At the quirky and ever-interesting Post Design Festival, Wang Söderström gave a thought-provoking talk last Saturday about their visual practice as a way to rediscover other senses than the visual. As paradoxical as it may sound, their primarily 3D-rendered, image-based, vivid design practice aims to make their designs come alive to such a degree that it stimulates sensations of touch, smell and hearing. They called this synesthesia – the experience of how one sensory input can stimulate other senses.

For Wang Söderström, the rise of the digital has led to an extreme dominance of the eye over the hand – of visual stimuli over other sensory stimuli. However, knowingly or not, they inscribe themselves in a long tradition questioning the visual sensory dominance, joining other heavyweights like, for example, Juhaani Pallasmaa (The Eyes of the Skin) or Luis Buñuel (Un Chien Andalou). The common critique of sight is that it is distancing and intellectualizing – dissecting and categorizing rather than connecting and relating. And in this way, the visual overload of today creates an implied poetics of modernity: Severing us from reality, making everything into objects for our eyes rather than reciprocal relations between I and Other. 

Therefore, Wang Söderström’s work is significant and exciting. Their idea of synesthesia is lovely because one aspect of synesthesia is that the secondary sensation is the one people remember the most. So, the idea of combatting the visual through visual practice is not as far-fetched as it may sound.  

I argue, however, that although what they do is very interesting, they are doing it the wrong way. They are creating a 3D-graphical universe with strange voluptuous forms in an almost hyperreal fashion, trying to make it so real and tangible that it becomes a synesthetic sensation. The problem with the realism approach is that it will always be a mere copy of the real, and therefore it also becomes a semblance of the real sensations. However real the 3D-rendered vase may seem, it is no substitute for the actual object, neither visually nor as stimulating other senses.

I would argue that the access to the real (which is what we are striving for here) does not go through a practice of realism since this will always be unreal – at best, an approximation, an image of the real. Instead, we need a vocabulary focusing on design and art as a performative practice: As something that creates effects, not through imitation, but through creation.

Doing this is all about creating certain relations between the design- or artwork and the user. To do this, we could start by exploring and learning from some of the best, for example, by diving into Pallasmaa’s exploration in the eyes of the Skin or Dorothea von Hantelmann’s How to Do Things with Art, Tarkovsky’s manipulation of time through movement in Mirror or Stalker to create a haptic experience of place; Alfonso Cuarón’s embodied camera in Children of Men; Tino Sehgal’s constructed situations, James Coleman’s work on memory and representation in Box (ahareturnabout).

James Coleman: Box (ahareturnabout)

Design and art should not imitate life but facilitate life itself.