Touching the city…


A creative practice project by

Anne-Pauline van der A
Maritta Horwath
Juri Nael
Joseph Michael Patricio

Spring 2011, University of Warwick
Creative Practice Module of the M.A. International Research program (MAIPR)

Research held in London; University of Warwick campus

“As soft, vulnerable bodies engage with the hard, formidable structures of the city, there is this constant push and pull between alienation and intimacy; between separation and togetherness. This schizophrenic tendency becomes the energy that drives the city.”

“we want to engage the city from a bodily perspective, where it is possible to create meanings out of potential energies caused by bodily proximities, and to make intimate connections, not just flows, possible. And where city spaces, instead of just channels of movement, become contact points where the shaping of the city is performed.”

1. Bodies Engaging the Space that is ‘City’

In our performance “Have you ever touched the ‘city’?” we facilitated a bodily experience for our audience, inviting its members into an interactive walk of sensory perception in the urban space. The choice for this form is echoed by Rebecca Solnit’s remark, that “[w]alking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts … Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time; the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations” (5). The walk was grounded on our theoretical belief that in any city, bodies, on one hand can be close and intimate; moments of togetherness are created when the (urban) space is shared. Yet on the other hand, hardly ever do these bodies fully connect. According to Bird, this implies a crisis specific of modernity in “what it means to be human and what it means to dwell together in a community” (128).1

Any construction of the body is also a construction of the individual as embodied. As such it ultimately influences how life is lived (cf. Synnott, 105). Important is the theory of Henri Lefebvre, who was very firm about the need to reinstate the body in philosophy and social thought.2 Simonsen explains that Lefebvre’s theorizing of the body inevitably involves a focus on space, on the body’s implication in and constitution of a “sensory-sensual space” (Simonsen, 1). In our performance we offered what Simonsen, following Lefebvre, terms the “development of the active side of consciousness and sensations in the process of human becoming” (Simonsen, 3). These considerations also — more or less explicitly — involve the body.3

Both Shari Popen and Reena Tiwari clarify however that dominant culture has long held space as forming a background or setting, abstract and relatively immaterial, and neutral with no relation to the body except the eye (Popen, 127, cf. Tiwari, 3). Yet as we already pointed out in our proposal, the human body performs in the city. The urban space acts on us; it is performative. According to Lefebvre moreover, each living body both is space as well as has space (Simonsen, 4). Theoretically, then, the body serves both a point of departure and as a destination. It is an intrinsic part of what Lefebvre called the “lived experience”.4 In order to understand the production of lived space, however, “we need to grasp the concrete and the abstract together; we need a dialectic relation between materialism and idealism” (Simonsen, 7). This is where the notion of the lived comes in, depending both on material and on mental constructs, as well as on the body. Via this lived space through the body, embedded social dimensions are rendered visible (Tiwari, 3).

Our performance did however also touched upon the Lefebvrean conception of abstract space (cf. Popen, 128) as the space of homogenization, hierarchization and fragmentation, harbouring specific contradictions. As put in our proposal, the body both creates an outward projection as well as longings for seclusion and privacy.5

The body is thus socially constructed (cf. Synnott, 79).6 According to Spencer and Dixon, it has often been argued that the individual’s behaviour in the environment relates just as much to his/her feelings about this environment as it does to the environment itself (373). For this reason in our interactive performance we also acted on the separate and individual, as well as on the together.7 As written in our proposal: “we want to engage the city from a bodily perspective, where it is possible to create meanings out of potential energies caused by bodily proximities, and to make intimate connections, not just flows, possible. And where city spaces, instead of just channels of movement, become contact points where the shaping of the city is performed.”

2. (p)olitics and Poetics of Space

In our initial proposal, we referred to the political in a straightforward way by asking how we could confront the city with it’s own “political ontology” (Lepecki). One of our research questions was: “How can we challenge the concept of the city with our movement/our body?” Therefore, we drew a line to the 1950’s Situationists’ practices of dérive and détournement (Lavery). Guy Debord states in 1957: “Our central idea is the construction of situations, that is to say, the concrete construction of momentary ambiences of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality” (in Knabb, 38). Pushing the concept of Situationism further, we could link our interactive walk in the campus to contemporary urban practices such as parkour as a way of engaging with the urban space in order to challenge and subvert the daily experiences in a city.1

In our own performative exploration of the ‘urban space’ we built on experiments first carried out in the city of London. One of the defining challenges of our interactive walk was having to ‘stage’ the ‘city’ on campus. We asked ourselves, how could the spaces in the campus be a substitute for the city of London. It is then that we chose spaces that are not literally ‘city’ but that they represent the urbanity of a city space like London.2 Without ascribing them fixedly as campus-specific locations, these sites can not only be found in most cities, but they also represent the symptoms of a modern city’s tendency for “tactile sterility” (Sennet, 15). The spaces that we chose are the ones that people merely pass through on their way to specific destinations. This is similar to Marc Augé’s concept of ‘non-places’.3 The need to rethink the functions of city space critically questions how ‘city-zens’ have made the act of moving in the city channels and pathways as non-events, and these channels and pathways as non-places.4

The movements created in of our interactive walk were simple (walking, sitting, lying down, standing) so that the experience itself could be on the foreground as opposed to merely intellectual justification, meaning making and/or political implications. Yet although our interventions were not as extreme as the spectacular physical overcoming of obstacles performed by the traceurs or parkouristes, the approach of using the city space in a different way than intended can be related to their activities. When Fuggle links parkour to questions of freedom, agency, and resistance (218), she looks at the phenomenon of freerunning as an embodied experience that rejects a pre-determined notion of subjectivity (214). Thereby, she amply refers to Merleau-Ponty’s later writings and his understanding of perception as our primary mode of being. Stressing that Merleau-Ponty situates the subjective existence in the body rather than in the mind, Fuggle states that “[t]he body constitutes an opening onto the world with perception comprising the means by which the body engages in a dialogue with the world” (214).

If the body, in this understanding, is seen as always already engaged with the surrounding world by (less consciously) perceiving it, our approach of using the urban space in ways differing from the norm can be seen as heightening the sensibility for this bodily involvement in general. When we lay down on the pavement – as firstly practiced on a busy pedestrian crossing in London – we thereby subvert the structures of the city architecture by literally touching its very surface. By bodily engaging with urban space that is conventionally seen as ‘untouchable’ as well as ‘untouched’, we act in a similar way as Fuggle is describing it for parkour.5

When Fuggle furthermore relates to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh6 by describing both, body and world, as flesh as on the one hand bringing them together and on the other hand making them ‘other’ to themselves – she refers to the fact that “that which touches is at the same time touched and that which sees is simultaneously seen.” (215) In this sense, the practice of ‘inhabiting’ the urban space in non-conventional ways can be read as subversive to the outside in the sense the Situationists intended to.7 At the same time, it can be seen to have an effect to the inside. When we think of body and world both as flesh – as essentially belonging to the same material world – the ‘being touched’ by the urban space, can be seen as a reminder of this very fact.8 With our attempt of facilitating an experience for the audience of ‘touching’ and ‘being touched’ by urban space, we therefore reflected on an understanding of the political which can also be related to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s (1987) notion of “smooth space”. By contrasting the smooth with what they call the striated, Deleuze and Guattari speak of the city as the striated space par excellence.9 Within our performance in the urban space of the campus, one could argue therefore that we created bodily experiences which reflect on the construction of smooth space within the striated. When literally touching the ground of a normally not inhabited or ‘striated’ surface, we reflect on the fact that the smooth10 and the striated sees itself challenged by “counterattacks” of various kinds of urban dwellers and nomads (481). Our bodily acts, therefore, constituted a critique of the actual experience of city life, most notably its rush and disconnection, the pace of the city felt in daily life. Note however, that we only made visible this pattern of the city when we disrupted it.11 Such nature of performance thus offers a tangible multitude of experiences, most evident in the presence of our physical bodies in the performance and their proximity to our audience.12

3. Ritualized Bodies and the Transfer of Embodied Practice

In our eventual outcome of creating experiences for an audience1, we were inspired by Diana Taylor’s concept of ‘performance as episteme’ to generate an unfolding process of practice-as-research.2 Our initial proposal reflected a strong grounding in theories that clearly abstract our idea of how to engage the body with the city. But the crucial moment in our creative process was when we started listening closely to our bodies and the tensions, rhythms, longings, and images that it created by touching the city space. When we decided to remove our shoes amidst the sea of people passing through a busy street of London, the haptic process of creating and embodying knowledge began for us.

But the question was how to translate our proverbial London experience and facilitate an ‘act of transfer’. To do so, we agreed on a ritualized performance as a means of knowing and engaging the city. Our practice-as-research was two-fold. First, we gathered knowledge from our own bodily experience through our ritualized / repeated walk, a walk that involved the body (physiological) and memory (mental). Second, we tried to share this knowledge by inviting others to participate, thus facilitating for them an opportunity to ‘touch’ the ‘city’.

The simple act of touching the city was powerful as it was both ritualistic in the sense that it was introspective and performative, the same time that it was also subversive. Reiterating what we have mentoned earlier, the real feel of the concrete city within bodily processes of liminality (Turner) created within us a connection with city space, while the aesthetics it provided was politically charged because the simple act of touch made intimate an archetype of the city associated with intimidating order, progress and alienation.3 Our awareness of the need to critically engage the space merged with the highly reflective and physiological act of body/flesh touching the city when we tried to create alternative images from it. The state of liminality is highly connected to the essence of ritual. Ritual empowered our bodies to share what we have learned.4 In ritualizing our performance, in other words, familiarizing ourselves with a more or less fixed routine yet still open to new revelations that each repetition brought to us, it made the performance transferable to an audience in an interactive way.5 By employing political “strategies of gentle resistance” (Kershaw 71) against the conventional use of such spaces, and by ritualizing these non-places through bodily intervention, and done repeatedly, the non-places have become “spaces of practice” (Tiwari, 13).

4. Reflections

One of the strongest and yet also one of the most challenging points of the project was a continuous disagreement among group members. Due to strong personalities, different opinions, points of view and working methods, we all ended up outside our personal comfort zones. In spite of intense group dynamics that occasionally ended on an impasse, we still decided to keep working very closely as a group. This required good negotiation skills and clear articulation of our ideas from all of us. This process led us to the outcome that was based on compromises and thus turning out to be everybody’s and no-ones “baby” simultaneously.

Did we succeed? It is very difficult to measure the ‘success’ of the project. First we need to ask: “success” from whose point of view? If taken from the performers’ perspective and if comparing the final presentation to other performances run with the trial-audiences over a two-week period, then the answers would be: it was different. There were more people than before, most of the audience knew each other, and they had just finished with their own performances. In addition, our definition of the performance as an “interactive walk” and call for “joining in and having fun” opened up the possibility for a ‘wild’ creative atmosphere and behaviour that we hadn’t experienced with the trial audiences. It required more concentration to resist the audience’s unintentional ‘provocation’ and keep going with for us was a ritual. Yet the audiences’ varied forms of engagement created new and interesting tensions, and thus, produced new dimensions of knowledge. Since for them it was not necessarily perceived as a ritual, they were able to add new layers of meaning to what we had initially generated.

During the post-performance discussion, it became virulent that not all of our intentions that were implicitly connected to what we call the ‘political’ were clear to the audience members. As – in contrast to run-throughs with small groups of trial audiences – many participants in the final performance opted to stay distanced to the bodily interventions suggested by the four of us as ‘actors’/’facilitators’, the audience experienced two different modes of perception which resonate also with the notion of smooth space.1 It was established therefore from the audiences’ perspective that there could be two kinds of ‘audience’: those who joined in (haptic/ tactile experience) and those who decided to observe (visual experience). The audience was free to move between these two modes of participation and many did so. 2 It was up to each individual member of the audience to decide in how far he or she was willing to go. In the discussion it became clear that we offered exactly two different qualities of perceiving the urban space in an ‘alternative’ way. It was also clear – when looking at Deleuze and Guattari – that the haptic would be the quality of reversing the striated to the smooth, whereas the visual recalls the principles of organization, civilization, and domination identified with the striated. Interestingly, the passages from one state to the other became not only visible by clearly constructing alternative situations to the dominant but also by the shifts within the audience of sometimes participating visually and sometimes hapticly. When the latter took place and almost all of the ‘spectators’/’actors’ joined to lean on each others backs while seated on a bench, the political implications of dominated/dominant space as ‘striated’ getting literally mixed up by the ‘lived’ or the ‘smooth’ became tangible in the very sense of the word.

Our performance was essentially an interactive one as we attempted to make the audience view the urban space with new eyes (cf. De Certeau, 118; Popen, 129-131).3 Space has been perceived anew, differently, from encounters with others and contact with daily life. The new space perception that came into play allowed and continues to allow for the varied realization of a third space, the space of possibility.4 In this sense our performance was opened up specifically to interpretive and evaluative scrutiny by the audience (cf. Auslander, 5). If we agree with Baz Kershaw that one of the aims of practice-as-research is to improve the practice, then the project was successful. Every time we were repeating our ritual, especially in the presence of a new audience5, we took the new experience into account and made adjustments. In that sense, the project produced new knowledge that was put into practice both in terms of content and form. If it were an on-going project, then we would have made some adjustments after the last presentation, as we faced several new implications that we were not aware of before. It is in this light that we hope that this meaningful practice-as-research continues, or merely begins.

