Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me: Sensory Overload At “Haptic Tactics”

Anna Betbeze, Dirty Sun, 2017, Acid dyes, ash on wool (Courtesy the artist; Photo: (c) Riya Lerner / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 2018)

Scratch. Scrape. Scratch. Scrape. A chill flies down my neck, ricocheting down my spine. It’s not just the sound of A.K. Burns and Katherine Hubbard’s collaborative video Untitled (shaving performance 2010) that sends multiple senses into overdrive. It’s also the visuals–disembodied hands wielding a straight razor, slicing precariously close to a woman’s bare skin and taking away dark matts of hair with it–as well as the ghostly imagination of touch–that razor on my skin. Whose hand is that? Is it hers? And for whom is she performing? Suddenly, I’m not alone. A spectral reflection of an unknown figure flits over the image revealing this as a video within a video. They, too, are voyeuristically watching, implicated in this highly intimate yet removed experience.

A restaging of shaving fetish imagery from a 1970s dungeon found at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, Burns and Hubbard’s video exemplifies the embodied and multisensory tactics employed by certain queer artists in order to address history, sexuality, sensuality, desire and identity without the added weight of visibility. Curated by Noam Parness, Risa Puleo and Daniel J. Sander, a current group exhibition Haptic Tactics at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, which is open until this Sunday, gathers together a group of artists who all prioritize engaging a multitude of senses rather than just the primacy of the optic.

Installation view of Haptic Tactics at Leslie-Lohman Museum (c) Riya Lerner / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 2018.

And this is refreshing since so much of what is labeled as “queer art” becomes about the visible body. For years, visibility has been seen as the be-all-end-all for queers. This is reflected in the nearby exhibition Out For The Camera: The Self-portraits Of Leonard Fink in an adjoining room of Leslie-Lohman. In this exhibition, nude self-portraits and documentation of men at the piers exemplify so much of what is often seen in LGBTQ-driven exhibitions and spaces. This is certainly not to dismiss the continued power of these images, which work, on some level, as reminders of the lost possibilities of sexual communities and contact due to HIV/AIDS and gentrification. But as we bump up against the limits of visibility in 2018, as explored at length in regards to trans and gender non-conforming people in the collection Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production And The Politics of Visibility, the tactics employed in Haptic Tactics become increasingly significant.

This isn’t to say the body isn’t involved at all. Certainly the body plays a crucial part in Untitled (shaving performance 2010). However, Burns and Hubbard fracture it into momentary glimpses of hands, inner thighs and a face peering in the darkness, resisting facile cooptation, reminiscent of David Wojnarowicz’s iconic text: “When I put my on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body. Not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake but all the way beyond its ending. I feel the warmth and texture and simultaneously I see the flesh unwrap from the layers of fat and disappear….” The body in Haptic Tactics becomes a body that dissolves strictly defined identities or orientations into flesh, bone, muscle, weight and yes, textures that can excite multiple senses beyond just the visual.

Installation view of Haptic Tactics at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (c) Riya Lerner / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 2018.

Now, it should be said that Haptic Tactics is one of a number of group exhibitions that have delved into queer approaches to abstraction. From Osman Can Yerebakan’s show Like Smoke at Equity Gallery to Paul Pescador’s Surface of Color at Los Angeles’s The Pit and even, the previous Leslie-Lohman-based FOUND: Queerness As Archaeology, curated by Avram Finkelstein, recent exhibitions have mined the different means with which artists have expanded the notion of queerness past the strictly corporeal. And yet, Haptic Tactics defines itself apart by focusing on sensory experience.

In particular, the curators are interested in the notion of the haptic as a sense defined, while not completely separate, as an addition to the visible. As identity politics and queerness in particular become increasingly commodified as a means to define a market rather than resist definition, visibility becomes implicated in this process. Hence, the movement toward the haptic, a more ambiguous and embodied sensory experience. In The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies, Mark Paterson defines the haptic as “a synergic interaction of the somatic senses” (4). He continues, “Haptic, from the Greek word haptesthai means, ‘Of, pertaining to, or relating to the sense of touch or tactile sensations” (4). However, the haptic is different from tactile in that the haptic includes, as Paterson details, “more inwardly-oriented senses” (4).

Maybe it’s the resonance with the late 19th and 20th century term “invert,” but isn’t there something just so queer about the phrase “more inwardly-oriented senses”? I think so too. And so do the curators who write in their exhibition description, “Haptic Tactics posits the haptic as a particularly queer way of engaging with works of art…” While the haptic is certainly not solely a tool for queer artists, it is a fresh way of looking at the methods and practices of those that do.

