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The Science behind Synesthesia: Rhapsody in Red (The Red Room) 

You enter the gallery, you see a closed red door behind red velvet rope and gold stanchions, a lush red carpet leads to the door. On a bright fire truck red table you see an equally red jar filled with hard cinnamon candy and cherry lifesavers piled on the table. You pick up the bottle of cologne from the table and inhale an intoxicating blend of spiced berries, cinnamon and rose, reading that it is a one-of-a-kind perfume, created specifically for the exhibit you are about to enter. During the day, the space is an exploration of how far the different shades of red can go. Ater an extended time in the room more colors start to appear like oranges, purples, pinks, and browns. At night, the gallery transforms into an “After Dark” performance art piece where the artist directly engages with the participants.


Synesthesia: Rhapsody in Red (The Red Room) exists to transform the gallery or museum and move it from a “hall of reverence and quiet contemplation of what is… (and change it to) another landscape, another place, just like the street outside then our experience of the work becomes one of active exploration, finding paths rather than following them and hearing relationships rather than muting them to distill the art” (Voegelin 2014). More so than seeing the space through photographs or observing the installation but not being allowed to touch or speak, at The Red Room one is “invited to explore the multidimensionality, temporality and complexity of the place, enabling engagement and generative interaction with the multimodality of the work” (Voegelin 2014). It can be photographed and visually categorized but not known unless through experience and interaction. Herein, this essay will describe the science and scholarship behind The Red Room as it relates to the senses; however, visiting the gallery is critical to truly understand the space.  



Handling objects was normal in early museums; unfortunately, now most sensory experience is confined to museum stores. This may be due to touch being linked with ownership; however, The Red Room is a democratic medium which allows touch with more than just the hands, but the whole body. This is an affront to the digital age where our world goes further online and less of our body is immersed in feel. As Scottish artist and designer Geoffry Mann stated, “as the World becomes digital I want to touch everything” (Levent 2014).


This desire is normal. When we see something we already think about what it feels like as touch and sight rely on similar representational systems and imagery processes. The Red Room allows you to play into this natural inclination. When we touch something we know it and fill in the rest that our eyes cannot. Therefore, being able to touch as well as see leads to more elaborate processing, better understanding, and greater recall (Lacey 2014). 



Interestingly, we anticipate sight and sound close to the body as if they were already in contact with the skin (Bacci 2014). The Red Room puts us close to art and auditory events, making us feel the paintings and sounds. Inherently, this makes sense as sound is perception of the disturbance of air pressure. We feel sound waves and can even use mouth clicks (put your tongue on the roof of your mouth or back of teeth and quickly pull away) to echolocate somewhat like a bat. (Arnott 2014). 


By combining paintings and sounds, such as Fractal Stop Sign with traffic noises in the soundtrack and Cardinal with a button to hear cardinal calls, The Red Room puts one near paintings and sound, further increasing the anticipation of skin contact. This is as historical of a connection we can make to early art as it is believed that certain cave painting’s locations in Font-de-Gaume and Lascaux in France were chosen because the echoes from clapping made in those spots mimicked the noises of those animals (Arnott 2014). The first paintings may have been just a part of immersive performance art and The Red Room looks to continue this millenias-old tradition through pre-recorded sounds on the soundtrack, interactive buttons and motion sensing speakers as well as the performance from the artist. 


By including sound in space, the work supports the concept that within the art exhibit sound has become accepted, not merely to justify its presence in the exhibition but to critique on meaning, intent, idea, and relevance (Cluett 2014). The curated soundtrack of sound effects and sampled songs asks visitors to consider what sounds, instruments, and song lyrics are red. Additionally, the pauses in the soundtrack create gaps building anticipation and causing time to seemingly stretch as you wait for the next noise and before being startled by a siren or soothed by the crackling of autumn leaves underfoot.



