Open Senses

The London Open Senses Festival ran from 19-21 May 2017. The first of its kind, first of many I hope, the festival included an rich mix of sensory events and experiences, and a symposium at the University of London. The symposium included many excellent presentations and workshops while the most pertinent to my research was a presentation by architect Juhani Pallasmaa. Titled Landscape of the Senses – Touching the World, the presentation explored the hegemony of vision in our culture and in architecture. The senses are often regarded as independent systems but they are in fact integrated as part of our embodied condition. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1958) speaks of the polyphony of the senses. In life, sensory stimuli don’t occur in isolation and embodied sensory experiences are essential to our wellbeing. If we remove ourselves from bodily sensory experiences we live impoverished lives. Therefore, we need an integrated approach in research and design.

Pallasmaa also spoke about the shallow appropriation of the sensory realm in marketing strategies. This sensory manipulation of the senses leads to hyperesthesia (or hyperaesthesia), a condition that involves an abnormal increase in sensitivity to stimuli of the senses. According to Pallasmaa, we are in an era of branded manipulations, of total anesthetisation. The essence of architecture and its social significance are being replaced by a formal aesthetic rhetoric and an uncritical view of digital technologies further detaches us from sensory experiences. Unfortunately, Pallasmaa didn’t have time to elaborate on these statements and explain what he means by the essence of architecture. Further reading into his many books and papers will surely enlighten the topic. However, I agree that many contemporary buildings and urban spaces lack social significance. Does the rise in interest in the senses across so many disciplines points to a societal malaise? Perhaps, as Pallasmaa points out, in a digitally enhance world, people have become starved of meaningful embodied experiences.

On the other hand there are interesting new possibilities emerging through technologies. In the morning of the symposium, I visited Thresholds by Matt Collishaw in Somerset House (not part of the festival). Thresholds is an immersive installation that uses the latest VR technology. It reproduces the interior of King Edward’s school in Birmingham to take us back to 1839, to an early exhibition of photography by British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot. As in all VR experiences, I wore a headset but this time, I also had a unit strapped to my back. Initially the experience felt artificial, like being in a game, and intriguing at the same time. As my mind adapted to the environment details emerged and the VR space began to resonate with my senses. I could touch the wood of the photography display cases. Mice occasionally running across the room, insect flying around the chandeliers, and a fire burning in the fireplace, animated the space. I could feel the warmth of the fire but I didn’t have the same confidence moving my hands towards it as I would in real life. Perhaps because I couldn’t see my own hand, only an orange glow. My sense of depth and movement functioned as expected but I still needed time to adapt the the virtual environment. After a while, I could also hear the noise of a crowd coming from outside the room. I believe it was meant to be a riot though I never felt the tension the same situation would cause in reality. This was staged and the experience was short lived (six minutes). Nonetheless, the scenographic use of technology was amazing.  It also illustrates possibilities for integrating sensory experiences into a virtual space. The experiment would have failed if it had only focused on the visual. Frieze magazine commented that ‘Collishaw has not recreated an historical experience, but has instead constructed an entirely new one.’ Matt Collishaw is an amazing artists who challenges perceptions and expectations.


Thresholds by Matt Collishaw

The ocular-centric paradigm occupies a prominent place in Pallasmaa’s critique of architecture. He argues that the role of the senses and the impact of the way spaces resonate with our senses is largely overlooked in architectural practices because of the use of an ocular centric language of symbols and images. He is not the only one to expound a a multi-sensory approach to architecture and design. Architect Joy-Monice Malnar and artist Frank Vodvarka (2004) also tell us that ‘sensory data are rarely central to design decisions’ and interior designer Sashi Caan (2011) identified that practice-led research in this area lacks rigour. I also include myself in this school of thought. In my research , I aim to enrich our knowledge of embodied sensory experiences through the study of atmospheric qualities and user relations in spaces, and promote a multi-sensory (integrated) approach to spatial design practices.

