Four views of a grey wall: remembering, forgetting, making & embracing concrete

moore st

“Perhaps ours

is the first generation for whom

material                                              and                                        meaning

are completely and effortlessly

disconnected.”

Caroline Bos (1995: 22)

 

REMEMBERING CONCRETE

On standing, he coughed and approached the podium. Looking apologetically out into the eager audience the final speaker offered up a nervous mea culpa:

“I’ve spent most of my life not thinking about concrete”

In ordinary company there would be nothing strange in the content of that truth (although it would be odd to bother to state it). But this was not an ordinary gathering. This was Nottingham University’s recent symposium on the Meanings of Concrete.

And yet, the strange thing was that many of the preceding speakers had, in one way or another, more implicitly echoed something similar. If concrete is returning to the aesthetic stage it is doing so awkwardly, tentatively and conditionally. No strident Neo-Brutalists here.

The event was themed around Adrian Forty’s recent book, Concrete and Culture (2012) and Prof Forty was there and contributed a short synopsis of his thinking on the semantics of concrete. For Forty the big point about concrete is its indeterminacy. Applying a linguistic-structuralist tinged analysis, Forty concluded that this ubiquitous material is restless, it has no stable classification and therefore provokes ambiguous (some might say conflicted) cultural responses.

In furtherance of this point he aptly quoted Peter Schjeldahl’s wonderfully vivid depiction of the slippery meanings of this:

“liquid rock – concrete is born under a sign of paradox and does not care…concrete is most careless, promiscuous stuff until committed, when it becomes fantastically adamant.”(1993: 28)

This is a material of indeterminant state and strength, at points almost living and at others resolutely dead, fixed and brutally immovable.

Forty’s key thesis is that we simplify to depict concrete as a messianic proposition – a wonder material – in the early 20th century and the antithesis of this one hundred years later. To equate concrete with Modernism ascribes too much stability to concrete’s status and image at any point in time. As Forty pointed out, Modernism was about transparency, and steel was so much better suited to fitting that brief.

It is concrete’s mutability (and mouldability) that is both its virtue and its vice. It is a shape changer , but the properties that give it that amorphous quality deny it a stable place in culture, and Forty concludes that this unstable, unclassifiable otherness explains much of the popular antipathy to it. If architecture is haunted by John Ruskin’s invocation that good design would reveal the truth of materials – their honesty to their properties and form – then concrete violates this aesthetic framework, because it is a shape-shifter, as Schjeldahl puts it:

“Promiscuous, doing what anyone wants if the person is strong enough to hold it, concrete is the slut, the gigolo, of materials.” (1993)

The thread connecting many of the speakers at this event was the idea of concrete as anaesthetic (in the sense of invisible, not noticeable). Barnabas Calder, charted this through the career of Denys Lasdun (of National Theatre / South Bank fame). Calder reported how Lasdun’s work in the 1950s had not advocated whole elevation use of exposed concrete, and that it was only at the height of Brutalism in the 1970s that concrete had emerged foregrounded as a surface, prior to that modernists of Lasden’s ilk were advocating construction in concrete as a means to an end – as a way of opening up the built forms, rather than advocating a pro-concrete material aesthetic per se. Primarily reinforced concrete posed new (fairly cheap and certainly strong) structural (i.e. load bearing) possibilities. Traditional constraints on size and openness of buildings could be surmounted with concrete.

As Modernism evolved, and as an ancillary, the aesthetic value of concrete (and its colour pallet) emerged as it came to be regarded as a background tone that would not crowd out the human or natural elements in the local environmental frame. In short, using concrete was a way of transcending matter through use of a ubiquitous, register-less material .

