What’s behind the fence? – exploring dead land and empty buildings at the RGS-IBG 2021 Annual Conference (online session, Weds 1st Sept 2021)

“They came from everywhere… I fixed the fence, over and over I fixed the fence, but they kept on coming.”

A lone, vulnerable security guard, 2017

As part of next week’s Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) annual international conference (which this year is running online: details here) I’m convening a double-session next Wednesday morning (1st September), comprising eight presentations, each considering the quiet and only-noticed-if-you-look human ecology of seemingly empty sites.

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everyday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed.

This conference session will open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators. Taking a life-cycle approach, presenters will explore the stories and structures that have caused abandonment at both remote sites and those within the heart of otherwise active and occupied urban centres. They will tease out the logics of opportunistic appropriators (urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, artists, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places. The role of professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management will also be explored. In each case these readings of the motives, modes and meanings of vacancy will be attentive to the wider ecologies in which these sites and their actors are imbricated and of the important role of (positive or negative) place attachment in determining the speed at which a site is withdrawn from vacancy, or how it is maintained purposively in that state.

Here are the abstracts for our international array of presenters:

Session 1Experiencing and managing dead places (9.00 – 10.40 AM BST)

Ruins of (Post)Soviet Arctic: perceiving, coping with and commemorating abandoned sites

Maria GUNKO Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences / National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia) [presenting]

Alla BOLOTOVA Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland); Elena BATUNOVA Politecnico di Milano (Milano, Italy) [non-presenting]

The Arctic is passing through different economic and political development stages which result in changing economic and social settings, as well as shifts in the cityscape dynamics (Sellheim et al., 2019). During state socialism in Russia, large-scale development of northern territories was due to the need for natural resources extraction with the establishment of control over a vast sparsely populated area (Josephson, 2014). The collapse of the system has led to a reduction of state support for industries, science and military activities causing a structural crisis in many Arctic cities outside oil and gas provinces. Abandoned and dilapidated buildings, industrial ruins, idle infrastructures, and marginalized spaces here remain “monuments” to the Soviet period indicating the changing trends. At the same time, these cities remain home to people with community bonds, sharing values, and place attachment (Bolotova, 2018). The aims of the current research are two-fold. First, we explore the perception of and strategies to cope with abandonment in the Russian Arctic. Second, we look at the examples of abandoned sites commemoration by their former residents. The empirical evidence for the study is drawn from Vorkuta – a conglomerate of urban settlements in the Komi republic. At its peak, it comprised 16 settlements built around 13 coal mines, currently less than a half of these settlements are still habitable having severely shrunk in size. The data were obtained from a comprehensive analysis of various sources, such as planning documents, archival materials, expert and in-depth interviews (in person and via Skype), as well as non-participant observations carried out in January 2019.

What’s the use? Rethinking urban vacancy amidst Dublin’s housing crisis

Kathleen STOKES & Cian O’CALLAGHAN, Trinity College Dublin (Ireland)

The results of the 2016 census found 183,312 vacant homes in Ireland, a figure that included around 30,000 vacant homes across the four Dublin local authorities. While the Central Statistics Office indicated that this figure was a static rather than long-term measure, the ensuing political storm equated vacant properties with empty homes that could be used to solve Dublin’s burgeoning homelessness crisis. Amidst Dublin’s housing and homeless crisis, calls for affordable housing and fairer property markets have paralleled growing attention in urban housing and land vacancy. A spate of policy measures targeting vacancy have testified to the increased visibility of the ‘problem’ of urban vacancy in the post-crisis period. However, policy objectives construct vacancy within a simple dichotomy between space either ‘in use’ or ‘not in use’, therefore reproducing normative understandings that fail to acknowledge that such sites are always active, in property market formation and subject to ongoing ordering and management. As a riposte to these conceptualisations, this paper puts policy objectives and key measurements of urban vacancy in Dublin into dialogue with the critical literature on vacancy in urban and cultural geography (Ferreri & Vasudevan, 2019; Kitchin et al., 2014). We reflect on the limitations of normative understandings of urban vacant space in revealing the role of vacancy in capitalist cities and suggest that more critical assessments can unearth a multitude of urban processes pertaining to the ordering and management of such sites. This paper draws upon ongoing research in Dublin, which investigates underlying factors contributing to urban vacancy and questions how urban vacancy is identified, categorised and measured.

Empty buildings in the re-making: The case of the Hochhausscheiben A-E in Halle-Neustadt, Germany

Hendrikje ALPERMANN, Université de Lausanne (Switzerland)

Four of the five high-rise slabs Hochhausscheiben A-E in the centre of Halle-Neustadt are empty. And this for over 20 years. Between 2003 and 2016, the shrinking city of Halle reduced vacancy in Halle-Neustadt by half through demolition, enabled through the national program Stadtumbau Ost (Stadt Halle (Saale) 2017). In contrast to many other buildings in Halle-Neustadt in the beginning of the 2000s, the high-rise slabs were not chosen for demolition, but for endurance. But how can their endurance be ensured in the context of a shrinking city? While the buildings have been increasingly dilapidated since they have been abandoned in the late 1990s, a number of practices and relationships have prevented them from being demolished or renovated and contributed to their continuous life between life and death. Against what has been written on ruins in recent academic literature, the high-rises do not stand for a site of disruption (Buchli, 2013; DeSilvey; Endensor, 2012) or “the end of the world” (Pohl, 2020), but rather for a series of promised of renovations and postponed renovations. This turn towards practices and endurance allows us to reflect on techno-political modes of organizing urban change and emptiness. It will lead us to ask how agency and responsibility are distributed and enacted.

In Praise of Shutters: Hidden activity within Neepsend, Sheffield

Charlene Cross, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

This presentation takes inspiration from the 1933 Japanese aesthetic essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Junichiro Tanizaki, who made a case for accepting transience, flaws, patina, and shadows within in the built environment. ‘In Praise of Shutters’ draws attention to the shutters and fences of several ’empty’ buildings in Neepsend, Sheffield, to challenge the preconception that these are inert spaces. The images presented form part of a land use study that initially focused upon inert urban spaces, such as wastelands or seemingly empty buildings. However, as the study has progressed, no truly inert spaces have been found to date. Using narratology and a series of photographs taken in Neepsend between July 2020 and the present day, these images of physical boundaries entice curiosity within the onlooker. If the building is not derelict, what’s behind the fence? Walking past a warehouse, the shutters are up and metal work is underway. People heading to the food court across the road, which is made of shipping containers, pause to peep in. The next day, the shutters are down. To those not in the know, will they view the patina of the signage as an aesthetic remnant of the long forgotten past, rather than a marker that provides testament to their long established presence in the area?

