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

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“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.

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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:

 

Image credit:

http://www.877quicdry.com/inspection_hi_tech_equipment.cfm;

https://aadivaahan.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/two-hammer-blows-and-a-random-walk/

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

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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

9.20-9.30        INTRODUCTION TO THE SPG AND THE DAY

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

09.30-11.00       SPATIAL REPRESENTATIONS: FOUR VIEWS OF PLACE

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

11.20 – 12.50        IN-PLACE: IDENTITY, CREATIVITY AND LEARNING

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.

12.50 – 1.10         GROUP DISCUSSION ON THE MORNING PAPERS

1.10 – 2.00           LUNCH

2.00 – 5.00           EXPLORING THE HEART OF THE CAMPUS

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 http://qix.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/11/19/1077800415605050.

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.

Accessability

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.

WHEN?

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

WHERE?

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

HOW TO BOOK

Here’s the Eventbrite booking link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/shu-space-place-group-workshop-day-tickets-23241847993?ref=estw 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.

ABSTRACTS

Session 1 : SPATIAL REPRESENTATIONS: FOUR VIEWS OF PLACE

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.

Session 2: IN-PLACE: IDENTITY, CREATIVITY AND LEARNING

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 (https://aroundthetoilet.wordpress.com/) 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.

Image source: http://www.shu.ac.uk/eventservices/venues/heart-campus

 

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: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/geography/news/symposium-1.532816

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: http://languagelandscape.info/

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: http://www.rgs.org/NR/exeres/3D2D0BA2-4741-45DE-8C91-EB9AEAE860BB.htm

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.

Sheffield Space & Place Workshop – May 2016 – local call for papers

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The Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Research Group are planning an ‘awayday’ workshop at the end of Semester 2. Whilst the event is largely targeted at SHU staff, all are very welcome if you are in the Sheffield area and the day takes your fancy.

Here’s our CALL FOR PAPERS

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.
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?”.
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. 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.

So, if you’d like to come along and speak for 15 minutes on what space and place research means to you and/or how you have investigated space and place in your research, please submit a title and an up to 150 word abstract to Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) by 29 February 2016. A committee of SHU SPG members will then select speakers by mid March. In the afternoon session we intend to explore SHU’s new Heart of the Campus area, and use a variety of 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 http://qix.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/11/19/1077800415605050.

 

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, but may be on a bring or buy your own food and drink basis. There is indeed rarely such thing as a free lunch.

 

 

Image source: https://hermosodesign.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/sheffield-hallam-university-heart-of-the-campus/

Feminist Legal Geographies – RGS 2016 Call For Papers

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Feminist Legal Geographies 

Call for Papers: Royal Geographical Society with IBG Annual Conference, London, 30 August-02 September 2016

Session Conveners: Katherine Brickell, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London & Dana Cuomo, Center for Health & Wellness, University of Washington

Since the 1980s, legal geographical research as a trans-disciplinary project has drawn attention to the binding connections between law and space. While recent publications have sought to ‘expand’ the spaces of law studied (Braverman et al, 2014) and explore spatialities of injustice precipitated and/or alleviated through law (Delaney, 2015), in these and many other works in the field, sensitivity to difference and the gendered character of law, its (everyday) material sites, and discourses are limited. By bringing together interdisciplinary scholars whose research examines the themes of law, geography, gender inequality and power, the sessions aim to raise the profile of feminist legal geographies and feminist legal theory in the ‘mainstream’ field of legal geographies. Abstracts are invited which provide cutting-edge research in the Global North and/or South. Themes could include (but are not limited to):

  • Gender differentiated dynamics, experiences and outcomes of law
  • Notions of public/private in law
  • Gender-based violence
  • Gender and the body
  • Marriage and family
  • Reproduction and parenting
  • Workplaces, wages and welfare
  • Law and political struggle
  • Advocacy
  • Active and intimate citizenship
  • International law, courts and tribunals
  • Norm production in law
  • Legal identity
  • Legal pluralism
  • Feminist legal methods and methodologies

We are looking for titles and abstracts of 300 words to be sent to both session conveners by Monday 6th February 2016 (katherine.brickell@rhul.ac.uk/ danacuomo@gmail.com)
 References 

Braverman, I., Blomley, N., Delaney, D., & Kedar, A. 2014. Expanding the Spaces of Law: A Timely Legal Geography. Stanford University Press: Stanford.

