2nd Provocation – 21st Dec 2010

The Touch Principle – 21st December 2010

When we were children, my father Lewis used to send us off on our favorite beach in Criccieth to find 2 identical stones. I believed it possible and ran about the place searching – because as a girl with 20/20 vision I thought I could ‘see’! Then having found what I was after, I’d place the stones in my father’s hands, satisfied as I watched and waited eagerly for the verdict. Time seemed to stand still as he explored, turned and held the stones in his hands. I felt both impatient and fascinated, as part of me surveyed the beach planning my next stone hunt, whilst noticing that his pace had slowed and the stone had become very very still….Then I could see a smile break across his face as he spoke:

“I can feel a rough patch – there – on this one” and “notice, there is an indent on that one”.

Then I’d look again and question, because I was sure there had been no difference between the stones. Then he’d encourage me to hold one stone then the other with my eyes closed, and I’d search with my hands….sure enough, there was the indent, and yes, I could feel that rough patch clearly now. Feeling a little down hearted I’d then try to pin him down to choose the ‘best’ one. But my father seemed to find interest and beauty in each and every stone we found, and often in the stones that seemed the least remarkable. My eyes weren’t a match for my father’s hands. He ‘saw’ something that I couldn’t see;

like people – there are no identical stones in the world

like stones – people are ‘equal’ to one another

Every day for about 30 years, Lewis held one particular stone which turned from grey to shiny black in his hands. He says that it acts like a kind of mantra, enabling him to access his imagination; an ever increasing sense of inner space and connection with humanity.

My father believed in, and stayed with the moment; somehow entering a parallel time frame to my own. Perceptions were slowed down, enabling him to ‘sense‘ things that couldn’t be summed up and rejected like I had done in a momentary glance.  Yet it seems as though such qualities are rare and undervalued in society today, and in the process of art making.

“For many people, touch is a menial thing near the bottom of the hierarchy of senses.  This attitude prevents us from creating things as deaf blind people”.

Lewis Jones 1992

Thus, ‘Touch’ is one of the organising principles of salamanda tandem; acknowledging the role of touch and embodied ( physical) experience, in working on ourselves and with others. Where sight is judgmental and can render us numb to the beauties of the world as we attempt to deal with over stimulus, touch can be the stuff of creativity and of appreciation – the means to connect to others and to awaken the imagination.

“The impersonality of life in the Western world has become such that we have produced a race of untouchables. We have become strangers to each other, not only avoiding but even warding off all forms of “unnecessary” physical contact, face-less figures in a crowded landscape lonely and afraid of intimacy. To the extent that this is so, we are all diminished”

The Human Significance of Skin page xiv 3rd Edition 1986 ©Ashley Montague

8 Responses to “2nd Provocation”

  1. tony baker Says:

    December 27, 2010 at 9:51 pm eNot really a commentary on the paragraphs above, more an extension or further illustration of the misgivings concerning touch in our part of the world:

    the citation from Ashley Montague reminded me of a passage in the poet Charles Olson’s Mayan Letters. He’s been traveling around in the Yucatan in search, perhaps, of the kind of immediacy of contact with people and the world that he couldn’t experience around his home in Massachusetts. The American experience for him was mediate, ie. contact with the world was mediated, interfered with, too indirect… and what he sought was something immediate, a direct contact with things, not just in the day to day way of living, but in the way the Maya had articulated their experience in what they created. And he writes about this in letters to his friend Robert Creeley. Somewhere he explains that he’s sitting in a bus, it’s crowded and – if I recall his phrase aright – he says of the way people crush against one another that “the contact is granted…. There’s none of that pull away of the flesh…” that he was accustomed to.

    It’s that phrase “pull away of the flesh” which stuck in my mind. I feel that this is particularly true in relation to disability. In so far as the experience of disability for most people is a-normal (though possibly not for many people visiting this site), uncertainty about how to relate to it translates into uncertainty about how physically to make contact with another person. How do you embrace a person who can’t reciprocate in the same way, or who has a different physical rapport with the world ? Well I suppose in the Yucatan Olson visited the question might not occur but the pull away of the flesh certainly seems part of the social world in this part of Europe. As if it were a manifestation of misgiving about the Other, a cultural mistrust at some basic level, a shrinking from the im-mediate…

