Disegno #21

Mediated Meaning


15 May 2019

Arriving on the fifth floor of the Pera Museum in Istanbul, visitors last autumn would have been confronted by an immaculate white room. Here, brightly coloured sand was arranged in precise, triangular piles, displayed in neat rows that led the eye to the sweeping views of the city outside. This pristine curation was disrupted in scheduled interactions, with participants coming together to unmake and remake two piles of sand.

The project was the work of Berlin-based designer Judith Seng, whose participation in A School of Schools, the fourth Istanbul Design Biennial, resulted in the seventh iteration of her ongoing Acting Things series. The series looks at production processes as if they were dances, plays or rituals. Acting Things VII: School of Fluid Measures questions values through physical interactions around coloured sand. The patterns that emerge reveal the fluidity of ingrained systems of trust, while the colours represent values as resources to debate, distribute and fuse into new forms.

For these interactions, two participants each chose a pile of sand and an associated value – freedom, individuality, responsibility, to name just a few – before engaging in a negotiation in which no words were spoken, but instead sand was parted, thrown, spread and piled up. The colours would mix and mounds would be remade, creating new hues and new values. The materiality and the heft of the sand – each pile weighed about 70kg – invited those interacting with it to use a set of simple tools that Seng developed specifically for the installation: stark geometrical receptacles that acted as extensions of the body and made it easier to gather, collect or spread the sand on the white floor.

During the six weeks of the biennial, 18 measuring sessions were conducted. All the negotiations were documented in video, images and annotations, and subsequently displayed in the space as an emerging notation system for the fluid making and mediation of meanings. Following the final negotiation, a group of thinkers from different disciplines came together in the installation space to consider the possibilities opened up by the project.

Viktor Bedö Street-game designer, philosopher and researcher at Critical Media Lab Basel
Ayse Draz Dramaturg, performer and co-founder of the Hemhâl Theatre, Istanbul
Jana Scholze Design curator and associate professor at the Kingston School of Art
Judith Seng Designer and guest professor in design at HDK, University of Gothenburg
Diane Sunar Emeritus professor in the department of psychology at Istanbul Bilgi University
Vera Sacchetti (moderator) Associate curator of the fourth Istanbul Design Biennial


Vera Sacchetti A number of the participants in this conversation took part in a negotiation today – from your different disciplinary backgrounds, what did you experience and observe?

Viktor Bedö By training, I’m a philosopher with a focus on embodied and visual knowledge, as well as urban mapping. The most striking aspect today was that during the negotiation I was convinced my partner and I were engaged in a genuine dialogue. This was validated after the negotiation session, as we had the same memories of the process. We manipulated sand piles representing responsibility and freedom, and one of the biggest learning points from the session was how freedom benefits from responsibility. Responsibility opens up and defines fields such that freedom can then come in. In our negotiation, we represented freedom with yellow sand, with responsibility represented by lines and dots that served as gates or walls. I think we were initially both biased towards trying to introduce more freedom into the system, but we realised that responsibility is an enabler and not just a blocker.

Ayse Draz I come from the performing arts, where I work as a performer and director. Primarily, I thought of my experience, which was negotiating collectivity and standardisation, in terms of the material. It’s very therapeutic to come and play with sand. Maybe it’s because I tend to think dramatically, but I thought a lot about what the other person was going to do to trigger my action. At some moments, I even found myself thinking about the end of our story – was standardisation going to take over, or was collectivity going to find a way to survive?

Jana Scholze I negotiated with Viktor and it was very important to the experience that we didn’t know each other beforehand. I didn’t really think about what Viktor might do, but I was very surprised that we seemed to think in a similar way – very often I saw my movements complemented or had a sense that he was doing what I would have done in his position. We weren’t throwing sand at each other, whereas at the start I had thought that we might fight because freedom and responsibility are very tricky values to negotiate.

Diane Sunar My background is in social psychology and what I observed in the negotiations was social interaction. I don’t think that the experience you’ve described is all that unique in the dialogue that it generates. If you’re not using language, then you use some other means to communicate and, actually, there is language in this project, because the colours are defined as representing certain concepts. What Ayse described in terms of thinking ahead – what are the effects of my actions going to be and how might the other person respond – is something we do all the time every day. It’s how we carry on conversations and relationships. What this project does is physicalise that interaction and take it out of the verbal realm. But human nature is such that we do that no matter the medium.

Judith Seng I think this is a really good question to discuss – does this act of physicalising communication add something to what we are doing? My speculation was that materialising communication and creating physical interaction between two people might actually influence the dialogue and understanding. When I took part, I just expressed something that I felt represented responsibility. I wasn’t thinking about an overview but rather just giving a spatial expression to responsibility, creating a reality which my negotiation partner could react to. That reality changed over the course of the negotiation, however, so my perspective and role were also constantly changing. My first impulse, for example, was that responsibility would function as a cage around freedom, but through the working process I figured out that it has to be something rather more like a skeleton. Maybe I could have reached that conclusion through thought or discussion as well, but instead I experienced it. That seems like a different way of learning or understanding. My broader Acting Things project started with the idea of looking at daily situations as if they were choreography. I wanted to make these situations understandable as a work of design – a work that has been shaped, has a form and way of being performed that has developed for certain reasons. Coming from design, we are very much used to working with materials, but we are not so familiar with working with processes. So the research question was whether we could enlarge design practice and make social processes more tangible.

Diane One of the achievements of social psychology over the last 50 years has been an investigation of values, which has been carried out across practically all major nations and cultures. It’s as simple as asking people what they agree with in terms of statements about values. If you boil all the answers down, you come up with around 12 values, which vary in their dispersion across cultures. Some people in all cultures agree with some of these values, but cultures tend to vary in their average amount of agreement. You can then boil things down further, until you really only have two categories. So basic human values can be summarised in that way, but a lot of what this project seems to be saying is not to lump these things together – let’s split them apart and see what the unique characteristics of each of these values may be.

Judith When I was invited to develop a work for the fourth Istanbul Design Biennial, I wanted to connect to the context of the city. I became interested in a collection of Ottoman weights and measures here at the Pera Museum, which contains an early form of money. This particular object is a kind of clay plate, onto which has been etched the narration of a transaction. So, something like, “I gave this person this much grain on this date and this person will give it back to me on this date.” What I liked is that the plate is an object and isdistributable, but it is still a situation that’s being described. As I was doing deeper research, I realised that I wanted to try and tackle situations that are more complex and annotate them in such a way that they also might become distributable. Close to Paris, for instance, is the Bureau international des poids et mesures, which is an intergovernmental organisation devoted to maintaining and caring for standards of measure – such as time, the metre, the kilogram and so on. Within that organisation, there has been a lot of effort to keep very mobile physics in a very stable state – such as specific physical objects that are, for instance, the standard of a kilogram – which equals a cubic litre of water at freezing point. In order to create standards, we have to find these very moments and then fix them. These standards are quite artificial and I wanted to see if there was a way of describing a more fluid, dynamic, relational, or complex value that is still exchangeable and comparable. Can you create a pattern that can be read, repeated, distributed or compared?

Ayse In the performing arts you tackle all sorts of human values, but you always need some sort of opposition to keep things moving forward. Perhaps that’s the case with human interaction too – we want to get something, but there is always some sort of hindrance. That makes me wonder what this performance would have been like if we had tried it with two similar or non-oppositional values. In the performing arts you perform for others, but here in the museum I had to remind myself that I had no such responsibilities. Maybe that’s why I found it so therapeutic – it creates a reality of its own.

Viktor There’s a process of making things explicit in these negotiations through which a kind of dialogue might emerge. The negotiation is not abstract or formalised enough to be called a language yet, but if a successful dialogue has already happened, then there is the potential for a language. But why does it work as a dialogue before we use language? My hypothesis is that Jana and I engaged so successfully because we share similar experiences. Building on theories of embodied knowledge, you can say that our concepts derive from our experiences of interacting with the world. Knowing something would mean that we are able to reactivate these experiences mentally or materially in more or less abstract ways – and these manifestations display a kind of similarity with our experiences. Sharing similar life experiences with Jana might have been the enabler of our dialogue in which our conceptualisation of freedom and responsibility were accessible – because similar – even though they were manifested in the size and shape of piles of sand. Sand might not work for negotiating everything, but it seemed to work very well in the case freedom and responsibility in the context of movement and personal relationships. Perhaps the first negotiations are like early sketches. If we did them over and over again, patterns might emerge with recognisable symbolism or more elaborate meanings. The more we abstract these patterns, the more language-like the negotiation process becomes.

Diane Listening to you, I was reminded that it’s not just civilisations that start from some place: individual knowledge also starts from what we call the sensory motor. In other words, our first knowledge is of the things we see, feel, taste, push and pull, drop, and so on. Experience of objects and the body work together to tell us what’s what. To a certain extent, meaning itself resides in these very primitive experiences. We’re all fully lingual, educated adults here, but we were babies also and we never lose the fundamentals of that early experience – they just get covered over and elaborated upon. I would say the same thing about your remark about the establishment of patterns, because interaction is another way we give meaning to the world. I’m sure that over the course of a few years you’ll see a lot of different sets of negotiation partners, some of whom will be oppositional while others will try to collaborate. If you randomly do something oppositional and then something cooperative, it doesn’t add up. You need to begin to trust the other person, or at least be able to predict the other person, and that gives you a pattern and meaning.

