The Senses of Space

Paul Bouissac

Space has more than three dimensions. Our sense of space is generated by movement, that is, by time. But space is foremost a multimodal experience: visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory, and gustative. There is also an inner dimension when we feel parts of our body aching or enjoying pleasure. This inner space, however, is not the “outside” space we perceive through vision, touch, sounds (like resonance and echo), and smell (which can be close and concentrated, or remote and diluted). The “objective” visual space which is constructed by classical geometry, topology, and traditional geography inspires countless metaphors through which we try to make sense of whatever escapes the net of visual perception. But an essential dimension of space is missing from all these different modes of apprehension: the space we live in is emotional or “affective” as some geographers now prefer to say. In real life there is no experience of space that cannot be described as a feeling: familiarity, boredom, arousal, anxiety, and many other kinds of fleeting affective moments. Space is indeed primarily subjective. It takes some intellectual effort to construct a detached approach to space.

Semiotics is not purely a matter of philosophical and scientific theorization. It is also a culture of inquiry, exploration, and discovery. It is a state of mind which prompts us to question what we take for granted, to break away from disciplinary fences, and to connect dots which had seemed so far unbridgeable. Probing the senses of space is an urgent agenda for the semiotic project.

This issue of SemiotiX features two such pragmatic probes. They are both concrete experiences rife with theoretical implications. In the Guest Column, Dylann McLean questions the conception of space which prevails in her discipline (“a surface with cultures, people, and places spread out upon”). With other contemporary geographers, she considers this image to be “unthought”. Her own experience as an urban clown, minimally masked (and protected) by her red nose, allows her to undo temporarily and permanently reveal at the same time the ideological constraints of the built environment through the practice of her art. The forms of space constructed by architects and city planners are ultimately designed to control our behaviour. These stolid casts preform itineraries in a predictable maze of boundaries. Functions and meanings are assigned to places. McLean shows how the “urban clown collective” of which she is a part transforms these structures into fluid experiences of the meaning of space. Her insightful column provides a point of entry into the new paradigm of affective geography.

The video above documents a similar process. It shows the transformative power of “out of place” performances upon our experience of the urban environment. Walter Siegfried is a distinguished opera singer and multimedia artist well-known for his large scale installations in cities and airports. I was fortunate to participate in one of his latest creations which occurred in Munich on September 8, this year. The public was invited to meet the artist on the platform of Hackerbrueck, an open air station in the city’s public transit network. About fifty people showed up at the scheduled time. Walter appeared walking down the stairs from the overpass bridge, equipped with two elegant loud speakers spreading from each side of his head like antlers or insect antennae. Other passengers were obviously wondering what this was, pretending not to pay much attention as city dwellers are wont to do. We followed him to the end of the platform and then, suddenly, having started the recorded accompaniment by pressing a key on the small black box he carried on his chest, he sang the first aria, struggling at times with rushing trains. The station platform instantly became the most innovative opera set. Beyond the aesthetic emotion carried by the voice, the lyrics, and the music, our functional perception of space was shattered, its surreal beauty revealed, and the semantics of platform, S-Bahn, and Hackerbruecke recast into a new poetic order.

For more than one hour, under a light, intermittent rain, we followed Walter Siegfried along an itinerary he had carefully planned; matching the arias of his repertory to the places he had chosen in order to achieve spatial transmutations through harmony, contrast, or irony. Some people dropped out; some joined us on their bicycles; passer-by were intrigued and stopped until an aria was over and, with an incredulous look, clapped their hands in appreciation of this out-of-place musical experience. We stopped under a derelict bridge, in the patio of a high-tech corporate head quarter where the performance was interrupted by security guards who claimed that we had triggered a general electronic alarm, in front of an Italian restaurant full of people eating pasta, and at the bottom of a pit on a construction site. The last aria was sung on the ascending escalator of the station from which most of us had to take their train home.

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