The value of exploring the wider context of your research.
In 2017, I took part in Arts in the Alps, a week long doctoral research school organised by the Maison de la création at the Université Grenoble Alpes. The call for participation caught my attention because it related to my research interests while at the same time provided me with an opportunity to expand my practice and research network.
My research and the topic of ongoing doctoral research centres on sensing and emotions in relation to wellbeing. This is informed by previous work, notably a project called Sensing the Urban Interior published in 2014. Following the principle of ‘spatial inversion’, whereby spaces between buildings habitually referred to as exteriors become interiors, I carried out a sensorial documentation of an urban interior, the More London Estate, a contemporary riverside business development in London. The location sits at the boundaries between inside and outside, private and public, enclosed and open space. This distinctive position and promise of interiority made it an ideal site of enquiry. The objective of the research was to uncover connections between the way we feel and our sense of belonging. This was achieved by documenting how the urban interior resonated with the senses to provide a framework for reflection as well as an incentive towards sensory transformations.
We use our senses to understand our environment, a form of data collection and processing that enables us to make sense of the world around us and, to find out why we feel the way we do about places and people within them, I develop sensory methods that enable me to document how we gather and process this data. My doctoral work relates phenomenology and ecology. Although the doctoral research is highly focussed I also believe that it is important to explore the wider context of the topic. For instance, as part of the Green Sky Thinking week of events, I recently attended a talk and demonstration by Atkins on digital technologies for urban environments and in June I am presenting the Sensory Flow, a documentation tool I developed in the Sensing the Urban Interior project, at a seminar on multi-sensory design organised by CIBSE Intelligent Buildings Group.
Prior to the start of my doctoral research, I also worked on a project called ‘Residual Ambiances – An Illustration of Urban Heritage as a Sentient Experience’. Our urban heritage incorporates many instances of abandoned buildings awaiting rescue, where residual fragments of past occupancies provide a stage for an immersive journey into the ambiance of the interior across past and present thresholds. Accordingly, this project illustrated a unique perceptual encounter between the abandoned interior of Poplar Baths in London and myself. Subsequently, I synthesised the emotion and intimacy of the sentient experience into a scenographic narrative and short performance. The interest of the project lied in its ability to articulate how sentient experiences activate a deep empathetic connection between body and space in the context of urban heritage. Following the completion of the project, I wrote a paper about it, which I presented at the 3rd International Congress on Ambiances in Volos, Greece, in September 2016. While there, I also took part in another activity called Volos Transects, a sensory mapping of the city.
Watch the film of the scenographic narrative and performance: https://vimeo.com/161299058
So, when the call for the Arts in the Alps research school came through, I saw this as an opportunity to further explore the wider context of my research, share knowledge and practices, participate, contribute and experiment within and international network of researchers and artists.
Below is the information sent by the Arts in the Alps organisers to call for participants:
The Arts in the Alps Spring School is bringing together a community of leading researchers, artists and PhD candidates from the fields of architecture, dance, geography, fine arts, performance, sound art and linguistics to explore, collaborate and experiment new practices of interdisciplinary and practice-based site-specific research entitled:
“Gestures of here & there: la fabrique sensible des lieux”.
During the week participants had the opportunity to experiment, discuss and share interartistic and interdisciplinary practices of site specific research. Specifically, centered on the question of the memory of a place, this research intensive week aimed at investigating the site of the Bouchayer-Viallet which has many historical layers: industrial, eco-cultural and artistic. This site held a strategic position in the hydroelectric sector in the early 1900s and is now reconverted as a development zone by the city of Grenoble. A nearly 3000m2 steel and glass factory building is now the home of Magasin les Horizons, a Center for Arts and Cultures which is where the school was based.
Throughout the five-day intensive doctoral school, participants had the opportunity to attend a series of workshops, seminars and events facilitated by an international group of researchers and artists. The mornings were dedicated to collective activities workshops, readings and seminars while the afternoon sessions focused on practice-based art and research platforms with smaller groups. Participants were encouraged to experiment with sensory based research practices and to re-enact the collective and individual gestures which wove and continue to weave the multi-faceted identities of this historical site.
