The android’s empty gesture: OOO, irony and the drug dealer’s watch

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“Irony is like a wink from an android. You think you know what it means, until you realise the signal you took for meaning emanates from a source for which meaning is meaningless.”

Ian Bogost (2016) Play Anything. Basic Books: New York.

We’ve met at conferences a few times. He’s always distinctively dressed. He appears to pay considerable attention to how he presents himself to the world. Like a roadie for Hot Chip, he favours a gauche retro ’80s stylee. He comes up to me and poses the question.

“So, what’s with the drug dealer’s watch then?”

I look down at my wrist, and he does too. We both stare at my Casio F-91W. He assumes that I mean something ironic by choosing to wear it. I find myself unable to account for my sartorial choice. Not because I can’t find a reason, but because I can think of half a dozen rationalisations, but I can’t remember whether any of them were ever the real reason why I started wearing this retro-watch:

  • I’m anti-flashy in intention, I’d never wear a watch that declares ostentation. So maybe I chose the cheapest watch I could find for that reason.
  • My last watch broke. And I couldn’t decide what watch to replace it with (I’d been wearing that one for 15 years). So, I decided to wear a neutral, statement-less watch in the meantime.
  • My first watch was a Casio F-91W. It was an object of delight and wonder when I got it as a teenager in the early ’80s. It’s hard to summon a sense of that wonder now – but digital watches were the smart phones of their day. Look at all of the functions. And the buttons. And its so multi-functional that it needs instructions etched onto its face. Maybe I’d hoped that wearing it again (and marvelling that it’s still being made) would connect me to that childhood wonder. Maybe it did in abstract – but I only use it to tell the time. It’s other functions are ignored. I’m serviced for those needs by even more complex 21st century consumer prostheses.

I mumble an explanation (I forget which one I selected) and offer a knowing laugh. It does the trick and the conversation ends. In my mind the knowing laugh is an acknowledgement of the irony that opting for the most lo-tech option nowadays can single you out as having illicit intent. As I laugh I recall the image of a colleague stopped at airport customs because he had two mobile phones, and one of them was of the near-disposable, plain-vanilla variety. An unsmart phone. He was released after explaining that the suspiciously nondescript bland-phone was a University pool-mobile, issued for use during his field trip. It was not a phone for receiving drug orders.

These intertwined stories – of consumer devices and the intentionality assumed for them – came to mind as I read Ian Bogost’s Play Anything. Bogost’s is an odd book. I’d loved his Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s like to be a thing (2012, University of Minnesota Press) and I was hoping for more of the same. What I got instead was a strange book that seems to be trying to be two books at once. At one level it’s a continuation of his mapping out of his own take on Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), through a focus on the pleasures realisable through an active exploration of the possibilities of objects. But this line of argument seems overlaid by the book’s attempt to appeal to a wider, more general readership via its appearance as a (sort of) ‘self-help’ manual – an appeal to engaged worldliness as more outward looking alternative to (or augmentation of) mindfulness. The book’s rather longwinded subtitle, shows this direction of travel: “The pleasures of limits, the uses of boredom, and the secrets of games“. In pursuit of this Bogost ruminates on the positivity of ‘play’ and ‘fun’. He productively argues that play is not (necessarily) an opposite to work, but rather is a state of interaction with objects that seeks to explore their full qualities, rather than just a “things-for-us” instrumentality. But where it then gets a bit messy is in trying to then destabilise traditional understandings of “fun”.

But, hat’s off to Bogost for getting an OOO book positioned and presented as a mainstream paperback offering. And beneath some of the chatty, discursive filler (that the genre requires) there are a number of interesting, and provocative ideas playing out.

Most importantly, for the purposes of making sense of my ‘drug dealers’ watch’ moment, Bogost offers up a very interesting cultural diagnosis: something that he calls ‘ironia’. He argues that contemporary culture embodies a retreat from commitment to ideas, social positions and material things. Ironia causes us to cloak what we mean, align to or physically do by spraying out a trail of counter-statement and counter-actions. In ironia, our aim is to confound, to slip out of certainty, to defer finality or decision. In my case, to permanently wear an anti-watch because I can’t bear the weight of choice that the multitude of possible watches (and social-symbolic messaging) poses.

“Irony is the escape from having to choose between earnestness and contempt”. Through irony you can appear to align to both, simultaneously. Bogost argues that retreat to irony feels clever, it seems to let us have our cake and eat it,  it leaves us thinking that we are able to live in a permanent deferral of choice and/or action. You can be all things to all people. But this oscillation and indeterminacy produces headaches, and Bogost goes on to show that the ironic stance ultimately produces nothing, except alienation.

Bogost points out that whilst paranoia tends to be a condition of scarcity – a manifestation of (real or mistaken) glimpses of power at work over appropriation of finite resources, ironia is a condition of overwhelming over-abundance – of choices, of matter and of awareness of the possibilities of things going wrong (i.e. risk). Ironia is a syndrome of those lucky enough to be weighed down by an over-abundance of material and symbolic choices, and of knowledge of “how things bite back” (to adopt Edward Tenner’s (1997) Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences. Vintage: London) and can hurt us or at least fail to satisfy our expectations of them.

Bogost also argues that our retreat into ironia flows fundamentally from a state of fear, in which (in terms of politics, culture, material-relations): “we’ve trained ourselves to see commitments as affectations, and only to pursue a commitment ironically so that we can cast it aside if fear overtakes us.”

In diagnosing ironia Bogost makes a interesting link to nostalgia – by arguing that a turn to embrace of a thing-in-the-past is a control strategy, for appropriating a former thing is helpfully selective and controlled. Thus my remembrance of my first watch is fond – but only based on a few of its qualities and my experiences with it. Nostalgia enables us to keep at bay the enormity of things (material objects, cultural formations, social relations) and their risks of disappointing us. Fundamentally it is a simplifying strategy, and achieves its effect through temporal distancing – just as a holiday to a far off place where things seem simpler is a function of (social and spatial) distance from the complexity of the present at hand. As he puts it pithily, in this pillaging-to-simplify-and-keep-at-bay we “are all grave robbers now, even while mistaking ourselves as preservationists”. And the rise of social media has accelerated the pillage, giving us all and excuse [and perhaps also a fundamental need] to “abscond with objects, people, and situations by arresting them into assets imprisoned between sincerity and contempt. Online, we become digital poachers, stealing things’ souls in order to elevate ourselves above them, until we destroy those very things via incorporation or disposal. [Today’s] Safari spoils are made of pixels rather than ivory.”

