There is a hospital in Sydney that ranks amongst my most checked-in places on Facebook. But what makes this place so special? It’s on the other side of the city from where I live, closer in distance but further in travelling time than Australia’s capital city, Canberra. It is most definitely not my closest hospital, there being at least a dozen public hospitals closer. I also have not spent very much time in this part of Sydney at all — hospital visits excluded.
What makes this hospital a place at which I have checked in so often is, as you might have guessed, the time I’ve spent there for medical treatments. No one goes to hospital for fun. We’re almost exclusively there as patients, to visit patients, or to work. For patients, these buildings can be bewildering complexes of comings and goings, of interacting time-space routines, of medical procedures for which we have only the slightest understanding.
Our experiences of hospitals are often some of life’s most momentous occasions — births, deaths, illness, recovery. The giving and taking of life. It is these experiences that transform hospitals from mere spaces that exist to places we know. In the book Media, Place and Mobility, Shaun Moores from the University of Sunderland describes this process of coming to know place as an “experiential accomplishment”.
As you move around your town or suburb, there are lots of places you know and lots of spaces you don’t. People’s homes and backyards are generally closed off. They’re spaces that exist in proximity but you’ve probably never been there. Your home and the public spaces around it — the roads, parks, walking tracks, shops and schools — are the places you know. You could lead a guided tour of these places and your own memories of them would be the stories you tell.
Places are networked together, of course, and one big place can have lots of little constituent places inside it. My house is interfaced with my yard and garden, and together they make up my home. Outside is a road that connects to cycle and walking tracks I use on a regular basis. The road leads to other parts of my suburb and the pub down the street, all places I’ve been and have memories from. Yet none of these places have the same number of check-ins as that hospital.
Nearby is the old hospital, which is being demolished. In this place which no longer exists physically, memories of earlier patients still reside. Experiences might not be replicable, but that doesn’t mean they disappear and the places they create endure.
Whereas place may be accomplished by one-off influential experiences, habit also plays a big part. The places we inhabit on a daily basis might not have the most stand-out memories but we have a certain kind of knowing about them — a way of getting around without thinking it through. This is a kind of pre-cognitive habitation, an understanding built up over time, layer by layer and memory by memory so that it just seems natural. We hardly ever check in to these places.
Inside the hospital, there are some rooms I know very well — places enfolded within the bigger place. The antechamber outside the surgery where I chatted with nurses while I waited for my turn inside. The room where I spent four days in isolation only connected to the outside world by my phone and books. The waiting room where I’ve spent hours waiting for doctors whose patient roster is so huge they’re always running behind. The cafe where I’ve eaten too many greasy foods.
Outside the hospital is a freeway which leads back home again, skirting the outer suburbs of Sydney. Nearby is a railway line which leads to the heart of the city. Beyond these, the suburb means almost nothing to me because I haven’t spent much time there — I’ve never experienced it. My wife knows it better than I do because she stayed nearby for days while I recovered from surgery. These places are networked together, but for me the network is stretched out to other places rather than those right nearby.
Places like hospitals have many entry and exit points. There are front doors and side doors, rooms and lifts, helicopter land points and ambulance doors. Patients, visitors and staff can come and go from any of them. There are also lots of other ways in and out of places. Transition points like mobile phones, computers, televisions, the radio and newspapers let people experience other places even as they stay in the same physical location. Experience can be mediated and we can get to know places we’ve never physically visited and people we’ve never met in person.
The beauty of human imagination and ingenuity is that we can also experience places that are fictional and places to which no human has ever been.
What of Mars? Is it a place? Have we ever experienced it? We have hundreds of thousands of photos and video gathered terrestrially and extra-terrestially from both Earth and Mars. We know the temperature, the soil composition, radiation levels. The Mars rovers are controlled by humans from here on Earth, almost as extensions of themselves. The robots mediate our experience, but do not necessarily diminish it. Mars is still an experiential accomplishment.
So is Middle Earth, brought to life in books and film over generations. The sensuous immersive experience of the big screen takes you out of your seat to places that don’t really exist or are impossible to visit physically. They absorb the senses and draw you in. And even if they don’t, the memory of being in that place (the cinema or the loungeroom), probably with friends or family, make it an experience in any case. The shared experience of place, accomplished together and perhaps modified in conversation afterwards.
When we experience mediated place, we are in multiple places simultaneously. We’re in the place we’re in, but somewhere else as well. You might not be wholly in in the media, but somewhere between it and yourself an experience is happening, and place is being made.