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The Senses and Society

ISSN: 1745-8927 (Print) 1745-8935 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rfss20

Tate Sensorium: an experiment in multisensory


immersive design

Tom Pursey & David Lomas

To cite this article: Tom Pursey & David Lomas (2018) Tate Sensorium: an experiment
in multisensory immersive design, The Senses and Society, 13:3, 354-366, DOI:
10.1080/17458927.2018.1516026

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17458927.2018.1516026

Published online: 13 Nov 2018.

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THE SENSES AND SOCIETY
2018, VOL. 13, NO. 3, 354–366
https://doi.org/10.1080/17458927.2018.1516026

SENSORY DESIGN REVIEW

Tate Sensorium: an experiment in multisensory immersive


design
Tom Purseya, with David Lomasb
a
Flying Object, London, UK; bArt History, University of Manchester, UK

ABSTRACT KEYWORDS
“Tate Sensorium” was a project by creative partnership Flying Object at Experience; virtuality;
Tate Britain in 2015 that explored experimentally the scope for enhan- modernism; opticality;
cing the experience of visual art by the addition of sounds, taste, touch multisensory
and smell. As discussed by Tom Pursey, co-creator of “Tate Sensorium”,
four major works were chosen from Tate Britain’s collection.
Introducing new technologies from the field of virtual reality, “Tate
Sensorium” aimed to produce an experience for museum goers that
was immersive rather than detached, and that by engaging all the
senses (not just vision) was more vivid and more memorable. Lomas’s
response contextualizes the intervention within the growth of an
experience economy, and through a close focus on Francis Bacon’s
Figure in a Landscape (1945), assesses from an art historical point of
view the merits and potential pitfalls of this salutary and timely chal-
lenge to Modernism’s “pure opticality”.

What happens if we bring additional sensory stimuli into a gallery or museum space? How
might these touch, taste, sound, and smell provocations change how a visitor engages with,
responds or reacts to exhibited artworks? And what kind of audiences would this kind of
exhibition draw?
Tate Sensorium was developed to answer these questions. Conceived and designed by
Flying Object, a creative agency based in London, Tate Sensorium was the winner of Tate’s IK
Prize 2015, awarded for ideas that use technology in innovative ways to enable visitors to
connect to art (Figure 1). Four artworks from the Tate collection, all twentieth century British
paintings, were individually presented to visitors as multisensory installations, in which sound,
smell, taste and touch stimuli contextualized the works and stimulated (we hoped) greater
connection and understanding. In this essay I’ll share the inspiration for the exhibition, detail
the individual sensory installations, and discuss where next for these learnings and
technologies.

The potential of the senses and multisensory design


Human beings are fundamentally multisensory. Through the work of academics such as
Charles Spence and the Oxford Crossmodal Research Lab (https://www.psy.ox.ac.uk/
research/crossmodal-research-laboratory), we now have an understanding of sensory percep-
tion that teaches us that individual stimuli perceived by one sense, such as hearing, can have

CONTACT David Lomas david.c.lomas@manchester.ac.uk


© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
THE SENSES AND SOCIETY 355

Figure 1. Installation shot of the IK Prize: Tate Sensorium at Tate Britain with Francis Bacon’s
Figure in a Landscape (1945). The viewer is wearing headphones and eating chocolate. (Photo
courtesy of Tate Photography).
an effect on or even be transferred to another sense, such as taste. Designers working in the
nonvisual senses, such as the chef and restaurateur Heston Blumenthal, have built on this
understanding to create immersive experiences that employ the full range of senses to
heighten and intensify a core sensory perception. Blumenthal’s famous dish from his restau-
rant The Fat Duck, Sound of the Sea, involves listening to such a sound through headphones
while eating a seafood dish that itself looks like a wave crashing on a beach. By aligning these
visual and audio stimuli with the sensory experience of eating (itself a taste, smell, and touch –
textural – experience), Blumenthal creates a dish that is richer, more intense, and more
rewarding for the diner.
We could call what Heston Blumenthal practices – and what we wanted to bring to the
museum through Tate Sensorium – “multisensory immersive design.” Before we go on, it’s
worth breaking this apart to understand each component section: the use of the non-visual
senses in design, and the hunt for immersion.
Using non-visual senses in design is, of course, nothing new. Town planners use tactile
elements like bumps on the pavement to guide the blind and partially-sighted to traffic
crossings, for example. But what is more interesting to us is the way that using the non-visual
senses can create responses which visual design can’t. Smell, for example, stimulates memory,
and in our modern, sterilized world can cut through the thousands of visual messages shown
to us every day. The high street store Lush makes its presence felt above and beyond its
neighbors by having a strong, instantly recognizable smell; cinemas might circulate the smell
of popcorn outside their doors to tempt in passersby with memories of great films they’ve
watched. Sound design can help bring something to life or make it seem more real or true. The
sound of a car door closing is a designed sound: on the Mercedes G-Class (large, SUV models), it
will be a deeper sound than on a smaller coupé to reflect or authenticate the larger car’s
weightier, sturdier-seeming form. Or consider a nature documentary, in which the usually
inaudible sounds of insects scampering across the forest floor will be reimagined, through
Foley sound design using recordings of entirely different and often unexpected materials, in
order to “bring the scene to life” – despite being technically less accurate.
Meanwhile, a trend in experience design (and the many disciplines that try to create
experiences, such as store design or the design of video games) has been a desire to create
356 T. PURSEY, D. LOMAS

