Entangled bodies: urban exploration, matter and meaning making


Entanglement as a term aims to allow a materialism but

embedded within the social, the historical, the contingent.”

Hodder (2012: 96)

What does it mean to be embodied? That seems to be the contested territory standing between Garrett & Hawkins (2013) and Mott & Roberts (2013a & b) in their recent Antipode exchange. Garrett & Hawkins table a body/environment ‘entanglement’ (Hodder 2012) as the object of a new era of research into urban exploration. Mott & Roberts (2013b) counter that the main thrust of their critique of existing scholarship remains unaddressed: namely where is the appreciation of embodied difference amongst those who do – and those who don’t do – urban exploration?

Mott & Roberts’ approach is broadly concerned with the social: how can this practice be culturally situated? How can it be understood in terms of identity politics? Who is dominating this practice, and whose voices and presence is absent? In what senses (and for whom) can urban exploration be said to be liberatory? For them embodiment is a question of human identity, hinged around physical and social difference. And there’s is a call for mobilisation of a greater sense of critique of urban exploration as a predominantly white, male, young, over-educated and professional class pastime.

Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins (whilst seemingly acknowledging the ‘masculinist’ nature of at least some urban exploration culture), avow (via considering the work of a female artist – Miru Kim – working in an urban exploration type terrain) urban exploration as a new way of reading and researching body/environment relations by looking at the embodiment of the human participant within the built environment structures that they explore.

Each then, figures embodiment differently. For Mott and Roberts bodies are carriers of human identity and difference: vectors of identity bio-politics. Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins focus upon the experience and meshing of flesh in the world. Given their different theoretical starting points it is not surprising that agreement is not reached in their exchange.

Each ‘side’ do however appear to be helpfully raising questions under-explored in scholarship to date on this topic. Yes (aligning with Garrett & Hawkins), it would be too easy ‘just’ to examine urban exploration as a gendered practice, a frat-ish rite of passage. There is more to be said about what it is like to pit oneself against the hazardous-to-human arrangements of high, deep and otherwise inhospitable terrain in the built environment, and Garrett is prodigiously advancing this project. However the ‘what it’s like to be there?’ dimension must not become the sole focus, for there is much more that needs investigating (and critiquing) alongside developing deeper understanding of edgework and of the human/matter meld: in particular, the politics, ethics and impacts of urban exploration, and this brings me to a wider issue.

It takes more than urban explorers for urban exploration to exist. To date the focus has been upon the explorers, and often the treatment has been reverential in tone: the explorer as somehow pushing boundaries and thereby contributing in some – never quite articulated way – towards socio-spatial justice. But is exploration done ‘on behalf’ of anyone other than the explorers? What is achieved, and at what cost? The ‘downside’ is never probed, nor the limits of desirable infiltration ever fathomed. Just because it is possible to climb the latest skyscraper in London, is it right to do so? Who is affected by urban exploration and what are their rights? So far, the voices of non-participants (those who choose not to be urban explorers), of property owners and infrastructure managers, of security and rescue services, and of other types of incursionist – have all been absent.

Urban exploration may take place in buildings that are (or seem to be) empty, but they are not places that have become meaningless, and most are not actually abandoned. Many others (non explorers) have desires, and anxieties about, and relationships with these places – and the matter to be encountered within them –   the night watchmen, the site operators, the insurers, the regulatory authorities all need to be heard if we are to understand ‘urban exploration’, for it is not just a pastime that exists in isolation from the world – it is precisely its embodied (in the sense of being-in-the world and amidst matter and other people) aspect that raises these questions. Recreational trespass has consequences, it is an interaction not just with matter, but also with other human bodies and socio-technical systems. There is a human/matter ecology within the targeted buildings and infrastructure.