Delaney, D. 2015. Legal Geography II: Discerning Injustice. Progress in Human Geography. Online before print.

 

(Image source: www.securitysafetyproducts.co.uk )

Setting to work on a modern ruin: investigating the future of St Peter’s Seminary at Kilmahew

“There is no place like it, on these islands, for the mutual battery of multiple forces, for the thumping, pummelling and attrition of creation and destruction, the incessant beating of weather, vandals and arson against rocks of obstinate architecture. It is like watching medieval knights club each other to death yet stay standing. It is a mud-wrestle of culture and nature.”

Rowan Moore, The Guardian, 17 January 2015

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St Peter’s-Kilmahew (SPK) located in Argyll, Scotland, is a place rich in narratives of human settlement. Originally a sacred landscape associated with an early Christian saint, then the woodland demesne of a medieval castle-keep, during the mid-19th century SPK was transformed into a country estate, with an extensive arboretum and pleasure-gardens encircling a baronial mansion-house. In the 20th century, the entire property was acquired by the Roman Catholic Church, and its designed landscape re-centred on a newly-built seminary complex. St. Peter’s, the striking Modernist building, opened in 1967 to critical acclaim, operated for fifteen years, and was then abandoned by the Church. Since the 1980s, the entire site has fallen ever deeper into a condition of charismatic ruination. The seminary structure remains iconic, internationally celebrated but controversial; it has been subject to repeated calls for complete demolition and campaigns for full restoration; but until very recently, SPK has frustrated all such attempts to ‘fix’ its future.

However, since 2010, detailed plans for occupying the site as a ‘transitional ruin’ have been developed by NVA, Scotland’s leading public arts charity (www.nva.org.uk). Presently, SPK is being readied for its latest transition: from a ruin into its inverse: a construction site. NVA’s radical plan to stabilise the ruined structure and open out the abandoned estate landscape has been granted £3 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with an additional £0.5 million backing secured from Creative Scotland. Over the next six years, dereliction will be thrown into reverse, with SPK becoming simultaneously charismatic ruin and construction site. Phased works are scheduled to begin in 2016, with completion projected for 2022 when SPK will be fully accessible for public, educational and artistic use, as a stabilised ruin and redesigned cultural landscape.

I’m excited to announce that I’m part of an AHRC grant bid submitted earlier this week seeking funding for a three year study of the stabilisation and repurposing of this iconic site. The intended project would enable a multi-disciplinary team of researchers to conduct a ‘live’ study of the transformation of this ruin site into a future facing community, arts and heritage venue. The bid is led by Ed Hollis (Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art), supported by Prof Hayden Lorimer (Historical & Cultural Geography, University of Glasgow) and me (Law & the Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University).

The project aims to explore how approaches derived from arts and humanities research can productively valorise sites in transition, opening up areas which are conventionally screened away or fenced off from public view. The project’s key concerns are:

  • how can processes of ruin-transformation can be better understood, and more widely engaged with?
  • how might the notion of a site’s ‘closure’ during building work be challenged via the collaborative design of experimental landscape interventions?
  • how can this be done within a context of ensuring the safety of all concerned?

