The City Sensorium – How it happened

It was one of the hottest nights of the summer when we all came together for the experiment – the City Sensorium [background here]. The basement of the Twisted Pepper – painted all black for gigs, its air conditioning straining to cope – was a strangely appropriate choice of venue. The Sensorium idea was about the mingling of lots of different sensual impressions of Dublin, and the humid underground room seemed to get the process going before anyone said a word. We were mingling, alright. A human-city soup.

In my mind, before the event, I thought of the Sensorium idea as a kind of Tower of Babel – a layering through multiple voices and experiences which would somehow produce a kind of structured snapshot of Dublin life in that moment, on that night. Rather than being steered by any one authoritative voice, we’d flit from one to another and see what came out of the process. In the abstract, I don’t think I was prepared for how much fun it would be.

The problem with trying to write a report on this session is that it seems to stamp one interpretation (mine) on an event which wasn’t designed to have one. Next time we do this, which we will, I’ll ask people to comment themselves and the report can be from different perspectives. For now, though, I don’t want to lose a record of the night, so here’s my impression of the event. [note: some speakers did not want to be mentioned online, so this report is partial]

We began with Dara Downey, who talked about her regular walk from Trinity College, up Dame Street, past Christchurch and along to the Thomas Street dole office. Dara, an academic, knew how to talk to an audience, and so her piece was like storytelling, her impressions interspersed with theories familiar to her from her work. For Dara, Dublin seemed half-concrete, half-theory, a city spooling around her, inspiring thought. She was followed by Michelle Browne, who spoke about the changes she has felt in her relationship with Dublin since she became a mother, blending together the psychological changes she felt – going from a feeling of freedom and ownership to something more complicated to navigate – with examples of the changes in her lived reality of the concrete city, as illustrated by a video she made, excerpted below:

Sean Rushe, a visual artist, described a Dublin coloured by decades of engagement, disappointment, and opportunity, the political landscape of the changing city (from 70s protest movements to the Celtic Tiger) interwoven with his own life story, his own hopes and loves. In a story I’m very sorry not to have properly recorded, he illustrated perfectly (to his own cost) the interconnectedness of Dublin’s small city, when a promising new acquaintance was revealed to be much less of a stranger than he’d hoped…

Moira Sweeney talked about adjusting to life in Dublin 8, her description of the Tenters area later giving rise to debate about the origin of the name (no consensus). Moira’s talk was that of someone enjoying an adventure, someone who had mastered the art of place-making and was eager to try her hand at it anew. How do you settle in a city? Learn a bit about its history, talk to its natives, and find yourself a view to treasure.

Paul Shorten’s contribution around the idea of ‘serendipity’ gave insight into the life of someone fully engaged in Dublin’s urban development. An architect and tour guide, Paul’s story showed what a life consciously tied to a city could be. Tracking his personal relationships through his professional knowledge of the city and the journeys he undertakes for his job, he illustrated the connections that can arise when you allow the chaotic pattern of city life to become your own.

Roberta Bellini is a geologist – a first for City Intersections! – who explained something no one realised needed an explanation until she gave it: why the south bank of the city rises so steeply away from the river up the hill to Christchurch. Prompted by the labour of cycling the hill, Roberta investigated and found that the rock beneath is made of a much harder material which has not eroded like the land around it, creating a ‘bluff.’ When you traipse up the hill from the Liffey, you’re stamping on obstinate stone, a reminder that cityscape is also landscape, and a city has mountains of its own.

Roberta Bellini (photo:Sean Rushe
Roberta Bellini (photo:Sean Rushe)

Laragh Pittman, who showed the beautiful image below among many others as she spoke, gave perhaps the perfect example of layering prompted by the Sensorium challenge. Her talk was a list, an enumeration of the groups who have colonised Dublin in big and small ways through history, who have used it and found a home here, and left their traces for us to find. The visual prompts and the enunciated list powerfully demonstrated that Dublin has echoes, making ripples that we move through today.

Layers by Laragh Pittman
Layers by Laragh Pittman

Last, Carmen Garcia spoke about her relationship with the Liffey, a new Dubliner with what she called a ‘hobby-horse’ for what the river could become. For Carmen, the neglect of the river is a loss for the senses, a loss of potential for a new kind of sensual richness in urban life. She lobbied for a promenade that would allow the smell of the sea to permeate the city, to remind us that we’re a port town, border with the water that cuts through our heart.

(photo: Sean Rushe)
(photo: Sean Rushe)

In between the talks, open conversation rambled – much less directional than at a usual session, where we have an issue or an idea to debate. Here, people responded to the panoply of sensations and impressions, and conversation became an overlapping effort to contribute to the Babel we were building. I don’t know that we figured anything out, I don’t know that it was practical, but it perhaps opened something up, it allowed new thought and sparked new feeling (or the first expression of older ones) and fundamentally addressed a need. We’ll do it again soon.

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One comment on “The City Sensorium – How it happened

  1. greendubliner on said:

    It was a indeed a great evening. Thanks a lot Madeleine. The Harvest Festival will take place at Wolfstone square this coming Saturday (14th of September)

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