Utility After Abandonment – details of our 15 paper ruins session at the RGS-IBG Conference, Cardiff August 2018

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“…show no pretence of other art, and otherwise… resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, … raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; … treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying.”

Manifesto of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, 1877

In his SPAB manifesto William Morris declared that in their original completeness buildings have a fixed identity and authenticity which can be maintained indefinitely via timely and proactive works of protection and maintenance. Thus reactive restoration should never become necessary, if precious buildings are looked after properly. But SPAB’s concerns were for the preservation of a few signature buildings, and their dream of an indefinite remaining-as-is was just that, a dream and whether for the iconic few or the prosaic many. All things fall apart, and protection and maintenance programmes are usually a question of controlling the rate at which ruination occurs, rather than holding it at bay permanently. For most buildings the journey towards ruin is inevitable, unless an evolving, adaptive re-use strategy is enlisted. The choice is a stark one: adapt or die.

But viewing ruination as a process offers the prospect that the chosen re-use point could be set at any of various stages along that journey. The structure that is being re-used could already appear to be markedly dilapidated by the moment of its salvation via an adaptive re-use. And in some quarters it is the very emergence of architectural decay that spurs a revalorisation and the opportunities for re-use that then ensue (and the challenge then becomes one of how to artificially freeze the building in that state – but no worse – and to activate its use in a manner fit for the tastes and needs of now, rather than the moment and purpose of its origination).

I’m delighted to announce that we are going to have a three part session exploring the utility of contemporary ruins at this summer’s Royal Geographical Society annual conference in Cardiff (28-31 August). The exact date of our session will be announced towards the end of May (and details will be posted here). But in the meantime here are details of the 15 papers that we have, showcasing ruin//reuse research from all around the world: Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Arctic.

Session 1 – Curating ruination: care, affect and mattering

Chair: Edward Hollis – University of Edinburgh

The shimmering ruin

Hayden Lorimer – University of Glasgow

This paper will do three things. First, it will introduce the conference session establishing its purpose, parameters and potential. It will consider how, in the current conjuncture, ruins are being reimagined, repurposed and reactivated, where new utility is found after long periods of abandonment and entropic decay. If this signals a reversal in ruinous fortunes – with present-day or near-future ruins repopulated as public spaces and cultural assets – it also presents significant challenges for heritage managers, land owners, arts practitioners and social activists, in legal, social and creative terms. Second, the paper will consider how recent interdisciplinary scholarship in the fields of ruin studies and heritage studies can provide the theories necessary for critically understanding projects of re-occupation or (re)-construction. This exercise of taking stock conceptually will be a means to reckon with ruins, culturally and materially, in updated form (Edensor and DeSilvey 2012). Third, the paper will briefly put some of this thinking to work in a single introductory study. Kilmahew-St.Peters (KSP) is a signature site for reimagining the new ruin. Located in the West of Scotland, KSP has been the subject of recent experiment: ground-breaking, arts-led, community-facing and heritage-driven. Outcomes at KSP remain complex and contingent, with a local culture of ruin-care perhaps destined to be perennially transitional. The site’s vexed history will be presented in capsular form, as a sequence of live tweets. This illustrated frieze will serve to preface three later contributions to the session, alighting on specific aspects of KSP’s past, present and future.

What really haunts the modern ruin?

Luke Bennett – Sheffield Hallam University

Tim Edensor (2005, 2011) has celebrated the ruin as a place of open possibilities enabled by the decay of its normativities. Meanwhile, acknowledging the ongoing role of the ruin manager, Caitlin DeSilvey has mapped out “palliative curation” as a light-touch approach to ruin-care in which the productive capacities of dilapidation are enabled. In our current study of the management and repurposing of the Modernist ruins of the St Peter’s Seminary near Glasgow, we have investigated the complex ways in which care and associated normativities are iteratively composed and applied to a ruin. Our study suggests that the pragmatic instantiations of a ruin’s care reflect complex, shifting and negotiable apprehensions by owners, managers and security staff forged in the intersection of a site’s pasts, presents and futures, and of the knowledge, risks and opportunities that this journey through time may bring. Here, the dynamic nature of the circumstances and trajectory of any ruin generate a succession of local and provisional assumptions and resulting temporary interventions, which channel engagements with the ruin and how care (and ordering) of it is materially and symbolically expressed. This presentation will explore this through an interpretation of three instances of such ‘haunting’ at St Peter’s: (1) forecasting danger by reference to elsewhere: in liability and risk assessments for organised encounters with the ruin, (2) listening to the site: reflexively adjusting attitudes towards managing recreational trespass as ruination progresses and (3) making do: the improvisational care applied to the ruin by its lone security guard, drawn from his own Lifeworld.

Wymering Manor: ordinary matters and everyday practices in at risk historic sites

Belinda Mitchell & Karen Fielder – University of Portsmouth

Focussing on historic buildings which are at risk, we are interested in the disciplinary territory that lies in the overlap between interior design and conservation practice by conceptualising historic interiors as unfinished sites of experience loaded with affective capacity. The work aims to examine the representation of such spaces from the inside out through new materialist theories and creative methodologies in order to articulate the sensory in conservation practice and to rethink historic interiors accordingly. An uninhabited 16th-century timber-framed manor house in Portsmouth provides a case study for this experimentation. We propose that the house is experienced all the more poignantly as it hangs in a transitional state prior to any unified programme of restoration and reuse which would determine a fixed and static end point. The concern in this essay is with the house, its material/immaterial matters and the matter of the local community who are reimagining its futures in their ongoing efforts to save it. We are interested in the everyday community responses to the impulses that derive from the material mattering of vulnerable historic sites and the values and attachments that are formed through these material flows. The commonplace interactions and gestures of the community are discussed through referencing Kathleen Stewart, where “the ordinary is a shifting assemblage of practices and practical knowledge, a scene of both liveness and exhaustion, a dream of escape or of the simple life”.

Ruins fermentation: practicing different forms of culture

Lilly Cleary – William Angliss Institute, Syndney

The process of fermentation, according to Sandor Katz (2010), describes the creative space between fresh and rotten; fermented products creatively arise within a collaborative web of microbial relationships and “they are embodiments of culture not lightly abandoned” – or left to exploitation by intensive production and its inherent need to value uniformity, consistency and durability in the name of safety.  This paper enrols the practices of fermentation, materially and metaphorically, as a way to bring together the connected questions of how to activate modern ruins creatively and collaboratively, as well as safely, albeit in a less uniform and consistent way. My analysis reports on the repurposed use of a disused abattoir in regional Victoria, Australia – a site saved not because it was valued, but instead has become valued because it has been saved (DeSilvey, 2017).  Usually associated with death and decomposition, a number of craft fermenting businesses have begun to re-configure and re-perform the space. Here, rot as the active agent of ruination (Lorimer and Murray, 2015) has been displaced by rot as an active agent in convivially making welcome the uncertain and often inconsistent agencies of humans with nonhumans. My paper builds on this case study to reimagine the decomposition of ruins as productive public sites for practicing different forms of culture and “wild” culturation – asking, how might the practice of ‘ruins fermentation’ allow us to engage in a very material sense with the abandoned spaces, microbial traces and living communities of ruins.

Actively awaiting ruins in the Netherlands

Renate Pekaar – Cultural Heritage Agency, The Netherlands

Clemens Driessen – Wageningen University, The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, a ruin is hard to come by. Of course, there are occasionally buildings that are no longer in use. But before they get a chance to fall into disrepair and attain a ruinous state, these structures will have been either refurbished, or torn down. By discussing a series of cases of buildings that almost, or only briefly, had become ruins, this paper will explore the motives and speculate on the cultural origins of what arguably is a collective desire to clean up every structure that is no longer used, or to diligently reconstruct historical ruins to their imagined original splendour. The first author of this paper, as a heritage professional working for the Dutch government, has in her work sought to advocate an approach of ‘actively awaiting’ – allowing for time to generate a renewed interest in (listed) buildings that are no longer functional, or perhaps leading to an appreciation of the process of their falling apart.

