What does the color red smell like? How does it taste?
Imagine you’re in an art gallery, studying a portrait with a red background. Does your interpretation of it change if you taste ketchup while you look? Or smell blood? Or both? Art lovers will soon be able to find out for themselves at Tate Sensorium, an upcoming exhibition at London art museum Tate Britain, which uses interactive technology to experiment with how our senses change the way we look at visual art.
The show, which opens fall 2015, is being put together by London-based creative agency Flying Object, winners of the Tate’s second annual IK Prize, which awards “innovative applications of digital technology that offer new ways to explore art” with £10,000 [$14,750] and a further £60,000 [$88,500] for development.
Inspiration for Tate Sensorium comes from the world of neuroscience and its newly dominant notion that none of our senses work in isolation, say Flying Object founders Tom Pursey, Tim Partridge, and Peter Law.
Recent studies have confirmed a number of common beliefs—that colors have strong associations with smells, for instance (yellow with lemons, and turquoise with peppermint)—but they have also made more surprising findings, such as the discovery that eating food from a heavy bowl makes it taste richer, fattier and more expensive.
Restaurants were among the first to use such findings to create new aesthetic experiences. Way back in 2007, diners at UK restaurant The Fat Duck were given iPods to enhance the flavor of their seafood with the sound of waves. Now Flying Object will apply these principles to the British art canon, with the help of an experimental psychologist, a binaural sound recordist, a visual designer, a theater designer, a multi-sensory interaction designer, and Odette Toilette, a self-styled “purveyor of olfactory adventures.”
“We’re still looking for a taste person,” explains Pursey. “It’s all slightly experimental, but that’s also why the scientists are really interested in being involved, because we’ll actually be doing a lot of measurements around how people react to everything. And from an artistic point of view…if we can complement your visual experience with these other four senses in a meaningful way, then maybe we can change how you feel about the art.”
Tate Sensorium will make use of fresh technologies like binaural sound, which is made by recording sounds through microphones buried in the replica ear canals of a dummy skull. Once played back for humans through stereo headphones, the sound creates an uncannily precise sense of space in listeners, that exploits our ability to pinpoint where sounds are coming from. For a demo, try this virtual trip to a barber.
“Binaural sound is very immersive,” says Pursey. “It really brings you into the art work. Take a landscape: there’s a lot of space there. Take a Bridget Riley: they’re often flat. Binaural sound is a perfect way to explore that spatial dimension. It can also help us direct attention to different parts of the artwork, to make things feel very close or far away.”
“We have a sense that museums are a neutral space,” says Partridge, “but they already have sounds and smells. You’re already having your perception changed by your senses. We’re just changing it in a different way.”
For visitors to be literally touched by the art, the brand new technology of “ultrahaptics” (currently only operated by one company, Ultrahaptics) uses 256 small ultrasound speakers arrayed in a flat, laptop-sized square to project localized soundwaves through the air.
Holding your hands above them, the waves create the sensation of touch as they crash into your skin. “A feeling of, for example, dry rain,” says Pursey. “Or a circle, or, as you move your hands down, the feeling of pushing them through a bubble.”
Noses are comparatively simple to cater for – treated paper or aerosols are the most likely vehicles for your olfactory adventure – but may yet prove key to the project. Smells have strong, specific and emotional memory connotations, that are different for different people. “To me,” says Pursey, “the smell of a car air freshener means taxis, but to other people it might mean holidays when they were a child.”
One of the main things Flying Object hope to give people is an awareness of the subjectivity of their interpretations.
“We can take an artwork and try to bring to life what’s actually depicted,” says Partridge, “or we can acknowledge that artworks mean different things to different people, and use the other four senses to help people understand that there isn’t one, universal interpretation they’re supposed to discover.”
“There could even be different sense experiences for the same work,” adds Pursey.
Part-exhibition, part-experiment, Tate Sensorium will give you a nudge in some new directions, but it won’t tell you what to think.