Coming out of confinement: reflections on the SHU SPG online session on dwelling in the time of COVID-19.

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“In our local woods the Hipsters have taken over from the Gangsters”

(A comment raised by Geraint Owen during this session.)

 

Sheffield Hallam University’s Space and Place Group held its 2020 conference online yesterday – focussing upon the theme of the COVID-19 lockdown and how it has affected our sense of dwelling. A video recording of the full two hour session is available here (the password is: 4J=15J7n).

Details of the event, including abstracts for the five presentations are set out in my previous blog. But here I offer up some reflections on key themes that struck me from each presentation (both as raised by the presenter and which emerged in each follow on Q&A). This isn’t an exhausted list, more of a teaser to see what treats await in the recording.

I chaired the session, and arranged the presentations in a sequence of scales – we started within the intimate spaces of the confined domestic dwelling, then travelled out into the experiences of a neighbourhood, onward into the indoor/outdoor relationship of individuals and social groups to the ‘great outdoors’ and rounded off considering the techno-social architectures that have underlain (and been mutated by) our recent confinement.

So, those thoughts…

>>Einräumen<< Making room within rooms: Thinking-at home/Furnishing-the-universe, Hester Reeve, Art & Design, SHU

Hester’s visual essay emphasised the intimate stillness and silence of everyday objects around her home. I was struck by how each item often contained (or otherwise bounded) another. Everything within the home was nested, and also indicative of unspoken domestic rituals. These rituals are at the very heart of our dwelling. And being stuck in our homes, our relationships with these things around us and these sedimented ways of doing are our both our comfort and our confinement (and each item a potential trigger to comfort or discomfort dependent upon setting, arrangement and context). Drawing from Heidegger’s Hester’s concern is with ‘things at hand’ – the way in which our bodies extend into and connect with these everyday tools. We arrange and order them to our needs, but they also feed back into us. The COVID-19 confinement has made us more explicitly attuned to all sorts of mundane artefacts and their heightened significance as means of hygiene, self-presentation, symbolic reminders of others to whom connection has been temporarily lost.

The Fitties: Plotland in Lockdown Harriet Tarlo, Department of Humanities, SHU & Judith Tucker, Art & Design, University of Leeds

Harriet and Judith presented an atmospheric depiction of life on the Fitties plotland, weaving in the voices and images of local residents as they have striven to adjust themselves to the lockdown, and also to find ways to (try to) keep at a safe distance those drawn as visitors to their coastal landscape. The presentation was filled with feelings that showed richness through their lack of singularity: ‘My life is really small now. Small and quiet’. ‘I don’t have the energy I did’. ‘The sky is bluer’. ‘Police put tape over the gate’. ‘irresponsible people’. ‘Go away’. ‘They miss their family’. ‘we need a shop’ ‘we’re more vulnerable because we’re remote’. This account showed the complexity of finding that balance between good humour and frustration in such circumstances. Judith’s paintings and Harriet’s poetry were evocatively woven into this account, showing how the arts and humanities can ‘do’ social research, capturing a mood and conveying it to an audience. Harriet and Judith were keen to point out that the residents are not wistful – they are embedded in their own hopes and fears for the future. As they were prior to the lockdown. But lockdown brings on as many hopes for a future (and possible new ways of dwelling there) as it does a craving for pre-confinement modes of dwelling there. Getting back to normal is complex, dynamic, as much about possible futures as about the past.

Accidental insights into confinement – stories of nature in the city from people with mental health difficulties. Jo Birch, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

