fine print

Touching Distance

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A black and white grainy photography of a hand slightly reaching towards a sculpture of another hand. The photograph background is blurred.

Nicholas Hanisch's hand with plaster sculpture during his solo exhibition BEING, February 2023. Photo courtesy Nicole Clift.

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Distraction and immersion constitute opposites. A person who stands in contemplation before a work of art immerses himself in it, he enters the work. The distracted mass, on the other hand, absorbs the work of art into itself. Buildings, most obviously. Architecture has always provided the prototype of a work of art that is received in a state of distraction and by the collective.
Walter Benjamin, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936

Social media is a new form of architecture. We place artworks and exhibitions within this structure which should create a context-rich tapestry of imagery, but instead is absorbed into a ‘stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor’.(1)

Should this neutralisation of artworks within the social media sphere matter more, or differently? The Walter Benjamin quote above from 1936 references how artworks behave within the context of mechanical reproduction, and particularly in relation to the multiple, such as photography. At the time of Benjamin’s writing, the arising practices of photography and mechanical reproduction affected the unique ‘aura’ of artworks. (2) They were no longer distinctive entities that derive meaning and significance from their singularity. Almost a century later, images of artworks are simultaneously added to social media platforms in platitudes, creating a super-multiple.

Social media’s architecture has created a necessary ‘arm’ to arts marketability and reach and is now upheld as an industry standard. Images of exhibitions and artworks are often used to denote information and to market adjacent news, events and programs, and my curiosity surrounds what a shift in tactic would look like. I wonder if images of artworks could somehow behave as windows or portals within this architectural structure, instead of informational digital posters. In time, would images of artworks start to feel more precious? More disruptive?

Cinema and media theorist Laura U. Mark’s research into screens and the haptic image could provide some new perspectives into what a new approach could look like. In particular, her writing on haptic visuality in reference to the screen could shift our collective approach to engaging with and encountering art online. Haptic visuality is essentially a way of seeing and understanding which calls upon a multiple of senses, opposed to singular touch, sight, smell etc.

The haptic image is in a sense, ‘less complete’, requiring the viewer to contemplate the image as a material presence rather than an easily identifiable representational cog in a narrative wheel [...]. (3)

The ‘less complete’ haptic image could play out in many directions in terms of an approach to art on social media. One possible direction could be a prioritising of our senses as a multiple, rather than the singularity of purely informational visual or audio. I wonder if a more protective, care-full, playful and gentle approach to placing images of artworks online could conversely create the right conditions for active engagement and interest – while also conveying the true sensory and spatial qualities of the original work.

Paying a more acute attention to how images operate on a screen (the screen being the infinite wall of social media’s architecture) and how we read images haptically could produce a much more intimate and embodied result. Images that create their own conditions for tactile engagement and are not easily read at a glance. A strategy for showing artwork within this new architecture that might let some light in.