Managing the awful precipice: law at the edge in my new article in Area

“By the extent of its prospects, the awfulness of its shades, the horrors of its precipices, the verdure of its hollows, and the loftiness of its rocks, the ideas which it forces upon the mind are the sublime, the dreadful and the vast. Above is inescapable altitude, below, is horrible profundity.”

Dr Samuel Johnston, (1816) A Diary of a journey into North Wales, in the year 1774, p.40

My latest article is inspired in part by the curated – intentionally sublime – landscape formed upon the steep cliffs of Hawkstone Park in Shropshire. The reason Dr Johnston went there (and visitors do still to this day) is to draw close to the vertiginous edges: to admire the views and to experience the thrill of standing at the limit point of safety. Here is is intended that the visitor feel a thrill, and then safely step back. In my article I attempt to explore how honouring this imperative of sublime thrill is reconciled with wider notions of safety culture. In short, in my article, I ask what happens in those situations where law has to share space (physically and conceptually) with other strong drivers, like landscape aesthetics. How does the person responsible for curating that place come to know what an appropriate point of balance looks like there?

To summon an image of intentional, sophisticated place-managers curating place in a way that requires notions of law and safety to be balanced alongside other drivers is rather rebellious – because academic commentators (from a law perspective) would normally assume that the normative drivers of law and safety fully (or at least largely) determine how the risks of place are managed, whilst a critical geographer might choose to foreground an intrepid thrill-taker’s guile in illicitly grasping a moment of thrill by finding and exploiting fragments of opportunity unintentionally left available by an uptight, risk-averse place-manger.

In my article I seek to explore a middle path, by pointing to the place-manager’s code-shifting between competing normative pressures, and thereby becoming an edgeworker: someone who deftly navigates the edge at which compliance, safety and thrill find a point of balance.

My article, entitled ‘Reconsidering law at the edge: how and why do place‐managers balance thrill and compliance at outdoor attraction sites?’ is available (free to access) in pre-publication form here, and will be formally published in the journal Area soon. Here’s an extract:

“At outdoor attraction sites, a delicate balancing act is entailed – these places must appear to be open and unencumbered – but they must also be reasonably safe. As a past senior member of the Visitor Access in the Countryside Group (a group that develops and promulgates best practice interpretation amongst public sector attraction sites in the UK) has put it, the place-manager is required to:

“…pull off the ‘con trick’ of balancing the need of visitors to feel the unrestrained freedom that is essential to the countryside experience…while in reality secretly try[ing] to manage their activities within tight legal and corporate parameters“ (Marsh 2006, 4)

The “con-trick” here is not a matter of deception – place-managers’ safety concern is genuine, but it is also a matter of user experience. Finding the balance, is often a matter of making the safety controls appropriately integrated into the setting. Thus, a visitor to an iconic ruin site declares “I would rather have come here as a trespasser”, revealing the general sentiment of the audience to an artistically augmented open day. Such visitors must be left to feel that they have roamed without constraint. But this is an impression, not a reality, to be achieved. The ruin had many perilous edges from which visitors might fall, so an event plan was made, that saw visitors led through safe areas by both human guides and a light show. Thereby, visitors’ vulnerable bodies and the ruin’s precipitous edges were reconciled in a way that achieved (in the place-managers’ view) both safety (legal compliance) and met visitors desires (the thrill dictated by sublime aesthetics) through design of an appropriate atmosphere for the event.  

At attraction sites the provision of safety (and thus the performance of legal compliance) must often be concealed lest the apparatus of safety otherwise become obstructive: literally or figuratively blocking the thrilling view, or an increasingly kinetic engagement with edges via an increasingly “accelerated sublime” (Bell & Lyall 2002). And this urge to have open communion with an unfettered edge, has been a matter of sublime aesthetics since (at least) the Enlightenment. However, whilst conventional writing about recreational, counter-cultural, edgeworkers tends to present the thrill as that of rule-breaking, the root of the sublime in landscape aesthetics does not actually set up safety and thrill as opposites. Indeed, Jean Jacques Rousseau, doyenne of the Romantic movement and all counter-cultural access-takers that have come since, revealed in 1781, that at the heart of his formulation of the landscape sublime was a requirement for safety, thus:

“Along the side of the road is a parapet to prevent accidents, which enabled me to look down and be as giddy as I pleased; for the amusing thing about my taste for steep places is, that I am very fond of the feeling of giddiness which they give rise to, provided I am in a safe position.” (Rousseau 1996, 167)

Accordingly, the place-manager is faced with the practical conundrum of how to co-create both safety and sublime, edge-embracing thrill. At a clifftop heritage landscape attraction site, the place-manager deftly addressed thrill and safety simultaneously through signage that pointed out how high up the cliff was and urged reflection on that.

The viewers’ reflection simultaneously fed the sense of thrill and the need for maintaining a respectful distance from the perilous edge. And, in a further subtle ploy that simultaneously underpinned an achievement of both safety and the sublime, that exposed escarpment was presented on the site map as “The Awful Precipice”, the doubling of thrill and safety messaging reflected in the designer’s depiction of the letters of the desiccated place name as they appear to tumble over the cliff’s abrupt edge.  

Thus, an attraction place-manager must learn to creatively and effectively codeswitch between (at least) two normative domains – that of safety/compliance and that of thrill/entertainment. An attraction site must give what its users desire of it but must do so safely. The ability of place-managers to shuttle between these seemingly incompatible frames is quite a sight to behold. But it would be wrong to give an overly autonomous impression of place-managers, for just as the place-manager may have to code-shift within their own minds to find the workable balance of safety and thrill, this balancing also plays out within management groups within place-managing organisations. Thus, a place-manager must advocate for their local safety/thrill balancings – they must act as interlocutor between others who may either not see the force of law’s safety/compliance command or may not see the value of access and thrill. The point of balance ultimately selected, may be the outcome of interpersonal negotiation within an organisation, or between a variety of stakeholder entities each with their own distinctives ways of measuring risk and benefit.

To be a place-manager, striving to find a locally workable balancing of safety/compliance and access/thrill, is a demanding, emotionally draining task. But the affective weight of that pales into insignificance when set against the emotional burden of involvement in the aftermath of an accident. Experience matters, and the affective experiences of place-managers affect how their edgework calculus is subsequently performed. Judging what is ‘reasonably safe’ at a particular site is, at least in part, a reflection of the individual (and organisational) prior experience of those involved in making that assessment. It is always open to reconsideration and adjustment, as witnessed in the reflection by architect Kathryn Gustafson upon her experience of an unexpectedly high volume of visitors to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in London’s Hyde Park, shortly after it opened in 2004. As “a flicker of remembered dread passes across her otherwise serene face” (Jeffries 2004, n.p.) Gustafson recalls:

“When it first opened, 5,000 people an hour came to see it. How could you anticipate that? …there was no precedent. The turf around the oval couldn’t survive those kind of numbers. The level of management has had to be increased because of the level of people. We really underestimated that. I thought we had a guardian angel over the project; I really wish she’d come back.” (quoted in Jeffries 2004, n.p.).

And the continual re-assessment of a site’s safety/thrill balancing is simultaneously backwards and forwards looking. The experiences of the past shape inputs to the ‘reasonable safety’ calculus, as do anticipations about the future. Schatzki (2002, 28) talks of this goal-facing, affectively driven desiring of the future as the “teleoaffective” order of practice.  The iterative calculus of ongoing place-management acts towards a simultaneously desired and feared future, and its risk assessment protocols require the place-manager to conjure the ghostly premonitions of all of the things that might go wrong there, an apprehension of all of the ways in which visitors and the site’s edges might come into harmful contact with each other.”

Image Credits

(1) Caspar David Friedrich (1818) Wanderer above the Sea of Fog: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanderer_above_the_Sea_of_Fog#/media/File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog.jpg (2) Sign at Hawkstone Park, Shropshire: https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/19/5d/67/e2/that-says-all-you-need.jpg; (3) Hawkstone Park ‘Swiss bridge’ sign, anon (4) extract from site map, Hawkstone Park c.2009.

When the earth exhales

“In times of plague, common wisdom said, the bowels of the earth released their ‘feces’ as venemous exhalations from refuse and other corrupt effluvia in the soil and water. The warm rays of the midday sun turned the putrefied matter into miasmas, which the gentle spring breezes carried off to unknown destinations”

A. Lloyd Moote & Dorothy C. Moote (2004) The Great Plague. London: The John Hopkins University Press, p. 57

I was invited recently to contribute a ‘provocative’ definition of “Underground” to a multidisciplinary lexicon meditating on waste. Perhaps inevitably what I’ve come up with (below) is haunted by all of my recent researching into how previous pandemics were reacted to and come-to-terms-with. In particular, my suggested contribution channels telluric interpretations that saw emanations from the ground itself (earthly bad breath, geo-burps if you like) as a source of disease outbreaks. When searching for environmental causes for the first Cholera pandemic (which hit the UK in 1832) some doctors fell back upon “signs and wonders” type-pre-modern thinking, looking for cause in a recent volcanic eruption, or in heightened atmospheric phenomena: such as aurora borealis or meteors. For instance, on 17 August 1832 Dr Adam Neale observed a thunderstorm as it passed across the UK, and saw in it:

“a body of vapour of extraordinary magnitude, arising apparently out of the earth, accompanied by a very loud rumbling noise. It resembled the smoke of a conflagration and had a fiery appearance. It continued ascending for the space of about three minutes, all of the time accompanied by the noise above mentioned” (quoted in Morris, 1977: p.172).