Bogost’s book (as characteristic of most OOO based argumentation) is full of delicious mobilisations of aberrant mundaenity (as provocative poetics and metaphor are OOO’s analytic method), with Bogost here meditating on the act of sofa-covering in order to make his point:

“Rather than accept either the protected or the exposed state of the plastic sofa cover, irony celebrates the buffer—the plastic—as an alternative. Where grandma deployed the plastic cover out of paranoia that some mishap might befall a piece of furniture meant to last a lifetime, irony deploys it for the sake of experiencing the cover as an alternative to the cheap, crappy sofa that doesn’t warrant protection in the first place. Irony sells plastic sofa covers from the back of a truck in the IKEA parking lot.”

Having persuasively diagnosed ironia and its problems, Bogost then attaches the argument that play (as a fulsome, exploratory and committed engagement) leads to a more fulfilling (and authentic) relation with both material objects and socio-cultural objects.

So, regarding my watch. Bogost summons me off the fence: for “irony keeps reality at a distance”. He exhorts me to “pay close, foolish, even absurd attention to things. Then allow their structure, form, and nature to set the limits for the experiences”. In other words I need to declare for my watch, to accept that it is my watch, and that I have already made my choice of it. I then need to fully get to know it – to explore its affordances (as they assist me), its resistances (as they oppose my desires for my watch-tool) and play with my watch in a way that also touches the other qualities that it has – the ones that are not revealed to me by use or purpose but rather which exist none-the-less. Examples here might include, feeling the warmth of its face after exposure to the sun, exploring its crevasses and their grime-ecologies, embracing its scratches, chips and weathering as they unfurl over time.

My watch travels with me through time and space. It goes most places with me and is usually to be found resting upon the surface of my skin. It is a quiet but helpful (and reliable) companion. There are things I’ll never know about my watch – how it works, where its components have come from, who made them, or what lies in store for my watch, and how it will disassemble someday. Even with playful effort my relationship with my watch will be shallow and largely instrumentalist. But armed with OOO I can be a little more attentive to it and committed to its proximity to both my body and my social presentation of self to the world. I’ll give it a try and try and pass our time together in a more satisfying, connected way.

 

 

 

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Withdrawn bodies: into the lawscape with Andreas, Keith and Candice Marie

“Bodies embody the law, carry the law with them in their moves and pauses, take the law with them when they withdraw”

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2015) Spatial Justice: Body, Law, Atmosphere. Routledge: London.

“Shall we watch a film?”

I realise it’s not really a question. I put down my book and search for something that we might both be in the mood for.

We find Mike Leigh’s semi-improvised black comedy Nuts in May (1976). Originally broadcast as a TV play, the low resolution, 4:3 projection fails to fill our 16:9 flatscreen. The image sits withdrawn into the centre of the screen, with black bars either side of this broadcast that curiously seems deeply, from within the TV, like a time capsule signal beaming in from a different era.

And yet as we watch it is an era that increasingly rings true – awkwardly so at points. Keith and Candice Marie are earnest vegetarians, venturing out from the metropolis to rural Dorset for a camping and hiking break. The film is squirm-inducing account of the breakdown of their calm, assured and ordered orientation to the world. Here, communing with the great outdoors it all goes a bit awry. And as I watch I find myself reading the film simultaneously from two angles. First, there’s a bitter-sweet nostalgia. I remember this milieu, a childhood remembrance of mustard coloured fisherman’s jumpers, folk songs and amateur industrial archaeology. But the second angle is a frame set by not having given my head time to adjust from book to TV watching…

The book I put down was Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ Spatial Justice. It’s a challenging read, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos takes no prisoners in his synthesis of Deleuze, Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) and Affect Theory. Technically it’s a legal geography book, but for vast tracts of the book’s dense, but productive prose the law side of things disappears from view, and this is intentional. Refreshingly Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos wants to show “what happens when the law is nothing more than just one part of an assemblage with other bodies”(59) in space.

This is not a work that plays to the hegemony of critical legal geography, law’s presence (or absence) is not being explicated in order to show and/or challenge power-at-work. Instead it attempts a post human reformulation of “justice” and “spatiality”, and ends up with a conceptual product (“Spatial Justice”) that bears little relation to its otherwise next door neighbour, “Social Justice”. Indeed I’m left feeling simultaneously elated and uncomfortable that it so fully abandons a role for programmatic critique. Instead Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos uses OOO (and Deleuze) to frame Spatial Justice as the processes by which things (physical objects, ideas, emotions) do (or do not) accommodate to other things to which they find themselves adjacent. And in this flat ontology, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos shows (perhaps) what happens when more-than-human ecological concerns are asserted over a human-centric ethics.

And a key element of Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ theorisation here is that the world is made up of myriad things: humans, oysters, table cloths and money (to use a classic OOO list-painting ploy) and that none of these things are ever fully revealed to any other thing – there is always a surplus hidden in the shadows. In short, all things withdraw. And for his purpose (as a spatio-legal theorist) law itself is one of those things that just loves – needs – to recoil into the ontological shadows.

His book seeks to account for this withdrawal – and to show its effects. In particular, he argues that where a situation is working well, its space (and other measures of its form) will appear smooth. In other words, the situation will appear straightforward, “obviously” arranged the way it is “just because”. In this slickness the resulting milieu manifests as atmosphere. Thus a romantic restaurant meal is all cosy, and (positively) emotionally charged. None of the legal infrastructure that enables the restaurant to register for VAT, to contract with the supplier of those Oysters, or the licensing requirements shaping the harvesting and dressing of that seafood will rise to the surface. But if the situation – its atmosphere – breaks (perhaps through the awkward agency of microbial contamination and resulting bodily distress) then this legal architecture – what Andreas conceptualises as lawscape – will suddenly reveal sufficient of itself, reframing the situation.

