Approaching the painted cannons of Lisboa

“As I concentrated on these forms in the middle of apartment buildings, in courtyards, and in public squares, I felt as though a subterranean civilisation had sprung up from the ground.”

Paul Virilio (1994) Bunker Archeology(Princeton Architectural Press, Princeton, NY), P.12

This blog is an attempt to come to terms with painted cannons. A recent trip to a conference in Portugal brought me into a series of encounters with four former coast artillery emplacements, their bunkers and their painted guns. The details of these places and their roles in guarding the approaches to the harbours of Lisbon and Setúbal as part of the mid Twentieth Century ‘Plan Barron’ will remain to be substantively addressed on another occasion.

What I want to unpack today is more universal, more phenomenological. I want to make sense of my serial encounter with ‘big guns’ across the four sites, that each (but differently) emphasised to me the role of paint in the present manifestations of these structures.

We will start this meditation on paint and coastal artillery with a painted picture of a cannon: John Minton’s (1953) Portuguese Cannon, Mazagan, Morocco, painted in 1953.

Portuguese Cannon, Mazagan, Morocco 1953 John Minton 1917-1957 Presented by the Royal College of Art in memory of the artist 1957 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00159

Looking closely at the barrel of the cannon we see the patina, and this is an effect created with paint. But we see it (and the broken gun carriage) and we think of rust, decay, disempowerment. In the Tate (n.d.) commentator’s view we see Minton signalling (and materialising) the stretched-across-time (and now aged) effects of colonisation (the fortress dates from shortly after the Portuguese invaded the area in 1502).

Here then we have two intertwined meaning-making processes: the symbolic potency of cannon (what they may stand for) and the physical fact and form of cannon and their not-quite-as stable-as-we-think presence over time materiality.

In launching its ‘Save our Cannon’ campaign in 2018 English Heritage drew together these two aspects, asserting the heritage-value of coastal cannon as “precious objects, vital alongside our castles and fortifications in telling the story of England as an island nation” (English Heritage, 2018) and then raising the spectre of the material vulnerability of these sturdy-seeming structures, for “coastal guns are regularly battered by strong winds blowing corrosive moisture and salt spray over then which means that, untreated, they can corrode 20 times faster than those just a mile or so inland.” (English Heritage, 2018).

Big guns (and cannon in particular) are a quiet but ubiquitous feature of heritage sites. Sometimes the guns are survivals from the site’s former defensive purpose, at other times they are interposed. Think for example of cannon encountered at stately homes which speak to former owners’ colonial campaigns ‘abroad’ rather than the original defence of the cannon’s new-found home.

And in other modes cannon become appropriated as a surface to be written upon, a scribble pad to articulate new (and sometimes fleeting) meanings. Take for example the 1797 naval cannon in given Tufts University in 1956 and which since the era of the Vietnam war has been a beacon of ‘multilayered meaning’ (Ferguson 2018). As a focal point for anti-war protest the cannon was removed from display between in the mid 1960s. It was reinstated in 1977 following a campaign by alumni, but then painted by a protestor opposing the conferral of an honorary degree upon Imelda Marcos. Almost immediately it was repainted by counter-protestors. Thereafter it became a canvass for successive paintings, accruing over 1,000 coats of paint. A recent stripping of the accumulated paint players took contractors six weeks to accomplish, as they closely worked through the layers, hacking off chunks of multicolour paint, some of which ended up in the hands of the University’s art collections registrar, Laura C. McDonald: “we’re object people – we love objects – and we were amazed that, through the simple act of repeatedly painting an object over and over, the paint had become an object, with a top and bottom, cross-sections and colors. It was something you just wanted to look at and hold” (Ferguson, 2018).

Restoring the Tufts Cannon

Ferguson’s account of the refurbishment work suggests broad support not just for the stripping away of the paint layers – but also for the iterative work that the successive paintings represented. However, she also points to the guarding necessary to preserve one iteration of the paint scheme (for example, on the eve of a sporting event). As one defender put it: “we organized guarding shifts in an Excel spreadsheet, and divvied up blankets, sleeping bags, snacks, hot cocoa…several groups tried to either bribe or non-maliciously attack us, but we fended them off. You might think painting the cannon is easy, but nothing about the cannon is that simple”. (Ferguson, 2018).

And in other recent instance of US cannon-contestation a homeless man was seemingly paid by a protester to deface a Civil War era cannon in Mobile, Alabama that had been painted in rainbow hues in celebration of Pride month, with the blessing of the city officials. The protestor’s colour of choice was black paint: perhaps seeking to restore the cannon to its original military colour scheme (Mobile Real Time News, 2022).

(The Mobile Pride Cannon: John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

Cannons then can become a canvass onto which both symbolic notions of identity are projected and enacted with paint. They are also chunky metal objects which have strange sculpture-like, phenomenological qualities.

My recent encounters with Twentieth century cannon around Lisbon brought me to extant gun emplacements in various states of abandonment (and not always ruination). At some sites the emplacements were in near pristine condition (despite having been decommissioned from military service in the 1990s) – due to still being on sites under the care and maintenance of veterans (or the military itself) elsewhere the guns had become blank canvasses for colourful graffiti. But at each site paint was at work, either holding these guns in their original mode, or distorting their form and purpose far away from military uses.

It would be easy to ascribe an anti-military purpose to the graffiti-covered state of guns at other, unguarded, sites – but very little of the paint added to these structures was a commentary upon what the guns had been (or arguably still were). Graffiti of unattended flat surfaces in the Lisbon area seems to be a fairly ubiquitous thing – this graffiti was no more a protest against militarism than an equivalent image painted at the rear of a supermarket should be taken as a critique of consumer capitalism. And there was nothing final (and everything provisional) about these continually overlain and overpainted graffiti at these unguarded sites.

