The Agency of Touch

“The Agency of Touch” was presented by Mădălina Dan for the final presentations at SODA over the course of several days. In the context of the dance and performance school, the piece shows versatility of selection of mediums between performance, dance, installation, sound, and visual arts. It functions to question the role of touch in the arts, which is still relatively foreign to art audiences.

The performance raises questions for the viewer about how we interact in social relationships and how touch is regulated; in which contexts it is used and who is allowed to do the touching. Dan’s performance builds an environment in which touch is accepted socially, in this case a private room that likens itself to a doctor’s office or massage bed, but uses it in an unconventional way by choreographing a dance that plays directly on the viewer’s body. The body of the spectator becomes the stage for a composition that takes place over the skin. This questions whether touch can be used for an aesthetic purpose rather than a purely practical purpose symptomatic of a society with social touch restrictions.

The viewer lies down on a velvet table for the duration of the performance. The movements are mostly improvised but follow a specific narrative choreographed in advance by Dan. It reacts to the viewer and environment in a series of arpeggios and cadences that vary in tempo and intensity. A soundtrack accompanies the touch-performance that melds outside sounds with those of the body, following the purpose of the performance in using the definitions and borders of the skin as the setting or stage for choreography. The boundary between comfort and instinctual reactions is crossed. The performance is as much comforting as it is alarming when it passes from softer touch to harsher movements, playing with intensity, duration, and different bodily associations. Hence the tone of the piece is not meditative or achieving relaxation of the body but teasing out diverse emotions attainable through touch. The same sound is created from moving the stomach as shaking a water bottle gently.

Touch in social interactions is restricted to hand greetings and brief cheek kisses, and is otherwise left to intimate partners. In doctor’s offices, massage, dance, and yoga studios, there are professionals who touch for practical purposes and paid work. In Dan’s performance the role she plays subverts the practical or economic purposes by positioning itself within the art context. The performance is free and positions itself as a purely aesthetic experience without promising the physical gratifications of massage or medical solutions. While the art context works to separate it from the economic bases under which touch is performed, it also separates the audience into a specific art-focused group.

The skin, the biggest organ, can have a big impact on mental states and physical wellness, but in the art context the performance does not reach the intended audience. With a large audience of dancers, touch might be associated with corrections of a step that went wrong, for others it might be associated with the natural instinct to avoid touch from strangers. It will be interesting to follow this performance into different contexts to see how the art context might be avoided and how it can make a difference in people’s perception of social relations. Overall the performance is meant to break down the restrictions towards touch, to make it a sense worth exploring in an artistic manner, but also to widen the applications of touch by diminishing the cultural shame that is built up around the body.

The performance likens touch to visuality by connecting the experience to a synesthetic way of seeing. The piece is remembered through images that the viewers are asked to record in the final room. Through this we are reminded that the skin is our largest organ and it too responds to light. In the end, the piece is a collaboration between all senses and points to the impossibility of having arts without touch, where the skin itself reacts to the environment of the spectator which increasingly becomes a consideration in visual arts spaces. As big fluffy bean bags begin to replace cinema seats in Piplotti Rist’s Hauser and Wirth show, or massage chairs face the screen of Korakrit Arunondchai’s solo at Carlos Ishikawa, “The Agency of Touch” addresses the question of how to use touch and the body of the spectator as the focus rather than an appendage of an installation and touch performance.


‘The Agency of Touch” by  Mădălina Dan was presented at SODA final presentations in December 2015. SODA is the MA in Solo/Dance/Authorship at the HZT Universität der Künste, Berlin.


Àngels Miralda

Àngels Miralda is a curator and writer currently based in Barcelona. Miralda is a contributor in: Rotunda Magazine, Blok Magazine, Revista Arta, Sleek, and AQNB. Catalogue publications have been ...

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