  2. Ray Says:

    January 15, 2011 at 8:54 am eFascinating provocation! May I add an experience of my own? When I was taking music making workshops for adults with severe learning difficulties, it became clear to me that the touch of certain “instruments” was a significant factor for a few of them. One of the pre-workshop procedures that I undertook was to separate out the instruments into rows according to material. So, for example, I would place about 20 metal instruments on a line of tables, another set of wooden ones on a different row, drums made with hide were set apart, string instruments separate etc. I would invite the dozen students (all of whom I worked with for 2 years) to choose where they would like to play. Four or five of them would walk around and, literally, feel the instruments before choosing.
    I worked with this group in a variety of ways. Active listening sessions, storytelling that involved narrative (this measurably improved their memory faculty and ability to recognise causality) and critical sessions where they could respond to the recordings that they made. However, my inexperience of how to work with touch probably meant that there were many missed opportunities to explore ways forward with the four or five who were clearly more aware in this area of sensation.
    I do not know whether this experience is where my slight trepidation comes from when working with electronic music making. I have worked with people using cubase – but these were advanced students and my admiration for Duncan’s work probably stems partly from my appreciation of how difficult it is to work in that medium. But I can see no part for touch to play once we take away the tactile potential of handling instruments. I guess that I am uniquely unqualified to comment on how this potential might be realised as I remain inexperienced in taking forward what I might have been able to with my severely disabled students.

  3. tony baker Says:

    January 16, 2011 at 2:17 pm eThe ‘tactile potential of handling instruments’ that Ray mentions is surely so fundamental that there isn’t really any music without it. I always like it that you can recognise a musician by his or her ‘touch’ ie. I mean the way a musician feels, or responds to contact with, his or her instrument, becomes a revelation of the individual playing. In French, the notes of a piano are actually called les touches, a reflection I suppose of the fact that they are the interface between a person playing and an instrument that sounds, so that to touch becomes not just an action but actually an inter-action– to touch and to be touched become part of a single gesture. And of course you hope that a music you play will eventually prove ‘touching’ for anyone listening. These uses of the word I think demonstrate the degree to which touch isn’t just a matter of reaching out to make physical contact but is in fact a close questioning of ourselves and our capacity, or not, to make contact ie. actually to construct contact. Or you might say that Ray’s remarks ‘touch on’ these issues. At least it seems clear to me that touch isn’t simply a matter of physical sensation but, more essentially, a mirror to our own natures and how we feel about ourselves and the world.

  4. Ray Says:

    January 19, 2011 at 8:53 am eIsabel describes the significance of touch for her father when he held stones in his hands. And for many of us, touch is perceived principally as a hand-centred sensation. Music, however, resonates the whole body. (Interesting that Ulysses ties himself to the mast as his boat passes the sirens as he knows that sound does not only affect the ears). Ignoring the impact of sound as a tactile sensation may well be another aspect of our degrading touch (which, itself, may have roots in the peculiarly religious equating of just one aspect of touch (sex) with evil).
    One personal musical example of how the hand is not the sole purveyor of touch: as a violinist I can testify to the sensation of the skull being vibrated by the instrument as it rests beneath the chin. Different instruments really do FEEL different – it is not just the sound that differentiates them. I suspect that most fiddlers would agree that their attachment to their violin has a significant tactile element.

  5. January 30, 2011 at 5:40 pm eI am a bit nervous about contributing to this blog because I know that
    my words are not as articulate as my touch, and so I have given myself
    permission to write in the way that I might improvise: To chew some
    material, to depart and then to come back to it with the trust that
    throughout the process I will make sense of what is emerging and be able
    to structure it for others to make sense of too.

    I am sitting at my work desk and my left leg is rocking from side to
    side, marking the pulse of my thoughts. I have just listened to two
    play readings: The Nightmare before Christmas, and one other, I wonder
    how the pacing of those plays is shaping my contact with this keyboard.
    I wasn’t ‘touched’ by either of the plays but did engage. I ‘oohed’ and
    ‘aahed’ at the suspense of the plot and I looked across at the actors
    reading, turning from one to another to another but after the readings I
    was quick to clap and move on to the next thing. Why didn’t I need to
    sit quietly for a moment? Why didn’t I need to gush about what I had
    just heard/watched/experienced? How did I enter the space to meet
    those readings? How do I enter spaces when I suspect the predominant
    language will be spoken? How open am I to the touch of language?

    My route/root in to touch is guided by what I see, what I smell, what
    I perceive and how I feel. My memory of the two readings is based on
    the images I created, triggered by the rhythm, the movement of the
    readers’, my movement in response to the readers’ and the words used to
    express the narrative. My description of the readings for others would
    take the form of a series of postures, behaviors and expressions;
    organizing myself in space according to the ways in which the
    scripts/actors/words/rhythms touched my landscape. There would be few words in my telling of these scripts; maybe I’m not describing the
    scripts but the manner in which the script manifests.

