Back in the Grotto: elf ‘n’ safety, providence and thrill

 

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“law is a project aimed at manipulating, governing and channelling senses into precise categories, boundaries and definitions; at the same time, it is a process emerging out of the sensorial intermingling of human and nonhuman, tangible and intangible bodies, as such inseparable from this continuum.”

Andrea Pavoni, Controlling Urban Events: Law, Ethics and the Material (2018) Glasshouse/Routledge. p.159

All around me elves and safety, as we walk along the winding path at the come-and-pet-a-goat-this-used-to-be-a-working-farm-once-y’know attraction. I’ve been here before – to this place and to this theme – I didn’t come here as research. A mid December family outing saw us rock up. The place is near-empty, slightly too cold, and not quite close enough to Christmas to have any air of anticipation. It would also make more sense if there was snow. Too much ex-farmyard scrub and scrap remains in view, a blanket of white would knit everything together nicely. But that cold unity would create problems of its own – paths to be cleared and gritted to ensure maximal circulation of this place.

We are given a map – cartoon style (as everywhere) it carves up this place into zones, allocating themes, promises of particular atmospheres and colour-coded do’s and don’ts. The design of the map, and the topography that it represents, assumes that we will walk at a certain place, along particular routes and have particular sensations and experiences along the way. The places we are not supposed to go – the backstage, attraction-enabling, zones – are shown only part-drawn at the periphery. No colour-coded lines of movement run through them. These places are meant to look so unexciting that they will be entirely uninviting. A subtle form of prohibition based upon an engineered reversal of desire – an aversion-lite. It is sufficient for most, though risks a beguiling counter-attraction effect for some contrarians.

It all gets me thinking again about how places are parsed and encoded in the name of ‘health and safety’, and how some of the resulting normative orders are clearly contributing to that goal, whilst others seem simply the modern – acceptable – way of saying, “this is private”. And also that in “attractions” like this place, there is a dual encoding, a conformity to the curator’s perception about provident risk management sits alongside a staging of thrill, simulated jeopardy, or authenticity.

I ponder the tensions between these as I stoop to bend my lanky body into the mesh, caged frame of a sheep trailer and set off on a jolting tractor ride around the site. We stare out at the park and its uncaged patrons, who stare back sometimes envious (we were ahead of them in the queue for this experience) and others who view us as entertainment – a cage of strangers trundling around the petting zoo. Human flesh, in a pen-on-wheels that smells like it was host to an incontinent flock earlier that day. Then the highpoint, first the three-point turn in the otherwise off-limits backstage storage bay, then being sprayed with water jets as we meander down dedicated tractor-only trails amidst the motley assortment of inflatable santas, elves and snowmen. They also stare at us, except for the ones who have fallen over or twisted away in the flatland winds, now facing obstinately elsewhere.

This wet smell-fest assault is hardly the glass skywalk in Shinuizhai National Geological Park, China, where an exposure to fear is the raison d’etre of the place, but clearly we are meant to be destablised by this tractor ride – and we might leave unfulfilled were there to be no simulated jeopardy at this place. We’re we to be feeling entirely safe and certain here would mean that the place had failed as an “attraction” – a place that offers the promise of an encounter with something non-standard, and not entirely under our control.

So, having obediently washed my hands and (having brought our own picnic) not eaten it in the warm cafe area but instead in the designated cold, outdoor shame-benches of the frugal, I decided to offer-up the following conference abstract to the ‘Practising Legal Geography’ session at RGS-IBG 2019 (London, 28-30 August) – see last month’s post for details of the CFP:

Providence in place management: can critical legal geography account for zonal risk assessment?

“You can go there, but not there, and only there if accompanied”. Risk assessment is a fundamental place-making technology, one which often results in the parsing of sites into zones of normative differentiation. How is this zonal arrangement brought about? This paper will examine the practices by which law’s concern for managing the risks of injury to recreational visitors is spatialised. These practices involve the pragmatic translation of law’s abstract fears into site-specific judgements by lay-actors, principally site managers, who as neither lawyers nor professional geographers must perform delicate normative encodings of their places. This deployment of law into place by managers is a two-step process, requiring first their reading of the features and circumstances of a site and secondly, their devising of locally workable rules of being-in-place. The paper’s analysis of these lay legal geographical translation practices will be based on a comparative survey of risk assessments prepared by hosts for visitors to ‘awkward’ heritage sites. The study will show how key ‘risky’ features of those sites are identified, evaluated and presented through the managers’ mediation between safety legislation and other ‘attraction’ priorities, such as thrill, authenticity and affordability. In interpreting this data the paper will explore how well-suited critical legal geography, and its customary focus upon tracing power relations and subaltern identities, is to examining and understanding the spatial aspects of risk assessment and its resulting place management, and whether alternatively Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ (2015) and Pavoni’s (2017) more acceptive legal geography can offer additional opportunities for investigation and insight.

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