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Fact as fiction

Between Realities #Athens. Or how scenography can facilitate the re-imagination of public space

Sigrid Merx
Universiteit Utrecht

In 2016 the scenographer Thanos Vovolis organized an exhibition on the social and political dimensions of public space as a performance space. For the occasion Platform-Scenography developed an adapted version of their Between Realities exhibition. During a period of four days the company worked with a group of local students, designers, scenographers and architects to explore the public space of Athens in an investigation of the various realities and their relationships with one another. Participants were invited to visit specific sites in the city bearing in mind the idea of the city as a forum for the crisis. Observations, ideas and thoughts inspired by these explorations were published live in the Benaki Museum in Athens.

In 2016 organiseerde scenograaf Thanos Vovolis een tentoonstelling over de sociale en politieke dimensies van de publieke ruimte als een ruimte voor performance. Voor deze gelegenheid ontwikkelde Platform-Scenography een aangepaste versie van hun tentoonstelling Between Realities. Gedurende vier dagen verkende het gezelschap met een groep lokale studenten, ontwerpers, scenografen en architecten de publieke ruimte van Athene, op zoek naar verschillende realiteiten en hun onderlinge verhoudingen. Deelnemers werden uitgenodigd om concrete plekken in de stad te benaderen vanuit de notie van de stad als podium voor de crisis. Observaties, ideeën en gedachten naar aanleiding van deze verkenningen publiceerden ze live in het museum.

Since 2014 Platform-Scenography (P-S) organises and curates so-called live action research events, in which participants are invited to actively explore and map particular public spaces from the perspective of scenography. In these events, scenographic concepts and scenographic strategies are used to challenge participants to look at familiar urban spaces in a new way, to discover new or forgotten realities and eventually, and hopefully, to become aware of its potentiality. Much like how in theatre the scenographer designs the actual theatre space in such a way that it allows for new possible worlds to materialize, P-S tries to curate their live action research events in such a way that in the actual material manifestation of public space, new possible manifestations can become perceptible and spaces become charged with new imaginations and possibilities.

Intervention in empty shopping gallery during Between Realities #Athene, 2016. Photographer Moniek Oerbekke.

In this article, I will analyse how P-S tries to establish a particular relationship between real and imaginative spaces through its live action research events. I will do so by focusing on a specific project, Between Realities #Athens, a 5-day live action research event that took place in 2016, in which a group of local participants explored and mapped public spaces in Athens from the point of view of ‘stages of crisis’. Being a member of P-S and one of the curators of this project, I will be talking from the subjective perspective of the insider. This article is a first attempt to grasp our way of working and the intentions and assumptions that support it. I will pay attention to the strategies we use, the kind of effects these evoke, and start to find the right words and concepts to critically describe and reflect on a method that is neither fixed nor finished, and that has been developed and still is developing in and through our activities.

It is not the aim of this article to contextualize our strategies historically or theoretically. Although such framing could definitely be interesting and valuable - for example, how does our way of working relate to the artistic interventions in public space of the Situationists or to Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the production of space - it would entail a framing after the fact. These theoretical or historical references did not play a role in the development of our project at the time. And our interest now is not so much to establish a context around our work, but rather to unfold our work from within, and to describe and analyse as precisely and accurately as possible our methodology, that up till this point has remained rather implicit and intuitive and is, as we believe, worth unpacking.

Platform-Scenography’s take on scenography

Platform-Scenography is a Dutch platform of scenographers and dramaturgs interested in the question of how spaces work both in and outside the theatre, and how, in their specific material manifestation, structural organization and locatedness, they produce and facilitate potential actions and experiences.1 We are not interested in what a space might represent or what it means, but how it performs. What does the space do? What does it do to us, how does it affect us? What does it allow us to do in it and with it? And how does it do that? And, most importantly, P-S wants to find out what spaces do and how they perform, not by thinking about these spaces, but thinking in, with and through them; by going into the spaces we want to explore, to observe, and to map them carefully - preferably with others, because thinking space for P-S is a collective practice that benefits from a multiplicity of perspectives, experiences and knowledges. For this aim, P-S organises and curates live action research events, a form of what I call scenographic mapping, in which public spaces are collectively explored in situ and observations and findings are shared and preferably made public.

