A hand near a still fan

All stills from Daria Martin, Sensorium Tests, 2012

Mirror-Touch: Empathy, Spectatorship and Synaesthesia is a research project led by Daria Martin, artist-filmmaker and University of Oxford lecturer, in conjunction with leading neuroscientists, and film and art theorists. Supported by a Leverhulme Trust International Network grant and an Arts and Humanities Research Council Mid Career Fellowship, the project investigates mirror-touch synaesthesia, a recently discovered, deeply resonant neurological condition, and its implications for art and the spectatorship of art. People with mirror-touch synaesthesia respond to touch that is seen out in the world- applied to other bodies or even to objects- by feeling a corresponding touch on their own bodies. A televised image of an actor’s face struck on the cheek might feel like a slap at home; witnessing a caress to an elongated sculpture might evoke the sensation of stretching limbs; watching the stroking of iron railings might manifest as a tingling of the ribs. Uniting the Network’s investigations is the central question of how we look at and relate to cultural objects- artworks, films- and how mirror-touch offers provocative new perspectives on the relationship between the social and the visual.

Working in a long tradition of artistic questions inspired by synaesthesia (the crossing of the senses), the activities of the Network draw upon first-hand accounts by mirror-touch synaesthetes, the neuroscientific foundations of the condition, and contemporary art practice and theory, in order to examine questions about cultural encounters. What does mirror-touch tell us about embodied responses to art objects, films and performance?  In what ways might mirror-touch inspire debates about the ethics of cultural participation? And can mirror-touch become the basis of a new politics of art perception?

These questions were discussed at a public symposium at Tate Modern, London on 7 & 8 February 2014. Organised in collaboration between Tate’s public Programmes team and the Ruskin School of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, the symposium considered how mirror-touch can model an interactive, sensitised way of engaging with artworks, film, and performance. Inspired especially by the ways mirror-touch involves a heightening of empathy with the non-figurative, the inanimate  and the ‘other’, the symposium examined the socially catalysing nature of images and art objects. How does mirror-touch suggest the prioritisation of non-literal forms of participation- the cognitive or sensual- in contemporary art-going experience? And how might the exchangeable social and interior worlds of the mirror-touch synaesthete imply that ‘relational aesthetics’ is not the only pathway to political engagement with art? Speakers from neuroscience, art practice and theory, anthropology, and film studies will explore the implications of this fascinating condition, challenging the notion that merely looking is passive, and celebrating the agency of perception.

Thresholds: Mirror-touch Synaesthesia and the Social Life of Art (forthcoming edited volume of essays, supported by an AHRC Fellowship)

In Thresholds mirror-touch synaesthesia provides a lens through which to re-examine contemporary art experience.  Transporting mirror-touch, a social synaesthesia, from its native discipline of neuroscience and introducing it to leading thinkers in other fields, Thresholds, for the first time, explore the powerful potential mirror-touch holds as both a model and metaphor for empathic, reciprocal seeing.

Thresholds brings together newly commissioned essays by prominent neuroscientists, anthropologists, artists, art theorists, curators, film theorists, and philosophers, as well as mirror-touch synaesthetes, and through proximity, and cross-disciplinary dialogue, erodes barriers not only between disciplines but between theory and experience. Essays find common ground not only in quantitative but also qualitative accounts of mirror-touch. Contributors consider how this project provokes a conceptulisation of the vital energy of artworks, which invite us into conversational, co-constitutional forms of spectatorship.

Thresholds critically reconceptualises arguments about the ‘social turn’ in contemporary art that reject the traditional viewer as ‘passive’, expands the possibilities of what we call the ‘participatory’ in contemporary art, and enriches debates around the social agency of perception. In these essays, the blurred thresholds in mirror-touch between sight and touch, and between self and other, are redrawn for an interdisciplinary readership, as newly sensitised boundaries between image and action, art and life.

“Emancipation is the possibility of a spectator’s gaze other than the one that was programmed.”

Jacques Rancière, “Art of the Possible”. 2007