Janine Antoni, Mortar & Pestle (1999), C-Print

I would like to argue that these two pieces by Hanneline Rogeberg and Janine Antoni not only depict the convergence of the aesthetic with the synesthetic but also demonstrate the historical transformation of the convergence itself. That is, it is not only a matter of how artists have aestheticized synesthetic experience (as in reducing it to a rhetorical ploy) but also how this process has been changed by developments in neuroscience which in turn have altered our concept of how a symptomology of perception operates.

Artists have long converted synesthetic experience into a series of well-traveled tropes. Like Freud, they novelized the psychological. Starting in the 19th century with the Romanticist notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, aesthetic theory incorporated synesthesia as one way to bolster the claim to totality. The artwork becomes a “multisensory joining,” part of an overall sensory organization (hence an attraction to anything that defied the logic of sense-integration). An algorithm that translated one sense to another, and each part to the celibate bachelor’s brain (culminating in Robocop’s first seizure).

Hanneline Rogeberg, Tongue Audit (1997), oil on canvas.

One could say that the artwork became a means to test neurological biases, synesthesia being only one of many “conditions” that proved irresistible to the ever-expanding domain of what constituted artistic inquiry. Neurologic turned machinic biases manifest themselves in devices such as Scriabin’s Tastiera per Luce (a light machine to accompany musical performances) or Huysman’s description of a scent-activated organ. As art converted the scientific into the anecdotal, the 19th century emergence of neurobiology converted an anecdotally complex phenomenon such as synesthesia into the engine of perception. Art and science conjoined by a synesthetic scheme, where the limits of perception could be contested.

In Rogeberg’s Tongue Audit (1997-98) and Antoni’s Mortar and Pestle (1999) we initially react to a series of potentially synesthetic poses (a woman sticking her tongue into another woman’s nose, a man giving new meaning to the term “eye contact” as his tongue touches a woman’s iris). We are given a set of perceptual elements that startle us with possibly threatening recombinatory effects: tasting shapes, sniffing a patch of color, smell-triggered tactility, like hungry lab assistants we sample the skin or membrane that constitutes vision. The home sensorium is suddenly faced with innumerable additions or decks. Taste triggers an architecture that ripples into outer space. The tongue probe activates an ectopic and orbitory free fall. We are on the brink of an infinite novelization. And it is here that I would like to, well, zoom in. I think we see another breach so to speak. Where the art part begins to spiral out and breaks apart the scientific angle. These pictures invert, in the same way that synesthesia inverts, the relation between emotion and reason in how perception operates. They depict a new way of understanding perception; expanding a cognitive-driven system that privileged the role of the neocortex to include the limbic. That is, they reinforce the importance of noetic (knowledge that is experienced directly) experience in the formation of our ability to perceive the outside world. Like synesthesia, the pictures elevate the experiential basis of knowledge. We move from a world of negative deficits to one of positive errors. We move from the third-person of pseudo-scientific narrative to the primacy of first-hand observation (I would like to say “hands-on” but it looks more “tongue-driven”). Clinical observation wins out and drives the theory rather than the reverse. Contextual rather than computational probing. A conventional rendering irrupts the conventions of how we are supposed to see (and from the very start, synesthesia has always very simply questioned the presumptuousness of privileging or organizing one sense over the other). We are given permission to disrupt a homeostatic concept of perception with its equal distribution between efferent and afferent flows and counterflows (mathematical Protestantism). Here, a certain anxiety creeps into the certainty of the probe, the cocky investigator is suddenly not so sure about the rigor of his paradigm as it collapses into statistical chaos. The bristling, gladiator-like hairs lining the nostrils, the slimy surface of the iris as it retracts into an ecstatic trance perhaps induced by a spooky, absent-minded organist. Well, the whole lab has begun to smell a little skanky. Not quite a Clinique counter or the dreary bleakness of a Helmut Lang boutique (with their compensatory glamorization of the “look” of clinicality which is so often mirrored by art entranced by the look of a presumed criticality). The skin wall, like the iris, is opaque not transparent. It has the density and complexity of the neural tissue of a six-year-old’s brain as it straddles the world between speaking and reading, before cognitive biases begin to map out and cordon off the Big Organ with the Big Stick and suddenly no more Big Bird. The seamlessness of the surface and, by extension, of sight, is now not so seemingly. The imperfections begin to mount. We can literally taste them. The beloved model, the site of such fierce investigation, threatens to slip back into a subjectivity we can never fully own. Our audit belies the ambiguity of tasting forbidden fruit: the beloved’s retraction into alien mode makes it impossible to resolve the initial launch. The ideal of sensory fusion seems threatened by the aching futility of a research project without end. We desire to make eye contact and yet fear being murdered by a loud wink or a carelessly worded sneeze.