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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.


(From Urbanphoto. Follow Szabla on Twitter)

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