And urban exploration is a part of that ecology – but it is not the only actant that mobilises it. Those who perceive urban exploration as ‘done to them’ rarely draw neat distinctions between the motivations (and/or backgrounds) of the incursionists whom they encounter the traces of after a weekend of ‘infiltration’ in their premises. The modus operandi of urban explorers – viewed from the perspective of the site owner – is little different from that of the squatter, the arsonist or the metal thief or other scavenger. To understand urban exploration we would need to understand not just how individually or collectively urban explorers define themselves, but also how others (non urban explorers) make sense of recreational trespass and react to it. Intersubjectivity is not just played out between urban explorers, it also happens between others about urban exploration. There is discourse, there is representation, there is power, there is law: all in play around this issue. And all of that swirl of discursive stuff is intimately entwined with bodies and the hazards (and/or purposiveness) of matter.

To interview site owners about urban exploration – as I have done on occasion over recent years – is to encounter bewildered adults struggling to find a way to make sense of recreational trespass, of its implications for them and of rules of thumb by which they may distinguish one type of incursion from another. These bodies matter too: these are human beings facing anxieties as a consequence of site incursion, perhaps occasionally seeing fatalities and having to ‘pick up the pieces’ (in all senses). They also ‘matter’ in the sense used by Karen Barad (2007) : these bodies are just as involved as the explorers in sense making and prediction about human/matter interaction brought about through urban exploration: classically in the realm of risk assessments, and their narration of possible human/matter fateful contact. And, yes – to agree with Mott and Roberts here – owners and other reactors to urban exploration will frame their response decisions around bodily difference. Plainly, in the post 9/11 western world Moslem urban explorers are likely to be treated with greater suspicion or alarm than WASP ones – our bodies carry identity, and are interpreted by others on account of those manifest (and socially foregrounded) features of difference. Thus it is clearly (socially) more dangerous for some to do urban exploration than others.

Let me be clear, the above is not intended as an attack upon urban exploration. As my previous contributions to recent work in this area have hopefully shown, I have considerable respect for the investigatory endeavours of the urban explorers whom I have come across. I have also suggested to site owners in a variety of projects (for the British Mountaineering Council and other pro-access organisations) that site owners need to become more relaxed about adventurous recreational use of their properties.

But, if the talk is now of opening up new avenues of study in this area, I would like to endorse Garrett & Hawkins’ call for greater attention to human/matter relations, and also Moss & Roberts’ call for greater social critique. But, I would suggest that achieving both might actually require a much broader view of the field of study to emerge, one in which:

First, urban exploration is truly engaged with as a ‘spectrum’ (as per Craggs et al, 2013), putting the athletic boundary-pushing dimension into place alongside more ‘down to earth’ – and more inclusive – variants (and whether psychogeography, architectural enthusiasm or urban ‘sightseeing’) in which difference matters less; and

Secondly, one in which exploratory urban engagements of whatever hue are understood as a complex entanglement of many materialities, policies, peoples, priorities and politics, a mesh in which the urban explorer becomes but one actant amongst many.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University.

Craggs, R., Geoghegan, H. & Neate, H. (2013). ‘Architectural enthusiasm: visiting buildings with the Twentieth Century Society’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31: 879-896.

Garrett, B. & Hawkins, H. (2013) ‘And now for something completely different…Thinking through explorer subject-bodies: a response to Mott and Roberts’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Hodder, I. (2012) Entangled: an archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. London: Wiley.

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013a). ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: Urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography.’ Antipode doi: 10.1111/anti.12033: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013b). ‘Difference really does matter: a reply to Garrett and Hawkins’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Image credit:

Naked City Spleen by Miru Kim at http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/naked-city-spleen-by-miru-kim-1 (where there are more images from her Naked City sequence and her video presentation about her project).

On staring at stuff in a weird way: ethnographic surrealism and psychogeography as connectors to everyday matter

“To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.”

Henry Reed, excerpt from Naming of Parts (1942, p.92)


Recently I’ve been working on a paper with two colleagues from SHU’s Institute of Education. It concerns our exploratory workshop (my part previously reported here) and draws out the similarities in our preoccupations with, and methods for, producing our accounts of a portion of campus space that day. Each of us – in slightly differing ways – exhibited in our accounts a contemporary fascination with the instability (and playfulness of) the experience of place, and also foreground the constitutive role of mundane matter in the reciprocal formation of that sense of being-in-space.

