THE PERFORMATIVE
EXPERIMENT 

A Polylogue to Practice the Malleability of
an Aesthetic and Spatial Sense of Self




ABSTRACT:


This thesis contends that basic architectural design training requires malleable aesthetic and spatial sensibilities which in turn can cultivate a pliable and multiple sense of self. “A sense of self” here draws on William James’s and Ulric Neisser’s plural ways of conceiving and knowing oneself through self-knowledge, self-consciousness and self-agency, all of which combine to motivate our actions in the world. “Aesthetic”, borrows from Mark Johnson’s definition of constituting the patterns, images, feelings, qualities, and emotions by which meaning is possible for us in every aspect of our lives. “Spatial” captures the ways in which we situate and orient self in the world. How we are trained to perceive, apprehend, cogitate, examine, reflect, record, and practice these sensibilities guides how we  piece together our experiences in the world as a series of aesthetic and spatial fragments. I argue that 1. The cultivation of multiple and pliable attributes of self is prescient and relevant to fields beyond design. 2. The site of cultivation lies beyond the mind. I build a case that these two contentions are picking up on recent waves in situated, distributed, and embodied cognition and posthuman discourse, that have each reclaimed the body, physical, digital and virtual environments, and the non-human respectively as extended sites of perception and cognition. Posthumanism here, in the terms of physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad, extends agency to the nonhuman by prefiguring neither human nor nonhuman in interactions.








__________________________________________

//BELOW ARE SOME DUSTINGS OF THE THESIS. IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER. 





EXPERIMENT #1

HOW DO WE MAKE MEANING OF VAGUE
SHAPES?


Sample image of shadow stimulus


a. Overview

An aesthetic and spatial sense of self fosters imagination. This experiment is motivated by the following questions : How do we graft interpretation and meaning-making onto stimulus and experience? How do we see shapes in things?  Describing vague shapes is one way to tap into the drivers of imagination — our various internal states including our attitudes, beliefs, emotions, motives, to which we may not have direct access. Further, it tracks the role of tracing in the perception of vague shapes. Does tracing allow one to slow down the perception process to see differently, or to notice more details? It gives the subject and the experimenter methodologically controlled, “phenomenologically enlightened” ways of understanding the importance of first person experience and how this reported experience can affect the experimental results, and experimental design. This experiment employs the shadow and its ability to abstract away material, texture, depth, color, pattern, and tap into deep seated preconceptions and assumptions about meaning-making from vague stimuli.









Both distributed cognition and posthumanism are engendering new aesthetic and spatial abilities that exemplify the multiplicity and malleability of self.  In order to productively instrumentalize their common findings, we need new methodologies and materials that escape individual disciplinary silos which proliferate canons and inhibit the creation of common ground. Design pedagogy has the ability to subsume the motivations of various fields in order to develop such methodologies. I embody cognitive science and posthuman discourse, in order to make visible their pursuits, knit together their underlying values, and frame their common calls as design problems. Through this, I develop a new methodology called Performative Experiment, that articulates the malleability of aesthetic and spatial sensibilities by estranging one from rote moves.  Like parkour for imagination, displacing the center of thought from the mind into the surroundings that are appropriated as an extension of self, performative experiments arrest the spatial and aesthetic aptitudes growing out of a malleable sense of self. I present the shadow and shaded silhouette as materials with which to engage these priming methodologies. In order to implement the case I’ve built, I present Hogarth’s Silhouettes as a proof of concept of a foundational experiment in design education. My claim is that it puts into play a malleability of aesthetic and spatial sense of self, which constitutes a new form of design thinking/doing, across disciplines.


Thesis Supervisor: Mark Goulthorpe (MIT)
Title: Associate Professor of Architecture Design

Readers: Terry Knight (MIT), Morana Alač (UC-San Diego)





























Various cognitive and neurocognitive studies have been conducted to show how we gain information about the world from 2D retinal images. We have the capacity to infer solidity and depth from the 2D retinal image, based on visual cues such as shading, perspective and occlusion. Additionally, as Richard Gregory has demonstrated, we carry in our minds “predictive hypotheses” of what we see in the world, that influences our perceptions. This top-down interaction of how we makes sense of visual stimulus clues us into aesthetic and spatial aspects of self. Since we employ shadows, which flatten depth, we can ask questions of how we perceive and make meaning of vagueness. Do we still infer depth in shadow?   Can the infinite in-betweenness of the umbra, penumbra and antumbra, and the fusion of flattened shadows make us infer objects that are not there? Scenes that are not real? In asking these questions, the Performative Experiment not only acknowledges the role of the human as the agent who perceives, but also the shadow image as an agent that influences perception. This intra-acting relationship between non-human stimulus and human perceiver, that generates a joint perceptual capacity, is central to why this is a posthuman Performative Experiment.

