Mediations of Sensation: Designing Performative Sensory Environments

David Howes

Professor of Anthropology and Director, Centre for Sensory Studies, Concordia University

Chris Salter

Concordia University Research Chair in New Media, Technology and the Senses and Co-Director, Hexagram network


Art, anthropology, the senses, and technology? This seems like a new combination. Could there be a serious collaboration between these practices? Our approach to answering this question of how research-creation can meet anthropological knowing is informed to a significant degree by research in the anthropology of the senses. This paradigm treats the senses, severally and together, as both object of study and means of inquiry. It advocates a cultural approach to the study of the senses and a sensory approach to the study of culture.

The anthropology of the senses is a particular disciplinary manifestation of the “sensory turn” in the humanities and social sciences generally. Companion fields include the history of the senses and geography of the senses. The sensory turn, which commenced in the early 1990s, arose as a reaction against the tendency to reduce culture to language and pictures. This was fostered by the linguistic turn of the 1970s (which introduced the notion of cultures “as texts” or as “structured like a language”) and the pictorial turn of the 1980s (which gave rise to “visual culture” studies), respectively. It sought to counteract the essentialisms of these earlier paradigms (i.e., the logocentrism of the linguistic turn, the visualism of the pictorial turn) by adopting a full-bodied, relational approach to cultural analysis, which encompassed all the faculties. [1] However, in order to redirect attention to the full range of sensory experience and expression, and bring this within the purview of the social sciences and humanities, the emergent paradigm first had to pry the senses and sensations loose from the discipline of psychology, which had long been considered to have a monopoly on their study.

The psychological understanding of perception as the product of physiological and mental processing has paid scant attention to the influence of cultural factors. Fundamental to the sensory turn, however, is the recognition that not only what we perceive, but also how we perceive, is shaped by culture. Perception does not just go on in the head. Rather, it is distributed across all the techniques of the senses and technologies of communication, from incense rites to the Internet, that mediate our experience of the world. For this reason, it was argued, the study of the senses should not be confined to the artificial context of the psychology laboratory. It needed to be extended to encompass the life of the senses in society and the differential elaboration of the senses across cultures. [2]

The understanding of the senses as mediators and as subject to differential elaboration across cultures is key to our research. By way of example, consider the following three vignettes bearing on the sense of touch. A Wet’suwet’en chief testifying at a land claims case in British Columbia observed that: “If you know the territory well, it is like your own skin. Sometimes you can feel the animals moving on your body as they are on the land, the fish swimming in your bloodstream . . . If you know the territory well enough, you can feel the animals.” [3] Among the San of South Africa, a person can foretell when a relative is approaching by feeling “tappings” in his or her own body which correspond to certain points on the relative’s body, such as an old wound or pressure on a shoulder: “When a woman who had gone away is returning to the house, the man who is sitting there feels on his shoulders the thong with which the woman’s child is slung over her shoulders; he feels the sensation there.” [4] Finally, in the South Asian humoural medical tradition known as Siddha medicine, physicians are trained to detect six pulses, three on the left wrist, three on the right, which correspond to the three humours. Each pulse vibrates at one of three different rates, depending on the balance of the humours. Diagnosis unfolds in three stages: in the “gross sensory” stage, the patient’s pulse actively throbs against the physician’s passive fingertips; at the “inner” (or what we might call “contrapuntal”) stage, the physician senses the pulse in his own fingertips at the same time as he discerns the patient’s pulse; in the third phase, “equipoise,” the physician modulates his own pulse so it becomes confluent and concordant with the patient’s pulse. He is therefore able to feel all of the same symptoms as the patient, and comes to know the patient’s condition firsthand, as it were. [5]

These seemingly fantastic forms of sentience should not be trivialized by classifying them as “ beliefs.” They are practices, or what Thomas Csordas (1993) would call “somatic modes of attention,” and these practices can help prompt critical reflection on common Euro-North American-centric assumptions about the bounds of sense. [6] Thus, as examples of touch-at-a-distance, the first two cases give the lie to the assumption that touch is a proximity sense; and, as examples of tactile communication, all three reveal how the medium of touch can be as informative as writing or photography (The San, in fact, refer to their presentiments as “Bushmen letters”). These examples only seem fantastic due to the underdevelopment of touch in contemporary North American and European society. Euro-North American subjects are more accustomed to visualizing territory through the medium of a map than feeling it as an extension of their skin. Tactile social interaction is seriously restricted within these cultures compared to visual or verbal interaction. A recent study found that due to time constraints and societal pressures, a third of the Canadian population regularly go an entire day without any human contact. In other words, there is a “touch-deficit.” [7]

