Art+Science
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Displace 2.0: Mediation of Sensations. A conversation with Chris Salter

Chris Salter is a media and performance artist, based in Montreal and Berlin. Performance and performativity, as well as interaction with other disciplinary fields of arts are the main aspects and features of his work. Not only from the artistic point of view but also in terms of research. Salter is indeed involved in scientific research projects and publications (we would like to mention here his book published by MIT Press in 2010 “Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance”).

The focus of his research is on the creation of augmented performative environments where sensor based tools and technologies challenge the sensorial experience on different levels (audio, visual, tactile, olfactive, etc). This is what is called “cross modal perception”, meaning an interactive and comprehensive experience of sensation, where time and space modalities of human perception are just the basis of a wider and deeper exploration in terms of synesthetic boundaries. The aim is to question not only the traditional performance environment, but also the standard(ized) cultural sensations that come with it. In order to do that, the artistic environments are augmented by computer-based tools, sensor networks and other specific technologies.

A perfect example of this kind of art research is the work Displace 2.0 presented at the 2012 edition of the Todaysart Festival.  Todaysart Festival seems to be more and more an event not to be missed in the European digital art scene. It is not only a remarkable qualitative artistic level, but also a great organization and an effective structure. The main theme, as stated by the organizers, this year was “the search and the loving for the undiscovered”. Multiple were not only the venues but also the aspects of the this edition’s program, presenting audiovisual productions, modern dance performances and workshops, DJ sets, concerts, installations and exhibitions.

Displace 2.0 has been conceived and produced by Chris Salter together with the Italian artist TeZ and the anthropology professor David Howes. So, when arts meets research. We asked Chris Salter some questions in order to get a deeper insight on his work and research activity.

Silvia Bertolotti: What are in your opinion the role and relationship between the performer and the spectator? I think in particular about Displace 2.0.

Chris Salter: This is, of course, a highly contextual question. One would think that given the overemphasis on interaction and the “public as performer” in a lot of recent artworks and exhibitions (not least due to new technologies that put everyone on stage for their now 15 milliseconds of fame) that somehow we could argue that everyone is a performer. But this is not a given – in fact, as many of the so-called “experiential” works in the most recent Documenta show the traditional role of the distanced observer standing judgmentally before the artwork is still very much dominant. I think the interesting thing about Displace is that when you deal with questions of sensory perception, how environments or the external world meet the human perceptual system, you can’t be passive. You are a performer in the sense that philosophers like Alva Noë have argued – you perform your perception of the world in an active way. Things don’t just come to you as a passive recipient – your sense organs, like the eye, the ear, the hands, etc. reach out, feel things in the world – actively guiding and navigating through its richness and density. This is what we are partially after in Displace – to amplify this taken for granted attitude of how we perceive.

Silvia Bertolotti: What is the role of art performances within the context of sensor anthropology?

Chris Salter: Well, this is the research we are undertaking with David Howes, who is one of the chief players in the anthropology of the senses internationally. Sensory anthropology aims to explore how different kinds of sensory experience operate in different cultures – in particular, cultures not necessarily dominated by the sense of vision. In relationship to this, what we are after is two old. David has spoken of the research and the subsequent artistic outcome as a kind of “flight simulator” to train anthropologists in a different context of sensory acuity (one that is not just visual, like the tradition of ethnographic film) – to prepare them for field work in other cultures in which our predominant Western sensory hierarchy of vision and audition no longer prevails. Indeed, this is what sensory anthropologists argue – that we have to take into consideration different sensory orders based on the particular socio-cultural-technological makeup of a culture. At the same time, we are interested in how the senses operate in our own culture. Even though the work in Displace is informed by ethnographic studies of other cultures, we are certainly not after mimetic realism or ethnographic verisimilitude. Rather, the critical aim is to design large performative environments that hybridize cultures and begin to develop the aesthetic potential of the non-visual senses.

Silvia Bertolotti: Why the title “Mediation of Sensations?” What you realize is not rather a ‘deconstruction’ of conventional perception paradigms?

Chris Salter: It’s both. The senses are being mediated by all kinds of techniques, apparatuses, etc. At the same time, they are being defamiliarized or estranged from our visitors’ habitual modes of perception. In fact, I prefer the word defamilarized or destabilized or “displaced” over deconstructed, which has a specific philosophical meaning and significance concerning the taking apart of certain Western metaphysical understandings of presence, specifically the privileging of the pure presence of speech over writing that has influenced philosophers since Plato.

