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Reflection: Using Bodies to Measure Public Space

Posted on by Ashley Hickman

One young woman guides another, who is wearing a blindfold, in touching a wall

Environmental design starts with the body as well as the site. In the course Cities and Bodies, taught by Global Urban Humanities Project Director Susan Moffat, students from a variety of disciplines are exploring the physical dimensions of urban form and experience. On September 27, 2016, choreographer Erika Chong Shuch and urban designer Ghigo di Tommaso led the class in exercises designed to sharpen awareness of how we use our senses to understand space and place. They also discussed their cross-disciplinary course Public Space: Placemaking and Performance.

Undergraduate Architecture student Ashley Hickman describes the two-hour session:

During the presentation, Chong Shuch said she was a performer who likes to make people feel uncomfortable. She described Di Tommaso as a urban designer who, by contrast, seeks to make people feel comfortable. Their presentation was focused on exploring and challenging our own feelings of comfort and discomfort in space.

Chong Shuch and Di Tommaso began the session with a series of exercises designed to test our feeling of comfort in a group of people. Once we we had arranged ourselves comfortably on chairs in a circle, Chong Shuch instructed us to quickly move to something that was physically uncomfortable. Some placed chairs on their heads, carried many bags at once, or hugged a trash can while standing on a table. While unpacking the feeling of discomfort, people explained they felt “unfocused” and “antagonistic.” Chong Shuch then asked for everyone to remain in their uncomfortable position while trying their best to make themselves somehow comfortable. One person explained that she made herself comfortable by “becoming internal.” Another participant said that, to the contrary, sharing a gaze with another uncomfortable person was comforting to them.

We moved on to exploring social discomfort. For most, social discomfort involved touching or looking at a stranger in a way more intimate than usual. Participants leaned on someone they didn’t know, squatted above someone lying down, and moved much closer together. One participant explained that as her body started working together with another body, she began to feel more socially comfortable than she initially had.

In the next exercise we began by walking aimlessly around in a sea of people attempting to make meaningful eye contact. Chong Shuch instructed us to stop and make eye contact with one person with whom we would now be paired. The exercise entailed one partner being blindfolded and the other leading the blindfolded. Throughout the entire exercise we were not allowed to speak to each other and were allowed only to guide our partners using touch. I was blindfolded first and my partner slowly began to lead me around the room, out into the hall, and into an adjacent room. As I gained trust in my partner we began to move more quickly. I touched the materials of the wall and room around me with my hands, and eventually I was led to sit down.

We then switched places and I led my blindfolded partner around the room, feeling the walls and furniture, and finally to a seated position. The exercise had scripted moments in which Chong Shuch interjected and gave directions to the seeing partner. It also allowed for unscripted moments in which the partners were allowed to explore their own interpretation of the instructions.The exercise concluded with 2-minute free writes on the topics of protection, comfort, and delight. Di Tommaso and Chong Shuch explained that successful public spaces need to provide these elements.

Di Tommaso and Chong Shuch then described a semester-long course in which they had employed exercises like this.  Through team and individual experiments the students in that class created a provisional, working definition of the term “public space,” drafted and endlessly revised on a crowdsourced online Google Doc that was itself an experimental object.

Throughout the session, although some of the exercises were uncomfortable to perform with a stranger at first, my feeling of comfort evolved. By the end of the exercises it no longer felt awkward to lead a blindfolded stranger across the room by holding their hand. The session ended with a general feeling of comfort.

The most important lesson I learned from this presentation was the difference between social and physical discomfort in space, topics which are very applicable to my field of architecture. The exercises made me more questioning of the experience in public space, for example, how someone uses a bench. Say the bench is unused. It could be either due to social or physical discomfort and separating the two could be of use when studying it. The physical discomfort could relate to the feeling of sitting on it while the social discomfort is that it is too close to a busy street. If a designer is to assume it’s physically uncomfortable and simply replace the bench with a new, more comfortable one, they might miss the true reason it’s unused. I will now think of and use this distinction between physical and social comfort in both my studies and future practice.


Publication: No Cruising: Mobile Identities and Urban Life

Posted on by Anne Jonas
Filed under: Art, Geography, Los Angeles,

The first Global Urban Humanities research studio, “No Cruising: Mobile Identities and Urban Life” took place in Spring of 2014, co-taught by Margaret Crawford (Architecture) and Anne Walsh (Art Practice). With six PhD students, three MFA candidates, and one undergraduate student from a diverse set of disciplinary backgrounds, the course took on Los Angeles and the multiple themes generated by the concept of mobility (and its inverse: immobility). Over the course of the semester, students visited LA multiple times and explored the city via car, bus, light rail, walking, and running, focusing on the circulation of bodies, stories, designed forms,…


