Norwegian Theatre Academy
MIND, THE GAP
SYNAESTHESIA AND CONTEMPORARY LIVE ART PRACTICE
By Amanda Steggell
- A reﬂection of the art research and development project Mind, the gap to meet the requirements of
the National Programme for Research Fellowships in the Arts, Norway.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Explanation of contents and source materials
PART 1 INTRODUCTION
PART 2 SYNAESTHESIA
A mysterious phenomenon
The Syns (are you one too?)
Synaesthesia and culture
PART 3 SYNAESTHESIA AND ART
1700-1990s: A journey through exploratory ideas related to synaesthesia
1995-2006: Mise en scène
This synaesthesia in art – what is it good for?
PART 4 MIND, THE GAP
Artworks (descriptions and reﬂections)
I would like to thank my colleagues and students at Østfold University College, the Norwegian
Theatre Academy where I conducted this research, and my project supervisors Laura Beloff and
Carle Lange. Thanks also to Stahl Stenslie for stepping in at the last minute to ﬁll an unexpected
gap. I would also like to thank the members and candidates of National Programme for Research
Fellowships in the Arts for making this a challenging two years, as well as Arts Council Norway and
Atelier Nord for providing resources for developing The Emotion Organ.
I am also grateful to all the people who have inspired, supported and assisted in various capacities,
particularly my Motherboard colleague and partner, Per Platou, as well as Erich Berger, Aslak
Nygren, Piotr Pajchel and Ellen Røed.
Many thanks to all the people I have worked with in collaborative projects: Annesoﬁe Norn, the
people of Husøy/Træna, Neptun Sports Diving Club, Runar Hodne, Hauk Heyerdahl, John Erik
Riley, Dean Whitbread and Mark Crook, the staff and users of St. Mary Magdalene's Church and
Gardens, Ole Henrik Moe, Sygin Fossnes, Einar Henning Smebye, Einar Fjærvoll and Geir Jenssen.
For help with The Emotion Organ, thanks to:
Harald Beckstrøm, Alexa Døving, Kjell Døving, Peter Elsea, Harald Fetveit, Ivar Frounberg, Bodil
Furu, HC Gilje, Infocus.no, Matthew McCabe, Odd Gytri, Atle Barcley, Emil Høgset, Frank
Knight, Oliver Larkin, Håkon Lindbäck, Martinus Martinuzzi, Ketil Nergaard, Janne Stang Dahl,
Hans Petter og Ole-Christian Schrøder, Jonas Bræin Selvig, Hans Knut Sveen, Simon Steggell and
Finally, I would like to thank the KeyStroke team at the Waag/Society for Old and New Media,
who, through their remarkable software, introduced me to the notion of synaesthesia, and the
members of the UK Synaesthesia Association for providing me with ﬁrst-hand accounts of
synaesthetic experiences that have inspired my work.
Synaesthesia is a fascinating phenomenon. The few who are born with it, the 'Syns', experience very
real and strange sensations - such as the colour of sound or the taste of shapes, without any help
other than their own sensory perceptions and the stimulus of the world around and within them.
Most of them consider it to be as a gift, though at times it can disrupt their lives. Since the ﬁrst
recorded use of the term 'synaesthesia' in 1678 it has also caused disruptions in the ﬁelds of science,
philosophy and the arts, igniting heated debates about whether it really exists as a clinical condition,
or just functions on a metaphorical level. Though modern brain imaging devices have been used to
show that Syn-brains work differently than others do, and new tests have been devised to attempt to
diagnose it, it remains to be a somewhat mysterious and unmeasurable phenomenon with no
universally accepted diagnosis.
For a period spanning over three centuries many artists have been inspired by the notion, devising
ways of simulating it by (re)creating one media out of another, and attempting to communicate their
work to the public as joined sensations. People such as Arthur Rimbaud, Wasilly Kandinsky,
Alexander Scriabin and Vladimir Nabokov are thought to have actually had the condition
themselves. This is a debatable issue and one that is impossible to prove, especially when considering
that Rimbaud (just one example) explored the 'derangement of the senses' by taking psychoactive
substances to achieve a heightened awareness of his world. When Rimbaud wrote “I rouge, U vert,
O bleu” in Les Voyelles (1897) it is difﬁcult to know if it was his syn-side speaking, or whether it was
drugs, metaphor or a combination of all three. While Kandinsky is often cited as the champion of
the modernist art movement, Marcel Duchamp, referred to as the originator of postmodern art, also
dabbled with synaesthetics in his Rotoreliefs of 1935. Could just the very idea of synaesthesia be the
revolutionary ingredient that has changed and fused the shape of arts by testing the limits of normal
perceptions? It is at least an interesting thought.
Interest in synaesthesia has risen to the surface of western consciousness during periods of rapid
technological development and social and cultural change. At other times it has been forgotten.
During the late 19th, early 20th century travelers brought home with them their experiences of The
Orient – religions and philosophies, science, drugs, spices, perfumes, fabrics, music, dance, theatre
and painting. At the same time artists form Russia to America were dabbling in pseudo-religious and
-scientiﬁc dreams enthused with the prospects of a new synthetic, fusionary experience of art where
the divide between material world, image, word and sound would dissolve into a sensuous, spiritual
ecstasy. They exploited technological developments to invent new devices for experimenting with
their ideas. Similar combinations are evident in the intermedial and psychedelic '60s, the
underground acid/techno/house club scene of the late '80s early '90s, and on the cyberstage of the
mid '90s, though in the latter cases synaesthesia was hardly mentioned.
Since the year 2000 a number of retrospective exhibitions thematically curated around synaesthesia
have occurred in Europe and the United States. Several of them have also included the work of
current day artists who mainly use the 'syn' word as a theoretic reference - as being detached, yet
'connected' to it, rather than as an origin or inspiration. Today the interest in sensorial art is rife, but
it is more down to earth and integrated into contemporary art practices - more accepting of
interrelated experiences than concerned with heightened awareness. Could this be because our
world is becoming more connected and we, and our digital media and devices more synaesthetic?
Of course, this is all speculation on my part, which is just what my project is about. Speculating over
ways to apply synaesthetic ideas to my work, putting these ideas into practice, collaborating, and
creating artworks to share with others. But at the heart of my project lies a paradox. While a 'sender'
may infuse their work with real or simulated synaesthetic experiences, there is no guarantee, nor any
substantial way of proving that it is being received as synaesthetic. It is this paradox that has led me
to the question: is it possible to evoke, even for a moment, an experience comparable to 'true'
synaesthesia through art - without resorting to psychedelic drugs? - and to undertake the reckless
task of attempting to do it.
Explanation of contents and source materials
This document constitutes the reﬂection of my practice-based research project Mind, the Gap.
Synaesthesia and contemporary live art practice. It is divided into four main sections. Part 1 is
about the organisation of my project, Parts 2 and 3 are related to my theoretical work, and Part 4
my artistic results.
Greenland is intended to set the scene for my project by describing my local environment.
Part 1 gives a brief introduction into the theme and issues of the project and a short description of
my background. It describes how I have organised my project, the main tools and methods I have
used in my artistic work, the networked resources I have used during the process, and some
comments about documentation.
Part 2 introduces my theme in more detail. First it introduces the use of the word 'synaesthesia' both
as a perceptual phenomenon, and as a notion that has inspired artists. The section, Scanning
history, gives an account of the origins of the term 'synaesthesia' and its appearance throughout
history in various contexts. A mysterious phenomenon describes, in simple terms, a clinical
diagnosis of synaesthesia as proposed by neurologist and author Richard Cyotwic. In the section
The Syns (are you one too?), I describe what it is like to be a synesthete, and draw some links
between the condition and its relationship to emotions, hallucinations, metaphor and creativity. In
Common forms I describe the most proliferate forms of synaesthesia, grapheme-colour
synaesthesia and coloured hearing - the latter resembling the most dominant form of synaesthetic
art. Synaesthesia and culture points out that contrary to the Western world, in other cultures
synaesthesia is hardly known as perceptual phenomenon, but can be said to exists in cultures where
interrelated experiences are commonly accepted. Here I draw on Japanese incense ceremonies as an
example. Synthetic Synaesthesia draws a boundary between a 'true' synaesthetic experience and
artiﬁcially created synaesthesia. It describes how, by using cross-modal devices that transfer real
information of one sense on to another, something comparable to synaesthesia can be artiﬁcially
3: Synaesthesia and art
Part 3 is divided into two main sections. The ﬁrst section is an account of the exploratory journey I
have undertaken as a way of understanding my project and interest in synaesthesia in a broader
artistic context. It describes ideas related to synaesthesia and art, rather than a progressive route
through styles and movements that have come to deﬁne modern art. With a point of departure in
the ﬁrst recorded attempt to build an ocular organ in 1725, it ends in the mid-1990s. The topics I
have pursued have sprung out of my artistic practice, rather than forming a basis for it. Special
emphasis has been put on parts of this story that have particularly inspired me, such as the section
called Mixed signals and media gods, dedicated to Steina and Woody Vasulka.
In the second section, Mise en scène (1995-2006) I set the scene for my own artistic work with
synaesthesia. It departs at the point where I started to incorporate digital and communications
technologies in my work in 1995 and ends in 2006. In this section I expand on my own background
for working with synaesthesia and describe works that I have a close connection to, either by direct
participation, or by becoming familiar with them through conference, seminar and festival
attendance. In the section called This synaesthesia in art- what is it good for?, I reﬂect over
the way the questions I posed in my original project description have changed as a result of this
project, and describe what synaesthesia means to me today.
Sources include informants, printed and electronic texts related to synaesthesia, colour, music,
design and performance theory, new media and media archaeology, artist websites, material
gathered from conference/seminar particpation, as well as diverse catalogues and audio/visual
media such as interviews and documentaries.
In this section I present and reﬂect over the artistic results of my project.
I am in my third floor studio in downtown Oslo. It's called Grønland – or Greenland, but it has
more colours than green. It is a melting point for the multicultural population of Oslo. Right now it
is undergoing a dramatic face lifting and reconstruction process, partly due to the new Opera
House that is being built not far away.
Over the street from me huge cranes swing back and forth with their heavy loads, lit up in the
darker hours with green white and red lights. Cement mixers and drills bump and bonk as my view
of the Oslo fjord becomes hidden by buildings that seem to grow themselves as the days pass. It is
as if the aliens have landed.
Cars swoosh past, police sirens whine, their red lights reflected on the window panes together with
the flashing light-ornaments of Magic City, a shop across the street. It sells trinkets, clothes,
cooking implements, curtains, carpets, cups, plates, shoes, lamps, gold and parabol antennas. I can
hear a gabble of languages and cell phone tones from the street below. When the wind blows in my
direction the pungency of horse manure reaches my nose from the horse show in the stadium down
the road. It is mixed with the smell of kebabs and pizzas of the 24-hour fast food joint in the ground
It is Ramadan. The small mosque on the second floor is full to the brim with men, women and
children gathered to break their fast
with their traditional ritual of food and prayer. Those who
don't fit inside sit on the steps and stand in the corridor with the empty shoes of those able to enter.
Wafts of spicy food, incense and sweaty shoes merge with the sound of the prayer chants, and
become more intense as the evening progresses. From the sound of things, it is a very emotional
From the recording studio on the floor above comes the repetitive efforts of a guitarist who plays
the same riff over and over again, in search of the perfect sound. Only the first floor, home to a
family-run electrical firm, is silent.
At times the cacophony of lights, aromas, movement and sounds is invigorating, at others it feels
like a sensory assault – this synaesthesia of the city.
1 The fast is intended to be an exacting act of deep personal worship in which Muslims seek a raised level of
closeness to God. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to
cleanse the inner soul and free it from harm. Properly observing the fast is supposed to induce a comfortable feeling
of peace and calm. It also allows Muslims to practice self-discipline, sacrifice, as well as sympathy for those who
are less fortunate, intending to make Muslims more generous and charitable. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramadan)
This research looks at synaesthesia from various perspectives. The result of the research project
Mind, the gap, is a compilation of various investigated aspects of my research about synaesthesia
presented in an artistic form.
Synaesthesia is the name given to a clinical condition where sensations are joined resulting in
unusual experiences such as the sound of colours, the taste of shapes or the feel of aromas. Despite
considerable scientiﬁc research there is still little clarity as to what causes synaesthesia. Despite this
uncertainty, for several centuries artists have been seduced by the notion, which suggests a zone
where everything comes together - where each sense exists so closely to another, it seems to become
Simply put, synaesthesia in art refers to the (re)creation of sensations through joined media such as
sounds, scents, colours and shapes. At its most evocative, synaesthetic art aspires to transmit unusual
cross-modal sensations as it is made (in) public. It is a live process. It is live art.
In Mind, the Gap I have tuned myself in to the many mutinous suggestions that synaesthesia has
made over the centuries, cycling between historical and contemporary perspectives to generate new
tensions in my own art-making process. The main issues that I have raised in my project are
speculative to the point of being absurd.
● How big is the gap between true synaesthesia (personal) and synaesthesia in art (created by
● Is it really possible to evoke, even for a moment, an experience comparable to true
synaesthesia through art - without using psychedelic drugs?
● What methods can I devise to ﬁnd out?
These questions are designed to be answered, not through scientiﬁc means, but as a provocation to
2 While live art was once most often connected to performance art as a genre or offspring of the visual arts in the
1980s, a definition of live art as it is exists today could be: a term given to an intrinsically live practice that
embraces a diversity of disciplines and discourses related to the body, space and time. It is “a research engine where
the limits of art and ideas are tested and new possibilities imagined”. (From: Live Culture at Tate Modern. Fluid
Landscapes, Lois Keidan and Daniel Brine, Live Art Development Agency, UK, 2005
push myself through Alice's looking glass, and into unfamiliar ground; to explore the intersections of
the sensory domains of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling, their possible synaesthetic
manifestations in the material world, and the consequent emotive responses they can evoke.
Curator and researcher Annet Dekker has mapped the journey of synaesthetic performance to the
history of the live image, its connection to sound, and the circumstances that led to the emergence of
the Video Jockey (VJ) in the underground House club scene of the late 1980's – 90's. It is a period
that I have direct experience with, initially as an avid choreography student working out on the
dance ﬂoor with my friends. Then, as a Video Jockey using my computer, MIDI devices and video
equipment to make live video mixes to the beat of the music, combining existing media with live
video and abstract, generative visual media in keeping with the development of technology and the
post-modern attitude of the time. Working mainly through the live art group Motherboard (founded
in 1996 with my artistic partner Per Platou), I left the traditional dance scene to collaborate with
others with backgrounds in visual art, music, dance, theatre, light design and ﬁlm creating
participatory installations and performance events, not only for clubs, but also urban spaces, galleries
and theatres, often using the internet to join spaces from several continents together. Though I
hardly new its name, synaesthesia was working for us.
The diagram below is a visual representation of how I have organised my project.
My project is based at the Norwegian Theatre Academy (NTA) which is part of Øsftfold University
College. It is a small institution with around 25 students. It offers two courses of study - scenography
and acting at Bachelor level. Its focus is on Visual Theatre, where impulses from the ﬁeld of visual
arts are integrated with teaching methods in the performing arts; a cross-disciplinary approach to
theatre studies that is unique in Norway.
I have been employed at NTA as a research fellow since May 2003 where I have both contributed to
developing the Multi Media Module (a compulsory course for students), supervised student
worklabs, and acted as a consultant for student projects.
In January 2005 my project, Mind, the Gap was accepted into the new National Programme for
Research Fellowships in the Arts, which provided a formal framework for my project within the
academic sphere. The fellowship programme is a new recruitment initiative to enable artistic
research and development work at a high level, where successful candidates will be considered as
qualiﬁed for the academic post of Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor. Requirements for
successfully completing this programme are based on an evaluation of artistic results at international
level, documentation of process and results, and a critical reﬂection in relation to these activities.
The evaluation is conducted by independent, international appraisal committee of at least three
Candidates of the Fellowship Programme are required to have two supervisors. As I already have six
years of higher education in dance and choreography I selected supervisors who could bring other
perspectives to the understanding of my work. My main supervisor, Laura Beloff, has worked
extensively with electronic media and communications systems from the perspective of the visual
Most importantly, she has assisted me in deﬁning the limits of my project in relation to both
the formal framework of the academic system and the central theme of my project, synaesthesia. My
secondary supervisor, Associate Professor Carle Lange, works as scenographer and performance
artist. He has acted as Dean of the Norwegian Theatre Academy since September 2006, prior to
which his role at the Academy was as Head of Scenography. Through my contact with him as well
as working at NTA, I have particularly beneﬁted from gaining a greater insight to approaches of
scenography that I have applied to my own work.
The practical artistic work of my project has been carried out at the NTA, Atelier Nord and from
my studio in Oslo at various stages in my project. In the latter stages I have mainly worked from my
studio, which I set up as an experimental laboratory space, open for visits from students and staff of
the NTA, supervisors, collaborators, consultants, other interested parties and 'testers'.
3 Since supervising my project Laura has left her position as Professor of media arts at the National Academy of Fine
Arts in Oslo to pursue her own artistic interests from her new base in Helsinki.
Atelier Nord, Oslo
Atelier Nord is a project base for unstable art forms, such as electronic and new media art. Its aim is
to improve conditions for these art forms, and to maintain a critical reﬂection in relation to them. Its
work consists of producing and supporting projects that promote these goals.
Atelier Nord has provided me with with resources for developing skills in physical computing. These
include workshop participation (introductory courses to programming with Max/MSP/Jitter
sensor building, and project-based courses for conceptual development), studio space and
consultancy services. Artist and inventor Erich Berger has assisted me with the physical aspects of
my project such as sensor/interface design and construction, while visual artist Piotr Pajchel has
assisted me with the programming work I have carried out in the last stages of my project.
Collaborating in three artworks produced by Motherboard has provided an opportunity to test both
practical and conceptual aspects of the work I have developed through my research in synaesthesia
in a public forum. Feedback from both the public, the critics, my collaborators and supervisors has
proved a valuable resource for the development of my project.
I have designed my project website for a variety of functions. Primarily it is a documentation of my
process and artistic results. Secondly it is a tool for communications with my supervisors and for
informing and accrediting the numerous people, both in Norway and abroad, who have assisted me
in my project. Thirdly it has functioned as a public site for disseminating my project to a wide
audience, and includes resources and references for the beneﬁt of others.
During the space of my fellowship period I have traveled to various locations in Norway, Europe
and the USA and in varying capacities - conference/seminar/festival participation, research and
inspiration, and project dissemination.
The Emotion Organ
The Emotion Organ is the main manifestation of my artistic research. It is a simulacrum machine, a
pump organ from 1895 transformed into a new and unique instrument. When set in action by a
player it produces a cacophony of combined sensory output – sound, projected colour, light, aroma,
4 Max/MSP is a graphical programming environment for music, audio and mixed media. Jitter adds specific video
functions to Max. Max/MSP has been used by artists of various disciplines for a period of about 15 years.
vibration and movement. It is through the invention and construction of this machine that I have
conducted research into synaesthesia, both in practice and theory. Through this process I have
attempted to answer the question; is it possible to evoke something comparable to a genuine
synaesthetic experience through art without using drugs?
Below is a visualisation of The Emotion Organ in relation to my research project, Mind, the gap.
The Emotion Organ fulﬁlls several functions. It is intended as:
● A conceptual tool for generating practical artistic work, developing skills, knowledge, and
testing various artistic concepts and contexts in relation to my theme.
● A performance instrument for virtuoso players.
● An art object that embodies ideas of synaesthesia and art from both the past and the present.
My theoretical research has sprung out of, and fed in to, my artistic work. In fact it is hard to
separate the one from the other. An example is my research into the most accepted clinical diagnosis
of synaesthesia today (described in Part 2) as an inspiration for shaping the relationship between the
player, machine and the outcome of the meeting between the two.
Physical computing is an important part of my project. It is about 'sensing', both in terms of
designing and constructing technological systems for detecting gestures from the real world, and
sensing the outcomes through 'listening' with the body. Over the past two years I have smelt my
singed hair and ﬁngers when attempting to solder small components, and got high on experiments
with aromas, colours, kinetics, tastes and sounds, both individually and in varying combinations.
I have tested my work on others both in my workspace, and through collaborating in related
projects. From these activities I have collected subjective responses to my work from family, friends,
colleagues and supervisors as well as public critiques. I have fed this response back into my project.
Collaborative art works
Below is a list of the collaborative live art productions I have taken part in:
● The 8
Sister, produced by Motherboard, Træna, North Norway, July 2005. A site speciﬁc
underwater sculpture whose 'true' form is manifested on an echosounder display.
