Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return. Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

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As a great proof of the merits of  ‘follow your instincts’ and see what happens, I’ve now been invited to give a presentation – as part of a symposium at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 15 May 2014 – about the legal aspect of doing Land Art in abandoned quarries. This nicely adds to the symposium work I’ve done on law and abandoned quarries elsewhere in the last 18 months for the British Mountaineering Council (climbing in them), the National Water Safety Forum (swimming in them) and the Mineral Products Association (not dying in them). It also marks another step in the strange convergence of what once seemed a very dichotomous project: the occupiers’ liability stuff on one hand vs the urban exploration/psychogeography/bunkerology stuff on the other. This is both, in a single event!

So here’s the organisers’ promo for the event, followed by my abstract…

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return 
Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

This one-day symposium, led by artists Charles Danby and Rob Smith, in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979’ (5 April – 15 June 2014), has been organised in collaboration with the Arts Council Collection, Northumbria University and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The symposium explores Land Art in relation to contemporary practices and historical precedents. It investigates the quarry as an active physical site for the production of new artworks and for the re-visiting of past works. Bringing together theoretical and practical positions in relation to chalk and limestone quarries, it focuses on approaches leading to the making of works, films, documents, field recordings and archives.

In the anthropocene the quarry becomes a site of new relations, that connects historical, material, technological and social revision through changing land use and post-industrial / post-ecological occupation. The day will examine the status of these quarry sites, the removal of materials, their social and physical reparation and the negotiation of their borders and thresholds in physical, legal and artistic frameworks, through to what Robert Smithson characterised as ‘an expensive non-site’ in 1969, the moon, as a speculative quarry.

Details of the speakers

Joy Sleeman - Senior Lecturer at Slade School of Art, University College London, and co-curator of Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/people/academic/profile/ASLEE78

Luke Bennett - Senior Lecturer in the Department of Natural & Built Environment at Sheffield Hallum University and researcher into owner and climber attitudes to recreational access to abandoned quarries
http://www.shu.ac.uk/faculties/ds/built-environment/staff/luke-bennett.html
http://www.lukebennett13.wordpress.com

Charles Danby - Artist, writer, curator & Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, Northumbria University
http://charliedanby.co.uk/
http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/sd/academic/sass/about/arts/staff/charlesdanby

Rob Smith - Artist and co-director of Field Broadcast
http://robsmith.me.uk
http://fieldbroadcast.org

Onya McCausland - Artist and co-researcher of Turning Landscape into Colour
http://turninglandscape.com/

Mark Peter Wright - Artist and editor of Ear Room and researcher with CRIASP, London College of Communication
http://www.crisap.org/index.php?id=40,393,0,0,1,0
http://mpwright.wordpress.com

Rob La Frenais - Critic and curator at Art Catalyst, and founder of Performance Magazine
http://www.artscatalyst.org

Neal White (video screening)- Artist and Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice at Bournemouth University, Director of Emerge – Experimental Media Research Group, and founder of the Office of Experiments
http://www.nealwhite.org
http://staffprofiles.bournemouth.ac.uk/display/whiten

For booking visit: www.thequarry.org.uk

And my abstract:

Encountering law and land art in abandoned quarries – excavation, legacy, return

My research work focuses upon the intersection of legal, aesthetic and pragmatic site management practices in the stewardship and re-valorisation of abandoned and/or physically damaged places such as quarries, derelict factories and decommissioned military sites. My presentation will explore the (feint) intertwined presence of law, proprietors and enthusiastic  ‘re-energisers’ within abandoned quarries. In doing so it will draw from my former experiences as an environmental lawyer advising on the decommissioning and safeguarding of extractive industry sites, as an academic now teaching land managers and as an active researcher of enthusiast groups who seek access to derelict spaces for recreational, creative or illicit purposes. My research work on quarries is  characterised by a desire to understand both how these places are forgotten, and how they are re-activated by enthusiasts finding new uses for them (and of the ‘challenges’ this may pose for their owners). This ongoing research project is ‘multi-stakeholder’ and opportunistic in nature, with me seeking to explore and understand each perspective and its processes of meaning making, within specific sites of occurrence. My project thus has at times been deeply ‘managerial’ in focus and at other points has explored the affective dimension. Thus at various points my project has seen interest and support from key stakeholder groups, including the Forestry Commission, the British Mountaineering Council, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Mineral Products Association and also a small commission in 2013 from the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund to research and write Scree, a deep topographical assay (with photographer Katja Hock – Nottingham Trent University) of the mine and wastescape of an excavated industrial hillside in the heart of Sheffield. In addition to giving an account of my various investigations, my presentation will also sketch out the key legal drivers that shape managers’ and regulators perceptions (and anxieties) about these voids, in doing so touching on the legal-materialities of spoil-spreading waste disposal scams, restoration and instability, contamination, re-mining and how the proximity of humans alters the legal status of excavated rock faces and abandoned mineshafts.

Micro-Habitats: Bunkers, Sheds & Space Capsules

“Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.” St Anthony the Great, c. 300AD

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Here are my slides for my presentation at today’s Occursus/University of Sheffield symposium on ‘Micro-Habitats’. As my title will already have revealed, I used the opportunity to talk again about bunkers. This time my focus was on bunkers as micro-worlds. Through a clip from Lost I highlight the two faces of ‘the bunker’ in popular culture – the space-age bachelor pad and the abject, dank crisis space of last resort. I also took the ‘bunker as womb’, ‘bunker as shed’ and ‘bunker as man-machine’ riffs for a walk again. So far, so good (or at least, so far so familiar), then I ventured – via the Unabomber’s shed – into Outer Space aided by key scenes from the 1971 motion picture Silent Running, and in doing so invoked Paul Virilio’s conceptualisation of the spaceship as the bunker transposed into orbit. I then focussed in on the space-bunker’s hermetic nature – both in its sense of sealed off from the outside world, and as an essence of monastic retreat. I concluded with images of Lowell (Silent Running’s eco-hero) as lone bio-pod space shepherd to the remaining fragments of Earth’s vegetation, of Saint Anthony withdrawn from the world into the Egyptian desert and dwelling within its abandoned Roman forts, praying for his and the world’s salvation and of Desmond (Lost’s bunker dweller) now revealed as less the carefree bachelor enjoying his well equipped pad, more like a modern day Sisyphus typing code numbers regularly into his keyboard – as he believes he must – to prevent the detonation of some unspeakable device to which he is in thrall. So – bunker as hermitage…

temptation-of-saint-anthony-538

 Oh, and the ‘men and bunkers’ riff was challenged by the audience – and a great discussion had around whether women and men equally attach to machines, objects, intimate spaces. Yes, they probably do. But we all agreed that conditioning plays a role too. Kitchen vs Shed does seem to have a gendering, and both can be domestic.

star-wars-by-salvador-dal-30231-1262969804-8

Finally, the slides don’t have citations – but these can be found in the two papers that this talk drew from:

  • Bennett, L. (2013). Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers. Gender, Place and Culture. 20 (3), 630-646 
  • Bennett, L. (2011). The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management. Culture and Organization, 17 (2), 155-173.

Pictures: two views of The Temptation of St Anthony

1) Heironymus Bosch,  (detail), c.1500: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/bosch/tempt-ant/

2) Anon, Star Wars mash-up of Salvador Dali’s 1946 painting: http://mentalfloss.com/article/52970/11-great-salvador-dali-art-mash-ups

 

This post is New Uses for Old Roman Forts #38

In ruins in 2014

bigruins3

“For [Walter] Benjamin, the truth content of a thing is released only when the context in which it originally existed has disappeared, when the surfaces of the object have crumbled away and it lingers precariously on the brink of extinction.”

