My Experiences at the Experience and Meaning Workshop

Having arrived at the New School from a small, but densely populated town known as Union City in Hudson County, New Jersey, getting to know New York City and Greenwich Village in a deeper, more enriching and immersive way was truly a new experience for me. The sheer vastness and scope of the Big Apple amazed me the first times I saw its skyscrapers and busy streets, and even more so when I had gone there on trips for middle school and high school. Whether it was to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art or present a science fair project at numerous colleges and universities in the area, New York, in comparison to my hometown, is a city–no, a world I long considered, and still consider to be a pinnacle of opportunity and success. New York is a multicultural city full of people visiting from all over the world for various reasons– from attending college to sightseeing various famous parks, buildings, and centers for community events, to simply meeting new people, some of whose countries of birth have foreign and yet such interesting cultures and histories. By comparison, where I come from, the Latino and Hispanic culture practically dominates over almost every aspect of life and of Union City. Everywhere you look you’ll see a bodega and people struggling to make it in life with their small businesses, peso by peso. Everybody and their grandma watches some sort of soap opera, or telenovela, and speaks fluent Spanish. You’ll find people ordering Cuban cuisine and people driving by with loud music from decades past from the Caribbean, or reminiscing about their home countries and how things used to be. Transitioning from a small populous town to a large, bustling city like New York has made me realize how much there is to see and do out there in the world, and how progressive more industrialized areas of this country, and the rest of the world, are. Simply traveling and exploring The City That Never Sleeps has broadened my horizons and challenged me to take the first step towards a world far beyond the conventions and ideas of the people in my hometown, including some of my family members and friends. The New School itself will encourage me to think outside of the box, and outside the realm of what I thought was possible when I was younger– a time when I was still enclosed in the bubble that is Union City.

The Experience and Meaning Workshop was only the first of many experiences to come in the future that would challenge me to look at the world around me in a different perspective, or see it in a different light. The students who were notified of the workshop by the orientation instructor, Katerina Pronin, met up in Room U312 at 63 5th Avenue at 3 pm. Despite some people not being notified directly by email regarding the workshop, we were all able to receive printed colored copies of the Experience and Meaning: A Sensory Engagement with the Environment packet sent to us prior to the workshop for the sake of convenience, and of the ESL Glossary of Terms. We were all asked to read the passages by Tony Hiss and R. Murray Schafer at the beginning of the packet prior to the workshop, and at the meeting place of the workshop itself were encouraged to select a line or phrase from either passage that resonated with us and our experiences in the New School Orientation so far (we could have also talked about how the lines or phrases embody us or affect us personally). In addition, we were all asked to introduce ourselves, where we came from, what line we chose from the passages, and why we thought it stood out to us in particular. What followed was some very interesting dialogue and discussion that took the class into all sorts of places and ways of thinking as ideas were exchanged between the instructor and her students for the day regarding the significance and multifaceted nature of the selected lines of each student. I particularly liked certain interpretations of some of the lines some of the students chose and was impressed by the global nature of the classroom. Some students had come from New Jersey, and were thus more familiar and relatable, while others journeyed from Chicago, New Hampshire, California, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Boston, China, Italy, Korea, and even London, in the UK, traveling across miles of ocean or from halfway across the country or world just to attend this institution. Some students favored the Tony Hiss passage about deep travel, and the advantages of looking at the world around you and the information it possesses, relating his commentary about seeing a peregrine falcon eating a pigeon, and its  symbolic “embodiment of freedom” according to birders to the predatory instincts one needs to achieve something in life and succeed– a “nice image for a freshman to have” according to Katerina Pronin, or, alternatively, relating Rachel Carson’s story of her bringing her 20-month-old great nephew to the Maine seashore and the sea, being the “edge of where-we-couldn’t see” to the vastness and unknown nature of the world and how much wonder we have as children (only for that wonder to fade by adulthood).

Other students favored R. Murray Schafer’s passage about the soundscape and the importance of sounds. One line that immediately struck everyone in the room by surprise was the jarring, yet truthful statement that: “every sound commits suicide”– sending ideas from everyone bouncing back and forth in a hectic crossfire. The fact the every sound commits suicide is a personified, “human” metaphor of the fact that every sound we hear will never be heard the same way again, or by anyone ever again. According to our instructor, it sort of gives the reader the notion or idea of the brevity and beauty of life, which, in turn, led her to conclude the almost “corporeal” nature of sounds themselves as aural beings. One concept that I very much agreed with from our instructor was when she related the idea 0f suicide to cells and their process of “suicide” called apoptosis– something that makes you think about the depressing yet mind-blowing finite lifespan of everything. Many students also liked the line “There is no silence for the living” towards the end of the passage, which Katerina Pronin related to an Edgar Allen Poe story of a narrator being traumatized and tortured by absolute silence, and what an Italian student in the class related to his own experiences in Italy when young, and of the quiet towns he lived in. When it was my turn to introduce myself and where I came from, I pointed out the line: “I imagined the soundscape as a huge musical concert that us running continuously. The tickets for the concert are free, and we are all listeners” as a line that really stood out to me because of its implications, its philosophy, its personal connection to my persona, and, interestingly enough, to Shakespeare. I elaborated to the class by mentioning how, upon giving the line some thought, I immediately related it to one of Shakespeare’s most famously quoted phrases, specifically from his play As You Like It, when he wrote that: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances”. Both quotes from both writers offer a new, more artistic and harmonious viewpoint of the world as a whole, and emphasize our role as actors and listeners in the dramatic plays and symphonies of life– something that is insightful as well as symbolically enriching to think about.

Following the time we, as students, spent with our instructor sharing viewpoints and interpretations of lines in both passages, it was time for all of us to head over to Union Square Park in order to commence our activity regarding our sensory engagement with the environment around us. Prior to leaving, Katerina Pronin elaborated on what our activity was going to be at the park (the activity being mapping out the park through the use of different senses that would help us in immersing the park and its essence in our minds) and split the entire class into groups who would each observe areas of their own around the park using their senses. We were all given drawing and coloring materials such as markers and pencils, as well as paper to draw our maps in. I left with the other students in the workshop out of the New School main building and outside, walking with them before arriving at the beautiful Union Square Park, full of people from all walks of life. We all met with our instructor next to a large tree behind some benches. After a brief explanation and review of the activity, I was able to walk with the two other students in my group and discuss the ambience of the park around us in an attempt to create a conceptual map of the park itself, carrying some papers and pencils, as well as markers and other coloring materials that would assist me in the creation of my map. My group and I walked through the park, taking note of the sights and sounds around us as we eventually found a place to sit down and settle in order to draw our maps. One of the things that instantly stood out to me in Union Square was the presence of numerous marble statues all around the park– an aspect of the park I would later include in my sketches and map as an example of the dichotomy between Man and Nature– one of the most notable, if not the most notable being the statue of George Washington on horseback.  I also took note of the relative noisiness of the streets around the park and even viewed the various activities people were participating in around Union Square. Many people were intent on beating each other at games of chess, something I found both intriguing and hilarious. One man was sitting nearby one of the park’s statues and shouting at the top of his lungs that “we gotta reconnect with our Bibles”, while other people were conversing and reading books, or even donating them in large cardboard boxes, much to the ignorance and indifference of several passersby.

