Words that we feel:art that resides in our bodies
This paper explores the way writing is used as a tool to activate a viewer’s embodied experience. Words, especially when used in the capacity of a performance score or imperative text directed at the viewer, have the capacity to elicit a precise somatic awareness: When Bruce Nauman describes “tension in the muscles, pain where the bones meet, fleshy deformations that occur under the pressure” (Nauman 1974), or gerlach en koop state “Instantly enveloped by water, the surface closed above my head”, we feel it. The artists’ words in these examples, both part of text-based artworks, become a vehicle to deliver a distinctly physical experience. The artwork itself resides in our bodies. At a time when our daily experiences are increasingly taking place in virtual spaces, there is an attendant cultural myth that our bodies are quickly becoming an irrelevant factor in interpreting our relationships to that material world. This paper interrogates that myth by exploring writing’s capacity to reach across the physical distance that virtuality creates and engage us in intimate shared experiences. It will cover both examples from the author’s own artwork, as well as contemporary and historical examples from other artists. Accordingly, the paper will be delivered as a lecture- performance, that, instead of creating a passive viewing experience, will use text and performative strategies to evoke the audience’s embodied responses. As we become more removed than ever before from the traditional sites of exhibition and participation, both author and audience will examine how writing may be used to deliver a physical immediacy that is missing in our current reality.
- Instantly enveloped by water, the surface closed above my head, I understood how my body made the sea level rise (2017) by the collective gerlach en koop.
The following was written as script for a performance. These words are meant to be vocalized, to be embodied by a performer.
The world picture must be constructed from incomplete information, in fact inferred from clues… Recognition is what gives vision its reality.(Calvert 2002)
The Eyes Translate Light into Image Signals for the Brain to Process…Chemicals in the Air Stimulate Signals the Brain Interprets as Smells…The Four Intrinsic Tongue Muscles Work Together to Give the Tongue Great Flexibility…The Ear Uses Bones and Fluid to Transform Sound Waves into Sound Signals…Specialized Receptors in the Skin Send Touch Signals to the Brain.(visiblebody 2021)
Somatosensation is a mixed sensory category and includes all sensation received from the skin and mucous membranes, as well from as the limbs and joints. Somatosensation is also known as tactile sense, or more familiarly, as the sense of touch. Somatosensation occurs all over the exterior of the body and at some interior locations as well. A variety of receptor types – embedded in the skin, mucous membranes, muscles, joints, internal organs, and cardiovascular system – play a role… What is commonly referred to as ‘touch’ involves more than one kind of stimulus and more than one kind of receptor.(lumenlearning.com)
On a Sunday morning I type the words “human touch” into a search bar:
- “Human Touch is the leading provider of high-quality, innovative lifestyle products…and experiences that have been delivering indispensable, life-changing benefits to an ever-growing number of consumers for more than 35 years.” (humantouch blog 2020)
- “Human Touch is the ninth studio album by American singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen.” (wikipedia Human Touch)
- “The human touch is an idiom describing a friendly and pleasant way of treating other people that makes them feel relaxed…He is certainly an effective lawyer, but colleagues say that he lacks the human touch” (dictionary.cambridge The Human Touch)
- “Although there’s no exact substitute for human touch, if you’re struggling with this aspect of self-isolating in particular, there are a few alternatives that can offer similar health benefits for people who are social distancing. [One suggestion is] video chatting, which many people seem to have discovered on their own. ‘In-person interactions have a big effect on the brain releasing oxytocin, but interacting via video is actually not that [different]…It’s maybe 80% as effective. Video conferencing is a great way to see and be seen,’ [Paul Zak] explains.” (McCluskey 2020)
When there is a mediation between me and almost every other person in the world, it gives me power over how I appear. I spend time editing myself and creating stage sets for my interactions. I have practiced straightening my shoulders in front of my computer so no one sees they’re uneven. I teach my students how to manipulate perspective – on video chat, I hold a spoon up very close to the camera, so that it appears to be the same size as my face, and then slowly pull it back towards me, as I explain to them the important difference between a lens and our eyes.
