During the planning phase of the ‘Sensorial Ground’ workshop, we worked with different forms of practice to explore the notions and ways of thinking that arose in our discussions. We wished to understand (through experience) what exercises would genuinely support our intentions and to define them in such a way that others might echo this experience, whilst finding a personal connection. One of our primary activities was to walk in our respective home areas. We spoke frequently, sharing our experiences, reflections, and visuals from our small journeys. Alongside this, we shared readings that we felt drawn to and places of overlapping interest, which held connection and meaning.
In the beginning of our work, we found Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s book The Metamorphosis of Plants intriguing and especially the new edition of the book with Gordon L. Miller’s introduction and photography (Goethe 2009). Miller's lifelong fascination with Goethe’s approaches and his own endeavour to produce this edition inspired us. In his search for specimens, Miller travelled far and wide as had Goethe many years before him. Miller had deep motivation to experience and reveal the world that Goethe unfolds in his writings and he went to great lengths of finding the exact same plants or details that Goethe had drawn in his original version of the book. This endeavour inspired us in our practice to experience the surrounding nature in new ways. Finding the poet–scientist in our practice helped to discover the nuanced and detailed aspects of our environment that supported the attuning to the subtle senses.
This newly illustrated version became almost like a ‘teacher’ as we began to walk and explore our local environments. In Goethe’s work on understanding plant life, he shed light on the different forms and aspects of individual plants, instead of solely looking into the best specimens. He sought to understand the conditions that influence the growth and form (Miller 2009: xxii). Goethe’s poetic inquiry was for him a way of achieving a better understanding of plant life as a whole. In his writings, he examined irregular, or accidental metamorphosis in comparison to regular. Through irregular metamorphosis he discovered insights that would have been hidden had he only focused on the regular metamorphosis (Goethe 2009: 6–7). His approach brings forward the subjective experience of perceiving plants, which teaches us about interconnection and interdependence. We began to recognize and embrace this approach in our practice and research.
Within our daily lives, we found the walks to be useful for directing our attention to the body with ease, through our subtle senses. We found ourselves naturally returning to aspects of our experiences over and over and they came to support the foundation of our thinking.
First, there was a feeling of openness — of being open to the environment and at the same time opening the senses, our use of embodied tactility in our perception, being aware of the sounds that turned our bodies in different directions, and the piercing spring light which would stop us in our tracks. Watching and experiencing how nature comes to life around us, seeing the shades of luminous green where it was all brown just the other day.
This was a process of tuning into the aesthetics of our everyday experience. It was about revealing our personal connections that took our curiosity by the hand, to explore nature and our experiences in this material world as material beings. This basis of our research was informed by organism-environment interaction where it is recognized that we are biological organisms and in our understanding of our world all is dependent on our bodily makeup and patterns of engagement with our world (Johnson 2015: 1).
In order to understand and direct the personal experiences that are mostly based on sensorial perception we employed the theoretical framing of having an experience according to John Dewey (2005). In his writings, Dewey builds his theory on everyday experiences in order to be open for all and not limit the experiencing of art to any specific group of people. The process of having an experience is based on an organism-environment interaction. Dewey writes: “experience is the result, the sign, and the reward of that interaction of organism and environment which, when it is carried to the full, is a transformation of interaction into participation and communication” (ibid.: 22). In the ‘Sensorial Ground’ workshop, we concentrated on this active participation and sought to share the aesthetic nature of our experiences.
Starting to open his idea of having an experience, Dewey says that in order to understand the aesthetic, one must begin with the experience in the raw. He continues to unfold a way of attentive appreciation, of being able to enjoy the surrounding life with all its nuances, being open to subtle qualities, of happenings, and not remaining as a “cold spectator” (2005: 3). Similarly, we began the workshop with the idea of being attentive observers who approach the qualities we find with gentle delight, who notice the details and are drawn to the utterances that we so often miss. This began by bringing attention to the fresh sensory experience of each moment, where there is always something new to learn. For this approach, we sought to bring attention to one sense at a time. In this way, we might gently discourage deciding what is seen before it is ‘felt’ within.
Opening our senses to the environment was the beginning of starting to explore and understand the individual connections that created an interest towards something. During the first week, participants were asked to explore the embodied tactile experiences, to simply follow a willingness to touch — to notice the urge to touch. They were asked the question, why do you want to touch it and to imagine what it would feel like to touch? We wished to give the sense of how the tactile experience feels in our bodies before touching and then how it feels in our bodies when touching, feeling the discovered rock, or surface. Taking this approach, we began to open up our sense perceptions and linger with them in the body.