● Imagining St Mary Magdalene, produced by FUNK.CO.UK, London, July 2005. A site
speciﬁc 'living' church window fresco related to visual music.
● Eraser's Edge, produced by Ny Musikk for Ultima 2005 Festival, Oslo, October 2005. A
performance related to visual music in a concert setting.
● IKON, produced by Motherboard, Grusomhetens Teater, Oslo, December 2005. A black
box theatre production in the form of a monologue that applied a synaesthetic live art mode
to both process and performance.
● In Death Valley everywhere we looked, gently waving stands of golden desert
blossoms were dancing in the wind, their daisy-like faces punctuated with
vibrant orange centers, produced by Motherboard for Galleri F15 in Moss, May 2005.
A synaesthetic installation presented in the context of a white cube.
Both The Emotion Organ and the works listed above are described and discussed in more detail in
Part 4: Artworks.
The issue of how to document performance events that involve live processes and rely on the
presence of the public to complete the work has long since been problematic. Video documentation
5 I have even tested the synthesized smell of hashish to see if it could evoke an intoxicating effect on clandestine
smokers, but to no avail. The aroma did not live up to its descriptor.
gives restricted perspectives of works that are intended to be experienced from various perspectives
and are context-sensitive. I have therefore chosen a composite form of documentation including
web-based and DVD video documentation. In addition The Emotion Organ, as a physical object, is
itself a relevant form of documentation, though it can only be viewed locally. The Emotion Organ,
as a live art event, will be documented as video during my ﬁnal presentation in January 2007.
The main distributable form of documentation of my process and artistic results has taken the form
of a website: http://www.notam02.no/motherboard/synaesthesia. The portal gives a representation
of its contents pointing to a diary of signiﬁcant events, formal documents submitted to the
Programme for Research Fellowships in the Arts, documentation of artistic results and a section
dedicated to relevant links. The website includes texts, diagrams, photographs and video
documentation of both process and results.
As a supplement to web-based documentation I have edited video material of the collaborative
artworks I have taken part in. These are presented in DVD format, each with its own style according
to the nature of the work. Due to an unfortunate occurrence, the only source of video
documentation of my participation in Eraser's Edge is unusable. This work is documented with text,
audio and visual material on my project website.
Synaesthesia means “the union of the senses”.
In clinical terms synesthesia is a rare condition that causes the information received by one sense to
be experienced simultaneously and involuntarily by another sense. People with synaesthesia can
'taste' shapes, 'hear' colors, or experience other sensory cross-wirings and consequent sensations.
The notion has inspired artists for several centuries, suggesting a zone where each sense exists so
closely to another that it seems to become the other. Since even before the ﬁrst colour-organ was
devised to create a visual equivalent to music in the 18th C, it has raised questions about whether
the arts can be divided into disciplines that work with separately perceived stimuli, or whether these
disciplines are a part of a larger system that unites the different disciplines. Simply put, synaesthesia
in art refers to the (re)creation of sensations through joined media such as sounds, scents, colours
Historically synaesthetic art has referred to a wide range of artistic experiments that synthesize
different art disciplines evident in genres such as visual music, abstract painting and ﬁlm,
experimental theatre, symbolist poetry, science ﬁction and intermedial, electronic and generative art.
The creation of synaesthetic art has often involved new inventions that can transfer the qualities of
one sensory domain onto another.
One of the earliest links to synaesthesia is via the ancient Greek medics' use of the word 'sympathy'
which they used to describe how one stimulus gives rise to a sensation in another sensory mode. It
also meant an understanding between people.
One of the ﬁrst records of the use of the word 'synaesthesia' can be found in 1678 when R.
Cudworth published The True Intellectual System of the Universe
. In the 1700's an English medic
called Robert Whytt wrote about the 'sympathy of the nerves' as the source for reﬂex sensitivities.
Another English, ophthalmologist Thomas Woolhouse reported meeting a blind man who perceived
sound-induced coloured visions. In 1725, the ocular harpsichord - an instrument that played sound
and light simultaneously - was invented in France by Jesuit priest, Louis-Bertrand Castel.
6 The true intellectual system of the universe : the first part, wherein all the reason and philosophy of atheism is
confuted and its impossibility demonstrated. Ralph Cudworth, London : Printed for R.Royston, 1678.
During the 19
C, synaesthesia attracted the attention of psychologists, artists and natural
philosophers. The German poet and bureaucrat Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) wrote
about the correspondences between color and other senses in his book Theory of Color (1810). Francis
Galton (1822-1911), British psychologist and avid African explorer, published articles on both colour
associations, statistics on mental imagery and visualised numerals that referred to synaesthesia.
Similar topics were covered in France and America. Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930), the ﬁrst
woman president of the American Psychological Association and champion of women's rights,
wrote, performed and supervised studies on association, memory, sensation, aesthetics, and
synaesthesia. The term 'synaesthesis' was also used as a form of literary criticism.
In the ﬁrst half of the 1900's scientiﬁc writings and research on synaesthesia covered topics such as
Artiﬁcial psychoses produced by mescaline, Visual pain and visual audition, Synaesthestic factors in judging the voice,
On motor synesthesias, Unseen drama and imagery and Tone shapes, A novel type of synaesthesia extended the
scope of synaesthetic writing. Sensory fusion became a frequent idea in art, literature and music.
Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) expressed his own synaesthesia in his symphony
Prometheus written in 1910-11. Composed for an orchestra with piano, organ and choir, it also
included a muted key-board that controlled the play of coloured light in the form of beams, clouds,
and other shapes, ﬂooding the concert hall and culminating in a bright white light. Another Russian,
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) explored the relationship between sound, light and movement. He
used musical terms to describe his paintings as 'improvisations' or 'compositions' and spoke of 'the
vibrations of the soul'. The poetry of both Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) and Arthur Rimbaud
(1854-1891) had direct references to synaesthetic perceptions.
While art continued to be informed by the notion of synaesthesia through experimental practices
referred to as visual music, color music and lumia, the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten it,
and continued to forget it for the next four decades. This was partly due to the preference for
behaviourism as a way of interpreting what people do. Basically, behaviourism in psychology focused
on observable behaviour. Simply put, if you can't see something, it doesn't exist. As no one else could
see what a synaesthete saw, behaviourists dismissed synaesthesia (and cognitive science) because it
was hard to prove. It is hard to say exactly when behaviourism lost its power over the cognitive
approach, but synaesthesia re-surfaced once again in the 1960's, often in connection with the use of
hallucinogenic drugs (especially LSD and hashish), rock and pop concerts, happenings and a youth
culture bent on exploring a radically new way of perceiving the world. In 1968 one of the most
famous books about clinical synaesthesia was published - The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a
Vast Memoryby physicist A.R Luria
. It describes a man who made a living by exploiting the the way
his synaesthesia enhanced his memory. He had ﬁve sensory synaesthetic connections, an incredible
ability to remember data, but trouble remembering a word if its sound did not ﬁt its meaning. It also
describes how his memory involved fascinating aspects of having to learn how to forget, and his
methods of problem-solving.
By the 1980's, as the cognitive revolution peaked, synaesthesia was back in business. In America the
neurologist and author Richard E. Cytowic promoted the idea that we are all born as Syns, but that
our abilities diminish as we grow older. Synaesthesia, he says, is “abnormal” only in being statistically rare.
It is, in fact, a normal brain process that is prematurely displayed to consciousness in a minority of individuals.
contributing to returning synaesthesia to the scientiﬁc mainstream
, he also made his ideas accessible
to a wider public through his popular science book, “The Man Who Tasted Shapes”.
Rapid developments of new experimental techniques and technologies in both psychology and
human neuroscience caused the interest in synaesthesia as a legitimate topic for scientiﬁc
investigation to be rekindled - not only for its own sake, but how studying the anomaly can spread
more light on how everyone's brains work. In the mid '90s the Internet provided a channel of
communication where people with synaesthesia (some of them researchers themselves) could easily
get together to compare notes. Organisations were formed, such as the UK and American
Synaesthesia Associations. They began to form their own conferences so they could ﬁnd out more
about their unusual abilities and to make active contributions to the ongoing research. Synaesthesia
has captured the interest of a wider public, particularly in the UK, through a series radio and TV
broadcasts produced by BBC. The UK Synaesthesia Association Conference in April 2006
included lectures by prominent researchers such as Edward M. Hubbard, Jamie Ward, V.S.
Ramachandran and David Eagleman, to mention but a few. The diversity of the subjects covered
revealed the complexity involved in unraveling the mysteries of synaesthesia, and the
interdisciplinary scope of synaesthetic research. The conference also included presentations by artists
and people with synaesthesia.
7 The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a vast memory by A.R. Luria, has recently been republished in 2006
by Havard Books, ISBN 0674576225.
8 Richard E. Cytowic, Synesthesia: Phenomenology And Neuropsychology, A Review of Current Knowledge, (c)
Richard E. Cytowic 1995. Published in PSYCHE, 2(10), July 1995
9 Richard Cytowic led synaesthetic research in the United States with Larry Marks, while in England synaesthetic
research was led by Simon Baron-Cohen and Jeffrey Gray.
10 The Association brings scientists, researchers, students and synaesthetes together and provides verifiable and
reliable information regarding the condition for the media and any other interested parties.
A mysterious phenomenon
In medical terms synaesthesia is a rare condition in which two or more of the senses that are
normally experienced separately are simultaneously and automatically joined together. Some
synaesthetes experience colour when they hear sounds or read words and numbers. Others
experience tastes, smells, shapes or touches in a multitude of combinations. However, the do not
work both ways, meaning that if you can 'hear' colour, you cannot automatically 'see' sound.
Synaesthetic sensations are experienced as being durable, very real, often profound and can trigger
emotional responses. They are not elaborate and pictorial, but more simple and abstract. They can
be projected outside, but close to the body (in visual synaesthesia, like a hallucination) or
experienced internally - in the mind's eye, so to speak. A stimulus does not have to be physically
present to trigger synaesthetic sensations. They can also be triggered by so-called 'inner speech'.
The Syns (are you one too?)
Synaesthetes often refer to themselves simply as the 'Syns'. Having discovered that the way they
experience the world was special, attempts to seek answers from doctors for the cause of their
unusual sensations often result in frustration, raising suspicions as to whether these sensations were
caused by taking psychedelic drugs, or whether psychological problems were the cause of their
Generally speaking, Syns are more sensitive to their surroundings than others. One Syn who took
part in the UK Synaesthesia Association Annual Conference (2006) spoke about the emotional
impact of experiencing tastes with speciﬁc words, and the difﬁculty of maintaining relationships with
women whose names evoke a bad taste. One partner even changed her name in an attempt to
rectify this situation – without avail. The taste evoked by her original name stuck to her. Cooking
could also be difﬁcult with potato-tasting words, and sipping sherry while watching sherry
advertisements on the TV was like a proper LSD trip without taking LSD.
If someone said
“chicken” while he was eating chicken the experience of both the 'real' taste and the syn taste of
chicken could be a bit confusing – a bit of a sensory overload.
11 Hallucinogenic drugs such as mescaline and LSD can cause temporary states of synaesthesia, but the cross-wired
connections do not remain constant as they do in synaesthetes. Other temporary states of synaesthesia can be caused
by migraines, epilepsy and sometimes briefly experienced at the moment of waking from sleep.
The description of his ability seems to resonate in the infamous phrase from Romeo and Juliet:
What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
While this one short phrase embodies the central issue and tragedy of the play, it is also said to be a
pun on the terrible stench of the Globe Theatre. Puns aside, the phrase above is ﬁrst and foremost a
and not necessarily evidence of synaesthesia. However, Professor Ramachandran is
particularly interested in metaphors as a type of creativity that is used in everyday speech, often
involving links to the senses.
“Our language is replete with what we might call synaesthetic metaphors, where you are sort of
linking different sensory systems in metaphorical usage. As, for example, you say loud shirt. My
shirt's not making any noise, why do you call it loud shirt, you instantly understand what I'm talking
about. It heightens your appreciation of its vivid colour. Or when you say cheddar cheese is sharp.
Obviously, cheese isn't sharp, if you rub it on your skin it's soft but then you say well no no no, I
mean it tastes sharp but there's a circularity and we're using a tactile adjective to describe a taste. I
think that use of metaphor may rely on mechanisms similar to those used in synaesthesia. One
highly speculative idea is that maybe the same genes which give rise to synaesthesia, when expressed
more diffusely, may be more prone to make these links across different conceptual realms, therefore
make you more creative, more imaginative, make you more prone to metaphor in other words."
Below are two images that he uses to describe how the connection between languages and shapes
may not be arbitrary - or strictly metaphoric.
12 (From Romeo and Juliet - II, ii, 1-2) In this phrase Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless
convention, and that she loves the person who is called "Montague", not the Montague name and not the Montague
family. Out of his passion for Juliet Romeo rejects his family name and vows, as Juliet asks, to "deny (his) father"
and instead be "new baptized" as Juliet's lover.
13 The origins of the term 'metaphor' can be found in the late 15th century: from French 'métaphore', via Latin from
Greek 'metaphora', and 'metapherein' - to transfer. The Latin prefix'Meta', means 'beyond' or 'transcending'.
14 See Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese, Professor Vilayanur S Ramachandran, The Reith Lectures, Lecture 4, BBC
Radio 4, 2003: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2003/lecture4.shtml
Take a look at each image above, and decide which one is Booba and which one is Kiki. Tests have
shown that as many as 98% of people agree that the image on the left is Kiki and the image on the
right is Booba.
Another Syn spoke about her grapheme and music note/colour synaesthesia, an ability that she
seems to have passed down to her two Syn children. She described the difﬁculty that her children
were experiencing for gaining acceptance for their grapheme-colour synaesthesia at school. Rather
than being encouraged to use their unusual abilities to aid their learning experience
, they were
looked upon as an irritating hindrance. That synaesthesia seems to be passed down from generation
to generation suggests that there is also a genetic explanation for the condition.
The image below is a test used to describe the reality of the experience of colour-grapheme
. It may help to illustrate what their experience is like.
A non-Syn will take longer to distinguish the 2's from the 5's in the left hand image, while a Syn with
these cross-wired connections will automatically see the numbers with their corresponding colours,
and rapidly identify a triangle shape in the arrangement of the 2's (as depicted in the image to the
15 Booba and Kiki is based on a psychological experiment originally designed by Wolfgang Köhler in 1929.
Ramachandran , and many others use the two images as an example of how these connections may not be arbitrary.
16 “Researchers have begun to investigate the effects of grapheme-colour synaesthesia on numerical cognition. A study
by Dixon and colleagues (2000) suggests that the concept of a number alone is sufficient to trigger its synaesthetic
colour (known as a photism). This finding raises some interesting questions. If the very concept of a number can
trigger a photism, what effect might this have during various processes of mathematical calculation when multiple
numbers are being compared and manipulated? Though synaesthetes commonly report difficulties in the area of
mathematics, others find it can be an advantage in some ways. For instance, many synaesthetes use their perceptions
as a mnemonic device to help them remember numerical information such as phone numbers, addresses or dates.”
Jennifer Green, Synaesthesia and number: http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/synaesthesia/number.html
17 This test is devised by E. M Hubbard.
right). When this test was run on Syns, but with the numbers replaced by Roman numerals (II for 2,
V for 5) they did not retain their syn-colour. It is the shape that counts.
While there are numerous kinds of synaesthesia, grapheme-colour synaesthesia is one of the most
common manifestations of the anomaly. Studies related to grapheme-colour synaesthesia suggest
that there may be a neural basis for the condition. One theory suggests that different parts of our
brains are dedicated to perform speciﬁc functions, and that the regions involved in identifying letters
and numbers appear to lie next to a region dedicated to colour processing. The added sensation of
seeing colours when looking at graphemes might be due to a heightened "cross-activation" in the
colour processing region. This heightened activity may also explain why the connection between
these areas have been left open in Syns.
The other common syn connection is coloured hearing, and it is this aspect of synaesthesia – the
fusion of sound and image - that, for several centuries, has dominated the production of artworks
inspired by the phenomenon. Generally speaking other cross-wired sensory connections (such as the
feel of aromas) have been left to play second ﬁddle.
Synaesthesia and culture
Though synaesthesia has been the subject of research and debate for several centuries in the western
world, in other cultures synaesthesia as a perceptual phenomenon is hardly known. However,
neurologist Richard Cytowic writes about olfactory synaesthesia in Japanese culture in terms of
“Japanese culture understands 'synesthesia' as metaphoric whereas it hardly knows the perceptual
phenomenon. Possible explanations include a cultural attitude of interrelated experience, Buddhism,
and Nishida Kitarô’s type of phenomenal philosophy.
Taste and smell account for only a small
percentage of synesthesiae, but hold important clues. Aroma distinctively modiﬁes emotions and
behavior unconsciously and automatically. Neural networks explain how fragrance–activated
multisensory perceptions and memories can subsequently inspire creative associations, metaphors,
18 About Nishida Kitarô, professor of philosophy John Maraldo writes that he was “the most significant and influential
Japanese philosopher of the twentieth-century. His work is pathbreaking in several respects: it established in Japan
the creative discipline of philosophy as practiced in Europe and North America; it enriched that discipline by
infusing Anglo-European philosophy with Asian sources of thought; it provided a new basis for philosophical
treatments of East Asian Buddhist thought; and it produced novel theories of self and world with rich implications
for contemporary philosophizing.“
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005 (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nishida-kitaro/)
and verbal concepts. The early engagement of limbic structures by olfaction (only three synapses
removed from hippocampus instead of the usual ﬁve) stresses implicit processing, which is precisely
what makes it a promising gateway to other cognitive domains.”
The Japanese incense ceremony, 'Kodo'
, provides one example of synaesthetic metaphor in
Japanese culture. Kodo is, in practice, a number of things - theatre, a social gathering, a game, a
mindfulness practice, and a celebration of, and inquiry into the aromatics of aloeswood.
Modern day Kodo ceremonies draw on a centuries-old tradition of evaluating and classifying
incense, and include several games and rules for appreciating and 'listening' to up to six aromatic
The term 'listening' is used to symbolize the mindfulness and attention that must be
paid to the qualities of each aroma used in the ceremony.
The incense games are often based on seasonal themes, history, classic literature, poetry, or travel.
They are not contests but simply methods for enjoying the fragrances and reawakening and
sharpening the sense of smell. While both department stores and cultural centres throughout Japan
provide opportunities to participate in games and ceremonies led by a Kodo Lecturer or master,
people also get together to learn the basics and play the games at friendly house parties.
The ceremony typically takes place in a room where up to ﬁfteen people are gathered, sitting in a
square with the teishu (talker), scorekeeper, and komoto (incense presenter) at the front. Each
participant has a score sheet to record her impressions or observations of her experiences of the
aromas to be presented. The komoto prepares a cup of rice ash, in which is buried a piece of hot
bamboo charcoal. A small mica plate is placed over the charcoal and a tiny piece of aromatic wood
is laid on the mica. As the wood heats up it emits its aroma.
19 From the abstract, Aromas. Implicit gateway to cognition, Richard E. Cytowic, presented at various conferences
20 Kodo is translated as "the way of incense" or "incense appreciation." Koh means "incense" and do means "the way
of "or "appreciation of." It is also written as koh dou or koh do. (From: http://www.scentsofearth.com/Kodo/What-
21 The traditional Japanese classifications of Aloeswood is called Rikkoku, literally translated as the "Six Countries of
Aloeswood". The six classifications are as follows: Kyara - A gentle and dignified smell with a touch of bitterness.
The fragrance is like an aristocrat in its elegance and gracefulness. Rakoku - a sharp and pungent smell similar to
sandalwood. Its smell is generally bitter, and reminds one of a warrior. Manaka - smells light and enticing, changing
like the mood of a woman with bitter feelings. None of the five qualities (tastes) are easily detectable. The fragrance
is of good quality if it disappears quickly. Manaban - mostly sweet. The presence of sticky oil on a mica piece is
often a sign that the fragrance is Manaban. The smell is coarse and unrefined, just like that of a peasant. Sumotara -
sour at the beginning and end. Sometimes mistaken for Kyara, it has something, however, distasteful and ill-bred
about it, like a servant disguised as a noble person. Sasora - cool and sour. Good-quality Sasora is mistaken for
kyara, especially when it first begins to burn. Sometimes it is so light and faint that one may think the smell has
disappeared. It reminds one of a monk. (These descriptions are taken from "The Book of Incense," by Kiyoko Morit,
as found on: http://www.scentsofearth.com/Kodo/Rikkoku.htm)
One of the ﬁrst skills to learn is how to hold the Kodo Cup and to listen properly to the ﬁve deﬁned
qualities or 'tastes' of each aroma – sweet, sour, hot, salty and bitter
. The hand is used over the cup
to produce a 'listening line' that directs the aroma to the nostrils. To listen properly to each of the
ﬁve deﬁned qualities of aroma, ﬁve shapes must be made by the hand over the bowl.
