Within phenomenological and literary theoretical discourses, relationships between visual images and narratives have often been identified within the experience of space. Phenomenologically, spatial experience is interwoven not only with embodied perception, but also with imagination and visuality. For Gaston Bachelard, spatial experience is formed by images with a ‘localizing’ quality, which results from psychical activity (1). In The Poetics of Space, the house, the room, even chests of drawers are dreamed, imagined, and remembered. Walter Benjamin observed that architectural spaces are imprinted onto the mind, as photographic images,through events that occur, and which we experience in the very places they occur. In One-Way Street, he directly compares the way in which memory operates to the process of photography: 

Nothing prevents our keeping rooms in which we have spent twenty-four hours more or less clearly in our memory, and forgetting others in which we passed months. It is not therefore due to insufficient explosure time, 
if no image appears on the plate of rememberance. More frequent, perhaps, are the cases when the half-light of habit denies the plate the necessary light for years, until one day from an alien source it flashes
as if from burning magnesium powder, and now a snapshot transfixes the room's image on the plate. (2)

For Italo Calvino, the process of creative writing also derives from visual imagination. In his essay Visibility, Calvino places emphasis on the significance of visualisation for the construction of narratives. He observes that ‘The poet has to imagine visually both what his actor sees and what he thinks he sees’ (3), but also the place where his actor is.By quoting Ignatius Loyola, Calvino argues that the visual composition of places and the contemplation of an object are essentially interrelated:

[…] in visual contemplation or meditation […] this composition will consist in seeing from the view of the imagination the physical place where the thing I wish to contemplate is to be found. (4)

D. W. Winnicott used the terms ‘transitional objects’ and ‘phenomena’ to describe certain processes through which the infant subject gradually understands the external world as separate from his/her subjective self. This process usually involves the infant’s attachment to a particular object, which is not part of his/her body, yet it is not fully recognised as belonging to external reality (17). Winnicott also observed that, within human experience, there is the problem of the relationship between what is objectively perceived and what is subjectively conceived. Transitional objects and phenomena allow for an intermediate area between what is considered objective and what is considered subjective to exist; and further, for Winnicott, they allow for the development of space for creativity:  

The transitional objects and transitional phenomena belong to the realm of illusion which is at the basis of initiation of experience. This intermediate area of experience, unchallenged in respect of its belonging
to inner or external (shared) reality constitutes the greater part of the infant's experience and to throughout life is retained in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and religion and to imaginative living,
and to creative scientific work. (18)

For psychoanalysis, the task of reality-acceptance is never actually completed; in Freud’s words, ‘Reality will always remain unknowable.’ (19) In this sense, no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality. A relief from this strain can only be provided in an intermediate area of experience which is not challenged: in the arts, in children’s play, as Winnicott suggests, through ‘mimicry’, according to Benjamin; or, I would add, through any other kind of creative appropriation of the external world.

 

By visualising and narrating urban space we allow ourselves to exist in that intermediate area, which further addresses objectivity in a creative way. Whilst going beyond the initial understanding of our subjective selves as separate from the outside world, we are at the same time offered insights of the outside world through the recognition and understanding of our subjective experience. Experiences like peripheral vision could be part of the raw materials of dream-work, which may enable us, through the process of free association, to further document, in some way, the qualitative aspects of urban space: to describe a dialogue between perceptions and the perceived, and to create, perhaps, a model of personal, subjective experience. 

 

This thinking places the subject/user of urban space in a unique position. The use of architectural space is not limited only to its physical occupation, but it also involves an internal creative appropriation, which transforms our understanding and interpretation of the world. A subjective narrativisation of architecture not only helps us to understand the modes of our reception of the built environment, but also to consider them as ways of reproduction and appropriation, recognising the subject as an active agent in everyday urban life and re-evaluating his/her role in the conception of architectural space.

Considered in this theoretical context, my visualisation of urban space was not dependent upon conventional optics. Either in memory or imagination the cities of Novel were reconstructed as a series of pictures taken out of a deeply personal photographic album. For me, this understanding inspired two lines of theoretical inquiry, through which my project could be further developed: first, the idea of visual perception as unfocused vision; and secondly, the existence of a subjective, or psychical, dimension of spatial comprehension.