Silvia Bertolotti: What is the technology at the basis of the augmented environment created for Displace 2.0?

Chris Salter: Normally we want to answer this question from the point of view of how the digitally-based arts think of it – technology includes things like hardware and software, computers, microcontrollers, algorithms that control and shape the different lighting and sound environments that we have set up – however, if I can be a little academic here, I want to expand how we think of technology. In his later writings the philosopher Michel Foucault usefully defined four different kinds of technologies: technologies of production which enable us to make and transform things; technologies of signs where we use signs and symbols to construct meanings; disciplinary technologies which control and shape our bodies into what Foucault called “docile” or compliant subjects and finally, technologies of the self in which individuals subject themselves to certain kind of practices or operations on their own bodies and souls towards a kind of self-transformation. I would say that all of these technologies play a role in Displace – along with a fifth – what I call technologies of the senses – how we utilize certain external phenomena like scent or the speed of a strobe light in a specific manner in order to create the possibility of certain kinds of bodily affects in the spectators.

Silvia Bertolotti: How was the work initially conceived and how was the work practice and dynamic with the two other authors of the project, TeZ and David Howes?

Chris Salter: David and I wrote the initial grant proposal since we wanted to collaborate together. I’m always interested in collaborating with experts from fields outside of art and David was particularly open to thinking anthropological questions about the senses away from the standard anthropological monograph or text and in a more performative manner. TeZ and I had been discussing collaborating on something and knowing his own interest in the senses, I thought this would be a great project to do together. The initial aim was to see if we could start a dialogue between sensory anthropology and the design of new kinds of so-called “multimodal” (i.e., many senses) environments. Given the time frame, David was more involved in setting up the anthropological frame – he ran a six month seminar that all of us attended where we read and reviewed the key literature in the anthropology of the senses. He also developed the ethnographic interviews and again, helped frame the project in language that anthropologists would understand.

This was particularly important since the first public prototype of Displace was shown at the annual American Anthropological Association conference, which ironically took place in Montreal in November 2011. This is the largest academic conference for anthropologists – over 7000 attendees!

We proposed Displace in the peer reviewed section of the conference program called “Innovents” and it was somehow accepted. This was very interesting for me as an artist and for the entire team. We organized a full scale event at the Hexagram Concordia black box research space over the five days of the conference – the conference attendees and the general public made reservations for 45 minute time slots and then they came over from the conference site (the large Palais de Congrès in Montreal) to Concordia not really knowing what to expect except for some kind of experience that would “rearrange their senses.” We had some of the world’s top anthropologists attend the prototype and then we conducted these group ethnographic interview sessions afterwards with each group – to try and find out what happened to people in the experience. We always talk about “Art and Science” as the ideal collaborative platform but here art and anthropology were confronted head on. Displace 1.0 really made a kind of buzz at the conference since many of the anthropologists had never really experienced something like what we staged, at least outside of their own fieldwork.

Silvia Bertolotti: What is the main aim of your project “Mediation of Sensation”? Could you briefly explain to us the interaction with other disciplines in this project?

Chris Salter: Well, as I said earlier, it is to find links between the anthropology of the senses and techno-scientifically conditioned art practice. To create a kind of “boundary object” – in this case, the senses – that would serve to cross over and connect together what are considered normally separate sets of practices – academic research and art production. This is why we are interested in showing the work in different contexts – not just academic and not just artistic ones. As far as interaction with other disciplines, such a project like Displace would be practically impossible for a single artist to create due to the complex mix of skills and disciplines required. The team in the Hague version, for example, consisted of experts in olfactory art history and olfactory art, taste and food studies, cultural anthropology, computer music, theater, lighting design, etc. In this way, the production framework of Displace (as the artistic result of MoS) really worked like theater – where you need all of these experts around the same table to make something that is larger than any one individual.

Silvia Bertolotti: How in your opinion should we transform our habitual modes of perception and by which mean? What is main purpose of that? Is it mainly philosophical, aesthetical or socio-anthropological?

Chris Salter: I like to think one direction would be what the late architect Shosaku Arakawa and his partner artist Madeline Gins proposed in their so-called “reversible destiny” architecture. Arakawa and Gins conceived of crazy architectural projects (some actually built) where the walls and floors would be tilted at ludicrous angles, or the colors of walls would suddenly change or the surfaces of things would be covered with strange and very tactile materials all for one bizarre purpose – to prevent death. While I think they were going overboard with this idea (Arakawa died two years ago and Gins claimed that “this death business is really silly”), the general concept was that as we get older, we tend to lose sensory acuity – we lose our sense of smell, of taste, of tactile feeling. By designing architecture that would literally confuse the body, distort the same perceptual habits that you get used to day after day, one might prevent death – not literally, but metaphorically in the sense that death is really about falling into the blandness and lifelessness of routine. It was interesting to see the almost violent reactions to and against Displace in the Hague, particularly when people are confronted by all of the five senses (or 21 senses) simultaneously and specifically, with the so-called “lower senses” of touch, smell and taste. Of course, we are continually encountering the five senses in everyday life but perhaps it takes an artistic experience like Displace to make people more acutely aware of how these senses combine, intersect and influence each other and how the world looks anew because of this.

Silvia Bertolotti: What do you think “sensation” is and what is its role within arts? I was thinking about the Kantian distinction but also complementarity of the two modalities of human perception: time and space. Do you think there are other important interactions and factors within sensation?

Chris Salter: Experimental psychologists are always quick to make a distinction between sensation, which is essentially seen as stimulation and perception, which is how the brain and body “make sense” of external stimuli. Of course, much in the history of artistic practice has been concerned with sensation – Gilles Deleuze in his book on Francis Bacon called “The Logic of Sensation tries to argue as much. A theory of aesthetics absolutely has to take into consideration how sensation operates in relation to corporeal perception and experience. Deleuze famously argued that Bacon painted sensation rather than figures, particularly in Bacon’s portrait-based works. He (Bacon) paints the scream rather than a representation of the scream. In this sense, the observer who encounters Bacon’s painting is less in the Kantian universe of critical judgment and more in Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” – he/she is confronted in the body with the rhythms and vibrations that emit off the surface of the canvas rather than an “image” as such. Indeed, such a notion of sensation even goes beyond the Kantian sublime – because it directly operates on the body and how it perceives the world. Rhythm, intensities, vibrations, resonances – these are to me the important aesthetic vocabularies that we need to confront today, particularly as our own bodily co-present experience gets increasingly shrunk by the predominance of screen and distanced interactions.

Silvia Bertolotti: What are other artistic outcomes of the project “Mediation ”?

Chris Salter: Originally we imagined smaller, less totalizing works – more like experimental prototypes. But as we started working and realized that three years is really, really short to do what we proposed, we jumped into large-scale installation mode and built Displace – especially since we had the deadline for the AAA showing in year two of the project. We will continue to show Displace in different contexts but since the project so far has been site specific (and too exhausting to rethink and restage completely in every new venue), we are working on a much more portable version – a kind of condensation of the ideas into a portable environment.

But we just wrote a new, four year grant proposal to create much smaller works – what we call “sensory probes” that will be much more informed directly from both the ethnographic and archival record and will involve experts in sensory history, anthropology, multi-sensory marketing and design for aging and disability – in an effort to take the current research and look at other avenues for distribution. If we get that funding, we’ll also engage more with cross-cultural issues as one of our key collaborators is an amazing Australian anthropologist named Jennifer Biddle who has done work on questions of sensory affect with aboriginal new media artists directly in the field.

Silvia Bertolotti: How do you conceive the relationship between arts performances/installations and research?

Chris Salter: To end with the most complex question…! You have certain research questions that result in certain kinds of “outcomes” – this is how the institutionalized research contexts see things. Because I also write books (my newest one which I’ve been working on this year is called Alien Agency and looks specifically at this question) and conference papers and give talks, etc., I can argue that my research questions produce multiple outcomes. The outcome of a research process (and this word is thrown around with abandon) is to contribute something original to an existing body of literature or practices. This idea of “existing” is critical because unlike the art world, you can’t pretend that everything you create has never existed before and just springs from your own genius head! I see something like Displace as part of a research process – the artistic work is an outcome of the question we started with – can artistic works that explore multi-sensory experience be seen as a new form of anthropological inquiry.

The answer is still unknown. In this sense, Displace is like publishing the results of the research questions. The interesting thing is that, unlike a book or a paper, there is less analytical distance between the experiencer and the so-called “research object.” In fact, the so-called distanced observer breaks down completely once the visitors’ own bodily, felt experience takes over. As Brecht said, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” This is why I strongly believe that artistic work is key to research questions and processes that seek an understanding of human culture and experience.


http://chrissalter.com/

http://todaysart.org/2012/

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