Listening to aroma
The circle on the left the shows the "True Ash" yang pattern of the Oie ryu. The Kiki-suji [Listening line] is a small triangle without lines as
indicated above The opening of the hand is formed so that only the "Listening Line" is visible through the opening. The photo on the right
shows the same pattern reﬂected in the rice ash of the incense cup.(Images from www.scentsofearth.com)
22 Sweet resembles the smell of honey or concentrated sugar. Sour resembles the smell of plumbs or other acidic fruit.
Hot resembles the smell of burning peppers on a fire. Salty resembles the smell of a towel after wiping perspiration
from the brow or the lingering smell of ocean water when seaweed is dried on a fire. Bitter resembles the smell of
bitter herbal medicine when it is mixed or boiled.
By using cross-modal devices to transfer real information of one sense (sight, sound, touch, taste, or
smell) and map it onto other senses, something comparable to synaesthesia can be artiﬁcially
An example of synthetic synaesthesia is ultrasound that renders 2d images of depth via sound waves.
It was ﬁrst used for medical purposes for locating and diagnosing cancerous growths in 1942, and
later to determine the health of a baby in pregnancy and to navigate the depths of the ocean.
Modern imaging devices that visualize electrical activity in the brain by mapping movement on to
colour have aided neuroscientists in their quest to convince the world that syn-brains act differently
from those of non-syns.
Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and Ecstasy can also evoke and enhance synaesthetic experiences,
though unlike 'true' synaesthesia their effects are temporal, and the cross-wired sensations that are
experienced do not remain constant, but can vary from trip to trip.
Artworks that aspire to evoke something comparable to a synsaesthetic experience in the public may
also be described in terms of synthetic synaesthesia – or synaesthesia created by artistic intention.
SYNAESTHESIA AND ART
In this research synaesthetic art refers to works that attempt to fuse the senses in unusual ways, and
aims to communicate them to the public directly as joined sensations – as experiences rather than
observations of art objects. That synaesthestic art needs to be experienced directly rather than
observed from a distance suggests that the role of the public is participatory.
Over a period spanning three centuries artists and inventors have investigated and experimented
with both perceptual and emotional mechanisms of synaesthetic experiences. Many of them have
claimed (or are thought) to be Syns themselves, including Arthur Rimbaud, Wassily Kandinsky,
Alexander Scriabin, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Hockney. Others have let themselves be inspired
by the phenomenon. Though traces of synaesthesia in art are evident in many genres, the most
dominant forms relate to the audio-visual sphere.
A journey through exploratory ideas related to synaesthesia
This description of the history of synaesthetia in art follows a line of exploratory ideas related to
synaesthesia, rather than describing a progressive route through styles and movements that have
come to deﬁne modern art. At times the boundaries between art, popular culture and invention are
blurred. The story is by no means complete. It seeks to form a path that leads towards the subject of
this research - synaesthesia and contemporary live art practice.
The earliest recored attempt to build an ocular keyboard instrument
The earliest recorded attempt to build an ocular keyboard instrument is the ocular harpsichord of
Louis-Betrand Castel in 1725. He was devoted to mathematics and natural philosophy and
attempted to build an instrument that would illustrate, and hence prove his theories on the melodies
His aim was to create an instrument that produced coloured light out of sound - an
instrument that would enable the deaf to see.
His instrument consisted of a frame above a normal harpsichord; the frame contained 60 or 80 (the
actual number is disputable) small windows each with a different colored-glass pane and a small
curtain attached by pullies to one speciﬁc key, so that each time that key was struck, that curtain
would lift brieﬂy to show a ﬂash of corresponding color.
23 He opposed Newton's theories, leaning rather towards psychological and philospohical implications.
24 In his paper The ocular harpsichord of Louis-Bertrand Castel: The science and aesthetics of an eighteenth-centure
cause celebre, Martin Franssen describes how enlightenment society was dazzled by this invention, and flocked to
Not satisﬁed, he designed an improved model that used some 500 candles with reﬂecting mirrors to
provide enough light for a larger audience - to immerse them in a collective experience. Castel
envisaged that every home in Paris would one day have such an instrument – and that a factory
would be built to produce them, but his ideas were hard to realise, extending beyond the technology
of his time. Reports suggest that he was never satisﬁed with the results of his practical work. Despite
eye witness reports
, without any remaining physical relic of his invention there remains a shadow of
doubt as to whether it ever really existed at all.
He was not just interested in the music of colours, but also the music of tastes, touches and smells.
1o. Take some forty scent bottles ﬁlled with different perfumes, cover them with valves, and arrange them so
that the pressing of the keys open these valves: there you are for the nose.
2o. On a board arrange objects that can make different impressions on the hand, and then let the hand come
down on each of them: there you are for the touch.
3o. Arrange likewise some objects that taste ﬁne, interspersed with bitter objects. But am I talking to people
who have to be told everything?
Despite this, and the fact that Castel was not an artist, his ideas reﬂected notions of art that were to
emerge even when his ideas had been forgotten.
Panoramas and dioramas – active experiences of space
In the late 1700s panorama paintings shown on cylindrical screens and viewed from the inside
became popular in England. They presented the public with a chance to view other worlds,
providing an illusion of an active experience of space. Then, in the early 1800s the ﬁrst Dioramas
were screened in Europe and America – large screens placed in front of audiences with images that
changed every 15 minutes or so to the accompaniment of music, and with special smoke and light
effects. Though inﬂuential in their time they were regarded as outside the scope of art, but they
could represent an early form of synaesthetic performance.
In 1822 the Englishman Thomas De Quincey wrote The Confessions of an English Opium Eater in which
he discusses his experiences with the ‘oriental drug’ and his explorations as an East End flaneur in
his Paris studio for demonstrations – inventions where not supposed to depict art, or take you to another place, they
were tools for artists to depict nature, and it was not until the Romantic era that this view changed.
25 Amongst others, the German composer Telemann traveled to France to see it, composed some pieces to be played on
the Ocular Harpsichord, and wrote a German-language book about it.
26 As quoted by Martin Franssen in The ocular harpsichord of Louis-Bertrand Castel: The science and aesthetics of an
eighteenth-centure cause celebre. Published in Tractrix Yearbook for the History of Science, Medicine, Technology
and Mathematics, 1991.
similar terms. He describes in detail the hallucinations he experienced ranging from the euphoric to
the terrifying, taking him out of London's East End to China and the Malays. Nightly spectacles of
“more than earthly splendor” and “theatres (that) opened and lighted within (his) brain”.
the end he is unable to control his visions, which become increasingly real and terrifying.
During this period Ada Lovelace (1815-52), daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron King,
collaborated with Charles Babbage to conceptualize and design a programmable computer. The
Analytical Engine, as it was named, would use punched cards to "read" instructions and data for
solving mathematical problems.
As a young adult Ada became sick, and (unknowingly) developed an addiction to prescribed drugs
including laudanum, morphine, and opium. About laudanum she said, “the drug had a remarkable
affect on my eyes, seeming to free them, & to make them open and cool”. Opium, on the other hand,
made her philosophical, and opened up “vast expanses, orders and harmonies conjured by
Ada Lovelace was a brilliant mathematician and a lover of all forms of communication - from the
new electrical telegraph system
to music, poetry, painting and languages. She was a visionary, and
in contrast to Babbage's more sober, practical aims, conceived of a computational machine that
could erode the distinction between the “mental and the material”, and could generate new fusions
and forms of art.
Work for the future
In the 1800s numerous attempts were made to develop instruments for colour-music performances,
based on various tone-color correspondence schemes. Electricity opened new possibilities for
projected light, which were exploited by inventors like Jameson, Kastner, Bainbridge Bishop and
In 1893 Rimington even managed to patent the name 'colour-organ' and had
quite some success with his colour-music performances of works by composers such as Bach, Chopin
- and Wagner.
In 1849 Wagner proposed the grand idea of a 'Gesamtkunstwerk' (total art work) in his article The
27 As quoted in Writing on drugs, Sadie Plant, p. 53, published by Picador, 1999, ISBN-0312278748
28 As quoted in Zeros + Ones, Sadie Plant, p. 30, published by Fourth Estate Limited, 1997, ISBN - 185702386
29 At the age of 12 she made plans to write a book entitled Flyology about the benefits of flying. She told her mother
that she would “be able to fly about with all your letters and messages and shall be able to carry them with much
more speed than the post or any other terrestrial contrivances.” See Zeros + Ones, Sadie Plant, p. 73.
30 In a paper read at St. James's Hall on June 6, 1895, Wallace Rimington decribed his visions of a “New Color
Music.” His aim was to treat colour in a new way giving it a mobility similar to that of music, and to “place its
production under as easy and complete control as the production of sound in Music.”
Art-work of the Future. Wagner believed that the future of music, music theatre and all the arts lay in
embracing the Gesamtkunstwerk, a fusion of the arts in which “the spectator transplants himself
upon the stage, by means of all his visual and aural faculties.”
Shortly after he put his visions into
practice, opened his own theatre and redeﬁned the conventions of Opera.
His ideas inﬂuenced the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, who reported discovering his personal
synaesthesia while attending a performance of a Wagner opera in Moscow:
“The violins, the deep tones of the basses, and especially the wind instruments at that time
embodied for me all the power of that pre-nocturnal hour. I saw all my colors in my mind; they
stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”
Of dance and light
The Parisian actress Loïe Fuller was quick to pick up on the new possibilities that electric light could
bring to her theatrical work. Switching professions, she moved into the world of dance, devoting her
career to the development of stage lighting. In the Paris 1900 World Exhibition she reached large
audiences with her Serpentine and Butterfly dances. However, she is most famous not for her
concrete ﬁgurative dances but her abstract dance works. These were based on the expressive
qualities of singular colors and how, when beamed onto her specially designed silk costumes created
ﬂuid, abstract forms.
Loïe Fuller. Untitled 1905. Courtesy of Jon and Joanne Hendricks. Photo credit: Roger Sinek
31 From The Art-Work of the Future, IV. Outlines of the Artwork of the Future by Richard Wagner, 1849. Translated by
William Ashton Ellis. Web publication: http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagartfut.htm
32 From Kandinsky, 1913/1982, (p. 364) as quoted by Crétien van Campen in Synesthesia and Artistic
Experimentation, PSYCHE, 3(6), November 1997, http://psyche.cs.monash.edu.au/v2/psyche-3-06-vancampen.html
New theories for a new century
The German composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) wrote his Theory of Harmony in 1911- a
new theory of music where a-tonal elements found their place in composition. At the same time
Kandinsky proposed his theory The Spiritual in Art, a new visual grammar based on abstract
imagery, in which he proposed the use of color and geometric point, line and plane.
Kandinsky is often cited as being the champion of the modernist abstract art movement, and drew
on his own personal synaesthesia for inspiration. He described the effect of colours as hierarchical,
depending on the “level of (spiritual) development” of the individual. People at a low stage of
development experienced only ﬂeeting 'superﬁcial' effects due to colour, while those at a higher level
experienced “a more profound effect, which occasions a deep emotional response.” In such people,
colour “call(ed) forth a vibration from the soul.”
As an analogy to 'pure' sound, 'pure' colour could,
in the right people, communicate directly, unmediated by symbolic conventions.
Though he is mostly known for his abstract paintings, Kandinsky explored both harmonious and
dissonant relationships between sound
, light and movement and expressed them in his own opera,
Der Gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound, 1912), composed of colour, light, dance, and sound typical of the
Gesamtkunstwerk. It was never produced.
“Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and . . . stop thinking! Just ask yourself
whether the work has enabled you to 'walk about' into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is
yes, what more do you want?” he proclaimed in 1910
, suggesting his desire to push away from the
analytical, towards a path more akin to the qualities of synaesthesia that fused himself, his work and
public in the direct experience of the moment.
The composer Alexander Scriabin also thought himself to be a Syn, but that his colour-note-system
system seems to be based on Sir Isaac Newton's Optics rather than a personal synaesthetic palette,
There is some mystery and contradiction surrounding both the 1911 (Moscow) and 1915 (New York)
33 From The Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky, 1912, as quoted in Kandinsky Color Theory, by Evert A. Robles published in
4 ever art e-zine: http://www.evertrobles.com/ezine4-002.htm
34 Kandinsky was heavily influenced by the harmonic of contemporary composers Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander
Scriabin who made dissonance and contrast the prime focal point of their pieces.
35 Kandinsky, from Über Das Geistige. In Der Kunst, Inbesondere In Der Malerei (1910), as quoted by Richard E.
Cytowic, Synesthesia: Phenomenology And Neuropsychology, A Review of Current Knowledge, published in
PSYCHE, 2(10), July 1995
36 His idea of walking about in a “hitherto unknown world” relate to both backwards in time to the Dioramas of the
1800's, and forwards to the psycho-geography of the Situationists, and the Virtual Reality experiments of the 1990's.
performances of Scriabin's Prometheus (described previously), as well as exactly who it was that
actually built the colour-organ used in the piece. The ﬁrst performance of Prometheus with the light
organ (if it ever took place at all) is frequently reported to have failed, due to a malfunction of the
organ. The second performance took place just before his death, and is reported as being a
disappointment due to the small scale of the projection surface and the lack of power of the coloured
lights to really immerse the audience in the synaesthetic experience. Some sources state that it was
the British painter and colour-organ inventor A. Wallace Rimington who built the colour-organ.
Other sources quote Preston Miller, the president of the American Illuminating Engineering Society
as the inventor. But at the heart of the matter lies the fact Scriabin's ambitions for fusing sound and
light were, like Castel's, simply beyond the technology of his time.
The photo on the left shows one of the simplest versions of the ambiguous colour-organ that
Scriabin used to conduct his sound and light experiments from 1911. The image to the right shows
the beginning of the score of Prometheus. The top line notates the light string – or 'Luce'. While this
line indicates that light should be played, it does not actually indicate what colours these lights
should be! Additionally, the colour-organ itself is too primitive to perform the polyphonic layers that
are indicated in the score.
Towards the end of his life Scriabin developed his plans for Mysterium envisaged as a week-long
performance at the foothills of the Himalayas that: “...synthesize(d) all the arts of sound, sight, scent,
and touch, and be performed with orchestra, voice, shafts and columns of constantly changing lights,
miming, fragrances, and intoxicating smokes! that would include music, scent, dance, and light!”
37 The Luce part as clue to Scriabin's later harmony. I. L Vanechkina, musicologist, pianist, Institute Prometei,
http://prometheus.kai.ru/luce_e.htm. Institute Prometei is also keen to clear up the mysticism concerning Scriabin's
Prometheus. See: On Performances of Scriabin's Lighting Symphonies, http://prometheus.kai.ru/perform_e.htm.
The 2 images, the light organ and the score are from the Prometei website.
38 The algorithm used for creating Luce was apparently fbased on more than 400 modulations of light within 20
minutes of symphony performing were “offensive” for sight.
39 Quote from Scriabin again and again, Faubion Bowers, published on ubuweb:
Though it was never realised, he thought that this magnum opus could throw the world off its
material course and into a state of bliss.
The fact that Scriabin was both loved and hated for his ideas is reﬂected in an article by John F.
Funican in The Musical Quarterly Magazine (1915) that attempts to play down the fear of critics of
Scriabin in England:
During the year 1914 Mr. Scriabine came from Russia to tell and show our English musicians how things should be
done; and gratiﬁed the fervent interviewer and sent him not empty away. On the contrary he provided him with many
yards of copy by talking a great deal of fascinating moonshine about the relation of music to colour and the connection
between perfumes and music. Let no man mock him. Any man, native or foreign, who provides a fad for faddists renders
humanity a conspicuous service; for your faddist whose mental pockets are empty readily becomes a danger to society.
He may take to theosophy, or Bacon-is-Shakespeare, and is as like as not to end by breaking the Sabath. No harm is
done by the conversion of a few visionaries to the belief that “through music and colour, and with the aid of perfume, the
human mind and soul can be lifted outside or above merely physical sensations into the region of purely abstract ecstasy
and purely intellectual speculation.”
Both Kandinsky and Scriabin epitomized the almost obsessive tendency to blur the edges between
music and the other arts of the early 1900's, in keeping with the spirit of a new age. Artists and
commentators from Russia to America were embracing and dabbling in pseudo- religious
-scientiﬁc dreams and symbols, enthused by the prospects of a new synthetic experience of art where
the material divide between word, image and sound would dissolve into a kind of sexy, spiritual
ecstasy that would shake up the body and the very world itself.
Get together ...
Art collectives such as the Dadaists, the Futurists and Surrealists aspired to remove themselves from
the established art scene by attempting to marry art with everyday life. With different aims they
attempted to involve the public in their artworks – to create sensations and shock them into opening their eyes
to a new way of life. Ironically, the art scene embraced their shock treatment as a way of rejuvenating the art scene with
these new ideas.
Synaesthesia on speed ...
The counteractions of the Italian Futurists, led by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti sought to celebrate
40 From Noises, Smells and Colours, John F. Runciman, Musical Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Apr., 1915), pp. 149-161
41 Both Kandinsky and Scriabin were influenced by the controversial Madame Blavatsky and her exotic brand of
spiritualist philosophy called Theosophy.
42 Annet Dekker, Synaesthetic performance in the club scene, Cosign 2003, Computational Semiotics, University of
Teeside, Middlesbrough, UK. (www.cosignconference.org/cosign2003/papers/Dekker.pdf)
the technological triumph of man over nature. It was an early 20th century attempt to reinvent life as it
was being transﬁxed by new technologies and conceive of a new race in the form of machine-extended man.
Marinetti exploited the power of the media to spread his ideas by publishing the manifesto Le
Futurisme ﬁrst in Milan, and then in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro, even before any new Futurist
art existed. The manifesto promoted his ideas about creating a new art 'forged out of the beauty of
speed and a gloriﬁcation of war': Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice, he
proclaimed. Further manifestos were published that covered the whole scope of the art disciplines as
well as aspects of daily life – food, clothing, smells, war, lust, and so on.
Through their paintings, the Futurists sought to fuse sound, noise and smell believing that to achieve
the 'total painting' required the active cooperation of all the sense. In their literary theory they
promoted the onomatopoeic, expressive qualities of language, using synaesthesia as a literary device
to enhance the profound impact of the work. Words should be projected from the paper like bullets
ﬁred from a machine gun.
Inspired by Futurist poetry the painter Luigi Russolo
moved his attentions to sound and invented
The Art of Noise, though he had no formal background in music. He wanted to free music from the
limited canvas that cultivated 'pure' sounds had placed on it by drawing on all kinds of sounds –
from nature to the sounds of the new urban environments, and “all the noises which are made with
the mouth without talking or singing.'
An avid amateur scientist, he invented new instruments for
his new sound art, experimenting with various materials, old and new techniques, technologies and
instruments to build whole orchestras of 'cracklers, roarers, bubblers, thunderers and bursters'.
The Italian Futurists performed their poetry, music, and plays “acting as if they were the Vikings or
Hell's Angels of Art, intent in trashing (such) cultivated and stylized aesthetics completely”.
performances sometimes ended in riots, with both public and performers ending up either in
hospital or in jail.
43 Larry Wendt, Narrative as Genealogy: Sound Sense in an Era of Hypertext, chp. on Italian Futurism,
44 The mots in liberta poetry - word collages that should evoke an uninterrupted flow of new imagery - was void of
punctuation, adjectives, or any other literary device that would slow down the immediate effect of the words.
The parole in liberta poetry attempted to interpret sensory experiences and express confusion and chaos through a
cacophony of description, advertising slogans, samples of popular songs, and onomatopoeia.
These ideas were expressed in technical manifestos that included descriptions of four main modes: realistic,
analogical, abstract (the 'sound of a state of mind'), and psychic harmony (the fusion of two or three of the abstract
45 He is considered by some as the grandfather of the modern sound movement.
46 As described in his manifesto, l'arte di rumori, 1913.
47 This could be a predecessor of Glitch art aesthetics.
48 Michael Kirby, Futurist Performance, with manifestos and playscripts translated from the Italian by Victoria Nes
Kirby (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1971).