In my piece, the tactic of foregrounding the background – the infrastructural spandrels at this place – was wilfully transgressive and playful – reading Žižek’s minor passage as major. But it was also indicative of the ontological turn, a neo-materialism that seeks to return to their rightful place centre stage in social theory and research “the missing masses” (Latour, 1992) – matter itself, the stuff of the world that enables human social life and yet so often is omitted from it. My account was not written in a technical register – it was intentionally not a building survey report – something functional and/or scientific. No, I chose a register equally alien to practical science as it was to mainstream social theory and research, in its attempt to speak the non (or post) human, consistent with Ian Bogost’s (2012: 34) exhortation that we should write “the speculative fictions” of objects’ “unit-operations”, and do so by foregrounding the background, by fetishising matter and ascribing agency and quasi subjecthood to it. My wilful turn away from the human, and foregrounding of the campus as machine used the dynamic, enthusiastic register of nature writing, and in doing so offered an oddly exuberant depiction of “moments of bold leap, where cabling flew through the air from gully to gully, and strange gathering points at which multiple lines congregated”. Such stylistics would be normal for writing about flora or fauna, but is alien to the depiction of wiring. Cabling is not meant to be the subject of rapt adjectival attention.

But this warping of language and gaze was not a product of reverie. What was “found”, and what was reported was wilfully selected, theoretically informed and shaped by an anticipation of performance (the presentation) and audience (in the workshop, on my blog and for our article). The cables did not present themselves in a moment of revelation. Theory made this wierding possible and permissible, as it was for John Paul Sartre upon his first acquaintance with phenomenology in the early 1930s, an encounter that enabled him to announce with youthful glee:

“nothing appeared to me more important that the promotion of street lamps to the dignity of a philosophical object…truth drags through the streets, in the factories and, apart from ancient Greece, philosophers are eunuchs who never open their doors to it.” (quoted in Kearney, 1994: 3)

This iconoclasm – this return to things (to echo Husserl) – has recently reasserted itself. Sartre’s iconoclasm is returning. In a new, 21st century its talk is of how to find methodological:

“means by which to activate the implicit thing knowledge we already possess, as well as means to become more sensitive to the inherent qualities of things themselves” (Olsen, 2010: 18)

Yet very little has actually been said about precisely how to study and foreground the submerged contribution of material things to places and processes. For now, it is humans writing the “speculative fictions” of things – using language creatively to unmask the non-linguistic – that appears the best strategy despite it seeming a contradiction in terms. Graham Harman shows the unmasking power of creative descriptive writing in his advocacy of a “weird realism”:

“…philosophy’s sole mission is weird realism. Philosophy must be realist because its mandate is to unlock the structure of the world itself; it must be weird because reality is weird.” (2008: 334, emphasis in original)

For Harman – like Bogost – creative writing is a means by which the mundane can be foregrounded by (for example) the Kafkaesque “en-wierding” techniques of horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft. To figure an assembly of overhead cables as having spider-like qualities is to destabilise the normal, directing attention to it. Harman shows this technique to deft effect in a sinister description of a (perfectly normal) local hotel, The Nile Luxor Hilton. Harman destabilises the normal via a surfeit of attentive description and inference of agency, thus:

“Though the outer walls seem to meet at solid right angles, the hue of the concrete departs from accustomed values in a manner suggestive of frailty or buckling.” (Harman, 2008: 355)

In the juxtaposition of imagery and allusion, the given of the mundane material world is destablised and through this destabilisation foregrounded. In a similar vein Highmore argues for a revival of a spirit of “surrealist ethnography” (2002: 82) in which anthropology’s “will to order” is seriously undermined, and the messiness of daily life respected, finding “society as a totality of fragments” (emphasis in original), a phrase reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s self-described method of social analysis: “rag picking”, a position Highmore describes as being “at the crossroads of magic and positivism” (82). But it is the surrealists who Highmore figures as the epitome of background foregrounding:

“Surrealism is about an effort, an energy, to find the marvellous in the everyday, to recognise the everyday as a dynamic montage of elements, to make it strange so that its strangeness can be recognized. The classic Surrealist can be seen as Sherlock Holmes-like: faced with the deadly boredom of the everyday, the Surrealist takes to the street, working to find and create the marvellousness of the everyday.” (56)

In our article (assuming my co-authors are happy with the draft I’ve just sent them) we will argue that our accounts are characteristic of an emergent “psychogeographical” sensibility, an approach that can both embrace the materiality of the external world as a co-creator of perceived reality, and yet still retain a still powerful constructivist sentiment that aligns experience of (or at least accounting for the experience of) the world in language, affect and subjective experience. This is indeed the realm of a speculative, or “weird realism” (Harman, 2008).

