Review: WITHIN TOUCHING DISTANCE, Stephen Lawrence Gallery

VR is the star in this mind-bending show about touch and memory

By: Dec. 01, 2023
Review: WITHIN TOUCHING DISTANCE, Stephen Lawrence Gallery
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Review: WITHIN TOUCHING DISTANCE, Stephen Lawrence Gallery Making its London debut alongside two other ZU-UK productions (the brilliantly thought-provoking Binaural Dinner Date and the interactive ghost hunt-slash-radio show Radio Ghost), the VR-enabled Within Touching Distance is a profound work which digs deep into the psychology behind the most underrated sense.

A word of warning: this show isn’t for the self-centred or the hard of feeling; those with the emotional self-awareness of an Ikea wardrobe will find little of value here. 

While there are entire industries devoted to what we see, hear, taste and smell, touch is relatively ignored in commercial terms. This is surprising considering how important it is to us on a daily basis. How do we protect against uncomfortable or even dangerous levels of sharpness, cold or heat? And what exactly is kissing or sex without feeling another’s lips and flesh against our own?

Very few VR productions explore the sense of touch, preferring to realise their alternative reality through eyes and ears. Even with the goggles and headphones on, though, there’s no getting away from the real-world sensation that we are not standing on the shores of a lake or flying through the air but are, instead, sat in a seat or stood upright somewhere. Even the brilliant Bal Du Paris which let us see our real-life companions in the VR world ultimately couldn’t push away from the fact we were actually in a backstage area of The Barbican.

Within Touching Distance goes the extra mile to make us feel that we have left the toy-strewn room we just entered, having participants wear pyjamas over their clothes and be put into an actual bed by an actor dressed as a nurse. They hold our hand and speak to us in happy and comforting tones as, in our VR view, we see “our” small body with its tiny hands and feet in an infant’s bedroom. It’s a real shock to be authentically transported not just to another place but to another age and to feel so, so young.

We go from this intense scene and leave childhood behind. After a witty meditation on time, touch and memory while flying down corridors and through the air, we soon end up at the other end of life, appropriately enough still in our PJs and still in bed. This time, we rise from the bed into the not-altogether-comforting experience of being elderly. The real-word accessories and physical assistance of the actor enhance the VR sensations, making us feel frail, tired and frankly useless. Whether this segment is more an insightful portent of what is to come to those of us who live long enough to be so decrepit or possibly a subtle advert for Dignatas, there is no doubting the gut-churning fear this real lack of agency instils in us.

Within Touching Distance is a mind-bending journey which goes far above and beyond expectations. There’s a skilful blend of technology, theatre and intimacy here that inevitably forces us to reflect on both our own history of physical contact and thoughts for the state of our future selves, and not always in a comfortable way.

Within Touching Distance
continues at Stephen Lawrence Gallery until 17 December.

Photo credit: Sharon Walla


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