Ann Hamilton’s Chief Expert Awarding Ceremony and Her Lecture of “The Practice of Tactile Attentions”

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On December 16, 2019, the famous American artist Ann Hamilton was appointed as the Chief Expert of CAFA Visual Art Innovation Institute, and CAFA President Fan Di’an issued the Letter of Appointment

CAFA’ s president, Fan Dian, awarded Ms. Ann Hamilton the Letter of Appointment to be the Chief Expert of Visual Art Innovation Institute

In the evening, artist Ann Hamilton made a speech entitled "The Practice of Tactile Attentions" at the CAFA Art Museum. The lecture was jointly sponsored by CAFA Visual Art Innovation Institute and CAFA School of Design, co-organized by CAFA Art Museum, and undertaken by the Academic Department of CAFA Student’s Union and the School of Design.

The guests that attended the lecture include: Zhang Zikang, Director of CAFA Art Museum, Song Xiewei, Dean of CAFA School of Design, Zhu Pei, Dean of CAFA School of Architecture, Professor Fei Jun of CAFA School of Design and a few foreign artists. The lecture was hosted by Professor Chen Xiaowen, the head of the RobotArt Laboratory of CAFA Visual Art Innovation Institute.

Prof. Chen Xiaowen and Ann Hamilton
Prof. Chen Xiaowen hosted the lecture. He is the head of the RobotArt Lab of CAFA Visual Art Innovation Institute (he is also “The Thousand Talents Plan” expert, lifetime professorship of Alfred University School of Art and Design, and the guest professor of CAFA School of Design)
Keynote Speaker: Ann Hamilton, the Chief Expert of CAFA Visual Art Innovation Institute
The audience of the lecture

Record of the speech

First of all, I would like to thank my old friend of many decades, Prof. Chen Xiaowen. I am very glad to see so many people in the audience. Students at the back please come to the front. There is still space here. For the past few days, CAFA’s teachers and students have really spoiled me. I have been well taken care of. Our campus and the smiles on the students are beautiful. I feel extremely happy.

As  Prof. Chen Xiaowen invited me here to talk about art and technology, I would like to say that the materials I use are relatively simple. For example, paper and pencil are the earliest equipment of external expansion devices of our human body. Human beings have two hands and ten fingers. We can tell  the difference of left and  right, front and back. We cannot be independent from our body when we are thinking. For example, the pencil is the earliest external expansion device of the human body, and it has affected our mindset.

Let me explain the form of my artworks:

What does art and technology really mean in our age? Of course, the scientific methods we now have can reach far beyond what our hands and sound can touch. Then what does it really mean to create by hand?

Actually, the English word “technology” that we use is composed of two Greek roots, one being tech, which means art, skill, craftsmanship, behavior, etc., and the other being logy, which means the way an idea is expressed, the way of expression and speaking. In fact, the Latin root of the word “Art” means Artistry, “a skill”. Therefore, we have a meaningful and beautiful way of expression. The word “artwork” is also composed of two roots, one being Art, a skill, while the other being Istry, to do it. To put them together describes the material item conveying cultural meanings that is made by human.

Back to the root of Art, Ar originally means to put together, pile together, or to make something. I don’t know Chinese. But in English, a lot of words come from the roots of ancient Greece and Latin. Actually, All is about connecting the things that are related. The work that we artists do, to some extent, is also to connect different things.

The experience we need to learn and the teaching comes from the way of how we create art and technology and from what we want to express. To connect the solid and the flexible together and to attach the tough to the soft is just like our arms. We need tough bones and strong muscles to do a throwing action. Without flexible wrists, our ten fingers cannot dance. What kind of experience would it be when we connect art and technology, the near and the far? How important is the sense of touch to us? In fact, touch has played a very important role in the development of the nerves and emotions during a person’s infancy. But now, we have entered an era of non-materialized and digital culture. What changes will all of this bring?

