Sociolegal model making 6: place-holding

This is the sixth in a series of experiments (see the firstsecondthirdfourth and fifth) investigating how modelling can be used in sociolegal research processes.

I am a sociolegal researcher seeking to generate insights that are both theoretically informed and empirically grounded. Almost all my research includes qualitative, semi-structured interviews that are always time consuming and expensive to complete and sometimes awkward. But they are also usually extremely useful, not only for the direct insights that they produce, but also for the sense of connection to the real world that they foster. Nevertheless, I find that it remains all too easy to lose sight of the human beings who are at the core of all of my research projects.

I decided to tackle this problem as part of my mission to explore the application of design-based strategies to sociolegal research, using the example of my ongoing research into the econolegal implications of the possible reunification of Cyprus, and the design-based strategy of model-making.

Political negotiators

I began trying to create a model to represent the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot ‘sides’ in the on-going negotiations. In the real world these sides are represented by Mustafa Akinci and Nicos Anastasiades respectively.

I wanted to create non-specific models that were connected to a pre-Hellenic, pre-Ottoman Cyprus. So I reached back to the Early (2500-1900 BCE) to Middle (1900-1600 BCE) Bronze Age of the island and found a set of red clay figures (Hunt 1982: 33). It seemed apt that such artefacts are used by archaeologists and historians to track patterns of commerce and exchange (Hunt 1982:24).

Initially I wanted to keep a distance between the originals and my models, so I made them in white fimo clay. Because I wanted to focus on interaction, I gave them arms which were absent in the original.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I experimented with locating the figures back to back and facing each other to represent openness and closure to the possibility of negotiation. I placed the figures on paper in the colours commonly associated with different communal groupings in Cyprus: red for Turkish Cypriot, blue for Greek Cypriot and yellow for Cyprus as a whole; and then on a bespoke vinyl map to attempt to dissociate territory from ethnicity. I created two spheres to represent ideas, aspirations or concessions that might be exchanged during negotiations, and used a stone to represent the space created by the UN-sponsored process.

These mini-experiments helped me to develop a draft visual grammar centring on position (back to back, facing, side by side) and colour. And having the figures in my sight, and in my hands, helped me to keep closer in mind the humans whose place they were holding.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Economic actors

I then moved on to consider how I might represent the humans at the centre of my research: Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot economic actors for whom law might (or might not) act as a communal resource to support stable, productive, trust economic relations (Perry-Kessaris 2015).

The Bronze Age figures that were my original inspiration represented famers, and agriculture is one of the key sectors in which Cypriot inter-communal trade is already occurring, albeit with significant constraints. So it seemed appropriate to attempt to create a second set of figures as similar as possible to the Bronze Age originals.

I completed several rounds of figure prototyping, as well as creating a set of clay spheres to represent what (goods, services, labour, finance) might be exchanged. This process of embodied making had the added interest of making me pay closer attention to how the originals may have been made, by whom and why; as well as to my relationship with the figures and with the people whose place they are holding.

It was not until I began editing the film documenting this experiment that I decided that the spheres are better viewed as holding the place of mutual interpersonal trust.

During background research into the streets surrounding the UN-controlled Nicosia Buffer Zone / Green Line / Dead Zone in preparation for an experimental walking tour I became interested in the Chrysaliniotissa neighbourhood (AHRD 2009). Ermou Street in particular caught my eye because it was the inter-communal commercial centre of Nicosia in the days before inter-ethic violence erupted in Cyprus in 1963; and it was split in three by the events of 1974. Today part is in the Republic of Cyprus-controlled South, part is in self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to the North and part stranded in the Buffer Zone.

I resolved to take my figures to Cyprus and to explore the impact of putting place-holding models in a particular location. For example, does it shed light or obscure; focus the mind or distract; highlight econolegal technicalities and/or emotions; of the past present and/or future?


I began my experiment in the south of Nicosia (Lefkosia). I had a rough sketch of an idea of what I was going to do, but not much of a plan about how I was going to capture the doing of it. The first two locations were selected by chance and the visual documentation there was less effective. By the time I got to Ermou street I was reasonably well-practiced.

Famagusta Gate

Thick defensive Venetian walls have enclosed the old town of Nicosia since the 16th century, with access limited (until the British knocked out an additional chunk for road traffic in  the 1800s) to three gates Paphos Gate (Porta San Domenico) to the west, Kyrenia Gate (Porta del Proveditore) to the north and Famagusta Gate (Porta Guiliana) to the east.

As such Famagusta Gate raises feelings of both immutability and transit. Inside the building I formulated a binary which I labelled ‘secure/d’, and which was prompted by the feeling of enclosure, being safe but at the same time stuck. That feeling resonated strongly with the wider notions of security that are central to the Cyprus talks.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I positioned the figures as I had in my earlier experiments: back to back, facing and with the spheres. I took my time, shot with a Canon EOS 700D and an iPhone 6 and was only briefly interrupted once by a curious guard.

When it came to try to represent the possible role of law, I instinctively enclosed the figures in a circle with a leather band. This was a break with my past efforts to represent the potential of law to support trust, all of which used lines connecting the two parties.

I attribute this insight to Famagusta Gate, and to the secure/d binary that I had identified when standing in it. But it was not until after I had visited the Taht-El-Kale Mosque, and Ermou Street that I realised the visual significance (see below).