And so, with this in mind (and as I search for down-to-Earth scenarios with which to process Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ arguments), I sit watching Keith and Candice Marie as they wander the battlements of Corfe Castle, Keith doggedly “mansplaining” – squeezing the stones, the stories and the view into a totalising, instructive narrative. He’s making it all worthy, assimilating it into their holiday-making. Keith then takes them off to a quarry, and insists on interrogating the sole quarryman about his noble craft. Keith thus strides across Dorset, assimilating the actuality of the space he passes through into his already well-ordered worldview.

By all of this we see Keith (and the subordinated Candice Marie) in control.

We see this also in his hyper-ordered setting up of his pitch at the campsite.

But this is all prelude, for it is in the proximity to others that the ‘object’ Keith/Candice Marie  starts to come unstuck. First they must accommodate to the presence of Ray, a reticent (but harmless) student camped nearby. Keith finds that he cannot control the proximity of Ray, and emotionally and physically withdraws. Meanwhile Candice Marie seeks to engage Ray and to find common ground with him.

Then the arrival of Honky and Finger, on a noisy motorbike finally tips Keith over the edge. Honky and Finger are (by Keith’s judgement) the embodiment of uncouth. They are noisy and disorderly. Keith (at Candice Marie’s insistence) approaches Honky and Finger to ask them to be less noisy. First his approach seeks to active a dormant (withdrawn) civility – that surely Honky and Finger would know how to behave. But when he realises that seemingly there is no civility to re-activate, Keith takes a second line of interaction: he starts lecturing them about the “Countryside Code” and (in the face of Honky and Finger’s blank faces) then summons the image of the campsite’s rules against bonfires, painting a picture of rules signed up to by each guest at arrival, and how those strictures map on the space and specificities of this increasingly awkward encounter. When this strategy fails (when the lawscape has been summoned out from the shadows and even this has failed to bring forth a means of coexistence between these two objects: Keith/Candice Marie and Honky/Finger) Keith snaps and chases Finger around the campsite trying to reign blows upon him with a large stick.

Vanquished, the next morning Keith and Candice Marie conclude that they themselves must withdraw – they decide to leave the camp site and seek out somewhere where they can camp alone, arranging their affairs in a state of solitude. Here they can have things the way that they want theme to be. But they are visibly shrunken. They have gone into the world. They have actively and confidently sought to find its correspondence to the ideas and ideals that motivate their living, but the world (social and physical) has pushed back. They went seeking an immersion in an atmosphere (that of a calm and enriching rural idyll) but instead experience a rupture of that continuum. Friction through encounter with other semi-withdrawn objects, created a moment of crises in which the lawscape was glimpsed (and found wanting in terms of its conflict solving potential). And so, the solution – the route to Spatial Justice – was a withdrawal.

Image credit: http://lightsinthedusk.blogspot.com/2009/12/nuts-in-may.html

Infrastructure, investigated: thoughts from the SHU SPG conference

Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

“Infrastructures are the collectively constructed systems that also build and sustain human life. “We” build infrastructure, and it builds “us.” Infrastructure exceeds its most obvious forms — the pipes, roadways and rail that often monopolize our imaginaries. Social infrastructures are also built, material, and lasting. Even intimacy is increasingly understood as infrastructural.”

Deborah Cohen (2017) ‘Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance’, blog here

So, the idea was to gather together a group of people to talk about how and why they focus upon infrastructure in their research activities. In short: to form a temporary infrastructure of knowledge exchange, of intimacy even. And this is what we achieved at the recent SHU Space & Place Group conference. I’d hoped that we’d presence the often backgrounded infrastructures that enable social life but I think we also got a bonus too, a glimpse of the human within infrastructure: both in terms of a fundamental dependency, but also as an authorship, and fellow-travelling. Infrastructure is of-us and we of-it. As Paul Graham Raven reminded us at March’s taster event, for Donna Haraway we are already cyborgs, beings melded with technology, whether we like it or not.

Richard Brook (Manchester Metropolitan University) picked up this theme in his opening presentation. As an architect he’s interested in how infrastructure is a mega-object emplaced into the environment with varying degrees of explicit attention to design and context, versus the compulsion towards function-determining-form. Helpfully he showed how attitudes towards the formation of infrastructural objects and their networks have fluctuated over time: in some eras infrastructure has been the subject of presencing, or ‘fitting-in’ through design (i.e that the host society has foregrounded it, perhaps as a sign of modernity and progress) whilst it has been the subject of less concern and consideration in other eras. But in most eras design focus and appreciation of environmental ‘fit’ has still tended to follow a “view from the road” rather than a “view of the road” approach for most infrastructure which we travel or inhabit. We are supposed to look out from not look at infrastructure.

Next up architects Cristina Cerulli and Sam Vardy (SHU) reported on their project with MArch students exploring the theme of ‘infrastructures of autonomy’, considering both the ubiquity of infrastructure in the modern world, but also of how it might be critiqued, adapted and made-different. They took us through the journeys that their students have been on, first forming their own sense of what infrastructure is and then developing their views of how it might otherwise be: and whether through a design (or political) processes of addition, subtraction or mutation. Their project’s blog can be viewed here: link

Then we shifted out attention to infrastructures of power generation and supply. Will Eadson (SHU) outlined his research into the politics of district heating networks, reminding us that each element of infrastructure is owned by someone, and that the interaction necessary to create and maintain a system requires a shared purpose and a mechanism of collaboration. Will pointed out how through combinations of politico-technical friction within these systems, the best of intentions can be thwarted, or rendered more difficult than their engineering or architectural designs might suggest.

Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) turned our attention to a historical perspective, by outlining his work researching the  now-vanished 20th century network of power generation and supply in the Bradford area of north-east Manchester. He showed us how through archival searching he has pieced together a sense of the scale and purpose of the colliery, power station, gas works and abattoir that once operated as an integrated cell-like, metabolic infrastructure feeding itself and nourishing outward. But also spewing out legacies of pollution and ill health. Martin’s presentation sparked debate about whether heavy industry should be the focus of narratives of ‘loss’ and whether such foregrounding is (in any sense) nostalgic, and whether it is right or wrong to build the stories of place other than through the interview testimony of those who once worked there. Martin was open and generous in giving his responses, and in doing so indicated (for me at least) that if the aim is to presence infrastructure then the presencing of the researcher (and of their motives and feelings about what they have chosen to research, and why) is a very important – but often hidden – part of the story. A copy of Martin’s slides can be viewed here.

After lunch we reconvened to hear from Fides Matzdorf (SHU) taking us through her ethnographic account of improvised infrastructures within the spaces and places of competitive ballroom dancing. Fides showed us how generic municipal spaces (e.g. town halls) are locally and individually adapted by the competitors who appropriate the ledges of memorial plaques, radiators, window fixings as improvised changing stations. Her presentation reminded us that infrastructure is fundamentally about environmental adaptations to some pressing purpose, and that spaces can be multi-use, adapted in the moment with a venue’s infrastructural (event enabling) affordances brought out by the user, rather than designed-in, intentionally by the original place maker. Thus not all infrastructural function and use is (or can ever be) anticipated by the designer.

Then sound artist Matt Parker (University of the Arts, London) turned our attention to the presence of the infrastructures of the internet, giving them a sense of mass and energy consumption through his atmospheric short film which uses field recordings of the sounds emitted within server farms to emphasise that ‘the cloud’ is not light – hardware is just that, hard, heavy and sucking in energy at an exponential rate. The effortless screen-world of the now is enabled through a physical infrastructure that is located elsewhere, out of sight but with a heavy footprint that is visible and audible, if we know where to look (and choose to do so). Matt’s film is here:

And there’s more at: http://www.thepeoplescloud.org/

Brian Lewis (poet and publisher, Longbarrow Press) then counterbalanced the claustrophobia of Matt’s presentation by taking us outside – first through White Thorns his poetry recital, to the Isle of Axholme, the empty seeming flatlands of North Lincolnshire, where he performs long, lone night walks.

On high, a freehold
of six thousand square metres
threshed by a rotor.
All the feathering threefold
swept into pitch cylinders.

Brian’s verse (extract above and more here) drew into relief the infrastructural features of that landscape – the wind turbines, the drainage ditches and the agricultural apparatus and showed himself drawn into co-occupation of space with them thereby revealing a highly populated landscape devoid of humans. Then Brian took us outside – literally – leading us out into the daylight of Sheffield for a meander past the culverted outcrops of the River Sheaf, the barren straights runs of the tram lines as they parallel the railway station and inner ring road, across a long, confined metal bridge tunnel, that few in Sheffield choose to notice and thereafter winding up through narrow lanes to SHU’s Cantor Building for a haiku writing session inspired by the walk (with some of the compositions scrolling below).

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Then the event ended with John Grant’s (SHU) tour of the roof of the Cantor Building, showing us its heat and power infrastructure and outlining how resilient this building would be as a hiding place in the event of a zombie apocalypse. John uses this colourful metaphor as a way of engaging students in the prosaics of assessing the energy rating of buildings – it being more attention grabbing to presence infrastructure through setting the challenge of finding ways of avoiding encounter with the flesh-failing bodies of the undead than in foregrounding infrastructure through attentiveness to the power rating plates of blank solar cells and heat exchangers.

Thus, in all of the talks the power of narrating infrastructure – of knowing and presencing it for a particular purpose – came to the fore.

Image credit: Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

NB: My spell checking tells me that presencing is not a real word. But it should be, and one day I will try to fully explain why. In brief, it was a term used by anti-nuclear activists in the 1980s to counter the ability of the nuclear state and its infrastructure to hide in plain sight, and involved mobilisation of a variety of representational strategies (photography, performance, writing, archival research) to make sure that that infrastructure’s  footprint was noticed (see for example the work of the Atomic Photographers Guild: https://atomicphotographers.com/). An extreme instance of presencing is the spraying of human blood on nuclear facilities by the Ploughshare activists, as chronicled in  Eric Schlosser’s (2015) Gods of Metal, see also: https://www.ploughshares.org/about-us.

Investigating Infrastructure – The 2018 SHU SPG conference, 13 June 2018

Investigating infrastructure poster

This year the SHU Space & Place Group’s interdisciplinary conference is themed around “Infrastructure”. Drawing across an array of disciplinary traditions and perspectives in a mix of presentations and activities our presenters will invite participants to explore the ways in which (tangibly and intangibly) infrastructure permeates space and enables place. Our event will take an expansive definition of infrastructure, ranging from big, heavy, monumental industrial objects to the faint structures that quietly enable and shape the world around us, and our daily experiences within it.  During the day, in an optimum and productive mix of playful and serious, you will encounter infrastructure in the shape of singing turbines, hot pipes, chatty buildings, dancing places, recuperative greenspaces and as refuges from the zombie apocalypse.

The event is free to attend, and you will even get refreshments and a packed lunch (courtesy of sponsorship by SHU’s Department of the Natural & Built Environment).

SHU SPG events are open to all, and whether SHU staff or beyond our institution. A physical limit is set for by the capacity of the venue, thus registration will be on a ‘first come first served’ basis.

Tickets can be booked here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/investigating-infrastructure-the-2018-shu-spg-conference-tickets-45721336749

PROGRAMME

9.30-9.45 WELCOME & INTRODUCTION

Luke Bennett, Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU

This introduction will summarise key themes arising from the SHU SPG panel event Beneath the City Streets: four researchers explore urban infrastructure and its invisibility held on 21 March 2018 and suggest how these themes might productively inform this conference’s ruminations.

