‘In Ruins’: Thursday, 6 July 2023, 7-9pm – Exploration#1 in SHU SPG’s new online seminar series

“These wall-stones are wondrous —
calamities crumpled them, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants
corrupted. The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.
Ice at the joints has unroofed the barred-gates, sheared
the scarred storm-walls have disappeared—
the years have gnawed them from beneath. A grave-grip holds
the master-crafters, decrepit and departed, in the ground’s harsh
grasp, until one hundred generations of human-nations have
trod past. Subsequently this wall, lichen-grey and rust-stained,
often experiencing one kingdom after another,
standing still under storms, high and wide—
it failed”

Excerpt from ‘The Ruin’ – 10th Century Anglo-Saxon poem fragment from The Exeter Book – author unknown

(trans. Aaron Hostetter, https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-ruin/)

A ruin of sorts itself, the incomplete text of this Old English poem exists in only one surviving form, and even there it is incomplete. So, a ruined text gives a glimpse of an Anglo Saxon gazing upon the ruins of (it is believed) the Roman baths, at Bath over 1000 years ago.

There’s an interesting take on the poem in this short film (found on You Tube and created by Stuart Lee (@stulee2), as it takes the text and applies it to an industrial ruin. It’s surprisingly effectively. Sort of, urbex in a tunic and cloak, melding two pasts.

How we should ‘accurately’ read this text and assume its tone and purpose is open to debate. The temptation is to read it in a post-Renaissance way, in that ruins give us a nostalgic vision of a better past, and of the entropy in all things. Others suggest that it should be read – more literally – as an early Christian castigation of heathen destruction of more sophisticated (and therefore aligned to god) things. In the spirit of Augustine’s 5th century castigation of De civitate Dei contra paganos (‘On the City of God Against the Pagans’). Whichever may be the case, the text has a resonance with our contemporary orientation to ruins, in that in certain circumstances, and in certain ways, we valorise broken bits of the built environment and ascribe to them a variety of aesthetic and/or other cultural value.

I’m delighted to announce details of the first event in Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group’s new series of events: Exploring. For Exploring #1: In Ruins we will be looking at the action and meanings of close-to-home exploration of broken portions of the built environment. 

For our second session (which will be on 26 October 2023) we will be ‘Going Underground’ (and this event will include a launch of Kevin Bingham’s new book, Exploring the Natural Underground: A New Sociology of Caving (Routledge, 2023)). I’d then like to round off 2023 with a third event, ‘On the Rocks’, in December, looking at quarry lurking and rock climbing. The roster of presenters is already set for ‘In Ruins’ and ‘Going Underground’ but anyone would like to propose anything on engagements with rocks and stones for that third event then please do drop me a line at l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk.

The events will be online, and free to attend – but booking will be required. Here’s the link for In Ruins:

Here’s some further detail on In Ruins:

Our presenters will be:

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University)

Chair & Introduction: Serious play and meaning-making in knackered buildings

Denzil Watson (Sheffield Hallam University)

Urban Exploration: the motivations behind documenting buildings in decay

When I talk to people about the type of photography I do, the reactions are often quite polarised. Some people completely get it and understand why while others are a little more perplexed. I’ve often asked myself what the motivations are behind what I do. Like most hobbies, it is not without its dangers, but with an awareness of the risks the pastimes can sometimes expose you to, these in the main can be managed and minimised. The urbex landscape has undergone a number of changes and developments in recent years. One of the less welcome developments the hobby has attracted is the attentions from YouTubers, Instagrammers and Facebookers who appear more concerned by the likes and subs they are generating than the history of the places they explore. Despite this, there remains a dedicated community of explorers who are more concerned with the history of the buildings they are documenting before it is lost for good. It is this aspect of urban exploring that I will tap into when explaining the motivations behind why I engage in this fascinating pastime and recently culminated in the publication of my first book in this area, “Sheffield in Ruins”, late last year by Revelations 23 Press.

Ines Moreira (Lab2PT, Universidade do Minh, Portugal)

Post-Nostalgic Knowings: curatorial actions in deindustrialized areas

How to embrace the present conditions of former industrial territories? Cultural, political and economic conditions define different approaches towards the past, filtering it as heritage, as legacy, as evidence, or as property. In-between deindustrialization and post-industrialism, I visit our notion of “Post-Nostalgic Knowings” after a research project, a book, and a course documenting tentative strategies for curatorial and artistic intervention in former industrial areas under transformation. By looking at curatorial and artistic projects, in two European borders, the Baltic and the Atlantic Southwest, I identify different conditions and positions – if the Portuguese word for nostalgia, saudade, mostly celebrates memory, the Russian toska enunciates an extreme anguish. How does politics and culture resonate with action in former industrial territories?

Harry Willis Fleming (Architectural Historian) & Jane Wildgoose (Artist)

Stoneham Revisited: inspiration, creativity, and alternative value found in a country house’s destruction

For almost 20 years, historian Harry Willis Fleming and artist Jane Wildgoose have explored the ambivalent history and afterlife of North Stoneham House, Harry’s family’s ancestral mansion in Hampshire. This enormous neoclassical country house was built by the fashionable architect Thomas Hopper for John Willis Fleming MP between 1818-1842. The building was never completed, and after being repeatedly abandoned and repurposed, Stoneham was demolished in 1939. In late 2022, the remaining foundations and materials were crushed and levelled for an upcoming housing development. Soon afterwards, Harry and Jane received the vast array of finds from the developer’s archaeological dig, ranging from fragments of ornamental marble to rusty bed springs. Stoneham’s trajectory clearly speaks to Marx’s observation that everything built in bourgeois society is designed to be torn down, broken, recycled, and replaced. However, capitalist value is only one type of value, and the tension and friction between alternative values can be highly creative – and potentially challenge and enrich the system. The focus of this presentation will be on the nature and processes of Harry and Jane’s collaboration, and the inspiration they have drawn from Stoneham’s story deployed as a seedbed of ideas, themes, and associations. In complementary sections, Harry and Jane will each describe the Stoneham project as a creative nexus between their individual practices. They will outline their joint approach to experiential fieldwork, including interviewing former residents (including the children’s author Ursula Moray Williams), the creation of a temporary tented museum on the house’s site, and other entanglements with the landscape and local community. They will conclude by reflecting on the insights and experiences they have gained from investigating together – through a ludic, creative dialogue – the ruination, fragmentation, and erasure of Stoneham; and ask where this might take them next.

Recordings of previous Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group events can be viewed on our You Tube channel, here: https://www.youtube.com/@sheffieldhallamuniversitys5219/videos

Image Credit: Denzil Watson


The Suburban Sentinel: Everyday walking between worlds, with my dog.

