The Amazing Technicolor Synesthesia Coat
Carrie C. Firman at the forefront of synesthetic arts renaissance
Posted January 23, 2012
Carrie C. Firman's jacket slays me.
The brilliant young synesthetic artist and author has fitted the dark overcoat with different colored LED lights that glow in the places she has chronic pain from fibromyalgia. For synesthetes, pain can have color. The stunning art piece, called "Sympathy Pains" is fitted inside with metal cones, elastic straps and unevenly weighted bags of rice sewn in to recreate her uncomfortable experience. Pressure sensors dim the lights when the jacket is tied tighter and more pain is inflicted on the wearer, as if the light gives some relief to the experience.
Ms. Firman, a Pennsylvania native, is now thousands of miles away from her jacket in the UK, but finds herself thinking about it from time to time as she manages the chronic condition even while delighting in her colors.
I also love Ms. Firman's depiction of what synesthesia looks like to her in her series, "That Which Cannot Be Said With Words." It's an important update, a digital age update, of Kluver's Form Constants, to my mind. Form constants are geometric patterns which are recurringly observed during hallucinations and altered states of consciousness as well as synesthesia.
In 1926 Heinrich Kluver drew up a diagram of what the synesthesia looked like in subjects he induced with peyote, a psychoactive drug. He put them in four categories: lattices (including honeycombs, checkerboards and triangles); cobwebs, tunnels and spirals. Though he noted the colors were bright and saturated, the chart he produced was nothing of the sort. Ms. Firman's work captures the astonishing light that appears in synesthetic "photisms" or what neuroscientists call the forms we see and suggest their motility as well.
A self-described "creative international hobo," Ms. Firman earned her MFA last year in visual studies at the University at Buffalo. She has a BA in Art: Commercial Design, Photography/Electronic Media from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. She is now the Artist in Residence at Westbury Studios, Milton Keynes, England, after just having been the International Artist in Residence at Digital Art Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Though she finds inspiration all around her, Ms. Firman often uses synesthesia as a platform for her work.
"Synesthesia provides a consistent and unique interface with which I perceive the world," she told me last week in an email. "It offers connections to science as research continues to discover and redefine what synesthetes experience. It also places me into an inquisitive, open community of scientists, musicians, artists, writers, and a wide range of curious and descriptive synesthetes who provide inspiration and friendship."
And the residencies — she's presently in her third — have provided a great opportunity for experimentation.
"Having just completed my MFA degree, the residencies have been critical as time for uninterrupted research, experimentation, and production as I establish a body of work and new creative practice. Being a fan of travel, I pursued foreign programs and was fortunate enough to be awarded two months in Belfast and three north of London in Milton Keynes, England. Living abroad in these supportive, creative situations has been very productive as well as a dream come true!"
I asked Ms. Firman if synesthesia in art is anywhere near as popular as it was in its heyday at the turn of the century.
"Comparing interest is hard. I'm not sure how to gauge it... I would think that the availability of digital media is helping us organize as a community," she points out, with things like online tests for synesthesia and online forums available. "So that would create a much more connected (and I would assume larger...) base of interest for synesthetic art."
Ms. Firman has written two books. The first, Belfast in My Colours is available here: lulu.com and a second, an ingenius advancement of new emoticons, The Guidebook of New Punctuation is forthcoming. Her website is carriecfirman.com