Sense for Sense’s Sake?

Tate Sensorium as a Case-Study of Multisensory Exhibitions

I 

“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure science.”[1]

Or, to alter the words of renowned American astronomer Edwin Hubble, he calls it art.

Recently, the art world has seen the rise of often mind-blowing, Instagram-worthy, technologically superior, and queueing-compulsory art installations that aim for audiences to engage their senses. Probably one of the most buzzed-about examples is rAndom International’s Rain Room, but others include Ann Veronica Janssens’ recent yellowbluepink or Kathy McLean’s Sensory Maps.[2] These and other artists are driving their practices towards immediate multisensory experiences, and not to the general public’s dismay.[3]

Since the 1990s also academic interest in the human senses rose, leading to what now commonly is being referred to as the ‘sensory turn’.[4] Counteracting the logocentrism of the linguistic turn of the 1970s and the visualism of the pictorial turn of the 1980s, anthropologists, social scientists, and (art) historians sought to adopt “a full-bodied, relational approach to cultural analysis, which encompassed all the faculties.”[5] Across disciplinary boundaries, research groups, publications, and conferences were created that examined the role of the sensorium in our experiencing and knowing of the world.[6]

So what about curators? Keeping their finger on the pulse, they are not oblivious to this apparent sensory awakening. However, they seem to concern themselves more with putting together exhibitions of multisensory artworks, rather than reflecting on the possibility of a ‘sensory curating’. How could they bring about multisensory exhibitions of artworks, such as paintings or photographs, of which the multisensory is not an explicit intrinsic part? Would a parallel with ‘sensory anthropology’, where anthropologists “feel along with” participants in their studies instead of observing them from a distance, make sense?[7] Could curators “feel along with” the artwork’s properties, in order to provide a new, sensory exhibition experience for the audience?

To test out my preliminary findings of what aspects have to be taken into account when curating multisensory exhibitions, I have opted for an in-depth analysis of one particular case-study.

Tate Sensorium was the exhibition project by creative studio Flying Object that won this year’s IK Prize. Now in its second year, the prize is awarded by Tate Britain to a proposal that innovatively combines art and technology. The exhibition was on display at Tate Britain from August 26 to September 20 2015, and due to popular demand got extended until October 4.[8]

The exhibition outline seems fairly straightforward: four 20th-century works from Tate’s collection – Richard Hamilton’s Interior II (1964), John Latham’s Full Stop (1961), David Bomberg’s In The Hold (1913-4), and Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape (1945) – were singled out in separate sections of a gallery, where they were surrounded with sounds, scents, tactile sensations and tastes that were inspired by them and developed by experts in the field.[9] Groups of four people were allowed in every twenty minutes and everyone was given a wristband that measured perspiration and heart rate changes during the visit. At the end of the exhibition, visitors would receive a diagram of their sensory reactions, and recommendations of other works in the Tate Britain collection that would match the monitored sensorial sensitivities.[10] The ultimate goal of the exhibition was to help people engage with art in a new way; to encourage “a new approach to interpreting artworks, using technology to stimulate the senses.”[11]

Now what does this exhibition format achieve? How does it affect the role of the audience that bodily engages with the artworks? Does the part that the art object plays, change? What are the implications of the used technology? And most importantly, what does this all mean for the contemporary curator?

 

II

Going to any kind of exhibition arguably requires some action on the visitor’s part.
For me, going to Tate Sensorium was no different in many ways. I had to go there, queue, and make a conscious note-to-self to be open for whatever experience would follow. But once inside the exhibition, I felt I was more active than in many other exhibitions of traditional media. I walked to the perfume sprays, put my hand in the ultrasound box, took and ate the chocolate. Also by wearing the wristband I was continuously participating in this exhibition, as if I were partaking in an experiment. However banal these interactions, their participative element is inextricably linked with a more deep-going feeling of bodily involvement through the senses.

Although I was very aware of myself at the beginning – maybe even feeling some pressure to indeed sense tons of things – throughout the exhibition I interacted differently with the art. I interpreted the works more and made new connections. In front of Hamilton’s Interior II I otherwise might have thought about the sixties, but due to one of the accompanying scents I instantly got reminded of my grandmother and tried to link her with that era. My senses seemingly freed my interpretation.

