Art essays and curatorial commentaries



The Ethics of Perception and Touch(ing) in Artistic and Virtual Mediums 

Translation provided by the author

Published on: Revista de Științe Politice și Relații Internaționale Vol. XXI, Nr. 1/2024

Abstract. The text discusses the concept of ethics of touch in the Anthropocene from a theoretical perspective, highlighting how humans have influenced and how they continue to shape the world, especially through the digital space and the emerging technologies. The relationship between perception and touch is explored, both in an artistic context and in the virtual environment of video games, emphasising the ethical implications of this technological evolution. Finally, visual representations of touch and how they reflect and perpetuate the traumatic nature of human interactions are discussed.

Keywords: Ethics; Touch; Anthropocene; Perception; Technology.

The Digital and Ethical Dimensions of the Anthropocene

Theoretically speaking, the world as we know it today is in full anthropocene, a term coined and promoted in geology. It situates our contemporaneity in the context of an era that starts at the end of the XVIII century, with the Industrial Revolution, and continues up until this very day. 

Frida Kahlo
Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932

Even so, getting over this little egotistic denomination, anthropocene, that places us, as humans, as main factors that influence planet’s entire ecosystems – during this era humans marked not only the first step on the Moon or touching ocean’s bottoms, but also the creation of the virtual or digital space, and it’s development into a prosthetic1 form for our world today. The digital space is, step by step, created and then conquered, populated, colonised, disputed, and it consists into a meta-theme of discussion when we are talking about the politics of these virtual zones.

In the digital spaces we can also find the origin for video games, which appeared starting 1958, and developed into complex forms such as VR installations, that propose a total immersion into the digital world, the multi sensoriality being appreciated by those that access these networks. The development of these technologies organically opened the field study for more in-depth research of the way in which we interact with the virtual space, giving shape to concepts such as multi-modal, multi-medial, and also the study of the so-called multi-modal/medial perceptions through sensory stimulation, study object for neurosciences and not only.

Among all these aspects, the point of interest that has attracted both neuroscientists and philosophers is the way we relate to the external world – in our case, the digital one. Nevertheless, the knowledge gained over time about perception considers our understanding in a heterogeneous manner, where we delve into the analysis of each sense. This perspective has brought numerous results in the field and has allowed us a comprehensive view, cellular on one hand and even phenomenological on the other. However, the shift in understanding comes partly through the actor-network theory2, which I propose as a key element, and also through an increasingly focused analysis on the idea of the multisensory, a holistic vision of human perception3.

The Ethical Complexity and Evolution of “Touch” in Performing Arts

From an ethical perspective, the concept of “touch” is extremely complex, precisely because of the nature of the gesture. Touching, especially when discussing living beings touching each other, represents a form of contact that can fundamentally affect the integrity of the actors involved.

However, historically, the performing arts have evolved in such a way that through touch, the relationship with the audience has been fundamentally changed. The audience is no longer a passive entity, hidden theoretically, but an active one, strongly involved in the performed moments. Touch has become a form of direct access to art, sometimes even a necessary part of fulfilling the artistic act. Even so, from an ethical perspective, such moments are analysed with great care, because a constant in art is precisely its relationship with ethics – especially in the context of arts where touch is permitted, free, and even, as we will see, encouraged and necessary.

The Ethics of Touch in Art and Technology: Marina Abramović and Video Games

In this study, we will analyze two instances: the first involves an artist whose artistic medium is her own body, with a form of expression that varies but endangers, or rather interrogates, human integrity and our perception. The second instance is under the influence of technology, but to narrow and focus the discussion, we will concentrate on one form of it, namely video games.

The artist Marina Abramović is recognized for her nonconformity regarding the artworks and performances she creates or stages. In the performance “Rest Energy,” the artist creates an extremely representative visual metaphor for what the connection between two people represents, especially when it comes to love. The tensioned bow and the red arrow, which immediately draw attention to potential lethality, are vectors meant to speak about the importance of mutual trust and its vital necessity. A touch that kills, a repetitive suspense now, in the installations that reproduce the scene of the two protagonists drawing the bowstring, “Rest Energy” speaks precisely about the potential energy of a couple: an energy as creative as it is destructive in the absence of communication.