“He walked with equipoise, possibly in either city. Schrodinger’s pedestrian.”

China Miéville (2009) The City & The City. London: Picador

Think of Berlin. Think of the Berlin Wall. Think of a city sliced in two by an arbitrary dividing line, severing streets, communities and lives. Then think of the awkwardness of cutting a city in two. In bifurcated Berlin there were pre-existing trainlines that wove between the two worlds, travelling without stopping through stations that happened to be on the wrong side of those tracks.  These glitches in the seeming neatness of the division created liminal zones that were either in neither East or West Berlin, or were in both. Adjusting to the enclosed worlds of the East and the West would have been most difficult at those points of overlap.

I’ve just finished reading China Miéville’s The City & The City. This novel takes the oddity of the cross-over points between two otherwise separated worlds and seeks to explore the ‘cross-hatched’ (overlap) zones, and the sheer anxiety and perceptual effort needed by denizens of either world if and when they try to ‘breach’ into the other territory. The novelty of Miéville’s scenario is that he focusses on the awkward arts of living at the point of overlap. In his strange conjoined double city, there are places where both cities exist – they share the same space – but each set of citizens are trained (under threat of terrible sanction) to not notice (to ‘unsee’) the people, vehicles and buildings of the other interwoven place.

Miéville deftly explores the legal geography of these warped realities, making this scenario both strange and familiar. And it is the familiar – and mundane – aspect of navigating two (or more) co-located worlds that I want to explore here.

I have a dog and I have a need for daily exercise and routine. I walk the same circuit every morning. It takes me around a set route, in a set sequence. I depart each day at almost exactly the same time. It is like stepping into a clock’s mechanism. As I walk the route, familiar pedestrian cross my path like the hands of a clock, intercepting my passage at some point in my journey, marking out the slight variance of my (and/or their) starting time. I, and each person I pass, are on their own orbital path, enacting their own routines. With some, nods of acknowledgement are exchanged. with others, nothing: like we are invisible to each other.

This circulation takes place upon residential pavements. These are public spaces (designated as highways, available for the use of all). But occasionally, a car will edge out from a driveway, crossing the pavement to reach the road: a fraction of a daily commuting project enacted across three separate territories: driveway (private), pavement (public – for pedestrians), road (public – for cars). This navigation requires careful looking (so as not to collide with someone else, and their ambulatory projects) but little active thought about the acts of transition through three distinctly encoded territories.

The deep familiarity of my daily walking of the same route mostly allows me to spend my time not thinking about the act of walking. Muscle memory steers me on an optimum line around this circuit. But (necessarily) my eyes stay open (my muscle memory’s not that good). And open eyes tend to seek out something to see. As I walk my circuit, I nowadays find myself haunted by things I don’t want to see. My underactive mind is seeking out elements to engage with, and with the daily scene changing so little it approaches the world as a ‘spot the difference’ puzzle, and I find myself noticing the tiniest things that are ‘out of order’ in this overly-familiar space. Day by day I note the onward degeneration of a banana skin, I see that someone has put out the wrong coloured bin for emptying, I see that someone’s brake light isn’t working. But most annoyingly, my superhero special power seems to be to be able to spot at 100 yards any car window that has been left open. Seemingly, I am especially attuned to the missing reflection that an open window pane is not sending back to me.

Such observations induce a sinking feeling. I’m tugged back into the world. I have to decide what responsibility I have for the banana skin (as a slip hazard), for the fact that someone is going to miss out on their bin collection, that if it rains someone’s car’s interior is going to get rather wet (or their car stolen). My hyper-familiarity with this set of streets makes me feel responsible, like I have an obligation to act upon what I have noticed. But to act requires me to step out of my dog-walker-tracks, and to leave the pavement. Should I search for the owner of the wrong-bin, should I flag down the car with the broken brake light?

Such searches would require me to step from the pavement into the private territories and to disrupt early morning rituals. The wrong bin-house looks to be an elderly person’s home (based on the figurines that bedeck the front garden). Will my calling upon them at this early hour cause alarm? Should I just swap over their bins so that the right one is put-out for today’s collection? But what if their postal worker has an arrangement with them that precious parcels will be placed later today in the black, blue, green or brown bin that currently sits, held-back in their driveway. My mind ponders all sorts of counterfactuals – trying suddenly to read the lives of the people connected to these little signs that I have noticed.

Sometimes I manage to rationalise-away my instinct to intervene. I successfully chide myself for the unrealistic dimensions of my ‘saviour complex’. But at other times I can’t shake it off, and I step over into a private territory and press a doorbell. Whoever comes to the door usually greets me with a suspicious look (and a mouth full of cereal). I try to set out my point calmly and matter-of-factly. “Your car window’s open, mate”;“Your brake light’s gone, love”. I drop my aitches as the situation requires. But I still get a suspicious look at first – like they can’t quite believe that my simple point is all that there is to this encounter. They seem to be awaiting a second sentence, in which I suddenly try to sell or scam them something.

The likelihood of this awkward reaction adds to the deliberation of the next time that I’m contemplating action in response to an unwanted sighting of something out of place. This whole process feels thankless. Not in the sense that I want to be thanked. But more in the sense of feeling locked into this undesired super-power. The Suburban Sentinel who sees all, but actually would rather not.

Open car windows are the worst, and for reasons specific to Sheffield. The conventions of terrace dwelling in this city are that people do not use their front doors. So, seeking to locate the owner of a car-with-a-window-left-open (if not in a driveway) would require not just enquiring of a number of houses in the vicinity in the area – but also walking down the communal alley to the rear of the terrace to knock on rear doors there. Entering that rear, yard space feels like a deep encroachment into private territory, but also a surveillancescape formed by the suspicious eyes of every householder who is (understandably) averse to the sight of a lone male wanderer, of uncertain purpose intruding into their space.

So, open car windows surrounded by terrace housing tend to go unaddressed by the Suburban Sentinel. But whether or not I act after seeing, either way I end up feeling troubled.

Image Credit: Luke Bennett, Berlin, 2011

The disarming comfort of things: the deep sofa and the relief of surrender

“The fetish, then, not only originated from, but remains specific to, the problem of the social value of material objects as revealed in situations formed by the encounter of radically heterogeneous social systems.”

William Pietz (1985) ‘The problem of the Fetish – 1’, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 9(9): 5-17

Don’t get excited. This short blog post isn’t about fetishism in the sense of deviant sexuality. It’s about a brief encounter (alone) with a sofa and how in that moment two very different systems of meaning coincided and momentarily surrendered me to the special power and poignancy of that furniture. Pietz identifies the anthropological notion of the fetish – of certain material artefacts imbued with special powers – as forged at the meeting-point between two very different social systems. Whilst his encounters of concern are cross-cultural, mine are paradigmic: concerning the prosaic realm of soft furnishings and the emotionally loaded realm of grief.

The story begins a few days after the death of my grandmother. I’m tasked with the job of taking her false teeth to the undertakers. As a family we can’t decide whether she’d want to be cremated with her teeth in or out. This is a question that has no logical resolution. Wearing her dentures was her day-time practice. In the public realm she would wear her teeth (and would be incomplete with out them) but at night she took them out before going to bed, and therefore being at rest didn’t involve having her teeth in. But being at her funeral would place her in the public realm (so logic said ‘teeth in’). But she would not be visible in her casket, and was otherwise dressed for – eternal – sleep (so other logic said ‘teeth out’). We couldn’t decide what was right. But we didn’t regard her dentures as the kind of memento that would be readily cherishable. So we decided to put the decision into the hands of the undertakers – literally: give them Nan’s teeth and let them decide.

So, there I was walking towards the undertakers, a small bag in hand carrying my grandmothers’ dentures. Maybe I was reflecting on the public/private dichotomy of false teeth. Maybe I was thinking about what to have for lunch. I don’t recall. I was simply in a normal place, in a normal mode of ‘getting on with life’.

I entered the funeral parlour. Those are the correct words for such a place, but they don’t carry the right connotation. ‘Funeral parlour’ summons up images of gloom, solemnity. Something faintly Victorian. Instead the room into which I stepped from the street was far more domestic in tone. It felt like a living room. It was quiet. And for a moment no one was there. Then a young woman appeared. She spoke slowly, in a manner designed to communicate a modern solemnity. She was young, but damn good at her job. As she spoke (and I have no recollection of the words she used to invoke her pleasantries) she created a calm, caring impression that melded with the design of the room. In my memory everything in that room was larger than you would normally find. I’m sure that is a distortion of my recollection. But as she talked I surrendered into the role of grieving relative. My flippant thoughts of Nan’s dentures and of category-confusion faded away. Via the young lady’s hushed intonations, I was invited to think of myself as someone who – on that day needed special care and attention, and as she spoke I surrendered into that.

I was invited to sit down on the sofa behind me. The young lady said she was going to take my package through to her colleagues and she needed me to stay for a moment. Again, I forget why. Maybe a receipt needed to be handed over.

But as I stooped to sit my body started to echo the surrender that was already working its way through my mind. My body committed itself to the support of the chair (as we do – without poetic thought – every time we choose to sit). And as my bum connected with the sofa the super-sized embrace of this cleverly chosen furniture kicked in. I could feel myself sinking into the upholstery, it wrapping its arms around me. It held and consumed me. It was the softest, biggest, deepest, most relaxing sofa I’ve ever sat in. And for a moment I felt truly cared for.

The moment passed, of course. The young lady returned. Perhaps she gave me a receipt. I leant forward and departed the sofa, stepping back into the street. No small bag in hand, but with a feeling of calm certitude.

I’m both impressed and shocked by this moment of calm surrender – and of the momentary power of the sofa and its circumstance over me. It was appropriate and helpful to be mesmerised in this way by the skilful setting of a place and a person – but in how so many other ways might artful interactional design create an atmosphere conducive to getting me to surrender so willingly and completely. Had a sales proposition been woven into that moment of surrender, I fear that I might have signed up to anything.   

Image credit: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/this-newark-2-seater-sofa-is-an-exdisplay-item-and-has-therefore-had-some-light-use-it-is-otherwise-in-fantasic-condition–441141725991797853/

The Invisible Ruins of Oil & Gas

“In the history of mankind the Industrial Revolution in Britain was a unique phenomenon whose repercussions have spread throughout the world. We live today in a society whose economy is essentially industrial, our prosperity is based on the fruits of industrial activity and our surroundings, both urban and rural, are largely the result of over two centuries of progressive industrialisation. Industrial archaeology is concerned largely with those surroundings. In simple terms it is the examination and analysis of the physical remains of the Industrial Revolution period.”

Neil Cossons (1975) The BP Book of Industrial Archeology, David & Charles: Newton Abbot, p.15

I have the BP Book of Industrial Archeology in my hands. It speaks of a different time, in at least two senses. It purports to speak of the Industrial Revolution of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century, but it also speaks of the time when the book itself was written. With its confident talk of ‘mankind’, the uniqueness of Britain’s industrialisation and of a faith in industrial progress it is alien to the sensibilities of the early Twenty-first century.

But what strikes me most is the book’s association with BP, as the oil industry garners less than two pages of consideration in the works’ 500 pages of industry-by-industry exemplification. At that coverage is largely confined to the working of shale-oil deposits in West Lothian in the late 1800s. Meanwhile gas is addressed only in relation to municipal processing of coal at local gas works. The rise of crude oil importation and processing is not considered part of the book’s story, it is too contemporary. And the North Sea oil field – at the time of the book’s writing – was yet to send any oil and gas ashore.

All history-writing is selective, and reflects the preoccupations of the era in which the history is written. Industrial archaeology emerged first as a hobbyist pastime in the 1950s, and then reached a peak of popularity in the late 1960s / early 1970s. David & Charles (the publishers) had a lucrative business in publishing accessible ‘laymans’ guides to fuel this ‘serious-hobby’. And meanwhile BP (and Shell) were keen to support (to fuel in a literal sense) this ambulant pastime. The book has gazetteer sections: it is nudging the reader to get out and explore (and to consume petrol in the process).

The last decade, or so, has seen a boom in oil-related books, and whilst most take the form of an angry indictment, some are more concerned to summon a curious lament or nostalgia, and here I’m thinking of Marriott & Mccalister 2021’s Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation (Pluto Press). Both types of book seek to spotlight a phenomenon that we have lived along-side but have paid little heed to: the petrochemical estate, its shaping impact upon the UK (and global) landscape and its strange ability to lie unseen, in plain sight. But Marriott & Mccalister’s book, and the road-trip around the vanished footprint of the UK’s oil and gas industry that it presents, is not all that can be said (or noticed) about the oil and gas industry and its legacy. And I guess that’s the point that Just Stop Oil would make – that their protest actions at art galleries are about forcing oil and gas back into consciousness.

But for me the punctum moment was stumbling upon the ruins of the Rhosgoch oil terminal on Anglesey. Opened in 1974 the terminal stored pumped crude from the then-supersized oil tankers that were too big to navigate down the Mersey to Shell’s Stanlow refinery. So until 1990 their oil was stored and pipped from this rural site. But the site was closed in 1990 and lay vacant for many years. When came upon it, I wandered in and found the footings of multiple large tanks, and orderly lanes between them. With all tanks and pipes long gone the effect was of a strange embossing – a rural landscape faintly indented with hints of a previous super-ordered arrangement of space. But the site was completely open, isolated and context-less.  

(I acknowledge – of course – that oil and gas installations leave behind legacies of soil and groundwater contamination which are a much less wistful residues of former industrial activity.)

Last year my conscience was niggling me – I was feeling that I needed to address my knowledge gap around oil and gas, having been engrossed watching the Norwegian drama series State of Happiness (about their North Sea Oil era). So, I set out to read books that would bring me up to speed with the shaping impact of the Twentieth century’s dominant fuel (oil and gas): the petrochemical century and its’ hiddenness. In part there was a desire to knit make sense of time passing – for in the 1990s and early 2000s I’d had some association with BP facilities in South Wales, including its refineries and large petrochemical complexes spread along the Severn estuary.

Those places, when visited in the 1990s had felt a bit tired and speaking of an earlier optimism via their faded 1960’s design. But in their solidity I had assumed them to be eternal. I had no clear sense of what these locations must have been like before oil came, or that these mammoth complexes, with their gantries, pipes and tanks, might ever cease to exist. And yet, as an environmental lawyer I’d been a very small part of the creeping de-industrialisation process that would in due course (after I can left South Wales) culminate in the elimination of these sites.

Marriott & Mccalister chronicle this passing surprising well. I say surprising for two reasons. First, because I initially found their book too complicated by their attempt to weave reference to references to songs into their narrative. Secondly, because I thought that I would get a deeper insight and understanding from less psychogeographically inclined works. But how wrong I was. The histories of the oil industry that I found and read were dull, dull, dull. A succession of competitive commercial rivalries, imperial misadventures and mergers. My family laughed and me when I told them that I’d found these books boring. “Well, obviously”, came their reply.

But this begs a question, what makes the story of (for example) coal something that can be culturally embraced as an epic story of local and national identity, but oil and gas slithers into the shadows getting little purchase on consciousness?

Marriott & Mccalister suggest that the Oil and Gas industry likes this ability to have hid in the shadows, and that has served it well, largely. All the odder then that BP chose to sponsor an industrial archaeology book in the 1975s – I suspect that there is little chance that it would choose to do so now.

Picture credit: The embossed ruins of the Rhosgoch oil terminal https://www.walesonline.co.uk/business/business-news/site-former-shell-depot-anglesey-8462664

“Creative Destruction” – announcing SHU Space & Place Group’s 2023 Theme – a call for contributions

‘The truth of the matter, as Marx sees, is that everything that bourgeois society builds is built to be torn down. “All that is solid”—from the clothes on our backs to the looms and mills that weave them, to the men and women who work the machines, to the houses and neighborhoods the workers live in, to the firms and corporations that exploit the workers, to the towns and cities and whole regions and even nations that embrace them all—all these are made to be broken tomorrow, smashed or shredded or pulverized or dissolved, so they can be recycled or replaced next week, and the whole process can go on again and again, hopefully forever, in ever more profitable forms. The pathos of all bourgeois monuments is that their material strength and solidity actually count for nothing and carry no weight at all, that they are blown away like frail reeds by the very forces of capitalist development that they celebrate. Even the most beautiful and impressive bourgeois buildings and public works are disposable, capitalized for fast depreciation and planned to be obsolete, closer in their social functions to tents and encampments than to “Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals”

Marshall Berman (1987) All that is Solid Melts into Air: The experience of modernity, London: Verso p.99

2022 was a pretty full-on year for the Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group. Somehow we managed stage seven workshop online events, three on our originally proposed theme of ‘Changing Places’ and a further four on the spin-off ‘Changing Campuses’ theme.

The Changing Campuses theme carries on into 2023 via a series of events which Jill Dickinson (now At University of Leeds) is leading with Sam Elkington (University of Teesside) for the Society for Research in Higher Education, on the theme of the future of learning landscapes.  The three hybrid sessions are 1) Assemblages (22-2-23); 2) Networks (26-4-23) and 3) Flexibilities (14-6-23). Full details are here: https://srhe.ac.uk/landscapes-of-learning-for-unknown-futures-prospects-for-space-in-higher-education/

Meanwhile, as a follow-on to the Changing Places theme the SHU SPG’s theme for 2023 will be ‘Creative Destruction’. This post is a call for proposals, in order to see how much interest there is in engaging with this theme, both within SHU and beyond. The level of interest will then shape how this year’s series of online events is pulled together. So, please send me (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) a proposal by 15 March 2023 if you would like to contribute, for this please provide a title, a paragraph setting out a summary of your project, idea etc and details of by when in 2023 you would be ready to present your contribution. 

At our online events (which are free to participate in) each contributor gets 15 minutes to give their presentation, followed by discussion. The focus in our events is on relaxed interdisciplinarity and on the creative power of juxtaposing “presentations that by rights wouldn’t normally appear in the same event, but when they do it gets you thinking”. In our 2022 sessions we hosted presenters from management studies, architecture, education, facilities management, tourism, creative writing, disability studies, film making, sports & leisure studies, criminology,  performance, graphic communication, law, museum studies, urban studies, jewellery design and social policy. 

Recordings of our themed sessions held over recent years are all available here: Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group – YouTube

Creative Destruction – a call for contributions

Growing out of 2022’s concern to examine through a variety of arts, humanities and social science lenses how places change, this year’s SHU SPG theme seeks to provoke an open (and playful) interpretation of the expression ‘creative destruction’. Perhaps there are four main sense that could be applied to this term:

  1. how the act of destruction has certain aesthetic potentiality (i.e. can be used as a creative resource or object)
  2. how the act of creativity necessarily often requires an (underacknowledged) element of destruction, elimination or subtraction (i.e. you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs)
  3. how an urge to destroy-in-order-to-replace (i.e. to create the new) underpins capitalism and its urban processes
  4. how the entropy in all things cannot be resisted, but can be curated (e.g. DeSilvey’s ‘palliative curation’ of ruins).

Through our call we seek contributions from any discipline that can speak to any of the above (or add new interpretations of the phrase). The only requirement is that the contribution either directly or indirectly applies to the built environment. An indirect contribution could be a presentation concerned (for example) with sculpture as a subtraction process, if the presenter was happy to allow an onward discussion to consider how the act of stone sculpture could be likened to urban subtraction processes. In other words: bring us the stimulus and then we’ll see where it can head onward to.

In disciplinary terms ‘creative destruction’ has a clear meaning in Marxist economics – in its theorisation of capitalism’s destruction drive in the quest for the constant production of new surplus value. Meanwhile in the arts, as expressed by anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin in 1842, “the urge to destroy is a creative passion”. But destruction is more than just catharsis: destruction-based artworks embody a conundrum in that through subtraction, inflicted damage or disassembly the resulting / remaining item is rendered more noticeable, more noteworthy. Thus, destruction creates poignancy for a residual object (and/or memory of the moment of destruction). Meanwhile in the gritty realm of the prosaic, cities shrink through urban editing (de-densification) and buildings a subtracted through the industrial arts of demolition.

Our 2023 theme seeks to develop a conversation about creative destruction, editing-down, subtraction and disassembly that stretches productively across scales, domains and objectives to help inform consideration of creative destruction within urban change processes.

Image Credit: Sculptor Matthew Simmonds, https://www.yellowtrace.com.au/matthew-simmonds-architectural-marble-carvings/

Towards the within: a hospital psychogeography

“Browse a bookstore’s philosophy section and you will find hefty tomes devoted to the analysis of single concepts such as friendship, authenticity, guilt, power, morality, freedom, and evil. Scholars wrestle with the precise meaning of these concepts because they are inherently abstract. Unlike concepts that refer to categories of things that we experience with our sense, these concepts lack a concrete referent existing in the world outside ourselves.”

Landau, Robinson & Meier (2014) The Power of Metaphor: Examining its influence on social life. American Psychological Association: Washington DC, p. 3

Like intestines, UK hospital estates are a characteristic cramming together of a variety of eras, sizes and functions of buildings. Navigation through, along, between and into such an assortment of functional elements is a feat of achievement in and of itself. It calls for a unique culture of wayfinding instruction (by the institution) and active, ambulatory interpretation (by the visitor). What follows is an attempted psychogeographical account of one such navigation.

The hospital’s outer car park is quite a way from the destination, but it is convenient, familiar open space. It lacks that squeezed-in aspect of more proximate, characteristically inserted-feeling, hospital parking sites.

It is a cold, frosty morning. To get to my destination I must navigate the contorted labyrinth of paths, roads and buildings that make up this estate, its vital organs and its interwoven passages and dead-ends.

In leaving the bright, winter sunshine of the car park I must first enter and squeeze through the dark narrow lane that runs between the secure psychiatric ward and a high bank. The windows are bulbous at their base, their protruding metal caging preventing escape of the ward’s content, but allowing moments of controlled ventilation,

Next, I emerge onto a slippery path, set on a gentle (but today perilous-feeling) incline. The passageways have been carefully prepared over night with specialist salts in anticipation of my tentative passage. These surfaces are notably clear-looking and the crystals glisten in the early morning sunlight, reflected and magnified in the adjacent window screens.

Indeed, touring this estate is a constant dialogue with the myriad surfaces, screens and cameras that mediate this journey, by turns offering-up images of far away and (very) close at hand.

I step down into Central Lane. I turn South but soon find myself in a waste storage compound. Here, everything appears to have its place. There are laundry bays, clinical waste bays and a variety of refuse trolleys. But there are no people and no doors through which I think am invited (or permitted) to pass. So, I reverse from this dead end and head North, up the long straight channel of this service lane. To my left the otherwise smooth banking has been recently excavated. Mini-diggers sit abandoned there and fluffy brown earth billows out of the ground. This fibrous outbreak unmasks the two-dimensional appearance of this bank – reminding me that the bank has depth, substance beneath the surface that enables the surface to stay so, stable, taut, smooth and unremarkable-seeming.

Meanwhile to my right I’m passing endless apertures of workshops and stores, their windows and doors acting hour-by-hour as membranes receiving and emitting supplies and services vital to the life of this hospital-organism. And still I have seen no people.

Reaching the end of Central Lane, I’m conscious that I’ve now spent many minutes walking in the opposite direction to my destination. But there have been no opportunities to enter the hospital complex through these walls. So, I feel somewhat relieved when I at last reach a sharp bend, which will finally enable me to turn South. But the bend is awkward, and requires me to contort my body and step out into the road. Here I must suddenly make sense of the road markings that seem to invite me to walk amongst the traffic. The clarity of Central Lane’s singular routing has given way to shapelessness and uncertainly. As a clarification of sorts, a sudden blast of cold, sharp air hits flaccid flesh, causing my face to wince.

Ahead of me a delivery lorry is parked perpendicular to the pavement, jutting out into the road. A yellow box painted onto the road shows me that it undertakes this awkward insertion on a regular basis. Through the evolution of this estate this kink in the route has become normalised, accommodating to the growing-over-time functional needs of the blank building into which it is now a necessary daily attachment. To move forwards I must step blindly out into the opposite carriage, and hoping to find nothing speeding towards me.

Time is now marching on, the deviation of my journey has eaten away at what I had though was adequate journey time. I am now breathing heavily. My heart is starting to pound as anxiety starts to mount. What else lies unexpectedly ahead? How much longer is this going to take? This site’s internal anatomy is not what I was expecting. Things looked more simple on the estate plan that I’d casually glanced at before setting out (and which I now wish I’d studied more intently).

I pick up the pace. I only have 10 minutes left now. I hug the edge of cluster of new buildings which look like the Westward turning point I’m seeking to transpose the required route from the map onto this terrain. (With time now tight I have abandoned my improvisational drift, and I am now surrendered to my phone’s map). But in self-admonishment – noting the mistaken fit between the cluster and the map – I chide myself that “the map is not the territory”.

Hastening towards my destination I finally find the entrance to the cluster of buildings which will deliver me to my destination. Upon entering I am reunited with the realm of people – all moving at notably slower pace than my now running-out-of-time stride. I chide myself again: “be grateful that you can move swiftly still, these folk are not choosing to be slow or uncertain in their movement”.

Once inside a new form of disorientation takes over. I now have to work in three dimensions: to find the right level and direction of travel. I get it wrong at first try and hurtle up, and then back down a flight of stairs. I passed through doors that lead onward to other doors, and pass through rooms within rooms (each seemingly smaller than the last). Generally, I’m passing further and further inside, but occasionally a corridor spits me out into gaps between buildings, a third space of exterior interior (courtyards of sorts).

Then with one further turn I finally reach my destination: Caecum House. And the procedure is completed.

Image Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Central_Lane,_Northern_General_Hospital,_Sheffield_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1078902.jpg

Riding out the catastrophe: reflections from SHU SPG’s ‘Changing Places #3: Sport & physical activity in catastrophic environments’ session, 3-11-22

“There is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present where there should be something”

Mark Fisher (2016) The Weird & The Eerie, p61.

Last night we held the final online session in Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place group’s ‘Changing Places’ series. The event took the form of an online book launch for the exciting and timely new collection, Sport and Physical Activity in Catastrophic Environments, edited by Jim Cherrington and Jack Black (Routledge, 2022). Featuring contributions from around the world, this collection looks at the ways in which sport and physical activity react to natural and man-made shocks to place, whether by armed conflict, natural disaster or socio-economic turmoil.

