Space is something that we often take for granted; we often take it to be a simple materialistic assemblage of conveniently designed, functionalistic structures that facilitate the various tasks that we as humans need to undertake. In this blog post, I wish to challenge us to think about space in a more complex manner so as to view it as both a material and affective (in other words, aesthetic) entity.
Although the art world is a domain in which this kind of understanding of the various potential affordances of ‘space’ is well understood, our contemporary corpus of social science literature (albeit with a few exceptions in the domain of contemporary human geography, urban studies, and phenomenological anthropology) demonstrates an overall dearth of material on what I will come to term as the ‘polytonality’ of space. Indeed, we as social scientists ought to take a page out of the analytical repertoire of our artistic counterparts for we would do well to pay closer attention to the aesthetic concerns of our objects of study. This post will therefore attempt to provide a concrete, ethnographic example of how we might wish to go about this. In particular, I wish to argue not only that the affective polytonality of space plays a crucial role in healing spatially-related traumas, but also that this insight can help innovation consultants and designers to begin conceptualising a more sophisticated analytical tool kit for visualising what affective polytones limit the formation of a frictionless user experience. The fact that the insight to be provided in this post strongly pertains to both the mechanisms of psychological healing as well as UX optimisation stands as further testament to the need for continued inclusion of the social sciences within the world of public and private sector consulting.
Space is a miraculous entity that, when manipulated correctly, can inspire an unfathomable array of emotional experiences within us. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark is a personal favourite of mine on account of how the museum’s interior spatialisation creates a harmoniously Nordic balance between man’s prized industrial aesthetic and nature’s perpetual attempts at consolidating its forever-precarious sovereignty (Photo Credits: Yellow Trace)
My need to better understand the affective affordances of space as an aesthetic phenomenon was motivated by a talk that I went to one evening wherein survivors of campus rape culture revealed their traumatic experiences. Hearing stories about people being abused in such a heinous way in places that seemed completely mundane and familiar to me changed the way that I engaged with various spaces on campus, motivating me to think more critically about how important the relationship between physical space and its deeply personalised emotional structures actually is.
During my second year at university, I undertook a university-funded research project amongst street children in New Delhi with the help of a leading charity that was solely dedicated to the rehabilitation of the city’s vast street child population. Prior to their arrival at one of the various care centres that the charity maintained, these children usually faced unimaginable kinds of psychosexual and physical violence whilst being at the mercy of the street. Many were forcibly drafted into organised crime, whilst others were kidnapped and then forced into what can only be described as contemporary sexual slavery. It therefore goes without saying that, for many of my informants, the street was a spatial domain characterised by extreme hardship and trauma, warranting the provision of protracted, intense counselling and therapy.
Alongside the more traditional forms of counselling that one would expect from a rehabilitative charity such as the one that I was working with, the charity had also developed a rather unique and contextually bespoke strategy for transforming the children’s traumatic hardship into something empowering and quintessentially formative. Although it needs to be said that some found the freedom afforded by a life on the street liberating and non-constraining (which therefore produced a powerful counter-narrative to the strict Foucauldian discipline being provided by this rehabilitative charity), it nevertheless seemed to me as though there was an overwhelming amount of children who had not found their life on the street particularly liberating or experientially enriching, and it was therefore these children who became the subject of my study.
Reconfiguring the Affective Structures of ‘the Street’
So as to understand what this unique therapeutic strategy actually was, we need to talk about theatre. Now, the theatre scene in New Delhi is incredibly diverse and multifaceted. From traditional assemblages like Kathakali dances recounting infamous Hindu epics to contemporary Indian interpretations of Shakespearean classics, the city’s theatre scene is one of Asia’s finest. There’s one form of theatre, however, that really places the city a cut above the rest: street theatre.
‘Dafa no. 180’ (a play criticising the Indian laws dedicated to rape convictions) is one of the most famous street plays that was first portrayed by the Theatre Union (under the tutelage of famous Indian actress Maya Krishna Rao) in 1981 on the streets of Delhi. The play would go on to be portrayed across the country, kickstarting a nation-wide tradition of socially-critical and interruptive dramatic performances (Photo Credits: Maya Krishna Rao)
Every year, hundreds of independent theatre groups will bring their meticulously rehearsed performances to the street faring residents of Delhi by breaking into spontaneous, impromptu performances at the most unexpected of times. One could almost think about this as a theatrical flash-mob, of sorts. The performances can be based on anything, but they are often based on a topical and conversational sociological issue that is pertinent to contemporary Indian society, such as caste and gender-based violence or disease and HIV prevention. Through their impromptu attempts at commanding the affective aesthetics of the street, the performers will create situational disruptions that therefore force onlookers to stop and listen to what they have to say, in the hopes that said performance and the disruption that it creates will spark a more in-depth conversation about the need for widespread social change in India.
One can almost think about the street performances as attempts to break the hypnotic grip that normalised social power structures have on subjects so as to incite a moment of critical introspection. To therefore paraphrase the famous ideas of Mary Douglas, these performances were attempts at creating ‘aesthetics-out-of-place’ in order to encourage people to engage more critically with the world around them. Indeed, the aesthetic experience of space forms an important part of how we come to imagine ourselves as bounded, agentive beings-in-the-world, and so any abrupt disruption within said experience will inevitably encourage a sense of reflexivity on our part. This could not be more true of my experience of having to remodel my engagement with our university campus in light of the tragedies that had come to the fore during the rape survivors’ evening, and so I knew that this was a subject of analysis that needed to be taken seriously.
Although the physical space in which we practiced remained the same, each session would transform it into a world of unimaginable wonder that would transform the session’s participants into limitless subjects of infinite potential. This, in essence, is what theatre is all about; it is about recognising and manipulating the affective polytones of static, physical space so as to create a world of disruption and wonder.
