“A thousand years ago, China was very corrupt and chaotic. During the New Year celebrations, it was especially chaotic. This upset the gods. They didn’t like people to indulge too much,” explained artist Cai Guo-Qiang, in his New York City studio. “On the 15th of January, they decided to punish people by putting fire to the city. The god’s daughter was worried and came down to notify the people about the plan. The people lit thousands of lanterns. The god, looking down from the sky, saw the city was already on fire. He was pleased; the job had been done.” While there are many versions of the folk tale that inspired the Chinese Lantern Festival, Cai Guo Qiang connects with this one.
Now, Cai is bringing his story of Chinese lanterns to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Frankin Parkway this September. Fireflies, his first public work since 2009, will bring 27 custom-built, lantern-laden pedicabs up and down the parkway in a choreographed pattern. Seen from above, they will dazzle like a summer evening alive with fireflies.
People will be able to jump on and off for rides. But amid all the fun, Cai seeks to “warn society against the indulgence we are now enjoying.” If we look at the lanterns, “we can guard against that.”
Fireflies is organized by Philadelphia’s excellent Association for Public Art, headed by Penny Balkin Bach, and guest public art curator Lance Fung, founder of Fung Collaborative. Cai was receptive because he knew Philadelphia from his 2009 art work there: Fallen Blossoms, a giant firecracker flower that exploded in the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
At the preview of Fireflies in Cai’s studio in New York City, Balkin Bach said the illuminated art work will bring “new life to the parkway at night, making it a destination.” She said in contrast to Cai’s famous exploding art works, this piece has a lightheartedness.
Fung said, in the past, “Chinesey-ness was a derogatory term.” But Fireflies makes the stories from Cai’s upbringing, the stories from this gifted Chinese American immigrant, accessible to a wider audience. “Fireflies is social advocacy, with a deep empathy and understanding.”
Cai himself said he was inspired by Benjamin Frankin Parkway, with its rows of flags of countries around the world. “The parkway commemorates the diversity of immigrants.” The light from hundreds of lanterns will “illuminate” this diversity.
Fireflies opens September 14 and runs 6-10 pm, Thursday through Sunday, until October 8. Rides will be free and open to everyone.
In her book The Eye Is a Door, landscape architecture professor Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, contemplates the ubiquity of the digital camera. “Never have so many people owned cameras,” and never have images been disbursed so widely. “Our world is being recorded,” Spirn writes. “But to what end?”
Author Charles Wolfe proposes an end in his new book Seeing the Better City. And that end, suggests this environmental and land-use lawyer, is the improvement of urban environments. The first job of the book, a how-to guide on maintaining a photographic diary, is to answer the obvious question: what role do photographs play in improving cities?
Every day, Wolfe writes, people living in cities encounter changing skylines and neighborhoods. They often have strong opinions on those changes. Oral arguments are made and editorials are written advising on what changes should be made, and often these arguments lack even the most basic visual aid of a photograph. Perhaps the term “multi-family housing” conjures a specific image in your head. But if assessing whether a multi-family unit belongs in your neighborhood, you’d have an advantage if you could view precedents.
Still, there’s a gulf between taking photos and improving cities. How does one apply what can be gleaned from photographs to the world of decision makers and developers? Wolfe offers several case studies of projects that make use of community photography to inform civic debates.
WALKscope in Denver has users submit photos of sidewalk quality, obstructions, amenities, and maps those observations. California King Tides invites users to submit photos of the sea taken at high tide to spread awareness about sea-level rise. Beyond these novel uses of photos, the simple incorporation of photos into presentations that inform civic decisions would greatly improve the decision-making process, Wolfe argues.
As a guide for becoming a better observer, Seeing the Better City is highly successful. Wolfe provides a structured template for an urban diary, but invites readers to construct their own.
As for actually shooting photos, Wolfe eschews prescribing techniques in favor of offering basic guidelines. He draws upon well-regarded photographers such as Ansel Adams and other visual thinkers. Diarists should know to make a photo, not just take one. Light is critical, as is where one stands. People are more critical still. Visit locations multiple times; light changes, but so do uses, the presence of people and animals, and small details such as litter. Juxtaposing the old and new can be interesting, if a bit derivative. Juxtaposing form, material, and use can yield rich photos.