An ethereal instrument
In 1927 two young talented people arrived in the United States, namely the Russian physicist and
musician Leon Theremin
and collaborating violinist Clara Rockmore. Their aim was to
demonstrate Theremin's new electronic musical instrument the therminvox (1919), later known as
The therminvox is a thermionic tubed instrument with antennas for controlling pitch and a tubular
loop for volume control. The antennas and volume control respond to all (bodily) movement, and
the performer controls volume and pitch using her hands to interfere with electromagnetic ﬁelds
generated by the device. Playing the therminvox well demands a co-ordination of 'listening' while
performing precise hand movements – particularly because the player must perform without any
visual or tactile reference.
Speaking in an interview with Robert Moog about the advantages of the
theremin compared to the violin, Clara said:
- Think of a singer that has a basso, mezzo, soprano, and high soprano sing voice that encompasses all the musical
ranges. Now this is something that you cannot ﬁnd in any other instrument. The theremin has a delicacy and an
ethereal quality that you can rarely obtain on the violin. There are certain nuances and qualities that you can obtain
because you don't have anything in your hand. It really comes out of the air. That's why Prof. Theremin called it the
Ether Wave Instrument. There is a certain terriﬁc freedom. You feel like a conductor in front of an orchestra. There is
no instrument between you and the music. Sure, there is a theremin standing there, but you're in the electromagnetic
ﬁeld. Every movement you make is a perfect synchronization of sound and motion.
49 He was actually called Lev Sergeivitch Termen. He adopted the name Leon Theremin when he moved to the United
States. In the 1930s Léon Theremin set up a laboratory in New York, where he developed the theremin. He aslo
experimented with other electronic musical instruments and inventions, and trained performers.
50 The theremin provided inspiration for later engineers of electronic music such as Raymond Scott and Robert Moog.
51 He also invented the Lumivox, Theremin Cello, and the Rhythmicon, and built many instruments specifically for
composers, ensembles, or performers. However, the inventions do not stop there. Theremin developed what was at
the time the leading patent for mechanical colour television, he invented alarm systems for use in banks and prisons,
anti - kidnap devices, and most notoriously 'Buran' (The Bug), with which the Soviet Authorities bugged the
American Embassy for many years.
52 To play the theremin, the performer stands in front of the instrument, a little left of center. The feet are spread
slightly to keep the body as motionless as possible. To determine the pitch of the instrument's tone, the player varies
the distance between her right hand and the pitch antenna. When the instrument is properly tuned, the pitch goes
from lower than two octaves below middle C when the player's right hand is back at her shoulder, to approximately
2 1/2 octaves above middle C when the player's hand barely touches the pitch antenna. To determine the loudness
of the instrument's tone, the player varies the distance between her left hand and the middle of the volume antenna.
Maximum loudness occurs when the hand is removed from the antenna; complete silence occurs when the hand is
an inch or so from the loop. (From the booklet that accompanies Clara Rockman's CD, “The Art of the Theremin”,
Delos D/CD 1014)
At one of Theremin's New York concerts in 1932,
Clara Rockmore performed on an experimental
dance platform called the Terpsitone. The platform was equipped with thereminvox-like antennas,
enabling the dancer to play a melody while dancing - the perfect synchronization of sound and
The components of the system, including the phono unit which is used for background effects. (Radio Craft, Dec. 1936, p.365)
Colour-organs and Congresses
Parallel to these activities the invention of colour-organs continued to draw steam. Between 1927-36
the University of Hamburg hosted four international Colour-organ congresses that brought together
artists from various disciplines as well as perceptual psychologists and critics to discuss issues of
synaesthesia in relation to multidisciplinary artforms. Colour-organ performances included Austrian
Count Vietinghoff-Scheel's Chromatophon and the Reﬂe ctorial Color Play by the Bauhaus artists Kurt
Schwerdtfeger and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack.
With the outbreak of war, many artists ﬂed to the United States, where they competed for attention
for their inventions, and battled over patenting issues.
The Danish-born singer Thomas Wilfred built a colour organ, which he called the Clavilux, and the
art that came out of it, Lumia. His emphasis was also ﬂuid movement, on streams of color slowly
metamorphosing. His aim was to free the frozen image from the limits of the canvas and set it in
54 In the same year Theremin joined forces with experimental film maker Mary Allen Bute to demonstarte
mathematically-based electronic imagery synchronised to music.
55 In the 1960's composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham experimented with choreographed gesture
correspondences to sound using Theremin technology.
56 Kinetic synaesthesia, though rare, has been reported from time to time. Richard Cytowic describes the synaesthetic
fusing of sound with motion as “audiomotor” synaesthesia, describing a case study .... in which an adolescent
positioned his body in different postures according to the sounds of different words. Both English and nonsense
sounds had certain physical movements, the boy claimed, which he could demonstrate by striking various poses. By
way of convincing himself of this sound-to-movement association, the physician who described it planned to re-test
the boy later on without warning. When the doctor read the same word list aloud ten years later, the boy assumed,
without hesitation, the identical postures of a decade earlier. (Synesthesia: Phenomenology And Neuropsychology,
A Review of Current Knowledge, Richard E. Cytowic 1995 PSYCHE, 2(10), July 1995:
motion. He established an Art Institute of Light in New York in 1933, and gave Lumia concerts in
throughout the United States and Europe. In the '50s he built lumia boxes for home use - self-
contained units that resembled television sets that could play continuously without repeating the
Thomas Wilfred with the ﬁrst home Clavilux (1950)
From 1916-34 concert pianist Mary Hallock Greenewalt developed a colour organ, the Sarabet, out
of her desire to control the ambience in a concert hall, particularly for 'sensitive' music. In her
earliest attempts to create an automated machine colored lights were synchronized to records. Not
satisﬁed by the results, she development of an instrument that could actually be played live. Through
her experiments with light modulation, she invented the rheostat to make smooth fades of light, as
well as the liquid-mercury switch, both of which have become standard electric tools. When others,
including Thomas Wilfred, began infringing on her patents for their own demises she tried to sue,
but lost her case. The judge ruled that her electrical devices were too complex to have been invented
by a woman. However, she continued to perform on her colour-organ, and developed a special
notation that could record the intensity and movement of colours of varied musical compositions.
She called her art Nourathar, adapted from the Arabic words for light (nour), and ‘essence of’ (athar).
Unlike earlier inventors of color-music she did not produce a strict deﬁnition of correspondences
between speciﬁc colors and particular notes, believing that these relationships were inherently
variable and reﬂected the temperament and ability of the performer.
In 1931 an article appeared in the American popular science journal, Science and Mechanics, that
described a new invention, The Telecolor. It took Wilfred's ideas of colour-organs for home use one
57 Imgage from: http://www.awn.com/mag/issue2.1/articles/moritz2.1.html
step further. It drew on another home device, the radio, as a source of sound for producing colour.
LightCOLOR has long been a favorite word to describe the quality and the mood of music; perhaps because some
individuals inevitably associate a certain chord with a certain color. This is doubtless only an individual peculiarity;
because all people do not match the same music with the same colors. However, a scientiﬁc means has been found to
turn music into light; and thus make a radio program appeal to the eye (even without television), as well as the ear. The
new invention, the “Tele-color” (...) differs from earlier color organs, such as the “clavilux,” in being automatic in its
The versatile thyratron tube is again called upon for this purpose, (....) a bank of eight of these; controlling as many
groups of lights, which play upon a wall or screen and blend together, through the use of revolving shades. As certain
tones or group of tones, dominating the music, come through, an electrical ﬁlter separates them; and its output feeds into
a thyratron, which releases current to the lamps of its assigned color. A burst of stirring bass notes, such as the drum, is
heard; and the ﬁlter transmits them to the appropriate thyratron valve, which causes the red lamps to light brilliantly.
Thus the colder blues and greens are obscured by the stirring shades of crimson. As the music becomes more tranquil,
the red ebbs, and the cooler colors take its place.
The assigned color scheme is based upon these associations: red, exciting; yellow, joyful; green, peaceful; blue, cold;
violet, melancholy; and purple, stately.
Unfortunately, no reference is given to exactly who it was who invented or produced this remarkable
Duchamp's retinal Rotorelief readymades
To address the problem of how to introduce movement in painting the French artist Marcel
Duchamp (1887-1968) constructed a series of machines that used rotating disks to create optical
illusions. They were machines in action, simultaneously art objects and retinal experiences that
occurred when put in motion. By rotating the disks at different speeds, various visual effects could be
achieved, suggesting that the optical illusion was the 'true' image, but also a variable one. His
machines ﬁrst took the form of rotating glass panels on stands. Then, he used a phonograph
turntable with a series of hand painted disks that created various visual effects. In 1926 he
collaborated with artist Man Ray to explore the notion of cinema as readymade in the ﬁlm Anémic
Cinéma. Here he used a series of disks with French puns on them that produced abstract optical
illusions when revolved.
58 Science And Mechanics 11-1931, see, http://blog.modernmechanix.com/mags/ScienceAndMechanics/11-
To emphasize his belief in the reconciliation of art and engineering he rented a stand at the
invention fair Concours Lépine (Paris, 1935) to display his Rotoreliefs, but his work got little
attention amongst the other 'useful' inventions on display. He made an edition of 500 readymades
containing both the machine and 6 hand painted disks that could be played according to the user's
wishes. As such he placed the creation of the artwork both in the machine and the eye of the
beholder. Many of these were lost as a result of World War II, but it is said that 150 or so still
Marcel Duchamp: Rotative Plaques, glass, metal, motor, 1920 (left) and Rototoreliefs, reproduction/reconstruction, 1955 (right).
Absolute ﬁlm – visual music
Early experiments with sound, light and movement also provided a basis for experimental ﬁlm
making of the time. Film makers from Paris to Moscow built their own instruments to create new
techniques for a new cinematographic expression that kept up with the beat of the new century.
One of the most famous of these cinematic pioneers is Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967), often referred
to as the master of “absolute” or non-objective ﬁlm making. “He was cinema's Kandinsky, an
animator who, beginning in the 1920's in Germany, created exquisite visual music using geometric
patterns and shapes choreographed tightly to classical music and jazz.”
In the '30s his interested in the synchronization of sound and image also led him to experiment with
drawing on the soundtrack section of the ﬁlm, creating synthetic sound. He later went on to invent a
59 Images: © 2001 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y. / ADAGP, Paris.
60 The Original Laureate Of an Abstract Poetry, by John Canemaker, New York Times, July 2, 2000.
Another jazz-ist that is connected to synaesthesia and art is Ken Nordine, though he is rarely mentioned in this
context. In his album Colours (1966) he gives colour tones personalities through his evocative Word Jazz. I
experience Fischinger's films and Nordine's Word Jazz as being closely related.
colour-light instrument of his own, the Lumigraph, in the '50s.
Other early ﬁlm makers of the pre- and post- WWII period include Man Ray, Walter Ruttman,
Hans Richter, Harry Smith, Mary Allen Bute, Jordan Belson and James and John Whitney.
The Whitney brothers created a mechanical pendulum device that allowed for the simultaneous
composition of sound and image. Later, John developed a computerized animation camera that they
used to create the optically printed ﬁlm Yantra (1950-57). It consisted of animated hand painted dot
patterns inspired by James' interests in alchemy and Eastern philosophy. While John continued to
make ﬁlms and develop a program called RDTD to create computer-generated graphics and music,
James temporarily gave up ﬁlm making. He was frustrated by both the limitations of technology and
his own inability to transfer the visual image of his 'inner eye' into ﬁlm.
L: Opus 1, 1919, Walter Ruttman
R: Frame from "Circular Tensions: Homage to Oskar Fischinger (1950)", Harry Smith
L: Mary Ellen Bute, The Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive
R: Color Rhapsody (1951) Mary Ellen Bute (Courtesy of William Moritz)
61 Fischinger's Lumograph was licensed for use in the 1964 sci-fi film, Time Travelers, where it was presented as a
“Love Machine” that provided a sensual experience for venting sexual urges.
62 See Visual Music, Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900, p.260. Published on the occasion of the exhibition
Visual Music, The museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, May 2005 by Thames and Hudson, ISBN
Allures, Jordan Belson, 1961 (copyright Jordan Belson)
L: Lapis, 1963-66, James Whitney. (Courtesy of The Estate of John and James Whitney)
R: Permutations, 1968, John Whitney. (Courtesy of The Estate of John and James Whitney)
In contrast to these purely abstract expressions is the work of the Russian ﬁlm maker Sergei
Eisenstein, who, through his experiments in montage and its relationship to biomechanics, found
that ﬁlm cut metrically to the beat of a typical heart has a profound impact on people, precisely
because it mirrors our biorhythms. Einsenstein believed that by linking archaic thinking (going back
to the biological evolution of man) with sensuous thought, art forms could have the power to capture
the viewer, who becomes “doomed to enter the reality of sensuous thought, where he will lose the
distinction between subjective and objective, where his capacity to perceive the whole through its
part will be heightened (pars pro toto), where colours will be singing and where sounds will acquire
shape (synaesthesia), where the word will compel him to react as if the event described by this word
did happen in reality (hypnosis).”
1938 saw the release of his ﬁlm Alexander Nevsky. It combined audio and visual in a unique way, and
63 Eisenstein, in TsGALI,1923, 2-247, as quoted by Julia Vassilieva, Eisenstein and his Method:Recent Publications in
Russia, in Sense of Cinema, Julia Vassilieva©2006
featured extended battle scenes choreographed to the score of Sergei Prokoviev.
Sensoramas, misbehaving organs and reality machines
In the 1950s the American cinematographer Morton Heilig (1926-97) argued that the cinema of the
future would use devices capable of stimulating each of the different senses (sight, hearing, taste,
touch and smell) in order to reproduce man's outer world as perceived in his consciousness. He
claimed that these techniques would allow for experiences unachievable in the natural world. Heilig
referred to devices capable of producing this experience as reality machines, which would produce
an 'experience theatre'. With this aim in mind Heilig produced his own mechanical machine called
the Sensorama. It is a simulator for one to four people that provides the illusion of reality using a 3-D
motion picture with smell, stereo sound, vibrations of the seat, and wind in the hair to create the
illusion. Two other of his inventions, the Sensorama Motion Picture Projector and the Sensorama 3-
D Motion Picture Camera, were included in this device. He also invented the ﬁrst ever head-
mounted display, which provides stereoscopic (3D) TV, wide vision and true stereo sound. Although
the Sensorama device was reported to be relatively unsuccessful, Heilig’s ideas seem to be early
thoughts on what would later be referred to as virtual reality.
L: The Sensorama
R: The Telesphere mask
In 1953 British cyberneticians Gordon Pask (1928-96) and Robin McKinnon-Wood (1931-95)
demonstrated the ﬁrst of their misbehaving MusiColour machines - keyboard instruments that
64 Images from: http://www.mortonheilig.com/InventorVR.html
produced both sound and light. The MusiColour used microphones to pick up sounds form an
organ and convert them into an electric signal, which was then processed and used to control a light
show. The processing was designed to vary unpredictably in time, so that if the music became too
repetitive, the organ got bored and ceased to respond until the player tried something new. Not only
that, it could also detect time lags in the performance, and amplify them via the lights for all to see.
In the words of sociology Professor Andrew Pickering, “the human part of a Musicolour
performance could explore the space of performative possibilities of the machine in a truly open-
ended fashion, and the only criterion of stability was itself a locally emergent one, not given in
advance; it was just whatever pleased the performer and the audience on some occasion.”
Sketch of the MusiColour machine.
The MusiColour performed at various nightclubs, popular music venues and happenings during the
'50s and '60s.
In 1958 the new forms of abstract ﬁlm and European electroacoustic tape-music were shown
together in San Francisco's planetarium. The tape-music of Italian Luciano Berio
German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-) were presented with light-effects, and ﬁlms of
American abstract ﬁlmmakers (including Jordan Belson) were projected. In the same year, during
the World Exhibition in Brussels, the new art forms were presented together in the Poème Electronique
- a co-production of Swiss French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), Greek composer and
65 Cybernetics and the mangle. Asby, Beer and Pask. Andrew Pickering. University of Illinois, 2002. (The paper was
written for a colloquium held at the Centre Koyré in Paris in May 2000)
66 Image from: http://rhythmiclight.com/archives/timeline.html, (original source: Cybernetic Serendipity, Editor, J.
Reichardt. Rapp and Carroll, 1970. Reprinted in Cybernetic Art and Ideas, Editor, J. Reichadt. London: Studio Vista,
1971, p. 77)
67 Berio's works are often analytic acts: deliberately analyzing myths, stories, the components of words themselves, his
own compositions, or preexisting musical works. Other works In other words, it is not only the composition of the
"collage" that conveys meaning; it is the particular composition of the component "sound-image" that conveys
meaning, even extra-musical meaning. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luciano_Berio)
architect Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) and the French-born composer Edgard Varèse for the pavilion
of the the Dutch electronics corporation, Phillips. The combined efforts of the artists working closely
together with the Phillips engineers created a new experience from which visitors emerged either
elated or shaken.
“The pavilion posed a synaesthetic relation between the aural, tactile and visual, overturning
modernist divisions of medium speciﬁcity. It laid bare modernism's deep debt to a humanist
discourse of uniﬁed sensation.”
Psychedelia = synaesthesia?
In the psychedelic '60s transcendental experiences were pursued, often connected to drugs such as
marijuana and LSD, both of which can create a temporary synaesthetic experiences. Notions of
fusions of the senses, the arts and art and life returned in full bloom
, embodied in a new generation
bent on experiencing a radically new way of perceiving their world. Especially American artists
reacted to the way that science and technology was having a profound effect on society and the
Timothy Leary's famous words 'Tune in, turn on, drop out' became the slogan of the American
postwar counter culture generation. He urged people to initiate cultural changes through the use of -
and by psychedelics, and to detach themselves from the existing conventions and hierarchies in
Wet parties, Tupperware and armory
'High' forms of 'low' art emerged, exempliﬁed in what were called 'Wet Parties' - psychedelic light
shows with liquid projections that accompanied rock concerts. They employed a vast array of
custom-made ﬁlm and slide projectors with liquid slides, rotating colour wheels and strobe lights.
68 Synaesthetic Politics of the Body, Michelle Kuo, VISIT
69 These notions were also strongly contested by some. The influencial Polish theatre director Jerzy Growtowski
provided a counteraction to the notion of theatre as a synthesis of art disciplines and created his own theatre
laboratory for practicing his principles and training his actors. He maintained that theatre could never compete with
cinema, that they both should offer a different experience to the public. He wanted to bring a theatre to an audience
that was confronting, challenging and experiential. It was a theatre not based so much on image (as in cinema or
television) but on the presence of the actor: “By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that
theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate performance
area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. It cannot exist without the spectator relationship of perceptual,
direct, communion. This is an ancient theoretical truth, of course, but when rigorously tested in practice it
undermines most of our usual ideas about theatre. It challenges the notion of theatre as a synthesis of disparate
creative discipline; literature, sculpture, painting. architecture, lighting, acting ....” (Towards a Poor Theatre. Jerzy
Grotowski, Simon & Schuster, 1968, p.19)
70 A common misconception of people not familiar with the context in which it was first said, is that 'turn on, tune in,
drop out' refers to 'turn on the radio/television, tune it in, and drop out of your job/society/school', in short, become
a 'waster', a delinquent.
With the bare bones of the machinery visible, they united the public, many who were high on
hallucinogenics, into one great synaesthetic, cybernetic
'robot'. The Joshua Light Show was one of
the most inﬂuential visual magicians of these spectacles, originally formed by Joshua White, a ﬁlm
maker with a background in theatre. He collaborated with engineering students Thomas Shoesmith
and Bill Shwarzbach. They projected luminous abstractions to the popular music of, amongst others
Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Janis Joplin, and the Doors.
In 1966 the artist Andy Warhol (1928-87) also managed to close the gap between art and popular
music when he let loose the music of The Velvet Underground & Nico on the United States in an event
called Exploding Plastics Inevitable (EPI) at the Dom – a club he ran in Manhattan's East Village. He
staged the show using a synergy of lights, projected imagery, smoke and music to immerse the public
in what Gene Youngblood, author of the book Expanded Cinema, describes as a 'hellish sensorium'. A
homage of the event was made by director Ronald Nameth in the style of synaesthetic cinema
Rather than functioning as a mere record of the event, the ﬁlm attempts to transmit the experience
of actually being there - the phenomenal rather than the idea of the show - through the cinematic
medium. Made up of a montage of many layers, fragments of images and time distortions, the
combination aimed to produce new images and new realities.
In the same year, artist Robert Rauschenberg and engineer Billy Kluver staged a 'happening'
71 “Cybernetics: adj: of cybernetics: a science of control and communication in complex electronic machines like
computers and the human nervous system”, from Reichardt, J (ed), Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the
Arts - A Studio International Special Issue, London, 1968, p. 1.
