Arts in the Alps

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’[1], 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.

Guest faculty

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.

Detailed information about the activities with photographs and videos

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.

[1] 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.

Open Senses

The London Open Senses Festival ran from 19-21 May 2017. The first of its kind, first of many I hope, the festival included an rich mix of sensory events and experiences, and a symposium at the University of London. The symposium included many excellent presentations and workshops while the most pertinent to my research was a presentation by architect Juhani Pallasmaa. Titled Landscape of the Senses – Touching the World, the presentation explored the hegemony of vision in our culture and in architecture. The senses are often regarded as independent systems but they are in fact integrated as part of our embodied condition. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1958) speaks of the polyphony of the senses. In life, sensory stimuli don’t occur in isolation and embodied sensory experiences are essential to our wellbeing. If we remove ourselves from bodily sensory experiences we live impoverished lives. Therefore, we need an integrated approach in research and design.

Pallasmaa also spoke about the shallow appropriation of the sensory realm in marketing strategies. This sensory manipulation of the senses leads to hyperesthesia (or hyperaesthesia), a condition that involves an abnormal increase in sensitivity to stimuli of the senses. According to Pallasmaa, we are in an era of branded manipulations, of total anesthetisation. The essence of architecture and its social significance are being replaced by a formal aesthetic rhetoric and an uncritical view of digital technologies further detaches us from sensory experiences. Unfortunately, Pallasmaa didn’t have time to elaborate on these statements and explain what he means by the essence of architecture. Further reading into his many books and papers will surely enlighten the topic. However, I agree that many contemporary buildings and urban spaces lack social significance. Does the rise in interest in the senses across so many disciplines points to a societal malaise? Perhaps, as Pallasmaa points out, in a digitally enhance world, people have become starved of meaningful embodied experiences.

On the other hand there are interesting new possibilities emerging through technologies. In the morning of the symposium, I visited Thresholds by Matt Collishaw in Somerset House (not part of the festival). Thresholds is an immersive installation that uses the latest VR technology. It reproduces the interior of King Edward’s school in Birmingham to take us back to 1839, to an early exhibition of photography by British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot. As in all VR experiences, I wore a headset but this time, I also had a unit strapped to my back. Initially the experience felt artificial, like being in a game, and intriguing at the same time. As my mind adapted to the environment details emerged and the VR space began to resonate with my senses. I could touch the wood of the photography display cases. Mice occasionally running across the room, insect flying around the chandeliers, and a fire burning in the fireplace, animated the space. I could feel the warmth of the fire but I didn’t have the same confidence moving my hands towards it as I would in real life. Perhaps because I couldn’t see my own hand, only an orange glow. My sense of depth and movement functioned as expected but I still needed time to adapt the the virtual environment. After a while, I could also hear the noise of a crowd coming from outside the room. I believe it was meant to be a riot though I never felt the tension the same situation would cause in reality. This was staged and the experience was short lived (six minutes). Nonetheless, the scenographic use of technology was amazing.  It also illustrates possibilities for integrating sensory experiences into a virtual space. The experiment would have failed if it had only focused on the visual. Frieze magazine commented that ‘Collishaw has not recreated an historical experience, but has instead constructed an entirely new one.’ Matt Collishaw is an amazing artists who challenges perceptions and expectations.


Thresholds by Matt Collishaw

The ocular-centric paradigm occupies a prominent place in Pallasmaa’s critique of architecture. He argues that the role of the senses and the impact of the way spaces resonate with our senses is largely overlooked in architectural practices because of the use of an ocular centric language of symbols and images. He is not the only one to expound a a multi-sensory approach to architecture and design. Architect Joy-Monice Malnar and artist Frank Vodvarka (2004) also tell us that ‘sensory data are rarely central to design decisions’ and interior designer Sashi Caan (2011) identified that practice-led research in this area lacks rigour. I also include myself in this school of thought. In my research , I aim to enrich our knowledge of embodied sensory experiences through the study of atmospheric qualities and user relations in spaces, and promote a multi-sensory (integrated) approach to spatial design practices.

