Space diving: Towards the appreciation of the ordinary

 

"Every story is a travel story – a spatial practice."


The quote is from Michel de Certeau's classic The Practice of Everyday Life, where he studies the repetitive and unconscious everyday life – as such, the book is an attempt to bring visible what remains the most obscure and invisible part of our lives, namely the daily modes of action, such as reading, walking, cooking, living... Simply, all the various ways we smoothly navigate through our everyday lives.


I view the 'ART OF INHABITATION' project as an investigation similar to de Certeau’s study. It, too, is addressing the often unreflected aspects of daily life, most importantly inhabiting, and along with that, all those diverse ways in which we humans are attached to the world surrounding us. In this essay, my interest is to get hold of the physically engaged being: how to approach the various ways in which we are embedded in the world?


Taste of local speciality

The different daily modes of living are difficult to differentiate and yet they vary from individual to individual. To address them is likewise difficult, regardless of the approach chosen – science and the arts are presented with an equal challenge. However, I would like to suggest a particular point of reference for the project at hand, namely perception, and more precisely, a certain phenomenological understanding. I do not intend to force a connection between the art of inhabitation and a philosophical tradition of phenomenology – knowing that merely defining this tradition can be controversial – but I want to point out that I see the phenomenological approach of particular interest in relation to the themes addressed here. This project is making use of a certain perceptual attentiveness and the full range of human experience, which eventually comes down to, being and dwelling. Similarly, sensuous and affective dimensions lie in the heart of phenomenology, there is an emphasis on the concrete being and its point of view towards the world. Therefore, the careful observations of inhabitation as suggested by the artists, relate, in my mind, to some extent with a phenomenological approach, putting the focus on perception and subjective experience. At the moment, this attentiveness is directed towards the ordinary: our bodily engagement, or simply the decisive moment when an abstract perception turns into something recognizable or when the previously imperceptible aspects become visible.

Within the phenomenological realm, art as well as human perception, receives special attention, phenomenology tends to conceive art as something that helps us forget the traditional prejudices of the natural attitude that we are necessarily trapped in, in our daily lives.1 Even though the evaluation of art within phenomenology is relevant and inspiring, I do not wish to discuss it further but to emphasize certain features of a phenomenological approach on space, because space serves as a basic condition for inhabiting. As philosopher Edward S. Casey puts it: “Whatever is true for space and time, this much is true for place: we are immersed in it and could not do with out it. To be at all – to exist in any way – is to be somewhere, and to be somewhere is to be in some kind of place. Place is as requisite as the air we breathe, the ground on which we stand, the bodies we have.”2

In the phenomenological tradition space is considered through living, i.e. as a sensuous experience and corporeal engagement. For instance, the concept of space itself is based upon the subjective, emotionally loaded experiences of place. Therefore, the neutral or homogenous space of the geometers is equally based on lived experience. Or to put it differently: the geometric space is dependent upon anthropological space. Therefore, within phenomenology, home and urban space are not in the first place approached through categories, images, maps, or conceptual analyses but through bodily experience that makes it shared, social and political. Equally, it means that the subjective experience is affecting the impersonal space of the city, we cannot, as such, experience public spaces without our bodies, since our point of view towards certain urban spaces necessarily involves our physical being and all it’s sensuous aspects. Likewise, one could say that these experiences of city or simply different places are affecting us – whether one feels safe, content or threatened – on the other hand, one’s feelings also affect the way each person observes the space around them. Phenomenology is interested in this tacit reciprocity between the human experience and our surrounding world.

If the phenomenological approach emphasizes the subjective experience and lived places, one might accordingly be inclined to think that there are only distinct spatial experiences, an endless range of “special” places, all equally different and therefore incomparable and – as contemporary life is these days – more and more fragmented. It is possible that similar considerations fall into line with the traditional way of thinking, where places seem to need their own local speciality, a certain genus loci, to stand out and offer a place for experience. Don’t all cities, towns and villages want to differ from each other by claiming to have a curiosity that no other place has? “Experience the genuine Dutch windmill landscape in Kinderdijk!“3

Still, it seems that along with globalisation and ever more sophisticated telecommunications methods, the whole concept of place should be in crisis and that contemporary living would become placeless by nature. Therefore, branding place through local specialities would only be a sign of resistance, as the intensified conditions of spatial in-differentiation and de-particularization are making all places meaningless and outdated. Paul Virilio writes in his essay “Overexposed City” from 1991: “From here on, people can’t be separated by physical obstacles or by temporal distances. With the interfacing of computer terminals and video monitors, distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything.” But what remains if places are dissolved back to the homogenous and meaningless texture of malls, airports and video conferences? How to balance the appreciation for the ordinary without loosing oneself to the alienating and all-consuming mass of space?4

Jeff Wall, a photographer whose urban scenes seem to refer not to one particular city, but just a city that we live in, has noted that he dislikes the idea that everywhere people feel that they live in a very special place that others should acknowledge. “I want to feel detached from ´the local´ whilst being in it, not valuing it, just trying to observe it.”5 Wall’s point is that a local cult necessarily involves outsiders, the others that are not here, but behind the walls. Therefore, we should be able to value the things around us without considering them as special – appreciate what is ordinary.



