Source Photographic Review ‘Privacy- Picturing Our Inner Selves’

Abstract Negotiations of Intimacy

by Rebecca O’Dwyer


Favouring messaging over conversation, social networks over face-to-face contact, more and more of us are now leading solitary lives. While undoubtedly delivering freedom from the tedium of the ‘9-5’ office job, freelance work in particular also means foregoing a vital sense of community. Still, it is entirely possible to lead a solitary life without ever encountering loneliness. This experience, I think, is quite distinct from solitariness, and often defined by the painful awareness of being alone, the sense of being an actor hanging around the wings of life out-there. Its central sense of lack, of feeling adrift from human contact, can also have physical consequences, with recent scientific studies describing loneliness as a public health hazard, more dangerous even than obesity. Much like obesity, though, tackling loneliness demands a multifaceted approach. Alleviating the symptoms on an individual level - while clearly helping that one person - does not halt a societal malady in its tracks.

Nonetheless, physical contact is one, disarmingly obvious way of countering loneliness, and tactility a tonic for dematerialised exchange. When it comes to it, we don’t really discern between authentic and artificial physical contact: all that matters is the sensible proximity between one body, one person, and another. The starting point for Northern Irish photographer Rachel Glass’ 2018 series, Abstract Negotiations of Intimacy, so-called ‘cuddle parties’ are just one, increasingly popular, answer to social disconnection. Over the course of her MA study at the Royal College of Art in London, Glass attended these parties, taking photographs of its participants. Originating in Japan, where extreme solitariness has resulted in a plummeting birth rate, these events facilitate non-sexual physical touch between strangers, offering a pragmatic, if somewhat fatalistic solution to loneliness. Here benign physical intimacy is something to be sought out and bought. Common sense again, the idea being that - on familiarising itself to this new artificial touch - the body will guide the mind out of loneliness. The participants were there for various reasons: some observed feeling a lack of physical touch in their lives, and sought to put it back in. Others were simply more tactile than most, and wanted to increase contact, while others approached the sessions as a form of therapy. For all, touch was the solution to a particular problem, a means of increased happiness in day-to-day life.

Abstract Negotiations of Intimacy comprises photos taken during these parties, alongside other images of objects that explore a more abstract idea of touch. With the portrait and group images, it is clear that these are not strictly documentary photos, but instead at least partially staged. While depicting actual proceedings from the groups, with the individual portraits in particular, Glass’ framing means they communicate a paradoxical sense of estrangement. One portrait shows a middle-aged man in a lilac polo t-shirt, photographed from the waist up at a slight turn towards us. His hands are grasping another pair of hands, disembodied through Glass’ curious photographic crop. He looks directly at us, wearing a calm but otherwise inscrutable expression, blankly transmitting the set-ups artificiality. A different photograph shows another man, this time shot head on and swaddles in a navy hoodie. His lips are lightly pursed in concentration, and a hand, pale skin in contrast with his, rests gently on his shoulder. He wears an eye mask, worn presumably to focus and heighten the sensation of this interloping hand.

Elsewhere, we see a group of participants, two pairs: a man and a woman entwined on the floor in a foetal position, and two women slumped in an embrace against the wall. The settling, white walls and - from the ballet bar that runs around it - also clearly doubling as a dance studio, is clinical and not at all intimate. At every point, it seems, Glass seeks to remind us of the photo’s artificiality. Her framing reminds us that the photo is never real life but a consequence of omission, while everyday light is rarely so flat and pristine. The environment appears antithetical to human warmth, or, better put, human tenderness appears to be enfolding even in spite of it. In these formal strategies, Glass draws us back to the artificiality of these events, leasing us to consider the unnaturalness of a society that creates the lack, which causes them to exist. There is a certain politics in this approach. These parties, pragmatic though they might be, contain these dreadful pathos of futile resistance. Making do, they try to stem a problem that far exceeds their control. Its participants resemble survivors, working through the trauma of contemporary life.

To touch another body, in effect, is to be reminded that others have bodies too. Being touched by another person means recognising that the worlds chugs along in spite of the loneliness we are currently experiencing. In short, touch reminds us, in a physical way, that we are not alone, and that our bodies exist in a network of bodies that suffer disconnection in the same way. Touch is the primary means of acknowledging the limits of the self, individual pain, and of letting the world in. This gives light to Glass’ unsentimental interest in the points where people meet, rather than in creating self-enclosed portraits. Instead of full-length representations, the photo is reduced to two outstretched arms, fingers in the process of interlocking. The drama of intersection is what interests Glass, the places where one body meets another. These points are the productive ones, and ones increasingly hard to find.

British Journal of Photography 'Look and Learn'

Abstract Negotiations of Intimacy

by Charlotte Jansen

Touch deprivation is a modern epidemic - our fingers are more likely to caress a screen than skin. So much so that this lack of human contact in everyday lives has begun to take its toll and is now associated with physical and mental health issues. "To be considered psychologically healthy we need at least eight 'proper hugs' a day." insists Rachel Glass, who explores the importance of physical contact in her series, Abstract Negotiations of Intimacy, a rumination on what it means to connect with another body in the age of the internet. "I know for sure that I don't get this and not many people I know do either. From my perspective, people have forgotten how to engage in touch in safe and healthy ways. For obvious reasons we are slowly being conditioned to not touch in order to protect ourselves."

To research the project, Glass, who completed her MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art in London, attended 'cuddle parties' - hugging workshops hosted in a safe environment, led by a trained instructor. 'It was the group dynamic that intrigued me most," she says. "Particularly the part of the session where you break into small groups and request what forms of touch you would like from other participants." An important element was learning about conscious touch. "To be asked what kind of touch you feel you need is actually quite powerful." says Glass. The workshops, she explains suggest ways to give consent or to say no, provide exercises to help the group feel comfortable, and eventually lead to activities such as a 'snuggle trains' and 'cuddle puddles'. 

