PsicoArt – Rivista di arte e psicologia. Vol. 10 (2020)
ISSN 2038-6184

Caring-With Dialogic Sculptures. A Post-Disciplinary Investigation into Forms of Attachment

Elena CologniAnglia Ruskin University (UK)

Elena Cologni is Senior Research Fellow in Art and Research Coordinator at Anglia Ruskin University, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Cambridge School of Art in Cambridge UK. She has a PhD in Fine Art and Philosophy (2004) from the Central Saint Martins - University of the Arts London where she was Post Doctorate Research Fellow (2004/06 funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council). Cologni is Member of Royal Society of Sculptors, Associate Member of Royal Society Public Health (Art and Health working group) and has worked with many institutions and collections: University of Cambridge, Freud Museum in London, New Hall Art Collection in Cambridge, MuseumsQuartier in Vienna.

Published: 2020-11-16

The ‘art practice as research as art’ discussed set out to investigate through dialogic art how identity formation is linked with micro-social experiences and place. The project “Seeds of Attachment” by Elena Cologni is centered around a newly developed non-verbal strategy in the form of a sculptural prop, informed by psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld’s “Mosaic Test” (1938-1954), and discussed in relation to historical precedents in socially engaged art. The activation of the prop during encounters with ‘mothers’ on the school-run route, aimed at offering a context for an understanding of how their attachment to their children influenced the development of an attachment to place. This relational approach is defined as caring with, and underpinned by care ethics and ecofeminism. The implications of the adopted non-verbal dialogic artistic approach are considered in relation to new forms of gendered spatial practices to research on place, including affordances of place, and how these might lead to future post-disciplinary research.

La ‘pratica dell’arte come ricerca come arte’ si propone di indagare attraverso l’arte dialogica come la formazione dell’identità sia collegata a esperienze di tipo micro-sociale e legate al luogo. Il progetto “Seeds of Attachment” di Elena Cologni è incentrato su una strategia non verbale attraverso l’adozione di una scultura-strumento, ispirato dai principi del “Mosaic Test” della psicologa Margaret Lowenfeld (1938-1954), e discusso in relazione ai precedenti storici in ambito di arte sociale. L’attivazione della scultura durante gli incontri con ‘madri’ lungo il percorso casa-scuola, mirava a offrire un contesto per comprendere come il loro attaccamento ai figli abbia influenzato lo sviluppo di un attaccamento al luogo. Questo approccio relazionale è definito caring with - prendersi cura con e sostenuto dall’etica della cura e dall’ecofemminismo. Le implicazioni dell’approccio artistico dialogico non verbale sono prese in considerazione in relazione alle nuove forme di spatial practices di genere per la ricerca sul luogo, a includere le affordance del luogo e come queste potrebbero portare ad una futura ricerca post-disciplinare.

Keywords: care; artistic research; theory of attachment; place attachment; dialogic; ecology; ecofeminism; sculpture; art; psychology

With a commentary by Caterina Albano: University of the Arts London (UK)

Elena Cologni’s Art as Research as Art approach in context
by Caterina Albano1

Artistic practices whether in the fields of visual or performing arts are still perceived as an outpour of individual expression. Such bias undermines the formal, conceptual and critical reflection that underpins them. At the same time, the claim to knowledge and authority of science – though long-debated2 – clouds the crucial role of the arts in the contemporary production of knowledge. This raises questions around the role and significance of the arts in society, what can be regarded as knowledge, what are acceptable forms of knowledge at any given time and within different cultures, and what are its forms of articulations. While an attempt to answer those questions is beyond the scope of this brief introduction, Elena Cologni’s project, Seeds of Attachment (2016-18), offers us an opportunity for some brief considerations on the potential of artistic practices of being generative of knowledge – aesthetic knowledge, emotional knowledge, critical knowledge and, as Cologni demonstrates, ethical knowledge – thus pointing to the broader social and political significance of such practices. Hence, what does it mean to think of art as research and research as art?

At a basic level, in any historical period and across cultures, art is a formal investigation within specific artistic genres that deals with individual, social and/or political issues. Whether this investigation concerns the articulation or production of sound and its compositional construction, physical movement or the visual rendering of shapes or their spatial and temporal relations, art is already research. A visual artist might engage with formal questions around the rendering of a three dimensional body on a two dimensional surface, a choreographer with questions around the kinetic negotiation of space: their solutions are more than aesthetically pleasing and emotionally compelling, they are the result of research as ‘the careful study of a subject’ (OED). However, in regarding artistic practices as research, we refer to more complex and articulated investigations that entail different methodologies that intersect other disciplines and their approaches – archival research, as in the case of Seeds of Attachment, field work, observation, collection and analysis of data, and experimentation with materials. This goes hand in hand with a reflection within disciplinary contexts that include artistic practices but also other fields of research, as for instance, in our specific case, anthropology, geography, psychology and critical theory. Cologni applies a formal and material understanding to Margaret Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Test (1938-54) that becomes the starting point for an investigation whose methods resonate with those of psychology and whose reflection engages with ethics as much as with aesthetics through a discussion that, as her article shows, encompasses other artists’ work and diverse disciplinary contributions. This is itself the product of research into a subject and of critical engagement with it, from which insight is gleaned in an original synthesis.