Some efforts have recently emerged that seek to actively promote an alternative aesthetic in which decay is accepted and given new meaning. An example is the ‘Ecoruine’ project in Northern Groningen, where historical farm houses are projected, via computer renderings of future ruins, to be the scenic backdrop of a campsite. This paper will seek to answer whether through this type of work the dominant sense of degeneration associated with dilapidated buildings in the Netherlands could -over time- be replaced by the ruin as somehow valuable, embracing its evocative and ecological quality.

Session 2: Reusing the ruin: pressures, opportunities and difficulties

Chair: Hayden Lorimer – University of Glasgow

Castles in the Air, Facts on the Ground. An examination of imaginary proposals for the ruins of St Peter’s Kilmahew

Edward Hollis – Edinburgh University

Written six centuries ago, Alberti’s dictum that ‘Beauty is that thing to which nothing may be added, and from which nothing may be taken away’ haunts our attitudes to heritage today. Conservators, art and architectural historians document and discuss buildings and artworks as singular artefacts, usually authored by single authors, possessing a completeness that time, decay, and atrophy can only spoil. That’s the traditional story, anyway; and it is one within which the ruin takes an uncomfortable place. Following eighteenth century ruin theorists, and anticipating Edensor, the architectural historian John Summerson tried to reconcile the ruin with classical aesthetics by suggesting that the incompleteness of the ruin is suggestive: it invites completion in the minds’ eye. But that state of completion may, as the nineteenth century restorer Viollet le Duc suggested, may never have existed – it is, as Ricoeur suggests of memory, an imaginary all of its own, as well as the recollection of something but lost. In this sense, it may be afforded all sorts of creative latitudes that a strictly archaeological reconstruction of the past may not. This paper will explore these imaginary latitudes by considering a host of castles in the air: unrealised creative proposals generated by one real ruin. Since its abandonment in the late 1980’s St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross has spawned, in projects devised by developers, artists, activists, and students of architecture, landscape, and interior, hundreds of projects for its completion. These projects differ from other creative interventions, from graffiti to events, that have taken place on and in the site: this is a study of works devised in absentia, on paper and in the screen. On the face of it, these proposals are thought experiments. What do these projects, each a snapshot of attitudes to the site at the time it was made – a sort of retelling – tell us about changing attitudes to St Peter’s itself as it undergoes its own processes of ruination? This process of change is, in some sense, a result of the dissemination of these imaginaries in their own right – through exhibitions, online, in reports and so on. How do they speak to one another, through networks of influence and counterreaction? How these imaginaries relate to the site itself? In some, it is used as an object of contemplation; but in others, the causality is reversed, and these remote imaginaries have left traces on the site that then suggest further possibilities of their own. Finally, this enquiry will return to Alberti’s dictum, to ask how such projects, themselves incomplete, transitory, co-dependent with another ‘work’ the ruin itself) may be understood as creative works. If beauty is that to which nothing may be added, and from which nothing may be taken away, then how are these works of subtraction and addition, in themselves, beautiful?

What to do with incompletion? Learning from Incompiuto Siciliano

Pablo Arboleda – University of Glasgow

For the past five decades, around 400 unfinished public works have been erected in Italy as the result of deliberate, dysfunctional modernisation – political corruption and mafia networks involved. A third of these constructions are located in Sicily alone and so, in 2007, a group of artists labelled this phenomenon an architectural style: ‘Incompiuto Siciliano’. Through this creative approach, the artists’ objective is to put incompletion back on the agenda by considering it to have heritage value and, in doing so, their aim is to change the buildings’ dark side and turn it into something positive. This presentation reviews the four different approaches that the artists have envisaged in order to deal with unfinished public works: to finish them, to demolish them, to leave them as they are, or to opt for an ‘active’ arrested decay. The cultural implications of these strategies are analysed through the study of different architecture workshops that have been taking place during the last ten years, and this body of knowledge is supplemented by a long semi-structured interview conducted with one of the involved artists. Ultimately, it is concluded that incompletion is such a vast and complex issue that it will surely have more than a single solution; rather a combination of the proposed four. This is important because it opens up a debate on the broad spectrum of possibilities to tackle incompletion – considering this one of the key contemporary urban themes not only in Italy but also in those countries affected by unfinished geographies after the 2008 financial crisis.

A Tale of Two Cities:  An exploration of psychohistorical legacy in shaping attitudes towards modern ruins in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Harriet McKay – London Metropolitan University

Their nicknames say it all.  Cape Town as South Africa’s ‘Mother City’ seems dependable, knowable, safe and somehow western.  Indeed the term Mother City is innately connected with white European assumptions of ownership. But beyond her mountain range lies something quite different; Africa.   That Africa of course, includes the far edgier ‘Jozi’; Johannesburg. This paper will explore the recent utilization of an abandoned early twentieth century Cape Town grain silo and its redevelopment as Zeitz Mocca (Museum of Contemporary African Art).   Widely acknowledged as having been inspired by the Tate Modern/Guggenheim Bilbao models, this new emblem for championing contemporary Africa was designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick and sponsored by German entrepreneur Jochen Zeitz. Nine hundred miles away the Hillbrow Tower dominates the Johannesburg skyline. Built in 1968 this telecommunications tower represents South Africa’s economic boom under Grand Apartheid.  That it, like many of Johannesburg’s 20th century ruins, remains an uncared for white elephant is testimony to a fractured, and therefore much more ‘South African’ history than Cape Town’s ‘Europeanness’ will admit. Johannesburg’s abandoned sites however betray the largest metropolis on the continent to be sitting between the rock of its late 20th century past and the hard place of wanting to be a modern and truly African city. Examining approaches to redevelopment, or its failure, this paper will use Cape Town/Johannesburg examples to explore the barriers to activating ruins safely, creatively and collaboratively or indeed, at all.

Value negotiations at the margins: Bringing a town back from the dead

Samantha Saville – Aberystwyth University

The high arctic settlement of Pyramiden, Svalbard is in many ways an archetypal ruin, increasingly renowned as a ‘ghost town’. Post-industrial, post-Soviet, post-permanent population. Fiendishly enticing, not only to those imbued with even the slightest tinge of ruinen lust, Pyramiden also offers stunning glacial vistas and ample opportunities for wildlife watching in relative peace. Pyramiden is no longer post-profit or post-potential. Over the last 6 years there have been increasing efforts from its Russian owners to capitalise on this cultural attraction and its location. Tourist and scientific activity is growing.  The re-development and re-use of Pyramiden is however fraught with a number of questions as to what should be valued, how and what this means for the town’s ongoing use. What exactly is cultural heritage, and how should it be managed/ protected/ cared for – whose version of value, conservation, safety and heritage counts here? How are the ambiguous configurations of nature/culture, past/present, care/abandonment to be treated as Pyramiden morphs from ruin to something else? Drawing on doctoral research, I discuss how this story of recognition and revitalisation of a cultural, political and economic asset has been unfolding so far. In doing so I blend value enquiry, assemblage thinking and the ethics of care to tell a multitude of small stories that can inform our thinking of how we activate modern ruins.