Our focus in the process of mapping is not so much on the end-result, that is, a map, but on mapping as a process. Ideally, we also share this process with a public who is not directly participating in the event, making visible the research process and the continuing accumulation of observations, results and findings. This coming into being of a (never finished or final) map during the research can be presented in an offline (exhibition) space, but also online, for example on a website. By making visible the research as it unfolds, we stress both the performativity and the processual nature of mapping as research, as something that produces knowledge in its doing. Finally, characteristic of our live research events is that we not only explore and map public spaces, but also intervene in them one way or another. Therefore, an element of intervention is always somehow present in our events. By doing this, we want to stress that (public) space is not fixed, but unfolds in time. It comes into being through what we do in it and how we engage with it. In other words, space is not a given and can be actively negotiated and re-negotiated, imagined and re-imagined.

Expanding scenography

Platform-Scenography’s understanding of and approach towards scenography can be located in the practical field of what is sometimes called expanding scenography. In a more traditional understanding, scenography has long been associated with the design of settings for the performance of dramatics works on stage. However, as editors Joslin McKinney and Scott Palmer mention in their introduction to Scenography Expanded. An introduction to contemporary performance design, the notion of scenography has expanded drastically, and ‘the capacity for scenography to operate independently from a theatre text (…) as the central component of a performance, not merely as a backdrop to a play, is now widely in evidence’.2

As Sodja Lotker and Richard Gough suggest in a special issue of Performance Research on scenography, scenography can happen anywhere, in ‘our home, a restaurant, a cruise ship, a parking lot, a public square, a theatre venue, a parliamentary building and Everest’.3 Lotker and Gough stress that scenography can both be built (by a scenographer, a collective of artists, an architect, or nature itself) and found (by an actor, a dancer, or spectator).4 Continuing Lotker’s and Gough’s vocabulary, P-S can be described as a collective of scenographers and dramaturgs that on the one hand is interested in scenographies found outside the theatre, and on the other hand builds an environment in which the research event can take place, in order to collectively investigate these scenographies.

Expanding scenography entails a non-presentational understanding of scenography which, as McKinney and Scott Palmer claim, allows to foreground scenography ‘as a mode of encounter and exchange, founded on spatial and material relations between bodies, objects and environments’, and, as a result, shifts the attention from the designer to those who experience these relations.5 When we indeed approach scenography as a mode of encounter and exchange, we can start to see how P-S’s live research events are a form of scenography, in the sense that they entail curated encounters and exchanges between participants, objects, and public environments. The question is, what precisely is scenographic about this kind of curation? Or, to put it differently, how can we characterize the scenographic qualities of P-S’s practice? And, in the context of this article, how do these scenographic qualities then contribute to the establishment of a particular relation between real and imagined spaces?

McKinney and Palmer identify three interrelated concepts that they use to describe the core principles of so-called expanded scenography and that are very suitable to describe how P-S understands scenography and tries to put those principles to use. First, relationality points to how scenography facilitates spatial encounters, and positions and repositions subjects and objects in an environment. This process of positioning and repositioning often implies a shift of perspective on and a ‘new’ experience of familiar spaces and potentially gives way to the active re-imagining of existing social structures.6 Second, affectivity describes how scenography appeals to the whole body of the spectator and invites the attention of the spectator through experience. As a result, meaning and understanding are generated through the sensual, emotional and aesthetic responses on the part of the spectator. Scenography offers a set of experiential potentialities rather than a singular message that needs to be decoded. Affectivity also emphasizes the processual nature of the scenographic experience. The scenographic experience gradually unfolds in time and space, accumulating associations and meanings.7 Third, materiality explains how scenography enters the spectator into a material composition, in which she is not only brought into direct contact with both human and non-human materials, but also is acknowledged as a material in her own right.8 Her physical presence, energy, attention, and responses, as already mentioned with respect to the concept of affectivity, are part of the scenography. Scenography recognizes materiality as an important force in producing spatial affect.9

Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink, in her article ‘How does scenography think?’, suggests to add a fourth concept to McKinney’s and Palmer’s framework, namely temporality.10 Thinking through theatre and performance, eds. Maaike Bleeker, Adrian Keir, Joe Kelleher & Heike Roms, Bloomsbury, forthcoming 24 January 2019.] Although McKinney and Palmer do refer to the processual nature of performance, Groot Nibbelink argues for a more particular scenographic understanding of temporality. Temporality, in her account, deals with how spaces materialize in time, change over time, and how time leaves its traces in space. Scenography can play with and use this spatiotemporal dynamic. Moreover, Groot Nibbelink suggests, scenography can function as a spatial script or scenario for potential actions: ‘Spaces are deeply procedural, they generate behaviour and define how once executes procedures (…)’.11 Precisely these actions and behaviours, be it by performers or spectators, change space and make it appear and perform in a particular way.

