by Claire Malaika Tunnacliffe
PhD student, Bartlett School of Architecture, London UK
With billions of people on the planet, the majority of us now live in vibrant, urban centres. And every single one of us will experience our city it in a different way. There may be similarities in how we choose to move – walking, running, bus, underground, train, cycling - each of these motions creating a rhythm, but the pace at which we move, the frustrations we will encounter and how we will react to these, the people we will meet, the detours to our local shops we will make, the things we will buy, will be individually ours. Our daily flows are uniquely ours, and the constant is our mind, our internal dialogue.
Anonymous, Berlin, February 2016
Through these flows we move within a backdrop of street messages, a constant beckoning from the sidelines of our lives, occupying almost every inch of these surfaces, a cacophony of adverts to make us more attractive, more successful, to eat cleaner, leaner and meaner, to own the latest gadgets and cars, what books to read and what films to see. It can often feel, like we live in an age of distraction. These encounters foster few opportunities to pause, to be self aware and check in with ourselves, but rather create a more critical voice – why aren’t we more of something or other or everything?
Among these, there are the tags, the graffiti and street art. Using stickers, paste-ups, posters, sharpies, pens and spray cans, these straddle an illegal and legal divide. Orchestrated by individuals and communities alike, their intention and agency varies, their messages political, environmental, economic or social, individualistic or revolutionary. These moments act as retorts, a response and a confrontation. But they also forge lines of connectivity, of empathy and of dialogue. These creative sites, both surfaces that have legal permission to be painted on as those that are illegally appropriated hold an important value in our current societies – they provide a valuable opportunity to understand how a place feels.
Anonymous, Brick Lane, London, April 2015
It is in the existences of spaces which allow for expression and vulnerability that we begin to create emotional and compassionate spaces. These spaces, from the large blank wall to the corner of a bus stop, pose questions, left to be answered or simply to be witnessed. From the large murals created by artists, to the scribbling of a name, ‘i woz ere’, or a swear word, these are acts of creative place making – born out of a desire to leave a trace and occupy space. These create social interstices, pauses in our everyday routine that open up lines of connectivity.
It is in the opportunity to be allowed to state how a person feels, through the cathartic process of letting it go in a space, for it to be empathically received by others. It is in the large murals, which foster community engagement and wellbeing. It is in the opportunities to be creative, and to pause in the humdrum routine of everyday life.
Candy Chang, Regents Canal, London July 2014
Having these lines of connectivity means breaking a long standing taboo around discussing how we actually feel. When we embed this into the very fabric of our urban environment, the very fabric which is all too often a cause of our mental health issues, we can begin to see a catalyst for real change – for raised awareness and understanding, and in bridging the gap between people. Art is a powerful tool for transformation, and when its messages are taken into the streets, into the environment in which our daily lives play out, art becomes an opportunity to interact and create new lines of understanding. By grabbing a spray can, a pen, or a paint brush, we open a space for self-expression and vulnerability, but also for a sense of place and belonging, to be seen and heard. When we begin fostering these dialogues on mental health, we allow for the opportunity to heal and grow together. In this way, we move away from talking about mental health as a purely individual experience to recognise that it is also a collective experience.
Anonymous, Shoreditch, July 2015
I am fascinated by the space in between these two spaces, one which is not defined as illegal or legal but just a free flowing space, open, available. Does it really exist? The danger of having to define everything as an either/or; right or wrong. And what if things just were? There is something to be said about the importance of uncontrolled zones of self-expression in public, in being able to grab, pen, spray can or chalk and just express. With an increased number of mental health services shutting down in London, and accessibility becoming increasingly difficult and expensive, I believe that a part of this, however big or small, is creating opportunities for people to be seen, heard and witnessed. I have far more questions than answers at this stage of my research, but I believe that it is in both designing for spaces in as much leaving the opportunity for these spaces to emerge naturally, in tune with how a place feels and flows. It is a combination of an uncontrolled, free space of expression alongside opportunities to express more clearly in public spaces – needs, desires, worries, pain, that contribute to the wellbeing of our communities and our urban spaces.
About the Author
Sanity and Urbanity: