by amodahl ~ October 25th, 2013. Originally published in UBC Okanagan Liquids (Linguists) group blog
My linguistic interest eeks over into all things art. Lately I’ve been exploring Edward T. Hall’s notion of “proxemics” in my own artwork and I’ve been searching for how it might manifest in other artist’s work. Hall’s proxemics gives theoretical form to rules of space use between people and between people and the built environment.
For my MFA exhibit, I created an installation of printed layers of mylar, hung for visitors to look at from a distance, walk between and stand within. In short, I played on Hall’s simple measures of distance between speakers, what meaning distance might convey, and how this might differ by culture, context and relationship.
Recently, while searching the web, I came across a photography exhibit simply titled “Proxemics,” a retrospective of work by Virgile Simon Bertrand. The gallery introduction, written by curator Davina Lee, quickly summarizes Hall’s theory making this direct connection to Bertrand’s work: “Bertrand’s portraits and architectural photographs show how differently people behave within these invisible zones.” From what I could see, the exhibition explored proxemics in both form and content.
Since the exhibit was taking place in Hong Kong, my viewing (and physical distance) from the large scale images was limited by the little screen on my laptop; yet, the exhibition images reveal the exhibit connecting to proxemics in more than just the content of the work. The photographs are mounted on hanging walls that form large geometric shapes occupying and bisecting the seemingly large exhibition space. Thus, the walls themselves interrupt the movement of the audience. Visitors are confronted by walls of photos that they must move between, along and around. The walls seem to emphasize structure (in the form of architecture) as a mediator in communication.
When exploring distance and physical space as a factor in culture and communication, Hall also used the camera. He made a photo documentation of people in the U.S. in the 1960s doing common, everyday things such as standing in line or waiting at a bus stop (1996, The Hidden Dimension). Hall’s photos are taken at a comfortable distance, where the photographer would not be noticed by his subjects. Bertrand’s photos bring together more distant, almost panoramic views of empty interior spaces with close up shots of people passing or interacting in public spaces. The combination of broad and close, empty and full, moves the viewer in and out and across intimate, personal, social and public, Hall’s four distinct zones.
But as I write and look back at the exhibition, I become increasingly aware of my laptop and the limitations it is setting on my experience of this work. I want to step into the space to experience it physically; I want to feel the connection between proxemics and the photos and the exhibition form. I wonder if Hall were researching today, would he add a zone to distinguish and define the distance between me and you interacting through this computer screen?
– Amy Modahl, MFA, recent UBC graduate and Liquids group member