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Ecological senses


18 January 2021
This month's topic: 2021OdysseyResident Editor: Diana Padrón

Ecological senses

Invisible and tactile arts

During the quarantine the world (mine) became aural. Locked up in my house, more than seeing, the world could be heard; you could hear out there the cry of supplication from the hungry lady who shouted “please give me food”, you could hear over the instructions of the online yoga teacher. One could predict the last decisions of the government according to the roar of the earth out there: if the birds were heard more, the quarantine was prolonged, if instead of birds more human and motor voices were heard, the quarantine was over. Towards the end of the confinement, one could hear the man selling avocados, the man selling tamales, the mayor’s truck announcing (or begging) that taxes were to be paid. The supermarkets went out to sell in carts going around the neighborhoods, everything became mobile and aural (as informal commerce has always been), and the illuminated advertisements were replaced by announcements that were sneaked into the classes by zoom. And even if everything was far away, separated from me, the sound made me perceive its proximity.

During the pandemic, the many classes I gave each week were conducted over the telephone. I couldn’t see the faces of the people I was talking to. Once I gave a workshop for eighty people, the screen was so small, I couldn’t even see the name of each person who took the floor. It seemed like a very similar experience to that of the radio: talking in total intimacy with strangers. If there is something that now seems poetic to me about radio, it is that: it is amplification, that dispersion of intimacy. Teaching more than eighty classes for six months through my phone made me think about that idea that devices produce the kind of subject they need.

And since the world was aural, and the experience of sound is expansion (feeling the contact of the waves), I felt one with the world. Since sound expands, and involves us in the same reverberation, I didn’t feel that separation between the limits of myself and the other, that distance and differentiation that traditional education and some artistic devices remind us of.

I was also struck by the fact that at the beginning of the pandemic there appeared on the same day about five texts by philosophers, journalists and writers who spoke about touch, about the absence of touch. Among them, one by Paul Preciado that said in general terms “I’m not going to do philosophy, I only declare that I need tact”, one by a columnist in The New York Times (I don’t remember the name), said something similar when telling his experiences of being confined and sick with covid. Also in the newspapers that Bifo Berardi published at the beginning of the pandemic, he referred, among other things, to the same thing: the absence of contact. And Martin Caparros wrote a text that made us think of the pandemic as a sculptural problem: as a problem between the flat and the three-dimensional. At the same time, a large number of people used the first months of the pandemic to resume manual activities such as baking or planting. I was struck by the fact that so much nostalgia for three-dimensionality, for the presence of touch and the manual, was a sign that at the most alienating moment in history, people were trying to find their humanity through the use of their hands. It was a sign that although everything is now digital, the fingers were never so illiterate of the flesh. But it was also a sign that there is something dehumanizing about giving so much preponderance to being just talking eyes and heads.

The pandemic brought to the fore touch and hearing, senses that are often neglected. These were imposed as a necessity in the face of a historical moment in which the devices made us an even more alienated subject: separated through sight from our surroundings, encapsulated as observers, now through a screen.

Vision and alienation, alienation and separation

The works of Harun Farocki, shown in the exhibition Vision. Production. Oppression -just a few months after his death- brought together cinema, Western painting tradition, video games and visual technology of war, to propose a plot: the same cognitive mechanism of abstraction, which has allowed so much progress in visual arts, is the same mechanism that allowed the qualification of the images of war apparatuses. For example, something that makes it easier for a war pilot to drop bombs on a territory is that the digital image he sees from his cockpit does not show human beings, but sticks, lines, shadows. It is much easier to annihilate an abstraction than the complexity of a man with a body and a history. It is easy to drop bombs on a media image, than on a body that begs for mercy. But this is not the only example. There is also a study of several scenes of workers leaving the factory from different films in the history of cinema, and the sequence that Farocki constructs suggests how abstraction is at the base of dehumanization: of the conversion of man into a figure. This is just one radical example, an extreme example of how vision is an organ that, when placed in the foreground and separated from the other senses, produces a feeling of separation from the world around us: it makes us look at everything from above, everything separate; as if we were not part of that which we observe.

Juhani Pallasma (architect) has said that the eye is the organ of distance, and the skin that of proximity. And that reminds me of Hellen Keller, who has been blind almost all her life, and said that she perceived everything close, because the information of the objects and the presences that surrounded her, she felt them as reverberations (vibrations) in her skin [1]. These statements made me realize that sound is also tactile, and that everything that is felt with the skin feels like something close, something I am part of. When I cannot see (in the half-light, with my eyes covered), even the most distant sound seems close, because my skin perceives its waves. What is perceived through touch is much more difficult to name or categorize, while what we see with our eyes is more linked to what is possible to name. Vilém Flusser said that vision is closer to linear thinking than the other senses, because vision is very much linked to reading, and in reading it always goes from one character to another: so our alphabetized vision is used to that: first one thing, then the other. Besides: the eye wants to recognize, to put a name to that which it sees: ah, it is a tree, or it is an eye, or a table. While touch, taste, smell, hearing and perception are senses that capture multiple unnameable and unclassifiable (yet uncoded) stimuli at the same time, even contradictory ones; this makes them less linked to linearity. What is perceived with the other senses different from vision is much more material, less linguistic.