72 The emergence of Synaesthetic Cinema, as described by Gene Youngblood : “It has taken more than seventy years
for global man to come to terms with the cinematic medium, to liberate it from theatre and literature. We had to wait
until our consciousness caught up with our technology. But although the new cinema is the first and only true
cinematic language, it still is used as a recording instrument. The recorded subject, however, is not the objective
external human condition but the filmmaker's consciousness, his perception and its process. If we've tolerated a
certain absence of discipline, it has been in favor of a freedom through which new language hopefully would be
developed. With a fusion of aesthetic sensibilities and technological innovation that language finally has been
achieved. The new cinema has emerged as the only aesthetic language to match the environment in which we live.
Emerging with it is a major paradigm: a conception of the nature of cinema so encompassing and persuasive that it
promises to dominate all image-making in much the same way as the theory of general relativity dominates all
physics today. I call it synaesthetic cinema.” (Expanded Cinema, Part Two, Synaesthetics Cinema: The End of
Drama, p.76. P Dutton and Co., Inc, New York 1970.)
73 Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, Synaesthetics and Kinaesthetics: The Way of All Experience, p.103. P Dutton
and Co., Inc, New York 1970.
74 A Happening, a term coined by Allan Kaprow in 1957, was a performance, event or situation meant to be considered
as art. Happenings could take place anywhere, were often multi-disciplinary, often lacked a narrative and frequently
sought to involve the audience in some way. While key elements of happenings were planned, artists often made
space for improvisation. Kaprow’s piece 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) is commonly cited as the first happening,
although the first happening is sometimes considered to have been a 1952 performance of Theater Piece No. 1 at
Black Mountain College by John Cage, who was a teacher of Kaprow in the mid-1950s. Accounts of exactly what
this performance involved differ, but most agree that Cage recited poetry and read lectures, M. C. Richards read
some of her poetry, Robert Rauschenberg showed some of his paintings and played phonograph records, David
Tudor performed on a prepared piano and Merce Cunningham danced. All these things took place at the same time,
and among the audience rather than on a stage. (From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happening)
called 9 Evenings - Theatre and Engineering that consisted of nine days of performance at the Armory on
Lexington Avenue in New York. It immersed the audience in sound, light and projections from both
within the space and the world beyond
. Artists from disciplines of music, dance, theatre, ﬁlm and
the visual arts (Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Robert Whitman,
David Tudor, Øyvind Fahlstrom, and more) worked with teams of engineers to devise completely
unrehearsed performances using custom-made technologies. The performance was haunted by
glitches and system breakdowns, and the day before the opening Rauschenberg was heard to say
that the audience “should understand that we're involved in a process and not in presenting ﬁnished
Though reviews deemed it neither technically or artistically successful, these
performances made use of the full range of the live-aspect of electronics in a vast variety of artistic
By the 1960s an audio/visual mass media broadcasting device, the Television, was a common place
item in the homes of people living in the modern world. Reacting against what was considered
soulless, manipulative, authoritative and mind-numbing TV content, American artist and engineer
Eric Seigel sought to liberate TV through a work he called Psychedelevision (1968/69):
“I see television as bringing psychology into the cybernetic twenty-ﬁrst century. I see television as a
psychic healing medium creating mass cosmic consciousness, awakening higher levels of the mind,
bringing awareness of the soul.”
Psychedelic TV was shown at an exhibition called TV as a Creative Medium at the Howard Wise Gallery,
New York, in 1969. It also showed a collaborative work by the better known Nam Jun Paik, called
TV Bra for Living Sculpture, which he made with cellist Charlotte Moorman. It is described as being
both an apparatus to be worn and a live performance. By connecting the audio signal to the visual
signal Moorman manipulated the images displayed on the two miniature television screens of the
75 Though the event was haunted by breakdowns, frustrations and bad reviews from mainstream critics, Kluver and
Rauschenberg defended their work in the spirit of promoting the creation of a new set of values for a new practice.
In an interview with Douglas Davis for Art in America, Kluver said: “the relationship between art and technology
should be experimental and intuitive, in the same sense that scientific research is... and therefore full of risks”.
(Davis, D, Art and Technology: Conversations, Art in America Jan/Feb 1968, USA, p. 41).
A couple of years later, Rauschenberg responded to similar questions by the same author, stating: "Successful is not
an artistic consideration. Works and don't works are part of development".
(Davis, D, Art and the Future: A History/Prophecy of the Collaboration Between Science, Technology and Art,
Thames and Hudson, London and New York, 1973)
76 As quoted in Engineering marvel: Branden W. Joseph on Billy Kluver, by Brabdon W. Joseph, Artforum, March
77 Statement from TV as a creative medium exhibition brochure,
bra Paik designed with the sound of her cello. To explain the motivation for this work, Nam Jun Paik
“The real issue between art and technology is not to make yet another scientiﬁc toy, but to humanize
and the electronic medium - which is progressing rapidly - too rapidly. Progress has
already outstripped the ability to program.”
Mixed signals and media Gods
Two artists, Steina and Woody Vasulka, visited TV as a Creative Medium. Inspired by what they saw,
they began their own early feedback experiments with sound and video, borrowing equipment to do
so. Although many of their experiments with feedback systems had been done before, there was still
a feeling of breaking new ground – of being pioneers, that they shared with other artists of the time.
“Our discovery was a discovery because we discovered it. We didn't know all those people had
discovered it before us. It was just like feedback: pointing the camera at the TV set and seeing
feedback was an invention that was invented over and over again. As late as 1972, people were
inventing feedback, thinking they had just caught the ﬁre of the gods.”
Unlike Paik, they were less concerned with creating gallery objects or performing a social critique of
the image, but rather with articulating and deﬁning a formal vocabulary which was speciﬁc to the
electronic image - and developing and sharing tools to do so.
They used terms like 'synthesized
78 What better way to humanize technology than to put visual displays on the breasts of a woman!
79 Statement from TV as a creative medium exhibition brochure,
80 Notes Toward a History of Image-Processed Video: Steina and Woody Vasulka, by Lucinda Furlong, 1983,
Afterimage, Vol. 11, No. 5
81 In 1974 Nam June Paik reflected over the issue of the (re)discovery of feedback like this:
“At the turn of the century, when ordinary people thought that they were discovering many new "things", Poincare,
French mathematician, remarked that in reality we were discovering only new "relationships" of things already in
existence ........the process of "aging" is important not only in the art of "wine making" but also in any non-dualist
relationships. When I took a LSD-pill with Yoko Ono back in 1964 ... the most complicate time-relationships of
"aging" became visible as simultaneous spatial relationships, as much as Mozart envisaged all four movements of a
un-composed string quartet in one split second. So called "feedback", (the) video artist's favorite word, is nothing
but the scientific term for "aging'' . . . that is : enrichment in time-component or a compounded time. Like any other
art, video-art also imitates the nature . . . but in her time-component.”
(Nam June Paik, Brussels.1974: http://www.vasulka.org/archive/Artists4/NamJP/KnokkeHeist.pdf)
82 In an interview with Chris Hills in 1992 Woody described the difference between their work and that of Paik:
“We would never take a magnet, like Paik, and place it on a television set. The furniture of television was such a
burdensome idea ; we would disregard that as part of our practice whatsoever . . . I would never touch Paik's
instruments, which were designed to perform a social critique of the image. He would take a famous person and
distort him. It was a Fluxus idea to attack the bourgeois ideal of proper delivery of the image. It was a subversion, a
contextual subversion. This would not be permitted in my ethical interests. I'd rather wrestle with the gods . . . so we
tried to avoid completely the social context of iconic presentation.”
Interview with Woody Vasulka, by Chris Hill, May, 1992, c. 1996 Hill/Vasulka:
video' and 'immersive environments'
to describe their work, and pioneered the development of low
cost video ‘tools’ working with engineers to build highly specialized devices.
Icelandic Steina (b. 1940) met Czechoslovakian Woody (b. 1937) in Prague when they where both
students. Steina studied music, Woody theatre, and later ﬁlm. They emigrated to the United States
in 1965 where they were exposed to (and later became involved in) the various avant-garde activities
that were going on. These activities were sometimes referred to as Intermedia and grew out of the
mingling dance, theatre, music and ﬁlm communities.
“We were interested in certain decadent aspects of America, the phenomena of the time -
underground rock and roll, homosexual theater, and the rest of the illegitimate culture. In the same
way, we were curious about more puritanical concepts of art inspired by (Marshall) McLuhan
the effects of new media) and Buckminster Fuller (on the power of technology to incite social
change). It seemed a strange and uniﬁed front - against the establishment.”
The Vasulkas were amongst the ﬁrst of this generation to literally rip apart readymades, or
manufactured media systems. Amongst others was the Sony Portapak portable video system that
allowed for a greater ease (and lesser cost) of the capture and playback of both audio and visuals
than ﬁlm could provide. It also provided a means of capturing events outside the conﬁnements of the
In 1971 the Vasulkas founded The Kitchen-LATL (Live Audience Test Laboratory) with Andreas
Mannik in Soho in order to continue and extend a collaborative exchange with other artists and
activists working with video, sound and performance. Though it started as a place of informal
exchange, it quickly became a legend in its own time, presenting screenings, performances and
concerts. For the opening of the Kitchen, the Vasulkas' produced the following text:
“This place was selected by Media God to perform an experiment on you, to challenge your brain
and its perception. We will present you sounds and images, which we call Electronic Image and
Sound Compositions. They can resemble something you remember from dreams or pieces of
organic nature, but they never were real objects. They have all been made artiﬁcially from various
83 American painter, pioneering and establisher of performance art, Allan Kaprow, used the term 'Environment' in
1958 to describe his transformed indoor spaces.
84 “Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a
global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final
phase of the extensions of man-the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing
will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our
senses and our nerves by the various media.” Marshall Macluhan, 1964.
frequencies, from sounds, from inaudible pitches and their beats. Accordingly, most of the sounds
you will hear are products of images, processed through sound synthesizer. Furthermore, there is
time, time to sit down and just surrender. There is no reason to entertain minds anymore, because
that has been done and did not help. It just does not help and there is no help anyway. There is just
surrender, the way you surrender to the Atlantic Ocean, the way you listen to the wind, or the way
you watch the sunset. And that is the time you don't regret that you had nothing else to do.”
Throughout the '70s they developed a range of audiovisual tools (or 'machines') built in collaboration
with electronic engineers and technicians, including Eric Siegel, whose work they had admired
previously. The machines they built allowed for the analysis of electronic image frames and time
sequences and employed spatial, temporal and sound/image manipulation, setting a particular
vocabulary for image making and creating a new media aesthetic. With Jeffrey Schier, Woody
designed and built a system called the Digital Image Articulator (a programmable video synthesizer),
which processed digital images without requiring a camera or prerecorded image.
created from 'no material thing', but by 'artifacts' (or glitches) made by raw electronic signals. - By
artifacts, Woody explains, “I mean that I have to share the creative process with the machine. These
images come to you as they came to me - in a spirit of exploration.”
While Woody was occupied with digital imaging processing, Steina, an avid performer,
experimented with connecting her acoustic violin to closed-circuit video via a microphone so that
when she played the actual movement of her bow affected the video. She used a scan processor to
modulate the sound waves so they built up spatial patterns in the visual imagery. Steina called this
experimental procedural work Violin Power (1970-78), and described it simply as “how to play video
with the violin”.
Later, in the '90s, she would use a MIDI violin
and a video synthesizing computer program called
85 The Opening of the Kitchen, June 15, 1971, see:http://www.vasulka.org/archive/Kitchen/KOP/KOP002.pdf
86 “The analytical approach towards defining a video vocabulary can be seen as paralleling the filmic engagement of
graphic notation and computer by James and John Whitney—who, in similar ways to Woody, have pursued and
analyzed the vocabulary of abstraction. “ Video and Computer: The Aesthetics of Steina and Woody Vasulka, p.6,
Yvonne Spielmann, http://www.fondationlanglois.org/media/activites/vasulka/Spielmann_EN.pdf
87 In the 90's Steina bought a Zeta MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface – the first and only digital protocol to be
developed solely for the use of artists) violin to replace the microphone as a way of creating an interface between the
violin and video: The Zeta Violin is a five- stringed electric violin with a MIDI output. The assignment at the
moment is that stops on A and E string point to frame locations on the disk. The D and G strings control speed and
direction and the C string is a master controller assigned to address segments on the disk. In another programming
scheme, the C string controls which upper strings get assigned their function, as I experiment to make the
performance more musical. (Steina Vasulka, Violin Power: an interactive performance. Description and technical
data sheet of the performance Violin Power, c. 1992. The Daniel Langlois Foundation, Steina and Woody Vasulka
fonds, VAS B5—C2.) Steina first performed Violin Power with the Zeta violin using a lazer disk player, and later
used the video synthesizing software, Image/ine on a Macintosh computer to allow for more variations in the
mappings between sound and image. Image/ine was developed by Tom Demeyer in collaboration with Steina at the
Image/ine to extend the expressive possibilities of her audio/visual performances.
Ecstasy in the '80s – anger in the '90s
During the latter part of the 1980's the Video Jockey (VJ)
emerged in the underground House club
scene that had already hit Europe. A new synthesized, electronic sound - House Music or Acid
House - had been imported from the States, and with it came a drug with the street name Ecstasy,
the effects of which include feelings of openness, euphoria, empathy, love, and heightened self-
Ecstasy united the clubbers and ravers on the dance ﬂoor, intensifying both the social
and musical experience of House parties.
VJs used similar equipment and techniques as other video artists of the time, but differed from them
by performing live video mixes made up of many fragments and layers of video clips in an equally
live setting. They considered visuals as a means of spreading social messages in social spaces.
In her article, Synaesthetic Performance In The Club Scene, Annet Dekker writes:
“With the arrival of cheaper equipment which facilitated the production of visuals, next to the DJ
there was also a VJ showing abstract and surreal visuals that reacted to or fused together with the
beat. The origins of the House movement lay in a belief, a belief in the self: "It was a personal
liberating experience with a slow, primal beat and rhythm. ‘My house is your house and your house
is mine.’ House culture was family.” Although the House Movement was very similar to the
psychedelic movement in the ‘60s, life itself had changed, inﬂuencing the meaning of these new
'raves'. Taken over by the commercial world, the intentions and feeling of the parties changed. As
the parties in the '60s were driven by an inner ideology to broaden self- consciousness, the raves in
the ‘90s were a reaction to a deteriorating society. The raves were a place to get rid of the anger and
frustrations of everyday life.”
It is the element of live performance, and the immersive effect that fusions of music, visuals,
movement, scents, smoke effects, disco lights and Ecstasy produced that leads Dekker to argue that
the club scene of the late '80s, early '90s can be considered as a relevant, new setting for synaesthetic
Steim Institute in Amsterdam. It is a fantastic software that I have used considerably in my own work.
88 The term VJ appeared in the early 80's and was used as the name for the girl-boy-next-door MTV music show
presenter who introduced both bands and their music videos. The term is used here as an artist who performs live
video mixes in a club setting.
89 Taking MDMA or ecstasy is often referred to as popping, rolling, pilling, boshing or dropping in the United
Kingdom, 'pinging' or 'peaking' in Australia, 'flipping', 'getting chewed' and/or 'murfing' in Canada or 'thizzing' in
Northern California. Some describe the rushing feeling of the drug as blowing up, coming up, flying, rolling face, or
90 Synaesthetic Performance In The Club Scene, Annet Dekker, Netherlands Media Art Institute, Montevideo/Time
Based Arts Amsterdam, 2003.
performance art. In her article she describes the circumstances that led up to the emergence of the
VJ, drawing from the history of the live image
and its connection to sound as a way of enforcing
In 1996 Fatboy Slim, DJ and English musician in the dance genre
, released an album called Better
Living through Chemistry - a direct reference to both attitudes towards Ecstasy, and a reminder of the
hippie protests of the '60s.
Through minimalist music and lyrics, he expressed what it was like to be
a part of the House culture of that time. By the turn of the century commercial interests took over
the club scene bringing 'House', as a youth movement, to an end.
MISE EN SCÈNE
1995-2000: Techno-euphoria to dot.com crash
Mise en scène, a term derived from theatre, has been called ﬁlm criticism's 'grand undeﬁned term',
but not because of a lack of deﬁnitions
. Rather, it is because the term has so many different
meanings that there is little consensus about its actual deﬁnition. The same can be said of the
electronic art scene that emerged in a techno-euphoric frenzy during the mid '90s, and came down
to earth at about the same time as the dot.com crash in 2000. In the space of a few years everything
merged together - the arts, design, architecture, popular culture, science, technology, entertainment,
education, advertising, mass media - in a Wagnerish postmodern crescendo hyped to the extent that
it eventually ran out of breath.
This Mise en scène is written in ﬁrst-person, dérive-style from the memory of my own experiences. It
spans a ﬁve-year period that had a radical effect on my art practice, and set the stage for my work
Just after I completed my diploma in choreography at the National College of Dance in Oslo, I
91 As proposed by Lev Manovich in his articles, lectures and books - such as The Language of New Media, The MIT
Press, 2001. It is downloadable from his website: http://www.manovich.net/
92 More specifically his style was known as big beat, a combination of hip hop, breakbeat, rock, trance, house and
rhythm and blues.
93 The phrase “Better Living Through Chemistry” is a variant of a DuPont advertising slogan, “Better Things for Better
Living...Through Chemistry.” DuPont adopted it in 1939 and was their slogan until the 1980s when the “Through
Chemistry” bit was dropped; in 1999 it was replaced by “The miracles of science”. This phrase became popular as
culture shifted from mod to hippie in the later half of the 1960s. Protesters would show up for a rally, perhaps to
protest a chemical plant, wearing DuPont propaganda buttons, which bore this slogan, while high on LSD, or other
synthetic drugs. Protests in the 1960s didn't all revolve around the Vietnam War; Dow Chemical and DuPont were
common targets, as people disliked the “artificiality” they represented, not to mention the fact that DuPont did
94 Literally it means “setting the scene”, but it can mean everything that is put before the camera – props, actors, set,
costumes and lighting, or the position and movement of the actors on the set. It can also mean all elements of the
visual style, or more mystically, the emotional tone of a film. It can refer to tone, meaning, and narrative information
conveyed through mise en scène, where a character's internal state of mind is represented through set design and
received an unexpected deposit in my bank account. I had previously read an intriguing article
about Life Forms
, a computer-compositional tool for developing choreography on a 'virtual' 3D
stage, with dancers that looked like stick-people. Though I had no experience in working with
computers, I used the money in my account to buy a Macintosh LC computer, a webcam, and a
ﬂoppy disk with Life Forms on it. I then started to experiment with dance – ﬁrst through Life Forms
and then via internet video teleconferencing.
From Life Forms to live art
Following the instructions of the Life Forms program, I found an editor where I manipulated the
limbs of a mesh-like ﬁgure with my mouse into a desired position. I placed the ﬁgure on a selected
keyframe in a timeline, and repeated the procedure again, and again, putting new poses in new
keyframes. I pushed the space bar on the keyboard and watched the computer generate movement
between the keyframes on the 3D stage. I added a sound ﬁle to the timeline and watched the
serendipitous connections between sound and movement. A new space seemed to open up behind
the ﬂat surface of the screen. It was the ﬁrst time that I felt such an intimate kinaesthetic
connection with a technological construct. I could save sequences of positions and movements in
data banks (a new concept for me) and recall and re-edit them later in new sequences. However, I
could not control the way the movement was rendered between the frames. It was the default
algorithms of zeros and ones that did that. At ﬁrst it was fascinating, to see things that were
impossible to envisage and perform in real life, but gradually the fascination wore off. It just wasn't
While I transfered some of this work on real dancers, I spent more time experimenting with dancing
to the awry sound of the internet band Nood (aka Per Platou and Ulf Knudsen)
, who were jamming
with the acoustic sound of the net with their friends. They used, amongst other 'free' software (e.g.
95 Life forms was developed by, amongst others, the computer media artist, dancer and choreographer, Thecla
Schiphorst at the Simon Fraser University in Canada. I was interested in it because Thecla worked closely to the
world famous choreographer of chance events, Merce Cunningham and supported the creation of his new dances
with Life Forms. (Cunningham's most famous with Life Forms in the 1999 production Bipeds. It used state of the art
projection techniques where Life Forms-animated dancers seemed to appear on the same stage as real dancers.) I
first met Thecla at the 5
International Conference on Cyberspace in Madrid, where I became familiar with her
interactive installation Body Maps, artefacts.
