Tate Modern Conference

Mirror-touch: Synaesthesia and the social

How do artworks touch us?
Are images reflected in our bodies?
Can sensation be a form of participation?

Mirror-touch, a recently discovered form of the neurological condition synaesthesia, helps us explore these provocative questions about art, perception and the relationship between the social and the visual. Synaesthesia (the mixing of the senses) has been a source of insight for artists for over a century and this recently discovered manifestation offers powerful new ways of understanding contemporary art experience. People with mirror-touch feel a physical sense of touch on their own bodies when they witness touch to other people and often to objects. This symposium investigates how mirror-touch synaesthesia can model an empathic way of engaging with artworks. Speakers from neuroscience, art practice and theory, anthropology, and film studies discuss this fascinating condition, challenging the notion that merely looking is passive and celebrating the political agency of perception.

Participants include Michael Banissy, Brian Dillon, Lars Bang Larsen, Daria Martin, Laura U. Marks, Massimiliano Mollona, Christopher Pinney, Patricia Pisters, Joel Salinas, James Wannerton and Jamie Ward; with an opening keynote on Friday 7 February by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Artistic Director of dOCUMENTA (13).

The symposium is followed by a special film screening of Uncle Boonmee who can Recall his Past Lives by the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Saturday 8 February 2014 at 19.30 in the Starr Auditorium. In this film, Weerasethakul explores transformations in the shapes taken by characters, as well as the form of the film itself. Objects and people hybridise in ways that resonate with the perceptions of some mirror-touch synaesethetes, who often receive layers of sensuous experience imperceptible to others. The phantoms – narrative and cinematic – in Uncle Bonmee... might be seen as an artistic expression of the kinds of empathic seeing explored in our symposium. The film is shot in the Islan region of Thailand's Northeast, and obliquely refers to a violent crackdown on communist sympathisers in 1965 by the Thai government.

This event is free for all Mirror-touch: Synaesthesia and the Social event ticket holders.

Tate Modern

Starr Cinema

London SE1 9TG
Plan your visit


7 February 2014 at 18.30–20.40

8 February 2014 at 10.30–18.30

Find out more