Tate Sensorium Smell (Paul Grover)
Hamilton, Interior II (1964) ©Paul Grover

My participation was thus not required to complete the artworks, but to make the most of my personal interpretation. I experienced first-hand that “as we sense, we make sense”.[12]

Many literature agrees with art historians Patrizia Di Bello and Gabriel Koureas, saying that “the observer became endowed with a body, in which the senses were not passive receptors but active agents creating shifting, mobile and subjective sensations.”[13]
In line with Merleau-Pontian notions, the human bodily, sensorial experience is crucial in our engaging with and understanding of the world.[14] This process is also essentially a personal one. How people perceive things is just as constructed through their culture and background as what they perceive.[15] Hence, the senses then mediate between ourselves, our bodies, and the objects on display. But there is also the possibility of union. When people engage with an artwork, they sense things, their bodies become part of the work and they can imagine themselves immersed in it.[16] Tasting the chocolate praline, chewing on what honestly felt like dusty grinded coals, it was as if I were in Bacon’s landscape.

Tate Sensorium Taste (Tate)
Bacon, Figure in a Landscape (1945) ©Tate

The viewer is thus always embodied and through the interaction of the senses with the world, he generates specific information, or so-called ‘sensitive cognition’.[17] Multisensory exhibitions can bring this type of cognition to the fore, by stimulating visitors to use their senses in the personal meaning making process taking place. In line with this, it was remarkable that Tate Sensorium did not include texts or labels to position the works in an art historical narrative. Rather, the heightening of sensory reactions functioned as the guiding principle. An implication for the curator could be that he is still a facilitator, but now instead of through text, through a toolkit of sensory stimuli.

Attempting to think of exhibitions from this point of view, could address anthropologist Sandra Dudley’s comment at the address of museums (but it goes for curators as well) that “they can ponder what it would be like for visitors more often than not to be able properly, bodily, emotionally to engage with an object rather than look at it half-heartedly prior to, or even after, reading a text panel on a wall or a label in a case.”[18]

The remark also draws attention to another important aspect of the multisensory exhibitions: the role of the displayed objects themselves.
In Tate Sensorium four works of art were singled out, so their properties definitely stood out more for me than they would in a full gallery space, where after two hours you cannot really tell the Picasso from the Braque. I was brought in a situation where these four specific works of art would undeniably appeal to me. Even if I supposedly do not generally enjoy works of John Latham, by the mere act of selecting his painting, hanging it in a darkened room with theatrical spots and basically forcing me to spend the same amount of time with it as with the other paintings (accounting for a quarter of my exhibition experience), there was no going around it, really. Putting my hand in the ultrasound box, I sensed a pressure. I did not know what to make of it. It felt like I was touching the black hole or sensing the air coming out of a graffiti spray can. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps I was being manipulated, that this staged setting tricked me into certain interpretations and/or gave the work an undisputable aura. But at the same time, in this case, I rather felt like the specific qualities of the work, such as its tactility, were being subtly emphasized and that I was given the time and extra stimuli to fully enjoy it.

Therefore, Tate Sensorium affirmed that “the sensual effects and affects of the material qualities and properties of paintings, sculptures, photographs, art objects and installations are that which engages us as embodied participants in a process of creating meaning.”[19] Additionally, works in a more traditional medium do not solely possess visual properties, but also other sensory ones that can trigger our engagement.[20] By acknowledging that the intrinsic qualities of the artworks are what captures us in the first place, a degree of agency is given back to objects on display.[21]

This is crucial in sensory studies, which have often slightly neglected the role of the object, in favour of the one of the audience. Perhaps surprisingly, because it was already in 1934 that American philosopher John Dewey expressed that the visitor experience cannot be thought of without the art object and vice versa. For Dewey, the expressive object is key, because it is exactly where artist and audience meet.[22]

Of course now, this encounter is increasingly influenced by new technology.
In Tate Sensorium it was everywhere. It started with the wristband, which measured my reactions throughout the exhibition. Then there were the perfume sprays, the headphones with specially composed music, the ultrasound box. These technologies were not part of the artworks, but rather external additions provided to enhance the visitor’s sensorial experience beyond the visual. It was the final goal of Flying Object to stimulate our sensorium, and for me it was exactly that: a stimulation. I still spent most of my time looking at the artworks, everything else was just added onto that.

