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Scents and sense ability: Our Artist in Residence's novel approach to creativity and wellbeing


A touch-aroma corridor guided visitors into Valeria Perboni’s SYN Phase 1 when it was showcased at Brunel University London in 2022, the amuse-bouche before the smorgasbord of sights and sounds of her sense-challenging art installation.

The room was conceived by Valeria and her project team as a space for people to experience different sensory perceptions from their own, and to start questioning not only what we know about neurodiversity – the different ways in which people’s brains process information – but also how we know it.

The installation was a step along the multisensory artistic journey Valeria started during the Covid-19 pandemic, and led to her applying for and being appointed as Brunel’s latest Artist in Residence, a role she started this January.

Changing the discourse around neurodiversity

As a singer, actress and opera director, Valeria’s identity has been increasingly defined by her relationship with music. But around 12 years ago she discovered that how she experienced music – not just hearing it, but it manifesting in multiple senses – had a name: synaesthesia.

“When I listen to music or perform, there is always something else happening. I see colours, feel textures, sometimes even experience pain,” Valeria explained.

“Putting a label on these cross-modal, different, isolating experiences was liberating. Discovering that I’m neurodiverse was a pivotal point in my personal and artistic development.”

She finally started to understand that her way of seeing the world wasn’t wrong, just different, and that her way of expressing and communicating wasn’t bad, just the reflection of a different inner perception. And it validated her idea of creating multisensory art in ways she’d never experienced in the industry before, allowing anyone and everyone to step inside a different way of perceiving.

“The first perhaps obvious step was to show what synaesthesia is,” she said. “Other types of neurodiversity have bias, or stigmas, or misconceptions attached. Synaesthesia – being less well known as a type of neurodiversity, and mostly associated with artists such as Van Gogh, Liszt, Kandinsky and Scriabin – had the potential of changing the discourse around what neurodiversity actually is.”

And this is what SYN Phase 1 did, to acclaim. Composed of a mix of real-life footage, manipulated and layered with digital and synaesthetic designs, and linked together through audio soundscapes and multisensory narrative, crafted by Valeria and her creative co-collaborators, the physical installation that had intrigued people on Brunel’s campus was also featured online as part of Neurodiversity Pride Day, receiving praise from the international synaesthetic and neurodiverse community.


The seed of wellbeing

It’s this multisensory artistic approach to explaining neurodiversity, and to exploring the different ways of expressing and being creative, that Valeria brings to her Brunel residency, which she has conducted in part through a series of conversational workshops with the university community.

One of the goals of her residency is to enable people to feel creative, validating their creative thoughts as artistic outputs – whether for others to appreciate or just for themselves to generate. From her workshops, she was fascinated to see how many people felt as though they weren’t very creative. “Some of the self-described ‘non-artists’ expressed some of the most inspiring perspectives, showing just how much simplicity can be the key to exploration, play, creativity – and, ultimately, even art,” she said.

A big part of her artistic practice, at Brunel and elsewhere, is to research art and wellbeing: the impact of art on the individual, social and environmental spheres, and how the sense of connection derived from exploring our sensory experiences is the seed of wellbeing.

“My interest has expanded to the potential benefits of including cross-modal and sensory associations in music and wellbeing practices,” she said. “In an attempt to be more inclusive in the way in which we approach wellbeing, we found that the connection between senses exists not only in synaesthesia, but also, albeit in a different way, as part of the collective experience of emotional narratives.

“In particular, facilitating cross-modal associations between the senses of smell, touch, sound, proprioception and interoception” – referring to the how we sense the location and movement of our bodies, and sense signals from our internal organs – “has generated fascinating moments of synchrony and shared narrative, highlighting how creativity resides in both complexity and simplicity.”

Residency outputs

This week’s Hydrogen Industry Showcase, part of the Brunel Research Festival, featured Valeria’s soundscape ‘Colorless, odorless, tasteless’, commissioned by Brunel Hydrogen and inspired by the gas.

Over the next few months, Valeria and a filmmaker will be on campus to capture footage for a documentary project, collecting responses to the theme of synaesthesia. “We are especially interested in looking at how cross-modality affects people’s student or professional lives, and we are interested to see what different inspirations and creative ideas can be sparked by the theme of synaesthesia,” she explained.

And October will see the culmination of Valeria’s residency: her final exhibition, for which she is gathering synaesthetic artists from all over the world to share their own journey. Her event will be a curation of those artists’ work, together with her own pieces, the SYN installation, and collaborative pieces that have emerged from her residency, all in a collaboration with the UK and American Synaesthesia Associations.

“The purpose behind this is to raise awareness around what synaesthesia is – not from a psychology or neuroscience perspective, but from a lived experience, artistic, personal narrative perspective,” Valeria said. “It’ll cover how its peculiarities affect all aspects of life, not only for synaesthetes themselves, but also for everybody else in the way we perceive our senses, their embodiment, the connections between them, how they connect to our sense of self, our creativity, and our way of expression.

“The relevance of synaesthesia in everyday life has started to become apparent for design and marketing in recent years, but I believe there is much to be achieved through exploring different ways of perceiving in a number of other fields, such as research, education, health and wellbeing. And that’s where the relevance of synaesthesia within Brunel lies.”

Reported by:

Joe Buchanunn, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268821