Session 2 – Empty sites, re-use, utopia and other potentiality (11.00 – 12.40PM BST)

Rethinking Utopia: The Search for ‘Topias’ in the Paris Catacombs

Kevin BINGHAM, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

Although the idea once had great influence, utopias have proven themselves to be unattainable. Therefore, rather than viewing utopia as an actual destination this paper will argue that belief in the existence of special places of perfection has been replaced by a faith in leisure. As it will be argued, it is the activity of ‘urbex’ that can turn ruins, abandoned places and vacant sites into something similar, albeit temporarily. With this is mind, the paper continues by drawing on the work of Peter Sloterdijk and Tony Blackshaw to accentuate the point that the good life is about inventing oneself through a process of self-creation that has been referred to as anthropotechnics. To unpack this standpoint, the paper examines how a group of urban explorers – people who explore man-made spaces that are generally inaccessible to the wider public – find various substitutes for utopia in the subterranean space of the Paris catacombs. As it is argued, forms of leisure such as ‘urbex’ emerge as ‘primary spheres’ of anthropotechnics that instigate the formation of intertwining and interpenetrating ‘topias’ which have been referred to here as ‘reterotopia’, ‘heterotopia’ and ‘scotopia’. Viewed independently of one another, these ‘topias’ refer to the way urban explorers’ experiment with space nostalgically, compensatorily and in a way that incites the five basic senses. As the paper reveals, each ‘topia’ plays an important part in allowing people to discover performativity, locate a sense of collective consciousness, feel intense pleasures and pains, and, above all, experience the euphoria of freedom.

“The dead are tugging at our backs”: exploring migrant life among the headstones of an abandoned cemetery in Tangier

Maria HAGAN, University of Cambridge (UK)

Renewed and intensified criminalisation of sub-Saharan Africans in the northern Moroccan borderlands since 2018 has made their spaces of shelter precarious and their access to accommodation, particularly in cities of the north, a perpetual struggle. Those seeking passage to Europe increasingly resort to life in concealed, abandoned urban spaces. This paper explores the socio-material ecologies of an abandoned Muslim graveyard in Tangier overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar and serving as a primary space of life for a group of young Cameroonian men. Drawing on 5 months of ethnographic fieldwork with the community in 2019 & 2020, this paper discusses how, concealed and lawless, this abandoned and decaying urban space operated as a rare negotiated space of presence and sociability for the community. Detailing practices of shelter construction between the headstones, the routine destruction of that shelter by authorities, and processes of camp reconstruction and renegotiation attempted by the graveyard’s inhabitants, the paper proposes an analysis of the liveliness of a deathscape in a context of urban hostility against the migrant body. It traces how the appropriation of this undesirable territory affected the men’s self-perception and influenced their space-claiming practices elsewhere; namely the establishment of a cemetery camp in another Moroccan city.

Fortifying the empty ruin: the nightwatchman, the artists, the trespassers and their antagonisms

Luke BENNETT Sheffield Hallam University (UK) [presenting];
Hayden LORIMER, Edward HOLLIS and Ruth OLDEN of University of Edinburgh (UK) [non-presenting]

The cabin is for use by the nightwatchman,
…who is employed by the security firm,
…that is contracted by the small arts company,
…to protect the now fortified ruin of the former seminary,
…which it hopes to take off the hands of the church,
…who desperately want shot of the whole damned place themselves,
…because of recreational trespass and the liabilities arising,
if only a viable model for transferring ownership can ever be found.

This is the premise for an illustrated piece of performed storytelling, and the predicament that it explores. The modern architectural ruin at its centre is a place of competing claims, and complex social dynamics created by the securitization of property. Lately, it has operated antagonistically, existing as an aggressive milieu. The presentation delves into the ruin’s complex relational ecology, introducing its protagonists, affects, spaces, encounters and events. Ultimately, its chief concern is with the architecture of lives as much as it is the lives of architecture. In particular, the presentation will focus upon how the precarious minimum-wage lifeworld of the nightwatchman, and his embodied relationship to this abandoned site, is both more elaborate and more sculpted by the active concerns of others who rarely appear in person on-site, than we might readily assume. The presentation reports on part of the collaborators’ 2017-2019 Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland funded study of attempts to manage and reactivate the modernist ruins of St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, a few miles west of Glasgow. Bennett will present drawing upon Olden’s fieldwork, Lorimer and Hollis’ writings upon the site and Bennett’s reflections on the pressure of anxieties about vacant site ownership.

The elephant in the room?: a facilitated discussion about absent owners

Carolyn GIBBESON, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

To what extent does scholarship on vacancy include an exploration of the motives and meaning-making of owners and their professional agents? Where mentioned do site owners only ever appear as cyphers for capital, striped of any attentiveness to their emotional labour? Does attempting to give analytical space or voice to owners and their motivations for vacancy risk loss of a Critical and/or progressive edge? This contribution will facilitate a discussion of these questions, by reflecting on the Session’s nine papers. It will open with a short presentation in which I will draw on my former experiences of working in the real estate sector as a property manager responsible for a variety of property types including vacant sites, and on my more recent doctoral research into the awkward interaction of developers’ and heritage professionals’ differing world-views and practice-logics. Through this I will consider how different groups of people within the built environment and academic sectors view each other to ask why owners are usually ignored despite their control over a site. I will then invite discussion on whether (and if so, how) a greater attentiveness to owner perspectives could augment studies of vacancy, and also tease out the particular difficulties that lie ahead for anyone trying to research owners’ creation and/or toleration of vacancy, whether as profit-maximising landbanking or for more prosaic reasons.

Image credit: Author’s photograph, St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, Cardross, Scotland, Oct 2017.

Quiet bubbling: observing the silent co-existence of co-workers on building sites

“The ways in which bodies move through, inhabit and occupy space on a construction site (and elsewhere) rely on both conscious and deliberate acts and on an array of taken-for-granted, unintentional modes of being.”

Dawn Lyon (2013) ‘The labour of refurbishment: the building and body in space and time’ in Pink, Tutt & Dainty (eds) Ethnographic Research in the Construction Industry. Abingdon: Routledge, p35.

This photograph is a rarity. Other than a certain quirkiness (the doubling, of the doubled-over faceless pose) there is nothing of aesthetic value about this image, but it has got me hooked because it depicts a type of working that is actually very hard to find in visual depictions of building sites. Try it: a Google of ‘construction site’ finds either:

– a site devoid of people;

– a site populated by a group of workers or visitors who are all clearly engaged in a collective task; or

– a site view in which only one, task-absorbed, worker is visible

What captivates me about this picture is that it almost depicts a reality that hardly ever appears in published construction site photographs, but yet which is likely to be the glimpsed experience of any passer-by as they encounter their local building site. The under-acknowledged reality is that of the co-existence of multiple-but-separate activities.