In time this proto-environmental pollution theory, would lose its more outlandish apocalyptic element and come to settle (in the mid Victorian era) into the influential miasma theory. In this formulation of ‘environmental’ thinking atmospheric infection would come to be attributed to a more man-made (and less natural/divine) agency. And in this more secular and pragmatic formulation, atmospheric infection became something that could be acted against, thereby prompting a ‘Public Health’ war against bad air and the noxious and standing-in-plain-sight urban waste matter (dung heaps, offal mounds, cess-pits and such-like) to which it was now attributed. This campaign saw such waste taken underground, and whether in sewers or in landfill burial…

U is for Underground

Letting go of most unwanted things will – by action of gravity alone – see them fall to the ground. Here they will lie, either decaying into the ground or helping – through their stubborn refusal to break down – to form part of a new sedimented layer, by which the ground slowly rises beneath our feet turning successive layers of former surface into underground. This seeming ability of the ground to swallow waste matter into itself, and to carry it down into an out-of-sight and out-of-mind underground has long been exploited for waste disposal. Following the industrial revolution, and the burgeoning volumes and varieties of intractable wastes to be got rid of, first via the rise of coal power (ashes) and then petrochemicals (plastics), the ‘pushing’ of waste into the underground became the dominant form of waste disposal. This accelerated, intentional, human-authored deposition and undergrounding of our discarded useless matter is the hallmark of the Anthropocene. In the United Kingdom, an abundance of worked-out mining and quarry voids provided ample (and cheap) opportunity for an accelerated undergrounding of layers of municipal and industrial wastes, and until prohibited by the EU’s Landfill Directive, enacted in 1999, the UK’s landfills were designed on the principle of ‘dilute and disperse’. These were not to be secure containment cells, but rather they were accelerated insertions into the ground: matter emplaced there with the explicit aim that it would quickly meld with its surroundings, and continue that onward, gravity assisted, journey away from human sight and attention into the underground. But just as (for ‘depth’ psychologists like Freud or Jung) the burial of unwanted feelings or experiences runs the risk of a sudden, and unexpected, traumatic reverberation, so the undergrounding of wastes can see painful, unwanted revenant effects. Thus methane gas and leachate emanating from waste’s decay can break out from their underground confinement, visiting their poisonous effects upon the surface. Meanwhile seeming stable ‘made ground’ can over-time slump or fissure, as their underlying, and now-infilled, former extractive voids settle, in turn unsettling both the ground above and our convenient imaginings of the underground as an accepting, passive, sponge-like receptacle. This troublesome quality is also to be found in our other appropriation of the underground, as a promise of shelter for our precious possessions (think of underground vaults, tombs and buried treasure) and even for shelter of our vulnerable living, fleshy bodies in times of crisis (think improvised underground air raid shelters, fortified subterranean bunkers). But this sheltering is contingent because the underground is ultimately not a safe place for either our possessions or our bodies. Just as the underground can push-back against waste injected into it, so the atmospheric conditions of the underground corrode, compress and entrap, and the distinction between a shelter and a tomb lies only in the question of a viable route of escape back to the surface. Whether through the lens of revenant waste, or in glimpsing the smothering, life-stifling peril of underground dwelling, we come to see that the underground is never fully under our control.

Reference

Morris, R.J. (1977) Cholera 1832. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Image credit

Zdzisław Beksiński, Polish (1929-2005), Untitled, 1977 via  https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/581668108100749674/

Within the body of the text: exploring COVID-19’s silent spring

“and the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.”

Leviticus 14:37, The Bible

I was required to watch a 2018 training video this week. To foster buy-in, it featured a short video message from our Vice-Chancellor, who addressed the camera whilst standing in the midst of our campus’ busy comings and goings. This background scene of a corridor full of staff and students was enthralling, for it was both familiar and strange. Last year I wrote here about being bent back into shape every Autumn: my  anticipation of the – inevitable as it then seemed – re-filling of the same campus space every September, and of the ritualised annual bodily adaptation that moving around the campus then entails. The eternal return of that scene now seems far from this Autumn’s likely experience. In the video, the passing bodies tracing their paths with private purpose, and there was a hum. That low-level cacophony that you hear wherever there are multiple, associated voices present in a scene. It was the complexity of that noise that got me most, for it almost felt overwhelming, too complex. That sound of the crowd has disappeared from our worlds, just as that density of bodies and multiplicity of space use has been intentionally edited out in the circumstances of COVID-19. In another purpose Rachel Carson summoned up the spectre (via pesticides) of a “silent spring” bereft of wild animals. Our silent spring was the product of an unprecedented mass human withdrawal from public spaces.

The strange – shifted-sideways – normative world into which we tumbled so suddenly in March 2020, is starting to feel like it’s not going away anytime soon. The crisis’ exceptional focus on cautiously self-managing bodily proximity has ushered in what feels like a whole new art of living: an elaborate but ubiquitous  cautious choreography of bodily movement and positioning, a new art-of-living resting upon a complex meld of emergency laws, spatialised morality, and (as politicians would have us believe, recourse to ‘common sense’). These moment-by-moment choreographies of caution, are presently informed by fairly vague rule structures. There simply hasn’t been time to spell everything out, or to devise enforcement apparatuses. Perhaps there are emerging signs now that bureaucratic fine-detailing is starting to take place – for instance my employer has recently issued its ‘return to work’ manual. It seeks to re-train me in how to walk to a workstation, how to use a corridor, how to queue at a reception desk. NASA instructions for a spacewalk are probably less detailed. My – currently abandoned – workplace is now, so photographs show me, marked out in an array of colours, forward-ghosting the desired bodily movements and repose of Autumnal workers. But until we return to such inscripted places, we are charged with the responsibility of self-policing, of actively carrying the general sentiment and objective of caution and distance around with us.

I’ve started to think about this suddenly strangely-explicit self-policing of bodily deportment. For two reasons. First, because my body, like everyone else’s, is caught up in this new way of being. But also, secondly, because is strangely chimes with the three ways in which I’ve seen my own published work being referenced and used in recent scholarship. Each of these references draws out – and extends – comments I’ve made about the link between bodies and the lived reality of laws (or equivalent normative codes).

Scholarship focussing upon embodiment – the fact that we (humans) have bodies and are inescapably fleshy matter embedded in the material world – is nothing new, and social theory has been widely embracing this trend for the last decade or so. The origins of this lie in a broadly ecological sentiment, an intentional corrective to elevation of ‘the human’ to a state above, beyond and (somehow) disconnected from the grubbly world of the plants, protein and photosynthesis that sustains us.

In 2015 I set out to write an essay exploring – and I thought endorsing – a post-humanist mindset for an edited collection entitled Posthuman Research Practices in Education (Taylor & Hughes, 2016). I offered an abstract for an essay playfully styled “Thinking Like A Brick: Posthumanism and Building Materials”. But as I started to write the essay, I found it increasingly hard to abandon humanism. My literature review took me towards writers who seemed deeply misanthropic, wedded to a deep sense of collective human self-loathing. Alongside these overly-dark, pessimistic folk, I came across others who seemed impossibly light. For these writing of the world without humans was liberating, for it would let the non-human speak. But the framing of the book forced me to question the premise – how could education be posthuman at any extreme, human-rejecting level? I concluded that it couldn’t and decided that a soft-posthumanism was the only variant that could meaningfully speak to education. And in doing so I appropriated work looking at the interconnection between human bodies and the matter that they work with. Thereby I came to building materials – to bricks, concrete and stone and to the ways in which they embody the actions and the affects of the humans who helped to create them. It was in this spirit that I found my essay recently cited in an article by Beth Cullen examining the intertwined relationship of landscape, lifestyles and climate in the production of Bangladeshi bricks (Cullen 2020). Cullen quotes me thus, in order to show that it is not just clay that is changed through the making of bricks, but also the labourers too, for “their bodies [are] moulded to the daily tasks, their senses attuned to the subtle ‘voices’ of the machines and matter they are working with” (Bennett 2016, 72).

