Oxford 2017


The fifth workshop of the Network, on the theme of ‘Multisensory Aesthetics and Cross-Cultural Perspectives’, brought together lead Network partners and their colleagues with expertise in fields spanning Anthropology, Archaeology, Art History, Chinese Art, Cognitive Psychology, Dance Studies, Gastrophysics, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Music and Musicology, Music Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Sociology.

The first day included paired provocations/responses by Charles Spence/ David Howes and Jonna Vuoskoski/Dee Reynolds. On Day 2, the group engaged in a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum store led by Andrew Mills, then a final provocation by Qiao Hu with a response written by Rupert Cox and discussion led by Rachael Dann. We were then joined by Peter Law and Tom Pursey of the creative agency Flying Object who discussed their practice and led a workshop on multisensory practices. Dr. Janice (Qian) Wang, researcher at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory (Oxford) guided us in a wine tasting, before we attended a multisensory dining event catered by chef Jozef Youssef and his Kitchen Theory team. On the final day Charles Spence led a discussion responding to the wine tasting and multisensory dining events. The workshop also included meetings for those contributing to joint publications and forward planning meeting for Workshop 6 and proposed milestones and outcomes. To close the day there was a meeting for those contributing to the paper being written responding to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

On the second day, time was given to discussing the proposed publication on the theme of aesthetic complexity. Following this meeting

On the final morning, the Network Partners met to plan forwards into Workshop 6, publications, of the group. This was followed by a working group session for the complexity joint project and forward planning.




The function of this report is to provide a written account of the proceedings of the fifth workshop of the Leverhulme International Network ‘Aesthetic Enquiry across Disciplines’, held at Somerville College, Oxford University, 11-13 September 2017, that can feed into ongoing Network debates.



This was the fifth in a series of six workshops between September 2015 and April 2018, and the debates and arguments that emerged followed on from the first four workshops.


The information in this report is organized around key workshop areas:

  • The meanings of complexity in the chemical senses: winetasting and multisensory dining
  • Music, rowing and the aesthetics of rhythm
  • Handling museum objects
  • Multisensory aesthetics in Chinese incense culture
  • Multisensory design and the Tate Sensorium
In the chemical senses of smell and taste, what is the relationship between perceived and objective complexity? Can we separate objective judgements from preference?

It’s tempting to think that perceived and objective complexity are linked, but it might be best to separate them. There are two models of perceived complexity: configural, where the component parts retain individuality, and unitary, where the blended elements can no longer be separately distinguished.

How might cultural contexts of complexity challenge some of our given assumptions?

Anthropologists might begin to work with the idea of perceived complexity, considering who is the person doing the perceiving, and accessing different cultural responses. For instance, Indian perceptions of flavour are based around unity and multiplicity, but there is a question about whether in the West the multiplicity has a greater emphasis.

Which attributes are most strongly linked to social drinkers' perception of complexity in a wine? Different wines demonstrate differing approaches; ranging from lots of flavour at once, through a single yet complex note, to changing over time. Can one scale of complexity adequately describe all of this?

In wine drinking, complexity has been correlated with liking, quality, and with the number of flavours that were detected. Liking and quality are independent.

Cultural systems of classification restrict our naturally synaesthesic modeof experiencing the world, and experiences may depend on the existence of terms and languages to describe them.

What is the significance of food plating?

Food plating can de-familiarise something, point something out. The multisensory experience of art blends with the wider historical context and creates an experience. This can create tension and problematize normative judgements.

How is rhythm in rowing linked to rhythm in music?

When listening to music, we use our motor system to make sense of rhythmic patterns. In rowing, prediction and sensorimotor integration are key to finding ‘good’ rhythm, which in turn leads to flow states, associated with increased efficiency and also pleasure. Also, synchronised behaviour is connected with social bonding and co-operation. Kinesthesia engages the motor system and involves awareness of motion, whether real or simulated. Different art forms and cultures have developed codes and crafts for producing this physical knowledge.

How would participants react to viewing and handling a selection of objects from the Pitt Rivers Museum collection without prior contextualising information, and how would this experience be affected by explanation of their origin, purpose and details of their acquisition?

Perceptions of quality and value in these material culture objects echoed the previous day’s conversations considering the cultural status of different materials. Connections were made between translucent, iridescent materials and transcendent qualities which the objects made from these were thought to embody. However, contextual knowledge also provided crucial in shaping perception. For instance, the Tibetan skull was intended to remove attachment to materiality in that culture through being faced with the finality of mortality through these object remains.

What was the significance of olfactory imagination in ancient China?

Incense burning was a key practice for scholars in ancient China. The physical methods, including the tools and the spaces where incense was used were described and the temperature of the ashes, metal plate and the eventual lighting of the wood were shown as a process leading to the eventual releasing of the fragrance. Incense thereby involved embodied technology and also temporality in a multisensory practice.

In the Tate Sensorium, how were multisensory landscapes created as installations around selected paintings and what were their effects?

The project drew on multisensory and haptic techniques that are already well understood in the design and corporate landscape. Selected paintings were chosen for ‘hacking’ by multisensory techniques and technologies including:

  • ‘ultra haptics’, turning wavelengths into a tangible interference pattern which could be felt and touched;
  • sound through quadrophonic speakers, headphones and directional speaker set ups

For example, Figure in a Landscapeby Francis Bacon, 1945. This involved visitors biting into chocolate that appeared to be normal; however, on biting into it, they were met with the sensation on the palette of dry dust made out of dark chocolate itself, but also charcoal, lapsang souchong tea (flavours of smoked tea, cacao nibs, ground down salt, and burnt orange.) Orange flowers are featured in the background of the painting. As the taste developed this shifted into salt and sweetness. Visitors correlated certain tastes with bringing out colours or qualities in the painting (dust causing the black to throb for example). Binaural sound recording gave an audio atmosphere of Hyde Park, and factories of the 1940s.

Flying Object acknowledged the need to avoid creating a ‘theme park’  – including too much technology and sensory aspects would risk of detracting from the work itself, so they constantly needed to take care to step back and check this wasn’t happening.


In this workshop we made considerable progress in both widening and deepening our exploration of ways of approaching aesthetics through sensory practices across different disciplines and cultures. There was a strong focus on senses other than the visual, notably taste and smell, that has arisen from looking at practices that fall outside Western categories of ‘high art’, to encompass everyday life and also commercial considerations of taste and design. Some activities cannot neatly be categorised in terms of ‘everyday’ or ‘aesthetic’.

We also made progress with publication projects and plans.


1) We need to take forward the debates on the boundaries of the aesthetic and the relationship between the aesthetics of art and that of the everyday.  We shall put artistic practice at the centre of the programme for Workshop 6, as a form of ‘provocation’.  This will enable us to explore what the perspectives of practitioners and their knowledge of the process of making art works can bring to our understanding of aesthetics.

2) We need to discuss practical ways in which we can continue our collaboration in order to bring to fruition the publication projects which are still in process.

3) We should devote some energy to working out the best ways to communicate to the wider academic community what we have achieved and the useful insights into such collaboration that we can contribute, and also identify possible questions and topics that we could pass on to other groups of researchers for future exploration.