The Boston Marathon

I try to sit down every day to write in my blog and had great topics about the peacemaking center planned in Ireland or the release of The Ken Burns’ documentary The  Central Park 5. I was even going to write about an uplifting session I just had with a local parish wanting to diversify its congregation and get involved with social justice. However I just can’t seem to proceed until I write something of my thoughts about the Boston Marathon Bombings and my experience there.

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On Monday the 15th I had been in class and lectures all day so it was closer to 1:30 when I got to the finish line of the Marathon just across from the grand stand. People were calling out to loved ones and encouraging others they didn’t know to the finish line. It was lovely with the flags waving in the air from countries all over the world. I soaked up that amazing atmosphere you get at unique events like this where people have worked hard to achieve something so personal, so physical. I couldn’t help but have a huge smile on my face. I was so happy I had decided to join everyone. However with all the people and flags I couldn’t see the runners very well so I walked down Boylston street a bit stopping in a space that looked free and clear of obstructions with a closer spot to the edge. I nestled my way in and checked my watch. It was 2:30 and I had plenty of time to take some more photos before heading back to do more work.  I was trying to catch the colorful and enthusiastic runners with costumes. I saw at least 2 runners wearing hamburgers. One guy had a beer floating out in front of him on a pole urging him towards his reward. Kings, gladiators and sparkly fairies drifted by my camera with smiles or with focused attention as they struggled towards the finish line. I was happily snapping away when I felt the first bomb go off like a shock wave through my body. I dropped my lens cap and the second sensation was a nasty smell. It was then that I turned to see the smoke just in time to feel the second bomb go off on my right. I turned to look at the new plume of smoke expanding out and moved to take in both billowing clouds. I knew they were bombs. Were there more? Would they go off right here in front of me? Which way should I run? Were people going to panic and trample us all? Should I take more pictures? Where’s my lens cap?

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These thoughts were running through my shocked mind until I heard the woman saying to her daughters next to me that we should run. Only then was I able to move.  I started jogging down Exeter Street. A woman next to me held her little girl in her arms whispering to her that it would be OK. I nearly tripped them as I tried to get around a light pole. I apologized and placed my hand on the woman’s back to comfort her as she comforted her daughter. I realized I needed to pay more attention to where I was going but as soon as I looked up I saw a woman with blood on her face being carried on either side by two men taking her to safety. Just after her was a woman was being held back by her boyfriend or husband as she tried to run into the smoke to find her brother. He wouldn’t let her go trying to convince her there might be more bombs. She kept fighting him anyway. I picked up my pace after this getting to Commonwealth Avenue where I stopped and was confused as police cars, ambulance and fire trucks started pouring in knocking down barricades to get to the smoke. I called my roommate and sister thinking logically that someone should know I was there in case something happened to me. It was only then that I realized before I had moved to avoid the flags I had been standing in front of the place where the first bomb went off. ( It was days later that a friend told me I was lucky I had also stopped short of the second one.) Lucky doesn’t even begin to capture what I felt.  I was however still in shock. I only started to cry when I heard my sister’s voice mail pick up and left a slightly hysterical message saying I was OK.

All around me people were crying, asking questions and trying to find their way home. I felt lucky to know where I was going and fell into line with others walking along the river to get to the Massachusetts Avenue bridge. My roommate met me halfway with a tea to calm my nerves and I went home to digest what has happened as I still do.

Being a big believer in restorative justice I think every day about the bombers and want to know why they did it. I also wonder if I had been injured or lost a loved one would I want a restorative process to occur. Would I want to sit down with the bombers and ask them why they did what they did as I do now? I do not feel like a real victim in this situation so I just can’t say. What I do know is that healing dialogue between the living victims and living perpetrator probably won’t happen for anyone even if they want it. If we had the desire and legal system to support this where would we even go to do it? How would we structure a session like this with 1 remaining perpetrator and hundreds of victims who may want to participate? There is no social or physical infrastructure that allows for this kind of justice on a mass scale in our country. I hope that one day there will be.

For now I have placed some of my pictures in this blog to try and honor the spirit of this great event and hope that some healing will follow for all of us in whatever way it can.

