Senses and Sensibilities

Our senses are the receptors through which we make sense of the world, a constant data source streaming in – the lens through which we experience, perceive, understand, judge and engage with our environment.

We attach emotions to what we sense and form memories (Stewart, 2005) and divide them up into stories (Brown, 2018). “The sensory order, in fact, is not just something one sees or hears about; it is something one lives.” (Howes, 2005). One might go as far as to say that, from our point of view, culture cannot exist without the senses, and neither can we.

Innovation tends to originate from a desire to improve upon experiences. What we experience on a daily basis can influence our behaviour, perspectives and how we process information. It’s perfectly logical therefore to suggest, as Loewy (1951) did, that if you’re designing for people, you should consider all their senses. This does not give us the license to barrage the senses, rather consider them carefully.

One hundred years earlier Fourier (1851) thought it fair to say that you can judge a society on how well they master and push the boundaries of their sensory abilities. Science and technology has provided us with instruments (telescope, microscope, sonar etc.) with which to extend them and achieve a broader understanding of whatever is in the spotlight. Throughout history our use of tools to overcome obstacles and the effects of this on the human brain have come to define our species (‘The Evolution of Us: Part 1’, 2016).

A champion of a sensory turn in cultural studies, Howes (2005) identifies visual display as the primary sensory mode of consumer culture and alerts us to a revolution which focuses on ‘the senses as mediators of experience, eclipsing the role formerly played by discourse, text and picture.’ The growing understanding that culture runs deeper than language itself drives this turn. The analysis of the senses – and the behaviours and emotions they induce highlight not only possibilities for progressive communication, but also our unique frailties, preferences and blind spots. The commonly held belief that people have preferable learning styles highlights the need to communicate in multiple forms, but also to connect with and create experiences for the active, passive and anyone in between.

“What the artists does is to weave together a new sensory fabric by wrestling precepts and affects from the perceptions and affections that make up the fabric of ordinary experience.”

Jacques Rancière
?ice watch paris? Olafur Eliasson - Place du Pantheon
Ice Watch (2015) by Eliasson and Rosing

Ice Watch (2015), a collaboration between artist Olafur Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing resulted in the transit of twelve sizeable chunks of glacial ice from Greenland to an area of public thoroughfare outside the Place de Panthéon in Paris during the UN Climate Summit (COP21). The melting ice melting reminds us of the environmental crisis and looks to provoke a reaction in the audience.

This work brings the viewer face-to-face with the ice we occasionally hear about in news reports and appeals to the idea that our civilisation doesn’t act because we don’t see the cause and effect of climate change with our own eyes, the polluting gases being invisible and the ice located in the poles. There is a hope here that a jolt of visible or sensory reality on the doorsteps of those responsible might act as a societal defibrillator. Similar tactics had a large impact during the recent South African water crisis with Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ inspiring large numbers of people to change their behaviour, which cut consumption by half (Explained, 2018).

cosmos co2
Seeing pollutant gases in ‘The Immortals’ (2014)

Faraday opened the door for Einstein and all the physicists who came after him to glimpse the interplay of hidden primal forces in the universe when he discovered the unity of electricity, magnetism and light. Perhaps similar discoveries can be made in the interplay of other mysterious invisible forces that govern perception and our subsequent actions. If knowledge is made through experiences and experienced through the senses, if these are the tendencies that govern perception (or perceptiveness) in the viewer, then it is only natural to investigate them further as makers.

The idea of academic work using additional senses and making as a mode of public engagement satisfies a need to marry things that should absolutely be together – namely “the analytical, the creative and the public” (Lehrer, 2018). This idea of sensory modes of presentation offers perhaps the most common language possible across humans, culture and society.