Atmosphere is everything. In fact, when the current art and design keep placing emphasis on the expression of sight and hearing, what are the connections between our touch and all other senses, between our body and our materialized world? How will they affect our mindset? How can all these tactility help us better connect with the extension of the present technology? These are the questions I am thinking over and it affects my own materialized body.

Blade separates paper and Thread connects everything. Thread and blade are the first two technical means of human beings. How do we choose which technique or tool to use? How do we realize when is the time that it becomes necessary to make a hole with scissors to keep our culture fluid rather than immutable? In fact, I've got to know the world through using sewing technology. My needles flies up and down the fabric, penetrating the fabric to explore into the unknown world and climbing over back to the seen known world together with the unknown world and unknown existence.

I believe it is the work of an artist. It is like each artist holds a needle in his hand, a needle that crosses the unspeakable and unseeable world and brings something back to us, something that responds to the issues we are facing with. In fact, sewing needles and threads can link things that are at hand with those in the far distance, or connect objects that are completely separate into one piece.  A boat can also be understood as a thread. This boat connects a local community in Laos through rituals. It is like  that this boat links the upstream and downstream of a river.

This is a boat we made in Laos.People could meditate on it and hear variouslocal voices. We were blessed.We tightened the threads, and we performed “the walking meditation” on the last night there.The practice of meditation had been banned at the local place for decades. The boat of singing and the boat of silence arein one. The songs they sang and playedwere also songs that had been banned for many years by the present government.

The attention is actually very important when we are walking. My one and only creating way is to walk into a space inside my body! The process of walking is a process of concentrating on the ideas that enter my mind. The power of attention on one person is also a skill I need to learn.

To share with you one of my works in detail, this is an installation work I make at the ordnance factory on Park Avenue in New York. How does one experience in such a huge space the dynamics between the internal and the external space? This work is called “The Event of A Thread". It is under the influence of an artist of the Bauhaus era. He said, "Every piece of fabric is the result of two threads tangling with each other." This is the spirit that goes through my entire work. In the space, how can two persons, not two threads, cross over each other?  I want to make a work that “creates a condition where real events may take place in it.” This is the outlook of the ordnance factory. It was built by the local militia organization to protect the native community, but actually it was out of a cultural fear.

I was wondering how to open up such a space and create a sense of intimacy in it. If there is a way to bring intimacy, it is ritual.So I train some pigeons. I think in a city big as New York, it is an experience of intimacy if two people sit side by side and one reads to the other. Moreover, we want these pigeons to be the messengers of human communication. So we train these pigeons, that,upon hearing the sound of ringing bells, they would take off. Then we mail the pigeons to New York. Those pigeonshave been the first being mailed by us. This would bethe new home for those pigeons. If birds are theweightless creatures, we are theones that have weight but always want to lose it. I set up 42 swings in this space with the swing ropesas long as 81 feet, long enough to swing your body. When you start swinging, your heart expands.

The ordnance factory has been turned into an indoor park during the exhibition. Eachvisiteris given a newspaper when they enter in. In fact, these swings are very interesting. Firstly, these swings are connected with the big white cloth in the middle. The swings are correspondent in pairs through the ropes. The weights of the visitorsthat play on the corresponding swings would be opposed and balanced. You are with the person on the corresponding swing, who is on the other side of the white cloth and far away from you.You wouldn’t be able to hear the voice or cry from the other side, but both sides work together to affect the white cloth in the middle. The white cloth moves and the wind is generated. The wind connectsboth of you together. In fact, the big white cloth is like a big doll or a big puppet.

I know that white cloth has different meanings in different cultures, and some conveys the meaning of a division role. I just imagine that many people would especially like to lie under my white cloth and to feel its movement and the wind itgenerates. Sometimes people lie down there for hours. The white cloth moves constantly as if it is breathing continuously. It is a feeling somewhat of communism for me. To an extent, it also dissolves the anxious and impatient mentality of New Yorkers. This is a very generous place where everyone can find a place to sit, lie down, and to share the entire space together.