Jana I am sceptical about the notion of language, however, because I feel this process actually allowed me to do something where language is very restricting because of the limitation of the words that we have. If I did it again there would be a very different feeling, a different context and probably a different partner. The moment would be very different in terms of thinking about these concepts. I would be extremely interested to see whether similar shapes would arise – at the moment, I doubt this very much. I think this mode of negotiation permits you an expression that language doesn’t necessarily allow. With the relationship between design work and curation, very often we feel we are translating something into space, which is itself a form of negotiation. You have the project that a designer has brought you and the context it is going into. There is a negotiation between respecting the project and shaping it to fit the context – the better you negotiate and the better your relationship, the more the designer allows you to shape their work.

Judith A lot of people reacted to the word “negotiation” as if I were talking about winning or some sort of definite agreement. That would have been very boring, because if one value were to win, there would be nothing interesting happening within these performances and their patterns – you’re not working towards something definite but working out the relations and dynamics. What you say about curating is giving a certain structure and framework, in which the freedom of the work can develop, so that’s also not about winning – it’s more like a dance and trying to find a good dynamic between these roles. I think there are extremes in how people have manipulated the sand. One side is where the performance becomes illustration – people are tracing flowers in the sand, for example. That’s something I have tried to avoid, because this is intended as a dialogue – it’s not about putting out a preconceived idea or a picture of how something is, but rather about seeing something emerge through one person moving and the other adding something in response. The picture cannot be predicted from the beginning. And on the other hand there have been negotiations that are not about creating a pattern at all – it’s just a trace of some form of interaction. In one negotiation, for instance, one person only made smooth gestures like brushing, whereas the other was always constructing – using tools to make sharp lines and build things up. In the beginning, they were kind of erasing each other with their attitudes, but then they started layering it, which became quite an interesting process. We have been filming all of these sessions and we’re trying to understand what has happened in them – we always photograph the patterns that result from a negotiation before they are mixed to form a new colour and made into equal piles that become a resource for a new negotiation. We’re also asking all the participants to reflect on their negotiation process in the form of a map key – to get a hint of the inside perspective of the negotiation process and see if that helps to read the pattern.

Ayse What if we used your records from these negotiation in more of a performing-arts setting? I’m curious: if we used these video recordings and images, and whatever the negotiators noted as their key concepts, could we make something out of them that’s repeatable and more like a performance? You would then have a notation that is provided to performers as a choreography to repeat. They wouldn’t be able to make the decisions by themselves, as is happening here, but would rather be able to use these initial experiences as a score.

Jana That would create something very different, because at present it’s such an individual negotiation. I feel repetition would only be interesting if, through that repetition, you could come to understand someone else’s feelings. If you could do that, then you might employ it as a kind of alternative to argumentation – you’d have a different kind of language through which to start negotiating and see other possibilities. It might make for a more peaceful discussion.

Ayse You would, however, need to emphasise the original negotiators in order to properly repeat their score, which assumes some knowledge. But you would only really know their bodily actions – you wouldn’t know what they were thinking as they moved. So what in that case would be the artistic interpretation by the performers?

Diane It seems that the problem is actually a paradox. How do you measure something that can’t be measured? You said earlier that you need tension to create anything interesting – perhaps the tension here is between the desire for something absolute and the understanding that everything is continuously changing. In drama you have a script which is permanent, but then the actor can vary in their delivery of it – in other words, there is always going to be variation around the standard. I think that’s our human paradox – we all think we want perfection and permanence, but everything is conditional and temporary. It’s subject to all the variations that human interaction and ageing and time bring to things.

Viktor Standards are extremes, as they can be seen as crystallised forms of past negotiations. Most of our negotiations happen beyond what we can make explicit. Maybe being aided by fluid measurements is actually what we need most.

Jana It’s a nice reminder of the fragility of our system – we have measuring systems, but these are totally liquid and artificial. In universities nowadays, everything is measured and all discussion becomes really complicated the minute you realise that we’re actually dealing with people who don’t behave as the system might want them to.

Diane But there is no way to deal with those people without a system – that’s where the tension lies.

Jana There needs to be measurement, but there needs to be a recognition of fluidity too. Measurement is a fiction that helps us to understand what we are doing and to negotiate situations. But it also leaves us the freedom to say that things can be different. We will never run out of varieties.

Diane Variety is the reality; measure is the fiction.