Mediations of Sensation: Sensory Anthropology and the Creation/Evaluation of Multimodal Interactive Environments (2010-2013) 

Team Members 

Principal Investigator

Chris Salter, Design and Computation Arts, Concordia University 


David Howes, Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University 

Brief Project Description 

Mediations of Sensation is a research-creation program bringing together artistic work in “multimodal” (many senses) environments using new technologies with anthropological research into the varieties of human sense experience across cultures. The main objective is to explore techniques of the senses found in non-Western cultural contexts and use these as creative, cross-cultural frameworks to inform the design and evaluation of user experience in sensorially compelling immersive environments with new digital media.

      The artistic design, development and ethnographic evaluation of the project components will be informed by interdisciplinary collaboration with Concordia anthropologist Dr. David Howes, an internationally recognized expert in the emergent field of sensory anthropology and director of the Concordia Sensoria Research Team (CONSERT).

      Artistically, Mediations of Sensation will produce a physically enclosed, portable architectural chamber that houses a single visitor for a specific duration of time. This chamber will play with a wide range of sensory phenomena specifically bordering on the just noticeable difference or threshold of human sense perception including sound, smell, sight, taste, touch, temperature, pressure and various kinesthetic (bodily) sensations such as proprioception (the sense of the relative position of the neighboring parts of one’s own body), balance and locomotion. Electronic sensor technologies that monitor body movement, temperature, humidity, sound and light levels in the chamber will continually modulate the intensity of extraordinarily low levels of sensory phenomena between the visitor and the chamber’s environment. These “threshold” levels of sensation will thus seek to merge the visitors’ sense of vision, hearing, touch, smell and space in diverse combinations, creating a powerful, immersive experience that transforms the sensory experience of body and self.

      In order to inform the architectural and sensory programming of the chamber, as well as the evaluation of visitor experience in the chamber, this project will draw on ethnographic techniques in sensory anthropology. Sensory anthropology is dedicated to charting the varieties of sensory experience across cultures through in-depth investigation of the distinctive ways in which the senses are socialized in different cultural settings. Every culture has its own modes of distinguishing and combining the senses. These “ways of sensing” give shape to the normative patterns of experience in that culture. A typology of differing sensory formations has been developed by members of the CONSERT team over the past two decades. This research database will be extended and refined in the course of this project, as well as mined for models that can serve as templates for the modulation of sensation in the chamber. Following their experience of the chamber, visitors will in turn be interviewed by the anthropological members of the team to explore the intersensory, intercultural ground of sense experience itself.

      The project cuts to the heart of research-creation by bringing together the embodied practices of artistic production with research techniques and methodologies from the social sciences for both creation and evaluation. Outcomes will include: (1) the series of installations that will be shown in both international fine and performing arts venues as well as technological and social science/humanities-based research contexts, (2) submission of journal articles conference papers and publications between the areas of media art, perception, science studies and anthropology (sensory studies), (3) ethnographic heuristics that benefit both the development of new sensory-activated immersive environments and anthropologists examining the senses, and (4) workshops with graduate and undergraduate students that interweave sensory ethnography, anthropology, architecture and the digital arts. 

Objectives/Questions of Research/Creation 

Mediations of Sensation will:

  • Expand the possibilities of sensory knowledge experience in the growing discipline and practice of the new media arts.
  • Create a dialogue between sensory anthropology, neuropsychology and artistic research-creation.
  • Directly inform the sensory design of new technological environments through sensory knowledge that derives from non-Western cultural perspectives on the senses and goes beyond the conventional Western five senses model.
  • Enable research into multi-modal, interactive environments with humanities/social science-based research rather than strictly engineering-based, technology research as is the usual case with new media art projects.
  • Expose future new media artists/technologists to the research methods of the social sciences – particularly ethnographic methods – and anthropologists to the practices of new media artists working with sensory phenomena.
  • Bring artists and anthropologists together inside the context of the artistic studio-lab setting to explore new settings for embodied knowledge production through the senses.
  • Research and develop qualitative methods for how to understand and evaluate user experience in complex, multi-sensory environments that is not based on psychological measurements but direct first person experience.
  • Train a new generation of artist researchers to negotiate between theory and practice, emerging new art forms and emerging social science paradigms like the anthropology of the senses.


    The Mediations of Sensation project is funded by a grant from the Fonds Quebecois de Recherche en Science et Cultures..