From an ethical point of view, this performance lies at the edge of public appreciation, as it may seem staged, a game, an illusion created by the artist. However, upon simple research, we find that the bow, arrow, and the tension formed between the two were as real as possible. At this point, the ethics of our gaze can generate questions such as “Why do this?; Does love deserve such a gesture?; Is this artistic act meant to become famous through shock and suspense?; Is it ethical to subject the public’s gaze to a dangerous image?”.

These questions remain valid and even multiply if we look at another artistic product of Marina Abramović, “Rhythm 0.” In this performance, the artist voluntarily and consciously subjected herself to her audience in Naples for 6 hours, during which anyone could use one of the 72 objects provided to interact with her. Marina Abramović was kissed, fed, pricked with the thorns of a rose, cut, and threatened with death by having a gun placed to her temple—a gesture stopped by another spectator. The boundary between audience and performance dissolves in this story through the necessary interactions for the artistic act to take place, a dissolution that temporarily suspends the ethical barriers that generally prevent people from violating the integrity (especially bodily) of others. A strange phenomenon that anticipates and connects very subtly with the second instance, that of technology.

Currently, we are in a period that Derrida characterizes in his discourse from the volume “On Touching — Jean-Luc Nancy”4 as haptocentric, a concept I find particularly relevant for the world we live in. The preference for the haptic over the tactile is one whose nuances define the relationship of contemporary humans with technology, and implicitly guide the creation of ethical norms we follow in relation to it. The haptic thus defines our way of relating to technology by placing us in connection with an unfamiliar environment, such as that seen in video games, but without an analogous relationship. For example, the character we control with the help of a joystick is injured, almost losing their life in the game, at which point the joystick vibrates strongly to signal this state to us. The vibration acts as a reverse message, from technology to the user, establishing a new form of communication. 

Things have advanced extraordinarily, to the point where video games now exist in versions that propose a fully immersive virtual reality from a physical perspective. The player has numerous devices placed on their body to transpose themselves as much as possible into the digital world. This transposition, once imaginable only in the science fiction universes proposed by various authors, shows us the methods of adapting to a world we are trying to conquer while we are creating it.

Nevertheless, the ethics of touch in the case of virtual games becomes an increasingly discussed topic, given the rapid technological progress. What is the limit of our adaptation to the virtual environment? What should be the consequences of unethical behavior in the virtual space and, more importantly, how do we define ethical behavior in a space where anything is possible? I mention in this context conflicts similar to Nabokov’s book “Lolita,” a book that brought back to the critics’ table the issue of defining fiction, its consequences, and its influences on the recipients. Is it an imaginary, fictional space subject to the same rules as the real world? Does the virtual space, visible and increasingly tangible, adhere to the ethics of the immanent world?

Considering the two examples, I believe we are at an ethical impasse, given that the new digital environment is taking over human life. Moreover, ethics and our understanding of ethics are exposed, just like Marina Abramović in the performance “Rhythm 0,” with us being the ones who, beyond the behavior we exhibit towards it, must ask ourselves more often why we act this way.

Trauma and Touch in Art: Perspectives from Lacan and Alexandrescu

Another perspective on this subject comes through Professor Sorin Alexandrescu’s discussion in the article “Dincoace și dincolo de real: Ion Grigorescu versus Ștefan Câlția”5 about some forms (and formulas) of interpretation or reception of the artists named in the title, given some historical-contextual coordinates, but also others proposed by analogy. What caught my attention, considering my interest in the subject of touch, is Lacan’s definition of trauma in relation to reality: “[…] the traumatic represents a missed encounter with the real. Being missed, the real cannot be represented, but can only be repeated. […] The real erupts on the screen of repetitiveness. This is an eruption that occurs not so much in the world, but within the subject – between perception and the consciousness of the subject affected by the image.”6

This perspective serves as a starting point for an analysis within the framework of trauma studies applied to the artistic representation of touch, as well as contemporary perceptions of touch, both in its visuality and as reception influenced by technological evolution. Coupling this Lacanian definition with the history of theories that have addressed the subject of touch, we observe the common ground marked by the idea of the missed act, which, in the context of touch, is the exact opposite of perception induced by stimulus. The missed act in touch is represented by the impossibility of a complete experience, best exemplified by the moment when we touch one finger with another – but we cannot determine, at the cerebral level, which finger is being touched and which is doing the touching. Similarly, touch will always establish a connection that must have two components in a transitive relationship: something that touches and something that is touched. 