I believe potentiality, although implied in and therefore partly overlapping with McKinney’s and Palmers’ discussion of relationality and affectivity and Groot Nibbelink’s understanding of temporality, is worth being emphasized even more within this conceptual framework - particularly when we want to describe and understand how in expanded scenography in general, and in P-S’s work in public space in particular, the real and the imaginative relate to one another. Potentiality, then, in my understanding, points not only to how scenography creates the spatial conditions for potential experiences (see McKinney and Palmer) and actions (see Groot Nibbelink), but how, through creating those conditions, it also calls potential spaces into being; spaces that are there but have not manifested themselves yet, ready to unfold and to be unfolded in the actions and experiences of performers and spectators. Obviously, the relation between physically present space and imagined space lies at the heart of scenography as theatrical practice. Scenography, as also Groot Nibbelink points out in her article, by nature deals with the design of relations between on- and offstage, between presentation and representation, between physical space and fictional space.

With the conceptual framework now in place, let’s turn our attention to Between Realities #Athens. Before I start analysing our project in the light of the abovementioned principles and address how P-S uses scenography to point to the possibility of reimagining existing spaces, I will introduce and describe the project more carefully, to allow the reader to form a more precise idea of what happened during this five-day live action research event.

Between Realities #Athens

The research event, that took place in Athens in October 2016, was commissioned by Thanos Vovolis, scenographer and curator of the exhibition [OUT] TOPIAS: Performance and Public / Outdoor Space in the New Benaki Museum in Athens. The exhibition focused on the political and social dimensions of public space as performance space. Participants in our live action research event had responded to an Open Call that had been distributed in local networks of designers, scenographers and architects, and that invited people to explore the city of Athens with us through the conceptual framework of stages of crisis. Nine young, local, and because of the economic crisis mostly unemployed, professionals signed up for the event. The group was a mix of costume designers, set designers, architects, urban planners, and art historians. The home base for our event was an exposition room in the New Benaki Museum, where observations and findings were collected, processed and exhibited on the go, in a slowly growing, and ever-changing exhibition open to the public. For this project, P-S worked together with WE-ARE-AMP, a creative studio by Moniek Ellen and Tim Heijmans that explores the boundaries between traditional graphic techniques, spatial design, new media, and web design.

Framing Athens as a city in and of crisis was an important conceptual starting point for the event, as we suggested to explore actual stages of crisis in the city. This particular framing allowed us to introduce our scenographic perspective as a way to analyse stages and acts of staging outside the theatre. Not only did we frame the space of our investigation in a particular way, we also framed ourselves in a particular role. We presented ourselves as, travelling to Athens ‘to get infected by real engagement and revolt’, alluding to the increasing tendency of West-European artists and curators to go to Athens. Athens, where it supposedly is all happening, and where, because of the crisis and lack of funding, the arts (that is at least often the assumption) dare to be critical, resistant, non-institutional, and engaged.12 Athens, where you can feel that art is still alive and something is somehow at stake. We played with the (misplaced) romantic appeal of a crisis that is not ours; an appeal we admittedly also felt ourselves. We created a video clip that we sent to the participants, and that was exhibited in the museum before our actual arrival, expressing our understanding of Athens as a city of crisis. Using all kinds of audio-visual material from the Internet, the video provided a consciously one-dimensional, stereotypical image of Athens, as a city of constant demonstrations and riots, xenophobia, local soup kitchens, and homeless immigrants, with the famous Syntagma Square featuring prominently as the absolute stage of crisis.

