What is synaesthesia in art?
[Editor of Painting Music Studio]
As Beijing 2016 International Synaesthesia Art Exhibition is coming soon, hereby we invited Dr.Timothy B. Layden, the international curator and artist to talk us about synaesthesia in art.
Timothy B. Layden: Originally from Seattle, USA, an artist, performer, musician, teacher, researcher, activist, designer andcurator working and living in the USA, Mexico, Japan, Italy, Spain and the UK.He is now working on a series of new paintings and drawings, composing music inspired in my synaesthesia, as well as a writing a fictional novel wherein themain character experiences synaesthesia. As an interdisciplinary artist workingin painting, drawing, digital media, sound and writing, he has have exhibitedmy own work as well as curated that of others in events and exhibitions around the world. He is Doctorate in Fine Art from the University of Barcelona in 2005. a member of the Artecitta Foundation since 2007 and am currently their UK delegate. For the 5th International Congress on Science Art and Synaesthesia in Spain, 2015, he curated an international exhibition of art by synestheticartists. He has published and presented various papers on the subject of art and synaesthesia for the Artecitta foundation. He is working closely with James Wannerton, the president of the UK Synaesthesia Association, in art events in the UK.
I am fascinated by how human beings use resources to create new things which havethe ability to alter the way they, as well as others who may or may not beartists themselves, see the world. So what is that artists do? We manipulateresources that we learn to use to change the environment in ways that alter how it is interacted with and what we think about it. Artistic expression has the ability to unearth the rawest, truest aspects of what it is to be a livingsentient, self aware being; perhaps more so than any other discipline, for itis laboured upon from the subjective point of view of individuals who have invested substantial time and effort into developing particular skills that they use despite any sense of shame or imperfection to share the mostvulnerable aspects of their experience. Many synaesthetes choose to use their synaesthetic experience as the focus of much of their artwork. This is of particular interest to me as a synaesthete; I like to see how others represent their experiences and reflect upon my own as well as the diversity that exists within the immense spectrum of human experience.
As a small child I would mix my descriptions of synaesthesia in with my flights of fantasy: for example day dreaming that I was a space man riding on sound waves.I was always considered to be a very imaginative child. When I told my mother,“I want to play the trumpet so that I can create bright yellow blasts like the sun,” I recon she likened it to the time I told her that I wanted to be a tigerthat can breath underwater. The concrete human experience of the senses and thesofter experience of our mental imaginings are far more interconnected than weonce believed. If you imagine that you are riding a bicycle, the part of yourbrain that you use to ride a bicycle is activated. So what happens when youimage that you are a tiger that swims underwater? Now let’s say, like many people,when you hear a sound you feel or see a shape or colour, maybe you experience asmell or taste. What if, when you eat a pickle, you feel a kind of spikeytexture in the palm of your hand? Synaesthesia can be an imagined experienceand often is but it can also be a natural neurological response to sensoryi nput, not imagined but automatic.
It was the early 1990s that I discovered the term synaesthesia. I was living in Seattle, USA. It was the era of grunge music, when the influence of traditionalheavy rock music became mainstream again. My favourite musical group at thetime was Jane’s Addiction; an alternative rock band that saturated their musicwith heavily distorted guitars. I listened to them while working on a paintingcalled “Loudness”. I was trying to capture the sensation I got from their music: a deep soupy indigo veiled behind a semi-transparent curtain of purpleburlap. An aspect of their music that I find particularly entrapping is a physicalweight that carries it like a heavy wind mixed with hard fast flowing water. To capture this I layered the canvas with thick cloth and other objects: I folded the canvas over the end of the stretcher and glued a brick, broken glass andporcelain over this, on top of which I painted heavy thick lines of paint. I knew exactly why I was doing this. It was the music, and I had absolutely noquestion in my mind that I needed to manifest it by creating this physical object; I was compelled, which is often part of my experience of synaesthesia,as it is for many synaesthetes (this feeling of compulsion is what must drivemost artists with synaesthesia to create their work). I felt that it was something that others would fully understand; I believed that what I had created would be appreciated. By observing others responses to my work, it appeared that I was not wrong. When I explained my experience however, peopleseemed confused, surprised, as if the testament that my tactile visual artistic creation was an accurate representation of my actual experience of sound was aflight of fantasy. Even as I insisted, it was rare that anyone believed Iactually had a physical visual tactile experience of the shape, colour, textureand weight of sound. A friend came to my studio. “Have you ever heard of synaesthesia?” he asked.