Wolfe wants us to ask ourselves: what is being evaluated through our lens? Wolfe provides 10 parameters for seeing the city. The relation of building to street, standards for roads and signage, and the role of nature are just a few.
Wolfe also suggests activities for inaugurating a diary, such as visiting your five favorite neighborhoods and recording the sights and sounds you encounter, filming your next bike ride, or writing a couple paragraphs about your morning commute.
Many people effectively keep an urban diary without realizing it. The next step is to organize one’s thoughts and photos, reflect on them, and build off them.
Scattered through Seeing the Better City are Wolfe’s anecdotes on his own diary keeping. His observations often demonstrate a deep knowledge of urban policy and land-use issues. Your observations may not, at least initially. But at the very least, urban diaries expand the diarist’s understanding of their city, and that’s enough to start the process of improvement.
If you’ve herring-boned over to a trail map, or swished to a stop to take out your handy pocket map at a ski resort, you’ve probably seen the work of James Niehues, “the Michelangelo of snow,” but not even known it. For the past three decades, Niehues has painted the topographical trail maps that grace many of the major ski slopes in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He has created over 160, writes The Washington Post. Interestingly, Niehues only considers himself an intermediate skier.
His process for mapping a slope is intensive. He will fly in a Cesna plane to take aerial photographs. He told Cabinet magazine about his in-depth approach: “I’ll try and shoot the mountain from every angle possible, starting at about 4,000 feet over the summit of the mountain to get some very high altitude stuff, and then I’ll drop down and get more of the detail around the lower part of the mountain.”
He sometimes skis the mountain to get a “better feel for its features,” but admits he “has tried only about 5 percent of the resorts he has painted.”
He then paints each ski resort by hand in water color, painstakingly documenting every contour, trail, ski lift route, and, yes, every single tree.
He told Scout: “Hand painting offers more variety of expression in that each brush stroke is different, making each tree (which usually has the base shape, a shadow and a highlight) individual and natural. A ski resort trail map represents the great outdoors and the better this presentation portrays the natural vast scenery of the slopes the more inviting it is to the viewer. I used to have a slogan that I used in my mailing to potential clients: ‘A quality trail map reflects a quality ski experience.’ A trail map must first be accurate, but a very large part of the equation is for it to be as beautiful as possible to entice the viewer. I just haven’t seen any computer-generated images that do that better than a hand-painted image.”
For Niehues, the hardest slopes to depict are those that criss-cross multiple mountain faces, instead of just one. “The most challenging part of any multiple-faceted resort is moving all the elements so the entire system of runs can be shown in one view, without the viewer seeing any reason why it not just as it is portrayed!”
Niehues explained to The Washington Post that he “likes knowing that skiers take a piece of him in their pockets whenever they ski the mountains he has painted.” He said: “One of the more special things is that they come down the mountain and have a beer and open up the map and talk about their experiences and they’re reviewing my art.”
When reductionist artwork, like a Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian painting, succeeds, it succeeds in part because of the role it affords us, the viewer. Faced with a vacuum of meaning, we impart our own identities on the work, gratifying ourselves in highly-personal ways. Artist Barbara Grygutis, whose sculptures are featured in the new book, Public Art / Public Space: The Sculptural Environments of Barbara Grygutis, practices a different reductionism. It’s not us, but the sculpture’s setting that completes the composition.
The book’s subtitle tells us a bit about how Grygutis sees herself, not just as a composer of materials, but a composer of environments. Many of her sculptures cast intricately woven shadows, filter and disperse light, or consolidate it into beacons. The resultant spaces are elevated by the sculptural work and reconstituted environmental qualities. Bronx River View is one such example. This collection of sculptures transform the walls of an above-ground subway station into windows and seating. The view works both ways, and the light cast inward onto the train platform illuminate the sculptures and the passage of time.
