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Sensing the City

An Embodied Documentation & Mapping

of the

Changing Uses and Tempers of Urban Place

A Practice-based Case-study of Coventry

nicolas coventry lead image


Scheduled to take place over a period of three years this practice-based research project, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to the tune of £265,000 (full cost: £330,500), will undertake a series of site-specific studies of urban rhythms, atmospheres, textures, practices and patterns of behaviour in the West Midlands city of Coventry (UK).

It will make use of the sensate, performing human body as a data-gathering sensor in the first instance, applying techniques of writing or notation and technologies of sound/oral recording, photography, performance and film in the second instance to respond to, document and process such fieldwork activity. The third and final phase of the research programme will be to visualise and present documented text, sound and image material both as an online, interactive mapping of the urban sites in question (presented as a prototypical mixed media website) and via a 'smart' device.

The project will also culminate in an exhibition, incorporating a one-day symposium, and a co-curated publication. Together these outputs will present the findings of the project in a form that is accessible to a broader public as well as to professional specialists in fields related to the design and planning of urban futures.

Principal Investigator: Prof Nicolas Whybrow (Theatre and Performance Studies, Warwick)

Co-Investigators: Dr Michael Pigott (Film & TV Studies and Theatre & Performance Studies, Warwick), Dr Natalie Garrett Brown (Centre for Dance Research, Coventry University)

Researcher/Post-doc: Dr Emma Meehan (Centre for Dance Research, Coventry University)

Commissioned Artist: Carolyn Deby, sirenscrossing, London

Impact, Public Engagement and Exhibition Officer: Dr Nese Ceren Tosun

International Consultant: Dr Stuart Grant (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia)

Additional project team members: Steve Ranford (Academic Technologist), Rob Batterbee (Technical Specialist).

Advisory Board: Professor Sarah Rubidge (University of Chichester), Professor Carl Lavery (University of Glasgow), Professor Nick Dunn (Lancaster University), Janet Vaughan (Talking Birds Theatre Company, Coventry), Jacqui Ibbotson (Coventry UK City of Culture Trust), Dr Vicky Hunter (University of Chichester).

Curators: Sarah Shalgosky (Warwick Arts Centre), Fiona Venables (Milton Keynes Art Centre)

Quadripartite Research

The project’s main researchers include practice-based academics in performance, film and digital technologies from the University of Warwick, in dance from Coventry University's Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE), and a commissioned artist-researcher in immersive performance and site-specific installation with the professional London-based company sirenscrossing. Altogether there are four practice-based micro-projects, which will operate relatively independently in the first instance. Each has a slightly different disciplinary emphasis and methodological approach, but all will contribute to the main project outputs cited above, thus forming a rich, multi-faceted, integrated research portfolio relating to the city of Coventry. The project will also draw in, as consultant, a practice-based academic from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia who specialises in the implementation of body weather movement techniques in urban sites. As a whole Sensing the City will present conclusions about the constitution, character and morphology of urban space as public, habitable and sustainable space by monitoring the instinctive reactions of the body. In other words, as a symptom of the degree to which cities are changing in the 21st century, it will examine the effects on the practices and behaviours of urban dwellers of key features of the atmospheric, aesthetic force-field that is modern-day urban space.

Based in Coventry

The project will lay down a marker for future projects to follow suit in other cities, but its main focus is Coventry. This city has a particularly resonant recent history of mid-20th century destruction and erasure after the devastating bombing of the city in 1940, which effaced its medieval origins (including its cathedral), followed by rapidly implemented post-war modernist reconstruction based principally on serving the city's burgeoning car industry and creating a civic-minded, functional city for working citizens. Now, in the early 21st century, Coventry finds itself again in a transitional moment, poised as it is for a further phase of significant regeneration, this time of its declining post-war infrastructure. This has witnessed a second radical effacement in the form of a car industry that has been rendered almost non-existence owing to a range of socio-economic factors and developments.

As such Coventry offers a plethora of intriguing and revealing public sites, often circumscribed or governed by atrophying instances of functionalist modernist architecture, street furniture and the built environment in general that were designed and constructed at a time of high local authority investment in an ideal of civic responsibility, democratic participation, welfare provision and social commitment, to say nothing of industrial optimism. In late 2017 Coventry was successful in its bid to become UK City of Culture in 2021 and this initiative will serve as the central plank in a ten-year cultural strategy of urban development. The implementation of arts practices as the means to track and galvanise urban change is therefore an idea that is very much 'in play' at this point in time and an aim of the Sensing the City research is that its findings will be able to contribute directly to the project of revitalisation, not least since such programmes frequently become ensnared in abstract planning, ignoring such factors as embodied interactions with public space and the 'felt', experiential and everyday sides of urban living. Moreover, while Coventry will serve as a prototype for the particular project in question, the ultimate aim is to devise a portfolio of rationalised research practices in the form of a functional paradigm that may be applied in any given urban contexts.

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Research Concept & Context


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