“Syna…what?”I retorted; I had never heard the word before, I was twenty-five years old. Synaesthesia he explained, was a sensory experience where one or more senses are experienced with a sensory response thatis not normally provoked by them: “The taste of a lemon has a sound,” was his example. I had never heard a taste before and have not heard one since but I understood exactly what he meant: I could see sounds. What surprised me the most was how uncommon my experience was: at that time it was believed that synaesthesia was only experienced by 1 in 250,000. Today it is believed to be more like one in a few hundred. I had not thought my experience to be strange.It was only when I tried to explain certain works of art that were specifically about my synesthetic experience that I got a feeling that others were not seeing things as I did. But I only assumed that this had mostly to do with myinability to explain things. Later I recognised that the lack of comprehension was mostly due to an absence of awareness. Now in 2016 interest in synaesthesiahas risen drastically and it is a widely accepted phenomena believed to beexperienced by many. Now when I explain my experience it is not questioned nearly as much and more often responded to with curious interest.
Most synesthetes I have met tell similar stories of how they first discovered theterm synaesthesia and how in doing so they began discovering new things aboutthemselves. Paradoxically, I am regularly asked when it was that I first experienced synaesthesia, a question as hard for me to respond to as when it wasthat I first experienced smell.
Synaesthesia may occur as part of an individuals extraordinary experiences: for example as aside effect of meditation, drug use, or a sudden neurological change caused bya something like a head injury. These sort of events can even createsemi-permanent changes in the brain that may cause consistent synaestheticresponses in the long term. Nonetheless, evidence shows that, though it maydevelop and change from its onset in childhood, congenital synesthesia remainsmostly consistent throughout the lifetime of a synaesthete. It is a fundamental part of how they see the world.
After discovering the term synaesthesia I delved into what appears to be a life longinvestigation. I have done this primarily from an artistic angle, using myskills as an artist to explore my sensory world. One of the primary activitiesof my investigation was to record sounds that caused me pronounced synaesthesia. I would play these recordings repeatedly to observe my visual synaesthetic responses and draw and paint them. Perhaps the most outstandingresult was how I became more aware of my own synaesthetic experience and howthis awareness intensifies my experience.
(Dr.Timothy B. Layden's drawing and painting about sound in shape)
In contrast to the experiences of artists with congenital synaesthesia, a theory regardingsynaesthesia and the arts describes synaesthetic thinking as a bedrock ofcreative thinking, stating that the kind of associations which we mightdescribe as synaesthetic are precisely the kind of links artists use to come upwith new original ideas. Artist such as Wassilly Kandinsky and Frantisec Kupka,two of the first pioneers of abstract art in 20th century Europe,associated sound, shape and movement to colour. I believe they must have hadsome experiences of synaesthesia though there is no clear evidence that theyhad any form of congenital synaesthesia. While saying this I imagine there is agreat deal of the population that pay slightly less attention to theirperceptions and therefore may be less aware of whether they experiencesynaesthesia or not. Some artists who may be less aware of their synaesthesiathan others, are most probably influenced by their synaesthesia in their work.Other artists that do not experience synaesthesia to any great extent may stillimbue their work with synaesthetic references. Synaesthetic associations exist in one way or another in every culture I have encountered.
I am often asked if I think that having synaesthesia played a major role in mychoice to become an artist. I don’t know for sure but I don’t think so. I believe this to be the case with most artists with synaesthesia. Havingsynaesthesia does not necessarily make one more inclined towards art practices,though it will certainly have an influence on how one creates. At the sametime, synaesthesia in itself as a concept is fascinating to a great number ofthe general population, whether they themselves are synaesthetes or not. It isan important factor in many fields of study above and beyond it as a strictly cognitive phenomena and is hugely relevant to scientific, artistic and literaryresearch.
Many artists have endeavoured to create synaesthetic situations through interactiveart, often using multimedia to create cross-sensory experiences. The use of newtechnology has facilitated this in many cases. The Spanish psychologist and artist Jose Antonio Brech, developed Project Sigma, based on a software programme that allows its players to combine colour, shape and movement with sound, simulating synaesthetic experiences. Newzeland designer and artist Raewyn Turner creates installations where smell, movement and objects interact and the Portugues Engineer and artist Andre Rangel creates interactive games that interface new technology with the human body in synaesthetic atmospheres. Though these artists do not have congenital synaesthesia to any remarkable degree, their interest in cross-modalexperiences as an amplification of normal human perception has driven theircreative practices.
(Jose Antonio Brech's digital picture)
(Raewyn Turner's installations where smell, movement and objects interact )
(Andre Rangel's interactive game that interface with the human body)
Further are those artists with synaesthesia who become involved in the investigation ofit as a sensory phenomena and endeavour to create artistic responses toillustrate these experiences to share with a wider audience. These laterartists have helped excavate more deeply into the human experience andunderstanding of synaesthesia. The American Artist, curator, writer and co-founderof the America Synesthesia Association, Carol Steen, has been investigating her synaesthesia through visual art and sculpture for decades. She focuses her work on the colour of her synesthetic responses to graphemes (letters and numbers) and the colour and form of tactile experiences such as acupuncture and acute pain. Her work isolates the essence of her experiences breaking them down to what is the purely synaesthetic.
