Woman dances in front of Toronto Skyline Mushtari Afroz Intervention in Public Space at Toronto Island. Photo courtesy of Mushtari Afroz.

Choreosensing Public Spaces within Residential Neighbourhoods

August 18, 2023

August 18, 2023 | By Mushtari Afroz

The annual Ontario Culture Days’ Creatives in Residence series invites artists to develop community-engaged projects to be presented during the fall Festival. This year’s lineup of residents explore themes of material culture.

Mushtari Afroz is based in Pickering, Ontario. Her project involves a series of dance performances that will interact with Pickering’s public spaces and invite public participation.

Whether it’s urban or suburban areas in cities, public spaces in residential areas are fundamental to everyday life experiences which have been linked to the well-being and quality of life of residents. Consciously or unconsciously, we connect with them through multi-sensory interactions that help create overall impressions of our neighbourhood public spaces and establish meaningful connections with the neighbourhood community. In his book ‘The Eyes of Skin’, Finnish architect and author Juhani Pallasmaa reiterate this inseparable connection between human and their inhabited built environment by suggesting that ‘Our contact with the world takes place at the boundary line of self through specialized parts of our enveloping membrane.’ By specialized parts, Pallasmaa refers to our sensory organs which are in constant interaction with the surroundings and are constantly stimulated by it. In this complex physiological process of sensory stimulation what gets generated is our multi-sensory experience of the world. When our senses are stimulated in a positive way, we recall the memory or the perception of the place as some sort of good sensorial experience that encourages us to continue to engage with and inhabit that space.

However, the drive for creating ‘functional cities in the West through ‘disembodied’ practices has detached public spaces from our bodies, instituting the stage of mutual ‘disengagement’ as a retreat from everyday public spaces and deteriorating the sense of belonging to the residential neighbourhood environment. As a result, residents either tend to avoid connecting with public spaces or resemble an ‘auto-pilot’ state manifested through their lack of sensory attention to public spaces – they see the surroundings but do not look, they hear the surroundings but do not listen.

Recognizing the role that public spaces play in creating a sense of community, I ask my artist-self ‘How can sensory engagement with public spaces within residential areas be re-activated through artistic means in order to increase residents’ attachment to these spaces and (re)awaken their sense of belonging to their neighbourhoods?’ Since late 2021, I have been actively exploring this crucial question around residents’ lived experience of their neighbourhoods through various projects.

Woman laying on ground with Toronto skyline in background
Public Space Project ‘Drifting Dialogues’ created through the support of Artscape Gibraltar Point in 2022. Photo Credit: Dewan Masud Karim

My first public space project ‘Drifting Dialogues’ was co-created with residents from Wards and Algonquin islands as well as with artists-in-residence at Artscape Gibraltar Point (AGP). As its Winter Island artist-in-residence 2022, I focused my research on the following questions – what is/are participants’ lived experience of the built environment on the island? Are there narratives in this interaction that often stay hidden from non-residents’ points of view? And how can I reflect on these narratives through embodied artistic expressions? The project culminated in a short documentary film and three short dance films that were presented at the Spring exhibition at AGP.

Trailer of the documentary ‘Drifting Dialogues’, Artscape Gibraltar Point. Film Credits: Dewan Masud Karim, Shawn Barry

My current ongoing public space project delves further into residents’ lived experiences by focusing particularly on their sensory connection with their public spaces. What has emerged from this deep dive is a new interdisciplinary artistic practice ‘ChoreoSensing’ that stands on the foundational pillars of four other practices-sensory practices, choreographic practice, participatory practice and tactical urbanism practice. This new practice enables residents to establish a deeper embodied and active sensory engagement – through visual and auditory receptors- with socio-physical dimensions of public spaces within their residential neighbourhoods.

Person standing in middle of field with blindfold on
Listening to the Sound of Winter Photo Credit: Dewan Masud Karim

A. Sensory practice:

As an artist-researcher, I develop this practice in neighbourhood public spaces to immerse myself in their visual and auditory dimensions. Two methods that are used in my practice to create this immersive experience are soundwalk and improvised movements. While the soundwalk attunes our hearing to the soundscape, improvised movements attune our sight and gaze to the multi-perspectival nature of the streetscape.

Visual perspective exploration of neighbourhood streetscape using GoPro Camera. Film Credit: Mushtari Afroz.
Choreographic Practice Development. Film Credit: Dewan Masud Karim.

B. Choreographic practice:

Here I look at choreographic practice not as a method to create dance steps. Rather I look at it as an expanded method that lends its capacity to systematize movements in space and time for the production of human knowledge. Using choreographic thinking and several movement aesthetic choices, I organize the simplest pedestrian movement mode – walking – in order to create ‘sensory scores’ that residents can use as tools to sensorily explore their neighbourhood public spaces.

Participants exploring streetscape and soundscapes via visual and auditory score. Film Credits: Mushtari Afroz, Shawn Barry.

C. Participatory Practice:

Participatory practice, in my work, empowers residents to engage in grassroots-level actions that facilitate collective thinking and re-evaluation of their relationships with neighbourhood public spaces. Residents performatively explore streetscapes, green and open public spaces using ‘sensory scores’ as they simultaneously co-create their re-imagined version of the neighbourhood.

Lawn sign with poem titled Walk in search of a human sound
Pop-Up Score Installation in Public Spaces. Photo Credit: Dewan Masud Karim.

D. Tactical Urbanism Practice:

Tactical urbanism has become a widespread technique for implementing interventions in urban areas in order to initiate civic engagement. In my practice, it offers me the necessary tools to install site-specific ‘sensory scores’ in public spaces for the purpose of engaging, directly or indirectly, everybody in the neighbourhood with art interventions. Belonging to the pop-up or temporary installation category, these playful interventions stay at the site for 48-72 hours before disappearing forever from our sight.

This ongoing interdisciplinary practice ‘ChoreoSensing’ has been developed through a practice-led artistic research program in the Netherlands and tested in multiple residential neighbourhoods of the Greater Toronto Area in 2022 and 2023. Its ultimate aim is to empower residents to (re)awaken their sensory engagement with public spaces within residential areas and subsequently, enhance their sense of belonging to the neighbourhood.

Woman walking through neighborhood looks back towards camera
Pop-Up Score Installation in Public Spaces; Photo Credit: Dewan Masud Karim

Sensory Scores

Below I share a set of selected ’Do-It-Yourself’ ‘sensory scores’ developed between September 2022 and May 2023. These allow users to see and hear the ordinary anew as they embody and sensorily engage with the natural, physical and social dimensions of everyday public spaces within their neighbourhoods.

In conclusion, my hope as an artist-researcher in public spaces is that ChoreoSensing practice, through its performative scores and grassroots-level initiatives, will facilitate a more sensorily meaningful dialogue between Toronto’s residents and their everyday public spaces, a dialogue that instills active citizenship among residents but seems to have gradually disappeared in the run for creating ‘functional’ cities and communities in our contemporary time.

The ‘ChoreoSensing’ practice, and any materials developed within it, including, but not limited to, sensory scores, audio/video recordings, writings and images are copyright @2023 Mushtari Afroz. All rights reserved.

Ontario Culture Days runs an annual Creatives in Residence program. Part of the work of the Creatives is presented during public events for our festival of free arts and culture programming across Ontario.

Find more information on Mushtari Afroz’s project here, and read more about the 2023 Creatives in Residence cohort here.