Wandering invisible ruins – radiation, steel, photographs and footprints

Earlier today I attended the ‘Ruins and Radiation’ workshop at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. The event opened with Jane & Louise Wilson talking about their film The Toxic Camera inspired by Vladimir Shevchenko’s documentary film Chernobyl: A Chronicle of Difficult Weeks. The Wilson’s explained that their own journey to the Ukraine was in the footsteps of the now deceased Shevchenko, to meet the few remaining living members of his film crew. They also visited the lead lined repository into which his film camera was thrown once (too late for Shevchenko) it became clear that that film camera itself had become a poisoned thing, a toxic reservoir for the radiation emitted by the ruins whilst the crew filmed.

The other speakers – Paul Dobraszczyk, Tim Edensor, Bradley Garrett and Dylan Trigg followed in the Wilson’s wake with thoughts upon ruins, urban exploration and the culture of broken places and their buildings. It was all very interesting, but it is the material reverberation of radioactive contamination that caught my attention. Ruins have had more than enough thought lately. Contamination needs the attention.

Therefore what follows is not a summary of the talks or even anything beyond the briefest second hand account of the ruins of Chernobyl and its associated model-town, Pripyat. For I can’t better Paul Mullins’ (2012) recent blog-essay on the resonance of Chernobyl’s ruinscape through popular culture or Paul Dobraszczyk’s own (2010) published account of his visit to these ruins.

No, my contribution will ultimately take a different walk, and in a different city. And that walk will be more concerned with the circulation of invisible contamination than with immobile visible ruins.

Visible ruins and radiation: Chernobyl / Pripyat

The Chernobyl/Pripyat ruins are testimony to a state-scale techno-fall, they resonate with sublime import, they reveal the post-human and the ‘survive without us’ face of the natural world. This is radiation as damage to civilisation, rather than eco-catastrophe. Dobraszczyk situated the roots of ruin aesthetics within notions of the uncanny – the ‘world turned upside down aspect’. He described how at first he found the ruinscape of Pripyat stimulating through its juxtaposition of heterogeneous items and foregrounding of processes normally unobserved in the background. But ultimately this gave way to a feeling that a city composed solely of ruin and disordered assemblages of artefacts presented a place of ubiquitous abnormality – resulting in a monotonous normality of its own.

So – I was left thinking – if a tour through a visibly ruined city can suffer experientially from an excess of disorder, perhaps a more subtly contaminated – more distributed –  ruin would have greater uncanny possibilities?

Chernobyl/Pripyat’s dust, abandoned playgrounds and empty street scenes are proxies for what cannot be seen, for radiation has no taste, colour, physical presence. It is ‘visible’ only through its effects on living organisms, its absorption in things and the knock-on effects of human response to contamination, the ruins of hasty abandonment.

Radiation was a haunting background presence in both the Wilsons’ and Dobraszczyk’s presentations. Each foregrounded the seen (ruined people, buildings, scenes) and presented their visits as safe, managed, almost incidental. But in the Q & A sessions each acknowledged that visit to those places, amidst the conscious ‘ruin gazing’, involved a sublimated, haunted awareness of the presence of the radiation (glimpsed indirectly through the mediating technology of the dose meter and instruction from guides on ground friability and where not to tread). Dobraszczyk confessed that after his trip to Pripyat  – despite the assurances of safety – he had thrown his shoes away upon returning to the safety of his hotel. These presenters revealed that being in the presence of an invisible contaminant required an untrusting, cautious orientation towards clothing and the dust, dirt and matter walked amidst during their tours. There was a concern about what they might bring back.

In his presentation Bradley Garrett reminded us of the standard urbex mantra of ‘take nothing but photographs, and leave nothing but footprints’ (and noted that this is not as straightforward a dictum as ‘the community’ might contend). But what if we invert that, what if the act of walking the ruins has material effects upon the explorer? What if the radiation enters the photographs? What if the feet taking the footprints take up and carry onward contamination? In short, what if the place bites back, and leaves with the visitor?

The Wilson’s described the radioactive particles’ damage to the film stock used by Shevchenko as an instance of material as a witness to events, and then paused to consider. No, perhaps in such processes of contamination, material itself becomes the event.