96 Kinaesthesia is the awareness of the position and movement of the parts of the body as registered via sensory organs
(proprioceptors) in the muscles and joints. It is the controversial 6
sense that can give feedback about heaviness and
temperature and can tell you where an injury is located inside your body. Kinaesthetics is the appreciation of such an
awareness – such as can be felt in dance, or by watching others move. I think it is very closely related to
synaesthesia and synaesthetics.
97 Nood was initiated by Per Platou and Ulf Knudsen in 1995 through their interest in the acoustic sound of the net.
They developed methods of combining social software tools such as CU-SeeMe, real audio, FTP, email, IRC and the
telephone and methods of sampling, looping and jamming with sounds in realtime.
IRC internet relay chat, MOOs
and RealAudio), CU-SeeMe video teleconferencing
as a social
performance space while surﬁng on the live sound of the net using samplers, mixers, acoustic
instruments and telephones.
Test pilots of the technological stone age
Screenshot of the computer at the Res Rocket Surfer Headquarters in London during the Cologne gig of Nood's Virtual Tour, 1995.
Taking part in these sessions felt like going to a House party without having to go out, and you never
knew who was going to drop in. With low-bandwidth modem connections, it was a challenge to
keep sound and image in sync. A delay in one part of the network caused a butterﬂy effect of
disruptions, and it was impossible to know exactly what others heard or saw. To get a feeling of the
delay in transmission rates 'ping' tests were performed that measured the echo times between signals
and relayed them as ping-sounds. Video images became jerky and pixilated, sounds crackled up.
Connections were broken and computers crashed. It was a glitchy primitive expression, but with a
strong sense of connection in a special addictive, clandestine dream-like zone. Tuning in to the
sliding of time was the aim of the game. When sound and image seemed to be in sync it felt like
ecstasy on speed. While experimenting in CU-SeeMe I encountered anonymous ﬂashers and
masturbators who frequently lurked in cyberspace, and as a result I developed a persona called
M@ggie, arming her with a plunger to protect herself. It is a strange idea, but it made sense at the
time. The plunger was a tongue-in-cheek symbol of binary transgender empowerment. The suction
98 A text-based chatroom with different imaginary 'rooms', such as a bar where you could order strange drinks that
made you 'drunk' - changing the way your text was shown.
99 For an overview of the CU-SeeMe project, see http://myhome.hanafos.com/~soonjp/project.html
cup was the feminine identiﬁer, and the shaft was the masculine one!
L: M@ggie, C: zero/feminine R: one/masculine :-D
In 1996 M@ggie and Nood (and our extended network) put on a show called M@ggie's Love Bytes,
described as a 'postmodem' split location dance theatre jam. It was shown during Electra, the ﬁrst
and largest Scandinavian exhibition of electronic art at the Henie Onstad Arts Centre just outside
Oslo. Using techniques described above, we directed the show from two computers, and projected
their desktops onto a large wall. Three web cams offered different perspectives of our space, and
three dancers and an actress
were brought in as additional M@ggie-clones. Participants from
three continents logged in, contributing with 'love bytes' of sounds and images and continuous chat-
texts that were played and projected on the wall. The viewers could see M@ggie respond on their
own screens, and send new responses to the dancers. This direct and almost synchronous, two-way
communication evoked a strong sense of participation. To let the in-house audience know that what
we were doing was happening in the moment, musician Aric Rubin, coming in from San Francisco,
was prompted to perform a guitar solo over the telephone. The audience could see him dialing the
number on the wall and hear him over the sound system. A couple of glitches, crashes, restarted
modems and computers should have helped out too, but despite our efforts, some still thought the
imagery on the wall was recorded video.
100 I practiced by logging on to different CU-SeeMe spaces, or reflectors, hosted by schools, office spaces, bands and
for a brief period, the space Mir, which was open for two-way communication for a period of about two weeks.
After that it was only possible to look in. I can find no documentation of this, but I remember that the reason given
by NASA was that being shut up in a confined space with Russians, the American astronauts missed communicating
in their own language! When the dual connection was shut down it felt like being both ground control and Major
Tom at the same time: Ground control to Major Tom, Your circuit's dead, there's something wrong, Can you hear
me, Major Tom? Can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you.... Here am I floating round
my tin can. Far above the moon. Planet earth is blue. And there's nothing I can do. - David Bowie, Space Oddity,
101 The dancers were Kristine Øren, Snelle Hall and Siri Jøntvedt, and the actress Kate Pendry. Kate devised an
improvisational monologue for the piece about the pleasures of drilling a hole in your head.
What was important was to use the restrictions of the technology creatively. Not to glorify it, but to
show the low-tech reality of the super-hyped 'information superhighway' and make explicit the
discrete connection felt with others online. It was in this indescribable psychedelic, imagined and
physical space-between-time-and-place experience that something verging on synaesthesia
happened. For those who participated, the show was an adrenalin kick of chaos and unpredictability.
For the uninitiated, it could be a confusing and undecipherable experience. With the process laid
bare for all to see, we were practicing live art while performing it, with limited control over the
Through this performance I founded the art collective Motherboard with Per Platou. The
performance received a good deal of attention from the media, and we started to become part of a
larger electronic arts scene, participating in conferences and festivals organised by smaller collectives
and large institutions. Through these events I became more familiar with the various discourses of
the electronic art scene, from the optimistic, archetypically American view of emerging technologies
and their power to improve and transform future life on earth, to the more critical, archetypically
While several installations I experienced bared a strong resemblance and reference to ideas
mentioned previously - such as neo-oriental panoramic video installations that transported the
viewer to 'other worlds', there are two aspects of this period that are particularly relevant to my
journey through synaesthesia and art.
Firstly affordable software designed for, and by, artists. Examples include Tom Demeyer's
Imagine/ine - the ﬁrst software for personal computers that allowed uncompressed video to be
manipulated in realtime, and designed for video artists rather than musicians or programmers - and
. Big Eye takes video information and converts it into MIDI messages. Based on color
102 For many years Tom worked at the Steim Institute in Amsterdam, and then later at the Waag/Centre for old and new
media where he became part of the KeyStroke team.
information or a 'reference image' it tracks objects through space, converting their parameters into
MIDI signals that can manipulate visual source material in a live performance environment. (I
particularly mention these because they are the ones I used in my work.)
Secondly, artworks that attempted to transmit explicit sensations to the public, and show how the
internet was affecting the way people thought about modes of communication (how machine code,
media, the senses and imagination had become intertwined). As ﬁngers replaced lips, it was the
perceptions of the touchers that were at stake – tactile hearing, audio vision, sensational interplay.
Below are a selection of artworks that I have divided into three main groups:
Futuristic fantasy discourses
These dealt with the question of whether cybernetic sensations would take over from, and radically
alter the traditional psychosomatic experience of the senses' ability to register pleasure and pain.
Here the body was laid bare on the alter of technology. An example is the Australian art collective
VNS Matrix who, from 1991, created works that sought to appropriate the language of computer
technology and the imaging of cyberpunk. Their aim was to “(re)structure female sexuality through
a futuristic fantasy discourse which encodes the clitoris as a laser beam 'phallus', a signiﬁer of power
and a direct on-line connection.”
Their work has included computer games, installations and
An example of direct physical stimulation is the Stenslie/Woolford cyber S/M project (1993) where
two anonymous users could directly stimulate each others body-parts via fullbody suits connected to
telephone lines. A computer screen in each location provided a graphic selection of 'perfect' cyber-
body parts to choose from.
The most extreme example is the Australian artist Stelarc's 'ping body' project. It was about 'The
Obsolete Body' and 'alternate, intimate and involuntary experiences' - qualities that can be
considered analogous to some of the clinical diagnosis of synaesthesia, but are in this case more
103 “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand
that plays, touching one key or another purposely, to cause vibrations in the soul.” In retrospect Kandinsky's
comment seems to refer to these attempts, but calling from another time. -W. Kandinsky, The Effect of Color, 1911
104 “Slimy metaphors for technology: 'the clitoris is a direct line to the Matrix' “ Dr. Jyanni Steffensen, 1998. Presented
at a conference at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina entitled “Discipline and Deviance: Technology, Gender,
Machines”, 1998 http://www.ensemble.va.com.au/array/steff.html
105 “We are the modern cunt, positive anti reason, unbounded unleashed unforgiving, we see art with our cunt we make
art with our cunt, we believe in jouissance madness holiness and poetry, we are the virus of the new world disorder,
rupturing the symbolic from within, saboteurs of big daddy mainframe, the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix, VNS
MATRIX, terminators of the moral codes, mercenaries of slime, go down on the altar of abjection, probing the
visceral temple we speak in tongues, infiltrating disrupting disseminating, corrupting the discourse, we are the future
cunt.” The Cyberfeminist Manifesto, VNS Matrix, 1991.
related to anesthesia (without senses).
In 'ping body his near-naked body was encased in circuitry, forming an external nervous system that
functioned in a feedback loop with his biological systems. Audience members could log on to a
website where they could actuate (electrocute) Stelarc 'as body' via a computer-interfaced-muscle-
stimulation system based at the main performance site. By randomly 'pinging' to internet domains,
spatial distance and transmission time was mapped onto body motion. 'Ping values' were used to
activate a multiple muscle stimulator directing 0-60 volts to Stelarc's body that consequently
performed an involuntary, spasmodic choreography
. His movements (registered by sensors on his
arms and legs) simultaneously generated sounds mapped to proximity, positioning and bending of
his arms and legs that were controlled, not by him, but by a prosthetic third arm. A 'ping Body
performance could last for as long as 4 hours, and would occasionally result in Stelarc having a
seizure, at which point the electrical input would be temporarily turned off. However, unknown to
the audience, Stelarc continued to perform by faking the spasms for the sake of performance. For an
uninitiated audience Stelarc's dance seemed senseless.
Today Stelarc is undertaking a project that puts his body under even more pressure by attempting to
graft a partly constructed, partly grown quarter-sized ear onto his arm, which I think is a very
Stelarc, Extra ear – 1⁄4 scale (in collaboration with Tissue Culture & Art), 2003
106 On his website Stelarc explains that “although the body’s movements were involuntary, it could respond by
activating its robotic Third Hand and also trigger the upload of images to a website so that the performance could be
monitored live on the Net.”
107 While I think Stelarc was trying to make a point here, this was the problem with many of the interactive
installations and performances of the 1990s. They just didn't feel interactive.
Soft-sensual telematic installations that reﬂect a synaesthesia of hand and eye.
These include Paul Sermon's Telematic Dreaming (1992) and Techla Schiphorst's Bodymaps. Artifacts of
Telematic Dreaming played with the ambiguous connotations of a bed as telepresence projection
surface to evoke an uncanny feeling of intimacy that can be experienced when people communicate
remotely. Visitors could lie on beds in two separate rooms connected by an ISDN video-
teleconferencing system. Combining video images of the beds in the two rooms created a mirroring
effect reﬂecting one person within another person's reﬂection so that people could 'touch' each
other's image. It created an uncanny synaesthesia of hand and eye.
Bodymaps. Artifacts of Mortality consisted of a platform covered in white velvet onto which video of
Thecla's own body was projected. By stroking and caressing the velvet, it would shudder, roll,
fragment, be consumed by ﬂames, drown, die and re-awaken, accompanied by sounds of water, ﬁre
and wind. Drawing on the archetypal elements of nature, it create an immersive and almost sacral
experience that was far from removed from the typically more concept-based, gaming-like
installations of the time, and was one of the few works that was described by the artist in terms of
Installation as instrument. Sound objects becoming visual and tactile objects.
The last example, Simulationsraum-Mosaik mobiler Datenklänge (SMDK, 1993) by the cross-disciplinary
group Knowbotic Research (made up of media artists, computer musicians and computer scientists)
is more abstract. Here the public are not required to view another body, or body-representation.
The results of the actions of the public inside the installation can be seen and heard by those outside.
For this installation sounds deposited in a databank were analyzed by a computer, organised into
groups and given corresponding computer generated geometric shapes. On entering the dark space
visitors were given a hand sensor and an eye monitor. They could see and hear the sounds around
them, and reach out, touch and manipulate them in the computerized space they had become a part
of. Similar shaped sounds would seek each other out in a self-organising way. Visitors could divide
the audio-visual clusters up by their hand movements causing various effects. Fast movements
created louder volume, and keeping groups together produced more stability in the soundscape.
Rotating the hand sensor caused different spatial relationships. The 'active space', the space where
sounds could be manipulated, was about 25cm in radius from the position of the sensor, but
appeared much larger in its virtual rendition both on the eye monitor, and on a larger screen placed
at the entrance door for all to see.
In January 2000 Motherboard invited sixteen artists to take part in a two-week international cross-
disciplinary worklab and performance event called Hot Wired Live Art at BEK (Bergen Centre for
Electronic Art). The aim was to beta-test a new experimental software project, KeyStroke
, and to
devise networked strategies for live art through the process of collective experimentation and play.
According to the website at that time, KeyStroke is “an application through which image, sound,
text and animation can be created and manipulated live on the Internet. It is a multi-user tool and
can be used by professional artists as well as others interested. It is possible for instance to have a jam
session between a visual artist and a musician in the same place, or with a DJ and a VJ at different
locations. KeyStroke is inspired by the notion of synaesthesia; to hear images and see sound.”
To expand on this description with a hypothetic example, using a shared 'canvas' a person in place 1
(P1) could create a red circle. A person in place 2 (P2) could use their mouse to dynamically change
the size and hue of the circle. A third person in yet another physical location (P3) could swap P2's
mouse-control of the size of the circle with their own joystick-control, and use it to modify the hue
and position of the circle as well. P1 could then use a video tracking module to capture the x, y
position of the circle, and use these parameters to generate and modify the frequency of a tone (and
so on), and all without having to say a word. The ﬂuctuation of transmission rates of signals passing
back and forth added an extra time-ﬁlter to the experience. It is a complicated thing to describe, but
an intuitive thing to do, which was just what Motherboard had been looking for since 1996.
Basically, anything that could be digitized, or digitally addressed could be modiﬁed and manipulated
by any participator, at any time during a jam session and from anywhere with an internet
connection (such as data generated by the computer keyboard, sensors, microphones, video
cameras, MIDI keyboards, joysticks, live audio/video streams, data banks of images and sounds,
texts, and so on.)
For HWLA it was the ultimate, synaesthetic, experimental, networked performance feedback engine.
A large open workspace was provided, equipped with an array of hard- and software for media
production and streaming, as well as various other tools and materials. Each day started with fencing
lessons given by a Norwegian equivalent of Zorro. They provided a kick-start for the senses, and an
108 KeyStroke was developed at the Waag/Centre for old and new media in Amsterdam. The project was led by Sher
Doruff, and amongst the team were programmer and musician Niels Bogaards and Tom Demeyer. Both Sher and
Niels took part in HWLA1, and later HWLA2 at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada. The original KeyStroke
project is now over, and at some point KeyStroke changed name to KeyWorx, and is currently being ported to a
Linux/Open Source platform. It can still be downloaded without cost at: http://www.keyworx.org/apps.php.
109 Basically it consists of three parts, a 'Patcher' (or graphical user interface) for mapping, assembling and
manipulating digitized inputs and outputs, a 'Realizer' where these mappings are outputted, and a server that allows
these to be shared by participants.
embodied metaphor for working in a shared environment where group dynamics are of essence. The
mask hid facial expressions, the sword tip was the only physical point of contact, and the rules
provided a frame for getting a feeling for how to meet, when to initiate, when to follow, and when to
back down (gracefully). Throughout the two weeks sounds and texts became projected shapes and
colours. They were modulated by bodies, lights and remote-controlled helium ships that generated
more imagery, sounds, and metaphoric and concrete parries and couterpoints. Long working days
ended in parties in the environments that were devised.On the last evening we opened up the space
for the public to join us in a social, live art event where guests could also participate via the
Through this worklab strong bonds were formed that led to future collaborations.
Though I rarely use KeyWorx on an internet-work these days
, I do use it in my both in my own
art works, as a prototyping tool, and in teaching situations.
From Zeotropes to Nintendos
Joost Rekveld (NL) is an artist who has conducted considerable reserch into media machines and
ideas of the past to create his personalised, expressive media machines. During the DEAF00 festival
organized by the V2 Institute for unstable media in Rotterdam, he gave a presentation entitled An
evening of .... Joost Rekveld where he described the emergence of moving image media in the 20
century through the lens of past research into the human visual perception of movement and
attempts to capture motion patterns. His evening was made up of four separate presentations and
performances: a lecture by Edwin Carels on Plateau, Duchamp and the Machine Célibataire, two
performances/installations - The Strob-Optical Machine by Bruce McClure, Norbert Schliewe's Die Luft
über dem Toaster, and his own performance #19 with live-music by Edwin van der Heide.
110 Per Platou and dance technology researcher/dancer/choreographer Scott deLahunta got so involved in the fencing
that one of them broke the rib of the other, though for the life of me I can't remember who was injured. I think it was
111 In 2001 HWLA2 took place at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada, organised by Michelle Teran. The emphasis of
the work shifted to mobile devices, wireless networks and interventions of both Banff and the rocky mountainous
space surrounding the centre. It culminated in a social performance event, where the New Media theorist Lev
Manovich, caught up in the event, spontaneously sprayed everyone with aftershave lotion and declared that he too
wanted to become a hot wired live artist. Such is live art. You never know what's going to happen.
112 For me at least, that activity belonged to a special time that seems to have passed by. I now think networked
performance is most potent in politically heated situations where information needs to be got out of otherwise
113 The three projects in this category all directly relate to what Erkki Huhtamo refers to as Media Archaeology. In his
work he approaches the topic of Media Art history by looking at the media hard- and software of the past from the
perspective of the social situations they emerged from (hopes, dreams, fears, desires, etc), and finds interesting
correspondencies to related tendencies in modern times. To hear (and see) Huhtamo speak about his ideas, see: In
the end the interface is a political issue, a video interview from 2006, published on the Artnodes website:
Photos from An Evening of .... Joost Rekveld.
Each artist presented their personal approach to constructing media today through the gaze of the
pre-cinematic innovations of the past. It was an evening of whizzing, whirring, popping and
and other strange devices. Fusion of sounds and images of the
machines in action, tricking the eyes with stunning optical illusions.
Japanese Toshio Iwai is an example of an artist who managed to integrate his artistic work of the
Century with commercial enterprise in the 21st. During the 1980s he began creating
installations that combined pre-cinema techniques (such as the zoetrope
with modern techniques of image creation and production. In the 1990s his work became
increasingly focused on relationships between sound and image, using interactivity, gestural
interfaces and generative, aleatory music
In Piano – As Image Media (1995) audience members played a piano by using a trackball to draw
moving light-dots on a grid. When the dots came close to the piano they accelerate and strike a key.
With the sound of the piano, a 3D ﬁgure seemed to pop out of the keyboard. The sound of the
acoustic, computer-controlled piano consequently produced more colors and ﬁgures.
114 The word “phenakistoscope” comes from Greek roots meaning “deceiving viewer”. The phenakistoscope is a hand
held device from the 1830's for viewing animations, based on a vertically mounted disk with hand-drawn animation
“frames” placed around the centre. Around its circumference are slits. The viewer spins the disk and looks through
the moving slits at reflections of the disk on a mirror. The scanning of the slits across the reflected images keeps the
still images from simply blurring together, so that the user sees a rapid succession of images, giving the appearance
of a moving image.
115 The zoetrope is a cylindrical device from the 1930's where still images inside the cylinder are viewed via vertical
slits on the outside. As the cylinder spins the rapid succession of still images produces an equivalent to motion
image. The slits prevent the images from becoming blurred together.
116 In Aleatoric (or chance) music some element of the composition is left to chance, or an element of a composed
work's realization is left up to its performer(s).
L: Piano - As Image Media, Toshio Iwai, 1995. Installation view at galerie deux, Tokyo 1998.
R: Electroplankton, Nintendo DS sound toy, Toshio Iwai, 2005.
Toshio Iwai became one of the ﬁrst internationally recognized artists to lead the creation of a
number of commercial videogame projects. For the Nintendo DS he created Electroplankton, released
in Japan in 2005. It consists of a suite of ten different interactive music and audio toys themed
around cartoon plankton that used the touchscreen and microphone interface features of the gaming
Manual hand input
In a similar, playful vein, speaking at the GeneratorX conference in Oslo (2005) Golan Levin (US)
described his Manual Input Sessions, a series of audiovisual concert vignettes developed in 2004 with
Zachary Lieberman. They explore the expressive possibilities of hand gestures and ﬁnger
movements. Using custom made software and overlapping analogue overhead and digital video
projectors, hybrid light shapes and corresponding sounds are generated by silhouettes of hands.
