Imagine if you could taste colours. Or see flavours. What if the sounds you heard stimulated your taste buds, so the mere mention of a chef’s name filled your mouth with the citrussy tang of oranges? Or something worse. Welcome to the wonderfully befuddled world of synaesthesia, a neurological condition affecting four percent of the world’s population, in which a cross-wiring of the senses can give words, letters or numbers distinct flavours, colours, sounds or even personalities. Often a synaesthete’s sense of taste is affected, which might make sausages taste like the colour pink, while the sound of the word ‘sausage’ might taste like an egg. And since no two synaesthetic pathways are ever quite the same, it makes for all kinds of unusual possibilities.
While the simple act of reading a restaurant’s menu might present a bewildering kaleidoscope of sensations, colours, sounds and flavours for the synaesthete, many enjoy heightened creativity and strongly augmented powers of imagination. The guitarist Jimi Hendrix saw music in colours, which inspired the song Purple Haze. Other famously talented synaesthetes include the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, the artist Edgar Degas, the composer Jean Sibelius, and Lady Gaga.
The link between synaesthesia, art and creativity was explored in a unique dining event staged by an experimental art company based in Birmingham, England. Siân Tonkin and Kaye Winwood - aka Companis - are the artists behind the Scintillating Synaesthetic Supper, an immersive multi-sensory experience which formed part of the city’s Flatpack Film Festival. “Companis’ mantra is to break bread and tradition, offering food to people but in an unusual context,” explains Tonkin, whose previous projects involve a ‘Rude Food Fiesta’, where guests were admitted through a large pair of lips, only to exit via a giant anus. “We enjoy the possibilities of confusing the senses or omitting them completely so synaesthesia is very interesting to us in terms of our work.” The five-course supper aimed to demonstrate what it might be like to hear and taste colour in the context of experimental cinema. It took place in a brightly lit dining room, flooded with the glare of 18 overhead projectors, each casting a rectangle of light and shadow onto a facing wall.
“Each diner sat at a dedicated overhead projector and as the various dishes were set on top, it threw a projection on the wall in front of them,” says Tonkin. “In this way the room was filled with a composite patchwork of moving images that changed as the menu changed and as the diners licked, ate and played with their food to create an immersive film/food experience.”
Chefs and a composer were drafted in to match perceived flavours with colours and sounds. The menu itself offered a monochromatic dinner in five colourful courses, from white through to black, each accompanied by a sweeping soundscape that changed with each course.
“We invited chefs to work on our creative brief - which contained our own interpretations of the taste of colour – these same interpretations were given to the composer,” adds Tonkin. “We talked about white as being muffled, yellow as evocative of the harsh sun/desert environment, red as sensual but also as rust-like, blue as completely expansive and infinite and black as death. The menu reflected our ideas in taste, texture and colour and each course comprised food and drink.”
If you’ve ever wondered what the colour white might taste like, the Synaesthetic Supper’s coconut meringue, parsnip panna cotta purée, cauliflower crisps and almond milk may have held the answer. Yellow was represented by a sancho pepper / salt / pepper crumble, cucumber juice with fresh mint and a spray of manzanilla sherry from an atomiser; while red took the form of ox heart pastrami, black pudding and beetroot jelly, while red wine was administered via a syringe. And what other colour could be evoked by Oreo crumbs, coffee mousse, cherry gel, rose petals and strong Vietnamese coffee than black?
Far from being an exact science, the emphasis was very much on imagining the artistic possibilities of cross-sensory perception in a challenging, thought-provoking but fun way. “The dinner should in no way be misconstrued as a scientifically accurate portrayal of synaesthesia,” says Tonkin. “Rather it was intended as a test-bed for envisaging the sound and taste of colour whilst referring to a genre of experimental film-making.” Through Companis, Tonkin and Winwood will continue to “chew up and spit out the norms associated with eating and immerse the diner in a fusion of performance, food and spectacle.” And while only a handful of lucky synaesthetes themselves will know how blue really tastes, the rest of us can always experiment and let our imagination do the rest.