These are some mechanical connections behind me, the PPT. All is visible to the audience and is displayed transparently all the time. All the sounds that we hear, the accordion and bells, are played by pulling the threads.

I noticed an excellent student work of our sculpture department today. I must ask him to help me next time when I make a work. There are two fixed existence at both ends of the  space, and each has two readers that  also control the pigeons. They would read aloud the text on a very, very long scroll to the pigeons for 8-10 hours every day.

I guess these pigeons enjoy very much the reading. In fact, I feel the pigeons  enjoy  their free existence in the space. If someone reads the text to them, they must be very happy. The entire ordnance factory has been transformed into a place of passing on love over years. For example, there is a special space for women's shelters, and some homeless women will be accommodated here.

I think the process of reading is also a process of sewing. Every visitor may get a paper bag. There is a speaker in the paper bag to play what the readers read. There are 42 speakers in total. They connect the space together. It’s different from iPhone. You would carry a small paper bag and hear a voice not far from your heartreadingto you. What does this mean? It means that voice can be transmitted.

Actually, the reading content is also very interesting. Although new reading materials are designed out each day, there is a core vocabulary in middle of each line. Like the construction of a sentence, each sentence is built around this core vocabulary. Yetthe readers are free to choose a few words in one sentenceto read. This also has a sense of live improvisation. The first book I have found for reading is a book by Aristotle. Why doI choose this book? The book mentions “the haptics are the same and common to all species.” We also read about the commonalities and differences between human and animals in emotional expressions, and that is the work of Charles Darwin.

We read a lot of other things. The last book was The Gift by the American writer Lews Hyde. It demonstrates the difference between the commodity-trading-oriented social system and a gift-exchanging-oriented one. In fact, when people no longer exchange gifts, the culture that has come with it also dies.

At one end is a reader,at the other is the writer. They are invited to write for two hours a day. They would write letters to this space. For example, they would write “dear light, dear wind, or dear voice.” They write a letter for this space. The other side adopts a “door opening policy” to allow sound and light from the street to come into the ordnance factory. That is the first time they have opened the door to the outside world. It is the first time in the building''s history that natural light from  the outside hasshined in. The writers have their backs to the space behind them and couldn’t see it. When they write, they could only see the spacebehind through the reflection of a mirror. It means that what they write has a reflective and introspectivenature, and every day is a cycle.

The reason why I talk so much about thisartwork is because I have built a "world" in it. Many "relationships" in this world will be the inspirationsof my future creation. What will happen to these pigeons in the end? Let them fly out of the windows on the roof.They have never learned how to fly around the white cloth.

The music you hear now is a work made specifically for the pigeons by an American composer. We make such a record every day, and then we would break the record. This is also a new way of thread connection. By reading, writing and swinging, the artwork forms a lot of threads that connect the world. And of course, it is also through the newspapers we read. They come from the ordnance archives.

Does anyone read a physical newspaper nowadays? If yes, please raise your hand.
I still read physical newspapers every day. I like the touch of it. I don''t know what exactly is it that I touch, yet I consider it a different form of attention.

Because of the time, I have to talk about other projects shortly:
This project is another one I made a few years later. What I discuss is how people can be alone while being together? Later, I wrote some articles about this piece. It is on a pier of Philadelphia, USA, and the fabric waves with the wind on the sea. Besides the wind, there are some ropes that the visitors could pull down to trigger the moving of the fabric.

When we discuss about human’s work, human and the atmosphere of  grand nature, one does experience a sense of powerlessness in front of the nature. Studies show that when people are on a swing, to grab the rope and start swinging is an instinctive response. You don''t need to learn. But to “let go” is not instinctive. It is anti-instinctive. When we were in mother''s womb, everyone''s hands  clasped tightly. What we need to learn is to let go. It is like when a child starts to learn how to tie shoelaces, it is not his hands are weak or he doesn’t know how. The key is to let go of the shoelace at certain point of time, just like to pull the rope connected to the cloth and to pull down that to bells and clocks. You need to let go so as to make a sound. When we explore the relationship between this kind of human efforts and the complex environment that we are in, we need to find our own way of expression.