It sums up perfectly what David Howes, expert in sensory studies, has called ‘assisted sensing’. This practice encourages a new engagement with objects, “through the diffusion of select scents, sounds, coloured light and other stimuli which serve to accentuate different sensory dimensions and meaning of the object or objects on display.”[23] In other words, the technological additions which assist our sensing stimulate the physicality of the artwork and our interpretation of it.

But what if the addendums do not work for everyone? What if someone cannot relate and their interpretation is cut off? It is a valid argument, but one that may easily be refuted, since every sensation is personal and will inspire personal ideas or memories.

Another criticism could be that the use of technologies creates a distance between the senses of the visitor and the object, mediating between the two and hence making a direct encounter impossible.[24] But “as Caroline Jones points out, ‘the human sensorium has always been mediated’. Air, for example, is the basic medium through which we perceive sound.”[25] Also, personally, I did not feel alienated from the object, on the contrary. I was not physically aware of the headphones or the wristband anymore and felt closer to the artworks. As mentioned before, the body and the object can merge, and this was achieved here to great extent by means of technologically induced sensory stimulation.[26]

A justified critique would be that not everyone looks for multisensory ways of experiencing art. Visitors’ expectations and desires cannot be generalized, and art professionals alike should be wary not to make traditional forms of experiencing art (sitting, pondering) impossible.[27]

For me, however, it worked brilliantly and because I had not yet experienced anything similar, my initial thoughts when exiting the exhibition were: “Wow! Amazing!” But then a little alarm bell went off in my head. Was this just a cool experience or was it more than that? In Italian writer Alessandro Baricco’s words, was this multisensory exhibition another village taken over by the ‘barbarians’ or did it fight back?[28]

Seemingly trying to overcome the symptoms of our sensational experience society, in which every search for meaning has become and needs to be a rapid, simplified experience at the surface of things which instantly leads to the next, conceivably, this exhibition wanted to enable deep-going, creative connections between people and art. As Flying Object writes: “Distraction is just a click or tap away. When you can no longer buy people’s time in chunks of 30 seconds, how do you really engage them?”[29] For Tate Sensorium the answer was to do what Sandra Dudley thought so crucial: “trying to facilitate not just superficial explorations of objects but more lasting, imaginative and empathic engagements through the stimulation of the bodily senses.”[30] The exhibition format then also tries to slow visitors down, to free their minds to let the objects on display appeal to them in more than one sensory way (at the same time undermining the dominance of sight).[31]

Another argument in favour could be that since our brains work multisensorially, knowledge gained multisensorially in an exhibition like Tate Sensorium will be retained longer.[32] In this sense, the exhibition would function as an antidote to the superficial meaning gathered whilst surfing around. And lastly, there is something to say for the idea that if our society is really this experiential spectacle, and Baricco’s barbarians are coming for art exhibitions as well, we might as well guide the process now, in order to avoid a hostile, damaging take-over or the obsolescence of the exhibition format.[33] Tate Sensorium might then be considered as one of the first steps in that direction.

Nevertheless, it might also be perceived as exactly a product of this “soul-less” society.[34] The exhibition experience could indeed be perceived as fast, superficial, and linked to the next one.

The time spent in front of each of the four paintings in Tate Sensorium was strictly limited. A voice in the headphones would guide you through relatively quickly and not in your own time. Five minutes in front of one painting might already be a lot more than in a normal gallery setting, and of course there are practical issues involved, but it could be useful to think about allowing more freedom. For example, I put my hand in the ultrasound box only briefly because the woman who was with me in the room took up most of the time. It would have been nice then to go back, or to be able to take some more time there.

Tate Sensorium could be thought of as superficial in the sense that how objects are displayed is more important than what objects are displayed. It could be argued that the exhibition format slightly overpowers the artworks. I did not message my friends afterwards about the wonderful landscape of Bacon, but about the surprising chocolate.