The people who Glass met and later photographed attended workshops for different reasons. Among them were freelancers, those living alone without a partner or family, but also individuals who are simply very tactile. But it's not only our way of life that shapes the amount of physical contact we have with others. "Not everyone is a tactile communicator, which also plays a part and is as much down to personality as to societal influences," notes Glass.

The series explores visceral responses to touch, with photographs of non-figurative objects interspersed among portraits. "the objects allow for the inner monologue of touch to be considered, as touch is not just a bodily and physical experience but a mental one, touch is how we extend out from the body." she says.

British Journal of Photography 'One's to Watch 15'

The Domestic Aviary

by Tom Seymour

The tropical birds, who have as their homes the small living rooms and kitchens of Northern Ireland, are "metaphors for our conscious understanding of freedom,” says the emerging photographer Rachel Glass

A streak of neon-bright green files among the domestic clutter of a small British living room. The fancy bird chooses its perch between the sofa, the flat screen TV, the mantlepiece and the closed window. The bird is indigenous to the forests of Venezuela, Colombia and Guyana, but it is here, in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, playing a starring role in Rachel Glass’ series The Domestic Aviary.

“Confinement or sanctuary?” Glass asks, as the birds fly through “the looser confines” of the contemporary domestic home, in all its tastes. “How much freedom do we actually have, and how much we can invest in it?” In the corner sits the bird’s cage. She has caught them, wings stretched mid-flight, or appraising their horizons, preparing to fly in a larger cage.

“We as people can fly as far as we want,” the 21-year-old Glass says.  “But are we confined or constrained by our own lives and commitments?”

In her eyes, these birds are metaphors: “Of our own conscious understanding of freedom, in all its limits and possibilities.”

Glass grew up in the countryside around Belfast, before completing a degree in photography at the city’s School of Art. On top of this series, Glass has photographed young women “who have never been in love,” singing love songs to her camera, while a spontaneous dancing series entitled The Art of Letting Go is described as “a symbolic movement in the effort to remove ideas that can hold us back.” And then there’s Safe Places, in which adults are photographed hiding in their places of safety from childhood memories – the footwell of a desk, under a duvet, in the corner of a room behind a curtain.

Her photography, Glass says, “deals with ideas I find difficult to comprehend.” She confesses to an anxious attitude that must be harnessed: “As a photographer, my over-thinking can become an asset.”

Yet there is a discernible theme here. “These are photographs by a young woman working through her own position and response to growing up in Northern Ireland,” says the renowned photographer Ken Grant, a lecturer at the School of Art. “Cathartic qualities seem to inhabit her work,” he says, “that relate something of the psychological challenges young people face – and in Northern Ireland these are as acute as anywhere.”

Trying to understand the dislocation and uncertainty of realising you might be an adult, whether or not you want to be, is a well-tread subject in photography. Glass admits to lacking confidence in her ability, but she is capable of a depth of understanding beyond her years, Grant says. “Young photographers can often fail to make work that is mature enough to move beyond the immediate sensation to survive,” he says. “But Rachel’s photography possess a sense of the paradox of being confined by the challenges of contemporary life.”

Glass had to invite herself into stranger’s homes for the purpose of this series. “I had to push my own boundaries and harness a freedom I had been denying myself because of fear,” she says.  The effort was worth it, for The Domestic Aviary was been exhibited at The Royal Ulster Academy, and won the Royal Dublin Society Lens Based Award.

“She has an ability to draw from conditions that are ubiquitous, but layered with an emotional depth,” Grant says. “It means pictures linger long after we’ve seen them. I’m keen to see how she will move forward.”


The Domestic Aviary

by Ellyn Kail

Parrots, says Irish photographer Rachel Glass, are believed have the mental capacity of a two to three-year-old toddler. Unlike children, birds are airborne creatures, and yet many are born and bred to live as pets, within the confines of the human home, where they are sheltered from the dangers of the wild but restrained in flight. For The Domestic Aviary, Glass captures tame birds in the moment they are released from their cages and into the house in a flurry of flapping wings, probing at the ways in which all species—and ultimately all individuals—must choose either to live free or to live protected.

When she embarked on the process of locating and documenting pet birds, Glass immediately associated herself not with the owners but with the birds themselves. Although she knew that many of the birds had known no other life and none would be able to adapt the wild, she felt for the feathered creatures, who despite their innocence to outside world, contained at their core something undeniably feral. Like these birds, she suggests, we all live within our own enclosures, ignorant to the ways in which we limit, confine, and bind ourselves and one another.

Glass contacted bird owners all throughout Northern Ireland, reaching out through pet stores and online classifieds. The birds she visited were all beloved, nurtured, and well-cared for by their human guardians, and many were allowed to roam the house whenever they were attended during the day. Some, says the photographer, were deeply bonded to their people, and one woman expressed an urgent fear at what would happen to him if she should die.

Instead of photographing the birds in their cages, Glass chose to capture them in the in-between space of the living room or family room, an arena that could simultaneously feel too small and too large for her winged subjects. Seen here without their humans, Glass’s birds emerge as the temporary monarchs of their domestic kingdoms, allowed for a brief moment to rush about as they please, though the knowledge of their captivity lingers silently in the background. Humans, suggests Glass, envy birds their wings, remaining forever grounded despite our will to escape. There is, ultimately, an anxiety in flight, a threshold of fear that must be endured and passed in order to be truly free.