Synesthetic text

Following the work with the installation The Leap we talked several times about doing an installation with people from the same team. In January 2000 I had a talk with Ståle Stenslie, and he had a new idea. This time, the idea was to examine the close relationship between religion and sex. The starting point should be the religious texts of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and these texts should be rewritten as erotic experiences on the body.

I thought the idea was interesting, and suggested  that we should also use religious music to link the sound to the religious texts, as well as making a sound recording of a sexual intercourse to have sound material that was related to the bodily experience. With these two elements it should be possible to examine both the religious and sexual aspects with the installation’s sound component.

Together with Knut Mork Skagen, who had made the poetry generator for The Leap, we contacted the Ultima Festival and the Henie Onstad Art Centre, both of which were devoted to the idea. Sound artist Trond Lossius joined the team and the concept gradually began to take shape.

The installation opened at the Ultima Festival in 2001 at the Henie Onstad Art Centre, and in the centre of the installation was a media altar. Inside the altar, one knelt down, dressed in a body suit and came into physical contact with the installation. Through the suit, one could explore the text on the surrounding text sphere, navigate in the immersive sound, and interact physically and directly with the installation.

Media altar
The installation contained what we called a media altar, an immersive three-dimensional sphere with text projected around the user's field of vision. The material of the texts were religious creation myths, and was a further development of the work done on the poetry generator from the installation The Leap. But where we in The Leap worked with three-dimensional text surfaces, the goal in Erotogod was to create a synesthetic text where tactile, visual and sounding tracks melted together. As an interface to the installation, we constructed a body suit. This was equipped with a large number of sensors and effectors, and thus created a nuanced communication between the user and the installation. The user could communicate with the machine and the machine could communicate with the user through physically touching the users body. Surrounding the entire installation was an immersive sound sphere, and based on the users interaction, new tracks were written in audio as well as text, image and tactile experiences.

New Creation Myths
Thus far the installation was based on the complementary parameters of sex and religion. The starting point was the texts of the three Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the main emphasis was on creation myths. With this starting point we wanted to write new creation myths in synesthetic text. The users would write the texts themselves - not as written words, but as sensual and bodily experiences. In this synesthetic space, we wanted to examine the relationship between sex and religion, between ecstasy and reflection.

Sex and religion are closely intertwined. The religion forbids, commands, condemns, bless, punish and rewards sexuality. From Christianity's traditional sexual abstinence to the holy temple prostitutes - if one manage to control something as basic as sexuality one is basically controlling human identity and self-perception. But religion also contains ecstasy. The road from ecstasy to sexuality can be short, and the Italian baroque depiction St. Teresa's ecstasy has often been used as an illustration of this relationship between sex and religion.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652)

So the starting point for the installation was the creation myths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In biology, sex is explained as a process of combining and transferring genetic material to offspring and thereby the creation of  new life. Thus, one can say that the sexual reproduction and creation myths are linked together. Both the creation myths and sexual reproduction are stories about how life is created. Based on this relationship between religious texts, creation myths, and sexual ecstasy, we wanted to investigate the possibility of writing new creation myths, as synesthetic text. By synesthetic text we meant narratives in the form of multi-dimensional sensory experiences written on the body. The installations synesthetic text used sound, image, text, and bodily experiences. By touching their own body the user wrote new synesthetic creation myths.

Sex can be described as a process of combining and transferring genetic material to offspring. Leonardo da Vinci: Coition of a Hemisected Man and Woman (c. 1492).

The user's body was divided along axes, such as legs and pelvis. Each axis corresponded to a character from the creation myths such as Adam, Eve, Lillith, or Satan, and all points along the axis had different intensities. The outer sensors was relatively forgiving, and generated texts from the Koran, while the inner sensors were more erotically charged and used texts about the Old Testaments vengeful God. All text fragments were categorized according to their main character, scaled on the axis between revenge and forgiveness, and marked as subject, verb or predicate.

Through this new bodily form of text,  the new creation myths, we wanted to examine the tabooed space between sex and religion. How would the ecstasy of St. Teresa be perceived as a tactile bodily experience inside the installation?

The concepts around sex, religion and new synesthetic experiences were also important in working with the sound. In order to achieve the fusion of elements that we were looking for, it was essential that the different parts of the installation could react to the same material. For example, something as simple as a spiral shape should be possible to realize in both text and image, on the body and in the sound. In this way the overall tactile experience should be intensified, and in this ecstatic room the ideas of the installation could be examined.

A sense of something intimate and physical
As mentioned above, my first reaction to the original idea was that we should incorporate religious music and sound recordings of a sexual intercourse as source material. I collected a large amount of religious music, from the Jewish synagogue song through Christian church music, to music from the Muslim cultural field. Eventually we came in contact with a couple that  agreed to make a recording of a sexual intercourse. We equipped them with wireless microphones mounted on their bodies and set up traditional audio recording equipment in the bedroom in the true spirit of reality TV. We started the recording and went to the nearest café. After a while a text message appeared on my phone saying that the recording had been completed.

Back in the studio the work of building a database of source sounds continued. It soon became obvious that the material was too large and spread out, and that something had to go. It also turned out that the sound recording of the sexual intercourse had a great variety of sound types, and a large timbral potential. I therefore decided to omit the religious music and only use body sounds as source material.

Thus I built a new database from scratch on the basis of the body sounds. The next step was to transform these sounds using timbral analysis and sound processing to see how far one could go before one lost the physical and sexual aspects of the sound. It turned out that even in highly processed versions of the sounds there still was a subconscious sense of something intimate and physical. Man's close connection with the human voice and body sounds makes this something easily detected and perceived even after extensive transformations of the source sound.

It was a goal that the sound would melt together with the other parts of the installation and respond to the users actions on a par with text and image. To achieve this the different components of the sound had to be made much more flexible than they had been in the installation The Leap. The various components that made up the timbral development had to be parametrized to be able to be affected by the system in a flexible way. We built a sound synthesis system based on the partitioning of the processed source material into small grains of sound. This was then driven through physical models of both the human voice and different resonant materials, as well as a complex model to place the sound in space. To reinforce the position of the sound in space the number of speakers were expanded from the eight we had used in The Leap to sixteen in Erotogod. With this precise system for spatial placement of the sound, we were able to draw similar patterns in the sound as the installation’s other parts drew on the body and in the visual. Thus, the synesthetic experiences were reinforced.

Direct and sensible experience
We made three versions of Erotogod. The first one was shown in October 2001 at the Henie Onstad Art Centre, the second from February to March 2003 at Deaf (Dutch Electronic Arts Festival) in Rotterdam, and the last one from October to November 2003 at Atelier Nord in Oslo.

The Rotterdam version was heavily rebuilt. The entire physical installation was rebuilt to adapt to the new exhibition space. Everything regarding the body suit and the poetry generator was also rewritten, and the entire sound system was rewritten from scratch. We had observed that the high complexity of the installation resulted in loosing some of the immediate response that we had achieved with the somewhat simpler construction in the installation The Leap. However, after the complete rewrite of the Rotterdam version the experience became far more direct and sensible.

For the latest version of the installation that was shown at Atelier Nord in Oslo, we rebuilt the sound system to a more intimate system located inside the installation, and thus achieved a much more detailed and intimate sound than we had in the previous two more monumental systems. Less appeared to be more.

Synesthetic text
Erotogod was a large and complex work that aimed to examine ambitious problems at hand including the relationship between body and religion. At its best, it was precisely  this ecstasy, that people experience both in religious and sexual experiences, that manifested itself inside the installation. With the synesthetic text that was written through bodily experience, text, sound and image one truly achieved a media orgy inside Erotogods altar. Moreover, we investigated a new way to write stories in text and music, namely through physical interaction.

Little did we know which political landscape that lay ahead of us in the years to follow. When the installation opened on the 6th of October 2001, George Bush had been president for six months, four weeks earlier, two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, and the day after the installation opened the U.S. with support from the UK started the invasion of Afghanistan. The relationship between the West and the Islamic world was further polarized during the 2000’s in the ongoing War against terror, and strong reactions flared increasingly around religious taboos. Had Erotogod been angled in a slightly different way, it could easily have been perceived as a highly controversial work. But it was not necessarily this controversy we were looking to examine. Moreover, we certainly were on the safe side when it came to Islam. There were no depictions of the prophet. According to the traditions of calligraphy and aniconism, we expressed everything in text – synesthetic text.


Klank - electronic music. text text text text text text.

I Guess I’ll Have To Dream The Rest - piano music.

Ragnarok - installation.text text text text text text.

Doppelgänger - installation.