As the gallery or museum is responsible for curating time as well as space, The Red Room plays with this concept and our sense of time (chronoception) in a few ways. The first, as mentioned previously, is through the variable breaks in the soundtrack which creates tension and a sense of anticipation. This is chosen to mimic the feelings of “red” emotions like passion and anger. The second is through the timing of the “After Dark” performance. The 11 minute “After Dark” performance puts a time crunch on what can be fully experienced in the exhibit, raising one’s feeling of being limited, under pressure or “in-the-red.” This contrasts with the opportunity to experience the room at one’s own pace during daylight hours which eliminates the performance aspect and trades it for a leisurely interaction with the room. During this experience, the longer one stays in the room the more color constancy is challenged as the all red shades begin to mold to different shades of pink, orange, purple, and brown.



The Red Room looks to represent the world similar to our brains, not a photo or “faithfully reproduc(ing) the internal world, but rather…represent it through a set of features that are tuned to excite our brain in a particular fashion” (Casile and Ticini, 2014). The art within attempts to tap on the basic structure of our visual perception through straight lines of particular orientation throughout various pieces and repeats and manipulates those lines to create curves and shapes. It uses the lines as building blocks to construct large objects just as our brain or modern 3-D imaging does. As Piet Mondrian stated (the line) is a stronger and more profound expression than the curve (Mondrian, 1986 cited in Zeki 1999 and Caisle and Ticini 2014). This is why lines are used to create the cherries in 2 Reds: Cherries and the cardinal in Cardinal while the backgrounds in both are made from curves. This keeps the focus on the stronger object in the foreground. 


By focusing on our basic structures of visual perception, the art within the space produces a variety of optical illusions. Using large areas of consistent color near each other creates color contrast; however, by using shorter strokes of those same colors on top of and around the larger planes, the Bezold effect occurs causing each color to look different depending on its adjacent color (Albers, 1978). This manifests in a significant variety of hues within the paintings despite using only red paints. These differences become more obvious the longer one stays in the exhibit. Additionally, some instances of the Ebbinghaus illusion may occur due to shapes being surrounded by both smaller and larger similar shapes which causes difficulty in judging the true size of a particular shape and two similar size shapes may appear different due to the size and distance of the shapes around them. Similarly, Delboeuf illusions may occur due to the randomly sized superimposed grid on top of original shapes as shapes that are a similar size may appear different due to the surrounding line’s distance from the shapes. Illusory motion is created throughout the pieces by alternating dark and light areas within the paintings to cause differences in neural signals while visible strokes and lines in repeated directions force the eye’s movement. These visible strokes also serve to activate mirror neurons in the brain. 


Mirror neurons, specialized neurons in the brain that are activated both when an individual performs a specific action and when they observe someone else performing the same action, may actually be activated when observing finished paintings. These neurons play a key role in social learning, empathy, and understanding the actions and intentions of others. By inviting people to observe the paintings, get close to them and even touch the mural Synonyms (A Mural), the installation Chimney or the pieces such as Wax Heart or Larger than Life Licorice, aesthetic appreciation is increased as one’s mirror neurons are firing while making similar movements as the artist by tracing their hands over the same movements.  Allowing one to touch and mimic allows one to appreciate and understand. According to the embodied simulation theory of aesthetic perception, the artist's creative gestures in a piece could create empathy with the art which tends to strengthen appreciation (Aglioti et. al., 2014). 


To further create an all senses perception of the color, red smells through both modes of stimulation, orthonasal perception (sniffing and smelling) and retronasal smelling (flavor), are used in the exhibit. This dual stimulation within the brain is critical as smell makes one feel a part of what is smelled, generates more emotive memories, and has powerful retrieval cues to our childhood as smell and memory are linked (Stevenson, 2014). Through a  “magical act of transfer” when contact senses (taste, touch, and smell) allow the “essence of the object to transfer to the person doing the contacting” positive contamination occurs (Rozen and Nemeroff, 1990 cited in Stevenson 2014). The Red Room uses smell and taste to make you feel inside the color red and contaminated by the color red as you smell the “red” of cinnamon, strawberry, rose, cherry, red pepper and more while tasting some of those same reds (and occasionally red wine or fruit punch seltzers). Through phenomenological proximity you are left with a more complete impression and more potent and emotive memories  (Aggleton and Waskett, 1999). 