“If you look back at civilizations, we learn about them through their art,” Grygutis says in an interview at the outset of her book. That’s an edifying thought if we consider Dawn’s Silver Lining, a sculpture that epitomizes Grygutis’ most successful work (see image at top). Set in Salina, Kansas, the surrounding rural landscape is flattened into a silhouette of trees and vegetation and pressed onto perforated aluminum: the reduction process. The silhouettes are then re-extruded by the light, the quality of which is constantly changing.
It’s not always enough to simply reduce. There must be a re-introduction of substance into the artwork. Without this — or with too uncritical a reduction — the piece can suffer from a poverty of meaning. Grygutis’ Drop in Prewitt Park is a 35-foot steel and glass sculpture of a water drop. Set centrally to rippling landforms, the sculpture is intended to read as the moment of congruence between water and earth. Instead, because of the drop’s very recognizable and very flat form, it reads as a corporate logo, a symbol rather than a system.
This logo-ization of complex system holds back a few of Grygutis’ sculptures that seem to have powerful ideas behind them. Weather, an oblique steel and glass structure located in North Richland Hills, Texas,is meant to evoke the meteorological systems that our landscape is subject to. But the pattern emblazoned in the glass says less about our weather systems than a barometer. Grygutis’ sculpture Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs, is quite literally a giant symbol, π, comprised of several other symbols borrowed from keyboards and calculators. There’s literalness in this and other Grygutis sculptures may put an expiration date on them.
Other projects, like Flaming Arroyo in Las Vegas and Frequencies, a project slated for completion in 2017 in Palo Alto, feel timeless. The latter, which is comprised of five perforated aluminum sculptures and set on a tech campus, indexes electromagnetic frequencies that are ordinarily invisible to us.
This is Grygutis at her most impactful, manifesting the unseen or ignored forces of our environment with sculptural interventions that beg people to slow down and take notice.
There were so many great books this year that honing in on just ten favorites was too challenging. Whether you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or one for yourself to delve into, we have some options. Here’s The Dirt‘s top 15 books of 2016, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:
Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change (Timber Press, 2016)
Larry Weaner, one of the world’s top meadow designers, and Thomas Christopher have created a reference book on ecological design for gardeners and landscape designers and architects. They write: “By following ecological principles, we can have landscapes that are alive with color, friendly to local wildlife, and evolve over time—with much less work and effort.”
Environmentalism of the Rich (MIT Press, 2016)
Peter Dauvergne, a professor at the University of British Columbia, asks the hard questions: is environmentalism, as it’s practiced in the developed word, failing? Is the mainstream sustainability movement, with its focus on incremental gains, failing the planet? Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow, Worldwatch Institute, writes that the book “is required reading for anyone wanting to help ram the movement off its current dead-end path and build a new deep green movement.” Read The Dirt review.
Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Liverlight, 2016)
In his latest book, renowned biologist and author E.O. Wilson makes the case for both preserving and restoring half of the Earth, which he believes is possible if we set aside some of the richest places of biodiversity on land and in the oceans. Read The Dirt review.
The Long, Long Life of Trees (Yale University Press, 2016)
Fiona Stafford, a professor who focuses on romantic poetry at Oxford University, has published a lyrical volume on the history of seventeen common trees, including ash, apple, pine, oak, cypress, and willow. She delves into history, paying homage to important specimens from the past, and also explains trees’ critical role in the future fight against climate change.
Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative in Urban Planning and Design (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2016)
In their new book, editors Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell have made complex ideas about urban ecological design incredibly accessible. They make a convincing argument that “ecological literacy” is an “essential base” for anyone involved in urban planning and design today. There are 17 thought-provoking essays from leading landscape architects and planners from around the world.
Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (Jewish Museum, 2016)
The Jewish Museum in New York City has put together the definitive book on the influential Brazilian landscape architect and artist. In addition to designing more than 2,000 gardens, Burle Marx created paintings, drawings, tile mosaics, sculpture, textile design, jewelry, theater costumes, and more.
