By Aleksandra Ianchenko
In this post, artist and PhD student Aleksandra Ianchenko reflects on the use of sketching as a research method for understanding and describing atmosphere in public transport spaces. In the first part, she discusses sketching from a methodological perspective, considering some of its advantages as a way of approaching atmosphere as a concept. In the last two sections, she presents two recent projects (“Strange(r)Distance” and “#sketch_your_stop”) and thinks about how they managed to capture atmospheres at public transport stops in Tallinn, Estonia.
Sketching Atmosphere: Some Methodological Considerations
Live sketching is a common practice for visual artists. Unlike detailed drawings, sketches take a couple of minutes but can express a scene or an object in a powerful way. With few brush strokes or pencil lines an artist can capture a general view of a scene or focus on some of its elements. As a rapid technique, sketching requires an artist to be precise: define and express the key characteristics of a scene in a simple, laconic manner. It can be said that quick live sketching allows artists to express not only what they see but also what they feel. Often unfinished, spontaneous, and vivid sketches can convey not only the view of a scene but also its mood or atmosphere. Following this idea, let us consider live sketching as a method for studying atmospheres in public places.
As “a felt presence of something in space” (Böhme 2015, 13), atmospheres are a combination of objective and subjective characteristics. On the one hand, they are formed by certain material configurations of the environment together with its sensorial elements of light, smells, and sounds. On the other hand, atmospheres exist only when one can sense them by being bodily present in space and moving through it. Therefore, atmospheres can be understood as ambiguous entities which emerge in the relationship between the sensed space and sensing bodies. Through changes in such relationships, atmospheres move, emerge and dissipate. Although ambiguous, elusive, and unstable, atmospheres are powerful. They can put people in a certain mood and impact their behavior and experiences. This power makes atmospheres an important category when considering public space, both theoretically and practically. In a practical sense, atmospheres in public spaces can be intentionally programmed by architecture and urban design. In a theoretical sense, they become an intriguing research object that entail certain methodological challenges. What are the tools for capturing and understanding invisible feelings?
One study suggests that phenomenography – “a practice necessarily entangled in geographical and historical contexts, existential points of view and idiomatic ‘graphic’ devices” (Calve and Gaudin 2018, 2) – is a fruitful way of studying atmospheres in public places. Working from the question ‘how does it feel to be here?’, the researchers visited four public places in Berlin in the company of an artist who did watercolor sketches on the spot. Together with auto-ethnographic notes, these sketches were used as a tool to study the sensorial and emotional experiences of being in these places. Sketching is understood here as an attunement, a practice through which an artist can get bodily and emotionally attuned to the immediate atmosphere of the space. This idea of drawing as an attunement is outlined by Brice Sage (2018) who used observational drawings not as a means for documentation and representation, but as a way to get attuned to the spatial, temporal, material, and cultural layers of the observed space. Her quick, charcoal drawings serve not as a memetic but as a knowledge-generating tool by which one can feel, capture, and represent a sensed atmosphere in situ.
Inspired by these examples, I suggest using sketching as a means to understand (and to get attuned to) the atmosphere of such important public spaces as public transport stops. Seemingly mundane and uninteresting, stops and stations have already been in the focus of many studies which show them to be dynamic and versatile sites of urban life. For instance, Orvar Löfgren (2015) approaches Copenhagen Central Railway Station as a multimodal space: passengers are rushing to the trains, the homeless are seeking shelter, the young are loitering. Thinking about the atmosphere of the station, Löfgren sees it as a sensorium where all the senses are entangled (the noise of the trains, different smells, sensations from a warm cup of coffee). His observation of different modes and moods also pictures railway stations as dynamic places which “have a lifecycle; they are reborn every morning and die a little bit late at night” (2015, 87).
Although stations and stops can be seen as immobile structures which facilitate flows of passengers and vehicles, their multifaceted atmospheres make them more than characterless non-places. A recent artistic research project conducted at the Viru Bus Terminal in Tallinn was driven by this understanding.
