Journey to the Interior – a multi-sensory, participatory performance and feast
by Monika Parrinder*
“Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jökull of Snæfell, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the Kalends of June, and you will attain the centre of the earth. I did it.” – Jules Verne, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1864
The Journey to the Interior begins through the stone arch of Kensal Green Cemetery. Look sharp! Observe! say two safari-suited guides, as they lead our small and disparate group into the leafy, dishevelled dissenters’ section. We stop at the grave of George Bellas Greenough, founder of the Geological Society, whose map-making poo-pooed the new theories of observational science and learning from fossils. Just like Greenough: accuracy! Nothing must be missed! For our explorations, his mode of ‘noting what I see as I go’ provides a way in.
Scanning the horizon, I compare the shapes and sizes of things. Can you see them? Iguanodons… Hadrasaurus… Over there, a couple of unknowns. Sandbags sprouting weeds… newly painted hieroglyphs on rock… nope, no wotsits. My companion says, “We are all being very obedient. I am not sure how long this can last.” Disbelief must be suspended before our inner journeys can begin. After a while I notice the arms of three stone crosses that I am drawing on my map, and how pleasingly they link to form… Now, feel your feet on the path. Bring your attention to the surface gravel. Bits and pieces; detritus, and stuff. From the crust, through the Lithosphere, it’s only twenty-one minutes in free-fall to the centre of the earth. Imagine layers of London clay, sixty metres thick and six hundred million years old, all compacted with dinosaurs bones and the crushed hope of teachers. I focus my mind down, back, deep, all layers active and at play.
Blind-folded now, seeing is curtailed and then there’s that thicker shroud of darkness that comes from going inside. I shuffle forward, trust in guiding arms, to bottom-on-seat.
Music surrounds me. You are navigating the subterranean sea. This silken voice comes from the side and behind. In anticipation, I wait… soft wisps on my skin… feathers? An aroma; I breathe in. Something is placed in my lap and the journey continues through the tips of my fingers. This is a planet to explore, to take apart. Rough meshed fibres… hessian? Something softer… working to the edges, pulling taught… silk? Cool breeze, warm nostrils. A cold, metal-hard, ball-bearing. I know it’s shiny. You have reached the earth’s core. Around me, warmth; nostrils cooling. In my palms now a new pot, and my thumbs encounter a substance that memory can’t place. I feel again, trying to capture it, but it dissipates. I feel disconcerted. As the pungency – of sulphur? – assaults, a fire-ball image flashes up.
Even as seeing returns, sure-footedness doesn’t. The walls are too close. As I descend the staircase, the flag-stones don’t meet my feet as effortlessly as they should. I have to discipline my body: leg, extend, down; ball of foot; heel; knee and again. My elbow is a lever between hand-rail-brick and shoulders-hips-knees-toes-flagstone.
Down below, chill rises. Through the gloom a series of cavernous alcoves reveal themselves, wreathed in greenery. Low lighting casts shadows. Rocks and weird life forms (potato-people!) are collected on small tables – magnifying glasses supplied. The survey on the surface has been replaced by the forensic looking of the field trip. And yet, I am alive to the must of the air and crumbling brick walls, revealing their innards. As the room expands, my inner voice quietens. I range about, unfocussed, circumnavigating bodies, drawn by distant voices in to other alcoves. In one, pictures and words are projected, flickering and layering. In another, plastic netting, which demarcates ‘the experience’ from ‘not’, invites a peek. There are stacked boxes beyond; worlds within worlds without.
Entering the lab-white-cube of the Dissenters Gallery makes everything strange all over again.
At an easel, a man is drawing the crystalline structures of diamonds in charcoal, both manifestations of carbon. On a make-shift cooker, a woman is heating sugar, molasses and charcoal until it bubbles like magma. As it cools, it hardens and then turns in to honey comb. We are a group again now, testing, tasting, describing. I hear how the sensable translates to the sayable… sugary, gloopy, liquid… crystalline, cracking, crunchy… soft sounds change into hard sounds for hard shapes.
And so to the finale, the feast. There’s the world that is wine-tasting, then starters are served in the crypt. A smear of paste is cupped in what looks like crackling and all together tastes pleasantly umami. But what are they and which sense do I trust? I smell for confirmation. I look for the facial response of others. We confer, but perhaps the answer doesn’t matter. Mushroom paté is plated up on heavy granite sets, surfaced with caramel. I lick… textured fungus… salt… sweet and smooth. The centre of the earth is ingested. And then the surface, where the barbecue main is served outside on hand-fired plates; a sublime landscape. The journey culminates in the Dissenters Chapel, where dessert is served at a table laid with mementos from the journey, but all is transformed. Interacting with us now, the team are curious. Can you tell which planet is yours? My tactile memories won’t reconcile with what I see. What are your thoughts? The experiences won’t fuse in my mind into a unified response.
The event might be, but the journey isn’t over.
Later I think about the way design brings things together. When the full range of senses are added to the visual delights and smooth surfaces of consumption, it is too often a redundant form of direct mapping where different sensorial effects compound the same message. Speeding past, the low growl of the Harley Davidson reinforces its masculine, muscular styling. Walking past the window of a restaurant in London’s Hoxton, I spot the witty neon sign ‘Free Smells’, and its subliminal message ‘hip/knowing’.
Whereas branded experiences so often seek to minimise cognitive disruption, artists, film-makers and writers might celebrate it. Where the multi-modal gives rise to the poetic and the multi-sensual is truly participatory, they are practices of possibility.
The Journey to the Interior stages an encounter between the sensual stimuli of the exterior world and the psychological interior, drawing on memory and giving rise to emotion and imagination. Like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the performance seeks to reveal a more primitive, primal world than that of the surface. As David Howes’ reminds us, we should be careful not to underplay the role of culture, or to imply that perception is personal, internal, a-historical or a-political. In his essay, Hyperesthesia, or The Sensual Logic of Late Capitalism, he shows how consumerism has colonised the senses and sells us back ’the experience’.
And so, one of the important roles of sensual exploration like this, might be to strip back the knowing look.
* Monika Parrinder is a lecturer and writer on design and visual communication – its history, theory and contemporary practice. She is the Critical & Historical Studies Liaison Tutor for the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art. She has co-authored Limited Language: Rewriting Design – Responding to a Feedback Culture(Birkhäuser, 2010). She is interested in the way processes from within design and visual culture can inform writing and teaching, and also how one can engage with digital technology as a creative catalyst.
Images by Jeyda Yagiz, Sarah Kraus, Kamila Duong, Nevra Topcu and Lilia Strojec
The project was conceived and realised by Tereza Stehlikova, with the help of a team of creative collaborators. It was supported by the Czech Centre London, andDissenters Gallery, and was part of Open Senses Festival.
Thank you to Monika Parrinder for the wonderful account of her experience.
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