touching at a distance

The ambition of the Touching at a Distance project is to create intimate experiences over distance using tangible and sensuous objects.
The project focuses on physical actions and tactile interfaces, and creates a bridge between people at different locations through physical objects, connected together via the internet. It removes screen, keyboard and the mouse as interface, and instead of disappearing into a virtual experience and exchanging likes in social media the project acknowledges the vitality of bodily experience and human touch.

The project grew out of the first round of the pandemic in the spring when social contact was largely constrained to communication through various digital devices and platforms, and cultural activity was mainly reduced to video streams of events from venues without audience.

In this context I thought it would be interesting to explore the possibilities of making a system for physical non-verbal communication, being at different locations in a city, in a country or in the world. Not just in the extreme situation we are living through now, but to potentially facilitate for a different way of communication and (literally) keeping in touch.

I am currently working on the first iteration of a toolkit of tactile and sensuous objects and the communication infrastructure to link them together. This will be an ongoing process of sketching, experimenting, prototyping, testing and feedback from users. The ambition is to have a flexible technical platform which will make it easy to expand and further develop the types of interactions available.
Technically (the short version) the system consists of sensors connected to a microcontroller that translates information from the physical world to data. The data is sent wirelessly via an internet protocol called MQTT to another location, where a microcontroller connected to actuators (motors, LEDs, sound producing devices, valves etc) moves the data received back into the physical world.
There are many interesting aspects to explore related to sensors, actuators, electronics, programming, materials, shape etc. As important is the feedback from users to find out what kind of connections, interactions and situations will happen.
I prefer the word user instead of audience, visitor or spectator for this project as I feel my role as an artist is that of a facilitator to connect two places together. The user can both act as performer, participant or host: potentially you invite a person, which could be a close friend or a complete stranger, into your house. The people on both side of the “invisible wall” are active participants and producers of content.

my mother sensing the heartbeat of my daughter

The hands will be a natural focus for tactile interactions. Hands can feel heat and cold, rough or smooth surfaces, soft or hard objects, vibrations, pain. Hands can push, squeeze, grab, stroke, knock, move things, gesticulate. Many of the objects I am currently working on involves the hand in one way or another.
Some objects will invite for immediate action on the other side: I knock a sequence of knocks that you hear as knocks on a box on your side. You knock back.
Other objects leave signs of activity: a light turned on, something has moved. This will be more of a “kilroy was here” or “I am thinking of you” type of interaction.
One object lets you feel the heartbeat of your connected partner.

Touching at a Distance is not a typical gallery project. It is exclusive but not excluding and I hope it can touch people of all ages and backgrounds.
I am looking into different ways of bringing this out to people.
One option would be sets of objects that could be borrowed through a local library, youth club, gallery, festivals etc. Another could be to have time slots in a space where you would be connected to another user for fifteen-thirty minutes.
A third option is to have some of the tactile objects at home on a permanent basis, as an extra physical connection to someone you can´t be in the same physical space with, either because of quarantine, illness or living in different places.

I also hope that this blog can play a role not only as presenting the objects I make (and how they are made), but as a place for imagining new objects, new interactions and potential uses which might not be realistic to actually make physically (a bit of science fiction basically). I would of course love to hear from you if you have any ideas or comments, or if you know of similar projects/objects I should know about. #touchingatadistance

What hopefully will make Touching at a Distance interesting is a combination of several elements:
You as audience are not in the same location, perhaps you are even at home.
You as audience are active participants.
Communication is non-verbal and tactile.
The connection between two locations creates an opportunity for a sort of intimate contact, a touch at a distance, between persons which might not know each other at all.

Some questions:
Is non-verbal communication enough to feel a connection to the other person/place?
Will it be uncomfortable to communicate in this manner with someone you don´t know?
Will it be unsatisfying if you as a local user don´t get an immediate response to your action from the other side?

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