This investigation will be pursued via three interlinked work packages, that reflect the three disciplinary perspectives of the investigators:

  1. What are the risks surrounding processes of material change in relation to human health and safety and how are these governed? How do common law and/or legislative frameworks construct this risk and liability, and how might policy be developed to allow more scope for public access to heritage sites in transition?
  2. How can artists, designers and architects work collaboratively with heritage sites that are in process? How can creative interventions harness processes of change, engage communities, and challenge regulatory frameworks to revise traditional models of heritage preservation predicated on the prevention of material change?
  3. How do stakeholders in historic sites engage in the contested processes of redevelopment and ruination? For example, through participation in decision-making, public debates, community art and archiving, acts of protest, remembrance, forgiveness and forgetting?

The project will explore these questions simultaneously, but with high degree of cross-over, as (for example) our findings on risk and liability influence the commissioning of the onsite creative interventions and vice versa. Thus through multiple methods of investigation, and through its combination of ethnographic, archival, design and regulatory perspectives and its engagement with local community, professional and policy stakeholders the project will develop a rich range of outputs, spanning scholarly collaborations, creative commissions and a practice-focussed interpretive toolkit, with all of these aimed at inspiring and facilitating  more creative, and inclusive, engagements in the future at other sites in transition.

In pursuit of this innovation and our desire to build interpretive common ground and practice for sites in transition, this project will be able to draw upon the experience and perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders who have already affiliated to the bid, including NVA, Scottish Heritage, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and  the former head of the CBI’s Health & Safety Panel. Through these links our project will uniquely well placed to broker innovative dialogue between publics, creative practitioners (both of whom would like to access sites-in-process) and construction managers whose instinctive reaction (based on a certain overly anxious perceptions of risk and liability) is to close them off to all access.

Our bid presents the SPK works programme as a unique opportunity to investigate in an interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder,  live and longitudinal way both how we deal with the emergent ruins of modernist heritage, and how we might better reconcile the difficulties of providing public access to heritage sites which are, inevitably, often in a perpetual state of reconstruction and repair.

If our bid is successful, the research project will commence towards the end of 2016.

 

Images credits: images from:

(1) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/jan/17/the-extraordinary-ruins-of-st-peters-seminary-near-glasgow-in-pictures;

(2) http://nva.org.uk/artwork/kilmahew-st-peters/

(3) http://nordarchitecture.com/projects/kilmahew-st-peters/

with originators credited there.

 

 

 

Vibrant voids: how some places ignore you, and others trip you up

Felimngham - Leominster

“The bunker is not a trace or shadow as it is present and also part of the foundation of an office building, and it does not haunt the landscape since, as a shelter, it was never meant to be seen in the first place” (Bartolini, 2015: 204)

Writing of a Mussolini era bunker beneath the streets of Rome, Nadia Bartolini incisively ponders the nature of such concealed places and of the awkwardness of attempting to subject them to the light of day. As she puts it, “the concrete bunker if visible, would meld with its concrete surroundings” (203). The subterranean bunker then exists as background, it is unexcavatable, it is its own container and “there is no need to disentangle and excavate it from the earth to archive it elsewhere” (200). In short, it is only a fortified hollowing out, it is an absence of ground within it, yet defined by the mass of earth around it. Whether as bunkers, cellars, crypts, tombs or chambers these subterranean places are defined only by their capacity to shelter bodies and/or valued objects. Without such contents, these voids are simply empty spaces edged with concrete.

Bartolini’s article seeks to take issue with (or at least to refine) Jane Bennett’s (2010) Vibrant Matter thesis, by which analysists are encouraged to pay more attention to materiality per se, in order to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of matter, and of their effects in the world separate from human cultural projections upon them. Bennett’s book sets out to illustrate the vibrancy of matter (and of the eco-political implications of this) via a series of case studies on the vitality of stem cells, foodstuffs and electrical power networks. But Bartolini questions the vibrancy of concrete and of the Rome bunker formed from it, and through examining the less-than-expected potency of an art show staged within the Rome bunker, argues that Bennett’s vibrancy thesis does not adequately account for the static existence of this ‘dumb brute’ matter. She concludes that without curation (an interpretive provisioning of the space of the art show) “the bunker is only a mass of concrete, a structure whose inherent materiality does not do anything in its fixed, solid state” (197).

