Year-End Recap 1: The Making of Place (Or: How Place Is Perceptual)

Sheryl Smith-Gilman, Communication in Education Class, McGill

I started drafting a text several weeks ago delving into more recent reflections around “Place-Making” that I intended to publish several weeks ago, but I never did finish that piece. A series of intervening events kept interrupting me. Happy interruptions for the most part, but each time I thought I had clarified an idea, another one came along and got me rethinking the whole thing. Later thoughts replaced earlier ones. You know how it goes… But I’m interested to see how the earlier thoughts gradually transformed so now the challenge is to create a coherent post that doesn’t go on for several thousand words or meander too aimlessly. I’ll try it in bite-sized parts.

1. Place is perceptual
(Expanded journal notes from Sept. 21)

I notice how well I feel when I step foot on campus. Everything just… settles; my stress subsides, staving off residual tension from all the other facets of my current schedule; from the rest of my life. This place is quickly becoming a kind of refuge.

But how different would this be if I was a student here? (Or full time faculty, or a member of support staff)?

I overheard a couple of conversations since arriving, coming from students (past and present) who described quite the opposite sensation; this site is not a source of refuge or creativity but rather one that inspires a certain degree of angst.

As such: I come back again to this notion that an embodied perception of place is directly connected to our experiences that take place in them.

If I associate my time here with freedom of thought, open spaces (the giant reservoir across the street that I adore sitting in) and an intrigue about architectural construction (the Education building is quite a gem from its time) then I am definitely more likely to have a positive feeling when I come here, then, say, a student who associates their time with tight deadlines, crammed classrooms and the overall pressures that characterize student life.

2. Place is a lived experience
(Reflections that have been brewing for the last few weeks that I am finally recording)

I am noticing that, rereading the above passage almost three months later, I really don’t feel the same now as I did back in September. The weather has changed. I’m not outside as much. I am hit hard with many deadlines and administrative tasks that have piled up and so the previous lines that had been drawn around this sanctuary (that initially provided me a sense of calm upon arrival) have slowly dissipated. Feeling behind in just about all of my work (including the schedule I had set out for myself for various parts of my project in residence), the “outside world” (i.e.: the rest of my life) has completely caught up with me here. And now that this place has become a regular feature in my day-to-day, all these disparate facets of my life follow me everywhere; even on campus. I still enjoy being here (don’t get me wrong), but I don’t feel the same ease as when I first arrived. As a result of its increasing familiarity, this place has changed – precisely because my lived experience in it has. Place is perceptual, indeed.

3. Place is an emotional/experiential construct
(Expanded journal notes from Sept. 21)

If the experiences that occur “in place” (in these structures/on these sites) shape our perception/reception/engagement/memory/active articulation/usage of these spaces, then I think it could also be argued that places evolve. Not just physically (by moving a chair from one side of the room to the other) but energetically and emotionally.

4. Place is malleable; a construct that we can transform
(Expanded journal notes from Nov. 10)

How can we instigate certain experiences into being? How can we contribute to creating environments that permit certain kinds of behaviours, activities, shifting perceptions that will then shape our experience – and by extension transform our sense of place? This is what I came away wondering about after having sat in on a class in early November.

Sheryl Smith-Gilman, a professor at McGill who teaches Communication in Education had her students do an exercise in which they discover the Education Building, floor by floor. A proponent of The Reggio Emilia approach (a student-centred philosophy that deeply considers the role of relationship and place in learning for preschool and primary schoolchildren), Smith-Gilman encourages her students to think about how and what environments communicate by their particular features and how educators can adapt to and appropriate these in order to create spaces that become more conducive to learning – by considering how we occupy these sites. The exercise points to an initial appropriation of space: observe what you see; what is there; what can be utilized, what can be added to or subtracted from; what is available and what is ready for setting up your “holistic” learning environment. Starting from an embodied reception of place (i.e.: more closely observing how a particular place makes us feel, exactly as it is) we can then go in and propose changes. Which can be quite subtle and relatively simple (more intimate seating arrangements, adding cushions, plants, student-made art on the walls, etc.).

Needless to say I was fascinated when Prof Smith-Gilman told me about this module in her class because I hadn’t realized that these notions I have been exploring through my performance art practice are cornerstones in certain educational pedagogies. Which is to say, observing how place impacts our actions in it. I was also really excited to hear about the typical composition of a classroom – with comfy chairs and pillows for young students to hang out in while learning. I.e.: in a mode of rest and relaxation.

Granted, a comfortable place doesn’t guarantee a comfortable experience but if the philosophy at the outset has us already mindfully (and continually) tuning into those spaces that populate our day-to-day with the purpose of sensitizing us to the “feel” of a room, then we are already transcending the notion of place as a merely physical construction and becoming increasingly aware of place as a set of relational circumstances. Experience “in place” affects our “sense of place”; (mindfully) altering place can (potentially) alter our experience “in place” and our (future) sense of it. This can be both positive or negative, to be certain. The goal clearly in the Reggio Emilia school is to produce a positive experience, but the point I am more interested in making is the very possibility for apprehending a place and, further, contributing to it through our actions in it (which emerge as a result of our observations of it); to be able to receive what is there in order to work from there. Starting as an empathetic observer, how do I understand my experiences “in place” – and when (and how) does my experience of place (and actions) transform?

Students’ Summary of the the Lobby

5. Welcome to your new home, Victoria! McGill now has an Art Hive
(A kind of conclusion – and new beginning – as the year comes to a close)

It’s worth mentioning an important new development in the Faculty of Education at McGill, which I think will have a direct impact on my experience “in place” while here in residence. We now have an Art Hive, which officially opened in late November. This place is the headquarters for the Artists-in-Residence but is also an open studio where all members of the McGill community are welcome to come – and make art. Or just hang out. Comfy chairs, plants, tables for working and tons of art supplies (along with tea) are all on offer and permanently available from this creative hub. Why I include this last part here is that I see more directly the feedback loop that is impacting my experience of this place. When I got busy and overwhelmed by too many demands (external to this residence), my previous floating around care-freely upon arrival (“walking the place into my body”) was short-circuited by a need to centre and ground. While serving an initial purpose I saw that I was also in need of “my place.” Not necessarily a private place, but a place to settle into. To space out. And work from. This open studio will now be the “ground zero” for the remainder of the residence and I am very curious to see how my “sense of place” is impacted upon as I take up residence, and enter into circulation with the many students, faculty and staff that I hope will come and visit.

Author: Victoria Stanton

Montreal-based performance artist, writer, and educator Victoria Stanton explores live action, human interaction, video, film, photography, and drawing.

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