My next citation returns us to the theme of the COVID-19 crisis, but it connects to this embeddedness – that we are of the world, and that we are walking, talking co-productions with other environmental elements. And here we move from clay, bricks and sunshine to, public health laws and start to look at the way in which we – individually and collectively – carry the law with us: how and we carry a sense of the law’s purpose and apply it to the situations that we face. Thus, in a recent article by Miriam Tedeschi’s (2020) we are shown how her experience of travelling between Italy (at a time of high COVID-19 infection) to Finland (a country then with a far lesser legal apparatus for, or sensibilities of deportment and infection control). Tedeschi talks of how her journey between the two milieu made her realise how the focus upon COVID-19 in Italy had written itself into her sense of being – how she felt, acted, regarded and positioned her body in space. This was hard to perceive when in Italy but became all too apparent when she arrived in Finland. To make her point, Tedeschi draws from another of my writings – an article on ‘legal psychogeography’ published in 2019 and my call for a broadening of legal geography so as to achieve “a fully holistic study of the co-constitution of law and space, one that gives proper regard to the influence of the affective geographies of matter” (Bennett, 2019: 1). Tedeschi’s short paper gives a great illustration of what I was thinking of here in terms of sketching a legal psychogeography – for she shows how her sense of normative confusion upon arrival in Finland is a function of her heightened sense of her own body, its temperature, her breathing rate and all other symptomology of COVID-19, as intertwined with her recently learned (in Italy) expectations of bio-political surveillance and bodily distancing. In short, she felt that she should perform and present her body in space in the ways she had learned in Italy – but in Finland this no-longer fitted the spatio-legal milieu that she found herself in. Thus – she realised – she had transported the Italian normativity with her, she was a vector, a carried of that internalised Italian way of being. She was an embodied, mobile object carrying both Italian legal sensibilities and (potentially) Italian-sourced infective organisms.

Sticking with this sense of the body as a vector of law, the third citation is in an article recently published by Joshua David Michael Shaw, which purports to address the ‘legal fiction of death’. Shaw’s argument is not a denial of the reality of non-living, but rather an exploration of the ways in which death as a definitive legal category is a complex hybrid that uneasily bridges law’s quest for categorical certainty and the messy materiality of living (and dying) as a process. Thus, unlike Tedeschi’s sense of a conscious body carrying law as a sensibility, Shaw’s concern is with the ways in which disorderly materiality – the chaos of the body – frustrates attempts by others to impose legal neatness and certainty upon any body. Like Tedeschi, Shaw invokes my sketch of a legal psychogeography, as a way of accounting for “a necessary relation between the resulting spatial order and materiality of bodies that already and always threaten to leak outside its bounds” (Shaw 2020, n.p.) seeing my call for a widening of legal geography to embrace the material-affective as encompassing his concern to show how space and matter must be given their full due in any attempt to account  for law’s operations.

And so, we end, in keeping with our present hyper-awareness of our not-fully-knowable-bodies and our not-fully-knowable-but-nonetheless-felt normativities relating to them, with further images to add to my anxious premonitions of what our campus will be like this Autumn: of sweaty bodies working clay awkwardly under the weight of harsh sun or rain; a nervously sweaty traveller from Italy approaching the uncertainties of border control in Finland; and of unruly, leaky bodies refusing to conform to the legal neatness of categories of ‘alive’ and ‘dead’.  These accompanying images rise up out of textual reapplications of my words, written in a previous era, but now with an added salience amidst a heightened sense of embodiment, and the cautiousness of our present spatial interrelations. And all of the images give us a deeper appreciation of that sense that we are in the world, affected by surrounding entities from which we can never fully hide, and whether viruses or normative sensibilities, which we then absorb into ourselves, carry around with us and which each make us feel and act in distinctive ways.

References

Bennett, Luke (2016) ‘Thinking like a brick: posthumanism and building materials’ in Carol A. Taylor & Christina Hughes (eds) Posthuman Research Practices in Education (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 58-74.

Bennett, Luke (2018) ‘Towards a legal psychogeography: pragmatism, affective-materialism and the spatio-legal’. Revue Géographique de l’Est 58(1–2): 1–16.

Cullen, Beth (2020) ‘Constellations of weathering: following the meteorological mobilities of Bangla bricks’ Mobilities DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2020.1759929

Shaw, Joshua David Michael (2020) ‘The spatio-legal production of bodies through the legal fiction of death’, Law and Critique DOI: 10.1007/s10978-020-09269-5

Tedeschi, Miriam (2020) ‘The body and the law across borders during the COVID-19 pandemic’, Dialogues in Human Geography,1-4DOI: 10.1177/2043820620934234

Image Reference:

Author’s own: Dale Dyke reservoir, June 2020.

Coming out of confinement: reflections on the SHU SPG online session on dwelling in the time of COVID-19.

IMG_3080

 

“In our local woods the Hipsters have taken over from the Gangsters”

(A comment raised by Geraint Owen during this session.)

 

Sheffield Hallam University’s Space and Place Group held its 2020 conference online yesterday – focussing upon the theme of the COVID-19 lockdown and how it has affected our sense of dwelling. A video recording of the full two hour session is available here (the password is: 4J=15J7n).

Details of the event, including abstracts for the five presentations are set out in my previous blog. But here I offer up some reflections on key themes that struck me from each presentation (both as raised by the presenter and which emerged in each follow on Q&A). This isn’t an exhausted list, more of a teaser to see what treats await in the recording.

I chaired the session, and arranged the presentations in a sequence of scales – we started within the intimate spaces of the confined domestic dwelling, then travelled out into the experiences of a neighbourhood, onward into the indoor/outdoor relationship of individuals and social groups to the ‘great outdoors’ and rounded off considering the techno-social architectures that have underlain (and been mutated by) our recent confinement.

So, those thoughts…

>>Einräumen<< Making room within rooms: Thinking-at home/Furnishing-the-universe, Hester Reeve, Art & Design, SHU

Hester’s visual essay emphasised the intimate stillness and silence of everyday objects around her home. I was struck by how each item often contained (or otherwise bounded) another. Everything within the home was nested, and also indicative of unspoken domestic rituals. These rituals are at the very heart of our dwelling. And being stuck in our homes, our relationships with these things around us and these sedimented ways of doing are our both our comfort and our confinement (and each item a potential trigger to comfort or discomfort dependent upon setting, arrangement and context). Drawing from Heidegger’s Hester’s concern is with ‘things at hand’ – the way in which our bodies extend into and connect with these everyday tools. We arrange and order them to our needs, but they also feed back into us. The COVID-19 confinement has made us more explicitly attuned to all sorts of mundane artefacts and their heightened significance as means of hygiene, self-presentation, symbolic reminders of others to whom connection has been temporarily lost.

The Fitties: Plotland in Lockdown Harriet Tarlo, Department of Humanities, SHU & Judith Tucker, Art & Design, University of Leeds

Harriet and Judith presented an atmospheric depiction of life on the Fitties plotland, weaving in the voices and images of local residents as they have striven to adjust themselves to the lockdown, and also to find ways to (try to) keep at a safe distance those drawn as visitors to their coastal landscape. The presentation was filled with feelings that showed richness through their lack of singularity: ‘My life is really small now. Small and quiet’. ‘I don’t have the energy I did’. ‘The sky is bluer’. ‘Police put tape over the gate’. ‘irresponsible people’. ‘Go away’. ‘They miss their family’. ‘we need a shop’ ‘we’re more vulnerable because we’re remote’. This account showed the complexity of finding that balance between good humour and frustration in such circumstances. Judith’s paintings and Harriet’s poetry were evocatively woven into this account, showing how the arts and humanities can ‘do’ social research, capturing a mood and conveying it to an audience. Harriet and Judith were keen to point out that the residents are not wistful – they are embedded in their own hopes and fears for the future. As they were prior to the lockdown. But lockdown brings on as many hopes for a future (and possible new ways of dwelling there) as it does a craving for pre-confinement modes of dwelling there. Getting back to normal is complex, dynamic, as much about possible futures as about the past.

Accidental insights into confinement – stories of nature in the city from people with mental health difficulties. Jo Birch, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

With Jo’s presentation we continued to move across from an arts perspective into the social science. Jo showed how creativity-based research informed her role within a study of how a wide variety of people actually do (or don’t) engage with the ‘outdoors’ and what they need and/or take from those encounters. Through specifically focussing on the experiences of people with mental health difficulties, Jo was able to show the diversity of that need and use, and she pointed out that the dominant discourse of “nature is good for you”, can itself cause difficulties for some people: wind may worry, open space may seem mundane and oppressively shapeless and limitless. Studying engagements with nature by people with mental illness perhaps makes the extremities of reaction clearer to see, but this is only a question of degree. We all have individual needs, and likely complex attunements to the various places that make up our worlds. A questioner echoed this by flagging that they new of people who feel guilty about not enjoying being out in the sunshine (or don’t enjoy being out at all). Dominant views judge these people’s preferences to be self-limiting or damaged in some way. If someone finds their solace within the comfort of their home, why should this be seen as less valuable than “hugging a tree”? Jo emphasised the active – take what you need – aspect to engagements with place. People imagine themselves into space, they augment and play with it, in order to made it helpful for them. Social science-based research doesn’t always know how to acknowledge this subjectivity. Jo productively applied her pre-COVID19 research to the circumstances of the lockdown, showing how the outside perhaps became even more a feature of desire or aversion due to the effects of nature-distancing caused by the constraints of lockdown.