In regarding art practices as research, we do not, however, suggest that they are subsidiary forms of historical, psychological, sociological or other kinds of investigation, but rather that artistic approaches to history, psychology or other subjects are equally generative of knowledge and reflection. It is not unusual that artists’ collaborations with experts in other disciplines lead to advances in those fields through their approach, design of methodologies or analysis. Art practices, in other words, are in themselves a process of investigation that it is embedded in specific artistic contexts by relating to other artists’ work, and draws on other disciplines and critical contexts to engage with topical questions, social issues and, as for Cologni, psychological processes. As her article testifies, this research generates psychological insight into attachment and outputs include academic papers or journal articles. But this research is also art. While the documentation of the work in artistic practices is as scrupulous as in scientific experiments, the final result is a body of work. For artistic practices the crucial articulation of the research that an artist has carried out and the knowledge that such research produces are artworks. The pliable shapes that Cologni has developed from Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Test and used with the participants to her project are sculptures. They are not a copy of the shapes in the test but rather a response on which aesthetic choices (the introduction of a semi-circular shape absent from Lowenfeld, size, elastic material etc…) reflect formal, conceptual and emotional considerations. Participants responds to such choices with their engagement to the work and the mutual interaction of the artist and participants translates in series of drawings. Unlike more traditional academic outcomes, and more radically, such knowledge does not remain within the confines of disciplinary expertise, but engages audiences: it is shared knowledge that generates further reflection and engagement from the part of the viewer.


Modern life involves changes of location, to a new village, town or country, nonetheless strong bonds with particular places endure. People’s country of origin, city, or village in which they grew up, the house in which they lived, the schools they attended, all form essential components of our identity, underpinning feelings of belonging.3 Equally, moving to a new place requires coming to terms with what has been left behind, to develop new bonds. These dynamics have implications on who we are and will become, because the ways in which one experiences place impacts one’s own identity, and is central to for one’s own wellbeing. This is today a widely shared condition as we witness the phenomenon of mass migration. However different might the underlying motives be, the effect of dynamics of attachment to (and separation from) one’s own place is worth considering carefully, even if when this account will be read the COVID19 pandemic will have paused this movement of people for a while.

The multidisciplinary approach in the illustrated project Seeds of Attachment (SoA), was supported by, including: New Hall Art Collection, Murray Edwards College of the University of Cambridge, and the Freud Museum, in London (2016-18),4 whereas the adopted research method was devised while in residence at the Margaret Lowenfeld Library (Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge). This led to developing a nomadic and dialogic sculpture, inspired by the Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Test Box (1938) and related book (1954), to be activated with participants in public places, and to be documented visually.

The dialogic approach underpins both the artistic strategy and the multidisciplinary research context, facilitating a web of relations through and around the project, as SoA, through encounters, aimed at opening up a debate on how one might develop place attachment,5 in relation to the attachment between carer and child,6 ultimately asking where home might be, and to find the results in non-verbal answers art might provide. The wider care ethics, psychological and artistic contexts for the research, the artistic methods adopted, and results are detailed below. This is driven by the believe that self-awareness of one’s own relation to place, and loved ones at the heart of one’s own wellbeing, can be conveyed through art.

1. Research Contexts

The project evolved through an ‘art as research as art’ investigation defined by underpinning research from different contexts, which all contributed to the arising of the dialogic and situated approach embedded in the final body of work. These contexts, and modes of investigation are detailed below to include: dialogic art rooted in relational and ecological approaches; social engaged and psychology informed art, including Lydia Clark; studies on the theory of attachment and place attachment; and The Margaret Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Test.

1.1. Dialogue and Ecology in Art

The context discussed below attempts to identify the relational approach defined as caring-with adopted in SoA at the intersection between dialogic, ecological art, and spatial practices.

Contemporary dialogic,7 relational,8 and social engaged art,9 and critical spatial practices10 have their roots in site-specific arts (including Environmental Art/Land Art)11 from the 60s and 70s. This context was part of anti-idealist and anti-commercial efforts, taking art out of the gallery, and the meaning of these works derived from the circulation and exchanges between art and site/places.12 Today’s social engaged art strategies according to Grant Kester13 is caracterised by a gradual movement away from object-based practices happening in the 60s and 70s, manifesting in an interest in interaction with the viewer, and a shift towards a durational experience,14 and are of collaborative nature. They develop in dialogue with all parties involved: artist, curator, institution and community groups. Within this context the work is produced in, and through, dialogical exchange,15 hence the more specific definition of dialogic art.

Artistic practices sharing a similar social mode of engagement, also encompass principles of: connectivity, ecological ethical responsibility, stewardship of inter-relationships and of commons, and can thus be discussed in terms of “ecological art.”16

Pioneer environmental artists included for example Nancy Holt17 and Jo Hanson (1918-2007). In particular, Hanson’s political approach entailed a degree of interdisciplinarity, as she talks about the “inseparability of sociology and ecology,” and how at the time “anger and discontent expressed themselves in the gesture of trashing the streets-aided and abetted by the wind!.”18 However, it was only until the exhibition “Weather Report: Art & Climate Change” curated by Lucy Lippard19 that a survey was done on ecology related art. This included artists whose take on ecology opened up the vocabulary for environmentalism,20 to include relational, dialogic practice also addressing practices of care in society. The latter was the subject of the work of feminist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, which positions caring for others, and caring for the environmental at the core of the ecology driven debate. By challenging the domestic role of women, proclaimed herself a ‘maintenance artist,’ in the Maintenance Art Manifesto 1969! Proposal for an exhibition “CARE”,21 where, together with the ‘personal’ or household maintenance, she addressed ‘general,’ public and earth maintenance. A few years later the philosophical context for care ethics and ecofeminism would be on the rise, and although this is discussed later in the text, it is useful pointing out that it was such multifaceted approach that allowed important advancements. This context includes psychologist Carol Gilligan., educationist Nel Noddings, philosophers Virginia Held and Joan Tronto. Tronto and Berenice Fisher in particular have defined “taking care of” as an activity that includes “everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.” This is so relevant now at a social and environmental levels.22

1.2. Art and Psychology

In the art project SoA, dialogue is understood as a reciprocal way of caring, and adopted as a tool aimed at creating connections within communities, thus promoting healthy social relations, as care ethicist Virginia Held commented, when we met in 2019. This form of dialogic art informed by a psychological strategy,23 is later referred to as ‘caring-with.’