(Carol Steen focuses her work on the colour of her synesthetic responses to graphemes (letters and numbers) and the colour and form of tactile experiences such as acupuncture)
Maria Jose de Cordoba, director general of the Artecitta Foundation, has spent decades investigating synaesthesia as an artist and researcher. Her work as apainter, graphic artist and animator is compelling and elucidating as it points a periscope at her personal experiences and has become a foundation for her teaching at the University of Granada. In addition to this, her long lasting dedication to bringing together prominent figures in synaesthetic research and the arts from around the world has enabled unprecedented progress and collaboration. It is through the work that I have done with her that we have been able to bring together artists such as Pepa Salas Vilar, Christine Söffing, Dina Riccò and Michael Haverkamp, amongst others. These artists have honed their skills in painting, drawing, illustration and installation to capture precise aspects of their experiences. Their work allows a window to different ways that the combining of the senses can present themselves, as well as other potential perceptual, and therefore conceptual, associations.
（Maria Jose de Cordoba‘s engraving work)
(Pepa Salas Vilar's portrait in oil painting)
(Christine Söffing's work for Minteverdi Music)
(Dina Riccò - Extempore 2016)
(Michael Haverkamp: György Ligeti, Lontano, computer graphics)
The experience of synaesthesia often arises alongside a strong sense of salience;something about the experience can pop out as more significant than moreordinary perceptual experience. It is this that creates the compulsion forcreativity. The drawings and paintings by synaesthetic artists are not justpretty pictures but documents of their concrete subjective perceptions. Pepa Salas Vilar, who has multiple forms of synaesthesia, often links her experienceof other people and their personalities in her work, creating deeply nostalgicimages of social scenes in black and white overlaid with colourful representationsof her synaesthesia. Christine Söffing has created a large catalogue documenting her shapes and colours for sound and smell. She has used these to create a range of interactive installations of multisensory objects allowing others to enter into her world of synaesthesia. The work by these artists gives us the opportunity to look inwards as a reflection of their work.
(Christine Söffing and her interactive installations of multisensory objects)
Presidentof the UK Synaesthesia Association James Wannerton would probably neverdescribe himself as an artist, though I would. IT Engineer by trade, he has collaborated with creatives in photography, film, art and design to build awareness about synaesthesia. His Taste of the Tube Map of London, replaces the name of each tube stop for thetaste its sound provokes for him. It has become well know for how it is able to engage almost anyone in the kind of conceptual associations that help usunderstand synaesthesia. This type of awareness building through art is another area that many artists with synaesthesia have delved into. Christine Söffing’s Itten’s Colour Wheel is another good example of this. In this she created a coloured textured circular walkway where in each shape plays the sound that corresponds with it for Christine. In walking along it, one can physically experience a kind of sound to shape/coloursynaesthesia.
(James Wannerton and his Taste of the Tube Map of London)
(Christine Söffing’s Itten’s Colour Wheel, In walking along it, one can physically experience a kind of sound to shape/coloursynaesthesia. )
At the V International Congress on Synaesthesia, Science and Art, the work ofartists with synaesthesia from North and South America, South Africa, NewZeeland and Europe were bought together in an exhibition (第五届科学与艺术国际联觉大会平行项目：联觉与视觉艺术展 - 花絮与动态). At this event I met with Ninghui Xiong. Afterwards he sent me Chinese music I had never heard before. He and I, along with Maria Jose de Cordoba, engaged in an exchange of art based on our synaesthetic experiences of this music. Ninghui’s beguiling images with Chinese symbolism gave me a new view of synaesthetic experiences. His use of contrasting colour emphasises the consonance and dissonance of the musicwithin an atmosphere that communicates the internal experience the sounds, provoking a strong sense of emoted synaesthesia.
(Ninghui XIONG 's painting about WANG ZHO JUN, Tang Dynasty Music, for its moving around, figurative style in calligraphy referring to music rhythm, and color ttimbre from those Chinese instruments, according to his words)
Now,thanks to Ninghui Xiong’s hard work along with that of his collueges, we are able to develop further research and artistic exchange with the Beijing 2016 Synaesthesia Art Exhibition, as well as in the coming 1st Synaesthesia Art Exhibition & Forum in China (首届中国联觉艺术展论坛 “跨地域的联觉调研”). I cannot stress how important this development is. Thanks to all host and supporting institutes in China and abroad for this event !
Dr.Timothy B. Layden, Sept. 2016
1st Synaesthesia Art Exhibition and Forum in China appointed media support
Art Synaesthesia Painting Music Studio