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Touch to See
John Dubois : body of work
by Sylvie Parent; translated by Timothy Barnard
Few works of art have privileged the sense of touch in our Western culture, which is dominated by sight and hearing. It's not that touch is completely absent from art, but ordinarily it occupies a second-class status. Those works which do resort to touch do so indirectly, through the play of textures, materials, and visual or aural representations which call a tactile experience to mind. These works function allusively, through association, by calling up sensorial memories linked to touch. Touching, which is often regarded as "too superficial", an "epidermic" activity, has been seen as having very little potential to generate symbolic connections.
Within the field of new media, the interactivity typical of many artistic projects often involves a tactile activity (pushing a button, moving a mouse, typing on a keyboard). And yet, in most cases this kind of activity remains extremely limited. Some artists, however, have gone much further in their exploration of touch, and clearly promote a tactile artistic experience. This is true of Thecla Schiphorst (whose work is discussed elsewhere in this issue of HorizonZero) and also Jean Dubois, an artist living in Montreal.
Rethinking Touch-Screen Technology
Over the past few years, Jean Dubois has created numerous interactive works using touch-screen technology. Intended to facilitate interaction with the user, touch screens aim to establish a direct link with the desired subject matter, without the intermediary of a keyboard or mouse, or the skills required to use them. The user of a touch screen has the impression of having access to the information being sought at his or her fingertips. Even though this technology has become quite widespread in our environment -- in the service, consumer, and leisure sectors -- few artists have adapted it to their practice.
Jean Dubois is one of those artists who have recognised the artistic potential of this technology and, by radically distancing it from its customary uses, explored its possibilities. His art deconstructs the technology in order to bring it up to date with artistic practice, proposing at the same time new and much more profound avenues of expression. Through projects such as Zones franches (1999), Égographie (1999), Tact (2000-2001) and Syntonie (2002), Dubois exploits the touch screen's tactile potential in order to create a setting in which the viewer is plunged into a state of intimacy. Taking as his starting point the fact that this technology establishes continuity between the user's body and the machine, each of his works creates an encounter with another individual, during which the relationship between them develops through touch. Where touching is at stake, it may be that our most natural and irresistible impulses propel us toward other human beings. This, in any event, is what Jean Dubois' work proposes.
The Body, Knowledge, and Communication
One of the most troubling aspects of these works is that the viewer is invited to lightly stroke (the image of) another person, to touch (the image of) an individual's body. These acts run contrary to social convention, as such behaviour does not normally have a place in public spaces. The viewer's hesitation is so real that a notice must constantly accompany the work: "Touch me," reads a sign beside the installations. Once this social and psychological barrier has been crossed, the participant remains possessed by a kind of tension linked to the intimacy of the interaction. Viewers become aware of their own reactions, which oscillate between embarrassment and desire, between the wish for closeness and the wish for distance.
In Zones franches, for example, the touch screen shows zone by zone the nude (and chaste) body of a woman whose head we do not see. Participants shift the image of this body by caressing the surface of the screen. One frame gives way to the next, like a camera moving across the body, piece by piece, in order to reconstitute it. By scanning the image in this way through his or her gaze and hand, the viewer gradually becomes familiar with this body. Another layer of experience is then added: one wherein the participant has an active role and appears to be traversing an inert and openly displayed body. At the intersections of the body, words superimposed upon it like scars transform with the viewer's touch, disappearing and reappearing as different words, as if the body had begun to speak, to engage in a dialogue. It is language, through its emergence from this body of a woman, which draws it out of its passivity. This close association between the body and language is reinforced by an interactive soundtrack that allows the viewer to hear the expressive voice of a woman revealing her thoughts. As a result the body, "endowed with writing and speech," and intimately associated with
language, becomes a space for communication.
In Égographie, the body is once again associated with language. A video image of a belly, swelling and contracting while breathing, freezes at the visitor's touch. This contact causes annotated images to appear, such as a topographic map, a navigation dial, and a compass. These images, and as a result certain metaphors associated with finding one's way, are superimposed on the belly, leading the viewer to perceive the centre of the body as a very particular place, as a zone to be probed or sounded. The belly, mounted this way inside the screen, under observation, appears to be the object of an almost medical examination -- hence the title, which alludes in French to ultra-sound tests, or échographie. At the centre of this belly, the belly button serves as a point of reference, becoming the "centre of the world" and origin. Participants, to the rhythm of the hypnotic breathing, give themselves up to this experience of orientation through touch, and come to conceive of this territory as an individual's focal point. This is the point from which we relate to the world and enter into contact with it -- which is to say, by which we communicate. The work invites us to conceive of language and communication as being born within the body.
Encounters With The Other and With Oneself
Dubois' other two touch-screen projects, Tact and Syntonie, put quite different dynamics into play. Indeed, they confront the viewer not so much with another body as with another individual -- if, that is, we view the appearance of a face on the screen as the moment of a "face to face encounter," a reciprocal gaze. Here the
viewer is confronted with an individuated body. With Tact, the face is shown in its corporeality, its plasticity. The image, placed in the centre of a large circular mirror, remains indistinct until the moment the participant touches the screen. This causes a face to appear, which presses itself against the glass and follows the movement of the viewer's finger. Such manipulation carries with it a certain uneasiness, as if, on the other side of the screen, another human being has no other choice but to plaster their face against it. The mirror, an instrument of contemplation and reflection, heightens the embarrassment by obliging participants to confront themselves, to become aware of this troubling interaction. In Syntonie, the encounter is established gradually, through an individual on the other side of the screen trying clumsily to discern and communicate. The two works make visible an impossible exchange, a fruitless encounter that gives way to discomfort. These two projects also deal with the importance of the body in the field of telecommunications, and emphasise in particular the difficulty of establishing a true relationship with the other, wherever the body has been mediatised.
By closely associating the body with language, Jean Dubois' works invite us to reassign the body to its rightful place -- the place from which all communication emanates. These works propose to examine the body's fundamental role in speech and symbolic acts. Because "one must touch to see," Dubois' touch-screen pieces
restore a tactile dimension to sight, and invite us to cast a critical gaze on the mediatisation which has come to mark many of our exchanges -- a mediatisation which has resulted in an exclusion of the body, even to the point of considering it of secondary importance. These works make us realise that true communication cannot be achieved without the body, the tie that binds us to the world.
Sylvie Parent is French Editor of HorizonZero.