November 27, 2015 1 Comment
“The bunker is not a trace or shadow as it is present and also part of the foundation of an office building, and it does not haunt the landscape since, as a shelter, it was never meant to be seen in the first place” (Bartolini, 2015: 204)
Writing of a Mussolini era bunker beneath the streets of Rome, Nadia Bartolini incisively ponders the nature of such concealed places and of the awkwardness of attempting to subject them to the light of day. As she puts it, “the concrete bunker if visible, would meld with its concrete surroundings” (203). The subterranean bunker then exists as background, it is unexcavatable, it is its own container and “there is no need to disentangle and excavate it from the earth to archive it elsewhere” (200). In short, it is only a fortified hollowing out, it is an absence of ground within it, yet defined by the mass of earth around it. Whether as bunkers, cellars, crypts, tombs or chambers these subterranean places are defined only by their capacity to shelter bodies and/or valued objects. Without such contents, these voids are simply empty spaces edged with concrete.
Bartolini’s article seeks to take issue with (or at least to refine) Jane Bennett’s (2010) Vibrant Matter thesis, by which analysists are encouraged to pay more attention to materiality per se, in order to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of matter, and of their effects in the world separate from human cultural projections upon them. Bennett’s book sets out to illustrate the vibrancy of matter (and of the eco-political implications of this) via a series of case studies on the vitality of stem cells, foodstuffs and electrical power networks. But Bartolini questions the vibrancy of concrete and of the Rome bunker formed from it, and through examining the less-than-expected potency of an art show staged within the Rome bunker, argues that Bennett’s vibrancy thesis does not adequately account for the static existence of this ‘dumb brute’ matter. She concludes that without curation (an interpretive provisioning of the space of the art show) “the bunker is only a mass of concrete, a structure whose inherent materiality does not do anything in its fixed, solid state” (197).
And yet, there is one thing that the Rome bunker does. It endures. It is obstinate. It refuses to eliminate itself. It perpetuates its contained subterranean void. It endures without us. It is a chamber that sits and subsists, a repository for stale air, steady temperature and stillness (and home to a few spiders). And it remains true to the original design intent – to “immobilize time and space” (197), but now for its own sake, rather than for any purpose of human security.
But this is the destiny of any underground chamber – to lay there partly- or wholly un-known, perhaps existing in a dimension too small for human presence, to be perceived only remotely through the enquiring eye of an industrial endoscope, a bright light momentarily illuminating an otherwise constant darkness, like the torch flash of a deep sea diver, momentarily glimpsing another world in the enveloping darkness of the deep.
Both Paul Virilio and Gaston Bachelard have pointed to the atavistic, phenomenological qualities of such confined spaces and their reverberation through culture and psyche. These places take us closer to the underworld, and for Bachelard, the basement is the scene of our subconscious, a place perhaps to visit occasionally to in order to reconnect with our deeper drives, but it is not a place for us to dwell within.
Bartolini’s point is not to deny concrete its ability to influence the world, or to extend its reach into our world, but rather to argue that further delineation of how particular types of matter acquire a vibrancy. Her argument is that, in the heritage sector, we cannot entirely reject the role for cultural projection. If Mussolini’s bunker is dark, it is because someone left the lights off.
At one level Bartolini’s call is for a (re)acknowledgment of the important role of cultural projection within the framing of bland, function-formed places like these. She is challenging a suggestion that all matter is equally vibrant, and pointing out in that in the mundane built environment there is work to do – our work to do – to ascribe meaning to this space and its material composition. As she puts it: “a concrete container located underground is not equivalent to identifying the structure as ‘Mussolini’s bunker’” (207) – more is required (from us) for that to occur. This chamber doesn’t know itself as that human / heritage place (obviously it doesn’t know itself as anything, but indulge me a little here). All this place is, is a meshwork of elements held together by an interlocking set of forces that co-produce the stasis of that place. The ceiling can’t surrender to gravity because its downward fall is thwarted by the walls. If this place knows anything it is how to continue being in its current form.
So, this is what I took from Nadia’s article. But it was then odd to find myself in conversation with her at this week’s Historic Towns Forum conference. We ended up talking about dark real estate and the agency of material place formations (my phrase not hers). In our discussion Nadia argued in favour of some places having an intrinsic (i.e. an “it’s in the walls”) ability to haunt and provoke visitors. She illustrated her argument by pointing to the unsettling feelings triggered by standing within an industrial pottery kiln, the darkness, lack of edges and lines, the strange smells and the uneven floor. “But what if you worked everyday in that environment?” I asked, “it wouldn’t feel a strange place then would it?” And then I tried to push home an argument that any such strange affecto-material feelings are a product of our unfamiliarity, or of our cultural inference rather than of the place-matter itself.
But then I stopped. I’d suddenly remembered the strong feelings that morning as I’d walked into the meeting room that served as the venue for this conference. A London law practice’s building, all there was elegant clean magnolia walls, black marble topped dark lustrous cherry veneer cabinets and corporate chrome legged chairs, all bathed in beams of extra bright recessed halogen lights. Stepping into that chamber I’d been primed, and it only took the chink of a tea cup nestling back into its saucer, to tumble me back into an older, once familiar place-world.
So my conclusion was that it’s both: yes, it is us who make the meaning for the spaces we enter, but we are not always in control of that meaning-making. We can be provoked into doing so by the triggers and traps that rooms set for us. And yes, sometimes those triggers are engineered there to produce intended effects by curators or interior designers, but sometimes the effects are serendipitous: the chance meeting of a meaning brought with you, a thing lurking there that has no sense of you and a resultant feeling produced by that encounter.
Bartonini, N. (2015) ‘The politics of vibrant matter: Consistency, containment and the concrete of Mussolini’s bunker’, Journal of Material Culture, 20 (2), 191-210.
Image – Stephen Felmingham (2009) Leominster 6/31