9.45- 11.15 SESSION 1: INFRASTRUCTURE, POWER AND PLACE

Chair, Luke Bennett, Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU

9.45 – 10.00 Infrastructure’s objects

Richard Brook – Manchester School of Architecture

Infrastructure, whilst often characterised in terms of its invisibility via network multiplicity, functional ubiquity and semantic indeterminacy, still depends upon local, fixed, physical points of presence. This presentation will consider the objectification of infrastructure from an architectural perspective by showing how the seemingly invisible and diffuse is necessarily materialised and localised in the form of the built artefacts of infrastructure which are, by turns, prosaic and monumental. Infrastructure will be described as object and as producer of objects and the materiality and materialisation of infrastructure as concretised yet simultaneously ethereal. Such a situation seeks to explore the limits of the urban, the expanded geography and the morphology of the contemporary city.

10.00 – 10.15 Infrastructures of autonomy

Sam Vardy & Cristina Cerulli – Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU (Architecture) 

We will present critical readings of infrastructures as fertile grounds for the development of autonomous initiatives. Drawing on insights from design research developed within the context of a Masters’ architecture design studio,  we will explore what we might understand as infrastructure, looking beyond common instances (pipes, roads and communications systems etc.) to reveal other possible of alternate infrastructure(s) manifestations, implications and affects – spatially, socially and politically.

10.15 – 10.30 Transforming urban heat infrastructure: place, territory and politics.

William Eadson, Centre for Economic & Social Research, SHU

Urban heat infrastructure in the UK is undergoing transformation as cities seek to move towards, cheap and secure low carbon energy sources. But such transformations are contingent on a wide range of entanglements between actors and materials that are often spatially distanciated and precariously held in place through a range of different means. In this presentation I will use case studies from English cities (including Sheffield) to focus on the territorial politics of urban heat: how territory is constructed and put to use in the development of new urban heat infrastructure.

10.30 – 10.45 Lost infrastructures and historic visual representations: case study of power generation in east Manchester in the post-war period

Martin Dodge – University of Manchester (Geography) 

Drawing on ideas from historical geography, visual culture and cartographic communication this talk considers how far large infrastructure sites can be recovered through historic visual representations that have survived and are publicly available in archives. Looking in particular at the massive fossil-fuelled energy production sites which had a dominating physical presence in many British cities from the late nineteenth century and through first half of twentieth century, this talk focuses on a distinctive cluster of gas works, power station and colliery that were situated in the Bradford area of east Manchester. Nearly all trace of these major infrastructures is lost from the urban landscape by the late twentieth century and it is interesting to consider how far their distinctive form, architectures, production methods and material presence can be envisioned and narrated using original building plans, engineering drawings, OS mapping, process diagrams, aerial photography and other technical inscriptions.

10.45 – 11.15 Panel Discussion

11.15-11.45 BREAK

11.45 – 1.00 SESSION 2: INFRASTRUCTURE, INTERFACES & INTERACTION

Chair: Carolyn Gibbeson, Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU

11.45-12.00 High society or squatters? Competition dancing, affordances and engaging with the infrastructure of the ballroom

Fides Matzdorf – Sheffield Business School, SHU (Facilities Management)

Dance is all about space – moving through space, sharing space, claiming, ‘hogging’ and defending space and thereby framing and operating a highly structured social interface. Just as matter moves through hard infrastructure (pipes, wires, channels), so bodies flow through the ballroom. I’ll take you on a short journey of pictures and stories through the spatial trials and tribulations associated with a competition day – complete with paradoxes, contradictions and ironies in order to explore this and the underlying infrastructural orderings of the ballroom as a competitive space. This journey will reflect on the awkwardness of the notion of ‘backstage’ as a place in which the necessary messiness of an event is hidden – and will by analogy further question the supposed ‘invisibility’ of any infrastructure and of its operations.

12.00 – 12.15 The interaction zone: interpreting English and Dutch urban domestic interfaces as an infrastructure for sociality

Kaeren Van Vliet – Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU (Architecture) 

Public private interfaces form a continual infrastructure running through the built environment (Wohl 2017) where messages are recorded and relayed. The interface can also be understood as a place (Dovey & Wood 2015) where public and private are negotiated and values are displayed. This presentation uses the tensions and synergies between emerging theoretical understanding of the interface to undertake a micro-spatial and visual exploration of English and Dutch domestic interfaces

12.15 – 12.30 Green Infrastructure for mental health

Jo Birch – University of Sheffield (Landscape Architecture) 

This paper foregrounds ‘the value’ and ‘values’ of a city’s green infrastructure and urban nature in responding to societal challenges around human wellbeing and mental health. Whilst nature-based therapeutic activities are acknowledged as potentially useful in mental health recovery (Bragg and Leck 2017) and/or ‘social citizenship’ (Parr 2007), we know too little about how green infrastructure may play a role in coping with mental illness, recovery or prevention. Through discussion of findings from the Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (IWUN) project I share values of urban nature told by a group of people with mental health difficulties living in Sheffield, discussing what this means for both urban planning and healthcare.

12.30 – 1.00 Panel Discussion

1.00 – 1.45 LUNCH

1.45 – 2.45 SESSION 3: INVESTIGATING THE SPACES & PLACES OF INFRASTRUCTURE

Chair: Becky Shaw, Sheffield Institute of Arts, SHU

1.45 – 2.00 Towards the development of innovative interfaces for spatial mapping of cultural infrastructure

Rebecca Sharp – Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU (Geography) 

The proposed work will aim to develop a prototype of an innovative interface to map cultural infrastructure. The research will draw on the theoretical and data analysis techniques from engineering and infrastructure studies and apply these techniques to non-infrastructure research. The work will apply innovative spatial visualisation techniques together with social media textual analysis to provide an overview of different spatial social cultural interactions. Social media data analysis has been a growing area of research over the last decade with geotagging analysis becoming increasingly popular in the last few years. Gaps in knowledge still exist in effectively visualising this data and the outreach of this information to communities and policy makers. This research will thus build on the previous literature to review different ways to visualise data in an interactive (spatial and temporally) multi-layer interface.

