considering sensory modalities

Challenge: Featured, Noise Challenge #5: The Senses |

By: Robin

two drummers drumming

My work as a sound artist has foregrounded the fact that not only are our “common sense” (excuse the pun) notions of the senses incomplete, in many cases they are utterly wrong.

The first orthodoxy in need of revision is that we have only five senses. Consider that we feel cold differently from pain, we have a sense of balance, we know where our body parts are in relationship to one another (proprioception), and so on. Likely we have something like a dozen senses, depending on how you want to catalogue them.

Second, senses are not neatly categorised according to which organs perform the task. Sound is notable in this regard. We hear with the complex of parts known (for convenience) as the ear, but also with the spaces within our body, our skin, and other tissues besides. Everyone who has been to a nightclub is familiar with bass pounding in the chest. Some personal speakers (sound transducers) work through bone conduction. High frequencies can make our skin crawl, or set our teeth on edge. This doesn’t even consider the ganglia that process the nerve signals on the way to the brain, or the role of the brain itself.

Hearing is a whole body process.

It is far from surprising, then, that the senses inform each other. I am not referring to sensational accounts of synaesthesia  in rare individuals, but rather everyday phenomena. Some of these are driven by our cumulative experience in the world. Take for example these photos, which I took this week while thinking about this assignment. Can you view the first without hearing the snap of a snare drum?

Does the second photograph not conjure up the distinctive sound of a typewriter?

the sound of a typewriter

Furthermore we look for patterns everywhere, and are likely to use these to relate otherwise disparate sensory data. For example, flowing lines in a painting might elicit a feeling of speed, of wind in the face, or of a flowing melody. Many visual artists have relied on these conjunctions; I am thinking here specifically of Jackson Pollock’s jazzy paint drippings.

My own experience is that I often take photographs to capture a sound, or recall specific visuals when listening to a location recording. I imagine this experience is quite normal.

To extend these ideas, I am currently working on a poetry film, in which I perform a reading in a specific location, and capture that place also through motion video and field recordings. The film is not yet complete, so unfortunately I cannot include it as an example in this post. But the process of developing it has been one of rich reflection on my practice as poet, composer, and photographer.

This work is ongoing and now The Noise Project is a part.

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