With Jo’s presentation we continued to move across from an arts perspective into the social science. Jo showed how creativity-based research informed her role within a study of how a wide variety of people actually do (or don’t) engage with the ‘outdoors’ and what they need and/or take from those encounters. Through specifically focussing on the experiences of people with mental health difficulties, Jo was able to show the diversity of that need and use, and she pointed out that the dominant discourse of “nature is good for you”, can itself cause difficulties for some people: wind may worry, open space may seem mundane and oppressively shapeless and limitless. Studying engagements with nature by people with mental illness perhaps makes the extremities of reaction clearer to see, but this is only a question of degree. We all have individual needs, and likely complex attunements to the various places that make up our worlds. A questioner echoed this by flagging that they new of people who feel guilty about not enjoying being out in the sunshine (or don’t enjoy being out at all). Dominant views judge these people’s preferences to be self-limiting or damaged in some way. If someone finds their solace within the comfort of their home, why should this be seen as less valuable than “hugging a tree”? Jo emphasised the active – take what you need – aspect to engagements with place. People imagine themselves into space, they augment and play with it, in order to made it helpful for them. Social science-based research doesn’t always know how to acknowledge this subjectivity. Jo productively applied her pre-COVID19 research to the circumstances of the lockdown, showing how the outside perhaps became even more a feature of desire or aversion due to the effects of nature-distancing caused by the constraints of lockdown.

Joy Unconfined? The (un)social life of urban green spaces, Julian Dobson, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

Julian’s presentation picked up where Jo’s ended – taking us pictorially into Sheffield’s empty parks and rural fringe spaces during lockdown, finding there improvised totems of territoriality and anxiety, such as a sign on a farm gate: “This is our home. Go away”. Julian pointed to the parallel between Lefebvre’s articulation of a “right to the city” and the newly raised political contestation of urban parks and countryside fields. The terms of lockdown made strong assumptions about what recreational use should be like during lockdown – focussing upon a purposeful ‘keep fit by moving’ agenda. Meanwhile lingering became malingering. To stop moving was to break the rule. To sunbathe or to enter playgrounds was forbidden. Julian also took us into the immediate present: the last fortnight has seen the sudden (partial) relaxation of lockdown. The Government (in England at least) is trying to encourage us to leave our homes. To sit or lie in parks is now allowed. And to travel further afield for recreation is permissible. But whilst non-essential shops and commercial leisure venues remain closed, parks and city-fringe fields are the only place now ‘open’ for (any kind of) leisure. And (as was revealed in discussion) different groups regard the newly arrived appearance of other users with suspicion. Do these (new) people know how to acceptably use these spaces, are they only here because the Mall is shut? Such debate is laden with assumptions by one tribe about another. There is a battle, to find a new normal (a new balance) in these suddenly occupiable spaces. What does spatial justice (equity of access and use) actually look like, who should define it, and for what purposes?

COVID-19 Lockdown: a perfect storm of Geo-datafication, Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat, Media Arts and Communication, SHU

As our final presenter Mon took us to the outer reaches of our journey across the scales of confinement. His perspective was a global one – presenting us with the fundamental question of how our underlying architecture of dwelling has been affected by COVID-19. Mon showed us how much of modern life is now underpinned by the internet. We simply could not have the confinement that we are currently in without this digital transformation. However, he was keen to point out the fallacies of our viewing the digital revolution as either without social consequence, or as a harmless dematerialisation. The internet depends upon energy- and metals- hungry infrastructure. Every Zoom meeting that we attend is enabled by physical systems, just as everything we order for home delivery is dependent upon citizens who (unlike the privileged e-workers sequestered in their homes) have to remain physically active within the ‘real’ economy and its logistical spaces. Our move online therefore has a footprint (both now and for the future). Our way of working may well have changed through our experience of confinement – and if it has then more cables, more server farms, more rare earth metals will need to be laid, made or mined. He pointed out how we have not even started to ask the kind of questions that – in his view – we really need to. Who will own the COVID-19 tracking data? To what purposes will it be put by governments and/or corporations? What have we been using the internet mostly for during confinement (watching lots more porn it seems according to data that Mon showed us). Mon’s presentation and its maps of data flows and digital infrastructure presented an interesting counterpoint to the incessant COVID-19 maps and graphics presented on news shows on a daily basis. During confinement both the virus and data have been circulating and evolving. Both have affected our ways of dwelling. But perhaps the changes in our digital lives will have the longest running effects.
Picture credit: conference screen grab by @laylagdesign

And with thanks to Charlene Cross for note taking during the session

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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