If this painting was an instance of what Giorgio Agamben (2006) has called ‘profanation’ then it is an example of how the effect of profanation (moving something out of a cherished and foregrounded state into something more prosaic and unremarkable) is not dependent upon a particular motive to bring that about. Instead, the profanation can simply be the side-effect of a new use having been found for the thing, its place and/or its surfaces. Indeed, only one graffiti image seemed to directly engage with form of the gun (below) all other graffiti ignored the three-dimensional form of the gun emplacement, treating the surfaces instead opportunistically, and simplistically, as flat ‘canvasses’.

Meanwhile, at the ‘pristine’ emplacements the fresh-looking, super-thick and uniform grey-green paint communicated order and a timelessness: provided this paint continues to be applied this scrupulously, this gun will remain ‘as-is’ (with the clarity of its ‘gun’ identity unfettered) forever.

But in either case the clue to these gun emplacements’ survival is the paint. Without regular painting and overpainting by either crew (the military or the graffiti brigade) these structures would succumb to entropy, especially in salty, coastal air.

I hear talk of unease in the heritage sector about the fetishization of bladed weapons within similar presentations of ‘our’ island story. But this press release (and its connected campaign) suggests no squeamishness about coast artillery. In part perhaps this reflects the ‘defensive’ nature of that type of gun fortification, but the outbreak of a new artillery-based war in eastern Ukraine makes in harder to unquestioningly ‘love your local cannon’.

And yet, once again, I find the phenomenological taking over. I’m tumbled back to visceral recollections of childhood: of super-thick paint on myriad tanks, planes and warships presented to me as places of curious encounter and clambering during ‘Open Days’; of the chipped paint of the sea mine sitting innocently as a tourist ‘attraction’ on the seafront promenade; and of the feverish dreams of the anticipatory child the night before a visit to Salisbury Plane to clamber into the wrecked hulks of exploded tanks. It is the overwhelming impression of being inside a machine, of metal wrought into shapes and sizes larger than any everyday from and encounter: these were the strongest impressions stirred by my trips around the Portuguese gun emplacements.

In short, the mere presence of a gun signals something. But what that thing is seems to be somewhat elusive (or at least multitudinous). A cannon can summon an impression of the past. Or it can be a less certain phenomenological object – something large, unusual, and distorting expectations of local sound and temperature (think the sounds of struck cannon, and of the colder (or hotter) surfaces of the cannon than of its surroundings).

Cannons sit in a family of objects that register in multiple ways, and this is why I can’t make up my mind about my encounters with these Portuguese guns. Should I approach them as strange, alien objects that leave the mind and body to ponder metaphorically. Or should I situate them squarely in in a context – read them as materialisations of militarism and celebrate their decline (or survival) accordingly?

References

Agamben, Giorgio (2006) Profanations. New York: Zone Books. (trans Jeff Fort).

English Heritage (2018) ‘Save our Cannons’ https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about-us/search-news/save-our-cannons/ (press release, 29-3-2018)

Ferguson, Laura (2018) ‘A Thousand coats of paint: Restoring the Tufts cannon’, Tufts Now: https://now.tufts.edu/2018/09/05/thousand-coats-paint

Mobile Real Time News (2022) ‘Rainbow Pride paint scheme defaced on Mobile’s landmark cannon’ Alabama.com https://www.al.com/news/mobile/2022/06/rainbow-pride-paint-scheme-defaced-on-mobiles-landmark-cannon.html

Tate (n.d.) John Minton – Portuguese Cannon, Mazagan, Morocco (1953) – https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/minton-portuguese-cannon-mazagan-morocco-t00159

Reflections on The Changing Campus #3 and #4: beyond the Multiverse?

“The ‘Idea of a University’ was a village with its priests. the ‘Idea of a Modern University’ was a town – a one-industry town – with its intellectual oligarchy. The ‘Idea of a Multiversity’ is a city of infinite variety. Some get lost in the city; some rise to the top within it; most fashion their lives within one of its many subcultures. There is less sense of community than in the village but also less sense of confinement. There is less sense of purpose than within a town but there are more ways to excel. There are also more refuges of anonymity.”

Clark Kerr (1963) The Uses of the University, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, p.41.

Writing over 50 years ago Clark Kerr’s nested (Village – Town – City) analogy for the evolution of the University as a place, and as an experience, seems at first glance quite modern (in the sense of contemporary). But thinking about it further it’s actually more Modern in the sense of a now-strange-to-us embrace of a diffraction of identity and experience. It’s a very liberal, mid-Twentieth Century, view of a university being a place of liberation, immersion, diversification.

Our Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group’s recent set of online ‘The Changing Campus’ sessions have perhaps identified an increasingly prominent diffraction of place-experience and place-identity. Across our final two sessions we’ve heard how campus spaces physically encode and sustain exclusionary assumptions about mobility, we’ve heard stories of enhanced senses of connection for some enabled by covid-era shifts towards online ‘places’ of interaction, and we’ve heard of the indeterminate boundaries of ‘the campus’ and of increasingly complex and hard to separate on-site and off-site university effects and impacts.

Here are the recordings of our two final sessions (the recordings and reflections for our first two sessions are here), they feature:

The Changing Campus #3: Embodiment, Materiality & Flow

Petra Vackova (SHU) & Donata Puntil (King’s College London)

Rooms of Possibilities: Making Spaces for Posthumanist (Un)doings

In our talk we will be exploring and asking what it means and what it does to be a community in the post-digital era. We will reflect on a Dream Team session we organized at the 2022 European Conference of Qualitative Inquiry in which we challenged digital capitalism, including digital labour and production, in academia by re-imagining and enacting a new approach to communing during a conference session that accounts for bio-digital becoming in/with/through rooms, both physical, virtual, and imaginative. As online, virtual ways of working are becoming normalized in academia, we argue that new meaningful and ethical ways of inquiring, living, writing, collaborating, and growing with/in/through bio-digital-material spaces must be developed to respond to the changing relationship between human and more-than-human others in the academia. Through a process of ‘quilting together’ with comments, images and connections in our online conference space, we paid attention to the role of bodies, objects, sounds and materials, the ways we encounter and entangle, across and between our physical and online ‘rooms’. By wandering and wondering between rooms, using all of our senses in physical movement, we diffracted, expanded, (re)experienced what is possible, what is valuable and what is often unseen or unheard in our bio-digital-material ways of working.

