The Dialog of Space and Place within Transitional Environments
A Supporting Paper
Submitted to the Graduate Faculty
of The Department of Art
University of Minnesota
Space, place, strategy, and tactic are common terms that are essential to my work. Perhaps because of their common nature they are easily confused and used interchangeably. For this reason, I wish to preface this paper with a brief glossary of these terms. To avoid confusion, the meanings I provide here will be used throughout the paper.
Place: Tangible and finite unit of space. Experienced through body/senses. Tied to feelings of security, inhabitation, and “where of being”.
Space: Abstract and conceptual. Associated with a sense of freedom and infinite extension. Primarily experienced with the mind.
Strategy: Anything that can be recognized as an authority or exerting authority over the individual. For the sake of my work, I am looking at practice of creating planned architectural spaces as a strategy. Manifested through physical structures and rules/regulations.
Tactic: Individuals or groups that form in response to the situations and spaces of strategies. Have specific, short-term goals and dissipate after these are achieved.
This paper, and the work it supports, emerges out of a great deal of time spent in transitional spaces. As I have moved through the channels and structural restraints of airports, waiting rooms, and other generic surroundings, the question of architecture’s impact on my behavior has come to the forefront of my research. In essence: do we shape and control architecture or does architecture shape and control us?Stemming from this query, my work examines mentally constructed and conceptualized aspects of everyday spaces and places. I define space as an abstract concept and place as a tangible environment.
Through photography, I create awareness of the overlooked structures that surround, inform, and alter routine life practices. I examine exchanges and relationships between space and place-architecture and individual. I accomplish this task through two bodies of images: the Model and Evidence series. Model focus attention (at a macro, bird’s-eye level) on utilitarian physical structures that define the urban fabric in which I am enmeshed. Evidence moves in closer to document the material detritus that is left behind as people pass through these places of momentary inhabitation.
My working process involves strategies derived from the way photography was used in Conceptualism of the late 1960s and 1970s. For example, I am interested in the photographic image as a document or a piece of evidence, which supports a way of thinking or mode of investigation. Also, the method of producing images I embrace is focused, first and foremost, on concept. Because of this, my working process consists of my interpretations of spatial theories that I find within the contemporary urban landscape. This way of making draws my work away. Instead, my practice draws inspiration from the idea that there are alternatives to the art object as the end result of artistic practice. The images I produce seek to validate and support my interpretation of the physical and theoretical landscape that surrounds me and are indicative of the concept that awareness itself may be an end result of artistic production.
Through both documentation and interpretation of a space, my photographs negotiate our perceptions of the concrete immediate reality of place and the abstract conceptual make-up of that space. The mind/body or concept/reality dualism, which is at the heart of my definitions of space and place, is reflected in my work. Space is a relational and abstract field. Physical, social, and theoretical laws govern movement through space. Conversely, where space is an abstraction, place becomes a habitable ‘where’ of being. Yi-Fu Tuan describes places as “centers of felt value where biological needs, such as those for food, water, rest, and procreation are satisfied.”
I feel that place represents volumes of space and can be experienced through the body-not only as an abstract concept. Through this process, space and place emerge as concepts that require each other in order to be defined. Through my work, I seek to examine this symbiotic relationship between space as mental construct and place as sensed experience by examining the ways that the production of space and place affect (and are indicative of everyday) human behavior.
In his seminal writing on spatial ideas, The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre presents a framework for understanding how space is produced. Lefebvre is focused on the idea of social space and its relationship to lived experience. He employs three key concepts to describe space:
- Spatial Practice
- Representations of Space
- Representational Spaces
For this paper I will focus on the ways that his first two concepts of space connect with my work. The concept of spatial practice is of importance because it establishes a sense of specific social/cultural framework. Spatial practice is how space is dominated and manipulated by a society to create a sense of specific place. He writes, “The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space…” I am particularly drawn to the organic qualities that Lefebvre attributes to the production of space. My images focus on presenting evidence of these spatial practices-to show the ways that people turn the abstract law-governed space into the lived-in specific place.
I photograph remnants of this process of turning space into place. Most of the spatial practices that I document focus on the conceptual spaces of transportation networks such as airports and bus stations and places of temporary inhabitation such as public parks. In other words, I am interested in engaging with space’s utility.
These familiar infrastructural spaces are photographed in an overtly distorted manner in the Model series. The images document spaces that are the outcome of intentional infrastructure and planning and are the results of the spatial practice in which I am surrounded. To find the spaces I photograph, I look to my local environment of contemporary urban culture. Here space is sprawled widely, and notions of distance and travel are altered through transportation and communication networks. This spatial practice has resulted in an immense infrastructural landscape that mirrors, supports, and defines routine movements. It is in this landscape that my photographs are focused, for here are spaces, which because of their utilitarian nature blur the distinctions between space and place.
