Touch, Material, Change: A Week in Alberta

“The neglect of touch, smell, and taste (and to some extent, hearing) in visual culture descends particularly, of course, from art history, and generally, from the tendency to dismiss the proximal senses as inferior that underpins Western thought. To include sense experience in our cultural analysis, we need to revisit the sensory hierarchy—while trying to retain the capacity for aesthetic judgement, knowledge, and ethics associated with the ‘higher’ senses. And we have to do it before the new marketing of all sense experience does it for us.”

Marks, Laura U. “Thinking Multisensory Culture.” in: Paragraph. Vol. 31, No. 2, July 2008, p. 123-137.


What does it mean for a group to explore the use of senses that are normally relegated lower on the sensory hierarchy? Last week, I was in Lethbridge where Musagetes embarked on SenseLab 2, the second workshop in a series of four SenseLabs. As part of our work to make art more central and meaningful, Musagetes explores how people make sense of their experiences with art and how art enables us to imagine new social structures. The SenseLabs are a series of four intensive labs for a group of participants over the course of several months. In June we began the SenseLabs at project headquarters, the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG) in Lethbridge; we will conclude in November. The labs are designed to be challenging for both the participants and facilitator, deeply engaging sense-making skills like making, listening, debating, and observing. We are working with parallel definitions: that sensing is interpreting with the body, and that making sense is about how we put ideas together.


We articulated and mapped Lethbridge through a series of experiments using multiple senses. This group is multi-generational, multi-sectoral, and curious: our group included Jennifer Davis, psychologist; Tad Mitsui, clergy (retired); Madison Reamsbottom, learning facilitator; Rosemarie De Clercke-Floate, scientist; Ian Thompson, carpenter/developer; Sharon Stevenson-Ferrari, library technician; Glenna Westwood, librarian; Urvil Thakor, lawyer; and Curtis Goodman, business consultant. Our facilitator is Musagetes’ Executive Director Shawn Van Sluys. Thanks to some thoughtful introductions from the SAAG, this group came together because we share a desire to explore the world and our relationship with it.


Through experiments over time, the SenseLabs build profound understandings of place and creative process: each elaborates upon learnings from previous labs. So far, we’ve undertaken storytelling using mashups of randomly selected words, written poems based on the experience of a walk through the city, generated a map with purely non-verbal communication, recorded a series of sounds throughout Lethbridge in smaller groups, and mapped those sounds onto a large-scale multi-media drawing using a visual code we developed. Our visual code for sound included smudged graphite scribbles for wind, small dots from the tip of a fine pen for crickets, and splatters of paint for expletives.


I took great visual pleasure in documenting peoples’ hands as they made marks on our drawings: each unique hand made its own style of mark on the oversized paper, adding to all the other hands and marks.

Something rare and remarkable happened during these first two SenseLabs: the creation and cultivation of a new community through co-creation. Everything was made in collaboration. We developed a shared vocabulary, aesthetic, and experience. We gathered a knowledge-base for how art can initiate transformation on multiple levels: the individual, the local residents, and the city. We debated what elements might be added to our map through only eye contact, gestures, and touch. That collaborative spirit is precisely why the group can be called a community.


It was these physical gestures that stayed with me when I visited the Banff Centre campus for the afternoon following SenseLab 2. I met with artist Mark Clintberg whose lush, emotive, and pensive work is included in an exhibition on campus at the Walter Phillips Gallery called Be Mysterious. Later I met with the Curator Jesse McKee, who toured me through the show, featuring works by Rebecca Baird, Mark Clintberg, Patrick Jackson, Daniel Jacoby, Joo Choon Lin, Alex Morrison, and Brent Wadden (on view until October 19).

Be Mysterious is a survey of recent sculpture by Canadian and international artists. The objects defiantly subvert their normal use value. Ceramic coffee mugs made by Patrick Jackson sit nearly eight inches tall, and plunked in the corners, they appear to weigh several pounds each. Ceramics have a long and complex relationship with contemporary art, often marginalized as simple craft or even mere decoration. But the glaze-skin of these gross mugs— encrusted with epoxy, rocks, wax, and glass—are deeply pitted by the reactions to the firing process. They have a physical presence unlike a painting or a photograph.

Be Mysterious, The Banff Centre 2014, Walter Phillips Gallery

Patrick Jackson, Broken Mug; Pink Crack with Barnacles; Burnt Bubbles (2014), 21.6 x 21.6 x cm (each), ceramic and mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles. Photograph by Rita Taylor.

Materials and tactility are also foregrounded in Brent Wadden’s gentle pink and offwhite woven rug, modestly installed in the centre of the floor of the wide-open space. A wink to opulence is the fine gold thread that has worked its way into the design. Viewers are invited to take off their shoes and walk across the work. Touch is a tricky one with art. It is part of the making process, but not often part of the experience of art itself. The modalities of touch—pressure, skin stretch, vibration and temperature—are highly discouraged in the white cube. Not often are we welcomed to experience and work with our bare feet first.

Be Mysterious, The Banff Centre 2014, Walter Phillips Gallery

Detail exhibition View of Be Mysterious, in view clockwise from the centre, Brent Wadden, Keystone XL rag rug, (2014), 91.4 x 1097.3 cm, cotton; Alex Morrison, Dun Lurnin, Dun Cairin, Dun Livin, (2014), dimensions variable, MDF, clay, light bulb, acrylic paint; and Joo Choon Lin, I Only Make Friends With Money, 2013 (remade 2014), 123 (diameter) x 72 cm, synthetic goo, wood, cement. Courtesy of the artists, Perez Projects, Berlin; National Arts Council Singapore, and Walter Phillips Gallery at The Banff Centre. Photograph by Rita Taylor.

The showstealer is Mark Clintberg’s 3 x 3 with Opening tool (2014). Also low to the ground, it is a set of nine copper tiles, one of which is propped ever so slightly up by the opening tool: a solid copper wedge. Each tile is stained with verdigris, the natural vibrant green oxide of exposed copper that is often seen on older public monuments. The tool is a metaphor for the impact of one material on another. Over time, it will accumulate the verdigris itself, making visible the signs of oxidation. It also stands in for a human body, which is marked by change that unfolds (and folds and wrinkles) with the march of time and aging.

Mark Clintberg, 3 x 3 with Opening tool (2014), 91.4 x 91.4 x 0.3 cm, copper. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Rita Taylor.

Mark Clintberg, 3 x 3 with Opening tool (2014), 91.4 x 91.4 x 0.3 cm, copper. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Rita Taylor.



These days in Alberta reminded me what role that the human body—and particularly the human hand—still plays a vital role in the creative process. The works in Be Mysterious, whether sweetgrass formed in tight coils using basket-weaving techniques by Rebecca Baird, or burnished-edged toadstool infrastructures by Alex Morrison, are dearly and distinctively handmade.


In SenseLabs 3 and 4, we will be returning to Lethbridge to work with professional artists who will lead the group in a zine-making process and the co-creation of a public act in the city. I look forward to seeing what their hands will do

August 28, 2014
Alissa Firth-Eagland