Sharing humanity

The sensescape is not the same for everybody. Our subjectivity and sensibility, shaped by previous experience, make us feel some qualities of the space around us in a specific way. We react differently to heat and wind, to the smell of a flower or the noise of traffic. Our heart beats for the mountains in the distance or for the flowing river at our feet. During a walk, our memory and imagination are trigged in unexpected and very personal ways.

And yet, when the other is near us, walking side-by-side, we are fully aware that he, or she, will be able to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, what we are sensing. We just need to tell them. To show. He, she is like us, a human. Our species evolved in a way to coordinate senses: this allows us to do amazing things, together. Senses and coordinated action are fundamental for human life, for survival.

Our research investigates the role of the body, mind, memory, and imagination – an embodied consciousness – in building a coordinated sense of place, time, and identity. We are interested in how the human capacity to feel plays a role in the construction of unexpected relationships. Walking together in a place of choice is a powerful way to meet the other, as well as otherness within us.

In our study, refugees living in the Province of Lecco, Northern Italy, met local young adults for a walk in their “places of the heart”. It was before the Corona virus, before social isolation, and this crisis that will haunt all of us for the years to come. Now, a lonely walk around the block is what we can do. Meeting others – strangers – is dangerous. We are forgetting how to share our humanity.

So, it feels good to look at photographs taken by Silvia Luraschi, my co-researcher, during the sensobiographic walks in the summer of 2019. This Sunday, Silvia will meet online some of the participants for a dissemination conference, to refresh their memories – and ours – about those walks. About our humanness.

Laura Formenti, Full Professor in General and Social Pedagogy, University of Milano Bicocca

Pictures by Silvia Luraschi, Italy 2019

Recalibrating after the sensory lockdown

June 29, 2020 was a long-awaited day in Finland. After the three months of staring steadily at the first rapidly rising and then slowly declining Covid-19 figures, the number of patients in intensive care finally went back to zero. Already two weeks earlier, the Finnish government had revoked the Emergency Powers Act, signalling a steady but careful shift towards a “new normal”: a sort-of-ordinary social life still haunted by a cautionary undertone.

Although Finland never went to a complete lockdown – there were no curfews, half of the employees worked on-site, the nurseries remained open throughout the spring –, the experiences of the strange and frightening period are still largely to be processed, debated and critically unpacked. While the media discourse and the governmental sources stressed that “we’re all in the same boat”, there was actually a mishmash of tiny vessels with tremendously varying capacities in which people had to sail through the unknown sea.

The experience(s) of Covid-19 are illuminating also for sensory studies, even if still too close to be thoroughly scrutinised. The regulations and recommendations for physical distancing imposed a sort of “sensory lockdown”, a massive in vivo socio-cultural experiment that could have never been implemented without the threat of the pandemic.

It would be natural to think of the past spring in terms of sensory deprivation: we were advised not to touch other people or even to be in the same physical space with them. We had to let go of elementary ways of connecting bodily with others. Also, what was meant as physical distancing quickly became social distancing. Even the spatial boundaries inside which we could wander were severely limited.

However, and especially from the perspective of sensory studies, it is also important to look into how people remediated and reconfigured their habits and sensory relations in the exceptional conditions. A sudden disruption of the accustomed senso-social order not only gives hints about how the “old normal” was constituted in the first place but also sheds light to how people devise new improvisatory tactics that may go well beyond merely compensating for the reduced physical contacts. We were deprived of certain modes of sensing (-together) but surging or even abundant with other ones.

For Sensotra, in April 2020, our little worry among the much bigger worries was to decide on what to do with our much-anticipated international conference: Urban-related sensoria. Transferring a sensory studies conference into a purely digital space was not an easy decision to make. Many sensorial and bodily elements – sights, smells, sounds, or proprioseptics of walking together – would evidently be lost. Neither could we enjoy the particular landscape (in Koli national park, Finland) what we thought would have provided an inspiring backdrop for exchanging and developing ideas. However, we did not want either to throw away the unique opportunity of bringing together researchers, artists and activists around the common topic – of sensing the urban space.