Carol A. Taylor (University of Bath)

Research-creation in the ‘posts’: Institutional kitchens, doors, cupboards

For a long time I’ve been interested in how mundane materialities constitute institutional life. In this talk, I focus on how human-nonhuman relations produce practices of mattering within material assemblages. The mundane materialities I focus on – kitchens, doors, cupboards – are often ignored, unnoticed, or taken-for-granted within the broader life of higher education workspaces. My argument is that such liminal, marginalized spaces/places/materialities can help shape the habits, routines, practices, values and norms of the everyday institutional life they are enmeshed within. The empirical materials I draw on were generated through a variety of research-creation encounters which favoured an experimentalist practice and an attentive stance. The analysis I offer is shaped by three ‘posts’: posthumanism, post-methodology and post-disciplinarity. I draw out some insights into the material, affective and political dimensions of the mundane materialities of our institutional lives and how these vital materialities produce resonances and connections across bodies, spaces and times

Pamela Holland & Nick Russell (on behalf of the SHU Staff Disability Network)

The Changing Campus: Challenging ableism

This session will explore the challenges faced by disabled staff when working on campus and remote Hybrid working. The importance of consulting disabled staff from a wide range of disabilities when designing and renovating campus buildings and facilities cannot be emphasised enough. Inclusion shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be ingrained as part of the normal process from the start. Pamela and Nick will talk about their own positive and negative experiences as well as drawing on experiences from the wider staff disability network. We will cover a range of disabilities including physical, hidden, mental and medical within the case studies. On campus and Hybrid working challenges will be discussed to raise awareness of disabled staff experiences from both positive and negative aspects.

The Changing Campus #4: Wider learning Environments & Interactions

Teri-Lisa Griffiths (Criminology, SHU) & Jill Dickinson (Law, University of Leeds)

“I’m in a lecture hall with chairs and a big screen and someone talking […] it felt special in a way to me […] it felt like all my hard work had come to something”: Exploring what learning spaces mean to the student experience.  

During the 2020-21 academic year, campuses across the UK were in lockdown. Our research explored how students’ learning spaces had changed as a result of these restrictions. In this presentation, we will report on our key findings and explore how learning spaces can support and inhibit the social, cultural, and academic ‘becoming’ of learners. Using a sociomaterial framework, we will illustrate how students adapted and managed previously unimagined spaces of learning and what we may ascertain about the student experience as a result. We will invite discussion about the long-term considerations for policy and pedagogy which arise from our research findings.

Vicky Mellon (Tourism, SHU) 

“It feels like a job” : Understanding commuter students: Motivations, engagement and learning experiences (Stalmirska & Mellon 2022)

The number of students choosing to commute to university and remain at home, rather than relocating to the place of studying is growing, particularly within post 92 HE settings. Increased tuition fees and introduction of student loans is attributed to this growing trend. Subsequently, they are a valuable part of the student population. However, there is a lack of research on commuter students, including focus on their motivations, engagement and learning experiences. Here, the qualitative study addresses this gap and explores their reasons for commuting, their engagement and disengagement with extracurricular activities and their sense of belonging at university. The research highlights the challenges facing commuter students and how these differ from other cohorts, and offers some recommendations for overcoming barriers preventing engagement.

Julian Dobson (CRESR, SHU) 

The long shadow of the campus: ‘place’ and the civic university 

Universities cast a long shadow over places. The notion of the ‘university town’ is baked into European history: places where cultural identity and spatial form are significantly shaped by their higher education institutions. Even modern, isolated campuses ripple out beyond their boundaries, skewing property development, housing markets and neighbourhood dynamics. As universities become more conscious of their civic mission, they increasingly position themselves as agents of economic and social change within their wider communities. But the consequences of such interventions are not always fully considered. This talk will explore the porous interface between places and institutions, and present an emerging framework for understanding and assessing universities’ impacts on the places that host them.

Image credit: Sheffield Hallam University, City Campus Masterplan: https://www.rmcmedia.co.uk/vibe/movers-and-makers/article/Sheffield-Hallam-reveals-city-centre-campus-plan-

The Changing Campus #4: wider learning environments and interactions, Thursday 16 June 2022, 3-5pm (online SHU SPG event)

“As the twentieth century draws to a close the idea of a virtual campus – paralleling or perhaps replacing the physical one – seems increasingly plausible.”

Bill Mitchell (1996) City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press p.70

25 years on from Mitchell’s prophecy, the physical death of the University campus still has yet to come to fruition. Yes, the place-shocks of the covid era have certainly left the spaces of Higher Education looking pretty sparcely occupied, but teaching and learning has continued. The ‘university’ now exists in a hybrid form, part in-person, part on line. But the university campus looks unlikely to vaporise fully into a dematerialised form anytime soon. The university still has physical bulk, it squats resolutely in-place. Sitting at the heart of individual, economic and social networks, it exerts a gravitational influence both upon the lives, routines and movement of individual students and upon the towns and cities captured in it’s zone of interaction.

In the fourth event in Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group’s ‘The Changing Campus’ series of online seminars, on Thursday, 16 June 2022 (3-5pm) we will be examining the interconnection between university campuses, surrounding towns and students’ travel between them.

Our presenters will be:

Teri-Lisa Griffiths (Criminology, SHU) & Jill Dickinson (Law, University of Leeds)“I’m in a lecture hall with chairs and a big screen and someone talking […] it felt special in a way to me […] it felt like all my hard work had come to something”: Exploring what learning spaces mean to the student experience.  

During the 2020-21 academic year, campuses across the UK were in lockdown. Our research explored how students’ learning spaces had changed as a result of these restrictions. In this presentation, we will report on our key findings and explore how learning spaces can support and inhibit the social, cultural, and academic ‘becoming’ of learners. Using a sociomaterial framework, we will illustrate how students adapted and managed previously unimagined spaces of learning and what we may ascertain about the student experience as a result. We will invite discussion about the long-term considerations for policy and pedagogy which arise from our research findings.