Joy Unconfined? The (un)social life of urban green spaces, Julian Dobson, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

Julian’s presentation picked up where Jo’s ended – taking us pictorially into Sheffield’s empty parks and rural fringe spaces during lockdown, finding there improvised totems of territoriality and anxiety, such as a sign on a farm gate: “This is our home. Go away”. Julian pointed to the parallel between Lefebvre’s articulation of a “right to the city” and the newly raised political contestation of urban parks and countryside fields. The terms of lockdown made strong assumptions about what recreational use should be like during lockdown – focussing upon a purposeful ‘keep fit by moving’ agenda. Meanwhile lingering became malingering. To stop moving was to break the rule. To sunbathe or to enter playgrounds was forbidden. Julian also took us into the immediate present: the last fortnight has seen the sudden (partial) relaxation of lockdown. The Government (in England at least) is trying to encourage us to leave our homes. To sit or lie in parks is now allowed. And to travel further afield for recreation is permissible. But whilst non-essential shops and commercial leisure venues remain closed, parks and city-fringe fields are the only place now ‘open’ for (any kind of) leisure. And (as was revealed in discussion) different groups regard the newly arrived appearance of other users with suspicion. Do these (new) people know how to acceptably use these spaces, are they only here because the Mall is shut? Such debate is laden with assumptions by one tribe about another. There is a battle, to find a new normal (a new balance) in these suddenly occupiable spaces. What does spatial justice (equity of access and use) actually look like, who should define it, and for what purposes?

COVID-19 Lockdown: a perfect storm of Geo-datafication, Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat, Media Arts and Communication, SHU

As our final presenter Mon took us to the outer reaches of our journey across the scales of confinement. His perspective was a global one – presenting us with the fundamental question of how our underlying architecture of dwelling has been affected by COVID-19. Mon showed us how much of modern life is now underpinned by the internet. We simply could not have the confinement that we are currently in without this digital transformation. However, he was keen to point out the fallacies of our viewing the digital revolution as either without social consequence, or as a harmless dematerialisation. The internet depends upon energy- and metals- hungry infrastructure. Every Zoom meeting that we attend is enabled by physical systems, just as everything we order for home delivery is dependent upon citizens who (unlike the privileged e-workers sequestered in their homes) have to remain physically active within the ‘real’ economy and its logistical spaces. Our move online therefore has a footprint (both now and for the future). Our way of working may well have changed through our experience of confinement – and if it has then more cables, more server farms, more rare earth metals will need to be laid, made or mined. He pointed out how we have not even started to ask the kind of questions that – in his view – we really need to. Who will own the COVID-19 tracking data? To what purposes will it be put by governments and/or corporations? What have we been using the internet mostly for during confinement (watching lots more porn it seems according to data that Mon showed us). Mon’s presentation and its maps of data flows and digital infrastructure presented an interesting counterpoint to the incessant COVID-19 maps and graphics presented on news shows on a daily basis. During confinement both the virus and data have been circulating and evolving. Both have affected our ways of dwelling. But perhaps the changes in our digital lives will have the longest running effects.
Picture credit: conference screen grab by @laylagdesign

And with thanks to Charlene Cross for note taking during the session

On Confinement: Dwelling in the time of COVID-19 (SHU SPG online seminar, 3 June 2020)

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“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room”.

Blaise Pascal, 1650s

(quoted in ‘On Confinement’ an essay at

www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/on-confinement/)

This time last year the SHU Space and Place Group was getting ready for its annual conference, which for 2019 was on the theme of ‘the comforts and discomforts of dwelling’. This year we were all set to move on to a new theme and we were busy finalising the 2020 conference programme the day that lockdown struck. So, in the absence of an opportunity to move on to fresh pastures, and to meet there face to face, it seems strangely fitting to revisit the restless pleasure/pain duality of dwelling in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The session will run online on Wednesday, 3 June between 11am and 1.00pm. It will comprise six contributions, ranging across the fine arts, poetry, geography, landscape and media from SHU, University of Sheffield and the University of Leeds. Details of the presentations are set out below. The event is free to attend, but you will need to book a place via the Eventbrite site here.

Each presentation will be ‘bitesize’ with an emphasis on visuality and with the aim that we spend as much time in discussion as in presentation.

Collectively the presentations will explore COVID-19’s destabilising of the certainties of dwelling, of its temporal and spatial disruptiveness. Across the talks we will think about:

  • confinement’s amplification of dwelling’s urge to ordering, routine and care
  • the creativity at the heart of (and inspired by) dwelling within an edgeland community
  •  the heightened sense of the importance of the recreational outdoors released by circumstances of its denial
  • the ways in which we make order out of the circumstances of the confinement: how can we ‘see’ Coronavirus, and sense the times and places of its own dwelling.

Here are our speakers’ abstracts:

>>Einräumen<<
Making room within rooms: Thinking-at home/Furnishing-the-universe

Hester Reeve, Art & Design, SHU

bell

I have an ongoing ‘art work’ that was initiated by working site-specifically in the small square bell room of St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney (October 2019). Small square rooms, one on top of the other, accessed via a well-worn spiral staircase. When the church bell rangout the hour, I stopped reading, opened the mould, removed a hand bell and rang it about my head into the large brass dome a few feet above my head. Since that time, I have almost sub-consciously started to amass a series of objects of a similar dimension to the mould. I find I am strongly satisfied –mentally and aesthetically – to arrange these square objects together in my studio, ‘keeping house’ (cleaning, finding places for things, using and cleaning things, making work stations for various projects etc.). Recently, since working at home due to COVID-19 lockdown regulations, I have really felt more enabled to think and create because I have a better balance of ‘sculpting my dwelling environment’ and ‘doing my work’ (the former gets rushed or ignored when busy out in the world). In my presentation I will present a visual essay exploring the relationship between furnishing space and ‘abstract’ thinking-creating. To do so I will draw upon Heidegger’s use of the term Einräumen which has a two-fold meaning: 1.To concede a point, give someone room to air their ideas, and 2:To put things in their proper place, furnish a house to make it liveable.

The Fitties: Plotland in Lockdown

Harriet Tarlo, Department of Humanities, SHU &
Judith Tucker, Art & Design, University of Leeds

We have been staying on and working at the Fitties Chalet Park Northeast Lincolnshire for over five years. They spoke about the project at a SHU SPG meeting in 2016. Since then they have been working on a series of paintings and poems about this long-established plotland in the closed season, at night-time and now in lockdown. They will show some atmospheric recent paintings, read some poems and reflect on changes at the Fitties, particularly those triggered by the COVID-19 lockdown.

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Slow: photo by Fitties resident, Jackie Nixon

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Driftwood Lodge: photo by Fitties resident Laura Porter

Accidental insights into confinement – stories of nature in the city from people with mental health difficulties.

Jo Birch, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

This short talk will introduce some confinements and escapes with nature in the city of Sheffield and beyond: indoor, outdoor, local, imagined, lively, helpful and unhelpful. I draw on a recent research project that used arts-based workshops for participants often ‘confined’ by their mental health difficulties and illnesses and ‘stuck’ in physical and mental spaces. The presentation makes a little space to wonder how concepts such as vitality and enchantment might be helpful. How might they aid understanding more about the value of nature to enable nurturing kinds of confinements and also freedoms during difficult times?

Unconfined? The (un)social life of urban green spaces

Julian Dobson, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

One of the ironies of the COVID-19 lockdown is the sudden prominence of public parks and green spaces. Government ministers have stressed the importance of keeping parks open despite concerns about overcrowding. Yet for more than a decade these spaces have been the undervalued poor relations of urban planning. This contribution will draw on current research for the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Health Foundation with colleagues at CRESR on the value of public space to different groups. It will intersperse this with snapshots from a series of walks and runs around Sheffield undertaken during the lockdown, to ask which publics are served by public space in a pandemic, and who is being made invisible and excluded.

COVID-19 Lockdown: a perfect storm of Geo-datafication

Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat, Media Arts and Communication, SHU

The global Coronavirus pandemic has become the perfect geo-datafication storm. Entire countries came to a standstill reducing body-mobility, transportation, and confining us to our kitchens, while forcing a massive move to online interactions. The heavy fleshed landscapes of brick, road, and everyday life commuting transformed into new flows of datafied interactions. But data is not an immaterial impulse that carries our words, images, and keystrokes through the air to a white floating cloud. Data is embodied and materialised in massive world-wide infrastructures that build a rather intentional and geopolitically defined geography. This contribution will describe the features of this data geography at three levels: spatial transmission, storage places, and material geographies of data. The contribution offers, afterwards a coda with a reflection about the epistemologies of geodata as a signature of a metahuman presence that constructs place and reality, identity and belonging.

