Wire mothers and Hypha Studios inclusive art of human contact

This is one of the most disturbing images to emerge from the dark history of animal psychology. It was staged to illustrate experiments investigating the conflicting drives for nutrition or comfort in newborn rhesus monkeys. As they were deemed “non human subjects”, the psychologist Harry Harlow believed he could treat them in ways that would be judged unethical on humans, justifying that they would shed light on the “cupboard love” theory of maternal bonding. It confirmed (as if anyone was in any doubt!) that cuddles were the more important need for a mentally healthy infant. Of course, the monkeys avoided the wire metal surrogate with the feeding teat unless they were hungry. Even though it lacked a teat, they spent more time on the cosy, terry towelling surrogate with the pseudo-simian face.

Thankfully these experiments which began in the 1950s were outlawed by psychological authorities in the 1980s. They are also based on sexist assumptions since the warm body and emotional connection of any primary caregiver will fit the bill. These maternal deprivation studies are just one example of the many morally dubious, yet famous, psychology experiments carried out in the 20th century. At Hypha Studios’ current group exhibition, Behold (A Show About Touch), the selected works focus mainly on contact with objects rather than people although at the opening event much hugging (a human greeting ritual with its origins in infant experience) was observed.

Nicole Clif. Installation view of interactive performance work, Rubber in my Mouth (2023)

A couple of the performance works did however rely on human contact. Nicole Clif was quietly sitting at a table with a pair of yellow rubber gloves in front of her. Participants were asked to sit opposite her, put on the gloves and invited to feel inside her mouth. This kind of interaction has a history in performance art that I have covered extensively in earlier blogposts going back to Cut Piece (1964) where Yoko Ono exposed her vulnerability by offering her audience a free choice as to what scissor cuts to make on the clothes she was wearing. Here it certainly felt transgressive although there is more of a mutual vulnerability as Nicole had your finger between her teeth! Like Ono, Nicole is placing considerable trust in her participants, a social rule that we are impelled to respect.

Harshadha Balasubramanian, an academic and advisor to the exhibition who is researching the use of VR in the arts at UCL, was also at the opening and was involved in a tactile dance piece where she clung to a dancer like the rhesus monkey on a surrogate in Harlow’s experiments. As the dancer moved Harshadha, who is visually impaired, was sensing his movement through touch and proprioception (the internal “seventh sense” of our body position in space). This boundary crossing between dance and sensory enhancement was so innovatory and very moving to behold. She is one of the collaborators who designed the multisensory tour of the exhibition, a not unusual gallery offering, but to provide them twice daily is an indication of Hypha Studios’ serious commitment to widening the reach of their exhibitions.

Andy Holden. Still from video Return of the Pyramid Piece (2008) Courtesy of the artist

It was good to see an early Andy Holden short film Return of the Pyramid Piece (2008) where the artist is seen scurrying around the lower blocks of an Egyptian pyramid. I later discovered that he was carrying a fragment of rock he had guiltily “stolen” as boy on a visit to the Great Pyramid thirteen years previously and we were watching him searching for the exact spot from which it was taken so he redeem himself by placing it back. The shaky camera work suited the anxious atmosphere but this was an incidental by-product of Holden’s recruitment of a willing, but novice, volunteer he had met in a cafe. The sound track included a random rattling that seems to resonate with the erratic movements of the artist.

Hermione Spriggs, whose film on Mongolian music activism featured in an earlier blogpost on the Multimedia Anthropology Lab at UCL, has devised an interactive sound sculpture work for the exhibition, Schticks, in conjunction with Tracey Owen. It consists of remote listening sticks of differing lengths modelled on plumbing tools that are used to amplify sound through hard surface; our choice on how to deploy them raising issues of eavesdropping and surveillance.

Hermione Spriggs and Tracey Owen. Installation view of interactive sound sculpture, Schticks (2023). Photo credit: Dave Andrews

Behold is a wonderfully eclectic show featuring kinetic sculpture (Mosquito Farm), drawing (Paul Noble), painting (Graham Little) and photography (Sara Maringeli ) as well as video, augmented reality, performance art, sound art, interactive works and an intriguing programme of workshops. It runs until March 16 at 60, Conduit Street.

Paul Noble. The Cleaner (2021) Pencil drawing on paper. Courtesy of the artist

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