In June 2020, when preparing the technical aspects of the online conference, I already felt “Zoom-exhausted”. Even that the online teaching for the spring term at the University of Eastern Finland went quite smoothly, I had recognised that the online-only working mode had become burdensome: in every Zoom meeting, there seemed to be less cameras on, and less smiling faces in the ones that were. We were, or at least some of us felt being, overburdened by a restricted mode of sensory communication.

The decision of organising the Urban sensoria conference online somehow reflects the approach that Sensotra takes towards the historical transformations of the sensoria more generally: we acknowledge that the changes brought about by new technologies (such as smartphones) can be (and often are) drastic, pushing away customary ways of relating to the environment and other people. Still, we cannot submerge ourselves into a melancholy that would prevent us from seeing the novel and emerging modes of sensing-together.

From my perspective, which is evidently a partial one, the conference was a success. Instead of negative affects invoked by the Zoom burden, what I witnessed was a prolonged moment of warm-heartedness, togetherness, and conviviality. Even that we heard very kind words about how the conference was organised, it is obvious that this kind of atmosphere cannot be created top-down. Instead, it emerges (if emerges!) semi-spontaneously by and amongst those who come and converge. This said, I wish to thank all of the participants for making the event possible!

Recalibrating after the sensory lockdown is not only about remembering and learning again how to hug a friend without hesitation, but also about building upon and extending on the new modes of connecting, be them “offline” or “online” – or preferably both. Not only the pandemic but also the climate emergency requires us to reconsider our mobility practices as “global academics”. While online conferences cannot replace the atmosphere and open and undetermined potential of the offline ones, they can still teach us to appreciate more the precious moments of converging for a common cause.

Enjoying the performance of conductor/clarinettist Eero Lehtimäki at the conference party.

Juhana Venäläinen, Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies, University of Eastern Finland

»Covid tovariš razgalja taj sistem«*: Fieldnotes from Ljubljana in the Age of a Pandemic

Tuesday, March 17 2020

A few days have passed after the corona-quarantine has ventilated our daily lives. My partner and I performed a self-isolation housebound act starting from Saturday. Today, after hours of sitting at the office-dining table, I decided to take Sabali [our tail-wagging human-companion] for an evening walk around the city. Truth to be told, I take myself out for a walk. First, I plan a short stroll around the neighborhood, nothing longer. After a few initial steps, overhearing a conversation in the distance in Croatian – I guess the two are either tourists stuck in Ljubljana or workers lodged in the hotel nearby – I decide to take Sabali off the leash. There is no one else in sight, therefore no danger for him to rush into someone. At one of the coronavirus checkpoints in the city, at Metelkova, we screen a graffiti that reads »Človek človeku korona« [Homo homini corona]. Spray-painted in army green.

We are moving past the beloved Metelkova. Ground floors are empty. Clubs have shut their doors over the weekend, even the hostel looks forsaken. Consumed with curiosity, how’s the situation in front of the UKC [University Medical Centre or Ljubljana] we set foot in that direction. Rare are the faces we encounter in the dim atmosphere: a lone walker here and there, a dog lover on a mission similar to ours. A glance across the street reveals a void –  spite of the fact that on Friday people queued in line, today desolation is imprinted all over the place. On the thoroughfare Njegoševa only a car passes now and then. The air is clear. A phrase once uttered on other occasions. Viral clips of dolphins returning to harbors and the Serenissima crystal clear water-traffic corridors flash to mind. Earlier in the afternoon I had a chat with my partner upon her return from hometown Mengeš [a nearby town some 20-minute drive away]. She reported an encounter with a buzzard, a bird she hasn’t seen in ages as it doesn’t fly over the air-traffic area.