Picture credit

‘It’ll Be Reyt’. Photo by me, artwork by neighbour, meaning by Yorkshire. As the metro puts it:

Reyt: Translated to non Yorkshire folk as ‘it’ll be alright’, this phrase is used as a reassurance in a situation, which most likely won’t turn out alright.”

https://metro.co.uk/2017/05/18/10-things-youll-have-heard-if-you-live-or-grew-up-in-yorkshire-6642116/

 

The Greater Confinement: Survival Cells, the Survival City and how COVID-19 evolves protective sequestration

“Although cities and city dwellers are vulnerable to assaults on their biotope, however crude or sophisticated, they are resilient and not easily wiped from the map. The defensive reflex that has beset the Western world, including Europe, in recent years merits some critical scrutiny. Historically, it is by no means a unique phenomenon. We may view the current syndrome in the light of the earliest attempts at national risk management, namely the defensive measures taken against air raids and when we do so, a striking continuity emerges.”
Koos Bosma (2012) Shelter City, p. 7.

fal out
The Cellar

Do you remember the rain? In February this year, at the height of this winter’s heavy downpours, I stood in a dark, dank cellar ankle deep in water. An emergency pump had cleared most of the floodwater accumulated there. But as we started to pack up, the water level slowly started to rise again. Then I saw it, bubbling, over at the base of one of the subterranean walls: a small steady trickle.

We gave up and called in a damp specialist. And he diagnosed the Second World War as the likely reason for this insistent water ingress. The cellar, he explained, would have been the best place in the house to hide from falling bombs. But it would also have been an especially deadly place: a tomb in the event of a bomb’s direct hit. So, as a precaution against entombment, residents commonly knocked an escape passage through into their neighbour’s cellar.

After the war, when the desire for territorial integrity of the home reasserted itself, such passages were quickly filled in. But the rough rubble fill material would have left voids, and this was how the water was finding its preferential pathway into the cellar.

Survival Cell

In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown this prosaic encounter with past sheltering and its womb/tomb duality got me thinking about how across history we see home confinement (or ‘protective sequestration’ as it is styled in contemporary public health discourse) operating as a base unit of action: as what Silvia Berger Ziauddin has styled a bio-political “survival cell”. In her 2017 article on the Swiss authorities’ (not entirely successful) attempt to foster a culture of sheltering from nuclear attack within each household, she shows how even in a country where the apparatus of the state (and all associated building ordinances) were geared towards ensuring that every new house or apartment was built with a fall out shelter, attempts to ensure preparedness and respectful maintenance of these facilities increasingly faltered as time went on (and no attack came). These purpose-built shelter-rooms instead became absorbed into the ‘peacetime’ household practices and/or subverted for illicit uses. Thus, neither physically creating these special rooms, nor attempts to impose respectful and prepared norms for them seemed to have worked.

But, Berger Ziauddin’s work is helpful in identifying this attempt by the Swiss authorities to fix the home, and the family unit, as the scale, or unit of action. What the policy did above all was to repurpose the home as potential shelter. We see something similar in Shapiro & Bird-David’s 2017 study of Israeli mamad rooms (domestic bomb shelters), and in studies of US Cold War shelter policy and culture (of which there are quite a few, including Rose (2001)).

We also find it in UK guidance on nuclear sheltering – think of Protect and Survive (written 1976; published 1980) and its focus on adapting suitable spaces within the home, to make an inner refuge from dismantled doors, sandbags and suchlike.

sandbags

Then jump back in time to the 1950s.

1957
The Hydrogen Bomb (1957), HMSO

Or the 1940s – in each era their air raid guidance is emphasising the shelter-taking potential of the home, and of the importance of withdrawal into its protective depths.

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Survival City

But this image of the enclosed, self-contained survival cell is a myth. First because a survival cell cannot ever be fully self-contained and secondly because there is nothing necessarily benign about its enclosure. Its comforts are also not equally available to all.
A survival cell exists (can only exist) within a system of relations stretching across time and space. Take current COVID-19 isolation: the ability to withdraw depends (for most) upon others’ continuing to make and deliver power, water, sewerage, food. Those who shelter are dependent upon others who do not, and the infrastructural systems that sustain (and collectivise) individual life. Here we start to glimpse survival cells as necessarily interconnected (just as my cellar was with my neighbours) and forming a network, and it is the network that is truly the author of survival. Thus we witness what Bosma (2012) has (also in the context of Second World War air raid sheltering) termed “Shelter City” – sheltering as a collaborative urban infrastructural project, in which the city (acting as a defensive organism) is the real base unit of survival.

As I encountered in my cellar. A shelter without an assured means of escape is a tomb. Just as a home can be made a place of protection, so can it be made a place of confinement: the walls of a home just as easily be made into a prison. In short, a shelter cannot shelter unless it connects to life-sustaining networks that extend beyond its walls.

Protective Sequestration.

As an organism, the city seeks to perpetuate human life in general (i.e. society). Its survival instinct can see the home become a containment vessel. But the oddity of the COVID-19 situation is that it is both the healthy and the sick who are sequestered at home. Looking back at previous outbreaks, it has more often tended to be the infected who have found themselves in confinement in their homes. Thus, as Newman (2012) shows, the Plague Orders deployed in the 16th and 17th centuries in the UK saw the forced quarantine of infected households by ‘shutting up’ whole families for a period of 40 days. The rules provided for provision of a live-in nurse and food (for the poor) – and a guard outside to make sure that the confinement was enforced. No one could leave the ‘shut-up’ houses (for any reason) until the infection there had run its course.

bill
As Moote and Moote (2004) show, following the Great Plague (which centred around London in 1665), the practice of forced whole-family house confinement started to fade, and the idea of taking the sick into purpose-built places of isolation and treatment gathered relative force. Such places had existed at a rudimentary level since the Middle Ages. During the Crusades, isolation camps for pilgrims infected by leprosy had been created in Mediterranean islands. In Italy this provision had progressed to ornate Lazarettos (proto-isolation hospitals). But in England this sophistication had not been attained, instead ad hoc, and small-scale pesthouses were sometimes established on a local basis in the face of infectious outbreaks. Pesthouses were often little more than shacks at the edge of a settlement, either left to fall into dereliction following an outbreak or systematically erased from the urban scene.

In the 19th century more institutionalised and long-standing forms of confinement of the infectious were arranged by municipal authorities: first workhouses then isolation hospitals (for diseases like typhoid, tuberculosis and scarlet fever). Mooney (2015) notes that by 1914, in the wake of the construction boom sparked by the Isolation Hospitals Act 1893 (which permitted local Boards of Health to raise funding), 755 isolation hospitals had been constructed in England, usually in remote locations, providing 32,000 beds. This trend towards evacuation of the sick, and the mad, the poor and the deviant from the places and spaces of everyday society to purpose-built places of separation, has been termed by Foucault “the great confinement”. Foucault locates the coding of those exclusionary practices as originating in (ultimately) the Old Testament’s banishment of lepers, to live “outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46).

The Greater Confinement

To return to the home as the declared unit of survival in this present crisis feels both strange and familiar.

Berger Ziauddin’s analysis shows that the roots of the Swiss authorities’ failure to successfully colonise and condition a portion of the Swiss home as a place of ritual transition to an apocalyptic counter-reality ultimately failed because that feared state of play never happened. It was ritualistically practiced for, but with time passing it came to be taken less seriously and its grip on the domestic rituals faded. The integral bunker-in-the-basement simply became assimilated into everyday domesticity as a spare room. But the sudden COVID-19 confinement around the world, works in the opposite direction. It appropriates standard domestic space and renders it the focal point of a fight for survival. And the novelty of this bad dream is that it has actually happened, and that it came upon us with relatively little prehension or ritualised practice drills. The place-appropriating spell of “Stay Home. Saves Lives. Protect the NHS” was cast (almost) overnight.

shsl

To a UK audience the bunker/stay at home parallels might seem a little far-fetched – because we lack more recent cultural cues by which to analyse confinement at home. (Fortunately) we have no culture of “house arrest” or curfew, nor do we have a discourse of emergency management which has sought to frame hiding at home as a claimed imperative of “homeland security”. In contrast, in the US, civil contingencies planning – in the wake of school shootings and terrorist attacks – has come to prominently define two forms of shelter-taking: the “lock down” and “shelter in place”. A lock down defines a situation in which in the face of a local violent aggressor a place is sealed so that that danger cannot spread. Faced with that possibility school children faced with a prospect of being locked inside their school, are trained how to hide within a normally familiar and nurturing environment which may one day turn hostile. Meanwhile, “shelter in place” usually describes a response to an environmental danger (a tornado or a chemical spill). Here the aim is to adapt the building in which you find yourself into a protective shell within which to escape from the outside world and its marauding threats (by, for example, sealing windows to keep poisoned air out).

sip

But in the context of the COVID-19 confinement language has evolved: “shelter in place” has now been adopted by the US media as a convenient short-hand by which to describe protective sequestration of the healthy. New York New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has criticised this migration of language, arguing that “words matter” (Opam 2020) and that talk of shelter-in-place unhelpfully evokes images of active shooters and nuclear war. In contrast he chose to style New York City’s confinement measures using the infrastructural metaphor of “closing the valve”, emphasising (in effect) that protective confinement is a survival city measure, a contribution to a collective (and connected) response, rather than declaration of a everyone-for-themselves atomised foregrounding of individualised domestic survival cells.