    I work with people, and the scripts which shape their bodies and their
    bodily responses. I am negotiating with my own experience, my script,
    the other person’s scripts and the ways in which these scripts meet.
    Emerging scripts are a constant, as are responses to lived scripts.
    Nudging, feeling, witnessing, supporting, allowing – time.
    By anchoring in, it is possible to extend out. I am content in my body.
    I am interested and curious to meet other bodies. Each individual’s
    landscape is full of textures, strengths and vulnerabilities, questions
    and opinions. The ways in which these characteristics manifest is
    unique to each individual. The pleasure of meeting these through touch
    is the directness of transaction. Movement: such a refined language.
    Tuning into their direction through touch is revealing and exciting.
    Listening closely to another’s extreme of movement is absorbing,
    forgetting my own possibilities, my own extremes, my own idiosyncrasies, and responding as honestly as possible to the initiations received through a nudge, a push, a lean, a sustained pressure, a brush. The separation of the two becomes miniscule, two subjects connected; two scripts merging and establishing something interchangeable; each
    individual supporting and enabling the possibility of a new, shared
    potential to become embedded in the landscape of the body.

  6. kevin hodgetts Says:

    February 1, 2011 at 3:53 pm eA very stimulating and diverting discussion! Interesting how touch is discussed here as a theme across different art forms. We might expect after all that touch would be a subject claimed and owned by the dance fraternity.

    What i take away from this blog is how an awareness of touch is a means to re-sensitize us to the world and how we experience it; whether we are artists facilitating workshops or members of an audience taking in a play. This heightened awareness – of our bodies, the presence or absence of others and objects, the environments we move in – is what we aspire to as creative people wanting to take full account of what is about us.

    Implicit here is the suggestion that touch is somewhat of a ‘lost’ or forgotten sense which reminds us that the way in which we as social animals process reality is contingent and subject to cultural and historical forces that we rarely notice or comment upon. It is i think good for us from time to time to step outside the everyday consensus and remind ourselves that our ‘natures’ are historically produced and we have the capacity to refuse the programming, to become new again and re-prioritize our senses as we see fit. This potential for starting again is enormously empowering.

  7. Ray Says:

    February 1, 2011 at 4:33 pm eI think Kevin hits the nail on the head (if you’ll pardon such a visual/sonic/tactile image) when he writes that our sense of touch is contingent and subject to cultural and historical forces. A few years ago I was investigating and writing about how the different senses are described in our language and noting how dominant and rich the visual vocabulary is. For touch I wrote “Considering how significant this tactile field is for human beings as it includes much of our experience of natural forces, violent death and making love, it is astonishing how functional the vocabulary is. Although there is some variation and development beyond the bare minimum, it is surprising how much is described just along the lines of hot/cold, sharp (rough)/blunt (smooth), hard/soft, heavy/light and wet/dry.” So if language tends to orientate us into visual and intellectual sense, perhaps music and dance are the routes through which we can escape the hegemony of the visual and experience sound and touch as equal partners?

  8. julie Says:

    February 6, 2011 at 12:58 pm e Touch a feeling not in words,a gathering of impressions,images or a single source of silent communication.
    when I’m with people who have a different way of communicating, touch and how it may be perceived,initiated and responded to has the possibility to become a living creative language.
    I find i have to give time and really take care for this language to develop and exist on equal terms.
    so many times I have witnessed a care professional trying to enable a person to join in by physically prompting them. the moment for creative language on equal terms disappearing in an instant, leaving the person being supported unable to initiate their own response.touch as a sense for communication between people needs time,sensitivity and understanding.
    for some people a touch may feel like a frightening trigger,an overload of sense information, at the same time for others touch may be the only way to communicate freely, and creatively.
    as care professionals and artists working with people we can become scared to use touch but this can have the effect of denying some people the opportunity to become comfortable with touch,while keeping others in isolation with no way to experience communication.
    when I’m dancing with a person or just sitting with a person who does not use spoken language, touch does not have to make sense in the ordinary way. it does not have to be based on practical, academic or therapeutic ideas and outcomes.
    it can be a quiet creative exchange,where there is opportunity for people to feel equal.

  9. salamandatandem Says:
    October 28, 2011 at 11:24 pm e In the course of this debate I’ve formed a close connection with Martha Blassnigg who is an academic studying based at Plymouth university in the psychology department. After I wrote the 2nd Provocation she wrote this extra-ordinary reply to me about intuition which I am very grateful for.Martha Blassnigg Intuition for Isabel Jones March-1

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