Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Impact of Place

[The following is an excerpt from my MFA thesis.]

For most of my adult life, my attachment to my childhood home has been a reoccurring theme in my art. I grew up in a farmhouse, built by my great-great grandfather, in a small town in the Catskill Mountain region of New York State. My fondness for the area is evident even in my commercial work as most of my clients are non-profit land-stewardship organizations seeking to protect the very streams and hillsides so deeply embedded in my psyche.

During the first semester of my MFA studies, I produced an artist book that portrayed my emotional associations with a stream that flows through my family’s property. Upon viewing my efforts, a faculty member suggested I read the book Lure of the Local by Lucy Lippard. This book was instrumental in providing me with an understanding of the ideas I had intuitively sought to express in my work. Lippard introduced me to the concept of “place” and perhaps more importantly, the reciprocal relationship between self and place. I began to appreciate that because I am a “placed person” (having developed a strong identity with a locale) I return to this place (in actuality or metaphorically) as a method for remembering who I am.1 Lippard described Kennebec Point, Maine as her “soul’s home”; my book project enabled me to visit my soul’s home and reestablish my emotional connection with the landscape of my youth.2

However, as much as I valued this emotional connection, I suspected my bond with this patch of land could be traced to another level, that it could even be reduced to a symbiotic relationship among the very cells in my body. The next book I read was pivotal in the development of my theory. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space introduced me to the notion of phenomenology – the philosophical investigation of how things are perceived. According to Bachelard, the physicality of the space we initially inhabit affects how we perceive and relate to all other spaces throughout our lives. He claimed, “But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us.” He continued, “…the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme.”3 Bachelard caused me to think about my physical relationship with the landscape of my childhood home – as it was instilled by my senses – and these thoughts became even more interesting to me than my emotional connection with the place.

Poet/author Diane Ackerman maintains, “There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses.”4 This biological system is the window of our awareness and shapes how we perceive and function within a space. As I type these words my senses tell me I am sitting in an office chair. I see its black leather upholstery in my peripheral vision and feel the cool, smooth texture of the material under my legs. I sense the warmth of the room and the stillness – maybe even a slight stuffiness – of the air. Without looking up, I have a pretty good idea of how high the ceiling is above my head. My senses quietly go about keeping me informed of where I am in space and enable me to process more than one piece of information at a time. For example, I am aware of the distance of the ceiling as well as the other attributes of my studio, in spite of my preoccupation with writing, because of a phenomenon author Tony Hiss refers to as “simultaneous perception.” In his book, The Experience of Place, Hiss explains:
We can experience any place because we’ve all received, as part of the structure of our attention, a mechanism that drinks in whatever it can from our surroundings. This underlying awareness – I call it simultaneous perception – seems to operate continuously, at least during waking hours, even when our concentration seems altogether engrossed in something else entirely. While normal waking consciousness works to simplify perception, allowing us to act quickly and flexibly by helping us remain seemingly oblivious to almost everything except the task in front of us, simultaneous perception is more like an extra, or sixth, sense: It broadens and diffuses the beam of attention evenhandedly across all the senses so we can take in whatever is around us – which means sensations of touch and balance, for instance, in addition to all sights, sounds and smells.5
Our five senses combine to create a sixth sense – a sense of attentiveness – on a subconscious level. Author Winifred Gallagher describes the same idea in a slightly different way. She says:
…the senses convey to the brain far more information than we can consciously be aware of; it is the totality of all that undifferentiated input that we perceive in a general way as ambience.6
Additionally, in her book, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions and Actions, Gallagher provides some excellent examples of how place can impact us on a biological level. She views “the earth and its processes as a unified living organism rather than as a grab bag of separate biological and geophysical systems.”7 According to Gallagher, everything is connected. She acknowledges how “even the simplest microorganism depends on environmental interactions to survive” and extends her examples from “our simplest [cellular] level up through any state in our development.”8

Gallagher supports her opinions by explaining how light, temperature, altitude and even geophysical energies affect us biologically. However, her most winning argument is embodied in her discussion of the womb as place. When one considers a developing baby’s physical dependency on its environment – a connection made so apparent by the coiling umbilical cord – it’s not too far of a stretch to accept our dependency on the places we inhabit. The light, the air, the temperature, the space – “our relationship with the larger world is built from countless sensory interactions between us and our settings.”9

I am fascinated by these ideas of how we subconsciously respond to the spaces and objects around us. That our response is primarily physical (biological) is even more intriguing and suggests a degree of dependency that most of us are unaware of. In her book, As Eve Said to the Serpent, Rebecca Solnit observes:
In making landscape art, contemporary artists recognized landscape not as scenery but as the spaces and systems we inhabit, a system our own lives depend on.10


1. Lucy R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local: sense of place in a multicentered society (New York: The New Press, 1997), p. 33.

2. Lippard, p. 4.

3. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: the classic look at how we experience intimate places (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), pp. 14-15.

4. Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. xv.

5. Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place (New York: Knopf, 1990), pp. xii-xiii.

6. Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions (New York: Poseidon Press, 1993), p. 24.

7. Gallagher, p. 23.

8. Gallagher, pp. 15-16.

9. Gallagher, p. 127.

10. Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), p. 47.