There were some echoes of this in a later talk by Rob Hayes of architects Curuso St John, a practice with something of a niche in the rediscovery of concrete architecture. Yet Hayes illustrated how concrete emerged into his case study projects as solutions or fine tuning to designs that primarily featured other construction materials. Here concrete was finding use as novel surface finishes, twists and details – not as a signal of a Neo-Brutalism. For Hayes, the use of concrete within these projects helped to stop the building being about the building – focussing instead upon letting the building just ‘be’ (i.e. exist for its purpose). Hayes’ illustrations, alongside Fiona Samuel’s presentation on Le Corbusier’s churches, both went some way to refute the accusation oft made against concrete that it is unsuitable as a visible construction material because it is incapable of carrying detailing, Hayes showing concrete’s suitability to mosaic and other imprints, and both speakers showing this material’s ability to curve, and portray complex organic textures and shapes.

FORGETTING CONCRETE

The plan was laid, this grey matter should not be seen. At dusk the change would begin.

The event’s compere, Steve Parnell  opened the day with reflection on the obliteration of concrete icons in Sheffield, remarking how ‘The City of Steel’ was at its height more a ‘City of Concrete’ and how the turn away from Modernism since the early 1980s has seen the erasure of prominent concrete landmarks, either by outright demolition or by a process of masking – a surfeit of cladding over Brutalist concrete surfaces. Thus the iconic grey forms of the Tinsley cooling towers, once standing proud astride the elevated sections of the M1 have been pulled down, to be replaced by a human form statue: The Man of Steel. Thus this city defines itself through the metallic form rather than the cementatious.

Meanwhile the Park Hill Flats – a vast concrete ridgeline now Listed against demolition, are in their regeneration to be saved from concrete oblivion by the insertion of metal cladding and a stainless steel  corkscrew staircase.

And a monolithic Moore Street electricity substation in the centre of the city is softened (at night at least) via bathing in multicoloured spotlights.

It seems concrete grey is only appropriate for aesthetes – the mould poured artist studio bloc of Persistence Works being the only blatantly concrete poured building to have been erected in unapologetic blockhouse form in recent decades. Concrete style – concrete as foreground, as surface – is left to exist as an isolated artist-thing. And yet…

MAKING CONCRETE

Striding out from his site office, the site manager proudly surveyed the scene before him. Standing by a freshly laid foundation pad, he took a deep breath, leaned back in satisfaction and extolled the marvellous self-levelling properties of his new concrete mix. Yes, there is a high-art fetishism that can attach to this grey matter, but there is also a robustly prosaic field in which concrete comes to the forefront of attention, and approaches a material-love.

Alexander  Styhre writes of this in the context of a study of Swedish tunnelling contractors, and the aesthetic nature of their tacit knowledge – accumulated as sheer experience of concrete’s behaviour – as concrete sprayers. He reminds us that aesthetics was once wider than the fine art sense in which it is commonly used today and covered craft – artisanal work too. Proficency in such human-material engagements requires attunement of all the senses, as one concrete sprayer put it:

“Quite often, you hear various sounds…you may see the movements of the [spray] machine…you notice that it doesn’t do too well, the spray concrete just bubbles and hisses by the mouth-piece, and then something’s wrong…you can listen to the pump-beats whether machine works as it should” (2008: 407)

In making his point Styhre makes an interesting observation – that for the fine arts aesthetics is a matter of what is produced, whilst for the artisan aesthetics is processual – it is about attaining (and maintaining) the craft and competence entailed within the task, its technology and its matter.

Forty addresses this and concrete’s high art vs daily craft duality in his book – noting that care should be taken not to ascribe the origins of the proliferation of concrete construction entirely to the world of architects and technologists. Instead, space should be preserved for the pragmatic, on-site, ‘trades’ level development of concrete usage (and in particular the pioneering of reinforcement). Thus, much of the life-history of concrete lies in these hands, and is largely unrecorded. But these hands (and the wisdom and experience connected to them) were engaged in close, co-evolving relationships with concrete, an everyday erotics of trial and error, experience of this stuff, its abilities and weaknesses.

Standing by the freshly laid foundation pad, the site manager continued on, his traumatic sagas of premature curing, and of consequent cracking, rolling forth punctuated by the palpable joy of his newly-found improved concrete formula which has rendered all that pain a thing of the past.

But no one would suggest that the high-end housing estate that he was building should be built of concrete. Oh, no – these will be houses faced with brick (with concrete blocks behind, as Building Regs dictate in acknowledgment of concrete block’s better thermal performance than the humble house brick). That will fit the character of the area and the tastes of the market. Poured concrete homes in the UK have the connotation of poorly built housing for the poor.

Back at the conference Adrian Jones, Nottingham City Council’s former Director of Housing gave some sense of this in his overview of the relationship between concrete and his city’s development. The Post War situation saw demand (and Governmental will) for reconstruction and for modernisation. Concrete offered the promise of speed, relative cheapness and a sense of the future. Construction came to look increasingly factory orientated – with system building. But the structures thrown up in this wave did not prove durable. Sometimes this was due to poor build (or the limitations of concrete) and at other times it was simply vulnerability to a public sentiment that had never fully embraced concrete as a ‘proper’ construction material (unless that stuff was secreted out of view within a more palatable material coating of brick, cladding or render).

Jones also gave an enticing glimpse of the normally unnoticed local landscape of concrete supply – the quarries and batching plants, the riverside (concrete) warehouses, the roads and bridges by which this grey stuff was made and found its way into the city. Much of this infrastructure of local extraction and transhipment is now gone. A new branch of infrastructural urbex waiting to be explored…

EMBRACING CONCRETE

As the traceur pauses, staring out in to the landscape before him, something catches his eye:

“The differences in height, and the material of the surfaces are, you know, optimal, and…it has…this concrete wall which is not painted, not polished at all, so first of all it’s good to hang from and to practise things, and it doesn’t show any traces on white paint, for example, so that nobody has a reason to complain, and it is really, very diverse.” (2012: 169)

So states, ‘Valtteri’ a Finnish traceur interviewed in Lieven Ameel and Sirpa Tani’s research into the everyday aesthetics of Parkour , and specifically the development – within that practice – of what traceurs call “Parkour eyes”,  an attentiveness to structural and surficial details that would not normally register in conventional engagements with the urban environment. Thus to become proficient in Parkour is to develop an ability to read the surrounding  with all senses engaged, and to commune with such objects wilfully, intimately (for example by bodily slam, the trusting of weight or anticipated degree of friction). In such engagements – it appears – concrete comes out very well, and thus a conventionally drab decaying concrete landscape becomes valorised for a range of non-visual qualities (strength, traction, uniform gradient, camber, temperature). These qualities all contribute to the usability of these objects, and are interpreted aesthetically as the ‘feel’ of the object. Thus developing ‘Parkours eyes” Ameel and Tani conclude:

“Is not only about seeing possibilities in unexpected places, but also about seeing possibilities for attaching new and unexpected feelings to place” (170)

And thereby a prosaic, everyday “aesthetics of ugliness” (171) is found for the concrete wall.

In similar vein one can hear the unnamed writer of Article Magazine, gazing at the Moore Street Brutalist structure, summoned to stop and stare by the brute concrete edifice:

“I hear dubstep whenever  I see this building: lurching over it seems to force me into the ground. Its only purpose is to keep people out and yet it succeeds in drawing me into it.” (Article: 2009)

 

References

Ameel, L. & Tani, S. (2012) ‘Everyday aesthetics in action: Parkour eyes and the beauty of concrete walls” Emotion, Space &Society 5 164-173

Article Magazine (2009) ‘Sheffield Concrete’, www.articlemagazine.co.uk/wordpress/feature-articles/sheffield-concrete

Bos, C. (1995) ‘Painful Materialism’, Daidalos, Aug 1995, p.22.

Forty, A. (2012) Concrete and Culture: a material history, Reaktion Books: London.

Schjeldahl, P. (1993) ‘Hard truths about concrete’, Harper’s Magazine, 287, no. 1721, October 1993, pp. 28-30 [a longer extract from this wonderful paean to concrete is at: http://marchingunderbanners.net/2011/09/21/hard-truths-about-concrete/]

Styhre, A. (2008) ‘The aesthetics of rock construction work: the beauty of sprayed concrete, rock reinforcement and roof bolting’ Culture and Organization, 14, 401-410.

Photo credit: Moore Street Substation (Sheffield) by thebustocrookes www.flickr.com/photos/thebustocrookes/8396394404

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Bunkers, anoraks and the erotics of knowledge

Here are my slides for the paper I’m giving at @conservingc20 ‘s conference on cultures of architectural enthusiasm at University College, London next week.

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There’s another bunkerology slideshow here:

https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/new-uses-for-old-bunkers-8-affective-landscapes-sebald-orford-ness-and-the-patriotism-of-pillboxes/

That one dwells more on representation and genre.

[This is New Uses For Old Bunkers #33]

Time vs Space: thoughts on waking to find that the world has moved on

“If it is true that time is always memorialised not as flow, but as memories of experienced places and spaces,

then history must indeed give way to poetry, time to space,

as the fundamental material of social expression”

David Harvey (1990: 218)

I’ve recently read Robert T. Tally Jr’s wonderful little book, Spatiality, a guide to the spacial turn in literary and cultural studies. Tally maps out this shift in the intellectual landscape in clearer terms than I’ve previously encountered, and the experience of reading his account of the reorientation that has played out over the past 30 years has caused me to start questioning (or at least become conscious of) some of the assumptions that I dug out of my scholarly kitbag when I, as a latter day Rip Van Winkle, awoke six years ago from 20 years slumber and returned to study.

Looking back at looking forward

My mid to late 1980s undergraduate career wantonly fused a variety of social sciences – all taught and gladly lapped up from a distinctly socio-critical, progressive slant. At the time this all had a slightly faded odour – it reflected a way of thinking that was on the wane, but the embers were still warm in the syllabuses and library shelves. Post War Corporatism was not entirely dead (though mortally wounded by Thatcherism’s first salvo of Neo-Liberal blows), and its fading ethos  still permeated all of my studies, each discipline presenting its aspect of the social as an inevitable (if now slightly slower than expected in 1968) advance towards something better. The uplands of ‘jam tomorrow’, were still just over the next ridge and technocratic, social science informed planning would get us (the future-managers-to-be) there eventually. In the dying days of this historical materialism the physical landscape of ‘now’ was generic, local spatial difference and distinctiveness were mere surface effects, for in the brave new world  all places would eventually reach – via ‘progress’ (though perhaps at different speeds) – the same social destination. Thus the ascent path to be found was one across time not space.

But, Tally gives me a vivid account of a now-changed intellectual landscape.  He shows how – in cultural theory – the relative significance of movement across time (i.e. a historical sensibility) has declined, and in its place has risen an increasing attentiveness to lived spatiality – the body inhabiting specific, meaningful places (i.e. geography) in the present. Thus – for Tally – thoughts of place have trumped the former preoccupation with time.

Tally’s account of this is more nuanced – but my crude summary will suffice for the points I want to explore here. What I want to consider is: what is the role for time in this ‘new’ intellectual landscape?

The places of the past, present and future

I don’t see a sense of the past as having disappeared from culture itself though – although I’d agree that the power of grand narratives, and their faith in historical destiny and progress seem greatly diminished. Engagement with the past – what we might even call an economy of the past – is still very important, perhaps ever more so, and ‘Heritage’ has become one of our few growth industries. Thus the past is still alive in popular engagements with place, and we should be careful not to write such behaviour off as ‘nostalgia’.

A lot that has been written recently about nostalgia, moving that term away from its simplistic popular usage as a term of abuse. Indeed, I’d argue that nostalgia only really makes sense as a term of censure within an Enlightenment / Modernist frame of reference. For living in the past (or refusing to aspire towards change and the future) is only really a true crime if the accuser has faith in the future as progress, desirable, unavoidable. As Svetlana Boym (2007) explains, nostalgia was originally coined as a medical term – describing a palpable (and debilitating) yearning for home and/or past connected with it, something that could be cured by leeches. Nostalgia was a problem to the extent that it debilitated life in the present. But a sense of the past may well enrich, and reinforce identity in the present.

Perhaps what has faded in both cultural theory and everyday life is a teleological sense of social (and perhaps also individual) life as a journey towards something. A process of meaningful and progressive (i.e. developmental) change over time. And oddly it was historical materialism that set the scene for this: with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, first published in 1992 which declared the end of history in the sense of announcing that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalism had ‘won’ and had shown itself to be the summit of socio-historical evolution. All that was left to study was how capitalism rolled out across the new eastern territories it now had at its feet.

And it does seem that critical scholarship has foregrounded space as the remaining battleground, particularly in the wake of the Occupy space-based movements. Here focus is upon “innumerable singular sites of suffering”. But in such local, experience-based studies, these places often feel  ahistorical, stripped of grand pattern-spotting narratives. As Jacques Derrida puts it in reaction to Fukuyama’s thesis:

“ Instead of singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history, instead of celebrating the ‘end of ideologies’ and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.” (1994: 85)

Yet even Fukuyama is not a modernist-optimist. He does not have an unqualified faith in progress. In particular he fears what technological advancement may bring, echoing the rise of an ecologically minded future-phobia that has risen (in counter to unbridled faith of the earlier 20th century in the ‘white heat of technology’). The environmental discourse is now well embedded – we are fallen, the future has been rendered dangerous and uncertain by our own rush towards it.

Interestingly, in this regard, Derrida’s oft-repeated quote above continues with the following provisional nod to contemporary ecological anxieties:

“(And provisionally, but with regret, we must leave aside here the nevertheless indissociable question of what is becoming of so-called “animal” life, the life and existence of “animals” in this history. This question has always been an important one, but will become massively unavoidable.)”

Perhaps this is what most motivates a turn to the present, the future is too difficult to contemplate, there are too many angles to cover.

And perhaps this fear of the future engenders recreational nostalgia in popular culture too. To seek respite in the ‘successful’ places of the past (country homes) and their ‘simpler’ technological relations (industrial archaeology;  urban exploration). In such places the complexity of the present and the future is forgotten for a moment, perhaps.

But that nostalgia is largely absent from scholarship – and which is why writing about urban explorers, heritage enthusiasts or other past-in-place lovers can fall into an us/them spectatorship – because temporality (and how people use it to construct and sustain place) isn’t taken seriously enough by place focussed academics. But, popular engagement with the past has very real effects on how places are interacted with (as Raphael Samuels argued back in the early 1990s). So, we need to take care not to write temporality out of academic studies of engagement with place.

Calling time on timelessness?

Perhaps the tide is turning. I’ve recent come across three publications that seek to reassert the temporal dimension in consideration of materiality, place and landscape.

First, at the level of object oriented ontology Peter Gratton (2013) tables an accusation against Graham Harman that in his quest to liberate all of the stuff of the world from cognitive and or relational human sovereignty,  OOO analysis consigns the totality of stuff in the world (humans included) to a stubborn, uncontactable existence locked in the perpetual solitary confinement of a static, eternal here-and-now. For Gratton, Harman’s focus upon “the alterity of things” threatens to deny the important – nuanced – analyses of time (and time-experience) presented by Heidegger and Derrida. Gratton reminds us that things happen to things – they exist and change – over time.

Meanwhile, Chris Van Dyke (2013) takes Non Representational Theory (NRT) to task, arguing that in foregrounding individual, subjective readings of place, much of the rich detail that characterises one place as distinct from any other has been jettisoned, leading to a marginalisation of the identity-of-place within a branch of 21st century spatial scholarship that purports to capture and project a rich, affectual engagement with the multiplicity of any location. Like Gratton, Van Dyke also points to the important role accorded to movement through time as an engine of meaning and place-formation by Derrida and Deleuze, a linkage somehow lost in NRT’s utilisation of these continental thinkers.  As Van Dyke puts his charge against two of the key NRT scholars:

“Rose and Wylie’s work yields landscape readings preoccupied with disembodied, ahistorical absences. In dwelling on questions of absence, these narratives devalue the visual, material and experiential properties of landscape. Landscapes are ultimately used to substantiate the epistemological validity of different philosophical tropes and concepts, obscuring the historical materiality of landscape whilst exonerating them from their social circumstances. What remains are evacuated spaces that have a materiality whose presence seems incidental and the reflection of an insulated consciousness” (3)

Van Dyke’s remedy for this non-representational malady, is to switch focus. To spend less effort on depicting what is absent and place more emphasis on describing what can be found – the imperfect stabilities that make for a localised and temporary approximation of order, meaning and inter-subjective use/experience at particular places. He deftly enlists Bruno Latour and Catherine Malabou to that purpose – weaving Latour’s focus on relationality (the places are formed through the interaction through time of material, discursive and living entities) and Malabou’s concept of plasticity (that places have a quality that both enables reaction and change, but which also holds and transmits legacies of past events, offering up partial resistance to present form and future possibility).  As Van Dyke argues, relationality and plasticity describe a semi-stable world of things, a world in which things interact over time and in doing so set up knock-on effects that will influence future iterations and becomings.  And the accounts of such interactions can be localised in a way that does investigate place-specifics in a deep way AND reintroduce respect for the role of change-over-time (and the effects of the past).

And finally Russell West-Pavlov (2013) in his book Temporalities, attacks postmodern conceptions of time space compression from a broadly post-human position, seeing in post modern eulogies for the death of the past and future (and the ascendancy of a commercialised ever-present present) “the loss of temporality in the face of a superficial spazialization of experience” (140).

West-Pavlov points out that Einstein’s discovery of the relativity, and of the interwoven space-time relationship was never fully explored or adopted in social theory. Drawing upon Bruno Latour’s and Jane Bennett, West-Pavlov calls for a beyond-human embrace of  immanent plural temporalities that lie at the heart of existence and are the essence of life itself (as a process of becoming). These temporalities are to be found in all aspects of the world. Thus time is everywhere: but everywhere time is local and relational in character. For him,

“These immanent, entity- and material-inhabiting temporalities and their respective time-trajectories are bound together to make up complex interwoven time with a plethora of different tempos” (141)

West-Pavlov’s aim is – broadly – an ecological one. To pull focus away from man-made time as a tool of conquest over dumb nature, as (following Latour) such thinking around a man/nature binary blinds us to the proliferation of man/nature hybrids and their attendant temporalities. As he puts it:

“An ethics and an aesthetics of immanent temporalities would acknowledge the primacy of the agency and existence of all entities as the forward-moving dynamic of time itself.” (122)

The End

Writing in 1976,  Michel Foucault depicted the then dominant perception of space in socio-cultural theory as “the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile” (1980: 70). Subsequently time (history) and spatiality swapped places, and temporarily became increasingly marginalized within spatial analysis. But perhaps now, there are some signs that this is set to change.

 

References

Boym, Svetlana (2007) Nostalgia and its discontents at http://www.iasc-culture.org/eNews/2007_10/9.2CBoym.pdf

Derrida, Jacques (1994). Specters of Marx: State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Routledge: London

Fukuyama, Francis (1993). The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin: London.

Foucault, Michel (1980) ‘Questions on Geography’ in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, New York: Pantheon, 63-77

Gratton, Peter (2013) ‘Post-Deconstructive Realism – It’s About Time’,  Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism IV 84- at http://speculations-journal.org

Harvey, David (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Blackwell: Oxford

Samuel, Raphael (1994) Theatres of Memories – Vol. 1 Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, Verso:  London.

Tally, Robert T. Jr (2013) Spatiality (The New Critical Idiom Series), Routledge: London.

Van Dyke, Chris (2013) ‘Plastic eternities and the mosaic of landscape’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31 (advanced publication on line: doi:10.1068/d15010)

West-Pavlov, Russell (2013) Temporalities (The New Critical Idiom Series), Routledge: London

Picture: Rip Van Winkle (1992) by John Howe: http://www.john-howe.com/portfolio/gallery/details.php?image_id=976

Concrete Multivalence – accounting for regularities in bunker representation

Orford-Ness-2-military-testing-lab-425

My new paper (Bennett 2013), published yesterday in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space is my fourth (and possibly final) academic interpretation of bunker-hunting. In my latest paper I try to show how genres emerge and circulate within ‘old-media’ forms of bunkerological accounting. In the paper I conceptualise four relatively stable modes of representation – the political, taxonomic, nostalgic and experiential – and analyse case study examples of each.

This paper – whilst centrally concerned with bunkers – starts to reveal my wider concern with meaning making practices related to supposedly ‘non-places’. My paper is also a response to other academics (specifically Beck 2011 and Garrett 2011 a & b), and debates about the (so called) ‘crisis of representation’ and the ascendancy of ‘non-representational theory’ in cultural geography. My aim is to show how representation (i.e. stable description of bunkers) is alive and kicking within amateur bunker-hunting and how matters of genre shape how engagements with bunkers by their hunters are portrayed and written-up.

One of the case studies that I discuss is Orford Ness’ hegemonic ubiquity in arts and humanities based engagements with bunkers and specifically W.G. Sebald’s description of the weapons testing bunkers there as:

“the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself among the remnants of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe” (Sebald 2002, page 237).

My quest is to understand why I have to mention this site and this quote in order to be achieving a proficient discussion of bunkers, if working within academic conventions.

As a taster of what I’ve come up with here is an edited version of my conclusion:

Whilst bunkers may well appear ‘nonplaces’ in the sense of places passed by without any regard by most people, they are not, as Beck contends, beyond representation. Instead, this paper has shown that there is plenty that can be (and has been) said about bunkers by bunkerhunting enthusiasts working within a family of identifiable modes of representation which, whilst they evolve over time in order to reflect changes both in bunkerological practice and in the material context in which bunkers exist, are fairly stable at any particular moment. 

Garrett (2011b, page 1050) contends that urban exploration harbours “no temporal or typological constraints to an appreciation of the past”. As regards bunker hunting at least, this paper takes issue with that view, and presents bunkerology, through its representational practices, as referential and structured. Bunkerologists approach (and perform) their practice reflexively through acknowledgment of dominant modes of representation, acting with a “feel for the game” (Bourdieu, 1990, page 66), an acquired sense of what would be appropriate or inappropriate to include in specific types of bunkerological account. The practice of representation thus involves reflexive accommodation to the anticipated expectations of the likely readers of their accounts, working within their “horizons of expectation” (Frow, 2005, page 147) and seeking advantageous conformity to these dominant modes of representation because these conventions “create effects of reality and truth, authority and plausibility” (Frow, 2005, page 2). This ‘conforming’ process is more subtle than that observed in relation to the control of online representations of bunkerology, but it can still be shown.

Strictly, Garrett’s argument relates to the practice of urban exploration itself (rather than the practice of writing about urban exploration). I accept that each site visit—each bunker encounter—is a unique subjective event, but it is at the point that attempts are made to circulate accounts of that encounter (to represent it in conversation, ‘online’ or ‘off-line media’) that the dominant modes of representation operating within bunkerology’s four discursive formations appear to have their strongest effect.

