Distant Touch

2022, artists' book, limited edition of 100

Nadia Odlum created this artists' book for the exhibition 'Hyperlocal' at PACT Centre for Emerging Artists. It contains twenty-five drawings created by Odlum during the Sydney Covid-19 lockdown of 2020, and an essay written during the lockdown of 2021.

Design: Garry Trinh

Editor: Rebecca Gallo

Price: $15. Each book contains a unique drawing by Nadia Odlum. To purchase a copy of this book Click here

This book was made on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. The artist pays respect to Elders past present and emerging. 25% from the sale of this book goes to Pay The Rent. paytherent.net.au

Distant Touch

Nadia Odlum, 2021

I was single during the first Covid-19 lockdown. The arrival of ‘social distancing’ measures meant that for months no one touched my body. I was surprised by how much I noticed. It’s not like I went about wantonly touching the bodies of strangers before. But now I couldn’t, shouldn’t, would be in danger if I did. The threat of an invisible virus formed a tension between my body and the bodies of the many others who call this city home.

I found myself preoccupied with memories of physical contact with strangers. The times I tolerated - living in New York and riding the subway with my face forced into someone’s armpit; the times I loved - heaving, sweaty crowds at joyous queer dance parties in Sydney’s Inner West. I also became hyperaware of the kinds of non-physical contact we experience in public space. Like the moment when two pedestrians try to avoid collision, but instead engage in an awkward little dance; or the fleeting eye contact you might make with someone on the bus, before mutually and studiously looking away.

Proxemics is the study of the physical, psychological and behavioural factors that create our experience of ‘personal space’. How close we feel it is acceptable for people to be to us varies greatly depending on culture, context, or our relationship with the other person. I might allow a close friend to whisper in my ear. I would stand a few feet away when waiting for coffee with a colleague. Covid-19 threw all this on its head. Re-calculating appropriate distance made encounters with others a constant dance of shifting spatial and social relations.

Social distancing in the Covid-19 pandemic changed the way people navigated through urban space. We were no longer able to cluster at counters, or pass close by others in bottle-necked corridors. Limits to the safe numbers of people in spaces meant queuing outside. Long lines of people staggered 1.5m apart became a common sight on the Sydney streets. But how was it communicated to people, en masse, that this was the ‘new normal’?

The suddenness and urgency of the change meant that the first solutions were ad-hoc. They were also the responsibility of individual business owners, whose ability to stay open suddenly relied on successfully changing people’s movement in their spaces. I watched with fascination as the ground became littered with symbols, mostly created using different types of tape. Lines of tape-crosses were dotted along footpaths. Crooked tape-arrows directed pedestrian flow.

As the weeks went on, people became accustomed to looking out for these visual cues. But the system didn’t always work. I observed with sympathy the plight of Enmore IGA, who continued to double down with brighter, more layered, increasingly desperate looking tape in the effort to get people to make a hard right down a narrow aisle when they entered the store (rather than moving past the counters as was far easier and more intuitive). Bunnings, the home of tape, placed more and more crosses in popular sections of the store, before finally having to set up bollards and a bouncer to limit the number of people who could enter the ‘screw and nails’ aisle at one time.

Wandering the city, I became captivated by these crosses. There seemed something poetic about it. Whenever I stood on one, I was acutely aware that someone (an employee or business owner) had at some point knelt on the ground and placed the cross there. They marked the spot, and I, later, occupied it. The crosses were choreographic instructions, a score for movement framed by the needs of our new social reality.

I started creating rubbings of these tape crosses. The art stores were closed, so my paper supply was limited. Scrounging through my drawing folios, I found many works that were half finished, or had been put aside. Some were ideas that had never really taken off; others were sketches I had created in other cities, at other times, as a way of processing my relationship to those places. Carrying stacks of these, I would walk the streets around my home in Stanmore, looking for crosses. Kneeling on the ground, I laid the paper over the cross, pressing and rubbing with thick sticks of graphite until an image emerged. The drawing of the cross was a form of distant touch between myself and the stranger who had laid it. It bridged our spatial and social separation, and eased my feelings of disconnection.

It’s 2021 now, and the city has just emerged from a second, even longer lockdown. I was curious to note that this time there were fewer crosses laid on the pavement. Faded and tattered ones still exist from last year, or in high traffic areas they have been replaced by government issued vinyl stickers. But mostly, people have just adopted the new proxemic standards as habit. The distance doesn’t have to be marked. It lives within our bodies. 

To see more drawings in this series, visit this page.

Price: $20. Each book contains a unique drawing by Nadia Odlum. To purchase a copy of this book Click here

This book was made on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. The artist pays respect to Elders past present and emerging. $5 from the sale of this book goes to Pay The Rent. paytherent.net.au

Using Format