Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 30, No.11

March 03, 2005


Making sense of things, or, senses and sensibilities

By Kendra Ballingall

Geneviève Cadieux

The billboard-sized photograph by Geneviève Cadieux of a woman’s lips that sits atop the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal presents an “oral logic” that is immersive rather than distancing, and marks the museum as a site of “tasteful” consumption, according to one of the speakers.
Photo by Kendra Ballingall

Anthropologists, historians and communications theorists got together recently to talk about the cultural meaning our five senses: touch, taste, sound, sight and smell.

The Concordia Sensoria Research Team (CONSERT) held its second conference, called Sensory Collections and Display, from Feb. 10 to 12. The event marked the final year of a three-year multi-disciplinary project that investigated the sensory dimensions of objects and spaces.

“From the study of signs, we’ve moved on to focus on senses and sensibilities,” said David Howes, director of CONSERT and professor of anthropology. “Modernism banished the senses, declaring ornamentation to be a crime. Now there is an attempt to recover the senses. It’s part of what I call a sensorial revolution.” Howes was the principal organizer of the conference.

The team invited architect Joy Monice Malnar (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and art historian Frank Vodvarka (Loyola University Chicago) to present the inaugural address at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Malnar and Vodvarka discussed the historical dominance of vision in modern architecture, and pointed to recent designs that generate a multi-sensory and more embodied experience of space. For example, Steven Holl's St. Ignatius Chapel at Seattle University, built 1997, includes acoustic spaces and scented materials like beeswax.

The conference lectures and video screenings featured the non-visual aspects of objects in collections and displays, as experienced in galleries and museums as well as theme parks, department stores, communities and homes.

“Hands off is now the basic rule in a gallery or museum,” Howes said. “But are we properly appreciating an object if we only interpret its form? How were objects activated in their culture of origin? Is the museum display case in which they now stand as neutral as it seems?

“If you change the visual order, admit other sensory ways of interacting with an object, you will have a different way of understanding the culture through that object.”

York Art history professor and CONSERT researcher Jennifer Fisher spoke about the gendered symbols and statuary on the peripheries of galleries and museums, such as the lips at MAC (see photo).

For postdoctoral fellow Gediminas Lankauskas, beet soup can provoke bittersweet memories when served at Grutas Park, a Soviet-era theme park in Lithuania.

“Part of the experience of going to that park is actually tasting socialism,” Howes said. “The soup creates a nostalgia for that period and its embedded social relationships. Those tastes are not the tastes of Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

The conference also addressed the management and control of the senses in late capitalist society, as well as resistance to that control. In “Airchitecture,” CONSERT researcher Jim Drobnick noted the power of smell in department stores, often intentionally odorized to influence consumer behaviour. He provided examples of artists who manipulate those scents against expectations.

Kahente Horn-Miller, a candidate in the PhD in Humanities, discussed the choice by the peoples of Kahnawake not to use street signs in order to avoid visually freezing oral and dynamic aspects of their culture. “It’s an example of the deliberate rejection of a system of signs,” Howes said.

Howes’s recently published Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader includes essays by CONSERT members Jim Drobnick and Constance Classen, as well as Oliver Sacks and Marshall McLuhan, Susan Stewart and Italo Calvino — all of which make for sensational reading.