Podcast Episode 8: Walking and Sensory Inquiry

WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation aims to distill WalkingLab publications and content into audio form.


Welcome to WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation that aims to distill WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In this podcast you will learn about walking and sensory inquiry. In podcast #7 you were introduced to a type of sensory walk called soundwalks or sonic walks. This podcast will examine other senses such as touch and smell and introduce you to concepts like synaesthesia and hapticality. WalkingLab is co-directed by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman. You can find print publications related to these podcasts at walkinglab.org. While not necessary the podcasts are designed to be listened to while going for a walk.

I’m Rebecca Conroy, artist and researcher and I will be your host today. 

WalkingLab organizes international walking events, conducts research with diverse publics including youth in schools, and collaborates with artists and scholars to realize site-specific walking research-creation events. WalkingLab acknowledges the traditional and unceded territories on which our work takes place. WalkingLab is accountable to Dylan Robinson’s insistence that land acknowledgements often operate from a politics of recognition and perpetuate settler colonial logics rather than disrupt them. As will be introduced through the podcast series WalkingLab asks walkers to consider where they are coming from in relation to Indigenous peoples and territories where they live and work, and to consider why a land acknowledgement is important to them.

Walking methodologies invariably invoke sensory investigations. Sensory studies have prioritized the senses in research including methods that foreground touch, smell, and sound. This is in part informed by an appeal to explore the non-visual modes of experience. The non-visual senses – touch, taste, smell, and sound – were historically viewed as subjective and intuitive, and as such rendered as illegitimate forms of knowing. Vision, which was equated with reason and objectivity was prioritized as a preferred method for qualitative research. With the turn to phenomenology, poststructuralism, and feminist theories of the body – which ruptured the mind/body dualism – the proximinal senses became an important subject of study and increasingly valued as a method of investigation. Further, the advancement in portable digital technologies, such as video cameras, smart phones, and voice recorders, and the shift to thinking about non-representational methodologies, also contributed to the prevalence and possibility of doing sensory research.

As the senses became increasingly entangled within the social sciences and humanities, many scholars noted their particular importance for qualitative research. Some of the most often cited include, Paul Rodaway, who argues that everyday experience is multi-sensual, though one or more sense may be dominant in a given situation. Likewise, Paul Stoller suggests that sensory reflexivity be accounted for by researcher and participant. David Howes’ work has significantly shaped the field, foregrounding a sensory approach to the study of culture, and the sociality of sensation. Sarah Pink, whose name is almost synonymous with sensory ethnography, argues that sensory perception is integral to social and material interactions, including walking research.    

In the first section of the podcast we focus on walks that isolate a particular sense. Crucial to our examinations of walking research is a focus on critical sensory studies that interrogate the ways that walking and the senses produce gendered, racialized, and classed bodies. 

Thinking-with Bark, a WalkingLab project initiated by Mindy Blaise and Catherine Hamm, experiments with multi-sensory and multi-species ethnography with early childhood teachers and students. The Bark Studio is an outdoor classroom in Cruikshank Park, Victoria Australia that occupies the traditional lands of the Marin Balluk Clan. Each week teachers and students go for a walk in the park along Stony Creek and think-with bark, specifically the varied Eucalyptus species, or Gum trees as they are commonly referred to in Australia. Gum trees shed their bark as part of their yearly cycle to rid themselves of moss, lichen, and parasites. The bark flakes off in interesting patterns, and colourful masses of texture. Blaise and Hamm’s sensory ethnography attends to the tactility of multi-species inhabitation in order to counter the logic that tames, simplifies, and controls young students’ learning. They ask: What happens when bark becomes the focus?’ Their ‘out and about’ walking and sensory research aims to open up possibilities for creating new ethical practices in light of human induced changes in the environment . In contrast to conventional early childhood research that would ask questions about children’s development eg. Can they hold a pencil? Can they pick up the bark? Do they listen to instructions? Can they decipher one sense from another?, thinking-with bark as a sensory inquiry explores the ways that children’s tactile experiences shape lively stories about human and nonhuman intra-actions.

Kimberly Powell, one of the WalkingLab’s lead researchers, also uses sensory ethnography with young children. In her project called StoryWalks Powell engaged a group of pre-school children on a series of walks in San Jose Japantown. On one walk the students were introduced to Ken Matsumoto’s public sculpture. The children were invited to climb on and touch the stone, and to create stone rubbings. In a subsequent walk, the students visited a memorial that they banged on with their hands, allowing the vibrations of sound to become a way of knowing sculpture, memory, and place. Collaborating with artist PJ Hirabayashi, and in cooperation with the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, Powell’s sensory ethnography examines walking, the choreography or movement of place, and migration.

Another WalkingLab example that attends to the proximinal senses is a smellscape walk. J. Douglas Porteous introduced the term smellscape to suggest how smells are place related. The smell walk was carried out by students in WalkingLab’s Stephanie Springgay’s graduate course on walking and sensory methodologies. Students walked and recorded smells using a variety of methods including colour annotations, descriptive words, and found objects to investigate the ways that place can be mapped using different sensory registers.

While the focus on the proximinal senses has disrupted occularcentrism, critical sensory studies argue that too often the senses are assumed to be neutral when in fact they produce racialized, gendered, and classed understandings of bodies and places. For example, fetid smells, particularly ones experienced in an urban city on hot days, are associated with infection and decay. These smells are then socio-culturally read as sticking to some bodies. Kelvin Low maintains that the sociology of smell is a process of othering. By “othering” Low means that in smelling and perceiving the other’s odor, the other becomes distinct because they smell different or unfamiliar. Particular smells become attached to particular bodies, not because that body emits a particular smell, but because of the racial and classed materializations between bodies, places, and smells.

