Curated by Katharina Weinstock
Holding hands is a way of establishing a physiological unit. Breathing and heartbeats synchronize.
Hormones are released when friends and followers make our devices buzz. A tingling and numbness – like an itching phantom limb.
If pre-digital communication techniques such as letter writing and long-distance calls once introduced the possibility of deep and enduring emotional bonds across vast geographical distances, the Internet has fostered a new phantom sense of embodied co-presence.
By birth, a longing for touch is inscribed into our bio-chemical programs. In the 1950s, when the science of attachment and love was in its early stages, psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a series of famous experiments with orphaned baby monkeys. Having the choice between two mock-up mother substitutes – one a food-providing wire skeleton, the other nothing more than a soft terrycloth dummy – they would always desperately cling to the latter.
The past few years have seen communication technology come up with various compensations for this innate wish for physical closeness: Software to enable eye contact in video chats, and, lately, virtual 3D teleportation. Only, how much will holographic VR bodies help, when all you need is a hug?
In the mid 1990s, our toys started to lure us into emotional attachment. The Tamagotchi, a handheld digital pet, was nothing more than a bunch of moving pixels. And yet it held a generation of young millennials at bay by exhaustively demanding attention and care (if neglected for more than six hours during the day, it would die). While we may smile at the emotional bonds children establish to their toys, trends in eldercare suggest that Bots will quite likely also be our last companions.
Care Bots will remind patients to take their medication, help them from bed to chair, engage them in conversation, and they will never complain about hearing the same story time and again. Retirement homes in Japan are already equipping their residents with therapy robot Paro, an adorable furry baby seal, winning the patients’ affection by displaying eternal emotional responses.
XOXO brings together seven artists whose work – in different media and multiple aspects – reflects upon those semi-embodied attachments, and asks what it means to be held today.