In this work, some people face these cloth with their backs. What they do is to disassemble some fabrics with hand, such as tearing the thread apart and making holes one after another on the cloth. On the one side people break down these fabrics, and on the other  there is a poem by the American poet Susan about the local river in Philadelphia. “It flows down from the hillside, it is a freshwater river, it rushes into the salty seawater ... ” This is why there is a pier at the place. The entire poem is like a complete sentence without being cut off. The sentence is constant like the river. This is a dual-screen video. The poem verse is displayed on the dual-screen, but the words on the left appear first and the ones on the right appear later. It is exactly opposite of the actual linear time.

We could only read the poem through fragments. In one way it is by intercepting the existing clothes, costumes, and cloth. But in another corner of the room where people couldn’t see, some people are  spinning.
I begin to think that the image of a weaving woman is a prototype of the relationship in this world. We have the current technology. And what language shall we weave out of it? In fact, weaving clothes is a kind of behavior that creates warmth. Clothes keep us warm.

What is the relationship between individual and collective actions? Or all we can do is  to watch this action taking place.

We say that binary seems to be the basis of computers. In fact, the real weaving and knitting also exist between do and not, 0 and 1. And this is the origin of the world.

This is also the core concept of the installation that I was invited to make in a theater in Wuzhen, China. We witness the theater ,for the first time, opened its curtains and let the natural light shine in. There are huge spindles in the sky, and the threads of it are connected to every seat. We make a piece of cloth each day during the exhibition. This piece of cloth is made of the thread coming from  each seat of the theater.

What does far and near mean? What does our feelings and our emotions mean? Touch is a kind of stretching forward, and stretching forward is a major problem for the contemporary political issues. Touch makes our skill of perception even more vivid, and it allows us to rediscover how the forms of our motions and perception construct our subjective and objective world. Touch as a stretching forward reminds me once I waited in line for coffee at the airport on the way to China. There were two kids nearby. They did not know each other, and they were very little and just learned to stretch out their hands. The two kids looked at each other, desperately trying to reach out to each other, while the mothers held their kids to prevent them from reaching. This  created a confrontation. And it makes me think that we humans seem to always have the subconsciousness to touch the unknown. It’s like a heartbeat reflection that we can''t help but desiring to touch the unknown things.

Tactile or touch is a power of perception. Actually touch is also a political event, because to touch means being touched. In fact, touch is also a way of listening. Let’s consider the works of Artist Stelarc.

I''m very interested in English roots. “Technology” and “touch” seem to have very similar Greek roots. Both have the meaning of “listening”.

The understanding of “touch” triggers me to create another set of works. In this set of works, I use a layer of membrane. It is a kind of membrane that I have developed in cooperation with Bayer Material Lab and it is also a work that has been exhibited in the Andy Warhol Museum. Membrane is a kind of very interesting substance, and the touch of it is also interesting. I was thinking of making some photographic works through the membrane.

I didn’t really mean to make a group of photographic works at the beginning. I was only cooperating with some scientists, asking them to take some tools and shoot videos behind me. But I found to shoot behind a membrane would change the basic form of photography. This is very interesting. When the photographedstand behind a membrane, he can''t see me at all, but he can hear me speaking. Normally, the photographer and the photographed shall see each other when he gives directions. But now, I could see him, he couldn''t see me, but he could hear me. So the photographed develops a different self-consciousness.

Photography is actually a reciprocal relationship. The person being photographed gives his self-image to the photographer, and the photographer gives the photo to the  photographed in return. In a way it’s as if we touch a stranger.