Spring is in the air. A gust of warm wind blows. I pulled on a winter coat, a winter hat and pocketed a pair of gloves just to be on the safe side – without need. As the usual Cukrarna seems deserted so we can stretch our extremities on the green plots in peace and quiet. Across Poljanska a group of dewired high school students are having a loaf. There’s someone on the basketball court yet I only hear the evenly drumming  echoes that bounce off the nearby buildings. Some floors lower a snarl through the teeth responds to it. OK time to quicken the pace. The sky opens to a linear noise, that of an airplane. Commercial flights to Brnik [national] airport were shut down as of today. Streliška has to offer glowing beams of light coming from opened windows; reflections of TV screens and chandelier shines mix together as the scents of just-made delicacies fill the nostrils.

For the first time in about 10 years, I privileged to bake bread. (That was in New Zealand which feels like a far-off chapter). The 1.5 kg pile of flour didn’t end up in anything too aesthetic. It is only after the flashback that I notice two human silhouettes rummaging with fingers on the Castle Hill’s info board. Touches arrived to be lethal, I say to myself, so continue down the pavement on the opposite side of the road. Every now and then Sabali is washed ashore to my presence only to yet again disappear into the pitch black corners of the streets that have grown quiet. In reality, here too, there’s no need to keep him on a leash – even the pedestrian crossing at the Puppet Theater looks safe. Cars evaporated much like the life in the city. I recall what my colleague posted in one of the past days on Instagram: is a city without its people still a city? Out of sheer curiosity I head across the Old Town. The clock chimed 9 o’clock, but there’s no sign of music from the bars. All there are chairs neatly stacked on top of one another and chain locked. The lights are off everywhere – the situation on the upper floors is no different. Darkness. From the catering industry only the ventilator sounds are left. At the cathedral, we experience a close canine encounter, but the situation quickly passes by.

On the corner, what the four-legged friend somewhat smelled earlier judging by his awkward behaviour, a well-known melos awaits. The sound of “nebodigatreba” accordion eery-terrorist. What an apocalyptic image of a bellows-stretcher cashing coin into his lit suitcase, even today! Perhaps he plays to himself, who knows. If anything, that’s probably how the local counterpart to the Titanic orchestra scene will look like. Drown we go, with the total signifier of being-Slovenian. Following the example of Italy, today at around 7, music was DJ’ed from balconies. The neighbors’s opening song was, no surprises, some Oberkrainer tune. Trubarjeva street is still messed up on some corners. A few bags of construction material, open excavations and the tools indicate that even today workers have been renovating the street. A realization of Banerjee’s necrocapitalism, in a nutshell. Sabali woofs for the first time only when we literally cross the doorstep. A pizza delivery scooter acts as the barking trigger. I unlock the apartment door, it smells like antiseptic and chickpeas.

* »covid comrade unmasks this system«, lyrics from Strategia Tensie – Korona (

Photo and video credit: Darja Kopitar


Supplement: Working Class in the Time of a Pandemic by Danilo Milovanović

The mini documentary presents the position of construction workers after the state went into lockdown. Filmed in Ljubljana on March 21th 2020.

Sandi Abram, PhD student of Social and Cultural Encounters (UEF, Joensuu) and SENSOTRA’s project researcher

Art and Activism Constructing Urban Sensory Environments

During a sensobiographic walk urban experiences are composed of sensed environment, individual and collective memories and remembering, which are then shared with the fellow walkers participating to research.

With this in mind two walks were carried out in Spring 2018 in Turku, Finland, with two participants and a researcher documenting the discussion. Both walkers had a background in artistic work, artistic interventions and activism related to political decision-making, especially in the context of accessibility of art and how this all relates to issues such as sharing of public funds and how they are channelled not only locally and nationally but also within the European community.

The participants tackled themes such as artistic interventions and how EU-subsidized and grassroots artistic interventions were constructing common urban environment – and how certain political and artistic views tended to collide. Also, topobiographical descriptions referring to the walkers’ life-courses as it relates to lived places enabled transfer of knowledge on traditions, beliefs and behaviours from one generation to another thus contributing to transgenerational nature of the walks.