While the challenges, impact and possible implications of dialogic art in society have been discussed and recognised,24 including in interdisciplinary contexts,25 psychology-oriented methods in artistic research tend to be seen mostly related to therapeutic clinical practices.26

A historical example of such an approach is that of Lydia Clark (1920–1988), who developed her practice within the Brazilian art scene, which flourished under the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985.27 The artist developed a unique interdisciplinary language which was very inspirational for my research. The piece Animals LC3 (1969)28 below, part of the Collection of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art in Norwich, UK (Fig. 1), was the starting point for a workshop I organized based on Clark’s ideas. In this in particular I compared her folding strategies (Fig. 2) with my previous relevant work29 as a dialogic strategy.

Clark first created objects by fracturing the surfaces of her paintings, some of which required her participants to physically manipulate them, as an alternative model of the art object and experience, hugely influential on younger generations of artists. These experiments took her into the realm of therapy under the influence of psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s work. More specifically, Clark was interested in his theory of the “Transitional Object” in relation to the growing children’s attachment to their parents.30 The ‘transitional object’ (T.O.), such as blankets, soft toys, and bits of cloth to which young children frequently develop intense, persistent attachments, were theorized by Winnicott as representing an essential phase of ego development leading to the establishment of a sense of self.31 Clark’s later body of work operated specifically within the context of the therapeutic, and the relationship between these latter practices and her previous body of work is much debated.32 However, what marks Clark’s art practice apart from psychoanalytic models, is her use of the so called “relational objects” (1976-82),33 an interactive approach for the user already present in the previously mentioned series Animals LC3. Moreover, in her account Luciana Mourão Arslan (2017), discusses how Clark’s fascinating art objects, depend on the participant’s embodiments, “because they intend to access a bodily memory through pre-verbal and non-verbal experience.”34

Fig. 1 – Lygia Clark, Animals LC3 (metal). Courtesy The Sainsburys Centre for Visual Art, University of East Anglia Norwich, UK.
Fig. 2 – (a, b) Elena Cologni, from a Lydia Clark inspired collaborative folding workshop at The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.

In the workshop, the interaction among participants took place through the manipulation of the created shapes, and manifested in the folding and unfolding of elements in the compositions: a sort of action-reaction pattern of movements similar to a non-verbal dialogue.

Non-verbal communication is also a very basic form of interaction we adopt in everyday circumstances, like walking down a street. For example, in the event of another person coming from the opposite direction, we know how to negotiate the use of space. By acknowledging the other, we may look at them, and adopt a slight shift in direction, so they may respond in a similar fashion. While body memory is, “memory intrinsic to the body, how we remember by and through the body,”35 rather than what is remembered about the body, this kind of individually developed memory contributes to a wider social memory. This also contributes to building a sense of belonging to a place and, conversely, how places are “themselves constituted by the different ways in which people belong to them.”36

This sort of embodied knowledge coming from body memory, accrues from previous experiences, like our earliest experience of non-verbal communication, as infants in relation to our parents, to include various kinds of interlocutions like the so-called “body talk,” crying, and eye contact. This all also has a significant role in building attachment to one another.37 Similarly, in the project discussed below a non-verbal communication takes place, facilitated through the adopted prop.

1.3. Developing Attachment to Place and People

My interest in the social dimension of the experience of place as essential for the process for identity formation, was pursued in the project SoA. This was done by looking into a connection between the attachment of parent and child, the ‘theory of attachment,’38 and the attachment to place.39 Both of these are introduced below.

Such a connection between place and self is seen as ontological by philosopher Edward Casey, who states that “there is no place without self; and no self without place.”40 Moreover, by building on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical tradition, he indicates that ’place is the immediate ambiance of the lived body and its history, including the whole sedimented history of cultural and social influences and personal interests that compose one’s own life-history." Self is used in terms of agency and identity of the geographical subject; body is what links the self to lived place. Thus, personal identity involves intrinsically an awareness of one’s own place – a specifically geographical awareness41 in the everyday. Place is also multidimensional, and made through a combination of materiality (roads, buildings, people, animals, waste, vehicles), meaning (personal, and social and communal) and practice (in their every-day).42 These factors are continuously being negotiated, and make place complex, and relational, as work in human geography has made evident.43

Within this context, attachment to place is normally understood to be part of a person’s overall identity, consisting of the memories, feelings, beliefs and meanings associated with their physical surroundings.44 This is a context of study in environmental psychology, I was drawn to as I personally became aware of, my own changing relation to places of my upbringing. This, I recognise now that I live in the UK, having an impact on the perception of my childhood, my family of origin, and how I relate to my own. The moment of the realization of this was a quite distressing experience, at Isola d’Elba, Tuscany, in 2016, where I had been holidaying since I was a young girl. I woke up in the middle of the night short of breath, sweating. I got out of the very warm bedroom to get water from the kitchen, and drink, freshen up my forehead, and wrists, and neck. Once in the living room, I sat on the couch. Then I stood up again, walked up and down the room. Memories from my early childhood at the beach started surfacing. I needed to get out of the house. I opened the doors overlooking the garden facing the sea. The strong smell of Mediterranean pine trees and iodine was intense in the humidity filled scirocco air. I started to make sense of where I was, again.

