Casual eschatology, or the banality of Ethel

Picture 136

Ethel stoops half way along the corridor, brushing against Brendan’s jumper as she folds her torso towards the ground. “They told her it would be a few weeks, but four months is ridiculous” she says looking across to Karen as she steadies herself against the wall and picks at the leaflet she has just dropped, her fingers chase-pushing it across the dull, battleship grey linoleum.

“I told her when I saw her that she should be more assertive; stand up for herself. I wouldn’t put up with it, I really wouldn’t!”

On the wall to her left, the fallout charts hang in wilting order, tiny traces of rust seeping from drawing pins, paper clips and treasury tags that clamped them in archival congress for many years. Brendan glances across at the doorway ahead, strange word he thinks – ‘geiger’, strange too that this place should be the UK’s geiger counter museum. He expects stuttered clicking, a sound museum of racked and labelled beeps, but finds only shelves of dull metal boxes, the tethers of chunky rubberised wands. They remind him of car batteries, and of a comptometer that he used when he worked in purchasing before moving on into sales.

Karen is speaking now. “Oh look Ethel, just like the ones we used at Taylor’s”. She’s looking across at the row of computer terminals – one short evolution on from telex terminals. The attendant chairs are coated in stretch fabric, a vivid floral camouflage of orange, mustard and brown. On the wall beyond a bank of electronics: switches, lights, etch stencilled labels. Adjacent stands a tea trolley, cups stacked ready for use beside the ample looking calorifier.

They stand and stare, Ethel finds herself to be caressing the rope barrier holding them apart from this secretarial array.  “Like an office crime scene” she idly remarks under her breath and she recoils from the fibrous barrier, and her strange desire to carry on stroking it. They stroll back into the corridor and wander down toward the slim door at the far end. There is a large sign affixed to the door, warning them of what lies beyond. Intrigued they step inside. The room is small, and illuminated by a single unshaded red bulb. There are three utility chairs. They take the opportunity to sit and rest themselves. There is a ventilation duct high up on one of the walls. From it comes a rattling sound, like a steady flow of wind blowing through, but there is no draught.

Then the light starts to flicker, then the room falls silent. They sit and stare at each other, then Karen speaks. “shall we go to the cafe now? I’m, getting thirsty”. Ethel and Brendan signal agreement by rising from the chairs, only to be jolted back onto them by a sudden klaxon, reverberating forcefully within this confined space. Shocked into supplication, they sit as the siren volume and insistence appears to swell around them. Then the room starts to shake, the light flashes wildly, then stillness and silence, and then the sound of rubble tumbling down into the ventilation duct.

Eventually the movement stops, then the flickering light and the whistling of that wind completes the cycle. They compose themselves and leave the room. The light of the corridor is now painfully bright until their eyes adjust.

The route to the cafe takes them through the bomb room, warheads to touch – that thick paint, chunky metal essence of something made carefully to order; the bespoke chic of destruction. And over on the walls the photographs of the wranglers of these small herds, proud moustachioed men looking up from an era before manliness became shaven headed.

And then into the cafe. The froth-throb of the coffee machine, the ‘tink’ of chrome, stainless steel  and plastic chairs going about their business. In the corner a cold drinks machine crackles and from the kitchen drifts the strain of indistinct light music. Our companions sit and refresh themselves. Brendan goes to the counter and flicks through the stock of leaflets for Cheshire’s other attractions. “Where to next weekend?” he calls limply across to Ethel and Karen, half rhetorically.

Meanwhile, beyond the sturdy blast proof walls and doors, the flat plain of rural south Cheshire rolls onward in an anonymous clay ridden green-brown sea . And in the adjacent fields the cows beat the passage of time – sometimes sitting, mostly standing – watching cars occasionally come and go. They dwell here, come winter, come summer. Swishing flies and munching grass, sometimes drawn to the flank walls of this square grey building because it shelters them from the bitter winds blowing across the plain, sometimes catching warmth from the slow thermal release of this bulwark mass.

What was that?

I wanted to write an anti-account, one that backgrounds the Hack Green bunker, and gives something of the sense of ambivalence I felt (and witnessed in others) as we strolled around this former ‘Regional Seat of Government’ civil defence bunker (now a museum). Intentionally there’s no history of place or purpose written here. I’ve touched on that stuff elsewhere. No, as I sat today and thought about my visit three years ago one quiet Sunday afternoon, it was the ubiquity of this place and people’s behaviour within it that came to mind the most. I’ve used other photos from my visit in other published outputs, but it’s these banal ones – ones that deny this bunker its potency – that I wanted to let breathe here.

[This is New Uses For Old Bunkers #35]

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Lashed to the world: exploring building services with Slavoj Žižek

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“Inside and Outside never cover the entire space: there is always an excess of a third space which gets lost in the division into Outside and Inside. In human dwellings, there is an intermediate space which is disavowed: we all know it exists, but we do not really accept its existence – it remains ignored and (mostly) unsayable. The main content of this invisible space is excrement (canalization), but also the complex network of electricity, digital links, etc. – all this is contained in narrow spaces between walls or floors.” (Žižek 2009)

So writes Slavoj Žižek in a rather rambling rumination ranging across class struggle and post modern architecture. But it is in a few corners of this piece that he touches on something that I find worth exploring here: his passing ruminations on the ‘invisible’ zones and elements of everyday buildings. This is a preoccupation that has been hovering in my posts this year as – amongst others – I’ve pondered the narrow spaces between walls and corridors to café restrooms. In these I’ve come close to echoing Žižek’s desire for:

“a house composed only of secondary spaces and places of passage – stairs, corridors, toilets, store-rooms, kitchen – with no living room or bedroom.”