Finally, part of the exhibition was that afterwards, based on my monitored sensory reactions, I got recommended to go and see other works in Tate Britain’s collection that were associated with the senses I responded most intensely to. In other words, I immediately got spurred on to new experiences. Of course, one could also see this as a way of the exhibition to heighten deep-going connections with the artworks, to stimulate visitors to use their sensory toolkit to engage with new works that were not accompanied by technology (hence emphasizing their intrinsic sensory appeal).

III

Whether the development of multisensory exhibitions is positive or negative, I am still debating. But I know for sure there is a lot of work that needs to be done, a lot of aspects that require thorough attention, not just from creative studios, but from curators.

The case-study of Tate Sensorium has shown that multisensory exhibitions can achieve a deeper engagement of the audience with artworks, unlike they have ever connected before. In the exhibition, the visitor actively participated through his senses. By being bodily involved, new interpretations and knowledge were generated. However, the exhibition did affirm the crucial role of the art object itself in this meaning making process. The four traditional media artworks were displayed in such a way that their physicality was emphasized, that they could appeal to us in more than one sensory way. This was of course aided by the innovative use of technology. Combining these elements led to the merger of self, body, and artwork, which would assumingly be an experience that raises above the sensational ones, characteristic of our mutating culture.

However, additional focus could be placed on sensitive cognition in exhibitions, both in developing exhibitions as in stimulating it in visitors. How can the curator be a sensory facilitator?

Moreover, the art objects themselves deserve some more consideration. Their agency can be easily overlooked in between the emphasis on the audience’s experience and used technology. In line with that however, there needs to be a certain investment in the impact of technology in multisensory exhibitions. A possible angle would be to further develop the notion of ‘assisted sensing’. Addressing these elements could perhaps lead to “sensory curating” or “sensory curatorial studies”.

 

Appendix

 

Notes

[1] PBS, “Edwin Hubble”

[2] See: rAndom International, “Rain Room”; Wellcome Collection, “Ann Veronica Janssens: yellowbluepink”; Kate McLean, “About”

[3] BHAUMIK, Sita, “The other senses”; MARTIN, Richard, “Inquiry: Attention Seekers”; LEVENT, Nina, PASCUAL-LEONE, Alvaro, “Introduction”, p.xvii-xviii; LAUWRENS, Jenni, “Welcome to the revolution”, p.8

[4] DI BELLO, Patrizia, KOUREAS, Gabriel, “Introduction”, p.4; LAUWRENS, Jenni, “Welcome to the revolution”, p.2; HOWES, David, “The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies”; SALTER, Chris, “Mediations of Sensation”
Arguably this can also be considered as a ‘return’, see: LAUWRENS, Jenni, “Welcome to the revolution”, p.3; JÜTTE, Robert, A History of the Senses, p.16

[5] SALTER, Chris, “Mediations of Sensation”

[6] HOWES, David, “The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies”, LEVENT, Nina, PASCUAL-LEONE, Alvaro, “Introduction”; MACPHERSON, Fiona, “Introduction”, p.3-5. Examples of projects also include the conference “Art Beyond Sight” and the very influential Centre for Sensory Studies.

[7] SALTER, Chris, “Mediations of Sensation”

[8] Tate, “IK Prize 2015: Tate Sensorium”

[9] Experts were chocolate maker Paul Young, scent expert Odette Toilette, audio expert Nick Ryan and theatre maker Annette Mees. The Sussex Computer Human Interaction Lab was also involved, as was the company Ultrahaptics which created the “touch” element.

[10] See appendix 1 for my personal record.