Toward an Urban Ecology: SCAPE / Landscape Architecture (The Monacelli Press, 2016)
Kate Orff, ASLA, and her team at SCAPE have created a beautiful book with engaging full-page color photography that delves into Breakwaters, their Rebuild by Design project in Staten Island, and others. The goal of their projects is to “bring together social and ecological systems to sustainably remake our cities and landscapes.” They describe the book as “part monograph, part manual, part manifesto.”
Site, Sight, Insight: Essays on Landscape Architecture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)
Landscape historian John Dixon Hunt, who has just retired from University of Pennsylvania, collects twelve of his recent essays in one book. He takes the reader on an intellectual ride, explaining the ways we perceive landscapes, and in turn asking us to examine our own baggage when viewing them, so that we may gain greater insights into landscapes’ true meaning and our own emotions.
Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs (Random House, 2016)
In this new collection of the short writings and speeches of Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential thinkers on the built environment, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring have done readers a great service. They’ve brought together the best of this brilliant autodidact’s arguments for why planners and designers must never forget the importance of small-scale diversity given it results in interesting cities created, first and foremost, for people. Read The Dirt review.
Water Infrastructure: Equitable Deployment of Resilient Systems(Columbia University, 2016)
Developed for the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, S. Brye Sarte and Morana M. Stipisic, with the Sherwood Institute and Columbia University Urban Design Lab, have created a well-organized guide to resilient green infrastructure for developing-world cities. There are smart solutions for water pollution, climate change, and multiple types of flooding, with real-world examples.
Wild by Design (Island Press, 2016)
A leading advocate of the “wild” landscape movement, landscape architect Margie Ruddick, ASLA, explains how she carefully balances ecological conservation and restoration with a strong sense of design. Ruddick is the 2013 winner of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. Learn more about Ruddick and the book.
Also, worth knowing: buying these books through The Dirt or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s fantastic book store.
Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, believes there are mysteries in our landscapes that defy explanation. In an otherworldly session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, he bypassed the usual scientific explanations, delving into mythology, mysticism, conspiracies, and irrationality. “Have you been alone in the woods and felt some strange presence? What the hell is that?,” he asked.
Sullivan wants to find out where these ideas about the landscape come from. In the early 1920s in the United Kingdom, amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins came up with the theory of ley lines, which he believed were underlying alignments of landscape forms. And in 1969, author John Mitchell revived the idea in his New Age book The View Over Atlantis, which explored the “hidden currents of the landscape.”
These ideas aren’t new. Chinese Feng Shui practitioners in the East have long associated the landscape with unseen energy flows. In ancient Western mythology, nature’s power has a prominent role. “The woods were once the sacred domain of the gods and goddesses. Apollo had a sacred grove, and Zeus, a prophetic oak.” The Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece sat on a tripod stool over a crack in the earth, “breathing fumes from the earth’s core” when issuing her prophecies. In Ireland, there were sacred wells, which were portals to the underworld. “Today, we throw coins into wishing wells. Why is that?”
Like Australian aborigines — with their “dream time that enables them access to a parallel reality” — landscape architects can use dreams to tap into another world of design. For example, Michelangelo apparently came up with his unique steps in the Laurentian Library in Florence in a dream. And Sullivan pointed to surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, who would dream and then quickly paint his visions.
With Robert Hewitt, ASLA, associate professor at Clemson University, Sullivan put together a group design project that unearthed his students’ dreams. He thinks landscape architects can “integrate dreams into the design process.” As an experiment, he asks designers to “put a sketchbook next to your bed and before you go to sleep focus on a a design problem. Upon waking, replay your dream, record the sequence, catalogue ideas.”
Landscape architects need to once again connect with the spiritual side, the alchemy of landscape. “Landscape architecture doesn’t turn lead into gold, but it’s the ultimate transmutation of one element into another.” With nature as a guide, landscape architects can make their studios like an alchemist’s library, divining new ways to “sublimate, bio-remediate, and distill” natural elements into new forms and substances.