Mapping the neck of the woods

In order to appreciate the ordinary, one needs to first find out what the local is in relation to the global. In what aspects are they similar or different? Art historian Svetlana Alpers wrote in her book The Art of Describing, Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century about Dutch painters and their ability to describe lively scenes. She even linked their precision in describing with scientific pursuits. I merely wish to point out a small detail in her study that I was impressed with namely, the thought of educated men wandering around Holland making maps: Alpers writes that the art of map-making used to be a popular pastime in 16th century Holland. Mapping, understood in its broad sense both as surveying and drafting a map, was a casually acquired skill and it was not rare that an educated man prepared a map of his home town or village as a homage. On the map-making journeys, people used to pay attention to smaller details, like flowers or local costumes, these findings were described in detail. In essence, the informational aspect of the pictures is essential: these old topographic views or maps were an important medium for preserving and transmitting social and political knowledge concerning localities. Yet, in the eyes of a contemporary spectator, the maps of that particular time, made by educated men or painters, challenge the traditional categories of maps and paintings.6


I suggest that this small historical story can help us capture something new about experiencing place or spatiality in general. Geographers, but also art historians and philosophers have paid attention to the different traditions in mapping. Traditionally, within phenomenology, maps are connected with the idea of homogenous, geometric space. Maps do not present a particular point of view to the space, but profit grids and are drawn to scale. As such they claim to give us an objective space – yet we know that maps are representations using various kinds of projections each emphasizing different aspects of the earth. But indeed, there are many ways of making a map. Perhaps through the Dutch example, one is able to link phenomenology and these two, seemingly opposite, views of local and global aspects on space.

Because nowadays it is nearly impossible to experience something that is not named, mapped and sign-posted, the reference to mapping one’s home district for the first time might sound absurd. And yet it appears that this particular tradition of surveying the surroundings is a worthwhile consideration. The old topographic views and maps are, as such, beautiful objects, these explorations ended up being closer to painting, and result in being a careful engagement into a multi-sensory observation, rather than an objectified view of space.7 My claim is that this kind of mapping brings out an appreciation of places where the geometric space never completely takes over the lived experience. In my mind, the story of “grass-roots cartography” is opening up a third possibility of looking at space, as it manages to find a place between an overall outsider perspective and a totally subjective, singular experience. It is offering a way to appreciate and observe the ordinary without making it meaningless or turning it into a spectacle. And I assume this is what brings it closer to the phenomenological consideration of being in space – not staying outside it, but submerging, diving into it to reach a sense of place, in all its ordinariness.

 


Phenomenology of the ordinary

In moving away from the cartographic discussion, I would now like to attempt to connect some of the previous observations with, as a starting point, daily routines and contemporary living – after all, one of the goals was to value the ordinary, and in order to do so, we need to plunge into the various ways of inhabiting. Nevertheless, this move seems difficult to make: nowadays we are confronted with extremely fragmented and dispersed perceptual experiences, and yet we are capable of receiving various messages presented in different media and as well, adjusting ourselves to the latest ticket vending machine. This network of daily integrations – be they more or less clumsy – is joined by a larger scale of adjustment, that is, to buildings, cities, and places where we dwell. How to analyse this subtle logic of the everyday, the small, automatic, seemingly thoughtless actions, in order to unveil the experience of simply living? I suggest that the similar interests described above, perceptual attentiveness and respect for the familiar, can help us further.
For De Certeau daily lives are moulded through different actions. He writes about strategies and tactics: Strategies are used by subjects of power, like cities, academic institutions or other enterprises, to isolate themselves from the environment and create places that then generate relations with the "outsiders" such as, inhabitants, targets, clients... Tactics, on the other hand, never seem to find a final place or form. In de Certeau’s view, tactics always belong to the other. It insinuates itself into the other's place, without taking it over in its entirety. Because it has no place of its own, tactics do not involve building up profits, announcing boundary lines or simply winning. They just keep transforming, acting, always in time. Many everyday practices, like moving about and shopping are tactical in character and therefore, one could say that tactics are actually about your own modes of living. De Certeau views our everyday life as poaching in on the property of others.