Through the process of in-camera manipulation, using large-format photography, I am able to alter the plane of focus. As a result, parts of the image are out of focus and the depth of field is severely distorted. Perspective becomes blurred making the scale of the image indeterminable. The photographed space appears to be a scale miniature although the level of detail suggests that the image could only be of a real location. By disrupting the normal reading of scale in the photographs, I create a sense of hybridized visual space-a combination of both normal and also the distorted and alienating ways of perceiving.
The photographs derail the inherent validity of the photographic image as an objective document. “People look, and take sight, take seeing, for life itself,” writes Lefebvre. By altering perception slightly, I make apparent the way that a sense of conceptualized space can be brought back to the conscious attention of the viewer. This notion connects the images of the Model series with Lefebvre’s second spatial concept-representations of space. He writes of the term that it is:
Conceptualized space, the space of scientists, urbanists, technocratic sub dividers and social engineers, as of a certain type of artist with a scientific bent – all of whom identify what is lived with what is conceived.
I interpret a representation of space as the plan or design of a space. This is space at its most abstract and conceptual-to experience a space in this manner is to experience it indirectly. The spaces I photograph are shaped and defined by planned structures such as overpasses and other infrastructure and the selective focus in each image follows these architectural forms. By doing so, it is as though reality is no longer seamlessly experienced but is instead disrupted by a reference to models and conceptions that initially created these physical places.
I use the camera to derail the immediate understanding of a photographed space and then ask the viewer investigate the resulting image’s real and unreal nature. The images form a two-sided questioning of representations of space. On one hand, they indicate the phenomenological aspects of being/becoming that are derived from trying to visually enter an “impossible” space. The distortion of scale and refusal of visual entry into the spaces photographed leads to a sense of embodied awareness. By making the viewer question vision “as usual” I draw awareness to vision itself.
On the other hand, each image is a landscape devoid of any signs of inhabitation-a dead landscape of empty architecture. The high vantage point employed in each image restricts the view of the camera to the architectural elements that determine the physical space. A highly condensed visual space results where the horizon line is either missing or placed beyond the range of focus. The viewer is constrained to the scene at hand and the utilitarian plans that have created it.
Lefebvre’s representations of spaces suggest to me there is a ‘correct’ or proper way to use a space – a way that follows the design or plan. Through my work, I allude to the tension inherent between the planning and actualization of transitory places. In the image NYC-GW Bridge Modelthe structures surrounding the bridge act as a type of restraint or organized system, which prevents movement into and out of public parks. The fact that they are empty implies a loose narrative of evacuation and completion of the movements of people through the space. The photographs leave us with the architectural restraint that determined the course of movement.
The restraints that I document in the Model series operate mainly on a macro-scale. The work draws inspiration from conceptual photography from the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, photography emerged as a conceptual tool at the forefront of artistic production. Douglas Fogle writes, “Photography also became a tool in the 1960s and 1970s for a number of artists who began to make investigations and interventions into the built environment.” Photographers such as Bernd and Hilla Becher engaged in documenting utilitarian industrial structures and landscapes. Specifically, the Bechers used conceptual photography through the form of the typology. Defined as classification according to a general type, the typological photographs of the Bechers extract architectural elements of the industrial landscape, such as water towers, blast furnaces, and grain elevators from their surroundings and provide a neutral, distant, and alienated view of the structure.
This distant photographic gaze employed by the Bechers, creates a form of overarching system for understanding architectural forms. This is to say that the viewer must visually remove the subject of the typology from its original environment to be understood. In essence, the rigid system used by the Bechers allows us to ignore the specifics of each subject and, instead, see the sameness of a generalized type. This is accomplished through formal and technical constraints. Each architectural form is documented under ‘neutral’ predetermined conditions. For example, similar lenses in each photograph ensure equal distance from the subject; the location of the horizon line is always within the lower third of the frame; and the atmospheric conditions are always flat grey and hazy.
The enforcement of these same conditions allowed the Becher’s photographs to operate within a systematic level of engagement. This method of photographing provides insight through distant observation. While I employ a similar sense of physical detachment from the spaces I photograph in the Model series, I assert there is another level of dialogue between space and place that is revealed through immersion within infrastructural spaces. Through the Evidence series of images I employ a similarly neutral photographic gaze to yield results opposite of the typological photographs of the Bechers. Though I am using a deadpan or forensic approach that is inspired by the Bechers, a close inspection of the spaces I am photographing reveals a negotiation of power occurring between the users of the spaces and their overarching designs. Certeau writes about this dialogue of control-the give and take of what he identifies as strategies and tactics. Both terms have their origins in military expressions but are reconfigured when applied to the everyday. A strategy is loosely recognized as anything that exerts authority over an individual. In terms of my work, I view planned architectural spaces as being inherently strategic. Strategies have only indirect contact with their subjects. In terms of the architectural spaces I am interested in, strategic control is mediated through designs that indicate proper uses for the space.