When this happened – soon after the British voted to leave the EU – I started consolidating my ongoing investigation into how one relates to places, by addressing attachment to (and separation from) them and people. This includes feeling a great sense of responsibility while considering a continuous shifting process of rooting (attachment), and uprooting (separation), also through my children’s eyes: their own experiences and choices, as inseparable from mine.

Together with my personal interest in the topic of this research, the subjective input from the collaborators and participants in the project is also paramount for an understanding of how one relates to place and others as situated knowledge.

Architecture Psychologist David Seamon, describes place as being not only the “physical environment separate from people associated with it, but rather the indivisible, normally unnoticed phenomenon of person-or-people-experiencing-place.”45 Seamon also attributes to Merlau-Ponty a great contribution to understanding lived synergism of place, through referring to his concept of body-subject (1962). This is the precognitive facility of the lived body to integrate its actions with the world at hand. Seamon states that place attachment46 is one’s emotional or affective ties to a place, and is thought to be the result of a long-term connection with it, and, he believes, develops through a routine, process he defined place ballet (1979).

My understanding of it was embedded in an investigation into the body routines as contributing to how an attachment was developed and grounded in habitual regularity, during a short stay in Vienna for an art residency with my son. I thus recorded with a series of short films and drawn dotted patterns our steps of the daily journeys to the beach on the river, our local grocery, and café, in relation to others’ (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 – Elena Cologni, Untiled (routines) superimposition of 2, from series of 6, 2016, graphite, Indian ink and gold on lucido paper, Private Collection.

This included documenting the simple act of walking with its movement and rest, which informed the creative engagement with a pattern found on the tarmac of a courtyard in the MuseumsQuartier where we stayed, for the experiential piece called Lived Dialectics: Movement and Rest (1 & 2) (Fig. 4), facilitated by two persons, presented there (2016). The title refers directly to Seamon’s seminal book A Geography of the Lifeworld: Movement, Rest, and Encounter (1979) in which he discusses the ‘triad of abituality,’ and he specifies that “people encounter the world as they move and rest, dwell and journey,”47 experience which Seamon believes to be at the heart of place attachment.

Fig. 4 – (a) Elena Cologni, eidotipo a, study for performance score, 2016, graphite, Indian ink and gold on lucido paper; (b) Elena Cologni, Lived Dialectics: Movement and Rest #1, site specific, facilitators + elastic string, Q21, MuseumsQuartier, Vienna, Austria, curators Gulsen Bal and Walter Siedl.

This final piece thus was informed by the exploration of the connection between a shared experience of this new place, and developing attachment to it. The emphasis of the social aspect of place attachment led to develop SoA, where the investigation would be set in the place where both I and the participants live, and routines refer to a longer span of time, and memories. Drawing on research from fields such as psychology, human geography and environmental psychology I wanted to progress from this previous work: how might one inscribe a new experience in the place of a daily routine through art? How might one become aware of one’s own attachment to a place through the attachment to one’s own family, one might call home? Crucially, the sense of belonging to a particular place is a fundamental component of the way that most people understand who they are, their identity, underpins their feelings of security and belonging,48 and can be ‘strong, weak, positive or negative, narrow, wide or diffuse.’49

The importance of the social aspect in the process of developing place attachment is indicated by Seamon with the term ‘encounter,’ the third in his theory. This aspect however becomes central in Catherine Degnen’s, as she suggests that place attachment is not only individual and that can “be fruitfully understood as situated within the concatenation – the series of interconnected things – of place, belonging, social memory, embodied subjectivity and everyday experiences.”50 Degnen’s investigation is underpinned by anthropological and sociological studies where, relations to and through place also refer to ‘belonging.’51 If generally the emphasis of studies on place attachment is on an individual bond with place, Degnen states that relations with and through place are not only personal, emphasizing how place attachment is bound up in social memory, embodied knowledge and the significance of the passage of time.

Among the everyday experiences of place routines through which place attachment is built, SoA considers the school run, and refers to the attachment of carers and school-aged children as an important link in this process.

I here specifically refer to attachment theories since early 20th century, including those by John Bowlby,52 which relate to those by psychoanalysts, such as Klein (1952), Winnicott (1953), Erikson (1950) and Bion (1962), and form the context for Margaret Lowenfeld’s research. These suggested that a well-integrated child is one for whom the attachment between the infant and a parenting figure is engendered within a holding or containing environment, which allows the infant time to establish a sense of being an individual who is separate from the primary caring figure.53

Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space,54 and does not have to be reciprocal, or one person may have an attachment to an individual, which is not shared. In children, attachment is characterized by specific behaviors, such as seeking proximity with the attachment figure when upset or threatened,55 and more parents accept the child on the child’s terms, the more securely attached the child is.56 Bowlby suggested that unless firm attachment was formed between the child and his mother within the first five years of life, the child would develop an affectionless psychopathy,57 and called “maternal deprivation.”