Thinking about the perception of architectural space in the terms of the unfocused vision inspired me with an idea about how to begin to use and present my photographs. I thought that bringing the photographs into a sequential digital video format could be one appropriate way: photographs which change at a variable speed, showing different, or zoomed-in views, of the same place as if appearing consecutively, would somehow reconstruct the experience of unfocused vision. Furthermore, it would create a sense of spatial thickness through a flow of images. Such a cinematic way of presenting a series of urban photographs would, I thought, reflect the qualities of incompleteness and changeability of spatial comprehension. (image 3)

 


In this sense, visuality and spatial visualisation appear to operate beyond objective focused vision and more in the areas of subjective perception and imagination. The phenomenological notion of sight, as embodied vision: a less optical and closer to a habitual, tactile perception, can also be considered in regards to the visualisation of architectural space (5); as Benjamin observes:

Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception – or rather by touch and sight. On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side.
Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit. As regards architecture, habit determines to a large extent even optical reception. (6)

Juhani Pallasmaa also discusses a related concept he terms ‘peripheral’ vision, which conceives as a sort of unfocused vision, which transforms retinal gestalt into a spatial experience. In contrast to focused vision, which ejects us, and distances us from the space to become mere spectators, peripheral vision, in fact, integrates us with space (7). For this reason, Pallasmaa suggests that visual architectural representation should explore realms beyond focused images:

Photographed architectural images are centralised images of focused gestalt; yet the quality of an architectural reality seems to depend fundamentally on the nature of peripheral vision,
which enfolds the subject in the space [] (8)

Pallasmaa further draws a link between perception outside of the sphere of focused vision and a pre-conscious understanding of space. For Pallasmaa, the body is not simply a viewing point of the central perspective; instead it becomes ‘[…] the very locus of reference, memory, imagination and integration’ (9).  As in Benjamin’s ‘unconscious optics’ (10), the visual experience of architectural space involves, if we were to make any distinctions, body, psyche and mind, together.

I further realised that my photography was usually related to a feeling of fusing between myself and the spaces I had photographed. I would take a photograph only when I felt that I was in a place, which somehow corresponded to my psychological state at the time; where my inner world and the reality of the place intersected. In the final project, I attempted to reflect this continuity between self and place, by adding subtitled text to the photographs; in this way, I inscribed my personal, poetic narrative onto the documented images of spaces. (images 2,4)

 

image 1

Novel is the combination of a series of urban photographs and a text of fiction. It is the creative product of my parallel activities of photography and writing, inspired by my experience as a passer-by, a temporary dweller in different cities over a period of a year. I started off with the initial idea to write a fictional piece of text, and subsequently to illustrate the text with photographs of urban spaces. It soon appeared difficult to realise such a project. Unable to produce a coherent fictive narrative following the genre of the novel, I decided to work with texts and images at the same time, in order to combine them together into a visual story. Paradoxically, Novel is the result of my failure to write a proper novel: a straightforward fictive narrative. I ended up with a hybrid project, neither photography, nor literature. (image 1)

image 3

In his essay A Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin recollects his home city through the formation of ‘street images’ (11): photographic snapshots of the urban fabric invested with a personal sense of meaning (12). Furthermore, Benjamin discusses the experience of the urban environment as taking place through a certain identification with it. In his essays On the Mimetic Faculty and Doctrine of the Similar, he further describes that process as ‘mimesis’. Nevertheless, he uses the term in the psychoanalytic sense of a creative empathy with the object (13), which is in contrast to the Platonic sense of a compromised ‘imitation’ of an original  object. For Benjamin, the ability to assimilate to the environment refers to a constructive re-interpretation that goes beyond mere imitation and becomes a creative act in itself. From that perspective, the active visualisation of architectural space implies a creative engagement with the space. 


Psychoanalytic theory further provides a framework for reflecting on the creative dimension of subjective encounters with the objective reality of architectural space. The mechanisms of free association could provide the conceptual background for considering our experience of the external world through associative chains; by selectively incorporating ‘fragments’ from the environment as psychic representations and combining them together into new narrative structures. Freud’s ‘dream-work’ offers a good example of such an operation. In ‘dream-work’, the ‘raw materials’ of the dream produce a series of images with a narrative sense: the dream we narrate. However, the narration does not happen in any kind of rational order, since the ‘raw materials’ are subject to the activity of unconscious desire, whereby an impulse seeks the repetition of an achieved satisfaction by, again, finding the perception that accompanied it; as Elisabeth Wright describes:

since more is included in the perception than the conscious mind can recognise, this perceptual sorting is not some pre-given recognition, but a perceptual 'identifying' of sensory patterns, complexes of colour, shape and sound across time.(14)

Thus, a stream of associations takes place, which brings this material, piece by piece, into the dream-stories: a coherent, but irrational narrative (15). Furthermore, associations operate through a number of subversions and distortions; such as, the condensation of words and images, displacement, or substitution, which can turn a chronological succession of events into an image, containing them all in spatial proximity (16). Free association turns narrative into a spatial rather than temporal unfolding. 

