Public Spaces | Private Lives
Encoding Environments to Incite Civil Courtesies

Thesis | Master in Design Studies | Harvard Graduate School of Design | 2015

This project investigates the issue of violence against women and what society values as acceptable behavior in public space. It is tasked to create new bodily practices and gender performance, reclaim personal spaces within the public, and shift public social etiquettes. This is done through the consideration of the body as a site of cause and resistance of these acts, and provides the grounds to dissect an act of harassment into stages on which to intervene.

This is done through a holistic system that is tasked with inculcating social and cultural change by exposing existent bystander networks encoded within the environment before, during, and after an act of personal harassment. These staged interventions can operate individually or as a collective. Conceptual garments act before an instance occurs, a mobile application acts while the instance is occurring, and mapping of existent social services acts after the instance has occurred.  These staged interventions place pressure on the public to question normalized acceptance of sexual harassment and violence, as well as how we judge and categorize personal identification, but I will focus on the garments, as they directly create new bodily practices and gender performance.  Information about the other two stages can be seen on the boards.

Not only do these garments function before an act of sexual violence occurs, but they also call upon the body as the source of cultural change by invoking much needed discourse about personal space within the public. Instances of street and sexual harassment have become normalized within our culture – they are embedded as part of the every day. Because of how often these instances occur, and the social understanding that they aren't directly harmful acts, men and women develop tactics to avoid these happenings in their daily lives, just as animals have defense systems that aid them in surviving attacks from predators. These wearables superimpose the qualities of the animal defense systems onto the human body.

The first function of the garments is to give physical form to invisible emotional and psychological thresholds, fortifying these boundaries in public space and creating a metaphorical defense which cloaks and protects the personal identification of the wearer. The garments are suits of armor for the emotions and innermost self that cannot be seen, extending the body to interact and converge with the atmosphere around them.

They swing between surfaces and structures, obscuring the body shape and allowing the wearer to create a tactile strategy of bodily offense. Through these new surfaces and silhouettes, the body becomes unrecognizable as a body, deterring perpetrators from attacking. Much like animal defense systems are designed to enhance, intensify, and exaggerate animal bodies, these performative wearables create an armament through which the personal thresholds can be upheld within the public.

Secondly, the garments allow the wearer to respond non-verbally to instances of harassment, creating a new type of body language which acts like a distress signal. The garments react to the body's natural movements, highlighting its normalized conditions and reinforcing changes within the wearer's personal space. Exaggerated practices of the body with the wearables lead to exaggerated personal spaces. They increase the confidence of the wearer, thus allowing for further exploration of this non-verbal language and creating a dialect of visual intimidation.

Thirdly, the garments provide a vehicle for the wearers to express through bodily movements and gestures what they consider to be socially acceptable behaviors. These garments create examples of how we can move within our bodies gracefully, tenderly, and harmoniously with others, thus causing the audience to measure their own actions against those depicted in the performance.

The pieces are manipulated in ways that can be deeply confronting and temporarily discomforting for viewers. They act as a catalyst against which the audience reacts, bringing forth ideas about how identity and collective belonging are performed and govern the dynamics of public life and public space.

This piece mimics the antennae of insects and allows the wearer to search for obstacles that block her personal boundaries, largely in the space around her body that fall outside of her cone of vision.

These wire appendages, or feelers, can perceive physical objects in space, determining their position and allowing the wearer to change her bodily motions when her feelers catch an obstacle in her path, reaching far beyond her body, enforcing and giving allowance to her personal comfort boundaries. But they also give her the freedom to occupy space as she chooses; the feelers will not only inform the wearer of obstacles blocking her space, but her movements within the wearable block the space from obstacles.  This piece requires long and fluid movements in order to perceive her surroundings, separated by quick, short movements of reaction to stave off danger.

This piece is situated on the back and provides the wearer with a distinct sense of protection and strength, as though the wearable itself were a weapon of defense. This creates a cycle of power – the materials from afar look soft and have an appealing, shiny quality to them, but they are actually quite sharp and could be harmful to others. This furthers the comfort and confidence of the wearer and projects power onto her, and she then projects that power into her surroundings.

Much like how the flying squirrel stretches its wings to fly away from predators, this piece alludes to the stretching of an outer skin, and extenuates the human outline in order to misrepresent the natural silhouette to provide a complete transformation in the outlines of the human body.

This piece ambiguously morphs and constantly alters the shape of the body through exaggerated pushing and pulling, causing the body to be in a state of constant motion. The body becomes insignificant in contrast to the mutated formulations of the surrounding epidermis.  As the piece is manipulated, the silhouette fluctuates; creating unexpected moments that acknowledge the body and others that produce an image devoid of sexuality and gender.

