The Felt Sense Project: a psychotherapy based evaluation @ University of Sydney

The Felt Sense Project is a PhD related study by Claudia Nunez-Pacheco, design researcher at University of Sydney. It blends a fascinating mix of psychotherapeutic theory and design practice, to test more empathetic methods of evaluating the user’s experience of design objects. Claudia and I got chatting at an artist’s talk by my University of New South Wales colleague George Khut last year and I was keen to better understand her work. As previously documented I have just started testing an audience research method called The Visual Matrix, which originated from psychoanalytic theory, to seek more experiential feedback on the projects that I curate. So I hoped Claudia’s methods might inspire some new therapeutically motivated thinking for my own research!

The Felt Sense Project

Last Friday I attended a research workshop led by Claudia titled ‘Focusing-oriented Bodystorming,’ where she invited a group of fellow practitioners to experience some of her methods in action. It opened with an intro from Claudia explaining how she has borrowed a practice called ‘focusing’ from the work of Eugene Gendlin, a psychotherapist and philosopher. Focusing aims to make subjects more aware of their immediate and embodied sensations, which exist behind thoughts and feelings. Termed the ‘felt sense’, these sensations are not immediately apparent to the conscious mind. Rather the felt sense is embedded in the body. When a subject connects with the felt sense it can put them more closely in touch with sensations that are trapped or suppressed outside of everyday experience. Claudia’s aim is to use this method to get more emotive feedback on design objects.

And this is where the focusing method is most interesting for me, since in my own research I am asking how I can get underneath the analytical or even defensive responses a that are often presented by audiences when they are asked to ‘evaluate’ their experience of an exhibition. My own research deals with emotive responses to artworks about mental health issues and it is fascinating to think about how all kinds of psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic methods might be applied in the evaluation of this work. Can techniques from therapy be used to address issues around mental health in an arts context as well as a clinical one? Might asking people to relate to artworks through their own ‘felt sense’ lead to more emotive and intuitive feedback on the subject of mental health and embodied experience?

After a demonstration with a fellow focusing practitioner, Claudia took us through a series of three exercises to help us engage with our own felt sense. In the first we had to conjure a mental image of an everyday scenario picked at random from a selection of flash cards (I got washing the dishes). After a short guided focusing session that asked us to connect with the experience and the sensations it provoked in the body, we were asked to respond in writing about our sensory journey and to illustrate ‘body maps’ using coloured pencils. The focusing session felt a lot like mindfulness meditation, encouraging participants to draw attention to body and mind in the present moment. We then repeated the process for a ‘special object’ that we were asked to create a mental image of (I thought of a book that I was given for Christmas) and finally an object that Claudia had brought along to the session, which happened to be a teapot. Out of the three exercises I found that it was the unfamiliar object (teapot) that it was most difficult to connect with while I was focused on my bodily sensations.

Using an evaluative technique that is designed to put the subject more in touch with their own embodied sense, perhaps always risks the possibility of the art or design object becoming the foreign body in the equation. It is my experience that once a subject is fully immersed and attuned with their individual body and being, it is more rewarding to go deeper inwards than to connect with something new and unfamiliar from outside. This was certainly what myself and a few of the other workshop attendees experienced when presented with Claudia’s (otherwise very lovely) teapot. However using the focusing technique did give me a heightened awareness of my experience in the moment and I could imagine this process being usefully used as a preparatory exercise before beginning an evaluation session such as the visual matrix, or even as a preparation for audiences entering an exhibition on the subject of mental health.

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