What I therefore want to look at is radiation as material traces of a journey. Let’s vicariously walk the invisible ruins of a bustling irradiated city.

Invisible ruins and radiation: central London, 2006

The walk I have in mind is a wander around the high-class international haunts of central London and its polyglot hubbub of hotels, restaurants, bars and lap-dance clubs. This is a walk in the footprints of Alexander Litvinenko in the autumn of 2006.

After unwittingly consuming a polonium infused pot of green leaf tea, Litvinenko lived his final days touring the high end real estate of central London, mapping out a network of sophisticated places, leaving a chemical ghost trail image of his journeys, at the very moment that life itself was leaving his body. On 23 November 2006, at University College Hospital, Litvinenko finally succumbed to his horrific poisoning, a dose 200 times larger than a lethal measure.

But it is the aftermath that takes my attention. For Litvinenko acted as a vector, spreading the polonium amidst this world, by touch, sweat and excretion a trail of contamination was laid in his wake. A trail which has received remarkably little attention – perhaps because of the fear that allowing words like ‘luxury hotel’ and ‘radioactive contamination’ to associate is to bring about a blight that would corrode the sheen of this world of premier property investment.

Buried away in technical journals are fragments of the steps taken to eradicate the contamination, tales of floor to wall tiled bathrooms ripped out of high class hotels, of decontaminated taxis, sushi bars, restaurants, aeroplanes and a cushion at a lap dancing club (BBC 2007 – from which the above image is reproduced). This trail mapped out Litvinenko’s affairs, his business and it’s venues. Like thousands of businesspeople before (and since) Litvinenko instrumentally (and incidentally) used the city, and his use would have passed without record were it not for the alien substance poisoning his body.

Once discovered, a quiet hunt was launched for the polonium traces scattered across the city, a glow visible only to the initiated.  A small cadre of the serious and concerned searching amidst the hubristic and carefree throng of the pre credit crunch city, a cadre of environmental health officers and specialists from the Health Protection Agency and the Government Decontamination Service – a unit quietly established in 2005 as an executive agency of DEFRA. They found, and dealt with, 50 locations around London. And according to Gill (2007) much of the contamination was dealt with by sealing it, in situ, beneath layers of paint or varnish. The contamination was literally brushed over, left immobilised within the fabric of these establishments. Other items like furniture were taken into storage, from which they will be retrieved and destroyed once polonium’s short half life (138 days) has achieved sufficient decay.

And thereafter? Well, life will go on as normal. Few will know what happened there, and there and there: in these invisible ruins. The stations of Litvinenko’s final days and hours will leave no evident traces. Nor would the owners of those places wish there to be any traces. For here lies fear of two invisibles: radiation and blight. Value is a type of desire, it can dissipate if the mood swings away. These sites are prime real estate, and much of prime sites value is desire based. The harder they come, the harder they fall. Sites like this have most to lose from public association of the words ‘radiation’ and ‘[add here name of a hotel]’. Blight is such a potent factor that even I don’t want to start naming names. They have all been certified as decontaminated and safe to occupy.  They are named in others’ publications (e.g. BBC 2007). And yet.

Our anxieties about radioactive contamination are so primal. The words themselves cause harm.

The ubiquitous world of radioactive sources

The map of Litvinenko’s final journeys, marks out points of radioactivity within mundane cityscapes, just like the environmental data maps that I used to use when in practice as an environmental lawyer. These maps, purchased for a fee, would show me the location of every photographic developer, every density gauge, every conveyor belt flow meter in the city. For all these (and smoke detectors too) can contain licensed radioactive sources. These maps would present a nodal array of atomic sources, sleeper cells awaiting discovery by an unsuspecting public.

Confronted with such data, I learnt to screen it out. These things were ubiquitous. But if anyone ever mislaid them there was hell to pay. The words ‘radioactive’ were enough to trigger a large fine, regardless of the size of the source, or of its strength. No one wants to lose a radioactive source. And the court records show that occasionally these small capsules did get lost. Small items with big anxieties attached.