But, in this essay I want to chase infrastructural conduits around one of my University’s campuses and think about how their necessary invisibilities lash to the world their more prominent cousin features. For, without these silent ‘services’, we would be lost.

I came to the Žižek essay very recently courtesy of Amanda Crawley Jackson, and it’s helped me to pull together the following reflections on an explore that took place a few months before I encountered Žižek’s thoughts on interstitial space and the spandrel.

A spandrel is an area, form or thing created by the occurrence of something else. Byproducts and wastes are an example – think plastic sprues from which model kit pieces are harvested and you have the idea. The word is architectural in origin: a spandrel is the portion of masonry sitting at the top of a column, the edges of which are the arch. The arch is seen, intended – it is foregrounded – but the attendant spandrel is ‘invisible’. It is ‘background’ to the arch and its profile. But the arch would not exist without its dull hinterland of stonework.

Chasing flows and conduits on campus
We were sitting in a room, gathered here at the end of term to discuss the variety of ways in which our teaching and research practices interrogate space and place. I’d travelled to my University’s ‘other’ campus for this session. Day in, day out I’m based in a dense, high-rise cluster of modern(ist) buildings in the centre of the city. But today I was sitting in an older building, with the ambience of a cottage hospital, set amidst the rolling green lawns, trees and winding paths of my University’s suburban campus.

We set aside an hour to each go out and investigate this space, and to bring back that which interested us and which reflected our methodologies. Sitting listening to my colleague wind up the morning session, I still hadn’t decided what I’d focus on. Looking beyond him, towards the doorway, its signage, automatic closure armature, its safety glass and the pipes and wiring conduits that also leaving our room near this point, an idea started to build, round about the time that he uttered the words “Foucault was attentive to the materiality of power.”

Stepping out into the courtyard I started photographing the fire-escapes, struck by their (physically and functionally) ‘bolted-on’ nature. I thought I might focus upon the way in which anxieties about fire safety have mapped out on-top of this pre-existing configuration of buildings and uses, but then I started to notice – smaller but ubiquitous – the sinews of black cabling held fast to the sides of these pre-electric buildings and the fistula by which these black lines wormed their way into, and out of, these buildings. Then I saw spider-like partners, clinging to the sides of these walls. Erratic, bifurcating vertical runs of pipes clinging to these stone surfaces.

I set out to follow these strange emergent connectors – tendrils binding detached buildings to each other as an assembly of indeterminant purpose. Tracing these features around the nooks and crannies of this raggedy estate found moments of bold leap, where cabling flew through the air from gully to gully, and strange gathering points at which multiple lines congregated, perhaps awaiting their turn to go inside in conformity to some unobservable rules of physics, a bottle neck or electron marshalling yard.

I also followed the cables as they burst through from the outside, switching from their black form to interior-white. I traced their paths via strange junction boxes, their dives into internal walls and most satisfying (for me – and I’d like to think for them too) their moment of eventual congress with a device requiring their power or data.

I’m told that many of the cables playing through the sky at this campus are – in fact – now redundant, with most data relayed around the estate via microwave transmitters. Perhaps it all lingers on simply because there’s nothing to be gained in taking them all down.

On being connected
Reflecting on the fascination that this web-like interconnection of buildings via these black cables summoned to mind got me thinking about a number of pictures in which supposedly separate items are connected into a group or family via web-like connections. I thought of doodling, that drive (maybe not everyone has it) to totalise individual doodles, by joining them together into an array across the page, or the techno-human assemblages of psychiatric patients, or corporate organograms.

The image here is scanned from the cover to a 1981 LP by SPK (the Australian industrial noise band, sometimes more fulsomely monikered Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv) the painting – which I’ve been unable to trace by any 21st century type and click methods – is attributed to a “R. Gie”, a patient at Rosegg Sanitorium in Switzerland in 1916 and entitled “Circulation of Effluvia with Central Machine and Metric Tableau”.

Gie (1916)
This patient’s depiction of all elements being wired together has both a disturbing, horror effect (think the body farm pods from The Matrix for example) and yet also a logic if you stop to think about it. As for Žižek and for Gie, we can’t escape the fact of our effluent related interconnections with mechanical systems and the senses of others. We also are enmeshed in a web of electro-mechanical power, as Jane Bennett (2010) – no relation – has shown in her analysis of “thing-power” (the agency of assemblages), with specific reference to electricity systems and their volatile assemblage of “humans and their (social, legal, linguisitic) constructions [and][…] some very active and powerful nonhumans: electrons, trees, wind, fire, electromagnetic fields.” (24)

Foucault certainly took a broader view of power than convention had dictated – seeing it as a force (fluid like) circulating in situations to enable or retard action, things to appear or positions to be framed and sustained. But perhaps he could have gone even further, to make the link between ‘social’ power and electrical / gas / water power. The full panoply of circulating, and life sustaining forces, and of the culturally ‘invisible’ spandrel empire that provides the infrastructure for this mechanical circulation and servicing of power.

To spend a lunchtime chasing conduits and cables on campus is to follow Alice down the rabbit hole and find there not a cartoon otherworld, but rather the arteries and tendrels of the vast web of interstitial spaces that anchor us – and our buildings – to the world.

References

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant matter – a political ecology of things, Duke University Press: London.
Žižek, S. (2009) ‘Architectural Parallax – Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle’ at http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=218