By the time my group had decided on a place to sit and discuss what we saw and heard, and our engagement with the environment around us, I thought I had seen enough of the park and the area surrounding it to begin to sketch my “conceptual map” of the vicinity. The three of us sat down near some bushes behind a couple of benches, with several people sitting on outdoor lawn chairs nearby, and began discussing. I told my classmates that the tall statues, being the first thing that caught my eye about the park, was going to be the main focus of my map due to the statues and the surrounding trees being so similar yet so different. Both were timeless entities that could last for millennia, and both came from humble beginnings (the trees were once seeds, and the statues were once marble blocks). However, I continued, statues were created by Man, and were thus artificial from their conception, while trees have always been a product and necessary constituent of Nature. In this way, Union Square Park as a whole seemed to me to be a symbolic Union between Man and Nature. For every man and woman and child in the park, there were pigeons and squirrels to complement, while every tree could be contrasted with a statue (relatively). In my map, I also separated the park into different areas depending on what people were thinking or doing in those particular areas. On one corner of the park, people were playing chess, intensely contemplating their next move. On another, people were sitting down on benches, taking in their surroundings, or conversing with their neighboring fellow human being. Sights and sounds melded into one as I pondered about another aspect of the park that I had not previously considered– its sense of community. Just as everyone was united in small “communities” or events but were, in general, brought together by simple human activities, so were the various aspects of Nature (the animals, the trees, the plants). While drawing my map, one of my classmates mentioned that she could hear someone typing on a typewriter nearby– something I interpreted as someone creating a “work in progress”– suggesting people not only exchanged words in Union Square, but also their own thoughts and ideas. I later found out that that same person typing on the typewriter supposedly wrote a poem for you if you paid him, something I never saw in my hometown in all the years of my life, or would have seen from anyone on the street. Taking into account the events around me and of my own map, as well as my own ideas and the ideas of others, I began filling my note-taking chart in my Experience and Meaning packet with notes regarding my primary senses, what I saw and heard, and how I achieved my sense of wonder of the world around me, in accordance to Tony Hiss’s notion of “deep travel”.

My Conceptual Map (Experience and Meaning)

Later, I asked my classmates in my group what they thought their maps were going to be about while completing mine. One classmate prioritized the directions and paths all three of us took to get to where we are now, showing me the arrows on his map and a sketch of the surrounding area. The other classmate from before, who told me about the poet sitting at his bench, mentioned that her map was going to be an extremely detailed look at the sights around her and her surroundings. The uniqueness of the map and her own perception of Union Square would not dawn on my mind until the very end of the academic activity when, about 40 minutes later, we reunited with the other classmates in their groups and our instructor next to the large tree from before, many classmates of whom had gone out of their way to explore the Farmer’s Market near Union Square, or even engage with some of the people in the park. Katerina Pronin asked all of us to talk about experiences around the park and how we engaged with the surrounding environment, and along with that, show her our maps and how we saw the park in our own senses. A few of the students who started told our instructor that they had gone out to the Farmer’s Market and actually tasted some of the food that was being sold– the food, of course, being delicious (they thus “tasted” the park around them). One student remarked how he had met a monk in yellow robes at the market, and that the man was trying to “rip me off of my money, but in a nice way”–which generated laughter in all of us seeing the irony of the situation (as most scammers are usually not merely malicious, but are also shady and employ heavy manipulation on their customers). Another student, upon showing his map, remarked how he had met an amazing young person who somehow had built such a high level of trust with the local pigeons of the park, and vice versa, that whenever he held out his hand to feed those pigeons, dozens of them would flock to him and surround him in a feathery coat. That, I thought, was simply amazing. However, what was truly amazing about Pigeon Man over here was that when the student himself tried to attract some of the pigeons by holding out food for them, they did not even look at him or respond, and yet flocked to the other man who they depended on for food at least some of the time.

Getting closer to my group, when our instructor asked a nearby student about her map, she mentioned that despite “sucking at drawing” she mapped out Union Square through her sense of smell. We all laughed when she highlighted the right side of her map which was a grassy section of the park that she wrote, in large bold letters, the word “WEED” over due to the smell of people smoking marijuana in that area of the park. I liked her map because of its simplicity, as well as because of its honesty– and so did our instructor. Then, my classmates presented their maps– and this is when the uniqueness and significance of one of the maps dawned on me. The female classmate of my group, upon showing her map, described in detail what she saw and heard, with everything being well-drawn and highly intricate. It all seemed normal until she mentioned that she had synesthesia, and thus saw Union Square park in a completely different way that none of us could hope to imagine. My classmate’s synesthesia implied that whenever one of her senses was being used, she actually perceived the world around her through a second sense instead of the initial sense she was using. For example, she explained that whenever she heard a noise, she would associate that in her mind with a certain color, and that, for some reason, whenever she saw a number or a letter, she would immediately associate these common everyday symbols with a particular color depending on the letter or number, something I found surprising and intriguing. Thus, when she displayed her map, she mentioned that the voices and sounds of Union Square were all colors to her, hence, her coloring different parts of the map with different colors (yellow being by the far the most common and prominent). This was by far the most interesting and surprising moment of the entire Experience and Meaning workshop, and it made me realize the different perceptions of the world every individual has through his or her senses–some viewpoints and perceptions being truly bizarre or colorful, in the case of people with synesthesia.

