Haptic Entanglements

In a time of social distancing, marked by a fear of touch and a longing for closeness, it is becoming evident that theatre is not only a space for hearing, seeing and feeling, but also for manifold forms of touch. In interviews, essays and conversations, the Haptic Entanglements series interrogates the role of touch in the performative arts, whether through tactile gazes, haptic sounds, or digital intimacy. This introductory essay by Rahel Spöhrer and Joshua Wicke traces the history of touch in the performative arts up to the present day and concludes with brief introductions to each of the individual contributions in the series.

by Rahel Spöhrer und Joshua Wicke
published on 16. September 2021

Rarely do we have full control over our proximity to others in the daily course of life: the social world is unpredictable in this way. Unwilled proximity to objects and others is a feature of public life and seems normal for anyone who takes public transit or needs to move along a street in a densely populated city: we bump into each other in narrow spaces, we lean on the railing, we touch whatever is in our way. And yet, that condition of chance contact and encounter, of brushing up against one another or some stray thing, becomes potentially fatal when that contact increases the potential of illness, and that illness carries the potential of death. Under these conditions, the objects and others we require appear as the potentially greatest threats to our lives.[1]

Judith Butler

Our everyday lives are punctuated by subtle touches and chance encounters. Life unfolds through sought-out and happenstance moments of touch that are continually beyond our control. These times of social distancing make it all the more apparent how much everyday life and communal existence are structured by touch of all kinds. We all share the surfaces of this world, which are rich in traces and in some cases contaminated: ‘If we did not know before, that we share the surfaces of the world, we do now!’ With the closing of cultural institutions, the question of where contact occurs in theatre and the performative arts also becomes virulent. Which forms of touch take place in the theatre, be they noticed or unnoticed? Whose skin is on the line when it comes to debates about opening and closing, short-time work, technician shifts, audience numbers and aerosol levels?

While seeing allows for distanced observation, touch is situated and reciprocal: When we touch, we are touched at the same time. At this point, it is unavoidable to break down this ‘we’ into innumerable human and non-human entities that are not the same in their mutual entanglements and dependencies, and whose skins and surfaces are exposed to touch in very different ways. The turn to touch in the arts is thus also a turn to precarity, vulnerability, and all the ways of relating in which we constantly find ourselves—including as spectators, performers, and theatre employees.

Against this background, the journal series Haptic Entanglements gathers current perspectives on touch in the performative arts through texts, conversations, and interviews. The texts will be accompanied by images from the series 1000 Caresses. Hand Dances by performance artist Tosh Basco, which she has generously made available.

The regime of the gaze and tactile interventions

Theatre defines itself primarily through the visual or aural senses, with a history of repressing and controlling touch. Visual primacy and the disregard for all other senses have always already been inscribed in the name of this ancient art form. The name théatron derives from theasthai, from looking. In his political-aesthetic treatise of Weimar Classicism, Friedrich Schiller develops this narrative when he describes why physical contact is undesirable in the theatre:

‘The eye and the ear redirect the matter pressing upon them away from the senses, depriving us of the immediacy of an object that we directly touch in our animal senses.’ [...] ‘Once he finds enjoyment in his eye, and seeing becomes something to value for itself then he is already liberated aesthetically, and the playful impulse has begun.’ [2]

It would appear that bourgeois theatre’s educational mission—a tradition which German-language theatre still operates within as an institution and which Schiller pioneered—can only be fulfilled by suspending all sensations of this excessively intrusive substance. This ‘distribution of the sensible’ is still reflected today in the architecture and conventions of theatre attendance: Knigge, the German authority on good manners, recommends coming to an agreement with the person sitting next to you about using the armrests, while the seating layout immobilises the body in order to intensify the sensations of hearing and seeing. Material physical contact has to give way to the nobler experience of audiovisual sensation at a distance, which serves to ennoble the sensitive bourgeois subject. [3] Thus the sense of community among spectators, which is so often emphasised, is therefore a bodiless and contactless collectivity, consisting of little more than ears and eyes facing in the same direction.

In the theatre of the late Enlightenment, this primacy of seeing is reiterated, establishing a ‘scopic regime’ [4]: an aesthetic-political regime that introduces a whole series of further hierarchically arranged binaries with the division into seeing subject and seen object: ‘mind/body, form/matter, male/female, reason/madness, light/dark, civilized/savage and, of course, spectator/spectacle.’ These divisions are also found along the racially constructed colour line, which distinguishes between transparent and affectable subjects, as Denise Ferreira da Silva describes. The construction of a free, sentient subject in Schiller’s ‘theatre as a moral institution’ also goes hand in hand with the exclusion of the ‘uncultivated’ feeling subject.

