This review of Daria Martin’s ‘At the Threshold’ was published on Art-Agenda, March, 2016.
“I experience pain and sensation in response to seeing or thinking about another individual getting hit or touched on part of their body.” This description of mirror-touch synesthesia—the ability to feel the same or sympathetic physiological sensations and emotional states in sync with another human being, animal, or sometimes an object—is given by Sophie. Her written account is part of a correspondence between London-based filmmaker Daria Martin and other mirror-touch synesthetes. All provide insights into experiences of highly empathic intersubjectivity, and informed Martin’s development of three short films. At The Threshold (2014-2015), a narrative of domestic co-dependency threatened by an outside force, is the second and most recent installment in the trilogy. Projected in a small, dark room, it is a hypnotic vision of uncanny sensuality, shot in saturated 16mm film, in which the lines between self, other, and object dissolve into a holistic sensory continuum.
The setup is simple. A mother and son are housebound synesthetes. Theirs is an interior world of wonder, a microcosm of things and materials that open a universe of rich associative and intensely poetic sensory experience. A red jumper, a cracked eggshell, a ball of wool: each cause a rush of psychophysiological associations for the reclusive pair when touched or seen. Wisely, Martin leaves space for the viewer to intuit these associations; we are not shown what it is that a thing is like. For example, there are no suggestive hard cuts from fingers running across the surface of some material to fingers running through grass. Instead we are able to forge empathic links by virtue of scenes in which the actors playing mother (Carolina Valdés) and son (Myles Westman) use a recognizable gestural vocabulary of awe and reverence in relation to things and each other. This is essentially how the reception of film works for viewers. An actor does something on screen we can empathize with, like laughing or crying, and then, if we’re able to suspend disbelief, we feel happy or sad, too. Psychoanalysts might describe this as a process of identification; neurologists might point to the existence of mirror neurons. Whatever the case for us, it is clear the boy and his mother feel a deep, borderline erotic connection, and this heightened sense of each other crucially extends to textures, hues, and inanimate materials—a sense that is eventually transferred and awakened in the viewer.
Into this dyadic relationship steps a third party, another woman bent on bringing the pair, or at least the boy, into the world. “I know the feeling of the leaves on the trees… I don’t need to go outside to feel that,” says the mother, who seems afraid that external stimuli will overwhelm her sense of self. Here, it’s possible to readAt The Threshold as a kind of critical allegory, engaging with film theory’s discourse of passive spectatorship and disembodiment, albeit with one distinction: the boy’s mother seems to feel that exposure to life outside—rather than to the interior life of the cinema—will result in disembodiment and deindividuation. However, Martin’s interest in mirror-touch synesthesia goes far beyond the instrumentalization of a unique cognitive ability for creative, indirect critique. In fact, she has edited Mirror-Touch Synaesthesia: Thresholds of Empathy with Art, a book to be published by Oxford University Press in May this year. Let’s hope it touches on the potential social-cultural and political ramifications that mirror-touch synesthesia presents as a legitimate, and not abnormal, way of being. It is a territory with much scope.
The question mirror-touch synesthesia raises at this time of punitive government measures and harsh austerity is: what effects would a consciousness founded on empathy and a form of panpsychism have on a culture, society, and politics dominated by individualism, self-preservation, and competition? Indeed, the further reaches of holism and intersubjectivity covered by Martin’s project suggest many things: they foreground the state’s at times grotesque attitude of bureaucratic indifference to human suffering; problematize Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology of a world of discrete, lonely, and inaccessible objects; and have some affinities with subatomic theories of quantum physics. These are linkages that require a leap, but Martin’s easy-to-digest narrative gives the viewer room to make wider associations. This is also due to her looser, more expressionistic, and absorbing direction in At The Threshold, a style that engenders a certain psychological drift, quite different from the austere air of contained detachment in Sensorium Tests (2012), part one of the trilogy, in which a mirror-touch test subject is put through her paces in a controlled lab experiment.
At The Threshold achieves that balance between information and its formal mediation, so difficult to reach in research-based practice. In other words, the resulting work isn’t the lesser interpretation of more fascinating research material. Rather, At The Threshold functions as a sensorial enchantment, a doorway that pulls the spectator into a world of porous psychophysiological boundaries. Through its impressive and compelling use of the essential empathic nature of viewing film, we are made to feel what is felt on screen. For the work’s duration, we are invited to become mirror-touch synesthetes too.
(1) Excerpts of Daria Martin’s written correspondences with mirror-touch synesthetes can be viewed at the artist’s website: http://dariamartin.com/#texts