Bowlby’s position called monotropy theory, is contrasted by Michael Rutter (1981) who found that when problematic children returned to a stable environment, they would settle down and become less inclined to anti-social behaviour, thus distancing the attachment figure to that of solely the mother. Similarly, Anna Freud,58 indicated alternative attachment figures, through research conducted with a group of six children from a war time concentration camp, who had been orphaned and were firmly committed to each other. They regarded their peers as the central figures of attachment, rather than their parents. This work, like Rutter’s suggests, shows that bonding with the mother is not always necessary for successful attachment and socialization.59 I find this to be very forward looking, possibly anticipating ideas of new forms of families, where motherhood is intended in a wider and not only a biological sense,60 thus pointing to the caring role of mothering instead. Care ethicists have addressed a concept of mothering in society among other practices of care, to include, caring for the ill, teaching children, cultivating social relations. These Virginia Held defines as caring relations,61 as discussed below. Moreover, care ethicist and psychologist Carol Gilligan states that: “All relationships, public and private can be characterized in terms both of equality and in terms of attachment. And that both inequality and detachment constitute grounds for moral concern.”62

Margareth Lowenfeld contributed greatly to the study of children psychology.63 Her theories and methods were developed within a context when psychoanalysis was very prominent, however, Lowenfeld presented her work as distinguished from it, mainly through the adoption of a non-verbal approach.64 For example in the paper Direct Projective Therapy (1944) included in a collection edited by Urwin and Hood-Williams (1998),65 Lowenfeld acknowledges the studies done in child psychology and psychotherapy by Freud, Jung and Adler “concerning the development of the instinctive influence upon a child’s life of his own self-valuation,” and directs her attention towards “a sphere which is outside all of these” and which “lies below and around them: this is the sphere of the child’s non-verbal thoughts about his own intimate experience and effect they have upon his later development.”66

Urwin and Hood-Williams (1998) also explain how her paper The Nature of the Primary System (1948), is the fullest account on her protosystem, concerned with the nature of “pre-rational thought,” and “in what ways the young child links experiences and perceptions to provide cognitive but not conscious mental structures which peg the workings of infantile phantasy.”67

In this paper Lowenfeld states that the method she adopted was aimed at enabling children to talk “without the use of language,” this has “brought to light an aspect of the human psyche” which she suggested at that point had not been described, and which she called ‘primary system.’ This is a “systematized region in the psyche” which “appears first, and remains for life at the core of the psyche.”68 She says that “Piagets ‘syncretism’69 and Sigmund Freud’s conception of ‘condensation and displacement’ in dreams,70 passages in Ruth Griffiths’ and Michael Fordham’s Child Life, and Herbet Read’s Education Through Art (1943) touch upon the same region.”71 The non-verbal approach in her work is central to the development of my artistic strategy and is further discussed below.

1.4. The Margaret Lowefeld’s Mosaic Test

My artistic investigation was carried out through an initial non-verbal approach: by activating a nomadic and dialogic sculpture in the city, as illustrated in more details below. This engagement strategy, including the prop, was based on the haptic qualities and interactive principles of the Margaret Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Test (1938, 1954), I was able to study through a residency at The Margaret Lowenfeld Library, Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge (2016).

The Margaret Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Test since being introduced in in the 1940s, besides its continued use at Dr. Lowenfeld’s Institute of Child Psychology before its closure, its being widely implied in different contexts by, including: “anthropologists in cultural and cross-cultural studies; psychologists in the study of normal children and adults as well as mental defect; psychiatrists for differential diagnosis and the study of mental disorder.”72 However, it was primarily used as a “communication tool in the diagnosis and psychotherapeutic treatment of children” as Thérèse Woodcock73 states, and describes as follows.

Administrative Procedure. The mosaic pieces are laid out ready for use in a box, grouped by shape and displaying all the colours in each shape. There are five shapes, all bearing a mathematical relation to each other. The basic shape is a square from which the isosceles, equilateral and scalene triangles are derived: the sides of the diamond are the same length as the square (30 mm). Each shape is available in red, blue, yellow, black, green and white and arranged in the box in this order.

Woodcock writes that this box is presented to the child alongside a tray (filled with plain white paper) and the variety of pieces available and then asked to “do something with these pieces, using as few or as many as you choose, on this tray. You can make anything you like.”

Fig. 5 – (a) Margaret Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Box (a house seen in perspective, table 2) part of the Lowenfeld archive. Courtesy of the Centre for Family for Family Research, Cambridge University; (b) Elena Cologni during the residency at the Lowenfeld Library.

Woodcock then states that, when the child has finished, she usually discusses with them what they have made. She says that “care has to be taken not to allow one’s own preconceptions to be reflected in the questions.” Woodcock discusses the non-verbal communication by stating that “the Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Test […] is firstly a tool to enable the child (or adult for that matter) to explore and express non-verbalizable ideas, using the pieces as a personal vocabulary […] its value lies not in a score but in the INDIVIDUALITY of the response,” one which is going to give insight into the child’s view and approach to the world.

In another paper by Woodcock, held in the Lowenfeld Archive, The Lowenfeld Mosaic Test in the study of cultural differences (1986), she discusses the importance of such non-verbal approach in the context of more recently increasingly relevant intercultural dialogue dynamics.74 This reading of the test confirmed my initial idea that it was very current and relevant from social, political and cultural perspectives, and particularly relevant to my interests75 and the new direction undertaken in this project.

