“Let’s be in touch,” we say casually, although to be truly in touch is rare, a prized and intimate experience that cross-wires several systems of perception, emotion, and understanding. These are connections that Ann Hamilton has long explored with great depth and delicacy. In O N E E V E R Y O N E, a series of photo portraits commissioned by Landmarks for the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, Hamilton illuminates particular links between touch and vision, contact and caring. Positioning subjects behind a material called Duraflex®—which has been aptly described as feeling a little like skin and, when looked through, as resembling a frosted shower curtain—Hamilton has photographed more than five hundred people. Among Duraflex’s properties: whatever touches the surface from behind is seen from the front in sharp focus, while everything else becomes progressively soft; in photographic terms, it creates a very shallow depth of field. To viewers of the resulting portraits, the plastic screen becomes the image surface, a translation that binds visual and tactile perception.
Touch has been key to Hamilton’s artistic practice from the outset. Among her earliest works was (suitably positioned) (1984), a man’s business suit covered in toothpicks, which made its wearer a human porcupine, and provoked in viewers a distinctly heightened experience of tactile sensitivity. By the end of the 1980s Hamilton had begun to produce the complex, site-related installations that have consumed the majority of her efforts since. For privation and excesses (1989), at Capp Street Project, San Francisco, she had thousands of pennies laid into a field of honey on the gallery floor; a woman wringing her hands in a honey-filled felt hat sat at the rear, and behind her, three sheep grazed in a pen. The full-body experience engaged viewers’ sense of smell. At the Dia Center for the Arts in New York City, tropos (1993–94) included a floor carpeted with horsehair. In myein, conceived for the United States Pavilion at the 48th Venice Biennale (1999), bright red powder drifted over walls marked with Braille, and visitors were invited to write with their fingers in the pigment that fell to the floor.
More than once, Hamilton has combined the tactile and the photographic. In abc-video (1994–99), a carefully inscribed alphabet was slowly erased and then, it seems, re-written by an inky fingertip. Developed in connection with myein, reflections (2000) is a series of photographs shot in the reflection made by multiple layers of slightly wavy glass, producing images of a figure that appears to be underwater—a precedent for O N E E V E R Y O N E’s blur. Also creating soft-edged images was the small camera Hamilton placed inside her mouth for face to face (2001). The work made the artist into a kind of pinhole apparatus—opening her lips exposed the film—and transposed her (silenced) mouth into a speaking eye.
The Duraflex sheet behind which subjects stood during photo shoots for O N E E V E R Y O N E prevented them from seeing the camera, and although they heard Hamilton’s voice directing them, they felt themselves to be in a private space. In a public conversation with Jack Risley at The University of Texas at Austin, the artist said that the process created “a quality of interiority,” a valuable condition at a moment when “the notion of private images and private space is changing.” Hamilton has also said that trust—with respect to the camera, and the artist—was another big issue in the process of creating these images. As it happens, trust is also essential to a relationship the subjects shared: all of them are either care providers, administrators, or patients from Austin’s extended medical community. Photo shoots were open to all and held at community health clinics, a student union, university campuses, a children’s hospital, a retirement community, and elsewhere. According to Hamilton, “Touch and human recognition is the core of medicine,” and she also noted a similarity between the way the subjects address themselves to her camera and the way patients present themselves to doctors. In both cases, “You offer yourself up.”
Typical for Hamilton’s work, O N E E V E R Y O N E is a project with several components. The primary element is an image library containing more than 20,000 photographs of roughly 530 people. Installed at Dell Medical School are a few dozen that have been printed on enameled porcelain panels, which are lustrous (they are finished with a thin layer of glass) and softly white—like trays for medical instruments, as Hamilton points out. Whether at slightly more than life-size or somewhat smaller, the subjects are dignified, even grand, but also muffled—quieted—by the process, which prohibits the preening display so common in the age of social media. And the emphasis on touch is extended by Hamilton’s frequent focus on hands at the expense of faces. When the subjects make manual gestures, they consolidate the connection between touching and seeing. We see a man cradling a baby, a cross-generational handshake, and a flutter of fingers. Choices of physical self-presentation—clothing, ornaments—further acquire, in some portraits, an emblematic force, forming additional accents, as in spoken language, of color, texture, and form.
In addition to these porcelain panels, a generous selection of images appear in a wordless book. Published in a run of 10,000 copies and distributed freely on campus, the book’s 900 pages make it as thick as the kind of old-fashioned telephone directory it resembles. The thin, pliable, off-white paper of this publication evokes, as does Duraflex, the tenderness of skin, further modulating the color and resolution of the photographs. It also binds them into the kind of physical index of connectedness—a phonebook—that has been abandoned in the digital age. An additional component of O N E E V E R Y O N E is a free newspaper in which a selection of the photographs will appear alongside contributions by scientists, philosophers, poets, and essayists. These essays are also available on the project’s website—a final and crucial component—along with at least one image of each participant, which may be downloaded for free.
These several image vehicles all place the subjects securely in the present, while framing them in many kinds of history. The blur that envelops O N E E V E R Y O N E’s subjects can be associated with a period, in the late nineteenth century, when the still-novel medium of photography was believed, by a surprising number (and range) of people, to be capable of capturing departed spirits; not coincidentally, it was a time when various spiritualists also promised such capture. Historian Tom Gunning writes, “Not only did the darkness needed to protect the sensitized photographic plate from exposure serve as an analogy for the darkness in which mediums held their séances, but photographs could also provide evidence of the existence of spirit beings.” Impinging on the film or the plate’s emulsion, the dead made manifest their otherwise invisible presence. In the present, when more and more of our time is spent staring at images on screens, Gunning continues, “The difference between our daily existence and that of phantoms becomes attenuated.” In other words, we have become the ghosts once thought to be exposed in darkroom-born images; touch, in both cases, is the interface. Related, too, is the healing offered by Franz Anton Mesmer, an eightneeth-century Viennese doctor who, as Mark Alice Durant writes in The Blur of the Otherworldly, “theorized that magnetism flowed through the universe via the fluidium.” Mesmer believed that a diaphanous medium joined all bodies “in the universal waltz of influence,” which a skilled practitioner—a mesmerist—could channel for medical benefit.
Hamilton, an avid reader, is interested in the writing of literary scholar Brian Rotman (he is a contributor to the O N E E V E R Y O N E newspaper), who argues in Becoming Beside Ourselves that both mind and God are ghost effects of the alphabet—immaterial entities brought forth by writing’s capacity to sustain identity over time and space in the absence of the speaker’s body. “Writing, by rescuing speech from oblivion,” Rotman concludes, “allows utterance to live beyond itself.” But Rotman believes that alphabetic writing is giving way to gestural languages caught in real time by digital technology, which is driven by a dispersed community of meaning. The digitally enabled “I” is “immersive and gesturo-haptic,” Rotman writes, and “increasingly defined by the networks threading through it.” Philosopher Vílem Flusser, too, felt that language born of breath and inscribed in printed words was becoming obsolete. While “the alphabet permits us to stabilize and discipline a transcendence of images that has been won, with effort, through speech,” Flusser wrote, “thinking is not a continuous, discursive process.” Instead, we think in images, which are fluid, and our brains more resemble networked databases than inscribable clay tablets. Writing, Flusser predicted in 1987, is nearing an end.
Hamilton is also interested in the fact that we “live in a world of touch-less images” where, paradoxically, pictures can be brought to life and manipulated by a finger placed on a computer screen—“That space of no space,” she calls it. Digital screens (and photographs of all kinds) have played an important role in Hamilton’s work. But she does not altogether share Flusser’s, or Rotman’s, rather drastic vision of a post-bibliophilic future. Just as constant as touch in her work has been the presence of books and other forms of printed matter, which are also central to O N E E V E R Y O N E. Several times, books have entered her work as objects to be altered, such as tiny stones replacing typographic marks, or lines of text being slowly, systematically burnt with a stylus. In her conversation with Jack Risley, Hamilton said, “The book is a beautiful democratic object. It’s portable, it has a rhythm, it’s in your hand. When you fall into a book you’re falling into another world that extends like a landscape even if it’s not literally one. That close at hand and far away which is how I would characterize reading is carried always in a book.”
The democracy of art is perhaps Hamilton’s central principle, and it is clearly reflected in O N E E V E R Y O N E’s remarkable openness—its enormous range of participants; the free distribution of its newspaper, and of its book, which Hamilton hopes will “circulate throughout the community, hand to hand”; and the public availability of its website. An internationally celebrated artist, honored with a MacArthur fellowship in 1993 and the National Medal of the Arts in 2015 (among many other awards), and installations at major museums and public spaces around the world, she has had a wary relationship with the art market. Hamilton’s choice to live and work in Columbus, Ohio, where she grew up (she was born in Lima, Ohio, in 1956) reflects a wariness of art’s commercial capitals. Engaging with local communities is a through-line in her installations that brings together people from disparate disciplines as contributors, fabricators, performers, participants, and viewers; many of these terms become fluid in her work. Among the several installations involving expanses of billowing and swirling fabric (Hamilton’s BFA from the University of Kansas at Lawrence in 1979 was in textile design; she also received an MFA in sculpture from Yale in 1985) are two that required the audience to help set the cloth in motion. By pumping swings suspended from the vaulted ceiling of the great drill hall in New York’s Park Avenue Armory (the event of a thread, 2012–13), audience members caused a giant curtain to move up and down, and by pulling on ropes, viewers at an open-air pier in Philadelphia set in motion enormous swirling skirts, which were also animated by wind, and even by the movement of passersby (habitus, 2016).
Woven fabric is a social metaphor as well as a physical material in Hamilton’s installations. The stuff of shelter and privacy, communion and solitude, it also evokes an interweaving of knowledge and skills. Though not a traditional textile, Duraflex is a protective material. Produced by Bayer MaterialScience, it came to Hamilton’s attention as the result of a project undertaken for an exhibition at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh called Factory Direct, which wove together artists and the local industry. That collaborative effort is deepened by O N E E V E R Y O N E’s commitment to the extended community of the Dell Medical School. Along with the writing of Rotman, Hamilton cites John Berger’s book-length essay A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, which considers with great sympathy the relationships forged between a particularly thoughtful, generous physician in rural England and his patients. A highly developed sense of touch, and an equal ability to see his patients clearly, as whole beings rather than aggregated physical parts—while at the same time understanding them to be inextricably connected to their town and its culture—was central to the doctor’s quietly heroic practice. Hamilton’s O N E E V E R Y O N E represents a similar devotion.
Nancy Princenthal is a New York–based art critic and former senior editor of Art in America. She has written and lectured extensively on leading women artists such as Agnes Martin, Petah Coyne, Hannah Wilke, and Nancy Rubins. Princenthal is co-author of After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art (2007) and The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium (2013). She is currently on faculty at the School of Visual Arts, New York.