Displacement from sensory connections to cultural identity and place,
and an examination of some consequences for human and environmental wellbeing.
Artist’s copyright is retained on all photographs, audio and audiovisuals © 2012, Judith Parrott.
Written paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Sensory perception, art, photography, sound art, sense, place, sense of place, placemaking, place matters, displacement, built environment, belonging, connectivity, environment, community, community wellbeing, environmental wellbeing, culture, cultural identity, historical continuity, consumer, crossmodal, social engagement, creative intervention, urban development, migration, Australia, Scotland, Bolivia, West End Brisbane, westernise, globalisation, Judith Parrott, Judy Parrott, visual art, Antarctica, Isle of Bute
The modern world facilitates increasing disconnection from land, cultural identity and each other. Yet as humans we have an inherent need to connect and belong.
This paper, in light of insights gained through the writer’s art practice, examines how people make sense of the world through sensory responses to the environment and what it is that disconnects people. It considers how sensory responses to the environment manifest themselves in the way buildings are designed, what food is eaten and where it is sourced, the way people relate to each other, and other day-to-day miscellanea. The paper concludes that, in their turn, these new visual and sensory layers that are introduced to the world reinforce, perpetuate and visually mirror back exactly what people’s relationship to the land is.
The paper suggests that these visual, auditory and tactile ramifications of a population’s actions affect sense of belonging, and consequently individual and environmental wellbeing such that people are driven to seek out alternative ways of connecting when traditional connections to land, community and cultural identity become increasingly unattainable.
Artistic practice constitutes the writer’s methodology. It evolved as a consequence of displacement from the author’s home country of Scotland and migration to Australia. When travelling overland to Australia, the writer became increasingly aware of the sensory detail that enriches the world with every change of place. Each new location was accompanied by a change of smells and sounds; of colours, tastes, and textures. With each different culture there is a different sensory expression of place.
When resident in Australia the writer’s artistic practice started to develop its form. Through paying close attention to the sounds, visuals, textures, tastes and smells that constitute place, sensory exhibitions of place and understandings of displacement were developed.
By employing different creative techniques of social engagement with local communities, the elements constituting each community’s sensory connection to place are elicited. In the same way as psychology research demonstrates the effects of habituation (PSY 376 Habituation), long-term residents can become habituated to their environment and less consciously aware of its unique qualities. Experiencing a place for the first time allows the writer to draw on the new and unusual, specific to that place. On having attention directed at sensory elements of place through creative intervention, the community’s innate awareness is revealed.
The writer’s resulting body of creative work uses photography, soundscape and installation items to touch, taste and smell to represent a sense of place. This is complimented with poetic prose, expressing in words the writer’s informed impressions of place.
The work accords with recent psychology research at Oxford University, England, in the field of crossmodal perception. Professor Charles Spence studies how our senses work together rather than in isolation, and how the correlations between them help us make sense of the world we find ourselves in. (Spence, C. 2010)
Traditionally, the nature of local landscape influenced what food could be grown, the way people travelled, what work consisted of, what clothes were worn, what building materials were used, how buildings were arranged in the landscape, prevailing art forms and ways of interacting. These aspects of life became part of the everyday surroundings and integral to the visual and sensory world in their own right. They became a cultural identity and a sense of place in the sights and sounds, the textures, taste and smell they produced.
Orinoca Bolivia (2004)
In a modern day world this can still hold true. For example, in a landscape bordered by water on one side and mountains behind, such as many villages along the coast of Scotland, the houses are more likely to be compact and built side by side. In a flat, open landscape such as in many parts of Australia, the streets become wider and the houses more spread out. This physical environment in turn affects the way in which a population meets in the community – whether people drive between spread-out houses and see those they expect to see at their destination, or whether people walk through a closely-knit space and meet one another haphazardly in the street.
In this example the landscape affects how the built environment is designed, and goes on to affect how residents generally meet and interact, and their cultural behaviour.
Isle of Bute Scotland
Isle of Bute Scotland
Isle of Bute Scotland
Dysart Qld Australia
What happens then when this sense of place in which a population is invested through daily sensory engagement, is removed or dramatically changed?
Historical continuity connects a population through one another and through the land, developing cultural identities and creating a sense of belonging important for human wellbeing. Displacement has, of course, happened throughout history. In the modern world individuals are commonly displaced from that continuity through, for example, political activity, emigration, rapid urban development, or the arrival of imposed change. This displacement can overpower the individual’s sense of identity and belonging.