Conclusion: The Greater Confinement

The contemporary crisis – the greater confinement – in which we find ourselves appears by turns to both to isolate us and to emphasise to us the social interconnections upon which any individual act of withdrawal actually depends. The greater confinement is only possible in a society that embodies surplus, and which is sufficiently automated and telecommunicated to enable the work of social coordination to be exercisable from within the confines of (remotely connected) survival cells. In most prior societies majority protective sequestration would have been logistically impossible. But the greater confinement still depends upon a fraction of the population being prepared (or forced by circumstances) to provide material circulation of goods and essential services between the sheltering majority.

The greater confinement also – if we scratch the surface – reveals timeless inequalities that lie within any era of sheltering. We are not (as the slogan would have it) “in this together”, if by that we mean “in this equally”. To have control over whether and where you are sequestered depends upon your resources and social connections. And it was ever thus: Newman (2012) shows how being Shut Up in a plague year was more likely a fate of the poor and the ‘middling’ classes, because the rich could afford to flee to the country (or to relocate to another of their houses). Meanwhile, Mooney flags how, 250 years later, the poor were more likely to be removed to an Isolation Hospital because their homes were viewed as too small and overcrowded to enable safe home-confinement of the infectious sick, the rich and well-connected had other options.

Over the weeks, months, years ahead we will search for ways to understand “what just happened” and what it has revealed to us as individual survivors and as social beings. My invoking parallels (and discontinuities) with bunker studies, and that form of urban sheltering,  is but one way to start to think through the new domestic uncanny.

 

References

Berger Ziauddin, Silvia (2016) ‘(De)Territorializing the home: the nuclear bomb shelter as a malleable site of passage.’ Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 35(4) 674-693.

Bosma, Koos (2012) Shelter City: Protecting citizens against air raids. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Moote, A. Lloyd & Moote, Dorothy C. (2004) The Great Plague: the story of London’s most deadly year. London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Mooney, Graham (2015) Intrusive Investigations: Public health, domestic space and infectious disease surveillance in England 1840-1914. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester University Press.

Newman, Kira L. S. (2012) ‘Shutt Up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England’, Journal of Social History, 45(3) 809-834.

Opam, Kwame (2020) ‘It’s not ‘Shelter in Place’: what the New Coronavirus Restrictions Mean’, The New York Times, 24 March. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-shelter-in-place-coronavirus.html

Rose, Kenneth (2001) One Nation Underground: The fallout shelter in American culture. New York: New York University Press.

Shapiro, Matan & Bord-David, Nurit (2017) ‘Routinergency: Domestic securitization in contemporary Israel’, Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, 35(4) 637-655.
Images:

HMSO; https://www.horton-park.co.uk/; http://www.shutterstock.com; https://www.bl.uk/learning/images/uk/plague/large8122.html

Is the past always another country? Reflections on the 1832 Cholera outbreak in the light of COVID-19

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“Much, however, may be done, even in these difficult circumstances, by following the same principles of prudence, and by avoiding all unnecessary communication with the public out of doors; all articles of food, or other necessaries required by the family, should be placed in front of the house, after the person delivering them shall have retired.”

Paragraph 8 of the Privy Council announcement of the Board of Health’s rules and regulations made for the purpose of preventing the introduction and spreading of Cholera Morbus, 20 October 1831 (as reported in the London Gazette, 21 October 1831 p.2160)

We’re all presently socially-distanced, yet at the same time strangely brought together through a shared sense of adversity. Social media feeds are proliferating with suggestions of what to do to distract cooped-up children and adults. We’re all craving things to do and to think about which will give us reprise from the fundamentally uncertain situation that we all now find ourselves in.

Like everyone, I need sanity breaks away from thinking about Coronavirus. But also, I need something to chew on. Maybe its schadenfreude but I find I can take some strange, re-grounding and perspective-giving, comfort from reading about other pandemics and how society has been challenged by them. Perhaps it is their greater scale that comforts me, but maybe it’s also the fact that I’m reading about the past – and that therefore I’m reading about something once feared to be an existential threat to society, which was eventually overcome.

I’ve been reading into the circumstances of the UK’s 1831-32 Cholera outbreak and thinking about how individual citizens made sense of what was coming towards them, why it was happening and what to do about it. This journey is taking me to history books and also contemporary documents, particularly local newspapers, memoirs and government circulars through which I’m witnessing the birth of UK public health legislation.

Some of the ways of seeing the world that I’m encountering in these materials seem strange to modern sensibilities – with much talk of the power of prayer, the curative powers of brandy, the importance of keeping feet dry and loins warmly bound. There are also copious tracts on the dangers of immoderate eating, for example (the seemingly unhealthy, from our point of view) advice for all to abstain from:

“…fruit of all kinds, though ripe and even cooked, and whether dried or preserved. The most wholesome articles of vegetable diet are, well baked, but not new bread, rice, oatmeal and good potatoes. Pickles should be avoided…the diet should be solid rather than fluid: and those who have the means of choosing, should live principally on animal food…great moderation both in food and drink is absolutely essential to safety during the whole duration of the epidemic period.” (General Board of Health, 5 October 1848 Notification regarding the Nuisances Removal & Diseases Prevention Act 1848, as published in the London Gazette, 6 October 1848, p.3616)

But on the other hand much is bizarrely familiar. The state’s reaction to the spread of the Cholera virus westward across Europe was tentative. Naval quarantine measures were employed first, and then once the first cases appeared in Sunderland in the Autumn of 1831 the Government started to take steps to put in place a national requirement for Local Boards of Health to be established, and for the attendant surveillance and confinement of suspected and confirmed cases. The political establishment’s prevailing laissez faire attitude was somewhat suspended, with (temporary) introduction of free medical care for Cholera patients, funding for infection-related cleansing and plenty of nudge-like, semi-mandatory urgings that the public should in their own, and also in wider society’s best interest, become more immoderate in their social interaction.

Much of the base framework of UK medico-legal public health governance was forged in the exigencies of the 1831-32 outbreak. Whilst these were temporary measures (and lapsed once the outbreak ended) they set a precedent for a series of public health controls which were revived (temporarily) for future cholera outbreaks during the Victorian era, and which then became embedded as permanent (though rarely used) features of the statute book. For example, the statutory nuisances provisions nowadays to be found in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and their now prosaic-seeming concern with tackling (for examples) “accumulations and deposits” thought to be “prejudicial to health or a nuisance” first appeared in the emergency powers enacted in the Cholera Prevention Act 1832, and had thereafter been revived temporarily in a series of Nuisance Removal Acts (in the 1840s) before they were rendered permanent via a series of Public Health Acts stretching through into the 1960s. After this, the whole field became rebranded as “Environmental Health”, and was thereafter subsumed within “Environmental Protection”.

Anyway, this (rather arid and technical) example of the continued legacy of the 1831-32 outbreak is but one lingering effect. I’m interested in how – more broadly – an outbreak nearly 200 years ago acts across time to shape how we think about and manage urban living today, and whether in ‘normal’ and in ‘exceptional’ times. Many (particularly in the 1960s and 1970s) have written this story from the point of view of sanitary reform (principally the rise of urban sewerage), using it as an exemplar of Modernist/Welfarist social progress. But this story, re-examined from the vantage of our less confident times, would make for an interesting re-telling – unpacking issues of urban memory, everyday and exceptional imaginaries, human-material relations and of the perception, communication and management of risk and uncertainty.