This intercultural aspect is also at the very core of the genesis of the test. Lowenfeld who, after the First World War, lived in Geneva writes that she was taken by the diversity in costume, dance and song to be found in Europe’s individual communities throughout.76 She states how the patterns on those costumes define communities of specific villages, and wanted to investigate them further to search for a relationship between people and their communal expressions. Lowenfeld observed that the embroidery of south-eastern European in particular was characterized by geometric shapes. She thus started to experiment with wooden reproduction of those shapes,77 before defining what is now known as “The Mosaic Test Box.”

Fig. 6 – (a) The Margaret Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Test, 80 tables, this is n. 50 and is titled Superimposed; (b) a detail from the list of table accompanying the series. Courtesy of the Centre for Family for Family Research, Cambridge University.

A series of tables are included in the book from 1954. They documented the results of the Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Test performed in the 1950’s (Fig. 6 a and b). These are accompanied by titles which were given by the person offering the test in conversation with the child or adult taking it, as Woodcock explains, and are organized in response to very specific categories.

According to anthropologist Margaret Mead (1979) who was a Lowenfeld’s close collaborator,

her preoccupation “with the insufficiency of words to express those aspects of childhood,” at the core of her research have become important anthropological research tools.78 However, the finished product (mosaic) alone, was only half of the story. The rest was the participation of the therapist or tester in the process of making a mosaic design.79 This relational aspect in the test is also discussed in the Ecology of Imagination in Childhood by Edith Cobb (1959), specifically referring to the relationship therapist-patient therein. In this context interestingly ecology is referred by Cobb to as “the study of mutual relations, the give-and-take between organisms and their complete and total environment.”80

2. Towards Defining an Artistic Non-Verbal Dialogic Method

The participatory approach I set to define included a dialogic sculpture inspired by the non-verbal principle in the Lowenfeld test as described above, while contributing to the artistic context of dialogic art in relation to place. Moreover, below is a discussion of the consistent effort to visualize and materialize the spatial aspect in the non-verbal dynamic in the context of my previous research, my current ongoing practice is built on.

In the discussed SoA project the process of this spatiality of dialogue manifest in the newly created ‘safe place’ the sculptural prop defines. This is here articulated in reference of the concept of ‘insideness’ in place attachment, and defined as ‘intraplace.’

2.1. Visualising Dialogue

My current artistic dialogic practice stems from a consistent interest in audience and spectator’s relation, including in: the process of fruition;81 interchange in liveness;82 the process of memorization in video live events,83 and one-to-one installations.84

These were addressed through dialogic strategies, more recently underpinned by psychology and pedagogy, including Danilo Dolci’s Reciprocal Maieutics.85 This is relevant to discuss here, as it contextualises the spatial dimension in dialogue, central issue in SoA, as it implies a relational approach also at the core of care ethics, as discussed later.

Dolci believed “that no real change can abstract from the involvement and the direct participation of the people concerned,”86 and was necessary in order to create a more open and responsible civil society. His reciprocal maieutics method comes from Socrates’ maieutic (introduced by him in Plato’s Theaetetus) in which he compares the philosopher to a “midwife of knowledge” that helps the student bring his knowledge to light, using the dialogue as a dialectical tool.87 Adopting Dolci’s reciprocity though implies not only posing a question, but allowing oneself to be changed by others’ input as well. I became interested in the spatial aspect – distance – in dialogue, I visualised through a series of 40 wooden sculptures for hands Lo Scarto.88 This space and distance between people, which appears to be empty, also implies the possibility that one can overcome that distance in the exchange, and become empowered in the process. I experimented with this through a series of public workshops, drawings and the sculptures for hands, by considering the space between people as residues, left overs, as well as embedding the potential for communication. For example, the small sculptures resulting from drawings outlining the spaces between two hands, would be used to connect with others, as in the action that I defined of ‘pollination,’ where participants were invited to use such sculptures to invite other people into the tacit conversation. This action had quite an effect on the local community, as I was told highlighted, while challenging at the same time, the presence of social barriers among youngsters.

Fig. 7 – Elena Cologni, Lo Scarto, 2015, Sicily: (a) workshop (b) performed drawing, (c) sculptures for hands and documented ‘pollination moment.’
Fig. 8 – Elena Cologni, Lo Scarto (Touch: squizing), 2015, graphite on paper.

The project evolved into Lo Scarto (Touch),89 which aimed at capturing the very moment in which the dialogue takes place in the present. In it, participants connect in pairs through a geometric shape of soft clay. This eventually becomes distorted in the process of manipulation, while defining the space between them into unique objects. Such a socially negotiated practice allows embodied memories,90 carried in gestures and habits, to be exchanged as a form of knowledge of one another conveyed through touch.

This form of engagement, of non-verbal dialogue, is a reciprocal dynamic of question and response. A ‘question’ already implies an openness towards the other’s background and differences. In particular, in the encounter the question informs the blank space between hands, which has been inhabited. The distance between two people, a materialized topography, at the time I referred to as ‘place memory,’91 acts as point of contact, exchange and separation.

Fig. 9 – Elena Cologni, Lo Scarto (Touch), 2015, participants' response, clay, circa 6 x 12 cms.