Now, I say ‘almost’ above because these two workers seem to both be working on setting out the reinforcement shell for a concrete slab that is about to be poured. In that sense they have a common purpose – they are both acting upon the same task. Ultimately, it could be argued that all co-workers on a construction site are engaged in the same overarching task (the making of the building) even if one is doing brickwork, one is tiling, and another is laying cables. But as that sentence suggests, at the sub-project level each of those three workers is working on a separate task, one that has its own rhythms, reasons and ways of doing.

Wandering through a live building site (particularly after the structural work has been done) is to walk through a hive of individual projects, and to step awkwardly in and out of individual territorial bubbles of temporarily claimed space. Here, each worker has set themselves up in their part of the partly-formed place, in order to then set to work.  And in doing so they have formed their own little sphere of activity – a micro-territory of which they have possession, and they signal that territorial claim in subtle but clear ways, via the spreading out of tools, the playing of music or the laying out of signage. This way of taking a temporary claim to space is picked up ‘on the job’. At college there was no ‘how to claim space’ lecture aimed at cultivating proficiency in individual bubble-making. Yes, there would have been some sessions on how a contractor’s organisation acting as a multi-person organism might ‘take possession’ of a site, and in infrastructure (for instance rail transport) there are complex rules of taking possession of tracks, pipes or cables, but nothing at the level of the individual.

In such situations – where safety risks are otherwise high – the rules of temporary space-possession are made explicit. Thus, to enter the railway line or to descend the mineshaft a unique physical token must be presented. Failure to offer-up that token means that possession of that space cannot be claimed, because possession of the token ‘proves’ an entitlement to enter and the space’s presently unoccupied status. Meanwhile permission to enter confined spaces or to carry out hazardous operations in a particular area may be governed by a paper-trail, the ‘permit-to-work’: no permit, no entry and no work. But in the vast majority of circumstances there is no token, there is no permit, there is no negotiation. Instead, by convention and subtle cues, individual task-bubbles form and fade, and the individuals within them quietly work out how to co-exist alongside others.

This silent space-possession activity is also evident (in everyday experience, but not in photographs) in domestic environments. Think about the last time you “had the builders in” – what did they do to mark out your territory as temporarily theirs? How did they subdivide your space down into an array of individual bubbles of occupancy? And how they negotiate the interaction between these individual bubbles with you, and with their workmates?

I had the experience of co-habiting with a plasterer and his ‘mate’ in my own home last week: and it got me thinking about the above, because the way that the mate set up for his ceiling pulling-down task was so different to that of the plasterer who came a few days later. Where one focussed on simply taking space and keeping to himself (thereby emphasising the separation of his work bubble from the rest of the house), the other was far more deliberative and verbal, frequently asking permission and informing me of his intentions in order to check and define the way that his and my bubbles would interact during his residency. In the end it was the over-elaboration of these normally silent territorial co-habitational rituals that brought the whole thing into focus, making me think of the verbal and visual silence that usually cloaks the proximity of separate co-habitation.

Image source: commercialconcretedenver.com

The sap is rising: the vibrant force of this noisy spring

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Rachel Carson (1956/1998) The Sense of Wonder: A Celebration of Nature for Parents & Children, HarperCollins: p. 100

Rachel Carson is – of course – more famous for summoning a sense of a silent spring. In her 1962 masterwork, The Silent Spring, Carson gave us the cautionary image of the cessation of the eternal return that should be spring’s noisy bursting back into life. And the agent of silencing was chemical – liquid death seeping into a vulnerable nature, suffocating and snuffing out life and its sounds. For Carson pesticides were invader substances, alien chemicals surging through innocent and vulnerable capillaries.

But a couple of events have got me thinking this week about how the springtime ‘springing to life’ is itself a product of surging, swelling, insistent chemicals.

Like everyone (I suspect) I’ve particularly noticed the spring this year. Maybe, like me you’ve yearned for it as a target point that will be the end of Lockdown 3, you’ve seen parks and countryside heaving with human bodies as the new agora. But whilst observing spring’s return more intently this year I’ve found it becoming more complex too. Those Easter cards with their cute bunnies and neat daffodils just don’t capture the sheer vibrant throb of life, and of its non-cuddliness. My failing to find cute comfort in the spring is partly wrapped up in the intensity of my watching it this year – those young birds are fighting, that bumble bee emerging from hibernation is struggling to adjust to its living – if it continues to deny the reality of the window pane it will soon be a dried up husk (a bit like that young toad lying like a strip of biltong on my patio). Spring is raw, vibrant but not cute.

There’s also the problem that spring, and my garden’s blossoming back to life, brings forth strong memories of this time last year – of spring 2020, warming air, flowers and the anxious uncertainties of ‘the first wave’. It also reminds me of a sunny lunchtime sitting outside in my yard, listening to the US President suggesting that I shoot up with disinfectant, or shine a really strong light into my body to kill off the nasty bugs. Contaminated with these memories, spring is more complicated now, it has lost its innocent connotations.

And so I find myself looking at spring differently. And I find myself thinking about the vibrant force of rising sap. Why? Well, let’s now unpack the two events that have led me to this.

Event one. I’m sat at my work desk earlier this week. I’m bleeding. Intentionally. I’m struggling to ‘milk’ my finger (as the instructional notes so delicately put it). I’m trying to bleed into a sample vial, so that I can complete a covid antibody test. My fingers are tacky with glutinous blood, but little of it wants to drip into the vial. I have to make repeated pin pricks. I wage war upon my fingers, with increasing desperation. I’m trying to harvest my own recalcitrant sap, in order that a lab can confirm to me that I have the right kind of human-made contamination within me, so that I can withstand the ambivalent life force of the covid virus were it to come upon me as a future host.

Event two. A random chain of events bring me to Nick Zinner’s 41 Strings (2014) performance piece, it’s a rock musician’s modern take on a ‘four seasons’ concerto. I listened to the ‘spring’ movement first via the YouTube recording of its live performance and it blew me away. The other three movements (the other three season pieces) are ok but counter intuitively it is ‘spring’ that has the noise, the force, the vibrancy. The ‘spring’ movement has a ascending motif woven through it – which to my mind wonderfully summons the force of sap rising. In contrast the ‘autumn’ movement (fitting titled ‘fall’ – in line with the US convention) has a descending motif. ‘Summer’ is pastoral and not driven like spring. Winter is somewhat frozen: this also not driven. But spring rocks, and has the surprisingly – but now-fitting seeming – violent edge to it.