Rue Mapp on Outdoor Afro and the Nature of Race

Posted on by Crister Brady
Filed under: Oakland,

The stereotypical American explorer of wilderness is usually portrayed as a white male. The word “urban” is often a code word for “black.” Oakland native Rue Mapp stands stereotypes on their head. She grew up with a deep appreciation of nature developed over summers at her grandparents’ ranch in rural Lake County. She has become nationally recognized for her leadership in encouraging fellow African Americans to get outdoors. On September 13th, she came to speak to the course Cities and Bodies, taught by Global Urban Humanities Project Director Susan Moffat. Crister Brady, a student in the class who is pursuing…


Reawakening the Sensory Network

Posted on by Susan Moffat

On Saturday, February 27, Ava Roy, Artistic Director of the We Players site-integrated theater group led students in a workshop at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge to learn methods of using movement and bodily awareness to investigate public spaces.  For a complete description of the workshop, which was sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative, and other experiments in dance and architecture, see this blogpost. REAWAKENING THE SENSORY NETWORK by Jason Prado, Master in Landscape Architecture candidate My recent fascination with Lawrence Halprin's design process and the development of my studio design is what brought me to Ava Roy's…


On Choreography, Power and Public Space

Posted on by Susan Moffat

by Susan Moffat, Project Director, Global Urban Humanities Initiative How do bodies construct and inhabit public space? In the past week I had the opportunity to participate in three transformative workshops—two sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative--that used dance, movement, and mindfulness to explore public space. Teatro Campesino in Wurster Hall, the Central Valley and Mexico City 2/25/2016 In a narrow, high-sided concrete courtyard hidden in an outdoor corner of the Brutalist Wurster Hall, Kinan Valdez of Teatro Campesino asked students and faculty to growl and shout; to walk, crawl, and leap; and to engage with props such as…


Art, Politics & the City in Mexico and China: Keynote Presentation

Posted on by Genise Choy
Filed under: Mexico, Symposium,

Click here for VIDEO of the Keynote Presentation. The Art, Politics & the City in Mexico and China symposium took place on October 23, 2015. This wide-ranging interdisciplinary symposium examined art, commerce, politics, violence, history, and urban space on both sides of the Pacific. Creative artists and scholars explored contemporary performance, film, art, and activism in Mexico City from the Revolution to today. The event also featured an exhibition on current art and urbanism in China’s dynamic Pearl River Delta (Art+Village+City) and research on contemporary Shanghai by a team from the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative was presented in a video-based…


Art, Politics & the City in Mexico and China: Panel 1 | Modernity in Process

Posted on by Genise Choy
Filed under: Mexico, Symposium,

Click here for VIDEO of the Panel 1 presentations. The Art, Politics & the City in Mexico and China symposium took place on October 23, 2015. This wide-ranging interdisciplinary symposium examined art, commerce, politics, violence, history, and urban space on both sides of the Pacific. Creative artists and scholars explored contemporary performance, film, art, and activism in Mexico City from the Revolution to today. The event also featured an exhibition on current art and urbanism in China’s dynamic Pearl River Delta (Art+Village+City) and research on contemporary Shanghai by a team from the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative was presented in a…


Art, Politics & the City in Mexico and China: Exhibit(ion)s and Publications

Posted on by Genise Choy

The Art, Politics & the City in Mexico and China symposium took place on October 23, 2015. This wide-ranging interdisciplinary symposium examined art, commerce, politics, violence, history, and urban space on both sides of the Pacific. Creative artists and scholars explored contemporary performance, film, art, and activism in Mexico City from the Revolution to today. The event also featured an exhibition on current art and urbanism in China’s dynamic Pearl River Delta (Art+Village+City) and research on contemporary Shanghai by a team from the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative was presented in a video-based exhibit. In addition, new UC Berkeley publications and…


Art+Village+City: The Website

Posted on by Genise Choy
Filed under: Art+Village+City,

Art+Village+City in the Pearl River Delta was one of two interdisciplinary courses sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative in Spring 2015. Students in this research studio utilized a variety of research methods from interviews to video documentation to explore the ongoing evolution of relationships between urban and rural spaces and people, and the emerging role of the arts in China’s Pearl River Delta. Students from the Art+Village+City studio have been working hard over the summer to turn the class's experiences and documentation into polished products to share with the world, in the form of a catalogue, a website and…


GeoHumanities: An Introduction and Call for Papers

Posted on by Genise Choy

MICHAEL DEAR (DCRP) is pleased to introduce GeoHumanities, a new journal being launched by the Association of American Geographers and published by Taylor and Francis. Its editors are Tim Cresswell (Northeastern University, Boston) and Deborah Dixon (University of Glasgow, Scotland). GeoHumanities publishes original peer-reviewed articles that span conceptual and methodological debates in environmental design, geography and the humanities; critical reflections on analog and digital artistic productions; and new scholarly interactions occurring at the intersections of geography, environmental design, and multiple humanities disciplines. The first issue will be published in October of this year. The journal is likely to be of…