We inhabit a world where matter circulates to the rhythm of money and consequently many lost radioactive sources gravitate towards scrap yards. A recent report by the International Atomic Energy Authority (2012) calls for greater vigilance by metal reprocessors, and lists incidents and their clean up costs from around the world, notably the contamination of consignments of structural steel due to inadvertent crushing of a radioactive source in a scrap reprocessing yard in Juarez, Mexico in the 1980s. As a result 814 new homes in the US were condemned and demolished due to the use of the contaminated steel.

Discarded Chernobyl/Pripyat footware, Alexander Litvinenko and the Juarez steel each show us radiation’s ability to hitch a ride on matter, travelling with it on everyday journeys that tell us much about who we are and how we live. And if we become aware of those fellow travellers, it is at the brink of an urge-to-blight that we fleetingly glimpse invisible ruins.


BBC News (2007) ‘The polonium trail: key locations’, website feature, 17 August http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/6267373.stm

Dobraszczyk, P. (2010) ‘Petrified ruin: Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death of the city’, CITY 14: 4 pp. 370-89

Gill, V (2007) ‘Polonium clean up leaves trail of destruction’ Chemistry World http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2007/August/Poloniumcleanupleavestrailofdestruction.asp

IAEA (2012) Control of Orphan Sources and Other Radioactive Material in the Metal Recycling

and Production Industries – Specific Safety Guide SSG-17 http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/Pub1509_web.pdf

Mullins, P. (2012) Negotiating disaster and apprehension: representing Chernobyl  at http://paulmullins.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/negotiating-disaster-and-apprehension-representing-chernobyl/


‘Painting the sky brilliant white with Titania’s ubiquitous dust’ – cautious thoughts on atmospheric modification

‘They came in tiny parachutes

dissolving through the atmosphere

From planes not seen or heard’

Slab (1987) ‘Undriven Snow’


This blog essay is about the atmosphere, specifically the alien-ness of matter in the atmosphere. It is about attitudes towards the vastness of an uninhabitable portion of our world and specifically the material strangeness invoked by news of a gravity defying plan to inject earth into the sky.

Sky – the final frontier

Peter Sloterdijk (2009) has characterised the twentieth century as the era of ‘explication’ of the atmosphere. In his book he points out how during the last century the sky came to be knowable, occupy-able and weaponise-able in ways previously beyond comprehension. Before the ‘modern’ era, the sky was unattainable, majestic and unbounded. The sky was heavenly, or at least a transition to a ‘higher’ realm beyond. Up was blessed, down was cursed. Sky was rampant ‘other’ – nature bringing events to man (life giving rain and sun, and death bringing storm and drought) at times and places of its choosing.

What Sloterdijk presents is a glimpse of how the heavens were brought down to earth, rendered human (or at least brought within the reach of human influence) during the last 100 years. He builds his argument around the advent of airborne warfare, and specifically chemical warfare (direct attack against atmosphere’s life sustaining properties). I instead want to look at human interaction with the sky from the perspective of atmospheric engineering, specifically via one ubiquitous powder, nano particles of titanium dioxide.

Titania’s white power

I’ve been preparing a lecture this week in which I’m trying to show the breadth of environmental law in a very short teaching slot. I’ve chosen titanium dioxide as a case study, and I’m really glad that I’ve taken my investigation in that direction. Because TiO2 offers even more holistic weirdness than I’d thought it would.

Titanium dioxide (otherwise known as Titania), is a mineral pigment made from titanium ore. The ore is extracted from the ground in vast open mines, it is then shipped around the world to large energy (and acid) guzzling production sites. The resulting pigment gives plastics and rubber opacity and whiteness and is used in a diverse range of everyday products such as art paints, printing inks, paper, ceramics, textiles, glass, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food (where its presence is as food additive ‘E171’). Our modern world would look very different without this white power additive. In the US per capita titanium dioxide ‘consumption’ is 3.4kg per year (est. 1991).

Titanium is the ninth most common element in the earth’s crust, and over 90% of extracted ore is processed into millions of tonnes of titanium dioxide pigment. It was adopted in the twentieth century as a replacement for the toxic pigment, white lead. First extracted from ore in 1908, commercial pigment production commenced in 1918. In the 1990s it was discovered that titanium dioxide when irradiated by sunlight has photocatalytic and hydrophilic effects which have now been commercialised into coatings that rendering glass ‘self-cleaning’, and enable coated paving slabs in Japan to ‘eat’ atmospheric pollution (Emsley 2012).

Painting the sky

It is a proposal to inject millions of tons of titanium dioxide into the upper atmosphere as a way of tackling climate change that has caught my attention. Ker Than (2012) describes a plan proposed by Davidson Technology, to disperse the white power using high-altitude balloons so as to form a sunscreen layer a millionth of a millimetre thick that would absorb and reflect sunlight, offsetting some of the climate changing global warming effects attributable to greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere from other human activities. Titanium dioxide has the highest refractive index amongst known materials – it is the whitest of whites (although some TiO2 nano-particles are actually transparent: TDMA 2012).

Than’s depiction of the delivery method, of hoses flying up skyward, paints a surreal picture – very Dali-esque (or Heath-Robinson, take your pick):

For Davidson’s project, a slurry containing titanium dioxide would be pumped skyward via flexible pipes, which would be hoisted aboard unmanned balloons flying about 12 miles (20 kilometers) high. A “hypersonic nozzle” would then spray the slurry as fine particles into Earth’s upper atmosphere.”

Than also notes that this would be a long term project – the injection having to continue for centuries until atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reduce (which would require changes to on-the-ground manufacturing and carbon dependency).

According to Than Davidson estimates his own plan’s costs as around $900 million per year, plus up to $3 billion per year for the titanium dioxide. Presently (2010 figures) world production of this mineral powder is just under 4 million tons (1.48 million from US production sources, 2.19 million from China), with five multinational companies having a 64% market share (Mowat 2012). Taking the current price per ton as around $3,000 (Hemmerling 2011) this suggests the plan would require an extra 1 million ton of titanium dioxide to be produced each year, with an attendant 20% increase in ore mining, processing and distribution of this white dust to the remote balloon launch sites from which it would be shuttled and pumped up into the sky.

Matter out of place       

As an environmental lawyer what strikes me about this potential interplay between mineral earth and sky is the fine line between pollution and ‘solution’. As Mary Douglas (1966: 50) said, dirt is “matter out of place”. It’s all about context. Intentionally injecting titanium dioxide into the atmosphere is portrayed in Davidson’s plan as environmental augmentation of the air, yet more often the titanium dioxide industry has been framed as a polluter of land and water. Depending on the precise production techniques used titanium dioxide production waste includes dilute sulphuric acid, solid residue (chloride or sulphate salts), ore and pigment dust and gaseous emissions (Lane 1991).

The titanium dioxide industry was one of the first manufacturing industries to be singled out for special legislative attention by the European Commission. In 1972 Corsica brought legal proceedings against an Italian titanium dioxide plant following sufferance of ‘red mud’ discharges afflicting the Mediterranean coast (production of each ton of the white powder produces a greater volume of waste that has to be disposed of, traditionally via pumping it into the sea)(Hague 1992). The Commission was concerned that inter-state disputes about this aquatic pollution could undermine the harmony of European trade in this increasingly important industrial commodity and thus a Directive was issued in 1978 to harmonise how each member state should regulate these plants and their emissions. Subsequent Directives focused upon environmental monitoring of the effects of permitted disposal routes for this waste, including dumping on land or injecting it into the soil.

These measures were early instances of international environmental law – born of a realisation that drifting plumes of red mud have no notion of national borders. As with the sea, so with the sky. Pollution emissions or remedial nano particle infusions into the sky would also need international consensus before emission, for clouds will drift where they will.

Aerography and appreciating the alien-ness of the sky

In the twentieth century we came to view ‘airspace’ as national territory, rather than private property. Technically, under English common law principles (as recorded by William Blackstone in 1769), a landowner owns the column of air above his land, right up to the ‘top’ of the sky. Whilst legislation abrogates this principle in order to allow aviation to cross his airspace, no provision has yet been made to allow the installation of an upper atmosphere sun shield above plots of land. Outer space (the space beyond atmosphere) is via international treaty terra nullis, owned by no-one. But in theory at least airspace within the atmosphere is private property of the surface owner.

Ownership of the sky is pretty irrelevant unless you can defeat gravity. The sky is not naturally inhabitable or meaningfully possessible. Matter is not normally installable in the sky. Gravity is a timeless force that normally keeps our thoughts, actions and concerns at or near ground level. But the titanium dioxide plan, is another instance of the gravity defying explication of the sky that Sloterdijk has conceptualised, and if ever implemented would have material consequences upon the ground (more titanium ore mining, more processing, more soil and water pollution, more energy consumption) and also novel legal ramifications in terms of sky-ownership.

Perhaps the danger here is that – via this march of explication – we are trying to conceptually and physically approach the sky as we do land. Introducing a collection of essays acknowledging geography’s fixation with the geo (i.e. land and matter)Jackson & Fannin (2011) speculate on what a genuinely understanding ‘aerography’ would need to look like, and how it would to differ from geography in order to break free of what Henri Bergson called ‘the logic of solids’.

We would laugh if anyone were to suggest that the sky was a solid, but if we are at the brink of demarking it as territory into which material can be permanently inserted then we are at risk of transposing that solids logic into an alien world to which it may never be suited, regardless of the reach of our gravity defying technologies.

The permanent colonisation of sky-space by matter could also, of course, have unforeseeable chemical and/or climactic effects. In time would have to reap what we sow: the atmosphere might resist the explicatory logic of the human plan and reassert its sovereignty of the sky.  Perhaps here we can leave the last word to another Titania, the queen of the fairies in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, Scene i):

“…the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.”


References and sources:

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London

Emsley, J. (2012) ‘Fujishima is suggested as a possible Nobel Prize winner “for the discovery of photocatalytic properties of titanium dioxide known as the Honda-Fujishima Effect” Science Watch, http://sciencewatch.com/nobel/predictions/titanium-dioxide-photocatalysis

Hague, N. (1992) Manual of Environmental Policy: the EC and Britain, Longman: London.

Hemmerling, K. (2011) ‘Titanium Dioxide could give these 10 stocks a boost’ http://seekingalpha.com/article/259447-titanium-dioxide-could-give-these-10-stocks-a-boost

Jackson, M & Fannin, M (2011) ‘Letting geography fall where it may – aerographies address the elemental’ Environment & Planning D: Society & space, 29, 435-444

Lane, D.A. (1991) ‘Pollution caused by waste from the titanium dioxide industry – Directive 89/428’ Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 14(2) 425-434

Mowat, R. (2012) ‘TiO2 Titanium Dioxide Companies’ http://www.vanadiumsite.com/titanium-dioxide/ti02-companies/

Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror From the Air, Semiotext(e): Los Angeles (trans. Amy Patton & Steve Corcoran)

Than, K. (2012) ‘Sunscreen in the sky? Reflective particles may combat warming’ National Geographic Daily News http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2012/05/120529-global-warming-titanium-dioxide-balloons-earth-environment-science/

TDMA (Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association) (2012) About Titanium Dioxide TDMA web site: http://www.tdma.info/

Photo credit: Nikki Clayton – http://www.flickr.com/photos/clikkinayton/8144742751/sizes/z/in/photostream/

Rubble Mapping

Berlin Rubble Mapping – soil as archive and art

alexandra regan toland

A unique aspect of German soil protection policy is the protection of soil on account of its archival function. After World War II over 75 million cubic meters of rubble and debris almost completely covered the city of Berlin. Mountains of stone, brick and dust had to be cleared, sorted into recyclable and non-recyclable material, and moved to suitable storage and dumping sites before the city could begin rebuilding. This work was famously accomplished by women, usually in exchange for food and shelter.

Today some of the city’s most frequented and beloved public parks hide the material remnants of pre-war Germany. Humboldthain, Volkspark Friedrichshain and the largest “rubble mountain” Teufelsberg confront recreation seekers with massive grass and tree-lined ghosts of the past. Scratching only a few centimeters of topsoil from the surface may reveal shards of colored tiles and bits of bricks of all shapes and sizes. More problematic is…

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‘Everywhere is somewhere’ – thoughts on passing through

“Good, yes, you’ve done well

Here is a small prize

The history of the world”

The Gang of Four (1982) ‘The History of the World’

I’m told that there’s a mediocre swashbuckling film from the 1950s with an inadvertent claim to fame. A viewer who knows what and when to look away from the foreground of the film’s harbour-side action will spot a Bedford van chugging up a hillside road on the far side of the estuary. I love that incongruence, the everyday bleeding into the scene despite the best efforts of the film crew to stage the scene for 15th century authenticity.