Clearly there’s nothing new in seeing spring as a time of heady – and beyond our control and rational comprehension – life-force. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring culminates with a young maid dancing herself to death. Here the conjured Russian folk rites echo the Dionysus / Bacchus cults of ancient Greece and Rome. Euripides’ play The Bacchae depicts the frolicking of the god of fertility’s maidens – the maenads (in Greek – Bacchae in Roman) who – according to Plato ‘milk’ the environment – releasing its fecund liquids, thus:

“…the god-intoxicated celebrants draw milk and honey from the streams. they strike rocks with the thyrsus [a vaguely phallic vine adorned stick], and water gushes forth. They lower the thyrsus to the earth and a spring of wine bubbles up. If they want milk, they scratch up the ground with their fingers and draw up the milky fluid…” (Otto, 1965, p.96)

In short, spring is wet, sticky and slightly out of control. It is also ‘many’ not ‘one’. Multiple rhythms – only somewhat and incidentally harmonious. This – for me – is all there in Zinner’s ‘spring’, watch the musicians – a loose, dense crowd (like a flower bed) all almost acting as a single entity but not quite, each struggling to be an individual component and make sense of what they are doing. Like saplings they jostling for space, light and moisture. And that jostling all the stranger to our current eyes because we’ve almost forgotten what densely packed crowds and/or group endeavours look like.

References and links:

Otto, Walter, F. (1965) Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Indiana University Press.

Mp3 recordings of each part of ’41 strings’ can be downloaded for free here:

And recordings of the performance of each of the four movements can be found on YouTube.

Image Reference:

Loxley Common, Sheffield: Luke Bennett, 2020.

Time to show the chair the door?: Haunting, wrestling and cohabiting with material and immaterial others (Reflections on SHU SPG’s ‘Haunts #2: The Haunted Home’ and a full recording of the event)

“I’m standing up for myself as I walk through the house at night…I’m not going to be pushed around. If I got nervous in the house, I’m lost to the house…I have to walk the house in a way like – the beacon, like the energy of the house. I say what goes…I have to stand up to the history.” (p94)

So speaks Ben, the resident of a haunted house, interviewed in Caron Lipman ‘s 2014 book, Co-habiting with Ghosts: Knowledge, Experience. Belief and the Domestic Uncanny (Ashgate/Routledge). In her book, Caron focuses on co-habitation. Her concern is less with the ghosts, and more with the dwelling and sense-making practices of the current residents who must learn how to live with the uncanny, out-of-sorts, domesticity of the haunted home.

We were delighted to welcome Caron as our opening speaker at our Haunts #2: The Haunted Home online-event last week. What follows is my personal reflections and connections as chair of the event – other readings of the presentations and their juxtapositions are possible. Indeed, the presenters may not agree with what I have chosen to foreground from their work (their abstracts are here). The full event recording is embedded below, so you are free to formulate your own interpretation. But here’s mine take on that we gave house-room to last week.

Caron’s presentation reflected back on the places and people who had informed her first book’s exploration of this co-habitation. Caron also gave a glimpse of the follow-on concern of her second book (published earlier this year) Heritage in the Home: Domestic Prehabitation and Inheritance (Routledge, 2020). In that book, the accommodation of present-day residents is more with the material traces of past inhabitation, than with the spectral. This was interesting for Haunts #2 as, by setting our understanding of ‘haunts’ very broadly, many of the follow-on speakers focussed on the haunting effects of material traces, and thus upon the agency of those situationally-inherited objects. And of their (and their research subjects) attempts – like Ben above – to wrestle and wrangle such objects into order, in order to achieve a successful and sustainable sense of domestic dwelling.

For example, our second presenter Jackie Leaver, gave an evocative visual account of the investigation of her recently purchased home. Here the early stages of her renovation work, and home-making, entailed a stripping back of surfaces, and attentiveness to prior installations and adaptations made by previous owners. This stripping back was both reverential and purgative – for both the investigation and the renovation works were ultimately destructive, a prelude to cleansing, re-painting, re-wiring, re-moulding of the house into a contemporary home. The traces of the past became known, pondered but ultimately (and inevitably) erased and/or bent to the will of the present. As Jackie neatly put it: what would be the alternative? To keep this tired and dilapidated place frozen in time as a museum, where what was being celebrated was prior (but not present) dwelling.

From perusing the sedimented past within the materiality of a single house, we then turned to examine the power of an under acknowledged idea: the sofa. Surely a sofa is a thing, not an idea? Mary Pearce showed us how the idea of the sofa took a powerful hold upon literary culture in the 18th century. The sofa (a new direction in furniture appearing for the first time then) was taken up in Gothic literature as a highly charged affective space – a plush zone within the home which summoned seduction and congress with ghosts.

To see how potent and destabilising of living rooms this – now mundane – item of furniture had once been was a revelation. And this effect is an intentional aspect of Mary’s on-going research work to destabilise our present-day notions of this part of the domestic landscape. We do not fret about chaotic tendencies of sofas anymore, but Mary showed us how for the Gothic generation the question – or challenge – of how to keep in check the otherwise wanton agency of the sofa was very much a matter of active, urgent discourse.

In her research Lindsey McCarthy’s research has considered how the binary of homely/unhomely needs to be broken down and problematised, when considered in the context of the experience of homeless women and those living in shelters and refuges. Lindsey showed, using images taken by her research subjects, how they attempt to create cherished zones within chaotic (and sometimes violent) refuges, often through shrine-like configurations of their few, precious mementos. Here, the act – in the present – of dwelling within these chaotic spaces, required a summoning / investing of positive impressions of past family and domestic life into available objects. This – perhaps – is a form of reverse haunting – in that the resonance of those objects is impressed upon them by the women, rather than that it exudes as an uncontrollable excess of others’ pasts spilling into the present (as was the focus within Caron’s and Jackie’s studies).

In the next presentation, Susan Anderson recounted the dramatic reinterpretation of a real-life 16th century murder of Thomas Arden, a wealthy businessman from Faversham in Kent, who was murdered in his own home by his wife and her associates. The resulting play Arden of Faversham (c1590) – as Susan explains – picks up on the Elizabethan trope of cruentation, the belief that a body will resume bleeding if the murderer subsequently re-visits the corpse. It does so with a twist, for the cruentation in Arden is that the house (the scene of the crime) itself exudes blood, which the murderous conspirators try in vain to wash away. Here it is the entwining of the victim’s blood and the kitchen floor into which it has soaked which creates the haunting effect. The house itself becomes an obstinate witness to the crime enacted there by the occupants. The frantic – and unsuccessful – attempts to scrub the floor clear reveal the limits of an occupant’s control over not just of this unsettled home, but of any home.