Vicky Mellon (Tourism, SHU) “It feels like a job” : Understanding commuter students: Motivations, engagement and learning experiences (Stalmirska & Mellon 2022)

The number of students choosing to commute to university and remain at home, rather than relocating to the place of studying is growing, particularly within post 92 HE settings. Increased tuition fees and introduction of student loans is attributed to this growing trend. Subsequently, they are a valuable part of the student population. However, there is a lack of research on commuter students, including focus on their motivations, engagement and learning experiences. Here, the qualitative study addresses this gap and explores their reasons for commuting, their engagement and disengagement with extracurricular activities and their sense of belonging at university. The research highlights the challenges facing commuter students and how these differ from other cohorts, and offers some recommendations for overcoming barriers preventing engagement.

Julian Dobson (CRESR, SHU) The long shadow of the campus: ‘place’ and the civic university 

Universities cast a long shadow over places. The notion of the ‘university town’ is baked into European history: places where cultural identity and spatial form are significantly shaped by their higher education institutions. Even modern, isolated campuses ripple out beyond their boundaries, skewing property development, housing markets and neighbourhood dynamics. As universities become more conscious of their civic mission, they increasingly position themselves as agents of economic and social change within their wider communities. But the consequences of such interventions are not always fully considered. This talk will explore the porous interface between places and institutions, and present an emerging framework for understanding and assessing universities’ impacts on the places that host them.

The event is free to attend, and registration is via Eventbrite, here:

Recordings of our previous ‘The Changing Campus’ sessions are viewable here:

Image credit: City Campus Redevelopment, Sheffield Hallam University, 2022

Changing Places #1 & 2: reflections on our recent SHU Space & Place Group sessions

“…whenever [Mozhayev] forgets who he is, and what he should do next in life, he gets on a bus and rides to the old familiar bus stop where he grew up and suddenly everything makes sense again”.

Peter Pomerantsev (2017) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia. Faber & Faber: London

In his book chronicling the strange, ‘through-the-looking-glass’, world of modern Moscow, Pomerantsev presents a chapter chronicling the hectic and disorienting pace and nature of that city’s recent ‘regeneration’, wherein:

“The city changes so fast that you lose all sense of reality, you can’t recognise the streets. You look for a place where you went to eat a week ago, and before your eyes the whole block is being demolished.”

Set against this disorientation, Pomerantsev introduces Alexander Mozhayev, an urban explorer cum psychogeographer cum rescue archaeologist. Mozhayev leads walking tours in search of vanished and vanishing buildings, who declares there to his audience:

“We’re here to say a wake, to this building, to old Moscow, all these buildings are set to be destroyed.”

In Pomerantsev’s portrayal at least, Mozhayev is driven by a strong sense of a need to find and preserve the past, in order to hold his own sense of individual identity together. For Mozhayev:

“When my parents died, I could remember them through the building that we lived in. Buildings aren’t so much about recollecting time as about the victory over time.”

This strong sense of the power of place to ground an individual’s identity, and in particular of the role of the local and familiar material environment and its arrangement as a cherished store of personal memory and meaning struck me as running deeply through the five presentations given in our recent two ‘Changing Places’ online events, for which the session recordings are now provided here.

In Changing Places #1: Changing Places & Changing Identities (held on 24 March 2022) Nantia Koulidou (Art & Design, SHU) explored her experience of international migration through the design of electronically activated jewellery that could be programmed to comfort the wearer through release of visual and/or audio mementos when triggered by the environmental effects (e.g. altitude) of travelling between home countries and new horizons. This brought a sense of the way in which both jewellery and mobile electronic devices are now intimate companions in our life-journeys, props by which we remember, below and move-on.

Then Jess Scott (Social Science, SHU) outlined her ongoing research into how younger residents of care homes acclimatise to their new dwelling places, and make sense of their past, present and future by reference to the physical arrangement of their new surroundings. Jess’ concern is to better understand ow such transitions occur, in order to find ways in which the managing of that adjustment can be made to be the most positive experience possible.

Finally Joanna Dobson (SHU Humanities) presented an intimate account, through memoir and wider reflection, of a very formative family event, showing how the experience and recollection of childhood home and holiday locations was framed for her and her family members by that event and its perceived incorporation into the very form of the local landscape. [Joanna’s presentation was not recorded]

Meanwhile, in Changing Places #2: Change and the Material Fate of Place, Joanne Lee (Art & Design, SHU) and Rosemary Shirley (Museum Studies, University of Leicester) outlined the five key areas of inquiry that they are developing for their intended project to explore ‘the local’ (and it’s quality of ‘local-ness’) led by development of creative methods for the investigation of place. Growing out of their own experience of dwelling within narrowed ranges of existence during the covid years, their work seeks to find ways to characterise and explore the multiple locals inherent in any seeming place, and of the mundane (but fundamental) ways by which such senses of the local are made and transacted. In discussion it was noted that teasing out how ‘community’ and ‘locality’ differ (but potentially overlap) could be key, as will showing how qualitative (and narrative) based ‘creative’ techniques now used by marketeers and ‘place branding’ consultants can be distinguished from the more holistic (and less instrumentalist) aims of their project.

Then film-maker Esther Johnson (Media, SHU) outlined her multi-modal attempts to preserve both the form and symbol of Hull’s Co-Op department store’s ‘three ships’ mural. Esther’s project, and its collaborations with Hull residents and contemporary heritage campaigners, brought us back round to the question of where the urge to preserve the cherished built environment comes from, and how it reflects both individual and collective identity and (perhaps) a positive dimension to nostalgia, now that modernism’s faith in the-future-as-progress has itself become something of the past. It also flagged how, if (contrary to Mozhayev’s desires) buildings themselves are not good bets for “victory over time”, then perhaps a more durable victory (and aspiration to memory-survival) can be achieved by multiplying and disseminating the most iconic symbolic representations of the building’s former identity-power. Through Esther’s efforts the ‘locals’ of Hull now connect as a community of collective memory, carrying the three-ships mural emblazoned on T-shirts and other printed, portable media even in the face of the Hull Co-Op building’s imminent demolition.