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Design as Therapy

Throughout the year I have been having experiences that have me thinking about the capacity of the design process itself to heal. There are two that stand out to me that I would like to share.

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Results from Peacemaking Pallete Process

The first was when earlier this year I ran a seminar with the Loeb fellows testing a new process I developed for community engagement. It is called the Peace Making Pallet and it is based on the traditions of Native American Peacemaking Circles and my early training as a circle keeper. I ask members of a given community to bring an object, material, texture color they are drawn to. Once I open the circle with the parameters of confidentiality I ask each person to act as an elder and tell a story associated with the content they have brought.  It is an amazing thing to watch people share intimacies through materiality. The objects provide both emotional safety and a doorway through which people feel comfortable to share more intimate experiences of space. Their stories are rich with content for a designer like me looking to imbibe the spaces of peacemaking with the rich cultural legacies of a given community. It was the first time I have experienced using design as a tool for connection, expression and psychological discovery.

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Chester Prison Student Collage for Community Space

A second experiences was when I went to teach at the state penal institution. We sat in circle together and I asked the students what jumped out at them from the readings we gave regarding their personal or perceived experience of the courthouse( Frank Greene-The Image of the Courthouse, Steve Bogira Courtroom 302, Restorative Justice Design-Deanna Van Buren). The inside students were quick to raise their hands to speak about the shame they felt and  the perceived judgments as they walked the crowded halls of the courthouse in handcuffs after being squeezed through the security and dingy back entries for the accused. They spoke about the way their hearts sank into their stomach as they rode the long elevator ride to the top floor where the more serious crimes were heard and into a courtroom where the judge sat high on his dais knowing that there was no way out. It was an intense circle to facilitate and the fist time I had ever taught in this style. While the outside students had less experience and charge around the content they also spoke about their feelings triggered by grim and depressing environments in Courtroom 302 and the film they had watched “Beyond Conviction”. When discussing the need for restorative space the students spoke about the necessity to have views to outside, the desire to have a table between or no table in victim offender mediation. What size should it be? What shape? One powerful image was invoked by an incarcerated student who suggested there should be a confessional booth to shield the victim from the perpetrator before coming in to full view of each other. As always I was amazed by the powerful insights people have into space when given the language and tools to speak about it.

After this we went into creating collages that were to represent a restorative space for a victim, offender or the community, the great triad of the restorative process. It was quite a scene to watch the students gathered in mixed groups huddled over the few magazines we were allowed to bring in and the rulers we made out of chipboard to meet prison security in order to tear the images out of them.

I walked around trying to support the students and saw one inside man, looking distressed. He said he was done but his collage had only a few images. He explained he had been assigned to create a restorative space for a victim. He showed images of people alone, isolated, aging and afraid. He said this represented the experience of the victim and his family who were suffering now that he was in prison. I asked him if there was a way to think about a space that would support them and he said this was not possible. I asked if there was something that could be changed in the space of his family’s home to perhaps heal and restore some of what was lost. He said “no, they just need me back there”. I felt a little helpless but suggested that he might then want to show pictures of families that would represent this restorative reunion. He looked hopeful and all the students helped find him images of families. When I came back around his board had some new images. Families, fathers and sons even a richly textured image of owls huddled together. He was smiling. As we finished up I started to see other collages and the impact they were having on the students as they expressed themselves through images of peoples, space and material. It was not unlike the experience I had with The Peacemaking Pallet.

Restorative Collage of Chester Student

Chester Prison Student Collage for a Victim’s Restorative Space

One my way back to Boston I started to think that while art therapy had been used across a broad spectrum of disciplines was there anyone using design as therapy. Could the processes and tools designers use every day be a way to access emotions and restore healing? To be honest I am not yet sure but I am inspired by the two experiences I described and the words of an incarcerated woman in her mid-50s, Belinda, who my co-teacher Barb Toews interviewed for her dissertation research. When asked to create space to represent self-forgiveness she was seeking Belinda selected a magazine photo of a beautiful backyard garden, propped it up like a window wall and stated:

“If the time of self-forgiveness ever comes, I believe it will look like this. I am in my house, content and feeling free. This backyard is like my “serenity place.” I would walk out there, thank God for my life and for overcoming my obstacles and for what I held on to for far too long.”

