“We are embodied beings, physically impinging on, related to, connected to, the world.”
Cranny-Francis, A. Technology, and touch: the biopolitics of emerging technologies (2013)
A sense of touch and connection is forever vital to art and to life. Touch has much to offer a world that has been up until very recently deprived of physical and material closeness. People up until the near present day have considered touch to be one of the “lower senses”, an “uncivilised” primitive way of making sense of the world as such it has been steadily marginalised as of lesser value in aesthetic and real terms (Classen, 2012., p.xvi). However, it is now finally getting the recognition it deserves as a crucial component of our experience of art (Ling, Reynolds, and Munro, 2021., p.15). The research in this journal will focus on the technique of rubbing and imprinting. It will discuss how, through exploring and commemorating the imbedded histories of places, spaces and objects, through a haptic and embodied experience, these techniques point towards a new way of drawing in the expanded field. It will elaborate on my interest in questioning how the viewer perceives spaces and objects, often celebrating the overlooked, discarded, the old, the worn down, the forgotten, and the obsolete, aiming to unearth the unique beauty of lived experience that we often take for granted. I will touch upon the importance of tactility, both in the past and in modernity, and how this practice’s medium specificity has allowed for exploring key themes relating to the haptic and its wider discourses in the 21st century. It will be illustrated how the work strives to question what is valuable and meaningful in our everyday lives. Moreover, it likewise questions what connects us and the hopes to push the boundaries of what we know and thinks we recognise about the world.
Before delving too deeply into the finer points of research, it is worth exploring rubbing, imprints and their relationship with touch more precisely. A rubbing is an impression on a surface, typically achieved by pressing graphite or ink onto paper placed over an object or larger area of space. It could be considered one of the very first forms of printmaking, the process dating back to China in the 2nd Century AD. It has been suggested that rubbings act like a “lexicon of the language of touch” and “connect physically” between the artist and the viewer through their indexical relationship with the objects reproduced (Pesenti et al., p.23). The process of rubbing, thought about in this way, is in effect the physical medium of touch made manifest through drawn gestural mark-making.
Max Ernst, When Light Cartwheels, Collage Collotypes after Frottage, (1926)
In addition, touch has always been considered one of the surest basis for knowledge and truth (Ling, Reynolds and Munro, 2021), “considered to have the best and final access to the world that sense reveals”. (Summers 1987., p.326). Artists who have embraced rubbing as part of their working methods have been quick to emphasize the point about the technique being thought of as a means of exploring the world. The title of Max Ernst’s famous collection of rubbings is called the Histoire Naturelle, which means Natural History, and has connotations of scientific and intellectual rigor. His works clearly have a strong interest in the science and knowledge of nature. His work is suggestive of the idea and precedent of rubbing acting like a kind of research into a haptic means of exploring the world. It is a method that cannot be easily replicated by any other means, providing a unique and personal physical relationship with the things in our environment and with the people who are part of it (Pesenti et al., p.21).
Small Press, Graphite Pencil Rubbing on Paper, 2m x 1m (approx), (2022)
My own research journey into touch has consisted, amongst other things, of taking rubbings of intaglio printing presses, developing a relationship with workshops, studios and creative spaces that unearth the hidden traces and residues of making in action. The intention for the work was to make a connection with this machine, mapping out the experience of discovering it, in a haptic embodied way. Through the act of rubbing its surfaces it was hoped that it would create a flattened out, opened out machine. The desire was to deconstruct it and unpack it, systematically getting inside it, getting to know every part of it down to its nuts and bolts. Deconstructing the press in this manner, with one of the oldest forms of print making methods, has in a sense turned the press itself into knowledge. The printing press has itself been pressed, almost like it’s printing itself. It is as if the press, splayed out on the walls or on the floor, is experiencing itself and acknowledging what it does by making these prints of itself.
More broadly, these rubbings are indicative of my attempt to discover the world, and engage with material objects, especially the print room and its various mechanisms and constructs. They are also about the passage of time and collective memory. They speak to the notion of a shared connection between the myriad of creative hands reaching back across time to produce a kind of shared collaborative drawing of a surface in a communal creative space. Every scrape and cut, every gesture of making is like a drawing. All the little grooves and marks on the press machinery discovered by repeated, slow and methodical rubbing speak of a sensitive physical record of human creative activity over time. The endurance and physical engagement with the work speaks of a strong emotional connection with the object through the haptic experience of touch. They reflect on the connection with the life of artists and me as an artist who engages in etching, the history of creative spaces and with lived experience. This idea is very much in keeping with Rachel Whiteread’s works, which talk about “shared experiences” and “communal traces” from the imprints of spaces and objects (Pesenti et al., 2010., p9; (Whiteread et al., 2018., p.17).
Rachel Whiteread, Ghost, (1990)
Do Ho Suh’s frottage projects also address the idea of a shared experience through drawing.