Repurposing modern ruins through tourism: lost places, heritage and recreation. The case of Beelitz Sanatorium

Aude Le Gallou – University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Over past decades, Berlin’s urban space has undergone deep transformations accounting for the presence of numerous modern ruins in the city and its surroundings. Having become prized spots for alternative practices (Edensor 2005), some of them are now subject to recreational valorisations. This is the case of Beelitz Sanatorium in the periphery of Berlin, which is being gradually rehabilitated after its abandonment in the early nineties. A part of the complex has been transformed into a leisure area which main attraction is a canopy walkway meandering between ruins. Drawing on an urban and cultural geography approach, our presentation aims to analyse its recreational valorisation as a form of cultural repurposing of abandoned places. First, we outline the reappraisal of the cultural value attached to Beelitz’s ruins as rediscovered heritage. Then we discuss spatial issues raised by their development as recreational ruins aiming to meet requirements for use by a broad audience. Finally, we question the temporalities of such a recreational valorisation and ask whether tourism and leisure repurposing must be understood as permanent or as a transitional stage in a broader process of rehabilitation. Our methodological framework is based on a mix of qualitative methods including participant observation, formal and informal interviews with participants, organizers, institutional actors and inhabitants as well as analysis of online material. By providing valuable insights into the ways modern ruins are being re-integrated into the city’s space, the case of Beelitz is exemplary of current changes of perspective on abandoned places and their social value.

Session 3: Remembering and performing in the ruin: heritage, atmospheres and creative reanimation 

Chair: Luke Bennett – Sheffield Hallam University

Stories of light and dark from a modern ruin in transition

Ruth Olden – University of Glasgow

Light has become a significant agent in the drive to transform the modernist ruins of St Peter’s Seminary into a cultural asset and public space.  NVA, the arts organisation responsible for this creative vision, have built an international reputation on their innovative use of light in natural and built landscapes both in the UK and further afield, and St Peter’s is arguably their biggest challenge yet. Recent engagements with the site have seen NVA enrol light in the managed presentation and curation of the site, with all manner of lighting technologies employed to enable access, to facilitate readability of the modern ruin, and to transport audiences into imagined realms. This presentation considers three events that have been staged on St Peter’s between 2016 and 2018 in which light has taken centre stage. In doing so it seeks to examine how NVA have delivered different choreographies of light, what the cultural and creative value of these events has been, and what legacy they have had in the bigger story of ruin transition. Alive to the transient nature of these events however (and arguably of their cultural legacies), this presentation also draws in the lesser known stories of light and dark animating the modern ruins of St Peter’s Seminary. By capturing the ruin in different states of exposure – exposures that are natural and artificial, planned and unplanned – this presentation seeks to explore the opportunities but also the challenges that the drive to ruin post-production and presentation faces.

Committed landscapes: strategies of social and cultural dynamization in non-urban ruins through artistic and creative activities

Rosa Cerarols & Antoni Luna – Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

Geospatial changes in contemporary societies produced a gradual and growing abandonment of large areas of territory. The progressive depopulation of extensive spaces in postindustrial Europe is becoming an enormous challenge for policy makers and territorial activists. In some of these landscapes in crisis, there have been different initiatives over the last few years associated among others to new forms of agriculture or tourist activities that try to modify the abandonment dynamics but maintaining their dependence for urban customers or investors. However, in the last decade there has been a fundamental paradigm shift, facilitated by improved communication networks. New globally hyperconnected spaces of creation and experimentation are appearing even in the most remote areas of the territory. The ability to spread all kinds of new activities in these depressed environments opened new possibilities for social and cultural improvement for local residents. In this project we analyze the impact of art/craft initiatives of KONVENT a cultural association created near the village of Berga, 100Km North of Barcelona. Konvent association settled up in the abandoned spaces and ruins of the old “Cal Rosal” factory. Some members of the association have personal attachments to these spaces since their family and friends used to work and live here and they have worked to preserve the buildings and the old industrial landscape. These emotional attachments and an exceptional atmosphere of creativity creates a very unique setting favoring new local cultural gatherings and certain national and international recognition while maintaining the pulse with local and regional authorities.

The PostDegrado current

Ilaria Delgradi – independent researcher, Milan.

From the industrial revolution toward the cultural revolution. Based on this concept I’ve started to analyze this process in my own town, Milan, shaping a new current, named PostDegrado. The technological development, the globalization and the production translation to the East, deprived many places of machineries, professions, workers and families. During the last few years, the enormous industrial and rural abandoned heritage has been and is being renovated with socio-cultural contents. The PostDegrado current concerns the actual tendency to transform an abandoned and forgotten place in a long lasting good. A cultural, artistic, social and interdisciplinary movement that grows up from basic and common needs: creativity needs space; citizens demand meeting spots; the environment requires attention and the land is exhausted from massive edification. PostDegrado is a platform created to promote the enjoyment of reactivated places characterized by architectural fascination and surrounded by historical memories. Inedited locations where people can enjoy the new designated uses. The platform objective is to create a network among projects’ creators, location managers and spaces owners, to facilitate the exchange of information, materials and contacts and to spread the importance and beauty of the new tendency of creative reuse. PostDegrado aims to give practical examples and tools to those who want to replicate one of the several and different format to reactivate unused and forgotten places. There are many existing maps that indicate the geographic coordinates of abandoned spaces. Here’s the first map about regenerated places: a collection of good practices starting from Milan and growing internationally.

Slave fortes and baracoons: re-considering the ruins and loss of historical values in trans-Atlantic slave trade relics

Alaba Simpson – Crawford University, Nigeria & Kwaku Senah – independent researcher, Ghana

Slave fortes and baracoons played significant roles in keeping and transporting slaves to the ships that eventually carried them across the Atlantic Ocean during the slave trade era in West Africa. These relics are increasingly being neglected and used for other purposes which have come to be a source of concern to historians and ethnographers, particularly where earlier works may have been carried out on these relics by these scholars. The paper intends to discuss the absolute destruction of baracoons in the Badagry community of Lagos state in Nigeria and of Forte Good Hope in the Aplaku area of Ghana where the forte has been converted in its dilapidated stage to a Beer Palour. Other examples abound in the two countries and the two scholars hope to approach the discussion from the point of view of insider researchers in order to align the topic with the conference theme. The paper hopes to cause the audience to better know the changes that have taken place in the custodian attributes of the keepers of the relics of slave trade in their various dimensions, thus bringing in the issue of disintegration and perhaps the cause for activation of these relics.

Fieldwork and creative practice: reimagining abandoned defensive architectures and rock cut burial sites 

Rupert Griffiths – Goldsmiths, University of London

Site/Seal/Gesture is a collaboration between cultural geographer Rupert Griffiths and archaeologist Lia Wei. This collaboration develops a shared language of fieldwork, process and making. Working together as artists and from our disciplinary perspectives, we deal with two distinct types of site—one in the UK, the other in China. In the UK, we look at the ruins of defensive architectures such as sound mirrors, forts and bunkers on the Thames estuary and the southeast coast. In Southwest China we look at rock cut tombs set in cliff faces, sometimes at the edge of expanding urbanisation. We correlate these sites by considering them as both monuments and dwellings in urban and rural margins. We see the bunkers and the rock cut burial sites as drawing a line between life and death—bunkers protecting the living from death and rock cut tombs separating the living and the dead. Both use the material monumentality of rock or concrete to do so, whilst set precariously at the physical and psychological margins of the host culture. As geographers and archaeologists our aim is to investigate correspondences between materiality, landscape and the human subject, and to develop and extend approaches to ethnographic fieldwork. As artists our aim is explore the process by which landscape imaginaries emerge through an assemblage of bodies, materials, tools, and technologies, bringing notions of longue durée into direct contact with informal use, lived experience and creative encounter.

Image Credit: restoration of Matrera castle near Cádiz by Carquero Arquitectura, https://www.dezeen.com/2016/10/03/carquero-arquitectura-matrera-castle-contemporary-restoration-cadiz-spain-architizer-awards/

 

 

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Here’s a chance to work as a post doc with me and others on our study of the St Peter’s, Kilmahew modern ruin project

“You have been warned”
A photo of the seminary gates with asbestos warning signs, May 2013.

Back in December 2015 I announced here that I was part of an AHRC bid for a large project to study the re-activation of the modernist ruins of former seminary, St Peter’s, Kilmahew, details here . That bid got through to the final round but ultimately wasn’t granted. So, we picked  ourselves up and dusted our ideas off and I’m please to report that we have now secured a smaller grant from The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland that will enable a more modest study of the project to now go ahead.

