Crossing Synaesthetic Borders

Reading the Rhythmic Score of *ATOM’s NOVA, a Curated Immersive Environment

 By Kai Mira

The world is sung into being. Each element you perceive has a rhythmic, and therefore narrative, quality of its own. What is rhythm? Rhythm is perceptible through difference (c.f. Deleuze, 1994). It is a pattern of appearances and disappearances of a phenomenon existent on the ground of Time.

 Everything has a rhythm: sounds are the simplest to consider, we are most used to perceiving the rhythms of a musical phrase; yet anything possessed of movement is possessed of rhythm. And everything moves through Time. Then, what is narrative? Simply a rhythmic sequence framed at two points along the space-time continuum, in order to be interpreted as meaningful to the human consciousness. To say something is possessed of a narrative structure implies it is possessed of ontological progression: interlinked series’ of shifts in form and function that feedback on each other to back-inform the evolutionary process, which, after reaching critical mass, can be perceived as having shifted the basic nature of the root object. Our lives are possessed of narrative structure, we are born into one circumstance, and through constant self-reflexive shifts in our forms and functions in the world we progress and become new beings entirely.

 *ATOM opened an immersive curated environment for community engagement on Thursday March 10th, 2016, at The Waiting Room, a popular club in Long Street, Cape Town. Functioning as a Foucauldian heterotopia (c.f. Foucault, 1971), the space was held for approximately 7 hours.  The primary intended function of the space was to provide ground upon which networked social landscapes could form. Music was chosen as the most powerful front-end tool for weaving that ground. This article uncovers a bit of our most powerful back-end tool: storytelling, through the precise interweaving of the different rhythmic structures at play in the elements of Place, Sound, Light and Smell, in order to create a narrative that becomes apparent through the crossing of synaesthetic borders.




The space of NOVA was clearly grounded in the strongest narrative thread, that of Place (i.e. The Waiting Room). The strongest thread also had the slowest rhythm: the almost imperceptible rhythm of an old building. Bricks crumble over centuries, glass flows slowly downward over millennia, and humans who come with the space behave as ants in a mound: invisible under the feet of the traveller just passing through. This is the physical framework that shapes NOVA, while NOVA shapes it in feedback loop. The architecture of the place, layered in all the memories of past experience, adds a solid presence to the meaning you take from the experience of the space:  like a bass drone, perceptible just at the edge of your hearing… Place is a slow vibration felt in the quality of solid under your feet, and the turn of your stomach when the sound STOPS and you suddenly noticed it was there in the first place.

 Now turn your attention to Sound…. Imagine yourself on the shore of the ocean on a perfect day: the seas wakeful, inviting. Thus you are after entering NOVA in the early evening, walking into a lounge held in the tones of ambient Dub Techno.

You enter the water, exploring the dancefloor. Testing, you find the waters of sound deep but calm; a current playing about your legs. Your feet tap. You float.

The night progresses and BPM raises; the waters gain enough momentum to wake you into Presence: we have moved into Deep Techno. The wave is building – you spot it and decide to swim towards it: your feet raise off the floor and connect again in flatfooted embrace. You dance.

The momentum catches you and you’re surfing on the sound. It’s a smooth ride- you’re acclimatised to the water by now, and the power at your back is exhilarating… flirting with the edge of wildness, you are entrained with your space.

It’s 01h00, and the wave finally breaks: you’re headed back to shore accompanied to the sounds of a b2b2b set of Deep Techno with a sprinkle of House to smooth the descent. Your body and mind exhilarated, you alight on the shores at the end of your evening in the same place, but a different space to the one in which you started.

 Where the slow steady rhythm of place is the bass earth beneath your feet, the waters of the sound journey are of the timbre of the tenor: a ground of looser weave, and thus steady to rest your weight against, yet fluid to take you places in that surrender. Like the hand of a trusted friend holding yours gently as you explore a terrain new to you, yet they have walked before.

 Light rests above sound: it is possessed of greater ephemerality. Floating above Sounds’ waters, like a mist of alchemical fire, it flirts: darting in for a dip in the ocean, in union with the sound wave at one moment, retracting its tongue of flame the next. The two dance together most passionately, while Place and Smell are favoured partners.