Smelling is active exploration of the environment. Since The Red Room encourages one to use the sense of smell,even asking people to stop and smell the roses (rose water is applied to the rose frame and wall around Fractal Rose), it opens one up to active exploration. Unlike paintings and visual media, smells are something and don't typically represent something; however, in the RR they are both (Keller, 2014). Some are their smell (real red pepper in a red pepper-shaped jar), some are representative (custom created perfume blend of bold, spicy, fruity smells made specifically for the exhibit to demonstrate the essence of red as a smell), but all embody or represent the larger concept of red. Some smells are selected on a seasonal basis (scents coming from diffusers) based on the season to accentuate the experience and nostalgia of the season. 


The Red Room takes on the challenge of olfactory works typically being employed using dysaesthesia (where different media contrast with one another, demonstrating an interrogatory function) but leverages the contrasts towards a synesthetic whole, where all media combine (Drobnick, 1998 cited in Drobnick 2014). Using a variety of different smells from rose, red pepper, and cinnamon spice to cherry, strawberry and apple, The Red Room creates an unmistakable all red experience for the nose.



Retronasal smelling (flavor) is critical to our sense of taste. Using taste in an exhibit results in a  participatory, multi-sensorial, and engaging activity that bridges the gap between personal experience and collective meaning (Mihalache, 2014). Eating or drinking allows us contact with the artwork internally while, in the case of The Red Room, adding reflection to the pleasurable act. In the exhibit one is given the choice to eat sweet red candies of different types and flavors or to eat “hot” or cinnamon flavors. This causes one to consider what they and others would associate more with red: strawberry or cinnamon? Sweet or spicy? 


Body and Balance

The combination of multisensory stimuli lead to The Red Room being an “aesthetically potent environment” (Pask, 1968 cited in Zisch, 2014). There is sufficient variety, novelty and various forms to interpret, cues to guide the learning through specifically chosen red vinyl numbers that link to information on a physical card or webpage, and prompts that engage the participant in conversation both figuratively through the pervasive question of “is this red?” and literally through the piece wherein exhibit attendees are instructed to call someone they love on an all red “emergency” phone.  

Interestingly, interacting within the space causes one to use the sense of proprioception (where our limbs are in space) and equilibrioception (balance) in a similar method to the artist during the creation of the room and may result in a similar navigational neural map of place, grid, boundary vector, and head-direction cells being placed (Zisch, et. al. 2014). This results in an experience of the space close to that of the artist. A neural map like that of the artist’s would be placed while mirror neurons are firing from interacting with the items thereby driving increased empathy and understanding.  


By putting people into a first person point of view with the work this serves to increase the embodiment and activation of the sensory motor cortex as objects close to the body can automatically trigger the representations of potential actions (Constantini et. al, 2010 cited in Casile). The Red Room plays on this idea of close objects activating action representations by putting one in close contact with a red steel drum, a rubber dodgeball, and velvet curtains. In some cases driving representations of actions that may not be fulfilled (it’s one’s choice to bounce the ball or bang the drum) and in others forcing those representations to be fulfilled (forced interaction with velvet curtains to get to either side of the room


One’s balance is challenged through navigating the balloons on the floor and by the various heights of items to sit on. The different and somewhat unnatural heights of the objects results in the effect of feeling too tall and towering over some objects like the heart chair while feeling too small for others like the raised stools and table. This difference in heights creates an interesting effect where both you and the room “gets bigger” when you sit on the small heart chair but the room seems too small (or perhaps yourself too big) when sitting at the stools. 


Meaning: Conceptual, Experiential, and Aesthetic value 

The RR is meaningful on conceptual, experiential and aesthetic levels. 


Conceptually, The Red Room uses the unique style of reconstrucivist art in response to postmodernism and other contemporary styles. The Red Room takes postmodernism to its logical conclusion by taking all senses to one singular experience. For more on reconstructivism’s response to postmodernism see the Philosophy page of the website.  