Visual culture dominates but vision is a sense of distance. We don’t need to be close to something to see it and this can create a distance between body and space. Pallasmaa may have been thinking about the work of theorist Henry Lefebvre (1974) when he spoke out against the prevailing ocular centric paradigm. In The Production of Space, Lefebvre explains that ‘[the image] detaches the pure form from its impure content – from lived time, everyday time, and from bodies with their opacity and solidity, their warmth, their life and their death’. Lefebvre takes and uncompromising position when he says that ‘[…] the image kills’. I wouldn’t go as far but I agree with Pallasmaa who says that ‘it is […] important to survey critically the role of vision in relation to the other senses in our understanding and practice of the art of architecture’.  As Caan explains, ‘[d]esign is the deliberate intervention in our environment to ameliorate the conditions of our existence’. We can’t achieve this if we rely mostly on the visual sense when designing. Therefore, we need to encourage a multi-sensory mind-set in spatial design practices to enrich our experiences of everyday spaces.

Bachelard, G. (1958, 1994 ed.) The Poetics of Space. 
Boston: Beacon Press.
Caan, S. (2011) Rethinking Design and Interiors – Human Beings and the Built 
Environment. London: Laurence King. 
Lefebvre, H. (1974, 1991 ed.) The Production of Space. Oxford, England:Blackwell Publishing. 
Malnar, Joy MoniceVodvarka, Frank (2004) Sensory design. Minneapolis,Minn.: University of Minnesota Press. 
Pallasmaa, J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Umwelten

Umwelten is a site-specific performance at the Royal Academy by Juri Nishi in collaboration with Bitter Suite. Blindfolded I was led into the space of the performance where three performers choreographed their movements with mine and choreographed my movements with theirs as I was led on a sensorial journey through the room. It was the most wonderful experience. At no point did it feel unsafe or awkward. I became completely immersed into the performance and completely relaxed, becoming malleable to the choreography. My Umwelten became a fluid space unconstrained by traditional architectural principles.

Event’s flyer: umwelten

The Umwelt, located in the fairly new field of sensory ecology, is a theory developed by ethologist Jacob von Uexküll. The events’ flyer describes sensory ecology as the study of how organisms acquire, process and respond to information from the environment, exchanging materials, energies and sensory information. Von Uexküll studied how animals behave in relation to their environment and theorised that the qualities of an environment are not intrinsic to the environment but depend on the way the mind interprets the world. Therefore, organisms can have different Umwelten even in the same environments. This is an interesting theory because it articulates that qualities in the environment are subject dependent and that the mind and the world are inseparable. The theory of Umwelt recognises the complexity of the phenomenal environment as perceived and interpreted by the subject of perception.

Although I was blindfolded, I completely surrendered to the fluid environment created by the performance. I was told it lasted 20 minutes, it felt like barely 10 had passed. At the end of the performance, I was given a pad and pencil to draw my impression of the space as it emerged in my imagination. Still under the spell of the performance I drew a symbolic mental map that illustrates a fluid journey, in parts lacking definition in a space removed from architectural conventions. When the performance ended, I felt very light, almost floating, and this continued for a long time afterwards, until I took the tube to the next event I was attending that day. My London Underground umwelten brought me back to reality.


My Umwelten during the performance

Actual space where the performance took place

Buchanan, B. (2009) Onto-Ethologies. The Animal Environments of Uexkull, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze. 
Albany: State University of New York Press.
von Uexküll, J. (1934, 2010 ed.) A Foray into the World of Animals and 
Humans with a Theory of Meaning. 
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Journey to the Interior

This event is described as ‘a multi-sensory, participatory performance and a feast, inspired by George Bellas Grenough, a geologist and founder of the Geological Society, London as well as Jules Verne’s story the Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.

Artistic Director, Tereza Stehlikova and her team, created an impressive array of sensory experiences around the topics of geology and journey to the centre of the earth. The journey began in Kensal Green cemetery all the way through to the core of the earth, through to carbon art by Mateusz Gidaszewski, sugar metamorphics by Ellie Doney, and ended with an amazing meal designed and prepared to enrich our experience of the themes chosen for this event. The food was intriguing, enticing and delicious. The company was excellent.

Event’s flyer: journey

Re-imaging the environment

Abstract

This paper presents a study of selected visualisation and investigative methods that facilitate the exploration and expression of human emotions and perceptions within real world environments during the design development stages of a project, repositioning exploration and visualisation in spatial design education. It puts forward an outline for an iterative inquiry around human experiences in order to assess the value of alternative cognitive tools for spatial design students in higher education.

reimaging

Established tools such as orthographic drawings, axonometric projections or scale models equip spatial designers with the consistency they need to investigate and represent physical attributes of space but don’t always constitute the best methods to explore the perceived environment, even though it is a key contributing factor to the way we experience our surroundings. It is therefore in the interest of design educators to investigate complementary interpretations that enable students to consciously explore less tangible aspects of design such as emotions and multi-sensorial modalities.

