The Art of Personal Space

Nathan Destro and his “personal space protector” on the streets of Johannesburg. Photos by Christo Doherty

In New York, bulging sidewalks have led to the partial pedestrianization of Times Square and plans for something similar along teeming 34th St. In Cairo, fed up pedestrians often take matters into their own hands, competing with cars to form express lanes off the sidewalks of window-shopping meccas like Talaat Harb. And anyone navigating a busy scramble crossing like the one just outside Tokyo’s Shibuya station might feel like an extra in Braveheart, surging into battle against the horde on the opposing corner.

Ever since the concept of “personal space” was first coined in the late 1960s, the increasing density of the world’s rapidly urbanizing population has meant that it’s gone largely forgotten or ignored. Now, two artists on two different continents are fighting back — in a manner of speaking. As a Digital Arts postgraduate at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, Nathan Destro created a “personal space protector” to keep strangers at a distance.

Destro tested his invention on the sidewalks of Joburg’s Braamfontein neighborhood last year. In the context of South Africa’s sprawling largest city, Braamfontein is fairly dense, although its sidewalks hardly seem as teeming as Tokyo’s or New York’s. Passersby appear alternately amused or almost offended by the standoffishness of his rig; “personal space” can seem hilariously needy where it’s unnecessary and outright selfish where it’s not.

Around the same time Destro’s device debuted, a better publicized competitor emerged across the Atlantic. Brazilian conceptual artist Vivian Puxian created her own personal space protector, seemingly intended to mock urban phobias about overcrowding, crime, and disease (she advertised it as a means to avoid swine flu).

While Puxian was touring the United States, the New York Post borrowed the costume for a spin through a still-swarming Times Square and wryly noted that “sure enough — nobody invaded our personal space,” though it also found that “the walking piece doubles as a talking piece”. The ultimate irony of the personal space protector is that it brings its wearer the very attention he or she sought to avoid.

That would probably make sense to Destro, whose design was inspired by chindōgu, the Japanese art of “inventing ingenious everyday gadgets that, on the face of it, seem like an ideal solution to a particular problem”. What distinguishes chindōgu is this twist: “anyone actually attempting to use one of these inventions would find [they cause] so many new problems, or such significant social embarrassment, that [they] effectively [have] no utility whatsoever”. As strange as they may seem, chindōgu devices can help illustrate social or technical paradoxes: in this case, that the search for personal space in a crowded city, whether by comical device or some less absurd means, may be as counterproductive as it is futile.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Tuesday June 15 2010at 12:06 am , filed under Africa and Middle East, Art and Design, United States and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “The Art of Personal Space”

  • Moi says:

    I wonder why people write articles without checking info. Why does the author say that Puxian’s PSP was made “seemingly intended to mock urban phobias”? Just because they read that in another article, written by someone who is the actual mocker? I bet nobody contacted the inventor to ask her what she really intended. Did you (author of this present article) contact Puxian? In her blog, she doesn’t sound incoherent or mocking anyone. Did you read all of the posts?
    Also, the way you write about the Destro and Puxian may give the impression that Destro had the PSP idea first, when, if you CHECK both blogs, you’ll see that Puxian’s has posts written before the 1st post on Destro’s blog about his PSP. Perhaps that’s why she got all the attention from the media – because she was actually the first person to have the idea (er, with a better design too).
    She never mentioned in her blog that she wants to avoid people’s attention. She said she doesn’t want to be bumped into or pushed by the crowd. I’d suppose attention is good, but being pushed is not.
    I wonder why people who write articles don’t search for info before writing. I hope my comment isn’t deleted. Authors often delete comments that point mistakes in their articles, but rarely correct them or apologize for the mistakes made…

  • “Moi”, I’m sorry you seem so distressed by this post. I can assure you that no one has any intention of deleting your comment.

    To address some of your concerns:

    By using the word “seemingly,” in conjunction with a link to the other piece, my intention was solely to point to the another author’s interpretation, not provide my own or impute one to Puxian. I’m sorry if this wasn’t sufficiently clear.

    Moreover, the post is not meant to express the idea that Destro had the idea for a PSP first. It explicitly refers to the two PSPs being created “around the same time”. As you’ve noted, Puxian has received considerable attention in the media for her device, so in any case, playing a slightly less substantial role in this post should not be such a serious concern.

    Finally, nowhere does the post state that Puxian actually sought to avoid attention; it merely suggests that it’s ironic that the increased attention her device brings may result in an increased likelihood of a violation of personal space.

  • Hello, I am the creator of the PSP, Nathan Destro. Although it has been a year since this comment, I have only seen this discussion for the first time today. Honestly, I did not even know of Puxian’s creation until well after the time of creation, only when I discovered it in the Maissonueve article many months after I had returned to America.

    Surely we both created these designs as a reaction to certain phobias that we may have. My design was, yes, a chindogu because it fulfilled assignment requirements, but was also created as a (somewhat comedic) response to my surroundings. Of course I can go into detail about my true feelings behind the creation, but I have never been asked to despite the articles that have been published.

    There is definitely room for discussion in the fact that at small time intervals both Puxian and I created very similar pieces of art work while functioning as international artists in environments far different than our homeland.

    Hopefully someone is still interested in having a conversation on the matters.

  • Hi Nathan — I don’t believe I had any contact info for you at the time I wrote about your device. You should feel free to expand on your thoughts here, going into as much detail as you like.