Making Common Ground at Furnace Park: place, purpose and familiarisation


I’ve been increasingly exploring the stabilities of place. In recent years writers on place have tended to emphasise place’s flux: the way in which it is a momentary, fragile assemblage of the varied intentions, actions and desires of those who happen to be present in (or otherwise having influence over) any seemingly coherent action-space. I get this kick against formalism, but I think that it tends to present place as too fluid. My recent projects have been examining various ways by which places become stabilised (and replicated). My recent article (details here) on the role of law in shaping the form and proliferation of the ‘classic’ cotton mill published in Geoforum earlier this year is an early outing on this. And now – after three years of gestation, my article co-written with Amanda Crawley Jackson of the University of Sheffield has been published in Social and Cultural Geography. At the end of 2012 I was invited to observe the site assembly process for the experimental Furnace Park project, and specifically to think about how the project came together in that first phase – how ‘common ground’ came about both amongst the diverse range of stakeholders (all with their own orientation on what this prospective place would be) and also how those (human) protagonists made common ground with the ground itself. Amanda and I then set out to write our joint paper, and to find our own disciplinary common ground (and once we’d found it, then reconcile it with the differing views of our article’s peer reviewers and editors). In due course our text – and its various iterations – took on much of the machinations of the place-making and its pressures towards attunement and accommodation.

Our article is available to view here for free (for the first 50 uses of this link). I’m not going to re-write the article here, but here’s the abstract as a taster, which explains that it was written as part of a special issue on the ‘geographies of strangers and strange encounters’:

“In this article we seek to widen the debate about the sites and processes of encounter with strangers by examining the ways in which ‘strangeness’ necessarily fades within the familiarisation processes at play in any sustained and situated place-making. Our analysis draws upon our experiences of encountering strangers – and of our familiarisation with them – in the initial, year-long, site acquisition and preparation phase of a project to create Furnace Park, an experimental urban space in a run-down backwater of central Sheffield. We show the tensions between a project commitment to the formation of a loose, open place and the pressures (which arose from our encounters with the urban development system) to render both the project and the site certain, bounded and less-than-strange. Furthermore, at Furnace Park the site itself presented to us as a non-human stranger, which we were urged to render familiar but which kept eluding that capture. We therefore show how the geographies of strange encounters could productively be widened to embrace both recent scholarship on the material-affective strangeness of ground itself, and a greater attentiveness to the familiarisation effects born of the intersection of diverse communities of practices within place-making projects.”

The first iteration of our joint paper was presented at the ‘geographies of strangers’ session at the 2013 Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference, and we were subsequently invited aboard this special issue project. I think we are the only article that regards ground itself as a stranger, which considers place-making (and in particular professional interactions) as anything to do with strangers, and which emphasises that strangeness (and familiarity) are both unstable, perhaps necessarily so in place-making.

Our claim to novelty is perhaps also captured in the following paragraph (taken from our article):

“Our aim in this article is to present a case study examination of how the unknown – or strange to us – was encountered and how it was familiarised within our place-making endeavours. Our article broadens the place-making-by-encounter-and-familiarisation scholarship in three ways: first by being an ‘insider’ account – a reflexive examination by us as academics implicated in the making of a place; secondly, by our concern to focus not upon the transformative (or otherwise) effects of human to human encounter, but instead upon our human encounters with the unknown materiality of the case study site, thus figuring the site itself as a stranger; thirdly, by our concern to show  the directive, shaping role of pre-existing cultural expectations brought to our site, and our project, by the myriad (human) stakeholders who needed to come together to make the project happen. Here we seek to show how these expectations drove forward an attempted (but never fully realised) elimination of the unknown and of how a restless surplus of strangeness remained.”

Amanda is the director of the Furnace Park. It is now an up-and-running project, with details of the site’s many past and future events, alongside Amanda’s wider projects with the occursus collective showcased here. My involvement ended after site assembly, but the insights from working on this paper have certainly influenced my subsequent projects, such as the prospective St Peter’s, Kilmahew stabilisation project (details here) and work that I’m currently doing on the peculiarities of contingent places (yes, that’s more bunkers).



Old Uses for New Bunkers #38: the post Cold War rise (and occasional fall) of underground lairs


Whilst working on the editorial for In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, materiality and meaning making (Rowman & Littlefield Int, to be published August 2017) I’ve been increasingly thinking about the bunkers’ post-Cold War reverberations. The following is an extract which may or may not end up in the book…

Stuart Elden (2013), has written recently of the need to conceive of the ‘volumetric’ dimensions of political spaces: of the physical “depth of power”. The 20th century increasingly saw military and civil governance moving underground to escape the risk of actual or anticipated aerial attack. During the  Cold War bunkers were a contingency – ready in waiting but rarely used. But the end of the Cold War did not see the end of the Cold War bunker, and indeed the designs perfected in that superpower standoff, came to be the active conflict bolt-hole of client states and once-sponsored insurgents. Thus in the sense of actual use, the Cold War bunker came into its own after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If we look closely at post 1991 conflict zones the bunker is alive and kicking, providing an actual (and/or imagined) locus of sinister political power, fortified hideouts that resist the hegemonic West. In turn, the persistence of these resistant places spurs the US to develop ever more potent ‘bunker-busting’ technologies with which to threaten their eradication. By considering these bunker sites we will see how military and political engagements with such places oscillate between two powerful, persistent bunker imaginaries (Bennett, 2011): the bunker as omnipotent command centre, and its inverse, the bunker as an abject place of final defeat.

The bunker as resistant, oppositional space

The image above is simultaneously an articulation of an atavistic fear of the subterranean and attempt to depict a real bunker complex. It shows how the Tora Bora mountain bunker complex in Afghanistan was described by Western journalists in November 2001 in the run-up to the US attack on Osama bin Laden’s suspected redoubt. In pursuing Al Qaeda and Taliban forces into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom saw the US facing a:

“virtual ant farm of thousands of caves, countless miles of tunnels, deeply dug-in bases and heavily fortified bunkers. They are a product of a confluence of ancient history, climate, geology, Mr bin Laden’s own engineering background – and, 15 years back, a heavy dose of American money from the Central Intelligence Agency.” (Wines, 2001)