I love watching old films with outdoor action sequences. Not because of the story-line, but because of the incidental opportunity to see people, cars, buildings passing through the frame. As the camera pans on and each bystander leaves the shot I wonder what it was like to be them, where they were going, what was on their mind, who they were and what those accidentally captured slices of their lives can show and say.

Perhaps for a moment I feel that I’m passing along those streets, that I’m getting a glimpse of real day-to-day lives being lived in a moment of the past.

Child development experts (of a structuralist hew) tell us that infant spatial awareness passes through a number of key stages – from the egotic to the abstract. For Piaget and his ilk, early world perception is purely egotic. The toddler see’s the physical world around him only to the extent that it is an extension of himself and his support needs. Nothing else is or can be known if it has no connection to that survival preoccupation. But as the child grows this world-picturing becomes first nodal, acknowledging the independence of the surrounding world, but still from an instrumental point of view (i.e. ‘how do I get to the shop that has the sweets that I want?’) but then in time the picture becomes fully abstract. The world is accepted as exterior and independent, something to be encountered, and somewhere that exists even when not being looked at or used by the viewer.

I recall two moments in my childhood when my outlook moved onward along that axis. First, a family journey somewhere in the mid Devon countryside, travelling between a succession of villages. Looking out of the car window I saw a group of children standing on a street corner playing. The scene at first made me think, ‘why have these people come to this strange place that only exists for passing-through?’ and then reflexively it dawned on me that they would think the same of me and my street corner where they to drive past my home. At the time it seemed a very profound revelation. Writing it now it doesn’t. But that shift from egotic/nodal to fully accepting of independence of the world and the lives in it was important. An adult who could still only see the world through their own eyes and position would be missing so much…

The second occasion was at secondary school. A road lay beyond the school fence. Standing in the playground at break, looking out I would watch the cars and lorries trundle past. By this stage I was fully aware of the independence of those vehicles, and their part of the world from my needs and control. Indeed, I think watching those cars and lorries going about their business emphasised to me the smallness and insignificance of any one person’s place in the world. That baker’s lorry, those people driving to work, that birth-life-death cycle playing itself out around me was universal, timeless and unstoppable. Yes, this was the moment that I developed a sense of system. A sociological epiphany of soughts.

So, as I seek out the Bedford van climbing that hill in that film I’m marvelling at the film crew’s inability to fully control their event, I’m trying to cast myself momentarily into the life-world of the driver and I’m conjecturing the plot of the delivery route that he was driving, the history, purpose and fate of the organisation he was working for and the arrangements by which the loaves of bread wobbling in the back of his van came to be made, shipped, sold and consumed. That journey had consequences, but they were ‘only’ every-day effects. The bread was delivered and eaten. No one would remember that particular loaf, or that particular delivery journey. Yet, this one iteration of the journey – a journey repeated without record on many thousands of other almost identical other occasions – was accidentally captured for posterity.

A humdrum moment frozen in the background of an unremarkable film, but for me it’s the most fascinating bit.

Photo source: http://www.newbury.net/forum/m-1259580804/s-all/

‘A mighty oak has fallen’ – depicting absence at Bole Hill

“You can’t photograph something if there’s nothing there, but you can if there are feint traces to suggest the something greater that is missing.”

That’s the thought I had running around in  my head as I walked a dog and a child around a local hilltop municipal park, Bole Hill.

The hilltop gives panoramic views of the valleys and other lesser hills of northern Sheffield. Up there you look down on everything from rough terraces perched on this exposed hilltop. The sun rises and falls, people come and go and the wind blows. Up at that place, time passes.