The key element enabled by this funding is a 14 months post-doc post (based at the University of Glasgow) to provide the embedded eyes and ears of our study. Here’s the summary of the post that’s been circulating via other channels this week…

“Research Assistant

‘Re-Placing Risk and Ruination: Experimental Approaches to Access, Design and Engagement in Transitional Heritage Sites’

RA Grade 7, Part-Time (0.8 FTE) for 14 months

Full details and job specification (post reference: 018433) available at:

https://udcf.gla.ac.uk/it/iframe/jobs/

This position is part of a research project funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, entitled:

‘Re-Placing Risk and Ruination: Experimental Approaches to Access, Design and Engagement in Transitional Heritage Sites’.

The post-holder will enable the research project to address three research questions:

– How do you activate a modern ruin safely?

– How do you activate a modern ruin creatively?

– How do you activate a modern ruin collaboratively?

Responses and findings will be drawn from an interdisciplinary study that investigates the on-going transformation of a Scottish site of international architectural significance and its surrounding historic landscape, Kilmahew-St. Peters (Argyll & Bute). Studying the novel and experimental approach to heritage site presentation and management being taken by artists, architects and designers at Kilmahew-St. Peters, will be the means to produce novel research findings with widespread relevance and applicability. Nationally and internationally, there are a multitude of valued heritage landscapes, in a ruinous, vulnerable, degraded state, requiring equivalent levels of creative intervention for the purposes of rehabilitation and to safeguard cultural legacies for the future. See: http://nva.org.uk/artwork/kilmahew-st-peters/ The post-holder will gather original data through a combination of critical literature review, stakeholder interviewing, and immersive, participatory fieldwork activity in the site under investigation.

Data gathering undertaken by the Research Assistant will be managed and supported by the Principal Investigators: Professor Hayden Lorimer (University of Glasgow), Professor Ed Hollis (University of Edinburgh) and collaborators Dr Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University) and Angus Farquhar (NVA).

The project team will produce high-quality academic outputs, complemented by a range of dissemination activities.

Applications are sought from candidates with an awarded PhD in one of the following subject areas: Cultural Geography, Landscape Architecture, Landscape Studies, Architecture and Design, Heritage Studies, Creative Arts.

Closing date for applications: Monday July 31st 2017.

Applicants should note that interviews for the post are due to be held at University of Glasgow on Monday 21st August 2017.

Projected start date for post: 1st October 2017.

The appointed researcher will be based at University of Glasgow, in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, and will be a member of the Human Geography Research Group:

http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/

http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/researchandimpact/humangeographyresearch/

 

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ianrobertson63/8959128176/lightbox/

Setting to work on a modern ruin: investigating the future of St Peter’s Seminary at Kilmahew

“There is no place like it, on these islands, for the mutual battery of multiple forces, for the thumping, pummelling and attrition of creation and destruction, the incessant beating of weather, vandals and arson against rocks of obstinate architecture. It is like watching medieval knights club each other to death yet stay standing. It is a mud-wrestle of culture and nature.”

Rowan Moore, The Guardian, 17 January 2015

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St Peter’s-Kilmahew (SPK) located in Argyll, Scotland, is a place rich in narratives of human settlement. Originally a sacred landscape associated with an early Christian saint, then the woodland demesne of a medieval castle-keep, during the mid-19th century SPK was transformed into a country estate, with an extensive arboretum and pleasure-gardens encircling a baronial mansion-house. In the 20th century, the entire property was acquired by the Roman Catholic Church, and its designed landscape re-centred on a newly-built seminary complex. St. Peter’s, the striking Modernist building, opened in 1967 to critical acclaim, operated for fifteen years, and was then abandoned by the Church. Since the 1980s, the entire site has fallen ever deeper into a condition of charismatic ruination. The seminary structure remains iconic, internationally celebrated but controversial; it has been subject to repeated calls for complete demolition and campaigns for full restoration; but until very recently, SPK has frustrated all such attempts to ‘fix’ its future.

However, since 2010, detailed plans for occupying the site as a ‘transitional ruin’ have been developed by NVA, Scotland’s leading public arts charity (www.nva.org.uk). Presently, SPK is being readied for its latest transition: from a ruin into its inverse: a construction site. NVA’s radical plan to stabilise the ruined structure and open out the abandoned estate landscape has been granted £3 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with an additional £0.5 million backing secured from Creative Scotland. Over the next six years, dereliction will be thrown into reverse, with SPK becoming simultaneously charismatic ruin and construction site. Phased works are scheduled to begin in 2016, with completion projected for 2022 when SPK will be fully accessible for public, educational and artistic use, as a stabilised ruin and redesigned cultural landscape.

I’m excited to announce that I’m part of an AHRC grant bid submitted earlier this week seeking funding for a three year study of the stabilisation and repurposing of this iconic site. The intended project would enable a multi-disciplinary team of researchers to conduct a ‘live’ study of the transformation of this ruin site into a future facing community, arts and heritage venue. The bid is led by Ed Hollis (Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art), supported by Prof Hayden Lorimer (Historical & Cultural Geography, University of Glasgow) and me (Law & the Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University).

The project aims to explore how approaches derived from arts and humanities research can productively valorise sites in transition, opening up areas which are conventionally screened away or fenced off from public view. The project’s key concerns are:

  • how can processes of ruin-transformation can be better understood, and more widely engaged with?
  • how might the notion of a site’s ‘closure’ during building work be challenged via the collaborative design of experimental landscape interventions?
  • how can this be done within a context of ensuring the safety of all concerned?

This investigation will be pursued via three interlinked work packages, that reflect the three disciplinary perspectives of the investigators:

  1. What are the risks surrounding processes of material change in relation to human health and safety and how are these governed? How do common law and/or legislative frameworks construct this risk and liability, and how might policy be developed to allow more scope for public access to heritage sites in transition?
  2. How can artists, designers and architects work collaboratively with heritage sites that are in process? How can creative interventions harness processes of change, engage communities, and challenge regulatory frameworks to revise traditional models of heritage preservation predicated on the prevention of material change?
  3. How do stakeholders in historic sites engage in the contested processes of redevelopment and ruination? For example, through participation in decision-making, public debates, community art and archiving, acts of protest, remembrance, forgiveness and forgetting?

The project will explore these questions simultaneously, but with high degree of cross-over, as (for example) our findings on risk and liability influence the commissioning of the onsite creative interventions and vice versa. Thus through multiple methods of investigation, and through its combination of ethnographic, archival, design and regulatory perspectives and its engagement with local community, professional and policy stakeholders the project will develop a rich range of outputs, spanning scholarly collaborations, creative commissions and a practice-focussed interpretive toolkit, with all of these aimed at inspiring and facilitating  more creative, and inclusive, engagements in the future at other sites in transition.

In pursuit of this innovation and our desire to build interpretive common ground and practice for sites in transition, this project will be able to draw upon the experience and perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders who have already affiliated to the bid, including NVA, Scottish Heritage, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and  the former head of the CBI’s Health & Safety Panel. Through these links our project will uniquely well placed to broker innovative dialogue between publics, creative practitioners (both of whom would like to access sites-in-process) and construction managers whose instinctive reaction (based on a certain overly anxious perceptions of risk and liability) is to close them off to all access.

Our bid presents the SPK works programme as a unique opportunity to investigate in an interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder,  live and longitudinal way both how we deal with the emergent ruins of modernist heritage, and how we might better reconcile the difficulties of providing public access to heritage sites which are, inevitably, often in a perpetual state of reconstruction and repair.

If our bid is successful, the research project will commence towards the end of 2016.

 

Images credits: images from:

(1) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/jan/17/the-extraordinary-ruins-of-st-peters-seminary-near-glasgow-in-pictures;

(2) http://nva.org.uk/artwork/kilmahew-st-peters/

(3) http://nordarchitecture.com/projects/kilmahew-st-peters/

with originators credited there.