An aging informant described the acts of activism in the 1960s taking place in local park, next to the Turku Art Museum. Turku activists called themselves situationists after their French contemporaries. Situationists International was a transnational organization of social revolutionaries, a collective of avant-garde artists and intellectuals prominent in Europe from 1957 to 1972. Their goal was to change society by provocations and mainly artistic interventions, that a group of people could experience in a given place at a given time.

Sensobioraphic view to Turku Arts Museum

To some extent this took place in Turku, too. According to a Sensotra participant the Turku situationists had puzzling slogans such as “Hooray for what?’ [Eläköön mimmoinen?] and “If you go somewhere, you can expect anything”. [Jos menet jonnekin, voit odottaa mitä tahansa.] The act of repainting signs in the park was described as follows: “Then we painted ´Please keep off the grass’ signs. We collected them at night and with a couple of artists painted new slogans and then brought the signs back again. It didn’t have much effect, though. City workers collected them in the Autumn and brought them back the next Spring. They practically circulated the ones we had painted!”

Situationist International was a movement, which was afraid of recuperation. Their fundamental fear was that the situationists’ ideas would be first trivialized and sterilized, and then they’d be safely incorporated back within mainstream society, where they can be exploited to add new flavours to old dominant ideas. In retrospect, it looks like that Turku situationists were not necessarily afraid of recuperation, but perhaps slightly amused of it.

The act of remembering occurred in given places meaningful to sensobiographic walkers. In this specific context multifaceted definitions of place could benefit from Edward Casey’s ideas, which make the relationship to physical places utterly dynamic: culture is carried into places by bodies. Thus, memories of individuals are connected to factual events and places become layered ethnographic histories of a given urban environment.

Furthermore, as part of the data analysis and in support of sensobiographic research, it is possible to combine the information generated by walking method with the social and cultural history of a particular place and area.

Dr. Heikki Uimonen, Principal investigator (ACMESOCS) and Project researcher (SENSOTRA), University of Eastern Finland

Sonja’s greetings from Santiago, Chile

K: So the only thing you needed was that feeling of “I have to pee” and there you were: outside. Everything used to happen outside.
A: And, and and there was the smell and the sound.
K: Yeah.
A: But nowadays there is no smell in the bathrooms […]
K: Mm.
K2: Mm.
K: They are inside ones home. [the bathrooms]
K2: Life has moved indoors.
K: Mm.
K2: And the walls isolate.
A: Yeah.
K2: The sounds and.
K: The walls isolate everything.
K2: Mm.
A: And like smells and scents they get eliminated, sterilized.
K2: Mm.
K: Yeah. Yes.
(Sensobiographic walking, Turku, Pair 24)

While going through our data for one of my PhD article, the above quotation from Turku caught my eye. It is true. Scents and smells are being eliminated all around Europe. In Finland we have people who are more and more affected and sensitive to strong odors. It seems like we have a lower threshold for smells.

Nonetheless, today I am not in Turku, but I find myself in  Santiago, Chile. I am staying here as a visiting fellow at the University of Andres Bello “Critical theory” doctoral program.

There is a hunch of the past in Santiago, Chile regarding  strong smells, loud sounds and touch; how people kiss the air while their cheeks touch to greet. One night there was a loud party next door and I was trying to sleep. Strange thing was, the noise did not bother me the way it would have in Finland where we are not used to any sound pollution after 10:00 pm.

When you enter  the grocery store, the first thing you smell are the fruits, the sweet and aromatic scent of a nectarine, the touch of sun and earth in the oranges. The music is loud. People are loud. The shopping carts are like the ones  we had in Finland 10 years ago. Do you remember the small ones that always had at least one wheel that would not turn properly? Those. I buy chewing gum from a vending machine and it just eats my 100 pesos and I get nothing in return. Nothing really works properly, which creates a forgiving atmosphere where one is allowed to fail too. But in some things the Chilean are ahead of us: there are NO plastic bags in the grocery stores.

I ask whether there are people who are sensitive to smells. The locals don’t even really understand my question. “What do you mean? Like, sick?”