Gilloch, G. (1996) Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, Polity: Cambridge

Oddly, it’s suddenly become very unfashionable to talk or write about ruins. So, it’s probably not good timing that I’m set to use the ‘R’ word copiously in at least three conference sessions this year. Ho hum…

Here are my abstracts.

Fragment 1 – ‘Big Ruins’ Conference – University of Manchester, 14 May 2014

The ruin of ruins – image, utility and materiality in the fate of broken places

We see the hilltop castle ruin as frozen, rather than continuing to crumble. ‘Ruin’ is both a noun and a verb, yet we tend to talk only of ruins as static, certain and final end points of a building’s life.  In this presentation I will consider the human and other processes by which ruins are denied a stable, final identity. I will look at how ruination is ultimately an irresistible process, its pace can be retarded but not halted – and ultimately ruination becomes self-erasing. As a disease-like entropic force ruination permeates the built environment revealing itself via culturally and materially inflected manifestations in local sites of rupture. This paper will illustrate the diversity of these manifestations ranging across the shifting fates of different corners of the economy and their structures, the demolition urge of contemporary business rates taxation, the anxieties of owners and their insurers, the powerful material effects of ideas of ‘dereliction’, ‘regeneration’, utility, safety and the marauding of scavengers.  It will also consider the non-human material factors and processes – the building pathologies – that assail the body of the ruin and drive it onwards towards disassembly, degeneration and desiccation. In keeping with the ‘big ruin’ focus of the conference, this paper will work outwards from the single building level scale of the Romantic ruin trope, first by following Edgar Allen Poe in peering up close into the materiality of the decaying sub-elements of the House of Usher, and then zooming out to figure degenerating urban terrain as a resource-scape, a field of matter intermixed with ideas, values and utilities each propelling ruination as a destabilizing flux   channeling matter out of the city, and summoning in an urge-to-change, in the face of a perennial fear of disuse and abandonment.

NB: more details of this FREE conference here: http://narratingwaste.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/big-ruins-the-aesthetics-and-politics-of-supersized-decay-manchester-wednesday-14-may-2014/

Fragment 2 – Royal Geographical Society Conference (Legal Geographies session), 26-29 August 2014

The law in ruins: co-production, nomic traces and the sedimented taskscapes of the world’s first factory

The Legal Geography canon rests on a principle of co-production: namely that the social, the spatial and the legal act upon each other to form the ‘nomosphere’ (Delaney, 2010) and/or a ‘splice’ (Blomley, 2003). This paper will seek – through application of such thinking to a case study – to reframe the co-productive triumvirate, as matter, discourse and practice, and thereby align the co-production model towards a more processual and relational understanding of ‘worlding’ (Massey, 2005), pointing in particular to the generative role of human purpose, context and contingency in local instances of pragmatic co-production: Ingold’s (1993) notion of ‘taskscape’. Specifically, the presentation will advance its argument by examining the ‘entanglement’ (Hodder, 2012) of matter, purpose and normativity (which I take to include – but be wider than – legal discourse) in the founding, expansion, decline and ‘rescue’ of the world’s first factory scale cotton mill, at Cromford in Derbyshire, UK. If Legal Geography’s co-production model is right we should expect not just to find material traces of law in the physical world, but also evidence of the accommodation of law to site specific and circumstantial effects of topography, geology, commercial conventions and social mores. The presentation will thus focus upon explicating the physical sedimentation of a variety of taskscapes across the site’s 250 year life, and their attendant socio-spatial normativities, within the fabric and layout of the Mill complex.

Fragment 3 – Royal Geographical Society Conference (Cold War Bunkers session), 26-29 August 2014

Cold War bunkers as a post traumatic landscape

This presentation will set the scene for the Cold War Bunkers strand by situating my work on ‘bunkerology’ alongside a wider interpretation of the psycho-cultural drivers for ‘bunker gazing’. It will seek to show that just as Paul Virilio’s Atlantikwall bunker hunting in the late 1950s / early 1960s was rooted in his desire to make sense of the “geostrategic and geopolitical foundations of the total war I had lived through in Nantes, not far from the submarine base of Saint-Nazaire” (Virilio & Parent 1996: 11), so Cold War bunker hunting can be seen as an ongoing processing of the trauma of an ‘ultimate’ war that never happened, but which none the less left spatial and psycho-cultural scars. The paper will follow the sublimation of this trauma, through Peter Laurie’s 1970s attempts to read the materialisation of power in the Cold War’s landscape, W.S. Sebald standing before the ‘Pagodas’ of Orford ness contemplating the post-traumatic landscape before him shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Sarah Vowell writing in 2004 of the potency of ruined bunkers for the last Cold War generation, and of their validation of the apocalyptic anxiety that suddenly vanished with adulthood, but yet still haunts. This investigation will be pursued by reference to the testimony of bunker hunters, my own journey to bunker gazing and by drawing upon the anxieties of Cold War era psychologists and their concerns for the effects that apocalyptic anxiety might (and perhaps did) have upon children raised in the era of the Cold War bunker building.

19 bunkerologists set to talk about Cold War Bunkers at RGS 2014

Felmingham

“Military bunkers are…a key component of our urban condition, if not always consciously acknowledged as such…sensitivity to military bunkers can offer an essential anchor in material culture…” John Armitage quoted in Schofield (2009: 1)

I’m delighted to announce that the proposed Cold War Bunkers: Exceptionalism, Affect, Materiality and Aftermath conference session will be going ahead at the 2014 Royal Geographical Society Conference, in London at the end of August.

Together with my co-convenors John Beck and Ian Klinke, I’ve today finalised the programme and there will be a total of 17 papers, spread across four consecutive panel sessions. That’s a full day of bunker talk, from 9am through to 6.30pm.

We’ve had to obtain special permission in advance from the RGS to have a four part session, but they were impressed by the diverse range of disciplines to be featured, the international draw of the event and how well it fits with the conference’s theme of ‘co-production’.

Our session summary describes the day’s aim as follows:

The Cold War era defensive concrete structures that proliferated in the late Twentieth century were a co-production of myriad material and discursive processes. This session will investigate this meld by bringing together contributions from scholars working across a number of disciplines (geography, tourism, cultural studies, politics, history, fine art and archaeology to name a few) – thus forming its own cross disciplinary co-production, a multi-modal interrogation of the bunker. The day-long set of four panels will explore the histories, meanings, materialities and fates of Cold War Bunkers, across a range of scales; from individual human encounters to their role as semi-secret nodes and exceptional spaces in global geo-political systems.

Cold War bunkers are anomalous spaces – ‘heterotopias’ (Foucault  1967) and yet primal too, womb-like. Virilio (2009) has pointed out the atavistic and ‘cryptic’ characters of bunkers. Like stone chambers beneath Christian churches, they function as places of shelter, worship and salvation. Beck (2011) has written of the ‘ambivalence’ of host cultures to the decaying remains of these structures, and of how no settled meaning is possible for these now abandoned places given their apocalyptic but also contingent nature: for, these are remnants of a war that never was, places of preparation for an endtime that never came. Others (McCamley 2007; Bennett 2011, 2013) have written of those who engage in eager and earnest projection of meaning onto these places, many of whom seem inspired to do so in order to make sense of that era of brooding melancholy attached to prospective nuclear war.