Psychogeography’s relationship to academic research is ambiguous, its promise to date unfulfilled. The term was formulated by Guy Debord in 1955 in the following terms:

Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can this be applied to the findings arrived by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.” (emphasis in original, Debord, 1955: 5).

In the hands of the Situationists, psychogeography became conflated with 1960s revolutionary playfulness and adherence to any search for “precise laws and specific effects” quickly disappeared from view, but nonetheless – even if in the end he didn’t pursue it himself – Debord conceptually mapped out territory for potential study: that intersection between human affective experience of place, and the materiality of the environment within which (and about which) such encounters occur. Debord also conceptualised the (Surrealist inspired) dérive as a “scientific” methodology – the aimless stroll intended to experience and/or transgress the habitual routes of travel and experience mapped out by the “the ambiance of the street…the path of least resistance which is automatically followed…” (Debord, 1955: 16).

As Coverley (2006) has since argued, contemporary psychogeography (as it is “practised” in the UK at least) is primarily a literary pastime, accessing an English mystic tradition stretching back to William Blake and Thomas De Quincy as much the conceptualising of Debord and the Situationist International. But none the less, the empirical programme framed by Debord in 1955 remains open to engagement within the academy, in addition to its vibrant literary life beyond it. One direction to take the ensuing enquiry is environmental psychology, deploying quantitative (and often perceptual experiment based) approaches to investigation of the environment/person nexus (for example Prestopnik & Roskos-Ewoldsen’s (2000) quantitative study of campus wayfinding strategies). The other direction is to embrace the interpretive, and journey into the marginal territory that lies somewhere between autoethnographic investigation and the creative “literary travel writing” of the contemporary Anglophone literary psychogeography (for example Sinclair, 1997; Sebald, 2002; Papadimitriou, 2013).

Research in this mode cannot offer up “precise laws” (or even generalisable) “specific effects”, but it can present rich, post-positivist reflexive description of the story stacking processes by which instances of place are encountered, and the terms (and sense) of that encounter negotiated between the creative agency of humans and the resistances and affordances of matter.

The paper that I’m working on will argue that a broadly psychogeographical research methodology entails an open, reflexive (and often playful) engagement with language, memory and the physicality of the built environment. It requires an embrace of multiplicity, indeterminacy and contingency, an attentiveness to the agency of matter (and data), and to the flux of temporalities, spatialities and normative orders apparent when one sets out to actively make meaning within seemingly “given” (pre-ordained) mundane, functional places that would normally be passed through and/or used without particular regard.

A connecting thread across my and my collaborators’ research work is a belief that all encounters with place are provisional, coalescing as tentative assemblages of matter and meaning as a function of overlapping strategies, subjectivities and materialities that incline towards conventional (and dominant) registers of experience, but which are never entirely contained by them. The “slip” is irrepressible, and psychogeographic techniques of the drift (dérive) and/or reappropriation (détournement) can be applied as a celebration of these aberrant flows, and whether as a challenge to hegemonic structures of power (as the Situationists intended) or as a “diffractive methodology” to simply bring to the foreground the messy multitude of the experience of place – the swirl of affects, ideas, conventions, artefacts, spatial arrangements and power inherent in the daily experience of learning environments.

We are conscious that our figuration of psychogeography as a playful experiential research methodology side-steps both psychogeography’s radical political aims and its originally conceptualised role as revolutionary reconnaissance. In a recent paper Shukaitis and Figiel, (2013) have reasserted psychogeography’s radical political purpose, and criticised its contemporary denaturing. But psychogeography is – as Bonnett (2009) notes – an increasingly broad church.