In opposition to the idea of the strategy is the tactic: groups or individuals who form in response to situations created by strategic ordering. While a strategy attempts to become a permanent structure, a tactic is geared toward impermanence. In terms of my own work, the Evidence series of photographs speaks to this type of tactical engagement with public transitional spaces. For example, in the photograph Cleveland Orange Juice, the plastic orange juice left behind in the Cleveland Airport terminal suggests a personal and tangible engagement. For me, the act of living (drinking orange juice and leaving evidence) within the airport space, with its rules and regulations, is a form of tactic. The trash left behind is a form of residue of a tactical group – the delayed airline passengers – responding to the strategic control of the airline and strategic space of the airport.
The photographic practice of the Evidence series examines the actions and objects of everyday life. To place these images into a larger framework, they document a type assertion that there is a dialog-not necessarily a static relationship-between the aspects of physical design and resulting social behavior. The places I am documenting have the illusion of being totalized design environments. The movement of people through these spaces is decidedly transitory. It is indicative of temporary inhabitation or placeness. Because of this there is the illusion that the design of the space is able to dictate precisely how the space is used. I contest this assumption. Instead, the tactical actions I document indicate there is a more dialogic, and less one-sided, structure in play between users of spaces and overarching designs.
With Evidence I again make a direct connection between the creation of place out of abstract space, the production of objects, and lived experiences. The quotidian bits of detritus I document take on a monumental quality. Each photograph adheres to an almost deadpan forensic approach to photographic documentation. The images are formally precise and almost entirely devoid of typical signs of emotion.
The objects captured in the photographs are obviously used and engaged with, yet the narrative from which they have emerged remains elusive. For example, in Snapshot, which shows a photograph within a photograph, a casual photograph of a hand-painted sign is tacked to a publicly accessible plywood structure. Though the pinned-up photograph had some meaning to the person who originally took it, this facet of the object is hidden. No matter how long we look at the objects in the Evidence series they never fully yield their sentimental secrets. They are at once personally meaningful and generic commodity items. Lefebvre writes of the type of commodity objects I find that, “Things lie, and when, having become commodities, they lie in order to conceal their origin, namely social labor, they tend to set themselves up as absolutes.” Each object that I document derives from some form of mass-manufacturing process. However, like Lefebvre suggests, how the objects came to exist-what material processes and economic factors led to their being-is disguised. The objects suggest that despite being found in geographically diverse environments, the evidence of routine existence has become littered with mass-produced and exchangeable commodities used all over the globe.
Because I document objects that are common or homogenized, the photographs imply a dialogue between overarching systems and micro-scale specificities. Every item found connects with the greater environment into which it has been precipitated. For example, in MEX-Shoe the castaway solitary shoe found below a Mexico City metro station speaks to the crowded and overpopulated scenes occurring directly above it.
The inherent reference to the ‘real’ and material aspects of life prevents Evidence from becoming a purely abstract or conceptual gesture. Lefebvre writes, “…when social space is placed beyond our range of vision… its practical character vanishes and it is transformed in philosophical fashion into a kind of absolute.” Through both series of images, I am trying to make apparent constructions within the space-place dialog by documenting the concrete and tangible-not just creating another abstract model. Although photography represents a contradictory relationship-documenting and bringing closer while also making flat and artificial object-it does ground immaterial concerns in the stuff of human perceptions and life experiences. Both Model and Evidence draw near to the practical indications of the theoretical in order to fully understand its implications.
The grounding of conceptual concerns in tangible everyday practices is a thread that also runs through past projects. The Stolen Identity Project serves as an excellent example. In early December 2005, individuals stole my identity using the Internet in the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Sensitive information regarding my checking account was stolen, allowing these individuals to travel throughout the region, withdrawing funds from ATMs and utilizing a forged VISA card while posing as me. For the project, I proceeded to travel to the region and re-trace all of the transactions that occurred as a result of the identity theft. Through photography, I documented the junction of abstract digital self that exists within the computer controlled banking system with my actual, physical identity.
The resulting photographs and text form a narrative sequence that details my progression through each of the re-enacted transactions. Because of this arrangement, the conceptual parameters of the project are clearly delineated and are integrated into the narrative. In the Stolen Identity Project, the camera serves as an extension of the panoptic, all-seeing powers present in our age of digital communication. The concepts of digital and physical identity are made tangible through the evidence gathered by my banking institution that I then employed to reconstruct each transaction. As a result, the images are the end product of the eerie ability of institutions to trace and pinpoint the activities of an individual.
With the Model and Evidence series of photographs, I have moved away from this tightly controlled and defined narrative structure to embrace an open-ended system of images. However, where Stolen Identity Project relied heavily on informative texts to indicate the intended meaning and purpose of each image, my thesis work requires that the viewer embrace a more diffused sense of meaning. Each image reflects the concept that underlies it, but the actions that lead me to making the photograph are concealed. Even as the gaze of the camera continues to reference the act of documentation as in Stolen Identity Project, my thesis images become less about one-sided observation. Instead, each image implies a subtle dialogical arrangement between strict conceptual parameters, such as Lefebvre’s notions of space, and playful interpretation of how those parameters actually translate into reality.