The papers assembled for this day-long session will examine the origins and operational life of these places, their subsequent acculturation (or lack of it), their material legacies and attempted repurposing.

We hope by mid April to know which day (27, 28 or 29 August) our session will run, and I will provide further details here as they emerge (including copies of the speakers’ abstracts). It will be possible for people to register to attend one day of the conference for around £165, please see the RGS 2014 website for more details:

http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/ConferencesAndSeminars/Annual+International+Conference/Annual+international+conference.htm

But, for now, here’s a thematic summary of the event – looking briefly at who’s involved in each of the four stages of the session and what they will be focusing upon.

 (1): encountering the bunker

I will open this session by looking at why (some) people want to gaze at bunkers – and build on my previous work (e.g. The Bunker (2011), Bunkerology (2011), Who Goes There? (2013) and Concrete Multivalence (2013)) by looking further into the psychocultural effects of the exposure of the last Cold War generation to bunkers and anticipated apocalypse in the early 1980s era of the Cruise Missile. John Beck (Westminster University: Dirty Wars (2010), Concrete Ambivalence (2013)) will then look at the relationship between cinematic portrayal of bunkers during the Cold War and the bunker-like condition of the cinema theatre itself. This will then lead into sound artist Katherine Sandys examining the ‘myth of the Cold War bunker’ in terms of the bunker’s symbolic resonance and illustrate this by taking us through her installation work (and perhaps also mentioning her chilling audio conditioning work for the Churchill Museum in the heart of the Cabinet War Rooms bunker). Matthew Flintham (University of Newcaste: The Military Pastoral Complex (2012)) will then examine the bunker’s place within the ‘military sublime’ by means of his film treatment of the Torås Fort mountain-bunker complex in Norway.  This session will then end with Zoe Svendsen (University of Cambridge) taking us through her ‘Bunker Project’ (2005-08) which created performance pieces based upon exploring hidden war spaces of Cambridge, and the link from that project to her theatre company – Metis Arts’ – 3rd Ring Out production which co-opted members of the public into simulating climate change crisis command within adapted shipping containers.

 (2): the bunker as exceptional space

Silvia Berger Ziauddin of Columbia University / University of Zurich will open stage 2 with a glimpse of her forthcoming book length study of Swizerland’s bunker building programme, looking at how the ubiquity of the Swiss domestic bunker was assimilated into daily life. Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) will then, in contrast, explore the command bunker’s link to geo- and bio-politics, based upon his study of the West German government’s bunker at Marienthal – excavating this site as a ‘camp’, and looking at the parallels to its former incarnation as a concentration camp. Martin Dodge (University of Manchester: Eyeballing (2004)) and Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) will then examine the infrastructural bunker-work beneath Manchester – the ‘Guardian Telephone Exchange’ – situating their case study within a wider consideration of Cold War urbanism. Then Maria Alejandra Perez (West Virginia University) will examine the political and military purposing of natural cave complexes within Cuba during the Cold War – looking at the militarization of Cuban cave science and exploration.

(3): the bunker as post traumatic landscape

The papers in this stage will all consider the human/landscape relationship in the aftermath of the Cold War. Bob Clarke (Exeter University) will examine the ‘disenfranchisement’ of the Royal Observer Corps volunteers whose Cold War ‘taskscape’ (Ingold 2000) suddenly disappeared in 1991, leaving obscure material traces of a local-national network of fallout monitoring stations. Following on from this Steven Leech (University of Manchester) will report upon his oral history work with former Cold War radar engineers, looking at the potent links between identity and grass-roots heritage work. Gunnar Maus (University of Kiel) will then outline his ethnographic investigations of memory work and meaning making around the ruins of Cold War heritage in Germany, having accompanied geocachers, urban explorers and heritage enthusiasms in their physical engagement with these relic structures. Then attention will turn to the UK’s Cold War ‘museums’ as Inge Hermann (Saxion University, Netherlands) reports upon her study of the motives and meaning making of tourists visiting these sites.

(4): ruination and afteruse

In the final session attention will turn to the afterlife of Cold War bunkers. It will consider artistic engagements with Cold War bunkers in the widest sense: considering how their representation in contemporary art, and the resultant tropes influence conservation, repurposing or destruction strategies. First, Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth School of Art) will report upon his attempts to find new ways to interrogate bunkers, in his case through the medium of drawing. Stephen’s work will link back to the previous speakers’ attempts to portray the trauma of severance of Cold War workers (e.g. the ROC) from their once purposive landscape. Louise K. Wilson (University of Lincoln, Notes on A Record of Fear (2009)) will then survey the iconography of Orford Ness (ex) military testing range, and its hegemonic status in Cold War bunker art and literature showing how these tropes are engaged in a complex feedback loop with the landowner’s (The National Trust) vision for the nurturing of the decay of the former military structures left in this nature reserve as a sublime ‘ruinscape’. We will then hear from Rachael Bowers and Kevin Booth how English Heritage manages its ‘York Cold War Bunker’, gaining valuable insight into their curatorial decisions and dilemmas. Finally, Dutch architect Arno Geesink will outline his bunker conversion projects in Arnhem, showing how the brutal resilience of bunker structures resists their eradication. Theese structures, above all others, force us to adjust our will to their materiality.

References:

Beck, J (2010) Dirty Wars – Landscape, Power and Waste in Western American literature, University of Nebraska Press

Beck, J (2011) ‘Concrete Ambivalence: Inside the Bunker Complex’, Cultural Politics, 7, 79-102

Bennett, L (2011). ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management’. Culture and Organization17, 155-173.

Bennett, L (2011). ‘Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space29, 421-434.

Bennett, L (2013). ‘Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers’. Gender, Place and Culture20, 630-646

Bennett, L(2013) ‘Concrete Multivalence – practising representation in bunkerology’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space31 (3), 502-521

Dodge, M. (2004) ‘Mapping secret places and sensitive sites: examining the Cryptome “eyeballing” map series’, Society of Cartographers Bulletin 37, 5-11

Foucault, M (1967) ‘Of Other Spaces’ in Leach, N. (1997) Rethinking Architecture – a reader in cultural theory, Routledge: Abingdon.

Flintham, m. (2012) ‘The Military-Pastoral Complex – contemporary representations of militarism in the landscape. Tate Occasional Papers No 17: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/military-pastoral-complex-contemporary-representations-militarism

Ingold, T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment – essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill, Routledge: Abingdon.

McCamley, N. (2007) Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers – the passive defence of the Western world during the Cold war, Pen & Sword: Barnsley.

Wilson, L.K. (2009) ‘Notes on A Record of Fear : on the threshold of the audible’ Leonardo Music Journal, 16, 28-33.

Schofield, J (2009) ‘Considering Virilio’s (1994) Bunker Archeology’ in Schofield’s Aftermath: Readings in the Archaeology of Recent Conflict, Springer: New York, pp. 1-13

Virilio, P. (2009) Bunker Archeology, Princeton Architectural Press: New York (Trans. George Collins).

Artwork:

Stephen Felmingham – Transition #3 – a drawing of the view from a ROC Post, influenced by the primitive ‘ground zero indicator’ (a pin hole camera device stored at these posts to indicate the direction and elevation of a nuclear blast): more here:

http://www.artrabbit.com/all/events/event/43989/the_violet_club_stephen_felmingham

This post is New Uses for Old Bunkers #37

In the bunker, the last man

Oooh, I’m going to do so much with this clip in 2014. Now that I’ve tracked it down (from the depths of fond memory) I’ve realised how well it will work as a focal point for the various bunker talks I’m booked to give later this year.

