- Fiery, Luminous, Scary
A call for a participatory art event often entails the invitation to touch. This may involve an actual direct touching (“touch this lever, this button and it will cause a change in the environment”), or it may involve a more elusive call to touch that includes being moved by a work in transformation. Either way, the call to touch is a demand: it asks the participant to relate, in this time of interaction, to the unfolding of the work. It asks the participant to be open to a certain unknowability, and to a certain risk.
Here I want to suggest that despite calls made toward open-endedness and process (understood as positive effects of a generative event) the call to touch is never straightforward. For it is a call, and like all calls it asks that it be listened to in certain ways, that it elicit behaviour considered manageable under the conditions of the work. This is the risk any artist takes: that the call to touch will expose itself as an all-or-nothing proposition, that the participant will feel burdened by the event rather than excited by it, that instead of setting new conditions for experimentation, a failure will be experienced from the outset, a failure to have known in advance what it means to touch.
This is because a call to touch is always bounded to some extent within certain predefined expectations: touch depends on a certain preunderstanding of what are considered its acceptable limits. Touch, but touch this way! No matter how carefully crafted, no participatory art event is ever completely exempt from this imbrication of touch with the expectations that accompany it. For touch, as Jacques Derrida has shown, can never be completely disentwined from tact.1 This strange intertwining of touch with tact, of touch’s inherent injunction to be “hands-on” and its elusive demand to know in advance what participation means in each instance, is the complex challenge of any art that asks the spectator to be involved in the carrying-through of the work. I have elsewhere called this dynamic a “politics of touch,”2 emphasizing that within the realm of touch lies both tact-driven behaviour that constrains to pre-ordained notions of participation, and the opportunity to rearticulate the political toward a gesture of a reaching-toward. With participatory art, a politics of touch is always at stake—a politics that trembles between touch-as-tact and touch as the activity through which new constellations for the body are created (and where the line between body and environment is blurred). [End Page 41]
The role participatory art plays in activating and rethinking a politics of touch was made particularly apparent to me in July 2010 when 18-year-old DJ Savarese and I began a collaborative project involving my artwork, Folds to Infinity (Erin Manning, 2005–2012). DJ is autistic, and our plan was to generate ideas for how to bring participatory art to the autistic community: we had been invited by AUTCOM,3 a conference organized by and for autists, to create an installation of the work.
In a project such as Folds to Infinity, participation means many things: to walk among the fabrics and enjoy their texture, to touch or wear the fabric, to reposition it or compose with it architecturally, to assist another who is trying to compose clothing but can’t quite manage on her own, to be inadvertently connected to the magnets interspersed in the collection (your belt-buckle may inadvertently pull the fabric off someone else’s body or shift the shape of the installation). The invitation is broad: to touch, to move, to be moved.4
But as was made clear when DJ first entered the installation space, participation with the work also means understanding the limits of touch in the singular context of each of the piece’s iterations. This, I believe, is what initially held DJ back in the context of our collaborative work at the SenseLab. For even before he had extended his hand to the mobile architecture that held Folds to Infinity, even before he had begun to engage with the work...