The story, as traced by Josh Rothman (2011), of how Tora Bora came to be depicted as a sophisticated Bond villain’s lair is an instructive one – it tells us much of the fact/fiction interplay with our bunker imaginary, for the cave system came to be described in increasingly elaborate terms, and was ultimately said to feature its own hospitals, offices, bedrooms and hydroelectric power supply capable of sustaining 1,500 fighters. The trail starts with a 26 November 2001 New York Times article (Wines 2001) based on an interview with an ex-Russian soldier, Viktor Kusenko who had described his recollection of an elaborate cave complex at Zhawar featuring “iron doors” beyond which lay “a bakery, a hotel with overstuffed furniture, a hospital with an ultrasound machine, a library, a mosque, weapons of every imaginable stripe; a service bay with a World War II-era Soviet tank inside, in perfect running order”. These were his recollections from the Soviet campaign against the Mujahedeen in the 1980s. The article then added “Mr. bin Laden is reported to have upgraded both it and a nearby camp in the 1990’s” (allegedly drawing upon bin Laden’s civil engineering training). It also pointed out the 57 days of aerial bombardment and fierce hand-to-hand fighting effort required to capture the Zhawar fortress in 1986, and that even though the Soviets had eventually blown the place up, it had been restored within a year. It had then been blasted again by multiple US cruise missiles in 1998 after Al Qaeda linked American embassy bombings in Africa. On 27 September 2001 The Independent transposed the description of Zhawar to Tora Bora, portraying it as extant and virtually impenetrable. The Associated Press then syndicated the story around the US, and The Times (of London) produced a cut-away schematic of the Tora Bora lair, and its Ken Adam-like styling on 29 September 2001.

The US Government did little to dampen the elaborate and escalating speculation. In an interview for NBC’s Meet the Press on 2 December 2001 interviewer Tim Russert referred to The Times’ elaborate schematic, and its depiction of a multi-tiered complex replete with ventilation ducts, power plant, ammunition caches and entrances large enough to drive a car through. To which Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2001 – 2006) replied that the Tora Bora redoubt was but one of many such complexes to be faced – and not just in Afghanistan. This was not an off-the-cuff remark: Rumsfeld had announced in a Pentagon briefing on 11 October 2001: “A lot of countries have done a lot of digging underground. It is perfectly possible to dig into the side of a mountain and put a large ballistic missile in there and erect it and fire it out of the mountain from an underground post” (quoted in Wines 2001). The mountain bunker thus became equated with the War on Terror’s campaign against ‘rogue states’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

Therefore, in Autumn 2001 it seemed that the US was facing a villainous foe of cinematic proportions. The inflation of the story – the conjecture about how elaborate Tora Bora would be – started with historical fact, and seemed credible. However, once finally overrun by US Forces, Tora Bora proved to be far less sophisticated, as a US Special Forces Staff Sergeant put it when interviewed by the U.S.’s Public Broadcasting Service in 2002 about the battle for Tora Bora:

“…they weren’t these crazy mazes or labyrinths of caves that they described. Most of them were natural caves. Some were supported with some pieces of wood maybe about the size of a 10-foot by 24-foot room, at the largest. They weren’t real big. I know they made a spectacle out of that, and how are we going to be able to get into them? We worried about that too, because we see all these reports. Then it turns out, when you actually go up there, there’s really just small bunkers, and a lot of different ammo storage is up there.” (PBS 2002).

But the fear of (and corresponding faith in) underground fortresses remains a live issue in post-Cold War geopolitics. The Korean War (of 1950-1954) never officially ended, and North and South Korea remain frozen in a military standoff. When Rumsfeld was talking of underground lairs beyond Afghanistan, North Korea was likely to have been at the top of his list, and since 2001, the ‘rogue state’ status of North Korea has been bolstered (in US eyes) by North Korea’s nuclear programme, and in particular its claim in January 2016 to have successfully carried out an underground H-bomb test.

Writing in 2003, Barbara Demmick (a Los Angeles Times East Asia specialist) portrayed North Korea as the exemplar of Rumsfeld’s of rogue nations digging-in. She explains that the North Koreans started tunnelling after the Korean War – when US bombing destroyed most of their industrial base and infrastructure. In response, in 1963, North Korea founder Kim II Sung declared that “the entire nation must be made a fortress. We must dig ourselves into the ground to protect ourselves” (quoted in Demmick 2003). Demmick reports that, as a consequence of this, everything important in North Korea is now underground: with several hundred underground factories, and thousands of smaller facilities. The mountainous topography lends itself well to this – and makes North Korea the world’s most fortified (or bunkerised) country, its population of 22 million people, supporting the World’s fifth largest army. Demmick reports that 13,000 artillery pieces are secreted in mountain bunkers within the (supposedly) demilitarised zone.

The bunker as abject space of defeat

Jonathan Glancey (2011) declares that “no self-respecting dictator can bear to be without a bunker” – but it seems that the reality often falls short of the dream (or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves). Writing in 2011 in the aftermath of US Navy Seals finally tracked down Osama bin Laden to a nondescript residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan fellow Guardian journalist Steve Rose (2011) asks why “the world’s no.1 villain” ended his days “in a lair with no flair”, concluding that bin Laden’s downfall shows us that “life isn’t like a Bond movie”. It seems the narrative for the vanquished is that the bunker must become “the hole they dig themselves into” (all quotes from Rose 2011). Via this inversion of the hyperbole of the omnipotent modernist bunker, the abject bunker looks back to the era of the cave man. The leader who invests in such places – who feels the need for them – has already lost touch with reality and his people, he (or she) exhibits a reality denying “bunker mentality” (Bennett 2011). Originating in the representation of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker in May 1945, a potent political metaphor now exists, whereby vulnerable political leaders can be caricatured: see for example the dubbing of scenes from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s powerful dramatic account of Hitler’s demise, Downfall [Der Untergang] (2004), to reference contemporary leaders and their failings.

In keeping with this motif, (and additionally channelling the despotic collusion of both Marie Antoinette and Eva Braun) a 2013 profile piece on Asma Al-Assad, wife of the Syrian leader, who is described as “as the country collapses around her…sheltering in a bomb-proof bunker…said to be obsessed with her weight and looks, [and] stocking up on luxury furniture, health products and food” (Bentley, 2013). Whilst this fits the trope wonderfully – it does rather gloss over the sophistication modern bunker building: a 2016 feature in the Times of Israel (Solomon, 2016) reports Syrian rebel sources claiming to have probed ‘Assad’s Neighbourhood’ an underground town beneath Damascus – a combined military and political command – extending seven storeys underground, and featuring a maze of (escape) tunnels extending to nearby mountains – with tunnels said to be big enough for vehicles, huge gates, and secure against chemical attack (recalling here the villain’s lair features ascribed to Tora Bora).  The rebel video even presents an animated 3D fly-though of the complex, some footage of rebel fighters driving and walking around the recently penetrated complex (from 37 mins into the following):

Meanwhile, in Iraq in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein commissioned Yugoslavian contractors to build him a duplicate a vast Cold War Belgrade bunker beneath one of his palaces to protect him against nuclear and chemical attack at a cost of £50 million. Construction took eight years, with the project completed in 1983. The palace above was destroyed by the US’ bunker busting bombs in the air attack of April 2003 – but the 20 metre thick concrete roof of the bunker held firm. After US Rangers cut their way in through the thick steel door, the bunkers’ fate lay in the hands of looters, and to be occupied by squatters. Oliver Poole (2006) presents his journalistic bunker hunting thus (combining the ‘downfall’ trope and a cross-reference to the truth-grounding familiarities of fictional bunkers in doing so):

“When US Rangers burst in as Baghdad fell there were still sheets on Saddam’s bed and the maps lay in the command centre. Saddam had already fled…Walking through the maze of corridors was like entering a post-apocalyptic film. Some of the fluorescent lights were still blinking, water from smashed pipes oozed over the carpet and wires hung from the ceiling. Torches picked out abandoned and torn chemical weapon protection suits amid the debris littering the corridors.”