Lost (the TV show) lies close to the heart of my bunker obsession. The series got ever weaker (and incredulous) as it progressed, but in the first two series the tension and mystery of a strange island was fresh and energising, and there was a physical network of strangeness for the protagonists to trace and make sense of: an interconnected array of sealed concrete bunkers. Big ones, small ones, fat ones, thin ones: all signifying something (in the past or the present, which was splendidly unclear) that the explorers were struggling to make sense of.

Series 2 opens with this clip: a sudden view of someone very at home inside a cosy bachelor pad somewhere, a man at ease with himself, self contained with all that he needs. The music plays, the machines whir, his calm and contented morning rituals are enacted. But then the scene distorts, an industrial scale daily inoculation, dust, uncovenanted movement upon the record deck. Darkness, guns, uniform, surveillance – all as a sudden lurch to a defensive mode. Then our eyes travel up, up a rough hewn dirt encrusted shaft. Up to an open hatch at the surface and the fascinated/terrified faces of the two bunkerological explorers, contemplating the unknown-to-them in the chamber below, and their next move.

The Lost bunker clip gives me a wonderful vehicle to work through many themes, some of them related to my 2013‘men ‘n’ bunkers’ Gender, Place and Culture paper, others more to do with my 2011 Culture and Organisation paper on the bunker’s image/materiality relationship – a duality splendidly captured in both the clip and the following quote from Tom Vanderbilt:

“While actual shelters were usually dark, cramped, mildewed affairs, in the realm of the subconscious desire they were always spacious, ridiculously well-stocked playrooms with artificial sunlight and state-of-the-art entertainment systems, inhabitable for years and years.” (Survival City, 2002, 110)

So, for now, a teaser…

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How the city appears: towards a legal psychogeography of the dropped kerb

This is a forward-looking plug for Walking Inside Out a compendium of essays on contemporary British psychogeography to be edited by Tina Richardson (@concretepost) as part of  Rowman and Littlefield International’s book series on Place, Memory and Affect. The book is due to be published in Autumn 2015.

There’s an overview of this project at Tina’s Particulations blog:

http://particulations.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/walking-inside-out-contemporary-british.html.

As Tina writes there:

“The book will open with a history of British psychogeography, thus situating the current swell within its chronological context. It will introduce the terms that are often used within the field and the key thinkers within the urban walking lineage. Discussing the current state of British psychogeography, the introduction will explore the historical problems within the field, dealing with some of the contemporary detractors of the subject and will introduce the various forms of output that explorations of the city take, whether they be in film form, such as Patrick Keiller’s political and architectural films about London, or the creative literary texts of Iain Sinclair.

Contributions will be from academics and researchers specialising in the field, and from those working in the area of urban walking who are not based in academia, ranging from literary writers to artists. Because of this approach the selection of essays offer a breadth and richness that can only exist when different perspectives come together under one volume. The voices expressed will highlight and explore the setting and climate as it is for psychogeography in the UK in the 21st Century. They will provide current examples of contemporary psychogeographical practices and how they are used, show how a critical form of walking can highlight easily overlooked urban phenomenon, and examine the impact that everyday life in the city has on the individual. Case studies will also be included that offer a British perspective of international spaces, from the postmodern space of Los Angeles to the post-communist city in Europe, thus offering an international direction to the volume, too. This volume also attempts to deemphasise the prevalence of London-centric psychogeographical texts, which seem to be the ones that predominate, by offering essays on cities like Manchester and Leeds, and geographical areas like Tyneside and Powys. The style of the essays will range from accounts of walks from urban walkers themselves, to theoretical texts that help to analyse the practice itself and ground it methodologically. This book proposes to be representative of psychogeography as it is in Britain today and aims to become the first dedicated academic volume on the subject: accessible to scholars, students and urban walkers alike.”

It’s great that the project brings together a wide spectrum of ‘urban walkers’, some academic, some not. Inevitably, Tina has had to be selective and there are many others who could have been featured if space had permitted – but I think the cross section that Tina has assembled will produce a very good account of the (many) ways and purposes towards which broadly psychogeographical sensibilities are being applied in both urban studies, the creative arts and good old mind-engaged curious walking.

I’m one of the contributors who has made it through to the final selection. I will now have to pull my finger out and explain what I see as the link between psychogeography and legal geography. I may even have a go at saying this out loud as my contribution to the August 2014 RGS session on Legal Geography.

But for now, here’s my abstract from Walking Inside Out. My essay will be within a section Tina’s headed ‘How the City Appears’. In my research work I’m fascinated by how different disciplines / practices foreground different aspects of the material environment that they are in. Law is one of those filters and there’s fun to be had (really, there is) in playing with the two senses of ‘law’ – first as lawyers use it and second as used by Guy Debord in framing his vision of psychogeography back in 1955:

“Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” 

Another theme I want to blend in is Ben Highmore’s notion of a creative forensics of everyday living, captured splendidly in the following quote:

“Surrealism is about an effort, an energy, to find the marvellous in the everyday, to recognise the everyday as a dynamic montage of elements, to make it strange so that its strangeness can be recognized. The classic Surrealist can be seen as Sherlock Holmes-like: faced with the deadly boredom of the everyday, the Surrealist takes to the street, working to find and create the marvellousness of the everyday.” (2002: 56)

I’ve touched on this forensic angle in an earlier blog post:

http://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/trace-absence-and-the-concrete-reading-non-places-as-event-spaces/

Highmore also speaks of Sherlock Holmes’ gift of being able to take everyday objects and to discover the stories of those associated with them. Holmes floods meaning into the seemingly insignificance of matter surrounding him – by being attentive to the banal, the elementary.

So, my contribution to Walking Inside Out will be an attempt to excavate something elementary from looking, standing, walking, researching and thinking about a nondescript section of pavement. So, finally – for now – here’s my abstract for the project:

Towards a legal psychogeography of the dropped kerb

This title has been haunting me for a number of years. It started out as a private joke, but then increasingly I came to take it seriously as a way of explaining how I see contemporary psychogeographical sensibilities as helpful to my attempts to investigate law’s contribution towards the ordering of daily encounters with mundane physical aspects of the urban realm.  Not many methods of legal or social science scholarship give you a way of meaningfully investigating the prosaic. But Ben Highmore, drawing on the work of theorists like Georg Simmel, Michel De Certeau, Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, has helpfully sketched out ways in which surrealism and other essential psychogeographical strategies give us tools to excavate the interplay of symbols, affects and materialities that make up the built environment and our daily experience of it. In my chapter I will set out a psychogeographically informed account of the multiple lives of a small spot of pavement, in order to explicate this rich realm, and its various facets and tensions. In doing so I will also reflect on the novelty of this approach, and the survival strategies that I have evolved in order to endeavour to justify this preoccupation and set of methodological strategies within the academic disciplines to which I am affiliated.”

References:

Debord, G. (1955) “Introduction to a critique of urban geography” Les Levres Nues, 6 http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2.

Highmore, B. (2002) Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, Routledge: London

Image credit: http://cave-city.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/how-sherlock-stayed-alive-part-2-where.html, a blog post on a fan site for BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ series in which very thorough attempts are made to deduce from the arrangement of the street scene whether Sherlock [who's not a real person anyway] did or did not fall from a tall building onto the pavement beneath

CFP – RGS 2014 – Cold War Bunkers: exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath

CALL FOR PAPERS

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference,

London 26-29 August 2014

 

Proposed sessions on:

 

Cold War Bunkers:

exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath

 

bikini

Session Convenors:

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University), Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) and John Beck (University of Westminster)

 

“… the closer I came to the ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where I was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.”

