Originally posted by valerie Mace on her blog Spatial Experiences, which also contains additional images and videos of the event not included here.
“Beyond situations that have been experienced, discover situations that have been dreamed” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958: 29)
This project investigates the creation of an embodied experience within a space, positioning the body in terms of sensing and creating through performance in the context and site specificity of the environment. It relates to the concept of synaesthetic as defined by Dr Rosie Klich from the University of Kent at the symposium on Immersive Theatre Experiences that took place at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University London, London UK in November 2013. The symposium explored some examples of immersive theatre practice and reflect on the phenomenon of the “immersive event” as it has recently manifested itself. This project transposes the potential offered by performance immersive practices into the study of an interior, revealing the uniqueness of a situation.
Spatial design projects start with a conscious investigation of the space, often achieved through site survey, using film, photography and painstakingly recorded measurements on floor plans and elevation drawings. This project approaches the investigation from a different perspective, that of the sensory immersion, the performance. It meets some of the exploratory aspirations of a project described by Ephraim Joris in his paper ‘The Interior: between research and practice’ but Joris’s students benefitted from dance training and choreographed their interpretation accordingly while the method here is much more visceral and considers a more intuitive and spontaneous approach to experiencing an environment. This approach facilitates a more perceptual appreciation of a space and engages the senses with its atmosphere, which in turns can become a catalyst for the designer.
The site of the performance is a small empty room in an abandoned public baths building Poplar Baths, in Poplar, East London. Poplar Baths was built and opened in 1852. Used as a swimming pool and baths most of the year, it was also transformed into a theatre, dance hall and exhibition hall in winter when the main pool, known as East India Hall, was floored over. It sustained substantial bomb damage during World War II and subsequently remained closed until 1947. Following extensive repairs it reopened to renewed popularity, attracting large numbers of swimmers each year. However lack of funding to carry out structural repairs and the changing nature of the area and leisure occupations meant that the facilities were closed permanently in 1985. The abandoned site slowly fell into disrepair, its original interior crumbling, obliterating the memories of its past.
The room used as the project site is on the second floor and opens up onto the street on one side and onto the main pool, now empty, on the other. Although the interior environment of the building has been neglected for many years and has suffered substantial damage, the site visit revealed a building once teeming with life and the inherent elegance and beauty of its Art Deco style hidden by layers of time. So from a perceptual perspective, the interior of the building retains a ghostly imprint of its past. It was quite a moving experience with shifting impressions of fleeting movements and fragments of sounds emanating from imagined ghosted silhouettes permeating the layers of time. It was an emotionally moving experience no doubt influenced by my own experiences and memories of such places, both real and narrated, but nonetheless unique to this situation. The high level of perceptual entropy I felt while I visited the site allowed me to be transported back in time into an imagined environment while being conscious of the present and therefore, feeling the tensions of the duality of time,a constant shift between the past and the present.
While exploring the building, I also experienced sound distortions reverberating across the darkness of the corridors and staircases. For a brief moment, I lost sight of the people I was with and could not locate their position with accuracy as the sound they were making seemed to come from different directions at once. For a brief moment when time seemed to become suspended, I felt truly lost and apprehension and anxiety took over. Then suddenly clarity came back, I was back in the present and able to follow the sound to rejoin the others.
A few days later in the studio, the stage was set for a one minute performance of four recurring sequences around the theme of ‘The Waiting Room’. One of the elevations of the room was projected onto the wall of the studio and the rest of the interior space was marked out on the floor with masking tape. Three cameras were running, one for the foreground, one for the middleground and another for the background.
The scenography is inspired by my experience within the entire building and a desire to express this unique and uncanny situation, I chose to perform the feeling of loss, duality and the anxiety emerging from the destructive layers of time felt when I visited the site and the momentary confusion that resulted from the sound of people’s voices reverberating across the building’s surfaces. The room used for the performance becomes the stage, a blank canvas onto which I can project the narrative of the situation. It explores the sensation of being physically, emotionally and psychologically aware of the space both in the present and trough the imprint of its past expressed by fragments of memory still visible amidst the decay.
The room, represented by a figure sitting on a chair (waiting), inhabits its former reality, now a world of stillness and silence. As people speak when they enter the room (in the present time), they create vibrations, which produce energy waves that alter the medium, substances and surfaces, not only across the environment but also time. The room can now hear voices and tries to locate the sounds vibrating across the environment but it can’t, and people, in their own reality can see the decay and rubble while never experiencing the environment as it was originally intended. When they leave, all is quiet again and the room goes back to its waiting position.
Movement is activated by the emission of sound, an actual recording of people talking as they enter the room taken on site.The movement through the environment is fast but hesitant because it is impossible to locate the source of the sound and also incorporates swift 360˚ turns to change direction and emphasise the feeling of confusion. When the sound stops, the movement slows down and lacks clear direction. As well as being filmed, the performance is also recorded as a series of diagrammatic analytical drawings showing the sequence of movement across the floor space and elevations bridging the gap between the emotional and the physical, between performance and design drawing.
This project highlights a practice where the insubstantial is captured through performance. The atmospheric stimulation experienced in real time leads to an encounter with a past imprinted into the fabric of the environment. The approach allows the designer to become the environment and in doing so incorporates emotions and the notion of spatial empathy. It also highlights the notions of fragility and ephemerality.
Bachelard, G. (1958) (1994 ed.) The Poetics of Space Beacon Press: Boston, Massachusetts