The Language of Touch

The sense of touch deeply affects us and evokes ancient, visceral sensations. It is the first sense to develop and the last one to decay, so that it always remains an open expressive and relational possibility. Along with sight, it is the one sense that can grasp the shape of an object and its spatial orientation. But unlike sight – which immediately grasps a form in its entirety – touch is an analytical sense that works through successive stages, in a temporal development.
I would like to invite you to a short tactile walk, starting from the Omero Museum, a special art museum in Ancona, Italy.

 

The uniqueness of this museum consists in the chance to touch all the art works on display: architectural models and plaster copies in reale size of some of the most important classical sculptures, from ancient Greece to the Renaissance (including many works by Michelangelo), up to original sculptures of contemporary art.

In this way, art is accessible to blind people and it is also an amazing experience for all those who normally use sight for knowing and orienting in the world. In fact, at the entrance of the museum, the staff invites “sighted” visitors to walk through the rooms in pairs, alternately wearing a darkening mask and exploring the art works by touch. Looking at the sculpture – after this hands exploration – is a truly amazing experience.


The next stop of our walk is the Tactile Forest, a simple idea of the Italian designer Bruno Munari. You can easily offer it to children, at home or at school: just hang many transparent nylon threads on the ceiling of an empty room (or an empty area) and attach different materials to the threads with clothes pegs.

Pieces of fabric, ribbons, shoe laces, jute, pannolenci, wool, cotton wool, cords, organza strips, doilies and lace, straw, fur scraps, wooden or metal rings, keys, padlocks, belt closures, pieces of bark… and every kind of material suitable to be touched while crossing the forest.

 

Another very interesting project by Bruno Munari is about tactile books. A book is usually considered a “conceptual thing”, primarily consisting of words and – sometimes – images. However it is also a concrete object and its phisicality plays an important role (even if we are not aware of it). A book communicates through its material, color, size, shape, smell, texture, hardness or softness, weight. Thus, a book is an interesting object to be explored itself, beyond the reading.

The prebooks are twelve little books, designed by Munari, in square size of 10 X 10 cm. Each one is made of a different material (paper, cardboard, fabric, transparent plastic, wood) and has got a different bindind. Through the pages there are some surprises: a wooden thread, a button, holes, a drawn insect… They offer to very young children a variety of stimuli, sensations and emotions. Like Munari said, they should give the sensation that books are indeed objects made like this and that they contain a wide array of surprises. Culture comes out of surprises, which are things that were unknown before.

prelibri by Bruno Munari
Some of the “Prebooks” by Bruno Munari

A tactile book is a recommended experience for every age: children, kids, teachers, parents, curious adults. In the photos below, you can see some books made by an Italian pre-school teacher during one of my workshops inspired by Munari’s work. After that, she offered a similar workshop to parents, who then gave the books to the children as a gift. It was a very significant experience, in order to share an educational approach of active learning by making something concrete. From words and thoughts to action on matter.

Tactile books built by parents for children
Tactile books built by parents for children

How to suggest a tactile experience to children?

“Today I have a very special thing for you: a book you can read keeping closed eyes…”. Children were surprised and amused by my words.

We sat around a table, I closed my eyes and solemnly opened a special book: it was made of two cardboard pages with a composition of various materials on them. While slowly touching the pages, I began to tell a story inspired by the tactile sensations I felt. “I’m going through a forest (crepe paper), the grass stings my bare feet because I lost my shoes… here is a small ice lake (a CD)… I can’t swim, how will I cross it?…”.

After the story, I invite children to do the same and try to read the book through their hands with closed eyes.

tactile books for children

Then I suggested children to create their own tactile-books. It was a small group of four, from three to five years old. I had already prepared several materials, neatly organized on a table, ready to be touched, chosen and eventually cut in different shapes and sizes: fabrics, papers, plastics, ribbons, threads, small objects.


Each child was given two cardboard pages where placing the materials. Once the composition was ready, children glued the materials on the cardboard, using vinylic glue with a brush. Finally we joined the two pages with adhesive tape on the external-central side (taking into account the thickness of the materials). Everyone “read” the pages of the books, touching the materials and inventing stories, evoking images.

tactile books for children

Finally, l would like to share a simple game born by chance, while my mother was touching some stones I gathered near the sea. They were all similar but also a bit different from each other. Here’s how to play:

  • the stones are placed on a table
  • one of the players closes his/her eyes and receives a stone (chosen by another player) that she/he will have to carefully explore by hands
  • the stone is put back in its place
  • the player opens his eyes and, looking at all the stones, tries to guess which one he touched

Of course, the more the stones are similar, the more details become significant… What other materials could we use to play? In how many other ways can stones be placed on the table? Or maybe on the floor?

Some properties of materials – like weight, solidity, temperature – are exclusively perceptible through touch. The infinite qualities of the surface of matter – such as smoothness or roughness, porosity, graininess and all the possible physical textures – are perceptible through the view as well, but belong in a privileged way to tactile perception.

The sense of touch helps us to perceive tiny details and differences, to enrich the exploration of the physical world.

Touch has got its own memory.

Let’s keep it always alive.