Sarah Zapata, If I Could (reprise), 2017, Natural and synthetic fiber, coiled rope, handwoven fabric, cement, steel (Courtesy the artist; Photo: (c) Riya Lerner / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 2018)

From Jesse Harrod’s draping and drooping works woven from paracord to Cassils’s battered and pummeled bronze Resilience of the 20%, which transforms trauma into a monument, to Jordan Eagles’s bloodied tarp, the diverse artworks collected in Haptic Tactics are located “where material ends and sensation begins,” to quote Deleuze and Guattari’s What Is Philosophy? It’s no surprise that several of the included artworks use tactile craft materials such as Sarah Zapata’s If I Could (reprise) and Anna Betbeze’s dyed and burned shaggy wall-mounted rug. Entitled Dirty Sun, a title reminiscent of Bataille’s solar anus, Betbeze’s distressed material invites but denies touching, aiming, as she describes in the wall text, “when seeing becomes breathing, stroking, tasting and sound–often simultaneously.”

Installation view of Vincent Tiley and Bryson Rand’s The Origins of Color (Courtesy the artist; Photo: (c) Riya Lerner / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 2018)

Fetish also plays a critical role in the group show, both in terms of the draw to pet and sometimes, roll all over the artworks and more literal fetishes such as in Vincent Tiley and Bryson Rand’s series The Origins of Color. This series draws on the presumption that Indian yellow was made from cow’s urine (though it was later discovered to be derived from vegetables–boring!). Recalling piss play, particularly its use during the HIV/AIDS pandemic as a safe sexual practice for queer men, Tiley attempted, as Rand documented, to create Indian yellow from piss culled from parties on Brooklyn rooftops and on Fire Island. Ivan LOZANO’s AN ANDACHTSBILDER (PRYING PERCEPTION OPEN) VERSION 3 also relates to fetish, as well as transforms the digital into the physical. Creating a literal shimmering web out of chains, LOZANO’s installation, which becomes almost an altarpiece, centers around a pixelated and abstracted image of fisting from online porn that is barely legible behind the chains, hinting at coded sexual practices both IRL and online.

PERCEPTION OPEN) VERSION 3, 2012/18, Inkjet print, resin, plastic crate, jewelry chain, colored, LED lights, video projector (Courtesy the artist; Photo: (c) Riya Lerner / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 2018)

By engaging with the viewers on multiple sensory levels, many of the selections in Haptic Tactics construct a more dynamic object/viewer relationship in contrast to the normal objectifying gaze. Take, for example, Carolyn Lazard’s Score for “Feel it for me,” which encourages viewers to interact with books as sensuous objects rather than texts. With a shelf full of books that includes Deleuze’s The Fold, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling, Lazard’s performance score instructs viewers to choose a book, without reading and:

“4. Press the pads of your thumbs against its spine. Rub.
5. Hold it 10 inches from your face. Gaze at it.
6. Hold it up to your nose Inhale.
7. Hold it up to your ear. Flip its pages. Listen to it rustle
8. Caress it.”

It’s no mistake that Touching Feeling is one of the books Lazard encourages viewers to caress, with Sedgwick’s own interest in texture and its relation to feeling, both in terms of tactility and affect. Though I cheated on Lazard’s performance by revisiting Touching Feeling at home, Sedgwick’s discussion of her title resonates with much of the work in Haptic Tactics. As Sedgwick writes, “The title I’ve chosen for these essays, Touching Feeling, records the intuition that a particular intimacy seems to subsist between textures and emotions. But the same double meaning, tactile plus emotional, is already there in the single word ‘touching’; equally it’s internal to the word ‘feeling.’ I am also encouraged in this association by the dubious epithet ‘touchy-feely’ with its implication that even to talk about affect virtually amounts to cutaneous contact” (17). Like Sedgwick’s passage, Lazard’s performance places the viewer/participant in a space of intimacy using textures and emotions by rubbing, gazing, inhaling, listening and caressing books.

Installation view of Haptic Tactics at the Leslie-Lohman Museum (c) Riya Lerner / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 2018.

This duality of touching in terms of both the sensory and emotional can be seen in Quay Quinn Wolf’s sculptures honeymoon phase n.1 and long distance. In honeymoon phase no.1, Wolf wedges milk, honey, citrus and satin sheets between PVC sheets. It’s hard not to think of and even, imagine smelling the sweetness of the materials, as well as their potential souring. This sense of love and its inevitable rot is further explored in long distance, which connects a wilting rose and tulip with plastic tubing. Representing the withering of affection that can occur with distance, Wolf’s sculpture is a vision of doomed romanticism worthy of a Lana Del Rey song that is embodied in and by the chosen materials. As Mark Paterson explains his chapter “How the World Touches Us: Haptic Aesthetics” in The Senses of Touch: “Art can and should be a touching experience. Standing in front of a painting, appreciating a sculpture or walking through a building, even if we are not permitted to physically touch the work we should at least be touched by it” (79).

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