One might think that the recent explosion in so-called ‘haptic’ technologies (technologies that operate at the cutaneous level) would have helped to correct this deficit. Indeed, the notion of augmenting touch is increasingly found in scores of hand-activated or worn technologies, from force feedback game controllers and smart phones to the recent “Taptic Engine” in the Apple Watch, a linear actuator similar to a cell phone motor that produces haptic feedback on the wrist of the wearer. [8] Long focused on audio/visual immersion, the multi-billion dollar computer game industry as well has been slowly bringing haptic technologies (force feedback and vibro-tactile actuation) into game controllers with varying degrees of success.

But these haptic technologies leave much to be desired, both in terms of expressiveness and cultural richness. For example, devices like the HP TouchSmart PC and the Apple iPod (aka iTouch) or iPhone, with their so-called multi-touch interfaces, actually keep all of their content behind a smooth pane of glass, and that content is not addressed to the fingertips anyway but to our eyes and ears. There was a lot more tactility to the old rotary dial or even touch-tone phones. The iPhone, which is designed to be ‘intuitive,’ has taken all the resistance out of touching things, and rendered communication textureless. Interestingly, the rush to create more ‘authentic’ haptic experiences through technology has, in fact, resulted in the reduction or removal of earlier touch-based contact between users and devices. For example, Apple has attempted to add a subtle level of haptic feedback to the “multi-touch” trackpads of its new series of Macbooks while, ironically, reducing the level of physically felt friction and resistance previously present in the laptop’s keyboard. Thus, with each new generation of device, the mechanical feedback that was part of earlier interactive surfaces (like the typewriter keyboard from which computer keyboards are derived) is reduced in favour of thinner design, in ergonomic and strictly visual (but not tactile) terms.

Outside of commercial contexts that are increasingly reliant on sensory extension and stimulation, the visual arts have also been swept up in the sensory turn as evidenced by the rise of performance art, installation art and, above all, new media arts. [9,10, 11, 12] Developments in these fields have often anticipated developments in the humanities and social sciences, and there is a strong complementarity regardless. In keeping with this convergence, in our own efforts to cross-over and integrate sensory anthropology and new media arts, we have sought to open up a space “between art and anthropology” through the creation of what Salter calls “performative sensory environments.” [13] This rubric applies to artistic works we have produced between 2011-2015 like Atmosphere, Displace, and Ilinx as well as to several new projects currently in development.

What all of these environments have in common is that they function across multiple contexts – as research objects, as artistic experiences and as theoretical models or experiments designed to alter, thwart or rework ingrained socio-cultural habits of perception – and across multiple senses. At the same time, they continue a series of long-in-the-making questions about the relationship between sensory experience and new technologies in which traditional boundaries between bodily sensation and environment are blurred.

For example, the research-creation program “Mediations of Sensation” developed by both of us and a team of researchers in training as well as professional artists between 2010–2013, sought to generate a “crack in the Western sensorium” by creating a series of fully immersive multi-modal installations such as Displace. Displace was informed by the model of a “fugue of the five senses” which Claude Lévi-Strauss derived from his analysis of Amerindian myth and by the hallucinogen-inspired sensory cosmology of the Desana Indians of Northern Columbia, among other accounts. The sensations on offer included piquant tastes, pungent aromas, swirling fog, a rotating platform, flicker, hexagonal shapes and a sound environment that synthesized both synthetic and environmental musical and sonic structures. [14]

Displace, v.2, September 2012, Chris Salter+TeZ+David Howes, TodaysArt 2012, The Hague, Netherlands. Used with permission.


Methodologically, we focused on processes of translation: how to utilize historical ethnographic accounts depicting other cultural modalities of sensing and sense-making and render them into “felt meaning” (Eugene Gendlin’s term) within a non-indigenous cultural context. [15] The central question underlying our larger research program that aimed to entangle sensory anthropology with questions of design, technology, and affect can be put as follows: How might new sensorial anthropological knowledge be created from experimental situations that are hybrid or liminal (i.e. intercultural)?