My turn to speak my viewpoint and present my map came and went, the abstract nature of the statues and the surrounding environment generating some interesting conversations and responses from other students and the instructor, with the same going for the students that presented their maps afterward. We all agreed upon the fact that every student had a different, conceptual way of seeing Union Square Park, and used one or more different senses to derive unique ideas and thoughts about the environment, discussing what we saw and heard with the instructor. Pronin herself drew her own map documenting the different events and sounds occurring around her– including a man who was playing tom-tom drums, who was inaudible despite his close proximity due to the noise of Union Square and the surrounding city. At the end of the activity, I discovered and made myself conscious of the variety of peoples’ interpretations of the environment around them– of the fact that, in the wider sense, everyone looks at the world through a different set of lens. I found meaning in my own responses to the readings by Tony Hiss and R. Murray Schafer as well as in the responses of every other student and how it related to their personal lives and experiences. In addition, I also found surprises dispersed throughout the workshop– whether it was the idea that “every sound commits suicide” as written by Schafer (a statement that has made me think of sounds in a completely different way since the knowledge of those words entered my mind), or the way a person with synesthesia might see the world around him or her in a truly unique and indescribable way compared to others without synesthesia (exemplified by the female classmate in my group). In any case, once our instructor thanked us for participating in the Experience and Meaning workshop and all the students began to leave towards their dormitories or their homes, I began to ponder about the interesting concepts I had just learned about within the span of a few hours. Following the activity, I looked back at my responses in the note-taking chart or worksheet I had previously filled with ideas, taking these answers into account in order to form my final opinions of the workshop, and in order to answer any lingering questions I had about my own perceptions of the world in relation to my future studies.

My completed Experience and Meaning Workshop worksheet/chart

I ended up with more quandaries than answers after the Experience and Meaning workshop. Being an avid lover of literature and writing, and a person who might be considering in engaging in Literary Studies as a major at Eugene Lang College, as well as an aspiring Illustration or Design major at Parsons, I asked myself, quite rhetorically, how the Experience and Meaning workshop would help me towards my artistic and literary goals. I asked myself the difficult questions– ones with answers that would not be revealed until the sufficient passage of Time: Can employing the use of the senses, as I did in the Experience and Meaning workshop, be possibly of aid towards my success in the creation of artistic works? If so, would my enhanced appreciation and understanding of the environment around me allow me to enrich my art and imbue it with a life of its very own? In the same way that my art could be improved, could my use of the senses assist me in literature and in making scenes more immersive and believable, or otherwise improve the descriptive power of my words and stories? Continuing further, I began to look towards the future and began to ask myself more questions, such as: Will an awareness of differing perspectives and notions about the world from different peoples in all walks of life be beneficial to my own career as a future artist and writer, and allow my works to become more multifaceted and multilayered? Whatever the case, despite the answers to all of the above questions being a likely resounding “yes”, this workshop has taught me that sometimes the answers are themselves embedded in the questions, or in the journey rather than the destination. My experiences in the Experience and Meaning workshop, and the people I have met in the workshop, and the things I have learned, have all enforced my philosophy of looking beyond the superficial and using my senses to their fullest potential, because when it comes to Nature and the world we live in, rarely is anything as it is. There is always something under the surface, and always something more than meets the eye, or, in the case of individualized perceptions, the I. 

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