“immersion” – a deep involvement in that thing, a feeling of being “in it.” Virtual reality strives
to create immersion, with new technology able to depict a world viewable from every angle in
high definition, and track movements in such a way to allow full exploration of this world.
Immersive audio formats which achieve the same end, such as binaural audio, complement
this visual experience and, again, make it feel more “real.” Designers and technologists are now
pushing further to involve more of the senses, including hand-held devices or “rumble packs”
strapped to the torso that provide haptic feedback. One group of artists and technologists who
have been particularly active in the VR sphere, Marshmallow Laser Feast, created a VR
experience – In The Eyes of the Animal – intended to show visitors how animals in a forest
perceived; they then staged the experience in a forest, in order that visitors benefit from the
sensory elements of the landscape (the damp, the smell) while looking through the VR
headset, thus increasing the immersion. (http://iteota.com/experience/welcome-to-the-forest)
Examples of multi sensory immersive design can be found in disciplines as seemingly
distant as retail design and theater. But prevalent as they are, a true multisensory experience
cannot be effectively digitized and transmitted – one can only experience the fare of The Fat
Duck in person. As our visual and auditory culture becomes ever more easily accessible
through the web, these experiences carry an authenticity that is itself scarce, and increasingly
in demand.

Multisensory design and the art museum


Tate Sensorium was the result of the IK Prize, a £70k prize commission inviting ideas from the
creative and technology sectors with the goal to “connect the world with art from the Tate
collection,” in ways that use technology. A lot of digital technology is screen-based; but, we
reasoned, an art museum contains sufficient things to look at as it is – indeed, looking at
something that isn’t a screen may well be the reason a visitor enters the museum in the first
place. This was the seed of the idea that was to become the Sensorium.
We weren’t the first people to consider the role of multisensory design in the museum
space. In The Multisensory Museum, Nina Levent and Alvaro Pascual-Leone discussed how

We are often taught that we have a series of distributed systems structured according to the
sensory modalities that they process. We talk about a visual system, a somatosensory or tactile
system, an auditory system [. . .] However, internal representation of reality appears to effectively
transcend specific sensory modalities. If this is so, it would imply a multisensory experience of the
world as default. (2014, xv)

But the design of museums seeks to suppress and isolate the senses one from another. The
following rules come from the General Guidelines of the Norman Rockwell Museum (via their
website, https://www.nrm.org/visit/visit-hours-admission/#at-the-museum) – but will be
recognizable to all museum-goers:

“Please do not point too closely or touch works of art, frames, or cases

Please walk.

Eating and drinking. . . are not permitted in the galleries for the safety and care of the art.

Discussion in the galleries is encouraged, please keep voices respectfully low. The Museum
is a place for looking, thinking, and quiet discussion.”
THE SENSES AND SOCIETY 357

We believe that the cross-modal model of perception poses questions about how art
museums and galleries are conventionally designed. The “white cube” paradigm – tall, quiet,
empty rooms, governed by the kind of rules listed above – tries to prioritize looking by
suppressing our other senses: no talking, no eating, neutrality above all else. But this suppres-
sion doesn’t turn our other senses off. Instead, it simply creates a sensory landscape that is
austere, rarefied, difficult and not fun. This may indeed be the right landscape to chose for the
artworks featured – but that doesn’t mean it needs to be the default, turned to whenever an
opportunity to design an exhibit presents itself. And indeed in many nonart museums it isn’t:
some history and science museums in particular have used sensory design for years. Nor was
this the default paradigm historically, in the early museum. On the contrary,
In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, visitors to the Ashmolean and British Museum
would rub, pick up, shake, smell, and even taste the artifacts on display. Other historians have
documented how the restrictions on the senses, which we take for granted today, emerged
gradually, and culminated in only conservators and connoisseurs being permitted to enjoy the
intimate interaction with museum objects that had once been the norm.” (Levent and Pascual-
Leone 2014; xvii referencing Classen 2005; see further Classen 2017)

To sum up our thinking: if the “white cube” concept of gallery design, which suppresses the
nonvisual senses, itself creates sensory perceptions which affect how we look at art, what
would the experience of viewing art feel like if we instead infused the gallery space with
nonvisual sensory stimuli?