And in Saddam’s case the abjection trope would prove to be further topped-off, by the fact that Saddam’s last refuge was a bunker-hovel – an adapted cellar, with room for one crouching occupant – as presented in this CBS News report from 2003:

Libyan dictator  Muammar Gaddafi’s cornering also played out the same way – his October 2011 capture after being found hiding in the confines of a storm drain in Sirte, his home town, a short distance from his family compound (and its bunker – which had been the subject of an RAF bunker-busting raid in August 2011 to deny Gaddafi his Sirte fall-back). This endgame – like that of Saddam – contrasts to depictions of his elaborate “underground fortress” (reportedly one of many) built beneath the vast Bab al-Aziziya military compound in Tripoli which was captured by rebels in August 2011. This complex is said to have tunnels extending for over a kilometre beneath the city, and – as Jessica Dacey (2011) reports – was built by Swiss bunker engineers in the 1970s and 1980s, modelled on the designs for Swiss civilian bunkers, and fitted out with Swiss ventilation equipment (manufactured by Luwa).

It’s a hallmark of the media age that reportage fresh from the 21st century battlezone is available near-instantaniously, and notable that one standard trope in the portrayal of the defeat of an enemy is to show laying bare of his bunkers. But there’s something else too that can be witnessed now on social media – a touristic urban exploration, as captured for example in bunker-hunting excursions reported on You Tube, specifically that of ‘SISTIC1’ who appears to have wandered many of the Gaddafi bunkers within a few weeks of their capture by rebel forces. SISTIC1’s 1st person POV video wandering around the undamaged bunker found in the Ben Ashour area of Tripoli feels, like a video game, but it isn’t: its carried out in an active warzone, with the very real possibility of lethal wounding by an encounter with a fighter or a looter around the next corner. But is this bunker hunting political or is it recreational, a timely instance of “dark tourism” (Lennon & Foley, 2000)?

Bunkerology’s origins lie in anti-nuclear protestors – like the ‘Spies for Peace’ activists of the 1960s, who sought to penetrate the secrecy of a state’s nuclear scheme – and to defeat it by gathering and disseminating systematic knowledge of its existence (see Bennett 2013). But the iconography of roaming grey-walled subterranean corridors in SISTIC1’s video is chilling because of how closely it chimes with adventure movies and video games, rather than because it unmasks the raw face of political power. Searching the long grey corridors of newly-discovered secret facilities are a ubiquitous feature of popular culture, a motif in every ‘shoot ‘em up’ video game since 1993’s DOOM. Indeed juxtaposing SISTIC1’s footage with a promotional video trailer for Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s 2016 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III plays, produces an uncanny effect: fact and fiction side by side. The fiction portraying a cast of modern day political leaders wandering, and animating very similarly styled light grey subterranean corridors of power, and the fact of SISTIC1’s video of the Ben Ashour bunker, an evacuated space, stripped of its people and purpose. Inevitably, the animated, populated fictional space feels more ‘real’, and the real space feels the more uncanny.

The fact/fiction interpenetration in popular culture makes it difficult for us to keep noticing the bunker in a critical political sense – cultural saturation tips the attention over into the theatrical, the touristic or the fantastical.




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

Bennett, Luke (2013) ‘Concrete Multivalence – practising representation in bunkerology’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31 (3), 502-521.

Bentley, Rick (2013) ‘Syrian dictator Basar Al-Assad’s wife Asma on luxury spending spree’ Daily Express, 2 September.

Dacey, Jessica (2011) ‘Swiss parts helped build Libyan bunkers’, online feature (The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation), 29 August – at

Demmick, Barbara (2003) ‘North Korea has a deep, dark secret known by all’, Orlando Sentinel, 7 December.

Elden, Stuart (2013) ‘Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power’, Political Geography, 34: 35-51.

Glancey, Jonathan (2011) ‘From Hitler to Gaddafi: dictators and their bunkers’, The Guardian, 27 August.

Hirschbiegel, Oliver (dir.) (2004) Downfall [Der Untergang], Constantin Film Produktion: München.

Lennon, John & Foley, Malcolm (2000) Dark Tourism. Thomson: London.

Poole, Oliver (2006) ‘Inside £50million nuclear bunker that couldn’t save Saddam’, The Telegraph, 12 January.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) (2002) Frontline: Interview: U.S. Special Forces ODA 572, interview transcript at:

Rose, Steve (2011) ‘Why did Osama bin Laden build such a drab HQ?’ The Guardian, 4 May.

Rothman, Josh (2011) ‘Bin Laden’s (Fictional) Mountain Fortress’, The Boston Globe blog,

Solomon, Ari (2016) ‘Report: Assad built seven-storey underground war bunker’ 16 February:

Wines, Michael (2001) ‘A nation challenged: caves and tunnels; heavily fortified ‘Ant farms’ deter bin Laden’s pursuers’, The New York Times, 26 November.






New Uses for Old Bunkers #37: the many lives of Greenham’s GAMA silos


Sitting in the cinema watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) I was suddenly surprised. As Resistance fighters ran around their base on the planet D’Qar readying X-Wing fighters for launch there was something about their bunkers that looked strangely familiar. Then the penny dropped – I was actually looking at USAF Greenham Common’s GAMA (GLCM Alert & Maintenance Area) cruise missile ‘silos’: these silos were horizontal in form, not vertical, they were hardened garage-bunkers from which cruise missile launch vehicles would drive out and deploy when prevailing geopolitical circumstances required. During the 1980s GAMA was the focal point of what Eric Hobsbawm called the “Second Cold War” (1995: 244), triggered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the arrival in 1983 of US ground launched cruise missiles in Europe, 96 of which were stationed at Greenham Common.