Finally, Jo Ray and Becky Shaw reported to us their investigation into the uncanny (out-of-place) qualities of a school – and both of its school-times and school-spaces. Examining the institutional-atmospheric circumstances of unsettled children, Jo and Becky showed how attempts to create a settling atmosphere of school-time and school-place are often constructed by material and symbolic appeals to home and the domestic realm. Here, attempts are made to form pockets and moments of home-comforts, and that these attempts are made both by the school and by pupils (and their families). Ideas, artefacts and orderings of home bleed into the school realm. Often these domestications are clumsy (i.e. institutionally inflected) or incongruent (toys, curtains and other ‘props’ that have drifted to school from homes). In the clutter of the school these attempts to forge a ‘home from home’ often leave school-place and school-time feeing uncanny: neither fully homely, nor fully not-of-home, but rather – instead – unhomely (Freud’s notion of the uncanny being – in German – derived from the sense of the unheimlich, the un-homely).

Haunts #2 grew out of the Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group’s investigation (June 2019) of the ‘comforts and discomforts of dwelling’, as followed by our June 2020 session looking at the ‘dwelling in confinement’ aspects of the national Spring 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. All of the six Haunts #2 presentations added to this exploration by looking at the home – and the act of dwelling – as complex pleasure/pain melds. As thoughts turn to Christmas the dream of home is to the fore – but the social distancing imperatives of fighting Covid-19 this year make that dream’s image of domestic sociable comfort, calmness and order less attainable. And yet, even in non-pandemic circumstances the almost impossible to attain and sustain desired domestic bliss of the festive season reminds us of this complexity, and of how the performance of domestic sociable comfort, calmness and order requires frantic, ongoing effort to sustain successful co-habitation with people, to create and maintain the right atmosphere and to constantly wrangle of objects into line. So, just as it was fitting to have Haunts #1: Haunted Place & Haunting Practices at Halloween, so it has been fitting to have held Haunts #2: The Haunted Home and its meditation on the active work entailed in domestic co-habitation (with people, spirits and objects), in the run up to Christmas.

Haunts #3: The Haunted Battleground will follow-on in this series in late February / early March 2021 (and hopefully will break the pattern of timely resonance in its subject matter). Haunts #4: Atmospheres of Social Haunting will end the series in May/June 2021.

Details of Haunts#3 and #4 will be announced in due course via this blog.

Picture credits: (1) Luke Bennett (2012) Purging an old sofa in the back yard; (2) Slide from Mary Peace’s presentation.

Haunts #2: ‘The Haunted Home’ – a SHU SPG online event, Thurs 10 December, 7-9.30pm

“I just keep hearing your footsteps on the stairs

When I know there’s no one there

You’re still such a part of me (ghost in my house)

Still so deep in the heart of me (ghost in my house)

I can’t hide (ghost in my house)

From the ghost of your love that’s inside (ghost in my house)”

There’s a Ghost in my House (1967)

– Dozier, Holland, Taylor & Holland.

We’re delighted now to be able to announce here the programme for Haunts #2, the follow-up to our very successful Haunts #1 event in October. Haunts #2 will be themed around the home as a place of haunting, and taking a very broad view what may haunt a home we will weave together a range of scholarship and perspectives, as detailed below.

Haunts #2: Thurs 10 December 2020, 7-9.30pm (via Zoom)

The Programme

Introduction & Session Chair

Luke Bennett, Associate Professor, department of the Natural & Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University

Co-habiting with ghosts

Caron Lipman, Honorary Research Fellow, Queen Mary University of London

This talk will offer examples from two research projects, both exploring experiences of the ‘presences’ of the past at home. In ‘Co-habiting with Ghosts: knowledge, experience, belief and the domestic uncanny’, Caron interviewed a number of people living in a variety of English homes, all of whom had experienced uncanny phenomena. In a recently-published follow-up book (‘Heritage in the Home: domestic prehabitation and inheritance’), she broadened the scope of her enquiry to investigate the range of objects, spaces, stories, atmospheres (and ghosts) inadvertently ‘inherited’ when people make a pre-inhabited place their home. In both studies, the focus was to explore the ways people negotiate a desire to feel at home with experiences of living with unknowable ‘strangers’, how they interpreted their experiences, and what they reveal of the complexity of the spaces and times of home.

Remnants and layers: hauntings of everyday domestic space

Jackie Leaver, Senior Lecturer in the Art & Design Dept (BA Product & Furniture Design, & MA Design), Sheffield Hallam University

The activities that constitute our everyday domestic lives have changed little over recent generations. We continue to carry out tasks such as cooking eating, cleaning, washing and raising a family, often in a blur of activity, with little time to reflect on our impact on the spaces we occupy, our activities and practices. The home is also a place of intimacy, individualism and ritual; a reflection of class, culture, taste and aspiration. (Pink et al, 2017, Filippides, 2019). Through this process of dwelling we are manifest in the artefacts and material form of our domestic interior space, with ‘traces of the inhabitant […] imprinted in the interior’ (Benjamin, 1999, p.9 in Paramita and Yandi, 2018). In this talk a recently renovated Victorian terraced house shares its story through spectral traces of former occupants that haunt the domestic space with the layers and remnants of habitation, offering tantalising clues to past lives.

The Gothic sofa – most uncanny, most fantastic

Mary Peace, Senior Lecturer, Department of the Humanities, Sheffield Hallam University

My paper will address the question of why such a modern item of furniture as the sofa became a stock and central feature in the first Gothic novels. The Gothic Novel was born in 1764 with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Tale. But the genre would find its feet in the 1790s with the publication of the works of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. Like Walpole’s novel these enlightenment writers were considered ‘gothic’ because their novels featured tales of barbarism and supernatural happenings set in the dark ages. But one of the striking and discordant features of these gothic tales is their enthusiastic adoption of the sofa- an item of furniture which had only come into being in the 1690s and was still in the late eighteenth century scarcely considered a decent furnishing for the British drawing room. No self-respecting gothic novelist of the late eighteenth century fails to furnish their castle with a sofa where the heroine might dream up phantoms or collapse in fright at a supernatural sight and where she will undoubtedly fall into a state of madness or unconsciousness. My paper will consider the construction of this modern interloper in the Gothic cultural imagination as the ultimate recess or Bachelardian corner — an ‘uncanny,’ sometimes ’fantastic’ space where the rational self is undone by unconscious desires, primitive urges and projections or indeed, even by supernatural phenomena.

Homelessness behind closed doors: the unheimlich

Lindsey McCarthy, Research Fellow (Housing), Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University

Drawing on verbal and photographic narratives with women experiencing homelessness in the North of England, this contribution interweaves women’s meanings of home and homelessness with the Freudian concept of the unheimlich. Freud describes the unheimlich as a disturbing combination of dread and horror in which ‘the homelike’ and ‘the unhomely’ merge. This contribution explores how the unheimlich can be located within the walls of the house itself – in shattered familial relations, grievous memories and unwanted impositions. For some, homelessness stemmed from within the family home, and ‘home memories’ continued to shape lived experiences of homelessness and home. Participants were also haunted by lost homes, giving bittersweet and nostalgic descriptions of home-life which suggested a notion of home located in the past; distant and unapproachable.

