The Parallaxis is an exploration of resonance and possibility within the landscape of the everyday. It is an experiment in calibrating our senses to more subtle frequencies; a quest for cracks and shadows that transform the known into the unknown. Ultimately it is a conversation with the places that we are continuously creating — and that are continuously creating us.

The phenomenon of parallax provides depth and dimensionality to our binocular vision by requiring us to synthesise two different lines of sight. The word is derived from the Greek parallaxis, meaning “to change” — and deeper within its etymological roots we find allosother. Word magic. With parallax we can locate ourselves when we are lost at sea, by measuring the distance between our horizon and the brightest of celestial bodies. Star magic.

The Parallaxis is likewise a triangulation; an inductive journey toward a point of synthesis. It is a process, a practice, a proposition (Jones 2009). Situated at the crossroads of art and human geography, it contributes to both disciplines an articulation of knowledge that is unstable and ambiguous (Smith & Dean 2009). The assertion of a multivalent epistemology has become central to creative practice research, and in recent years has also begun to influence thinking in the field of human geography (Thrift 2008). It is an orientation toward knowledge that has much to offer within the academy and beyond, suggesting as it does ‘a performative technology for adaptive living’ (Vannini 2015, p. 4) and ‘a way to come to understand the world that does not simultaneously set the stage for limited use of that knowledge’ (Langer & Piper 1987, p. 280). The Parallaxis uses the methodology of creative practice research to enact a speculative epistemology of place, through the realisation of a creative work and this accompanying text.

The city is so visible that it is invisible; a persistent substrate patterning our days. We see it no more than we imagine it to see us.

But what if this city is not the only one in which we dwell? What if there is another, more elusive city inhabiting the same streets? A city waiting to be found; a story waiting to be written. Would you step sideways into this subtle city, if suddenly a door cracked open?

What if, what if. These were my initial research questions. Collectively they form an orbit around a central preoccupation, which has remained constant even as the questions ask new questions (and they continue still). The preoccupation is this: the traversal of the liminal. The bridge between what is and what if (Stevens 2013). The transformative potential of the unknown, and the unknowable. The curious dualism of magic and real.

I began this project with the intent to design a game, but the game itself was never meant to be the object of research. In fact it was supposed to be invisible. I wanted to facilitate ambiguous urban encounters that were unfettered by any contextual frame; that erased the so-called ‘magic circle’ (Huizinga 1955) that structures our behaviour when we engage in activities designated as play. In short: I wanted to make a game that was real, which could evoke a magic that was equally real. My previous research had led me to believe that ambiguity itself is an alchemical agent, able to locate doors where none seem readily apparent. Could I build on previous studies (Gaver, Beaver & Benford 2003; Langer & Piper 1987) and reach a greater understanding of this alchemy?

This game was meant to be so many things that it did not turn out to be. And yet it turned out to be so many things that it was meant to be. For while I had intended to locate doors for others to step through, it was my own traversal of the liminal that would unfold. The making of the game became the game, and thus enacted itself as performative research. Here ‘the symbolic data … not only expresses the research, but in that expression becomes the research itself’ (Haseman 2006, p. 6). It is a methodology that is native to creative practice, and more recently has been adopted in the field of human geography (Dewsbury 2010, Dirksmeier 2008).

I understood the performativity of this project long before I came to see its more interesting implication: To make a game that’s real, meant to invoke a magic that is also real, it is necessary to play for real. The researcher must become the researched, willing to undergo change and reflect upon this process. My methodology, then, is not only performative but also reflexive (Etherington 2004, Myers 2010), and my contribution to the fields of creative practice research and human geography is a detailed case study of this methodology. For the game is communicated equally by the creative work that is presented beyond the boundaries of this document, and by the narrative of its becoming as manifested here. The two outputs use differing methods but share the same methodology. In this sense the dissertation is both map and territory, charting a traversal even as that charting influences its course.

The journey of this game has been the process of learning how to respond creatively to the unstable and the uncertain. In traversing this terrain I have drawn on a breadth of sources both critical and creative, in particular the psychoanalyst DW Winnicott, the philosopher David Abram, the artist John Cage, and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. The commonality across my methods has been the movement toward a distinct perceptual state, which can be described as non-representational (Dewsbury 2010; Vannini 2015) or in the Zen tradition as satori (Suzuki 1956). In this state ‘felt meaning emerges from the medium in the form of potential semblances that are “sensed,” polysemic and open-ended and so unpredictable and novel’ (Hunt 1995, p. 42).

Grounded in a phenomenology of urban walking, The Parallaxis uses photography, site-specific installation and creative nonfiction to access this perceptual shift. As the game unfolds it moves first through the idea of imaginative play as a subjective experience (Winnicott 1965), and then beyond this interior landscape to an intersubjective rapport with the city. Here it calls on Abram’s (1997) ‘ecology of magic’ to propose a material realm that is animate, and in which, ‘[p]rior to all our verbal reflections, at the level of our spontaneous, sensorial engagement with the world around us, we are all animists’ (ibid. p. 57).

‘Art and real magic know subtler paths still,’ writes the anthropologist Michael Taussig (2014, p. 29). ‘What if … there never was a mechanical universe with dead objects on one side and lively humans on another? What if that picture of reality is stupendously false and silly, yet we adhere to it same way as people — so we are told — once thought the Earth was flat?’

What if, what if?