On the first day of the research event, we persisted in our problematic frame. Although new to the city, we staged ourselves as experts with knowledge and brought the group to Syntagma Square in front of the Greek parliament, which we presented as the iconic stage of crisis in Athens. We introduced the group to our scenographic perspective of observing and analysing public space, and started to explore the square collectively, paying close attention to the interaction of bodies, objects, and the environment. Participants were invited to document their observations with pictures, sketches, notes, and sound recordings that were incorporated into the museum exhibition space. We discussed how in particular the scenography of the square might have supported previous scenes of crisis and how it could produce future ones. In these discussions the participants, as we had anticipated and hoped, pointed out to us that according to them Syntagma Square was not the real stage of crisis and we had brought them to the wrong place. They believed other places in Athens could serve as better examples of how the crisis (had) manifested itself in the city.

We presented ourselves as cultural pilgrims, travelling to Athens ‘to get infected by real engagement and revolt’, alluding to the increasing tendency of West-European artists and curators to go to Athens. Athens, where it supposedly is all happening, and where, because of the crisis and lack of funding, the arts [that is at least often the assumption] dare to be critical, resistant, non-institutional, and engaged. Athens, where you can feel that art is still alive and something is somehow at stake. We played with the [misplaced] romantic appeal of a crisis that is not ours; an appeal we admittedly also felt ourselves.

On the second day, we switched the roles drastically. We invited the participants to be the experts and to guide us in small groups to alternative locations of crisis in the city. This resulted in four walks through the city, taking us into different directions. I will briefly describe three of these walks. One group brought us to one of the many covered shopping arcades that are nestled in the historical buildings in the city centre. Traditionally, this particular arcade was filled with many independent little bookshops, a true Walhalla for Athenian book lovers and a hidden centre of intellectual life; but since the economic crisis one by one the shops had been forced to shut down, leaving the shops vacated and turning the alley into a ghostly area. Another group took us to one of the university campuses and presented it to us as the control room of many political demonstrations and protests. The walls of the campus were completely covered with political slogans and images. Being a student in Athens, the group explained, almost automatically implies being politically engaged and active, and students play a crucial role in the organization of all kinds of protest. A third group took us on what they called ‘a bloody tour of deathly violence’. They respectively guided us to the anarchistic district Exarcheia, where in December 2008 Alexandros Grigoropoulous, a 15-year-old Greek student was killed by two police officers, resulting in large protests and demonstrations, which escalated to widespread rioting, and to Stadiou Street, the main street used for protests and demonstrations, where in May 2010 three bank employees were killed as protesters set fire to the Marfin Bank (located on that street) during a general strike over planned austerity measures. The often very intimate and personal stories the participants told us on these walks were stories full of anger, frustration, pain, and loss. We realized we knew nothing of crisis.

On the third day, we tried to challenge the participants to let go of the position of personally involved insider and to try for a moment not to look at these spaces as bearers of (tragic) histories, but as a particular form of scenography. We introduced a more elaborate conceptual framework with which to analyse these locations, using the traditional spatial distinction between stage, backstage, wings, and auditorium as our starting point. Collectively we defined particular (energetic) qualities and characteristics for each of these aspects of theatre space. These characteristics, and the qualities associated with them, were meant to function as a legend, enabling the participants to map and explore the spaces they had selected from this particular spatial perspective, and to see where stage, backstage, wings, and auditorium could be located in public space, where the boundaries between them could be found, and how their relations were organized.13

Marking of the route during Between Realities #Athene, 2016. Photographer Moniek Oerbekke.

Being sent back into the city, this time not as deeply involved local citizens but as scenographic explorers who try to map and document a space, had an interesting impact on many of the participants, even though many struggled with applying the conceptual framework to the actual space. The shift of frame prompted at least some of the groups to look at their selected stages of crisis in a new way. For example, the group that was investigating the empty shopping arcade started to address the notion of an empty stage as not necessarily a negative value. Instead of looking at the space merely as a depressive symptom of decline and economic crisis, they tried to imagine the shopping arcade as a performance environment, literally an empty stage where something new could happen. In their further documentation of the space they now started to focus on the performative potential of the space, imagining what was there to be seen for a potential audience, thinking about how an audience might be positioned in and guided through this space in order to see the space perform. And although this did not change the material manifestation of the space as such, nor did it solve the problem of vacated shops, it did change the disposition of the participants towards the space, who started to see and understand that the space could be seen in a different, less negative, light.