For now, lets close with the spookily apposite words of Robert Morris, writing in the introduction to his incisive 1976 book, Cholera 1832: The Social Response to an Epidemic (New York: Holmes & Meier). In reading the following, what strikes me is that pretty much everything that he is saying about the importance of understanding the lifeworld of those facing that outbreak, applies equally to our current situation. Morris starts by commenting upon studies of public reaction to natural disasters carried out in the 1950s and 60s (as part of planning for nuclear war):

“Panic was rare [in those studies] but the response these communities made to the shock or threat of disruption often revealed more of their working and values than a study of a normal situation could have done. The processes which normally allocated resources and maintained stability were seen reacting rapidly to a new situation. Individuals and groups revealed much about their scale of values because they had to make rapid choices between social claims which in normal times would never have come into conflict. Most studies revealed the prime claim which family had over work, friends and entertainment. Cholera was a creeping disaster so reaction was a little more studied and circumspect than reactions to a sudden impact disaster, but the manner in which it demanded attention and comment gave cholera the ability to reveal values, patterns of thought, patterns of social relationships and ways of allocating resources in the same way as a more sudden crisis.” (1976: 18)

He then continues:

“The reactions of groups and individuals were influences by their available resources and experience as well as by their values and expectations. Each situation tended to find the population divided into two groups, those with power and resources and those without. Those with power expected to take action against cholera. Those without were the likely victims. Each had a choice of action, quarantine, cleansing, medical provision, prayer or just doing nothing on the other. Values emerged in choices between life and property, between work and safety, between charitable action and governmental agencies. The resources of each group included material wealth, the value of their labour in the market, their social authority and prestige, their administrative and scientific skills and their technical ability. All these choices were influenced by the expectations which each group had of others, wage-earners of the medical profession, or of the local authority, and the administrator’s expectations of reactions to the circular he was drafting. These expectations were all based on past experience of the physical as well as social world”. (1976: 18-19)

Morris ends by pointing out that in 1832 Cholera acted as a lens, revealing to him the “morbid pathology” of British society as it stood in the early nineteenth century. Likewise, COVID-19 holds up a lens to contemporary British society. We need to be mindful of what our outbreak reveals about our lifeworld, and of how our actions and expectations in response to it will all similarly flow from our “past experience of the physical as well as social world”.

Image credit: New York City Sanatory Committee poster, 1849 https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/plague-gotham-cholera-19th-century-new-york

 

What’s behind the fence? Exploring dead land and empty buildings – 10 paper session proposal submitted to RGS-IBG 2020 conference

See the source image

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve today submitted a proposal to the RGS for a 10 paper session investigating vacancy at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference, 1 – 4 Sept in London.

Under the title What’s behind the fence? Exploring dead land and empty buildings the session will seek to move beyond contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites which tend to celebrate vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everyday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed. This conference session will open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators.

Taking a life-cycle approach, presenters will explore the stories and structures that have caused abandonment at both remote sites and those within the heart of otherwise active and occupied urban centres. They will tease out the logics of opportunistic appropriators (urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, artists, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places. The role of professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management will also be explored. In each case these readings of the motives, modes and meanings of vacancy will be attentive to the wider ecologies in which these sites and their actors are imbricated and of the important role of (positive or negative) place attachment in determining the speed at which a site is withdrawn from vacancy, or how it is maintained purposively in that state.

If accepted into the event programme the session will feature contributions by scholars from Switzerland, France, Russia, Ireland and the UK that will range across the following:

Investigating the lives of dead places

  •  Polphail: Scotland’s ghost village left abandoned in the wake of structural changes in the North Sea oil industry
  •  Vorkuta: 16 Arctic settlements built around now-defunct coal mines
  •  Dublin’s ghost estates and their ambiguous place in Dublin’s housing crisis
  •  Halle-Neustadt’s stubbornly enduring highrises, in a city that is trying to shrink

Methods of investigating vacancy

  •  How far can heritage archives shed light on prosaic phases of inactivity?
  •  Do we pay sufficient attention to what owners and developers think and do around vacancy?

Who are the occupants of empty places?

  •  Squatters, pop-ups and the interplay of DIY and institutionalised usage of wasteland sites in Paris and Glasgow
  •  Urban explorers motivations in accessing the Paris catacombs
  •  Inhabitation of a muslim graveyard in Tangier by Cameroonian migrants
  •  Tensions between guards, recreational trespassers, artists and institutional owners in the management of a Scottish modernist ruin.

I’ll post full abstracts here once the session has been adopted by the RGS.

Picture credit: St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross (near Glasgow) https://sites.eca.ed.ac.uk/fabricformedconcrete/workshops/surface-texture-and-light/st-peters-seminary-cardross/

 

CFP for RGS-IBG 2020: What’s behind the fence? Exploring the secret lives of ambivalent owners, dead land and empty buildings

Greenham Green Gate May 2018

CALL FOR PAPERS

RGS-IBG 2020 Annual International Conference, London 1 to 4 Sept 2020

Proposed Conference Session:

What’s behind the fence?: Exploring the secret lives of ambivalent owners, dead land and empty buildings

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate these vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed.

For our conference session we seek to open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators. Reflecting ruin studies’ inherent multidisciplinarity we invite contributions whether theoretical, empirical or performative from across the social sciences, humanities and the arts that speak to this sense of abandonment being a purposive, active project – sometimes expressing an intentional “curated decay” (DeSilvey 2017) but more often revealing more conventional notions of a low-maintenance preservation of some, presently latent, utility or value for the future. We envisage that these contributions, and whether critical or managerial, could range across diverse aspects of the cultures and practices of vacancy, including:

  • Investigating the professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management
  • Comparative international perspectives to reveal the similarities and differences between attitudes to, and management of, vacancy
  • Measuring the effect of strength of place attachment by neighbours and former site occupants upon the extent of stigma and blight that a vacant site engenders
  • Ethnographic investigation of opportunistic appropriators (and whether urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places
  • Detailing the “naturecultures” (Haraway 2003) of weeds, overgrowth and the more-than-human ecologies of untended sites
  • Regulatory perception of dead land and empty buildings as “riskscapes” (Müller-Mahn and Everts 2013) by police, fire and rescue service, local authorities, insurers
  • Assessing the market for site fortification, in terms of the evolution of technologies and practices of territorialisation and bordering for abandoned sites
  • Exploring the legal dimensions of “property guardianship” and other emergent forms of vacant site defence and fortification
  • Appropriating the aesthetic affordances of fences, hoardings and other bordering strategies, and affecting how abandoned sites are separated from the explicitly occupied and active world around them.

Please send suggested abstracts for suggested 15 minute conference session contributions to Luke Bennett, Reader in Space, Place & Law at Sheffield Hallam University at l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk by Monday, 10 February 2020.

 

Image credit: Green Gate, former GAMA facility, Greenham Common, May 2018. Photograph by Phil Kokoszka.

Living beyond the limits of survival: five articles on ongoing cultural production in abandoned bunkers

Image result for polish bunker ants

“the wood-ant ‘colony’ described here – although superficially looking like a functioning colony with workers teeming on the surface of the mound – is rather an example of survival of a large amount of workers trapped within a hostile environment in total darkness, with constantly low temperatures and no ample supply of food. The continued survival of the ‘colony’ through the years is dependent on new workers falling in through the ventilation pipe [of this abandoned Cold War bunker]. The supplement of workers more than compensates for the mortality rate of workers such that through the years the bunker workforce has grown to the level of big, mature natural colonies.”

Czechowski W., Rutkowski T., Stephan W., Vepsäläinen K., (2016) ‘Living beyond the limits of survival: wood ants trapped in a gigantic pitfall’. Journal of Hymenoptera Research, 51, 227-239 at 237.

As previewed in last month’s blog post, all of the contributions to my guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies are now available on the journal’s website [here]. The five papers (plus my extended editorial essay, portions of which were presented in last month’s blog post, and further extracts below) are all concerned with the after-life of Cold War bunkers, and particularly with the ways in which these obstinate places refuse to disappear, either from the space that they inhabit or from the cultural milieu that they still haunt. Like an automatic beacon faithfully continuing to transmit long after the ship has been abandoned, or in the survival instinct of a colony of ‘lost’ ants, the modes and means of abandoned bunkers endurance (and of life and meaning-making playing out within them) is subjected to analysis by the contributing – multidisciplinary – authors, with each interpreting this endurance as a form of ongoing cultural production.

Still alive: ongoing cultural production in the abandoned bunker

The Journal of War and Culture Studies’ aims include promoting exploration of the relationship between war and culture during conflict and in its aftermath, and examining the cultural production and circulation of both symbols and artefacts of conflict. Bunkers are very potent and enduring symbols and artefacts of conflict, which are deeply embedded in contemporary culture (Bennett 2011). To draw out this embeddedness, this special issue takes a very broad view of the bunker’s cultural production. As Raymond Williams (1983, 87-93) notes ‘culture’ is not a settled term. The contributors to this issue tend towards using the term in its anthropological sense – with cultural production thus here being regarded as the processes by which social groups produce shared meaning about abandoned bunkers, and whether that arises within small groups of enthusiastic bunker preservationists or across wider society via popular culture. Therefore, the narrow, elitist, sense of ‘culture’ promoted by Matthew Arnold (1960) as the production only of the fine arts is elided.

