We commonly think people have five senses: sound, sight, smell, taste and touch. Beyond this there are several scientifically recognised senses including pain, temperature and proprioception [the sense of knowing where your body parts are in a space]. Synaesthesia can move between any of these crossings, so there are many permutations.
I have created two films exploring mirror-touch synaesthesia, 'Sensorium Tests' and 'At the Threshold'. Mirror-touch synaesthesia occurs when a visual image of touch evokes a visceral touch on the synaesthete’s body. For example, if I were to see you being touched on your shoulder then I would feel that touch on my own shoulder. It’s usually experienced in mirror image to what’s seen. It’s interesting to look at a form of synaesthesia that responds to external social relationships.
Mirror-touch synaesthesia can be conceptualised as a heightened form of physical, and to a degree emotional, empathy. This should place a mirror-touch synaesthete in a strong position to be extremely sensitive to others, very empathic, very kind and helpful. But in practice it often causes synaesthetes to withdraw socially, because our world is not built for such empathy. It assaults our senses.
An ethereal, dreamlike quality
My films explore the mirror-touch synaesthete’s way of seeing as one that’s immersive and sensitive to touch. I interviewed 13 mirror-touch synaesthetes and gathered information on the social aspects of mirror-touch synaesthesia and responses that people with the condition had to objects. The results of those interviews have filtered into both films.
One of the appeals of film is the way that it can fold into itself painting, music, performance and sculpture. Film creates spaces that are between the mental and the physical. It has an ethereal, dreamlike quality whilst, especially with 16 mm film, there is real evidence of bodies, space and material, and I want that physicality to remain very present in the viewing experience. Films are made of images and sound, but I believe that they can touch us in other ways, including feelings inside and on our bodies. I’m trying to provoke the audience to watch with all of their senses, including a sense of touch.
This immersed way of seeing
'Sensorium Tests' shows the testing of a mirror-touch synaesthete in a lab with a one-way mirror, behind which scientists are watching. One of the scientists is listening to testimonies based on my exchanges with mirror-touch synaesthetes. I’ve contrasted the synaesthete’s haptic (touch-sensitive) and empathic look at things with a rather voyeuristic, objectifying look that is epitomised by the one-way mirror. It’s contrasted to make a rhetorical point and to push and pull the viewer between this immersed way of seeing and this more distanced way of seeing. The test within 'Sensorium Tests' is based on the first clinical study of a mirror-touch synaesthete.
'At the Threshold' is about growing up as a mirror-touch synaesthete and what happens if your parent is a mirror-touch synaesthete too. The basic premise of the story is a universal one about coming of age, a teenager wanting to break free and a mother wanting to keep him home. It explores some of the difficulties in social relationships that synaesthetes might encounter and how we imagine empathy to be helpful socially, even though having too much empathy can be detrimental. The film was inspired visually by 1950s melodramas where physical objects in the domestic environment seemed very lively and vivid, which is the perspective of some mirror-touch synaesthetes.
I hope people are moved by these films but, at the same time, I want to create a sense of distancing from the film and that’s part of why their set-ups are obviously artificial. They combine highly professional actors, more amateur actors and non-actors. The elements of artifice are there to push away the audience so each person is left to their own devices in thinking about what they’ve seen.
The lens of empathy
Michael Banissy is a neuroscientist who was one of the first researchers into mirror-touch synaesthesia. We began working together quite early on in this research and he connected me to mirror-touch synaesthetes to interview. In this project there is a triangle between myself as an artist, scientists studying synaesthesia, and the synaesthetes themselves. Both myself and the scientists are very dependent on and indebted to the synaesthetes for sharing their first-hand experiences because, although certain forms of synaesthesia had been documented for about a century, mirror-touch synaesthesia was only ‘discovered’ around 2005.
Synaesthesia really represents a place not where artistic exploration has pre-empted scientific exploration, but one in which they converge. We are able to look at mirror-touch synaesthesia through the lens of empathy, and the idea of empathy originates at a nexus between science and art.
New ways of thinking
Something I hoped to capture in ‘Sensorium Tests’ was the beauty and mystery of the scientific laboratory as this place of total attention, and the exclusion of outside stimuli. There’s something valuable about scientists focusing and identifying different types of synaesthesia, which opens up a window to artists and others for exploration. The benefits for scientists of artists coming in and engaging with the subject is that they widen out that narrow focus. Through an artist’s engagement with the subject, aesthetic exploration and philosophical reflection, we hope to reflect back to the scientist new ways of thinking about the subject.