Image Credit: Esther Johnson, mural on former Hull Co-Op department store

Changing Places #1: ‘Changing Places & Changing Identities’, a SHU Space & Place Group online session, 7-9pm on Thursday, 24 March 2022

When the many things I remember actually happened, [and] whether early or late in the course of [my] first six years, I haven’t much of an idea. But I can locate most of them with a degree of certainty – where such and such a thing happened and where I was standing when I heard what I heard.”

D.J. Williams (2001) Hen Dy Ffarm (The Old Farmhouse), Llandysul: Gomer Press, p. 6

We all start from somewhere. Mike Pearson (2011) quotes D.J. Williams in an essay examining his own attempts through curated performances to portray the intertwined nature of his formative early childhood experiences and their locatedness – their rootedness – in the flatlands of north Lincolnshire.

But few of us stay rooted in one place for life. Push-pull forces drive us elsewhere, leading us into encounters with other places and their different-to-what-we-are-used-to sites and circumstances. And in the forge of that those new encounters, we become challenged and changed. Our experiences and identities evolve.

In the next instalment of our ‘Changing Places’ theme we’re going to shift the focus away from how (and why) people change places to consider how individuals’ identities evolve in dynamic encounter with familiar, altered and alien places and their material formations.

We have assembled three presenters, from jewellery design, social science and creative writing to give us markedly different perspectives and investigatory methods. In discussion we will draw out the similarities and differences of their approaches and concerns on the question of how encounters with new or transformed places change us.

Our presenters are:

Nantia Koulidou (Art & Design, SHU)

Electronics, connections and places: digital jewellery, changing of identity and changing location

Nantia Koulidou is the Course Leader for the BA Jewellery, Materials and Design at Sheffield Hallam University. She is a design researcher and lecturer intrigued by how art jewellery practices and digital technologies suggest ways of connecting with the self, and other people in poetic ways. Her work contributes to jewellery and HCI field by offering new interpretations of digital jewellery through theory and practice and to design research by enriching the role of creative practice to offer methodologies that are rooted in craft, empathy and dialogue. During her talk Nantia will discuss the theme of relocation and the potential of narrative digital jewellery to support the liminal self. Nantia’s recent work-in-progress is autobiographical and responds to her search for a sense of belonging during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following craft methodologies and her fascination for found objects, Nantia designs interactive objects that aim to the open discussion on the value of craft knowledge in the digital age and broaden our expectations of what digital jewellery can be.

Jess Scott (Social Science, SHU)

How does the spatial movement of younger adults into a long-term residential care home impact their sense of identity?

Care homes in the UK are typically associated with providing care for people who are older in age. However, there is a prevalence of younger adult residents (aged 18-64) with various learning and physical disabilities who also have long-term residence. There is an absence of academic research and literature surrounding the experiences of younger residents within the care home. In summary, this presentation will explore the processes of identity change for younger care home residents who have made the transition from family/informal care to long term residential care. It will argue that upon relocation to their new home, younger residents must adjust their identities to orientate their new place of dwelling and may find it difficult to adapt. I will draw upon theories of ageing to suggest this is because younger adults are not at the stereotypically perceived acceptable age to experience long term residence within care homes, and therefore struggle to make sense of their new ‘home’. I will outline what the existing literature tells us about younger adults’ relocation into care and their identity changes, identifying key gaps in knowledge and discussing future research plans and how the topic of the presentation fits with my broader PhD surrounding understanding how younger adult residents make sense of ‘home’.

Joanna Dobson (Humanities, SHU)

Trauma, Landscape and Dislocation: exploring changing perceptions of place through creative writing

How does the significance of a place change when the basis for its significance is destabilised? This paper will begin with a personal account of a dramatic change in my own perception of the English Lake District that resulted from unsettling discoveries made while writing a memoir for my PhD. Alongside short readings from the memoir-in-progress, it will additionally explore whether there are any insights to be gained from my experience that are relevant to current conflicts over how the Lake District should be managed in the light of increasing evidence of severe biodiversity loss.

This online event is free to attend – but places need to be booked via Eventbrite:

Reference: Pearson, M. (2011) ‘Deserted places, remote voices: performing landscape’ in Daniels et al (eds) Envisioning Landscapes, Making Worlds: Geography & the Humanities. Routledge, pp. 280-286

Image credit: https://www.mub.eps.manchester.ac.uk/science-engineering/2017/11/01/science-changing-room/

The Changing Campus #1 & #2: some reflections on our recent SHU Space Place / HEC online seminars (session recordings here too)

“In an increasingly home-based, privatised society, universities are among the few surviving institutions that draw people out of their private spaces and, for a brief but crucial time, encourage them to engage in shared public activity.”

Krishan Kumar (1997) ‘The Need for Place’ in Smith & Webster (eds) The Postmodern University: Contested Visions of Higher Education in Society, SRHE/Open University Press: Buckingham, p.34

The covid pandemic has shaken education – like so much else – to the core. For long periods of lockdown and transitional caution, Higher Education has lurched online, the physical focus of ‘the University’ shifting from the communal classrooms and cafes of campus life, to solitary student bedrooms and tutor kitchen tables. In a sense far removed from what Kumar was contemplating, Higher Education has become very privatised.

As we (hopefully) start to emerge from covid and its warping effects on daily life, questions are being asked within – and beyond – the sector, about the future of place within University life. Talk is of an ‘extended campus’ of hybrid spaces and modes of teaching and learning.