I think of other things that have been flattened, things that used to have weight and are now vertical, in front of me on the screen, supported without my hands sensing their weight. I explain it to a friend like the invention of the wheel: once something rolls, you’ll never feel again how heavy it really is. Once I have a word to describe a feeling, I don’t have to think about it quite as much.
I am at a pool party. I meet a man in the pool, a friend of a friend, who is getting his PhD in Music. I ask him about it and he tells me he’s doing his dissertation on whale song. I remark that it’s interesting, that it’s called song instead of calls, that we’ve decided what the whales are making is music. It’s not linguistic, he tells me, so that puts it within the bounds of music. We talk about the difference between music and noise, how it dissolves as you approach things that are in the middle. He says that we really know very little about whale song, why they do it. This is what most makes it feel like music to me, this mystery. Their songs can travel for hundreds of miles underwater, he says, some maybe halfway around the world. It’s easier for me to imagine the physical presence of a sound underwater. It has a shape, the actual waves travelling from one place to another, through a medium. I think about how to transfer something physical through my own vocalizations. Beyond soundwaves. Like talking to someone abut yawning and then causing them to feel the need to yawn. I can’t get beyond the linguistic, like the whales, but I can make something that creates a sensation instead of explaining one. Words that bring you back to that place that precedes the need to explain things, that create the gut feeling instead of pulling it apart.
The ascendancy of optical representation in western art represents a general shift towards an ideal of abstraction, with long-term consequences.(Marks 1998)
I think of the slide projectors we used to use when I was in school, the feeling of sitting in a dark room between two whirring machines, glowing and loaded with slides, separate but in alignment with each other, so we could see two things at once. Compare and contrast, illustrating the different textures on pre-Columbian weavings, or the attenuated extremities el Greco’s figures in comparison to da Vinci’s rational proportions. I remember the kachunk sound the projectors made as they manually progressed, the heaviness of their boxes when you pulled them out of the storage closet and loaded them into the slide carousels. I search for digitized versions of these old slides, scanned so that I can see them again. I do find some digitized slide archives, but it’s not what I remember from art history. It seems that the slides that have been prioritized for digitization are medical – images of tissue samples and cell masses. Literal tissue once taken out of someone’s body, first put between two pieces of glass on a slide, and now flattened again on my screen. And now I can show you an approximation, an abstraction, of the two projectors on the screen in front of you. Of course, those slides were just flattened representations of objects I could not access in person, and now the limitations of proximity have been just one step further reduced.
Laura Marks tells us our eyes can touch:
[Haptic perception] is usually defined as the combination of tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of and inside our bodies.’ In haptic visuality the eyes themselves function like organs of touch.(Marks 2002)
We know our ears can do the same, the proliferation of youtubers who crackle different textures close to a microphone, whispering descriptions of their activities to us. But this is not a new phenomenon. We’ve always had these sensitivities. Words, consumable through both our ears and out eyes, illustrate the example: the irrefutable and codified beauty of the phrase cellar door, and the seemingly universal disgust at the word moist. I personally cannot stand the word nourish. It feels as if I’m being smothered in slime.
A list of “beautiful and ugly words” by Mark Nichol:
- Visceral (Nichol 2011)
Bruce Nauman wrote body pressure with this knowledge. He tells us: “Concentrate on the tension in the muscles, pain where bones meet, fleshy deformations that occur under pressure; consider body hair, perspiration, odors.” (Nauman 1974)
“A Testing procedure:
- Explain the procedure to the patient with his/her eyes open. For example, “I am going to touch various parts of your arms (or other body part) with these test tubes filled with hot and cold water, and when you feel the tube, tell me if it feels hot or cold.”
- Demonstrate the procedure with the patient’s eyes open until the patient understands the procedure to be performed. It is prudent to test in another area of the body, which you are not interested in testing (avoid over-stimulation in the part of the body of interest).
- The patient closes his/her eyes, or vision is otherwise occluded.
- Place the hot or cold test tube against the patient’s skin, making certain not to vary the surface area of contact between the test tube and skin or the pressure of contact.
- Have the patient identify each stimulus as hot or cold. Make certain the appropriate temperatures of the stimulus objects are maintained throughout testing.
- Vary the time between stimuli to avoid developing a rhythmic pattern.
- Repeat throughout areas being tested.
- Document your findings.” (Physiopedia contributors)
There is something here about contrast, the hot against the cold, the two slides contrasting the texture, the think pink membrane of Bruce Nauman’s paper and the solidity of the wall. The pinkness that must exist inside my body. And there is a pleasure in conflation, allowing the two opposite things to slip into another, allowing words to slip into touch.
Someone carves the word BLANKET into the wet cement when they’re repairing the sidewalk in front of my house. Then, a few feet further down, in a different square of concrete, the word Blanket again. This time smaller, maybe a quarter of the size. Softer, but still there. I am so taken by it, this square of concrete, really about the size of a baby blanket, and deceptively soft and rounded along the edges, telling me BLANKET when in reality it is something so rigid that its contact with any other object elicits a dull crack. It takes everything I have to read it against what it is telling me.
We use [the word] between when we want to express a relation to things and have them considered as individual and usually equal entities: between the devil and the deep blue sea; Among, on the other hand is the best word to use when referring to things collectively and imprecisely: no honor among thieves.(Merriam-Webster between-among-amongst)
In the first grade, I discovered a game. I hated the first grade. I would sit in my seat in class and cross my fingers on both hands. I would then bring my hands together and touch my crossed fingers. Something strange would happen, where my brain would perceive the touch sensation coming from my forefingers, now crossed under my middle fingers as coming from my middle fingers, and vice versa, although my eyes could clearly see what was going on. This uncoupling and misalignment of my senses was profoundly interesting to me. I became obsessed with it, but I did not share my discovery with anyone else.
“Vertigo Play and Thrill Rides [are] ‘games that attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception, and inflict a voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind’ (Caillois 1961), with examples including childhood games of spinning until dizzy, large machines such as fairground rides and roller-coasters, and driving fast cars round tracks. Such experiences overload [our bodies] and cause them to create conflicting signals across multiple senses … At extremes, such stimulation can cause sickness and disorientation, but used carefully, it can be highly thrilling and is thought to be a key attraction of for example extreme gravity sports …it may be that sensory misalignment represents an opportunity to create experiences that appear to push riders beyond those physiological limits while still remaining physically tolerable.”(Marshall et al. 2019)
A very famous artist comes to visit our campus. I see him at the faculty reception and again at his talk. Both times, he is holding onto a copy of Art in America with his artwork on the cover. As part of his artwork, he has reversed one of the words in the magazine title so that America is written backwards. He does this a lot, using backwards writing. There are some pieces in the gallery that do the same thing. He says in his talk that the backwards writing functions to undermine those words and strip them of their power. But this is not exactly what I have experienced. Rather, when I see the reversed words, I don’t focus so much on the reversal, but its impact on all of the other writing around it. Once my mind has deciphered that America is written backwards on the magazine cover, the words Art in, which are facing in the normal direction, suddenly become very hard for me to read. They feel foreign and my ability to comprehend them is delayed. I struggle as if I am learning to read again. The fact that he has discovered a way to temporarily suspend my compulsion read any word that I see, seems somehow both deeply profound and pointless. I want to tell him this, that the word has been given a different, quite possibly vestigial power to confuse the things around it and then disappear into the background of the confusion.
