Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

Mirror-Touch Synaesthesia Symposium at the Tate Modern

An interview with Daria Martin, artist and synaesthesia researcher

Daria Martin
Artist Daria Martin will lead the symposium.
Courtesy Daria Martin
Daria Martin, a talented artist behind an upcoming program on mirror-touch synaesthesia (British spelling), doesn't have the neurological trait herself, but explores it and celebrates it with great sensitivity and insight. Such dedicated and creative people are a welcome addition to the growing cross-sensory conversation. She explains the reason for the upcoming event:

"Mirror-touch, a rare form of the neurological condition synaesthesia, (using the British spelling throughout this post,) will help us explore these provocative questions about art, perception and the relationship between the social and the visual. Synaesthesia (the mixing of the senses) has been a source of insight for artists for over a century, and this recently discovered manifestation offers powerful new ways of understanding contemporary art experience. People with mirror-touch feel a physical sense of touch on their own bodies when they witness touch to other people, and often to objects," says Daria Martin. "This symposium will explore how mirror-touch synaesthesia can model an empathic way of engaging with artworks. Speakers from neuroscience, art practice and theory, anthropology, and film studies will explore this fascinating condition, challenging the notion that merely looking is passive, and celebrating the political agency of perception."

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There are still tickets available to the fascinating program, to be held at London's Tate Modern the weekend of February 7.

Mirror-Touch: Synaesthesia and the Social

Friday 7th February 2014, 18.30-22.00 (£15 / £10 concessions)

& Saturday 8th February 2014, 10.30-18.30 (£20/ £15 concessions)

Combined ticket: £25/ £17 concessions

Starr Auditorium, Level 1, Tate Modern.  

Speakers and discussants include Michael Banissy, Brian Dillon, Judith Hopf, Lars Bang Larsen, Daria Martin, Laura U. Marks, Massimiliano Mollona, Christopher Pinney, Patricia Pisters, Jamie Ward and James Wannerton; with an opening keynote by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.

The program will answer questions such as "How do artworks touch us?; Are images reflected in our bodies?; and can sensation be a form of participation?"

Ms. Martin is in partnership with the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, and the Leverhulme Trust. The busy artist took time for a Q&A in advance of the big show.

 

What draws you to synaesthesia, particularly mirror-touch?

DM: Synaesthesia has long served as a metaphor for ways of looking, for seeing, for seeing inwards. A model for visionary seeing, as Rimbaud believed, or Kandinsky.

Since avant gardes have always broken down barriers- for example between media such as painting and performance, or indeed between art and life- it is no wonder that synaesthesia- which erodes barriers between senses normally thought of as separate- has long fascinated artists. Yet here, in mirror-touch, discovered only in 2005 as a condition, the leakage between the senses becomes touching images, or images touching. We might call this touch ‘social’: mirror touch synasthetes absorb relationships onto their body- relationships of people touching one another, or people touching their environment. The boundary between interior and exterior worlds blurs to a continuum, inviting the seeer out into the world. I suspect that this kind of synaesthesia has as much to tell us about living among others in the world as it does about sheltered subjective perceptions.

 

How valuable is art in the expression of synaesthesia?

DM: Among the dozens of synasethetes I've spoken to, many use art or writing or music as a creative outlet, perhaps as an expression of their subjective experiences which might otherwise sound 'odd' if recounted to someone who doesn't share a similar sensorium. Art is a socially acceptable and productive way to process the visionary, the associative, the non-verbal. 

I don't have synaesthesia myself and have been met at times with skepticism in the 'syn' community for daring to attempt to embody this way of seeing without having actually experienced it. I realise that there is a potential problem there, if you see synaesthesia through the lens of identity politics. But art is often inspired by farflung concepts -stretching to what one can only imagine rather than only reproducing the concrete and present- and coloured hearing synasethesia has inspired beautiful artworks, poems and musical compositions created by - presumably- people without synaesthesia. 

I work in film, and film in particular strikes me as a synaesthetic medium- one that uses sight and touch to evoke touch, proprioception, even taste or smell. 

 

What does mirror-touch tell us about humanity? 

DM: Scientists have linked mirror-touch with an over-activation of the mirror system (of mirror neurons) - circuits of mimicry that account for empathy in the general population. When non-syns like me see someone caressed, we might experience a mild melting feeling; a mirror-touch synaesthete experiences this as a felt touch. You could say that mirror-touch synaesthetes experience consciously the kind of physical (and often emotional) empathy that the rest of us experience less vividly, perhaps unconsciously. MT syns are at the hyper-empathic end of the bell curve; sociopaths would be at the other end. I feel that people with this condition have a lot to tell the rest of us about our own sensitivities, perhaps buried by the drive of our culture.

I've also come to appreciate, more simply, the spread of difference of perception across the general population. About 1/20 people have synaesthesia of some kind (1/75 mirror-touch), and, with so many other layers of histories, projections, culture- not to mention genetic or acquired neurological conditions- our perceptions are wildly coloured. It's important to share and talk about these filters. Who is 'normal' among us?

Please tell us more about yourself? 

DM: I was born and raised in Northern California until age 17. I've researched mirror-touch synaesthesia for several years and made it the centre of my 2012 film Sensorium Tests. Martin’s 16mm films aim to create a continuity or parity between disparate artistic media (such as painting and performance), between people and objects, and between internal and social worlds. Subjects such as robots, an archive of dream diaries and close-up card magic, are explored within isolated spaces such as the wings of a theatre, a military academy, or a scaled up modernist sculpture. These protective yet fragmented settings, full of seams and shadows, stand in for the capacities of the film medium itself, a ‘daydream machine’ that consumes and recycles the world at large. I'm currently Graduate Studio Research Leader at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.  My films have been exhibited in solo shows at ACCA Melbourne; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the New Museum, New York; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Kunstalle Zürich; MK Gallery, Milton Keynes; The Showroom, London, and Tate Britain. 

There's also my website: www.dariamartin.com 

 

What don't people understand about synaesthesia and how can art bridge that? 

 

DM: I'm in the process of working out the answer to this question, or of asking more questions, through my artwork, in response to it.

As part of this body of research, my colleague Elinor Cleghorn and I are conducting a series of in depth interviews with mirror-touch synaesthetes about their responses to artworks and films, and also about their relation to the social world. I will make another two short films, apart from Sensorium Tests, that respond to these interviews, working with actors, a theatre director (Joseph Alford of Theatre O- check out website if you will) and playwright Simon Stephens, to embody mirror-touch situations and stories. One aspect that interests me at the moment is the paradoxical difficulty many mirror-touch synaesthetes experience; they are exquisitely primed, one imagines, to connect and to communicate, but living in a culture that doesn't always support such impulses, some people with the condition feel isolated. In the forthcoming film, I plan to explore, in a subtle way, how empathy can be both a hindrance and also an opportunity for liberation within relationships to others and the world. Empathy might be what we need as a culture, but I'd like to look at the complexities of how this quality is lived out, day to day, to understand how utopian thinking can gain traction.

How can people sign up for the conference? 

DM: They can book via this page:

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/conference/mirror-touch-synaesthesia-and-social 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maureen Seaberg is an author and synesthete dedicated to advancing understanding of synesthesia.

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