“Not only unfold but also my work always intends to give synaesthetic experiences. I try to create new experiences by stimulating sight and hearing,” Kurokawa says in an interview promoting his newest exhibition at FACT. But what is synaesthesia, and why is it so interesting?

A quick Google search produces some complicated explanations, but in layman’s terms it is; ‘a medical condition where the stimulation of one sense produces an involuntary sensation in another.’ For example, hearing a particular sound may produce the visualisation of a colour, or a particular taste may produce a certain sound. The most common form of synaesthesia is the association of days, months, letters or numbers with certain colours, patterns, or shapes. For example, many people report seeing the months of the year in a circular pattern.

The experience of synaesthesia is completely personal, even for two people experiencing a similar form of synaesthesia. For example, two people who both associate numbers with colours, may argue that certain numbers, or letters, are different colours.

Most people with synaesthesia will not initially realise they have it, because to them it is natural and has happened since childhood. They are part of the estimated 4% of the population who have this harmless, but possibly beneficial, condition. Why is it beneficial? The NHS reports that most people who have synaesthesia could not imagine life without it, feeling that it is a heightened way of seeing the world. For children, there is evidence that having synaesthesia can give them slight learning advantages.

The first medical description of synaesthesia is documented in a thesis by German physician Sachs in 1812, but centuries before this in 1689 John Locke had written that scarlet, “was like the sound of a trumpet.” As Locke was a philosopher, it is debated that this may be an extended metaphor, rather than an actual documentation of synaesthesia. However, it’s clear that synaesthesia has been the topic of scientific thinking for at least 200 years.

Whilst Kurokawa himself admits that he does not have synaesthesia he, “finds it easy to pursue something that [he doesn’t]...know.” Kurokawa’s work focuses on the link between the auditory and visual senses. In the world of synaesthesia this is known as ‘chromosthesia.’ Richard Cytowic, an American neurologist and author of books on synaesthesia, describes the appearance of colours as similar to fireworks. Supposedly these fireworks appear when the sound begins, changing hue and brightness dependent on the intensity of the sound, and disappear when the sound ends. For some people, colours appear when they hear everyday sounds such as a door slamming, a car braking etc. However, for others it is only triggered through music. Famous musicians such as Charlie XCX, Lady Gaga and Pharrell Williams all report having music-related chromosthesia.  

In a Guardian article, Dr Julia Simners, co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia, states that; “Synaesthetes have a window into perception we all share; when pressed for an answer, we all pair more common letters with brighter colours or high pitched notes with lighter colours.” Kurokawa clearly follows this consciously in constrained surface, where he aims to create a, “pure synaesthetic experience,” through synchronising sound with the movement of colours. Whenever a high pitched sound is heard in this work, a flash of white or other light colour explodes cohesively across the screen.

Some studies aim to see how training non-synaesthetes to behave like synaesthetes can help with brain function, eventually hoping to be able to treat those with brain injuries or chronic diseases with cause memory loss, such as alzheimer's disease. Research suggests that training people to behave as a synaesthetes could improve memory.

Synaesthesia may be up to eight times more prevalent amongst artists and novelists, even if Kurokawa does not experience the phenomenon. But science still does not know the cause behind it, other than it may be somewhat genetic. However, research is constantly taking place to uncover more. Until then, if you want to be a synaesthete for a day you’ll have to visit FACT’s galleries…

unfold is at FACT until 12 June. See more information and opening times here.