Now I have taken thousands of photos, and thousands of people have become my subjects. Everyone looks so beautiful. Maybe there has been the exchange of trust  in between. I''m thinking of such a thin layer of membrane. This rubbery membrane seems to make mutual trust possible. We can see the meaning of listening in it.

We felt that we should give feedback instead of just shooting photos. Later, we decided to send a photo to everyone who had participated in the shooting. However, the photo is not of the person himself, but of another one. This is also a way to expand the human relationship. Then, we went to a local medical institution in Austin to do the project of shooting. In the end, we completed a one-thousand-page book with everyone in it. The book seems like a yellow page, each person with his photo inside of it.

In fact, the shape and thickness of book may feel quite like a big yellow page, as if there were many people’s contact information. But in the end there are only images printed out, no text at all. We print about 10,000 copies for visitors to get for free. This is part of the books we sent for free at the time. And I should give a box to CAFA!

It is like we get very fascinated by looking at each other. As this work is made in a medical institution, it makes me consider what kind of experience we would have when we touch another person’s hands.

The book that has brought much influence to me is called The Body in Pain. The author said that no matter how we use the language to describe the pain we feel in the body, the listener cannot really feel the pain I feel. Of course it simplifies the book by saying so. But let’s summarize it this way. The role of culture is to bridge the gap of difficulty in understanding one another.

Then I start to think about how we can feel the weight of another person''s clothes or jacket by touching. The protection that a scarf brings to us, the warmth of a pair of socks ... Can these be expressed through image? This started my cooperation with early 3D scanning practitioners. We brought scanners of early days to different places to do the scanning. For example, we went to someone''s home to do 3D scanning.

Later, we selected 70 scanned works to make a new exhibition "When An Art Objects Wants to Touch Your Hand”. An object cannot be detached from its own materiality. In the exhibition, all my works are printed into the size of an open full-page newspaper with a seam in the middle, like a book that is opened from the middle. 
All the people that come late can take one copy by yourselves. (There came the sound of whistling music from the audience.) Now is the time to whistle. Whistling can actually connect some farmers. Can you hear the whistling? In this showroom there are three machines playing the records. Visitors can hear it with the cell phone. This sound guides us through these images and brings connections. We can listen to it as we want. The images that I  share with you  are some ready-made products I find in others’ homes and in the university where I teach. Imagine that each image is in the size of an unfolded newspaper. These very small objects are enlarged to the size of the human body. It actually shows us the power these objects possess and how we can think through them. Have you felt the sound entering your body? It is like something is strummed. It is difficult, of course, to describe such a feeling.

I will pack these images and send a box to CAFA. I have printed 3,000 copies of each image, and I promise to send CAFA a batch.

I cooperate with the local post office of the United States at the exhibition site. When visitors come in, they not only hear the sound of whistling, but are able to take away images. And they could send images to anyone right at the site, whether to a stranger or any acquaintance. During the process they would think and miss someone. All is integrated in one space. During the two and a half month of the exhibition, we sent about 5000 images in total.

Thanks again for the coordinators that helped me play the whistling. Thank you for your cooperation. We witness these images being sent to different places. People will also take pictures to tell me where they put these images after receiving them.

The images have come from some private spaces and are displayed in a public space, and then return to intimate one-to-one communication through mail and photography.

Let''s take a look at this table. This is where we fold these photos in halves every day. Of course, the printed photos come in very, very flat pieces of paper, but this kind of flat paper cannot relate to us. We have to use our hands to fold them.

In the lower right corner of the photo is my mother and her friends. I get my white hair from my mother.

To share the last work, this is what I made last fall. It is also about a fleeting touch on life and the world. The work is made with the oldest material of art creation, a collage of marble. And it is placed in the underground subway station of the World Trade Center in New York. All these letters are actually above the surface, but their color is the same as the background. These words are like fabric woven together in a horizontal way. There are some words listed vertically. These are sentences from the Declaration of Independence of America in 1776.