2.00 – 2.15 Sonospheric Investigations

Matt Parker – University of the Arts London (Sound Artist) 

This presentation will introduce the sonospheric investigation as a research methodology for attending to the obfuscated energies and vibrations of media infrastructures. It will introduce some of the practical and ethical challenges encountered when negotiating access to critical nodes of the Internet ’s material plane, from the position of an artist and spatial practitioner. Lastly, I will discuss some of the weirder things you might find the other side of the high security perimeter fence.

2.15 – 2.30 White Thorns: the poetics of windfarms

Brian Lewis, Longbarrow Press (Poet)

The story of the Isle of Axholme, an area of reclaimed marshland in North Lincolnshire, is one of engineering and extraction. Even before it was drained, realigned and flattened in the 1620s, the land was regarded as a source of fuel; by the 1980s, small-scale peat cutting had given way to intensive harvesting, a period in which gas and coal exploration also fissured the isle. The colliery at Thorne is now a solar park, and the flatlands are crowned by the wheel and flicker of wind turbines, including a 34-turbine array at Keadby; the largest onshore wind farm in England. Drawing on a sequence of poems based on recent walks around the isle, this presentation will reflect on how Axholme’s resource infrastructure has moved above ground in the 21st century and consider how the scale and dynamism of the ‘white thorns’ impacts on the affective experience of landscape.

2.30 – 3.00 Panel Discussion & briefing for the two activities

3.00 – 5.00 SESSION 4: TWO ACTIVITIES NARRATING INFRASTRUCTURE

3.00 – 4.00 Activity 1

GROUP A: An indoor walking survey with John Grant (Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU) to assess a university building’s infrastructural resilience and preparedness for surviving a zombie apocalypse (guided walk from Norfolk 210 to Cantor Building Room 9140).

GROUP B: A short outdoor walk to inspire an infrastructural haiku writing workshop led by landscape poet Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press (assemble in Cantor Building Room 9140).

4.00 – 5.00 Activity 2

GROUP A: A short outdoor walk to inspire an infrastructural haiku writing workshop led by landscape poet Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press (guided walk from Norfolk 210 to Cantor Building Room 9138).

GROUP B: An indoor walking survey with John Grant (Natural & Built Environment Dept, SHU) to assess a university building’s infrastructural resilience and preparedness for surviving a zombie apocalypse (assemble in Cantor Building Room 9138).

5.00 END OF THE EVENT

 

Image credit: Matt Parker

Filling the void – two trips into the ruins of London’s underground

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“As three-dimensional public objects [urban ruins] still serve useful purposes and act as concrete, tangible catalysts for storytelling.”

Mélanie van der Hoorn (2012) Indispensable Eyesores: An anthropology of undesired buildings. Berghahn Books: Oxford (p.8)

Nature abhors a vacuum, and nowhere more so than in the crowded, densely developed space of central London. So where might we look to find underoccupied ruins in such a highly utilised terrain? The answer it seems is below our feet. I report here on recent trips into two of the city’s uncharacteristically empty spaces. By comparing these two seemingly very different sites I seek to draw out how they are both ultimately preoccupied with the question of how to fill these uncommon voids.

The cult of information meets the cult of the misty bull

In the heart of the City, in the bowels of the new corporate HQ for information giant Bloomberg, lie the remains of a small Roman temple. Built around AD 240, this temple was the site at which the all-male worshippers of the Mithras cult met to enact their rituals in celebration of their bull slaying god.

Abandoned in the 5th century with the retreat of Rome, the temple fell into ruin and sank beneath the surface of the city (in the standard way that archaeology does). Then along came post war clearance of the site (now a bomb-site from the Blitz), the ruins of the temple were uncovered, and thousands of people flocked to the excavation, trample its mud and to gaze (and stand) upon its stones and their silent-but-tactile revelation of a time very-long-ago. In the subsequent redevelopment of the site, the ruin was transplanted in 1962 to the top of a nearby car park where – over the years – it received a few visitors. But now, as a condition of the £1 Billion re-redevelopment of the site the ruin has been re-placed, back upon its original site and now sits as a tourist attraction in the bowels of the Bloomberg building.

Entry is free (via a booking system at https://www.londonmithraeum.com/), through a small, bright gallery space called Bloomberg Space, currently displaying the vibrant, citrus hewed art of Isabel Nolan. Here very friendly guides welcome the visitor, as they step into this exception space to the fare of plush eateries and swish offices dominating the surrounding streetscape.

“Is this the right place for the Roman ruins?” I ask. “Indeed it is”, comes the bright reply and an eager arm thrusts a rather expensive looking tablet in my direction. This, I’m told, will help me to interpret the array of excavated artefacts comprising a tall vertical display on one wall of the gallery. “We have over 14,000 artefacts in total, these are just a sample here – you can experience the rest using the tablet” says the attendant, urging me with every gesture to engage with its pleading screen. Here the whole set up yearns to emphasise both the abundance and its orderly mastery by Bloomberg’s blending of physical and virtual modes of encounter.

There is something very proficient and mission-affirming about this curation – it didn’t strike me as cynical and the guides genuinely seem very proud of their ruin attraction – but the manner of staging this encounter with the past screams out that Bloomberg are in the information business and that they can collate and relay anything, not just business performance data.

A black staircase then guides us below ground and into a chamber where Joanna Lumley and academic friends tell us (on rotation, every 15 minutes) what is known about the Cult of Mithras and its rituals. We sit in the gloom, instructed by images projected Plato-like onto the (cave) wall. A silhouette of a cloaked figure shimmers, by turns looking like a bull or a man. This references the Mithras ritual’s own simulation of the sacrifice of a bull (and whilst information is scarce about the rituals, we are confidently assured that space was simply too small to enable an actual bull killing here).

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Suitably primed (and in turn acting out our own modern tourist ritual) we process into a dark room and are invited to spread out around the edge of this space in order to best “enjoy the experience”. Here we experience a soundtrack of Mithras worshippers assembling, a hubbub of voice chatting excitedly in Latin. We, the 21st century audience, stand at the periphery of the room and we can hear the 4th century denizens who have also assembled here for their ritual, but cannot see them. Then comes the sound of an ancient horn, which ushers in an attentive quiet (from both audiences) and then ritual chanting (from the 4th century participants). This interplay between the reaction of the two audiences is suitably atmospheric. Mist then starts to spray into the room and fine lines of lights shining down through the damp air mark out the walls of the temple, as the chanting continues.