In the group that had focused on sites of violence, something different happened. Although the framework – stage, backstage, wings, auditorium – was not productive for them in revisiting the locations and they soon decided to let go of it, they did feel triggered to try to look at these locations more from the perspective of space itself, instead of from the more personal, emotional, and historical point of view. Looking back at their documentation of the previous day, they noticed they felt most attracted to some close-up images they had made. Somewhat intuitively they realized that these images helped them to get rid of what one of the participants called ‘the burden of history’. They also liked the abstract aesthetics of these close-up images and how it reduced the space to line, form, colour, and material. Therefore, they decided to continue using the close-up as a strategy to map their spaces. They attempted to transform the space into an abstract image beyond concrete geographical and historical recognition, and to show its inherent beauty beyond the blood that had been shed in it.

Finally, on the fourth and the fifth day we asked the groups to create an alternative city tour for local citizens and tourists, based on their new perspective on the spaces they had explored. Each group physically marked their tour in the city with stickers and created a small guide with image, text, and instructions for potential audiences of the tour. The guide could be printed on demand in the exhibition room by the visitors. The aim of the alternative city guides was to share these new perspectives on locations in the city with a wider public and to create a kind of meaningful ‘afterlife’ for our research. Unfortunately, as far as we know, no visitor printed a guide and went on a tour–for that matter, the city guides died a quiet death. In a way, so did the exhibition itself once we left Athens and were no longer present in the museum to explain our research and its development to occasional visitors. The main problem, it seemed, and we had struggled with this before in previous similar projects, was the illegibility of the project for those who did not directly participate in it. This raises the question of whether the project has a value and impact that stretches beyond the event itself and the personal experiences of its direct participants. Related to this is the question of whether it is a problem when the ‘meaning’ of an event resides in these personal, but shared, experiences and if it is relevant or not to try to communicate these with others. We, as Platform-Scenography, are constantly struggling with these questions and haven’t come to a definite answer.

In spite of these difficulties, what did make this research event valuable, as far as I am concerned, is how it fostered the possibility of reimagining public space. By radically reframing the spaces they mapped, the participants imagined these real, existing spaces as something else or more than stages of and for crisis. Re-imagination, in this respect, also turned out to be an act of re-appropriation; it entailed reclaiming public space from the limiting and paralysing narrative of crisis and quite literally suggesting a different perspective from which to look at the space, which seemed to give some participants at least a sense of potential agency. In the last part of this article I will analyse in a more systematic way how this effect was achieved. What strategies can we distinguish that enabled this effect? In what way are these strategies scenographic? For this, I will use the previously discussed core concepts of expanded scenography as my framework: relationality, affectivity, materiality, temporality, and potentiality.

Scenographic strategies for reimagining public space

To look at familiar spaces in a new way demands looking beyond what we have come to believe is there. In order to see and experience what else is there, we need, to a certain extent, to undo our experience and knowledge. With this research event, P-S deliberately played with the notion of knowing Athens. Different kinds of knowledge were addressed. First, mediatized knowledge: knowing the city through its representations in the media. The clip with a one-dimensional depiction of Athens as a city in crisis with which the project started represented this type of knowledge. Second, personal and situated knowledge: knowing the city because you live and work there, because memories and experiences have been formed there. This knowledge was embodied by every participant. The event was designed in such a way that it could facilitate the destabilization of prior knowledge. By inviting the participants to guide us through the city, they were able to undo our one-dimensional, Western-European, quasi-romantic understanding of the city as we had presented it in our video and on the first day of the event, showing us new stages and new perspectives. But also, the situated knowledge of our participants was undone, as the project challenged them to let go of their personal knowledge of the city and to engage with these familiar places in a different way and from a different perspective. It was very interesting to see how at a certain point in the process the dominant frame of understanding Athens as a city of crisis, a frame that not only the media, or we as Platform-Scenography, but also the participants with their personal stories had helped maintaining, was deliberately overthrown by the group to make room for different understandings and imaginations. How could this happen?

If we indeed approach scenography as a mode of spatial encounter (relationality), the question is how Between Realities created the spatial conditions in which the participants could engage with the city in such a way that a new experience of that city became possible. Or, to use once more Groot Nibbelink’s words, how did the scenography of the event create a spatial scenario for the participants to act in the city and to produce new meanings? What procedures were put in place? I suggest the following three, closely related, strategies played a crucial role: the multiplication of the stage, the repositioning of the participant, and the organization of research as an event.

