1 + 1 = 8: Basal and Synergistic Umají

In Japan, there is a centuries-old tradition of a particularly mysterious, but nonetheless distinguishable flavor, which is usually associated with sustenance perceived as exceptionally delicious. At the start of the 20th century, this very taste has been named “umami” (Ikeda, 1909) – a Japanese neologism based on the two concepts of UMAI (うまい), which means ‘nice,’ ‘delicious,’ or ‘yummy,’ and MI (味), which means ‘taste’ or ‘flavor.’ But, depending on the context, the term is also used more widely to designate all that is perfect (Mouritsen, Styrbæk). In the discourse that follows, I would like to present to you the new design concept of “Umají” – a Mavorswenera® original, which refers to the two ideas of UMAI (as mentioned above) and JÍ (地), the Japanese word for ‘texture’ or ‘fabric.’ Umají can be said to be a new ‘material experiment’ of how to evoke a synesthetic experience of tastes (when visually – or otherwise sensually – perceiving a composition of different metamorphic textures, fabrics, and structures), while taking advantage of the ‘multiplier effect’ produced by putting together basal materials (bio-based raw and, to a certain extent, foundational/traditional textiles), and supplementary or synergistic materials, which promote evolving/agile/adaptive approaches. The taste is maximized by conceptually combining dissimilar basal and synergistic materials in certain ways, which also calls for an open-ended format to interlink these distinct conceptual frameworks – that is, “a matrix of terms, a mesh of codes” (Gausa?).

Mouthtouch: Tasting Texture

The purely optical perception of any given material (its surface structure, the ‘layout,’ and its color and texture, as well as many other aspects) usually comes first. The role of the other main aspect of texture, which is based on the sensory experience of fragrance/flavor materials, here described as mouthtouch, has often been left unnoticed. Mouthtouch characteristics are not merely visual, but first and foremost tactile, or can be perceived indirectly via other “sensory modalities” (Helmholtz) – how materials ‘taste’ when touched, their ‘aroma,’ or their acoustic and thermal properties. Meanwhile, the physical texture related to the materials can be classified on an ongoing continuum ranging from completely natural to totally synthetic. These constitute an aggregate of clustered, synesthetic associations, which ultimately calls for changes in their physical appearances – this, too, involves transitions from one state to another (e.g., from crystalline to glass, solid to liquid, and liquid to gas). Other, not (yet) tried or tested, textural transformations might even lead to the formation of semisolid substances, liquid-like materials, foams, etc., where different phases are simultaneously present, and where the resulting synergistic substrates can be further modified with the help of so-called “additives” – such as plasticizers, emulsifiers, gelling, gums, or coatings, all of which have a specific relationship to water. Otherwise, an outward change can simply occur by regulating the moisture content through external heating/cooling, and other additions.

Metamorphism: Material Changes

Despite the lack of a uniform definition of the term ‘life,’ science has put all its energy behind the effort to recreate this phenomenon indoors, even though, so far, life could not be created artificially in a lab. Altogether, a set of multi-criteria – the signs of life – define the main characteristics of living organisms, which are as follows: “order, homoeostasis, growth, sensing and reacting, adaptation and evolutionary development, propagation, metabolic activity and the transformation of energy” (loosely quoted from Imhof/Gruber). As such, living materials are all justifiably referred to as material systems – even though the differentiation between material and system is rather blurry. It was not until the 19th century when the term ‘metabolism’ (as mentioned before) moved beyond its scientific origin to put down new roots in many areas of culture. The German architect Gottfried Semper established the theory of metabolism (material transformation) as key element of his “practical aesthetics.” While the memory of the original structure remains clearly inscribed into the form or the skin of the object, the latter “must be the exact opposite of everything that one teaches,” Lodoli stated; “it should be in keeping with the characteristic texture, suppleness (or stiffness) of the material, with its varying resisting force, in a word, with its very essence and nature. … Nothing is more vulgar than striving to ensure that a material appears not to be itself but something different. This is a constant masquerade, a permanent deception” (Moravánszky).

Materiology and Mashup Culture

Today’s “mashup cultures” (Sonvilla-Weiss) make it possible to combine material/immaterial elements by objectively manifesting them in design goods or transforming them into open digital content on the Web. Modern people, especially young ones, actually live a Second Life (SL) in ‘highly interactive’ digital storyworlds or ‘media ecologies,’ which were often referred to as big part of our “convergence culture” (Jenkins, 2006). The resulting convergence of various media forms, as well as personalization, remixing of content, and “hypersociality” describe how ‘media mix,’ especially in Japan, brings forth a synergistic relationship between films, video games, comic books, anime, trading cards or character merchandise. Particularly collectible toys are shape-shifting out of a reality-based environment into the virtual world, such as magical, fantasy-filled lands or cities embedded in the supernatural (Cross, 1997). Among those notions, character merchandise creates what Anne Allison has called ‘pocket fantasies,’ “digitized icons … that children carry with them wherever they go,” and characters “that straddle the border between phantasm and everyday life.” Collection as well as mashup are at the core of interaction, while the first respectively makes use (not merely mention) of the formula that was employed by Pokémon, which is of an ever-multiplying set of “symbol characters” that generate esoteric knowledge, and highly activist material cultures of fandom (see: Asian popular music) expanding on the Internet (or cultural code).

Designing E → Motion (≠ Translation)

Surfaces, structures, and materials all manifest an in-depth capacity to evoke emotional reactions from humans, while bioactive ‘cosmotextiles’ convey primary attributes such as ‘softness’ and luxuriousness (which is a kind of softness). Seen through the eyes of modern science, biological material, too, can be defined as ‘soft’ condensed matter, since it shows signs of flexible plasticity and openness to alteration. In this regard, one of the most remarkable advancement in material culture is the shift from solid-state (static) material properties to fluid-state (dynamic) material behaviors: Here, capturing the ephemeral (e.g., emotion) might stand in stark contrast to materials, but fleeting transitory phenomena, too, exist only in the materialistic world. In a loose sense, we could consider materiality as inseparable from that ‘ephemeral/etheric’ nature – of, for example, clouds, sky colors, or even rainbows. Immersed in a surge of hyper-materialist ‘bling-bling’ styles and ‘affective’ hypersociality, contemporary textile design often falls into the sphere of “our fascinations with irreverent material mutations, outrageous morphologies, and sensorial maximalism of luxury and effect” (Schröpfer). But feelings/emotions stimulate (motivate) more senses than just sight, if at all, which indicates that materiality needs to be more than the external structure of its surface. Materials should not merely represent “states of matter.” Thus, there are three levels of meaning: external (materiology), internal (emotionality), and associative symbolic character.

Digital Synesthesia

Emotions, since ultimately based upon the perceptions of external stimuli and bodily reactions, involve phenomena with an essentially multisensory nature. But while sight and, to a certain extent, the sense of touch stand in the foreground of textile design, the smell of materials, however, is given less priority, as is true for other sensory modalities such as sound, scent or taste, with the latter playing a far greater role in other industries (like cosmetics, etc.). In the future, materials must take the correlation between each sensory channel thus into more consideration: In addition to seeing and touching, material design must be elaborated to include the senses of, for example, smell and taste – with direct reference to its auditory appearance, function, handling, and even temperature. Therefore, the central question to the project is: How an experience of ‘synesthesia,’ that is to say, the blurring of the senses, can be activated via digital art and design? As a consequence, this article has roughly dealt with the specific relationship among borderline synesthesia-like experiences, cross-modal analogies, and (to some degree) digitized iconic coupling (i.e., concrete associations). I remember, some years ago, a New York Times feature on “The Future of Touch” declared that “to interact with the world in any meaningful way, we have to use the sense of touch” and that haptic technologies would signify the breakthrough in letting “people feel things that are not actually there” (Fergusson & Naudziunas, 2015). Is this the future we envisioned!?