Due to my eagerness to gain a better understanding of individual interpretations of misery, I developed a cultural probe pack. I distributed the pack to 5 participants of varying ages and interests. It consisted of 4 activities:
3 questions where participants were asked to rate themselves on a scale from 1 to 10 based on happiness and experiences of misery. Misery was sub-divided into day-to-day inconveniences and big catastrophes.
Instructions to photograph 3 objects that inflict misery, a miserable situation and someone or something that stops misery.
Participants choose one of their photographed misery objects and decided whether it was guilty of ‘crimes against happiness’. They presented 3 pieces of evidence to support their argument.
The Misery Times
After choosing one of their three misery objects participants wrote a newspaper obituary for it.
Results from the probes clearly exhibited large differences in personal construals of misery. One participant conceptualised misery solely as human injustice, specifically in the form of torture. Others described misery as a range of quotidian inconveniences; delays on the train, never-ending to-do lists and a broken zipper, for instance. Despite the considerable difference in responses the format of the cultural probe activities allowed for each to be expressed.
Simultaneous to my investigation of individual construals of misery, I staged public space interventions to gauge communal reactions to the topic. In my first intervention I used tape to mark one of two tables in a communal kitchen as a ‘designated misery zone’. Throughout the two weeks that the tape remained there I noticed that the kitchen users avoided that table if possible. The unmarked tabled consistently filled up before anyone sat at the ‘misery zone’. This was despite the fact that the misery table had previously been the preferable of the two.
I also placed ‘misery zone’ signage by a public bench in Lewisham which was removed within a couple of days. Subsequently I set up a misery zone on a bench overlooking Goldsmiths green. The signs remained there for about a week and the seat remained largely vacant throughout. However, I did receive a somewhat cryptic hand-written note as photographed below.
These experiments served to affirm my theory that there is reluctance and discomfort when it comes to engaging with the topic of misery.
After intervening in physical spaces to create misery zones, I was curious to see how others would design a physically miserable space. In a miniature workshop I presented friends with an Architecture of Misery worksheet. The sheet contained the floor plans of a standard house which I asked them to modify in order to make the space as miserable as possible.
I found the worksheet was an accessible and attractive medium to open up insightful conversations.