Changing Places #1 & 2: reflections on our recent SHU Space & Place Group sessions

“…whenever [Mozhayev] forgets who he is, and what he should do next in life, he gets on a bus and rides to the old familiar bus stop where he grew up and suddenly everything makes sense again”.

Peter Pomerantsev (2017) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia. Faber & Faber: London

In his book chronicling the strange, ‘through-the-looking-glass’, world of modern Moscow, Pomerantsev presents a chapter chronicling the hectic and disorienting pace and nature of that city’s recent ‘regeneration’, wherein:

“The city changes so fast that you lose all sense of reality, you can’t recognise the streets. You look for a place where you went to eat a week ago, and before your eyes the whole block is being demolished.”

Set against this disorientation, Pomerantsev introduces Alexander Mozhayev, an urban explorer cum psychogeographer cum rescue archaeologist. Mozhayev leads walking tours in search of vanished and vanishing buildings, who declares there to his audience:

“We’re here to say a wake, to this building, to old Moscow, all these buildings are set to be destroyed.”

In Pomerantsev’s portrayal at least, Mozhayev is driven by a strong sense of a need to find and preserve the past, in order to hold his own sense of individual identity together. For Mozhayev:

“When my parents died, I could remember them through the building that we lived in. Buildings aren’t so much about recollecting time as about the victory over time.”

This strong sense of the power of place to ground an individual’s identity, and in particular of the role of the local and familiar material environment and its arrangement as a cherished store of personal memory and meaning struck me as running deeply through the five presentations given in our recent two ‘Changing Places’ online events, for which the session recordings are now provided here.

In Changing Places #1: Changing Places & Changing Identities (held on 24 March 2022) Nantia Koulidou (Art & Design, SHU) explored her experience of international migration through the design of electronically activated jewellery that could be programmed to comfort the wearer through release of visual and/or audio mementos when triggered by the environmental effects (e.g. altitude) of travelling between home countries and new horizons. This brought a sense of the way in which both jewellery and mobile electronic devices are now intimate companions in our life-journeys, props by which we remember, below and move-on.

Then Jess Scott (Social Science, SHU) outlined her ongoing research into how younger residents of care homes acclimatise to their new dwelling places, and make sense of their past, present and future by reference to the physical arrangement of their new surroundings. Jess’ concern is to better understand ow such transitions occur, in order to find ways in which the managing of that adjustment can be made to be the most positive experience possible.

Finally Joanna Dobson (SHU Humanities) presented an intimate account, through memoir and wider reflection, of a very formative family event, showing how the experience and recollection of childhood home and holiday locations was framed for her and her family members by that event and its perceived incorporation into the very form of the local landscape. [Joanna’s presentation was not recorded]

Meanwhile, in Changing Places #2: Change and the Material Fate of Place, Joanne Lee (Art & Design, SHU) and Rosemary Shirley (Museum Studies, University of Leicester) outlined the five key areas of inquiry that they are developing for their intended project to explore ‘the local’ (and it’s quality of ‘local-ness’) led by development of creative methods for the investigation of place. Growing out of their own experience of dwelling within narrowed ranges of existence during the covid years, their work seeks to find ways to characterise and explore the multiple locals inherent in any seeming place, and of the mundane (but fundamental) ways by which such senses of the local are made and transacted. In discussion it was noted that teasing out how ‘community’ and ‘locality’ differ (but potentially overlap) could be key, as will showing how qualitative (and narrative) based ‘creative’ techniques now used by marketeers and ‘place branding’ consultants can be distinguished from the more holistic (and less instrumentalist) aims of their project.

Then film-maker Esther Johnson (Media, SHU) outlined her multi-modal attempts to preserve both the form and symbol of Hull’s Co-Op department store’s ‘three ships’ mural. Esther’s project, and its collaborations with Hull residents and contemporary heritage campaigners, brought us back round to the question of where the urge to preserve the cherished built environment comes from, and how it reflects both individual and collective identity and (perhaps) a positive dimension to nostalgia, now that modernism’s faith in the-future-as-progress has itself become something of the past. It also flagged how, if (contrary to Mozhayev’s desires) buildings themselves are not good bets for “victory over time”, then perhaps a more durable victory (and aspiration to memory-survival) can be achieved by multiplying and disseminating the most iconic symbolic representations of the building’s former identity-power. Through Esther’s efforts the ‘locals’ of Hull now connect as a community of collective memory, carrying the three-ships mural emblazoned on T-shirts and other printed, portable media even in the face of the Hull Co-Op building’s imminent demolition.

Image Credit: Esther Johnson, mural on former Hull Co-Op department store