Tag Archives: place

What is place and space?

Place and space, two terms used so commonly and casually by most people, are remarkably challenging concepts to define. Space tends to be thought of in the abstract, an infinite, continuous expanse – from the vastness of the cosmos to the depths of the mental space in which we think. Place on the other hand, is bounded and local. It is defined by a human narrative and experience; it is a material demonstration of some social practice, or a memory of such, which marks it out from other spaces. It is a place to which we feel we belong.

Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu was one of the first scholars to discuss the understanding of space through meaning and action, rather than strictly in structural terms. He argued that space has no meaning apart from practice – actions which interact to define and reinforce cultural knowledge and social behaviours. This system of generating dispositions, habitus, “constitutes and is constituted by actors’ movements though space” (Bourdieu 1984). This in turn means that the interpretation of space can not be fixed, as it is the social practices of the actors within the space who provide the spatial meaning.

Also on this line of thinking, Henri Lefebvre in the Production of Space (1991), proposed that space is socially produced, rather than being a pre-existing volume or environment. He described a tripartite division between material space (that which is experienced through our primary sense perceptions via human practices), the representation of space (spaces as we conceive them through language, maps, diagrams, concepts or codes), and spaces of representation (space as lived – physically, affectively, emotionally through imagination, dreams, fears).

David Harvey, whose social critique builds on the same Marxist theory as Lefebvre, offers a more comprehensive framework to define space, using Lefebvre’s tripartite division as one dimension, and offers a second dimension of another three co-existing definitions of space and time (Harvey 2005). First, absolute space and time, a mathematical reference location which identifies the individuality and uniqueness of every person, thing and process that has ever, or will ever exist. This is the space of Newtonian Mechanics and Euclidean spaces – with all events measurable and predictable. The second definition is of relative space, where space and time cannot be understood separately – the space-time of relativistic physics, and non-Euclidean geometries. These are the spaces of process and motion (a journey, an exchange of information), where what is observed varies according to what is relativised and by whom. All forms of measurement (including observation itself) depend upon the frame of reference of the observer. The third and final definition is relational space, where meaning is attached to space through interaction and memory. Space and time are internalised within matter and process, in other words, the process itself produces its own space and time.

Harvey goes on to ask, “how do can we understand things, events and processes in terms of the relational spacetime they produce?”. Harvey offers that any event, thing or process cannot be solely understood by what exist at a single point in space and time. An object may be understood to crystallise out of a field of flows into “an event”. The object is formed of everything within that field of flows from all past, present and future events. Identify becomes multiple and indeterminate and direct measurement impossible. Influences flow from everywhere to everywhere else.

This conjecture is based upon the writings of British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead rejected the idea that an object has a single, simple spatial or temporal location. Instead, he concluded that all objects should be understood as fields which have both a spatial and temporal extension. He surmised that the ‘absolute’ point in space-time that we can conceive is in fact a simplified abstraction, arrived at as a limit of a series of volumes (like an infinite series of nested Russian dolls). “In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world” (Whitehead 1925, p114). Whitehead elaborates this line of thinking by concluding that it is process, rather than substance, that is the most fundamental metaphysical constituent of the world.

At the core of Whitehead’s metaphysics are many ideas which are contrary to the traditional view of material substance. In Western scientific cosmology, matter is a senseless, purposeless material which follows a fixed set of reactions when acted upon by external relations, which do not emerge from the nature of its being. According to Whitehead, the recognition that the world is organic rather than materialistic is essential for anyone wanting to develop a comprehensive account of nature. “Mathematical physics presumes in the first place an electromagnetic field of activity pervading space and time. The laws which condition this field are nothing else than the conditions observed by the general activity of the flux of the world, as it individualises itself in the events. The result is that nature is no longer thought to be simply atoms in the void, but instead a structure of evolving processes. The reality is the process”. (As quoted in Irvine 2015).

If we question what is the space of an immaterial object (such as an experience, a thought or memory), then it is seemingly impossible to offer a concrete, material answer. There is no absolute point in space and time to reference, nor any way to quantify and measure the space relative to something else. The ideas of relational space offer a way to describe the immaterial. We must consider all of the things, events, processes and social practices that have produced this specific place in spacetime.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre, 1984. Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Harvey, David. 2005. “Spacetime and the World”, in Cosmopolitanism & Geographies of Freedom. New York: Columbia University Press, pp 135-165

Irvine, Andrew David, “Alfred North Whitehead”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/whitehead/>.

Lefebvre, Henri, 1991. The Production of Space, trans Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1925. Science and the Modern World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Alice Fox workshop day 4

How fast the end of the week has arrived! Last day in the sunny Surrey studio, and our attention turned to bringing together the prints and drawings we had made over the last few weeks into some sort of order. Before we started however, our daily walk! I was trying to focus on different things today – looking at the human edges of the place we had been in. A couple of my best photos of the week:

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After the walk, Alice showed us a few simple book-binding methods that she uses for us to try out on our samples. I pulled out all of the bit which I thought had actually worked ok – about half I would say, which isn’t bad for experimenting. I themed them into books based on the different ‘places’ which we had visited over the week: the buttercup meadow, the railway, the village, the hedgerows.