Additional meaning on a conceptual level is driven from the exploration of synaesthetic stimuli. In The Red Room synaesthetic stimuli are associated with perceptual experiences such as colors, textures, or flavors. While it is typically thought these associations are individual and not learned, The Red Room argues these synaesthetic associations could be more universal than we believe – while still not being learned. Certain stimuli have additional features bonded and those features are received and experienced from those stimuli (Ward, 2014).  Is it possible that we receive certain features from stimuli that trigger associations universally? Do we associate certain tastes, textures, and sounds with red based on inherent features of that stimuli beyond color? For instance, is red inherently passionate and is it mere coincidence we associate certain textures or flavors with red and passion? The Red Room forces us to ask these and many other questions about the inherent qualities of color beyond sight. 


To further reinforce the conceptual exploration of synaesthetic stimuli in regards to one color, it is valuable to discuss the practices of the Shipibo-Conibo Indians of Peru. They use synesthesia for healing by perceiving human created designs not as visual abstractions but as matrices of intersensory perception: “these geometric designs are at the same time musical scores and perfume recipes” (Howes, 2014). In a similar way, The Red Room considers red as more than just a color, but at the same time a compendium of unique segments of each sense. As mentioned, demonstrating color to be inherently synesthetic. 


The last conceptual meaningfulness discussed here is in The Red Room’s unique ability to drive towards a memorable experience. It is believed that overlap leads to easier remembering and that the brain can avoid sensory overload if information is not conflicting (Ward, 2014). The Red Room pushes this maxim to the extreme through the overlapping of many stimuli across all the senses. Everything is related to red so recall should be quite simple. 


Additionally, many factors are put in play to create a defining and memorable moment as discussed in The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Heath, 2017). At The Red Room, this begins by raising the stakes right from the start with a red carpet leading to red velvet rope on gold stanchions that keep visitors behind a mysterious red door. Using novelty and unexpectedness to elevate the experience continues inside the room by including peak moments, moments of surprises, and unreasonableness through various sensory pleasures and concierge level transitions led by the artist himself. The experience incorporates connection through being a social experience. It incorporates pride through participating in both versions of the exhibit, particularly through staying for the full 11-minute after dark experience. Similarly the 11-minute experience allows one to potentially obtain further insight through a eureka moment at the end of the exhibit driven by direct artist interaction that attempts to provide one with a sobering moment of clarity. 


Experientially, The Red Room is meaningful through the multisensory approach occasionally found in large scale ticket installations or commercial tours but enhanced through intimacy and scholarship. Many “museums” ranging from ice cream to selfies currently exist as immersive experiences that are often temporary structures put together for the purpose of getting pictures to put on Instagram or videos for TikTok. While information is shared in these spaces one wouldn’t confuse it with the traditional museum experience wherein the focus is less on taking photos of oneself within the space and more on experiencing and appreciating the work of others in various mediums. Understanding there is a demand for both experiences, what if you could mix the two? Incorporating all the senses into the experience of fine art in a traditional museum or gallery setting, The Red Room explores this question and demonstrates it is possible. 


Blending more senses with fine art is a step museums and galleries can take to drive audiences of all kinds to exhibits, including those with sense limitations. “Multisensory experiences around works of art enrich all visitors' understanding” making the other senses just as important as seeing a material object because “experiencing things through different senses can be mutually reinforcing” (McGinnis, 2014). More memorable moments will likely result in higher participant satisfaction, leading to more return visitors and those critical “moments of truth” where visitors share positive interactions with their social networks.


As for those with sense limitations, The Red Room allows persons with low visual acuity the opportunity to use all of their other senses to experience red despite not being able to see it. We know from the Museum of Modern Art in New York that low visual sense persons want touch experiences in the museum, not separate programs outside of the main gallery spaces (McGee, 2014). By having an experience for all persons focused on all the senses, The Red Room shows that multiple-sense exhibits can exist in main gallery spaces; hereby, allowing persons of all senses to feel at home in the exhibit. 