 

 

 

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return. Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

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As a great proof of the merits of  ‘follow your instincts’ and see what happens, I’ve now been invited to give a presentation – as part of a symposium at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 15 May 2014 – about the legal aspect of doing Land Art in abandoned quarries. This nicely adds to the symposium work I’ve done on law and abandoned quarries elsewhere in the last 18 months for the British Mountaineering Council (climbing in them), the National Water Safety Forum (swimming in them) and the Mineral Products Association (not dying in them). It also marks another step in the strange convergence of what once seemed a very dichotomous project: the occupiers’ liability stuff on one hand vs the urban exploration/psychogeography/bunkerology stuff on the other. This is both, in a single event!

So here’s the organisers’ promo for the event, followed by my abstract…

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return 
Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

This one-day symposium, led by artists Charles Danby and Rob Smith, in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979’ (5 April – 15 June 2014), has been organised in collaboration with the Arts Council Collection, Northumbria University and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The symposium explores Land Art in relation to contemporary practices and historical precedents. It investigates the quarry as an active physical site for the production of new artworks and for the re-visiting of past works. Bringing together theoretical and practical positions in relation to chalk and limestone quarries, it focuses on approaches leading to the making of works, films, documents, field recordings and archives.

In the anthropocene the quarry becomes a site of new relations, that connects historical, material, technological and social revision through changing land use and post-industrial / post-ecological occupation. The day will examine the status of these quarry sites, the removal of materials, their social and physical reparation and the negotiation of their borders and thresholds in physical, legal and artistic frameworks, through to what Robert Smithson characterised as ‘an expensive non-site’ in 1969, the moon, as a speculative quarry.

Details of the speakers

Joy Sleeman – Senior Lecturer at Slade School of Art, University College London, and co-curator of Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/people/academic/profile/ASLEE78

Luke Bennett – Senior Lecturer in the Department of Natural & Built Environment at Sheffield Hallum University and researcher into owner and climber attitudes to recreational access to abandoned quarries
http://www.shu.ac.uk/faculties/ds/built-environment/staff/luke-bennett.html
http://www.lukebennett13.wordpress.com

Charles Danby – Artist, writer, curator & Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, Northumbria University
http://charliedanby.co.uk/
http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/sd/academic/sass/about/arts/staff/charlesdanby

Rob Smith – Artist and co-director of Field Broadcast
http://robsmith.me.uk
http://fieldbroadcast.org

Onya McCausland – Artist and co-researcher of Turning Landscape into Colour
http://turninglandscape.com/

Mark Peter Wright – Artist and editor of Ear Room and researcher with CRIASP, London College of Communication
http://www.crisap.org/index.php?id=40,393,0,0,1,0
http://mpwright.wordpress.com

Rob La Frenais – Critic and curator at Art Catalyst, and founder of Performance Magazine
http://www.artscatalyst.org

Neal White (video screening)- Artist and Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice at Bournemouth University, Director of Emerge – Experimental Media Research Group, and founder of the Office of Experiments
http://www.nealwhite.org
http://staffprofiles.bournemouth.ac.uk/display/whiten

For booking visit: www.thequarry.org.uk

And my abstract:

Encountering law and land art in abandoned quarries – excavation, legacy, return

My research work focuses upon the intersection of legal, aesthetic and pragmatic site management practices in the stewardship and re-valorisation of abandoned and/or physically damaged places such as quarries, derelict factories and decommissioned military sites. My presentation will explore the (feint) intertwined presence of law, proprietors and enthusiastic  ‘re-energisers’ within abandoned quarries. In doing so it will draw from my former experiences as an environmental lawyer advising on the decommissioning and safeguarding of extractive industry sites, as an academic now teaching land managers and as an active researcher of enthusiast groups who seek access to derelict spaces for recreational, creative or illicit purposes. My research work on quarries is  characterised by a desire to understand both how these places are forgotten, and how they are re-activated by enthusiasts finding new uses for them (and of the ‘challenges’ this may pose for their owners). This ongoing research project is ‘multi-stakeholder’ and opportunistic in nature, with me seeking to explore and understand each perspective and its processes of meaning making, within specific sites of occurrence. My project thus has at times been deeply ‘managerial’ in focus and at other points has explored the affective dimension. Thus at various points my project has seen interest and support from key stakeholder groups, including the Forestry Commission, the British Mountaineering Council, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Mineral Products Association and also a small commission in 2013 from the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund to research and write Scree, a deep topographical assay (with photographer Katja Hock – Nottingham Trent University) of the mine and wastescape of an excavated industrial hillside in the heart of Sheffield. In addition to giving an account of my various investigations, my presentation will also sketch out the key legal drivers that shape managers’ and regulators perceptions (and anxieties) about these voids, in doing so touching on the legal-materialities of spoil-spreading waste disposal scams, restoration and instability, contamination, re-mining and how the proximity of humans alters the legal status of excavated rock faces and abandoned mineshafts.

Uninhabited and En-habited spaces: thoughts on private law’s public space

The following piece has been written as a teaser for my paper entitled “Old habits die hard: owners, liability anxiety and accidental territoriality” which I’ve been invited to present at an ESRC symposium at Warwick University later this month. The theme of the conference is ‘Private Law’s Public Face’ and my paper’s argument will run somewhat against the grain of the  event’s likely focus on resistance, ‘right to the city’ and private law’s role in urban enclosure processes.

Essentially my concern is with more mundane – abandoned – spaces and whether (and if so in what sense) we can meaningfully say that law’s territorial effects subsist there even when no-one is present and/or after an owner or use has vanished.  The only thing left to encounter in these spaces is the remnant fences and faded signage. But is law within that remainder, or are the signs only activated when someone is looking at them? (yes – I know – that’s getting a bit like ‘if a tree falls in the empty forest does it make a sound?‘).

Anyway, I quite like this idea of ‘en-habited’ uninhabited space – space with habit written materially onto it, a space controlled dead-hand like by its material arrangement and ordering…

31 Dec 2010 (3)

The signs just sit there, flapping in the wind held fast by now rusting drawing pins, their texts  becoming indistinct as their home-printed inks are bleached by the monotonous daily succession of the harsh summer suns passing overhead year upon year. Along this fence lie aging signifiers of a stale something. But the fence itself is crumbling now, a structure collapsing in upon itself. Eventually these messages will self erase, fully succumbing to the elements, but until then they continue to send out their signals – weak now and indistinct, vague messages of warning, deterrence, liability aversion. Like a dying radio beacon, carrying on long after the ship has sunk, marking out a vestige, a ghost territoriality of the orders and arrangements that once were intended here.

I’ve been keeping an eye on this signage for over 10 years, intently so for the last six. I’ve seen the pub that the signs relate to pass through a succession of ownerships, then finally close and be redeveloped as apartments. I’ve seen each incoming publican – amidst buoyant commercial talk of ‘turning over a new leaf’, perpetuate this signage – perhaps reprinting it with his new logo – but keeping all else the same as before. The base text of these signs is silently handed down between the parade line of owners, and replicated by their own sign-affixing actions.

Even now, the remnant signs greet the passer by with exclusionary intent. Why would you enter a field festooned with lots of dense, textual messages? Why would you even go up to them and read them, engage with their specificity?

In the above description I’m seeking to raise a challenge to a rationalist belief that legal signage is deployed by place owners for reasons of clear purpose, and that whenever encountered it will still be valid, intended and territorial in intent.

Clearly there will be instances where space is conspicuously under control – and where the facilities of private law (ownership, trespass) are actively being invoked in order to enclose space and/or to channel possible (or permissible) uses within it. But scholarship must not just seek out and dwell upon those extreme spaces, it should also have a way of understanding invocations of private law in more mundane, more ambivalent spatial settings.