The sentences selected are that American citizens consider to be truth. The vertical is the American Declaration of Independence and the horizontal is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When you walk in the subway station or pass by on a subway , the words would jump out and grab your attention.

These words are now engraved in the World Trade Center Memorial. We hope these words can truly become the truth!

"... all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed with equal rights. All have the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the possession of the rights and the possession of security. This is the public right of mankind …"

I hope these words will make every individual becomeWE. Thank you for listening.

 Excerpts from the Q&A session

Audience: Your work has a working process of high repetition and long time. Many works might take thousands of pictures and continuous writing or continuous reading.  How to understand this repetitive actions itself?

Ann Hamilton: Maybe it's because I don't know when to stop. Besides, I don’t  regard these actionsas a kind of performance art. I believe there is a non-stoppable and coherent flow of time in my works. In fact, man can never step into the same river a second time. The so-called "repetition" is not the real repetition. Each time it is different. My works discuss the relationship between one member of the collective and the whole collective. Each motion makes the entire space and time a living one  and brings a different space flow andtime flow.

Audience: Many of Ann's works interact with the space. If you are to make a work in the Academic Lecture Hall of CAFA Art Museum, how would you do it?

Ann Hamilton: I would like to make a work that every audiencecan utter their voice. The work I did, not for many times though, is that it is very interesting if all the audiences read aloud a text together during the lecture. The“interesting”that I mean may not sound very interesting, but it is interesting if participating into the reading. Next time we could try it.

Audience: Theorists such as Brown and Latour have some very comprehensive theories, such as New Theoretical Trends, speculative epoch theory, and object-oriented ontology, etc. Do these cutting-edge theories of image regression affectyour creation system? And an extra question,is there any oriental philosophy or mentality that has influenced your art making process?

Ann Hamilton:I read a lot. Even though I did not mention many philosophical theories in my lectures, I read them. These theories can bemy different perspective of looking at the world and help me discover some treasures and view pointsthat I did not know before.They indeed influence me.

Regarding the Oriental philosophy, I am currently reading a Japanese Haiku. I really like this way of being short, intensive and intimate. I have started to make smaller and more intimate works. John Cage once said, “You can't analyze and produce at the same time.”

Audience: You have a background of textile and sculpture. How do these two backgrounds shape your creating and thinking style?

Ann Hamilton: Both are indeed the foundation of the mindset of my creating. First of all, textile, for me, is a mindset that connects different things. Especially we are covered with some kind of fabric all through the life. This is a common status shared by all.

Audience: At the beginning, you mentioned the body and its extension and expansion. You also mentioned a key word “touch”. In your early works that people are very familiar with, we sense the“touch”that is quite obvious between the physical body and the material. However, there is some transformation of the “touch”in yourlater photographic works. The works start to take some special material as the medium and change the methodshow the medium is used. It is a way of interpretation and the“touch” thereofbecomes completely different and indirect. Could you please explain in detail how you understand“touch”? And is there any difference between your previous touch and current touch?

Ann Hamilton:To a certain extent, all of my works are connected together. You canconsider my lifetime's works as one big work. Of course, some of the early works show very practical physical contact. It is true. But about my following photographic works, I would like to say that we are living in an era or the world full of images and videos. What I am interested in is the materiality of the image itself.What is image made of? It is by the light contacting the surface of a medium. Through the contact of light, something invisible becomes visible.

Besides, I am also very happy to see these printed images flowing between different people. The image itself obtains a sense of motion and is put in different sizes in one space. That is my answer.Maybe it doesn’t  answer your question.

Group photo of the guests



Chief Editor / Dong Huiping
Text / Luan Ning
Live pictures / Zhang Yueyan
Layout Editor / Zhang Yueyan, Miaom
Image andShorthand /RobotArt Laboratory of CAFA Visual Art Innovation  Institute