In the Euro-Western taxonomy of the senses, smell and touch have been traditionally relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy, and as such, associated with animality and primitivism. Foul smells have historically been linked to incivility, filth, and poverty. The  smell walks examine the ways in which place is produced and negotiated through the senses. Students investigate how sensory experiences regulate and dehumanize particular bodies. For example, overly powerful smells, whether from exhaust fumes in dense urban areas, or the potency of ‘ethnic’ foods, are typically associated with pollution, and evoke sensory experiences of repulsion and disgust. Jim Drobnick uses the term odorphobia to describe the xenophobia associated with particular smells. Conversely, the lack of smell is often conceptualized as clean and sanitary. Some corporations brand particular scents that then become associated with class, for example, upscale hotels that defuse a scent in their lobbies. This smell is considered palatable and pleasurable, and associated with Euro-Western understandings of class, cleanliness, and leisure. 

The interest in the proximinal senses in walking research is significant for the ways that it has unsettled occularcentrism. In addition, sensory inquiry emphasizes the body and corporeal ways of knowing. However, such sensory turns need to account for the social, cultural, racial, sexual, gendered, and classed constructions of the senses. The senses are not neutral, but already exist as ethical and political demarcations of difference. In fact, as Pink suggests, the five-sense sensorium is a cultural concept used by Euro-western subjects as a way of ordering their world. It is not a universal concept.

Further, sensory inquiry needs to take into account nonnormative sensory experiences. Alison Kafer (2013), writing about disability in relation to environmentalism, questions how chronic fatigue or deafness, as just two examples, transform sensory inquiry. Consequently, while ‘isolating’ one sense can be a productive method in walking research, it simultaneously demands an accountability of the ways that difference is materialized through sensory inquiry. After the break we’ll introduce synaesthesia and haptic walks.

Synaesthesia usually refers to a psychological or neurological condition in which sensory stimulus from one sense is mixed up with another sense. For example, this can include a taste being associated with a colour, such as seeing red and immediately tasting licorice. Finish composer Jean Sibelius would hear F major when he saw his green fireplace. In walking research, synaesthesia can be deployed intentionally to defamiliarize a sensory experience of place and as a non-representational practice. Synaesthesia was used by WalkingLab’s Sarah E. Truman, coupled with the walking practice of the dérive, in her in-school research with secondary school students. These student-led walks are detailed in podcast #4.

The Hamilton Perambulatory Unit (HPU), a frequent WalkingLab collaborator created a synaesthesia walk in the Hamilton Farmers’ Market. In this walk participants strolled through the farmers’ market, taking stock of the various smells on offer, which they mapped using words from another sensory register. For example, the smell of lemon might be recorded as screeching metal. Synaesthesia as a literary device uses words associated with one sense to describe another. For example, “loud yellow,”  “bitter cold” . Rather than describing a scent by using descriptive words that are typically associated with a smell, the synaesthetic walk forced participants to think about the scent using language more commonly affiliated with a different sense. For example, instead of describing a smell in the market as being ‘oniony,’ the synaesthetic description could be ‘piercing sorrow.’ In the HPU walk, synaesthesia was used to push language; to write as a way of becoming atmospheric. As opposed to a representative description of the world, synaesthetic walks attend to that which is palpable and immanent.

Hapticality relates to the sense of touch. In walking research, hapticality attends to tactile qualities such as pressure, weight, temperature, and texture. The haptic is sometimes organized around kinaesthetic experience such as muscles, joints, and tendons that give a sense of weight, stretching, and angles as one walks. It can also be described as physical where you feel things on the surface of your skin. 

For example, walking scholar Hannah Macpherson’s (2009) work with visually impaired walkers, and their ‘sighted’ guides, focuses on tactile knowledge through the feet rather than the hands. The bodily practice of walking, Deirdre Heddon and Misha Myers maintain, can be demanding, severe, and grueling. In contrast to embodied narratives of walking that extol the virtues of meditative drifting, writing about their Walking Library project they reflect on the arduous nature of walking across different landscapes, carrying heavy packs, and in the blistering sun. They emphasize the ways in which the corporeality of knowledge is shaped through movement.

There is no denying that sensory experiences, haptic feelings, and affective intensities course through walking research. What matters, is how we tune into sensation, synaesthesia, and hapticality. As Ahmed so cogently states, “there is a politics to how we distribute our attention”. From sensory walks with early childhood educators and students, and artistic experiments that isolate an individual smell, walking is an important and significant mode by which the senses, the synaesthetic, and the haptic can be mapped, conditioned, and materialized. 

WalkingLab’s critical work in this area reminds us that we need to account for the ways that the senses stick to different bodies and spaces in different ways. For example, smell is not neutral. How smells flow, how they become attached to bodies or places, and the kinds of encounters such flows generate are important as part of sensory research. The kinds of surfaces or atmospheres that walking methodologies evoke can be captured or managed and therefore participate in power and control. The future of walking methodologies requires not only innovative techniques to experiment with and account for sensory and haptic understandings, but must also attune to the ethics and politics of the senses. 

Thank you for listening to WalkingLab’s podcast series on Walking Research-Creation. You can find print publications and references on their website: walkinglab.org. Better yet, subscribe to the RRS feed so you can be notified whenever a new podcast drops!
WalkingLab is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.