Visualizing Narrative Spaces
Introduction by Claudia Mock
The Collaborative Research Center (CRC 1265) “Re-Figuration of Spaces” has been keen to explore and develop different methods and formats that take academic knowledge production and transfer beyond the text-based hegemony, in order to make it both more interesting and accessible to a wider audience, and more flexible for transdisciplinary exchange. That the visual has become so appealing is also a side-effect of the general interest in the logics and modes of spatial constitution – an approach to social realities that literally cries out for multi-sensory explorations. Within the CRC, several formats have been developed in which the visual is at the center of discussion. Among others, these include collaborations such as with graphicrecording.cool for a visual reading book, with Nikolaus Gansterer in the context of the theory tandem, or formats such as the hybrid mapping group initiated within the CRC’s Methods-Lab, but also within the CRC´s subprojects, such as the current app development with young people in subproject A02.
This time we invited the visual artist Simone Rueß, whom we were really eager to meet, as her work contains several references to the CRC’s field of interest. The hybrid lecture and workshop “Visualizing Narrative Spaces”, organized by Rueß and the CRC’s Methods Lab, brought together participants from disciplines as diverse as geography, sociology, architecture, anthropology, sound studies and urban planning to collectively experiment with narrative spaces using visual media and methods. The audiovisual lecture and workshop took place at the CRC on the 22nd of November, 2022. Rueß shared insights into her work, which deals with the inscription of politics into urban structures, practices of home-making and memory processes within biographical narrations, contextualized through drawings, animations, objects and installations.
A workshop reflection by Simone Rueß
Workshop by Simone Rueß (Visual Arts, Berlin) with technical support by Christopher Heidecke and Luisa Paul and organized by Claudia Mock (Methods-Lab).
Workshop participants: Francisco Aguilera (European Ethnology, HU Berlin), Lucie Bernroider (Anthropology), Dr.-Ing. Anna Juliane Heinrich (Urban Design and Urban Development, TU Berlin), Sylvana Jahre (Geography, HU Berlin), Paula Kaniewska (Visual Arts, Berlin), Eva Korte (Sociology, TU Berlin), Niklas Kuckeland (Architecture, TU Berlin), Catherine Lamb (Composer/Violist, Berlin), Jae-Young Lee (Architecture, IRS Erkner), Sophie Mélix (Architecture/Urban Planning, IRS Erkner), Claudia Mock (Sociology, TU Berlin), Carolin Schneider (Geography, HU Berlin), Dr. Vivien Sommer (Sociology, UH Hamburg), Dr. Ignacio Castillo Ulloa (Urban Planning, TU Berlin), among others.
The Hybrid Workshop Design
The workshop was conceived as a performative narrative in which diverse participants from various disciplines developed individual visual approaches in a collective action (Engel, 2017). Participants took part in the workshop both physically in the seminar room and online via Zoom. In the setting of the hybrid space, they were able to improve their sensory perception and skills in abstract illustration. In the compact time frame of 1h 45min, the workshop was structured around the collaborative creation of two large maps. For an experimental approach to drawing, a large sheet of paper was placed on the floor in the physical space of the seminar room, along with different pens for drawing and cushions for sitting on. Each map was reproduced directly on a digital Miro Board so that the online participants could also add their contributions and work together in a shared space. In addition, cameras were used to stream what was happening in the physical space from above and from the side via Zoom. Conversely, the Miro Board was projected onto the wall in the seminar room next to the Zoom tiles so that those present in the room could follow the mapping of the digital participants.
The first map was used to visualize a mental image of one’s own project and relate it to the other projects. Step by step, the participants were guided through the individual and collective visualization process. The first step was to position a term related to one’s own project in relation to others on the blank paper. These terms then had to be paraphrased in a pictorial language, but in a few sentences. In this way, inner images were created which could then be sketched onto the map with as few strokes as possible. The participants were challenged to express their ideas in a short time using different colors and different lines. The online participants documented their visualizations and positioned them digitally on the Miro Board in relation to uploaded photos of sketches from the seminar room. After drawing the personal mental images, participants were asked to visually negotiate references between the figurations and the words. In spoken language, we reflected the analogue and digital map, bringing together the participants’ different projects in visually linked terms and mental images.