Do Ho Suh, Rubbing/Loving (detail), mixed media (2016)
The Print Room, Graphite Pencil Rubbing on Paper, 5 x 3m, (2022)
“The brain does not live inside the head, even though it is its formal habitat. It reaches out to the body, and with the body it reaches out to the world…Brain is hand and hand is brain.”
Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand, (2009)., p.31)
A rubbing is like a tactile drawing that can unearth the unique beauty of lived experience. The hand is not just a passive tool in this process, shaped by the intentions of the brain. Instead, the hand has its own “intentionality, knowledge and skills” (Juhani Pallasmaa, 2009., p.21). Thinking and making are autonomous processes, grounded in an awareness of an embodied experience. The hand and the hands’ use are an extension of oneself in which thinking, and hand use are indistinguishable. In the same way, when the hand forms a relationship with a tool, the implement becomes an extension of the hand and in essence the hand becomes the tool. The pencil becomes an inseparable extension of the hand and the mind (Ibid., p.50). This is very important when thinking about discovering the world through touch. When the pencil is used to make a gesture and this turns into a rubbing, the pencil becomes an extension of the hand. When the surface of the object to be rubbed is caressed, rather than rubbing it with my pencil my body and my hands are the pencil.
“it feels its way, it gropes, it caresses as much as it inscribes…as if a lidless eye had opened at the tip of the fingers"
Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind : the self-portrait and other ruins, (2007)
This idea of discovering the world through touch from the point of a pencil is informed by the innate haptic experience that is inherent within gestural lines themselves. Every hand drawn line is the “trace of a gesture” and expressive of the movements that generated them (Ingold, 2013). Drawing is a more holistic experience that refers to haptic physical memory. You follow through the artists hand the traces left by the artist. This expression of movement also goes hand in hand with the expression of time and gives drawings its unique power of ephemerality, the gesture being indicative of a tentative journey of decision mixed with chance. In my practice you can likewise see through a haptic engagement with surface, the gestures that are made through the movement of rubbing. Pressing down on the surface of the paper creates gestural marks in the form of cracks, tears and the production of sculptural depressions that are records of the process of observation and understanding through touch. You can see through the gesture the expressiveness of curiosity in what is rubbed more carefully and what is rubbed less so. The quote above, which refers to Derrida talking about the hand of the writer, is equally true of drawing, which also hopes to seek and understand, tentatively and sensitively exploring through the pencil point’s touch.
My work is at the interstices between drawing, sculpture and imprintment. The act of rubbing is akin to carving: the end point of the pencil slowly pushing the surface of the paper into an embossed shape of the thing impressed (this research owes much to the work of Anna Barriball’s rubbings. See Anna Barriball (2011) by Bradley). It is tracing a set of repetitive movements, trying to mark the movement of something structureless, discovering the traces of things through an embodied haptic experience. It is discovering the world through touch and imparting that experience to the viewer. The work is about a connection with a place or space and certain narratives felt for them. The tears, cracks, slippages, troughs and indentations of the paper’s surfaces all show the movement traced. It is another kind of autobiographical way of recording process, the gestures of haptic movement acting like a drawing that shows the experience via the deterioration of the surface through time. The work, which touches on the expanded field of drawing and printmaking, speaks of a unique sensory journey. They act as a record of moments in time, imparting an experience of the movement of the hand and the mark of the pencil. It choreographs my feelings about the print room and its antiquated machinery, each sculptural carving into their surfaces, edges and borders, a sign of tentative curiosity about surfaces and trace led by an investigative hand. All that intensity and care, choice of surface, the minutiae of gestural flourishes, show the joy of being in that space, a love and devotion to the processes of printmaking via the medium of drawn print.
Ink Cast of a Print Room Table Top (A Collaborative Drawing), Ink Cast, 188 x 105cm, (2022)
A continued affection for the print room has led to the research of other surfaces or objects that I might somehow make my own and further show this passion to the world. My research became completely fixated with the surface of a workshop table top designated for wiping and cleaning the plates. It felt like a found drawing, created by the attritional marks made in collaboration by every student who has used the print room for over fifty years or more. A rubbing being incapable of showing the sensitive embedded histories of the surface, I turned to the archaic technique of inking and making plaster casts of surfaces, usually reserved for the preservation of etching plates before premodern editioning. Plaster is a delicate material by nature, often regarded as transitory and impermanent. It is like a more physical version of a large rubbing, subtle yet substantial, delicate yet solid. The act of moving the ink around and over the surfaces and scored etched lines is gestural, almost like drawing with one’s hand. It is polishing the surface of the table, becoming haptic gestures of movement, almost again like rubbing.