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Then after a few moments of this strange empty-presence the house lights come on and we are invited to inspect the ruins. We are back in the 21st century and alone with our thoughts and interpretations. The end of the sound- and light-show leaves us within a room that has some runs of nondescript, and rather clean looking, stone – wall stumps – laid out upon the floor. Once the room is fully revealed there is actually very little to see here. The materiality of the stones themselves can’t match the vibrancy of the sound and light show. And the ruins occupy little of the volume of the space and this is why the walls written in mist and light are so effective. But their side effect is that, once they have gone, they emphasise that a ruin is always (at least in part) an absence of structure and matter. A ruin always has missing mass and lost surfaces, for it is void space in which a former building partly lingers.

The presentation of the London Mithraeum is both powerful and an anti-climax, because it is an attempt to reanimate a void; to temporarily fill it with action, structure and intimations of mass. The power comes from the active curation of the experience of this ruin-encounter, and inevitably (perhaps) this entails the active use of our own processes of myth-making and storytelling in order to animate this space. The sound and light show creates a sense of the Mithras ritual, but it also creates its own ritual performance of heritage-spectacle (and/or ruin-gazing).

There is no reason to suggest that this is the final staging of the London Mithraeum. Perhaps in the year 2500 there will be a London Bloomberg experience that creates a ritual in which our further evolved selves can have the titillating retro experience of an IT-enabled sound and light show activating the conjoined ghosts of a late-Capitalist corporate headquarters and/or a Roman heritage attraction and of the ruin-voids they have each left behind beneath the active surfaces of The Greater Anglia Conurbation.

The Minotaur’s lair and the infinite tunnels to nowhere

Artist Naomi Avsec talks me through the chain of events that led to her taking up a six month residency deep beneath Clapham, South London in an abandoned air raid complex of tunnels: “When I saw the advert, I just couldn’t resist. Studio space here in London is so cramped and expensive, and you end up with a bland, tiny room. Here was a chance to work in a strange, exciting and voluminous place quite different to the standard studio offering. In short, here was a wonderful opportunity-space”.

We met above ground in a local café and then took the rickety elevator down, over 100 feet into her lair. Here the tunnels went on and on, their emptiness punctuated only by the occasional variegation in the cement cast hemispherical panels: a hatch here, a sign there, and a light screed of dust everywhere.

At times Naomi strode off into the dark, announcing that when alone she likes to go for walks along her tunnels without any lights on, for they are almost straight and predictable enough for such drifting.

After wending our way along, up, across and down a few turns of tunnel (for our indulgence, safely guided by torchlight) we reached Naomi’s studio, an arbitrarily selected station point. Her territory was marked out by a desk, piles of material and laid-out work-in-progress. And yet the tunnel still seemed so empty. “That’s the real challenge here” Naomi told me, “how to make a mark upon this emptiness. I find things in my forays to the surface and drag it back down here. Up there these items feel big, and I struggle to drag them and cram them into the lift. But as soon as I get them here they shrink to insignificance. I’m approaching half-way through my residency now and I’m still trying to work out how I can make my area feel populated”.

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Built as one of London’s deep shelters in the aftermath of the Blitz, these tunnels saw little use in the war. Back in those days the now-empty space of this labyrinth would have been full, floor to ceiling – with bunk beds, and in design intention at least would have been full of bodies, the anxious flesh of huddled families.

Naomi’s creative work here is bringing some bodies into the tunnels, but not in the sense portrayed by Henry Moore in his sketches of slumbering human figures in London’s air raid shelters during the war. Naomi works across a number of media and styles. Collage is to the fore in her creative practice at the moment, summoning strange/uncanny inhabitants into the tunnel.

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Perhaps due to the absence of an anthropomorphic stimulus in the solitude of this place, Naomi’s work seems instead to be tending towards the more atavistic. She has also assembled a variety of surreal three dimensional sculptures made with those found materials that she has laboriously dragged back into her lair, like an ant with its payload waving precariously in the breeze, its bounty far larger than its body.

Maybe it’s inevitable that time spent alone in stygian gloom summons thoughts and impressions of shadow creatures that have been glimpsed in the underworld across the generations. There is a dreamy, playful tone to the uncanny beings that Naomi has summoned into being.

“I get carried away down here. There are no distractions and that’s such a luxury. This really is such a great opportunity. Some days, after a while, I eventually notice the cold creeping up from the concrete through my feet. When that strikes I go back to the surface and nip into the local supermarket, both to use the loo and to top up on sunlight and a sense of connection with the surface-world. I also take Vitamin D as a precaution against the lack of exposure to daylight. But it’s still a thrilling and really stimulating experience.”

Naomi’s opportunity to be here comes courtesy of a residency programme called GROUNDED offered by Battersea Art Centre and Growing Underground (http://growing-underground.com/), the owners of this subterranean complex who are steadily expanding their own operations into the presently unoccupied portions of the labyrinth. Growing Underground grow fresh micro-greens and salad leaves in a bright, white, pest-free, highly controlled environment using the latest hydroponic systems and LED lighting. At the moment their operation inhabits some, but not all of the tunnels. Naomi’s is one of three current artist residencies within the as-yet-to-be converted tunnels. Human access into the growing areas is strictly controlled and my visit was only to the currently spare tunnels. Growing Underground’s ongoing expansion of production will see more of the empty tunnels transformed into vibrant, ultra-clean growing spaces, though the insertion of sealed units into the tunnel – creating tunnels within the tunnels and a lingering voidspace between the doubled ceilings, sides and floors. Naomi therefore is free to leave her mark upon her tunnel-space’s cast concrete walls if she wishes, but if she does so then the chance is that few if any will ever see her creations. “That creates a strange challenge. It’s almost like being invited to create some invisible art; something that only the artist knows about.” Perhaps the early cave painters felt this way and/or that they saw the audience for their art as not of-this-earth. Again, we return to the atavisitic elements that seem recurrent in the work inspired by Naomi’s lone dwelling in these man-made caves, the drift towards her production of sigils, invoking or inviting a communication with inner and outer demons as she wrestles with the abundance of this empty, blank, worm-like subterranean space.