So, for example, in the inner-city suburb of West End in Brisbane, Australia (the writer’s home suburb) a period of rapid and imposed development, “urban rejuvenation”, had a dramatic affect on the wellbeing of the community.
The writer’s first exhibition in the series Place Matters, in 2002, documented the community during this time. The exhibition included photographs from the community, street scenes and protests; a soundscape produced from recordings of languages from the many nationalities living in the area, and laughter, sounds of the coffee shops, song, house auctions with their escalating prices, protest gatherings and general ambient sound; hidden items to touch in two crafted boxes – a concrete brick in one representing the new buildings; smooth brass and old polished wood in the other.
The exhibition audience was invited to touch the textured items without looking and to respond to how the items felt. The contrast was as might be expected: Cold/warm; uninviting/inviting; sharp/smooth. It seemed from a tactile perspective, that the new place that was being built was the less attractive option to the audience. A book for comments also elicited the distress of the community to the imposed change.
In replacing the old Queensland-style buildings with buildings designed in the interests of efficiency and the economy, and with little attention given to artistic detail and aesthetics, the environment started to mirror back to residents a visual manifestation of the new values of the place.
Whether the community relates to this environment is not so much an interpretation of place, as an emotional response to the values it represents, as absorbed and processed through finely tuned sensory perception.
Proponents of the change, the developers and city council who were geographically and sensorally removed from the area, commented that change is inevitable and people simply don’t like change. Whereas the writer proposes that sensory familiarity of place is an important factor for the connectedness of the community, the sense of historical continuity, belonging and wellbeing.
Information collected in the community revealed that people had chosen to live in West End because of the values it represented in its visual, tactile and auditory structures and ambience. When outside agendas arrived and started to replace much of these with a different sensory value system in the concrete and glass of luxury apartments, the community no longer felt it could connect and belong in the same way. Many moved from the area and a new demographic started to arrive.
In 2005, an Arts Queensland and Ian Potter Cultural Trust residency in Bolivia resulted in an exhibition sharply contrasting with the sensory material on West End.
Bolivia is a country with a majority Indigenous population, now run by indigenous president, Evo Morales. The strong sense of connection to place is evident in the sights, sounds and textures of the locally grown food, the traditional costume, the language, music and cultural events, and the very evident sense of community.
In Bolivia, McDonald’s did not succeed and closed its doors due to poor profit margins. According to a review of the Spanish language documentary, Why Did McDonald’s Bolivia Go Bankrupt? in (Hispanically Speaking News) McDonald’s failure in Bolivia lies in the very concept of fast food. (El Polvorin, 2011) blog notes that, in Bolivia:
“To be a good meal, food has to have been prepared with love, dedication, certain hygiene standards and proper cook time”.
In a population that maintains strong sensory connections to their place, it seems they prefer to be less removed from the food they consume than in developed countries where food importation is commonplace. (Treehugger.com, 2011)
Following this residency, in 2006, the writer received a four-month arts fellowship in Antarctica with The Australian Antarctic Division.
The residency facilitated observation of how people relate to each other and their place in an isolated environment. In keeping with this environment, social relationships become more intense. In direct response to the environment, with twenty-four hours of daylight at the height of summer, routines and boundaries blur, and sleep is disrupted.
In this remote place there is traditionally a very communal and social culture. However, scientists and trades people who have been returning over many years maintain that with the introduction of computers and email, the social culture is changing. Expeditioners are more likely to go to the computer room and spend time online whereas, prior to the introduction of technology, people were entirely dependent on one another for social interaction. The technology is, in effect, removing expeditioners from being fully within their environment.
Returning to Australia, and arriving on the mainland of Tasmania, expeditioners experience ‘the shock’ of cars, of not knowing everyone in the street, the strong smells and colours, everything is highlighted in its intensity. These stimuli, initially magnified by the senses, slowly fade into the background to become dulled and distant. Being in a position to observe a fresh awareness of them reinforces how they might be constantly affecting people.
On a more personal note, in 2007 I was awarded a Scottish Arts Council pARTners residency and I realised that my artwork, and my search for the importance of connection to place, had indeed taken me home.
My sensory responses to the Scottish environment were profound. In every “sense” there was a sense of belonging.
