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※2020年6月1日更新
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Space To Ourselves: Spatial Empathy During Covid-19

(Photo by Chloe @https://www.instagram.com/chloer._/)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about space. Space as in the universe above us, but also the physical space that we occupy; the geography, both personal and impersonal, that delimits our daily lives and defines ourselves and our imaginations. The former is endless, completely open–the exact opposite of my own spatial situation and that of  many others. We’re closed in, “holed” up, confined, “imprisoned” in our homes that are definitely not prisons. The spaces we could move about in, which once used to be as open as transportation could take us, are now suddenly much smaller and constricted. 

We’re used to moving around freely. In this way, how we move through space comes to represent how we feel about personal freedom, perhaps as much so as how free we actually are legally and politically. It’s hard to gauge where we are on that more abstract scale. It’s easier to imagine freedom as being the spaces we can or can’t move around in. We feel more liberated when the world is open to us and we can move about as we like. We feel trapped when we are stuck where we are. 

We’re not imprisoned though, necessarily, by being at home. For many of us being at home is comfortable most of the time–we have our beds and our comfort clothes, food, music, TV and books–we are equipped nowadays with endless streams of entertainment to keep us distracted (of course, not everyone has these luxuries in their home and not everyone’s home is a comfortable place). To be stuck at home is not the worst thing–in fact we’re lucky to be at home– and yet we find ourselves having a hard time. It is still home but it also feels not like home because of the extraordinary situation that we’re in. 

Obviously there is the constant worry that seeps in–about the pandemic, family members, the state of the economy, the state of the world. There is also our changing relationship with the physical space itself. Our homes used to be where we could escape from the world and relax. I can’t speak for everyone, but I haven’t been able to relax while at home for the last month and a half. Maybe I can manage bits and pieces of relaxation here and there, but never for a sustained period of time.

The trick was always that we never really escaped, we were always part of the world even when we were tucked cozily into the walls of our homes. Those walls never really separated us from what was going on outside, but they comforted us nonetheless. Now, as much as we try to shut ourselves away more and more, we realize that we really can’t, no matter how hard we try to drown it all out. All we can do is look at pictures of the empty city streets where we long to be.

Our relationships to our homes and the spaces around us is changing, as I mentioned yesterday. Neighborhood parks are becoming the unsung heroes of the Covid-19 era, and I have a feeling that they will remain so after it’s done, as people continue to remember how these public spaces touched their lives and gave them a small taste of feeling free during their self-isolation. But not just parks, I think people are becoming aware of their neighborhoods in ways they never had before. Having to take walks nearby instead of going farther aways is making people explore around them and go to places in their neighborhoods they had never given a second thought to before. And this sense of discovery closer to home is, I think, affecting our sense of neighborhood and how to define it. 

There’s a very interesting article from CityLab, where people were asked to draw maps of the spaces they occupy during self-isolation. It’s not just drawings of homes–there are maps of neighborhoods and sound maps; maps that are geographically intricate and maps that are more representational and imaginative. Maybe we are confined spatially, and yet our sense of the spaces we occupy is expanding in some ways–filing out more of our neighborhoods, and spreading through our imagination and awareness of life around us.

As an escape game/scavenger hunt company, my colleagues and I at Nazobako have been interested in physical spaces and how we engage with them for a while now. Escape games are these interesting uses of spaces, where the players are entrapped and confined in order to then liberate themselves mentally and later physically as well. There’s a sense of mental escape and relief afterwards despite the physical confinement. Even our scavenger hunt games change players’ relationship to their physical spaces without changing the actual physical environment at all. The sense of discovery is all built on imagination and an inner motivation to explore that we simply stimulate. I am not saying that this situation is comparable to escape games and scavenger hunts, but I am suggesting that it is possible that changing our physical spaces and the way we relate to them can affect how liberated we feel mentally. 

What about technological space? We are now confined to little boxes on a screen, and almost perfect symbolic representation of how we physically feel–stuck at home in our little boxes. But even so, technology-use during the covid-19 pandemic is breaking down some spatial barriers by allowing to see each others’ homes. Those little screens seem to trap us, but like magic mirrors in fantasy novels, allow us a brief glimpse into our coworkers’ private spaces/lives and vice versa. When we watch interviews now on TV, they are conducted mostly from isolation, which gives us a brief view of someone else’s home office or kitchen table. We are regularly made aware of how other people live and what other cities around the world look like. I think this makes everyone a little closer, really. It allows us to imagine others’ daily lives, and to therefore remove some of the layers that separate us. 

Spaces can be filled with more than things or people–memories, feelings, mysteries. It may seem like many of our spaces right now are occupied by silence, emptiness, loneliness. But let’s remember that they can also be filled with love, kindness, and friendship too–in these difficult times and especially afterwards.

Stay safe, stay home, stay strong, stay connected.

With love,

Lee and the staff of Nazobako/Invite Japan

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