Also (in my view) we need to be careful in how much intentionality (and legal sophistication) we impute to the managers of everyday spaces. They are busy people, they have many things to mediate – suppliers, customers, neighbours, lenders, councillors, spouses, children, friends – they do not have time to dwell on the finer points of legal detail (unless locked into the disproportionate attentiveness of a spatial dispute of some sort). For most commercial place managers the signification of their property is an incidental – a tick line on a checklist of place managing rather than an entree to a grand scheme of territorial dominion.

My presentation will outline research that I have been doing in recent years, looking at small case studies of how place managers formulate a pragmatic understanding of what occupiers’ liability law requires of them – and work out (individually and via professional networks) what is a reasonable safety provision for visitors and trespassers who may pass through their spaces. These studies have explored occupiers’ anxieties attached to unstable tombstones in municipal cemeteries, street trees, derelict buildings and open bodies of waters, working variously in conjunction with RoSPA, the Forestry Commission, the Arboricultural Association, the British Mountaineering Council and the Mineral Products Association. In each instance the law (and legal duties) appear in the minds and hands of these lay actors as understood through wider frameworks of task orientation, organizational purpose, and short-hand stereotypes of visitors and the likely behavior of them. Yes, at times their spatial management behavior can betray a quest for privacy or territorial dominion, but at others apparently territorial behavior has appeared – on closer inspection – inchoate, habitual and/or related to received rules of thumb about how properties of a particular type ‘should’ be managed.

And thus, we return to the aging fence. My presentation will draw out provocations from my longitudinal study of this fence, and its material traces of occupier engagement with private law: in this case disclaimers of liability for any customers who might choose to enter this occasional ‘beer garden’ area at the periphery of this pub. I will show how, having watched this accretion of cautionary signage I approached the then owner and enquired of the motivations behind this ranked mobilisation of the liability restricting principles of private law – of its ‘story’ – only to find that there was no story and that this sign affixing behavior was a ritual practice. How this pub ‘should’ be operated – including the refreshing of the fence’s signage – was encoded into the fabric and deportment of the pub itself, acting back upon the succession of owners, the pub presenting as an unwritten user’s manual on how to run it. The publican could not account for his signage, the best he could do was link to a notion of performing (and perpetuating) the proper ways of doing and being within this urban fringe pub:

“…Here you’ve got to be kid friendly where we are, in like the Tap Room you’ve got to be dog friendly: because that’s how it’s always been…so it’s easy for me to come and say “I’m not having any dogs in there” – but it’s not; its part and parcel of this, the history of the pub I suppose”

Here we confront a strange dead-hand effect, a force of habit – the permeation of approximate, sufficient and workable approaches to place management, decisions and actions implemented in thousands of establishments day by day, hour by hour based not upon deep, lawyer aided deliberation on how to control space, but instead replicating – as part of a dull facilities management performativity – generalized, materially sedimented practices which may only incidentally have any connection to a notion of ‘legal’ aspects of the world.

 

 

 

 

Entangled bodies: urban exploration, matter and meaning making

MiruKim3

Entanglement as a term aims to allow a materialism but

embedded within the social, the historical, the contingent.”

Hodder (2012: 96)

What does it mean to be embodied? That seems to be the contested territory standing between Garrett & Hawkins (2013) and Mott & Roberts (2013a & b) in their recent Antipode exchange. Garrett & Hawkins table a body/environment ‘entanglement’ (Hodder 2012) as the object of a new era of research into urban exploration. Mott & Roberts (2013b) counter that the main thrust of their critique of existing scholarship remains unaddressed: namely where is the appreciation of embodied difference amongst those who do – and those who don’t do – urban exploration?

Mott & Roberts’ approach is broadly concerned with the social: how can this practice be culturally situated? How can it be understood in terms of identity politics? Who is dominating this practice, and whose voices and presence is absent? In what senses (and for whom) can urban exploration be said to be liberatory? For them embodiment is a question of human identity, hinged around physical and social difference. And there’s is a call for mobilisation of a greater sense of critique of urban exploration as a predominantly white, male, young, over-educated and professional class pastime.

Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins (whilst seemingly acknowledging the ‘masculinist’ nature of at least some urban exploration culture), avow (via considering the work of a female artist – Miru Kim – working in an urban exploration type terrain) urban exploration as a new way of reading and researching body/environment relations by looking at the embodiment of the human participant within the built environment structures that they explore.

Each then, figures embodiment differently. For Mott and Roberts bodies are carriers of human identity and difference: vectors of identity bio-politics. Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins focus upon the experience and meshing of flesh in the world. Given their different theoretical starting points it is not surprising that agreement is not reached in their exchange.

Each ‘side’ do however appear to be helpfully raising questions under-explored in scholarship to date on this topic. Yes (aligning with Garrett & Hawkins), it would be too easy ‘just’ to examine urban exploration as a gendered practice, a frat-ish rite of passage. There is more to be said about what it is like to pit oneself against the hazardous-to-human arrangements of high, deep and otherwise inhospitable terrain in the built environment, and Garrett is prodigiously advancing this project. However the ‘what it’s like to be there?’ dimension must not become the sole focus, for there is much more that needs investigating (and critiquing) alongside developing deeper understanding of edgework and of the human/matter meld: in particular, the politics, ethics and impacts of urban exploration, and this brings me to a wider issue.

It takes more than urban explorers for urban exploration to exist. To date the focus has been upon the explorers, and often the treatment has been reverential in tone: the explorer as somehow pushing boundaries and thereby contributing in some – never quite articulated way – towards socio-spatial justice. But is exploration done ‘on behalf’ of anyone other than the explorers? What is achieved, and at what cost? The ‘downside’ is never probed, nor the limits of desirable infiltration ever fathomed. Just because it is possible to climb the latest skyscraper in London, is it right to do so? Who is affected by urban exploration and what are their rights? So far, the voices of non-participants (those who choose not to be urban explorers), of property owners and infrastructure managers, of security and rescue services, and of other types of incursionist – have all been absent.

Urban exploration may take place in buildings that are (or seem to be) empty, but they are not places that have become meaningless, and most are not actually abandoned. Many others (non explorers) have desires, and anxieties about, and relationships with these places – and the matter to be encountered within them –   the night watchmen, the site operators, the insurers, the regulatory authorities all need to be heard if we are to understand ‘urban exploration’, for it is not just a pastime that exists in isolation from the world – it is precisely its embodied (in the sense of being-in-the world and amidst matter and other people) aspect that raises these questions. Recreational trespass has consequences, it is an interaction not just with matter, but also with other human bodies and socio-technical systems. There is a human/matter ecology within the targeted buildings and infrastructure.

And urban exploration is a part of that ecology – but it is not the only actant that mobilises it. Those who perceive urban exploration as ‘done to them’ rarely draw neat distinctions between the motivations (and/or backgrounds) of the incursionists whom they encounter the traces of after a weekend of ‘infiltration’ in their premises. The modus operandi of urban explorers – viewed from the perspective of the site owner – is little different from that of the squatter, the arsonist or the metal thief or other scavenger. To understand urban exploration we would need to understand not just how individually or collectively urban explorers define themselves, but also how others (non urban explorers) make sense of recreational trespass and react to it. Intersubjectivity is not just played out between urban explorers, it also happens between others about urban exploration. There is discourse, there is representation, there is power, there is law: all in play around this issue. And all of that swirl of discursive stuff is intimately entwined with bodies and the hazards (and/or purposiveness) of matter.

