Performing the environment: the perceptual voice of the interior

Beyond situations that have been experienced, discover situations that have been dreamed” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958: 29)
 

INTRODUCTION

This project investigates the creation of an immersive experience in the abandoned interior of  Poplar Baths, in Poplar, London, positioning the body in terms of sensing and creating through performance in the context and site specificity of selected interior spaces within the building. The techniques draw on the perceptions and emotions generated by the synergy between body and space. This enquiry is grounded in existing theories and research, notably the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty on phenomenology, J.J. Gibson on ecology and Paul Ricoeur on memory. The objective is to reposition the site survey as an experiential encounter, embodied by the interior through a fictional narrative and performed by the investigator. Using mapping drawing, scenography and performance the incentive is to reveal sensory perceptions and unique corresponding emotional affect.

IMMERSION

The project relates to the concept of synaesthetic as defined by Dr Rosie Klich from the University of Kent at the symposium on Immersive Theatre Experiences at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University London, London UK in November 2013. The symposium explored examples of immersive theatre practices and reflected on the phenomenon of the ‘immersive event.’ So the project transposes the potential offered by performance immersive practices into the study of an interior, revealing the uniqueness of a situation. It meets some of the exploratory aspirations of another project Ephraim Joris wrote about in his paper ‘The Interior: between research and practice.’ Joris’s students however benefitted from dance training and choreographed their interpretation accordingly while the method here is entirely visceral and considers a more intuitive and spontaneous approach to experiencing an environment. This approach facilitates perceptual and emotional expression by fully engaging the senses with the atmosphere of the interior. ‘We perceive atmosphere through our emotional sensibility – a form of perception that works incredibly quickly, and which we humans evidently need to help us survive. We are capable of immediate appreciation, of a spontaneous emotional response, of rejecting things in a flash.’ (Zumthor, 2006, p. 13)

The site of the performance is a small empty room in the abandoned public baths building Poplar Baths, in Poplar, East London. Poplar Baths was built and opened in 1852. Used as a swimming pool and baths most of the year, it was also transformed into a theatre, dance hall and exhibition hall in winter when the main pool, known as East India Hall, was floored over. It sustained substantial bomb damage during World War II and subsequently remained closed until 1947. Following extensive repairs it reopened to renewed popularity, attracting large numbers of swimmers each year. However lack of funding to carry out structural repairs and the changing nature of the area and leisure occupations meant that the facilities were closed permanently in 1985. The abandoned site slowly fell into disrepair, its original interior crumbling, obliterating the memories of its past. The study focuses on four interconnected areas: the main pool on the ground floor, adjacent corridors, stairs leading to the first floor and a small room on the second floor that looks down onto the street on one side and onto the main pool, now empty, on the other, and although the performance is staged in the second floor room, it is informed by the experiential journey through the building.

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Although the interior environment has been neglected for many years and has suffered substantial damage, abandoned fixtures hint at the activities that once took place there and revealed a building once teeming with life with fragments of the elegance and beauty of its original Art Deco style still visible through the decay slowly disintegrating. So from a perceptual perspective, the interior of the building retains a ghostly imprint of its past, which engendered uncanny occurrences of phenomenological imprints of past occupancy, that manifested itself as shifting impressions of fleeting movements and sounds emanating from imagined ghosted silhouettes permeating the layers of time. It was an emotionally moving experience no doubt influenced by my own experiences and memories of such places, both real and narrated, but nonetheless unique to this situation. Professor Robert Tavenor, director of the cities programme at the London School of Economics provides an interesting point of view on this phenomena. ‘Each time a memory is triggered, it is renewed and revised by the new experience, and our sensitivity to buildings becomes an amalgam of recall and reinterpretation. […] A building’s voice can be very potent, but it is ultimately the inner voice you are hearing – your own voice.’ (Cited in Architectural Voices, Littlefield, p.12). So the building may be abandoned but it is still a place of textures and colours, light and shadows, smells, sounds, scale and objects, and the high level of perceptual entropy I felt while I visited the site allowed me to be transported back in time into an imagined environment while being conscious of the present and therefore, feeling the tensions of the duality of time, a constant shift between the past and the present. While exploring the building, I also experienced sound distortions reverberating across the darkness of the corridors and staircases. For a brief moment, I lost sight of the people I was with and could not locate their position with accuracy as the sound they were making reverberated against the tiled surfaces and seemed to come from different directions at once. For a brief moment when time seemed to become suspended, I felt truly lost and apprehension and anxiety took over. The scarred building turned into an unfriendly place. Then suddenly clarity came back, I was back in the present and able to follow the sound and rejoin the others.

