A Touch of Virtuality

by Stefanie Hauger
02 Sep 2020

How the lockdown had us missing the fifth basic human sense.

I would have booked my plane ticket by now, requested my usual hotel room, and started making appointments with favorite suppliers. Then I will be waiting with bated breath to see the novelties and feel the buzz of immense buying power and quests by retailers racing to snag new brands that might re-define their business.

Or, to be that fabulous new brand that will rock someone’s world. I can practically smell the dreadful coffee wafting through wonder emporium aisles teeming with designer-clad human-life. I can feel the claustrophobia starting to set in as the air in the massive exhibition halls begin to tighten around thousands of busy little buyer-ants, scurrying through either at break-neck speed.

There is manic competitiveness in the mornings that eventually morphs into cross-eyed weariness after brains become saturated with sensory and visual overload. It’s completely exhausting. Intoxicating. Food for the soul. We willingly torture ourselves awake at 5:30 a.m. for days because there is nothing quite like it. Whether it be Maison & Objet in Paris, Salone del Mobile in Milan, or Ambiente in Frankfurt, these trade fairs are an essential ingredient to life in the world of interiors as we network, over-spend, and expand our infinitely malleable horizons.

But, most significantly, we touch. We run our greedy fingers across the surprising solidness of hand-woven Hlabisa baskets from KwaZulu-Natal and plonk our derrieres — nonetheless grateful — on awkward rustic stools from Bali and ‘not-smell’ artificial silk Amaryllis from Belgium. We immerse ourselves in hedonistic tactile (and pseudo-olfactory) discovery.

It’s not dissimilar when we visit exhibitions; the only difference being that we get our wrists smacked if we try to touch anything there. What is it that compels us to queue for three hours in the rain for Frida Kahlo when we could google her work (God forbid we buy an actual book nowadays). Tap-tapping on the keyboard is so much less painful than boiling the kettle for the Epsom salt footbath to silence our screaming foot-arches.

And yet we will queue. We crave being in the presence of creativity; to drink it in. We want our human dimensions to interact with it, experience proportion, scale, and materiality to our physicality. I will never forget when I stood before Kahlo’s Wounded Deer for the first time and wondered how I could have ever missed the fact that it is so tiny. Neither Google nor the digital catalog had given me any forewarning of that ‘moment’.

Which brings me to our brave new COVID-19 world, one that we have been birthed into kicking and screaming. Virtual exhibitions and fairs, digital platforms and live streams — which try their cyber-best to make us salivate over things that we once traveled around the world to hunt down on the star-studded island of Capri or in a pick-pocket-riddled market in Marrakech – have now become not only increasingly acceptable but a survival-focused necessity.

Instead of voyaging to physical rendezvous with creativity at a trade fair, killing 5,000 birds with one flight (for want of a better metaphor), and losing ourselves in the abundance of aisles stuffed to bursting point with global treasures, we now travel from our fridge to our desk and computer screen.

The million-dollar question is: Will buying for a brick-and-mortar retail outlet ever become a viable alternative to having all six senses activated? What can match an ocean of artworks in an art fair and their admirers (or haters) pressing their noses into champagne flutes and tweeting about post-COVID Expressionism (premature, I know, but I’m sure this art movement is coming).

For someone from my daughter’s generation, online platforms are more accessible. Mentally, of course, not literally. She has never known any different. I do, however, struggle with crossing over to the other side. It’s not that I am not accustomed to procuring from catalogs or websites for my retail business; I’m perfectly capable of relying on my sharp and greedy eye alone to tell the good from the bad and over-spend my budget.

But no, it is the ‘moments’ that are missing for me; the unexpected, out-of-left-field falling in lust with something that, without my physical interaction with it, would never have had me in its grips. No screen can re-create that experience for me.

As I ponder on Antony Gormley’s words, “Lockdown reminded us that we’re all makers…”, I feel an overwhelming need to add that the lockdown reminded us that we’re all touchers. It was this one sense that we all missed the most. And so what will happen to us if we replace this with primarily experiencing the world vicariously and virtually from the solitude of our screens?

Intellectually, I understand the need for it and its advantages, but I would still rather drink the horrendous coffee.