Tate Sensorium: an overview of the exhibition


From August to October 2015, the exhibition occupied its own room in Tate Britain, entered
from a gallery forming part of the permanent display (the “Walk Through British Art”
collection). Visitors passed from a light-filled traditional gallery space into a dark room, in
groups of four on timed tickets, where an evolving soundtrack played. They were then
invited to put on biometric wristbands (more details on this element below).
Each artwork was to be viewed for a set time of around 2–3 min, with a gallery assistant
moving the group between the four installations. Each installation, in turn, was walled off from
the others – in part to keep an element of surprise, and in part to avoid the leaking of sound
and scent between spaces. All four visitors would see the first (Hamilton) and last (Bacon)
paintings together, but for the middle two artworks – Latham and Bomberg – the group was
split in two, in order to make the most of the technology we had on hand.
For each artwork we chose a “lead” sense to prioritize the installation around, as well
as 1–2 supporting senses for a full multi-sensory experience. See Design, below, for more
details on how the installations were developed – and you might wish to go on the Tate
Britain website to view the paintings.

Richard Hamilton, Interior II, 1964


Sensory stimuli: led by scent, supported by sound
Hamilton’s work depicts an unlikely room with impossible geometry, made of a mix of
collage and oil paint. A black and white, full-bodied screenprint portrait of the actor
Patricia Knight dominates the scene, taken from a still from the 1949 film Shockproof.
358 T. PURSEY, D. LOMAS

The installation surrounding the work was led by three scent diffusers, placed in
different places around the viewing area and all activated by motion. The first scent
was of wood polish, a direct reference to the parquet flooring depicted in the
painting; the second was a bespoke carnation perfume, referencing the artwork’s
main character (the character’s hair is referred to often in the film). Early hairsprays
often had this carnation scent, also made famous in 1940s female perfume L’air du
Temps, by Nina Ricci. The last scent was a glue smell, to reference the artwork’s
collage process.
Meanwhile, audio design imagined the sounds of heels on the floor, traffic through an
open window, and the scene depicted on the TV in the painting, but with those sounds cut
up (as with the collage process) and reassembled around visitors in a quadraphonic system.
The end result was an experience in which visitors moved around the space, smelling
and listening, and constantly looking at the painting, letting the sounds and smells
influence where they looked, spotting new details or seeing prominent areas in new ways.

John Latham, Full Stop, 1961


Sensory stimuli: led by touch, supported by sound
John Latham’s Full Stop is a huge painting – over 3 m high – depicting a black circle on
an unprimed canvas. The circle was created with spray paint, of interest to the artist as
the smallest way of creating a painting mark (a “quantum of a mark”). This idea of
smallness, together with the name of the work, conflict with the painting’s scale. The
work was partnered with a touch sensation created in mid-air through ultrasound on the
hand, through a device called an ultrahaptics machine; programming and design by Dr.
Marianna Obrist and team at the University of Sussex. This created a sensation of placing
one’s hand into a large area, or over a horizon, before peppering the hand with
individual dots, a reference to the spray paint. Sound (via headphones) was synched
with this and provided a deep, epic, whistling sound, before again reflecting the idea of
small units hitting the canvas.

David Bomberg, In The Hold, c.1913–14


Sensory stimuli: led by sound, supported by smell (and to a lesser extent, touch)
Bomberg’s abstract painting In the Hold depicts the unloading of a ship, but abstracted
through a geometric framework, with a range of colors from dull browns to brighter
blues filling in the resulting triangles. Stood further away from the painting it’s possible
to make out depicted elements, but up close, it is very hard to see past the abstracted
shape and color. To reflect this dual state of seeing, we used directional speakers, to
create thin planes of sound in the space. At the front, heavily abstracted high-pitch
sounds (derived ultimately from cut-outs of perspex in the same shape as the triangles
in the painting, but then intensely processed) presented a hectic soundscape. Nearer the
back, the second plane of sound played off the idea of the docks, with deep sounds of
clanging, horns, etc., themselves somewhat abstracted. At the front was a bespoke
saltshaker (3-D printed, again using triangular patterns) contained high-pitched scents
to bring out the blues, while at the back, deeper scents (in a different bespoke shaker)
brought out browns and ochers.
THE SENSES AND SOCIETY 359

