Sensory studies arises at the conjuncture (and within) the fields of anthropology • sociology • history • archeology • geography • communications • religion • philosophy • literature • art history • museology • film • mixed media • performance • phenomenology • disability • aesthetics • architecture • urbanism • design

Sensory Studies can also be divided along sensory lines into, for example, visual culture, auditory culture (or sound studies), smell culture, taste culture and the culture of touch, not to mention the sixth sense (however it might be defined)

Sensing Cultures: Practice, Performance, Display

American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting
Palais des Congrès, Montreal, Canada – 10 November 2011

Chair: David Howes
Discussant: Zulfikar Hirji, David Howes


Urban structure and sonic environments – the sounds of modernism

Christopher Fletcher, Université Laval, Quebec Quebec

This presentation focuses on the sounds of two categories of urban structure. One consists of the ambient noises in and around each of the buildings designed by Le Corbusier in Paris, the other the sounds coming from each of the bridges that span the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton. As a collection these sounds fit awkwardly together. Le Corbusier’s work is interesting for its twin and potentially incongruent objectives of social engeneering and visionary auteur beauty. Edmonton’s bridges are unpretentious and integral to the social, economic and ecological flows of the city. In collecting, presenting and contrasting these sounds novel ways of approaching urban spaces are explored. Conceived of as an experiment in sensory anthropology, the soundtracks of inanimate urban spaces present new avenues to representing the city and understanding its social variety while also posing epistemological and existential dilemmas to the ethnographer.

Beyond Art and Science: Ethnographic Film and the Making of Sensory Anthropology

Anna Grimshaw, The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts
Emory University, Atlanta, USA

Changes in anthropology’s theoretical paradigms, specifically the waning of semiotic and cognitive frameworks and the emergence of phenomenological and sensory scholarship, have not been accompanied by any significant shift in the discipline’s techniques and forms of representation.  But the new areas of inquiry raise important questions about how they might be investigated and represented in ways that resist “linguification” or “textualization”. In this paper, I suggest that ethnographic film offers a model for thinking critically about these questions.  In particular, it challenges the simple art/scholarship opposition often invoked in response to non-traditional academic forms.

Sensory Embeddedness, Contextualized Sensing and Maple Syrup

Amy B. Trubek, University of Vermont Middlebury, Vermont, USA

This paper investigates “taste” as a mediation between the natural and cultural worlds, based on collaborative research between anthropologists, sensory scientists, and experts, focusing on the physical, sensory and social qualities of Vermont maple syrup. Through an exploration of the unique sensory qualities of this wild food of the northern forest, this paper addresses the following broad questions: How do we capture and understand peoples’ actual taste experiences? What can the sensory embeddedness of food and drink tell us about human engagements with the social and natural environments? How do we study the relationship between culture and sensation in a way that moves beyond (but does not actively reject) recent theoretical assumptions that “taste” is primarily mediated by consumer capitalism and functions to display class identity? The research reported here focuses instead on terroir (or, the taste of place), an idea that values ways in which foods can reflect the natural environment, the intersection of that nature with human production practices, and the cultural context in which production decisions are made. It is suggested that terroir can be understood as a type of contextualized sensing, borrowing from Jean Lave’s theory of embedded cognition. It will be demonstrated, with particular reference to Vermont maple syrup, that tasting is always shaped by cultural context, although not necessarily determined by that context.

Unwrapping the Mummy:
Sensory Interactions with Bodily Remains in Collection Sites

Constance Classen, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

The exhibition of human bodies and body parts in collection sites has a long history. In the Middle Ages churches and monasteries vied over the size and importance of their collections of saintly relics. In the sevententeeth and eighteenth centuries Egyptian mummies were prized museum exhibits. These and other corporeal exhibits were subject to a range of sensory interactions: they were handled, kissed, smelled, and even, on occasion, tasted, by collection visitors and curators. The current presentation explores the layers of meanings embedded in such practices and the ways in which these meanings changed over time. Historical practices and attitudes are then contrasted with visitor engagements with corporeal exhibits in contemporary museums and current discussions concerning the propriety of displaying human remains in collection settings and the right of source communities to reclaim such remains.