No wonder, then, that touch has been reinstated as an aesthetic tool, specifically in feminist performance and action art, as well as in dance: The excessively rigid boundaries between the disembodied observer and the embodied observed were dissolved in canonical works of the late 1960s, such as Valie Export’s Tapp- und Tastkino, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, or Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0. In these examples the spectators’ touches themselves became an observable art event—along with all the uncertainties and ethical questions that the dissolution of the clear division of roles between observer and performer entails. Similarly, in Black performance—for example in the works of David Hammons and Senga Nengudi, or in Pope L.’s Crawls—the ‘scopic regime’, which subjects Black bodies in particular to a surveillance hypervisibility, [5] is subverted through the aesthetic means of hapticality[6]: ‘Hapticality, the touch of the undercommons, the interiority of sentiment, the feel that what is to come is here.’ [7] Rizvana Bradley points out that Black art also uses touch to explode conventional divisions: ‘Black art, in all its earthly perversity, emerges in the absence and refusal of the capacity to claim difference as separation, as that which instead touches and is touched by the beauty and terrors of entanglement.’ [8]

Touching Material

Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work highlights yet another aspect that is arguably of particular importance in the theatre of the pandemic: By cleaning galleries and museums in public in the 1960s, she made touches visible that normally take place in secret. A hygienic visit to the theatre means coming into as little contact as possible with ‘matter out of place’[9]—i.e. dirt, grime and rubbish—and requires the constant removal of the traces and material remnants of the visitors’ everyday accidental touches, by cleaners and other maintenance workers, who in turn are all the more exposed to contact with these materials. Maintenance, building upkeep and caring for visitors in their full corporality (and not merely as walking eyes and ears) often require manual, haptic labour, which Laderman Ukeles has made visible in her performative acts.

Recently, more and more attention is being paid to the audience as an embodied collective: While haptic labour dedicated to the audience’s physical well-being in the theatre has so far mostly been left to foyer staff, cleaners, janitorial services and bar staff, there is now an increased artistic interest in the bodies of audience members and their physical encounters. In participatory, interactive and immersive settings, spectators become active participants. In shared (somatic) practices, constellations of bodies are reconfigured, relationships of closeness and distance are explored and new ways of relating are practised and imagined. In the process, the body is addressed and affected through all its senses. The implicit and explicit reference to themes such as vulnerability, care, healing, and intimacy shows how forms of touching and relating are coming to the fore.

Haptic Entanglements—Perspectives on touch in the performative arts

It is against this backdrop, at a time when close relationships are predominantly established via the screen, that the series Haptic Entanglements brings together contemporary perspectives on touch in the performative arts—on, in front of and behind the stage—in four contributions.

When bodies are constituted in a web of material encounters, when they are equally dependent on touch and threatened by it, the question of negotiating modes of touch arises: What can living and working together look like when it is based on consent? Joy Mariama Smith conducts artistic research on consent in the arts, sensitising us to the relationship between consent, power and privilege and developing methods that take into account the fact that we are always in touch and thus understand consent as a continuous process rather than a contract.

The first wave of the #metoo movement showed that in large parts of everyday professional life at the theatre, violent touch and assault cannot be prevented, or are even facilitated. This became apparent once again after the toxic patriarchal working climate at the Volksbühne under Klaus Dörr came to light—a theatre that had committed itself to a feminist programme under his leadership. Antonia Rohwetter is concerned with similar discontinuities between the invocation of power-critical discourses and lived material practices. She examines the ongoing discourses of care and welfare in the field of performative arts and asks to what extent optimistic references to universally shared dependencies are capable of responding to the violent dependencies that actually exist and are structurally encouraged.