Participants feel and listen in order to respond, a necessary condition for the Reciprocal Maieutics Approach as a way of sharing one’s own experience to inform the other’s. This is also how “communicative memory works, through the integration of different traditions, an aspect of which will be lost or discarded along the way… lo scarto, offcut, scrap, residue of culture….”92 The exchange, happens in the present of the encounter, when embodied memories surface through pulling, pushing, pressing, joining, connecting, adjoining, abuting, tapping, patting, nudging, prodding, poking, feeling, stroking, rubbing, brushing, grazing, fondling, caressing, petting, tickling, fiddling with, fingering, thumbing, handling, affecting, concerning, involving, moving, stirring, arousing, making/leaving an impression on… Thus the residual space between hands is shaped, through touch, embedding who we are in response to each other.

2.2. A Sculptural Prop to Define Intraplaces

The above gives a sense of how I adopt a creative process to access other contexts of knowledge, which in turn underpin my newly found strategies. In the examples of my previous projects above, the relational approach refers to both place, and others. These two strands of investigation are here brought together to coincide, by considering the very spatial element in dialogic dynamics, to become a safe place. This process I describe below.

During a period of research as artist in residence at the Lowenfeld Library I accessed the only existing original Margaret Lowenfeld’s Mosaic Test (MLMT) Box (1938), securely kept at the Centre for Family Research in Cambridge. Before reading the relevant literature, I started re-making the shapes I had selected from the beautifully typograph printed tables. If felt as though I was getting into someone else’s mind, a sort of reenactment of the relational process therapist-patient. While borrowing the latter’s thinking and feeling process, I was arranging the pieces according to that image. At times, I would draw the outline of the composition on the paper underneath, by way of recording the process, as it was done by the therapist giving the test. While this was a way to respond to it, it also allowed me to focus on the geometry behind those very arrangements through drawing. This soon took me to explore a series of 3D card made variations based on the same drawings.

Fig. 10 – (a) Elena Cologni, sketchbook with designs studies, 2016, graphite on paper; (b) Elena Cologni, example of 3D shape experimentation.

These were conceived to be played with by the participants, whose interaction would include folding and unfolding a sectioned geometric image to create a number of possible compositions, and they did during an open studio event at the Centre. These small handheld constructions though were thought to be then reproduced in a bigger size for a sculptural prop to relate to the whole body, and to be activated accordingly.

The series of drawings for the final prop included variations on a composition of a set number of shapes, just like the MLMT. These were inscribed into a closed shape divided into six portions including triangles and squares, but also sections of circles, not present in the named test. The addition of this curved element, was further emphasised by the use of stretchy fabric covering the foldable sculpture, which creates arches as the folding, and structuring of the shapes takes place in the interaction. It softens the angles the bare plywood would create otherwise, suggesting a different approach to geometry and how this is understood and implied in our everyday, and in relation to place. This might include how we fold dry laundry, organise the furniture in our living room, or map our walks. All seems to refer back to a Cartesian system, but a more complex and multidimensional one also includes other parameters. Doreen Massey calls power-geometry93 and points to the ways in which spatiality and mobility are both shaped by, and reproduce power differentials in society. One has to think at a gendered kind of geometry,94 a geometry of difference,95 as conventional mapping practices might compress those differentials. McDowell, building on Doreen Massey, but also referring to Foucault and Jameson, attempted to ‘spatialize’ feminist theory by referring to ‘space’ as relational, and where spatial patterns are outcome of social processes.

Fig. 11 – (a, b, c) Elena Cologni, Prop, 2016-18, maquette variations series, playwood, fabric variable dimensions.

In SoA the strategy adopted seeks to embed social dynamics, and memory in the understanding of how one might inscribe a shared spatial experience, and is seen as contributing to tracing a geography of difference.

Participants responded to an open call, to take part in the project,96 knowing that this would feed into its development. On the webpage it read:

Are you a parent? Are you willing to meet me on your school run route? Your input will contribute to the creative investigation into identity formation in relation to place attachment. Get in touch, and indicate where you could meet me in the city, do enter your details or send an email.

The school run is an important part in children’s life in relation to their cares, and a particularly significant one in the social dynamics in any city or village in the UK. Generally, by considering how place attachment is developed through the routine of relating to a place97 in the project the school run is seen as an example of daily activity contributing to this process, which will lead to a healthy independence, later in childhood.

Environmentalist Jenny Bavidge discusses98 Doreen Massey’s work on space, place and gender,99 by stating that she “saw spatial divisions as expressive of economic divisions and inequalities in the division of labour ‘articulated’ in spatial form.”100 Bavidge refers to Massey’s notion of ‘place’ and our experience of it as not static, but as an expression of social relations ‘stretched over space.’101 She states that ‘places have multiple identities (may be perceived differently by different users) and they don’t have fixed borders, with a clear in and out which we move through like turnstiles at a fair. An everyday event like the school run has its own rhythms and its own rituals which are repeatedly re-enacted in the shared space of the street and the school gate, both public and private.’102

Following the open call, the sculptural prop was used in a series of encounters with 10 participants/carers, who are here referred to as ‘mothers’ over the period of a year. The participants indicated a place on their school run route in the city, where we met. I brought the prop folded up into a purple squared parcel, fixed to a trolley with elastic strap cords. This was opened up, and transformed into a variety of shapes and constructions, distorted by the stretchy fabric. The dimension was such that the whole of our bodies was involved in the physical and silent dialogue. We than sat on the construction we had created, resulting from a non-verbal conversation.

Fig. 12 – (a, b) Elena Cologni, Untitled (Prop), dialogic and nomadic sculpture being activated, 2016-2018, plywood and fabric, 100 x 100 x 2 cm closed / variable up to 250 × 200 cm when open.