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Overall it has been a really marvellous week, and I am really glad I got the chance to meet Alice and see her methodology first hand. Courses like this are also made by the people you are with – we had a lovely bunch of ladies working away, and our studio chief Jude looked after us so well (very good food and cake everyday!).

I will take a few days to reflect on what we have done and what learning I can take back into my MA project. I would like to understand how such direct responsiveness to a specific place can become something more than just a record of personal experience. Later though, for now I am thinking about nothing other than the sofa!

What is place?

Place is….

a specific place, a location
Genius Loci (the spirit of place)
Home
local history
embodiment
movement, a journey
edges, liminal places
wilderness, wildness
geo-politics, globalisation
a non-place
decayed, lost, forgotten
an imaginary place
simulated
utopia / dystopia / heterotopia
mapping, cartography
anachorism (out-of-place)

Group crit with Maiko

It has been a while since we had a group crit and our session with Maiko on Thursday reminded me of why I have found them useful so far. I took in three different experiments to show the group the range of things I am making/thinking and why I come to find myself a little stuck at the moment on where to go next. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) this managed nicely to show up the extent of my confusion with the rapidly spiralling out of control context for my work. I think I have expanded a number of strands of thinking to the point where they are having completely different conversations through my experiments.

Maiko asked again if my discussion on a sense of place is really about identity and belonging. I burbled a bit about local knowledge and experience, but I’m evidently not clear enough in my own head to be clear when talking to everyone else. I know I have been a little reticent of looking at questions of identity – perhaps because I know I am not interested in the commonly seen art on identity: gender, race, sexuality, politics etc.

And then where does all of the stuff on language fit in? I showed a couple of my latest drawings (mark-making with the language of navigation) which are another set of ideas I don’t know where to take. Important questions over whether I am looking to imprint language onto the surface, or embed my messages into the materiality of the object. I understand that it is the latter which I am trying to do, I just haven’t figured out how… I mentioned that I was finding it easier to express what I am thinking through words and poetry, but not yet able to get a material language which speaks of my ideas. Suggestion to make a poem out of fabric – I quite like this idea, reminds me of something we saw recently at the Sonia Delauny show at Tate Modern, where she expressed a poem through her trademark colour painting.

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Maiko also made a comment which has stayed with me as a poignant observation: that my work speaks of a physical place, but one with no people in it – there is only one person evident in any of my work. Reflecting on this over the last few days, I have found this quite a mind-stirrer, and have been wondering if this gets more to the point than I realised at the time.

Should I perhaps consider my question from the other side? Not a sense of place and belonging, but instead that of the dislocated, the isolation and longing. The ambiguous identity; the question of why we feel like we belong in some places but not in others, even longing for places we have never seen; the search for traces of yourself reflected in the world around you. I perhaps need to go back to the topic of materiality and review what can best express what I am trying to say. I have been recently constraining my work to using cotton with plants / materials ‘of-place’ to make both my fabric drawings and handmade paper –  I should review if am I over-constraining myself and if I am missing something as a consequence.

Hmm….

Summer term stock-takeI’m

As the final term of this academic year rolled into action, I had a tutorial with the lovely Bridget, who I was pleased seemed excited about my change in direction. This is the first tutorial I have had since the MYR – I’ve actually made quite a lot of progress over the holidays. Following on from our chat, I thought it would be useful to get my thoughts in order on where I am and where I can go next. I need to keep developing my idea and experimenting with new processes – not get stuck on resolving one idea (although I want to do this too). I also want to draft an artist’s statement of sorts – after being posed the question by one of the class – I think it is about time for us to be able to answer this, even as a first draft.

My research question as it stands, is “how can we use the boundaries between material, place and time to explore our sense of place?”. All the research I have done so far into place, identify and psychogeography has lead me to my own hypothesis that I want to explore through my MA project. That is – that our connection to place is defined by knowledge: be that specific local knowledge related to the nature or culture of the place, or knowledge from mind or memory which is overlayed onto place creating a unique experience in space-time.

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) had a complementary view on our relationship with knowledge. He wrote on the fundamental role that sensory perception plays in how we understand the world. He argued that “knowledge is ‘felt’…consciousness, the human body and the phenomenal world are therefore inextricable intertwined…and the material world itself is therefore not the unchanging object presented by the natural sciences, but instead endlessly relational“.

If place is defined by knowledge, then I believe knowledge is defined by language. It is the ability to articulate our experiences which allow us to fully understand them. Spoken, written or visual….readable or codified, the purpose is the same, the communication of ideas. Roger Macfarlane in his book Landmarks [1], comments that “the contours and colours of words are inseparable from the feelings we create in relation to situations, to others and to places“. However as knowledge of places are lost, so is something of the experience of those places. Macfarlane goes on to discuss the words for our natural phenomenon and entities, that “there are fewer people able to name them and once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen”. Leading geographer Yi Fu Tuan [2] also supported this view; he proposed that “it is precisely what is invisible in the land that makes what is merely empty space to one person, a place to another”. 

So with all of this said, where do I position my work? Currently, my intention is to create a language which allows us to experience a sense of place, capturing unspoken or unknown/unknowable meanings. A wordless language that is before and beyond the specificity of naming, embedding meaning through local knowledge: the wisdom of the cunning man, the path of the flâneur.

Practically, I am still looking at processes which embed elements of wildness into my materials – wildness through releasing energy, free-will, serendipity. This will bring in the natural dyeing I have been exploring and the transformation of materials with factors not all under my control. I want to expand this from just the material to look into the language of mark-making as well. I have a few ideas of where to explore this term, using handmade pigments and paints as well as more of the asemic calligraphy work which has been bubbling away in the background.

Overall, I’m excited about what’s ahead.

Whatever we remember, and the manner in which we remember, we get a different past, a different sense of place, and a different landscape every time“.³

References
[1] Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane (2015)
[2] Space and Place, Yi Fu Tuan (1977)
[3] Christopher Tilley, IntroductionIdentity, Place, Landscape and Heritage Journal of Material Culture July 2006 11732

The lure of the local

In the endless cycle of thinking and making, my making work continues to focus on looking at the haunted place as inspiration for a bunch of competition quilts I have on the go. I made the decision to try to make these as resolved pieces based on my MA project proposal, partly to further my research but also to try to reconnect with my practice after going down a dark rabbit hole over the last two terms.

As I alluded to a couple of times in previous posts, I have been looking at mark making with found materials from a particular place: trying to embody the genius loci within my work. So far, I have been experimenting with different processes for natural dyeing of plain unbleached calico. First was using materials found within half a mile of my front door: tree bark, dried leaves, willow ash, flower petals, steel wires. Here are a couple of examples:

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and the results of the psychogeographic ramble I had the other day:

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so! What next to do with all of these lovely bits of fabric?

Well, I have been considering what I now think of my research question – and how my interpretation of place and placelessness has changed so far. I have been taken by the idea of the local and how this relates to place. I believe that each place has multiple identities existing in the same space simultaneously, which each person (with their own multiple identities contained within their sense of self) interacts with differently based upon how they connect with the local knowledge. That local knowledge may be about memories of histories of the place itself, or it may be a completely distant narrative overlaid onto a new place, allowing you to connect your own ‘locality’ with a new alien place. This is how you can feel at home in a place you have never been. Lucy Lippard [1] offers the following:

“Inherent in the local is the concept of place – a potation of land/town/cityscape seen from the inside, the resonance of a specific location that is known and familiar…Place is the latitudinal and longitudinal within a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has a width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there and what will happen there.”

Placelessness, then could be said to an inability to feel connected. Your locality, your local knowledge as it were, so alienated from the dominant narrative that it becomes meaningless. In his introductory book on place, Tim Cresswell [2] quotes the geographer Edward Relph who uses the language of authenticity to describe this connection with place.

“..”to be inside a place is to belong to it and identify with it, and the more profoundly inside you are the stronger is the identity with the place” (Relph 1976). At the opposite extreme, existential outsiderness involves the alienation from place which is the antithesis of the unreflective sense of belonging that comes from being an existential insider…..in the modern world, Relph argues that we are surrounded by a general condition of creeping placelessness marked by an inability to have authentic relationships to place, because the new placelessness does not allow people to become existential insiders….”placelessness that is a weakening of the identity of places to the point where that not only look alike and feel alike and offer the same bland possibilities for experience.”

On this subject of authenticity, Creswell goes on later in the book to quote geographer David Harvey:

“The issue of authenticity (rootedness) of the experience of place (and nature of place) is for example a difficult one. To begin with…the problem of authenticity is itself peculiarly modern. Only as modern industrialisation separates us from the press of production and we encounter the environment as a finished commodity does it emerge….The effort to evoke a sense of place and of the past is now often deliberate and conscious.”

This brought me back to question more deeply the work of Lucy Orta with the Genius Loci / spirits of place that were created to enshrine the story of a river, through sculptural form. What can be said of authenticity when deliberately enshrining the past through such an intervention? I have never really liked the direct personification of spirits (whether you think go spirits as an essence, a ghost or whatever else) as that’s not how I personally choose to interpret them. Nor do I think I want to make work specifically for a precise location. When I started this proposal I had wanted to create site-specific work and initially understood it as being quite literal – you take a place and make some work inspired by that place and for that place. I now am looking towards a more conceptual view of site-specific: work speaking of a place, using a connection from that place – but across the spectrum of spatial and temporal, literal and virtual. I will need to understand more on how this aligns with current thinking on site specific art.

Anyway, I think I digressed a little – back to what I am making. So the plan, is to work with my own understanding of the Genuis Loci and a sense of place, which I would capture as: We feel the essence of place as an echo of the earth, and we become the medium of the storytelling.

My first resolved piece is now done and waiting to be framed: Genius Loci I (Star field); here is a sneaky preview of the detail.

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[1] Lure of the Local, Lucy Lippard (1997)
[2] Place, a short introduction, Tim Crewell (2004)