Greenham Common was one of only six European GLCM bases, and for a UK audience at least was by far the most well-known. ‘Greenham Common’ soon came to be synonymous with this stage of the Cold War and of opposition to it, with its world-famous Women’s peace camps ringing the sites perimeter fences. As a result, the site’s GAMA silos are now protected against alteration or destruction via their designation in 2003 as a Scheduled Monument. But the GAMA silos are now effectively all that remains of USAF Greenham Common, they are iconic but isolated, redundant grass-humped tumuli set in two rows, served by decaying concrete aprons. The base was handed back by USAF in 1992, and Ministry of Defence closed the site in 1993. In 1997 it was bought by a public/private sector consortium, The Greenham Common Trust (for £7 million), which then sold the open land to the local council (for £1), and converted the base’s service buildings into a business park. The former base’s runway (the longest in Europe) was also grubbed up, its one million tonnes of asphalt and concrete then being consumed in local road building projects. Meanwhile, the former base’s open land was returned to its pre 1941 common land status, much of the site’s security fencing was removed and sheep now graze upon it.

In their timeline of the changing face of Greenham Common during its military era (1941 – 1992) John Schofield and Mike Anderton (2009) show how the site continually fluctuated between phases of use and abandonment; between significance and insignificance. Indeed, even within this site’s GAMA phase was remarkably short – spread between NATO’s decision in 1979 to develop European GLCM capability to counter the already deployed Soviet SS-20 mobile launchers, the early 1980s preparatory works to create the compound and the receipt of the site’s 96 GLCMs in the mid-1980s. But then in 1987 the US and USSR signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, eliminating all GLCMs from Europe and by 1991 all of GAMA’s GCLMs had repatriated to the US for decommissioning.

At Greenham Common, the sustained attention paid to the GAMA silos by the women peace campaigners who occupied make-shift protest camps around the site’s then-fenced perimeter between 1981 and 2000, has had a significant influence upon GAMA’s ongoing valence. The peace women sought to challenge GAMA by presencing and subverting its form and its functioning through direct action ranging across obstructing site traffic, symbolic actions involving the perimeter fence (cutting it; attaching pictures, pledges and weavings to it; joining hands around it) and incursions into the site. In 1983 50,000 women encircled the site, and pulled down sections of the fencing. Earlier that year a cadre of protestors had made it into the GAMA compound, joined hands and danced on top of one of the part-built silos. Raissa Page’s iconic photograph of this trespass announced to the world both the protestors and silo’s soon to be earth-covered thick concrete roof. As Anne Seller put it:

“…we have done two or three things at Greenham. We have made the abstract concrete in the silos of Greenham, pinned it down to place and time, so that it is no longer part of the unremarked but debilitating atmosphere we breathe. We can now see and name. And we have made our response sane – brought it out of ‘foolish tears, silly emotional women’ – so now those who fail to weep are the inadequately matured.” (1985: 28)


Meanwhile Ann Snitow (1985: 49) testified to the affective heightening caused by living in close proximity to the GAMA silos: “Immense London, with its illusion of solidity: we imagined it melted in a moment. In fact, living next to the silos at Greenham stirs the imagination in all directions. One’s fear increases, but the direct action always possible there keeps down despair.”

As Tim Cresswell (1996) has shown the essence of the women’s protest was to emphasise their difference to the masculine-military complex they faced, a strategy aimed at inflicting “cognitive confusion” (Snitow 1985: 47) upon those running the base: or as Schofield and Anderton (2009: 107) have put it “to subvert the fence; to make it less male, less military, less functional… and more ridiculous”. But the protests also showed a bunker-hunting affinity, captured in Snitow’s observation that the women:

“breach base security daily, symbolically enacting their belief that the missiles do not represent security for anyone. Slipping under or cutting doors through the wire, they wander around inside, painting women’s symbols, picking up secret memos from office desks (an important one on preparedness for chemical warfare was filched and widely distributed among the women while I was there), and fiddling with mysterious machinery” (1985: 47).

But, it is now over 15 years since the peace camp left, and nearly 25 since the GLCMs were removed. It is clear that whilst mindful of the valence given to GAMA by the peace women, those now occupying Greenham Common and in charge of deciding its current and future uses, wish to broaden the site’s connotations, and the framings have moved on to matters of economic development, wildlife and recreation. However, even within this altered discursive terrain there is some value to be found in pointing to the site’s Cold War heritage and the essential qualities (and connotations) of residual bunker architecture: for example, where organisations emphasise their resilience by pointing out that their IT severs are safely ensconced within the former command and control bunker at Greenham Common, acquired by The Bunker Secure Hosting Ltd in 2004.

The transformation of GAMA into Cold War ‘heritage’ started soon after the site was decommissioned, and negotiations for the Greenham Women’s departure in 2000 included agreement for a memorial, to commemorate their presence there. But (apart from scheduling the GAMA silos as protected Scheduled Monument) there appears to have been little will to actually turn the GAMA site into a Cold War museum-type ‘attraction’. As Ronald Hinchliffe (1997) laments (in relation to the failure to secure sufficient political and financial support for a proposal to turn the former USAF Upper Heyford air base into a Cold War museum) it appears that many regard such sites as suited better to new uses, and that the Cold War is too ambiguous to ‘celebrate’.

Surprisingly, GAMA has never attracted the same level of post-Cold War attention as Orford Ness, despite access to the site having been afforded to artists from the early 1990s, with John Kippin (2001) and Frank Watson (2004) featuring the GAMA silos in their photographic surveys of the Cold War’s “deactivated landscape” (Watson 2004). But it is installation and video artists Jane & Louise Wilson who claim to have had first access – entering it when it was still Ministry of Defence property in the mid 1990s. In their resulting work, the 1999 Turner Prize nominated Gamma, the sisters explore the atmosphere of the abandoned GAMA silos, and in doing so they inevitably projected their own meaning making endeavour upon GAMA. Art critic Matthew Collings (1999), reviewing Gamma, noted how the Wilsons chose to film the bunkers in an alienated, disconnected style – as though with roving security cameras – making it seem like a science fiction film, confounding our expectations because this place was real. He also remarks on the absence of any celebratory ‘the war is over’ air, and detects instead the intention to create an unsettling atmosphere, a feeling that something malevolent remains even though the cruise missiles have gone. Thus, whilst enacted within a Cold War bunker, the resulting work speaks more generically to a sci-fi movie-inflected world in which surveillance CCTV, and modern ruins are proliferating. The work, then is (inevitably) of its time: as much expressing millennial angst as it is Cold War trauma.  But, perhaps here the Wilsons are accessing that transcultural sense of the bunker’s essence – returning us to Virilio’s first impressions as he entered his first bunker at Saint-Guénolé and felt assailed by “cultural memories” of “the Egyptian mastabas, the Etruscan tombs, the Aztec structures” (1994: 11).

