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Simulating touch

written by Anna Harris

Lucky Rietveld Academie students (and Amsterdam public). What an opportunity recently to have had some of the most inspiring thinkers and practitioners of touch recently to think through with them the possibilities of the haptic during their event Hold me Now. Including chatrooms, film screenings and a four day conference festival guest curated by Karen Archey, Mark Paterson, Rizvana Bradley and Jack Halberstam, and presenters including Erin Manning and Karen Barad, the line up was more than impressive.

Fake skin for suturing, Maastricht Skills Lab

I was fortunate to be involved in Mark Paterson’s “Haptics, Creativity, and Knowledge Between Bodies” session on March 22nd, which he summarised as follows:

How is haptics involved in knowledge creation? What knowledge is produced in reconceptualizing touch through other means? There is a humanist privileging of a certain kind of knowledge gained directly through the hands in craftsmanship, painting, and skillful training. Some see this as partially translating into digital craftsmanship and computer-aided design. The engineering of force feedback (haptics) involves hands, muscles, and skin in active engagement with digital sensation for the purposes of the design of objects and textiles, then, but also for more wholly embodied entertainment and performance experiences. Videogame controllers buzz in our hands, while haptic bodysuits stimulate hands and other body parts for fun or art. Scientific processes of sensory mapping, the engineering of the interface, electrical and electronic entertainments, and the use of the body in performance each in their own way involve a creative approach to knowledge production: creative arrangements of the senses, translations between modalities, a realm of experimentation in the service of knowing more about bodies, senses, and space – what Michel Serres describes as a ‘mingling’ of the senses. Increasingly, social science understands the importance of such sensory knowledge production, and involves its own creative methodologies and approaches when it comes to bodies and their boundaries. The day will consist of talks and demonstrations around touch, haptics, and performance.

I got to meet the fabulous and inspiring Kate Elswit, Carey Jewitt, David Parisi and Stahl Stenslie, all who had previously sat on my bookshelf and on class readers, yet were now here dancing, gesturing, eating delicious vegan food, breathing, talking together.

My talk was titled “Simulating Touch: Learning Tactility through Analogy in Medical Education”:

Doctors, like artists, work intensely to train their sensory perception. This training is being reconfigured through the introduction of digital technologies. For centuries, medical students have learned sensory skills important to diagnosis through the apprenticeship model, following mentors, and examining patients in hospital wards, clinics, and private homes. For reasons of standardization, efficiency, safety, shorter hospital stays, and fewer home visits, more and more doctors learn clinical skills outside the hospital, often in simulated settings including digital environments. Dissection, once a formaldehyde-infused rite of passage for medical students, is increasingly being performed on dazzling virtual screens, where cuts with the scalpel are made with a swipe of a finger. Not all forms of simulation are new and digital, however. Models, made of leather and other fabrics, have long been used to teach techniques such as delivering a baby, and still have a place in medical schools today. In this presentation I will invite the audience to take part in some hands-on teaching exercises used in medical schools to train the sense of touch, using curious objects such as oranges, knitted sweaters, socks, and water-filled gloves, as well as some digital applications. In the process I will trace some of the material assemblages used in training tactility in medicine today, and how clinical touch gets reconsidered in these various analogous forms. The underlying paper draws on the findings of my ongoing fieldwork in a clinical skills laboratory in Maastricht, a study that is part of a broader ERC-funded ethnographic and historical project on the role of digital and other technologies in training doctors’ sensory skills of diagnosis.