Riding out the catastrophe: reflections from SHU SPG’s ‘Changing Places #3: Sport & physical activity in catastrophic environments’ session, 3-11-22

“There is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present where there should be something”

Mark Fisher (2016) The Weird & The Eerie, p61.

Last night we held the final online session in Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place group’s ‘Changing Places’ series. The event took the form of an online book launch for the exciting and timely new collection, Sport and Physical Activity in Catastrophic Environments, edited by Jim Cherrington and Jack Black (Routledge, 2022). Featuring contributions from around the world, this collection looks at the ways in which sport and physical activity react to natural and man-made shocks to place, whether by armed conflict, natural disaster or socio-economic turmoil.

The event featured the following presentations:

Jim Cherrington and Jack Black (Sheffield Hallam University)

Sport and Physical Activity in Catastrophic Environments: Tuning to the ‘weird’ and the ‘eerie’

Dani Abulhawa (Leeds University)

Moving toward understanding through open and expressive physical activity: Findings from a preliminary study into the work of Skateboarding charity, SkatePal in the West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories

Kevin Bingham (Barnsley College)

An urban explorer’s experiences of meshwork, melding and the uncanny: invisible cities of the rubble

Kass Gibson (Plymouth Marjons University)

Informational Hazards and Moral Harm: Sport and Exercise Science Laboratories as Sites of Moral Catastrophes

Here’s the recording of the session, and my reflections on the event follow.

Jim and Jack opened the event by outlining their conceptualisation of ‘catastrophe’. They see catastrophe as more fundamental than disasters (which can be anticipated, and to an extent planned for). A catastrophe is a circumstance of rupture where we come to feel torn from familiar notions of being, doing, belonging and inhabiting. It engenders a feeling of ‘end times’ and forces us to acclimatise to a new, unsettling, environment and context. A catastrophe puts us in place where it is hard to dwell, and yet we still must strive to live there. So, we learn how to normalise the abnormal, whether that’s the climate emergency, war, socio-economic turmoil etc. In the face of catastrophe, we witness the end of what we were previously able to take as stable, familiar and grounding.

So (they then provocatively ask) what role does sport and physical activity play within these changed places and contexts of dwelling? It seems incongruous to ask: surely sport is for ‘the good times’? But being so deeply ‘of the body’, physical activity conducted within the context and environs of catastrophe melds two things: that heightened phenomenological sense of being alive that exercise can summon and that empirical confrontation with unsettled contexts and environments. In short, exercise and confrontation of catastrophe, both require physically and cognitive exertion in order to accommodate to altered capacities of body and place.

Now, that formula (which is my extrapolation from Jim and Jack’s comments, and they may not like the direction I’m taking this) sets up opportunity for their contributors to explore the presence and actions of moving, adaptive bodies and minds within catastrophic places. Thus, Dani Abulhawa introduced us to the role of skateboarding projects in the West Bank, and specifically of how the act of learning to skate instils a sense of agency, growth, accomplishment and resilience in the individual skater, and also summons that communally via the shared experience of developing these community projects. Meanwhile in his account of his urbex forays into post-earthquake Christchurch’s ruination, Kevin Bingham used Italo Calvino’s motif of ‘Invisible Cities’ to suggest how this destroyed cityscape offered up a site of open-reading, such that this was (but also no-longer was) New Zealand. Instead, the city had become a distorted (and or distortable) place in which (in his words) “our maps and memories are deceiving us”. Kevin detailed his body’s lines of flight, contortion and accommodation to new logics of movement across the rubble where “we were spared the boredom of following the building in the usual way” but instead had to invent your own path of movement across denatured streets and ruptured buildings. And as with movement, so with meaning-making – in this invisible city Kevin would forge new – personalised – frameworks for his aesthetic consumption of this terrain. Kevin is unapologetic about this appropriation of place, and tantalising holds together the eager to explain theoretical realm of his academic training and the reticence of the urbexer’s experiential consumption logics of ‘it is what it is, I do what I do, because I do it’ (that’s not a quote from Kevin). In his account Christchurch was an open-form playscape, evacuated of other humans. But he conceded in the Q&A that not everyone liked that he and his crew had come to the city to play (my word, not his). So, it was interesting that the final presenter, Kass Gibson, then placed moral considerations front and centre of his talk, examining fitness laboratories as sites of moral catastrophy and of how the origins of such lab’s measured and evaluated physical activity lie in the control sciences of prison regimes, military training, time and motion studies etc. In presenting this analysis, Kass presented the body as a changing place and a site of trauma, invoking the haunting title of Jean-Marie Brohm’s 1978 collection of essays: ‘Sport: a prison of measured time’.

Jim and Jack’s book is published on 8 November 2022, and this discount code FLA22 (or FLA23 in 2023) can be used for purchase at Routledge’s site: https://www.routledge.com/Sport-and-Physical-Activity-in-Catastrophic-Environments/Cherrington-Black/p/book/9781032125411

Image Credit: Kevin Bingham