“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…

References

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

Pictures:

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/

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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

  1. RH says:

    Enjoyable and thought-provoking, as always, and just the thing to read as I start logging off after an afternoon spent on Rubbish Theory, [in]authenticity, and other germane matters. I love the ‘doctrine of allurement’—who would have thought that Victorian lawmakers had such poetry in them? But your post also made me think of something that hadn’t occurred to me before: electricity sub-stations have always been part of the background (there was one just around the corner when I was growing up), but it has just now struck me as interesting that it is the SUB-station that is the familiar object: who has ever encountered an electricity STATION in the normal course of events? Its ‘sub’ status is somehow in keeping with its compact, self-contained, and slightly mysterious demeanour …

    • Thanks RH. Yes, Thompson’s ‘Rubbish Theory’ is great – a bit bonkers towards the end with all the graphs. But it sits at the back of a lot of my thinking.

      The ‘sub’ point’s an interesting one: sub as submerged / unnoticed. Yes the main transformer stations (where National Grid voltage (150kV) is stepped down to an intermediate voltage (50kV) for local distribution, before then being stepped down to 240V for household use) are also pretty invisible to most – even though big and odd looking (and usually ‘outdoors’ unlike the enclosed sub-stations).

      Your PhD sounds interesting…

      Luke

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