Francis Bacon, Figure in a Landscape, 1945


Sensory stimuli: led by taste, supported by sound, scent, touch (through the texture
of the chocolate)
This early Bacon work depicts a man sitting on a chair in a landscape (modeled on Hyde
Park). The figure’s head is overpainted, quite violently, with black. The painting has been
found to contain dust from Bacon’s studio, apparently thrown or smeared into the
canvas. Here we led with something to eat: on the face of it, a “taste” experience,
although what was offered was also designed to have significant haptic stimuli. A dark
chocolate ball contained a “dust” (mirroring the art historical fact) made of cacao nibs,
salt, burnt orange (reflecting the presence of orange flowers in the background), lapsang
souchong tea (a smokey tea – the smokiness a reference to the artwork’s WW2 time-
frame), and charcoal (to reflect the black). When the chocolate ball was bitten into, the
“dust” filled the mouth with a surprising and unpleasant dryness, before the chocolate
ball then melted and the sweetness came through.
Meanwhile, over headphones, visitors heard sounds relating to the visible metal seat,
the woolen suit, and the park, while an equine scent was circulated, referencing the fact
that, in 1945, Hyde Park contained horses.

Designing Tate Sensorium


Our first decision in designing Tate Sensorium was a simple one: the artwork should
remain front and center. Whatever we did, it shouldn’t distract from key sensory stimuli
in the room – looking at the artwork. Instead the extra stimuli should deepen and
intensify that visual, cognitive, and emotional engagement with that piece.
Each of the four chosen artworks were presented in visual isolation: in dark, separated
spaces, lit so only the painting was visible. Surrounding each was a multisensory installation
designed in response to the painting’s content, process, and contemporary history.
Flying Object recruited a team of sensory specialists to develop each stimulus, as well
as a theater designer and lighting designer to create an atmosphere for the exhibition
overall that would emphasize the role of the senses and put visitors in the mood for a
more sensory exploration of the artworks.
There were three main components of our design approach. First was to find the right
team. We needed specialists in each field, who would be given sufficient freedom to
create great work while keeping to an overall experience design for each work. We
found that team in audio specialist Nick Ryan, scent designer Odette Toilette, master
chocolatier Paul A. Young, Marianna Obrist of the Sussex Computer Human Interaction
Lab at University of Sussex and the human interface designers at Make Us Proud.
Secondly, we needed a process whereby we could learn and iterate; as no one had
experience creating something quite like this before. So we worked through prototypes and
workshops, knocking ideas together quickly and testing them on ourselves before iterating,
and iterating again. A few weeks before launch, we brought friends into the Tate to formally
road-test a practice Sensorium – all gaffer tape and printed-off images of the artworks – which
gave us a huge amount of insight, and led to a series of final amendments.
Lastly, we wanted to design a role for the visitor – a story that cast them as the protagonist.
Our investigations into senses and art led us to realize that employing sensory stimuli and
360 T. PURSEY, D. LOMAS

thinking while engaging with an artwork could create a powerful response, provoking
memories and focusing on details or colors. Our protagonists would be looking at paintings,
but also connecting with their own senses and gaining a better understanding of how their
own perception works.
For this, we employed the talents of interactive theatermaker Annette Mees, who, along
with lighting designer Cis O’Boyle, constructed an experience that played out as a story, and
one which – importantly – groups of visitors would move through in a guided way, one
painting after the next. A beginning (wristbands on) and a mirror ending (wristbands off)
framed a classic “into the woods’ style narrative in which visitors tried strange experiences to
learn both about the art, but also about themselves and their own perceptions. The double
nature of the exhibition could be seen in collision of art and technology; while visitors were
looking at the art, the exhibition – through the biometric wristbands – was looking at them, the
(anonymized) data taken off at the end for analysis by our partners at University of Sussex.
Visitors were given wristbands to measure their biometric responses to the display. At the
end they filled out a simple questionnaire, and by comparing those answers to the biometric
responses, we could present back both a visitor’s cognitive and instinctive reactions. These
were presented on a chart, while the data was immediately converted into a tour of Tate
Britain’s permanent collection tweaked to the paintings that the visitor responded most to.
The result was an art display like no other, framed as a science experiment while, at its core,
offering a deep and immersive engagement with four pieces of twentieth-century painting.
Both press and visitors reacted enthusiastically – deemed “small but mighty” by the Guardian,
the Sensorium received coverage in the Wall Street Journal, across the British press, in le Monde,
Corriere della Sera and beyond. Meanwhile, each tranche of limited, timed tickets was snapped
up immediately on release by visitors queuing for often more than an hour. Tate Sensorium’s
four-week run was extended to six weeks, and all in all 4000 visitors attended (100% capacity).

