Emma Waltraud Howes – Symbolic Interactionism. Marking space with yellow lines

Written by Roberta Coletto

In her series Subtle Architectures, Emma Waltraud Howes worked with her body as a tool to both invade public space and making herself visible.
She comes from a dance background, having started off with classical ballet and moved on to contemporary dance, which led her to embrace the liberating possibility of allowing her body to experience sprawling movements and natural heaviness.

Subtle Architectures arises from the observation of yellow lines drawn in front of public buildings in Canada, marking smoking areas in common spaces.
In her performance, Waltraud Howes marked a portion of ground in a public space with lines of chalk and used that confined area as an exposed invisible box in order for herself to communicate.
Rather than obeying the command to confine herself to the space dictated, she places herself in an uncomfortable situation by taking the initiative and demarcating the space on her own, rather than “knowing her place”. This is accentuated by a series of improvised movements, led by an unplanned external trigger.
Dancing within her self-demarcated framework, she explores her somatic intelligence by taking temporary possession of public space, where a lack of an institutional context allows the artist to reinvent the rules of the institutional acceptance of art.
What normally constitutes a symbol of restriction and prohibition has become an interesting window for her to observe how people respond to this boundary. Performing in Germany, the artist became fascinated in observing how the message of signified and signifier changed within different cultural structures: some would stop and look for the reason of the line being there, while in Canada some would playfully bend outside the line to exhale their smoke.
For the Subtle Architekturen: The Transient Nature of Spatial Order, performed in 2008 for the 90th anniversary of Bauhaus in Jena, the triad of performances was influenced by the Triadic Ballet of Oskar Schlemmer.
The project is a further reflection of the concept of symbolic interactionism, introduced by the sociologist Herbert Blumer in the late 1960s. According to his studies, people act toward things based on the meaning those things have for them; and those meanings are modified every time through interpretation.
This work reveals how perception, and thus knowledge, is organized and deciphered by existing beliefs and symbolic representation as mediators: in this case, these are maps (defining space by the act of drawing) and non-verbal language (the movement itself).

Photos credits: Subtle Architectures, 2007-ongoing, Altered photographs from performance documentation, Courtesy of the Artist: Emma Waltraud Howes