To interview site owners about urban exploration – as I have done on occasion over recent years – is to encounter bewildered adults struggling to find a way to make sense of recreational trespass, of its implications for them and of rules of thumb by which they may distinguish one type of incursion from another. These bodies matter too: these are human beings facing anxieties as a consequence of site incursion, perhaps occasionally seeing fatalities and having to ‘pick up the pieces’ (in all senses). They also ‘matter’ in the sense used by Karen Barad (2007) : these bodies are just as involved as the explorers in sense making and prediction about human/matter interaction brought about through urban exploration: classically in the realm of risk assessments, and their narration of possible human/matter fateful contact. And, yes – to agree with Mott and Roberts here – owners and other reactors to urban exploration will frame their response decisions around bodily difference. Plainly, in the post 9/11 western world Moslem urban explorers are likely to be treated with greater suspicion or alarm than WASP ones – our bodies carry identity, and are interpreted by others on account of those manifest (and socially foregrounded) features of difference. Thus it is clearly (socially) more dangerous for some to do urban exploration than others.

Let me be clear, the above is not intended as an attack upon urban exploration. As my previous contributions to recent work in this area have hopefully shown, I have considerable respect for the investigatory endeavours of the urban explorers whom I have come across. I have also suggested to site owners in a variety of projects (for the British Mountaineering Council and other pro-access organisations) that site owners need to become more relaxed about adventurous recreational use of their properties.

But, if the talk is now of opening up new avenues of study in this area, I would like to endorse Garrett & Hawkins’ call for greater attention to human/matter relations, and also Moss & Roberts’ call for greater social critique. But, I would suggest that achieving both might actually require a much broader view of the field of study to emerge, one in which:

First, urban exploration is truly engaged with as a ‘spectrum’ (as per Craggs et al, 2013), putting the athletic boundary-pushing dimension into place alongside more ‘down to earth’ – and more inclusive – variants (and whether psychogeography, architectural enthusiasm or urban ‘sightseeing’) in which difference matters less; and

Secondly, one in which exploratory urban engagements of whatever hue are understood as a complex entanglement of many materialities, policies, peoples, priorities and politics, a mesh in which the urban explorer becomes but one actant amongst many.

References

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University.

Craggs, R., Geoghegan, H. & Neate, H. (2013). ‘Architectural enthusiasm: visiting buildings with the Twentieth Century Society’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31: 879-896.

Garrett, B. & Hawkins, H. (2013) ‘And now for something completely different…Thinking through explorer subject-bodies: a response to Mott and Roberts’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Hodder, I. (2012) Entangled: an archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. London: Wiley.

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013a). ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: Urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography.’ Antipode doi: 10.1111/anti.12033: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013b). ‘Difference really does matter: a reply to Garrett and Hawkins’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Image credit:

Naked City Spleen by Miru Kim at http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/naked-city-spleen-by-miru-kim-1 (where there are more images from her Naked City sequence and her video presentation about her project).

On the shoulders of giants? mountaineering, buildering and the vertigo of others

“When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me…”

The Drifters – Up On The Roof (1962) Gerry Goffin & Carolyn King

We’re at the museum, exiting for some odd reason at rooftop level. My two teenage boys are standing beside me by the railing, looking over to the slightly lower roofs clustered around this summit building. Something distracts my thought or attention, and when I drift back to the roof I abruptly notice that my eldest, G has vaulted the railing and is running with glee across the shinning white-lead expanse of the profiled roofscape beyond. He’s then joined by his younger sibling, L, and they start to race each other, running in parallel away from me across that surface. I call to them to return to me, but my voice evaporates in the wind. They are whooping with joy and abandon but then something goes awry. Both start to tumble and slide down the now sloping roof. Momentarily they appear to be enjoying themselves – but then the peril of their situation dawns on them, and me. They are not in control of their descent, and are rapidly gathering pace. On the smooth surface there is nothing to grab onto, no friction, no purchase. I see G manage to wedge himself into a gully, coming to a juddered halt in a crumpled heap. But L speeds on, and beyond the edge of the roof. He flies out into space like a child from a water chute at a fun fair. This a child, but there is no water, and now no fun. He flies through the air for what seems like ages, then lands roughly on the lower roof of the next building on. A sense of relief momentarily passes through me, but even as that feeling is spreading out through my body, his body starts to move again, slipping onward down this equally smooth roof. I see him hurtling towards another edge. I sense the inevitability. All I can do is watch. I see him fly off the end of the roof. There is nothing I – or he – can do.

Then I wake up. My first thought is that my dream is all about realising that my kids are at that age where I can’t control everything that they do. I can’t ensure their safety. Then I add a gloss to my interpretation, I’m guilty about having encouraged them to see their city as a playground. All the talk of bunkers, urbex and recreational trespass has passed into them. I have made this monstrousness. Over the days that follow another – additional – interpretation steps forwards: that this is what happens if you gorge on mountaineering books. This summer I’ve been reading rather a lot of them, and there have been plenty of tales of climbers slipping off mountainsides along the way. A latter stage of the dream had the dilemma of how to drag my surviving son back over to my rooftop – across the yawning crevasse of the gap between two buildings.

I’ve been reading these books as part of thinking through the relationship between ‘classic’ exploration (mountaineering and polar trekking) and contemporary recreational echoes (climbing, parkour, urbex). I’m not a climber (I’m not good with heights) so reading all this stuff makes for an interesting tangent to my fondness for taking my adventure at ground level and in small, local, bitesize pieces – embracing the psychogeographical rather than the athletic side of ‘exploration’.

From this reading, combined with what I’ve observed of climbers so far in my encounters with the British Mountaineering Council, it appears that the link between climbing and urban exploration are not as close as one might expect. Climbing’s roots lie in mountaineering. The rise of crag (outcrop) climbing in the UK was originally as a training ground for alpine expeditions, only latterly becoming an end in itself (with the emergence of industrial working class recreational crag-climbing from the 1930s). But throughout, the focus has remained resolutely upon climbing rock. Enthusiasts stuck away from rock might occasionally scale the nearest available structure: a church steeple, a clock tower, a chimney – but such escapades seem always to have been regarded as a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’, and the butt of dismissive comment by both the grandees of climbing and critical onlookers like Charles Dickens who regarded climbing’s pursuit of its goal as pointless as:

“The scaling of such heights… contributes as much to the advancement of science as would a club of young gentlemen who should undertake to bestride all the weathercocks of all the cathedral spires of the United Kingdom.” (quoted in Macfarlane 2003: 96)

Nowadays climbers can do their thing far away from inspirational mountains, but the natural aesthetic remains to the fore, as Simon Thompson colourfully puts it:

“it is possible to climb in a disused quarry full of rusting cars and stagnant pools or on a specially constructed wall in the middle of an industrial estate, but for the majority of climbers the beauty and grandeur of the surroundings are an intrinsic part of the sport.” (2007: 3)

I expected to find more interest in (and/or awareness of) ‘buildering’ (urban climbing) amongst climbers than I so far have in the histories and officials who I have consulted, and despite the highly visible exploits of successive climbers of the Shard, and the conquests of Alain Robert (‘the human spider’) few rock climbers appear to take the built environment, and its surfaces and structures, as an attractive playground.

But – actually there is evidence that some do, and I’ve recently found that there is more to those passing, throwaway sentences about urban climbing in the official histories. It seems buildering is at least 100 years old in the UK. A number of climbing guides to Cambridge’s iconic buildings were published (anonymously) every few decades throughout the Twentieth century, the first  – Trinity Roof Climber’s  Guide – was penned in 1900 by a young Geoffrey Winthrop Young – who later became a grandee of the mountaineering establishment, a president of the Alpine Club in the 1940s. It seems that the 1930s were the boom years for Cambridge buildering – or ‘night climbing’ as it was then known. In a guide published in the 1937 – The Night Climbers of Cambridge – the anonymous author ‘Whipplesnaith’, pondered the relative anonymity of the night climber in comparison to the mountaineer. Clearly this was in part a function of the illicit nature of this recreational trespass, and the consequences (explusion) of being caught by the University authorities. The author pointed eloquently to the discontinuity of Cambridge’s night climbing heritage (now collated by the extensive efforts of Andy Buckley at http://www.insectnation.org/projects/nightclimbing/), there was no:

“continuity of purposes and cross-purposes, developments and declines, ambitions and differences which make history.” (3)

Thus the secret nature of the practice (and the then absence of route grading) meant that students drifted into night climbing (perhaps at first as an out-of-hours drain pipe shin to re-enter their halls after curfew), tried a few excursions and then left the field – there being no escalation path to stretch out their engagement longer, with declared ‘harder’ routes to work at. Thus – in Whipplesnaith’s view – the absence of many circulating accounts or gradings of routes stifled the formation of night climbing into a settled cultural practice. Yet, ironically, the Cambridge night climbing guides give an erudite and structured glimpse of buildering and its ways of doing, presenting what may have existed in an inchoate and entirely unrecorded form in other towns and minds. Night climbing became a local practice in Cambridge, capable of transmitting its ways through the generations, via these guides and memoirs. Conversely, the only way I have found to glimpse un-organised, ad-hoc buildering is in court case reports, in which judges must make sense of the vertical recreational trespass of injured youths (Bennett 2011).