Some closing thoughts


Technology now allows multisensory design to be experimented with cheaply and quickly, at a
time when audiences, always keen on new experiences, are beginning to demand it. But the
threat of gimmickry will continue to hang over any new form of exhibition design, at least in its
initial forms. So when thinking about the senses in spaces like museums, we would suggest
future practitioners ask themselves the following:

(1) What is our sensory landscape at the moment? There’s no such thing as sensory neutrality.
Are the sounds, smells, textures and – where applicable – tastes of the space you’re looking
at working in support of what you’re trying to convey?
(2) What are you trying to do with the senses? Are you looking for something new and
different, or is there a greater end goal that this practice can help you achieve?
(3) What’s the role of the visitor in this? How will they engage with the overall experience, and
what will they take away from it? How will they easily understand what they have to do?

Whether the result of these questions is an intense multi-sensory experience or simply


an idea for tweaking the audio guide, we hope that thinking with your nose, ears, mouth
and fingertips might challenge the kind of conventions that need challenging.
THE SENSES AND SOCIETY 361

Response: Modern art in the experience economy


David Lomas
“Can taste, touch, smell and sound change the way we ‘see’ art?” “Tate Sensorium,”
winner in 2015 of a prize offered by Tate for innovative technological applications in the
museum, sought to investigate this question by supplementing the visual experience of
painting with tastes, smells, and sounds tailored to the specific artwork and generated
using technologies derived from the burgeoning field of virtual reality. The aim was to
enhance the encounter with the chosen artworks, making it more stimulating and
thereby also more memorable. In responding to this intriguing, and, as I shall hope to
convey, in many respects quite admirable intervention, I feel duty-bound to confess at
the outset that I did not experience it at firsthand.
I have chosen to frame my response around just one of the four paintings that were
selected for the project, Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape (1945).1 Bacon is for
various reasons a challenging test case. It isn’t only that, as Tom Pursey (one of the
masterminds behind “Tate Sensorium”) notes, Bacon is our best painter. Even without
adding a single brushstroke – that really would be controversial – to tamper with an
acknowledged masterpiece, a work marking the emergence of Bacon’s mature style, will
strike some as irreverent, or worse. It’s also that, by common assent, Bacon’s work is said
to mount a brutal assault on the senses, whose effect on a viewing subject is not
infrequently described as overwhelming. What possibly could one hope to achieve
from adding even more sensory input to that?

Virtuality
The technologies employed in “Tate Sensorium” are ones that have been fairly recently
developed in the field of virtual reality (VR) where it is established that the addition of touch,
smell and sound can act in concert with vision to make an experience more immersive and
correspondingly more “real.” The situation that concerns us in “Tate Sensorium” is more of a
hybrid one, since the painting itself really exists, whereas the supplemental stimuli are
artificially produced. Cases of this kind are termed augmented reality (AR). Both these scenar-
ios, VR and AR, produce a degree of uncertainty about reality and illusion, where one stops and
the other begins. One attempt to resolve the conundrum has been to displace the locus of
reality from the external world to the brain, so-called neural realism.
This issue of reality versus illusion is one that bears importantly upon our perception
of works of art. A mimetic account of visual art, according to which the image is deemed
a copy or representation of a model in the real world, judges the picture by its degree of
fidelity to this original. As painting from the nineteenth century onwards gradually cedes
the role of mimesis to photography; however, one finds that illusionism comes to be
frowned upon, and instead the painting is increasingly asserted as having a reality that
properly belongs to it. Even an artist such as Bacon, whose work is categorized as
figurative rather than abstract, consistently plays down the representational or illusio-
nistic function, and by such devices as leaving areas of the canvas completely bare,
exposing the “ground” or material substrate of painting, emphasizes the painting’s
objecthood. (Complicating this somewhat is Bacon’s preference for placing his paintings
362 T. PURSEY, D. LOMAS