The conversation between Tosh Basco (fka boychild) and Denise Ferreira da Silva brings together two people whose practices repeatedly revolve around touch on a number of different levels. In her performance 1000 Caresses. Hand Dances, which was shown together with a series of graphite drawings, Tosh Basco focuses on hands as a means of touch and touching gesture. In her own words: ‘Hidden in the hands an alluvial transcription of reach and embrace. The final flickers of the body’s expression, caress and touch. Haptic grasp.’ Time and time again, Tosh Basco raises the question of touch across distance, or of spooky action at a distance, as Einstein puts it when he writes about material entanglements at the level of quantum mechanics. Denise Ferreira da Silva’s artistic and scientific practice also revolves around ‘difference without separability’, which is similarly based on entanglements at the level of quantum mechanics. As co-founder of the Sensing Salon [10] and in her Reiki and Tarot practice, she explores the art of healing in its various modalities, as well as forms of touch at a distance, based on the entanglements between diverse modes of existence.

Artistic approaches to touch undermine, blur and challenge the binary hierarchies of the ‘scopic regime’ and instead foreground haptic entanglements, interdependencies and their negotiations. In the process, the distinction between seeing and touching is not left untouched. In her work on feminist lesbian video art, media scholar Laura Marks highlights the haptic qualities of seeing itself. Together with her, we would like to extend the question of haptic gazes to the context of the performative arts: How can theatre enable us to experience embodied and tactile seeing without becoming absorbed in the dichotomy of seeing and touching? A seeing that does not identify, isolate and categorise, but rather caresses surfaces, allows itself to be seduced and merges with what is being looked at. In a conversation with Laura Marks, we explore the question of what forms of haptic aesthetics the performative arts have at their disposal and whether these can also be experienced in forms of digital theatre.

In these times of physical distancing, the Haptic Entanglements series aims to remember theatre as a site of ‘fleshy sociality’ [11], in all its ambivalence. If the surfaces of the world are shared, as Judith Butler writes at the beginning, we hope this series will contribute sensitising people to modes of touch in this shared world. How is the world of the theatre—with its bodies and things, in rehearsals and the everyday activities of the staff, before, during and after performances—constituted and transformed in reciprocal touches? At its best, the theatre could be a space where new ways of touching and relating and less violent relationships than the current ones are tested and imagined: A site of embodied shared experience, of tenderly tactile visuality, of consensual touch. A site for a poetics that holds space for the inextricable web of mutual touch and simultaneously acknowledging the diversity of entanglements within it.

Translation: Dylan Spencer-Davidson, linguistic.services

[1] Butler, Judith, ‘Human Traces on the Surfaces of the World’, ConTactos, https://contactos.tome.press/human-traces-on-the-surfaces-of-the-world/, accessed 18 Mar. 2021.

[2] Schiller, Friedrich, (Leipzig, 2000), 109; Eng. trans. as (New York, 2016)

[3] see Lloyd, David, ‘The Blind Spots of Enlightenment’, https://scalar.usc.edu/works/more-than-meets-the-eye-the-videos-of-tran-t-kim-trang/the-blind-spots-of-enlightenment-tran-t-kim-trangs-ocularis-and-ekleipsis-by-david-lloyd?versions=1,, accessed 18 Mar. 2021.

[4] see ibid.

[5] Hartman, Saidia, (New York, Oxford, 1997).

[6] ‘Hapticality, the capacity to feel though others, for others to feel through you, for you to feel them feeling you, this feel of the shipped is not regulated, at least not successfully, by a state, a religion, a people, an empire, a piece of land, a totem.’ Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred, (New York; Port Watson, 2013)

[7] ibid.

[8] Bradley, Rizvana , https://www.boundary2.org/2020/11/rizvana-bradley-the-vicissitudes-of-touch-annotations-on-the-haptic/#_ftn42, accessed 18 Mar. 2021.

[9] see Douglas, Mary, (New York, 1966)

[10] ‘The Sensing Salon expands existing ideas of art by recalling the healing arts [...] In our collaborative work, we explore healing as an art form, a praxis of sensing and making sense that includes studying, thinking, and restoring experiments that reach for the deepest level of our entangled existence.’ The Sensing Salon: Experiments in Entangled Existence—guided by Constantina Zavitsanos, Amalle Dublon, Valentina Desideri and Denise Ferreira da Silva, https://dutchartinstitute.eu/page/13286/the-sensing-salon-experiments-in-entangled-existence---guided-by accessed 23 Mar. 2021.

[11] ‘If one is always with other bodies in a fleshy sociality, then how are we “with” others differently? How does this inter-embodiment involve the social differentiation between bodily others?’ Ahmed, Sara, and Stacey, Jackie, eds, (New York, N.Y., 2001)