“I see a llama speaking to a camel.
  I see the Pope on a Pope mobile”















Participants in the meaning-making from vague shapes experiement



Sample pages from book documenting thesis project



EXPERIMENT #2 

HOGARTH’S SILHOUETTES ENVISIONING

DESIGNINGWITH RELATIONAL ENTITIES

RATHER THAN OBJECTS.



Isolating silhouettes from William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty. 1753.


Clip from animation. Percepts of Absence.
Akshita Sivakumar. 2016


Sample reel from animation. Percepts of Absence. 2016

PERFORMATIVE
EXPERIMENT

Shadow as Rogue Boundary Object 

 

Sometimes you just have to rely on the tweeting talents of other people to succintly explain the content of your talk better than you could. Here, I’ll rely on one by Ellie Irons (@eirons).












POSTAL
POETRY

2014 - 2017
Analog + digital artwork + poetry 
Limited prints
Artwork, poetry, narration: Akshita Sivakumar

A series of poetry that confronts the  postcolonial blindness of a formerly familar environment, to listen closer to the voices of the subaltern. Told in the voice of a tiny, traveling sun. Poems paired with original, digital and analog artwork.

Medium >> The printed postcard is explored as a means of starting polylogues -- of multiple voices speaking at the same time.
Personal poems from public observations, finding a new public distribution.
Intimate sending and receiving, mass scale of distribution.
Distributed postcards carrying disparate voices on their backs.





01
THERE | HERE

There

Yes.
Ok.
Good.
Great.
A vapid vocabulary.
An inessential pithy.
Ravenous oceans are reined back as they swirl
and through a weep hole just a drop drips
In tried brevity. In tired brevity.

Alleys call where the billions haven't yet crouched;
A blank wall beckons me to paint in words today-- come play!
“But look! These veins are but a map”, I say.
“I have it splayed-  Here a creek, there a bend”; neatly mapped out all the way to the end.
                                      To be encircled. To be framed.
And it’s leading me
Back there.


Here

We tug. We war.
In a love-hate fest of tanned impulses,
conflicting intentions and

disdainful winces,
amidst the warm stones to build and the stones to rest.  
 Once the noises have been silenced
and I’m cooling my crest-
       there--in the nether--I may see it differently.

But back in the scalding building yard where the granite monoliths have fossilized stories
seeping out their veins,
I stand wayward.

But a scurrying lizard hears you;
His changing skin mimics your yellow, now red, now quartzite grains.

He just gets your story-- 
Right here.

2014 05 10
INTERMITTENT CONTINUUM

Janus-faced, at the threshold of sleep and waking,
A color popped in my head - purple.
Aubergine, pearlescent, grape soda, a bishop’s velvet;
When the winds connected the dots to create streaks of stormy wetness,
they picked purple from the palette.


I rode on that color streak,
8000mi away in a second, panting up hills doing sprints.
A sunny burst of diamonds turns dark in the fountain;
Watched over by a bronze Louis on a horse he never rode,
something’s dunking my past in indigo.

If inertia was a colour, it would be purple,
Of rest, of motion- only a very fine line.
I scrub through magenta and violet;
Adjusting the reds and the blues,
to fill in shapes of a fading memory template.


It comes, it goes, in spurts of dusk,
Between blinks it collages various homes.
The bustle, the time lapse, I grab for the white within;
Colors stand out  when held against an additive nothing--
Revealing indigo blotches in an intermittent continuum.