Our ability to make sense of the bunker is inextricably bound up with our popular cultural framings of such places. And so it was that I recognised the GAMA silos brief appearance in the Star Wars film because they have – in their slightly run-down form – previously featured in episodes of the BBC Top Gear series, in particular a 2008 feature in which the irreverent presenters raced around the GAMA compound pitting ‘communist’ cars against their Western counterparts. This is as close as the site owners have got to establishing a Cold War museum at the site since purchasing it in 2003 for £315,000. Their efforts to make GAMA remunerative remain ongoing, and planning permission is needed to enable the compound to be used permanently as a storage yard, it having previously had time-limited permission for the storage of up to 6,000 cars on GAMA’s extensive concrete apron. In 2011 a planning inspector refused an application for permanent storage use, based on heritage grounds: the importance of preserving the open character and clear views of the GAMA silos. Thus the Scheduled Monument status of the silos enables this ‘blocking’ of new uses, but it cannot itself compel a heritage-led redevelopment of this iconic site. So, the site limps on via a succession of occasional uses – such as driver training, classic car rallies and film shoots. And the latest instalment in the site’s history of female infiltration and creative resignification of the GAMA compound, is Beyoncé attendance in 2013, to record scenes for a music video within one of the, now ageing, silos.



Collings, Matthew (1999) This is Modern Art. Seven Dials: London.

Cresswell, Tim (1996) In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression. University of Minnesota Press: London.

Hobsbawm, Eric (1995) The Age of Extremes: the short twentieth century 1914-1991 Abacus: London.

Hinchliffe, Ronald (1997) ‘The Cold War: the need to remember or desire to forget’ History Workshop Journal  43 234-239.

Kippin, John (2001) Cold War Pastoral. Black Dog Publishing: London.

Schofield, John & Anderton, Mike (2009) ‘Greenham Common Airbase’ in John Schofield, Aftermath: Readings in the archaeology of recent conflict. Springer: New York pp 99-112.

Seller, Anne (1985) ‘A concrete reality’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 8 (2): 26-31.

Snitow, Ann (1985) ‘Pictures for 10 Million women’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 8 (2): 45-49.

Virilio, Paul (1994) Bunker Archeology. Princeton Architectural Press: New York (translated by George Collins).

Watson, Frank (2004) The Hush House: Cold War Sites in England. Hush House Publishers: London


Raissa Page, 1983 (via

Stray off the path, 2015 (via

Mill-mania: how does law spread place-formations? My new Geoforum article


“we all looked up to him and imitated his mode of building…our buildings were copied from the models of his works”

Sir Robert Peel, 1816 Parliamentary Inquiry on the factory system

It’s almost trite in cultural geography to state that place is a multiplicity of individual and collective framings, that it has no singularity and is a flux or swirl of moment by moment encounters. Yes, fine – but surrounding that experiential swirl there are stablisations, common and shared framings which do take root and then influence those encounters. These also act to influence the form and evolution of a locality and they also have the power to influence the framing and evolution of other places. In short, some place-types become clear and potent. In the last couple of years (when not thinking about the potency of the cultural framing of abandoned bunkers) I’ve been thinking about the genesis of one now very dominant (and taken for granted) place-formation: the industrial scale factory. And I’ve done this by looking at the moment, 250 years ago when ‘the factory’ emerged almost accidentally as a new spatial form, and how it became stabilised and started to spread. I’ve been particularly interested in looking at law’s role in the framing of this (then) nascent place-formation.

Accordingly, my article published yesterday in Geoforum (free access here until 12 August) examines how law is implicated in the formation of ‘factory’ as a type of place, and how in turn such places shaped law. It is an empirical exploration of Bruno Latour’s call for researchers to study the global through its local instantiations. Drawing upon recent theoretical work in both material culture studies and legal geography my article examines the interplay of law and material formations at one originating site, Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills in Derbyshire in order to examine the creation and circulation of a new form of place in the late eighteenth century: the industrial scale cotton mill. It shows how a diverse array of legal elements ranging across patent law, the textile tariffs and ancient local Derbyshire lead mining laws all helped to shape the cotton-mill as a place-form, its proliferation across the United Kingdom, and ultimately further afield. In doing so the article conceptualises processes of localisation, translocalisation and thing-law by which the abstractions of both place-forms and law elements become activated through their pragmatic local emplacement. Whilst the case study concerns 200 year old place-making machinations, many of the spatio-legal articulations of Arkwright and his opponents have a surprisingly modern feel about them. The paper therefore advocates the benefits of a longitudinal, historical approach to the study of place-making, and in particular, calls for a greater attentiveness in legal geography to law’s role in the intentional formation of (work)places by their owners.

In my article Cromford Mills is presented as an exemplar of Latour’s maxim that “the world is … brought inside … places and then, after having been transformed there … pumped back out of [their] narrow walls” ( Latour, 2005, 179, italics in original). Whilst both the actions of Arkwright and the influence of Cromford Mills are atypical, and few industrialists have ever engaged in such sustained and well documented lobbying and litigating, or produced industrial places that were so directly replicated, the atypical extremity of Arkwright’s industry-forming story, and the influence of Cromford Mills as an emergent place-model, helps us – via sharp relief – to witness processes of localisation and translocalisation that would be harder to spot in more mundane circumstances. Through Arkwright’s plethora of place-making efforts we see the ways in which law enables a place to stabilise (and prosper) through the localisation of law’s command and permission in specific spatial circumstances. We also see how law has the power to crush or alter any place. In the campaigning against the Calico Acts we see the role of lobbying around thing-law, the all-important framing of the matter that will matter at a particular place ( Barad, 2007). In the proximate influence of the place-formations of Derbyshire mining laws we see the multiplicity of place-law, and its tensions and resolutions.

Also, even through the spatio-legal place-making machinations described in this case study took place over 200 years ago, they are surprising time-less in their feel. There is nothing particularly ‘eighteenth century’ about the strategic dilemmas and tactical choices that the early factory masters wrestled with, or in the ways in which we have seen law being used tool-like in some situations or left ‘on the shelf’ in favour of some other solution in others. In the case study we have seen elements of the law (and the case study reminds us the that ‘the law’ is not a coordinated, monolithic system, but rather a swarm of only loosely associated discursive elements and pragmatic applications) sometimes present as enabling Arkwright’s project, and at others presenting challenges to it, challenges to be met sometimes by a legal solution, sometimes by some other manoeuvre, in each case rationally selected.

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Perec’s Borescope: urban exploration with a fat book and fully charged power tools


“What is there under your wallpaper?”Georges Perec (1973) The Infraordinary

Earlier this week, I was a presenter at the AHRC/University of Sheffield symposium on Georges Perec’s Geographies. I’m not a Perec scholar, but was invited because – so I was told – my work has an affinity with Perec’s methods and chosen point of focus: the infraordinary. In opening the event Richard Philips (University of Sheffield), pointed out that much that is labelled ‘psychogeography’ these days has an un- (or under) acknowledged affinity to Perec’s literary project, and perhaps even a stronger connection to Perec than to the Situationists. I think he has a point – and I can certainly see more of Perec than Debord in (for example) Nick Papadimitriou’s writings.