Nowadays DIY cultures can circulate much more easily – via blog, fan-site and forum and we can find sites dedicated to ‘buildering’ (e.g. http://urban-climbing.com/; http://buildering.net/). The links to athletic endeavour (parkour) and an artistic, urban clique seem clear here, one that is attuned to situationist practice and urbex ethos. I’m thinking here particularly of Lottie Child’s participatory performance art pieces – her ‘Climbing Club’, and specifically its ‘Risk In The City’ offshoot, that encouraged her audience (and passer-by merchant bankers) to scale the walls of City of London buildings, marking out with bodies the peaks and troughs of financial graphs and risk analysis.

I like the idea of this mundane adventuring – of mountaineering entering the city. It reminds me of a TV version of Manfred Karge’s play The Conquest of the South Pole on Channel 4 back in 1989. A group of unemployed Edinburgh young men wander the semi-derelict Leith docks and in that liminal space re-stage Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole. They do so by co-opting boxes, crates (as mountains), sheets (as snow fields) and industrial freezers (as the cold). They stage a heroic adventurism amidst everyday ruins, animating those places with their playful intensity, showing that – in part at least – adventure is a state of mind. That play summons an image of a performative, collaborative proto-urbex. It all hinges on pretending to be penetrating virgin terrain, on mimicking that imperial ‘first-ness’. But it has an ironic tinge to it, an awareness that the event is constructed. It is also notably social.

In a recent academic article, Carrie Mott and Susan Roberts (2013) comment on interpretations of urban exploration to date (including my own). They point out a number of under-developed avenues of study. Here I will delve only into one of them: that urbex practice is rooted in a fundamentally Romantic mind-set, and as such privileges the achievement and insight of the lone (male) practitioner. They argue that urbex shows a fondness for withdrawal from society and also competitiveness at the heart of any residual sociality. There is something similar to climbing in this – that urge for the withdrawal to the mountains, the man-matter contest, some risk bearing forth insight (a la Nietzsche “that which doesn’t kill me makes me strong”) and thereafter writing up an account of that adventuring and disseminating it as a spur to status.

Reading through the histories of mountaineering what struck me was how each assault against an unconquered peak was actually a massive logistical operation – hundreds of support staff, tonnes of equipment to enable one or two men to claim ‘first-ness’ at that mountain’s summit. Like the summit shape of the mountains that were being climbed, only the summiteers are remembered.

Mountaineers may be drawn by the individualistic Romantic mountain aesthetic, and the idea of ultimate solitude attainable upon a virgin summit, but they each – to some degree – take society with them up onto that peak, and their actions affect others to whom they are connected. As Peter Hansen (2013) points out this social connection can be as physical and direct as being joined by a rope to a climbing partner, but it also extends to connection to logistical networks, political and economic contexts (e.g. the imperial opening up of Tibet in 1904 such that Everest could be approached for the first time) and also basic human emotional interconnections, for the explorers have families, friends, work colleagues who are affected by their absence, and self-imposed jeopardy.

In non-expeditionary climbing the social is still there – in the clubs, the climbing ethics, the guidebooks; and in all of the trappings of the “industry of ascent” (2003: 142) as Macfarlane deftly styles it. Through all of this rock climbing becomes a practice shaped and circulated by its practitioners. What struck me about buildering is that it has always been there, in the shadow of rock climbing, but (apart from the exception of Cambridge) not attaining a social identity until recently, with the rise of urbex and social media. And yet, in thinking about my dream urban climbing has always existed as an instinctual activity, what is new is the way that its ways of doing might come to be defined and individual builderers come to see themselves as part of a community.

My kids’ urge to climb and explore is partly innate monkey urges, but also part of a context of Romantically shaped philosophy of withdrawal and self-development through ordeal. As Robert Macfarlane (2003) puts it with regard to the heavy cultural baggage carried on George Mallory’s shoulders on his 1924 fatal ascent of Everest, born of:

“the hundreds of other people who each made tiny adjustments to the way mountains were imagined – [are] involved in Mallory’s death. He was the inheritor of a complex of emotions and attitudes towards mountainous landscape, devised long before his birth, which largely predetermined his responses to it – its dangers, its beauties, its meanings.” (226)

Whipplesnaith considered that night climbing had not progressed to form (what Etienne Wenger (1998) would call) “a community of practice”, because of the isolated nature of its performance. But the rise of social media and urbex forums would suggest that buildering may well attain an identity in the years ahead, due to its new found opportunities to solve the dilemma that Whipplesnaith had through unsolvable in 1937, due to:

“the blanket of the dark [that] hides each group of [night] climbers from its neighbours, muffles up a thousand deeds of valour, and almost entirely prevents the existence of dangerous rivalry.” (2007: 1)

But my kids, builderers, and all climbers are also and already part of their day-to-day communities. Climbing of any sort is an activity that has consequences both for the participants and those (like Ruth Mallory as an anxious wife, or me as a nervous parent) who wait for the explorer’s safe return home.

References

Bennett, Luke (2011) ‘Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability’, International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 3 (2) 126-158.

Hansen, Peter H. (2013) The Summits of Modern Man – mountaineering after the Enlightenment, Harvard University Press: London.

Macfarlane, Robert (2003) Mountains of the Mind – a history of a fascination, Granta: London.

Mott, Carrie & Roberts, Susan M. (2013) ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography’, Antipode, advance online publication.

Thompson, Simon (2010) Unjustifiable Risk? The story of British climbing, Cicerone: Milnthorpe.

Wenger, Etienne (1998) Communities of Practice – Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

‘Whipplesnaith’ [Noel H. Symington] (2007 [1937]) The Night Climbers of Cambridge, Oleander Press: Cambridge.

Picture credits

Caspar David Friedrich (1818) The Traveller above a Sea of Clouds

Shoulder stand, 1900 http://www128.pair.com/r3d4k7/HistoricalClimbingImages8.html

Roald Amundsen at the South Pole, 1911:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amundsen’s_South_Pole_expedition

George & Ruth Mallory (1916) http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWmalloryG.htm

1930s Cambridge Night Climbing:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/may/21/urban-climbing-1930s-style

Geoffrey Winthrop Young (1930s?) http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37073/

Everest camp, 1953: http://www.bahighlife.com/News-And-Blogs/Adventure-Blog/The-1953-Everest-expedition.html

The Conquest of the South Pole (1989) from www.film4.com.

Risk in the City: urban climbing meets financial risk analysis, 2005: http://malinky.org/wikka.php?wakka=RiskInTheCity

Urban Climber Magazine, 2008: http://www.rockwerxclimbing.com/upload/wysiwyg/urban-climber-cover.jpg

Urban climbing, 2009: photo by Chrzaszczu at http://www.panoramio.com/photo/17932791

Russian urban climbing 2012: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4134286/Urban-climbing-Russian-Roulette-is-lethal-new-kids-craze-in-Moscow.html

Buildering meets climbing wall (n.d., accessed 2013): http://www.oobject.com/category/great-climbing-walls/