Space is a complex term, but is about life. What does it actually mean and why does it matter? David Crouch, Professor Emeritus in Cultural Geography at the University of Derby, explores the topic.
Space sounds an empty word, a vacuous idea; it has, is and does nothing. Or so it may seem. It happens to be at the centre of so much of what our lives are about, what they entail, we may face in life challenges, what we may make of what our lives are and can be. Space matters. It speaks to the identities we share and who we are ourselves and in our relations with others. Border disputes continue to be pressing in many parts of the world; no less in Ireland in the uncertain future of Brexit, in Mexico and in the Indian subcontinent.
Given this depth of significance in our lives, and the lives and survival of nation states and the earth that feeds us, it is no surprise that disciplines and subjects as wide ranging as environmental science, anthropology, literature and cultural studies; history, sociology, economics and geographies are among the subjects where space matters.
Different ways we interpret space
In my book, Flirting with Space: Journeys and Creativity, I give voice to the intimacy with which we encounter and perhaps engage space in our lives, often through relationships with others, but also bits of material or living things; what we make of it, how it matters to us and we can, in turn, affect it. This approach focuses a range of events and happenings often merely in everyday life, uncelebrated and quietly done – ways in which we become creative by our interaction with space cultivating a patch of ground surrounded by what we have created and what will feed us, relationships with the others around us there.
International Modern Movement artist Peter Lanyon found his relationships with space in what he got to know in turning and bending, which he engaged in his paintings as lines and curves and landscapes that express how we feel being there, including sounds, feeling the wind, the unevenness of the ground rather than standing in front of, separate from. Exuberant in riding his motorcycle fast across the windy upper tracks across south-west Cornwall, he took his desire to be open to what was around him and, similarly, in his steady tread around the county’s hills he said: “I found that things were happening, that flowers looking at me were actually happening…. Things were stronger….. a gate was agitated with its bars.” These examples make up surprisingly convergent ways of getting close to the ways in which space matters, and we constitute space in our own living.
The question of space
In my latest book, The Question of Space: Interrogating the spatial turn between disciplines, talking and listening with people, as well as accompanying them on journeys they make, it becomes evident that human relationships emerge, become shaped and revised by different things mattering over our undulating life spans. Spending time with others in our research similarly can help us to make sense of how individuals put together their attitudes to surrounding life, both human and other than human.
From doing even apparently simple things, our values become coloured. Yet in this book of ten different authors from four continents and across many more disciplines, we discover a wider plurality of space, global and beyond. In the West – or is it mainly British – there is a tendency to consider place as fixed, significant, reliable, closely tucked into our lives.
‘Space’ becomes something open and changeable. In the book a Japanese writer explains how Japanese philosophers have interpreted space and places in in the reverse of the way done in the West. Space, too often thought empty, place ‘lived in’, familiar.
Space is remembered in Syrian novels through film and critical light is turned upon the spaces ‘created’ through the internet, like Google Maps. The dramatic shifts in what ‘our space’ may mean to individuals living through and out of colonial South Africa and explored through the arts of performance is featured, while another chapter ‘maps’ the sound of space. The volume culminates in a letter written by the Earth to us; those who perhaps ought to have done better long ago, for the planet; for ourselves.
So, what is space?
Space is not merely a matter of distance or something outside of ourselves, it is the fruits of our engagement in life, lives of states, writers, performers, our own. We may not be as inventive in the way that Lanyon was, but we each approach the world in particular ways that are also shared with other lives and, of course, our own memories, that do not remain stuck in time.
Space is a motivating thing and a process. Theatre director Peter Brook, author of The Empty Space, said he could take any empty space and call it a bare stage: “[someone] walks across the empty space while someone else is watching” – that is all he needed for an act of theatre to be engaged, so we can ourselves render character to space.
We both interact with space, and create new realities of that space. Space is intimate and fleshy, matter and material. Threateningly marked by nation states, space can, in both memory and subsequent visits and encounters, be a source of sadness as much as delight. Colonialists, here considered in terms of Syria’s and South Africa’s space stories in literature, mark space into ownership and control, coloured in particular ways. Others find their once familiar home space removed from their purview, the ground surface scoured, their relationship with space they thought they knew can no longer be so; identity and moorings change, once held surety and control slips away.
Contemporary stories repeat these instances across our shared world. Space is intimate and endlessly open. Across the arts and their performance can give meaning to space, sculpt new ways of experiencing space, of making it. That way we can celebrate memories and each other; we can change what at the moment things seem to be.
Working towards richer understandings of space, its openness as well as its closures, its certainties and risks, of how space occurs, can contribute to how we can choose to confront and engage the future.