Marking Space

In a shared (work)space, what is mine vs yours and why does it matter?

Images of melting ice cream danced in my head when we started discussing the idea of marking a shared space. Titled “seat savers”, they were a series of plastic, realistic-looking food that circulated Tumblr a decade ago. You place one on your favorite park bench or library chair, so that the seat will still be yours when you return. After all, who’d take a spot stained by someone’s mess?

Seat savers are a quirky version of a “reserved” sign — applied, however, to public spaces that were never meant to be reserved. That is what may compel someone to pretend to dirty the spot, and so, seat savers are an expression of an entitled attitude towards a shared space.

Despite being absent, you’re claiming space for yourself, overwriting someone else’s present need with your anticipated future need.

Of course, me poking fun at this joke is not only hyper-critical but also hypocritical because naturally, I want one. Not only are they funny, the concept is just too seductive for a library during exam season or Tokyo’s infamous rush hour. Needless to say, I should be the only one to use them, otherwise, what would be the point? If everyone is saving seats, there won’t be one left for me to save!

This seat is taken (I’ll be right back).

Born and raised in Germany, I’m no stranger to the trope and reality of the Beach Towel Brigade — German holidaymakers who get up at the crack of dawn to reserve “their” poolside lounge chair by slinging a beach towel over it. They then go back to sleep, reassured that the best spot is theirs.

However, using towels to mark space turned out to be an international phenomenon. At the IKEA restaurant on a busy Saturday in Tokyo, one can observe a peculiar scene: rows of empty tables while people orbit the restaurant with trays filled with food. The tables are dotted with hand towels and handkerchiefs. While their owners line up for food, other people who’ve already gotten their meals can’t sit down anywhere. They have to wait for those who were in the queue behind them to sit down and finish eating.

These two scenarios demonstrate how counterproductive such habits are to the collective: Marking space tends to snowball.

When we see others marking ‘their’ territory, it triggers a fear of being deprived of access to the finite resources on hand. The behavior then starts to spread.

To be a passive participant in this shadow system means potentially missing out. You’ll be the one circling a restaurant full of unoccupied-but-unavailable seats. Or left with the less desirable lounge chairs while the prime spots stay empty for hours!

Definition, re-interpretation and a new possibility

Examining these scenarios made it clear to us that the marking of space is a form of taking up space — defined as “turning a shared space into a personal one” in the previous essay. However, the marking of space seems to be more tangible, with immediate effects. There’s a physical signalling to claim that place as yours. Intention is an important factor, too. While the taking up of space mostly happens without meaning to do so, putting your mark on a place to signal your claim to it is most likely done with that very aim in mind.

As such, we offer this definition: Marking space is intentionally setting up a substitutional presence in spite of physical absence.

Now, the seat savers and various towels emphasize the negative, egotistical aspect of marking space. This is mine, it can’t be yours.

However, detaching the definition from those examples opens the door to an alluring idea for our inquiry of building belonging in the face of a volatile sharing of (work)space.

Can a substitutional presence help to build belonging, in spite of physical absence?

Just as we did with the taking up of space, is there a way to re-interpret the concept of marking space to ensure that the workspace truly feels like everyone’s space, independent of their regular or irregular presence?

This is mine, it’s also ours. This is ours, it’s also mine.

Elephants in the room

AQ’s Tokyo office is home to two miniature elephant figurines, guarding a shelf full of art and design books. They were brought in by Tomomi, who, for most of the year, is not based in Tokyo but in Paris. When I learned about them, I was delighted by the accidental and yet unsubtle symbolism of these tokens left behind in a common space that one doesn’t frequent regularly.

Placing an object as a stand-in for yourself, a reminder of one’s affiliation, even if you are not present. Marking the space in just the right way, not as a “reserved” sign but as a placeholder.

AQers have re-located the elephants to different spots over the years, as we got new furniture or changed room layouts. The elephants also make infrequent appearances in the backdrop of photos taken at the office. These objects are mine, they’re also ours. This space is ours, it’s also mine.

I, too, belong here.

“Placeholder” may seem synonymous with “seat saver” but they take on a role that is profoundly distinct in the context of our inquiry. A seat saver reserves a spot that no one else ought to use. This act of marking overwrites someone else’s right to a common space. A placeholder, on the other hand, has a gentler meaning, co-existing with everyone and everything else in the office until you yourself return.

It’s the difference between keeping someone else from using a space now just because you might need it later, and knowing that your favorite cup is waiting for you in the studio cupboard.

It is the difference between “this is now my space” and “I, too, belong here”. In fact, in a space where you genuinely belong, it’s not necessary to have a seat reserved at all times. What’s important is that the group considers you, holds space for you. It might then be appropriate to call these tokens “spaceholders”. They don’t take away space, they expand it by presencing the stretches of space that reside in our collective minds.

Spaceholders can be found in places where one feels belonging: a toothbrush kept in the bathroom of a significant other or our old pair of slippers at our parents’ house. Places where we feel at home. As such, spaceholders can counter the host-guest dynamic, established as to-be-avoided in our previous essay. One usually don’t leave tokens of our belonging in places that we enter and leave as guests, no matter how welcome we might be.

Spaceholders are still a way of marking a shared space. However, the characteristics of the practice — taking up space by setting up a substitutional presence in spite of absence — can be re-interpreted to achieve the opposite effect of a “reserved” sign.

Instead of trying to keep others away, this approach to marking gently signal that, here, space is held for everyone/all of us.

Cue, a lot of clutter?

An accumulation of personal belongings (equally brought in by each person!?) would lead to chaos and an un-appealing workspace. A distinction between spaceholders and clutter is called for, and we think it’s about intention. Intention will dictate how the object takes up the physical and mental space of others. A spaceholder should not and cannot be a random object that was thoughtlessly left behind or too personal of a token.

However, this distinction may start to blur once temporality is added to the mix, with our new-normal of prolonged physical absence. This problem will be approached in the next essay.

In this series, artist Lisa Woite and AQ designer Tomomi Sasaki trace the ideals and struggles of sharing space, each devoted to a different way of being in a shared space: Taking up space, marking space, and earning space.