Is it possible to create affectionate touch without skin-to-skin contact and without the incentive coming from the closely related? Can a tactile art installation take away prejudice? This are the main research questions for 'Future Affair', a cross-disciplinary project that provokes thought about the importance of interpersonal touch, encouraging audiences to explore trust, connection, and emotion.
"Future Affair" uses tactile art and haptic technology to encourage communication that sidesteps cultural norms and taboos surrounding touch. This first prototype is a caressing machine connected to a ceramic sculpture. While one person is caressing the surface of the artwork (which is responsive with vibrations, lights and slightly heated), the other is feeling the gentle touch delivered by a silicone finger.
Without the visitors knowing, they are divided by entering a cabin into 'active' and 'passive 'visitors. The passive visitors will be touched by robotic elements in the installation, and the way they are touched is dependent on how the active users engage with the artwork.
Some touch of the active users will translate into friendly or pleasant strokes, but others might result in a (slightly) unpleasant feeling. It is also possible that a repetition that started nice, becomes irritating over time.
In the second prototype (Future Affair v.2), the two visitors don't see each other. This should result in the active visitor being unprejudiced and will lead him back to his own, characteristic bias towards other people.
Society is highly segregated into camps, tribes if you will. In order to re-establish proper communication we might have to go to the basics first: touch. Touch is needed by everyone, but we are reluctant to give or receive it from people belonging to 'alien' groups because of our prejudices. Yet, for everybody, pleasant touch is pleasant, and also irritation itself feels the same for everybody. We have common ground and this installation makes us rethink our unnecessary hostile behaviour.
The basis of love might even be linked to touch, as our motherly touch and 'making love', or even a handshake or pat on the back are experienced as taking away our loneliness or anxiety.
Yet most of our technological developments have to lead to screens and virtual reality. We touch screens more than we touch each other. But to find out if something is 'real' we feel an urge to touch. Technology seems to separate us more and to push us into segregated bubbles rather than to bring us closer. On top of that is the COVID pandemic, making touch with unknown people impossible. We need to find alternatives right now, as we are, sometimes without knowing, craving affectionate touch.