The second map was created and used to look graphically at resonances in one’s own project and to find commonalities in abstract patterns. The participants had additionally brought examples of visualizations from their own projects or ideas for visualizations to the workshop. Mind Maps, photos, and diagrams were arranged on a blank paper. Participants were asked to think about resonances, tensions or contrasts between different aspects in their own project and to make short notes about them. In the form of an open spoken narrative, participants were asked to describe the resonance figuratively in one or two sentences. This reflection was then visualized individually in the form of an abstract pattern on the shared map. This pattern could grow from one’s own visualization to the others on the floor map and digitally on the Miro Board, connecting the visualized resonances. Different patterns developed and grew between the participants, thereby linking the meanings of the figurations. In this way, the participants were able to find similarities and differences in their projects on an abstract, illustrative level.
During the workshop, there was a rule to speak only in one or two sentences. Each person spoke only when he or she had the microphone in hand. This had three effects: First, I was able to ensure that every participant had the opportunity to speak. Second, the online participants could hear what was being said, because only one person was speaking at a time. And third, the rule created some tension. Participants not only exchanged their sentences but also performed them. Of course, the figurative language challenged them to “leave the abstract scientific mind and take the more artistic philosophical approach,” as one online participant put it. The setting of the spoken narrative was necessary to free oneself from scientific thinking and to stimulate the imagination. Claudia Mock commented that she had “never heard us talk like this before and I think we sound like space poets”. This made it clear that with this method the participants were being drawn into a performative happening, which helped them to enter into the creative process.
In this workshop, I focused on setting up a creative process that would improve visualization in general. Activating one’s imagination, expanding one’s visual knowledge and training one’s perception are all helpful for a successful visualization process. Designers and artists are used to imagining something mentally before putting it on paper or in Photoshop. Working with the mental image is a very helpful tool, as it can be constantly updated according to the work process. Based on my own artistic research on mental images of spaces, I use the term “mental image” in reference to Kevin Lynch (1960). In his definition, it refers to how a place is perceived, experienced and remembered. When reflecting on visualization processes, it is helpful to understand that signs, symbols and markings refer to our personal knowledge of space. When participants in my workshops form an internal image of their projects, this mental production is based on their own perception, personal attachment, and knowledge of the project’s inherent structures, patterns, and context. I believe that we should never stop sensitizing ourselves to different individual perceptions and ideas, as well as their commonalities, because it serves to arrive at a productive, effective and collective visualization process. In relation to the first map, Carolin Schneider felt that the connections between the words were more rational, while the connections between the images seemed “to come from somewhere else, like affected emotions.“This can be traced back to the body’s perceptual apparatus, which links visual perception to bodily knowledge. Jae-Young Lee even mentioned a visual way of thinking when she remarked that she was „very impressed by how the mappings seem to amplify a knowledge that we can all understand emotionally, but not grasp verbally.“ And Catherine Lamb was “impressed to realize what we share in terms of perception, how we relate to triangles, to simple shapes”. She came to the realization that we express ourselves intuitively in a similar visual language.
In contrast to small sketchbooks, the large paper on the floor evoked an experimental atmosphere. More importantly, the 3.5 m x 1.5 m paper encouraged participants to take a step out of their comfort zone. The large scale automatically led to a multi-sensory experience of their own drawing; not only did their arms and fingers put lines on paper, but their whole bodies had to move on the paper. The participants had the experience of drawing in parallel on the same large sheet of paper, each having their own individual space on the map, but always acting in relation to each other. The involvement of the movement of their bodies evoked a sensory process that enhanced their perceptual apparatus. The online participants were not able to experience this in person but could observe it through the camera view. And on the Miro Board, they interacted digitally by drawing lines with their cursors, which could, in turn, be observed by the participants in the seminar room via the projection on the wall. Analogue and digital traces were the visual result of this shared creative process in the hybrid space. The hybrid workshop offered not only the opportunity to reflect on and compare the visual results of the maps, but also the experience of working together in the physical and digital space.