The concern of our paper is to consider meaning making and “mattering” (Barad 2007) in one nondescript corner of a University campus. It might well be said that our analysis omits matters of policy, funding and wider political economy. We do not deny the importance of such considerations, but do not consider that the choice is “either/or”. There are many scholars engaged with the structural dimensions of higher education policy and its impact upon campus management. We simply seek to reinsert notions of tactical agency, and affective, embodied experience into consideration of how being upon a University campus is constituted. Critical research into higher education place making tends to lapse into totalising models of “top-down” determinism, and consequently position individuals as dupes of structural imposition. In such readings, the fact that a University can make its physical landscape by arranging matter and symbols is equated with an equally efficacious ability to condition its students (see, for example, the “new model worker” thesis expressed by Hancock and Spicer, 2011). But we (after de Certeau 1984) see the “appellation” (in the sense used by Louis Althusser – that ideology “calls” to its subjects) as less effective, more messy and believe that a psychogeographically inclined investigation of the flux of such human/system encounters can reveal (and potentially) amplify this multivalence. An emergent example of a hybrid political/weird psychogeographic analysis of campus management can be found in Tina Richardson’s (2011) Deleuzo-guattarian variant of psychogeography which explicates the “forgotten” portions of the University of Leeds’ campus, a position somewhat closer than ours to what Bonnett has styled “magico-Marxism” (2009: 45).

Our concern then, is to understand how psychogeography might work as a methodology to explore matter/meaning relations, and we find much suited to our purpose in Shukaitis and Figiel’s depiction of the dérive as:

“a way [of] getting lost, of opening up how one is affected by the world, [that] brings to the fore all the richness (and horror) of the everyday that is typically not paid attention to.” (2013: 3)

This aspiration – in and of itself – has methodological merit, and some precedent as an axiom of both social research and creative enquiry. In his explication of theories of everyday life, Ben Highmore (2002) points to James Clifford’s 1981 essay, “On Ethnographic Surrealism”, which explored the 1920s and early 1930s links between the avant garde and the emergence of French enthnology. Clifford (1988: 121) saw modern ethnology as driven by a need to (in the oft quoted phrase) “mak[e] the familiar strange” (a particularly important dictum for research conducted within the researcher’s own cultural reality). But his invocation was more dramatic than those words portray, in embracing the destabilising principles of surrealism, Clifford advocated an ethnographic surrealist practice which “attacks the familiar, provoking the eruption of otherness – the unexpected” (146). He situated “surrealist ethnography” as revelling in difference and semantic indeterminacy (in healthy contrast to the taxonomic – naming and ordering) impulse of a “scientific” ethnology. Clifford’s ensuing methodological prescription co-opted the surrealist practice of collage, assemblage forming in which “the cuts and sutures of the research process are left visible; there is no smoothing over or blending of the work’s raw data into homogenous representation” (1988: 147).

Except – of course – that there will always be blending, an at least partial sense making (and committant ordering) of unfamiliar or de-familiarised reality. There will be re-constitution by the observer, in dynamic exchange with the multitude of things in the world beyond. Our concern should therefore be to explicate (after Karen Barad) how matter is made to matter by human interlocutors, and how matter has its own abilities to impose significance upon the social world.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University Press.

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology or what it’s like to be a thing. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Bonnett, A. (2009). The dilemmas of radical nostalgia in British Psychogeography. Theory, Culture and Society, 26(1), 45-70.

Coverley, M. (2006). Psychogeography. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Clifford, J. (1988). The predicament of culture. London: Harvard University Press.

Debord, G. (1955). Introduction to a critique of urban geography, Les Levres Nues, 6, Retrieved from  http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2.

Hancock, P. and Spicer, A. (2011). Academic architecture and the constitution of the new model worker. Culture and Organization, 17(2), 91-105.

Harman, G. (2008). On the horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl. In R. Mackay (ed) COLLAPSE IV. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

Highmore, B. (2002). Everyday life and cultural theory. London: Routledge.

Kearney, R. (1994). Modern movements in European philosophy. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.) Shaping technology/building society: Studies in sociotechnical change (pp. 225–258). Harvard: MIT Press.