Taht-El-Kale Mosque

The Taht-El-Kale mosque is a short distance from Famagusta Gate, and provided a useful contrasting location in which to experiment with my clay figures. I noted that while Famagusta Gate imposed a claustrophobic sense of physical constraint, this religious location imposed a sense of a ethical constraint, in the sense that I would not wish to offend those who see the mosque as a sacred space. That observation did not generate any project-specific insights and, on balance, this location seemed somewhat irrelevant.

Again, I took my time, shot with a Canon EOS 700D and an iPhone 6 and was only briefly interrupted, this time by a municipal worker.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ermou Street (South)

On Ermou street I chose a stone bench as close as possible to the Buffer Zone, guarded by a Republic of Cyprus military lookout. I took photos of the same poses, including the guard’s post in the background. I took my time, and no one bothered me, but I was sure I did not want to go any closer to the line and only used only my iPhone to be more discreet.

One of the things I wanted to test in this experiment is the effect of the Buffer/Dead Zone on creativity and productivity. Whereas in Famagusta Gate and at the Mosque I felt pro-actively embarrassed, on Ermou Street I felt slightly harried. The soldiers make it much more real; the barbed wire introduced ideas of desolation and an air of unresolved, open, insecurity.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Above I have noted that at Famagusta Gate I instinctively chose to represent the role that law might play in supporting trust, stable, productive inter-communal economic relations by enclosing the figures in a circle with a leather band; and that I attribute this insight to Famagusta Gate, and to the secure/d binary that I had identified when standing in it.

It was only later, over lunch near the Leventis Municipal Museum, towards the south west of the old City, that I realised the visual significance of the circle and the line: law prevents (divides), law provides (encircles to create a safe space).


And when I passed into the map room at the Leventis museum I began to turn over in my mind the idea that of course the circle and the line have always been combined in Nicosia. horizontal line of the river bisected the city circle in 1571. Today it is the Buffer/Dead/Green Zone.

The next day I visited The Cyprus Museum to see, among other things, the original Early to Mid Bronze Age figures that had inspired me.

They resonated even more in person (despite poor lighting ) due to their age, their earthy tones and their calm charisma. They reminded me of Anthony Gormley’s (2007) work Event Horizon in which he placed life sized sculptures of people on rooftops around London’s South Bank. Like the clay models, they had a timeless quality, seeming to be watching from the past and the present.

Next to the agricultural scene that was the initial focus of my attention was a circular piece representing an open air sanctuary. This reinforced the potential of the circle as a visual tool for representing the productive space that can be created by law.


A few days later I brought my figures, together with a set of concept cards, across the Ledra Street crossing and into northern Nicosia in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Ermou Street (North)

I took a sharp right and ended up in a secluded, decrepit spot next to the Buffer Zone section of Ermou Street. As Yiannis Papadakis points out in Echoes from the Dead Zone, the Buffer Zone is edged with temporary, removable barbed wire to the south, but with a solid and permanent wall to the north. For me, on that day, in that spot, the wall produced a sense of calm and certainty, in stark contrast to the open and fragile sense produced by the barbed wire and guard post to the South.

I placed the figures in the usual positions but this time, in light of my reflections of circles and lines, I included shots with a strip of leather cutting between the two figures, intending to represent the ability of law to prevent and interfere. Again I took my time, and again, reflecting my uncertainty about how non-tourist photography might  be perceived so close to the Green Line, I shot only with my iPhone. My concerns where unfounded, I was entirely alone. It was a beautiful and thought-provoking spot.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mula Bastion

The Venetian walls that encircle Nicosia are punctuated with eleven heart shaped protrusions known as bastions. Mula (also known as Zahra) Bastion to the North West offers a striking view across to a UN watchtower, iconic locations such as the Ledra Palace Hotel and some of the most the elegant buildings of the Arabameht neighbourhood; and down into the waterless, 80 metre-wide moat, which at this point falls in the buffer zone.

I placed the figures on what appeared to be a reinforced concrete bunker. Again I shot only with my iPhone6. There was plenty of time, space, silence, freedom and fresh air. It was the only location from which both sides of Nicosia could be seen, and it felt full of possibility.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Real world

In a chapter entitled ‘The Art of the Buffer Zone’ Haris Pellapaisiotis (Wells et al. 2014) argues that it is not necessarily helpful to locate in and around the Dead Zone visual practices that focus on themes of division and reconciliation. Such a potent location is bound to produce multiple, potentially confusing and distracting signals.

So I decided to round off my experiments in the Pieto coffee shop at bottom of Ledra street in the south of the old city.

The lively décor and background music, together with the fact that I was there to engage in a socioeconomic activity (buy a coffee to drink in a public space) made the whole thing come to life; or at least, showed how the other settings were very abstract / theoretical / moving, almost to the point of propaganda.

What a powerful intellectual, practical and emotional tool. Making these figures, being able to use them as placeholders in fieldwork and presentations, and generally having them with me has made me focus more than ever on the people at the centre of my research.


Association for Historical Dialogue and Research (2009) Nicosia is Calling: Chrysaliniotissa Neighbourhood Nicosia: AHDR/UNDP-ACT

Hunt, D. Ed. (1982) Footprints in Cyprus. London: Trigraph.

Perry-Kessaris A (2015) ‘Approaching the econo-socio-legal’ 11:16 Annual Review of Law & Social Science 1-18

Wells, L. Stylianou-Lambert and Philippou, N. eds (2014) Photography and Cyprus: time, place and identity London: I.B.Tauris.