Consenses is a global, multidisciplinary arts initiative developed by singer-songwriter Sally Taylor in which participants contribute to “interpretive chains,” responding to an assigned artwork in their own medium. The aim is to promote a more expansive view of the world through the engagement of all five senses and through exposure to diverse ways of seeing, as well as to foster connectedness across geographic divides. I found out about the project two years ago when proofreading herbalist Holly Bellebuono’s The Healing Kitchen: she said she was invited to interpret a photograph of a woman reclining in the sunshine as a tea blend—which was in turn brewed and enjoyed by another artist, who interpreted the blend as a short film.
Launched in 2012, the initial series of chains went like this: Taylor collected twenty-two photographs, each by a different photographer, and then commissioned twenty-two musicians to write a song based on one of those photos. Those songs were then given to dancers to interpret as movement, and then recordings of those dances were given to painters, whose painted responses were given to perfumers, who extracted the essence of the paintings and gave the resultant perfumes to poets, whose poems were given to chefs, whose culinary creations were given to sculptors. And no artist in this chain was allowed to see more than one link back. The final chains were then given to set designers, who created a physical space within which all the art could live. These twenty-two sets opened to the public in August 2014 and toured for four months, attracting more than seven thousand attendees.
Here’s a video excerpt of one of the chains:
Consenses continues, in part through a “Monthly Challenge” posted on the website—a catalytic work of art that invites creative responses. This month’s is a photograph titled Dreamhouse. The media in past months have been very diverse, including a woven basket, a graffitied wall, a comic strip, and a LEGO set.
Over the past few years, primary and secondary schools and colleges have approached Taylor, wanting to incorporate Consenses into their curricula, so she has been hard at work designing and overseeing those efforts. The fruits of one such partnership are about to go on display at MASS MoCA’s Kidspace in North Adams, Massachusetts, where “Come to Your Senses: Art to See, Hear, Smell, Taste, and Touch” opens tomorrow (June 23) and runs through May 27, 2019. In this exhibition, paintings by fifth-grade students in North Adams and Northern Berkshire schools will be on display, which respond to the prompt of either “Joy” or “Fear.”
Taylor met with these kids last year and guided them through first steps, telling them to close their eyes with the blank piece of paper in front of them and ask themselves, “What would fear taste like if it were a flavor? What would it feel like as a texture? What would it be as a weather system? What would it look like if it were a painting?” She did the same with “joy.”
One child wrote, “Fear is sticky. It is large rocks. It is fire. It is the sound of thunder. It is the last petal falling. My pain of this is fear of darkness and large spiders. This is something trying to escape. Trying to escape from terror.” Another wrote of joy: “If joy were a flavor it would be cotton candy. It would be pink and light and smell like lemons on a sunny day. It would be confetti, balloons, night mist and starlight in the night sky. My painting is a starry night with confetti over it. It gives me joy because it reminds me of bright colors in the world.” (Read more about Taylor’s process with the kids here.)
After the kids finished their paintings, Taylor enlisted the talents of musicians, dancers, poets, photographers, painters, perfumers, a tea maker, a chef, sculptors, animators, and set designers to respond in Consenses-like fashion; among them were Taylor’s parents, James Taylor and Carly Simon, the latter of whom will be performing, along with others, at “An Evening with Sally Taylor and Friends” at MASS MoCA on opening night (Saturday, June 23).
To learn more about Taylor’s background and her vision for Consenses, listen to her TEDx talk from 2015:
Also be sure to check out https://consenses.org/, where you can browse past interpretive chains and participate in new ones.