In retrospect, I can also see Novel as my way of coming to terms with new environments. During the time I was working on the project, I was dividing my life between cities that were new to me. Borrowing a psychoanalytic term, I would call my activities of writing and photography of that period as ‘transitional phenomena’: activities that provided me with an intermediate, transitional area between my subjective reality and the external reality of unfamiliar environments. (image 5)


Novel’s final narrative came out of a process similar to psychoanalytic free association: a fusing together of images and text into a fragmented, irrational narrative. The fact that the intitial text was a collage of thoughts, recreations of events, dreams and memories, which had more of a topological rather than a chronological significance, indicated that Novel should be more spatial than temporal. For this, I broke down the initial journal entries into sentences, the textual-fragments, which were in turn merged with the photographs, the images-fragments, from the three cities. Novel’s narrative sprang from two operations of the psychoanalytic perspective: the alteration of photography by text, and, the other way round, text’s dissemination by photography. The result was a hybrid project that represented my experience of space as a hybrid environment; an environment made out of materiality, stories, and psychic space.


Retrospectively, I had realised that such a composite project of documented images and creative narrative was the only possible outcome of two, realistically, quite integrated activities: my writing and my photography. Each activity not only informed the other, but influenced the emergent form whilst I was pursuing them. My writing has always accompanied an imaginary visualisation of spaces; where the action could be happening. On the other hand, the photographs had been taken in places, which, in some ways, corresponded to the initial imagined space; or, in their turn, inspired new imaginary settings. What can there be in common, I asked myself, between a series of urban photographs and a text of fiction? I recognised that there were certain spatial and topological qualities, which both image and text shared. In effect, they both sprang from the creative visualisation of space. 

 

NOVEL: a digital video project

  

between photography and writing

about personal association 

on the creative process as transitional phenomenon


by Betty Nigianni



image 4

image 2

image 5

(1) Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place. A Philosophical History (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1998), p. 287.

(2) Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street (London: Verso, 1979), pp. 342-343.

(3) Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium (London: Vintage, 1996), p. 82.

(4) Ibid., p. 84.

(5) Maurice Merleau-Ponty equates vision with touch, which forms an 'osmotic relation' with architectural space. In Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses (London: Academy Editions, 1996), p.11.

(6) Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (London: Fontana Press, 1992), pp. 230-231.

(7) Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses (London: Academy Editions, 1996), p. 11.

(8) Ibid., p. 13.

(9) Ibid., p.11.

(10) In reference to Benjamin's affirmation 'The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses', in the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Illuminations (London: Fontana Press, 1992), pp. 230-31.

(11) Walter Benjamin, Reflections (New York: Schoken Books, 1978), p. 9.

(12) Neil Leach, Walter Benjamin, 'Mimesis and The Dream-world of Photography', in Iain Borden and Jane Rendell (eds.) Inter/Sections: Architectural Histories and Critical Theories (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 28.

(13) As discussed by Freud, the joke communicates through a certain empathising with the subject of the joke, which takes place in the imagination. This kind of mimesis implies a creative engagement with the object and could be of potential significance for aesthetics. In Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (London: Penguin, 1976).

(14) Elizabeth Wright, Psychoanalytic Criticism. A Reappraisal (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), p. 18.

(15) Ibid., p. 18-19.

(16) Ibid., p. 22.










(17) D. W. Winnicott, 'Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena', in Collected Papers (London: Tavistock Publications, 1958), pp. 229-254.

(18) Ibid., p. 242.

(19) Sigmund Freud, 'An outline of psychoanalysis', in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 23 (London: Vintage, 2001), p. 196.

My narrative is a sequence of flux, made out of ephemeral perceptions, poetic practice, and creative appropriation. Photography and text enabled me to create that narrative out of urban spaces, which further acted as a mediating, appropriative tool between the city and myself. But, if to adapt is to create, to go beyond existing narratives, it could be, after all, that Novel is simply the story of an exploration beyond the stories about contemporary urbanism that we already know.