This idea of composing for multiple senses simultaneously and of creating a kind of ‘flight simulator’ for training anthropologists and interested audiences in different forms and intensities of sensory acuity, has continued to play out in work following the Mediations of Sensation project. In a recent sensory installation entitled Ilinx, for example, Salter, the audio-visual artist TeZ, wearables designer Valerie Lamontagne, and a team of McGill PhD researchers in music technology and haptics examine the cross-modal interferences, ‘blurring’ and ‘confusion’ among the visitors’ acoustic, visual and haptic senses by way of a technical environment in which the general public wears garments with embedded vibrotactile actuators that enable different intensities of touch to move across the body as well as visors which cloud vision. The installation consists of a twenty minute performance in which four visitors at a time are brought into a darkened environment and undergo varying intensities of acoustic, haptic and visual experience which involve first sitting still and later walking with the help of guide ropes.

Ilinx, September 2014, Chris Salter + TeZ + Valerie Lamontagne, TodaysArt, The Hague, September 2014. Photo © Chris Salter. Used with permission.

Ilinx, September 2014, Chris Salter + TeZ + Valerie Lamontagne, TodaysArt, The Hague, September 2014. Photo © Chris Salter. Used with permission.

Named after the Greek word for vertigo (ilinx), the title and experiential aim of the installation is derived from the work of the French sociologist Roger Caillois who, in his 1958 work Les jeux et les hommes described different forms of games. For Caillois, ilinx specifies play that creates a temporary but profound disruption of perception, including experiences of vertigo, dizziness, or disorienting change of speed and direction affecting the body’s sense of space and time. [16] While Ilinx utilizes cutting edge research in haptics and wearable technologies, the larger research question and artistic objective is to understand and explore how different modes of attention – from direct and conscious awareness of one’s own movement, proprioception and other bodily sensations that situate the body in space to radically contrasting experiences of diffuseness, floating or even unawareness – can be engendered in the perceiving subject? And how can technical conditions partially make the formation of such experiences possible. More specifically, how might the inhabiting of a particular construction of different senses of time (acoustic, haptic, visual) lead to shifting forms of attention that dislodge and loosen habitual ways of perceiving one’s body within a technical environment?

Ilinx, September 2014, Chris Salter + TeZ + Valerie Lamontagne, TodaysArt, The Hague, September 2014. Photo © Chris Salter. Used with permission.

Ilinx, September 2014, Chris Salter + TeZ + Valerie Lamontagne, TodaysArt, The Hague, September 2014. Photo © Chris Salter. Used with permission.

We are currently carrying this work into a different context and scale with a new project entitled “Haptic Fields.” This project involves researching how larger groups of people can share touch at a distance as well as use touch to alter the parameters of everyday existence. In contrast to our earlier experiments like Displace, which created large-scale theatrical experiences within controlled settings, we are now exploring different kinds of game-like configurations using the vibrational possibilities of the current generation of smart phones to enable groups of people to share patterns of rhythmic pulses between one another. Unlike the reduced and frankly banal vision of the uses of touch imagined in the haptic technology of current wearable gizmos like the Apple Watch (with its information theory approach to tactile communication, which divides the world into senders and receivers of ‘messages’ [e.g. “I feel your heartbeat”], we are looking at the more complex notions of sharing pulse and other tactile sensations derived from the Siddha, San, and wet’suwet’en traditions described earlier in this article, in which sender and receiver can become as one and where collective possibilities of touch might emerge, both through human and technological means.

Sensory anthropology, however, not only provides the starting point for many of our experiments with designing performative sensory environments but it also supplies the protocol for studying the effects of those environments on audiences. The protocol is called “participant sensation,” which departs in certain important respects from the standard anthropological method of “participant observation.” There is the same accent on participation, but instead of observing, the sensory anthropologist is more concerned with feeling – that is, we make a concerted effort to “feel along with” the audience, much like the Siddha physician who seeks to attain an empathic understanding of the patient’s condition. Audience members are convoked, following their immersion in one of the environments we have created, to collectively reflect on how their senses might have been reconfigured.