Like Voodoo priests in Haiti, landscape architects can “use the genius loci, the spirit of a place,” to maximum effect. For example, he believes the crescent shape of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans delta is a sort of amplifying device, like out of Ghostbusters. “There is a reason deltas are a symbol in alchemy. They are the birthplaces of civilization.”
And he then expanded his discussion to the powerful role mythological figures can play in landscapes, given they are an ever-present undercurrent. In the early renaissance-era Nymphaeum of Italy “woodland deities were brought out into the landscape.”
Muses can be brought back to play a modern role in linking the conscious and subconscious. Today, “we need to put gods and goddesses back into the landscape. Where is the spiritual aspect?”
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Instagram is a great way to get inspired, but there are over 500 million active accounts, so who should you follow? For landscape architects, fresh ideas can be found from following other landscape architects, but also those outside the field: artists, technologists, illustrators, and designers. Here are a few of my favorite Instagram accounts, which offer unique imagery and perspectives.
Please use the comments section to let us know other Instagram accounts you enjoy.
The worst thing you can say about Beeple, AKA Mike Winkleman is that some of his work is derivative. But that’s inevitable when you’ve created a new piece of art everyday for the last 3,400 days and counting. Beeple’s “every days” have inspired many. Some of his recent work shows a fascination with vast, arid landscapes.
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The best Instagram account to follow for photos of the gorgeous Martian landscape is NASA’s, whose Curiosity Rover is currently exploring the base of Mt. Sharp, an 18,000 foot peak rising up out of a 96 mile-wide crater.
Bradley Munkowitz, AKA Gmunk, is a boundary-pushing digital artist, videographer, and photographer. His current series of infrared landscape photos is breathtaking, and he also has a great eye for patterns, textures, and materials.
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Nighttime photography is extremely challenging, but offers great creative opportunities. The Night Photography account consolidates the most creative, dramatic nighttime shots into one feed, giving many perspectives on life in the dark.
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Oehme van Sweden is one of the few landscape architecture firms to curate a compelling Instagram account. Vivid photos of plantings, works in progress, life around the office, and a fairly regular output of new content, make this feed stand out.
Eric Arneson, who curates Pangaea Express, is a landscape designer who uses Instagram well. A great mix of process photos, drawing details, photos from the field, final renderings, and all with a good dose of experimentation.
Finnish photographer Konsta Punkka describes himself as the squirrel whisperer. His photos of Scandinavian wildlife are startling because of the close proximity of his subjects. His photos of the landscape are equally striking.
The moribund Pershing Square Park in downtown Los Angeles briefly came back to life over the past few weeks, thanks to artist Patrick Hearn’s monumental and mesmerizing Liquid Shard, which is made of holographic mylar and monofilament and spans some 15,000 square feet. Riding invisible wind currents, the piece undulates along a span 15 feet high to the top of the park’s tower, at 150 feet high.
According to Hearn, “the inspiration comes from observing nature and the feeling that we are only aware on a very surface level of what is really going on around us. Unexpected things are revealed in time-lapse or hyper-spectrum photography that fascinate me. Like fractals recurring progressively, we feel the currents of air on our skin but do not see the larger movements.”
The video above also shows the incredible capabilities of video-enabled drones. A technology largely unavailable even a few years ago, video-enabled drones now allow artists and designers of all kinds to tell new stories about the places they have created. The value for landscape architects is clear.
As the temporary installation Liquid Shard comes down, Paris-based landscape architecture firm Agence Ter soon start their work redesigning the unloved park. According to The Architect’s Newspaper, “the French landscape firm’s approach is notable for the ‘town square’ approach taken to the site, where a large canopy located at the western edge of the park will house cafés and other amenities that open onto a grassy knoll at the center of the park.”
Los Angeles city council officials hope the new park will open by 2019.
If abundance and variety characterize most gardens, then an austere garden is one marked by subtlety and restraint. Respectable qualities, especially in a society that aspires to opulence. But these same qualities make austerity much trickier to identify and thus admire. Marc Treib, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests in his latest book, Austere Gardens: Thoughts on Landscape, Restraint, & Attending, that we must attune our senses to recognize austerity and its value.
