“Where are you right now? Can you smell anything? How is the wind, or your clothes, touching your skin?” These are the sensory-stimulating questions that greet you on the website of the Crossmodalists.
Crossmodalism – a term popularised by Professor Charles Spence at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, University of Oxford - seeks to heighten and unite the way we sense the world around us. Speaking with concert pianist and passionate Crossmodalist, Chris Lloyd, my senses stand to attention as I discover the movement’s perspective-bending practices.
Grace Carter: What exactly is Crossmodalism?
Chris Lloyd: Crossmodalism is the pursuit of ‘unity’ – unity of the senses, of the arts and science, of our artistic contemporaries and predecessors. Art can sound, feel, taste, look and smell; and it can touch us physically, emotionally and mentally. Reinforced by science, inspired by emotion, driven by development: this is Crossmodalism.
GC: Can you talk us through your work?
CL: It varies exponentially. From small space-hacking to designing an atmosphere, to scientific research on a grand scale – and everything in between – the primary goal of our work is to create awareness through sensory unity, promote multi-disciplinary work in the arts/sciences, and address large issues that are taking place in everyday society, becoming a forum and vehicle for change. Our next project is the release of our founding manifesto; a document to act as an open call-to-arms of all like-minded artists, scientists and communities.
GC: Who is involved in this movement?
CL: It would be presumptuous to refer to our core group as the founders of Crossmodalism; all we have done is put a label on it. Wagner and Kandinsky worked with the philosophy of Gesamtkunstwerk (the total work of art). Liszt composed music inspired by visual art and nature. Tafelmusik of the Baroque was composed to match food delivered at courtly dinner parties. We are the continuation of a long tradition of multi-disciplinary art and science.
At our core is a classically trained pianist, a chef, an experience designer, a perfumer and a scientist. But the movement is open, with no hierarchy: if you ‘create’ and ‘collaborate’, you are a Crossmodalist.
GC: You've been holding lots of events - can you tell us about some of these?
CL: Our first event was a relatively simple concert-dinner; music of Franz Liszt inspiring a five-course tasting menu, performed live with elements of atmosphere and ritual input. Our last, was a series of lectures on ‘The Poetics of Food’ in conjunction with Culture Device and TEDxHackney, addressing topics of aesthetic pleasure, environmental disasters, scientific progress in gastronomy and culinary artistry. We’ve also run mass experiments at The National Science Museum in London and created the first multi-sensory virtual reality cinema experience with The Feelies at Shuffle Festival - all with the primary goals of discovering, encouraging and demonstrating unity.
GC: What reactions have they experiences so far?
CL: Reactions have been mixed –between the polarity of disgust/discomfort and pleasure/inspiration. A strong reaction (be it negative or positive) is the goal. Our aim to inspire can only be achieved by creating everything from the adverse to the overwhelmingly-mind-blowing. With careful curation, a negative experience can highlight and add to a beautiful experience. If everything is consonant, nothing is consonant; if everything is sweet, nothing is sweet.
GC: How do you believe we can unite the senses/arts/science to create an enhanced and tactile experience - and also to unite groups of people together?
CL: Everything is multi-sensory, though you may not realise; we sit in a café, smelling the coffee, tasting the bitterness, hearing the background ambience and music, feeling the texture of the warm cup, seeing the evolution from latte-art to empty cup. Our job as Crossmodalists is to harness the multi-sensory atmosphere, and curate our events to achieve maximum harmony between our senses; resulting in a hyper-perceptive experience of whatever is being presented.
We believe that science is art, art is science and we are not limited by the perceived boundaries of the two. The unity of the people will come via awareness; when our senses are all programmed to one experience, awareness can truly be discovered.
GC: Why should we be doing this? What is the value of the sensory experience in the modern age?
CL: The digital age is not only upon us, but erupting in every facet – soon, technology will facilitate the entire sensory smorgasbord from the comfort of our homes. I no longer need to attend a concert to hear Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique Sonata’; instead, at the click of a button, I have access to performances throughout history online.
We need to offer something tactile, to encourage sensory stimulation to raise awareness of what makes us human; our senses. Crossmodalism is a tool to connect with people on a personal level – to rekindle our natural predilection for tactile experience.
GC: What would you say are the greatest sensory stimulations and how can we optimise these in our everyday activities?
CL: Life is the ultimate Crossmodal experience. The greatest sensory stimulations occur every day, in every place. Standing at a bus stop in central London, you will experience a range of stimuli – the smell of the perfume on the person next to you, the feeling of rain falling, the taste of the morning air, the sound of the street etc. It is not a matter of creating stimulations – it is raising the awareness of naturally occurring stimuli. Detaching ourselves from our portable devices is a powerful tool in realising the natural beauty that surrounds us; we should all take a moment every day to look at innate beauty, ugliness, and everything in between; to soak up the experiences of life whilst it happens, and not through a screen.
GC: How does narrative fit into all of this and into your work?
CL: Narrative is perhaps the most integral part of our communication. To be multi-sensory alone is limited; the equivalent of taking all of the ingredients in a recipe together, and placing them side-by-side in a pot. Narrative is the process of cooking, of understanding, of taking these elements and creating a product that can be digested and understood by all. Emotion is a key factor in relating experience…and emotion is stimulated by the creation of narrative. Narrative is also essential in our goal to raise awareness of bigger factors – environmental issues, disconnection between people; without narrative, we cannot relate to each other or our audiences.
GC: The senses are one human mechanism that technology has yet been unable to replicate. Do you think this should be something we aspire towards in our future - and why?
CL: Technology should not be seen as the devil amongst us. Whilst the relationship between science and technology is implicit, the arts and technology have always co-depended. The grand piano is the ultimate technological innovation in music; a complex engineering feat of hammers, strings and resonance. Technology also allows the dispersion of information – a scientist in Buenos Aires links an article online, a composer in Boston adds his comments, a perfumer in London is inspired.
Scientists haven’t yet been able to replicate the exact human sensory systems, but they have been able to have proxies to extend our sensing with technology; we can sense the Earth’s magnetic field, or measure wavelengths that our eyes can’t see. Thus we can sense, with the aid of technology, things that our biological system by itself cannot; further, through proxy-materials such as haptic film and image, our senses can be stimulated, far away from the original time and place.
An interesting philosophical question is: why do we have the sensory systems we have? In part, to allow us to interact with our environment. Aspiring for a replication of our senses (or the development of new ‘senses’) via technology can help us understand how and why the senses work.
Virtual reality is the next stepping-stone to augmented reality; it will give people access to emotion, sensory experience and entertainment from any time or space. Facebook has just launched a 360-degree video for mobiles, and only a few days ago, Magic Leap emerged as a competitor to Oculus Rift and Google Glass. Scientists in sensory fields worldwide (particularly Malaysia and Japan) are developing scent-diffusing apps and looking into the future of the Internet; 3D printers can already produce edible materials. This technological and scientific advancement will filter down to the artists and the stories they will tell using these developments . 21st century artistic expression will write down this narrative for future generations.
Interviewee: Chris Lloyd:pianist (www.chrislloydpianist.com). Additional input from Nadjib Achaibou, Daniel Ospina, Janice Wang, Charles Michel, Carlos Velasco.
Words: Grace Carter