The cast for the event featured a great spread of disciplines. The literary types drilled into Perec’s body of work (across text, stage, radio and film) and drew out connections, disjunctures and influences. Perec characterised his writing as having four modes: the ludic, the narrative, the biographical and the sociological. We saw how each piece of work brought one or more of these to the fore, but each time with a sombre, restless searching lying somewhere beneath the surface – no matter how playful the project in hand seemed to be. In the early 1970s Perec engaged in a variety of projects seeking to exhaust the everyday spaces of Paris – seeking to describe everything that would normally be left out of anyone else’s depiction of any place, on the grounds of being unremarkable. Thus his Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris (1973) is a 40 page account of watching buses, people and pigeons come and go at the same Paris street-corner over a three day period.

Having paid £10 for this slim book and sat down avidly to read it in my prep for the symposium I was left underwhelmed. In this text Perec resisted any urges to find a narrative – storylines – to join these observations together, or to follow their hints towards more interesting conjectural spaces.

This and the other projects of that time mapped the groundwork for Perec’s novel Life: a User’s Manual (1978), which he started writing a couple of years later. In his influential extended essay Species of Spaces (1974) Perec had alluded to this embryonic project, stating that he would write an exhaustive account of the life of an apartment building, its residents, their rooms and lives.

The gist of my presentation (as shown in the slides below) was to note that Perec’s sociological mode, to the fore in Attempt sharply fell away in Life, and that instead a narrative concern took over – the denizens being giving stories which intricately interconnect them into the lived totality of this place. This narrative imperative is – I think – inevitable. Who would read a 600 page stream of pure observational data? But I think this set of choices emphasises the impossibility of capturing everything and that some frame or other will have to apply to the infraordinary’s infinity.

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In my talk, I went on to reflect on how Perec’s approach in Life might speak to contemporary urban exploration. In conclusion I presented at first a positive – that Perec reminds us of the importance of people and their making of place through myriad actions and daily concerns. Contemporary urban exploration writing often foregrounds the solitude of the lone explorer or the place itself and these wider connections to a social world of living, feeling, otherwise-preoccupied people gets lost. But my second concluding point was the inverse of this Perecquain virtue – and which, I concede, is a point that comes into being in the early 21st century in way it possibly could not in 1970s French literary culture – is the paucity of attention given to the apartment building and its materiality and its other residents. Perec’s focus in Life is almost exclusively a human one. I illustrate this by complaining about the ease with which Perec dissolves the apartment’s exterior wall in order to ‘see’ the people inside. I then ruminated on techniques (literary, artistic and technological) that would enable a lingering within the wall.


And it was at that point that I got out a power drill and suggested drilling into the lecture theatre’s wall to insert there a borescope – a probe for cavity inspection. Borescope also offers up a nice Perecquain duality – both the name for the probe, but also a new name for Perec’s infraordinary investigations: of scoping (intently looking into) the boring.

I closed out my talk by contrasting the wall-noticing (and multiplying) work of Gregor Schneider, who modifies residential buildings, principally by shrinking their rooms and thus creating ‘spare’ voids beyond the reduced rooms. These are then unsettling extra spaces – some accessible, some not – that disrupt the otherwise homely feel. These spaces emphasise the spaces of the walls rather than effortlessly passing through them.

Schneider gives a fascinating account of his work in this 80 minute lecture from the Architectural Association:


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Details of the 11th May 2016 SHU Space & Place Workshop day – programme, registration link and abstracts


Does your discipline engage with matters of space and place?

Most do, albeit at a variety of scales, in myriad ways and for many divergent reasons. In his 2012 book, The Memory of Place, Dylan Trigg suggests that an interdisciplinary ‘place studies’ has emerged in recent years at the intersection of philosophy, geography, architecture, urban design and environmental studies. But in our experience the ambit of place studies is even wider, for our group also includes SHU place-researching academics from education, management studies, law, sociology, psychology, real estate and performance studies.

The interdisciplinary SHU Space and Place Group was set up in 2012 by Jenny Blain (Sociology), Luke Bennett (Natural & Built Environment), Cathy Burnett and Carol Taylor (Education) to explore the common ground between our various interests in space and place. It meets 3-4 times a year to discuss conceptual, methodological and practical issues around the question “how do we make sense of the spaces and places within which stuff of interest to us happens?”.

We are always keen to welcome new voices into our conversation and we’ve organised our (informal) ‘conference’ on 11 May 2016 as a way of widening participation in the Group’s endeavours. It will also showcase what we’ve already achieved through our group’s open and creative collaborations.

There will be talks in the morning (see bottom of this post for the abstracts):

9.00 – 9.20      REGISTRATION


Luke Bennett – Senior Lecturer, Department of the Natural & Built Environment,


Chair: Carol Taylor, Reader, Sheffield Institute for Education, SHU

9.30 – 9.50 Joanne Lee – Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design, Sheffield Institute of Arts –Exploring a vague terrain

9.50 – 10.20 Chi-Yun Shin – Principal Lecturer in Film Studies at Sheffield Hallam University –Liminal Zone: Rooftops in Cinema

10.20 – 10.40 Kaeren Harrison – Senior Lecturer, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU – Place and interface in late 20th century mass housing

10.40 – 11.00 Val Derbyshire – PhD Candidate, Department of English Literature, School of English, University of Sheffield – In Pursuit of the Picturesque: Places and Spaces within the Works of Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)

11.00 – 11.20        COFFEE BREAK


Chair: Ian Ellison, Senior Lecturer, Sheffield Business School

11.20-11.40 Jenni Brooks – Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Psychology and Politics, SHU – Constructing identity: finding a space in someone else’s workplace

11.40-12.00 Jenny Slater – Lecturer in Education Studies, Sheffield Institute for Education, SHU – Conversations around the toilet…

12.00-12.20 Andrew Middleton – Head of Academic Practice & Learning Innovation, SHU –Vernacular, interstitial and dominant spaces: what they mean for learning at university.

12.20-12.50 Eve Stirling – Senior Lecturer, Interior Design, Sheffield Institute of Arts – Social media places as sites for creative production.


1.10 – 2.00           LUNCH


In the afternoon session we intend to explore SHU’s new Heart of the Campus area, and use a variety of contrasting research methods to do so. The group attempted something similar at the former Southbourne building in 2013, and one of the papers arising from that – Jon Dean’s study of the assignment management zone and its sociality – has recently been published in the journal Qualitative Inquiry

All are very welcome – please forward to anyone interested in participating. We will circulate a full programme once finalised and give directions on how to book a place. The event will be free to attend,and places are limited, so early booking is recommended.


There are no car parks and extremely limited on-street parking near Collegiate Campus. We recommend parking in the city and walking or travelling by public transport to the campus.

If you’re a blue badge holder, you can arrange parking at either campus by phoning 0114 225 3868. The HOTC building has several blue badge specific parking spaces right next to the main entrances. The Moot Suite has two entrances, one upper and one lower; access to the former is on the regular ground level, the latter has a wheelchair-specific lift to negate the few steps.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016 from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (BST) – Add to Calendar


Heart of the Campus Building, Room HC 0.03 (The Moot Suite), – Sheffield Hallam University Collegiate Campus, Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield S10 2BP, United Kingdom – View Map


Here’s the Eventbrite booking link: We have a limit of 40 places, so please book early to avoid disappointment. Light refreshments and a sandwich lunch are being kindly sponsored by the Department of Psychology, Sociology & Politics. A cafe is also available on site for more exotic purchases.



Joanne Lee: Exploring a vague terrain

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design, Sheffield Institute of Arts (SHU)

This paper will present recent work on space and place emerging from Returns, a collaboration between artist-researchers at Sheffield Hallam University and Nottingham Trent University, which developed from Topographies of the Obsolete, an international cross-disciplinary initiative focusing on post-industrial landscapes. An artists residency for the project enabled me to make a photographic exploration of surfaces and artefacts found at the former Spode ceramics factory in Stoke-on-Trent; this prompted a return to previous research I’d pursued on places lying in between use, and as a result I went on to discuss and reframe a series of actual and conceptual terrains vagues in my Pam Flett Press independent serial publication. Since then, having recently moved back to Sheffield, I have been walking and photographing urban lanes in the city in order to consider how close visual attention to their most infra-ordinary aspects both reveals and transforms the complexity of these sites.

Chi-Yun Shin

Principal Lecturer in Film Studies at Sheffield Hallam University

Liminal Zone: Rooftops in Cinema

At the beginning of the climatic scene of the 2010 comedy action film Date Night, Tina Fey’s Claire Foster tells the mob boss Joe Miletto to give them a minute as they’re “trying to do a rooftop thing”.  Although it is never clear what the character (a suburban, married woman) meant by this rooftop thing, this remark constitutes the film’s self-conscious or self-aware moment, as it leads to a spectacular appearance of the NYPD helicopter at the count of three.  And it is the rooftop space – whether it is a set or real location – that allows this showdown.  With its uniquely liminal quality (in-and-outside-ness) and inbuilt riskiness, the rooftop space is a cinematic site that articulates or facilitates a tipping point or crisis in the narrative or action, whether it is chases, murders, suicides, secret meetings, celebrations or protests.  Paying attention to the consistent qualities such as generic patterns (be it in superhero films or romantic comedies), or particular narrative modes associated with rooftop space, this paper explores the rich relationship between film and rooftop space.

Kaeren Harrison

Senior Lecturer, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

Place and interface in late 20th century mass housing

Over the last fifty years housing development has been increasingly dominated by mass delivery through private sector speculative builders. This suburban housing typology has attracted extensive criticism including that it is ’anywhere housing’ and lacks a ‘sense of place’. There is however little empirical research into place within this residential context. The use of Lefebvre’s spatial triad; lived (spaces of representation), conceived (representations of space) and perceived (spatial practice) will be used to explore  how residents, public and academics perceive the relationship between place and the public private interface: defined as ‘components of the urban order where interior becomes exterior, enclosed becomes open, social becomes spatial, public becomes private.’ (Thwaites et al 2013). A qualitative case study will be developed, using research techniques including morphological analysis, photo-elicitation and resident narrative, to explore the interface/place relationship in five residential developments from the nineteen seventies to the present day. This research is being undertaken for a PhD based in the Landscape Department at the University of Sheffield.

Val Derbyshire

PhD Candidate, Department of English Literature, School of English, University of Sheffield   

In Pursuit of the Picturesque: Places and Spaces within the Works of Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)

Charlotte Smith was a poet, novelist, playwright and author of educational works for children.  Within her life, she hardly ever left the area surrounding the South Downs of Sussex and many critics have described her as a regional writer.  However, Smith covered an enormous range of places within both her novels and her poetry and her writing takes her readers upon a global journey across continents. Many of these locations all have one aspect in common: their picturesque and scenic nature.  Looking at some of the landscapes described in Smith’s works, this paper will analyse these scenes and will consider the methods by which Smith’s artistry within her novels and poetry formed part of this wider movement of visual culture of the Romantic era, depicting places which were not necessarily real, but rather artistic renderings of them.  This artificial construction of landscape within her texts then, strangely, seems to lead to the realism of Smith’s novels being made more realistic by virtue of their reliance on artists and their works.


Jenni Brooks

Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology, Sociology and Politics, SHU

 Constructing identity: finding a space in someone else’s workplace

Personal assistants who provide support to physically disabled people in their workplaces occupy a potentially problematic space. They are physically present in their employer’s workplace, and yet to perform their duties effectively, they must become ‘invisible’. They have little autonomy over their work, which is solely to facilitate the independence and work of their employer. Our new research project explores the role of workplace PAs by tapping into the experiences of PAs themselves, the disabled people who employ them, and the disabled people’s employers. How do workplace PAs negotiate their professional identity when they may not be introduced in meetings (other than as ‘the PA’), and their names are not written in minutes? Their employer’s colleagues are not their colleagues. They have no relationship with their employer’s employer – no IT login, no swipe card, no contract. They are present, and yet no proof of their presence exists.

Jenny Slater

Lecturer in Education Studies, Sheffield Institute for Education, SHU

 Conversations around the toilet…

Around the Toilet ( is a cross-disciplinary, arts-based research project, funded through the AHRC, which explores the toilet as a place of exclusion and belonging. Although the toilet is often thought to be a mundane space, for those who lack adequate or accessible toilet provision on a daily basis, toilets become a crucial practical issue which can create and reaffirm feelings of exclusion and regulation. Disabled people, for example, frequently report that ‘accessible’ toilets are not accessible enough, while other studies show that diminishing numbers of public toilets can prevent older people leaving the house. Toilets can also present a stark visual and material enactment of a gender binary in ways that can be problematic for trans, genderqueer or non-binary people. Thinking around toilets and their function as material as well as socio-cultural environments presents an opportunity to consider forms of identity in multi-faceted ways. Researchers on the project are based across three universities (Sheffield Hallam University, University of Sheffield and University of Leeds), and community organisations (Queer of the Unknown (a performing arts collective) Action for Trans* Health and The Loiterers Resistance Movement). In this talk we will reflect on the findings of our project and the arts-based methodologies that allowed for potentially ‘awkward’ conversations.