W.G. Sebald (2002) The Rings of Saturn, London: Vintage (trans. Michael Hulse)

The Cold War era defensive concrete structures that proliferated in the late Twentieth century were a co-production of myriad material and discursive processes. The proposed sessions seek to investigate this meld by bringing together contributions from scholars working across a number of disciplines (geography, tourism, cultural studies, politics, history and archaeology to name a few). The sessions will explore the histories, meanings, materialities and fates of Cold War Bunkers, across a range of scales; from individual human encounters to their role as semi-secret nodes and exceptional spaces in global geo-political systems.

Virilio (2009) has pointed out the ‘cryptic’ characters of bunkers. Like stone chambers beneath Christian churches, they function as places of shelter, worship and salvation. Beck (2011) has written of the ‘ambivalence’ of host cultures to the decaying remains of these structures, and of how no settled meaning is possible for these now abandoned places given their apocalyptic but also contingent nature: for, these are remnants of a war that never was, places of preparation for an endtime that never came. Others (McCamley 2007; Bennett 2011, 2013) have written of those who engage in eager and earnest projection of meaning onto these places, many of whom seem inspired to do so in order to make sense of that era of brooding melancholy attached to prospective nuclear war.

This proposed session seeks papers that examine the origins and operational life of these places, of their subsequent acculturation (or lack of it), of their material legacies and attempted repurposing. A broad range of papers are invited, approaching bunkers at a variety of scales, perspectives and national contexts. The contributions might – for example – be case studies, analysis of bunker imagery in media representations, empirical studies of public engagement with bunker ‘museums’ and/or theoretical treatments of the meaning/matter meld that bunkers comprise.

Submissions might also address such matters as:

  • The excavation of the ‘secret’ history of specific bunkers – and/or analysis of bunkers’  intentional and inadvertent secrecy, of the changing status of such sites and the techniques of investigation
  • The bunker as an exceptional space at the intersection of sovereign and bio-power; how can the history of particular sites and particularly their decommissioning be fed into theories of sovereign power and legal exceptionality?
  • The significance of the subterranean nature of most bunkers – their hiddenness from sight and encounter; their womb-like properties; their primitivism; their confinement; the costly hubris of going underground; the hyper-control required or enabled in subterranean dwelling
  • The gap between fantasy and reality – ‘space age bachelor pad’ vs ‘concrete submarine’ (Vanderbilt 2002); local improvisation and vernacular styling in bunker construction; the nuclear bunker as concrete fantasy, a space where geopolitical fantasy materialises
  • Civil defence and the encouragement (or suppression) of private bunker building
  • The link between bunkers, modernism and civic infrastructure (e.g. telecommunications networks and their bunkerization)
  • The fate and aftermath of these bunkers: studies of decommissioning (policy and reality); markets in purchasing and reusing bunkers; the (in)significance of public perception in attempted reuse; the preservation of cold war heritage
  • Artistic engagements with bunkers
  • Oral history and reminiscence work with bunker personnel
  • The influence of bunker engineering on Brutalism (and vice versa)
  • Bunker hunters and their motivations
  • The (post) modern bunker – how has the bunker evolved?

How to propose a contribution:

Please submit an abstract (maximum 250 words) and single paragraph biography (including institutional and disciplinary affiliation) to Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) by 15 February 2014.

Further information about the conference, venue, delegate fee etc is available via the RGS website: www.rgs.org

Each selected presenter will have a 15 minutes slot, with PowerPoint facilities provided. The sessions are subject to approval/adoption by the RGS.

Entangled bodies: urban exploration, matter and meaning making

MiruKim3

Entanglement as a term aims to allow a materialism but

embedded within the social, the historical, the contingent.”

Hodder (2012: 96)

What does it mean to be embodied? That seems to be the contested territory standing between Garrett & Hawkins (2013) and Mott & Roberts (2013a & b) in their recent Antipode exchange. Garrett & Hawkins table a body/environment ‘entanglement’ (Hodder 2012) as the object of a new era of research into urban exploration. Mott & Roberts (2013b) counter that the main thrust of their critique of existing scholarship remains unaddressed: namely where is the appreciation of embodied difference amongst those who do – and those who don’t do – urban exploration?

Mott & Roberts’ approach is broadly concerned with the social: how can this practice be culturally situated? How can it be understood in terms of identity politics? Who is dominating this practice, and whose voices and presence is absent? In what senses (and for whom) can urban exploration be said to be liberatory? For them embodiment is a question of human identity, hinged around physical and social difference. And there’s is a call for mobilisation of a greater sense of critique of urban exploration as a predominantly white, male, young, over-educated and professional class pastime.

Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins (whilst seemingly acknowledging the ‘masculinist’ nature of at least some urban exploration culture), avow (via considering the work of a female artist – Miru Kim – working in an urban exploration type terrain) urban exploration as a new way of reading and researching body/environment relations by looking at the embodiment of the human participant within the built environment structures that they explore.

Each then, figures embodiment differently. For Mott and Roberts bodies are carriers of human identity and difference: vectors of identity bio-politics. Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins focus upon the experience and meshing of flesh in the world. Given their different theoretical starting points it is not surprising that agreement is not reached in their exchange.

Each ‘side’ do however appear to be helpfully raising questions under-explored in scholarship to date on this topic. Yes (aligning with Garrett & Hawkins), it would be too easy ‘just’ to examine urban exploration as a gendered practice, a frat-ish rite of passage. There is more to be said about what it is like to pit oneself against the hazardous-to-human arrangements of high, deep and otherwise inhospitable terrain in the built environment, and Garrett is prodigiously advancing this project. However the ‘what it’s like to be there?’ dimension must not become the sole focus, for there is much more that needs investigating (and critiquing) alongside developing deeper understanding of edgework and of the human/matter meld: in particular, the politics, ethics and impacts of urban exploration, and this brings me to a wider issue.

It takes more than urban explorers for urban exploration to exist. To date the focus has been upon the explorers, and often the treatment has been reverential in tone: the explorer as somehow pushing boundaries and thereby contributing in some – never quite articulated way – towards socio-spatial justice. But is exploration done ‘on behalf’ of anyone other than the explorers? What is achieved, and at what cost? The ‘downside’ is never probed, nor the limits of desirable infiltration ever fathomed. Just because it is possible to climb the latest skyscraper in London, is it right to do so? Who is affected by urban exploration and what are their rights? So far, the voices of non-participants (those who choose not to be urban explorers), of property owners and infrastructure managers, of security and rescue services, and of other types of incursionist – have all been absent.

Urban exploration may take place in buildings that are (or seem to be) empty, but they are not places that have become meaningless, and most are not actually abandoned. Many others (non explorers) have desires, and anxieties about, and relationships with these places – and the matter to be encountered within them -   the night watchmen, the site operators, the insurers, the regulatory authorities all need to be heard if we are to understand ‘urban exploration’, for it is not just a pastime that exists in isolation from the world – it is precisely its embodied (in the sense of being-in-the world and amidst matter and other people) aspect that raises these questions. Recreational trespass has consequences, it is an interaction not just with matter, but also with other human bodies and socio-technical systems. There is a human/matter ecology within the targeted buildings and infrastructure.