The visual journey curated by PUPIL Visuals for NOVA is soprano, a dramatic coloratura. It takes you on a journey through space in leaps and bounds, with a rhythm that is varied and flighty, compared to the slow weaves of Place and Smell. This rhythm progresses in leaps and bounds. Place is a slow straight line, Sound a waveform of varied lengths, an arc across the whole space that looks and feels like the wave it is, and Smell a slow waveform with an upward gradient.

 The voice of the olfactory narrative is alto. An overtone of Place, the two shape the vessel in which you encounter Sound and Light. This is the narrative dance with air, and mind. Entering the space one encountered the light tones of Rose Geranium, effervescent and with a palette of pinks with yellow-white accents, like the joyful laugh that escapes your throat when caught unawares with pleasure. A base undertone of Love holds the incandescent rhythm of this…

The pattern shifts as you enter the dancefloor: a deepening of the opening shades and you are held in the tones of Roses and Ylang-Ylang, shades of red and accents of yellow, with a touch of orange around the edges. The rhythm of smell has shifted from the upward flow of Rose Geranium’s laughter, to the peak of the dance floor space. The palette has broadened and you rest in your heart as you groove on the ocean of Sound.

Seeking space, you head to the upstairs balcony for a breath of fresh air. You climb the stairs from the dance floor to the mezzanine and experience the crossways of physical ascent, and olfactory descent into base tones of citrus and spice: a combination of orange and clove oils wreaths the passage to the open sky in its warm ambers, deep reds and golds. Thus the sacral energy through to your solar plexus is awakened, and the journey of lighting your whole body through smell is completed. By moving from the ground-floor to the top deck, you’ve journeyed from the top notes of laughter-filled geranium, to the base notes of spice and citrus.

The air of the rooftop balcony is a reset, to clear all information, before diving back down into the construct and reacquainting oneself with the narrative, starting with the base, and moving upward.

The three tones of smell weave seamlessly into each other, and the rhythm of this journey is layered over the slow bass drone of place: holding the construct in which light and sound dance their dance.




The human body is rhythmically tuned…. We have a particular capacity for perceiving rhythms and tuning our bodies to them. When the temporality of a performance is organized and structured through rhythm, different “rhythmic systems” clash. The rhythm of the performance collides with the various rhythms of each individual spectator.

–Erika Fischer-Lichte (2008)


The question then is, what does the clash of rhythms between the environment and the human consciousness enable?  The controlled states of dissonance it engenders provides fertile ground for a self-reflexive autopoietic feedback loop (hereafter AFL) to be set in motion.

 But, what is an AFL and why is it useful? Simply put, an AFL is a form of strangeloop (c.f. Hofstaedter, 1979) that arises particularly usefully in the realms of performance; for instance, in the negotiation of the boundaries between reality and fiction. The sphere of performance is a powerful one in which to experience an AFL, because it is especially easy to become conscious of its existence as a mechanism operating in the space, and through understanding what it is and how it functions, it becomes a gateway into understanding the performative generation of materiality. In other words, experiencing spaces in which performances happen and by reflecting on these experiences, you begin to understand how your reality is co-created in the relationships manifest between yourself and others. By mastery of this mechanism, you gain the ability to become an architect of your own reality.

 The visible frame of a performance, or an *ATOM dance/clubbing experience, serves as a mental safety net: setting the human mind at ease when expending the energy necessary to negotiate dissonances (such as new experiences) in an integrated way. The newer the experience, the more recognisable the frame in which it is held needs to be, in order to safeguard participants from being unable to receive the experience with an open mind. The AFL is set in motion through the differences within, or alternation between, rhythms that are encountered (and encountering each other) within the performance space. In other words, the AFL is effectively a harmonic generated through the meeting of two or more waveforms, with the latter expressed through rhythmic structure.

 This is the work *ATOM does in the world: it is an agent of change through initiating AFLs. It initiates AFLs through the curation of immersive environments steeped in performance moments (such as that of the DJ while he plays his set), in which one is guided to cross synaesthetic borders. Crossing these borders aids in freeing the mind to think in fresh ways, and to connect with other minds. All through exploiting the synergistic relationships between the senses available to the human consciousness through its physical and social body.



Kai Mira is High Priestess for *ATOM.

*ATOM is a new collective exploring the construction of immersive dance experiences that support participant networking. For more information regarding their genesis, see the article ATOM: A Cape Town Collective in Ampersand Online or contact *ATOM at Check out their next event: OPIA