Art work by Maria Lai (detail)

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Peeking through containers and contents

exploring containers and contents

Containers have always fascinated me. Border and threshold between inside and outside. Forms that the vacuum can take. They contain and protect, open and close. Who contains what? What relationship between container and content? I invite you for a walk through very different containers I met.

exposition of kitche containers

In our daily routine, we often choose and associate containers and contents… Are we aware of it? On closer observation, everyday objects can reveal interesting details, shapes, colors, surfaces. This was the main theme of a kind of “treasure hunt” for children about kitchen containers, which I designed for a public library.

children assembling a cake dish

Children, divided into small groups, could choose from time to time a colored envelope containing a playful test: riddles, reconstructions of disassembled objects, questions, research of details – inviting to carefully observe, to use touch, photography, drawing. Jars, cake tins, fruit bowls, butter dishes, salad bowls, bread bins … the characteristics of these objects have suggested me the tests for the children. And of course, at the end of the game, we found the coveted treasure preserved in the cake pan!

a child touching a bowl without looking at it
a child drawing a bowl

Even the most common object is not obvious. How many ways can you use and transform it? Here are some pieces of the Emboutillage collection by the designer Antonio Cos, who explored the potential of a common glass bottle.

the designer Antonio Cos and some of his creations with glass bottles

The first intuition goes back to the day when Sophie, Antonio’s partner, asked him to roll out and level the dough for pasta: not having a rolling pin at home, I used a bottle. While doing it, I was thinking about this function shift … The object already exists, I enjoyed formally analyzing it. A bottle is mainly composed of two cylinders of different sizes joined by a semisphere. So its geometry guided me in exploring the object and breaking down its different parts.

some of the designer Antonio Cos creations with glass bottles

We should be aware from the beginning that our idea will be translated concretely by an artificial (vs natural), mechanical process. We need to know these processes, what is possible and what is not. It is a parameter to which I remain attuned, I like to construct objects that are not technically complex. However, one must not be “a slave to the technique” or let oneself be taken by the ease that a process can involve, but use it wisely, so that it can reproduce an initial idea or concept.

some of the designer Antonio Cos creations with glass bottles

From glass bottles to plastic ones, from a design studio to an infant toddler center. Valentina Tonucci is a teacher that recycled some common plastic bottles transforming them into special playing objects for children. Valentina explains that she chose this bottle because it is commonly used, easily recoverable, transparent, light, small and manageable; a container you can experiment with many different contents.

plastic bottled trasformed into toys for children

Without water, the bottles become sound objects: by shaking them, the contents hit the walls. But my interest was mainly focused on the interaction of water with other elements. So I thought about what common materials could I put in relation to water (…) I had in my mind the classic snowballs that create an interesting movement inside, everytime arousing great amazement.

plastic bottled trasformed into toys for children

Starting from this exploration, Valentina created many variations. In the picture above you can see some of them: (from the left) perforated colored plastic sheet; fake leaves, small stones; silhouettes of sponge fish, plastic strips; a tree with rings that can be fitted into the branches; metallic stripes. Of course, many others could be created… New small enclosed worlds, magical microcosms.

plastic bottled trasformed into toys for children

Observing and listening to the material, keeping its aesthetics, form and function connected: I think that this is the key to a coherent and conscious use of materials. In this regard, nature is always our best teacher. What better examples to end our walk?

surprising containerw in nature

On the left, you can see the fruits of a crucifera: these rods of Billeri primaticcio (Cardamine hirsuta) sprout at the end of the winter in the center of the white small flowers. At the end of March, they are dry and yellowish, ready to react to the slightest solicitation with the sudden curling of the valves, followed by the explosion of tiny seeds. It is a strategy of active dissemination of some plants, which manage to throw their seeds even at a distance of several meters.
On the right, here is the rolled leaf of a field maple: it is the trace of the activity of a larva of a “tortricide” lepidopteran. This small caterpillar folds and wraps, with a silken thread, the tender leaves obtaining a shelter that ensures him protection and nourishment. By gently opening the rolled leaves, you can find a surprise: a small green caterpillar with a black head in April and May, then a dark chrysalis of a few millimeters, which will be empty by the end of June… the butterfly will fly away!

surprising containerw in nature

Finally, here is the Capsella bursa-pastori: a herb belonging to the cruciferous family, whose name comes from its saddlebag-shaped fruits. It is very common in meadows, on the edge of roads, in uncultivated land. Its small white flowers appear at the end of winter and, in April, the fruits open up in the middle releasing many seeds.

playing glass bottles

I thank all the people who have contributed to explore so many different containers, including the artist Michele Ferri for the image above and the first one at the beginning of the article (www.micheleferri.net). The initial idea of this “walk” (and its goal as well) is to develop a theme through different disciplines and apparently distant points of view. I think that only with a dialogue between different fields we ​​can deeply know the identity of our specific one, relate it, insert it into a wider complexity, develop it, finding hew stimula. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the tank-shelter idea was born after a visit to the Venice Biennale of contemporary art, where there were beautiful art installations made with the same material. And the presentation of other “surprising containers” could continue… Do you have some experiences on this subject, from the point of view of your field? What next topic would you like to explore?
You are welcome to share your ideas. Let’s create new connections!

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