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Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art

by Caroline A. Jones, Editor
The MIT Press, London, England
Copublished with The MIT List Visual/ Arts Centre, Cambridge, MA
258 pp., illus. Trade, 17.95
ISBN: 0-262-10117-3.

Reviewed by Craig Hilton
Unitec, New Zealand,
Mt Albert, Auckland, New Zealand

This publication accompanies the exhibitions of the same name. It is convincingly a much-needed update amidst accelerating technological influence on human perception. This Sensorium is also a statement of sorts, where our sensory apparatus and facilities are to be considered as a whole and multi-sensorial art should be embraced. This is an attempt to counter modernist and reductionist tendencies of scientists and artists to bureaucratize and segment human senses into manageable units and give priority to vision over other sensorial input.

The show (not the subject of this review), where 10 artists, curated by Bill Arning, Jane Farver, Yuko Hasegawa, and Marjory Jacobson, exhibit at MIT's List Visual Arts Center in two parts (Oct-Dec, 2006 and Feb-April, 2007). MIT is an important context for these ideas as it is a breeding ground for technologies that mediate how we sense our environment in ways that might be counter to our evolutionary upbringing.

The book, edited by MIT art historian Caroline A. Jones, contains superb curatorial essays and under a section entitled Abecedarius, a very readable and grounding group of essays by Bruno Latour, Mark Doty, Donna Haraway, Jonathon Crary, Michel Foucault, to name but a few. The curators, artists, and essayists investigate the body's relations with technology and the artificial extension of our human senses. The inter-relations between art, science, technology, and modernism are in the forefront of the discussion.

In the keynote essay, The Mediated Sensorium (an extension of Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg's Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses), Jones argues that traditional visual art practice focuses exclusively on one sense, compartmentalizing human experience in a way that makes it manageable and therefore arguably controllable. These Modernist tendencies partially came about on the back of the Enlightenment and reductionist approaches to problem solving. Unfortunately, Jones seems to only consider the cataloging, organizing, and measuring pragmatisms of science. These pragmatisms, out of context and misunderstood, can result in the unnerving conclusion that all science is deterministic. While Clement Greenberg may be dead and gone and his writings immutable, scientific endeavor should not be considered stagnant. Advances in our understanding of neurophysiology (to pick one point) shows that neural hardwiring is dynamic and flexible, rather than deterministic. Moreover, any threat that this perceived limitation might pose for some could easily result from their failure to appreciate, and so to awe, the complexity of such biological systems. These points aside, some consideration must also be given to the confines of our species. In order for humans to survive and reproduce they have evolved a set of efficient and essentially reductionist filters. Jones reminds us, referring to Foucault’s technologies of the self, that our "bodies do not allow us to ‘escape’ from technological mediation — they are themselves mediating apparatuses, without which there can be no knowledge of the world." This mediation naturally involves filtering and sorting of very complex information into understandable and perhaps disembodied pieces. We identify the useful signal and so avoid being overwhelmed by distracting noise –our survival depends on it.

If this discussion was about some other species, such as dogs or bats, rather than the visually dominated human, we may find ourselves needing to defend vision against the hegemonic privilege of smell or sound. The senses that abide in the shadows of the dominant input seem to get dumbed-down (if we do not use it, we lose it). Although, technology has enhanced our lesser senses (from iPods to radar and household smoke detectors), Jones convincingly argues that these kinds of technologies usually contribute to the segmentation of our senses. In addition to be relevant, art needs to engage our senses as a whole and how they have been altered by technology.

Sensorium, the book, is excellently edited. The curatorial and Abecedarius essays cleverly capture some of the nuance and intimacy associated with the less-dominant senses. Bill Arning notes how smell can interrupt the progress of rational thought. For instance, scent may give hint-like information; hence "I smell a rat
". These intricacies can easily be lost when senses are amplified, augmented, or remote controlled by technology. Could this loss also occur without the Greenberg-esque visual hegemony given that all subtlety is dependent on its not-so-subtle partner to be regarded as such? A modernist white-cube gallery is essential background for Sissel Tolaas’ The FEAR of smell–the smell of FEAR, where white paint covers walls infused with microencapsulated smells. Another Sensorium artist, Natascha Sadr-Haghighian's uses the ultimate reductionist tool with her Singing Microscope, but rather than extending vision to the micro-visual, she creates a more poetic and less analyzable sensory output. Meanwhile, Christian Jankowski applies reductionist methods in an experiment where he measures various body readings (life signs) and correlates them to aesthetic sculpture production. In doing so, he demonstrates the futility of applying this kind of methodology in such cultural situations and at the same time suggests a potential research project.

All in all, we need the Enlightenment, not just as a backdrop for art and our ivory towers, but in many cases for our actual lives and therefore the freedom to have discussions such as these. From this privileged position we can nostalgically yearn for, more embodied times.



Updated 1st May 2007

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