We all nod in resignation, that – somehow that we can’t yet fully express – things are unlikely to ever return to how they once were. Sometimes this feels good – that the disrupting break with how things were, opens up new possibilities, perhaps even new freedoms. But at other times the prospect seems bleaker – institutions now used to running on a crisis footing of ‘change everything, daily’, now have much higher expectations of the gymnastic, change-absorbing capabilities of their staff, and of the adaptability of their now-less-fully-occupied buildings.

So how to make sense of this challenge to the timeless physicality of the University and its civic presence? How can a new – distributed – sense of the University’s purpose as device to draw people together and to encourage them to work and grow together be instilled?

In the SHU Space & Place Group (working in collaboration with our university’s Interdisciplinary Higher Education Research Cluster) we’ve recently hosted two online seminars to consider these issues. The recordings are below, and my other recent posts summarise the content. And we are now planning a third event for May 2022.

In The Changing Campus #1 we considered how the experience of being on campus can be researched using visual and narrative methods to understand how users of University space seek to carve out territories, temporary possessions of space that they hope will protect and/or empower them.

After a short introduction from me, surveying the different ways in which University place-makers have envisaged an instructional power to their campus formations, Harriet Shortt (University of the West of England) presented an intriguing account of her use of visual methods to capture how staff and students experience the environment of a new, flagship, university building. In doing so Harriet flagged how user generated photographs reveal the multiplicity of place, and of the micro-contestations and territorial emplacement that acts of inhabitation entail. Meanwhile Amira Samatar (SHU) then gave us a powerful account of black women’s experience and use of campus spaces, and in doing so showed how the trend towards opened-out, free-for-all space can unsettle some precisely at the moment at which the place-makers are proudly declaring greater inclusivity.

In The Changing Campus #2 we looked at how being on campus entails multiple engagements with things – the stuff of the world and its arrangement: intentional or otherwise. In dynamic interaction with others: other people, other objects and their respective resistances and affordances, a person is affected (for good or ill) by the act of being upon campus.

The session was chaired by Becky Shaw, who opened up the event by pointing to the myriad ways in which our (human) lives on campus are enmeshed with inanimate (but nonetheless potent) non-human objects. Hiral Patel (Cardiff University) then took us further into this multiplicity, setting out how her research work seeks to account for how buildings (and the things that comprise and fill them) change over time, and do so via complex – multiple – ontologies, formed amidst any single building’s enmeshment in multiple parallel projects, perspectives and temporalities.

James Corazzo and Layla Gharib (SHU) then took us into their design studio and in the course of exploring the instructiveness of informality, emphasised how that informality is an active socio-material creation, something forged and sustained by hard work with choices of movement, manner and soft furnishings. In choosing to include the viewpoint of a sofa within their presentation James and Layla attracted the scorn of Private Eye which (some how) found their abstract and published it in their magazine’s Pseud’s Corner section. But James and Layla give a wonderful repost to the sneering satirists in their presentation, rightly questioning the ‘don’t they know their place?’ condescension of those who ridicule others as upstart imposters, and denying their right to think and question.

Sofa’s matter! (As do all aspects of the formation and enactment of spaces intended for learning – and we need to understand how each element operates (and its other possibilities and potentialities) in order to create and sustain places that can (in Kumar’s words) “draw people out of their private spaces and, for a brief but crucial time, encourage them to engage in shared public activity“.

Finally, Justine Pedler, Programme Lead for the Future Spaces Project (Extended Campus) at SHU followed this theme of how the campus can be arranged to enable learning in place – and to do so by acknowledging multiplicity – by titling her presentation as “Variety is the condition of harmony” (Thomas Carlyle). She gave us an insider’s insight into an ongoing project at Sheffield Hallam aimed at understanding how the new campus spaces being created at the University are being perceived and used by a variety of students. She showed how photo elicitation has been used to get a student ‘eye’ on these developments and as an aid to focus group insights.

[NB: As a change to the originally published programme, Professor Carol A. Taylor was unable to join us as a presenter for The Changing Campus #2 – but we hope to welcome Carol to a future session in this strand.]

Picture credits: Author, January 2022; Private Eye, 3-2-22

The Changing Campus #2: learning in place? (free SHU Space & Place Group online event, 2-4pm, 16 February 2022)

This event is the second in the Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group’s 2022 series of events, running under the theme of ‘Changing Places’.

Our first two events are being curated jointly with the University’s Interdisciplinary Higher Education Research Cluster. Our first event (on 19 January 2022, see details here) explores how the experience of being ‘on campus’ is changing, due to changes in student expectations and the exigencies of Covid-19, and how this can be researched.

For our second online session, we have three presenters who are each concerned with investigating the constitutive role of socio-materiality and ‘thingly’ relations in forming and transforming the campus.

Our speakers for event #2 are:

Hiral Patel (Cardiff University)

Aligning learning and space – a tale of buildings, users and technologies

Learning approaches within higher education are continuously evolving and diverse. This is evident through changes in pedagogies, curriculum content and programme structures. University buildings are required to act in tandem and need to be continuously adapted. My research on adaptations of a library building over 50 years demonstrates the fluidity of the building in response to emerging technologies, pedagogical innovations and the creation of new library services. These observations demand a shift from thinking about learning spaces as fixed entities. Instead, conceiving buildings as socio-material practices highlight their constant state of flux and the ‘ontological politics’ (Mol, 1998) that surround them.

Such a conception has two implications. Firstly, we need to rethink the design and management of learning spaces that integrate different scales (a chair to the city) and sectors (work, living, cultural and learning). Secondly, we need to develop tools and capabilities to continuously align learning practices and learning spaces.

The talk will conclude with provocations for future learning spaces. These provocations emerge from the work of LE-DR Lab, which focuses on the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on university spaces.

Mol, A. (1998) ‘Ontological Politics. A Word and Some Questions’, The Sociological Review, 46, pp. 74–89. doi: 10.1111/1467-954X.46.s.5.