This concept, which simultaneously challenges the individual and the collaborative creative process, builds on Grzegorz Kowalski’s OWOW (Common Space, Self Space) teaching concept (Kowalski, 2015: 494), in which students explore how to communicate through the language of gestures, signs, and symbols. For Kowalski, it is important that bodies interact without words. I deliberately encouraged the use of figurative language as a starting point for academic participants to prompt a transition from cognitive to visual thinking and acting.
Within this performative set-up, participants interacted in an ever-changing arrangement and relationship to one another, creating a hybrid space synthesized through a performative process. By drawing their own approaches on the empty paper map and the digital board, followed by the merging of the figurations on the same maps, their reflections, experiences and perceptions developed and merged through spoken narratives. In this sense, the workshop offered a vivid reenactment of Martina Löw’s theory of “spacing and synthesizing” (Löw, 2016: 159).
Need to recharge with others
With these words Ignacio Castillo Ulloa described his own visualized imagination, but also simultaneously expressed what was happening in the hybrid space of the workshop. Although the digital participants missed out on the physical interaction, the collaborative process was strong enough to create “overlaps”. The merging of the digital and analogue processes was particularly shaped by the constant documentation by Christopher Heidecke and Luisa Paul. They were thus the crucial link for the hybrid space. With their decisions on how to transfer the visualizations to the digital, they significantly influenced how the digital participants perceived the visualization process in the seminar room. In this way, they became a crucial part of what was happening.
The hybrid format of the workshop, with its reproductions on the Miro Board and the camera streaming, allowed us to keep a constant eye on the map as it was being created. The participants were able to look at the meta-perspective at any time and be aware of the whole. The hybrid format thus strengthened the participants’ sensibilization for perceptual processes, which is one of the most important tasks in acquiring skills in visualization processes.
The complexity of offering a workshop to such a heterogeneous group, with participants with different levels of experience in diverse fields, and the challenging goal of giving each individual new input in such a short time required a multilayered structure covering different dimensions. I consciously used “the spoken, the visual, the performative and the hybrid” as tools to allow both the individual and the group to unfold in their diversity. By bringing together individual contributions in a collective action, it was even possible to create a joint work that encouraged collaborative and networked thinking.
Visualizing Narrative Spaces, a video recap of the hybrid workshop, edited by Simone Rueß, 6’04’’.
Claudia Mock, sociologist, is a research assistant in the Methods-Lab of the CRC 1265 “Re-Figuration of Spaces”. In her current multi-sited (Nairobi/Berlin) PhD project, she explores middle-class childhoods as a spatio-temporal order in global entanglements, based on biographical maps and interviews. Her research concerns the spatial figuration of childhoods and social reproduction, biographical memory, housing and home-making under the global condition and architectural ethnography.
Simone Rueß explores urban structures (Movement Space), living and home-making (INhabit) and biographical narratives (Space/Biography) in her artistic research. She is currently a Neustartplus-fellow of Kunstfonds Bonn (2023) and was previously, i.a., a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude (2016/17) and at Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris (2013). Since 2018, she has been teaching in the field of art and design e.g. at the Goethe-University in Frankfurt a. M. and the Bergische Universität in Wuppertal. www.urbik.org
Engel, Judith (2017). Schloss-Post. Performing Space with Simone Rueß, Issue N° 4 – Biographies & Space, 19 April, 2017, https://schloss-post.com/performing-space/. Accessed: April 2017.
Kowalski, Grzegorz (2015). Kowalnia 1985-2015. Katowice: Akademia Sztuk Pięknych.
Löw, Martina (2016). The Sociology of Space. Materiality, Social Structures and Action. New York: Palgrave.
Lynch, Kevin (1960). The Image of the City. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press.