1  Additionally, our focus on creating sensorial experiences for us and for the others, particularly in the interactions between flesh and stone and between flesh and flesh, tried to address what Richard Sennet describes as the contemporary urban problem: “the sensory deprivation which seems to curse most modern building; the dullness, the monotony, and the tactile sterility which afflicts the urban environment.[…and that] space has become a means to the end of pure motion” (Sennet, 15,18).
2  “Western philosophy has betrayed the body; it has actively participated in the great process of metaphorization that has abandoned the body; and it has denied the body. The living body, being at once ‘subject’ and ‘object’, cannot tolerate such conceptual division, and consequently philosophical concepts fall into the category of the ‘sign of non-body’”. (Lefebvre, 1991: 407, cited in Simonsen, 1; emphasis in original)
3  “A body so conceived, as produced and as the production of space, is immediately subject to the determinants of that space … the spatial body’s material character derives from space, from the energy that is deployed and put to use there”  (Lefebvre, 1991: 195, cited in Simonsen, 5).
4 The body is involved in the opposition between our perception of space (i.e. sensory, concrete and material) and our conception of space (i.e. abstract and mental)
5  “As soft, vulnerable bodies engage with the hard, formidable structures of the city, there is this constant push and pull between alienation and intimacy; between separation and togetherness. This schizophrenic tendency becomes the energy that drives the city.”; This appears, then, rather similar to Boal’s pronunciation during his European exile: “There also appeared oppressions which were new to me: ‘loneliness’, ‘fear of emptiness’, the ‘impossibility of communicating with others’” (Boal, 8).
6  The word “body” may therefore signify very different perceptions and/or conceptions of reality for different people (cf. Synnott, 80).
7  The acts of lying on the stairs in front of a building and sitting on the railings overlooking a body of water, which we do individually, but all together at the same time nevertheless; the squeezing together on the bench near the library very clearly calls for actual physical contact. The latter proved to be surprisingly the most popular!
8  Sophie Fuggle states in a text on the “Discourses of Subversion” (2008) in parkour and capoeira: “With parkour this involves a questioning of architectural spaces, suggesting ways in which such spaces might be traversed and ‘used’ in ways other than those intended by architects and town planners.” (205)
9  For example, the stair steps at the entrance of a building, fence railings overlooking a river; the space under the bridge, a portion of the pavement that everybody merely passes through; a public bench; a flower garden; a wall of signages and posters; and an overpass bridge that connects one building to another.
10  Transient places that do not have enough significance to be considered as ‘places’
11  As Popen states, it presents the “risk of becoming dispossessed of the ability to venture beyond proscribed limits of thinking and acting. The task then is to find openings, slippages, fissures, spaces that can provide footholds onto different ways of thinking and acting.” (Popen, 125)
12  “[I]n the perception of the urban landscape, the traceur does not simply confirm the (quite literally) concrete presence of architectural structures but reaffirms this presence, changing the very identity of such structures. In scaling the walls of a building rather than using the stairs inside, the traceur touches areas and surfaces of the building largely untouched, viewing the building from angles not usually perceived. In doing so the traceur not only changes his own perception of the building but also changes the building itself as perceived object.” (Fuggle 214-215)
13  In Merleau-Ponty’s work The Visible and the Invisible
14  “[T]he dérive was an attempt to change the meaning of the city through changing the way it was inhabited” (McDonough, 77).
15  “For the traceur, one’s body is the very essence of being. As the body of the traceur simultaneously touches and is touched by the obstacles it encounters, a perpetual process of folding and unfolding takes place whereby the body identifies completely with the world it traverses while at the same time positing itself as other.” (Fuggle, 215)
16  “[T]he city is the force of striation that reimparts smooth space, puts it back into operation everywhere, on earth and in the other elements, outside but also inside itself” (481)
17  Deleuze and Guattari identify it with the image of the sea that is constantly penetrated by the striated, the city.
18  Hereby one is reminded of Kershaw on the paradox of performance, citing a saying of the Buddha: the foot feels the foot when it feels the ground (Kershaw, 4, my emphasis).
19  What Jones understands as a general insistence in live (performance) art (32).
20  When we went to London for our fieldtrip, our aim was to focus on the body as an archive: how can the body archive the city experience? How can the body document the experience and leave the “document” outside of the body so that it could be accessed later. Various methods were used to try it out: automatic writing, automatic speaking, drawing, describing what one sees etc. However, later during the process the importance of “our bodies as archive” was put aside and it became clear to all of us that the essence of our performance would be to to create experiences for the audience.
21  “Performance, for me, functions as […] a way of knowing, not simply an object of analysis. By situating myself as one more social actor in the scenarios I analyze, I hope to position my personal and theoretical investment in the arguments. I chose not to smooth out the difference in tone, but rather let them speak to the tensions between who I am and what I do.” (xvi)
22  As Jonathan Raban puts it, the city goes soft the moment our body touches, and thereby marks the city: “[the city] awaits the imprint of an identity[…]it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in[…]Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form round you.” (1,2)
23  “Rituals become a key, as it is through ritual that the individual moves into a state of liminality. Thus, the discussion has centered on ritualized body, where the physiological as well as mental aspects of the body are seen together in their role of urban space construction and representation. Ritual has been highlighted as a device that helps in making the user’s body one with the space he/she inhabits. It is then that lived space, an overlay of Lefebvre’s perceived, conceived and social space, emerges.” (Tiwari, 142)


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