From landscape to sensescape

What is a landscape? How do you relate to your landscape? How do landscapes affect us?

Departing in phenomenology’s notion of the body and the world as inseparable, I approach the term landscape as an entrance to a specifically embodied conceptualization through the following three statements:

A) Landscape as relation.

As the philosopher Christopher Tilley has pointed out, using the term landscape in a phenomenological perspective will appear antithetical to the conventional Western understanding, where landscape is “[…]implying separation and disinterested analytical observation, a particular way of seeing exemplified in the linear techniques of perspective developed in landscape painting since the Renaissance[…]” (Tilley 2004:24). A search in the Oxford Dictionary confirms that landscape is still first and foremost understood as a picture, a painting, a view, a scenery, a map, a background or simply just “the object of one’s gaze”, depicting a piece of mostly natural inland ( This understanding, argues Tilley, is turned around in a phenomenological idea of landscape defined as “perceived and embodied sets of relationships between places, a structure of human feeling, emotion, dwelling, movement and practical activity within a geographical region which may or may not possess precise topographic boundaries or limits” (ibid.:25). From such a perspective, landscape is understood radically different than visual representations of beautiful, natural scenarios. It is not some object in front of my gaze, but a continuous dynamic process of relation between my embodied being and the being of my surroundings in “a consideration of fluidity, transition and motion” (Benediktson and Lund, 2010:3).


Relations. Participant: Søren. Photographer: Christine Fentz

B) Landscape as more-than-human.

Phenomenologically speaking, landscape can also be understood as a dynamic relation between the human and the non-human. In the philosopher David Abram’s ecology, this implies a form of radical conversation, where “[t]he landscape as I directly experience it, is hardly a determinate object; it is an ambiguous realm that responds to my emotions and calls forth feelings from me in return” (Abram 1997:33). Continuing this conversation metaphor, geographer and anthropologist Karl Benedikson and Katrin Anna Lund defines landscape as a continuous dialogue between interdependent entities, in which: […]landscape implies a more-than-human materiality; a constellation of natural forms that are independent of humans, yet part and parcel of processes bywhich human beings make their living and understand their own placing in the world” (Benediktsson and Lund 2010:1). Because landscape is both shaped by human but also shaping the human, it is a more-than-human constellation that, after all, remains undisciplined (ibid.:9). Benediktsson and Lund goes as far as to state that landscape is “not comprehended as a predetermined, culturally contrived “text”, but as a conversational partner[…]” (ibid.:8) Now, if landscape connections can be seen as conversations or dialogues, how can such connections take place and how can they be experienced? This is part of my investigation.


More-than-human. Participant: Birthe. Photo: Rasmus Malling Lykke Skov

C) Landscape as multisensorial.

My intention in the process of creating and facilitating sensorial walks with blindfolded participants, is to test and practice the geographer Edmunds Bunkse’s concept of landscape as “a unity in one’s surroundings, percieved through all the senses” (Bunkse 2007:222). This theoretical starting point adopts landscape as “embodied practices of being in the world, including ways of seeing but extending beyond sight to both a sense of being that includes all the senses and an openness to being affected” (Dewsbury and Cloke 2009: 696).

Now, landscape becomes multisensorial. It becomes sensescapes. In David Howes’ anthropology of senses, sensescapes is defined as the idea that the experience of the environment and of the other persons and things which inhabit the environment, is produced by a particular mode of distinguishing, valuing and combining the senses in the culture under study” (Howes 2005:143). An anthology by the philosopher Madalina Diaconu a.o., uses the term in the title “Senses and the city. An interdisciplinary approach to urban sensescapes” (2001). Surprisingly it does not seem to undergo any further definition in the book, though Diaconu do seem to encourage the same sensory revolution as Howes and Bunkse (Diaconu 2001:7, Howes 2005:1, Bunkse 2012:12). With Bunkse, however, the concept moves from an anthropological to a geographical-philosophical approach to landscapes as home. Departing in his own history as a Latvian emigrant trying to find his feet in the States, he states:

[…]contact with our primal nature is in more than pretty pictures or designs of landscapes. Pictures are abstractions, we do not enter the landscape by gazing at it and taking ever more pretty pictures of it. Having a handful of thorny needles from a devil’s club may hurt for a week, but it is thus that one becomes part of a landscape. It is how familiarity is acquired with many other sensory aspects of wild landscapes that Canadians fondly refer to as the “bush”. And familiarity makes the heart fonder. It then feels at home (Bunkse 2007:14)

Bunkse makes a crucial point that the dominance of pictures and words in our Western culture has moved us away from contact with our primal nature (ibid.:221). This refers to the phenomenology of perception as a movement back to a naive and sensuous contact with the world. Primarily I – the phenomenological “I” – am a sensing body. I smell. I touch and grab things. I eat. I am cold and warm. I constantly orientate myself by my senses. I hear directions, taste if the food is good or bad, observe the ground with my feet and store knowledge about places in my nostrils. Bunkse’s sensory turn moves away from objectification and distance in a paradigm of words and images, and towards new (or old) ways of encountering and relating to the landscape as home. Inspired by this approach, I suggest a definition in this thesis, of sensescapes as a landscape inhabited and experienced through a multisensory mode of being with and in the world. My proposal of a movement from a concept of landscape to a concept of sensescapes, leads to the production of Sensescapes as a multisensorial connection between the self, other selves and the surrounding land, and as a method of inhabiting and experiencing one self and one’s surroundings in the same movement.


Smellscape. Participant: Stephan. Photo: Rasmus Malling Lykke Skov

(The text is an excerpt from the introduction chapter in the master thesis I am currently working on, titled: “Sensescapes. The Phenomenology of Sensorial Landscape Connections”)


Abram, David, 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous. Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, Vintage Books, New York

Benediktsson, Karl and Lund, Katrin Anna, 2010: “Introduction: Starting a conversation with Landscape” in Benediksson, Karl and Lund, Katrin Anna, Conversation with Landscape, University of Iceland, Ashgate

Bunkse, Edmund, 2007, “Feeling is believing, or landscape as a way of being in the world” in Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography: Geografiska Annaler, Series B, Volume 89Issue 3pages 219–231

Bunkse, Edmunds, 2012, Sensescapes: or a Paradigm Shift from Words and Images to All Human Senses in Creating Feelings of Home in Landscape” in Landscape, Architecture and Art. Proceedings of the Latvia University of Agriculture, Volume 1, Number 1, p. 10-15

Dewsbury, J.D. and Cloke, Paul, 2009, Spiritual landscapes: existence, performance and Immanence, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol , Bristol, BS8 1SS, UK file:///C:/Users/acer/Desktop/Dewsbury.pdf

Diaconu, Madalina, Heuberger, Eva, Mateus-Berr, Ruth and Vosicky, Lukas Marchel, 2011, Senses and the City: An interdisciplinary approach to urban sensescapes, LIT Verlag

Howes, David, 2005, Empire of the senses, Bloomsbury Academic

Tilley, Christopher, 2004, The Materiality of Stone. Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology: 1, Berg

Categories: Blindfolding, Cityscape, Country side, Landscape Dialogues, Thesis experiment | Leave a comment

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