The charity that I was working with was one of the pioneers of street-theatre in Delhi, and it therefore played an incredibly interesting role in the way they defined their role as an organisation charged with the rehabilitation of Delhi’s many hundred street children. Alongside the daily instruction that the children would receive in Mathematics, English, Hindi, and Science, the children were also encouraged to partake in a variety of extracurricular activities. Some chose sports whilst others chose to help out with the maintenance of the care centres. Some, however, chose to participate in the weekly drama classes that were organised and run by a former beneficiary of the charity who had gone on to become a prominent name in Delhi’s theatre scene after having left the charity’s care. He also worked closely with many a Bollywood recruiter searching for newfound talent amongst the many potential stars living across India, and had subsequently managed to get quite a few of his own students into some of the most successful Bollywood films to-date.
Getting his students into Bollywood was not, however, his main priority, for he saw a much greater value in the theatre sessions. For him, theatre had been a way of reclaiming the self-confidence and whimsical optimism that years of hardship on the street had robbed him of, and he had therefore made it his mission to ensure that his students would be able to reclaim that which he knew many of them had lost as well.
The life of a street child in India is often characterised by unimaginable traumas, including starvation, sexual exploitation, activities relating to organised crime, as well as drug addiction. The theatre sessions were therefore designed so as to help the children overcome the inevitable struggles that they had endured on the street (Photo Credits: Talking Social Issues).
Although there was a considerable language barrier between myself and the other students, I needn’t not know Hindi in order to see how this director was a man of his word; a sense of creativity, optimism, and wonder was incredibly palpable during each and every one of the theatre sessions that I attended. There was no limit as to how creative the participants could be if they were given the creative freedom to do so. Although the physical space in which we practiced remained the same, each session would transform it into a world of unimaginable wonder that would transform the session’s participants into limitless subjects of infinite potential. This, in essence, is what theatre is all about; it is about recognising and manipulating the affective polytones of static, physical space so as to create a world of disruption and wonder.
When the performers then took their practiced performances into the street as part of the city’s longstanding street theatre tradition, they were, in essence, taking the street-as-space back so as to transform it from a site of extreme hardship and egregious trauma to one of beautiful empowerment wherein its previously malicious undertones could be erased by the aesthetic-out-of-place created through street theatre. As stated by David Marshall in his ethnographic research amongst Palestinian children who utilise visual arts to re-signify the hardship of living under the Israeli occupation, ‘beauty and trauma are intimately intertwined, but have divergent trajectories: trauma draws pain out of the body whereas beauty draws the body out of pain’ (2013: 56). Delving deeper into the means through which the street performances and their aesthetics out-of-place instigate the symbolic and affective re-signification of space allows us the chance to introduce a novel means for understanding the relationship between individualised agency, physical space, and socio-political power.
The Impact of Studying the Polytonality of Space on UX Optimisation
What, therefore, is the relevance of this insight within the broader scheme of things? First of all, the insight provided in this study on the therapeutic aspects of spatial re-signification will prove to be an interesting domain in such analytical disciplines like medical anthropology, contemporary urban sociology, and human geography.
What kind of relevance could this insight have, however, in the context of other disciplines, such as innovation strategisation? As a consultant, I’m often confronted with problems relating to the kinds of frictional impediments that users experience when engaging with a particular kind of commodity or service consumption. A lot of the time, the weaknesses within this user experience pathway boils down to how they engage with various stages within the consumption process; stages which will inevitably force them to engage with the affective polytonality of space. If, for example, we are to understand why certain customers find it difficult to engage with a particular service or product because of the physical environment that it is to be found in, we need to begin using in-depth ethnographic analysis so as to determine what kind of affective structures constitute the space, and how we can create aesthetic disruptions within the space so as to optimise the way people experience said space. This is particularly important in the spatialisations of public services and institutions, for example, on account of the oppressive aesthetic that they often utilise so to concretise traditional state-civil society relations. In a time of ever-intensifying neoliberalism and state-withdrawal, there is a case to be made for attempting to make these services more affectively resonant so as to prevent alienating those who are reliant upon them for welfare and sustenance.
Similarly, in a time of ever-increasing digitisation, there is a case to be made not only for understanding how affective polytonality is constituted not only within digital space, but also for understanding how the affective polytonality of a concrete space within which a particular service is being provided motivates people to reject conducing their affairs within said digital space. How is it that digital spaces can be made more accommodating and emotionally resonant? Might the street theatre tradition of Delhi provide us with further insights into this? These are all questions warranting further investigation.
How might today’s UX design experts, architects, and interior designers become better equipped at integrating considerations relating to the affective polytonality of space into their design plans? What kind of differential impacts might this have on designs for digital and non-digital platforms? (Photo Credits: Statera)
Ultimately, the creation of a frictionless user experience in the context of any service or consumable (be it digital or otherwise) is heavily reliant upon the affective polytonality within which the user is situated in, and it is therefore important that we as service designers and innovators begin formulating more sophisticated analytical tools with which to conceptualise these affective structures. Similarly in the context of healing, we also need to begin thinking more closely about the way the affective structures of trauma-specific spaces can be re-signified through disruptive aesthetics so as to accelerate the rate at which people can overcome the traumas that they have been forced to endure.
KEY FURTHER READING
Marshall, D. (2013). ‘ “All the Beautiful Things”: Trauma, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Palestinian Childhood’ in Space and Polity, 17:1, 53-73.
The featured image for this post depicts Maya Krishna Rao’s infamous ‘Om Swaha’ (On Dowry) play, and can be accessed here.