Looking back at their documentation of the previous day, they noticed they felt most attracted to some close-up images they had made. Somewhat intuitively they realized that these images helped them to get rid of what one of the participants called ‘the burden of history’. They also liked the abstract aesthetics of these close-up images and how it reduced the space to line, form, colour, and material. Therefore, they decided to continue using the close-up as a strategy to map their spaces. They attempted to transform the space into an abstract image beyond concrete geographical and historical recognition, and to show its inherent beauty beyond the blood that had been shed in it.

Multiplication of the stage points to the fact that we made the space we explored explode from one central stage of crisis, Syntagma Square, into a series of stages scattered around the city. Concretely, we started collectively investigating one specific place that we had predetermined as the iconic stage of crisis, only to use it as a springboard to challenge the participants to locate and map other stages of crisis elsewhere, based on their knowledge, experience, and personal interests, and to invite them to present and share these locations to and with others. Their reactions, responses to, and actions in the spaces were considered integral to the research, acknowledging the presence of the participants as a material in itself (materiality). The scenography of the event was focused on creating the conditions to be open to such responses, to accommodate them, and to be affected by them (affectivity).

Repositioning the participant is closely related to the multiplication of the stage as it pertains to the constantly changing positions of the participants in and between the spaces under investigation (relationality). This mobility not only entailed going in and out the museum and into the city every day, or going from one particular stage of crisis in the city to another, but also revisiting the same locations over the course of days. Accompanying this physical mobility was what I would like to call a mental mobility. Throughout the event participants were confronted with shifting roles and frames. We addressed them both as pupil and expert, personally involved citizen and scenographic researcher. We provoked them with simplifications about their city and challenged them to show us the real Athens. We invited them to share their personal stories about the places they took us to and we asked them to observe these spaces from a conceptual framework. Both these spatial and mental shifts asked for a constant renegotiation with the actual spaces and situation on the part of the participants. Important to stress is that, because the participants were constantly positioned in the spaces they had to engage with, these negotiations were not merely theoretical or conceptual, but played out on an embodied and affective level, allowing the participants not only to discuss, but also to experience the complexity, multiplicity, and transformability of space (affectivity). Both the multiplication of the stage and the repositioning of the participant entailed a form of destabilization that undermined the idea of a stable situation, stable space, or stable perspective. I believe this was a crucial and necessary condition to enable participants to shift their perspective on a familiar space towards a new experience and imagination of that space (relationality).

Another important strategy, closely related to the aforementioned spatial strategies, is the particular temporal design of Between Realities #Athens which foregrounded the processual nature of research. To decide for an event that would last five days was to allow for focusing on different perspectives on different days, for clashes to occur between those perspectives, for questions to be raised and to be left dangling in the air for the moment, for associations to be dissolved or built over time, experiences to sink in and, maybe most importantly, for awareness to grow organically. P-S calls its project a live action research event for a reason. Approaching research as event means research is seen as something that happens and is created in the moment. We, deliberately and consciously, created space for the gradual and organic accumulation of observations, associations, understanding, and meaning in our project (affectivity). The organizing principle for this process of accumulation, as indicated before, was friction. We tried to organise constant radical shifts. I believe that confronting participants with different spaces, different roles, and different perspectives from day to day had a profound impact on the participants and on how the event unfolded. By curating Between Realities #Athens as an event we invited what Henk Borgdorff with respect to artistic research terms ‘unfinished thinking’.14 No formal knowledge, but an articulation of the pre-reflective and non-conceptual, a thinking in, through, and with space.

One of the consequences of these constant shifts was also that participants often felt confused, not sure what we expected from them or what direction we were heading towards, which, for some, had a negative impact on their motivation to participate. Some participants left the project early. For us the most important was to be transparent to the participants about what we were doing and to create enough space for them to discuss the process and these uncertainties.