“There are a range of entertaining perceptual illusions which use mirrors to create conflicting visual sensory information, such as fairground halls of mirrors, a form of vertigo play which creates misalignment between visual and kinaesthetic senses. There are also a range of magical illusions involving mirror boxes or reflective glass which alter the source of visual stimulation in ways that people cannot perceive. Experimental research with such equipment has demonstrated how some interesting perceptual illusions can be achieved by creating sensory stimulation in alignment with this wrongly attributed stimulation; for example: If a person places their hands either side of a mirror, so they see one hand reflected in the mirror in the position of the other (non-visible) hand, and then perform a repetitive motion with both hands, after some time, people will perceive the mirrored visible hand to actually be the invisible hand, in some cases even if the invisible hand is rotated compared the visible hand.”(Marshall et al. 2019)
What would happen then, if you saw something terrible about to happen to the mirrored hand, a representation of your hand, while your actual hand remained safe? I imagine you would suffer an involuntary reaction. A jolt of fear running through your body and a reflex to pull your arm away, so that your hand remained safe, even though it was in no real danger to begin with. While the hand itself may not be hurt, these other physical experiences, the adrenaline from the fear, the involuntary reflex, are real and physical. You have felt something without being touched. What does this mean for the “long-term consequences,” as Marks puts it, “towards an ideal of abstraction”? Experiences abstracted by putting them into words can still translate to the body. Anyone who’s read a romance novel can tell you that. And sometimes they can evoke something even more precise than what you would be able to perceive without them.
This illusion here becomes just as real as the real. Or at least it feels that way.
Beyond visual stimulation, Fitzpatrick demonstrated an alternative redirected walking technique, whereby inconsistent cues to the body’s vestibular system could steer people in curves whilst they perceived themselves to be walking in a straight line, creating a sensory redirection but in the physical world.(Marshall et al. 2019)
I become obsessed with a piece of artwork I believe I saw a couple of years ago. It was in an exhibition of artwork on the theme of “disappearing.” The show was at a museum, and at the very end there was this piece on the wall in mirrored vinyl text. It described walking along the Pacific Coast Highway at night where the cliffs meet the ocean outside Los Angeles. It described a single body, walking along the shoulder of the road, illuminated by headlights occasionally as they pass, and then slipping into the darkness. It has stayed with me since I saw it.
I look up the artist, I search the documentation of the show, but there’s no sign of the piece. I find a copy of the catalogue, with the list of artworks, but it’s not there. I send an email to the curator of the exhibition, but it goes unanswered. Over the summer, I travel to Los Angeles, I drive out to the ocean, but I cannot imagine where this kind of darkness could exist there.
I had thought I would share this artwork with you here. I had planned it as my example of how the vividness of the artist’s words transmit something visceral to your body over a distance. But the distance here has become greater, or at least more immeasurable. The artist has in fact disappeared and I’m left trying to find the words to describe the experience to you. Those old heavy boxes of slides have become these images flipping in front of you on a screen. Those of us who would have been sitting shoulder to shoulder in a dark room are now sitting facing various directions in various locations, so let me try again.
You are standing at the deep end of an empty swimming pool. The cement is a continuous sheet that extends out from beneath your feet and curves up to form walls that rise above your head.
Feel yourself as a singular unit inside this shell.
Now picture the next closest person to you, in a nearby house, maybe. They are alone also. Now picture the next closest person, and then the next closest person to them, extending outward from you. Think of these people not as people, but as bodies. Think of them as singular units, moving in and out of proximity to one another.
Each body, your own body, is a container for water. Estimate the quantity of water contained in these bodies. Estimate how much water it would take to fill this pool, how many people this would be. Imagine a circle around you and how far it would have to extend to contain this number of people. Feel your body, the water in your body, pulled towards these other bodies, and these bodies pulled towards you. Atoms attracting atoms. Feel it swell and retract slowly like a tide.
Caillois, Roger. 1961. Man, Play, and Games. Free Press of Glencoe: New York.
Marks, Laura U. 1998. “Video haptics and erotics.” Screen 39, no. 4 (Winter, 1998), 331–348. https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/39.4.331
Marks, Laura U. 2002. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Marshall, J., Bedford, S., Byrne, R., & Tennent P. 2019. “Sensory Alignment in Immersive Entertainment.” Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
Nauman, Bruce. 1974. Body Pressure. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Allyson Packer is an artist and educator whose work investigates what embodied experience can articulate at a time when it is increasingly less common to make physical contact with the people, spaces, and institutions that impact us the most. She has exhibited at Nahmad Projects in London and Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, among other venues. She is represented by Birds + Richard in Berlin and lives in Dallas, Texas, where she teaches at the University of North Texas.