Andrew Middleton

Head of Academic Practice & Learning Innovation, SHU Learning Enhancement & Academic Development

Vernacular, interstitial and dominant spaces: what they mean for learning at university

The University is committed to developing its understanding of learning spaces fit for the future. But what spaces are we talking about and what do we understand learning to mean? This short presentation will ask us to consider learning, what it means and what it looks like by using Hamilton’s (2000) idea of vernacular literacies as a way to value what Cross (2007) referred to as natural informal learning. We will compare ideas about liminality, translocation and Third Space with notions of the dominant, formal, institutional space. In amongst these ideas of space, learning and literacies, we will examine interstitialility and the lived connections found and made by students as they experience learning through their course. By understanding learning as it is experienced in and across formal and non-formal spaces, a university can begin to foster a deeper learning engagement.

Eve Stirling

Senior Lecturer Interior Design / Programme Leader MA/MFA Design, Sheffield Institute of Art (SHU)

Social media places as sites for creative production.

My work currently focuses on the hyper-layered nature of social media use by students studying on Design courses at a university in the UK. It explores data across Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, as sites of creative productions.  Social media sites are places of creative production, where the ecosocial systems of student and design company converge. The relationship between the trainee designers studying in a university and the trained designers in the external industry is changing. The mass socialisation of digital and online communications has meant that content is authored, curated, critiqued and reconfigured by a mass of users. Through the collective efforts of the users – posting, liking, commenting and sharing – connection and collaboration takes place. There is a context collapse between creative learning, production and working practices. I present these digital places that connect students and creative industries through their hyperlinked ecocsocial environments.

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Back to the wall, back to the cave, back to the edge: three re-visits for 2016

Redux 2016

“The present has become a phantom that he searches for without ceasing,

and which always disappears the moment you think you have it in hand.

What remains is the journey through the present, even if it’s decidedly one of destruction

undertaken through images and language.  Because behind the accursed images

and words waits the wished-for life.” (186)


Bernd Steigler (2013) Traveling in place – a history of armchair travel,

University of Chicago Press

I’m dusting off some of my favourite blog essays to give them an outing at three conferences later this year…

Seeing through walls: Georges Perec and the prospects for a new urban exploration

At: Perec’s Geographies / Perecquian Geographies Symposium – University of Sheffield, 6-7 May 2016

Details here:

This presentation will consider the ways in which Perec provides a pointer towards a more expansive form of urban exploration, but in doing so it will also examine the limits of his approach. Perec’s Humanism is both the primary strength, and the primary weakness of his mode of exploration. Taking Perec’s concern – articulated in Species of Space and implemented in Life: A User’s Manual –  for the creation of an omniscient account of the lives of an apartment block by stripping away its front wall as its focal point, this presentation will consider how Perec’s sensitive peopling of his accounts of place, his search for pattern, valorising of textual rather than visual representation (all expressed in meticulous forensic detail), lays down a challenge to the more momentary, athletic urban exploration of the 21st century. Alongside this, the limits of Perec’s contribution towards finding a new, wider, urban exploration will be presented by contrasting his approach and its concerns with recent writings in both contemporary psychogeography and in the New Materialisms (and wider). Here, in relation to his interest in wall-piercing, I will argue that Perec’s approach paid insufficient attention to the wall itself and thus lost something in his literary dissolving of it. The presentation will suggest that the new frontier for urban exploration is be found in a flatter ontology in which visual accounts of embodied movement (mainstream urbexers), observations of others’ dwelling (Perec) and speculative narration of the life-worlds of non-human forms and environments (New Materialism) are held together and reported upon by ambulant empiricists (psychogeographers) who both write well and ruminate upon the world beyond their own experience and endeavour – something that Perec achieved much, but not all of.

Blogs involved: Through walls with Perec (2012); This house is making me walk funny (2012); Going Inside (2012); Exploring building services with Slavo Zizek (2013).

Standing safely at the edge: risk, law and the landscape sublime

At: Language, Landscape & the Sublime Conference – Dartington Hall, Totnes, 29-30 June 2016

Details here:

Writing in 1792, in a statement encapsulating the Romantic landscape sublime, Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared “I must have torrents, fir trees, black woods, mountains to climb or descend, and rugged roads with precipices on either side to alarm me”. But less often mentioned is his caveat that “a great part of my amusement in these steep rocks is [that] they cause a giddiness and swimming in my head which I am particularly fond of, provided I am in safety.” As Edmund Burke put it, “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close.” For the Romantic sublime was not an unmitigated embrace of “delicious terror” (Coates 1998). This paper will consider this safety-consciousness at the heart of sublime engagement with landscape, by suggesting that much of the Romantic sublime remains embedded within what, at first glance seems its antithesis: contemporary ‘health ‘n’ safety’ culture. The paper will pursue this argument by a textual analysis of the reasoning and asides of senior judiciary in a spate of legal cases culminating in the House of Lords decision in Tomlinson –v- Congleton Borough Council in 2003. In these cases we see a deep seated belief that opportunity to congress with the landscape sublime is a public good, worthy of legal protection and something to be balanced alongside appropriate provision of edge protection in the countryside.

Blogs involved: Virtually on the ledge (2012); Risk and outdoor adventure (2012)

Noticing stone in the dark: narrating past, place and materiality in an abandoned subterranean quarry

Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference – Cultural Geologies of Stone session – London, 30 August – 2 September 2016

Details here:

This paper will explore the ways in which meaning is brought to a quarried void in southern England. Until its closure in the 1920s the site had been a source of fine building stone for over 2,000 years, that rock quarried in turn by Romans, Anglo Saxons, Normans and subsequent generations. The site is now a small scale tourist attraction, with enthusiastic local guides taking visitors below ground and into the emptiness of the evacuated strata. According to a guide’s deft narration of the pasts of this site this place is rich with history and yet it is also a place at which there is nothing to see. This is a tour of a void, the only meaning here is that cast into this stone-framed emptiness by the interpreters of this place. This presentation will examine the narrative and performative practices by which a sense of the labour and lives once lived here are summoned, and also how a sense of the materiality of this place is necessarily also framed and presented. In doing so the analysis will consider – after Samuel (1977) and Strangleman (2013) – the motivations of post-industrial homage at sites of former (hard) labour, and the sense in which historical-materialist and neo-materialist (and posthuman) accounts of the physicality of our world and our relationship to it collide in such places.

Blogs involved: Gazing up looking down (2014); A miner’s life (2015); Staring at empty spaces (2015)


Image sources: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) Caspar David Friedrich; Beer Quarry Caves; author.