An Observation of Environmental Touching

By Martine Hoff Jensen.

A model is moving quietly. The studio is filled with both natural and artificial light. Her poses are both sudden and thought through. She controls her body steadily and her face has a peacefulness over it. The flash brightness her in nanoseconds before she moves again. The clothes are gracing her body, barely touching here and hugging there. They are comforting the skin, keeping it temperated and protected. The model is trying to convey the very feeling that the items of clothing give her. A feeling of comfort and safety. The clothes are helping nature. The material is made up of cotton and up-cycled ocean debris. Keeping it away from nature, away from the ocean, away from further pollution. It has been picked up from far away places, beautiful beaches, that on photographs seem untouched, but that are heavily littered when you visit in person. Inside every piece of clothing there is a QR-code on the little piece of fabric with the washing instructions. If you scan the code with your mobile phone, you get a lot of numbers up on your screen. They are geographical coordinates, numbers identifying a place. THE place. Where the ocean waste that went into producing that very piece of garment was found.

The designers behind the clothes want to help the environment. At the same time they want to create a movement. Make the consumer aware. Not just of where the item came from, but of the entirety of the situation. Parley for the Oceans was founded in 2012 by designer Cyrill Gutsch. The environmental organization’s aim is to save the oceans. In 2015 they announced a partnership with sportswear giant Adidas and released their first collaboration: A pair of sneakers made from up-cycled marine debris. Only that they do not call it that. To give the product a positive connotation, Parley has developed a material they call «Ocean Plastics», made from the debris but with «another mindset» about it. Since then they have released several shoes together, as well as sportswear, swimwear and clothing, like the ones the model is wearing.

She changes her pose. Now sitting, the model is hugging one knee close to her body, the other leg stretched out. Professor of Feminist Studies, Philosophy and History of Consciousness and Quantum physicist Karan Barad has written an essay about touching. Saying that when hands touch, the flesh is sensually graced, warmed, lightly pressured and senses the presence of otherness. Barad writes that «so much happens in a touch: an infinity of others—other beings, other spaces, other times—are aroused» [1]. Like the clothes on the models body, that has the «hidden» code to a faraway place inside of them. The items can remind you of the oceans’ situation. The soft fabric graces the skin and you remember that there is a bigger picture. The touch can, as Barad writes, take you away to «other spaces, other times», like where the debris is found. We all need to be reminded that we are responsible for the polluting of the oceans, and this can happen through touch. As Karan Barad writes:

«In an important sense, in a breathtakingly intimate sense, touching, sensing, is what matter does, or rather, what matter is: matter is condensations of response-ability. Touch- ing is a matter of response. Each of 'us' is constituted in response-ability. Each of 'us' is constituted as responsible for the other, as the other.» [2]

But touching is not always what we think it is. In physics touch is an electromagnetic interaction. The model feels the clothes on her skin, but in reality, «there is no actual contact involved» [3]. She may feel the soft fabric embrace her body, but they are not really close at all. What she is sensing «is the electromagnetic repulsion between the electrons of the atoms that make up [her body] and those that make up the [clothes]» [4]. As the electrons are «negatively charged particles that surround the nuclei of atoms, and having the same charges they repel one another» [5]. Like two magnets, it is impossible to get them to touch each other. What we feel is the «electromagnetic force» [6]. It is sort of the same way nature feels about foreign objects, like plastics. They do not really want to touch.

But even though in physics nothing ever actually touch, it is not what we experience. Barad writes that «touch moves and affects what it effects» [7]. It is an invitation to come closer, to feel, to engage, to learn. And it is not always welcomed. Scientists have calculated that the ocean will die within the year of 2048. The human invention of plastic has «over-touched» the ocean, stepped over its boundaries and has left it in bits and pieces, literally. The oceans are filled with micro- and nano plastics. Pieces so small that it is impossible to see with the human eye without a microscope. To avoid this from happening, designers have started to develop new materials using the old plastic waste. Creating new products from these materials. Like the clothes on the model’s body. By wearing them, they touch us. The recycled matter embrace us. By creating a contact between us and the material, there is an establishment of responsibility. You are, as Barad wrote, responsible for your touch, for who or what you touch upon. It is also a relationship with yourself. Because touching is never an unidirectional event. It does not go just one way. What you touch will always touch you back. You are responsible for what touches you and your body. The establishment of connection through the act of touching gives you «response-ability» as Barad calls it – an ability to respond. To what is going on in the world around you and to act. It makes you responsible. For what you touch and what touches you.


[1] Barad, «On Touching», 206.

[2] Ibid., 215.

[3] Ibid., 209.

[4] Ibid., 209.

[5] Ibid., 209.

[6] Ibid., 209.

[7] Ibid., 208.


Barad, Karen. «On Touching – The Inhuman That Therefore I Am». differences 23, nr. 3 (2012): 206–223.