The activation of the sculpture resulted in a newly created quasi-geometric softened shape. This process results in what I called Intraplace,103 including the manifestation of the process of interchange, through which a location was redefined, now connotated with this intersubjective, inter-corporeal and shared experience. This highlighted the interrelations between objects occurring ‘in space and time,’ relationships which themselves ‘create/define space and time.’104 This is the context within which the process of creating intraplaces emerges, and defines a gendered experience of space, including a feminist reading of spatialization, a regime of ‘spacings’ and ‘placings’ of people and activities, and characterised by connectiveness.105 Intraplaces embeds Haraway’s notion of geometry of difference,106 also defined by Massey as power-geometry,107 which points to the ways in which spatiality and mobility are both shaped by and reproduce power differentials in society. Geographer McDowell suggests that if we move towards a definition of identity and place as a ‘network of relations, unbound and unstable, rather than fixed, we are able to challenge essentialist notions of place and being.’108

The dialogic process resulting in the intraplace, is considered as tool for ‘measuring’ and enhancing an awareness on one’s own attachment to place. The measure used here though, is a non-cartesian one, is not metric, numeric or quantitative, and as such it does not define and draw space spatially, but experientially. It functions in the duration of the presentness of the dialogue and in relation to embodied memory. The adoption of such process can be said to be an attempt of un-spatialising space, resulting from a relational approach, a non-verbal dialogue, that embeds the subjective experience therein.

Intraplaces is also the title for the series of collages which serve as a documentation for the encounters. These were produced from printed stills selected from a video recording of the interaction. The shapes formed by the ‘foldings’ of the sculpture through the interaction, were cut out and arranged in a grid as a record of the non-verbal dialogues to form two collages Intraplaces (Record Forms). These were later developed in a series of single shape plates.

Fig. 13 – (a) Elena Cologni, image cut out of the film still to be used in collages; (b) Elena Cologni, Intraplaces (Record Forms), 2017, collage and ink on paper), awaiting to be hung in the exhibition “…And Encounter,” New Hall Art Collection, University of Cambridge.
Fig. 14 – Elena Cologni, Plate, n. 11, 2017, from the series Intraplaces, collage on paper and graphite.

The intraplaces embed the exchange that happened in those physical locations where participants chose to meet on the school run, which Environmental psychologist Graham Rowles109 calls ‘incident places.’ These narrate people’s connection between people and place and build a sense of identity through a process Rowles calls ‘autobiographical insideness,’110 also pertinent to the way in which the participants perceive place not just as it is in the present, but also as it is remembered. It links place, identity and memory.

In the intraplace, the space between the bodies the sculpture inhabits resulting from the non-verbal dialogic approach adopted, is also a form of omission of spoken text, silence as absence, which constitute tacit, situated111 and embodied knowledge produced during the exchange, and informed by embodied memory. This process also contributes to social memory, which is not only cognitive but is also often embodied with bodily practices112 able to ‘sediment’ meaning and memory in bodies113 and to underpin the deeply embodied, relational and sensuous elements of place attachment.

Moreover, the term intraplace refers to a context where place and time are determined by the one-to-one dialogic strategy adopted, which implies an exchange of embodied memory and is unique to the individuals involved in this micro-social context.114 It indicates the formation of an enclosed physical space, and as conceptual container for intimate exchanges, never disclosed, but only safely shared to unlock new potentialities. Thus, the resulting collage is a visualisation, and materialization, of such spatial dialogic dynamics, which also recalls the gestural, and mostly silent, communication in the feminist art tradition, including for example in the work of Ketty La Rocca.115

2.3. Listening – The Untold

One of the central issues in the strategy adopted in the project, is the importance of the ‘untold,’116 which the intraplaces imply. These are the very shapes the sculptural prop is turned into, the actual materialisation of the dialogue. One which similarly includes question and answer: the action of unfolding one part of the sculpture, to which corresponds the reaction of moving another part. A reciprocal dialogue takes place which implies ‘attentiveness, responsibility, responsiveness and the commitment to see issues from differing perspectives.’ These are, according to Selma Sevenhuijsen, at the core of ethics of care. The dialogic approach provides for a metaphor for practices of care, including mothering, these practices Sevenhuijsen states imply ‘an ability and a willingness to “see” and to “hear” needs, and to take responsibility for these needs being met.’ Listening is at the basis of these from the part of the receivers and the providers of actual care.

The physical dialogue also include a negotiation of the sculpture’s weight, balance and aesthetics, to avoid from it being arranged precariously, and provide an inhabitable space instead. This kind of experiential non-verbal dialogue results in, to use one of the participant’s words, a ‘safe place’ (Fig. 12). The shapes are the responses sought as part of the research process, and they feed back into the project. The diptic of collages Intraplaces (Record Forms), is the first attempt to document the process in an organised manner, visually referring to Lowenfeld tables accompanying list of numbered titles for the tests.

Fig. 15 – (a) Elena Cologni, interaction with a participant; (b) sitting on the resulting safe place.

The initial dialogic physical exchange happening through the sculpture/prop would make us relate to one another on a physical experiential level, and to a particular place, which thus got reactivated. In doing this we created a new memory in relation to it, and inscribed it into a new experience for the adult, separate from that in their daily routine with the child. One of the participants, Sharon, stated that the sculpture would fill these not connotated spaces in the city, she defined as ‘corridors’ and ‘walk-through’ spaces, with meaning, and turn them into safe places.