Such introspection is complemented and completed by collective conversation which involves discussions and recollections and even reflexive analysis of specific sensations and impressions as audience members are guided through the process of making sense of the novel sensory interrelationships, or intercultural ways of sensing, they have just undergone. In this way, many profoundly eloquent testimonies are elicited. For example, one participant described the experience of Displace as “a heavenly dance hall.” [17] Ilinx, too, generated some particularly profound epiphanies in relationship to multimodality and the sense of time, with one participant claiming that the installation “was the most time accelerated experience I have ever lived through . . . without having to have a car crash.” Still other participants described their attempts to make sense of “profoundly” out-of-sync acoustic, visual, and tactile “signals” as one marked by “threshold experiences,” “moving between different dimensions,” the moments “after death,” or even, in the case of one Japanese participant, the Buddhist experience of “nothingness.” [18] The insights gleaned from these ethnographically influenced interviews are in turn less used for reporting on the truth claims of what might or might not have happened within the participant’s perceptual and emotional experience. Instead, they are seen as generative tools and incorporated into the design of subsequent iterations of the environments in an on-going effort to unseat common sense assumptions about the bounds of sense.


  1. David Howes, Introduction: “To Summon All the Senses,” in The Varieties of Sensory Experience, ed. David Howes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).
  2. Constance Classen, “Foundations for an Anthropology of the Senses,” International Social Science Journal 49 (1997): 401-412.
  3. Antonia Mills, ed., “Hang Onto These Words”: Johnny David’s Delgamuukw Evidence (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 3.
  4. Wilhelm H.I. Bleek and Lucy C. Lloyd, “Bushman Presentiments,” in The Sixth Sense Reader, ed. David Howes (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2009), 95.
  5. Valentine Daniel, “The Pulse as Icon in Siddha Medicine,” in The Varieties of Sensory Experience, ed. David Howes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 100–110.
  6. Thomas Csordas, “Somatic Modes of Attention,” Cultural Anthropology 8, no. 2 (1993): 135–56.
  7. Misty Harris, “Survey finds Canadians increasingly out of touch,” National Post, September 27, 2005.
  8. Apple Watch website, accessed April 10, 2015,
  9. Caroline Jones, Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology and Contemporary Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).
  10. Madeline Schwartzman, See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2011).
  11. Chris Salter, Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).
  12. Chris Salter, Alien Agency: Experimental Encounters with Art in the Making (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
  13. Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright, eds., Anthropology and Art Practice (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
  14. Salter, Alien Agency.
  15. Eugen Gendlin, Focusing (New York: Bantam, 1982).
  16. Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games (Champaign-Urbana: University of Ilinois Press, 2011).
  17. Exit Interviews, Displace, Montreal, Canada, November 2011.
  18. Exit Interviews, Ilinx, The Hague, Netherlands, September 23, 2014, and Berlin, Germany, January 31, 2015.


David Howes is Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He holds three degrees in anthropology and two degrees in law. His main fields of research include sensory anthropology, multisensory aesthetics, culture and consumption, constitutional studies, and the anthropology of law. He has conducted field research on the cultural life of the senses in the Middle Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, Northwestern Argentina, and the Southwestern United States. He is currently collaborating with new media artist Christopher Salter on a project called “Sensory Entanglements” and also directing a project on “Law and the Regulation of Sensation,” both funded by the the SSHRC. His latest publications include Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (co-authored with Constance Classen) and the edited collection A Cultural History of the Senses in the Modern Age, 1920-2000.

Chris Salter is an artist, University Research Chair in New Media, Technology and the Senses at Concordia University and Co-Director of the Hexagram network for Research-Creation in Media Arts, Design, Technology and Digital Culture, in Montreal. He studied philosophy and economics at Emory University and completed a PhD in directing and dramatic criticism at Stanford University where he also researched and studied at CCMRA. He collaborated with Peter Sellars and William Forsythe and the Frankfurt Ballet. His work has been seen all over the world at such venues as the Venice Architecture Biennale, Vitra Design Museum, HAU-Berlin, BIAN 2014 (Montreal), LABoral, Lille 3000, CTM Berlin, National Art Museum of China, Ars Electronica, Villette Numerique, Todays Art, Mois Multi, Transmediale, EXIT Festival (Maison des Arts, Creteil-Paris) among many others. He is the author of Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance (MIT Press, 2010) and Alien Agency: Experimental Encounters with Art in the Making (MIT Press, 2015).