And yet, there is one thing that the Rome bunker does. It endures. It is obstinate. It refuses to eliminate itself. It perpetuates its contained subterranean void. It endures without us. It is a chamber that sits and subsists, a repository for stale air, steady temperature and stillness (and home to a few spiders). And it remains true to the original design intent – to “immobilize time and space” (197), but now for its own sake, rather than for any purpose of human security.

But this is the destiny of any underground chamber – to lay there partly- or wholly un-known, perhaps existing in a dimension too small for human presence, to be perceived only remotely through the enquiring eye of an industrial endoscope, a bright light momentarily illuminating an otherwise constant darkness, like the torch flash of a deep sea diver, momentarily glimpsing another world in the enveloping darkness of the deep.

Both Paul Virilio and Gaston Bachelard have pointed to the atavistic, phenomenological qualities of such confined spaces and their reverberation through culture and psyche. These places take us closer to the underworld, and for Bachelard, the basement is the scene of our subconscious, a place perhaps to visit occasionally to in order to reconnect with our deeper drives, but it is not a place for us to dwell within.

Bartolini’s point is not to deny concrete its ability to influence the world, or to extend its reach into our world, but rather to argue that further delineation of how particular types of matter acquire a vibrancy. Her argument is that, in the heritage sector, we cannot entirely reject the role for cultural projection. If Mussolini’s bunker is dark, it is because someone left the lights off.

At one level Bartolini’s call is for a (re)acknowledgment of the important role of cultural projection within the framing of bland, function-formed places like these. She is challenging a suggestion that all matter is equally vibrant, and pointing out in that in the mundane built environment there is work to do – our work to do – to ascribe meaning to this space and its material composition. As she puts it: “a concrete container located underground is not equivalent to identifying the structure as ‘Mussolini’s bunker’” (207) – more is required (from us) for that to occur. This chamber doesn’t know itself as that human / heritage place (obviously it doesn’t know itself as anything, but indulge me a little here). All this place is, is a meshwork of elements held together by an interlocking set of forces that co-produce the stasis of that place. The ceiling can’t surrender to gravity because its downward fall is thwarted by the walls. If this place knows anything it is how to continue being in its current form.

So, this is what I took from Nadia’s article. But it was then odd to find myself in conversation with her at this week’s Historic Towns Forum conference. We ended up talking about dark real estate and the agency of material place formations (my phrase not hers). In our discussion Nadia argued in favour of some places having an intrinsic (i.e. an “it’s in the walls”) ability to haunt and provoke visitors. She illustrated her argument by pointing to the unsettling feelings triggered by standing within an industrial pottery kiln, the darkness, lack of edges and lines, the strange smells and the uneven floor. “But what if you worked everyday in that environment?” I asked, “it wouldn’t feel a strange place then would it?” And then I tried to push home an argument that any such strange affecto-material feelings are a product of our unfamiliarity, or of our cultural inference rather than of the place-matter itself.

But then I stopped. I’d suddenly remembered the strong feelings that morning as I’d walked into the meeting room that served as the venue for this conference. A London law practice’s building, all there was elegant clean magnolia walls, black marble topped dark lustrous cherry veneer cabinets and corporate chrome legged chairs, all bathed in beams of extra bright recessed halogen lights. Stepping into that chamber I’d been primed, and it only took the chink of a tea cup nestling back into its saucer, to tumble me back into an older, once familiar place-world.

So my conclusion was that it’s both: yes, it is us who make the meaning for the spaces we enter, but we are not always in control of that meaning-making. We can be provoked into doing so by the triggers and traps that rooms set for us. And yes, sometimes those triggers are engineered there to produce intended effects by curators or interior designers, but sometimes the effects are serendipitous: the chance meeting of a meaning brought with you, a thing lurking there that has no sense of you and a resultant feeling produced by that encounter.

 

References

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

Image – Stephen Felmingham (2009) Leominster 6/31

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