The casts incorporate etching, rubbing and imprintment in a way that intersects with all the interests of my research. It was reminiscent of Rachel Whiteread’s plaster cast work and how “life from which it [the thing] was cast, reads legibly on the works outer skin, with its mottled imperfections and the occasional air bubble” and it too was like a kind of print of a drawing of the life of human activity. These casts illustrated an expanded field of drawing, and talked about the interrelatedness of drawing and sculpture, especially when thinking that all drawings are sculptural in a way. When you dig tiny valleys into the paper with your pencil that is like a tiny relief sculpture. This is especially true of rubbings in which the surface of the paper is much more indented.
“It is simply that boots impress no tracks on a paved surface. People, as they walk the streets, leave no trace of their movements, no record of their having passed by. It is as if they had never been. There is, then, the same detachment of people from the ground, that runs as I have shown like a leitmotif through the recent history of western societies. It appears that people, in their daily lives, merely skim the surface of a world that has been previously mapped out and constructed for them to occupy, rather than contributing through their movements to its ongoing formation.”
Ingold,Being Alive, on the topic of walking the pavement with shoes, (2011)., p.44).
The ink cast work speaks to the notion of the ‘meshwork’, which is discussed in Making (2013) by Tim Ingold. Ingold touches on the idea of the lines of a meshwork, being like a movement or growth (Ingold, 2013). He then goes on to discuss how drawing and lines can also be like an ongoing movement. The idea that lines can be haptic, inspired by ongoing movement, the organic embodied signature of lived existence, in this case that of creative endeavour is important for my work. It has its own living traces of the activities of human beings involved in printmaking. There is a kind of defiance, a transgressive quality to showing a meshwork of organic forming lines. It stands in stark contrast to the non-tactile, efficient, digitalized world of networks and straight lines that dominant our world. In Tim Ingold’s Lines, the author talks about the idea of taking drawing into the world itself, that the world can be seen in terms of the lines we make both physically and metaphorically (Barker, 2022). Life is meaningful when it is understood within the framework of connections in our lives. The lines of our life become entangled with each other both socially and in terms of the environments in which we live as well as an encounter with the external world. He is effectively reminding us that our life experience is an embodied one that is joined up with everything else we encounter. We are all connected to our environment and to each other and we should not forget our roots, what essentially makes us human. We are not isolated beings; the things around us connect us and that shared life experience has value. The disembodied, machine world, that modernity and the informational age indirectly envisages as our aesthetic future, should at least be considered within the contexts of our actual physical selves. In the history of touch, we used to live in tandem with our physical environments. It is important to remind people what is absent and lost by the lack of physical contact with our environment and each other. Touch is the medium of communication of every living thing on this earth, humans included (Classen, 2012., p.93). We are all inhabitants of this earth; it is one of the principal things that connects the lines of our lives.
Printing Press (The Bed of the Press), Etching, 48.5cm x 75cm, (2022)
I continued to think about deconstructing the printing presses in the print room. The idea of the printing press almost experiencing itself and acknowledging its function by the act of making prints of itself was still fascinating. In a similar fashion to the casts, a rubbing was incapable of providing what was required for the project. In this case the bed of the printing press itself was inked up. The intention was to capture the traces of wear and tear as well the corrosion marks leftover, from among other things damp prints over the years, revealing the rich history of the surface that lies dormant beneath it. The ink revealed the grooves of the metal, demonstrating the fine grain of the surface. It’s really a beautiful thing once you highlight it, which is an aim of the practice, to make people look again at the beauty of the world through the expressive power of touch.
The Mecca Stone, black from the myriad of hands who have caressed it to show their devotion.
The history of rubbing and touch and how these ties into my practice becomes very important when thinking about media, process and tactility. Rubbing is a primal urge that imparts endearment and a physical bond with things in our environment. It has historically been associated with acts of devotion and is a way of imparting love and value into things. A good example of this is the Mecha stone, which has been turned black from so many hands rubbing it in pilgrimage over the centuries. Holy relics, such as a portion of the cross, also continue to be rubbed in order to show love and care for a Christian God. Relics were seen to have fantastical powers of healing, of holiness, “they were the most potent objects possessed by the church”, providing an “essential material link” to the divine (Classen, 2012., p.36). This mystical “potential of the sense of touch” is an indicator of how relics in the past could be seen to impart value through obsessively caressing them. The act of touch could provide a supernatural force that had the power to grant one good health, good fortune, and a good end – all through the medium of touch” (Ibid., p.40). On a more terrestrial level I believe this shows that people want to have a tangible piece of something special in their lives. People want to give meaning to themselves and to others. There seems to be an innate human desire to collect relics and artifacts, to turn them into objects of love and devotion, to categorize the world and make sense of it into different hierarchies. Understanding is a way of loving the world and making sense of who we are and what we believe in; becoming masters of our own universe. This is something I also feel when I am excavating surfaces with the pencil or taking inky imprints of life’s textured skin. I am taking the beauty of the world and my own lived experience, and like the valuable relics of our past and present, caressing and touching the subjects that I think are important in life, I am giving value to my own experiences; thus, by presenting them in this way, I am hoping to create a connection with others, the world and my life.