Watch the short video here. Judith Parrott © 2010 Island Stories)
This residency led to an ABC Radio National commission to develop a 50-minute feature on contemporary Scottish immigration to Australia. (Walking the Bridge, Parrott, J. 2010)
Interviews with Scottish immigrants revealed a wide variety of reasons for settlement in Australia. Most had suffered some degree of homesickness and, even if they loved Australia, their migration was often not entirely voluntary. It might be, for example, as a result of work or marriage or having children in Australia.
Participants easily recalled with a smile the smells and sounds and sights that they associated with their country of birth. In keeping with many respondents, an elderly Scottish man of ninety-two who had been in Australia for over sixty years, said of Australia, “Oh no. I will never belong here”. Yet he loved the country and had his family and grandchildren near him in Australia. It seems the historical, communal continuity of a population and their sensory responses to landscape with its consequent cultural manifestations, held for him the stronger influence on belonging.
Consequences of Displacement
Emigration, rapid urban development, or the arrival of imposed change, appears to result in disconnection and disruption of sensory familiarity. This raises the question of whether disconnection leads or contributes to homogenisation and globalisation. Does homogenisation perpetuate disconnection and further disconnect a population, impacting on personal wellbeing, and perhaps even the wellbeing of the planet? Without a sense of belonging to the planet does a sense of responsibility start to diminish?
Perhaps Australia can serve a useful role in representing a microcosm of world displacement. Immigrants carry a part of their homeland with them in the shape of assumptions and beliefs, and sensory understanding of the world. In countries such as Australia, dominated by people originating from all corners of the globe, with many different ways of connecting to the land and each other, that can no longer be fully realised, a homogenised urban architectural environment tends to predominate.
In the human drive to feel connected, might a population be more likely to behold to an intangible economy when, visually, they increasingly no longer truly belong to one another and the land on which they live? Does a culture of consumerism begin to play an important role; and with it an increasing disregard for consequences to the natural environment?
There are sharp visual and sensory contrasts between lives in Australia’s developed and affluent coastal strip and remote rural Indigenous communities.
In developed urban communities, disconnection is visually mirrored in the construction of, for example, shopping malls with no windows to the outside world. The visual message is that there is no need to look beyond; that everything that is needed is contained within these walls, in the glittering department stores and the overflowing supermarkets. There is no need even to decorate and honour the building, as all that matters is what can be bought within.
Further evidence for the concept that sensory connection to place, community and cultural identity has been replaced by an attempt to belong through an intangible economy, comes in a study of who are the richest people in the world.
Five of the eleven most wealthy made their fortunes from retail and the population’s drive to consume. Bernard Arnault of LVMH and Amancio Ortega of Zara are the forth and fifth richest people in the world. Stefan Persson of H&M is the eighth wealthiest. Karl Albrecht, who made his money from Aldi, and Christy Walton of Wal-Mart are the tenth and eleventh richest people in the world. (Forbes list, 2012)
Looking at others on the list of the world’s wealthiest, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s former CEO, Steve Jobs are perhaps the most well known of the many individuals who brought about the Information and Communications Technology revolution. They climbed the ranks of the world’s wealthiest.
These men were part of a system that simultaneously drives people evermore physically apart, detaching them from their sensory connection to the physical environment, meanwhile also filling the gap created. So it is that dependence on ICT is increased. Humans seek out connections and belonging. Therefore, a person is more likely to notice the role of ICT in connecting them than to notice its role in first, driving people physically apart.
Could ICT have developed with such intensity in a world where life remained local and people were much more physically connected to their place and each other?
The world’s wealthiest man, Carlos Slim Helu, increased his fortunes with investments in telecommunications. Bill Gates is the second most wealthy and Larry Ellison of Oracle is the sixth wealthiest. If feeling connected and having a sense of belonging is one of the greatest human needs, is this unsurprising?
The human relationship to place begins with the existence of land, its climate, characteristics, resources and attributes. Historically, these myriad features determined many aspects of the community, what they built, wore, ate, how they lived and how they related. And in this process the community created its own colours, sounds textures and aromas. These elements of place become an imbedded familiarity and give rise to the community’s culture and sense of place.
Have many modernised societies lost their sense of connection to the land and each other? And was it in this context that a homogenised culture of consumerism and a virtual reality moved in to fill the void? Retaining sensory connection to the land and our forebears, and with it the connection to music and stories, buildings and even the minutia of day-to-day life such as recipes and style of dress; do these physical elements combine with cultural ways of interacting to make us feel that we belong; both to place and one another?
High Rise Australia
PSY 376 Habituation. Retrieved from http://wikis.lib.ncsu.edu/index.php/PSY_376_Habituation
Spence, C. (2010, 03 17). Crossmodal Attention. Scholarpedia, 5(5):6309.