2014 04 24
02


DIGITAL AESTHETIC & SPATIAL
SENSE OF SELF

Presentation (double blind, peer-reviewed)
AIGA Design Educator’s Conference. June 1-3, 2017
University Of Southern California, Los Angeles
Travel Grant : Dept. of Architecture, MIT

From the organizers:
[Converge: Disciplinarities and Digital Scholarship encourages design educators, design researchers, and designers to take advantage of opportunities in digital scholarship, learn how to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects, and find new intersections within their existing research trajectories. To redefine what it means to be a designer and a design researcher today, we ask: How can design converge with digital scholarship in more than a superficial way? How might aspects of digital scholarship impact design research? What are the key questions at the intersection of design and the humanities? ]


ABSTRACT:


This body of research contends that basic design training requires malleable aesthetic and spatial sensibilities, which in turn can cultivate a changing sense of self. “A sense of self” here draws on William James’s and Ulric Neisser’s plural conception that includes self-knowledge, sense of agency, meaning-making, ownership, and narrative continuity, which all combine to motivate our actions in the world. How we are trained to perceive, apprehend, cogitate, examine, reflect, record, and practice these sensibilities guides how we identify and piece together our experiences in the world as a series of aesthetic and spatial fragments. This construction and cultivation of malleable attributes of self is prescient and relevant to fields beyond design. The site of cultivation lies beyond the mind. I build a case that these contentions are picking up on recent waves in situated and embodied cognition, and posthuman discourse that have each reclaimed the body and the non-human respectively as extended sites of perception and cognition. Rather than working in disciplinary silos that engender the proliferation of canons and inhibit the creation of common ground, design can subsume their motivations in order to make the malleability of self operational by developing new methodologies and suggesting new materials. To achieve these two goals, I embody cognitive science and posthuman discourse, in order to make visible their pursuits, knit together their underlying values, and frame their common calls as design problems. Through this, I develop a new methodology called Performative Experiments that primes the malleability of aesthetic and spatial sensibilities by estranging one from canons and rote moves. Just as parkour engages the displaced center of mass from the human body into the surroundings that are appropriated as an extension of the body, so do performative experiments arrest the spatial and aesthetic aptitudes growing out of a malleable sense of self. I also build a case for the shadow and shadow silhouette as materials with which to engage these methodologies. By making absent inherent material, texture, volume, and depth, they are able to render equal human and non-human, and alienate known formal and spatial attributes of objects, bodies, and events. In order to enact the case I’ve built, I present Hogarth’s Silhouettes as a proof of concept of a foundational experiment in design education. My claim is that it puts into play a malleability of aesthetic and spatial sense of self, which constitutes a new form of design thinking/doing, across disciplines.


















ESSAY PUBLICATION: PLAT 6.0 Journal ABSENCE
Published by Rice University. Spring/Summer 2017
Editor-in-Chief: Melis Ugurlu
Managing Editor: Rachel Grady


Photons nosedive
Off fuzzy edges—
Into collective pools of absence.



Excerpt from the editors:
[...This issue of PLAT constructs a nuanced reading of our discipline, arguing that the constant historizations and theorizations of the ‘built’ may have left ‘absence’ undertheorized. Whether tired, bored of, or in an attempt to escape what is constantly there, the editors and contributors of this issue are seduced by absence. Absence is used as a tool to see the world extraordinarily and re-evaluate the “present.” ... The collection of work in this issue conveys the range of readings that arise from a word, arguing that, both semantically and derivatively, absence's meaning is manifold....]



ABSTRACT


This essay comes on the heels of the recent discontent with vision’s hegemony over other sense modalities. For the sighted, it is seldom opposed that vision is the predominant mode of perception. The greater critique, however, is of the “domination [...] of a visual paradigm in our cultural history”. This domination, as philosopher David Michael Levin notes, has shaped ethical, social, technological, and ontological structures through vision-driven illusion and allusion. Amidst this reasonable discontent, I pause to suggest that vision has not yet been exhausted in all its nuance, particularly in its attitude towards absence. Absence here includes percepts resulting from the absence of light, percepts being objects of perception.

I present shadows as one such “object of perception,” and provoke that the shadow is material, and the shadow is object. I curate two sets of pairings of shadows that appear across fiction and non-fiction, from myth to object detection algorithms. These pairings expose the shadow’s agility as it insists on being material, while assuming alterities, both as a percept of absence and an absence of perception.




100+ Laskey competition winning entry
with Stephen Kim
2011