Carol A. Taylor (University of Bath)

Research-creation in the ‘posts’: Institutional kitchens, doors, cupboards

For a long time I’ve been interested in how mundane materialities constitute institutional life. In this talk, I focus on how human-nonhuman relations produce practices of mattering within material assemblages. The mundane materialities I focus on – kitchens, doors, cupboards – are often ignored, unnoticed, or taken-for-granted within the broader life of higher education workspaces. My argument is that such liminal, marginalized spaces/places/materialities can help shape the habits, routines, practices, values and norms of the everyday institutional life they are enmeshed within. The empirical materials I draw on were generated through a variety of research-creation encounters which favoured an experimentalist practice and an attentive stance. The analysis I offer is shaped by three ‘posts’: posthumanism, post-methodology and post-disciplinarity. I draw out some insights into the material, affective and political dimensions of the mundane materialities of our institutional lives and how these vital materialities produce resonances and connections across bodies, spaces and times.

James Corazzo & Layla Gharib (SHU)

Part of the furniture: encountering people and sofas in the design studio

Part of the furniture: a person or thing that has been somewhere so long as to seem a permanent, unquestioned, or invisible feature of the landscape.

The unquestioned things we shall be questioning in this talk are a pair of green sofas. Arranged in an L-shape around a coffee table and forming a small domestic looking space within a larger open-plan design studio at Sheffield Hallam University. At first glance, the sofas appear ordinary, invisible even. However, upon closer scrutiny, we begin to see the sofas as active participants in how teaching and learning practices unfold in the studio. We suspect these sofas are not innocent or invisible features in this educational setting but objects with power and significance that materialize different kinds of relations (Suchman 2005), different kinds of knowers and different ways of knowing. In an attempt to understand these sofas, we sat down with them, had a conversation with them and believe it or not, they spoke back…

Suchman, L. (2005) ‘Affiliative Objects’, The Interdisciplinary Journal of Organization, Theory and Society Vol.12(3) pp.379—399

Image credit:

James Corazzo & Layla Gharib

Further information

Is available from the organiser, Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk).

‘The Changing Campus #1: experiencing being on campus’ (free SHU SPG online event, 2-4pm, 19 January 2022)

[A recording of this event is now available here]

This event is the first in the Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group’s 2022 series of events, running under the theme of ‘Changing Places’.

Our first two events are being curated jointly with the University’s Interdisciplinary Higher Education Research Cluster, and will examine how university campuses are changing, due to changes in student expectations and the exigencies of Covid-19.

For our first online sessions, we have three presenters who are each concerned with the experience of being on (or off) campus and how this can be researched.

Harriet Shortt (UWE, Bristol) – keynote

Spaces, staff, students, and Instagram: a visually-led post-occupancy evaluation of a Business School Building

The Bristol Business School building has been occupied since April 2017. It is a flagship space that aims to attract international, EU and home students, facilitate links with businesses and foster a collaborative space for staff to work together. In February 2018 we conducted a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of this new building. Our aim was to investigate how the ethos of the building has impacted user experiences of working, studying and visiting this space. How does a transparent, collaborative, and flexible building affect working/ studying practices? What influence does it have on users’ perceptions of the University and is the building operating as predicted? Using innovative visual methods including Instagram and participant-led photography, data was collected over 12 months with over 250 participants contributing to the study, and over 740 photographs collected.

In this presentation I will discuss the background to the research; some of the unexpected and surprising parts of the research – including the complexities of using Instagram in visual field studies; and some of our initial findings – including the paradoxical love/hate relationships staff and students have with particular spaces.

Amira Samatar (SHU)

Negotiating university spaces: an insight into female students of colour’s experiences

Amira is a postgraduate researcher whose academic interests centre around the educational experiences and journeys of racially minoritised students in British universities, with a specific focus on Black British women’s experiences beyond the postgraduate level. Amira’s presentation will draw on her master’s research which explored the lived experiences on campus of five female undergraduate students of colour. This work employed a critical race theory perspective and was inspired by CRiT walking, with walking interviews utilised to explore experiences of marginalisation.

Amy Ramdehal, Kiran Mahmood & Tom Savage (SHU)

A Digital Day in the Life: an Exploration of the changing Student Experience during Covid-19

This research was conducted to explore how the student experience has changed during Covid-19, in order to establish areas of priority and concern, and in turn influence policy and practice at the university. The research solicited frequent diary entries (uploaded to the Blackboard site) from current Sheffield Hallam University students about their regular teaching and learning activities, over a 3-month period in March, April, and May 2021. The students also took part in three 1-hour focus groups to discuss the diary entries in more detail. Each phase of the research focused on a specific theme, and an accompanying report of the findings was produced after each stage of data collection: Timetabling and Organisation; Engagement; and Assessment and Feedback.

How to attend

The event is free to attend – but you’ll need to book a place using the Eventbrite link below (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-changing-campus-1-experiencing-being-on-campus-tickets-234930743177)

Image credit:

https://stridetreglown.com/projects/faculty-of-business-and-law-university-of-the-west-of-england/

Further information

Is available from the organiser, Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk).

‘Changing Places’ – The Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group’s theme for 2021/22 – a Call for Ideas

“The more things change, the more they stay the same” (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1849)

The SHU SPG’s theme for this academic year will be ‘Changing Places’. As with last year’s (very successful) ‘Haunts’ theme, the plan is to have a number of self-contained events, each of which finds an inventive (and interdisciplinary) way to explore the year’s theme.

This is an invitation to anyone (at Sheffield Hallam University or beyond it) who would like to propose a contribution to the group’s examination of ‘Changing Places’, contributions could include:

  • creative ways of recording both the material processes of changing places and the lived experience of such change (and whether by inhabitants, instigators or passers by)
  • consideration of the role of changing places as a device within visual art and literature
  • critical evaluation of documentary portrayals of changing places (e.g. Manctopia)
  • analysis of stakeholder networks within bringing about (or resisting) changing places
  • performative work that explores the interconnection of the two senses of changing places (i.e. changing identity and changing location)
  • studies of the management of how places are changed, and what strange contingencies have to be provided for in order to make change happen either safely, or at all
  • reflection on the connection between fear of change and the materialities of place
  • philosophical reflections on incremental change (the Ship of Theseus) and/or attempts to change a place back to its ‘original’ form

Dependent on what expressions of interest we receive we will devise a programme of events accordingly to run between January and July 2022. At least some of these events will be online (thus enabling disembodied participation).