There is a certain aura or mystique when close to original works of art (McGinnis, 2014). The Red Room puts you inside an original work of art and also puts art inside of you, enhancing this mystique to the maximum. The smells of The Red Room enter one’s body, including specially-crafted perfume and self-created essential oil blends. The curated flavors, while currently commercially available items, could (and may) become specially crafted artisanal candies. 


In a way, The Red Room is similar to Navajo sand paintings which are created to heal a sick or struggling community member. After the creation of a sand painting the patient sits on the painting, putting themselves within the art (Howes, 2014). The Red Room also allows people to sit within art and potentially be healed as will be further elaborated on during the sociopolitical critique discussion. The Red Room puts us in the art to maximize the energy exchange between art and the observer. As Peter Sellars stated, “we activate the art and then the art activates us, that’s the energy, the reciprocity” (Axel and Feldman, 2014). In creating a space where we can experience art through all of our senses, The Red Room fulfilled Sellars call to abandon puts us in the art to maximize this exchange and “once again pollute these places, make a mess, make a set of ritual, activate ourselves and activate the art” (Axel and Feldman, 2014).


Aesthetically, The Red Room is meaningful as the use of basic shapes and lines to create complex representations mimic that of our basic visual system which in turn is a conceptual discussion on what the world truly is and how our brain interprets that world and changes it. The Red Room moves us back to the original definition of aesthetics more related to the sensory before Kant made us feel it stood for disinterested contemplation and judgment (Kant, 1790 cited in Howes 2014). Aesthetics arise at the intersection of the senses by putting relevant sounds, smells, and tastes near the paintings and The Red Room is an embodiment of the red aesthetic. Additionally, further demonstrating that blindness is not a barrier to an aesthetic experience (Aglioti et. al., 2014). 


Meaning: Reference to Art History and Place in Contemporary Art 

The Red Room refers extensively to art history both in inspiration (read the Inspiration for The Red Room) and in exhibit (read the Exhibit Description), yet attempts to move us forward into a new stage of production as artist, administration as museum or gallery curator, and analysis as critic. Leveraging techniques and inspiration from all eras while combining this with a distinct, low-polygon contemporary style, the art looks to inspire artists past Postmodernism (read the Philosophy of The Red Room). The exhibit exists as a challenge to curators to continue to accept more senses into their space, including those not always considered like touch, taste and time. For critics, The Red Room is a consideration to accept and analyze spaces to a different definition of aesthetic than perhaps currently considered. 


Meaning: Sociopolitical critique

The Red Room makes a socio-political critique on multiple levels. 


First, the democratization of art. In the modern period, often only the elite class are permitted to handle art. The Red Room attempts to democratize and make art handling accessible to all classes. Additionally, the creation of a place of accessibility where experiencing fine art such as painting and poetry (Red Request, a poem that uses idioms and phrases containing the word red by artist Charles Pellicane is on the wall), is accompanied by the seemingly low brow (found objects/readymades including commercialized candy) is a critique on the traditional marketing of art and art spaces to the upper class. 


A second critique exists on the social expectations of artists to use digital means. In response to this expectation, the paintings comment on the quality of those works by taking low poly images often found produced by photoshop or ai modeling and turning those works into physical productions. As well, the inclusion of a scrolling LED board with “red” words, including those not typically associated with the color red, and other digital media including lights and sounds gives the audience what they want, but makes them work for it (for instance, the LED words and projected alarm clock are only visible from certain angles in the space). 


A third, semi-hidden sociopolitical critique is on our societal issues with guns, school shootings and suicide. A singular all red school bench sits in front of a concrete school wall overlaid with eleven different red paints dripping down the cracks and walls. The wall looks like a cheery red mural and nostalgia, coupled with the sensory pleasures of candy, perhaps take us back to our happier times and we forget our sufferings (Cicero was wrong). Participants sit in front of this wall and take instagram photos not necessarily realizing dripping paint is used nowhere else in the gallery. Similarly, we ignore the constant school shootings and those blood red covered walls and benches not realizing the extent of our numbness. 