Retrieved from http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Crossmodal_attention
Parrott, J. (2012, 06 19) Sensory Relationships to Place. Retrieved from
http://www.judithparrott.com/writings.html (at PDF click here link)
Why did McDonald’s Bolivia go Bankrupt? (2011, 01 18) Retrieved from
Why did McDonald’s Bolivia go Bankrupt? Review retrieved from
El Polvorin. (2011, 12 19) Retrieved from
Treehugger.com (2011, 12 26) Why McDonald’s Failed to Win Over Bolivians and Closed its Stores Retrieved from http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/bolivia-already- happy-their-meals-rejects-mcdonalds.html
Parrott, J. (2010, 12 04). Walking the Bridge
Forbes (2012). The World’s Billionaires. Retrieved from
Is It Really Just a Social Construction?: The Contribution of the Physical Environment to Sense of Place. Richard C. Stedman. Society & Natural Resources: An International Journal Volume 16, Issue 8, (2003)
The Relationship Between the Built Environment and Wellbeing: a Literature Review. Iain Butterworth PhD, (February 2000), Melbourne Australia
Psychological Sense of Community and its Relevance to Well-being and Everyday Life in Australia. Grace Pretty, PhD The University of Southern Queensland; Brian Bishop, PhD Curtin University; Adrian Fisher, PhD, Christopher Sonn, PhD Victoria University. The Australian Psychological Society (September 2006)
Sense of Place and Well-being on the Neighbourhood: Perceptions of Older Adults. H. Casakin, S. Neikrug (2008)
Judith’s arts practice focuses on the importance of community, cultural identity and connection to place, using the mediums of sound, photography, and poetic prose. She also includes installation items relating to the other senses of touch, taste and smell.
The final body of work at each exhibition is informed by social engagement and creative intervention with the local community. As Scottish Arts Council pARTners artist in residence on the Isle of Bute in 2007, Judith worked closely with the community facilitating sensory, photography and poetic prose walks before developing an exhibition that reflected the visual, aural, tactile and olfactory sense of place of the island community in Rothesay.
In subsequent years Judith returned to the island to work on varying projects including in 2009, Walking the Bridge, which juxtaposes island life on Scotland Island in New South Wales, Australia with island life on the Isle of Bute, Scotland; and in 2012 working with the team of the Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Project to create an exhibition documenting the team’s landscape-based work over the last four years. This exhibition included an audiovisual, photography, text and sculptural installation items created (in collaboration with local artists) from the items team members most associated with their time on the project.
In 2010, Judith was commissioned to produce the work from Walking the Bridge into a 50-minute feature radio programme for ABC Radio National in Australia. An immigrant to Australia from Scotland herself, the programme addressed contemporary Scottish immigration to Australia. For this commission Judith used poetic prose from her diaries on Bute, the sounds recorded on location, and further interviews with other Scottish migrants to Australia.
Walking the Bridge also led to Judith’s employment for Scottish Year of Homecoming, documenting through photography, sound and poetic prose the Canadian community of Rothesay.
In 2005, Judith received an arts fellowship to Antarctica with the Australian Antarctic Division. This 4-month residency allowed her to work with the community of scientists and trades people living temporarily at the Australian stations of Casey, Davis and Mawson in Antarctica, documenting through sound, photography and poetic prose lives in an isolated and extreme environment.
Antarctica – A Place in the Wilderness toured Australia from 2005 to 2012, including a showing at Parliament House, Canberra. As a result of this tour, Judith gained extensive experience in presenting artist talks at a wide range of venues and events.
Earlier exhibitions in the Place Matters series have all required the same level of community engagement and interaction to bring them to fruition. Judith’s work has allowed her to work within a wide cultural context, across many age groups and with people of diverse religious belief, socio-economic background and varying abilities.
Since 2004, Judith has been employed in a variety of capacities by Brisbane City Council, including: photographing diverse religious communities for an exhibition at Brisbane City Hall; running photography workshops for children; and creative interventions with residents displaced by the building of road tunnels.
Judith facilitates workshops at galleries in conjunction with exhibition events, and also as an employee of Flying Arts Inc., a Queensland-based organisation that flies artists to regional and remote Queensland. Judith has twice been invited to work with Primary Elder, Thancoupie, in Australia’s Northern Cape at her indigenous children’s camps (2008 and 2009).
Watch the Island Stories film