Just Touch. Research proposal for the Imaginary Property project at Jan van Eyck Academie
by Lilia Pérez Romero

Undoubtedly, the screen is one of the dominant interfaces for image viewing nowadays if not the most dominant. We have come to be so used to its presence, that we hardly notice how its shape imposes its constraints on us. In a Foucaultian manner, we could say that it dictates a viewing regime, a paradigm. According to Lev Manovichthis viewing regime would be that of immobility, for no matter if a screen is classical or static, as in painting; dynamic, as in cinema; or real-time and interactive, as in computers; it’s still “a flat, rectangular surface, existing in the space of our body, and acting as a window into another space” . As viewers looking through a window, while watching a screen we are required to stay relatively motionless, our eyes focused on what the window can reveal. Immobility is however, not a concept positively associated with today’s way of life. On the contrary, designers and developers are striving to create and sell ever more movable and portable gear, for movement is associated with freedom. This might be one of the reasons why, perhaps trying to break the immobility barrier of the screen, applications such as Apple’s iPhoneand iPod and Microsoft’s touch-screen table, Surface, as well as their recently launched operating system Windows 7, are all oriented to work not only with touch, but also with multitouch, a form of interaction which allows the incorporation of hand gestures in the manipulation of an on screen graphic interface. This means that the user no longer needs his hand to be represented by a pointer on the screen, furthermore, he doesn’t need to be represented on the screen at all, at least not through an avatar, he can use his own hands, both of them at once, and all of his fingers to touch and affect the images, resize them, move them around. Just like in the famous scenes of the movie Minority Report in which John Anderton (Tom Cruise) throws and catches videos of crimes not yet committed projected over glass. Every finger causes a reaction, as if confirming the old metaphor of the digital images as wet paint. However, despite the stunning illusion of liberty of movement created by these devices, and the imaginary around them, the incorporation of multitouch into a graphic user interface (GUI) equals mobility only to a very restricted extent, only mobility of the hands: the flat rectangular surface still dictates the perimeter of the fantasy. Will this technology, nevertheless, become the new interactivity paradigm? If so, what will derive from it? Which are the implications of touching images? Does the multitouch screen represent the prevalence of simulation over representation? Which are the discursive formations informing the practices related to the touch screen? What kind of subjectivities will this technology produce? How will the experience of constantly touching images, shape our perception? Will it affect us in a different way than previous interfaces at all? What is the potential of the multiuser capability of multitouch?

This research project aims to analyze multitouch interaction with graphic interfaces from three different viewpoints:

1. Media archaeology, and aesthetics: The multitouch screen will be analyzed as a subtype in the screen genealogy. It will be studied as a factor in a probable future transition from representation (the screen as a window to a different world with a scale of it’s own) to simulation (the screen as a continuation of the world where our body is), and a step towards a mixed reality. Likewise, this technology will be analyzed in its relation to the concept of touch in aesthetics, and as part of a tradition of art and design related works dealing with this subject raging from the futurists ¨Manifesto of Tactilism” to wearable computer outfits.

2. Market politics: The multitouch screen is a relatively new technology that is being promoted as a desirable innovation by the two most famous companies in the computer industry. However, perhaps like never before, open source initiatives are auto organizing to distribute free “do it yourself” tutorials on how to build hardware that enables such technology, and are perfectioning free software to work with it. What will be the outcome of the struggle for a market if the difference in price between a “do it yourself”, and a commercial touchscreen is of more than 1 to 10 and there’s no sensible difference in the results that can be obtained through both means? Will open source affect the big companies at all?

3. Practical outcome: touchable statements about the politics of touch. The multitouch screen technology is the product of redesigning and commercializing an old technology. It’s main metaphor being tactile; it lends itself to applications that comment on the sense of touch, and its culturally defined connotations. This includes the controlled, and technology mediated kind of touch that the touch screen itself encourages. This part of the project will explore the potential of the touch screen as a tool for stretching and questioning, perhaps subverting such connotations. This will be achieved by designing and producing touchable digital images of different formats including video that reflect on the meanings of touch from a critical point of view. This images will be designed for viewing in different devices ranging from small portable to wall sized, architecture integrated displays. As the technological means to create such applications, I will use the open source software, and free “do it yourself” tutorials discussed above.

Pertinence of the project proposed with the Imaginary Property project
It has been stated that one of the main concerns of the Imaginary Property project is to carry out a critical analysis of political economy of image production. Image production is, of course, directly related to image consumption for they depend on each other. The project that I’m proposing is pertinent because it addresses a technology which mediates image consumption, and that will therefore presumably affect the way in which images are produced, specially, but not only, when they are produced for a certain technological device. It will also fabricate subjectivities that produce and consume such images, and such devices, and because the particular invention it complements is that of the screen, which, as stated is a dominant one, it might end up affecting other screen based media (for example cinema) and even non-screen based image design as well.