The Silver Tomb of St. John of Nepomuk, Prague
In more recent times, the idea of polishing has been seen as a way of imparting value. Polishing silver, brass or even the varnishing of wood is seen as imparting worth into objects. In a similar way to an act of devotion, the laborious process of rubbing gives meaning and value to the thing rubbed. By putting all this attention and meaning into the objects I rub I am in essence giving them an animus of their own. The inherent shininess of graphite that is often used for my rubbings also alludes to the idea of value. Shiny objects, up until the very recent past, have been highly sought-after luxury items. Even the maintenance of precious shiny things such as rare metals, for example silver and gold, requires expensive labour to polish them to a shine. When these metals were used in ecclesiastical settings as art, they created spectacular awe in the viewer that bordered on a sublime experience. I found the example of the maintenance of the Tomb of St. John of Nepomuk about the labour involved therein very interesting:
“cleaning and polishing, rubbing and coaxing the sharpest gleam from metal was part of the cares of the Treasury Chapel. It was labour that redeemed those surfaces. The shine itself is the surplus of labour, energy made visible, pure profit expended”.
Diepeveen & Laar, Shiny Things, (2021)., p.29).
That historical connection is important in the making of my work. I redeem surfaces in the eyes of my audience, I impart labour through my obsessive attention to them. The shininess helps make visible this “energy” from the act of rubbing, and much like polishing, this helps give them value, life and meaning. It creates an idea of worth that is steeped in the historical precedent of acts of manual touching that produce shine. Using a graphite pencil to rub the surfaces in my work gives a graphite sheen that imparts a certain preciousness and attractiveness. There is however irony in creating value in an object with one of the cheapest and most omnipresent drawing tools at our disposal. There’s a dichotomy between this polishing of the paper’s surface and engendering value, the historic use of materials, and the ubiquity of the materials now. I believe that this contradiction is “clarified with cultural and contextual knowledge” (Ibid., p.36), the choice of subject and its rationale is what helps to differentiate superficial shininess from the art object. Ordinary materials are used to create a flourish to the surfaces that are taken for granted and in doing so it gives the audience experience of a different way of looking at the world but in very identifiable terms materially. It is this aspect of shininess that makes it all the more ironic that I use graphite and shininess in my work to emphasize texture and the traces of human presence. In a sense this contradiction is railing against the world of monotony of massed produced shiny surfaces. Shininess stands for purity, and I am inverting that meaning, using shininess to highlight the impurities and marks of decay of the lived world. That irony is compounded by inverting the original function of polishing to create cleanliness. My rubbing is adding graphite, a dirty mineral from the earth to a semi-gloss white paper surface. I am wiping surfaces with ink and adding pigment into weathered shiny plastic.
My work also seeks to reject the “technological and consumerist sublimes” that make use of shininess to entice and seduce us (Ibid., p.140). Touch here becomes a transgressive act, railing against the smooth, efficient supposedly utopian shininess of the modern and digital age. The repressive force of shininess (Ibid., p.106), that promises us new and shinier technology without “encumbrances and history”, is subsumed by its own weapons. This consumerist oversimplification, to the denigration of touch, is rejected in favour of a world that is not simple, with all the enriching chaotic variety that entails.
In conclusion, it has been shown that rubbing and imprinting techniques can be used to provide a new haptic and embodied way of discovering the world through an expanded field of drawing. I have covered the rich historic sweep of touch and rubbings from its primordial roots to its more modern cultural history and how that has influenced my research. I have touched on how I am interested in questioning how the viewer perceives the world, asking what is meaningful in our day-to-day lives and what things connect us. By taking surfaces and architectural space that people might not consider important, I have shown how I am giving value to that object or space and pointing out the beauty of the world that is often centred in the old, every day, the mundane or the obsolete. My aim is not to romanticize touch at the expensive of the digital and modern conveniences and habits that most of us see as an inseparable part of our lives, it is more a rejection of the prejudicial bias that has allowed touch to wrongly be looked down on as a lesser sense for so much of history. It is also a rejection of permitted modes of touching, the outlet of which is only shiny, consumerist products. By making rubbings of things that many would consider barely worthy of notice, I am gaining a kind of freedom to relate to the world, and even property, differently than what society expects or demands. Touch has become transgressive, a political act that rails against some of the excesses of modernity and its blind eye to tactility and haptic modes of expression. This feels especially important when touch is being denigrated like never before. Touch in a sense has become scarcer, and more of a rarity. The pandemic and the 21st Century, with its efficient, relentless drive for more uniformity has made touch and a sense of connection all the more important for art and life.