When speaking at the Sonic Acts XI Symposium and festival in Amsterdam in 2006, he pulled two
computers out of his bag to give a hands-on demonstration of this work. He placed his hand above
the overhead projector and formed an “0” shape with his index ﬁnger and thumb, causing its
silhouette to appear on a large screen behind him. The hand was black, the background, pink, and
the hole in the middle, white. The luminous image was accompanied with a quirky tone. As he
opened his ﬁnger and thumb the white hole-shape dropped out of place on the screen, not once, but
like a series of snowballs, and with each shape came a new tone. Throughout his presentation he
showed how different shapes could cause different sound effects, and described his attention to
behaviour when designing his systems. Synaesthesia was an inspiration, behaviourism the method,
and it seemed to work. The layers of analogue and digital projections produced an unusual quality
of light – somehow out of focus, and yet quite sharp, with a strong sense of connection between
gesture, image and sound. At times the public laughed in unison like a group of children watching
their favourite cartoon, not stopping to think why.
This synaesthesia in art - what is it good for?
When I wrote my project description for Mind, the Gap in 2004 the questions I posed related to
artistic concerns of how to create a “successful synaesthetic work”, and who should deﬁne the
success - the artist or the audience. I also posed questions about the relationship between time and
space in synaesthetic works, my mind working in a choreographic mode.
Over a year later I had added a couple of questions related to true and synthesized synaesthetic
experiences, especially in relation to synaesthesia created by artistic intention. My ﬁrst version of one
of these questions went like this:
Is it possible to evoke, even for a moment, an experience comparable to real synaesthesia, a
gesamtkunstwerk of emotional impact and perceptual transcendence - without using psychedelic
Later I took out the gesamtkunstwerk, the emotional impact and perceptual transcendence bits. Though I
regarded this question as a performative one – as a question that would raise some eyebrows and
cause some debate and attention for my project
, I was not actually sure what I aimed to get from
It has been disturbing me ever since.
What I should probably have been asking is; what good is this synaesthetic probing of senses and
materials, of self and world? It could be, as suggested by Michelle Kuo
, that it has served as an
escape from an administrated, regulated society. The utopian vision of a one code-ﬁts-all, universal
language (that has often connected synaesthesia to spiritualism) in a nostalgic and, at its most
extreme, totalitarian vision. On the other hand, she says it could serve as a way of revealing how
probing into aesthetic materials and the corporeality of the body can reveal how they have been
mediated, modulated and commodiﬁed by technocratic means. She also writes that “(the) postwar
rediscovery of synaesthesia revives the ambivalence of mass ornament and its latent possibilities for
sensing truth in surface.”
117 I do think that taking psychedelic drugs is the only foolproof way of experiencing synaesthesia if you don't have it.
118 The only time this strategy has worked for me was when I presented my project at The Uk Synaesthesia Association
Annual conference meeting.
119 Synaesthetic Politics of the Body, Michelle Kuo,
Rather than sensing the truth, artists today are as equally interested in exploring digital and
communications technologies as sensuous transducers of experiences. “The increasing interest in
‘sensorial art’ and synaesthetics is believed to be a counter action towards the digitalisation of our
society and the increased use of technology in art. Yet, elaborate works like ‘Tickle Salon’ by Erwin
Driessens and Maria Verstappen and DJ/VJ performances in clubs, where music, visuals, smoke and
smells create a synaesthetic performance, show that an immediate, bodily, sensorial aesthetic
experience is enforced by means of digital technology. A supreme experience that echo’s Romantic
aspirations but is truly a product of our own time and age, employing state of the art technologies
within contemporary artistic practice.” (Annet Dekker, Sensational Technologies, 2004).
Despite state of the art technologies I still have to lift up my clothing and feel the cold, metal
stethoscope on my body when I visit the doctor with chest complaints. My pulse is still tested by
warm ﬁngers placed over the veins on my wrists as my doctor looks at his wrist watch to register the
intervals of my heartbeats. For my own part, I do not wear a watch because I don't like to have such
a direct physical connection to the metric passing of time. Still, I like to hold analogue watches close
to my ear. Hearing the watch ticking away time while feeling the vibrations of the mechanical parts
in motion resonating inside my body, causing an interplay with my own biological pacemaker.
Mechanical watches need to be rewound or kept in motion to keep time from slowing down, or
stopping completely. They are a reminder that metric time is not a universally accepted concept.
The art works that I am most content with are those that I can sense in the present, but have a
certain ambiguous relationship to time.
In my opinion synaesthesia works best as a suggestive anomaly, which is quite paradoxical when you
consider how many analogous activities between seemingly disparate domains it has inspired over
the centuries. I think it is the glitch that has run through the web of the usual order of things that
caused Dick Higgins to remark that he could not “name a work which has consciously been placed
in the intermedium between painting and shoes” in 1965,
and Gary Hill to make Why do things
get in a muddle? (Come on Petunia) in 1984.
Below is a description of this work by curators of the exhibition Say Hello to Peace and Tranquility
“Gregory Bateson approached the problems of language, meaning, order and disorder in his 1948
120 Synesthesia and Intersenses: Intermedia. Dick Higgins (with an Appendix by Hannah Higgins). Originally
published in Something Else Newsletter 1, No. 1 (Something Else Press, 1966). Also published as a chapter in Dick
Higgins, Horizons, the Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1984).
121 I would love to send him the The Seven Mile Boots for Christmas - bright red and beautiful wearable networked
boots created by Beloff, Berger and Pichlmair, 2003-04. (http://randomseed.org/sevenmileboots/)
122 Hans D. Christ, Iris Dressler, Jan Schuijren, Montevideo, March 2002
work Metalogues by creating a ﬁctional dialogue between a father and his daughter. “Why Do Things
Get In A Muddle?” is the daughter’s apparently naïve, yet central question. Gary Hill picked up this
question in his 1984 (48/84!) video of the same title and circulates it throughout the dialogue
between a professorial father and his daughter, who not coincidentally reminds the viewer of Alice in
In Why Do Things Get In A Muddle? (Come On Petunia) things appear to become more and more
confusing. The actors in the scene move about and, above all, they speak backwards. At the same
time, the video recording itself runs backwards so that everything should be in order. However, in
actuality the viewer has to make an effort to understand the strained dialog, because as the language
goes back and forth the phonetic structure is displaced. Also, a pipe – besides in ﬁlms – cannot be
really be smoked backwards. A moment that is as irritating as a wooden arrow that ﬂies into the
father’s hand. However, it is these irritations that allow the viewer to realize what “went awry”...
Why Do Things Get In A Muddle? (Come On Petunia) explores the possibilities, limits and effects on order
and disorder in a philosophical manner as well as with regard to the media of video, ﬁlm, and
speech. While, as the father reasons, there are many ways to bring disorder to things, the margins for
order are extremely limited: For example, there is only one 'Come on Petunia.' Whereupon Alice
answer, “But Daddy, the same letters might spell 'Once upon a time'.”
When I visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles earlier this year I was confronted
by a poster in a glass frame. I could see my own reﬂection in the glass so that my face was transposed
onto the poster itself. On the poster were the words “The learner must be led always from familiar objects
towards the unfamiliar.... guided along as it were, a string of ﬂo wers into the mysteries of life.”
That is what I think synaesthesia is. It is like a string of ﬂowers that each whisper mutinous
suggestions. For those who listen it can cause different tensions between things. It can cause ideas,
inventions and discoveries to resurface, relocated and reshaped in the guise of another time, another
place, another person.
MIND, THE GAP
The result of the research project Mind, the gap, is a compilation of various investigated aspects of my
research about synesthesia presented in an artistic form. This resulting work crosses between the
performative to the visual ﬁeld, from the site-speciﬁc to the concert hall, the black box and white
The Emotion Organ
12 year old Jonas Bræin Selvig playing The Emotion Organ
The Emotion Organ is a synaesthetic simulacrum machine, an instrument where players can explore
the space of its performative possibilities in an open-ended fashion. The affects and effects are
unpredictable, emergent and moody. The Emotion Organ brings the internal emotional journey of
the player into the material world in its own special way. Without electricity it can be played as a
conventional musical instrument. When plugged in it can become different things - from a modiﬁed
musical instrument, to a quiet, aromatic gaming machine, or simply a foot-operated fan. Its affects
can range from ﬂying a vintage plane into the sunset to strolling through a garden of vibrant,
aromatic ﬂowers. It is the perceptions of the toucher that are at stake – to discover through touch the
sensational interplay of hearing, seeing, smelling and motion.
The Emotion Organ was initially inspired by a combination of a clapped out pump organ from
1895 standing in my studio and a simulacrum contraption that features in the novel We can build you
(1977) by the renowned sci-ﬁ author, Philip K. Dick. The Mood Organ, as it is called, is a devise for
home-use for venting strong emotions undesirable in a futuristic dictatorial society, and marketed as
an alternative to addictive medication. Ironically, people became addicted to playing the Mood
Organ, hacking it to achieve more intense emotions.
Once I had decided to invent and build my own Emotion Organ I was inspired by the story of
Louis-Bertrand Castel, his attempts to build an ocular harpsichord in 1725, and the evocations and
ideas he experienced as a result. In his diary he wrote: “Not in dreams, but especially in the state of
dizziness preceding sleep, or after listening to music for hours, do I feel the correspondence between
colors, sounds and scents. It seems as if they all rise mysteriously from the same ray of light and,
subsequently, reunify in an amazing concert. The scent of deep red carnations above all has a
magical effect on me.”
Later I saw a documentary program about the life and work of virtuoso organist Dame Gillian Weir
in which she described good music as “a jewel hanging in the air. A many faceted jewel out of which
springs light. It is marinated through the performance context and merges with the performer”. She
asked a student; “If you met this (music) on the street, who would it be: A man or a woman?” To
which the student replied, “a peacock”. “Then show me the peacock!”, said Wier. “Do not think of
different notes, but rather the shapes you make .... Make the organ sing and listen to the weight of
the note as you release it.”
Finally she said that we don't know our music until we see the
instrument to which it was given birth.
123 These quotes are taken from scribbling down the dialogue of the program in my notebook, so they may vary from
the actual conversation. The program was first made in 2000 for Melvin Bragg's Southbank series on ITV. I saw it
on NRK2 in September 2004.
I too had to see my organ before I knew exactly how it should produce a synaesthesia of aroma,
sound, light, colour, motion and vibration. Below are two images that attempt to visualize what I
had in mind at two different stages of my project. The image on the left was made in December
2004 for my project application. The image on the right was made in February 2006 after over a
year of research and experimentation.
Practically speaking, I set up a worklab where I took apart and restored the organ. I re-engineered it
using a combination of past and present technologies for audio/visual production (analogue and
digital hard- and software) as well as custom-made sensors and devices. As I encountered issues that
I could not overcome myself, I sought help. These include aspects of physical computing (sensor
building and programming), restoration and physical modiﬁcation of the organ, visualising the
organ's modiﬁed appearance, devising a way to emit aromas, controlling the electro acoustic sound
of the organ, and ﬁnding a source of meaningful data to apply to the programming of inputs and
outputs. On the next page is a diagram and explanation of the physical inputs and outputs of the
124 Here the Emotion Organ is envisaged in the Eidsvold Gallery in the Norwegian parliament building. It was sent as a
visual aid to accompany an application in which I proposed installing the organ to give politicians a chance to
explore their changing colour of politics in an abstract and sensuous way that could possibly inspire them to make
better decisions about the shaping of our society. My application was turned down, but I will try again later.
Everything is connected
1. The propeller (flight, wind, storm, dervish, freedom)
The propeller stands approximately 4 metres away from organ. It acts as a projection surface for the
varying coloured light that shines out from the projector installed at the back of the organ. The
image hangs in the air. The speed of the propeller is controlled by the footpumps (6) which have
potentiometers installed beneath them. The faster you pedal, the faster the propeller spins. There
are eight modes for speed based on the data derived from pulling out the 8 organ stops (7). This is
described below in point 7.
2. The small phonograph horns (eyelids, stars, morse code)
Inside the small 2 phonograph horns on each of the metal stems are light bulbs. They ﬂash on and
off with varying degrees of brightness according to how hard the organ keys are depressed (velocity).
This is controlled by the 61 light sensors installed under each key of the keyboard (4). The
phonograph horns are mounted on ﬂexible goose-neck tubes so that they can be adjusted according
125 The words in brackets are associative descriptors that have evolved during the construction of The Emotion Organ,
rather than being prerequisites for design.
to the whim of the player, who can turn them inwards to feel the effect of the light, or outwards for
others to see.
3. The large phonograph horns (blooms of light, headlamps, sun, heat)
Similarly, the large horns have light bulbs inside them. They react to the sound envelope (volume)
that is picked up by 2 contact microphones installed in the organ, and produce softer ambulations of
4. The keyboard (ﬁngers/digits as lips, colours as words, eyes as hammers)
The light sensors under the 5-octave (plus one key) keyboard have various functions. They detect
which note is being played. Different combinations of keys are responsible for changing the colour of
the projected light circle. The velocity value also controls the brightness of the projected colours.
The right most key/sensor switches between 2 modes of the electro-acoustics of the analogue sound
ﬁlter installed in the back of the organ. It manipulates the original organ sound. The frequency of
the manipulated sound slides from high to low depending on how many keys are depressed. One
unmarked (hidden) key reverses the audio/visual output. For a novice player it can be a novel
surprise. For an experienced player it can be used as an expressive gesture.
5. Stool (arousement, depth)
The sub-woofer is installed inside the organ stool. It emits low frequency sounds generated by the
electro-acoustic sound ﬁlter (13). At certain levels it is possible to feel the strong vibrations caused by
low sound frequencies.
6. The footpumps (lungs, power, speed, grounded, walking, running)
The air from the footpumps creates a vacuum in the organ bellows, affecting the volume of its
various audio output modes. However, by varying pedaling speed, and hence the speed of the
propeller, the projected coloured light becomes split up, creating optical illusions and multi-coloured
variations of the whole and fragmented circle.
7. The eight stops (glotal stop, navigation, mirror, lens)
The 8 stops of the organ are mechanical levers, and have distance detecting sensors to register when
they are activated and how far they are pulled out within a 4 cm range. As they are light-sensitive
they are relative, rather than ﬁxed detectors. The four left hand stops affect the lower bass keys, and
the right hand stops the higher keys (treble). Like our hands, their functions are mirrored. The two
outer-most levers are 'couplers'. They do not change the sound of the organ itself, but are connected
to notes an octave below or above the key played. The remaining 6 stops change the quality of the
sound by controlling how much air is passed over the 122 reeds (2 reeds for each key) of the organ.
The effects range from solo 'voice', and 'nasal', heavenly and ﬂute-like qualities. The 4 stops in the
high range control video ﬁlters that affect the coloured, projected circle, creating different shapes
and patterns of light. Each time a stop is pulled out it changes the rotation direction of the circle.
The stops also affect the speed of the fan, and the effort of pumping the footpumps. With 1 stop out
it is difﬁcult to gain speed (like walking up a steep hill), with all 8 stops out it is easy (like running
down a steep mountain).
8. The eight airbrush guns (pollution, intoxication, presence, memory, trigger)
The 8 airbrush guns (usually used for grafﬁti) are fed by the air compressor. They have push-type
solenoids attached to their valves, controlled by the i/o box, Lan box and DMX box. Each aroma
corresponds to a colour of eight sound groups. They are activated on a programmed timer that
registers how long a player sustains a certain group. The aromas are stored in their cups. Each one is
a synthesized aroma composition. They range from sweet to acidic, bitter, ﬂoral and synthetic-like
smells. As each aroma is released it fuses with the previous ones. The propeller performs a social
function, spreading the aromas to an eventual audience and clearing the air for the player. The
player has the best chance to experience individual aromas, while the audience experiences the
combined aromas. It is easier to recognise the descriptor names of some aromas, and impossible to
recognise others. The perception and effect of aromas is highly individual.
9. The medium-sized phonograph horns (synthesis, industrial aura, transmission)
The medium horns have small speakers installed inside of them. They are fed by the electro acoustic
analogue sound ﬁlter via sound picked up by two contact microphones that pass through the digital
sound interface. They modify the sound of the organ's own voice in different ways. Certain
frequencies cause the aluminum horns to vibrate and resonate. When the horns are placed close to
the ears of the player the stereo sound becomes localised, or they can be directed out into the space.
Eventual audience members can stand with their ear close to the horns.
10. Computer (brain, fuzzy logic, memory, alchemy)
The computer is the digital brain of the organ's nervous system. It receives and digitizes signals,
stores data, connects and modiﬁes electrical signals from the sensors (connected to the MIDI
interfaces) and sends them out to the various organs of the machine via the Lan box, the DMX box
and projector. The programming platform is MAX-msp with Jitter as the visual engine, and the
main protocol for signals entering and leaving the computer is MIDI. The graphical interface of the
control 'patches' (the name given to the digital 'space' where mappings are made) resembles the
organ's physical parts. Apart from lists of control data, the only media stored in the computer are
two images: a white circle on a black background, and an image mask of the same shape. All other
media are generative/emergent. The programming principle for creating groups of sounds is based
on Alan Forte's system for structuring atonal music. 6 main and 2 sub sets of chromatic sound
groups correspond to colours in a chromatic scale from red to violet and white. Each group has a
corresponding aroma. Three different keys in the 12 tone scale must be depressed to get a result,
and the system works independently of octaves. One-ﬁnger-play results in no colour and no aroma.
This system can register a player's tonality preference. In addition, an article about the listener's
emotional engagement with works by Scriabin and how these are affected by the pianist's bodily
enactment of performing these works is applied. Velocity, volume, shifts in musical phrases, speeds
and tonalities are described as a way of gaging a player's emotional response.
11. Projector (aura, hallucination)
The projector is installed inside the organ and is the source of coloured light. The (hidden) imagery
on the computer differs from the effect of the coloured light as it rotates on the propeller. Varying
speeds of the propeller cause various visual illusions/retinal manifestations of coloured light forms. I
have not yet been able to capture these successfully, either with still camera, or video camera. At
times the coloured light seems to rotate in the opposite direction to its actual rotation direction.
15. Contact microphones (skin, surveillance, slide, glitch)
There are 2 contact microphones installed inside the organ. They pick up the sound of its
mechanical parts in action as well as its own voice and create feedback. The sound they pick up
passes into the digital sound interface, then into the analogue sound ﬁlter where it is modiﬁed into
retro-synth-like sounds. It is then sent to the subwoofer, and ﬁnally into the speakers in the
phonograph horns. The sound frequency and tempo is modulated according to how many ﬁngers
are in action on the keyboard. One ﬁnger produces low frequencies, 10 ﬁngers, high. The sound
slides up and down between these frequencies. The sound volume (or rather, envelope) also controls
the dimensions of the projected circle.
Playing the organ
In order to explore The Emotion Organ's synaesthetic potential a player must experiment with the
way in which various combinations of its 61 keys, 2 foot pumps and 8 stops can produce different
results. Its appearance is deceiving. It is no longer a pump organ but a unique and highly
personalised machine for individual indulgence. Maximum effect is not analogous to hard pumping
and loud volume. Sensitive conversations with The Emotion Organ result in richer textures and
combinations of sound, light, aroma, vibration and movement. There are two rules for playing The
Emotion Organ. The ﬁrst is that it should be treated with respect as it is a fragile and nervous
instrument. The second is that it should be played bare footed for maximum contact.
Once the initial work was completed, I held open studio sessions where The Emotion Organ was
put to the test by people of various ages and competences. They were given no, or little information
as to how it worked before hand. Testers ranged from approximately 12 years to 60 years of age, and
were both musicians and non-musicians. Amongst them was the notorious performance artist and
organist Charlemagne Palestine, who described it as a 'fucka-rucka' machine.
Charlemagne Palestine playing the Emotion Organ, November 2006
As a result of these open sessions adjustments and repairs were made. I also assessed how best to
introduce new players to the machine in the future. While most testers displayed extreme
concentration and immersion when playing The Emotion Organ, the organist and the young boy
displayed the largest degree of extrovert playfulness in terms of body movement and vocal
expression. All seemed to enjoy observing others attempting to play it. They said that they had never
played an instrument like it, and expressed a wish to spend more time with it - preferably alone.
The question of whether The Emotion Organ can create an experience comparable to true
synaesthesia is, as yet, an open-ended one. It is such a context-sensitive and subjective issue that even
a Syn, who has her own synaesthetic repertoire may not experience synaesthesia through contact
with the machine. The most conclusive response I received was from the New Music composer
Bjarne Kvinnsland. He sent me an sms a couple of hours after visiting my studio to say that The
Emotion Organ had evoked emotions in him that he had never before experienced with music.