The home as a haunted crime scene in the early modern true crime classic: Arden of Faversham

Susan Anderson, Reader in English at Sheffield Hallam University

In 1551, Thomas Arden, a wealthy businessman from Faversham in Kent, was murdered in his own home. The crime clearly caught people’s imagination, and the site where Arden’s body had been found became a local tourist attraction for a time. The story haunted the public imagination in the decades immediately following the murder, and was dramatized for the stage in around 1590. This play, Arden of Faversham, centres around the home where the murder took place as a location that seemed safe to its inhabitant but was in fact fraught with danger. This paper looks at the way the play’s retelling shapes the continuing reverberation of this violent crime, and the way that the repeated telling of Arden’s brutal end in his own home haunts cultural memory.

The haunted home from home: why school has never been modern

Jo Ray, Lecturer in Design, University of Derby, & Research Associate: ‘Odd: Feeling Different in the World of Education’ MMU.

Becky Shaw, Reader in Fine Art, Sheffield Institute of Arts, Sheffield Hallam University.

During a three-year cross-disciplinary research project to explore children’s experiences of ‘not fitting in at school,’ we explore the ways that the material substance of school generates and interacts with children’s experiences, curriculum and school ‘time’. As such, the home comes to haunt the school, as also do the material remnants of both educational pasts and futures, and their related political aims and atmospheres. These hauntings come in many different orders: materials that literally leak from home to school, the homely structure of ‘carpet time;, the presence of the miniature domestic; attitudes to behaviour ‘management’ in the ‘chill out room’; legacies of attitudes to knowledge, work and labour, found in store cupboards and teachers’ drawers; haunted typography; anachronistic technologies transformed for and by, play; and continuous presences of school customs. Additionally, children themselves find ghosts in school: ‘jiin’ or ‘zombies’ under the ground in the playground, and ‘bloody Mary’s’ in the bathroom.

How to attend

The event will be held online (via Zoom) and will be free to attend – but registration is required via Eventbrite here:

With over 140 bookings received for Haunts #1, we almost reached maximum capacity prior to that event, so – to avoid disappointment – early booking is recommended.

Please note: the Zoom link for the event will be emailed to each registered attendee 24 hours before the event.

This event will be recorded and uploaded alongside Haunts #1 here

Future events in the Haunts series will be Haunts #3 (‘The Haunted Battleground’), in February 2021 and Haunts #4 (‘Atmospheres of Social Haunting’) in Spring 2021. Further details of these will be released early in 2021, and announced via this blog.

For further details about SHU’s Space & Place Group or this event please email Luke Bennett: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk

Haunts #1: Haunted Places & Haunted Practices (full recording of the event)

“As folklorists, we don’t need to try and prove whether or not something like a ‘ghost’ is real. We should be interested in the experience itself and the witnesses’ interpretation of it based on other similar stories”

Comment by Folklore Podcast, during the event’s chat

This event – comprising eight short presentations and discussion ranging across the creative arts, folklore, and real estate – was the first in an irregular series which across 2020-21 explores new ways to investigate the relationship between places and their hauntings, through provocative and productive interdisciplinary conversations and juxtapositions. 

Key themes covered in Haunts #1, included:

– the role of contemporary culture (and its memory and representational practices) in shaping our sense of hauntedness

– how the haunted nature of place is dealt with within professional real estate and land management practices

– the force of recurrent media tropes in the portrayal, and perpetuation, of hauntings

– the power of narrative in accounts of spectral and prosaic hauntings

– the duality of ‘haunts’ as both denoting a favourite place, and an act of troubling a place and/or a practice.

The presenters for Haunts #1 were the following Sheffield Hallam academics:

Creative arts & computing: Joanne Lee; Andrew Robinson; Elizabeth Uruchurtu.

Journalism & media: David Clarke; Diane A. Rodgers; Carolyn Waudby.

Real estate: Luke Bennett, Carolyn Gibbeson, Louise Kirsten.

The presenters’ abstracts are available here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2020/10/20/haunts-haunted-places-and-haunting-practices-a-shu-spg-online-event-thurs-29-oct-7-9-30pm/

Haunts #1 was a collaboration between Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group and its Centre for Contemporary Legend and was curated and chaired by Dr Luke Bennett, Associate Professor in SHU’s Department of the Natural & Built Environment.

The event took place online on the evening of 29 October 2020. It was attended by an audience of over 100 people, from the UK and around the World.

Information the Space & Place Group and about forthcoming arrangements for Haunts #2 to #4 will be released via the following channels:

Twitter: @lukebennett13

Blog: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com

Alternatively, email l.e.bennett[at]shu.ac.uk and ask to be added to SHU SPG’s e-mailing list.

Further information about the Centre for Contemporary Legend is available via:

Twitter: @Centre_4_Legend

Blog: https://contemporarylegend.co.uk/

Email: centre.contemporary.legend@gmail.com.

When the earth exhales

“In times of plague, common wisdom said, the bowels of the earth released their ‘feces’ as venemous exhalations from refuse and other corrupt effluvia in the soil and water. The warm rays of the midday sun turned the putrefied matter into miasmas, which the gentle spring breezes carried off to unknown destinations”

A. Lloyd Moote & Dorothy C. Moote (2004) The Great Plague. London: The John Hopkins University Press, p. 57

I was invited recently to contribute a ‘provocative’ definition of “Underground” to a multidisciplinary lexicon meditating on waste. Perhaps inevitably what I’ve come up with (below) is haunted by all of my recent researching into how previous pandemics were reacted to and come-to-terms-with. In particular, my suggested contribution channels telluric interpretations that saw emanations from the ground itself (earthly bad breath, geo-burps if you like) as a source of disease outbreaks. When searching for environmental causes for the first Cholera pandemic (which hit the UK in 1832) some doctors fell back upon “signs and wonders” type-pre-modern thinking, looking for cause in a recent volcanic eruption, or in heightened atmospheric phenomena: such as aurora borealis or meteors. For instance, on 17 August 1832 Dr Adam Neale observed a thunderstorm as it passed across the UK, and saw in it:

“a body of vapour of extraordinary magnitude, arising apparently out of the earth, accompanied by a very loud rumbling noise. It resembled the smoke of a conflagration and had a fiery appearance. It continued ascending for the space of about three minutes, all of the time accompanied by the noise above mentioned” (quoted in Morris, 1977: p.172).