I feel like my most primitive senses are in more active use here than in Finland. The sense of smell and taste are heightened and in great use while I walk through the city. The park of Bustamante has four Carabinero (police) tanks and one can smell and taste the tear gas of the protest that is taking place. The feeling of one “being alive” is very present here on the edge of the risk that something might actually happen to your body.

In October 2019, there was a 30-peso increase in the metro ticket price. It is from there the protests start. Safe to say it is not just  an increase in a metro ticket that made the citizens angry. That was just the tipping point in the long history of economic inequality in a country, that is ranked as high-income economy (World Bank) and that was the first of all Latin-American countries to ever enter the OECD and that has had steady economic growth since the 60’s. It’s about a country where minimum wage is 447 US dollars per month (Ley 21.112 1) but the class differences continue to tear people apart.

I buy water from a small kiosk opposite the plaza. I ask for advice from an older lady who replies:“si, mi amor?” – “Yes, my love?”. I feel like being hugged by this country as well as I feel violated when I wander through the plaza to get to the other side of the city. Someone calls me “bonbon, caramelo!” When I cross the street. (Later I use this insult as my Instagram nickname). There is a text written in the wall that says: “Nos mean y prensa dice que llueve” that means “They are pissing on us and the media says it is raining”. The distant tear gas enters my lungs. I stop to stare for awhile but the tank drives closer so I decide to leave. It is strange how all the most terrifying things become ones normality and everyday life within days. It is the survival instinct I guess; one needs to feel “normal” no matter the situation.

Sonja Pöllänen, PhD student in anthropology and Project researcher at SENSOTRA
She will be staying in Chile until 11th of March.

Artist of the painting in the photo: Caiozzama


An appetizer: The making of (and a sneak preview of) ‘Senses of Cities’

While definitely a pleasant task, editing a volume is, probably for anyone, also a challenge, regardless of his or hers previous experiences with such projects. Nevertheless, the challenge is particularly, well, challenging, if you are – to use the only expression proper for blog – a noob, “fresh.” Like me. Or Sandi Abram, my colleague and co-editor of the collection of essays, Občutki mest: Antropologija, umetnost, čutne transformacije, or, in English, Senses of Cities: Anthropology, Art, Sensory Transformations. We’ve been working on the first volume to be published within the framework of the SENSOTRA project for the past couple of months. For now, only a version in Slovene language is planned, but never say never especially, when it comes to publishing in English in the publish-or-perish-world of contemporary academia.

Well, neither I, nor Sandi are total noobs in the editorial business; we both have some experience with editing scientific journals, myself with KULA – Journal of Slovene ethnological and anthropological association Kula and Sandi with the Journal for the Critique of Science, Imagination, and New Anthropology. Still, working on an independent, self-standing, so to say, monograph is another kind of undertaking altogether. Luckily, though, we have a third editor joining us, someone with a considerable millage in dealing with all sorts of texts, authors of various persuasions and temperaments, shall we say. Perhaps even more luckily we have not needed Rajko Muršič’s expertise – yet (I’m pretty sure we’ll need some of his wizardry in the upcoming weeks, when we’ll start wrapping things up). So far, the editing process went as smoothly as one could hope for: authors sending their contributions well after the agreed-upon deadline, the reviewers likewise being late with their commentaries, authors being unhappy with the reviews they’ve gotten, us being unsatisfied with (some) texts and reviews… In short, everything is as it should be!

While we expected to receive a colourful mix of contributions, as we have in addition to scholars, invited several practicing artists who, each in his or her own way, engage (or in one instance disengage) with the senses, we received a truly kaleidoscopic mix of texts. In the call-for-papers, we wrote that

the book Senses of Cities: Anthropology, Art, Sensory Transformations invites broader reflections on the meaning of sensory perceptions, experiences and memories, reflections on, in short, senses, from the perspective of anthropology, ethnology, ethnomusicology, sociology, philosophy and other related disciplines as well as artistic practices and reflections. /…/ The collection will therefore include selected works by working artists in Ljubljana who, with various techniques and through different media, thematise sensory experiences of the city, senses and sensory transformations. We leave it to the artists to decide what kind of artwork they wish to present, either in the edited volume or online (photographs, poetry, scented slips, textured paper, video, sound compositions, multimedia works, etc. are welcomed).[1]

