[iDC] Embodiment is about action in context

Karmen Franinovic k.franinovic at gmail.com
Thu Sep 28 06:03:54 EDT 2006

Thank you all for inspiring discussions – they are moving so fast and
I share Anne's feelings described in her last post.  I finally
finished producing a new public installation Sky Hooks (together with
Yon Visell for Happy New Ears Festival – it runs until Oct. 8), and
found time to put some thoughts together.

Usman says "How might the production itself of an architecture
*really* be "interactive" (in the sense that Maturana or Pask use the
word)? Surely such an architecture would never be "complete"? This is
why I find it quite interesting that Omar, too, is interested in the
notion of "performance": because performance is a work, the production
of which is very much the work as well."

Architecture is never complete. It is just that (some) architects wish
it were, or just prefer to think it is. The building as a perfect form
standing there for centuries, millenniums … I've disliked this idea of
architecture as something unchangeable and static, as a kind of
monument, an artistic/architectural trace in the city. Did blobs or
deconstructivism in architecture of the late '80 and '90s change that
"passivity" of the building? When built, is this architecture really
that much different from Kiesler's infinite house, or sculptural
monuments such as Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Of course, not all of the
work at the Non Standard Architectures exhibition that Brian mentioned
is focused on form as a frozen artistic expression (produced with the
digital tools). R&Sie, for example, have some excellent ideas of how
to include the human-artifact-environment-… relationships into an
architectural form.

If we don't want a static form as the final outcome of architectural
design process, what is then that we are designing? What is that we
want to activate? Architecture, things, invisible matter, people …?
Rather than dynamic/kinetic facades, I am interested in architecture
that produces movements and relations between all of these elements.
In this case, in addition to notion of performance, it might be useful
to talk about ECOLOGIES (sensorial, social, cultural …) and

I have been studying cognitive theories of embodiment for the past
year. The underlying idea is that embodiment is about ACTION IN
CONTEXT. These actions emerge from the relations between our
sensory-motor systems and environments that we inhabit (including
people). Interactive artefacts through their
sensors-mappings-actuators systems acquire agency similar to that of
living stuff. Embodiments (and fascination with things) are
interesting because of their capability to dynamically
PRODUCE/AFFECT/ENHANCE ACTION. They are tools, elements of an ecology
which makes us active (ethics of action can be different of course).
This action/perception loop (or enaction) is an individual/subjective
experience. I believe that this ACTION-ENABLING quality of things is
more interesting and should be stronger than our fears of return to

The outsourcing that Trebor and others talked about is the process of
offloading cognitive work by using the external "hardware"
(environment) to remember – in embodied cognition this is called
"offline cognition". However in these theories the world is not full
of databases that help us remember, but is full of tools that make us
think and act : an example is the child learning how to count by using
his fingers. The primary problem that interactive tools such as
delicious or flickr aim at solving is also related to outsourcing, but
this time the amount of data is large and simply mapped. Flickr and
the finger are very different tools. The former is a super-specialized
tool for archiving photographs, while fingers are multipurpose and can
be used for counting, cooking, typing …

The world of interactive things is/could be an activating world, in
which artifacts are not only carriers of extremely complex physical or
digital information, but also tools that engage people in interaction
with the world. Also they are not automatic (see Jago Conde's
"Architecture of indeterminacy"). They are artifacts-tools whose
afforadances (J.J. Gibson, D. Norman) invite action and movement.

Knowing something through words and images is efficient, but learning
through doing/experiencing creates deep changes (see for example child
development). The problem we have to deal with is that the market
is/will be using the same strategies of agency to engage users in

Embodied enactive theories rely on the hypothesis that all our
perception is action: in order to see I must move my eyes (see
F.Varela, A.Noe). Therefore, for a living being, to be passive in
physiological/neurological sense is an impossible task. Yet we can be
passive in our social, political, cultural … lives. There are
different types/levels of activity and action, and perhaps a useful
way to separate them is by our intentionality towards and awareness of
an action. We are always functionally active, but how aware are we of
the consequences of our actions (or of what we think of as

As Trebor said in his post on "The "electricity" of near future
participation", communication technologies such as the telegraph are
not sufficient to allow a better understanding of others. Proximity
and direct encounter play an important role in such communication.
Also they create inevitable tensions which are essential for
democratic behavior (see Chantal Mouffe's writings on radical

Challenging and criticizing existing behaviours by engaging in
interaction people who share a common/public space makes the relations
more obvious and problems more tangible.

Can embodied interactive technologies/things, when applied to direct
physical contact with the world, raise the awareness about our actions
and everyday behaviours in urban space. How do we design things,
artifacts and spaces which are capable of affording, guiding,
challenging and subverting established behaviours/actions?  Can we
design tools, environments, bodies … stuff that makes us question
established social and sensorial ecologies? More so than architecture,
art and interaction design are asking such questions through practice
(for example Jonah's project such as SearchEngine, Crank the web etc;
or the Static project by the Power and Design groups from the
Interactive Institute).

To finish, I would argue for artifacts/architectures, networked and
interactive, which provide less information and MORE AWARNESS, which
may EMPOWER INDIVIDUALS rather then the system. As Anne Galloway, I
believe we can design things/interactions which "appreciate my role as
a human, as a woman, as a scholar, etc."  We can design
architectures/environments for participatory action and direct
encounters (and hidden tensions) in the city, and by doing so we might
raise awareness and responsibility of people's own individual actions.


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