This place was a quarry once, the terraces now laid with municipal tarmac and sturdy grasses on what were once the benches from which the stone was worked for the growing city. The park consolidates into a single public place various geologies, phases and ownerships. From maps it appears that everyone was at it here in the late 1800s. But now only the occasional outcrop remains to signal what this place once was. There are traces, but you have to know what to look for. Ask most about this place and its a park, bowling green, view point, playground and (in parts) nature reserve. Only old maps and municipal deeds explain the original purpose for these irregular terraces and their connecting pathways.

Standing on one terrace, the sun was hanging low. The seat took my eye.  A memorial dedication seared into the wood-effect plastic:

Keith ‘Parky’ Hudson – ‘A mighty oak has fallen’

That’s it. No dates, just a name, an evocative phrase and a bench staring out from the terrace.

“It was willingly that I crossed over into the darkness of danger” – thoughts on the anti-aesthetics of electricity sub-stations

Aargh, she’s done it again.

There I was happily sitting eating my Sunday breakfast, content in the knowledge that I didn’t have any blog-essays budding in my mind to conflict with the need to show attentiveness to family socialities. I was grazing through tweets and then @venusingortex set my mind all swirling again.

I sit here now at the kitchen table, hastily typing out this post. Trying to purge my now preoccupying thoughts before my family wake up.

Towards the danger

“It rose before me, the space between us electric. It was willingly that I crossed over into the darkness of danger.”

It’s not the innuendo of @venusingortex’s tweet that has grabbed me, but rather its reminded me of the lure of places of electrical danger. And these are places that find a curious overlap of a variety of aesthetics: those of the thrill-seeker; the industrial aesthete; the occupational risk assessor and the metal thief. Each notice these stations, read them in their own way and take from them rich meaning.

English judges developed a ‘doctrine of allurement’ in the Victorian period, by which a landowner (usually an industrial operator) could be held liable for injury sustained by child trespassers mangled by their heavy machinery. The doctrine was a pragmatic means to an end, a way of getting around the then very limited other protection in law for the safety of trespassers. But what the doctrine had at it’s heart was a strange belief in the Siren’s call of dangerous objects. That machines almost summon their victims towards them: that their non-human agency overwhelms the human power to resist their summon. This doctrine has now rather been overtaken by other trespasser protections (the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1984), but the ghost of that way of thinking about human-object relations in a safety context remains there, just below the surface.

As part of my work on occupiers’ liability and child trespass I’ve come across the occasional case in which someone young is electrocuted whilst trespassing within an electricity sub-station. The children (if still alive) usually say that they went in there to get their ball back (the classic excuse), though I suspect that sometimes the challenge was simply to see if they could get inside. A recent case examined in forensic detail just how many fences and other barriers that the youth had to assail to reach the point at which he was seriously injured. The judge marvelled at the youth’s climbing prowess and ingenuity but concluded from this that such determination left the youth solely to blame for the injury that had befallen him.

This forensic examination of the clambering is replicated in a series of medical studies in the US. Here postmortems have attempted to contribute to metal theft research. Trying to work out the intruders’ motivations by examining the chemical composition of their blood. And the conclusion? – that most of the dead intruders were high on drugs of one sort or another. Yes, unsuprisingly, trying to negotiate a safe path amidst high voltage electrical equipment is even more risk-prone if you are off your face.

Yet, in South Yorkshire alone each year there are a handful of serious injuries (and some fatalities) caused by metal thieves drawn to the sub-stations as a source of ‘free’ copper, but without the requisite appreciation that cutting into live conductive cabling will deliver them deadly electric shocks for free too. Somehow the lure of the copper is picked up in local knowledge-networks, but not the appreciation of the danger – what the sub-station actually does.

Here I’m reminded of a quote in a book by Roger Atwood examining the cultures of Peruvian tomb raiders, and how they overcame taboos about grave robbing:

“When you first start doing this, it makes you nervous. Digging up bones, you think you are going to incur a curse. But after a while it becomes easy. You don’t even think about it….Around here there is no other kind of work. I used to work at the diary factory but it closed. There is no work but looting” (2004: 32)

Thus, that act became normalised, the spiritual risks forgotten about in the face of material gain.

