The world I perceive by touching has texture, weight and temperature, but lacks perspective and color. The world I perceive by seeing has perspective and color, but lacks texture, weight and temperature. The two worlds that touch and vision describe don’t seem to have much in common.
I can grasp an object from various sides simultaneously, whereas I can see it only from one side. But touch is fragmented compared to vision; it reveals little about the overall shape of the object. To fully grasp a three-dimensional object, my hand and my eyes must co-operate. Touch and vision must intersect. Eyes touching, fingers seeing.
Like touch and vision, painting and sculpture render the world differently. A figurative painting opens up a world behind the surface of the canvas and invites you in. A sculpture on the other hand invites itself into this world. It invites touch.
While my eyes see best at a distance, my touching hand must be in immediate contact with what it investigates. This makes touch an embedding sense. Touch is mutual. I cannot touch a sculpture without allowing the sculpture to touch me too.
In modern museums and art galleries, touch is a privilege that belongs to curators, technicians, conservators and artists. When spectators of art move through museum halls, they often fold their hands behind their back in order to quell any temptation to touch. Touching objects in museums is a contaminating and suspicious gesture. Spectators must learn how to touch with their eyes.
The word exhibit comes from Latin ‘ex habere’, which means to hold forth. From this word a hand stretches into the third dimension.
What is this third dimension? What are the second and the first? In Euclidian geometry, every point in space is assigned a three-fold number (x, y, z). Numbers are endlessly divisible; between two numbers, there is always a third number. This makes Euclidian space endlessly divisible too; between two points in space there is always a third point. Does this mean that everything is infinitely connected? Or does it mean that nothing ever touches anything else, unless it is the same?
When something three-dimensional is projected onto a two-dimensional plane, it casts a shadow or forms an image. Projections ripple Euclidian space. They compress the three- dimensional into a two-dimensional image, only to open up a virtual space located somewhere behind the surface of that image.
When Dreyer projected Thorvaldsen’s three-dimensional sculptures onto the two- dimensional film medium, he let the sculptures spin on their own axes, and let the camera pan in the opposite direction. This created a double spin, like candyfloss being rolled on a turning stick. A sense of depth extends both into and out of the screen by means of this double spin.
If touch is part of understanding three-dimensionality, interpreting a two-dimensional image as a virtual space must involve touching the content of that space. If we cannot touch with our hands, we can connect visual information to experiences of previous touches. We can touch with our eyes.
When image recognition is harder to computers, it may be because (at least until now) computers have only had limited experiences based on touch.
Since the sixties, mainstream computer technology has evolved to support a visual interface. The interface is located behind a glass screen, and in this way it resembles a window looking into the computer. Behind this window is a structure resembling a mid- century office worker’s desktop. We call this projection ‘the desktop metaphor.’
As my hand cannot reach into graphical interfaces, I rely on an avatar to do so: a pointer controlled by a mouse. The mouse and pointer are intermediate tools to connect the actual and the virtual.
Since the spread of touch technologies, computer developers and salespersons no longer talk about a ‘graphical user interface’, a GUI , but of a ‘natural user interface’, a NUI, in an attempt to naturalize the interface, they have designed. A NUI is intuitive and direct, they say. It is like touching the actual content.
If the metaphorical content of the desktop computer’s interface was the office worker’s desktop, what could the metaphorical content of these touch screen gestures be? Do they resemble pressing the buttons of a machine or turning the pages of a book? Or gently brushing a lover’s skin?
The human brain has often been compared to a computer, but the comparison goes the other way around too. The computer has a body; it has an eye, a camera. And with touch technology it even gets a sensitive skin.
The skin has eyes, like a peacock’s tail.
Since the computer from its outset was not display-based, but took up the space of a room and was instructed by manually connecting circuits, what does it mean that its body shrinks to a two-dimensional surface that simultaneously provides input and output? Are we thereby returning to computing without an interface? Or is the interface becoming ubiquitous? Color changing like the skin of an octopus?
Does touching a screen let me operate a space behind its glass surface, or does it involve the space in front? Does it invite me into a parallel world, or does it invite itself into my world? Is a touch screen in this sense a “painting” or a “sculpture”? Or both? By touching the screen, am I allowing it to touch me too?
The mouse and the pointer have disappeared in touch screen interfaces. They have become redundant. My hand is in no need of an avatar anymore. My hand is the pointer.