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Image credits: Blurry photographs by Luke Bennett, better ones by Naomi Avsec, www.naomiavsec.co.uk.

“Utility after Abandonment”: our CFP for the RGS-IBG Conference: Cardiff, August 2018

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RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2018

Geographical landscapes / Changing landscapes of geography 

Cardiff, Tuesday 28th August – Friday 31st August 2018

 Session Call for Papers

UTILITY AFTER ABANDONMENT?

The New Ruin as Cultural Asset and Public Space

Session sponsored by the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group (of the RGS-IBG)

Convenors: Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam Uni.), Ed Hollis (Univ. of Edinburgh), Hayden Lorimer (Univ. of Glasgow), Ruth Olden (Univ. of Glasgow)

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During recent years, across the arts and humanities, and associated cultural spheres of literature, cinema, architecture, heritage, urban exploration and curated art, interest has intensified in ruinenlust, ruins and ruination (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey and Edensor 2012; Lavery and Gough 2015; Bennett 2017). Ruminating on the ruin has come to be understood as a sensibility reflective of classical, romantic and picturesque tropes. However, other modes of social engagement are possible.

Learning how to live with ruins is a twenty-first century challenge requiring cultural articulations that are forward-thinking and experimental, acknowledging new models of intervention, ownership and access, and welcoming contrasting – even conflicting – forms of aesthetic and emotional attachment (DeSilvey 2017; Hollis 2010; Lorimer and Murray 2015).

Nationally and internationally, there are a multitude of valued heritage landscapes, currently in ruinous, vulnerable, degraded states, requiring differing forms of creative intervention for the purposes of rehabilitation, re-occupation and reinvention, so as to safeguard cultural legacies for the future. For this session we seek not only statements of intent, but also critical reports on activities already occurring in cities under austerity and non-urban landscapes, in the global north and global south, where ruins are being reimagined and repurposed as cultural assets and public spaces.

The session’s convening team represent a variety of perspectives on the reimagining and repurposing of ruins, variously undertaking studies and investigations ranging across landscape design and architectural history, cultural geography, law and risk management. We welcome contributions that reflect and/or go beyond this constellation of interests, and which embrace (or challenge) our view that open interdisciplinarity is the best way to understand and activate the potentialities of the contemporary ruin.

Session presentations/contributions are sought which variously address three connected questions:

– How do you activate modern ruins safely?

– How do you activate modern ruins creatively?

– How do you activate modern ruins collaboratively?

 

Please send expressions of interest/abstracts (250 words max.) and a title to:

Ruth Olden (Ruth.Olden@glasgow.ac.uk) by Monday 5th February 2018.

 

Image credit: Holland Island, Chesapeake Bay via baldeaglebluff/flickr,

 

 

“The House that Legal Geography Built: People, Places & Law”: CFP for a legal geography workshop at the University of Bristol on 25 April 2017*

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Call For Papers

For a one-day Legal Geography Workshop at the University of Bristol, UK

On Tuesday 25 April 2017

“The House that Legal Geography Built: Exploring the Imbrication of People, Places and Law”

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*[NB: the date of this event has been changed to Tuesday 25 April 2017 since the original version of this post] 

Legal geographers often describe their field of enquiry as studying the imbrication of people, places and law. We tend to think of imbrication as meaning braiding (following Braverman et al, 2014) or co-constitution (Delaney, 2016). But is this what imbrication actually means? In its OED definition, imbrication is not defined in the way legal geographers generally use the term today. Instead, imbrication’s 17th century origin, (in the sense of being ‘shaped like a pantile’): comes from the Latin imbricat-, covered with roof tiles.

This then is our starting point for this call for papers. How does this imbrication in legal geography actually work? How do the realms of law, spatiality and society fit together, for what purpose and in what circumstances? For while we presume that co-constitution (between people, place and law) is legal geography’s core premise, we also suggest that legal geography is still very much an inchoate cross-discipline, extending, one rooftile at a time. Envisaging legal geography as a project of interlacing, this workshop now aims to focus on the adjacent edges and overlaps. In particular, we are interested in any aspect of legal geography, including work on networks, materialities, affect, gender, race as well as scale, pluralism and performativity (Bennett and Layard, 2015). Of course, this is a relational connection, individual tiles come together to shelter the building as a whole but are also inter-related.

One purpose of this call for (15 mins) papers is to develop a network of all those interested in legal geography. It invites scholars working in human, urban, political geography and law, to offer empirical or theoretical contributions relating to legal geographies. Focusing on linkages, and extensions, papers will demonstrate how their connection illustrates the co-constitution of law, space and place by way of performative or relational significance to the chosen subject matter. In a collaborative setting, can we build legal geography still further? And if we do, what will the roof look like? We invite you to join us to find out.

If you would like to present a paper – or a sketch of a paper – please submit a title and abstract to antonia.layard@bristol.ac.uk by 15 March 2017.

This event is being organised by:

  • Antonia Layard (Law – University of Bristol);
  • Nick Gill (Geography – University of Exeter);
  • Luke Bennett (Natural & Built Environment – Sheffield Hallam University) and
  • Tayanah O’Donnell (Geography & Built Environment – University of Canberra).

The workshop is free to attend (we will announce the finalised programme and booking arrangements in the early April). We are not able to cover any travel or subsistence costs for speakers or delegates but hope for coffee and cake at the very least. If you are interested in legal geography but cannot make the workshop do let us know, we will compile a mailing list for anyone interested in the field.

Image credit:  Zola aka. Zhou Shuguang (http://zola.fotolog.com.cn/1671942.html) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D. The owners of this Chongqing “nail house” refused to leave it, thwarting plans for a shopping mall.