The sub-station as aesthetic object

Before embarking on my bunker project I had thought about selecting electricity sub-stations as my focal point. The bunker seam does probably allow for deeper mining in chasing after representational and usage mutations, but I did notice some of the artisitic co-option of sub-stations before my bunker-swerve. The work of the Brechers (and their studies of industrial site elemental forms in the Ruhr) come close, but it is the mundane-embracing work of John Myers that is the exemplar. Here Myer’s picture (part of his mid 1970s Middle England series) speaks a thousand words about the non-place status of the rudimentary places at which the power networks intersect the local.

And then there’s the issue of how electricity infrastructure writes itself upon the landscape (a name check here for @lines_of_landscape’s photos of pylons). Lawyers have a special word for it: ‘wayleaves’. Little possessory footpads allowing the National Grid to march across the country, joining up the local encampments of transformers, huddled in hostle human country like the advance forts of a robot invasion.

But I think we can also readily see an aestheticisation of nodal points of electricity distribution in many Hollywood blockbusters. The strange transformer poles at the derelict power station or factory site that is the scene of the final show-down between the good and bad guys (perhaps set agains a thundery sky with the crackle of lightening to add a natural frisson to the proceedings). From Frankenstein through to Iron Man the electric, and its places of production and use offer us a deadly fascination.

P.S. If I had time I’d now digress into the aesthetics of risk assessment and CEGB public information films – but I think that will get an essay in its own right someday…


Atwood, R. (2004) Stealing History – tomb raiders, smugglers and the looting of the ancient world, St. Martin’s Press: New York

Bennett, L. (2011) “Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability” International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, Vol. 3 Iss: 2, pp.126 http://shura.shu.ac.uk/2862/

@Lines_of_Landscape’s photographs of pylons: http://telegraphpolesandelectricpylons.tumblr.com


Angular transformer poles: https://twitter.com/VenusInGoretex/status/264327427847770113/photo/1/large

Rural substation: http://s0.geograph.org.uk/photos/21/46/214651_6be2e545.jpg

Myers substation picture via: http://rikrawling.wordpress.com/

‘Risk, Liability and Outdoor Adventure’ BMC Conference – notes and slideshow

“The pursuit of an unrestrained culture of blame and compensation has many evil consequences and one is certainly the interference with the liberty of the citizen. Of course there is some risk of accidents arising out of the joie de vivre of the young, but that is no reason for imposing a grey and dull safety regime on everyone”
Lord Hobhouse in Tomlinson -v- Congleton Borough Council [2003] UKHL 47, at 81

Here are the slides for my contribution to the British Mountaineering Council’s conference on ‘Risk, liability and outdoor adventure’. This event was targetted at landowners and managers and featured speakers from the BMC, RoSPA, the Country Land & Business Association, the National Trust, risk professionals and politicians. [ NB:  The BMC has now (9-11-2012) set up a webpage featuring summaries of all of the speakers’ presentations: http://www.thebmc.co.uk/bmcs-risk-liability–outdoor-adventure-conference-an-overview]

Everyone agreed that the risk of landowner liability for adults engaging in adventure sports like climbing, caving and wild swimming is low. The challenge though is how to spread that message to reluctant landowners…

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And here – following requests – are links for items mentioned in the slideshow:

  • Bennett, L. & Crowe, L. (2008), Landowners’ Liability? Is Perception of the Risk of Liability for Visitor Accidents a Barrier to Countryside Access?, Countryside Recreation Network,  Sheffield. Available at: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/678/.
  • Bennett, L. (2010), “Trees and public liability – who really decides what is reasonably safe?”, Arboricultural Journal, Vol. 33(3), pp. 141-164. Available at: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/2861/
  • Bennett, L. (2011a), “Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability”, The International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, Vol. 3(2), pp. 126-145. Available at: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/2862/
  • Bennett, L. (2011b). “Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29 (3), 421-434.
  • Bennett, L. & Gibbeson, C. (2010), “Perceptions of occupiers’ liability risk by estate managers: a case study of memorial safety in English cemeteries”, The International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, Vol. 2(1), pp. 77-93. Available at http://shura.shu.ac.uk/1737/
  • CLA (Country Land and Business Association) (2007), “Response to the DEFRA consultation on proposals to improve access to the English coast” submission dated 11 September 2007, CLA, London.