“Experiential richness does not depend on complex form or an abundance of elements. It is how we look, and what we want to see, that makes a garden,” Treib writes. Decouple ornamentation from beauty and austerity will have its day. Treib’s book is a vision of what that day might look like, with examples of austerity from the past and present, from art, architecture, and landscape design. Japanese gardens make several appearances (Treib has studied them extensively), but so do peat quarries in the UK, an experimental forest in Sweden, and Salgina bridge in Switzerland.
These varied examples of austere works beg the question, how does Treib define austerity? You might get a different answer depending on which page you flip to. “State less, imply more.” “Simplicity, reduction, and compression.” “Restriction in means.” These are all true, of course, but only constitute individual aspects of austerity. One might say, “You’ll know it when you see it.” The challenge Treib sets himself is attuning readers’ eyes to it.
Austere Gardens begins with a description of the musical score 4’ 33” by composer John Cage. The score is performed in front of an audience, although it requires no instrument, just the periodic disruption of silence. The performer relinquishes control to the audience. Shuffling of feet, heavy respiration: ambient noise comes to the fore. Silence becomes music and austerity delivers riches.
4’ 33” possesses an effortlessness common to many of Treib’s examples of austere works. Tactical mowing, cutting, digging, and occluding are economical strokes with outsized impact. Treib gives as an example the construction fence, hiding from passersby what lies beyond. “What has been screened, withheld, or removed often stimulates greater intrigue.” Closure and revelation. Achieving more with less can be interpreted several ways.
Patience is essential to appreciating austerity, writes Treib. “Without taking the time to look, perceive, and perhaps to think, any rewards may be meager.” Even the mundane, perhaps especially the mundane, deserves a prolonged gaze. The austere beauty we’re witnessing, Treib tells us, may be intentional, inadvertent, or the result of time and its effects.
The essay’s organization will frustrate some readers who desire more structure. It is, as the title implies, a series of thoughts. One can read it in a sitting, feel refreshed by its ideas, and then wonder, “What was the overarching point?” A call for austerity and all that implies, certainly. And yet an absence can be felt after putting down Austere Gardens, the sense of a lesson left incomplete. In a way, the essay practices what it preaches, leaving room for the reader to close the circle.
In a leap for interactive art environments, Team Lab, a collaborative of Japanese artists, has put together a fascinating and bizarre collection of works in a 3,000-square-meter space in Tokyo. The pieces are truly responsive: visitors impact and shape the ever-changing works in real-time.
In the Dance of Koi and People – Infinity, visitors wade up to their calves through a shallow pool surrounded by mirrors, which creates the effect of being in an infinite space. As visitors walk through the water, underwater lights that mimic koi fish dart by.
According to the artists, the “trajectory of the koi is determined by the presence of people, and these trajectories trace lines on the surface of the water.” The even-more amazing part: “When the koi collide with people, they turn into flowers and scatter.”
This art work is derived by an algorithm in real time; it’s not a “pre-recorded animation nor on a loop.” It’s a work of continuous interaction and constant change.
In Wander Through the Crystal Universe, visitors interact with a giant pointillist sculpture in which “the particles of light are digitally controlled, and change based on the viewer’s interactivity with the work.” As visitors move, light shifts; as more visitors enter, light accumulates. Visitors can also use their smart phones to chose colors and shapes that will be included in the evolving piece.
In Floating in the Falling Universe of Flowers, visitors enable seasonal change. As visitors walk through, “flowers are born, they grow, bud, bloom, and, in time, the petals fall, and the flowers wither and die. The cycle of birth and death continues for perpetuity.” The piece also enables visitors to select butterflies with their smart phones and send them off into the surrounding “flower universe.”
And, lastly, Soft Black Hole, creates a dark space that plays with “the borders of floors, walls, and ceilings,” creating perhaps a startling version of a space you may find in a contemporary Korean spa. As visitors get into the space, their body weight shifts the environment, and so visitors impact the space of other visitors. “Your body changes the space, and the space changes the bodies of others.”