Guillonne Balaguer (France) / Martial Chazallon (France) / Daria Lippi (Italy-France) /
Erin Manning (Concordia University, Canada) / Brian Massumi (Université de Montréal, Canada) / Helen Paris (Curious UK and Stanford University, USA) / Rebecca Schneider (Brown University, USA) / Anne Volvey (Université d’Artois, France)
Organizing committee: Gretchen Schiller (Maison de la Création & UMR LITT&ARTS, UGA), Nataliya Grulois et Anne-Claire Cauhapé (Maison de la Création, UGA), Claudine Moïse (LIDILEM, UGA), Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary (PACTE, UGA), Anne Dalmasso (LARHRA, UGA) Martin Givors (doctorant LITT&ARTS, UGA); Rachel Thomas (CRESSON, UMR 1563 AAU, ENSAG), Inge Linder-Gaillard (ÉSAD, École Supérieure d’Art et Design •Grenoble •Valence), Béatrice Josse et Camille Planeix ( Magasin des Horizons, Centre d’arts et de cultures), Marie Roche (Centre de développement chorégraphique Le Pacifique), Rachid Ouramdane et Erell Melscoet (CCN2, Centre chorégraphique national), Matthieu Warin (Maison des habitants de Bouchayer-Viallet).
This was a complete departure from my usual ways of working. I tend to work alone when carrying out research or with participants. In the doctoral school, we worked in groups of 8 participants and there were 4 groups across the school in total, with 2 workshop leaders in each group. We also had a couple of people who worked in the school who came in and out of the sessions. People came from all over the world. In our group: UK, Canada, Belgium, Turkey, Australia, France, Spain who were artists, performers, academics, architects, philosophers.
Each day started with a somatic practice organised by Germana Civera. Amazing! A most emotionally invigorating activity. Every day for 5 days, a great way to start the day. Then we would take part in thematic workshops and there were also two seminars with Erin Maning and philosopher Brian Massumi. The day would end with a conference. We started the day at 9am and finished at 8:30pm. Everyone would then meet for dinner into a restaurant booked by our organisers, a different place each day. We ended the week in a beautiful guest house in the woods outside Grenoble for a celebration and final goodbyes.
The theme for my group was Mapping Lost Gestures and the workshops were run by Gretchen Schiller and Helen Paris, both a pleasure to work with. They made everyone feel welcome and very soon, it became clear that we had excellent group dynamics where everyone was happy to participate, and no one was making judgements on others. In the thematic workshops, we were required to mostly express ourselves through bodily gestures. It felt very awkward for me at first because I didn’t know what I was doing but I soon learnt from observing others more familiar with performance and by day two, I became more attuned to bodily gestures, and by day three it felt like a completely natural way of communicating. All the activities we took part in in the first 4 days were designed to help us prepare a 40 minutes performance to present to the other groups and tutors on the last day. The group worked incredibly well and we were all able to make a contribution and enjoy ourselves in the process.
This week -long research school was the most uplifting research event I have been to. People connected in a very positive way. There was a degree of freedom and an ability for us to take some ownership of what we did which means that we achieved a lot and it was also a pleasure to do it. The organisers recently sent us the link to a website where they posted filmed interviews of the people talking about the activities they organised. Watching the films brought back very fond memories. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to apply performance to my research since I started by doctorate, my work is about embodied experiences, including bodily movement and gestures, so there may be opportunities in the future to integrate performance led experimental interventions into my practice.
 Attiwill, S. (2011). Urban and Interior: techniques for an urban interiorist. In R. U. Hinkel, (Ed.), Urban Interior – informal explorations, interventions and occupations (pp. 12-24). School of Architecture and Desing, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. Baunach: Spurbuchverlag.