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Aesthetics, Haptics and Taste

Cheryl Akner Koler

I would like to tell a short story about how a simple sculptural lab I lead a few years ago, totally changed my understanding of touch and haptic perception. It is a story about how a shared haptic experience sculpting clay helped merge two different aesthetic disciplines into a common path bringing form, space, smell and flavour together. It all started during a three year (2009-2012) multi-disciplinary artistic research project called; NanoFormGiving; through haptic aesthetic laborations, funded by the Swedish Research Council. The project was run from the school of hospitality, culinary arts and meal science at campus Grythyttan at Örebro University (ÖU) in collaboration with the department of industrial design at Konstfack* . A major part of the project aimed to develop haptic sensuous knowledge and how haptic experience can feed the creative gestalt process. Around 20 participants from different professions & disciplines were invited to take part in a number of workshops to explore the theme of the project.

I lead the first aesthetic laboration (A-Lab) (Akner Koler 2007) about sculptural haptics. I started by explaining my intentions with the A-Lab and then proceeded by blind-folding the participants and asking them to explore a sequence of basic haptic attributes, like weight, volume, contours, texture etc. (see figure 1). This was done by probing, grasping and shaping an unique modelling clay (Kolb InDeClay) that was warm and pliable when taken from the oven, and gradually cools to a stable shape in room temperature. Midway through this lab we shifted attention from exploring basic level attributes to creatively shaping form. The participants were given two contrasting shapes and were asked to blend the gestalt of these two shapes into a new shape that equally expressed the qualities of both. In the last stage of the A-lab I asked the participants to explore their own current emotional state by translating their felt experience into a physical gestalt in clay.

One key participant in this A-Lab was expert taster, Mischa Billing, whom I only recently met when I started up the NanoForm project at Campus Grythyttan, ÖU. Her work as a taster involved developing a refined inner aesthetic sensitivity of smell and flavor starting with nasal sensation and gradually engaging the entire body. During the lab Mischa came up to me and briefly explained that she was feeling connections between her haptic experience with her hands and what she called her “haptic grip for smell and flavor”. She was beginning to recognize that she engaged her haptic sensitivities as a taster, through her inner membranes of her nose, her mouth, teeth & tongue, and most important her creative and rhythmic way of breathing. After this A-Lab Mischa and I met and she explained with great excitement how she felt a deep connection with her own crafting skills as a taster. As we got to know each other over the years we developed more haptic labs and supported each other in research and teaching at Campus Grythyttan and Konstfack. We also explored ways of developing haptic imagery and shape that helped develop concentration when dealing with the complex gestalt process for both tasting and sculpting. We experimented with temporal haptic imagery that gave coherency to events that happened over time. Mischa’s sense of temporality could best be described when she guided me through a long haptic taste experience of a rich and complex Pol Roger champagne, starting with the ephemeral bursting champagne bubbles in space and ending in the lingering aftertaste of this highly nuanced event.

My challenge was to capture this temporal experience in a sculpture, which I sadly must say, failed to do. Because of the complexity of the taste experience I felt I needed more time to develop a relationship with the nuances I was only starting to recognize. I also realized a spatial installation would give justice to the gestalt of this champagne, a single sculpture was not enough. As we discussed the challenge of creating haptic, temporal and spatial imagery that expressed crucial moments of sensation and release, I began to connect my own ways of working with both sculpture and architecture. The approach I have developed deals with abstract inner structures and movement of form that include hidden forces operating beyond the physical limits of tangible shapes out into space. As I now finish telling this story, I can see how Mischa and I should collaborate on creating a habitat for this amazing taste experience. In this way we could work with the 3-D plurality of space that frames tempo and touch as well as accommodates texture, shape and proportion. We could explore how to compose clearly defined pockets of spaces with dissipating open spaces. We could use the organizing capacity of form and space with all the hidden forces to shape a sequence of taste spaces were you can choose to follow a guide or freely dance within. This merging of architecture, sculpture, taste, shape, tactility and even sound offer an alternative way to learn to fuse our sense experiences together.

Perhaps the above text could be a new point of departure.

I will wrap this up for now, put it in a digital envelope and send this message into the future in hope of bringing the aesthetic disciplines closer together through sharing challenging experiences.

In the autumn of 2014, the Nordic Council of Ministers invited a group of leading players from across the Nordic Region to discuss their visions for the future of Nordic food. This essay formed part of this initiative #Nordicfood2024