In time this proto-environmental pollution theory, would lose its more outlandish apocalyptic element and come to settle (in the mid Victorian era) into the influential miasma theory. In this formulation of ‘environmental’ thinking atmospheric infection would come to be attributed to a more man-made (and less natural/divine) agency. And in this more secular and pragmatic formulation, atmospheric infection became something that could be acted against, thereby prompting a ‘Public Health’ war against bad air and the noxious and standing-in-plain-sight urban waste matter (dung heaps, offal mounds, cess-pits and such-like) to which it was now attributed. This campaign saw such waste taken underground, and whether in sewers or in landfill burial…

U is for Underground

Letting go of most unwanted things will – by action of gravity alone – see them fall to the ground. Here they will lie, either decaying into the ground or helping – through their stubborn refusal to break down – to form part of a new sedimented layer, by which the ground slowly rises beneath our feet turning successive layers of former surface into underground. This seeming ability of the ground to swallow waste matter into itself, and to carry it down into an out-of-sight and out-of-mind underground has long been exploited for waste disposal. Following the industrial revolution, and the burgeoning volumes and varieties of intractable wastes to be got rid of, first via the rise of coal power (ashes) and then petrochemicals (plastics), the ‘pushing’ of waste into the underground became the dominant form of waste disposal. This accelerated, intentional, human-authored deposition and undergrounding of our discarded useless matter is the hallmark of the Anthropocene. In the United Kingdom, an abundance of worked-out mining and quarry voids provided ample (and cheap) opportunity for an accelerated undergrounding of layers of municipal and industrial wastes, and until prohibited by the EU’s Landfill Directive, enacted in 1999, the UK’s landfills were designed on the principle of ‘dilute and disperse’. These were not to be secure containment cells, but rather they were accelerated insertions into the ground: matter emplaced there with the explicit aim that it would quickly meld with its surroundings, and continue that onward, gravity assisted, journey away from human sight and attention into the underground. But just as (for ‘depth’ psychologists like Freud or Jung) the burial of unwanted feelings or experiences runs the risk of a sudden, and unexpected, traumatic reverberation, so the undergrounding of wastes can see painful, unwanted revenant effects. Thus methane gas and leachate emanating from waste’s decay can break out from their underground confinement, visiting their poisonous effects upon the surface. Meanwhile seeming stable ‘made ground’ can over-time slump or fissure, as their underlying, and now-infilled, former extractive voids settle, in turn unsettling both the ground above and our convenient imaginings of the underground as an accepting, passive, sponge-like receptacle. This troublesome quality is also to be found in our other appropriation of the underground, as a promise of shelter for our precious possessions (think of underground vaults, tombs and buried treasure) and even for shelter of our vulnerable living, fleshy bodies in times of crisis (think improvised underground air raid shelters, fortified subterranean bunkers). But this sheltering is contingent because the underground is ultimately not a safe place for either our possessions or our bodies. Just as the underground can push-back against waste injected into it, so the atmospheric conditions of the underground corrode, compress and entrap, and the distinction between a shelter and a tomb lies only in the question of a viable route of escape back to the surface. Whether through the lens of revenant waste, or in glimpsing the smothering, life-stifling peril of underground dwelling, we come to see that the underground is never fully under our control.

Reference

Morris, R.J. (1977) Cholera 1832. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Image credit

Zdzisław Beksiński, Polish (1929-2005), Untitled, 1977 via  https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/581668108100749674/

Within the body of the text: exploring COVID-19’s silent spring

“and the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.”

Leviticus 14:37, The Bible

I was required to watch a 2018 training video this week. To foster buy-in, it featured a short video message from our Vice-Chancellor, who addressed the camera whilst standing in the midst of our campus’ busy comings and goings. This background scene of a corridor full of staff and students was enthralling, for it was both familiar and strange. Last year I wrote here about being bent back into shape every Autumn: my  anticipation of the – inevitable as it then seemed – re-filling of the same campus space every September, and of the ritualised annual bodily adaptation that moving around the campus then entails. The eternal return of that scene now seems far from this Autumn’s likely experience. In the video, the passing bodies tracing their paths with private purpose, and there was a hum. That low-level cacophony that you hear wherever there are multiple, associated voices present in a scene. It was the complexity of that noise that got me most, for it almost felt overwhelming, too complex. That sound of the crowd has disappeared from our worlds, just as that density of bodies and multiplicity of space use has been intentionally edited out in the circumstances of COVID-19. In another purpose Rachel Carson summoned up the spectre (via pesticides) of a “silent spring” bereft of wild animals. Our silent spring was the product of an unprecedented mass human withdrawal from public spaces.

The strange – shifted-sideways – normative world into which we tumbled so suddenly in March 2020, is starting to feel like it’s not going away anytime soon. The crisis’ exceptional focus on cautiously self-managing bodily proximity has ushered in what feels like a whole new art of living: an elaborate but ubiquitous  cautious choreography of bodily movement and positioning, a new art-of-living resting upon a complex meld of emergency laws, spatialised morality, and (as politicians would have us believe, recourse to ‘common sense’). These moment-by-moment choreographies of caution, are presently informed by fairly vague rule structures. There simply hasn’t been time to spell everything out, or to devise enforcement apparatuses. Perhaps there are emerging signs now that bureaucratic fine-detailing is starting to take place – for instance my employer has recently issued its ‘return to work’ manual. It seeks to re-train me in how to walk to a workstation, how to use a corridor, how to queue at a reception desk. NASA instructions for a spacewalk are probably less detailed. My – currently abandoned – workplace is now, so photographs show me, marked out in an array of colours, forward-ghosting the desired bodily movements and repose of Autumnal workers. But until we return to such inscripted places, we are charged with the responsibility of self-policing, of actively carrying the general sentiment and objective of caution and distance around with us.

I’ve started to think about this suddenly strangely-explicit self-policing of bodily deportment. For two reasons. First, because my body, like everyone else’s, is caught up in this new way of being. But also, secondly, because is strangely chimes with the three ways in which I’ve seen my own published work being referenced and used in recent scholarship. Each of these references draws out – and extends – comments I’ve made about the link between bodies and the lived reality of laws (or equivalent normative codes).

Scholarship focussing upon embodiment – the fact that we (humans) have bodies and are inescapably fleshy matter embedded in the material world – is nothing new, and social theory has been widely embracing this trend for the last decade or so. The origins of this lie in a broadly ecological sentiment, an intentional corrective to elevation of ‘the human’ to a state above, beyond and (somehow) disconnected from the grubbly world of the plants, protein and photosynthesis that sustains us.

