A subway car is a sealed room between rooms, an inconsequential destination—the negative space between here and there. We are stuck in transit, so these middle moments are perfect opportunities for observation.
A middle school couple plays footsie while wearing the same red Converse sneakers. A mother sings something softly in Japanese as her daughter rests her head on the mother’s shoulder. An older couple stands at the end of the car with two rolling suitcases, but one is slightly undone at the top. I wonder why, then see a rabbit nose poke out of the opening. An art student opposite me is drawing the woman sitting to my right; she notices, so they enter an invisible dance where he pretends not to be sketching her while drawing, and she pretends not to notice that he’s drawing her despite knowing and wanting to catch glances of his work. Their eyes play keep-away with their glances, and I try to weave through the spaces of their cat and mouse game with my own eyes.
I’m secretly sketching too, scanning the tin-can room with my eyes, fetching everything worthy of attention. Listening to other people’s stories. Sniffing like that rabbit nose. I see a CD player I can’t hear. I hear a conversation I can’t see. I smell a chocolate bar I don’t want to taste.
In March, Liz Danzico asked me to fill a bit of negative space with observation. This past week, right before classes started, I put on a Noticing Workshop for her first year students at the SVA Interaction Design masters program. We walked in random, strange directions and stopped to see what was in front of us. We deduced the patterns of a donut shop. We learned that conversation can be warm when surrounded by nails and drills at a hardware store. We observed that the dominant smell of a grocery store is cardboard. We were all disturbed by this.
We went to the Natural History Museum and watched the people instead of the artifacts. We learned that most parents do not know much more than their kids when standing before a giant, prehistoric clam. We learned that museums are for wondering, so it’s the responsibility of the museum to help people raise interesting, obvious questions. Does this thing live where I live? Did they have to kill it to bring it here? Can I eat it? Coming up with your own answers is sometimes more interesting than having everything answered for you. So much of noticing is wondering.
But last week, the most important thing to observe was how a group of newly-minted students in a giant, new city worked as a group, shared half-baked ideas to let others build onto them, and responded to the world around them. Noticing is important, but what’s more important is sharing what one observes to define the edges of the experiences we share. This overlap bonds us, and the best part of paying attention is that it reminds us that we are occupying the same space at the same time as others. We are a part of the world, even in those in-between spaces.