Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art, MIT List Visual Arts Center

Art Papers (May 2007)

Anri Sala, video still, Natural Mystic (Tomahawk #2), 2002. Courtesy: Galerie Chantal Crousel

Fredric Jameson’s famous statement of the necessity to grow new navigational organs seems like a romantic notion now that we are accustomed to instantaneous communication networks, high-speed transportation, GPS, and the ubiquitous presence of plasma screens on all surfaces big and small. The human sensorium is in a process of adaptation to this technologically mediated hyper-aesthesia. Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art at the MIT List Visual Arts Center [October 12, 2006 – April 8, 2007] brings together nine international artists whose work addresses the effects of technology on our senses. Its underlying ambition, however, is to reach beyond the sensorium into the dark, the subliminal and the out-of-body.

The optical, auditory and olfactory senses are directly confronted: Bruce Nauman, for example, allows us to monitor the nocturnal events occurring in his office with infra-red surveillance technology in Office Edit (2001); Natascha Sadr Haghighian humorously subverts the association between seeing and believing in The Microscope (2007), which is blind to its specimen but quietly sings popular songs; and the entire exhibition is enveloped in the pungent odor emitted from Sissel Tolaas’s The FEAR of smell – the smell of FEAR (2005). Tolaas has artificially reproduced the body odors of various men who were under extreme duress and embedded the scent in the wall paint. After the exhibition, it was covered by a fresh coat of regular paint, but the stench still lingered: perhaps it will echo subliminally for several exhibitions to come – an odd sort of monument to an ephemeral physiological state.

The exhibition also addresses the shifting sense of community that results from high-tech telepresence gadgets and widespread access to the Internet. Now people can easily meet in the chat-rooms of Cyberspace, parking their bodies in one location while engaging experientially in another. During an extended absence from home, Christian Jankowski and his girlfriend would meet in these metaphoric “rooms.” Later he transcribed the romantic exchanges and hired various actors to recite the couple’s dialogue. Let’s Get Physical/Digital (1997) conveys a disturbing discrepancy between the impassioned rhetoric of the lovers and the material bodies that do not touch. The traditional face-to-face relationship has been superseded by a technological interface that alters the dynamics of the exchange and questions the locus of the self in the body.

When the sensorium is challenged, the working definition of “self” is destabilized. Mathieu Briand’s UBIQ, A Mental Odyssey (2006) aims to transgress the boundaries of the monadic individual in favor of shared experience. Visitors to the exhibition walk around wearing head-mounted cameras: through their “camera eyes” they witness their own line of sight on two small screens inside the helmet. At the push of a button they can switch their view with that of another visitor, thus seeing the exhibition from the other’s perspective. This suggests the possibility of inter-subjectivity but note that the “perspective” is optic only. By donning the helmet one can see from where another person stands but the cultural inflection of looking remains resolutely within one’s own position. In this light, the technological innovations that are challenging the human sensorium are simply more of the same: there is always an “interface” that mediates between human understanding and the world governed by the laws of physics, even if it was not called as such before the advent of computers.

Today technological metaphors are used to describe almost every realm of experience and they are often as powerful as the technology itself in establishing cultural frames of reference. The “techno-sublime” is one such term. Ryoji Ikeda’s work Spectra (2006) is a long narrow corridor that is totally darkened except for a horizontal red laser light at the far end. One at a time, visitors grope along the corridor walls; at intervals they are blinded by a split-second shock of white light. In the catalogue essay Yuji Hasegawa states that the corridor is also filled with high-frequency sounds “and although the visitor will not notice the sound when first entering, oscillation patterns will be present…” She also states that Spectra “appeals to a level of awareness that precedes thought and is therefore extremely difficult to convey linguistically.” This extra-sensorial and extra-linguistic character of Ikeda’s work lends it the adjective sublime.

Anri Sala’s video installation Naturalmystic (Tomahawk #2) (2002) demonstrates the crux of the exhibition. On the screen we see a man sitting in a recording studio behind a microphone. On the head-phones, however, we do not hear music: instead of lyrics, the singer’s voice produces the ominous sounds of a tomahawk missile as it gets louder and louder and then suddenly explodes. This work reminds us just how close the sublime is to the “unclaimed experience” of trauma. It also reminds us that the technologies that mediate our sensorium are never neutral; we would do well to ask whose interests they serve.

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