Belinda's Collage

Belinda’s Self Forgiveness Space

The Good in Gaming- A report from the Game Developer Conference 2013

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I have just come back from the great Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and thought an update on the state of gaming as it related to design may be in order. I fully attended this year and went to many terrible and wonderful presentations. Many of the sessions including most of the nominees for game of the year at the Developers Choice Awards Ceremony told me that the video game industry still has a long way to go before it  divorces itself from the violence and misogynistic images that many of us associate with its products.  However there were many talks I found inspiring and informative. The most helpful for me from a technical point of view was Building Sim City Art in the Service of Simulation with creative director Ocean Quigley.  I learned sim cities get created as designers choose from a pallet of textures and architectural elements (what we might call a kit of parts) that got applied across various volumes which are also chosen from a palette that includes everything from taco trucks to skyscrapers. Quigley said that architects were involved with this process but I wasn’t sure how. The poor guy tried to get the designers to use scripted grammar or algorithms to create facades but apparently they weren’t into this which I totally get.  In addition to the design process I learned about façade and relief mapping on quads and tried to understand how to get polygon counts down. This polygon count issue is the enemy of the architect/designer trying to make cool and original buildings in the virtual world but like me has no idea how to do it minimally.

After learning how to make virtual cities I went to see a post mortem review of the 20 year old Myst which The Witness has been repeatedly compared to. They are right. While it is working with old technology which makes it less dynamic and has  badly designed cut and paste buildings it is still a lot like The Witness. After getting a little panicked that I was going to get sued  for copy write infringement I calmed down and realized that with all the gun toting death eating zombie games our there we were hardly out of bounds on this one.

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The next day I switched gears and learned that while they sounded like infomercials lectures that broke things down into steps seemed to work well for gamers.  My old client( for real buildings) Pixar told us about The 5 Key Plot Points to Creating A Great Story which I had actually learned in Marshal Gantz’s class last year when I had to write my own narrative. I learned from the creator of The Witcher series how to be innovative and creative in 8 Easy Steps that involve asking questions and identifying feature dependencies.

I also felt a little uncomfortable as he put up images of naked women playing cards that were at one point part of the game. While people started giggling I looked around this massive room filled with thousands of people and was reminded  that I was one of the few women there and only 1 of 3 black women that I saw during my 3 days. In short I stood out just a tiny bit. This prompted me to go to the IGDA Diversity Advisory Board round table discussion where I was the only black woman there and the discourse was a little bit skewed for my liking. I wasn’t so sure that having more black men on the screen with guns was the solution to creating diversity in the gaming industry.  I shared how the National Organization for Minority architects was doing things with Project Pipeline but also wasn’t so sure they were interested. Either way I got some cards and scuttled out.

Later the day, I heard the most inspiring talk during my time at the conference. It was Designing Journey by Jenova Chen the president of That Game Company. This year Journey swept the IGF & Choice Awards Ceremony. It prompted standing ovations at both their talk and the ceremony. Journey is a refreshingly humanist game that creates emotional connections between players who are searching to find their purpose as they travel to a looming mountaintop surrounded by miles of burning, sprawling desert, age-old ruins, caves and howling winds.

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During his talk Chen spoke about emotional pallets and his evolution from needing the power adolescents sought in games to wanting a feeling of awe and mystery, intimacy and friendship. This game along with other indie game winners such as Kentucky Route Zero and Cart Life helped me to see how incredibly creative and beautiful virtual games can be. It showed the magnificence that gets created when art, architecture, graphics and story come together to create a new world where you as the actor can participate, influence and receive something new.  I am not sure if there is a place for my practice in this industry. As someone who refuses to engage in designing environments where violence or the objectification of women is a primary theme I am going to struggle. However I learned this week that indie games are current culture and hopefully the future for this industry. If games like Journey are winning the highest honor in the industry and games like The Witness are being picked up early by Play Station there is a new era coming and perhaps we can be at the forefront of this change for the good in gaming.

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero