How does a lemon sound? No, I’m not offering one; I mean the question very literally, as in how do you imagine the timbre, the pitch, of a lemon? Given the choice, would a lemon scream in a high, shrill voice or rumble like the quake of a bass drum? Go on, think about it.
These kinds of overlapping experiential phenomena are very rare indeed. It is a condition called SYNAESTHESIA that facilitates them, an enhancement of neurological connections thought to exist in anywhere between one in every few hundred or few thousand people. Estimations vary so wildly because the symptoms and their potency follow suit. Shapes, sounds and smells can complement each other in myriad collisions, uncovering dormant synaptic pathways for the unique reality of the synaesthete. Ella Perry, a student doing her Masters in psychology at the University of Liverpool, is intrigued by such possibilities. Ever since flirting with art as an undergrad she’s been keen to find something that shows our creative potential in the steady hands of science. And it isn’t surprising when you look at the roster of famous synaesthetes: Geoffrey Rush, Billy Joel and David Hockney all have the condition, which has been through various periods of research and analysis ever since its acknowledgment by the scientific community in the mid-19th century. “It’s partly to do with our evolution,” she tells me over coffee, a few days before her own experiment is unveiled to the public. “Flavours and environments are definitely interlinked. Some studies suggest that a child’s brain doesn’t compartmentalise information as effectively as an adult’s. What we’re doing will be quite womb-like…”
She’s preparing me for the Synaesthesia Feast, a five-course meal that will be held in Camp and Furnace’s Gold Room. Marketed as a “culinary bombardment of the senses,” the idea has germinated into a fully-fledged collaboration between musicians, visual artists and one very talented chef, all determined to blow the doors of perception wide open and invite diners to a night of self-discovery.
Charged with control of the night’s visual canvas is Jess Doyle: as a DJ and a baker with a background in theatre design she was scouted for the project by Clarry Mowforth, assistant manager at The Kazimier and instrumental in getting everyone on board. Jess describes her style of projections as “vague and cinematic. You can interpret it any way you want; the audience is meant to step through it and it’s really difficult, in fact, to guide people’s attention to certain tastes, sounds and images.” I ask if anything like this has happened before. “There was a DJ in the Netherlands or somewhere,” she says, “that designed sounds with a chef. But nothing in this country that I know of.” For her, the feast represents a playfulness that’s intrinsic to her work ethic; another opportunity to cast off the “dark side” of serious performance in favour of seeing the fun side of life, an outlook numbed by the pressures of our society.
The same can be said of Simon Jones, a member of the Singing Bowl Orchestra and psychedelia enthusiast, who’s due to add his DIY talents to the mix. Paying a visit to his house reveals a grotto of hippy-ish minutiae, scattered rolling papers and a few guys looking quizzically at half a dozen bowls in a garage. Venues have tasked him before with grabbing the public by the throat using ingenious art installations – one of his favourites was a bouncy castle that responded to bounces by changing the feedback loop of accompanying tunes. He finds the instrumental qualities of balloons and combs fascinating and wishes he had synaesthesia, if only to deepen his love for the abstract. “We feel atomised in a way we never have before,” he says of the modern world. “It’s great to analyse yourself and get self-absorbed sometimes. Community vibes are also really precious, though.” It seems this will be both.
The day of the feast arrives. I and around twenty-five others are shepherded up to the chilly banquet table and greeted by attendants in lab coats. There is an atmosphere of expectation covering the room like a cloth. For the starter we are blindfolded and given tempura vegetables seasoned with rosemary and garlic, accompanied by dipping salts. They are crunchy, leaving a strong aftertaste, the salt offsetting the texture of the batter. The music for the first course weaves hypnotically round us, a serene introduction resembling the womb-like intimacy I was promised. Dish number two is all about contrast. A funky bisque sitting alongside a crouton of goat’s cheese and hazelnut pesto. The combination is bitter, even slightly unpleasant, while someone plays discordant chimes on those bowls from the garage. I am aware of every bite, the blindfold removed now, concentration etched on my fellow diners’ faces.
The first experiments into synaesthesia were carried out in the 60s. Since then, interest in the condition has been revived somewhat, thanks in no small part to Oxford University professor Charles Spence, who plied his subjects with beer. I wonder what he’d make of this attempt to simulate sensory correlation in your everyday foodie. Certainly the atmosphere is impressive. Jess’ patterns splash across the walls, shifting with the increasingly darker soundtrack. The flavours are consistently challenging. We have roasted asparagus, porcini mushrooms, some bizarre sour jelly…. As time goes on there emerges a divide between those who chat to allay the strangeness and those who sit silently, looking confused.
The night goes out on a sweet note: macaroons and tea, served on wooden stumps with All We Are’s Richard O’Flynn easing us into a state of geniality through his soundscapes. Apparently there was an issue over the proposed ‘immersive’ box that was meant to surround the table. I catch Ella as people are leaving. “Was it too weird?” she wonders. No, I say. Whether the menus on which we were encouraged to record our experiences yield any synaesthetic results is another matter. For a meal as bewildering as this, we might need a re-run to truly appreciate what mysteries our senses hide. Luckily for us this was merely Project Zero for Synaesthesia Feast, with more sensory experiments promised for the future. Fortunate are we also to have a city populated by those so willing to take chances on performance art, that we might have the perfect environment for picking apart the mind on ever-larger scales.