Audio review of Displace (v 1.0) at the Hexagram-Concordia, Montreal QC, November 16-20, 2011.
I step into… the black box. Designed to disorient the senses, I know I am about to enter an experimental space, where familiar tastes, sounds, sights and feelings will seem strange and foreign as they are recombined in unexpected ways. Though I question the idea of the black box—a space intended to disassemble the senses—I prepare for take-off.
I’ve been warned by a kind docent (docent’s voice) but I’m ready to experience the parallel sensory world promised by Displace 1.0. Displace is a multisensory performative environment constructed at Concordia University in Montreal for the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association.
After the darkness of the black box, the first thing my five companions-in-sensing and I notice is the smell: It’s Pine Sol! Lemon balm! No, Ivory soap! The music warps its way into my ears as I enter a room with a glowing round table.
We take our seats, and silently eye the six brightly colored liquids in clear glasses. After a few moments, a docent touches each of our foreheads and leaves, as a dull tingling overtakes my face. (“I know, it’s like Tiger Balm or something.”) Once alone, we hesitantly begin to sniff and taste the colored liquids, alternately surprised and disgusted by their strange tastes. (“This smells like something my mom used to make me drink when I was a kid…”)
One by one, we are led out of the room into a small dark corridor, where I feel my way through more darkness, plus strange odors and heat provided by overhead heaters, towards an ambiguous red light ahead. The light gets smoky as I approach. A docent touches my arm just as I reach it, and I am led towards a glowing six-sided platform, with a hexagon of light suspended directly above it.
I sit on a pillow across from another member of the group. The last person to arrive sits on a spinning platform in the center of the hexagon. Now that we are all here, the light-and-sound show commences. For the next twenty minutes, I experience intense bursts of light and sound, first pounding and grinding like industrial machinery, then feedback noises. The lights swirl and pulse in concert with the music. Halfway through, I am offered a small gelatinous treat. It first tastes sweet, then slightly numbs the tongue. Peppercorn, it seems.
The music fades into a gentle lull, and six glowing columns of light appear at the far end of the performance space. A docent leads us to them. They are large black tubes, suspended from the ceiling, with tiny holes cut into them. As beams of light shoot down through them, they look like tree trunks punctuated by stars. The docent begins to direct us away from the pillars of light. We are taken into a fluorescent-lit stairwell, where we march in single file up the steps. Compared to the highly orchestrated event we have just experienced, this feels cold and uninviting.
We are led into a room and met by David Howes, professor of anthropology and co-creator of the exhibit. He offers us a beverage made of cucumber, lemon, and water, which, he tells us, will soothe us after the intensity of experience that Displace provided. Howes asks the group to share their experiences of the exhibit. Some found it ritualistic. Others wondered why everything had to feel so exotic. Another thought it felt contrived. Still others had fun and wished for more sensory stimuli. Everyone has a different perception of what they have just shared.
After this Q&A, Howes tells us that Displace was conceived of as a flight simulator for anthropologists, artificially recreating the anthropological experience. The exhibit tried to immerse visitors in the disorientation that alternative sensory worlds can inspire. Like a training ground, Howes hoped to sensitize anthropologists to other configurations of sensoria before entering the field. He hopes that anthropologists will be able to express knowledge about other societies in ways other than verbal or visual. By attuning researchers to alternative sensoria, Howes aims to equip them with ways of conveying structures of sensations that don’t rely on text or film. He believes that different configurations of senses result in the diversity of human societies. A unity of the senses, he said, is a unity of the people. Like a Catholic mass or rock concert, shared interpretive contexts and understandings of sensory perceptions create unique and distinct sensoria, which Howes believes can be conveyed anthropologically.
Howes tells us that the exhibit was object-less and word-less, as an attempt to move beyond verbal and visual understandings of other cultures. But I couldn’t help but wonder what all those speakers, light bulbs, chairs, and glasses were if not objects. And since there was free conversation between my group, it wasn’t really word-less either.
Howes collaborated with media artists Chris Salter and TeZ to make a play of senses—a performance that disaggregated and rearranged the senses through the novel interplay of sights, sounds, tastes, and feelings. They wanted their sensorial art to elicit visceral reactions, like a painting or a piece of music. Howes brought his anthropological sensibility to the installation, using Salter and TeZ’s sound, light, smell and taste-scapes to recreate another way of experiencing.
While in the exhibit, it was fun to allow myself to get taken away by this other, constructed world of sensations. But as I tasted hibiscus and felt my forehead burning and heard strange rhythms, I was reminded of other places I’ve been that felt overwhelmingly sensorial: a block party in Brazil; the Egyptian hookah lounges of Astoria, Queens; my grandmother’s rural farm. Unlike Displace, all of these places have history built into each sensory stimulus. If we understand these histories, we can interpret the ways that we use our senses to create meaning, memories, identity, and shared experiences.
Intrinsic to the spicy smell of shrimp stew and the beating of drums in Brazil are histories of slavery and cultural appropriation. Inherent to the sweet hookah smoke and smooth backgammon pieces in Astoria is a history of colonialism, migration and resettlement. And I can’t deny that my grandmother’s history of hippie environmentalism, plus the national history of urban flight and affordable retirement destinations, shaped my experiences of the crisp taste of fresh mint and the soft feel of mud beneath my rubber boots.
What roles does history play in the understanding of our sensory perceptions? How does it influence the way we sense things? How does it shape the arrangements of sensoria in which we—anthropologists or not—find ourselves? What histories are erased or occluded by experiencing senses only in the decontextualized present? And how does the “black box” serve to do justice to the range of experiential contexts and meanings a culture has? What history of its own does the black box bring to the sensorial experience?
Howes later told us that the arrangements of stimuli used in Displace were inspired by elements in the sensory world of an Amazonian tribe, who experience colors, numbers, tastes and sounds in ways very different than we in the West do. But I wonder: does Displace imply that this group of people has only one sensorium with which they understand the world? The flight simulator-model seems to recreate the sensual space of an Amazonian tribe in a holistic and finite way, as though reorienting one’s senses to these particular combinations would prepare an anthropologist for fieldwork in that space. Perhaps an understanding of multiple sensoria would remind us that sensoria arise from particularities that enliven our experience of the world. The result is the infinite range of understandings that we bring to our encounters.
Howes’, Salter’s, and TeZ’s anthropological flight simulator was a captivating and intelligent way to engage with a different sensory world. Without text or ethnographic objects, it was able to convey an unfamiliar world that left each visitor with a completely different understanding of what she had been through. The immediacy and whimsicality of the various media used made this installation both fun and thought-provoking. If the goal of Displace was to make the visitor aware of unexpected combinations of sensations, then surely some crack in the Western sensorium has been made.