behind glass, which to some extent dematerializes the image and encourages the viewer
to look upon it as a window onto a fictive world.) This appears to have presented a
dilemma for the creators of “Tate Sensorium”: whether to place the nonvisual sensory
stimuli in the service of a pictorial illusion or a pictorial fact. In this case, as in the other
three, they appear to have opted to do both. One example of the latter is the dust-like
consistency of the contents of a chocolate that each viewer was encouraged to consume
whilst engaging with the artwork. This alludes to the fact that Bacon is supposed to
have applied actual dust from his studio to reproduce the furry texture of a flannel suit
belonging to the figure denoted in the picture’s title, though it is doubtful whether a
viewer unapprised of this story could be expected to make the link.
The recruitment of additional sensory impressions, and the associations they engen-
der, helps build a story around a picture. It personalizes the encounter; it becomes my
experience. This, it ought to be noted, offends against the Kantian notion of disinterest –
the idea that for judgments of taste to be valid they must be unconditioned by
individual purposes. Whether such disinterested viewing is possible, or even desirable,
is a matter of much debate. Bacon’s risky flaunting of homosexuality, the way he puts his
personal preferences into his painting, is not unconnected with the import of his oeuvre.
The subject of Figure in a Landscape has been identified as Eric Hall, who was Bacon’s
lover at the time and a source of financial support and encouragement for the fledgling
painter. I couldn’t help noticing that “Tate Sensorium” sidestepped this particular
narrative thread, in favor of others less controversial perhaps.
In one specific instance – that of olfaction – extrapolating from a known source for the
picture results in an apparent contradiction with what we see. “Smell,” we’re told, “evokes the
setting, Hyde Park: there’s grass, soil, and an animalic, horse-like scent.” This relates to the fact
that Bacon used a photo of Hall dozing on a bench in Hyde Park as a source image. In the final
painting, the figure itself is largely obliterated by an area of black leaving Hall’s flannel suit as a
hollowed out shell. As for the background, it seems that he substituted another image
altogether, a photograph of an African buffalo from Marius Maxwell’s Stalking Big Game
with a Camera in Equatorial Africa (1924). This appears to be confirmed by the dense wall of
foliage at the back of the painting and the vertical streaks across the whole of the bottom
section, suggestive of long spindly grass, which conceals the lower part of the figure’s right
leg. The arid coloring and harsh light is not at all what you would expect to find in Hyde Park.
Transporting an urban sophisticate in a smart suit from Hyde Park to an African wilderness
is strangely dislocating, but evidently turns on the interchangeability of animals and humans
that Deleuze (2003: 16) identified as a vital animating impulse in Bacon’s oeuvre. Smells
evoking Hyde Park are therefore, strictly speaking, tendentious, but this supposes a one-to-
one connection between the supplemental stimuli and the painting when it may be that a
looser connection, or even none at all, is just as effective at enhancing the experience.
Offering a set of associations via the senses that draw attention to aspects of the
artwork, its content and form, triggering personal memories or narratives in response to
such stimuli, are strategies that afford a handy route in for viewers who may find
modern art baffling and are not equipped with protocols for viewing it. With Bacon,
however, the incitement to narrative is soon frustrated by the expressly non-narrative
character of his painting. Michael Peppiatt, his biographer, reports that Bacon: “reiter-
ated throughout his life that his paintings ‘meant’ nothing, ‘said’ nothing, and that he
himself had nothing to ‘say’” (Peppiatt 1996: 118). Close analysis of Figure in a Landscape
THE SENSES AND SOCIETY 363

reveals evidence of multiple earlier states and of extensive overpainting that has
partially or wholly obscured them. Both the composition and content of the work
underwent drastic, indeed seismic, shifts as it evolved.2 What we see in the final picture
are incomplete vestiges whose connections with each other are largely unexplained.
Any attempt to interpret the work – and the triggering of memories and weaving of
narratives are forms of interpretation – needs to take account of this structure and
acknowledge its own provisionality.
Tate’s online publicity for “Tate Sensorium” makes painting with its sole appeal to the
visual sense sound like a perverse form of sensory deprivation. There is a serious target
for this polemic, namely Clement Greenberg’s modernism with its dogmatic insistence
that art restrict itself to the “purely optical” as the basis of its medium specificity, and in
order to defend art from the encroachments of an insidious capitalist mass culture
(see Greenberg 1993: 85–93). In this respect, “Tate Sensorium” is at one with plenty of
contemporary artists who have sought to defy high Modernism’s elitist asceticism by
smuggling into the “white cube” of the modern art gallery a riotous cacophony of the
senses. While supporting this endeavor, at the same time we ought to note that there
are other definitions of, and arguments for, autonomy, quite apart from Greenberg’s. In
the present, a refusal of sensory gratification as witnessed say in certain kinds of post-
conceptual art work: could that not be a reaction to the fact that as consumers our
senses are mercilessly bombarded by advertisers who try to condition us to believe that
what we crave is yet more sensations?3
There is a danger of over-egging the antagonism between “Tate Sensorium” and the
modernist artworks that were its raw material. We should not forget that the pioneers of
abstract art often appealed to correspondences with the other arts, notably music.
Bacon’s early mentor, the Australian painter Roy de Maistre, produced elaborate color
charts based on supposed analogies with musical notes during the first phase of his
career as an abstract artist in Australia. De Maistre had transformed into a figurative
painter of religious subjects by the time he befriended Bacon in London in the late
1920s, but one wonders whether his theories were ever a subject of discussion with his
protégé. Flat areas of vibrant, often jarring color are one of Bacon’s trademarks and
certainly a factor in the work’s impact. And, if the theory of correspondences has any
truth to it, we must consider the possibility that this sensory input overflows the purely
visual to affect other areas of the brain. The audio that accompanied Bacon’s Figure in a
Landscape in Tate Sensorium is described as “referencing the color palette and the
painting’s visual texture” – it is predicated on analogies in exactly the same manner as
early abstract art. A lot could be said also about potential for haptic and proprioceptive
responses to the painfully contorted bodies isolated against Bacon’s color expanses,
something that empirical studies could perhaps verify.