The event featured the following presentations:

Jim Cherrington and Jack Black (Sheffield Hallam University)

Sport and Physical Activity in Catastrophic Environments: Tuning to the ‘weird’ and the ‘eerie’

Dani Abulhawa (Leeds University)

Moving toward understanding through open and expressive physical activity: Findings from a preliminary study into the work of Skateboarding charity, SkatePal in the West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories

Kevin Bingham (Barnsley College)

An urban explorer’s experiences of meshwork, melding and the uncanny: invisible cities of the rubble

Kass Gibson (Plymouth Marjons University)

Informational Hazards and Moral Harm: Sport and Exercise Science Laboratories as Sites of Moral Catastrophes

Here’s the recording of the session, and my reflections on the event follow.

Jim and Jack opened the event by outlining their conceptualisation of ‘catastrophe’. They see catastrophe as more fundamental than disasters (which can be anticipated, and to an extent planned for). A catastrophe is a circumstance of rupture where we come to feel torn from familiar notions of being, doing, belonging and inhabiting. It engenders a feeling of ‘end times’ and forces us to acclimatise to a new, unsettling, environment and context. A catastrophe puts us in place where it is hard to dwell, and yet we still must strive to live there. So, we learn how to normalise the abnormal, whether that’s the climate emergency, war, socio-economic turmoil etc. In the face of catastrophe, we witness the end of what we were previously able to take as stable, familiar and grounding.

So (they then provocatively ask) what role does sport and physical activity play within these changed places and contexts of dwelling? It seems incongruous to ask: surely sport is for ‘the good times’? But being so deeply ‘of the body’, physical activity conducted within the context and environs of catastrophe melds two things: that heightened phenomenological sense of being alive that exercise can summon and that empirical confrontation with unsettled contexts and environments. In short, exercise and confrontation of catastrophe, both require physically and cognitive exertion in order to accommodate to altered capacities of body and place.

Now, that formula (which is my extrapolation from Jim and Jack’s comments, and they may not like the direction I’m taking this) sets up opportunity for their contributors to explore the presence and actions of moving, adaptive bodies and minds within catastrophic places. Thus, Dani Abulhawa introduced us to the role of skateboarding projects in the West Bank, and specifically of how the act of learning to skate instils a sense of agency, growth, accomplishment and resilience in the individual skater, and also summons that communally via the shared experience of developing these community projects. Meanwhile in his account of his urbex forays into post-earthquake Christchurch’s ruination, Kevin Bingham used Italo Calvino’s motif of ‘Invisible Cities’ to suggest how this destroyed cityscape offered up a site of open-reading, such that this was (but also no-longer was) New Zealand. Instead, the city had become a distorted (and or distortable) place in which (in his words) “our maps and memories are deceiving us”. Kevin detailed his body’s lines of flight, contortion and accommodation to new logics of movement across the rubble where “we were spared the boredom of following the building in the usual way” but instead had to invent your own path of movement across denatured streets and ruptured buildings. And as with movement, so with meaning-making – in this invisible city Kevin would forge new – personalised – frameworks for his aesthetic consumption of this terrain. Kevin is unapologetic about this appropriation of place, and tantalising holds together the eager to explain theoretical realm of his academic training and the reticence of the urbexer’s experiential consumption logics of ‘it is what it is, I do what I do, because I do it’ (that’s not a quote from Kevin). In his account Christchurch was an open-form playscape, evacuated of other humans. But he conceded in the Q&A that not everyone liked that he and his crew had come to the city to play (my word, not his). So, it was interesting that the final presenter, Kass Gibson, then placed moral considerations front and centre of his talk, examining fitness laboratories as sites of moral catastrophy and of how the origins of such lab’s measured and evaluated physical activity lie in the control sciences of prison regimes, military training, time and motion studies etc. In presenting this analysis, Kass presented the body as a changing place and a site of trauma, invoking the haunting title of Jean-Marie Brohm’s 1978 collection of essays: ‘Sport: a prison of measured time’.

Jim and Jack’s book is published on 8 November 2022, and this discount code FLA22 (or FLA23 in 2023) can be used for purchase at Routledge’s site: https://www.routledge.com/Sport-and-Physical-Activity-in-Catastrophic-Environments/Cherrington-Black/p/book/9781032125411

Image Credit: Kevin Bingham

SHU Space & Place Group: ‘Changing Places #3: Sport & physical activity in catastrophic environments’, online event, 3-11-22

The Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group is delighted to announce that for the next event in our ‘Changing Places’ series we are hosting an online book launch for an exciting and timely new collection edited by Jim Cherrington and Jack Black, entitled Sport and Physical Activity in Catastrophic Environments as part of Routledge’s ‘Research in Sport, Culture and Society’ series. Featuring contributions from around the world, this collection looks at the ways in which sport and physical activity react to natural and man-made shocks to place, whether by armed conflict, natural disaster or socio-economic turmoil. Our online book launch event will feature presentations from the editors and three of the contributors:

Jim Cherrington and Jack Black (Sheffield Hallam University)

Introduction. Sport and Physical Activity in Catastrophic Environments: Tuning to the ‘weird’ and the ‘eerie’

Dani Abulhawa (Leeds University)

Moving toward understanding through open and expressive physical activity: Findings from a preliminary study into the work of Skateboarding charity, SkatePal in the West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories

Kevin Bingham (Barnsley College)

An urban explorer’s experiences of meshwork, melding and the uncanny: invisible cities of the rubble

Kass Gibson (Plymouth Marjons University)

Informational Hazards and Moral Harm: Sport and Exercise Science Laboratories as Sites of Moral Catastrophes

Places are free, but must be booked via Eventbrite (see below for the link). Registered delegates will be emailed the event’s Zoom link 24 hours prior to the start of the event.

This edited collection addresses a clear gap in the literature, as to date, there is a paucity of scholarly research that directly examines the role of sport and physical activity in the experiences of individuals and communities who have lived through catastrophe (Thorpe, 2015). This is surprising, since the ability of individuals and communities to maintain healthy relationships with their surroundings– most notably, before, during and after catastrophe – is an important point of focus, posing a number of significant questions for sport and physical activity researchers (Rowe, 2020). Namely: What happens when our existing geographical, topographical, sociological and political coordinates are shattered because of war or poverty? How can sport and exercise help us to cope when faced with unprecedented levels of planetary change? Can, and if so how, does life go on in the wastelands left over from resource extraction, industrialisation and economic decay? And what are the consequences of global pandemics for the (physical and mental) health of those whose everyday activities, hobbies, interests and forms of labour are dependent on stable notions of identity, embodiment and place? Here, sport and physical activity may seem trivial to many. However, research on the recent Covid-19 pandemic has shown how involvement in physical cultures provides an important locus of support in times of hardship and pain, as well as an important mechanism for managing the embodied, cognitive, and structural ruptures that accompany unprecedented events.