Now, I must admit a slight disappointment over the fact that only one artist, or rather artistic tandem, decided to provide a primarily non-textual contribution, a photo-essay documenting the changes in and of streets and squares of Ljubljana. Probably, the origins of the “issue” lie, of course, with us, the editors, who were not explicit enough in voicing what we want, but that is perhaps the inevitable outcome when you wish to be as “open” as possible … In any case, I do not intend to speculate (any further) as to why the artists decided the way they did. Ultimately, this does not really matter, as the contributions they did provide proved to be interesting.

Most engaged in a more free-form textual experimentation, combining theoretically flavoured reflections with prose and poetry, dealing with their own works, contextualising them in the processes they deem relevant, while ruminating on these processes “as such.”  While each of the artistic contributions is characterised by its own je ne sais quoi – hence the kaleidoscopic quality of the collection –, what is, nevertheless, in my opinion, shared among them is a keen observational capability, but a capability firmly rooted in present-day structures of feeling (in fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that these were, perhaps inadvertently, employed as a methodology of sorts) and expressed in a contemporary artistic-critical mode. Thus, these texts strike me as both “raw” considerations and as insights into specific ways of thinking-feeling-sensing. However, one article (which its author has yet to submit) will, I am quite certain, standout due to its author’s artistic stance, which could be perhaps best encapsulated by the injunction Artists shouldn’t make people feel, artists should make people think!, and whose mainly (neo)conceptualist work, in a certain sense, disregarded the senses.

As for the more scholarly-oriented texts goes, these, if compared to the artistic contributions, appear somehow bland – at least if read as sort of creative outputs. Of course, their strengths lie elsewhere; they are based on meticulous research, wherein the research was done in several European cities and deals with distinct historical periods. Moreover, these are written in systematic, methodical ways. In short, these papers contributions are “cooked” both in the sense of their subject-matter, ranging from the remembered scents of coffee to student protests provoked by the noise of the traffic, and in the ways in they which deal with it. (Here, a naïve, but ostensibly crucial question comes to my mind: Who or what cooked them?) Apropos these articles, the grounds for describing the collection as kaleidoscopic are disciplinary. As I mentioned above, we invited researchers from anthropology, ethnology, ethnomusicology, sociology, philosophy, history, cultural and media studies and other related fields to contribute to the volume. And, indeed, most – though sadly not all – of the enumerated disciplines are “covered” by at least one contribution. Quite expectedly, anthropology and ethnology lead the way as the most numerously represented disciplines. However, one should not expect to find “pure”, textbook examples of the abovementioned scholarly fields in Senses of cities, at least not in the majority of the texts. Most of them have distinct inter- or transdisciplinary flavour to them.

If the artistic contributions are indeed “raw” and the “scholarly” are “cooked,” the question is, then, what in the edited volume we are preparing is “rotten.” Well, the only thing that comes to my mind that could – and should – be characterised as such is my own contribution, or rather one of my contributions, namely the introductory chapter that I was supposed to draft. Together with Sandi, we discussed what it should deal with, but come writing time my mind and fingers, naturally and accidentally, wandered off into the unknown, outlining something completely different. So, instead of a nice “cooked” introductory course, I am stuck with a “rotten” mush of an abstract. As we are now already quite in a hurry, I should, I guess, try to make the still-missing course – right after I finish this appetizer, of course! If, however, there is something else that we can learn from the French(man), it is that what from one perspective smells like rotting corpses may prove to be deliciously ripe cheese, then, maybe, just maybe, there is still some hope for the “rotten” abstract.[2]

[1] I have somewhat modified the translated segment. One of the reasons being that the semantic range of the Slovene term občutek only partially overlaps with that of the English term sense. The comparison of the two, however, will have to wait for the time being, or until the next post.