In De Certeau's approach to these everyday practices such as reading, walking, dwelling and cooking, reading deserves a special place. Because we encounter an ever increasing amount of information in our daily life, De Certeau argued that reading is an inevitable focus of our contemporary culture. Reading, be it texts or images, is not, however, passive. We do not just consume or receive texts and images mindlessly, but on the contrary we produce in the process something new. Automatic does not equal mindless or meaningless. For example, for de Certeau, the space of the city is being produced by the people who move about there, also the readers and the activity of reading are about producing new meanings. Through reading, a book becomes memorable – and transformed, since they are being altered and connected to the various memories we already have "[The reader] insinuates into another person's text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation: he poaches on it, is transported into it, pluralizes himself in it like the internal rumblings of one's body"8. The same is done, for instance, when walking in the city, people fill in space and connect their memories and fantasies to that space. In brief: the governing setting, be it a book or a public square, serves as a platform for various creative activities. What once was considered as passive has now become productive and worth examining. An over-simplified example of the power of tactics would be the various user-research findings that reveal how many people manage to silently resist manuals: instead of reading a manual to find out how to use their latest acquisition in the proper way, in most cases people end up creating their own, more or less creative, methods for using their gadgets.9

 


Point of Transition

The attentiveness to the ordinary is connected with a particular experience of finding the strangeness in the familiar: just imagine that you are trying to focus your eyes on something and suddenly the very thing you were looking at goes out of focus, out of joint – and out of this dislocation something new appears. Similarly, a change of perspective, moving away from the focus to the marginal, a change of scale or a change in environment, can provide a moment of exposure. The absence of the familiar does not necessarily demand radical shifts, like moving physically to another country, but an attitude that gives space to accidental revelations, sudden withdrawal of limits in perception, that then change the way we relate to our lives and all that comes along with it.


As we get closer to these various unperceivable aspects of inhabiting that familiarity, which previously prevented us from perceiving, we might be able to see the absurdity in them, as well as the restraints and creativity that they host. Maybe it is in this kind of revealing processes – fuelled by art or random occurrences that simply catch us off guard – that one is able to again value the ordinary and it’s multiple aspects: in a sense, one could say that these processes, going beyond the familiar, are once again making visible what has become the unseen of the everyday, the fascinating and complex web formed by locations, structures and ways of operating that seem to perpetually reconstruct our dwelling.
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This essay is a travel story, not only in a sense that all reading involves tactics and travels to new and unknown spaces, but also in a very concrete sense that it was inspired by a change of environment, a one month visit to Rotterdam and the various inspiring art spaces it hosted.
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The author wishes to warmly thank Maria Russo for her elaborate proofreading.

 

Saara Hacklin

 

Notes:

1 This is a rather oversimplified insight in phenomenology, yet I am referring especially to thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty.


2 Edward S. Casey, The Fate of the Place. A Philosophical History, 1998, p., ix.

3 Ethnologist Marc Augé has discussed how cities in France tend to distinguish through historical curiosities, to be a capital for something, be it gastronomy, pottery or free-range chicken. Augé, Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 1995, pp. 67–68.

4 Philosopher Arnold Berleant has commented this development that eventually makes cities disappear: “The contemporary city has no perceptible boundary but is rather a node in a pervasive and seemingly endless industrialized landscape.” Berleant, “Distant Cities: Thoughts on an Aesthetics of Urbanism”, paper presented in Urban Spaces, Everyday Experience, and Well-Being – VII International Summer School of Applied Aesthetics in Lahti, 2006.

5 Jeff Wall in Pictures of Architecture. Architecture of Pictures. A Conversation between Jacques Herzog and Jeff Wall, moderated by Philip Ursprung, Art and Architecture in Discussion, Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2004, p. 27.

6 Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing, 1983: pp. 126-128. See also P.D.A. Harvey, The History of Topographical Maps, 1980, p. 164. Kenneth R. Olwig, Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic, 2002, p 25; pp. 37–38.

7 More on the topic see for instance Edward S. Casey, Representing Place. Landscape Painting and Maps, 2002, pp. 158–159.

8 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1988, p. xxi. The text continues: "This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment. It transforms another person's property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient. Renters make comparable changes in an apartment they furnish with their acts and memories; as do speakers, in the language into which they insert both the messages of their native tongue and, through their accent, through their own "turns of phrase," etc., their own history; as do pedestrians, in the streets they fill with the forests of their desires and goals."

9 Thanks to researcher Heidi Grönman from Design and domestication of consumer products project, for bringing up the user researches and everyday practices.