In January 2007 The Emotion Organ will be introduced to a wider public at the Norwegian Theatre
Academy, staged as a two-day live art event in a salong-like setting. First, an invited organist will
perform a prepared improvisation, followed by my own short improvisation. Then I will give a brief
presentation of The Emotion Organ to the public and open up for the possibility for them to try it
I have tested principles and techniques generated from the process of constructing The Emotion
Organ - from prototyping parts to working with various artistic strategies and sensory experiments -
by participating in collaborative live artworks in diverse contexts that do not involve its physical
presence. As such, it has already succeeded as an artistic device for generating new approaches,
concepts and aesthetic potentials. These works are described and reﬂected upon below, starting with
the latest event and ending with the earliest.
In Death Valley, everywhere we looked, gently waving stands of desert gold blossoms
danced in the wind, their daisy-like faces punctuated with vibrant orange centers.
Motherboard, May 2006
Developed for Galleri F15's 40 year jubilee exhibition, Prosjektrommet 93-06. Moss Bryggeri
Motherboard: Per Platou and Amanda Steggell.
Sound: Geir Jenssen/Biosphere.
Flower construction: Aslak Nygren.
This work is an installation that draws on the notion of synaesthesia to create an emotive,
intersensory experience where undulating combinations of sound, colour, light and aroma are
brought together in a kinetic sculpture – or a sensorium-like sculptural space. The aim was to create
a contemplative, awry, timeless atmosphere that affected the public directly. A sensuous experience
that could lead to quiet thought.
The centrepiece is a rotating, metalic 'sound ﬂower.' Panoramic visions of Death Valley are projected
onto a rotating disco ball covered with pieces of broken mirrors. It fragments the video footage into
different shapes, and beams them around a white room (cube). Its ﬂoor is covered with salt. The
brightness of coloured lamps undulates in response to the sounds of the metallic ﬂower, causing
shifting shadows to appear. A strange aroma ﬁlls the space.
In Death Valley .... was developed for a large exhibition to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Galleri
F15 in Moss, Norway. It featured contributed works of 99 artists, each who had exhibited in the
gallery's project room in the period between 1993-2006.
With this in mind, the installation aimed to appeal to visitors of all ages and walks of life, and
demanded no more from them than their presence. The idea was that the installation should act as a
special atmospheric zone in the midst of an eclectic exhibition and that the public should have the
feeling of discovering it for themselves.
The inspiration for this project came primarily from an emotive response to the bloom-like shape of
the phonograph horns that are used in The Emotion Organ. So organic, yet metallic they seemed to
suggest a certain resilience – like ﬂowers that struggle to survive in a harsh climate. Then, ﬁrst hand
experience of both the blooming in Death Valley, and the vast expanses and debris of other North
American deserts provided more fuel.
Construction and materials
The diagram on the next page shows the technical set up for In Death Valley... I used MAX-msp to
create ﬂuctuating cyclic states of the combined media outputs. The 'sound ﬂower' and the mirror
ball rotated in opposite directions, and with a slight inconsistency in speed to make it seem as if the
one was affecting the other. While synchronization gives a feeling of automation, slight deviations in
speed can give a more organic feeling, like the kinetic relationship between planets and stars, ﬂowers
and the sun, the tide and the moon. The audio-scape was based on recordings of desert sounds
combined with a composition by Geir Jenssen, made up of his own samples of Buddhist monks
playing Tibetan bells. The higher frequencies were dispersed through the individual phonograph
horns of the sound ﬂower, while low frequencies came from a sub woofer to give a sense of depth
perspective to the sonic picture.
The aroma oil was chosen for its awry, bitter-sweet quality. It is the synthesized smell of an Egyptian
mummy, created by the English aroma designer Frank Knight, in collaboration with anthropologists.
The intensity of the aroma changed as the temperature rose and fell. The visual imagery consisted
of rotating fragments of video, hues and intensities of shifting light and shadows. Five tons of sea salt
on the ﬂoor created a crunchy, textural and tactile surface, where visitors' footprints could be seen
after they had left the space.
If the success of an artwork is to be judged by the reception it receives by the public and critics, then
In Death Valley .... was a deﬁnite success:
“There are moments when being an art critic feels like a burden, and the act of describing and expressing opinions feels
almost perverse in that it is hard to do so without violating the actual experience. Per Platou and Amanda Steggell have
created a work that I am so intensely in love with that I am actually a bit embarrassed to talk about it. It is as though
the work is custom-made for my private feelings and longings, however I can't put my ﬁnger on exactly what or how. At
the same time, it seems to be the exhibition's most universally accessible work - because it is so instantaneously
sensuous. Particularly the use of aroma is so effective that several hours later I could still sense it on me as an aftertouch
of a lover's caress. To experience the work feels like being wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a cradle, and the
memory of the experience is almost stronger then the experience itself. The installation has become a friend and it is the
only artwork that I have ever attempted to hug. It feels sad to have to have to say goodbye, but friends come and go. The
parting is endurable because there is hope that we may meet again and everything that has happened in the meantime
will generate new things to talk about. It is through moments like these that the art circus proves itself worthwhile after
Motherboard, December 2005
Created and performed by: Hauk Heyerdahl, Runar Hodne, Annesoﬁe Norn, Per Platou & Amanda
Original text: John Erik Riley
Performances: 2-4 & 8-11 December 2005
Venue: Grusomhetens Teater Scene, Oslo
Brief Plot Synopsis
A wanna-be documentarist weaves himself into the making of his own documentary ﬁlm - a
masterpiece through which he dreams of achieving acceptance, notoriety and iconic status. His ﬁlm
is about the rape and murder of a young boy - a crime which he may have committed himself. He
has constructed a DIY ﬁlm studio for the purpose in which he is joined by the unseen interview
subject who may be the victim of the crime, an eye witness or an illusionary ﬁgure in the delusional
mind of the documentarist himself.
Through this work we experimented with theatrical form of the monologue by placing classical
dramatical dilemmas within a contemporary live art practice where things don't happen in a ﬁxed
sequence, but are jammed together by the performers. Inﬂuenced by Antonin Artaud's Theatre of
Cruelty, we aimed at creating a space that spoke a material language which would directly affect the
bodies of the spectators, and, hence closed the gap between them and the stage. On the stage
everything was connected. Sound affected light. Closed circuit TV produced feedbacks of colour
126 Quote from Erlend Hammer's review in Norwegian Art Magazine Billedkunst, 04/06.
and abstract form. Aromas were sprayed directly over the public in connection with actions and
words. Live radio was mixed into the soundscape and fused the spectacle of the world outside with
the on-stage drama. It produced unpredictable juxtapositions with the text, shifting the context and
making each consequent performance very different from the last.
In short, a synaesthetic strategy was used as an evocative device to disrupt the the divisions between
both the senses and the media that speak to them. As performers our job was to improvise with our
designated tools to make varying textures of sound, colour, light, aroma, text, movement and gesture
on which the text performed by the actor must try to stay aﬂoat.
In addition to testing methods of using sound to control lights, participating in this work gave me the
opportunity to test both the practical implications and expressive potential of using aromas in a
I selected four synthetic aromas for this hour-long performance. The ﬁrst was the smell of instant
coffee with milk and sugar, relatively pleasant yet hard to pin down. The second was bitter mint, and
easily identiﬁable. The last two aromas, burnt bacon and the smell of horses and stables, were
experienced as very unpleasant by many, and identiﬁed by few.
During one performance a woman jumped out of her seat and exclaimed “horses!” as the last smell
was emitted. She told me afterwards that she was an avid rider as a child, and for her the smell
evoked pleasant memories. Another, with an allergy for horses, got a mild asthma attack, and, as I
share his allergy, I am pretty sure it was a psychosomatic response. While the public were more than
willing to discuss their responses to the aromas with me after the show, so were the critics in their
Writing for the weekly newspaper “Morgenbladet” Jon Refsdal Moe said:
“It stinks of mouldy stables and burnt bacon in Grusomhetens Teater; actor Hauk Heyerdahl is our man on the sofa. A
very worn out man, dressed in a pair of even more worn out slippers embarks on his conversation with an absent
partner. If we are to beleive the author Riley, it all revolves around a sexually traumatised young man with the name
John Erik. What makes it more detestable is that I also know that it it is about me.
The man calls himself a documentarist, but the theatre looks and smells like a shaby porno studio in a frozen, desolate
place far from here, where only the pornographist himself remains after the youth have long since learned to keep well
away. This man has locked me in with him and thrown away the key. Now him and I shall interact. Help me out of
Rather than being an artistic attack on a superﬁcial media society (blah!), Ikon is primarily an attack on artistic
strategies. Transgression is nurtured today in the institutional counter culture, but where it once dealt with establishing
utopias beyond logic, we now talk about aesthetic invasions: of the ﬁeld of media as well as the observer's totally private
room. IKON is the story about a project where these invasions merge, formulated via an art practice which is strikingly
similar. This makes Ikon one of the most interesting comments on contemporary times that I have witnessed for a long
while. A Salò for hipster-aesthetics in 2006? At any rate it is the best Pasolini performance you will see this year.”
Imagining St. Mary Magdalene
Produced by FUNK.CO.UK, July 2005
Location: St Mary Magdalene's Church and Gardens, Islington, London.
In July 2005 Dean Whitbread of FUNK.CO.UK invited Motherboard to take part in a collaborative
site speciﬁc event called Imagining. Participants ranged from artists, architects, musicians,
archaeologists, local historians and ecologists to Church groups, local residents and park users. The
event took place in the space of seven days in St Mary Magdalene's Church and Gardens, situated
just off Holloway Road in Islington, and culminated with a special live art event.
While Imagining aimed to explore and express the many aspects of the church and gardens over a
period of a week, one of the aims was to attempt to make the presence of the church's Asylum group
more visible to the local community. As this event took place directly after the London bombing
incident, a certain poignancy surrounded the whole event, and the asylum seekers were reluctant to
make their presence visible, as was originally planned.
For my contribution I wished to make something ethereal, that responded to inﬂuences from the real
world. I also wanted to make something that would appeal to the children of the Asylum group who
often played in the church. I imagined transforming one of the plain church windows into a 'living'
stained glass fresco. Here Mary would recline in a beautiful garden, with cherubs and children and
ﬂowers that danced to the sounds of the church - organ music, children chattering, ping pong games,
language classes, cooking, srevices, councilor sessions and church bells. This vision would shine out
into the night for all to see, and reﬂect the shifting rhythms of the very body of the church itself.
127 En Pasolini Verdig, Jon Refsdal Moe, Morgenbladet, 09.12.05
To realise this idea I made a video collage with seven individually manipulatable layers, based on
Henri Rousseau's painting called The Dream (1910). I pulled out portions of a digitized version of the
painting to apply the layering technique Rousseau used in his paintings to my video. Using the
KeyWorx software I made a system where each layer of the imagery could be manipulated via
sounds picked up by a microphone from within the church. For the special beneﬁt of the children I
added ﬂying pigs, and abstract 'ﬂowers' that changed hue and shape with the sound, as well as two
dark-skinned cherubs that were placed in the foremost part of the image.
To make the projection visible both inside and outside the church I painted the window with
As I worked on the church window in the dark hours, my process was projected out into
the church and surrounding area. As I left, each new version was left running throughout the night.
On the ﬁnal performance night the remaining windows were lit up with red and green lights. A
sound installation by Per Platou (based on interviews with the asylum seekers who spoke and sang in
their mother tongues), Elegy for St. Mary Magdalene, was played both inside the church accompanied
by organ and piano improvisations, and distributed around the church gardens via walkie-talkies.
The Asylum group, who had been present all week, did not turn up to this evening, and their
request to remain anonymous was respected when documenting the event.
From the perspective of artistic process, my research into synaesthesia and visual music played an
important role in how I approached this assignment. I have no documented oral responses to this
128 Each morning I found several church mice licking the yoghurt off of the window!
work, save that of the initiator of the event (whose comments may be somewhat biased). However,
the church users took pleasure in demonstrating to others how sounds could create movement and
colour. Working late into the night I observed how passers-by (on foot, in cars and on bikes) stopped
up in their tracks to watch the window from the streets beyond.
Ultima Festival 2005
The Norwegian Academy of Music, Lindemansalen, 12 October 2005
Composer: Ole Henrik Moe
Choreographer: Amanda Steggell
Violin: Sigyn Fossnes
Piano: Einar Henning Smebye
Rubber: Einar Fjærvoll
Eraser's Edge is a 17 minute composition for violin, piano, a rubber, live video and a human
metronome. A pianist plays a relentless rhythmic repetition of 3 notes at varying velocities, while
another users a rubber to slide up and down on the piano strings, manipulating the tones struck by
the pianist. A violinist cuts into the soundscape like a razor's edge, while a choreographer captures
the actions of the performers and fuses them with computer generated abstract imagery. A human
metronome keeps the beat going.
I commissioned this piece as music for a choreography in collaboration with the Norwegian
composer Ole Henrik Moe in 1995. It was never realised at that time, partially due to the fact that it
is almost impossible to play. Finally, ten years later, a group of musicians were found who were
willing to take on the challenge. One of the original inspirations we had for this piece was the
synaesthetic aspects of Un Chien Andalou, Louis Bunuel, 1928. The opening sequence of this ﬁlm was
a central theme in the way I approached my work in Eraser's Edge.
My role in the performance
For this work I designed the stage set-up and performed a visual choreography. I restricted myself to
performing under similar conditions to the musicians by performing from one spot, sitting on a stool
in the "apron" of the piano. I could only ﬁlm as far as I could stretch from this position. Using
KeyWorx as my software platform I connected the video image to the music to create a jittery,
morphing concrete and abstract visual expression.
Sister. (An exercise into the depths of Freudian perception)
Motherboard, July 05
Per Platou and Amanda Steggell, with Annesoﬁe Norn, Neptune Sports Diving Club and the people
of Husøy, Træna.
Location: On the arctic circle in the archipelago of Træna, Nordland, Norway.
The 8th Sister is an art project that investigates the practical and contextual implications of creating
an underwater sculpture in which her “true” form – a naked woman - is manifested as an inﬁnitely
changing image on an echosounder display.
“Depth has become profound even as it has become increasingly superﬁcial. The idea that the deep harbours the truth is
an old one; surfaces have prevaricated since the Greeks, appearances deceive, and it is foolhardy to trust the eyes.”
Most people today are familiar with 3D, and comprehend 3D as manipulatable representations in a
two-dimensional form (on a screen) in computer games, as well as animations on TV and in ﬁlms.
The 8th Sister poses questions about the general acceptance of this type of reality rendering in that the
synaesthetic process transforms depth to surface - from 3D to a ﬂat 2D.
This project was inspired by a visit to the small ﬁshing community of Træna, located on the arctic
circle, 50 km off the mainland of Norway. Here the 450 or so inhabitants use boats to get around,
and echosounders to navigate through the 1000 small islands that make up the municipality.
While sheltering from the rain in an echosounder shop on the long way home to Oslo a speculative
idea emerged – what if a ﬁsherman discovered a naked woman at the bottom of the ocean while
searching for shoals of ﬁsh? In relation to my project, the idea was appealing in that soundwaves
would be responsible for revealing her presence, transforming her physical body into a two-
dimensional image. And then came the question; would it be possible to create an underwater
sculpture that would appear on a an echosounder display in the form of a naked woman? If so, what
129 Judith Roof: Depth Technologies, p21 in Technospaces - inside the new media by Sally R. Munt (ed.), Continuum
2001. ISBN 0-8264-5003-2.
should she be constructed of, what dimensions should she have, and how far down would she have
to be sunk to be rendered correctly on the surface?
As the idea ripened, speculations of who this woman could be resulted in anchoring her identity
within a local context, namely the legend of The Seven Sisters mountain range that can be seen on
the mainland from Træna when weather permits. According to one of several versions of this story,
the seven sisters were skinny-dipping in the sea with the beautiful Lekamøya, when they were
spotted and chased by the horny Horseman. The seven sisters threw themselves to the ground while
Lekamøya tried to escape. And then everything mystically turned to stone. Exactly what happened
to Lekamøya after she ﬂed is a subject of debate.
It was from these speculations that the project, The 8th Sister was born. Her target audience was
seafarers, ﬁshers, local inhabitants and tourists. She was sunk 10-15m under the sea in Træna,
strategically placed in the path of an extensively used boat route in visual proximity of The Seven
Material and construction
After extensive material research, she was eventually constructed of I5000m of metallic ribbon cut
into 5000 lengths of between 2 to 5m, each tied to 5000 one-kroner coins that acted as weights.
These were placed on the sea bed by local divers according to a simple sketch where the different
lengths of silver ribbon would create the contours of a female form.
Video stills from the documentary video about the project.
Sister was completed during 36 hours. Her life expectancy in physical terms was predicted as
being somewhere between 6-12 months, depending both on the erosiveness of the underwater world
and eventual changes in coastal environmental regulations. Her afterlife in terms of local
mythology/memory is unknown. However, a commemorative plaque in the form of a gravestone
was placed at her feet for serendipitous discovery by future divers.
Upon seeing the gravestone for the ﬁrst time one of the divers proclaimed; “A gravestone! The 8
that's Lekamøya! Do you realize that what you're doing is twisting history? I'll willingly sink The 8th Sister to the
bottom of the sea, but I want a guarantee in case I get sued afterwards, because this is blasphemy in relation to the
history of Helgeland.”
A ﬁsherwoman's response was different. Though she saw The 8
Sister from her boat without the
knowledge of the gravestone she said: “I don't associate her with the Seven Sisters mountain range. I think it's
quite natural, because what people talk about, it's always how many men have drowned at sea. But there are many
women too who have lost their lives. So at least we know where she is now. We don't know where all the others are.
They're gone forever. So she can be a monument for all the women who've drowned at sea.”
From concept to context
The strategy of anchoring a conceptual project within the context of a local legend proved to be an
evocative device. National TV coverage and local newspaper reports prior to the event meant that
when we arrived in Træna everybody knew who we were and what we were attempting to do – but
not how we were going to do it. They were, however, more than keen to help out, both in
constructing The 8
Sister, and spreading the rumour of her to others. Despite the fact that a large
music festival was taking place at the same time, it was only the local people who took an interest in
The 8th Sister.
The original idea was that the rendering of the physical object would create a 'virtual' ﬁgurative
object (almost present, like an hallucination) on an echosounder display, and that the physical
sculpture would deviate considerably from its virtual form, taking on abstract proportions. In reality,
both the virtual and physical objects became abstract. As the tide ﬂowed in and out it rocked the
tentacles of The 8
Sister, causing her image to render differently. Passing over her at different speeds
and angles, as well as the use of different echosounder models and settings also produced diverse
renderings – like a virtual form of underwater grafﬁti.
Upon seeing The 8
Sister, an electrician commented that “from a technical point of view, if you sail
over her lengthwise, you see the whole of her. But if you sail over her the other way .... (a man cuts
in and comments; you only see her breasts!) No. You can't see anything, but it is possible to get a
From another perspective, the ﬁsherwoman commented on her experience of The 8
Sister like this:
“The ﬁrst time we sailed over her with the echo sounder, she looked like an angel. And the second time I think she
looked more like a mermaid. And when we looked down at her visually all we could see was something glittering....”
From the various reports it became obvious that the power of imagination ﬁlled in the gaps that the
abstraction left out. The 8
Sister was speaking to people in different ways – just like her seven
As the ﬁrst of a series of attempts to use synaesthesia as a strategy for creating live art The 8
showed that whatever theories artists may have, it is not until the work is unleashed on the public
that it is possible to judge whether these strategies have been effective, or in fact relevant at all,
except in an art-historical context. In live art, theory becomes an hypothesis that is put to the test in
the moment it is presented, with no safety net to fall into.
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Montevideo/Time Based Arts Amsterdam, http://www.cosignconference.org/cosign2003/papers/Dekker.pdf, 2003
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this paper, Journal of Philosophy, 29 March 2001.
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University, vol.1, no.2, 2001
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Spielmann, Y. Video and Computer: The Aesthetics of Steina and Woody Vasulka,
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Knowbotic Research - http://www.krcf.org/krcfhome/
Golan Levin - http://www.ﬂon g.com
Joost Rekveld - http://www.lumen.nu/rekveld.html
Motherboard - http://www.liveart.org
Stelarc - http://www.krcf.org/krcfhome/
Usman Haque - http://www.haque.co.uk/
Vasulka Archives - http://www.vasulka.org/
Further links and references at http://www.notam02.no/motherboard/synaesthesia