How Museums Feel

Fiona Candlin, Birkbeck College, London, UK

Major public museums spend a great deal of time, effort and money on controlling the sensory conditions in their spaces. Whatever the time of day or of year, the temperature stays constant, as does the lighting. Eating is forbidden in the galleries and smells from the cafes are carefully piped away. Codes of conduct tend towards quietness and touch is only permitted in sanctioned areas dedicated to ‘access’. The staff are trained to police the visitors and to respond to them in predictable, authorised ways.

None of this is true of micromuseums – small, independent museums dedicated to a single subject. Located in suburban houses, the back rooms of shops, chapel basements, outbuildings and mills, they are full of the smells and sounds from the adjacent farms, businesses or living spaces. The exhibits are often on open display and can be picked up and handled or played with. Micromuseums are often run by only one person who is simultaneously the collector, owner, curator, guide, warder and cafe-worker. To visit a micromuseum can entail meeting and interacting with the museum founder or with their relations, friends and supporters, making them social rather than ritual or aesthetic spaces, sometimes uncomfortably so. Cups of tea are often offered and sometimes even dinner. How, then, does this sensory and social input impact upon the way that visitors understand and experience the museum and its collections?

Performing Sensation

Christopher Salter, Concordia University, Montréal, Canada

The word performance has long been acknowledged within anthropological contexts as a viable methodology for exploring what the late Dwight Conqergood called “the fabricated, invented, constructed nature of human reality.” In this sense, performative anthropology has focused on the “doing” of anthropology, mainly in terms of capturing experience through ethnographic research. While performative anthropology has long emphasized play, process and participation in the writing of ethnographies, more recent developments in interactive digital technologies have widened performance’s scope to include new kinds of sensations that the general public can directly experience. This talk focuses on two specific projects that I was directly involved in, one a large- scale museum exhibition and the other, a new media dance-theater performance. The 1999 exhibition Sounds from the Vaults, produced by the New York based 30/70 productions and shown at the Field Museum of Chicago, enabled thousands of visitors to “play” musical instruments in the museum’s collection through the use of touch and sound. On the other hand, while not directly participatory, the media performance work Schwelle (German for threshold), produced in 2007, involves a dance between a virtuoso human performer and a theatrical environment of intense light and sound that responds to his behavior in real time before an audience-giving a sense of entangled agency and force to the environment around the dancer. Using technologically augmented systems involving auditory, haptic and visual perception, both of these projects amplify performative anthropology’s challenge to distanced spectatorship and suggest the viable role that new technologies have for expanding its sensorial and experiential scope.

Sensing Botanical Sensoria

Natasha Myers, York University, Toronto, Canada

This paper entangles the genres of multispecies anthropology and sensory anthropology. It is part of a larger study of the “ecology of practices” (Stengers, 2010) among artists and scientists who experiment with plant sensoria in their laboratories, studios, and performance spaces. These practitioners explore how plants participate actively in their worlds through finely tuned sensory systems. Contemporary scientists examine how plants transduce chemical and electrical signals through their tissues, and track the range of volatile compounds plants synthesize and release in order to communicate in multispecies ecologies. Contemporary artists also experiment with plants, tracking tropisms, temporalities, and electrical conductance through a variety of filmic and electro-acoustic media. While these experiments have historical precedents in 19th century inquiries into plant movement and responsivity, this work is also hooked into the emerging field of “plant neurobiology,” which models plant sensation and perception on animal nervous systems. As such they recall the ethos and aesthetics of the 1973 publication The Secret Life of Plants, which directed audiences already attuned to the paranormal to consider plant “agency” and “intelligence”. This paper examines this enduring lure of plant agency by exploring practitioners’ sensory encounters with plants. It tracks the configuration of bodies, apparatuses, theories of sensation, and sentiments in experiments designed to elicit and amplify plant response to stimuli. How do call-and-response modes of experimentation affectively entangle practitioners with their plants? And, how might such encounters shift contemporary conversations on the senses to consider what could be called the “moral and affective ecologies” of sensation?