by Debbie Hum
There's about to be a revolution in the academy, and it's going to be sensational.
Uncommon Senses is an international conference taking place at Concordia from April 27 to 29, sponsored by the Concordia Sensoria Research Team and Lonergan College. It will feature 175 speakers from across Canada and the United States, as well as England, Portugal, France and Australia.
Participants represent a diversity of disciplines, including art history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and architecture. Don't be misled, though, this is not a standard academic conference. Accompanied by an exhibition called Vital Signs in the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery and a performance series called Sentience, the conference promises to be a stimulating, intellectually enlightening, "total sensory event."
The conference is being organized by Constance Classen (Lonergan College), David Howes (Sociology and Anthropology), and graduate students Jennifer Fisher and Jim Drobnick. The Concor-dia Sensoria Research Team also includes Anthony Synnott, the project director, Brian Foss and Joan Acland, among others.
Constance Classen, this year's Lonergan College distinguished scholar, explained recently that the visualism of modern culture is the result of the Enlightenment emphasis on science and reason, both of which were associated with sight, and the development of technologies in the 19th and 20th centuries that also emphasize sight: photography, film, television and computers. Until then, the other senses often played a much more important social role. "We're interested in getting academics to look at other sensory domains," she said.
Noting the primacy of visual perception in conventional Western aesthetics, David Howes, who has played a formative role in developing the field of the "anthropology of the senses," explained that other cultures cultivate the other senses to a much greater degree. For example, there's poly-rhythmic dancing in West African cultures, where people move different parts of their bodies in synchrony with different beats, or Navajo sand paintings, where divine representations in the sand are rubbed onto individuals in healing rituals. Japanese society is a classic example of one in which the sense of smell is cultivated to a high degree.
"Many non-Western societies have a different idea of art," Howes said. "Art is transitory and art is tactile. This is quite different from the dominant idea of art that we have in the Western world -- that you should hang it on the wall."
One of the questions presenters will be addressing is how the senses are engaged, or manipulated, in popular culture. In some ways, the senses are anesthetized; for example, going to a film or watching a video engages the senses of sight and hearing but neutralizes our other senses. At the same time, going to a rock concert can result in "hyperaesthesia," being flooded with a whole variety of sensations beyond light and sound.
The '60s rock revolution is an instance of people wanting to return to a more multisensory, tribal kind of world, Classen said. "People were rebelling against the sensory deficit that they perceived in modern culture and wanting to experience a more multisensory world. In some cases this was done through hallucinogens, in other cases participating in the mass, open-air rock concerts in which one would be involved in a very dynamic, interpersonal and multisensory event, rather than just sitting at home watching something on television or reading it in a book."
Howes added that the rave is a continuation of the Woodstock phenomenon. "What you find is that there are reactions to the sensory deprivation and hyper-visualism of modernity," he said.
Although over the last centuries technology has propelled us towards a more visual world, Classen said that as we enter the 21st century, the so-called lower senses are going to be reinscribed into technology. Software companies are now looking at ways to stimulate touch and smell through electronic media, for example in computer games. "This is going to have an enormous effect on the importance of these so-called lower senses. Once they, too, are introduced into our technological world, we'll no longer have such an audio-visual world any more. Then we can certainly move into interesting dimensions."
The conference, which is funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), is the culmination of a three-year research project funded by the Fonds pour la Formation de Chercheurs et de l'Aide ą la Recherche (FCAR).
To view the conference program and for further information
about the conference, visit the Uncommon Senses Web site at
http://alcor.concordia.ca/~senses. Concordia students are welcome
to audit the conference for free.
A chair that squeezes the occupant, a vast wall of marmalade, a floor of crushed glass, intermittent household noises, a coin-operated machine that dispenses desirable smells -- these are part of an interactive art show called Vital Signs, on view at Concordia's Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery until May 20. Lively and provocative, it brings together 15 works on the theme of the non-visual senses in contemporary art practice. It is running in conjunction with the international conference Uncommon Senses: The Senses in Art and Culture, April 27-29.
Here's a glimpse at just some of the 175 presentations at Uncommon Senses:
The Parable of the Cave (Blind Version), Brian Massumi, State University of New York. Plato's parable is considered the foundation of much of Western philosophy. This is an attempt to rethink this eye-minded parable through other sensory channels such as hearing, smelling, tasting or touching.
Rasaesthetics, Richard Schechner, New York University. Rasa performance theory, central to Indian aesthetics, is belly-based. Closely connected to the interiority of the body, rasaesthetics gives a whole different basis to aesthetics than the head-oriented, eye-based systems prominent in the West.
Corrupting the Purity of the White Cube, Jim Drobnick, Concordia University. This paper explores how some contemporary artists are making use of the largely ignored sensory field of smell to "corrupt" the white cube, that is, the conventional exhibition space consisting of blank walls, geometric forms and uncluttered lines of view.
The Eye of the Flesh: Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages, Suzannah Biernoff, Middlesex University. Recent accounts of Western ocularcentrism have stressed the distancing, objectifying and implicitly masculine features of modern ways of seeing and knowing. This paper will point towards another, largely ignored, history of vision; in which sight is imagined and experienced as a bodily encounter and in which it is intimate, reciprocal, often erotic and frequently feminized.
The Sensory Subversion of Reading, Sabine Gross, University of Wisconsin. A closer look at the activity of reading reveals its suppressed sensory dimension. Texts appeal not only to readers' eyes, but to their sense of touch, smell and hearing, to their hands, mouths and bodies. Offering detailed historical and contemporary examples, Gross proposes an approach to reading that acknowledges its physical-sensory substratum.
From Wonka Bars to Cheesy Poofs: The Taste(s) of Popular Cinema, Leanne Downing, Latrobe University. The paper seeks to flesh out some of the carnal and sentient aspects of movie-going by considering the frequently overlooked senses of touch, smell and taste within the cinematic experience. Through an investigation of promotional "movie foods," this paper explores the ways in which spectators are encouraged to literally ingest and taste films, as well as watch them visually.
Sweet Incense and Sticky Foods: The House as a Multisensory Medium in the Arabian Gulf States, Sharon Nagy, DePaul University. In the Arabian Gulf State of Qatar, houses communicate status and negotiate social relations. They accomplish this not only through their elaborate visual faćades but also through the multisensory rituals of hospitality involving food and incense that take place within the house. This paper explores how the exterior image of the house combines with the multisensory experience of the home to constitute a complex system of signification.
Hyperaesthesia,Sensory Concurrence and New Technologies, Melanie Swalwell, University of Technology, Sydney. Many digital media technologies promise to reward their users with extraordinary sensory experiences: total connectivity, presence-inducing immersion, "unparalleled" simultaneity of sensation. This paper takes a critical look at the state of hyperaesthesia so created.
Vital Signs, an exhibition curated by Display Cult, which runs until May 20 at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery.
Sentience, a performance series also curated by Display Cult, on April 29.
Sense Machine, a video screening throughout the conference in the Mezz Café, curated by Nelson Henricks.
For more information, please call 576-1501.
Copyright 2000 Concordia's Thursday Report.