In attempting to address this lacuna, this session will present a series of case studies from an edited collection entitled: ‘Sport and Physical Activity in Catastrophic Environments’, which will be published by Routledge on November 8th 2022. Key to this approach will be an investigation of both the negative (i.e. death, mental and physical health issues, human displacement) and positive (new social and political identities, increase in environmental awareness, personal growth) outcomes of a range of socio-cultural and political changes, specifically related to the ‘end’ of capitalism, socialisation, ‘nature’ and morality. By allowing for interdisciplinary contributions that are located at the juncture of sociology, geography, social psychology, political ecology, philosophy, and the arts, an analysis of how participants in sport and physical activity respond to the complexities of the environment will be provided. In so doing, the sessions will explore the cognitive and affective sensibilities used by both individuals and communities to experiment with new social, cultural and political identities as well as how these processes are adapted in times of chaos. In this way, we hope that the session will make a meaningful contribution to empirical analyses of sport, physical activity, and the environment, while also examining how such analyses might help in developing practical resilience strategies for those most affected by catastrophic change.

Copies of this book can be purchased directly from the Routledge website: https://www.routledge.com/Sport-and-Physical-Activity-in-Catastrophic-Environments/Cherrington-Black/p/book/9781032125411

Attendance is free – but you’ll need to book via the Eventbrite page:

Come On In!: Calling all legal geographers, place management scholars and spatio-normativity researchers! The Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law is in a listening mood…

“…to examine this background assumption, to consider the idea that law does not stop at the
utterance, but continues on through causal chains into the world of stuff. Actually, it was never
anywhere else. The violence that law authorizes or blocks happens on bodies and elsewhere in the
material world. This is not separable from law, nor are these simply ‘effects’.”

David Delaney (2003) ‘Beyond the word: law as a thing of this world’. In: Holder, J. and Harrison, C. E. (eds) Law and Geography. OUP: Oxford, pp. 67–84.

Anyone who’s read my work will know that I’m a lawyer-cum-geographer-cum-artsy kind of guy. I’m interested in that point where law as words and symbols collides with the physicality of the world around us, and how we take as natural many of these quite strange collision effects. But these collisions are necessary, important and they make fundamentally important regularities in the world, they form territories, they instruct us in how to move within and to co-inhabit our worlds. And its always struck me as odd that there is no academic journal targeted towards analysing these materialisations of law in (and into) the world, and how (formal and informal) rule frameworks form, subsist and fade for the spaces and places that we dwell in.

So, I’m very pleased to now announce that earlier this year I was appointed editor-in-chief of the established Emerald Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law. Admittedly that’s not the sexiest sounding journal title on the planet, but within the cover of that rather bland tagline, there’s great scope for the journal to become a home and heartland for investigation of the ‘rules’ of space and place.

Here’s the Journal’s recently refreshed Scope and Aims statement (featuring my editorial steer in bold) and an indication of the range (and scales) of studies that the journal has published in recent years from around the world:

The Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law publishes original legal research contributions for the benefit of scholars, policy makers and practitioners in these areas, including those operating in the fields of legal practice, real estate, place management, housing, environmental regulation and land use planning. It is an established, well-regarded journal; international in scope and with a commitment to comparative legal studies, the journal publishes scholarly legal articles dealing with the application of law in these areas as well as theoretical and policy orientated research. We are happy to accept articles taking a doctrinal approach as well as those engaging with empirical and socio-legal research.

JPPEL brings together scholarship from the inter-related areas of property, planning and environmental law, as well as a diversity of methodological approaches. The journal seeks to encourage new, interdisciplinary ways of examining how law (in its widest sense) shapes how places and spaces are conceived, made, used, owned, operated, managed, transacted, changed, harmed and/or eliminated. We are particularly keen to encourage contributions from fields such as legal geography, regulatory studies, political ecology and law & technology scholarship that explore the role of law in place-related matters.

To give an illustration of the breadth and importance of the subjects that we cover, here are some of the themes that our published articles have examined over the last three years:

  • Situating real estate law for the new outer-space economy
  • Transitioning towards circular systems: property rights in waste
  • Blockchain technology in Dutch land registration
  • The law and policy on coastal damage in New South Wales, Australia
  • Regulatory failure in hotel projects in Bali, Indonesia
  • Land expropriation in China
  • Legal frameworks for Syrian urban reconstruction
  • Developments in the law of repair in the UK private sector
  • Civil liability for nuclear operators in the United Arab Emirates
  • Logics of value in community ownership of UK pubs

We currently have an open Call for Papers, and are also open to proposals for special issues that align to the Journal’s Scope and Aims.

We also have a current specific Call for Papers (closing for submission on 21st February 2023) for a special issue to be guest edited by Dr Rebecca Leshinsky of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia on ‘Sharing sky high stories – A narrative research approach addressing the law of concerns, complaints, and conflict in multi-unit residential developments‘, here’s the text of that Call:

Sharing sky high stories is a special issue for the Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law. It supports a narrative research approach addressing the law of concerns, complaints, and conflict in multi-unit residential developments. 

Land use planning and environmental studies have a long tradition with the rich information that can be gathered from narrative research. This may be through interviews, focus groups or factual discussion from court judgements. Multi-unit residential development, be it private condominium or government/community housing, comprises of concerns, complaints, and conflict. Behind these matters are narratives involving humans as lot owners, renters, committee/board members, service providers, property/strata managers and other stakeholders. Dagan (2008, 814) reminds us there is no inherent or inevitable content to property law. We argue that the time is ripe for narrative research to play a role in gaining knowledge on the lived experiences of multi-unit stakeholders. Carruthers et al. (2021), regarding their research into the pedagogy of property law teaching, note findings from their longitudinal study that some teachers want a more critical socio-legal approach to property law, rather than strict doctrinal teaching. Sherry (2021) comments that land law contains social, economic, and political values that are obvious to legal and property theorists. These are values well known to judges but the time-pressures of modern justice limits the ability of judges to “explicate those values in their decisions”. In turn, lawyers cannot see the underlying social, economic or political rationale in property case law or doctrine (Sherry 2021). The rationale then for this special issue is to align narrative research in the legal context of property, planning and environmental matters as they relate to multi-unit residential developments. Knowledge from a legal lens on multi-unit developments, from the narratives, and stories of stakeholders, will add a richer understanding regarding the lived experiences of residents and stakeholders associated with multi-unit residential developments.”