The repetition of the number eleven continues beyond the choice in color tones for Synonyms (A Mural). Eleven is also the number of stop signs in each row of Fractal Stop Sign and the number of minutes one stays in the exhibit during the “After Dark” performance. Through this repetition, suicide is evoked as a person in the United States dies every eleven minutes from suicide according to Center for Disease Control. The balloons inflated by participants and placed on the exhibit floor that may suddenly pop and startle us represent the sudden passing of suicide. 


This final critique ties into the artist interrogating his own and our notions of identity. On the morning of Friday, May 18, 2018, that person that was suddenly gone was Ryan Pellicane, the artist's brother. Through a short monologue the artist asks questions during special "After Dark" performances to have visitors contemplate the difficulty in imagining the world without a particular person’s color and the importance of our own particular shade to the world and others. Through this performance the artist steps into the art with the visitor hoping to create a moment of reflection and healing for visitor and artist alike.



Can we take the museum from a place of quiet reverence to a place of laughter and excitement while retaining its unique ability to provide intellectually stimulating experiences among pieces of art? The Red Room answers this question without compromise and demonstrates how it can be done. Often, there is a sensory gap in the museum experience: monosensory art objects being viewed by multisensory beings. The Red Room eliminates that gap. The exhibit facilitates multisense stimulation on the monosenory and creates the mutisensory (Drobnick, 2014).  


The Red Room continues to blur the line of the gallery (and what the museum can be) itself. Like the Tate Museum or MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) it is an experimental way to show artworks. Nina Levent has asked “Can museums compete with other venues as entertainment centers?” (Chan et. al., 2014). The Red shows that it can both by using technology and by demonstrating that “art is not just an object, it's a process it’s an event, it’s a performance (Rafael Lozano Hammer, in Chan et. al., 2014). Through a multimodal approach putting relevant sounds, smells, and tastes near paintings and including interactions with the artist, The Red Room has created what Julián Zugazagoitia describes as a “an environment with that heightened awareness in mind; that works of art are displayed in surroundings that contributed to their understand, exaltation and an appreciation” (Axel and Feldman, 2014). Furthermore, The Red Room creates a unique and memorable interactive moment in someone’s life, altering our perception of what the gallery can do. To quote Yukio Lippit “artists have already been playing an important role in transforming gallery spaces since the 1960s and this role can certainly be expanded to include more traditional exhibition spaces in the future” (Axel and Feldman, 2014). The Red Room is an attempt to catalyze this transformation in more traditional spaces. 


Elisabeth Axel and Kaywin Feldman asked “What role can artists play in transforming museum spaces and experiences toward including sense other than vision?” (Axel and Feldman, 2014). Beyond tapping into all our senses, The Red Room and artist Charles Pellicane answer that question by disrupting the boundaries of the gallery space through aesthetics and history mixed with experiential and social learning; thereby, replacing the often one-way museum lecture and quite literally putting the artist in the exhibit and engaging with the audience through a variety of senses (sound of each other’s voices, touch of each other’s hands, smell of each other’s person). Moreover, Frederick John Lamp imagined a world where, “Artists.. should be invited more often to work in the art-filled galleries themselves” (Axel and Feldman, 2014). At The Red Room, because it is required for the artist to perform, the artist passes the time by working in the gallery space, further challenging the concept of the space’s traditional use. The Red Room looks to address the visitor’s whole person emotionally and intellectually more similar to the Navajo who experience beauty through expression and creation not perception and presentation (Witherspoon, 1977 cited in Malnar and Vodvarka 2014). By asking one to step into the art, participate, and become a part of art that expression and creation is realized. 


In conclusion, The Red Room is pushing forward the art viewing experience by tapping into how we naturally process our environment as “sensory experience is fundamentally synesthetic” (Yukio Lippit in Axel and Feldman, 2014). As Artist Ann Hamilton stated, “we think and feel through our senses… the felt experience of spaces, sound, light, temperature and smell have everything to do with what and how we think” (Axel and Feldman, 2014). The Red Room and artist Charles Pellicane look to continue this push through opportunities, gallery and exhibit space, and contributions. We hope to partner with experienced curators and artists to collaborate on future projects. 


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