Aesthetic experience as experiment: Digital taste, smell, and connection
Erica M. Larson
How are the senses conveyed through digital platforms? This question was initially motivated by my own practical rather than theoretical concerns in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, as I was teaching an anthropology course on Food, Body, and Culture. Early in the semester (in pre-Covid times), I set freshly baked madeleines on a communal platter as we discussed the connections between senses, food, and memory à la Proust. Suddenly, as the course transitioned to the online modality, I felt that the lessons became bland, and found myself searching for tools to convey the kind of aesthetic experiences I had seen as central to the course design. This was further compounded by the fact that baking projects had become my own coping mechanism for dealing with lockdown and that the fruits of these labors (cakes, breads, granola, etc.) were piling up on the counters, unable to serve their original intention: sharing food and community.
Since this experience in early 2020, I have been able to explore these questions in more practical and theoretical depth, both through the Feeling Digital Experiments and as a member of the editorial team for the CoronAsur blog, which has been documenting religious responses to COVID-19 as well as many cases of religious and ritual innovations in cyberspace. These investigations have challenged my assumptions, underscoring that digital and virtual space are not opposed to or outside of the real (Boellstorff 2012). They have also encouraged me to look beyond digital meeting platforms simply in terms of what they lack relative to physical encounters.
As part of the Feeling Digital project, our assembled group was tasked with sharing an aesthetic experience with other group members through a short video. I immediately knew that I wanted to challenge myself to try to convey smell or taste. Yet, living with the circumstances of COVID-19, I found myself relocated to the house of my parents-in-law, no longer with free reign of the kitchen. Instead of producing a video about cooking or baking, I decided to try to communicate aspects of my daily tea ritual experience to my group members.
Brainstorming my approach, I considered ways to use sound and visual cues to convey smell and taste. I selected three teas stored in different colored tins, each with visually different mixtures of tea to help express the variation. I realized that each mixture, from different tea leaves and some with dried fruits and spices mixed in, made a different sound when I pinched the leaves to take them out for brewing.
Figure 1: Colorful tins of tea on my desk (Credit: screenshot from author’s video)
Further leveraging the perspective of the video to my advantage, I held my smartphone in one hand as I filmed, inviting the viewer to see everything from my point of view. One by one, I uncovered each tin, dragging my fingers through the leaves to elicit a distinct sound and lifting each one up near my nose (and the camera) to breathe in and capture the sound of my inhale and exhale. During the entire process, the camera focuses on the tea tins, only capturing my hands to facilitate the viewer’s projection of physical participation in this tactile and sensory experience.
Figure 2: Holding a tin of Earl Grey to inhale the aroma and display the dark color of the tea leaves (credit: screenshot from author’s video)
To my surprise, my group members expressed that the use of sound and sight to convey this aesthetic experience of touching and smelling different teas were effective in evoking a reaction. For example, the video spurred one group member to look in her own tea cabinet, curious about what teas she might have that approximate those shown in the video. Another commented on the impact of the different aspects of sound and visual presentation that helped to spark imagination about what the smell might be like.
Before I become self-congratulatory and entertain delusions about my potential success as an Instagram influencer, it is important to think about why others perceived this quite basic and uneventful video as an aesthetic experience in its own right. Part of the challenge of the experiment was to create a video for an audience with whom I have very little shared experience. Yet, the focal object of tea was able to resonate with several group members who had in common a daily ritual of drinking tea as a comforting and pleasurable experience.
As our entire group reflected on our surprise about the effectiveness of all of our short video productions in conveying sensation and emotion, we also recognized the importance of the willingness of the audience to be transported by the experience. Though we had only spent a total of a few hours together for the purposes of the workshop, the sense of community we had built up was enough to be willing to engage with the videos with a certain vulnerability that was undoubtedly important in their success.
As I sip my green tea from the same cup that is featured in the background of my video, I point to two reflections sparked by this experiment.
1. Synesthetic Potentialities
My initial feeling upon brainstorming my video production strategy was that I would need to collapse a multi-sensory experience to depend only on visual and sonic pathways. In other words, just as when I sought to transition my course online, I felt that the tools I needed to convey taste and smell were simply not available. In times of social distancing, many have also remarked about the lack of ability to hug and to touch one another through the digital platforms which have hosted the majority of the social experiences that many were able to have during this global pandemic.
While this perception on my part was initially related to an assumption about a lack of digital pathways to convey certain sensations, workshop discussions and comments from workshop discussants have convinced me of the importance of framing this not in terms of a lack or a collapse, but in terms of synesthesia. In other words, we can ask about the potentialities of digital structures for tapping into particular cognitive pathways and sensations through those which are most easily conveyed.
2. Digital Affordances
However, in the realization of these synesthetic potentialities, digital affordances do certainly play a central role. What kind of digital infrastructures are available, and how do their parameters both enable and limit the ability to convey sensory experiences and form connections? Our collective experiment offers some initial answers to this, and, particularly when all group videos are considered together, it is possible to see patterns in effectively conveying emotions and sensations: through adding soundtracks, through changing the speed of the video, and through curating lights, color, and sound.
Rather than concluding, I offer a question to consider in the spirit of experimentation:
How might the exercise have been different if we had watched one another’s reactions to the videos in real time, in one another’s digital presence?
For the experiment, we each sent our videos to the group and watched them individually on our own time, recording our reactions in our ethnographic diaries. In doing so, we packaged them not as performances, but as video clips to be “consumed” on our own terms as we might all have the habit of doing on platforms like YouTube. Although our previous interactions were limited to a few hours of workshop meetings together, I consider whether this sense of gathering together digitally might have given a further sense of immediacy to these experiences, giving even more weight to our desire to engage with and be transported by the videos.