Consent and Fantasy in the Gallery
‘The art gallery’ in its abstracted generality provides a particularly charged site for a date, due to the prescribed etiquette of quiet observation and keeping one's hands to one's self. The guideline is: don't touch anything and try to stay a metre away from the artwork if you can. But the contemporary art gallery is fraught with contradiction, given that it sometimes contravenes this prohibition against touching in the case of interactive and participatory art. Curators and artists develop a variety of explicit and implicit strategies in the attempt to communicate which artworks are to be touched and which ones are not, to varying degrees of success.
There are also rules about touching in the wider world outside the gallery. On dates, for example. As a person is more precious than an artwork the ‘no touching’ rule is only suspended in cases where explicit permission is given. We call this ‘consent’. And it is a very important word in the context of dating.
My intention to relocate dates to a space where decorum dictates a conservative attitude to touching (if you’re not sure, it probably means you can't) is a kind of didactic metaphor. Touching can be damaging. Touching can be violent.
Obviously people aren't artworks and I don't mean to devalue the suffering of assault victims. My motivation is fear. As a woman living under a patriarchy I have learned, with good reason, to be afraid of very specific things. Last month the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations reverberated across global media, initiating conversations about sexual harassment in mainstream media on a scale I hadn't seen before. The Art World responded with Not Surprised. Since Weinstein, other powerful predatory men have been called to account. We will have to wait to see if this is really the start of sustained change in patriarchal hegemony. In the meantime, Tinder crimes are on the rise, with violent and sex crimes being the most common. It is evidence of this patriarchy that heterosexual dating is assumed to necessitate a great deal of caution on the part of female, and that women need to consider the threat of violence in a very different way to men. This is sometimes innocuously referred to as 'common sense'.
But I also don't mean to scorn haptic pleasures or sever physical satisfactions from dating altogether. As if I could, I’m pretty sure such things are a compelling motivation to date in the first place. I do hope to distend the moment of haptic desire by prolonging its fulfilment. In this interim moment, we have the opportunity to savour the pleasure of an imagined somatic experience. You may not be able to touch a marble sculpture, but you can imagine its smooth coolness against your palm. Or you can conjure the feeling of running your fingertips lightly over the tiny pointed mountains of an impasto painting, or consider the sensations of pressing a delicately embroidered tapestry against the sensitive skin on your face. You can ponder how it might feel to glide your hand and its shadow across a projection screen, or how the reverberations of a speaker would flutter through your arms if you were to grasp it. There are as many varied imaginary haptic encounters with an artwork as there are diverse materials.
Such sensual chimeras abound in the territory of fantasy, and it is exactly this imaginative moment of pause that allows our immediate wants and urges to form into fully developed and vivid desires. The liminal state that I am describing is not limited to but is, especially in contemporary popular culture, intimately associated with erotic arousal.
Neuroscientists suggest that our imaginary experiences and our actual ones are far more closely connected that we previously assumed, which brings me to the Internet part in Internet dating, and goes someway to explain why all those 90’s cyber-futurists are not, and can never be, right about leaving the body and its nexus of desires behind in meat space; it comes with us inside our computers. Just look at the popularity of Internet porn, or the success of Tinder for that matter. The whole functionality of the touch screen asserts the primacy of kinaesthetic communication. So it would appear the interplay between our mind and body is a little murkier than it was supposed to be in the Enlightenment model. Galleries and Internet dating provide the appropriate contexts to explore such ideas in our embodied realities and in our imaginations.