Projects developed using tools and techniques ranging from digital 2D and 3D image making, photography, film, animation and performance provide an insight into the possibilities offered by existing visual technologies as dynamic study devices of human experiences and contribute to the generation of alternative processes in spatial design education.

 Full paper

Wiating-room

Middleground camera

See also post ‘Performing the Environment: the Perceptual Voice of the Interior’

Spatial Experience

I was invited by Dr Kevin Walker who runs the MA Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Arts to talk to students from a range of MA programmes. Spatial design isn’t fully integrated in many of the programmes but some students do have projects that exist within this context and they were very keen to find out more. I really enjoyed it and it was great being able to chat with a few people about individual projects afterwards.

Event information

SPATIAL EXPERIENCE – An insight into environmental perceptions

The lecture proposes that life itself is a performance and considers the notion of space not simply as a physical entity but as an event. Starting with observations on identity, cultural ideologies and communication, the proposal unfolds to provide an insight into environmental perceptions and atmospheric qualities, and includes examples of experimental projects designed to develop environmental awareness and spatial experience.

One-New-Change

References

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

Gibson J. J., (1986) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception Psychology Press, Hove.

Pallasmaa J., (2005) The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester.

Malnar M. J., Vodvarka F., (2004) Sensory Design University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

Van Schaik L., (2008) Spatial Intelligence. New Futures for Architecture. AD Primer. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester.

Lefebvre H., (1991 ed.) The Production of Space. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Zizek S., (2006) How to read Lacan Granta Books, London.

Freud S., (2003 ed.) The Uncanny Penguin Classics, London

Zumthor P., (2003) Atmospheres Birkhauser, Basel.

From some of the people who attended…

Hi Valerie,

I attended your lecture at the RCA today which I enjoyed very much. I was going to ask you a question but you looked at little busy so I thought I would email instead.

I shot a photographic series last year, the focus of which was signage and I have recently been revisiting ideas around the project, to uncover things I had overlooked. The photos themselves are technical, large digital composites shot as panoramics, but its the method I found each location which now seems important. I obsessed over each location, virtually (through satellite imagery and street view), sometimes for years because they were in America.  When I eventually visited the chosen locations, I often experienced a strange sense of deja vu, a space never before visited by very familiar to me.

I’m researching this relation between psychological state, space and mapping, and wondered if you had any suggestions for further reading?

Many Thanks,

Dominic Hawgood, Visual Artist

Dear Valerie,

Hello my name is Bohyun, 1st year student majoring in Service design at RCA.
It was really great to being on your lecture today. I had to skip one meeting for that but I’m so glad I did.

As I mentioned after the lecture, currently I’m doing project for the Sainsbury for innovating customer’s supermarket experience and got to very interested in developing environmental awareness like you said. It would be really grateful if I can also get reach to the paper having the list of books you recommended as I don’t have any contact at the Information design programme, which is shame. And you also mentioned about BBC radio programme regarding ‘perception & sense’. I wonder if I can still get hold of it if I go the the BBC website.

Actually, I was very inspired today more than anytime before in RCA as I was very interested in knowing what comprise of the unique atmosphere of each site but I haven’t got any chances to learn or practice properly about it from my programme. Please let me know if you are going to give lecture to public or do any lecture which are allowed to students from other university, I would love to listen your lectures once again.

Oh yes, and will you also tell me some of museums in london you’ve suggested to visit? I was trying to take a note of your slide but I couldn’t see very well as I was sit at ‘Background’ not the ‘foreground’.

Thanks a lot. I look forward to hearing from you.

All best,

Bohyun

Hi Valerie,

I just wanted to send an email to say thank you so much for talking to me about my work and about the kind of projects you get involved in. Your talk was really inspiring and getting to speak to you after was a wonderful  opportunity. I was feeling quite concerned about my direction and potential role in a career and you were so encouraging and really gave me the boost I needed to get some faith back.

Thank you so much for giving me your time, I really really appreciate it. Hope to be in contact soon,

Best wishes,

Polly O’Flynn