Between Realities #Athens was never meant to tell how spaces can or should be reimagined. Imagination is not something that can be forced. As such, the project did not aim for the design of concrete new scenarios for the city, nor was it a workshop for urban activism. In that respect, we could say that the concrete impact of this project was limited. Rather, this project, on a much more generic level, was about practicing a different kind of spatial sensitivity that might help us grasp the performative and therefore transformative nature of space; a sensitivity and awareness we believe is necessary for any kind of actual, concrete change in the city to occur. Using different strategies of destabilisation, we tried to facilitate an embodied, localized, and personalized spatial awareness of the seemingly simple, but actually profound, fact that spaces can be reimagined. We tried to create the conditions in which the simultaneous presence of actual and virtual spaces might be experienced. We fostered possible transitions from the real to the imagined. When on the third day one group, while mapping and observing their spaces, saw the potential of the empty stage in the shopping arcade, and another group found beauty in a site of horror through the close-up image, this was no formal knowledge about the potentiality of space nor a concrete idea on how to reshape these spaces, but an emerging awareness of how real and imagined spaces co-exist, how you can see the (abstract) potential of these spaces shine right through their material presences.

This reminds me of how James Corner, in the context of cartography, defines performative mapping; a definition that, I believe, also aptly describes our scenographic approach towards mapping. Mapping, according to Corner, is an act of ‘uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds’.15 Scenographic mapping operates between actual and virtual spaces, between what is there and what can be imagined. It allows participants, to use Corner’s words, to un-fold potential: ‘it re-makes territory over and over again, each time with new and diverse consequences’.16

Re-imagination disclaimer: Or how to reclaim imagination

In the light of the global challenges we face, such as climate change, migration, overpopulation, urbanization, polarization, and economic crises, arts and design are increasingly called upon to come up with solutions and to invest their time and expertise in innovative problem solving. More and more often we see examples of how artists and designers are invited by politicians, policy makers, and corporations to join forces in what has become a trendy slogan: re-imagining our future. In this context artists and designers are often conceived of as the bearers of imagination; the ones who dare to think out-of-the box, who are able to come up with radical alternatives, to envision different futures. Increasingly we witness how outside the arts imagination has come to be understood as a functional tool for actual problem solving and how, accordingly, art and design are expected to prove its social value by using their imagination for real solutions to real problems. In this respect, fiction and the real have become entangled in a rather problematic way. I truly believe that imagination does allow for a radical re-thinking and re-imagination of how we organize our lives, our relationships with others, and the world and environment we live in. However, we should never render imagination instrumental and reduce it to a tool, a means to a concrete, specific end, because that is precisely when imagination will lose its force.


Sigrid Merx

is an Assistant Professor in Theatre Studies at Utrecht University. She is co-organizer of the research group [urban interfaces] and one of the core members of Platform-Scenography.



  1. http://www.platform-scenography.nl
  2. McKinney, Joslin & Scott Palmer, eds. Scenography Expanded. An introduction to contemporary performance design. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2016, p. 1.
  3. Lotker, Sodja & Richard Gough. “On Scenography: Editorial.” Performance Research, vol. 18, nr. 3, 2013, p. 3.
  4. Lotker & Gough, p. 3.
  5. McKinney & Palmer, p. 2.
  6. McKinney & Palmer, pp. 8-10.
  7. McKinney & Palmer, pp. 10-12.
  8. The notion of the spectator ‘entering into composition’ with space is derived from Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink’s theory on nomadic theatre as laid out in her doctorate Nomadic Theatre. Staging Movement and Mobility in Contemporary Performance (2015). Groot Nibbelink in turn was inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of becoming and their notion of ‘aparallel evolutions’, encounters between two heterogeneous elements which in A Thousand Plateaus (2004) they qualify as processes of ‘entering into composition’ with the other. (p.289)
  9. McKinney & Palmer, pp. 12-13.
  10. Groot Nibbelink, Liesbeth. “How does scenography think?” [working title
  11. Groot Nibbelink, forthcoming.
  12. ‘To get infected by real engagement and revolt’ was part of the slogan on our poster and was also used in our promo video.
  13. The logic of stage, backstage, wings and auditorium was also used for the spatial lay-out and design of the exhibition space, allowing for the systematic categorization and exhibition of the research findings.
  14. Borgdorff, Henk. “The production of knowledge in artistic research.” The Routledge Companion to research in the arts, eds. H. Karlsson & M. Biggs, Routledge, 2011, p. 44.
  15. Corner, James. “The agency of mapping: speculation, critique and invention.” Mappings, ed. D. Cosgrove, Reaktion Books, 1999, p. 213.
  16. Corner, p. 213.