Monday, 27 July 2009

Continuing the conversation: art, science and synesthesia

What exactly does synesthesia mean in terms of art? Speaking recently with James Bulley, one of the founders of OOXXOO, I discussed the use of the term synesthesia: in art there are grey areas that often seem to muddle its meaning.

Is VJing (mixing projected images to sound) a form of synesthesia?

What about Visual Music: animation which emulates music or creates movement corresponding to music? There are networking sites dedicated to this art form. In the work of Max Hattler, for example, I find convincing representations of synesthetic experience, which may also lead to deeper understanding of synesthesia. Nonetheless is it appropriate to call anything that synchronizes sound and image synesthesia?

Should the term synesthesia be a specific elitist term in art as it is in neuroscience? Neuroscience gives us:
- SYNESTHETES: those who experience a constant unchanging synesthesia of a specific type, for example colour/grapheme, or colour/sound synesthesia
- NON-SYNESTHETES: those who do not have a constant unchanging synesthesia, although they may have an understanding or intuitive sense of the experience and may have even experienced synesthesia in some unique circumstance, or example during sexual climax or under the influence of mescaline.
Perhaps it will help to differentiate between synesthesia, the neurological condition, and synesthetic art, where the term can be more broadly used to describe various artistic experiments related to synesthesia.

Regarding Synesthetic Art and Synesthesia, recent studies have shown that synesthetes do not prove to be more creative than non-synesthetes, despite longstanding speculation that they are. Could it be that, if synesthetes are not more creative than non-synesthetes, synesthesia, or something like it, is in itself an underlying factor of human creativity, giving us the unique ability to make immense leaps of logic and reach unexpected conclusions. Perhaps it is a mechanism that functions unconsciously – like putting one foot in front of the other so as to walk. Perhaps it is this that makes the most abstract experience of sound and moving irregular shapes seem so significant. Perhaps this is what attracts us to the weird science of synesthesia.

Yet for some reason the synesthesia stands out in the conscious experience of a minority and occasionally for others in a moment of heightened awareness. The studies of scientists and the rare cases of extreme synesthesia are truly fascinating and merit particular study. Take the example of James Wannertan for example. His experience of synesthesia is not an afternoon of MTV. James Wannertan experiences a different taste for every word, sound, name. The tastes are constant, unchanging and relentlessly bombarding him. Can you imagine hearing a friend’s name and literally tasting earwax? Or your own name tasting of dull chewing gum?

This is James’s everyday life. And this is the kind of experience neuroscientists are trying to figure out. It is not an easy subject to study: the grey areas muddle our understanding of what synesthesia really means. Between 1 in 1000 and 1 in 25 people may be termed synesthetes. Two prominent scientists Naom Sagiv and Jamie Ward developed surveys launched over the internet through the BBC, DO YOU SEE WHAT I HEAR? and DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?, to try and study as much of the population as possible. Despite the limitations of such a survey to be able to understand a participant’s particular subjective experience, they were able to involve over 15,000 people in the experiment.

I was one of them. In all honesty, I found the experiment to be a bit frustrating – as if it had been designed for a robot or a computer, rather than a human being. At the same time, I admired the efforts of Ward and Sagiv to involve such a large percentage of the population in their experiment. Sagiv has also delved into synesthesia in art in an article on algorithmic synesthesia for The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music. I spoke to Sagiv at a conference. We talked about the BBC experiment and how to develop further artistic experiments towards a broader view of the subjective experience of synesthesia.

Many of the ideas scientists are discussing regarding synesthesia have been being addressed by artists for centuries, not using empirical scientific questioning, but rather intuitive conviction and creative experimentation. Allow me to ask, why is it that, if we have intuitively and artistically been engaging in a discussion on synesthesia for hundreds of years is it now that we allow science to define it for us? What is it about scientific conclusions that makes them superior to artistic expression and poetic reflection?

Science has inspired artists since its beginning. Can’t art inspire science? This is perhaps an area where science can take some lessons from art, where the two fields could come together, investigate more fully and thus hopefully reach more rounded conclusions.


Networking for visual music

Documentary on James Wannertan

BBC Synesthesia Surveys by Naom Sagiv and Jamie Ward.

The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music

No comments: