The Emotion Organ (2007) is a synaesthetic simulacrum machine where players can explore the sensational interplay of feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling and motion. It is also a time machine - a re-engineered pump organ from 1895 that combines both old and emerging technology and builds upon a trajectory of several centuries-worth of ideas about synaesthetic phenomena.


"Synaesthesia" is the name of a rare clinical anomaly where people experience unusual and very real sensations, such as the taste of shapes, or the colour of sound.

Without electricity it can be played as a conventional musical instrument, but when plugged in the organ produces varying combinations and intensities of sound, light, colour, scent, vibration and movement. When played it stimulates a highly subjective, cause-and-effect sensory immersion. When experienced as a spectator, the subjective affect of the player is modulated through the hypnotic visual effects of a propeller-screen, processed organ sounds and emitted scents.

The Emotion Organ brings the emotional journey of the player into the material world in its own special way. Its effects and affects are emergent and moody, and can range from crashing a plane into the sunset, to strolling through a garden of vibrant flowers. In order to explore the Emotion Organ's potentials a player must experiment with the way in which the combined activity of the hands and feet on its 61 keys, 8 stops and 2 foot pumps can produce different results.

You do not have to be a musician or an artist to play the organ. It can be played by people of all ages and walks of life. It is the perceptions of the player that are at stake – to discover through touch the sensational interplay of the senses, and to decide for themselves if, and how the experience is meaningful.



Synaesthesia is a fascinating phenomenon. The few who are born with it, the 'Syns' (synesthete is the proper word), experience very real and strange sensations - such as the colour of sound or the taste of shapes, without any help other than their own sensory perceptions and the stimulus of the world around and within them. Most of them consider it to be as a gift, though at times it can disrupt their lives. The synaesthetic phenomenon has also caused disruptions in the fields of science, philosophy and the arts, igniting heated debates about whether it really exists as a clinical condition, or just functions on a metaphorical level.

Though modern brain imaging devices have been used to show that Syn-brains work differently than others do, and new tests have been devised to attempt to diagnose it, it remains to be a somewhat mysterious and unmeasurable phenomenon with no universally accepted diagnosis.

For a period spanning over three centuries many artists have been inspired by the notion, devising ways of simulating it by (re)creating one media out of another, and attempting to communicate their work to the public as joined sensations. Historically synaesthetic art has referred to a wide range of artistic experiments that synthesize different art disciplines evident in genres such as visual music, abstract painting and film, experimental theatre, symbolist poetry, science fiction and intermedial, electronic and generative art. Since even before the first recorded attempt to build an ocular harpsichord (devised to create a visual equivalent to music) in the 18th Century, synaesthesia has raised questions about whether the arts can be divided into disciplines that work with separately perceived stimuli, or whether these disciplines are a part of a larger system that unites the different disciplines.

Artists such as Arthur Rimbaud, Wasilly Kandinsky, Alexander Scriabin and Vladimir Nabokov are thought to have actually had the condition themselves. This is a debatable issue and one that is impossible to prove, especially when considering that Rimbaud (just one example) explored the 'derangement of the senses' by taking psychoactive substances to achieve a heightened awareness of his world. When Rimbaud wrote "I rouge, U vert, O bleu” in Les Voyelles (1897) it is difficult to know if it was his syn-side speaking, or whether it was drugs, metaphor or a combination of all three. While Kandinsky is often cited as the champion of the modernist art movement, Marcel Duchamp, referred to as the originator of postmodern art, also dabbled with synaesthetics (though more conceptually) in his Rotoreliefs of the 1930s. Could just the very idea of synaesthesia be the revolutionary ingredient that has changed and fused the shape of arts by testing the limits of normal perceptions? It is at least an interesting thought.

Interest in synaesthesia has risen to the surface of western consciousness during periods of rapid technological development and social and cultural change. At other times it has been forgotten. During the late 19th, early 20th century travelers brought home with them their experiences of The Orient – religions and philosophies, science, drugs, spices, perfumes, fabrics, music, dance, theatre and painting. At the same time artists form Russia to America were dabbling in pseudo-religious and -scientific dreams enthused with the prospects of a new synthetic, fusionary experience of art where the divide between material world, image, word and sound would dissolve into a sensuous, spiritual ecstasy. They exploited technological developments to invent new devices for experimenting with their ideas. Similar practices are evident in the intermedial and psychedelic '60s, the underground acid/techno/house club scene of the late '80s early '90s, and on the cyberstage of the mid '90s - though in the latter cases synaesthesia was rarely mentioned. Around the turn of the 21 Century a number of retrospective exhibitions thematically curated around synaesthesia have occurred both in Europe and the United States. Several of them have also included the work of current day artists who mainly use the 'syn' word as a theoretic reference - as being detached, yet connected to it, rather than as an origin or inspiration.

Today the interest in sensorial art is rife, but it is more down to earth and integrated into contemporary art practices - more accepting of interrelated experiences than concerned with heightened awareness. Could this be because our world is becoming more connected and we, and our digital media and devices more synaesthetic? Of course, this is all speculation on my part, which is just what my work is about. Speculating over ways to apply synaesthetic ideas to my work, and putting these ideas into practice. But at the heart of my project lies a paradox. While a 'sender' may infuse their work with real or simulated synaesthetic experiences, there is no guarantee, nor any substantial way of proving that it will be received as being synaesthetic.

It is this paradox that has led me to the question:

Is it possible to evoke, even for a moment, an experience comparable to 'true' synaesthesia through art - without resorting to psychedelic drugs?

Inspired by a clapped-out pump organ in my studio and a fictive invention called the Mood Organ that features in Philip K. Dick's novel We Can Build You (1972), I invented the Emotion Organ to put this question to the test, not through science, but through the guise of contemporary art practice.

The Emotion Organ is designed to fulfill several functions. It can be:

  • A modifiable conceptual/experimental tool for testing various artistic concepts in relation to synaesthetic phenomena.
  • An art object that, when standing alone, entices people to touch it.
  • An experimental instrument through which players of any age and ability can explore the intersections of the sensory domains. The organ can be staged as a participatory installation where the public can choose to be performers and/or spectators.
  • A performance instrument for a virtuoso player. In this case the organ can be modified in accordance with the aims of a specific composition/improvisation idea. It can be re-programmed, and its outputs can be modified to extend beyond the peri-personal space of the player.

The Emotion Organ was developed during my participation in the Programme for Research Fellowships in the Arts with the project Mind, the Gap. Synaesthesthesia and contemporary live art practice, a practical and theoretical exploration of the term "synaesthesia". See:

URL: Mind, the Gap
Download: PDF Mind, the Gap (16.9 mb, reflection text)


Neuroscientist Richard Cytowic has put forward several diagnostic features of syneathesia. He says that synaesthetic perceptions are:

Involuntary - you can't turn them on and off, they just happen to you.
Projected - perceived externally in the peri-personal space (close to the body).
Durable - if a ceretain sound is red, it will always be red.
Generic - they are never pictorial or elaborate.
Memorable - first comes the cross-wired experience, and then the name of the thing that stimulated it.
Emotional - accompanied by a 'this is it' feeling that the experience is very real.

There seems to be little uniformity in the experience of synesthetes. Each has their own unique way of experiencing the world.

Before their condition has been diagnosed Syns have reported that their unusual sensations have been thought to derive from taking hallucinogenic drugs that can induce a temporary form of synaesthesia.

Temporary synaesthesia can also be experienced with migranes as bright flashes around the eyes, and in the period between wake and sleep. Louis-Bertrand Castel - the man behind the first recorded attempt to build an ocular keyboard instrument (1725) - wrote in his diary:

“Not in dreams, but especially in the state of dizziness preceding sleep ... do I feel the correspondence between colors, sounds and scents. It seems as if they all rise mysteriously from the same ray of light and, subsequently, reunify in an amazing concert. The scent of deep red carnations above all has a magical effect on me."

Today synaesthesia is considered as being abnormal simply because it is statistically rare. Scientists researching synaesthesia today do so, not only for its own sake, but also because of what it might tell us about how our brains work - syns and non-syns alike.