Synesthesia: A Multisensory Exhibition


IE’s Creativity center held a multisensory, interactive installation titled Synesthesia. 

So far, the exhibition has visited many other spaces, such as the ECC Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy, from May to November of 2021; our Creativity Center made the exhibition available until the 10th of March. 

This project is led by Severino Alfonso and Loukia Tsafoulia as part of their research at the Synesthetic Research and Design Lab at Thomas Jefferson University, College of Architecture and Built Environment. It is a multidisciplinary study bridging the gaps between design, technology, and arts to create a built environment. 

I took some time to speak and ask questions to both organizers; here is how it all went…

Nisa Serin: Could you tell our readers briefly about how the idea at first came together for the exhibition and the Synesthetic Design Lab?

Severino Alfonso: I work at Thomas Jefferson University’s architectural department; I started working there in 2019 with Loukia Tsafoulia. We both share the same interest in interactive design and how humans converse. It might sound like science fiction, but you will realize that maybe we need to look at this process of how we relate to machines in more detail. So we started the synthetic research and designed the lab. 

We focus on interactive design, not only through art (like the project Synesthesia) but also on issues of mental health. How can environments change to adapt and improve to accommodate specific sensory issues or concerns that some populations have? 

We also look at multiple other fields like historical preservation and any field that could see interactiveness as a way of producing thought. That is who we are trying to be. 

Loukia Tsafoulia: Severino and I are interested in the sciences of the mind and the philosophies on body/mind dualism. We have been tracing histories and theories that unfold the dynamics observed between scientific methods and design processes and focus on research that combines traditionally disparate fields. We have [also] learned tons by studying the work of scientists that might be considered entirely unexpected in architecture, interior, and urban design. 

In our research journey, British and American thinkers and their work in diverse fields — psychiatry, engineering, management, politics, music, and education — all come together to shape novel design thinking methods and open-ended experimentation. These personalities include Grey Walter, Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, R.D. Laing, Stafford Beer, and Gordon Pask.

We looked at archives from the 1940s and 50s when scientists were trying to demystify the wonders of the human brain by building electromechanical “perception” devices and generating novel theories of a “general science” based on understanding the world through performance versus the cognitive lenses of the traditional, modern sciences. The lab builds on the concepts and traces the evolution of computer science and artificial intelligence, ultimately bringing them into the design of dynamic environments. These lineages of research brought about the idea of Synesthesia.

Our combined interests — theoretical and applied investigations — meet in the Synesthetic Research and Design Lab (SRDL) mission at CABE( College of Architecture & the Built Environment). Our passion for hands-on experimentation in interactive environments to improve the well-being of humans, and make the critical relationships between space and health accessible, triggered the creation of the SRDL. In joining TJU, with its vast network of hospitals, medical expertise, and community outreach, we found a fertile ground for collaborations that bring the sciences of the mind, health, technology, art, and design together.

N.S.: So, why is the inclusive nature of the work significant for its narrative?

L.T.: We feel that our praxis needs to embrace the critical issues of accessibility in environments that often constitute edges and exclusions for various sensory perceptual models. That said, Synesthesia informs ongoing work on technology and immersive environments’ role in redirecting our built environment relationships around various sensory-perceptual models and neurodiversity. 

This work provides a framework for sensory integration and responsive environments for diverse perceptual modes. It manifests our desire to investigate sensory-based design approaches promoting perceptually inclusive environments for all. We also acknowledge the increasingly powerful self-advocacy voices as vital partners in shaping our spatial visions. By expanding our approaches, we have much to learn from the senses and the embodied, lived experiences.

Synesthesia “comes to life” with the participation of its viewers. From the human enacting on the space’s predetermined possibilities, Synesthesia offers opportunities for meaningful interaction while adapting to inclusive, non-standard perceptual factors.

S.A.: Well, Project Synesthesia deals with multiple layers of engagement; that is probably what your question refers to.

There is an immediate relationship between the body, machine, and performance. So, you access the space, and then you hear a sound, then you see the light emitted in different colors, different rhythms, then a form that you decide to engage in or not on. The form that’s a body-to-object relationship. That’s it. 

One aspect Professor Loukia will look at is the idea of embodiment. The body is the one that put on space to measure an environment which is almost the inverse of what has been thought so far. 

But then there is another series of layers, [starting with] deception, which is being fooled by the technology deployed in the object. How are we being full? I think we’re being fooled by being called by beauty, a pattern of light, or the idea of being incognita, not knowing what is inside. 

But then there is the other layer, which is a little bit of the idea of the internet and the idea of a global society and how everything we do is at a certain level measured [and] recorded. 

And finally, there is the last component of synesthesia: the object. The synesthesia machine records you and is live-streamed on the web, introducing the global and international sphere.

N.S.: To what extent is the responsive nature of the exhibition practicable in the various scales of architecture?

S.A.: Well, I think a lot is going on already. I would say this is just the beginning of a conversation. There are many labs worldwide, but they are studying the relationships of human behavior or perception with how an environment can change and how that conversation between environment and perception could improve lives again. One example could be a hospital; they tend to be designed as an ample space of power, of great dimension, known as a welcoming public space. But maybe we are missing a critical point: some people are not invited to those large spaces. They might suffer anxiety or enter into specific crisis mode because of the density of the population and the noises that these large spaces might have, the multiple variations of lights, etc. So we, as designers, could look at these problems and start designing for people with specific sensibilities to change that environment. And I would say we can quickly adapt to those environments, so they are better for a significant minority, which is great to hear from the significant minority. 

Also, Loukia and I went to Columbia University. We studied for our masters there. When we went there, the school dean was interested in how humans are redefined by design as much as design defines the human. It is a little bit of a, I would say, semi-philosophical question that I think is important [as it] is not only us the design separated, but there are obviously influences. […] Humans exist in different ways and by different means, so for us, what is to be a human, relates to this idea of conversations with machines. We are not the same anymore. 

If we spend at least 30% of our day working with our computers, we start to perceive [the way] a computer would process information. Such as designing the world through how the computer perceives it, and you control what the computer perceives. So I think it is a very interesting conversation that the exhibition only tackles in a specific way. It is good to start that conversation, though.

N.S.: Could you elaborate on the idea that the installation promotes “an idea of what it means to be human, to have agency”?

L.T.: It is a call to think about the notion of agency critically in the context of technology. Synesthesia’s interactive interfaces expand human agency through sensors, actuators, real-time responses, and a human-machine participatory constitution. The work holds multiple functions: a physical space, a medium, and a responsive discourse. Participation is sought not only as an experience but as a research method and a way to create knowledge and awareness of our bodies agency and technological environment.

Image courtesy of Nisa Serin

The project led by two brilliant brains showcases a different perception of art and design, where senses and the complete immersion of the user into the art installation seem to appear as an initial step to what will clearly inspire and change the course of understanding our built environment and humanity.

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