The Three Forms of Touch in Art: Fulfilled, Anticipatory, and Post-Touch

In this situation, trauma also appears at the level of the subject, similar to Jacques Lacan’s explanation, and will be defined by the rupture between the perception of touch and its actualization either at the level of the consciousness that generates the act of touching or the one that interprets the “suffered” touch. In the raw register, the representation of touch also addresses this traumatic component precisely by illustrating it in different contexts, generally related either to the consequences of the achieved touch or to possible consequences – all depending on the represented instance. Following up, we will analyze three corresponding representations in the case of three generally possible moments of touch.

The first representation is that of fulfilled touch, capturing precisely the moment of contact between two intact things that become part of the same system. A very good example of this category is Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” a painting created at the beginning of the 20th century. From a visual construction point of view, it is easily observed, even before identifying the two lovers, the rectangular geometric shape that contains both of them. This construction adds even more impact to the idea of realized, fulfilled touch, and its instantiation comes to signify precisely the moment itself rather than its consequences. Moreover, Klimt maintains this compression, this touch that seems constrained by external factors in other paintings as well, such as “The Three Ages of Woman”, “Adam and Eve”, “Death and Life”, among others. The artist achieves this touch by incorporating the represented elements into a chromatically homogeneous material, demarcating with its help the group formed as a result of the touch. Trauma appears in this situation in a passive form, surrounding the self-sufficient representations following their touch. The touch conserves the silhouettes of the two in an impenetrable perimeter, trauma being in limine, at the level of the exterior space that witnesses and judges this achieved touch. Like a perpetual time, they are protected from the trauma of being separated – a sphere from which only the viewer can observe in this way, not being part of the idealized form.

The next form of representation is anticipatory touch, one that follows and is suggested by context. In Klimt’s painting “Death and Life”, previously mentioned, we observe that the subject of death, illustrated on the left side, gazes towards the amalgamation of human silhouettes in an ideal touch without interacting with them in any way. This depiction creates an anticipation of a possible future touch, imminent if we consider an implicit semantics of the painting, but which for the viewer appears as an unrealized touch. We find the same form in Klimt’s painting “Love”, completed in 1895.

Moreover, this type of touch is specific to paintings with a Christian theme, where anticipatory touch is a form of transmitting a religious message to believers, a representation of what-will-be (touched). One of the canonical images of Jesus depicts Him with outstretched arms, signifying openness to the viewer, waiting for anyone who accepts this invitation to join Him in an unfulfilled embrace. Similarly, the Virgin Mary is depicted in such postures, both in painting and sculpture, with open arms.

An ambiguous form, at the boundary between the two representations analyzed so far, is Michelangelo’s “Pietà”. In this sculpture, we have a particularly complex situation, favored by the semantic context of the subject: the touch between the bodies of Jesus and the Virgin is perfectly realized, with the Virgin serving as the pedestal on which her son’s inert body is displayed.

However, the mother’s hands perform a dual role: her right hand supports the deceased’s body, while her left hand addresses the viewer, “inviting” them to understand the consequences of human actions – implicitly their own. The idealization preserves, from a semantic-visual standpoint, the two characters in mother-son intimacy, while anticipation guides and educates the viewer’s gaze towards interpretation. In this case, trauma erupts at the viewer’s level through the asymptotic relationship proposed by anticipatory touch, a touch that is realized only on a subjective level – an implied, frustrating encounter.

The third form of representation is that of post-touch, a form difficult to spot due to the subtlety of the gesture just completed. An example of this category is Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”, one of the most well-known images of touch in human history. In this fresco, the moment immediately following the creation of man by God is depicted, illustrated through Adam’s finger which detaches, bending first towards the divine finger/God’s finger/the Creator’s finger as a sign of the creative touch that gave him life. Caravaggio can also be placed in the same category with his painting “David with the Head of Goliath”, where the moment evoked is the one preceding the image. The subject of the painting is the decapitation carried out earlier, which we do not have visual access to, the violent, mortal touch being inferred, implicitly portrayed in Caravaggio’s style. In this case, too, the trauma is one that appears at the level of the subject through the fracturing of the explicit semantics of the representation by the notions that implicitly arise through the evoked touch.