And urban exploration is a part of that ecology – but it is not the only actant that mobilises it. Those who perceive urban exploration as ‘done to them’ rarely draw neat distinctions between the motivations (and/or backgrounds) of the incursionists whom they encounter the traces of after a weekend of ‘infiltration’ in their premises. The modus operandi of urban explorers – viewed from the perspective of the site owner – is little different from that of the squatter, the arsonist or the metal thief or other scavenger. To understand urban exploration we would need to understand not just how individually or collectively urban explorers define themselves, but also how others (non urban explorers) make sense of recreational trespass and react to it. Intersubjectivity is not just played out between urban explorers, it also happens between others about urban exploration. There is discourse, there is representation, there is power, there is law: all in play around this issue. And all of that swirl of discursive stuff is intimately entwined with bodies and the hazards (and/or purposiveness) of matter.

To interview site owners about urban exploration – as I have done on occasion over recent years – is to encounter bewildered adults struggling to find a way to make sense of recreational trespass, of its implications for them and of rules of thumb by which they may distinguish one type of incursion from another. These bodies matter too: these are human beings facing anxieties as a consequence of site incursion, perhaps occasionally seeing fatalities and having to ‘pick up the pieces’ (in all senses). They also ‘matter’ in the sense used by Karen Barad (2007) : these bodies are just as involved as the explorers in sense making and prediction about human/matter interaction brought about through urban exploration: classically in the realm of risk assessments, and their narration of possible human/matter fateful contact. And, yes – to agree with Mott and Roberts here – owners and other reactors to urban exploration will frame their response decisions around bodily difference. Plainly, in the post 9/11 western world Moslem urban explorers are likely to be treated with greater suspicion or alarm than WASP ones – our bodies carry identity, and are interpreted by others on account of those manifest (and socially foregrounded) features of difference. Thus it is clearly (socially) more dangerous for some to do urban exploration than others.

Let me be clear, the above is not intended as an attack upon urban exploration. As my previous contributions to recent work in this area have hopefully shown, I have considerable respect for the investigatory endeavours of the urban explorers whom I have come across. I have also suggested to site owners in a variety of projects (for the British Mountaineering Council and other pro-access organisations) that site owners need to become more relaxed about adventurous recreational use of their properties.

But, if the talk is now of opening up new avenues of study in this area, I would like to endorse Garrett & Hawkins’ call for greater attention to human/matter relations, and also Moss & Roberts’ call for greater social critique. But, I would suggest that achieving both might actually require a much broader view of the field of study to emerge, one in which:

First, urban exploration is truly engaged with as a ‘spectrum’ (as per Craggs et al, 2013), putting the athletic boundary-pushing dimension into place alongside more ‘down to earth’ – and more inclusive – variants (and whether psychogeography, architectural enthusiasm or urban ‘sightseeing’) in which difference matters less; and

Secondly, one in which exploratory urban engagements of whatever hue are understood as a complex entanglement of many materialities, policies, peoples, priorities and politics, a mesh in which the urban explorer becomes but one actant amongst many.

References

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University.

Craggs, R., Geoghegan, H. & Neate, H. (2013). ‘Architectural enthusiasm: visiting buildings with the Twentieth Century Society’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31: 879-896.

Garrett, B. & Hawkins, H. (2013) ‘And now for something completely different…Thinking through explorer subject-bodies: a response to Mott and Roberts’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Hodder, I. (2012) Entangled: an archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. London: Wiley.

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013a). ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: Urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography.’ Antipode doi: 10.1111/anti.12033: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013b). ‘Difference really does matter: a reply to Garrett and Hawkins’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Image credit:

Naked City Spleen by Miru Kim at http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/naked-city-spleen-by-miru-kim-1 (where there are more images from her Naked City sequence and her video presentation about her project).

On staring at stuff in a weird way: ethnographic surrealism and psychogeography as connectors to everyday matter


“To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.”

Henry Reed, excerpt from Naming of Parts (1942, p.92)

IMG-20130508-00460

Recently I’ve been working on a paper with two colleagues from SHU’s Institute of Education. It concerns our exploratory workshop (my part previously reported here) and draws out the similarities in our preoccupations with, and methods for, producing our accounts of a portion of campus space that day. Each of us – in slightly differing ways – exhibited in our accounts a contemporary fascination with the instability (and playfulness of) the experience of place, and also foreground the constitutive role of mundane matter in the reciprocal formation of that sense of being-in-space.

In my piece, the tactic of foregrounding the background – the infrastructural spandrels at this place – was wilfully transgressive and playful – reading Žižek’s minor passage as major. But it was also indicative of the ontological turn, a neo-materialism that seeks to return to their rightful place centre stage in social theory and research “the missing masses” (Latour, 1992) – matter itself, the stuff of the world that enables human social life and yet so often is omitted from it. My account was not written in a technical register – it was intentionally not a building survey report – something functional and/or scientific. No, I chose a register equally alien to practical science as it was to mainstream social theory and research, in its attempt to speak the non (or post) human, consistent with Ian Bogost’s (2012: 34) exhortation that we should write “the speculative fictions” of objects’ “unit-operations”, and do so by foregrounding the background, by fetishising matter and ascribing agency and quasi subjecthood to it. My wilful turn away from the human, and foregrounding of the campus as machine used the dynamic, enthusiastic register of nature writing, and in doing so offered an oddly exuberant depiction of “moments of bold leap, where cabling flew through the air from gully to gully, and strange gathering points at which multiple lines congregated”. Such stylistics would be normal for writing about flora or fauna, but is alien to the depiction of wiring. Cabling is not meant to be the subject of rapt adjectival attention.

But this warping of language and gaze was not a product of reverie. What was “found”, and what was reported was wilfully selected, theoretically informed and shaped by an anticipation of performance (the presentation) and audience (in the workshop, on my blog and for our article). The cables did not present themselves in a moment of revelation. Theory made this wierding possible and permissible, as it was for John Paul Sartre upon his first acquaintance with phenomenology in the early 1930s, an encounter that enabled him to announce with youthful glee:

“nothing appeared to me more important that the promotion of street lamps to the dignity of a philosophical object…truth drags through the streets, in the factories and, apart from ancient Greece, philosophers are eunuchs who never open their doors to it.” (quoted in Kearney, 1994: 3)

This iconoclasm – this return to things (to echo Husserl) – has recently reasserted itself. Sartre’s iconoclasm is returning. In a new, 21st century its talk is of how to find methodological:

“means by which to activate the implicit thing knowledge we already possess, as well as means to become more sensitive to the inherent qualities of things themselves” (Olsen, 2010: 18)

Yet very little has actually been said about precisely how to study and foreground the submerged contribution of material things to places and processes. For now, it is humans writing the “speculative fictions” of things – using language creatively to unmask the non-linguistic – that appears the best strategy despite it seeming a contradiction in terms. Graham Harman shows the unmasking power of creative descriptive writing in his advocacy of a “weird realism”:

“…philosophy’s sole mission is weird realism. Philosophy must be realist because its mandate is to unlock the structure of the world itself; it must be weird because reality is weird.” (2008: 334, emphasis in original)

For Harman – like Bogost – creative writing is a means by which the mundane can be foregrounded by (for example) the Kafkaesque “en-wierding” techniques of horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft. To figure an assembly of overhead cables as having spider-like qualities is to destabilise the normal, directing attention to it. Harman shows this technique to deft effect in a sinister description of a (perfectly normal) local hotel, The Nile Luxor Hilton. Harman destabilises the normal via a surfeit of attentive description and inference of agency, thus:

“Though the outer walls seem to meet at solid right angles, the hue of the concrete departs from accustomed values in a manner suggestive of frailty or buckling.” (Harman, 2008: 355)

In the juxtaposition of imagery and allusion, the given of the mundane material world is destablised and through this destabilisation foregrounded. In a similar vein Highmore argues for a revival of a spirit of “surrealist ethnography” (2002: 82) in which anthropology’s “will to order” is seriously undermined, and the messiness of daily life respected, finding “society as a totality of fragments” (emphasis in original), a phrase reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s self-described method of social analysis: “rag picking”, a position Highmore describes as being “at the crossroads of magic and positivism” (82). But it is the surrealists who Highmore figures as the epitome of background foregrounding:

“Surrealism is about an effort, an energy, to find the marvellous in the everyday, to recognise the everyday as a dynamic montage of elements, to make it strange so that its strangeness can be recognized. The classic Surrealist can be seen as Sherlock Holmes-like: faced with the deadly boredom of the everyday, the Surrealist takes to the street, working to find and create the marvellousness of the everyday.” (56)

In our article (assuming my co-authors are happy with the draft I’ve just sent them) we will argue that our accounts are characteristic of an emergent “psychogeographical” sensibility, an approach that can both embrace the materiality of the external world as a co-creator of perceived reality, and yet still retain a still powerful constructivist sentiment that aligns experience of (or at least accounting for the experience of) the world in language, affect and subjective experience. This is indeed the realm of a speculative, or “weird realism” (Harman, 2008).

Psychogeography’s relationship to academic research is ambiguous, its promise to date unfulfilled. The term was formulated by Guy Debord in 1955 in the following terms:

Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can this be applied to the findings arrived by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.” (emphasis in original, Debord, 1955: 5).

In the hands of the Situationists, psychogeography became conflated with 1960s revolutionary playfulness and adherence to any search for “precise laws and specific effects” quickly disappeared from view, but nonetheless – even if in the end he didn’t pursue it himself – Debord conceptually mapped out territory for potential study: that intersection between human affective experience of place, and the materiality of the environment within which (and about which) such encounters occur. Debord also conceptualised the (Surrealist inspired) dérive as a “scientific” methodology – the aimless stroll intended to experience and/or transgress the habitual routes of travel and experience mapped out by the “the ambiance of the street…the path of least resistance which is automatically followed…” (Debord, 1955: 16).

As Coverley (2006) has since argued, contemporary psychogeography (as it is “practised” in the UK at least) is primarily a literary pastime, accessing an English mystic tradition stretching back to William Blake and Thomas De Quincy as much the conceptualising of Debord and the Situationist International. But none the less, the empirical programme framed by Debord in 1955 remains open to engagement within the academy, in addition to its vibrant literary life beyond it. One direction to take the ensuing enquiry is environmental psychology, deploying quantitative (and often perceptual experiment based) approaches to investigation of the environment/person nexus (for example Prestopnik & Roskos-Ewoldsen’s (2000) quantitative study of campus wayfinding strategies). The other direction is to embrace the interpretive, and journey into the marginal territory that lies somewhere between autoethnographic investigation and the creative “literary travel writing” of the contemporary Anglophone literary psychogeography (for example Sinclair, 1997; Sebald, 2002; Papadimitriou, 2013).

Research in this mode cannot offer up “precise laws” (or even generalisable) “specific effects”, but it can present rich, post-positivist reflexive description of the story stacking processes by which instances of place are encountered, and the terms (and sense) of that encounter negotiated between the creative agency of humans and the resistances and affordances of matter.

The paper that I’m working on will argue that a broadly psychogeographical research methodology entails an open, reflexive (and often playful) engagement with language, memory and the physicality of the built environment. It requires an embrace of multiplicity, indeterminacy and contingency, an attentiveness to the agency of matter (and data), and to the flux of temporalities, spatialities and normative orders apparent when one sets out to actively make meaning within seemingly “given” (pre-ordained) mundane, functional places that would normally be passed through and/or used without particular regard.

A connecting thread across my and my collaborators’ research work is a belief that all encounters with place are provisional, coalescing as tentative assemblages of matter and meaning as a function of overlapping strategies, subjectivities and materialities that incline towards conventional (and dominant) registers of experience, but which are never entirely contained by them. The “slip” is irrepressible, and psychogeographic techniques of the drift (dérive) and/or reappropriation (détournement) can be applied as a celebration of these aberrant flows, and whether as a challenge to hegemonic structures of power (as the Situationists intended) or as a “diffractive methodology” to simply bring to the foreground the messy multitude of the experience of place – the swirl of affects, ideas, conventions, artefacts, spatial arrangements and power inherent in the daily experience of learning environments.

We are conscious that our figuration of psychogeography as a playful experiential research methodology side-steps both psychogeography’s radical political aims and its originally conceptualised role as revolutionary reconnaissance. In a recent paper Shukaitis and Figiel, (2013) have reasserted psychogeography’s radical political purpose, and criticised its contemporary denaturing. But psychogeography is – as Bonnett (2009) notes – an increasingly broad church.

The concern of our paper is to consider meaning making and “mattering” (Barad 2007) in one nondescript corner of a University campus. It might well be said that our analysis omits matters of policy, funding and wider political economy. We do not deny the importance of such considerations, but do not consider that the choice is “either/or”. There are many scholars engaged with the structural dimensions of higher education policy and its impact upon campus management. We simply seek to reinsert notions of tactical agency, and affective, embodied experience into consideration of how being upon a University campus is constituted. Critical research into higher education place making tends to lapse into totalising models of “top-down” determinism, and consequently position individuals as dupes of structural imposition. In such readings, the fact that a University can make its physical landscape by arranging matter and symbols is equated with an equally efficacious ability to condition its students (see, for example, the “new model worker” thesis expressed by Hancock and Spicer, 2011). But we (after de Certeau 1984) see the “appellation” (in the sense used by Louis Althusser – that ideology “calls” to its subjects) as less effective, more messy and believe that a psychogeographically inclined investigation of the flux of such human/system encounters can reveal (and potentially) amplify this multivalence. An emergent example of a hybrid political/weird psychogeographic analysis of campus management can be found in Tina Richardson’s (2011) Deleuzo-guattarian variant of psychogeography which explicates the “forgotten” portions of the University of Leeds’ campus, a position somewhat closer than ours to what Bonnett has styled “magico-Marxism” (2009: 45).

Our concern then, is to understand how psychogeography might work as a methodology to explore matter/meaning relations, and we find much suited to our purpose in Shukaitis and Figiel’s depiction of the dérive as:

“a way [of] getting lost, of opening up how one is affected by the world, [that] brings to the fore all the richness (and horror) of the everyday that is typically not paid attention to.” (2013: 3)

This aspiration – in and of itself – has methodological merit, and some precedent as an axiom of both social research and creative enquiry. In his explication of theories of everyday life, Ben Highmore (2002) points to James Clifford’s 1981 essay, “On Ethnographic Surrealism”, which explored the 1920s and early 1930s links between the avant garde and the emergence of French enthnology. Clifford (1988: 121) saw modern ethnology as driven by a need to (in the oft quoted phrase) “mak[e] the familiar strange” (a particularly important dictum for research conducted within the researcher’s own cultural reality). But his invocation was more dramatic than those words portray, in embracing the destabilising principles of surrealism, Clifford advocated an ethnographic surrealist practice which “attacks the familiar, provoking the eruption of otherness – the unexpected” (146). He situated “surrealist ethnography” as revelling in difference and semantic indeterminacy (in healthy contrast to the taxonomic – naming and ordering) impulse of a “scientific” ethnology. Clifford’s ensuing methodological prescription co-opted the surrealist practice of collage, assemblage forming in which “the cuts and sutures of the research process are left visible; there is no smoothing over or blending of the work’s raw data into homogenous representation” (1988: 147).