Visual culture dominates but vision is a sense of distance. We don’t need to be close to something to see it and this can create a distance between body and space. Pallasmaa may have been thinking about the work of theorist Henry Lefebvre (1974) when he spoke out against the prevailing ocular centric paradigm. In The Production of Space, Lefebvre explains that ‘[the image] detaches the pure form from its impure content – from lived time, everyday time, and from bodies with their opacity and solidity, their warmth, their life and their death’. Lefebvre takes and uncompromising position when he says that ‘[…] the image kills’. I wouldn’t go as far but I agree with Pallasmaa who says that ‘it is […] important to survey critically the role of vision in relation to the other senses in our understanding and practice of the art of architecture’.  As Caan explains, ‘[d]esign is the deliberate intervention in our environment to ameliorate the conditions of our existence’. We can’t achieve this if we rely mostly on the visual sense when designing. Therefore, we need to encourage a multi-sensory mind-set in spatial design practices to enrich our experiences of everyday spaces.

Bachelard, G. (1958, 1994 ed.) The Poetics of Space. 
Boston: Beacon Press.
Caan, S. (2011) Rethinking Design and Interiors – Human Beings and the Built 
Environment. London: Laurence King. 
Lefebvre, H. (1974, 1991 ed.) The Production of Space. Oxford, England:Blackwell Publishing. 
Malnar, Joy MoniceVodvarka, Frank (2004) Sensory design. Minneapolis,Minn.: University of Minnesota Press. 
Pallasmaa, J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Umwelten

Umwelten is a site-specific performance at the Royal Academy by Juri Nishi in collaboration with Bitter Suite. Blindfolded I was led into the space of the performance where three performers choreographed their movements with mine and choreographed my movements with theirs as I was led on a sensorial journey through the room. It was the most wonderful experience. At no point did it feel unsafe or awkward. I became completely immersed into the performance and completely relaxed, becoming malleable to the choreography. My Umwelten became a fluid space unconstrained by traditional architectural principles.

Event’s flyer: umwelten

The Umwelt, located in the fairly new field of sensory ecology, is a theory developed by ethologist Jacob von Uexküll. The events’ flyer describes sensory ecology as the study of how organisms acquire, process and respond to information from the environment, exchanging materials, energies and sensory information. Von Uexküll studied how animals behave in relation to their environment and theorised that the qualities of an environment are not intrinsic to the environment but depend on the way the mind interprets the world. Therefore, organisms can have different Umwelten even in the same environments. This is an interesting theory because it articulates that qualities in the environment are subject dependent and that the mind and the world are inseparable. The theory of Umwelt recognises the complexity of the phenomenal environment as perceived and interpreted by the subject of perception.

Although I was blindfolded, I completely surrendered to the fluid environment created by the performance. I was told it lasted 20 minutes, it felt like barely 10 had passed. At the end of the performance, I was given a pad and pencil to draw my impression of the space as it emerged in my imagination. Still under the spell of the performance I drew a symbolic mental map that illustrates a fluid journey, in parts lacking definition in a space removed from architectural conventions. When the performance ended, I felt very light, almost floating, and this continued for a long time afterwards, until I took the tube to the next event I was attending that day. My London Underground umwelten brought me back to reality.


My Umwelten during the performance

Actual space where the performance took place

Buchanan, B. (2009) Onto-Ethologies. The Animal Environments of Uexkull, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze. 
Albany: State University of New York Press.
von Uexküll, J. (1934, 2010 ed.) A Foray into the World of Animals and 
Humans with a Theory of Meaning. 
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Journey to the Interior

This event is described as ‘a multi-sensory, participatory performance and a feast, inspired by George Bellas Grenough, a geologist and founder of the Geological Society, London as well as Jules Verne’s story the Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.

Artistic Director, Tereza Stehlikova and her team, created an impressive array of sensory experiences around the topics of geology and journey to the centre of the earth. The journey began in Kensal Green cemetery all the way through to the core of the earth, through to carbon art by Mateusz Gidaszewski, sugar metamorphics by Ellie Doney, and ended with an amazing meal designed and prepared to enrich our experience of the themes chosen for this event. The food was intriguing, enticing and delicious. The company was excellent.

Event’s flyer: journey

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