Returning to the article mentioned at the beginning, we can use the idea of touch as trauma that perpetuates and, simultaneously, is understood as “viewed trauma,” stemming from a future moment of the episode considered traumatic. Visual cultural studies offer a rich palette of examples in this regard, through the way different representations are updated in contemporaneity. A good illustration of this fact is the iconic image of the hands from “The Creation of Adam”, hands that have carved their way into contemporary imagination through numerous updates, whether through pop art or even video games. The transfer produced is more of a valuative nature than semantic, so recipients perceive the reference to Michelangelo’s work but add new meanings to this archetypal skeleton of evoked touch, depending on the context. Moreover, in the case of Diablo 4, the iconic image is “perverted,” with the two hands belonging to creatures of evil, demonic.

The Ethical Challenges of Touch in a Digital Age

Thus, the way touch reveals its inherent traumatic nature and, more importantly, how this trauma takes different forms in visual representations and even in culture is evident. The fracture in semantics, in the perception of the moment of touch, generates multiple ways of relating to the artistic object and places touch in a broad taxonomy that can be further developed later on. To illustrate more clearly the implications of the ethics of touch from a social perspective, it is necessary to make a final effort to explore the specific aspects of human interactions and emerging digital environments.

A crucial aspect of the ethics of touch, as we have seen, is the awareness of the importance of individual integrity and autonomy, regardless of physical contact, which may seem easier to manage or emotional. Today, we often discuss consent, which is evidence of the emphasis on the ethical norms of touch, seen as a potentially aggressive gesture. Personal space delineates sensitive boundaries, a factor that complicates the separation of intentionality7, for example, from physical action. This separation can become relevant in the context of its interpretation in social interactions.

From a developmental perspective, touch is fundamentally important in raising children, as it is a mode of communication that requires parental attention. In John Bowlby’s8 attachment theory, attention is drawn to the fact that early emotional bonds are essential for the subsequent development of interpersonal relationships and socio-emotional functioning throughout life. These bonds are created through physical touch, such as hugs, which, despite their apparent banality, establish a safe emotional climate for the child. Tactile experiences thus satisfy the child’s needs for physical comfort and also contribute to neurogenesis, which supports healthy nervous system development and, implicitly, emotional regulation capacity later in life.

In later stages of human development, attachment remains equally important, and touch may be perceived differently by partners, hence the need to popularize the concept of consent to avoid encroaching on sensitive boundaries and potentially entering a zone where touch is perceived as trauma.

The current context of technological explosion further nuances things and raises multiple questions regarding touch. Haptic technologies and tactile interfaces of virtual space expand our understanding of touch and, consequently, of human relationships. Tactile feedback is no longer a novelty for users, considering the popularity of vibrating phones, for example; novelty lies in the development of these technologies in other areas. Medical or military innovations are achieved where such a response can provide significant information for the user and, especially, can enhance response speed and accuracy, as appropriate. However, new ethical dilemmas are also emerging concerning consent and intimacy. Without everyone’s ability to control and adjust various aspects of digital interaction, such simulated touch that sensually stimulates us in reality develops an aggressive potential that can be directed against our intimacy. The consequences of realizing this aggressive potential can be seen in social isolation resulting from excessive use of electronic devices. Desensitization and alienation of individuals through their accommodation in new virtual spaces demonstrate that virtual touch does not offer the psychological and emotional benefits of real physical touch, as also noted in Twenge’s work.9

Thus, we find ourselves facing a new world where the interpretation and perception of virtual touches can vary depending on the context and the possibly pre-existing relationship between users. These ambiguities will continue to develop as interaction methods evolve, with the ethics of touch playing a crucial role in defining human relationships, regardless of the environment in which they occur. One way to approach them could be through Baudrillard’s theory, which argues that in the postmodern world, reality is replaced by simulacra, and our senses are manipulated and distorted by the constant mediation of images and representations10. Authenticity and depth of interpersonal relationships are lost, and our challenge continues to be interpreting how touch is perceived in today’s contemporary society. By comparing real touch with that in simulation or mediated in different circumstances, we can deepen our understanding of touch and subsequently develop safety systems for the new virtual spaces.