Experience
We live now in an experience economy where it is said the acquisitive urge has been
replaced for increasing numbers of consumers by a quest for experiences – anything
from a night out at a classy restaurant to an exotic holiday – that create memories that
hopefully endure, long after the likes on Facebook. If proof of this new reality were
needed, there’s even an acronym for it: FOMO meaning “fear of missing out”. Marketing
364 T. PURSEY, D. LOMAS

has latched on to “experience,” with corporate brands vying to make their advertising
more immersive and the experiences they offer to purchasers more memorable. This is
the wider commercial context for a surge of interest in multi-sensory experience. Flying
Object is up front about the fact that it is applying tech and strategies developed in
marketing. Tate, as a highly recognizable brand, may be more sheepish about admitting
that it is following a market-led trend.
Hedonistic accounts of esthetic experience, for example, Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry
(Burke 1757) dovetail quite neatly with the goals of the experience economy, suggesting
that art is no moral high ground from which to disdainfully look down upon today’s
pleasure seekers. More problematic from this point of view perhaps is art that, like
Bacon’s, withholds pleasure or at least offers it only sparingly and alongside a subject
matter that is not at all beautiful or pleasurable to look at. Traditional aesthetics has to
perform a certain amount of acrobatics to show that in art an experience of pain or fear
ultimately conforms to the pleasure principle. Burke does so under the aegis of the
sublime, asserting for instance that the actual or vicarious experience of peering into a
deep ravine from a position of safety is one the subject emerges from invigorated with
its ego strengthened.
By a stroke of genius, “Tate Sensorium” managed to simulate the contradictory
experience of pleasure-unpleasure afforded by Bacon’s painting – of violent or rebarba-
tive subject matter seductively painted – with a chocolate truffle that encased an
unusual concoction of “edible charcoal, sea salt, cacao nibs and smokey lapsang sou-
chong tea [to] bring out the painting’s dark nature” “while a hint of burnt orange
connects to flashes of colour and blue sky.” As the chocolate melts, bitter slowly
transmutes into sweet. One would be hard-pressed to think of a more apt metaphor
for an oeuvre that one bites into expectantly only to gag on bruised, battered flesh
before feasting one’s eyes on painted passages of amazing refinement. And it is
tantalizing, is it not, to think of sado-masochism (reputedly Bacon’s erotic preference)
sublimated in a chocolate offered like a token of love from artist to viewer.4
Bacon described how Figure in a Landscape “started from a straightforward photo,
then this black spread across the canvas.” Situated at the heart of the composition, this
gaping void (whose aperture reminds me of tunnels in the London underground where
Londoners took cover during the bombing raids of the Blitz, still a raw memory when
the picture was painted) becomes in a sense the real subject of the work. The work of
the work is to bring us face-to-face with . . . literally nothing. By making “nothing”
present, as paradoxical as that sounds, the black void opens onto a philosophical
dimension of Bacon’s work. In the essay “What is Metaphysics?,” Heidegger (1978), the
famous philosopher of Being, distinguishes between fear, which generally has an object,
and Angst, a more diffuse anxiety that he says is objectless. It is through Angst that we
become aware of Nothing, which Heidegger goes on to claim grounds the whole field of
metaphysics. What Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape reveals more starkly than the other
pictures in “Tate Sensorium” is an emotional depth and profundity to the experience of
art without which it would be little different to any other enjoyable pastime. Now, I ask
myself: “To add to a void, does that not take away from it, by making of it less of
Nothing and more of something?” Does supplementing Figure in a Landscape with
multi-sensory input rob it precisely of what it uniquely offers: namely, a profoundly
affecting experience of absence or lack? A situation that can be described as the lack of
THE SENSES AND SOCIETY 365

