or limb, so that it doesn’t feel like something is missing, but rather is still there, somehow distorted or contorted. This feeling, evokes the writer Megan Nolan, “can be so convincing that not only will the patient feel a severed hand, but can actually feel it reach out and attempt a handshake with the real hand of another person.” When used metaphorically, the impairing syndrome helps articulate an imbalance between presence and absence, fullness and lack.

In the 1980s, Lynn Hershman Leeson named her series of black-and-white photo-collages of women’s body parts spliced with camera lenses and other analogue-era devices “Phantom Limb” (1985–87). Contemporaneous with the publishing of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985), which sung the hybrid possibilities for feminist liberation through the reclamation of technologies, the series (from which the works Camerawoman and Biological Clock are taken) foresees an imminent revolution in the merging of humans, interfaces, and machines. For its time, “Phantom Limb” cut the homogenous kinds of (white) women’s bodies favored by mass media out of their rote role of performance before the male gaze, reintegrating the camera-eye into self-image decades before the arrival of social media, smartphones, and selfie feminism. The series makes a parody of the idea that our devices should substitute a ‘lack’ (here a specifically feminine one), while offering offer an early premonition of how later automated and assistive technologies, because considered subservient, would be feminized.

Hershman Leeson’s practice, with its continual engagement with technological change and how this relates to identity, embodiment, and desire, provides a precursor to the contemporary artworks of the exhibition. Made between 2013 and 2018, this assemblage of works reveals various negotiations between a body and its intermediaries, through both technics and techne – the poetic practice of making. How this body meets other bodies, how this body receives appendages and modifications, and how this body-mind or mind-body finds supports in writing and art. These artworks are also brought forth into that space between a body and its intermediaries, insofar as art comes out of the subjective and into a physical and/or conceptual relation with others, to bridge a gap. You are rarely allowed to touch the artworks, but an artwork, like someone else’s phantom limb, may reach out and touch you.

In Our Hands (2015) by Marjolijn Dijkman displays two pairs of phantom hands on back-to-back LED screens. Lit like the blue of an X-ray scanner, the hands are those of a dancer, their gestural movements captured with motion sensors and translated into animation, where they hover, removed from their previous body. The shift of sense in the meaning of ‘contact’ from physicality to remote communication dates to the nineteenth century, when the phrase “to make contact” referred to connections in electric circuits – signal passed to signal into sign. These digits’ gestures are willful – a command, a direction, a beckoning; an effect to accentuate an affect – as well as less conscious – an excess of signal that may append or replace but ultimately escapes words. Our body can betray a truth we chose not to or could not say; some aspects of the way we communicate are not in but out of our hands.

In Addie Wagenknecht’s works, the gestures of action painting, historically attached to the singular artist’s hand, are detached from direct bodily feedback and instead entrusted to the sensor-based movements of contemporary robotics. Where gestural abstraction was canonized according to a valuation of male territorial mark-markings, Perfect Lovers and Northern Lights (both 2018) replace that given authenticity with the automated paint splatterings of a re-programmed Roomba. Defiantly here, the robot vacuum does not clean, it makes a mess, as Wagenknecht has hacked its program to spew rather than suck.

The painter’s brush was always a technological extension of their body. Yet while the artist’s use of this domestic tool seems to further remove from her the gestures of painting, the result is no less intimate. Scuttling on the ground like a pet, the Roomba’s sensors allow for navigation of the environment according to proximity rather than distance. (In another series, Alone, Together (2017), Wagenknecht lay down naked on the canvas while the robot skirted her outline, leaving an absence of paint in the place of a female nude.)

These paintings raise the question of why the physicality of one act should be fetishized when that of another is devalued: the corporeal act of painting as an integral part of the Work, as opposed to a body’s labor in acts of cleaning and maintenance. The Roomba’s inclusion in this painting process not only stands for the freeing of women from domestic chores in order to potentially have more time and energy to make art (*those women who can afford the luxury of such tech products), but also performs the trick of reinvesting symbolic value in the domiciliary via the canvas.

The pigments, liquids, and other substances in Wagenknecht’s two paintings come from make-up products and pharmaceuticals – hair dye, cologne, oxyContin, Prozac – smears of the chemical facades of modern life. Kirsten Stolle’s watercolors, Specimen Series (2013), come out of the artificial compounds that end up inside us – from a gut feeling about unseen interference with conceptions of interior and exteriority. Stolle painted the series while reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), about the detrimental effects of pesticides on eco-systems and human biology, and while herself experiencing digestive discomfort. Forms resembling organic cells and bacteria under a microscope meet a shit-hued protuberance, a barbed-wire loop, or an aqua-wash of cleansing water. The fictional forms are porous and seeping, faithful to the nature of real bodies, the paint running according to its liquid course, uncompliant to authorial boundaries.