[2] I am, of course, refereeing to Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose concept of the culinary triangle I have been refereeing throughout this post (see Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 2013, “The Culinary Triangle”. In Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, eds. Food and Culture: A Reader. Peter Brooks (trans.) (3nd ed.). New York: Routledge. Pp. 40–47.

Blaž Bajič, Post-doctoral researcher, SENSOTRA

I created a voice of silence – Lyon in my mind

I created a voice of silence, one where I could grow.

There is no need for sacredness in my home; there is no need to wait, for my heavy feet prostrate, begging for sleep. I stand alone- there are no need for words, enough has been said about the dreadful heat and the walks around the city, which did not include ice cream.

My tongue waits inside, fostering saliva as a lonely guide.

There is no need for anything as I lose my mind. Finding reasons to pay attention to all the things I cannot buy and do not desire. Yet they take my mind for hire, it wants to touch. To have a placemat that induces an aroma of smell. I want to rest in air-conditioned space that does not include swarms of people, or merchandise that has no taste. That is the narrowness of my scale, a postured frustration.

A blissful breeze calms me to the centre of my needs and wants. All my sensory decisions stay within my gaze. My heavy feet carry me, patiently praying to the ground, creating a gentle thumping sound.

I stay behind the crowd. The smell of summer is a densely airy one. A fragrance that is simultaneously sweet but foraged with sweat and polluting fumes. A fountain of wills speed past us; they are walking with the determination of a skilled hunter, viewing the city enough to capture it through a lens. We walk through a corridor, darkness swarms and the heat falls. Walking around the courtyard, like soldiers in training, we march along the wall, like cobwebs hidden in plain sight. I see no spiders only their remains, this is their playground and we are the rude guests that invade their quarters without a knock or invite. My feet beg to be still, the silence of mind is making me ill, begging for solitude or rest, we continue walking, today has not given a second of rest. My mind wonders alone, my body surrounded by the burning heat and all those who infest to feel its wonder and bow down in defeat.

There is a marble throne. A goddess, who holds an oceanic feast, riding a turtle with a delicate wave and monstrous gaze in a window, that is fairy-tale of imaginative beliefs. There lives a unicorn with a grace-like flow, its body unknown, its mane tussled with intricate care. I wonder who works here. The cobbled streets hold begging men asking for a flame. A human friend offers him a flame; the light awakes. They walk away not giving each other another glance.

Humans bent at the knee, outside the stores are ignored, you must stand to be seen, perhaps have pale skin or a deserving gaze, in this heat. We walk past, our silence giving us freedom from the stare, how do we live here? How do we turn away? We find solace in our air-conditioned rooms and forget all those desperate to stay awake.

We continue to walk through the corridors and alleys, that are made for the breeze to pass and thankfully, there are no cars. They are a humming noise in a far off place, where the sun hits you directly and there is no place to escape. My mind buzzes with the same tune, a glittering song, made from the heat fumes. A fox stuffed by a taxidermist is placed beneath a table of mint; I smell the mint and chew the rest. I have tired feet and an even heavier bladder, but the silence of my mind, need not tatter or run for the walk is nearly over. I take off my shoes and bend my back, finding a place where the silence of my mind can stay intact. A place where the sun does not sit and my hand can roam freely and speak, although my body is weak. My mind lives to breathe.

They move out of sight. I pick up my pen and take the silence of mind to the paper.

The smell of the heat and the glitter of the marble streets, fuelled carriers for overpriced artistic delights is what Lyon is in my mind.

Day Moibi, (University of Bern) is a master’s student who took part in CREOLE Intensive Program / SENSOTRA seminar ‘Anthropology and/as mediation(s)’ in Lyon, France in June 2019. The text is written after a group sensory walk in Lyon.

Pictures from Lyon’s group sensory walk: Helmi Järviluoma


Reflections from the field – Brighton

”If, very broadly speaking, we think of anthropology as the discipline of explaining the behavior and thoughts of people bounded within a culture in terms that are intelligible to people outside that culture, then fieldwork is that part of the process which takes place when the anthropologist is in the field dwelling among the people she hopes to describe.” (Watson, C.W., 1999)

In September 2018, I packed my bags and moved to a different country to do Sensotra’s ethnographic fieldwork in Brighton, UK. This meant settling to a country with a culture that is foreign to me. I am still very much in the sphere of western culture and British culture has been present in my life in Finland through music, TV series and media, but even so, the British way of life, the mindset and the surroundings were still unfamiliar to me.