The bodily formations created by the wearer extend the personal space in unconventional ways by expanding the epidermis into a masculinized breadth at some points, and then reducing the body into an amorphous series of contours at other points. The ability to see the body paradoxically emphasizes the illusion of its reduction, but it also gives the wearer liberation to accentuate the parts of her body that she so chooses.

A subtle movement of the body will have large repercussions on the shape of the epidermis. Stretching of the piece to its tension threshold reinforces the delicacy of the human body while concurrently demonstrating its limits. But even the most jagged movements of the body are translated by the piece into soft, fluid motions, mediating aggravated acts into ones of delight.

This piece is an appendage that becomes an extension of the wearer's body, mimicking the train of a peacock.

It's rigidity maintains the shape of her personal boundary when both relaxed and deployed. Much like how a peacock uses bodily movements to spread its feathers and make himself look bigger to intimidate approaching predators, the train makes the wearer's body larger through structured motions. Barely wider than her body in front or back view, but expansive in either side view, it provides a decorous sense of bearing. Rather than inhibiting her body, the extension of the waist to the back of the body provides a security to the wearer's movements.

This piece shifts the primary interest away from the sexualized body to a suggestion of the protrusion of the skeleton. The posture of the wearer changes in order to accommodate the movement of the appendage, which acts as a stabilizer. Not only does the wearer's body extend back and up, her arms must reach forward and upward to deploy the tail, thus creating space both in front and back of her body. But this extension both forward and backward can be either a signal of defense or one of affection. The reaching forward of the arms can allude to a forceful movement, such as that of punching or hitting, but slightly changing the speed and curvature of the arms as they lengthen forward implies care and good will.

This piece imitates the shell of a tortoise. It provides an exoskeleton of protection while also offering an escape – a place for her to withdraw while still being able to see out. This piece subdues her torso's natural curvature but does not control the flesh itself, rather it circumscribes her body's movements. Instead of extending further into space like the other wearables we have seen, the shell acts as a last line of personal defense due to its closeness to the body, providing an armament between the body and outside forces.

The shell is attached directly to the wearer's hair, becoming a part of her body and providing a permanent suit of armor. Its placement on her back shifts visual interest to the posterior, drawing interested parties to look at the body from that perspective, further enforcing the protection proposed by the shell.

But it can also be positioned on the sides or wrapped around the body, allowing her to have control over the placement of protection. She likewise has the power to change the gradient of protection through the opening and closing of the shell, thus changing the body's silhouette further.

The reflective quality of the material disrupts and overturns the focus on the body to that of the material itself, as well as to the reflection in the shell. The manipulation of positioning combined with the control over the openness of the shell provide clear directive by the wearer on what part of her body is feeling most threatened as well as how threatened she is feeling. It is a clear sign that someone is invading her personal boundaries.

This piece is inspired by the frills of a frilled lizard. The size of the frills suggests the increase in professional authority of the wearer and they are animated through the movements of the arms, emphasizing and altering personal space about the body as they travel along the paths of the arms. The shoulders become amplified so much by the wooden frills that the rest of the body is diminished and reduced. The frills curtail the body and personal identity as the focus of the perpetrator, and draw attention to themselves instead.

This piece also causes visual detachment of the head from the body. It frames a part of the body that is commonly subject to aesthetic prejudice and erotic assessment and disassociates it from the torso, providing Sophie the opportunity to also detach herself mentally from any intrusion on her personal bodily space.

Like the lizard's, these frills stand at attention to protect the neck in times of stress, magnifying and elaborating the scale of the upper body. When not at attention, the frills can be outstretched or withdrawn, and move independently of one another. They can directly reflect the feelings and emotions of the wearer, allowing her to conceal, expose, amplify and compress her body and mental state.

Acts of sexual violence and harassment are all interconnected, but they are all attacks on personal space – which reflects our identity and the way in which we perform that identity. They also have implications for what we consider socially acceptable behavior. These acts of sexual violence and harassment threaten our sense of personal space, thus challenging our personal identities and values. So we can see that it is not the spatial conditions in which these acts happen that make them happen – rather it is our habitus; or how we are indoctrinated into the world and into our bodies. Looking at this issue from the perspective of the body allows us to see that the body is the site of cause and resistance to acts of sexual violence, and reclaiming personal space within the public provides important discourse on ownership. In reality, cultural change is a slow process. But the way that we treat one another is something we can learn by watching others and by comparing our own bodily gestures to theirs. These wearables investigate the performance of our identities through choreographies performed in public spaces, illuminating acceptable public social etiquettes and how these practices of violence are ingrained in the cultural fabric. These pieces create temporary zones of discomfort for viewers, requiring them to question their own bodily practices, identity performance, and allowable personal space in public. Through the simple action of measuring our bodily movements against those of the performers, we can become aware of our habitus – which is the first step in changing the current culture surrounding sexual assault and violence.