The borders between ‘natural’ and artificial, constructed and organic, are equally dissolved in Antye Guenther’s long, pearlescent ceramic entities, “No structure, not even an artificial one, enjoys the process of entropy” (2018). This title is a quote from Philip K. Dick’s Galactic Pot-Healer (1969), in which the protagonist’s job restoring ceramics is becoming obsolete with the prevalence of plastics. (The entropy of plastics being a disastrous pile-up, rather than a rotting away.) With the ergonomics of a digitally designed sex toy, or the molded form of a finger, a spoon, an undersea alien worm, it is ambiguous whether the desirable protrusions have been shaped by human hands, as per our first association of clay, or by a machine. Materially, the objects also resist binary classification: silicon is both the conductive element of microchips and a component of modern ceramics. The sculptures embody the fusing of technics and techne, a coexistence that does not begin with the digital revolution, though it has been accentuated by this, but that dates back to the beginnings of the Anthropocene, when humans first started to impact Earth, crafting tools with which to both survive and to make art.

In common with the post- of posthuman, postmodern, or post-internet, the post- of “Postcentral” refers not to what comes after, but rather what goes beyond the thing that continues to exist. More than standing for a place after ‘the body’ – which never in the definitive existed anyway – the post- of “Postcentral” stands for what emerges from the corporeal to supplement, substitute, or support it. If this post- can also function as a de-, the artworks of “Postcentral” wish to decenter dominant, patriarchal modes of being/ways of seeing. They deny the idea of a single body as a coherent, categorizable container.

In this mold, Zach Blas’s Facial Weaponization Communiqué series (2011–14) sets out to resist, in its gloopy obfuscations, the white-biased machine gaze of biometric facial recognition. The amorphous pink Fag Face mask was modeled on the aggregated facial data of queer men, and covers the wearer’s features with an opaque, bulbous coating – a statement against the discriminatory use of biometrics. Through this series, in which other masks relate to biometric technologies’ in-built discriminations against dark skin color and hijab-wearing women, the machine eyes that seek to render all facets of identity visible (race, gender, class, health…) are shown to be fallible, sensing without sensitivity.

Jesse Darling’s “Support Level” sculptures make apparent the fragility of a body solely through its material supports. A body’s difficulties and complaints are implicit in the metal members of the sculptures, but it is not made to self-represent. Darling has, in the past, commented that the transition from performance to sculptural practice was a move to let the material artworks stand in their place, as analogues to, though not figurative representations of, “this body, and other bodies, their holes and ruptures inevitably carried through.” This more recent phase of the artist’s work introduced another bodily remove, when a neurological condition that resulted in temporary paralysis of their right hand and arm meant they had to outsource the sculptures’ production, unable to weld as usual themselves. Physical impossibility prompted more tentative steps “towards a non-macho sculpture practice.”

The pair of sculptures Plexus and Compartment Syndrome (hanging in there) (2017) mirror forms from the hospital and the clinic, the coldness of the institution translated to clean minimalism. Plexus, the name for an anatomical network of nerves, features a cool pack and a bright-blue back brace without the torso that will wear it or the hands that help it on. Compartment Syndrome, a condition of painful pressure build-up within muscles, is composed of grip bars and plastic tubing which trails like an IV drip, then fed into the flimsy plastic vest of an upside-down carrier bag, whose material will long outlast us. Three more carriers, this time recyclable, hang from the same bar, like armless torsos above a mobility-cane foot. The service industry Thank Yous with which these bags are printed convey how the obligation for a constant chain of grateful words can come to feel like a debt. Yet they also give thanks – even within the exhausting conditions of capitalism and its healthcare bills – for life itself.

Together, the artworks of “Postcentral” ask us to rely on the senses still at our disposal to transform privileged ways of seeing into more vulnerable ways of sensing and feeling. “The occupied space [of the body] is sensual intuition,” writes poet and philosopher Lisa Robertson, “whose rubbing against contingent things opens them and itself.” The fragile power of this “sensual intuition” is its elusiveness, its invisibility, for it is known on the outside merely through its contact with the world. “Postcentral” opens up alternate ways in which we might – in absence or in presence, in remote contact or ambient intimacy – be, keep, or stay in touch.

Hannah Gregory

Be in Touch