A couple of strands that we already have under development are:

  • ways of researching the changing campus
  • ways of re-presenting construction sites as modes of public engagement

We also have some interest in sessions on:

  • evaluating how the covid-19 pandemic has caused places like hotels and convention centres to be reconfigured as places of healthcare
  • considering how heritage conservation motivations are squared with urban regeneration projects within Sheffield city centre.

We intend to have a workshop to scope out a programme of events, and this will be held online (via Zoom) on Wednesday 15 December 2021, 2-4pm. So, please submit details of your proposed contribution to me (Luke Bennett: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) by 10 December 2021, for consideration at that programme-planning meeting (at which all will be welcome to attend – I will circulate log in details nearer the time).

Picture reference: Luke Bennett, city campus development site, Sheffield (September 2021)

Defying gravity: construction and deconstruction campaigns against gravity and their pitfalls

When even the gravitational field — geometry incarnate — becomes a non-commuting (and hence nonlinear) operator, how can the classical interpretation of  as a geometric entity be sustained? Now not only the observer, but the very concept of geometry, becomes relational and contextual.”

Sokal, A.D. (1996) ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, Social Text, 46/47: 217-252

Not accepting the gravity of the situation

The so-called ‘Sokal Affair’ ridiculed the postmodernism critics of modernist science who, building upon literary deconstruction, were seemingly keen to show the relativity (and instability) of all knowledge. Sokal’s academic paper in a respected and peer reviewed postmodern journal wove postmodern theorists together in a way which seemed to argue (but actually didn’t quite) that gravity itself was a relative socio-cultural construct. Actually the paper was more subtle than that – and its chief mischief is actually that it didn’t really say anything at all.

But when planning the short essay that follows it seemed a good place to start. In contemporary folklore at least the Sokal paper ridicules postmodern relativity by suggesting that that journal’s reviewers and readership were happy to endorse a relativisation of gravity – an accusation that leaves open the prospect of the defying of gravity’s force by simply unmasking its socio-cultural and/or ideological nature. Taken this way – as a crude parody of deconstruction – the Sokal paper summons the impression of an intellectual campaign against gravity (and in doing so creates ridicule of postmodernist critiques of science: because clearly – as experienced in our daily lives – gravity is real and undeniable).

Having raised a chuckle at the absurdity of a (faked) intellectual campaign against gravity by deconstructionists, in this short piece I want to think about the phenomenon of the daily campaigns against gravity waged by constructionists on myriad building sites across the world.

Taking total possession of a site

Think about it. What happens shortly after a site is transformed into a building site via the erection of a boundary fence or hoarding? Scaffolding is what happens.

Scaffolding – and whether internally or externally – is set up in order to enable works access to areas of a site which are (literally) beyond the reach of ordinary inhabitation of that place. The ceilings and exterior walls of an existing building suddenly become surfaces that will feel the refurbishment touch of the builder. And where scaffolding cannot reach, other gravity defying access techniques will ensue, via ladders, roped access, cherry pickers. Increasingly this reaching for access to the totality of the site’s 3D space is technologically enhanced, using devices once thought of as science fiction: remote viewing through the eyes and flight of drones, or now as enabled by the Iron Man engineering of personal jet packs which are now being directly marketed for construction and engineering site applications.

A construction project is a campaign waged against space with material, labour and ideas against the vagaries of time, weather, stakeholders and finite finances. It is also a campaign against the limitations of gravity. That campaign requires a total – albeit temporary – acquisition and control of 3D space upon a site. It is not sufficient to occupy only the gravity dictated surfaces that future inhabitants will confine themselves to. Indeed, the very formation of those floors and walkways may only be possible via the temporary imposition upon the building envelope of numerous levels of scaffold, to form an infra-building – a distorted ghost image of the building yet to come.

The cost of defying gravity

The temporary campaign against gravity is necessary, but such gravity-defying structures come at considerable cost, and gravity’s urge to reassert its power, and the attendant limits to occupancy must not be treated lightly. Falls from height remain one of the most common types of accidents on construction sites in the UK – 47% of all fatal construction site accidents in 2019/20 (HSE 2020) and a variety of legal requirements apply to edge protection and a whole industry of consultants and engineering solutions providers exist to facilitate appropriate safety measures where-ever gravity is being defied on a site.

Meanwhile, in New York State the Labor Law 240(1) – otherwise known as the ‘Scaffold Law’ and which was originally enacted in 1885 as a response to accidents arising in the then-emerging skyscraper construction boom, in particular because the hoists being used to transport workers up the side of the buildings were proving to be unsafe – imposes strict liability upon all construction site operators who chose to defy gravity (see Powers & Sanola (2021)).  What this means is that if a construction worker is harmed by a “gravity risk” (which includes both a worker’s fall from hight and a worker being struck by an article dropped from height) then the site operator is liable regardless of whether or not they (or the worker) can be shown to have been careless in their gravity defying actions. As a New York court put it in ruling on an accident claim brought in 2009:

“[the]single decisive question is whether [the claimant’s] injuries were the direct consequence of a failure to provide adequate protection against the risk arising from a physically significant elevation differential” (quoted in Faley, 2010)

What is notable here is the explicit acknowledgment of gravity as a force to be reconned with – gravity becomes a character in the story of each accident (and each requirement to have prevented it). In contrast applicable UK legislation – like the Work at Height Regulations 2005 – concentrate more upon the health risk of falls and means of safeguarding, rather than picturing gravity itself as a force to be named and assuaged in construction site’s temporary campaigns to defy gravity in their total possession of their worksites.

But whether we give it a name or not gravity is a very real and sobering adversary in construction (and in deconstruction too).

Image Source: M.C. Escher (1953) Relativity https://www.wikiart.org/en/m-c-escher/relativity-lattice