The approach of Farocki’s exhibition seems to coincide with the idea that vision is the sense that most supports logical, linguistic, and linear thinking, and this makes it more susceptible to being the sense that helps us to separate, to instrumentalize, to reify. While vision supports language, and therefore abstraction (through arbitrariness that reduces complexity in order to make it code), the other senses seem to be more linked to concrete thought (which has to do with proximity, with the multiple).


During the confinement I listened to the podcast Invisibilia. In one of the chapters they talked about the work of the musician Bernie Krause, who dedicated a great part of his life to record the sound of different forests. The analysis of his recordings allowed him to propose that among the animals of each habitat an orchestration is created, not a cacophony. Advancing this hypothesis together with scientists, allowed him to discover that the tuning of the animals was an indicator of the health of an ecosystem. For example, toads were orchestrated in a way between themselves and between other species, which managed to generate the sensation of being one great toad, not individual toads, and this protected them from predators. The intrusion of external sounds (such as airplanes, chainsaws, large populations of humans living near these reserves, etc.) caused an imbalance in the harmony between the animals. This new field of study was named “soundscape ecology”. Bernie Krause says that the separation of man from nature is what causes man to be out of tune. That in order to integrate into that tune we would have to listen more, and use that beat of nature as a god that allows us to align ourselves with it. That makes me think that coincidence is not free: the word ecology refers to the aural (echo); and we could propose that an ecosystem is literally that: an ecosystem system; something that is possible thanks to listening.

Bernie Krause

I think of listening as that which allows us to become decentralized as subjects, to stop being the observing center of the world. The idea of the beat as a god made me think of bodily situations that I have experienced as exhibitions and works of art in total darkness, in which other senses are sharpened; or I also remembered experiences of singing or dancing with a group. The dancer Andrea Bonilla explained to me a notion called UBUNTU, which is referred to in Afro-contemporary dance. This dancer and teacher proposes exercises in class in which we all have to produce a rhythm together, and when the rhythm is lost, it is the beat of the herd, which re-integrates the individual. The same thing happens when you are in a chorus. I think of sound and movement as two media, as two registers or forms of experience that help us to deeply understand the idea of interconnection.

In this pandemic, during a yoga class I thought: in this practice I am encouraged to listen to parts of my body. Outside this practice, in everyday life, one tends to relate to one’s body in an instrumental way (I objectify it, I am separated from it, I am its observer who can manipulate it at will, it is a means to an end), while in the experience of yoga I must listen to that which supposedly has no agency, and that the resulting sensation of that experience is that of feeling united with the whole, perceiving the blurring between myself and the world. To listen is to give agency to that which we believe to be without agency, without voice, therefore it is the experience of dis-instrumentalising the uninstrumentalisable.

I think that bodily experiences that decenter the vision (and therefore the logorrhea) as the main experience of our mediation with the world, help us to have an incarnated consciousness of the notion of ecology, of interconnection. If building an ecological consciousness requires a worldview that makes us decenter as subjects, the bodily experiences that privilege other senses, different from sight, put us in front of the sensation of listening to everything that apparently -at first sight- has no agency. It is a simple idea: how through the body, by becoming students of certain bodily practices, we can exercise a deep sense of listening. And that incarnated experience of listening is translated, fertilizing the ground for a deeper understanding of what the notion of ecology means. The idea is simple, and it is the transversal obsession in my work: how to experience with the body the concepts, which are generally abstract; how one can lead from corporal processes an ontological, epistemological transformation; changes of cosmogony that our current problems demand. I have the impression that such a profound change exceeds the discursive mechanisms, and that we as professionals of the sensitive are called to a new study of the sensual; for the pandemic has shown us that it is not only the visible that acts. How can we propose experiences that embody the notion of the ecological, and not only talk about it, about it, around it?



[1] This two references come form the share readings of the reading group Encarna lead by Aimar Pérez Galí and Mar Medina at the MACBA.

Éricka Florez (Cali, 1983) Studied psychology and specialized in history and theory of modern and contemporary art. She co-founded La Nocturna, a platform for experimentation with discursive and pedagogical formats; and she also co-founded La casa en el aire, a space for testing transdisciplinary forms of teaching children through art. His dance conferences Hegelian Dancers and Sobredosis de amor have been presented in different events and spaces at a national and international level. She is the author of books that combine art criticism and fiction: El blanco móvil, Hegelian Dancers, and Ficciones operativas; all published in Colombia.

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