Performative Experiments | SMArchS Thesis

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 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 the 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 the cultivation of multiple and changeable attributes of the self is prescient and relevant to fields beyond design, and second that the site of cultivation lies beyond the mind. I build a case that these two contentions pick up on recent waves in situated and embodied cognition and posthuman discourse; each has reclaimed the body and the non-human respectively as extended sites of perception and cognition. Posthumanism, borrowing from the physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad, extends agency to the nonhuman by blurring the boundary between human and nonhuman.
Both situated cognition and posthumanism engender new aesthetic and spatial abilities, which capture the multiplicity and malleability of the self. In order to productively instrumentalize their common findings for a wide audience, we need new methodologies that escape individual disciplinary silos which proliferate canons and inhibit the creation of common ground. Design has the ability to subsume the motivations of various fields in order to develop these methodologies. I employ the methods of 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 the Performative Experiment that primes the malleability of aesthetic and spatial sensibilities by estranging one from canons and rote moves.  Like parkour for the 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. I present Hogarth’s Silhouettes as a proof of concept of a foundational experiment in design education. My claim is that the experiment puts into play a malleable aesthetic and spatial sense of self in order to create a new form of design thinking and doing across disciplines.