Olsen, B. (2010). In defense of things – Archaeology and the ontology of objects, Plymouth: Alta Mira Press.

Papadimitriou, N. (2013). Scarp. London: Sceptre.

Prestopnik, J. and Roskos-Ewoldsen, B. (2000). The relations among wayfinding strategy use, sense of direction, sex, familiarity, and wayfinding ability. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20, 177-191.

Reed, H. (1942). Naming of Parts. New Statesman and Nation. 24, no. 598, 92.

Richardson, T. (2009) A Schizocartography of a Redbrick University. Spaces and Flows: an International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, 1(1), 119-128.

Shukaitis, S. and Figiel, J. (2013). Metropolitan strategies, psychogeographic investigations. Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1532708613503781.

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

Sinclair, I. (1997). Lights out for the Territory, London: Granta.

Žižek, S. (2009). Architectural parallax – spandrels and other phenomena of class struggle. Retrieved from http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=218

Scree is here

scree end

Later this month I will be receiving some of the limited edition print run of Scree, my collaboration with landscape photographer Katja Hock. These will be rubber bound artefacts, the significance of the scuffed matt industrial covers being explained here. But in advance of this, and because we’d like to share our work beyond the confines of those who might normally want a ‘coffee table’ art book, here’s a link to a free pdf copy of the main part of our publication:

Bennett & Hock (2013) Scree

Scree was kindly commissioned by Amanda Crawley Jackson (Occursus) via the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund, and is published as part of the ‘TRACT’ series of collaborations between text and other media.

The unspoken question that haunts Scree is ‘what happens if we dwell on wasteland?’. Here ‘dwell’ can be taken in a number of directions: ponder, linger, inhabit, exist. Here’s the opening text to Scree to set the scene…

Starting out

The Wadsley Bridge to Neepsend escarpment runs along the northern edge of the upper Don valley. To the geologist this ridgeline is made up of coal measures and shales overlain by sandstone. To the local residents of north western Sheffield it is comprised of scrub, dereliction, pylons and a landfill tip. To the local historian it is an area rich in industrial and urban history.  To my kitchen refuse it is a final resting place.

To me it is all of these things, and more. In the pages that follow, Katja I and I set out to traverse this ridgeline and to depict in words and images what we find there. We can’t claim that what we find are essences – for the truth of this place is infinitely multifaceted – but what I do hope that we’ve brought closer to surface is the richness of materiality and meaning that can be found even on this steep scrubby hillside.

What is a hill?

The topography under examination here is a hybrid: pre-human geological processes sculpted this landform, but human activity added to it (and took away from it). This place may seem a grubby backwater now, but it was not always thus. The hill came to be a dynamic human-geologic assemblage, particularly in the heyday of the industrial era. Successive attempts were made to colonise this area and turn it to a variety of productive purposes. These have all left their marks. They have shaped this place, and they in turn have been shaped by it.

In a modest way we seek to give a sense of the hillside’s agency. It is not a passive, dumb brute. It has the ability to shape how humans and other creatures engage with it, and yet it is not a singular thing. It is a collection of materials, each resting on the other. The hill is a set of layers, craters and fill plus a surface crust of living and dead things that – in the main – are just passing through.

The capacity of this landform to absorb, flex and channel human activity is what has struck us most. These, like many of the city’s other hills, are rich outcrops, worked for hundreds of years for their stone, earth, water, timber, iron and game. Over recorded time these hills have been gouged by mine workings, slashed by deforestation, riven by roadways and confected by settlement. Yet each successive engagement has brought a process of human-hillside accommodation. Schemes adapted to fit geology; local topology yielded to enable temporary slithers of human incursion.

A note on style

The style of writing and reflection that follows is broadly in step with contemporary psychogeography, specifically a variant defined by Nick Papadimitriou as ‘deep topography’. In this form attention to everything is important – but in a way that avoids the crowding in of dominant (or expert) accounts of the place, as Papadimitriou puts it:

“But while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through – a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered – are screened out all too easily if the primary purpose is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmitted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s”

This approach celebrates the subjective affective response to the hillside and its human-material form. But it also (as Papadimitriou does in his work) weaves in this place’s equivalent of cornicing and the names of building companies. All are part of this hillside. Thus the end result is wantonly promiscuous, a mix of both cornicing-detail and impressionistic revere: a hybrid approach that revels, as Mike Parker has put it:

“in the connections made, the eye for the rusty and rotting, the sometimes haughty disregard for over-hyped landmarks, the comprehensive sweep that fuses politics, history and topography through observation and trenchant supposition.”

Style and substance

What follows adheres to that pattern, but if this style of landscape enquiry is to be anything other than competent word plays and an antiquarian’s eye for quirky detail, it must add some character and some insight – something that rises above the mechanical formulae by which such mix-and-match accounts can be assembled. For my part I would hope that what we present here goes that extra step in attempting to give a voice to the ‘stuff’ and ‘processes’ of the hillside by foregrounding matter – the brute ‘stuff’ of this hill – and consequential human encounters with this materiality.

In the final section I step back from my own direct experience of this place, and try to show the rich interaction with the ‘stuff’ of this hillside by people who have lived, worked or visited there and contributed their memories and enthusiasm to on-line community forums like Sheffield Forum. There is an unexpected richness in the way in which former denizens write of their experiences on (and with) the hillside.  They did not just visit or live there, they stood, dug, searched out, picked up, played upon and made and/or threw away things there. And in doing so they projected meaning and significance onto this matter, and onto the hillside.

The word ‘matter’ conjures both senses of what I’m pursuing here. How is matter made to matter? If we approach the hillside from this question we find a rich symbiotic relationship: the hill, its matter, its (only ever partial) colonisation for industry and dwelling and the daily interaction with human bodies entailed in all of that. This was evocatively struck home for me in one recollection I came across:

         the stories of local tramps

                                                                         gravitating to

                                                                                                                        the  Neepsend   brick    works

                                                                                                                        at night, to sleep in the warm

                                                                                                                        shadow  of the massive kilns.

From the pavement at Pimlico: metropolitan streets and what lies beneath



“They are the real Dasein.

Streets, buildings, airports, boats, tents, fireplaces, quartz quarries…

they are in place and they manifest themselves to us as familiar

…they appear where we expect them to be

…[they] are all within reach.”

Olsen (2010)

So, I’m preparing for a trip to Pimlico; to speak at a summit about public safety in abandoned quarries and a colleague quips, “that’s ironic, ‘cos there are no quarries in London”. He has a point, but it sets a deeper thought running.

Last time I went to Pimlico, I was there to visit Tate Britain. The treasures inside were all very well, but I was equally transfixed by the vast white elevation of building’s exterior – that Portland stone and its shrapnel marks, a testimony to a nearby instance of the Blitz: the smoothness of that surface ruptured by pock marks, revealing the granularity of the exposed quartz grains within, glistening in the low summer sun that day.

Perhaps it’s trite to say that a city is made of stuff – yet, as Bjornar Olsen reminds us so evocatively in his book In Defense of Things – archaeology and the ontology of objects (2010):

“societies and cultures…are put together … [with] real building materials – …concrete and steel, rebar and pillars [are crucially] involved in their construction…we should pay far more attention to the material components that constitute the very condition of possibility for those features we associate with social order, structural durability, and power.”

So, as distraction from packing for my trip – and as a modest contribution towards Bruno Latour’s exhortation that we must “search for the missing masses” and challenge the “oblivion of things” (Olsen) in social theory and research informed by it, I started to sew together some thoughts about the fate of stone within Pimlico, and specifically its pavements.