[11] Tate, “IK Prize 2015: Tate Sensorium”

[12] Vannini, quoted in: HOWES, David, “The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies”

[13] DI BELLO, Patrizia, KOUREAS, Gabriel, “Introduction”, p.2
This idea could be traced back to the origins of empiricism, and is often questioned in the so-called ‘Theory of Knowledge’; see LAUWRENS, Jenni, “Welcome to the revolution”, p.4; TOKish Wikispaces, “Sense perception”

[14] LAUWRENS, Jenni, “Welcome to the revolution”, p.11-12; MERLEAU-PONTY, Phenomenology of Perception, xvii-xxiv

[15] DI BELLO, Patrizia, KOUREAS, Gabriel, “Introduction”, p.6; HOWES, David, “The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies”; SALTER, Chris, “Mediations of Sensation”; BACCI, Francesca, MELCHER, David, “Introduction”, p.1

[16] LAUWRENS, Jenni, “Welcome to the revolution”, p.11

[17] HOWES, David, “The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies”; SALTER, Chris, “Mediations of Sensation”
The idea that information gathered by the senses is unique, is based on the theory of 18th-century German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, who “maintained that ‘cognition through the senses has its own significance, as sense perceptions generate specific and valuable meanings which do not need and cannot be translated into rational thoughts’.” Quoted in: DI BELLO, Patrizia, KOUREAS, Gabriel, “Introduction”, p.4;  see also LAUWRENS, Jenni, “Welcome to the revolution”, p.16

[18] DUDLEY, Sandra, “Encountering a Chinese horse”, p.11

[19] DI BELLO, Patrizia, KOUREAS, Gabriel, “Introduction”, p.8

[20] This ocularcentrism has been critiqued heavily. Phenomenology has dismantled the primacy of vision and stressed the embodied multisensory dimension of the aesthetic experience. Sensory academics increasingly point to our intersensoriality, the fact that our senses interact with each other. See amongst others HOWES, David, “The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies” and LAUWRENS, Jenni, “Welcome to the revolution”, p.3
Also, this provides possibilities for disabled visitors, which is in fact how multisensory “exhibitions” once started, See JÜTTE, Robert, A History of the Senses, p.3

[21] DUDLEY, Sandra, “Encountering a Chinese horse”, p.4-5

[22] DEWEY, John, Art as experience
Sandra Dudley was perhaps also inspired by Dewey in her article, see for instance: DUDLEY, Sandra, “Encountering a Chinese horse”, p.8

[23] HOWES, David, “The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies”

[24] As Richard Martin writes: “When choices proliferate, when interactive screens and calls for participation are a constant presence, we may feel more alienated by a space than absorbed in its displays. We should question, then, whether the additional devices now found in galleries and museums pull us towards objects or distance us from them.” See: MARTIN, Richard, “Inquiry: Attention Seekers”

[25] DI BELLO, Patrizia, KOUREAS, Gabriel, “Introduction”, p.2

[26] As Chris Salter notes, this issue will raise“[…] questions about the relationship between sensory experience and new technologies in which traditional boundaries between bodily sensation and environment are blurred.” See: SALTER, Chris, “Mediations of Sensation”

[27] MARTIN, Richard, “Inquiry: Attention Seekers”; KAISER, Michael, “Engaging Audiences”

[28] The Italian writer sees a radical mutation in our contemporary world: the way we experience and create meaning is shifting dramatically. There is a hollowing out of cultural strongholds, because a technological innovation gives power to a group of people (in his terms the ‘barbarians’), previously not part of the cultural elite, who then commercialize the cultural good they have gained access to, invent a modern language to go with it and emphasize merely the spectacular qualities of it. Wine, books, music, are hence losing their soul. Instead of spending great amounts of time going in-depth, we continuously search for things, experiences, meaning, at the surface. Something has to be acquired or experienced fast, which can only be achieved through simplification and superficialization, and it needs to instantly connect to the next thing, so that all becomes part of one big sensational sequence. See: BARICCO, De Barbaren

[29] Flying Object, “About”

[30] DUDLEY, Sandra, “Encountering a Chinese horse”, p.10

[31] MARTIN, Richard, “Inquiry: Attention Seekers”

[32] MARTIN, Richard, “Inquiry: Attention Seekers”; LEVENT, Nina, PASCUAL-LEONE, Alvaro, “Introduction”, xvii

[33] LEVENT, Nina, PASCUAL-LEONE, Alvaro, “Introduction”, xviii

[34] BARICCO, De Barbaren

 

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