- Arts and Design
Synesthesia, Photography and the New Art of Synesthography
What is Synesthesia?
Synesthesia affects about one person in twenty-five. Technically, it could be considered a mental 'disorder', however most synesthetic people consider their condition an enrichment of life and have no interest in being 'cured'. In simplest terms, synesthesia is a confusing of, or more accurately, a crosstalk between, the senses. What does this mean in practice?
Most people, hearing a few bars of music, notice only the sound, with varying degrees of pleasure or even of interest. But for some, the same music manifests itself as colour and pattern as well as sound. Somehow, the auditory stimulus affects also that part of the brain responsible for decoding visual stimuli, resulting in a personal 'multimedia' experience. The phenomenon is well recognised but as yet still not well understood.
Ray Davies & Olivier Messiaen
The Synesthetic Artist
Ray Davies of the Kinks might or might not be synesthetic. Many poets and musicians are and, even if they don't realise it themselves, it may well be an ingredient of their success. Ray's most celebrated synesthetic allusion is from Lola - She walked up to me and she asked me to dance. I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said Lola. More subtle are the music and lyrics to Autumn Almanac, where it is impossible to doubt that Ray is literally smelling and tasting the verbal images through the vehicle of song.
Far more self-consciously synesthetic was the French composer Olivier Messiaen. His music was highly experimental and designed to convey colours, moods, even aspects of his faith, through the medium of sound. He even transcribed and incorporated birdsong into many of his works - complex birdsong, not the cuckoo! - believing that birds were the better composers. Though he achieved a considerable academic following, Messiaen was never widely popular. It is quite possible that 95% of the populace (including some of the world's finest musicians) are simply not equipped, synesthetically, to 'hear' what he was seeing. Synesthesia is a mixed blessing.
Forms of Synesthesia
Synesthesia exists in many forms. The most familiar is when sound translates into colour, but in some people the reverse occurs; certain scenes or colour combinations manifest themselves as a form of music, perhaps not melodic or rhythmic, but more as a harmony or perhaps a dissonance awaiting resolution. Then, for others, textures can translate into colour - when the lights go down, velvets all are red, and satins, cream. Poetic imagery owes much to the possibility of synesthesia, approached not directly but through metaphor.
Synesthography - The First Synesthetic Camera
Synesthography is a new art form with very humble origins. The essence of classic photography is to focus light, and light alone, onto the film or, more often nowadays, the image sensor. In pursuit of quality, ultraviolet and infrared are filtered out, and the lens mounting and camera body are designed to resist vibration, fast temperature and humidity changes, and the ingress of dust or other airborne agents to the vicinity of the light path or sensor. One could say that the camera is very single-minded.
The synesthetic camera (synecam?), on the other hand, has no such pretensions to quality. Dust and scratches on the lens ensure that wanted and unwanted light have an equal chance, while the flimsy lens mount and less than rigid camera body conspire to couple high and low audio frequencies, respectively, to the image. (The phenomenon is akin to microphony, a notorious cause of feedback in valve amplifiers). Where can such a marvel be found? On every cheap mobile phone on the market, but none are in quite the same league as the Motorola L6.
The Synesthographer's technique is wholly different from the photographer's. Care, precision and planning are anathematised. Spontaneity is everything. In particular, it is important not to think visually. Your synesthographs should be influenced as much by smell, taste, sound and touch as by sight. You hear a lark singing? Point the synecam any old place, and click. Remember, it doesn't have to see the lark - it can hear it, just like you, so it will feature in the final image. It only needs faith.
It is important to remember that the camera, not necessarily the synesthographer, is synesthetic. It does all the hard work for you. But when you first look at your images, you may be disappointed. You were expecting to see the Trooping of the Colours, while at the same time hearing the horses hooves, tasting your Cadbury's 99 and feeling the sun on your shoulders. Have faith. It is all there. To the synesthete, it is a thing of beauty; to the uninitiated, a mere jumble. Now let's talk about the Emperor's new clothes.