Why Bacon tastes like charcoal, and other things we learned making Tate Sensorium

‘Interior II’, Richard Hamilton, 1964, plus Tate Sensorium visitor exploring a sound and scent landscape. Image c. Tate

Can taste, touch, smell and sound change the way we see art? That was the question we set out to answer with Tate Sensorium, a multi-sensory display featuring four 20th century artworks at Tate Britain.

Creating these sensory landscapes was a new process for us. So what did we learn?

To read up on the show itself, check out the press coverage — Guardian, Wired, WSJ.

Good ideas lie at the end of threads

“Connect the world with art” was the brief for the IK Prize. Its simplicity left a glorious amount of space; we were free to roam, find threads and pull on them, see what lay at the end.

For most of our thinking time we were nowhere near anything multisensory. We had landed on a thought around perception — that in other languages, like Japanese, blue and green aren’t clearly separated, so what does that mean for how people with different backgrounds see different artworks? That led us to means of exploring perception while simultaneously looking at an artwork — and from there, to using the non-visual senses in the gallery.

Make good friends

With the prize awarded, there was one question on our minds: how are we going to make this thing? We would need an exceedingly diverse array of skills; people happy to prototype and experiment together, share thoughts and push their knowledge and talent. We found them in audio specialist Nick Ryan, scent designer Odette Toilette, master chocolatier Paul A Young, the University of Sussex Human Computer Interaction lab led by Dr Marianna Obrist, theatremaker Annette Mees, lighting designer Cis O’Boyle and developers Make Us Proud.

‘Figure in a Landscape’, Francis Bacon, 1945, with charcoal-based chocolates in foreground. Image c. Tate

We express smell in memories

“It’s the smell of my school hall”, said the journalist. Ah, I said — that would be the furniture polish; we’ve recreated that smell, with lemon and beeswax. “No”, he replied earnestly, “it’s my school hall”.

We knew that smell connected very directly with memories in the mind; we deliberately looked to throw memories into the experience of looking at art, something entirely subjective, unique to the viewer. Quite how directly this worked still surprised us once we tried it out with visitors.

Digital needn’t mean screens

Tate Sensorium was full of technology; an Ultrahaptics device emitting tactile ultrasound, Hypersound directional speakers focusing laser beams of sound; biometric wristbands from Empatica, and plenty of other bits and bobs. But other than a short iPad questionnaire completed at the end, there were no screens.

That the concept of “digital” can be unhooked from screens isn’t news, but the two are usually interconnected. But if you don’t need pictures to play games on your iPhone, why would you need a screen in a museum? The world is full of lovely things to look at. Especially if you’re standing in the Tate.

“An exhibition is a room with a plot”

…said Abbott Miller, the Pentagram partner. Bringing on theatre and lighting design skills allowed us to develop that plot: a three-act structure, visitors taken through as a group, driven by timed lighting changes. We conceived of the Sensorium as a place for discovery; visitors discover their own senses, and how they affect their visual perception; introduced at the beginning with application of measurement devices, concluded with a personalised chart of your responses. The Sensorium was a story — it told you about yourself.

Bacon tastes like charcoal (and tea, and salt)

“Less chocolate — right now it’s just too nice. People like it.” Creating a chocolate to sum up a bleak, multi-layered Francis Bacon portrait wasn’t going to be easy, but we all knew it couldn’t be a strawberry cream. Paul A Young, master chocolatier and the team’s taste specialist, had to go against his better instincts to create something that conveyed the darkness, the sense of foreboding, the depth and overall Bacon-ness of the painting, Charcoal, lapsang souchang, salt, burnt orange, cacao nibs, and a bit of very dark chocolate went into the solution — and while people didn’t want to eat another one, the feedback was that it did indeed reflect the painting.

Graphs of sweat = great for sharing

At the end of the Sensorium, visitors were handed a chart of their biometrical resposnses. The wristband measured electrodermal activity — detecting arousal, through perspiration — and the results created a radial chart.

While we thought this would be interesting, we weren’t expecting what was essentially a graph of sweat to be something that people shared. Yet dozens photographed their charts and shared on social networks. We could have seen this coming: tell people about themselves and they’ll want to tell their friends — it’s the same principle as the “What Star Wars Character Are You?” Buzzfeed quizzes. Only with sweat, and art.