Interview: Daria Martin

If you can taste these words or see them in colour, you already know about the condition known as synaesthesia which affects 1 in 20 people worldwide. If you can’t, chances are you might like the sound of that, especially if you are an artist.

“There are a lot of wannabe synaesthetes, including myself, out there,” says Daria Martin. But at the suggestion we may all be afflicted with the condition on an unconscious level, she points out, “you either are a synaesthete or you aren’t.”

So who can claim to be part of this exclusive neurological club? Martin tells me that Kandinsky, Eisenstein and Rimbaud were all synaesthetes. But then there are the living examples in hew new film Sensorium Tests, including a man who can indeed taste words.

“Synaesthesia has been described as a cross fertilisation of the senses,” says the American artist. “So historically synaesthesia has been a model of artistic media cross fertilising one another.” In other words, it’s a boon to painters and poets.

For the rest of us, Martin’s new show at Milton Keynes Gallery may be the most direct way to understand such enhanced perceptions. The centerpiece is the 10-minute film, Sensorium Tests, which also explores a newly discovered variant Mirror Touch Synaesthesia.

In 2005, scientists first realised that some synaesthetes have a tactile response to images – feeling pain, for example, when they see someone else bang their head. Martin is surely the first visual artist to explore this pertinent field.

“This new form mirror touch synaesthesia was particularly intriguing because it introduces a social aspect to synaesthesia. It’s dependent on not only one person’s subjective perceptions…but also on how those perceptions relate to social interactions happening in the world outside,” she says.

One theory of this phenomenon goes hand in hand with the recent discovery of mirror neurons, the nerves cells which may be responsible for empathy and learning. According to Martin, this does imply “how all of us can become social empathetic human beings”.

But in the newly discovered group of synaesthetes, such cells are “somehow on overdrive or excessive,” says Martin. So “the exhibition presents mirror touch synaesthesia as a starting point to explore the ways images can trigger – from a distance – physical responses” .

It does so by recreating a 2006 experiment into the condition and focusing on the interplay of look and gesture between the actors playing synaesthetes and scientists. But other films here may also touch the visitor to MK Gallery, featuring playing cards, robots and musical instruments.

“The ideas in Sensorium Tests are not only about the objectivity of one’s perceptions but also the converse: the idea that objects themselves might have a sort of subjectivity,” Martin has said. In other words, she hopes to suggest “objects can be sentient or animate”.

When images, sounds, tastes and sensations all bleed into one another, animism is  never far behind. Science may one day have the explanation for this, but until then we’ll always have visual/sonic/tactile/gustatory and olfactory art.

Daria Martin’s show Sensorium Tests can be seen at Milton Keynes Gallery until April 8 2012. See gallery website for more details. This piece was written for Culture24.

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