a lack. Happily, this hypothetical objection turns out not to have been borne out in
practice. Tom Pursey reports that: “What people told us was that [the chocolate] really
made the black almost throb.”
At the right of the picture, roughly at the apex of the two cylindrical forms that Bacon
identified as microphones, is a sort of murky fleshiness in the midst of which can be
discerned an open shrieking mouth. This powerfully affecting motif, already adumbrated
in the Three Figures at the Base of a Cross (1945), went on to become Bacon’s trademark in
the famous series of screaming popes. Here, it acts as an adjunct to the black void and
mirrors the inexpressible Angst felt by the viewer. One wonders, might there not be
activation in other areas of the brain when an image like this one gestures so potently
beyond the visual? Aren’t we hard wired to react to a distress signal from another member
of our (or even another) species? Conversely, is there not poignancy in a silent, voiceless
scream that would be lost were an actual cry to be overlaid as an audio recording? I suspect
that the creators of “Tate Sensorium” were wise not to go down that route.
To conclude, it is quite a complicated matter to unpick what’s going on with an
intervention such as “Tate Sensorium,” and doing so is unlikely to change the minds of
those who, on the one hand, believe that multisensory experience is ipso facto a “good
thing,” and definitely superior to vision alone; and, on the other, those for whom
interfering with a picture they see as complete in itself is a mild form of desecration.
How much of the positive outcomes reported by those who took part in the experiment
can be attributed to what science calls the placebo effect is impossible to determine,
though I can’t help thinking that some at least of the benefit reported can be put down
to simply prolonging the duration of the encounter with the artwork. Tom Chatfield, in
his enthusiastic review of “Tate Sensorium,” writes: “Looking at pictures hung in an art
gallery is a more or less knowable, safe and civilised activity. But stand in front of a
picture and stare for long enough, and it starts to get weird” (www.1843magazine.com/
culture/the-daily/a-taste-for-francis-bacon).
A lingering concern I have – one that betrays possibly my own residual modernism – about
the application of technologies derived from VR in the art museum is that it tends inescapably
to promote a virtual experience at the expense of a more genuine one constituted by myself
standing in front of a painting that actually exists in my space.5 Be that as it may, to have
succeeded in luring new youthful audiences to the gallery and introducing them to some great
art – something that would not have occurred without all the paraphernalia and the extra buzz
of an experiment –, that alone in my eyes is enough to justify it.

Notes
1. For a comprehensive overview of what is known about Figure in a Landscape, see the Tate
online catalog entry by Matthew Gale.
2. It is likely, I believe, that Bacon adopted this working method from his close scrutiny of
Picasso’s painting, in which visible pentimenti attest to the radical revisions that images
frequently underwent – an improvisational approach to composition markedly at odds with
an academic procedure where the final picture is fixed in advance.
3. The creation of an immersive, theatrical environment is another respect in which “Tate
Sensorium” can be seen as at odds with Modernism, at least with certain of its theoretical
articulations. Michael Fried, in the influential essay, “Art and Objecthood” (Fried 1967),
contrasts unfavorably what he sees as a pervasive theatricality in much recent art
366 T. PURSEY, D. LOMAS

(he cites chiefly Minimalism, but performance, happenings, and installation art were also
emerging areas of practice at that moment) with what he terms the “self-presence” of the
Modernist work of art, this being another formulation of the notion of autonomy.
4. On Bacon’s sexual preferences, see Michael Peppiatt’s biography (note 2 above).
5. Tellingly, Greenberg (1985 in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” 1939) defines Kitsch in terms
antagonistic to Modernism as precisely “vicarious experience and faked sensations”.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Funding
This work was supported by the Leverhulme Trust [grant number IN-2015-016]

Notes on contributors
Tom Pursey is one of the founders and creative directors at Flying Object, a London-based creative
agency. Flying Object’s work covers content, social and experiences, and includes multi-sensory
exhibition Tate Sensorium; Conduct the Storm, a gesture-based interactive game for Royal
Shakespeare Company; and, Mix the Body, a digital dance platform in partnership with
Company Wayne McGregor for British Council.
David Lomas is Professor of Art History at the University of Manchester. He has published
extensively on surrealism and was co-director of the AHRC Centre for the Study of Surrealism
and its Legacies, a partnership with the University of Essex and Tate Modern. He has curated two
major UK exhibitions of surrealist and contemporary art and, in recent years, has been developing
his own art practice.

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