As Raphael Samuels shows, urban growth in the nineteenth century sucked ever greater quantities of quarried stone into the burgeoning towns and cities. That material speaks to us today in the form of statement buildings (in London that could be the grandeur of ‘mercantile’ and/or ‘imperial’ hew). As a stunning illustration of the metropolitan appetite for stone, and also of the wide geographical ‘net’ thrown by that demand, Samuels exhibits the “promiscuous variety of stone” comprising the frontage of the new (in 1878) Oxford Street premises of silk mercers Marshall and Snelgrove:

“The facade…is carried out in yellow malms and Corsham Down stone [Wiltshire], all the cornices, string-courses, and weatherings being Portland Stone [Dorset]. The lower portion is divided into bays of pilasters of Portland stone, below which are Sharp [Westmorland] granite pillars on grey Aberdeen moulded bases, the Shap and Portland being finished at their bases with ornamental bronze bands.” (both 1977: 14)

But whilst building stone may – by these component names (Portland; Corsham; Aberdeen Granite) – be vaguely  familiar to us, they give a misleading impression. For the bulk of stone summoned into city was actually consumed in its highways and pavements as sub-base, setts, kerbs and gutters.

As a case study in the fate of its road stone, Samuels shows how Aberdeenshire’s first paving contract with the City of London was made in 1766 and by the 1830s London was already a major outlet for the district’s quarries. Yet of the 36,352 tons of stone sent down to London in 1831 only 143 tons was for use as building stone: 3,137 tons were for pavements and kerbs, and 33,072 tons for ‘carriage way’, these stones (setts) being supplied in six size grades.

Key London thoroughfares were prominently laid with Aberdeen setts in the 1840s, including London Bridge, Cheapside and Moorgate, before the harder Mountsorrel stone (from Leicestershire) first trialled at Euston in 1843 came progressively to dominate as the carriage way road stone of choice for the increasingly trafficked inner city (before, in time, Mountsorrel was itself eclipsed (or at least overlain) by the less elegant but more repairable tarmacadam method, and its voracious and indiscriminate appetite for crushed stone for its oil- meets-rock matrix).

And so the city grew and grew. It also adapted. The roads and pavements accommodating to sewer laying, distribution networks for electricity, gas, telecoms, the arrival of tram tracks, the removal of tram tracks, the expansion of networks, the renewal of networks, fibre optics and  broadband, traffic control technology. With each iteration the roads and pavements were cut into and patched up  – space ebbing and flowing, made in the conduits beneath: a proliferation of colours, angles, agencies and layers of churned and re-compacted subsoil, stone, metal, power, water, waste: the life blood and bile of the city.

Picture throbbing capillaries pulsing liquid, heat and information instant by instant beneath the busy street and its Aberdeen granite jigsaw.

Then – on 25 April 2013 – at the corner of Pimlico Road, outside an antiques shop, brooding and miscontent beneath the pavement – a power cable explodes, a flash forcing up pavers and ungirded power into the day: unchained energy violently seeking out earth through sky, and escaping from the thrall of 1,867 denied users.


This strange incident then proliferates (a meme spreading through the networks, coursing through the city’s ventricles), a multitude of iterations of this video and a new found anxious regard for the safety of pavements and all that normally silent stuff that lies beneath. And subsequent reports tell us that such eruptions are not as uncommon as we might expect: 8 in 2011, 29 in 2012 and 12 in the first 6 months of 2013 according to the Health & Safety Executive (LBC).

In this eruption – like Heidegger’s thumb-striking hammer – the normally ‘in place’ nature of pavement assemblages is destabilised, for [to return to the opening quote from Olsen and to invert it by way of closing]:

“… they [normally] are in place and they manifest themselves to us as familiar

…they [normally] appear where we expect them to be

…[they] are all [normally] within reach.

[But not always entirely

under our



BBC (2013) ‘Pimlico pavement explodes, narrowly missing passerby’ BBC News London www.bbc.co.uk/news

ITV (2013) ‘Pavement Power Explosion’ www.itv.com/news/London

LBC (2013) ‘New Threat to Londoners: Exploding Pavements’ www.lbc.co.uk, LBC 97.3FM.

Olsen, B. (2010) In Defense of Things – archaeology and the ontology of objects, Alta Mira Press: Plymouth.

Samuels, A, (1977) ‘Mineral Workers’ in Raphael Samuels  (ed.) Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, London: Routledge & Kogan Paul Ltd

Image sources:

Video of explosion – filmed by local resident Charlie Brook and uploaded to Youtube.

Hole in the pavement: www.itv.com