Reviewer biography

Invitational Workshop Program

McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ontario
September 25, 2008

Reviewed by Ellen K. Levy
Visiting Scholar NYU, artist and researcher Z-Node


In the late 19th century, Emil Dubois-Reymond, a colleague of Helmholz, pursued the possibility of “cross-connecting nerves, enabling the eye to see sounds and the ears to hear colors.” (1) Such topics have become the focus of meetings periodically held by the American Synesthesia Association (ASA), revealing the shifts in thinking about phenomena once considered to be purely metaphorical.

An Invitational Workshop Program held at the McMaster Museum of Art on September 25, 2008 was organized by Daphne Maurer, Carol Steen, Greta Berman, and Carol Podedworny. At the first ASA meeting (Princeton, 2001), any skepticism people might initially have harbored about synesthesia being a real, as opposed to associative, phenomenon was largely removed by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran’s remarkable demonstration of the abilities of some synesthetes to spot patterns quickly in a psychological pop-out test. By comparison, the 2008 workshop no longer needed to demonstrate proof of the phenomenon. Maurer opened the discussion by identifying 54 types of synesthesia, some bidirectional.

The workshop’s twin themes were the Understanding of Art and the Understanding of Perception in relation to McMaster’s Museum of Art Exhibition, Synesthesia: Art and the Mind. Whether a unique ability or one that everyone has to some extent (although a qualitative difference appears to be involved), synesthesia provides its holders with unusual perceptions. The possibility that art works may offer clues as Maurer states in her paper “about cross-modal influences on the work of synesthetic artists and their impact on non-synesthetic viewers . . .” is a chief rational for analyzing the art produced by synesthetes. This premise is consistent with the emerging field of neuro-aesthetics, based on an assumption that our responses to visual artworks tell us something important about the brain. Recent controversy stems from scientists such as Semir Zeki and Ramachandran deriving a theoretical view of aesthetics from what some believe a too restricted view of culture.

The synesthesia workshop was neither reductive nor culturally uninformed, displaying enormous breadth and insight. Side-by-side, scientists, artists, and art historians (both synesthetic and non-synesthetic), delivered perceptive, nuanced papers followed by discussion. Because the workshop was held in the Museum’s exhibition space, the participants could relate the speakers’ observations to their direct experience of art work either known or conjectured to have been made by synesthetes. A freestanding display in the room included prints based on research by Heinrich Klüver (1897-1979) and Georg Anschütz (1886-1953) that located ‘form constants’ in art by synesthetes. Speakers included Maurer, Berman, Steen, and Marcia Smilack along with Jamie Ward, Noam Sagiv, and a panel on historical artists. The latter included Patricia Albers (on Joan Mitchell), Nancy Weekly (on Charles Burchfield), Therese Dolan (on Eduard Manet), and Sophia Oftedahl (on Edvard Munch).

Many workshop presentations explored to what extent artworks (deliberately limited here to 2-dimensions) made by synesthetes are guided by their synesthetic experience. Clearly all artists, including synesthetes, need to make artistic choices regardless of rendering tangible sensations. The dilemma that non-synesthetic artists at times make art that looks like the art of synesthetic artists was harder to resolve since it challenges a belief that one can identify art created by synesthetes through identifying commonalities of form alone. Presumably some non-synesthetic artists might employ several or all of the ‘form constants’ discussed at the workshop, as well as love of nature, unusual techniques, direct paint application, multi-layered complexity, zig-zag forms, indistinct contours, and calligraphy. Aware of this problem, all speakers about historical artists included written documents to support their conjectures.

The speakers readily acknowledged that these discussions were just the beginning. At future workshops, it would be pertinent to administer scientific tests to living artists assumed to be synesthetic on the basis of the appearance of ‘form constants’ in their art. One would also welcome in-depth explorations of time-based and digital media. Judging by recent exhibitions (at ISEA, Eyebeam, and MIT), we see ongoing attempts to create art that includes haptic elements and that addresses senses apart from vision. These works will no doubt raise the bar even further on discussions distinguishing multi-modal art forms that reflect cultural biases from genuine synesthesia.

1. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: The MIT Press) 1990, p. 93.