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tap and touch cinema 1968
‘TAP and TOUCH Cinema’, 1968Courtesy VALIE EXPORT

How genital stroking became an act of feminist rebellion

For her 1968 project, ‘Tap and Touch Cinema’, artist VALIE EXPORT sparked controversy for openly inviting strangers to touch her breasts

Concealing her naked chest with a mini makeshift ‘movie theatre’, Austrian-born artist and feminist icon VALIE EXPORT stood amongst the public in 10 European cities between 1968-1971, coaxing pedestrians to reach inside her boxed-up torso and touch her breasts. Such was the nature of her radical and provocative performance piece “Tap and Touch Cinema” – an experimental screen-free ‘film’ confronting the social, political and sexual positioning of the female body, whilst fracturing the boundaries between cinema and real life.

Like many of EXPORT’s defiant works (1968’s “Action Pants: Genital Panic” saw her weave through a cinema audience in crotch-less leather pants, her genitals exposed at face-level) “Tap and Touch Cinema” inspired a slew of similarly controversial acts, with Swiss artist Milo Moiré’s “Mirror Box” recently accused of replicating EXPORT’s groundbreaking work.

In light of her undeniable legacy, and the uncanny emergence of virtual female bodies available to the touch (see the Oculus Rift-powered “breast squeezing” simulations), we unravel the continuing relevance of what EXPORT declared as “the first genuine women’s film”. 


Constructed out of Styrofoam with a small curtain guarding the opening, EXPORT’s mobile cinema inverted the act of looking by exchanging viewership for touch. Accompanied by Austrian artist and long-time collaborator Peter Weibel (who stood beside her, announcing the act with a megaphone), “Tap and Touch Cinema” destabilised ideas around pleasure and the sexual value of the female body, where the participant’s reaction and interaction with her body took centre stage in a public sphere.

“Everyone can see the faces of the visitors… and how they visit it with their hands.” She told Interview magazine in 2012. “My gaze as well as the gazes of the visitors – who were both men and women – were incredibly powerful, extremely powerful and intense.” Reclaiming the female body and the terms by which it was viewed (and felt), EXPORT shamelessly rebelled against the oppressive and submissive images of women that characterised the visual culture of the 60s and 70s. 


Although staged amongst an unsuspecting public, EXPORT imposed a very specific framework on each encounter. For every passerby that would venture into her DIY ‘theatre’, EXPORT would stare vacantly at her timer for exactly 33 seconds, after which she’d invite another set of hands. An extension of Feminist Actionism – a movement founded by the artist to “free men's products, that is, women, from their thing-character”, EXPORT sought to resist the objectification so readily imposed on female bodies by staging an action that marked her independence, autonomy and control. “Tap and Touch Cinema” became the site to evoke questions around male fantasy and female sexuality: all framed within her trademark radical and provocative approach. 


The (potential) boundary between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ has characterised many debates in the wake of the digital revolution. EXPORT, in this regard, was pretty ahead of her time when it came to probing the effects of the screen. Following her notion of “Expanded Cinema”, the artist invited audiences to engage with a “real” female body instead of the sensationalised and romanticised images that dominated film, engaging multiple senses whilst forgoing sight. With the student movements of the 50s and 60s set on breaking down state influence, EXPORT’s work can be seen to work in alliance with an artistic and political shift bent on crushing archaic understandings of perception, power and consumption.

See more of VALIE EXPORT’s work on her official website here