Infrastructure, investigated: thoughts from the SHU SPG conference

Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

“Infrastructures are the collectively constructed systems that also build and sustain human life. “We” build infrastructure, and it builds “us.” Infrastructure exceeds its most obvious forms — the pipes, roadways and rail that often monopolize our imaginaries. Social infrastructures are also built, material, and lasting. Even intimacy is increasingly understood as infrastructural.”

Deborah Cohen (2017) ‘Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance’, blog here

So, the idea was to gather together a group of people to talk about how and why they focus upon infrastructure in their research activities. In short: to form a temporary infrastructure of knowledge exchange, of intimacy even. And this is what we achieved at the recent SHU Space & Place Group conference. I’d hoped that we’d presence the often backgrounded infrastructures that enable social life but I think we also got a bonus too, a glimpse of the human within infrastructure: both in terms of a fundamental dependency, but also as an authorship, and fellow-travelling. Infrastructure is of-us and we of-it. As Paul Graham Raven reminded us at March’s taster event, for Donna Haraway we are already cyborgs, beings melded with technology, whether we like it or not.

Richard Brook (Manchester Metropolitan University) picked up this theme in his opening presentation. As an architect he’s interested in how infrastructure is a mega-object emplaced into the environment with varying degrees of explicit attention to design and context, versus the compulsion towards function-determining-form. Helpfully he showed how attitudes towards the formation of infrastructural objects and their networks have fluctuated over time: in some eras infrastructure has been the subject of presencing, or ‘fitting-in’ through design (i.e that the host society has foregrounded it, perhaps as a sign of modernity and progress) whilst it has been the subject of less concern and consideration in other eras. But in most eras design focus and appreciation of environmental ‘fit’ has still tended to follow a “view from the road” rather than a “view of the road” approach for most infrastructure which we travel or inhabit. We are supposed to look out from not look at infrastructure.

Next up architects Cristina Cerulli and Sam Vardy (SHU) reported on their project with MArch students exploring the theme of ‘infrastructures of autonomy’, considering both the ubiquity of infrastructure in the modern world, but also of how it might be critiqued, adapted and made-different. They took us through the journeys that their students have been on, first forming their own sense of what infrastructure is and then developing their views of how it might otherwise be: and whether through a design (or political) processes of addition, subtraction or mutation. Their project’s blog can be viewed here: link

Then we shifted out attention to infrastructures of power generation and supply. Will Eadson (SHU) outlined his research into the politics of district heating networks, reminding us that each element of infrastructure is owned by someone, and that the interaction necessary to create and maintain a system requires a shared purpose and a mechanism of collaboration. Will pointed out how through combinations of politico-technical friction within these systems, the best of intentions can be thwarted, or rendered more difficult than their engineering or architectural designs might suggest.

Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) turned our attention to a historical perspective, by outlining his work researching the  now-vanished 20th century network of power generation and supply in the Bradford area of north-east Manchester. He showed us how through archival searching he has pieced together a sense of the scale and purpose of the colliery, power station, gas works and abattoir that once operated as an integrated cell-like, metabolic infrastructure feeding itself and nourishing outward. But also spewing out legacies of pollution and ill health. Martin’s presentation sparked debate about whether heavy industry should be the focus of narratives of ‘loss’ and whether such foregrounding is (in any sense) nostalgic, and whether it is right or wrong to build the stories of place other than through the interview testimony of those who once worked there. Martin was open and generous in giving his responses, and in doing so indicated (for me at least) that if the aim is to presence infrastructure then the presencing of the researcher (and of their motives and feelings about what they have chosen to research, and why) is a very important – but often hidden – part of the story. A copy of Martin’s slides can be viewed here.

After lunch we reconvened to hear from Fides Matzdorf (SHU) taking us through her ethnographic account of improvised infrastructures within the spaces and places of competitive ballroom dancing. Fides showed us how generic municipal spaces (e.g. town halls) are locally and individually adapted by the competitors who appropriate the ledges of memorial plaques, radiators, window fixings as improvised changing stations. Her presentation reminded us that infrastructure is fundamentally about environmental adaptations to some pressing purpose, and that spaces can be multi-use, adapted in the moment with a venue’s infrastructural (event enabling) affordances brought out by the user, rather than designed-in, intentionally by the original place maker. Thus not all infrastructural function and use is (or can ever be) anticipated by the designer.

Then sound artist Matt Parker (University of the Arts, London) turned our attention to the presence of the infrastructures of the internet, giving them a sense of mass and energy consumption through his atmospheric short film which uses field recordings of the sounds emitted within server farms to emphasise that ‘the cloud’ is not light – hardware is just that, hard, heavy and sucking in energy at an exponential rate. The effortless screen-world of the now is enabled through a physical infrastructure that is located elsewhere, out of sight but with a heavy footprint that is visible and audible, if we know where to look (and choose to do so). Matt’s film is here:

And there’s more at: http://www.thepeoplescloud.org/

Brian Lewis (poet and publisher, Longbarrow Press) then counterbalanced the claustrophobia of Matt’s presentation by taking us outside – first through White Thorns his poetry recital, to the Isle of Axholme, the empty seeming flatlands of North Lincolnshire, where he performs long, lone night walks.

On high, a freehold
of six thousand square metres
threshed by a rotor.
All the feathering threefold
swept into pitch cylinders.

Brian’s verse (extract above and more here) drew into relief the infrastructural features of that landscape – the wind turbines, the drainage ditches and the agricultural apparatus and showed himself drawn into co-occupation of space with them thereby revealing a highly populated landscape devoid of humans. Then Brian took us outside – literally – leading us out into the daylight of Sheffield for a meander past the culverted outcrops of the River Sheaf, the barren straights runs of the tram lines as they parallel the railway station and inner ring road, across a long, confined metal bridge tunnel, that few in Sheffield choose to notice and thereafter winding up through narrow lanes to SHU’s Cantor Building for a haiku writing session inspired by the walk (with some of the compositions scrolling below).

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Then the event ended with John Grant’s (SHU) tour of the roof of the Cantor Building, showing us its heat and power infrastructure and outlining how resilient this building would be as a hiding place in the event of a zombie apocalypse. John uses this colourful metaphor as a way of engaging students in the prosaics of assessing the energy rating of buildings – it being more attention grabbing to presence infrastructure through setting the challenge of finding ways of avoiding encounter with the flesh-failing bodies of the undead than in foregrounding infrastructure through attentiveness to the power rating plates of blank solar cells and heat exchangers.

Thus, in all of the talks the power of narrating infrastructure – of knowing and presencing it for a particular purpose – came to the fore.

Image credit: Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

NB: My spell checking tells me that presencing is not a real word. But it should be, and one day I will try to fully explain why. In brief, it was a term used by anti-nuclear activists in the 1980s to counter the ability of the nuclear state and its infrastructure to hide in plain sight, and involved mobilisation of a variety of representational strategies (photography, performance, writing, archival research) to make sure that that infrastructure’s  footprint was noticed (see for example the work of the Atomic Photographers Guild: https://atomicphotographers.com/). An extreme instance of presencing is the spraying of human blood on nuclear facilities by the Ploughshare activists, as chronicled in  Eric Schlosser’s (2015) Gods of Metal, see also: https://www.ploughshares.org/about-us.

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

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