The power of touch

June 22nd, 2011
In the second annual research exhibition, Professor Anne Cranny-Francis goes beyond the corporeal to unveil how touch helps humans connect with the world around them.

For many, the sense of touch is purely physical. Not for Professor Anne Cranny-Francis.

The Director of the Transforming Cultures Research Centre, and self-confessed sci-fi buff, argues touch enables a powerful connection between humans and the environment and is one of the most important processes we use to validate our knowledge and understanding of the world.

Five years ago, Cranny-Francis received an Australian Research Council grant to explore the meaning of touch. Her research initially focused on haptics, or touch-based technologies, which include the touchpad on a smartphone and processes like virtual surgery - where doctors practice surgical procedures without the need for an actual patient, instead using gloves or tools that allow them to physically feel the difference in the simulated organs or tissues.

In mid-2006, Cranny-Francis became intrigued by the emergence of smart-fabric technologies. She particularly wanted to understand how such developments would change the way humans perceive touch.

“Smart fabrics work by touching you as opposed to you touching it. For example, you could be wearing a dress embedded with technology which reacts to touch by giving you a hug. In a world where this level of technology is becoming common, I firstly wanted to know what ‘touch’ meant, and secondly, whether this meaning changed over time.”

Cranny-Francis has also investigated how art makes use of the sense of touch and how humans use this to experience art. She explains the double connotation with touch - not only do we reach out and touch but we receive the touch back from the object or person we’re touching.

“I wanted to understand why people feel the need to touch the art they were looking at. I believe we do it to validate what we see and to create a connection with the work. This is why museums are trying to incorporate hands-on galleries - when a person touches an object they feel a connection that is far more intimate and engaging than just looking at it in a glass cabinet.”

To further explore her theories, in 2009, Cranny-Francis curated an exhibition titled The Sense of Touch, which explored the significance of touch in both technology and art. Until 29 July, UTS will be hosting the second iteration of the exhibition - Touch Too. The academic’s latest installation includes new works from the permanent UTS Art Collection and explores the intimate relationship between touching, knowing and being.

Touch Too uses various mediums - like sound, painting, film and design - to further investigate the sense and meaning of touch. Cranny-Francis hopes the exhibition inspires people to start thinking of touch as not just a physical capability, but something that tells us about ourselves as human beings.

"The relationship between the senses, how they reinforce each other or translate from one sensory experience into another, is just fascinating,” says Cranny-Francis. In Touch Too, Amanda Robins’ paintings are incredibly sensual - she manages to create a sense of tactility, visually.

“I’ve also included Steel Cello/Bow Chime by David Chapman and Adrian Palka in the exhibition as I want people to think of sound as a multi-sensory experience that includes touch. We only hear because the small bones in our ears vibrate and touch each other.”

Filmmaker and Director of the Sydney Underground Film Festival Stefan Popescu is delighted to be exhibiting two multimedia works in Touch Too.

Both Repressions and Broken LCDs are examples of art which have been manipulated by Popescu.

He says, there is a real juxtaposition of meaning in the works - touch can be both physical and ethereal or sensual and brutal at the same time.
“With Repressions, I physically affected the films by burning and scratching the films then captured the resulting effect digitally. The idea for Broken LCDs came when someone accidentally sat on my laptop - the resulting image on the broken screen was just exquisite. All these LCDs have a story about how they were broken; several had been knocked over, one was hit by a basketball and one has slightly darker undertones - it was broken during a domestic violence situation and there is a very subtle reference to that in the film on that particular screen.”

Popescu has observed how people, especially women, are drawn to touch Broken LCDs, and in doing so have created more cracks on the screens. That connection between art and the individual is crucial for both Popescu ‘the artist’ and Popescu ‘the human’.

“Touch Too embodies a lot of what I researched for my own work. It seems to me that we as humans are empathising less and I think people focus on the sense of touch less than they used to. I know people see very different things in my work - if I’m really honest with myself I think I’ve learnt the most about my own work by observing others engaging with it and being touched by it.”

Other works in the exhibition include wearable technology such as Twenty121’s Fauxy the Fake Fur With Feelings, Meredith Brice’s Embedded - a display of recycled materials which explore the manipulation of texture - and Munkki, a traditional Finnish rug designed by Uhra-Beata Simberg-Ehrstrom, from the permanent UTS Art Collection.

Unlike some sci-fi buffs, Cranny-Francis isn’t too concerned about the development of touch-based technologies; she doubts they will have a negative effect on society or that there will be a Terminator-style rise of the machines. There does, however, need to be an acknowledgement that our understanding of the world will never be the same again.

“I believe if we could jump into a TARDIS-like time machine and go back to 1801, we’d have changed so much that we probably wouldn’t even recognise ourselves. This change is just something we’ve been experiencing over centuries and will continue to do into the future.”

“Fundamentally, touch is about connection. As these technologies develop, we need to realise there will be a change in our perception of touch and therefore our connection with the world and each other. As a result, we become human in a slightly different way.

Touch Too will be on display in the Tower foyer until 29 July, 2011.

Provided by University of Technology, Sydney

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