It is clear that an ethics of touch can never be fully complete due to its inherently phenomenological nature. The constant contact between us and the world around us, particularly between individuals, has surpassed conventional limits, and through the evolution of communication channels and possible communication instances, the issues of an ethics of touch are diversifying. Regardless, the coordinates of consent and agreement remain certain, without which we can easily slip into a zone of aggression that risks increasingly permeating from the digital space into the real one.

Study Case

Disclaimer: Considering the seriousness of the accusations brought forward and the preliminary categorization of the act as rape, the brief analysis I will conduct is not intended to qualify or disqualify the act. It is entirely outside the scope of my objectives to qualify the abuse, its intensity, or any other components of the trauma presented in the article. The purpose of my observations is to analyze the implications and possible ramifications of similar acts in the future, given the interest in developing contexts similar to those experienced by the victim in the case presented. I completely refrain from any other existing or future interpretations, and the analysis presented serves exclusively within the framework of the current work or other works authored by me. I maintain that any abuse should be punished according to the laws, and the protection and understanding of victims are mandatory in any given circumstance.

To illustrate the dilemma of regulating or, more precisely, the non-regulation of touch in the digital space in a relevant manner, I propose analyzing an extreme and recent case documented by journalists from several renowned British publications. The Guardian reports under the title:

“A girl was allegedly raped in the metaverse. Is this the beginning of a dark new future?”

The article describes how, for the first time, a minor girl, approximately 16 years old, claims she was the victim of a rape that occurred in the metaverse. According to the article, the girl was wearing a pair of VR glasses and participating in an immersive game when her avatar was subjected to an attack by other players connected to the platform. Beyond the legal aspects of categorizing the act and reviewing the platform’s terms and conditions of use, the girl’s case raises a problem regarding how we relate to representational identity instances.

Thus, the dilemma emerging from the case in the UK is complex and multifaceted:

  • How can we (re)define certain acts, such as rape, given the digital space that violates the current definition of such an act, which necessarily involves a physical penetrative act?
  • Would it make sense to redefine it in relation to the psychological traumatic effects produced, considering that, in the long run, following a physical rape, the long-term consequences are mostly psychological?
  • Does the possibility of instantly closing the virtual environment place the responsibility of a potential victim in the category of self-defense, even if the aggressive act can incapacitate her psycho-emotionally and implicitly disable her from responding by closing the environment?
  • How do we relate to such interactions that have no direct physical repercussions but psychological ones?
  • What are the limits of touch in the digital space, and how is consent exercised here (or there)?
  • What are the norms by which we can judge “acts of touch” of our virtual identity, and what validates an avatar as a virtual identity?
  • What is our virtual identity?

This series of questions can continue, given the very context of the dilemma created, and it opens up space for interpretations that can lead, further, to a safer, more inclusive virtual world that takes into account not only our representations but also rules of interaction in the digital space. With the evolution of technology and the advancement of new technologies, virtual reality is no longer just a space for escape, for escapism, but one that invades us, and then, as I argue in my master’s thesis, the question arises: Are we liminal, always positioned between a possible escape and a potential invasion?

Bibliography

1 – Vella, Daniel, „Free-for-itself as Player and as Ludic Subject.“ Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference. Istanbul: Istanbul Bilgi University, 2014.
2 – Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
3 – Calvert, Gemma A., Charles Spence, Barry E. Stein, The Handbook of Multisensory Processes, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2004.
4 – Derrida, Jacques, On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. by Christine Irizarry. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.
5 – Alexandrescu, Sorin, „Dincoace și dincolo de real: Ion Grigorescu versus Ștefan Câlția“, în Observator Cultural, 15.12.2017, nr. 902.
6 – Jacques Lacan, apud Hal Foster, The return of the real, The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, The Mitt Press, 1995 p. 132, apud Sorin Alexandrescu, loc. cit.
7 – Computer Games Conference. Istanbul: Istanbul Bilgi University, 2014.Wegner, D.M., The Illusion of Conscious Will, MIT Press, 2002
8 – Bowlby, J., Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1 – Attachment, New York: Basic Books, 1969.
9 – Twenge, J. M., iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us, New York: Atria Books, 2017.
10 – Baudrillard, J., Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994


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