In late February 2021, poet Anete Kruusmägi and myself conducted a joint project entitled Strange(r)Distance. This week-long project was initiated by Vent Space, a student-run initiative at the Estonian Academy of Arts, and the aim was to spot strangeness: strangers in a public transport space at the strange time when the pandemic required social distancing.
We chose the Viru Bus Terminal as the site for our project. Located under a big shopping mall in the center of Tallinn, the Viru Bus Terminal is a major public transport hub with the majority of the city’s buses passing through the terminal. The large space of the terminal is divided in two by a glass wall: the waiting area on the one side and the bus platforms in conjunction with underground parking on the other. The waiting area is also used as a pedestrian passage from which people can enter the shopping mall or proceed to the other side of the street.
Working separately, Anete and I took our notebooks and immersed ourselves into the mysterious atmosphere of the terminal with the idea in mind that distance need not only be understood as a spatial gap between people. Benjamin’s definition of aura as “a sense of distance, however close it may be” (1968, 222) was inspirational, equating as it does distance with aura in a way that does not separate but rather surround objects with atmosphere. Likewise, the timetable screens in the terminal pointed to distance in its geographical sense as a trajectory between A and B.
An experienced creative writer and devoted public transport user, Anete uses the terminal as a writing desk. Surrounded by sounds and voices of the terminal, she sits on a bench and writes stories in her notebook. For me, as an artist, the terminal becomes an artistic studio for making quick sketches using a line as the main graphic element.
In her stories, Anete fantasizes about the possible life trajectories of the people she sees taking a bus from the terminal. Reading the stories, it may seem that experiences of travelling on public transport play a minor role in the characters’ lives. However, upon a closer look, it becomes clear that buses are distinctly engraved in their biographies. For instance, one falls in love with a girl sitting next to him on a bus. Another lets the bus take him away from the object of his affection.
This strange entanglement of individual lives and public transport routes also comes out in my sketches. They capture the immediate moment of strange life in the terminal: one line unites silhouettes of people, buses, and elements of the interior in one unified, lace-like pattern. The pattern captures the unique nature of public transport: it allows everyone to follow their individual itinerary yet in a collective mode.
What can we say about the atmosphere of the terminal and how the method of quick sketching and short stories help us to understand it? Both Anete and I admit that the terminal was more dynamic than we had expected. The pandemic has caused a general decrease in the use of public transport and public spaces, but the terminal was quite populated. I noticed some peculiar dwellers in the terminal: a homeless man with dozens of big shopping bags; an old lady who works as a cleaner and has a trolley full of brooms and bottles; a drunk teenage girl in pink pajama pants. The appearance of each character was surrounded by distinct sounds: the homeless dropping coins in the vending machine; the subtle sound of the cleaner sweeping the floor; and the drunk girl’s loud voice as she sang along with the music in her earphones. All these sounds were short yet long enough for making a sketch.
As mentioned, we worked separately. I did my sketches in the middle of a day when the terminal is used both by pedestrians and passengers. Focusing on a bench that was constantly occupied – one person left, another came – I looked to express this constant flow of people through overlapping silhouettes. The speed and freedom of sketching as a technique allowed me to capture figures in motion.
Anete came to the terminal at different times, including early mornings and late evenings. For her, the terminal was a good place for writing, regardless of the strangers around. She says that the low temperature at the terminal stimulated her to write faster which somehow helped her to always find the right words. In this sense, an atmosphere in its direct, meteorological sense becomes an intrinsic part of her stories.
This artistic view on the atmosphere of Viru Bus Terminal is only limited. Although it is combined by two different artistic approaches – sketching and creative writing – it represents an atmosphere (1) released from colors (black and white lines and letters) and (2) conditioned by individual artistic manners (linear drawing and genre of short stories). For a greater diversity of opinion, let us have a look at another project where the atmospheres of public transport in Tallinn were sketched by several artists.
On the last day of September 2020, ten artists took part in the creative collective action #sketch_your_stop during which they went to public transport stops and sketched whatever they found interesting there. Afterwards the artists were asked to upload their sketches on the internet and answer the questions:
1) How would you describe the atmosphere at the stop?