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SCENOGRAPHY

A few days later in the studio, the stage was set for a one minute performance of four recurring sequences titled ‘Lost Time’. ‘[…] we do not know, in a phenomenological sense, whether forgetting is only an impediment to evoking and recovering the “lost time”, or whether it results from the unavoidable wearing away  “by” time of the traces left in us by past events in the form of original affections.’ (Ricoeur, 2004, 2006 ed., p.30)

One of the elevations of the room was projected onto the wall of the studio and masking tape was used to mark out on the floor the exact boundaries of the interior. Three cameras were running, one for the foreground, one for the middleground and another for the background.In preparation for the performance, I previously mapped the scenography across a series of diagrammatic drawings showing the sequence of movement across the floor space and elevations, bridging the gap between the emotional and the physical, between performance and design drawing. I also included three props. Two of them represented the room in anthropomorphic terms. To represent the room in the present, I used a once beautiful but now damaged 1930’s tailored woman’s suit jacket turned inside out to show its ripped lining. To represent the room in the past, I chose a chair covered with a heavy single white sheet. The third prop was a recording of voices that represented keynote sounds of the people in the present moving across the building.

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The performance is inspired by my experience within the entire building and a desire to express this unique and uncanny situation, I chose to perform the feeling of loss, duality and the anxiety emerging from the destructive layers of time felt when I visited the site and the momentary confusion that resulted from the sound of people’s voices reverberating across the building’s surfaces. The room used for the performance becomes the stage, a blank canvas onto which I could project the narrative of the situation.  It explores the sensation of being physically, emotionally and psychologically aware of the space both in the present and trough the imprint of its past expressed by fragments of memory still visible amidst the decay. The room, represented by a figure sitting on a chair (waiting), inhabits its former reality, now a world of stillness and silence. As people speak when they enter the room (in the present time), they create vibrations, which produce energy waves that alter the medium, substances and surfaces, not only across the environment but also time. The room can now hear voices and tries to locate the sounds vibrating across the environment but it can’t, and people, in their own reality can see the decay and rubble while never experiencing the environment as it was originally intended. When they leave, all is quiet again and the room goes back to its waiting position.Movement is activated by the emission of sound, an actual recording of people talking as they enter the room taken on site.The movement through the environment is fast but hesitant because it is impossible to locate the source of the sound and also incorporates swift 360˚ turns to change direction and emphasise the feeling of confusion. When the sound stops, the movement slows down and lacks clear direction.

Background camera

Middleground camera

CONCLUSION

This project focusses on the symbiotic relationship between the building and its past occupants and through mapping and performance, explores  the perceptual voice of the interior. It highlights a practice where the insubstantial is captured through performance. The atmospheric stimulation experienced in real time leads to an encounter with a past imprinted into the fabric of the environment.  The approach allows the designer to become the environment and in doing so incorporates emotions and the notion of spatial empathy. It also highlights the notions of fragility and ephemerality.

Listening to the perceptual voice of the interior is unusual but this approach is part of a larger body of work that investigates techniques that supports the integration of knowledge of emotions through perceived atmosphere and the senses into the design process, alongside aesthetic and functional concerns. In this case, as a more acute sense of awareness developed, it provided additional layers on information about the layout and materiality of the interior as well as the symbiotic relationship between the environment and past occupants. It is about a creating a situation for a ‘lived experience’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1948, 2004 ed., p.32) rather than recording the space from the point of view of the rationality of a scientific approach.

Acknowledgements: I completed this project as part of my postgraduate thesis development. It was set by Dusan Decermic, Course Director of the MA Interior Design at the University of Westminster, London. The brief specified the location and the creation of mapping drawings and one minute performance on the theme of ‘the waiting room’. The interpretation however was unique to each student.
 

Bibliography

Bachelard, G. (1958) (1994 ed.) The Poetics of Space Beacon Press: Boston, Massachusetts

Gibson, J. J. (1986) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception New-York: Psychology Press

Lefebvre H. (1991 ed.) The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Littlefield, D. & Lewis, S. (2007) Architectural Voices. Listening to Old Buildings. Chichester: Wiley Academy

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1948, 2004 ed.) The World of Perception. New-York: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty M., (2012 ed.) ‘Phenomenology of Perception’ New York: Routledge

Ricoeur, P. (2006) Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Roger P., (ed) (2012) Interior Education Futures. Contemporary Insights. Libri Publishing, Faringdon. Joris E., The Interior: between research and practice. p.59. Macdermott J. et al., Emotion, emotion, emotion. The Spirit of being human. p.75

Zumthor P., (2003) ‘Atmospheres’ Basel: Birkhauser

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