What Scott Snibbe can teach us about personal space in the Age of Coronavirus

We think of personal space as something that belongs entirely to ourselves. However, Scott Snibbe’s dynamic art installation ‘Boundary Functions’ (1998) shows us that personal space exists only in relation to others and changes without our control.

To illustrate this point, Snibbe marked out an area of a floor and projected lines onto it when people entered the space. The more people who entered the space, the more lines, the less space everyone had to themselves.

The installation was inspired by Voronoi diagrams. In mathematics, a Voronoi diagram is a partition of a plane into regions close to each of a given set of objects. More simply, they create dynamic geometric patterns. The more people who enter the frame, the more complex the patterns on the floor.

Thinking of personal space as something that belongs entirely to ourselves has become increasingly more relevant in the Age of Coronavirus. As we find ourselves in a third lockdown, and our contact with the outside world mediated through screens, our sense of anxiety has intensified. Now a bus journey to work or a trip to the shops has become something to dread rather than a routine everyday activity: Why isn’t he wearing a mask? Did she wash her hands before touching that? Will that person walking towards me do the polite thing and cross the road?

Never has our sense of personal space been so intensely negotiated and so passionately fought for. We could all learn a lot from watching Snibbe’s installation, though it probably needs updating to ensure participants are two meters apart…

Scott Snibbe’s website

I came across Snibbe’s work while researching a lockdown story and developing a digital storytelling module for Nottingham Trent University. For this, I’ve created a Twitter and Instagram account to discuss and share innovations in digital storytelling. Please drop by and say hello.