Synaesthesia and New Media 1900

My dissertation project has the working title Synaesthesia and New Media 1900 and deals with the phenomenon of synaesthesia as a response of artists, poets and musicians to the new organization of the sensorial spectra taking place with new media technologies such as phonograph and film. 

The notion of synaesthesia arises in the late 19th century both as a clinical term, investigated in the experimental physics of for example Hermann von Helmholtz and Wilhelm Wundt, and simultaneously as an aesthetic ideal among artists. The idea that one sense could activate another, as when composer Alexander Scriabin claims that the note C is undoubtly yellow, reveals a systematic approach to reorganizing sensorial perception. Other examples include the visual music by Wassily Kandinsky and Frantisek Kupka, the aesthetic investigations made by composer (and painter) Arnold Schönberg, the poetic and artistic practices of french symbolists Stephane Mallarmé and Odilon Redon, as well as the less known poet Rene Ghil, the reciprocal musical and artistic practices of M.K Ciurlionis and the cinematographic experiments of Soviet film maker Sergei Eisenstien.

In all of these examples, which I study not as seperate art forms but in clusters as dealing with the reorganization of the senses, the formations around this new notion came to have an impact on aesthetic history. The actual, physical formations where artists met and collaborated around notions of synaesthesia and related concepts are also of great importance. These sites include the spiritistic salon, Salon de la Rose + Croix, held by Joséphin Péladan, which was an important platform for many symbolist artists and poets.

When we today face new reorganizations of the sensorial with the advent of digitization, I find it crucial to study historical examples of how aesthetic practices have dealt with the sensorial in particular ways, so as to understand the current transformations within a longer perspective of aesthetic and media history. The question of the organization of the senses has been investigated throughout aesthetic history in a number of ways, but what interests me with the synaesthetic practices around 1900 is the way these questions are delt with; the experimental practices leading up to systematic reorganisations of the sensorial spectra, where separate artists make universal claims to the perceptions of the masses.

The synaesthetic practices around 1900 can be seen as a further development of the reactions against the Kantian meaning based knowledge culture brought to the fore by the romantic aesthetic practices of Novalis, Schiller and Goethe amongst others. The aesthetic pratictices I study deny the clear boundaries between science and culture at large, as well as the divisions between the art forms.  

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