Further details of the journal and our Calls are here: https://www.emeraldgrouppublishing.com/journal/jppel

Images references: The Author, Sheffield UK (2022)

Following old leads: exploring the cable-mountain, and why I can’t throw mine away

“Today we have made the common charger a reality in Europe! European consumers were frustrated long with multiple chargers piling up with every new device. Now they will be able to use a single charger for all their portable electronics. We are proud that laptops, e-readers, earbuds, keyboards, computer mice, and portable navigation devices are also included in addition to smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld videogame consoles and portable speakers. We have also added provisions on wireless charging being the next evolution in the charging technology and improved information and labelling for consumers”.

Alex Agius Saliba, European Parliament Rapporteur (European Parliament News, 2022)

The summer starts with a provocation in June: “You need to get rid of all of those cables”.

July then brings the above birthday card and its accusatory meme.

August then brings annual leave and a negotiated list of jobs to be done. Clearing out the cables is item 4.

I ruminate. I clear out other stuff, but can’t bring myself to tacking the cable mountain. I ponder the reasons for this.

  1. Throwing these items away is a waste of rubber and copper.

The residue of illicit cable stripping or burning occasionally stumbled upon in dog walks reminds me of the value inherent within cabling, if sufficient metallic mass can be gathered together. My cables would not produce enough bounty to attract a scrap dealer. But this argument for inaction has become shaky. There’s a recycling site in my city that takes domestic cables, and sends them for reprocessing. So, Reason 1 is becoming untenable.

  1. I might need them

Here we touch on something primal. Being a competent adult is about being able to solve things, and to have the right tools for the job. In the recent BBC drama series Marriage, the husband of the couple (played by Sean Bean) is a shuffling, somewhat emasculated figure. He is unemployed, slightly lost in the world, and presented to the audience as largely impotent in his interactions. But there’s scene in Episode 2 where the family home’s router is playing up, causing major productivity challenges for his more in-the-world and active wife. He is called upon to fix the problem. He shuffles into his hallway and opens the door below his stairs and reaches in. He pulls out a plastic basket, full of cables. It is clear that this is his solutions store. He finds and fits a replacement cable. The router starts working again. His wife is relieved, and appreciative of the arcane magic that he has just performed. The cable basket returns to its under the stairs lair. The husband’s cable-hoard has proven its worth. It has also vanquished threats to its existence; for a while there will be no talk of the useless, tangled nest of electric string. The husband seems less emasculated for the remainder of the episode. There is a subtle air of competence to his shuffling.

  1. Throwing out a lead is a very final step

Sharing our lives with an ever-changing array of electronic equipment has empowered us but it has also shackled us. We are (or at least need to be) tethered to our devices, and their cables are those essential umbilical cords that feed power and data to our electric friends. To throw away cables is to alienate yourself from previous devices, to abandon the prospect of rebooting that outsourced memory unit from 10, 15, 20 years ago. It is a decision to kill, because it is a decision to not just unplug life-support but rather to pull the plug on a machine in suspended animation, to renounce its possibility of resurrection. Yes, I know that most of these devices will never be reactivated (giving little – if any – resumed companionship or glimpse-of-the-past if they were lead back to life). But the decision to thrown away a proprietary charger is a death knell, and thus a decision easier to defer indefinitely.

  1. Each lead is a talisman, acquired via a quest

With the power to breathe life back into a device, the humble charge or data lead takes on the demeanour of a key or talisman. Only the correct lead will reanimate the device, and finding the correct lead has quest-like properties. The unboxing of the newly purchased device will have been the first glimpse of the devices lead-key. The view of that element will have been unremarkable, but essential. The first act (the act of digital birth) is to power up and/or connect the device. And then in later life of that device there will perhaps have been a moment when a replacement lead was needed – triggering and online or on-the-high-street search for a replicant. The box of leads is the end stage of this questing – and in the pile is invested the effort and urgencies of the circumstances in which each lead was originally acquired. That each once had to be urgently hunted and recruited into essential projects of machine-interaction, has left a resonance within this pile. The cable-pile is a the trophy mound of former questing: this stuff was once so very important, and that residue remains, like the smouldering embers of a once-roaring open fire.

  1. The cable-pile is a material history of our industrial revolution

Azhar (2021) reminds us that the act of living through an industrial revolution looks very different to the contemporary participants than it does to historians looking back at it from a critical distance. To live through an Industrial Revolution is to live in a state of constant adaptation, and to habituate to that. To live through an Industrial Revolution is to be in the state of the slowly boiled frog – it takes effort to notice how far you (and your society) has travelled over recent years. The change is incremental, but adding those increments together leads to a big gap between the world and ways of ‘then’ and ‘now’. We can only cast off our acclimatisation – and notice change, by pausing to consider the accumulated, materialised debris of earlier increments; totems that mark out steps along the way and remind us of our journey. Old leads serve this function. Azhar also points out that a hallmark of our technological progression is a move towards interoperability. He illustrates this with text messaging on mobile phones – originally messages could only be sent within (rather than between) each provider’s network. The ability to send messages between networks was mandated by legislation and licensing. The cable-mound speaks of something similar: the oldest leads are fully proprietary – they are designed only to work with one originating device. The direction of travel has been towards common standards for cable design: USB mini, the micro, then ‘C’. In the case of mobile phones by 2009 there were 30 different chargers, but now most phones charge with one of three leads (USB micro, USB ‘C’ or Lightning). Already we see some devices being sold without cables, the expectation being that every household already has an ample supply of generic USB cables of the right type.

As Criddle (2021) notes the European Commission’s research estimates that disposed of and unused charging cables generate more than 11,000 tonnes of waste per year. As indicated by the epigram, there is now pressure for interoperability of cabling, with the European Parilament pressing for EU-wide legislation to mandate that all new mobile phones, tablets and cameras must only be designed to be powered and data-fed by a USB C cable, by 2024. Apple is presently fighting to preserve the existence of its proprietary ‘Firewire’ cable, but it seems only a matter of time before iPads and iPhones must themselves submit to the ubiquity of the USB C cable.

One day all leads will be USB C leads. One day I will throw away all of my other leads. But for now, I prefer to ruminate, rather than to eradicate.


Azhar, Azeem (2021) Exponential: Order and Chaos in an Age of Accelerating Technology Penguin.

Criddle, Cristina (2021) ‘EU rules to force USB-C chargers for all phones’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-58665809, 23-9-22

European Parliament News (2022) ‘Deal on common charger: reducing hassle for consumers and curbing e-waste’, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20220603IPR32196/deal-on-common-charger-reducing-hassle-for-consumers-and-curbing-e-waste, 7-6-22