This distinction between exploring and writing about exploring was highlighted earlier in Foot’s (2006; 2007) ability to switch between two markedly different modes of representation for his account of the same bunker survey along the River Lark in Suffolk. This suggests that these dominant modes of representation are not necessarily limiting what bunker hunters notice or feel at a site, but rather that they influence what, from that array of personal impressions, findings, and experiences, is considered appropriate for inclusion in circulated accounts of bunkers and bunker hunting. Thus, some room is left for a prediscursive, subjective, and ‘open’ on-site experience.

But it is likely that the dominant modes of representation will to some extent also shape the on-site experience itself, at least for explorers who are trying to perform bunkerology ‘properly’ in terms of what is sought out, what is noticed, and what is remembered. This is because bunkerologists who wish to ‘write up’ their visit, or simply to ‘successfully’ perform it, will approach the practice of the site visit with given notions of what they are looking for and how the visit should be enacted.

However, even as regards representational practices, the case studies featured in this paper have shown that strong determinism and rigid thematic demarcation are not at work here. Whilst bunkerology relies upon its dominant modes of representation in order for accounts of bunker hunting to be meaningful, and in order to target them successfully towards an audience aligned to one or other of bunkerology’s discursive formations, there is hearty cross-fertilisation across the lines.

Most bunkerologists align to one discursive formulation, and despite Foot’s (2007) dexterity at incidentally embracing the nostalgic and experiential sides of his bunkerology, he is resolutely of the taxonomic school in his areas of interest and manner of practice. Yet bunkerologists seem to know that an ancillary, occasional recourse to an alternative mode of representation or allusion to the preoccupations of an alternative discursive formation may actually serve further to enhance the effectiveness of a bunkerological account. There is thus a ‘knowing’, reflexive rhetoric at work in the discursive practice of bunkerological accounting and many accounts incidentally draw upon the styles and focus of other modes of representation in order to avoid being too serious, too experiential, too nostalgic, or too political, in order to humanise a taxonomic approach or add factual authority to experiential musings. 

Bunkerologists’ ‘off-line’ account writing practices can be said then to be influenced by dominant modes of representation, and their practices show alignment to stable discursive formulations. But it is their active, tactical engagement with these rules of the game that avoids a conclusion damning these enthusiasts as automatons of discourse. Instead, these are knowing, reflexive practitioners of an embodied and discursive engagement with these concrete places.”

[This is New Uses For Old Bunkers #32]

NB: the article is subscription access, but I’m allowed to send out individual copies to anyone who asks me directly: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk

References

Beck J, 2011, “Concrete ambivalence: inside the bunker complex” Cultural Politics 7 79–102

Bennett L, 2013 “Concrete Multivalence: practising representation in bunkerology” Environment and Planning: Society and Space 31

Bennett L, 2011a, “Bunkerology: a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29 421–434

Bennett L, 2011b, “Bunkerology: a case study in the meaning making practices of on-line exploration forums”, paper presented at ETHICOMP 2011, Sheffield, http://shura.shu.ac.uk/3760/

Bennett L, 2011c, “The Bunker: metaphor, materiality and management” Culture and Organization 17 155–173

Bennett L, 2012 “Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers” Gender, Place and Culture, advance published online 12 July, doi: 10.1080/0966369X.2012.701197

Bourdieu P, 1990 The Logic of Practice (Polity Press, Cambridge)

Foot W, 2006 Beaches, Fields, Streets and Hills: The Anti-invasion Landscapes of England, 1940 (Council for British Archaeology, York)

Foot W, 2007 The Battlefields That Nearly Were: Defended England 1940 (Tempus, Stroud, Glos)

Frow J, 2005 Genre (Routledge, London)

Garrett B L, 2011a, “Shallow excavation, a response to Bunkerology” Environment and PlanningD: Society and Space open site, http://societyandspace.com/2011/06/10/shallow-excavation-aresponse-to-bunkerology-by-bradley-l-garrett/

Garrett B L, 2011b, “Assaying history: creating temporal junctions through urban exploration”Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29 1048–1067

Sebald W G, 2002 The Rings of Saturn (Vintage, London)

Photo source: http://www.discoveringplaces.co.uk/orford-ness