Additionally, the expression ‘cultural production’ is used here in a way intended to emphasise that that the generation, modification and circulation of cultural symbols and artefacts is always ongoing. Meanings evolve – therefore the cultural production of the bunker is not a one off, originating event. The meanings and uses of these places evolve over time, and in response to a variety of broadly societal trends (e.g. how bunkers are portrayed in popular fiction) and in how individual actors actively engage in a process of appropriation within the bunker, each projecting and inferring upon the bunker in accordance with the needs of their own purposes and practices. Thus Sean Kinnear portrays the variety of actors, motives, and resulting re-use schemes, brought about recently in four Scottish bunker sites. Meanwhile Phil Kokoszka and I investigate the medley of stakeholders and their entangled cultural logics at play in the stilted after-life of the former cruise missile bunkers at Greenham Common. Furthermore, the articles by Louise K. Wilson, and Becky Alexis-Martin, Michael Mulvihill and Kathrine Sandys, show how the phenomenological qualities of the abandoned bunkers appeal to them as artists, as largely ‘blank canvas’ sites which they can appropriate (albeit often only temporarily) and are used in their production of site-specific installation and performance works. Notably, Wilson – as an artist working mainly in the medium of sound – shows how the bunker can be valorised for its acoustic, as well as its visual, atmospherics. Matthew Flintham (also an artist) appropriates an even more unusual cultural feature of the abandoned bunker: its mould. In doing so he productively pushes the notion of cultural production to its extreme – for mould is a culture which replicates itself, taking hold within the bunker’s stale air. As Williams (1983, 87) notes, one of the earliest meanings of ‘culture’ is “the tending of natural growth”. Flintham’s then is a view of the more-than-human enculturing of the bunker – if the mould culture can be said to be self-tending of its own growth. Alternatively, a human cultivator or sorts can be identified in Flintham’s own semantic cultivation, his human valorisation of the mould’s bunker colonising expansion drives by subjecting it to meaning making, by rendering it aesthetic.

Survival cell: the bunker’s battle against entropy

Flintham seeks to show, through his attentiveness to these cultures of mould, that bunkers are ultimately ironic spaces. For within the heart of their hermetic isolation, decay and degeneration (as instances of the entropy – the drive towards loss or energy – that afflicts the eventual dissolution of all things), derelict bunkers are found to be generative, living places. Thus they are ironic because they are both hostile and habitable. Engineered originally as survival cells for humans, these places are now abandoned and inhospitable to their intended denizens. They have been rendered toxic to humans through the proliferation of these moulds and other entropic processes of decay. And yet, the mould, and those wider processes of change, are themselves a form of dynamic change – and if viewed in a wide frame of reference – signs of survival and endurance. In short, the bunker endures and has an existence (and cultures of sorts) even when fully abandoned. Flintham links his ruminations on the resilience of mould to the Cold War-era theorising of cybernetics, the science of distributed systems and self-organisation. Cold War theorising (and the art and fiction that Flintham identifies as influenced by this anxious milieu) was influenced by existential questions of how – and where – to best face-down the accelerated entropy to be witnessed in the face of a nuclear blast. And the best answer to that question was usually ‘the bunker’. Conceived as a sealed survival space intended to facilitate the autonomous survival of Cold War human bodies and other culture-preserving vessels of information, Flintham’s Cold War bunker is largely bereft of human life and apocalyptic scheming. But conflict and survival are both still enacted there, for the bunker is now host to daily battles of territorial expansion and defence waged between extremophiles deep inside this now hostile-to-human terrain.

Meanwhile, approaching decay and degeneration from a more avowedly human (and heritage preservation) standpoint Kinnear makes an impassioned plea for greater attentiveness to Scotland’s Cold War-era bunkers, presenting that call within the context of a narrative of loss (through sites falling victim to both material decay and unsympathetic redevelopment). He argues that increased attentiveness to the architectural significance of these places could spur their greater protection. However, Kokoszka and I show that setting out to save an iconic site may require more than protective heritage and land-use planning designations. We show how the interplay of drives for demilitarisation, heritage preservation and sustainable economic re-use have led to the Greenham Common cruise missile site being stuck in limbo (neither fully alive nor fully dead) since the site was sold off by the Ministry of Defence in 2003. Thus regulatory intervention may have slowed GAMA’s entropy but by no means has it been halted or reversed.

Still transmitting: the bunker’s ongoing resonance

Paul Virilio collaborator Sylvère Lotringer, writing in support of Virilio’s claim that the Atlantic Wall bunkers had a strong mnemonic resonance for him,  has recalled drawing up close to an abandoned Nazi bunker as a child, placing his ear upon its concrete flank and listening to hear the “roar of war still trapped inside” (Virilio & Lotringer 2003, 10). This depiction both acknowledges the distinctive acoustics of cavernous bunker-spaces, as the sound of waves echoes within them, and also their affective, mnemonic quality, whereby they trigger his memories of the war. It seems unlikely that Lotringer means us to take his statement literally (i.e. that the bunker itself somehow holds memories of the war independent of its human interlocutors), and Nadia Bartolini (2015) has recently argued persuasively against suggestions that bunkers themselves have a historical and/or militaristic essence which they store and transmit independent of the projections and inferences of particular visitors.

But certainly, the acoustic properties of bunker-spaces are affective, and can be utilised by artists and musicians in their work. Wilson shows how the distinctive acoustic signatures of sites like the domed Teufelsberg listening station in Berlin have been preserved digitally, such that the very distinctive reverb of that structure can be used as an ambient sound-shaping technique in the production of wholly unrelated sound recordings. Thus, an acoustic mapping of a bunker and its echo characteristics may outlast the site itself, its virtual form preserving and transmitting an aspect (but only an aspect) of the bunker’s being. Commenting upon the possibility of virtual preservation and/or recreation of long-lost bunkers Kinnear suggests that virtual recreations inevitably lose a quality that only the bunker itself can deliver – the affective charge of being there as a fully embodied visitor, picking up the musty smells and sense of confinement that Flintham also depicts in his explorations into the Torås mountain-bunker complex.

But to acknowledge these affective charges is not the same as believing that these places are haunted by their histories. Alexis-Martin, Mulvihill and Sandys note the affective charge of abandoned bunkers but conclude that the contemporary cultural interest in abandoned bunkers more rooted in their ‘blank space’ affordances – their semantic openness – than it is in any firmly determining past essence. They argue that abandoned bunker sites do not throw an obstinate military essence at any visitor. Indeed, Mulvihill finds that even when operational military sites may not seem very distinctive at all. Furthermore, Alexis-Martin reports that despite working daily within a former local government Cold War bunker, it was many months before she came to realise that the basement offices in which she was working had started life as a facility designed for nuclear war.

Alexis-Martin, Mulvihill and Sandys show how such places are increasingly sites of free-form play and projection rather than clear communion with an immovably encoded past. Kinnear would take issue with the desirability of such free-play and in his article argues for the importance of preserving (or sympathetically adapting) these structures as a way of retaining both their mnemonic connection to the Cold War past and to their distinctive atmospheres and taxonomic forms. For Kinnear taking the bunker former into the future requires a delicate balance to be struck between preserving the embodied mnemonic traces of the past and finding ways to bring about an enduring preservation via new-found uses. Kinnear believes that there is a resonance from these places – but it could be easily missed if not carefully sought out and protected. Meanwhile, Kokoszka and I find an ambivalence at the heart of attempts to find an enduring heritage status for the GAMA site at Greenham Common. On paper the site has a very strong claim to internationally significant heritage status, but we find heritage significance to be but one shaping influence in the battle for its after-life. The past, per se, is seemingly not an ultimate dead-hand controlling influence over even this iconic bunker site.

Meanwhile, Wilson shows us a second type of resonance – a cultural reverberation. She describes how anxiety about the heightened risk of nuclear war in the early 1980s insinuated itself into popular culture (and popular music in particular), often using bunkers as a motif. This conflation of nuclear anxiety, bunker-talk and new wave synth-pop has in the last decade seen a wry, nostalgic revival; a cultural production that merges a new-found attentiveness to the once-unattainable shelters with the lo-fi musical stylings of the early 1980s, by pop-ironicists such as Luke Haines. These ironic pop-cultural appropriations of the Cold War bunker are perhaps the most playful appropriations of all.

 

Luke Haines interviewed in 2015 about his British Nuclear Bunkers LP.

 

Image credit

Wojciech Czechowski (2016) photograph of the ant-trap bunker: an abandoned ammunition bunker (part of the ‘Special Object 3003 Templewo’ Soviet nuclear weapons complex, western Poland) via https://metro.co.uk/2019/11/05/cannibal-ants-escape-soviet-nuclear-weapons-bunker-11044125/

References

Arnold, M. 1960. Culture and anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bartolini, N. 2015. ‘the politics of vibrant matter. Consistency, containment and the concrete of Mussolini’s bunker’. Journal of Material Culture, 20(2): 191-210.

Bennett, L. 2011. ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality and management’. Culture and Organization. 17(2): 155-173.

Virilio, P. and Lotringer, S. 2003.Crepuscular dawn. New York: Semiotext(e). Trans. Mike Taormina.

Williams, R. 1983. Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana Press.