Except – of course – that there will always be blending, an at least partial sense making (and committant ordering) of unfamiliar or de-familiarised reality. There will be re-constitution by the observer, in dynamic exchange with the multitude of things in the world beyond. Our concern should therefore be to explicate (after Karen Barad) how matter is made to matter by human interlocutors, and how matter has its own abilities to impose significance upon the social world.

References

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University Press.

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology or what it’s like to be a thing. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Bonnett, A. (2009). The dilemmas of radical nostalgia in British Psychogeography. Theory, Culture and Society, 26(1), 45-70.

Coverley, M. (2006). Psychogeography. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Clifford, J. (1988). The predicament of culture. London: Harvard University Press.

Debord, G. (1955). Introduction to a critique of urban geography, Les Levres Nues, 6, Retrieved from  http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2.

Hancock, P. and Spicer, A. (2011). Academic architecture and the constitution of the new model worker. Culture and Organization, 17(2), 91-105.

Harman, G. (2008). On the horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl. In R. Mackay (ed) COLLAPSE IV. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

Highmore, B. (2002). Everyday life and cultural theory. London: Routledge.

Kearney, R. (1994). Modern movements in European philosophy. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.) Shaping technology/building society: Studies in sociotechnical change (pp. 225–258). Harvard: MIT Press.

Olsen, B. (2010). In defense of things – Archaeology and the ontology of objects, Plymouth: Alta Mira Press.

Papadimitriou, N. (2013). Scarp. London: Sceptre.

Prestopnik, J. and Roskos-Ewoldsen, B. (2000). The relations among wayfinding strategy use, sense of direction, sex, familiarity, and wayfinding ability. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20, 177-191.

Reed, H. (1942). Naming of Parts. New Statesman and Nation. 24, no. 598, 92.

Richardson, T. (2009) A Schizocartography of a Redbrick University. Spaces and Flows: an International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, 1(1), 119-128.

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Scree is here

scree end

Later this month I will be receiving some of the limited edition print run of Scree, my collaboration with landscape photographer Katja Hock. These will be rubber bound artefacts, the significance of the scuffed matt industrial covers being explained here. But in advance of this, and because we’d like to share our work beyond the confines of those who might normally want a ‘coffee table’ art book, here’s a link to a free pdf copy of the main part of our publication:

Bennett & Hock (2013) Scree

Scree was kindly commissioned by Amanda Crawley Jackson (Occursus) via the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund, and is published as part of the ‘TRACT’ series of collaborations between text and other media.

The unspoken question that haunts Scree is ‘what happens if we dwell on wasteland?’. Here ‘dwell’ can be taken in a number of directions: ponder, linger, inhabit, exist. Here’s the opening text to Scree to set the scene…

Starting out

The Wadsley Bridge to Neepsend escarpment runs along the northern edge of the upper Don valley. To the geologist this ridgeline is made up of coal measures and shales overlain by sandstone. To the local residents of north western Sheffield it is comprised of scrub, dereliction, pylons and a landfill tip. To the local historian it is an area rich in industrial and urban history.  To my kitchen refuse it is a final resting place.

To me it is all of these things, and more. In the pages that follow, Katja I and I set out to traverse this ridgeline and to depict in words and images what we find there. We can’t claim that what we find are essences – for the truth of this place is infinitely multifaceted – but what I do hope that we’ve brought closer to surface is the richness of materiality and meaning that can be found even on this steep scrubby hillside.

What is a hill?

The topography under examination here is a hybrid: pre-human geological processes sculpted this landform, but human activity added to it (and took away from it). This place may seem a grubby backwater now, but it was not always thus. The hill came to be a dynamic human-geologic assemblage, particularly in the heyday of the industrial era. Successive attempts were made to colonise this area and turn it to a variety of productive purposes. These have all left their marks. They have shaped this place, and they in turn have been shaped by it.

In a modest way we seek to give a sense of the hillside’s agency. It is not a passive, dumb brute. It has the ability to shape how humans and other creatures engage with it, and yet it is not a singular thing. It is a collection of materials, each resting on the other. The hill is a set of layers, craters and fill plus a surface crust of living and dead things that – in the main – are just passing through.

The capacity of this landform to absorb, flex and channel human activity is what has struck us most. These, like many of the city’s other hills, are rich outcrops, worked for hundreds of years for their stone, earth, water, timber, iron and game. Over recorded time these hills have been gouged by mine workings, slashed by deforestation, riven by roadways and confected by settlement. Yet each successive engagement has brought a process of human-hillside accommodation. Schemes adapted to fit geology; local topology yielded to enable temporary slithers of human incursion.

A note on style

The style of writing and reflection that follows is broadly in step with contemporary psychogeography, specifically a variant defined by Nick Papadimitriou as ‘deep topography’. In this form attention to everything is important – but in a way that avoids the crowding in of dominant (or expert) accounts of the place, as Papadimitriou puts it:

“But while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through – a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered – are screened out all too easily if the primary purpose is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmitted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s”

This approach celebrates the subjective affective response to the hillside and its human-material form. But it also (as Papadimitriou does in his work) weaves in this place’s equivalent of cornicing and the names of building companies. All are part of this hillside. Thus the end result is wantonly promiscuous, a mix of both cornicing-detail and impressionistic revere: a hybrid approach that revels, as Mike Parker has put it:

“in the connections made, the eye for the rusty and rotting, the sometimes haughty disregard for over-hyped landmarks, the comprehensive sweep that fuses politics, history and topography through observation and trenchant supposition.”

Style and substance

What follows adheres to that pattern, but if this style of landscape enquiry is to be anything other than competent word plays and an antiquarian’s eye for quirky detail, it must add some character and some insight – something that rises above the mechanical formulae by which such mix-and-match accounts can be assembled. For my part I would hope that what we present here goes that extra step in attempting to give a voice to the ‘stuff’ and ‘processes’ of the hillside by foregrounding matter – the brute ‘stuff’ of this hill – and consequential human encounters with this materiality.

In the final section I step back from my own direct experience of this place, and try to show the rich interaction with the ‘stuff’ of this hillside by people who have lived, worked or visited there and contributed their memories and enthusiasm to on-line community forums like Sheffield Forum. There is an unexpected richness in the way in which former denizens write of their experiences on (and with) the hillside.  They did not just visit or live there, they stood, dug, searched out, picked up, played upon and made and/or threw away things there. And in doing so they projected meaning and significance onto this matter, and onto the hillside.

The word ‘matter’ conjures both senses of what I’m pursuing here. How is matter made to matter? If we approach the hillside from this question we find a rich symbiotic relationship: the hill, its matter, its (only ever partial) colonisation for industry and dwelling and the daily interaction with human bodies entailed in all of that. This was evocatively struck home for me in one recollection I came across:

         the stories of local tramps

                                                                         gravitating to

                                                                                                                        the  Neepsend   brick    works

                                                                                                                        at night, to sleep in the warm

                                                                                                                        shadow  of the massive kilns.

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