2) Was there any reaction from people?
The event was initiated by myself together with Andrei Kedrin, a Tallinn-based artist and founder of the community Wednesday Sketching. Since 2016 the community has organized sketching sessions which are open for everyone regardless of their artistic skills and backgrounds.
The ten participating artists chose different stops (two were actually outside of Tallinn, in Narva and Saint-Petersburg) and used different sketching techniques (for example, one drew a digital sketch on her tablet). Despite the differences, it is possible to see common traits in what they considered central for the representation of the stop and its atmospheres. Some artists focused on people as the main characters of their pictures while some captured stops from far away together with adjacent buildings and greenery. Others gave a central place to the public transport vehicles.
The written responses were rather short, but they clarify what the artists understood by ‘atmosphere’. They emphasized the weather and the time of the day (“sunny autumn day”, “calm as the clock was quite late in the evening”), their own memories (“Years ago there was a kiosk in there. Then there was more movement and people around”), and traffic (“hectic as usual, because there are many trolleybuses and ordinary buses”).
In her field work, Brice Sage (2018) understands the act of making observational drawings on the spot as a public event. Drawing in public might create a relational space in which an artist can engage not only with the environment but also with other people. During our action, artists experienced little attention from passersby. One artist reported about a drunk man on the stop who was happy to find out that he became a model (“one even came up to me to see what I am exactly doing. it was so cute because he was so happy about my picture of him”). Another artist admitted that it would have been nice if someone had expressed an interest.
This corresponds with Andrei Kedrin’s long experience of drawing on public spaces. He notes that at public transport places such as stations and stops artists can enjoy a sort of privacy. People are usually in too much of a rush to pay attention. He adds that it is usually either the elderly or children who are curious enough to come closer and ask what he is doing.
For this particular sketching event, Andrei went to Tondi, a junction in Tallinn which is at the end of a tram line and also has platforms for intercity trains. In his written response, he describes the atmosphere there as a border, pointing to the switch between modes of transportation that people often make there: “some people come here by the train from outside of the city and then continue their way by the tram”. His watercolor sketch shows a fragment of a tram that passes by the small house used by the staff during their breaks. The warm colors of the sketch corresponds with both the colors of the sunny autumn day and the modern tramcar.
Besides the event #sketch_your_stop, the Wednesday Sketching community has done other sketching sessions at public transport stops. Artists have visited the Tallinn train stations Balti Jaam and Väike-Tallinn, and the harbor. As Andrei notes, sketching there offers artists a great chance to observe various emotions, characters, and situations. Working together, artists can enjoy an encouraging atmosphere of a collective practice which is especially important for those who have just started drawing. This communal creative spirit is one of the key features of the Wednesday Sketching community. However, due to the pandemic and its restrictions on gathering, #sketch_your_stop had to use a different format that allowed the artists to work apart. Although physically separate, they stayed connected through a moment of collective endeavor and, subsequently, via social media where they shared their work. In a way, this flexible format also reflects the nature of public transport. A mode of transport that enables individual journeys in a collective mode, or, as Marc Auge has famously said, embodies “collectivity without festival and solitude without isolation” (Auge 1986, 30).
Auge, Marc. 2002. In the Metro. University of Minnesota Press.
Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. 1968. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Bohme, Gernot. 2013. “The art of the stage set as a paradigm for an aesthetics of atmospheres” Ambiances [Online], URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ambiances/315
Le Calvé, Maxime; Gaudin, Olivier. 2019. “Depicting Berlin’s Atmospheres: Phenomenographic Sketches”, Ambiances [Online], URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ambiances/2667
Löfgren, Orvar. 2015. “Modes and Moods of Mobility” in Culture Unbound, Volume 7, 2015: 175-195. Published by Linköping University Electronic Press:
Sage, Brice. 2018. “Situating skill: contemporary observational drawing as a spatial method in geographical research”, Cultural geographies, 135–158.