It is now been over four months since I moved here and I must say, it is compelling to get to know a place, a city, by listening to locals sharing their views of what this place is like and what makes Brighton the city that it is. On our sensobiographic walks, I have got to hear what Coldean and Falmer were like in the 60s, what it is like to be on a boat on a sea rescue mission under the Brighton Pier, what locals think about the thousands of tourists coming to Brighton and how it feels to walk around Preston Manor at night time (it is said to be the most haunted building in the UK). Just to name a few things our participants have been willing to share with us.

Listening to these experiences, it does not take very long to notice the things that make Brighton what it is – the things that almost everyone seems to mention and agree on, even though every participant is an individual with their own opinions and experiences. So far, we’ve done 14 walks around Brighton and I’m fairly confident to claim that the sea and the presence of the sea is a vital part of how it feels to live in urban Brighton. It is not difficult to understand why that is. I have stood there at the seashore many times mesmerized by the environment. Behind you, you have the city center with buses and taxis, Churchill Square bustling with people and North Laine’s streets filled with quirky boutiques. And in front of you, the sea. A light blue vast openness, completely contrary to the city life behind you.

What a treat that we have this”, one of our participants sighed looking at the sea. A treat for all senses, I would add. The sound of the cobble stones when you walk along the beach. The smell of salt. The pastel colors on the sky when the sun is setting. A murmuration of starlings dancing and sweeping in the sky doing an art work of nature – an installation that is gone in an hour and tomorrow, finds a new form. All this can have a remarkable impact on how it feels to live here. “It kind of makes you feel very free, being able to come to the sea”, described one 15-year-old participant.

When I have stopped in the middle of organizing fieldwork, scheduling interviews and writing emails, and reflected on what I am actually experiencing as a researcher, as an anthropologist in the field, I have realized how remarkable it is to get to know a place in a way like this – through stories and memories by the locals. I am not just standing there at the beach sensing it, but also seeing it from the locals perspective, which adds more layers to the experience. Moreover, as a researcher, I definitely would not be able to grasp the richness of these stories without being there – seeing, hearing, experiencing what the locals have to say.

Having said that, working here as a foreigner has not only made me go through the basic reflections of an anthropologist on the field, but it has also made me question my position. What justifies me, a researcher from Finland, to be the one who is dwelling among the locals here in the UK? Why not a native speaker, a British PhD student who would not have had to go through the same challenges of starting fieldwork in a foreign language or to travel here by plane doing his/her bit in climate change?

I could rationalize it by gaining international experience, but for me, that is not enough reason, because research is not about gaining personal merits. It is about producing new knowledge and a local researcher would have been able to do this fieldwork as equally as I am. So far, the ponderings on my position have given me only one answer. As a foreigner, who is new to this city and to this culture, I might be able to seize things on our walks differently than locals. In a way, it is more acceptable for me to ask questions that coming from a local, might sound naïve or strange. I can ask our participants to explain to me the simplest things that for them are very mundane, but I am not that familiar with. This might result in them expressing things on our walks that might be left unsaid if they walked with a researcher who shares their culture. It is not always easy to ask these “stupid” questions, but asking them might just pay off.

It is an ongoing  process to understand one’s own position and location in relation to what happens in the field. There is a popular quote from Margaret Mead that reminds of what it requires from the researcher: “Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.” Hopefully, my position here as a foreigner, enables me in staying more open-minded and in not taking things for granted.

On a sensobiographic walk at the seashore.

Watson, CW (ed.) 1999, Being There: Fieldwork in Anthropology, Pluto Press, London. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [23 January 2019].

Text, picture and video: Eeva Pärjälä, Junior Researcher in Sensotra and PhD student at the University of Eastern Finland