In 2015 I set out to write an essay exploring – and I thought endorsing – a post-humanist mindset for an edited collection entitled Posthuman Research Practices in Education (Taylor & Hughes, 2016). I offered an abstract for an essay playfully styled “Thinking Like A Brick: Posthumanism and Building Materials”. But as I started to write the essay, I found it increasingly hard to abandon humanism. My literature review took me towards writers who seemed deeply misanthropic, wedded to a deep sense of collective human self-loathing. Alongside these overly-dark, pessimistic folk, I came across others who seemed impossibly light. For these writing of the world without humans was liberating, for it would let the non-human speak. But the framing of the book forced me to question the premise – how could education be posthuman at any extreme, human-rejecting level? I concluded that it couldn’t and decided that a soft-posthumanism was the only variant that could meaningfully speak to education. And in doing so I appropriated work looking at the interconnection between human bodies and the matter that they work with. Thereby I came to building materials – to bricks, concrete and stone and to the ways in which they embody the actions and the affects of the humans who helped to create them. It was in this spirit that I found my essay recently cited in an article by Beth Cullen examining the intertwined relationship of landscape, lifestyles and climate in the production of Bangladeshi bricks (Cullen 2020). Cullen quotes me thus, in order to show that it is not just clay that is changed through the making of bricks, but also the labourers too, for “their bodies [are] moulded to the daily tasks, their senses attuned to the subtle ‘voices’ of the machines and matter they are working with” (Bennett 2016, 72).

My next citation returns us to the theme of the COVID-19 crisis, but it connects to this embeddedness – that we are of the world, and that we are walking, talking co-productions with other environmental elements. And here we move from clay, bricks and sunshine to, public health laws and start to look at the way in which we – individually and collectively – carry the law with us: how and we carry a sense of the law’s purpose and apply it to the situations that we face. Thus, in a recent article by Miriam Tedeschi’s (2020) we are shown how her experience of travelling between Italy (at a time of high COVID-19 infection) to Finland (a country then with a far lesser legal apparatus for, or sensibilities of deportment and infection control). Tedeschi talks of how her journey between the two milieu made her realise how the focus upon COVID-19 in Italy had written itself into her sense of being – how she felt, acted, regarded and positioned her body in space. This was hard to perceive when in Italy but became all too apparent when she arrived in Finland. To make her point, Tedeschi draws from another of my writings – an article on ‘legal psychogeography’ published in 2019 and my call for a broadening of legal geography so as to achieve “a fully holistic study of the co-constitution of law and space, one that gives proper regard to the influence of the affective geographies of matter” (Bennett, 2019: 1). Tedeschi’s short paper gives a great illustration of what I was thinking of here in terms of sketching a legal psychogeography – for she shows how her sense of normative confusion upon arrival in Finland is a function of her heightened sense of her own body, its temperature, her breathing rate and all other symptomology of COVID-19, as intertwined with her recently learned (in Italy) expectations of bio-political surveillance and bodily distancing. In short, she felt that she should perform and present her body in space in the ways she had learned in Italy – but in Finland this no-longer fitted the spatio-legal milieu that she found herself in. Thus – she realised – she had transported the Italian normativity with her, she was a vector, a carried of that internalised Italian way of being. She was an embodied, mobile object carrying both Italian legal sensibilities and (potentially) Italian-sourced infective organisms.

Sticking with this sense of the body as a vector of law, the third citation is in an article recently published by Joshua David Michael Shaw, which purports to address the ‘legal fiction of death’. Shaw’s argument is not a denial of the reality of non-living, but rather an exploration of the ways in which death as a definitive legal category is a complex hybrid that uneasily bridges law’s quest for categorical certainty and the messy materiality of living (and dying) as a process. Thus, unlike Tedeschi’s sense of a conscious body carrying law as a sensibility, Shaw’s concern is with the ways in which disorderly materiality – the chaos of the body – frustrates attempts by others to impose legal neatness and certainty upon any body. Like Tedeschi, Shaw invokes my sketch of a legal psychogeography, as a way of accounting for “a necessary relation between the resulting spatial order and materiality of bodies that already and always threaten to leak outside its bounds” (Shaw 2020, n.p.) seeing my call for a widening of legal geography to embrace the material-affective as encompassing his concern to show how space and matter must be given their full due in any attempt to account  for law’s operations.

And so, we end, in keeping with our present hyper-awareness of our not-fully-knowable-bodies and our not-fully-knowable-but-nonetheless-felt normativities relating to them, with further images to add to my anxious premonitions of what our campus will be like this Autumn: of sweaty bodies working clay awkwardly under the weight of harsh sun or rain; a nervously sweaty traveller from Italy approaching the uncertainties of border control in Finland; and of unruly, leaky bodies refusing to conform to the legal neatness of categories of ‘alive’ and ‘dead’.  These accompanying images rise up out of textual reapplications of my words, written in a previous era, but now with an added salience amidst a heightened sense of embodiment, and the cautiousness of our present spatial interrelations. And all of the images give us a deeper appreciation of that sense that we are in the world, affected by surrounding entities from which we can never fully hide, and whether viruses or normative sensibilities, which we then absorb into ourselves, carry around with us and which each make us feel and act in distinctive ways.

References

Bennett, Luke (2016) ‘Thinking like a brick: posthumanism and building materials’ in Carol A. Taylor & Christina Hughes (eds) Posthuman Research Practices in Education (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 58-74.

Bennett, Luke (2018) ‘Towards a legal psychogeography: pragmatism, affective-materialism and the spatio-legal’. Revue Géographique de l’Est 58(1–2): 1–16.

Cullen, Beth (2020) ‘Constellations of weathering: following the meteorological mobilities of Bangla bricks’ Mobilities DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2020.1759929

Shaw, Joshua David Michael (2020) ‘The spatio-legal production of bodies through the legal fiction of death’, Law and Critique DOI: 10.1007/s10978-020-09269-5

Tedeschi, Miriam (2020) ‘The body and the law across borders during the COVID-19 pandemic’, Dialogues in Human Geography,1-4DOI: 10.1177/2043820620934234

Image Reference:

Author’s own: Dale Dyke reservoir, June 2020.

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

IMG_3080

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

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

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

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

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

So, those thoughts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Confinement: Dwelling in the time of COVID-19 (SHU SPG online seminar, 3 June 2020)

IMG_3057

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room”.

Blaise Pascal, 1650s

(quoted in ‘On Confinement’ an essay at

www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/on-confinement/)

This time last year the SHU Space and Place Group was getting ready for its annual conference, which for 2019 was on the theme of ‘the comforts and discomforts of dwelling’. This year we were all set to move on to a new theme and we were busy finalising the 2020 conference programme the day that lockdown struck. So, in the absence of an opportunity to move on to fresh pastures, and to meet there face to face, it seems strangely fitting to revisit the restless pleasure/pain duality of dwelling in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The session will run online on Wednesday, 3 June between 11am and 1.00pm. It will comprise six contributions, ranging across the fine arts, poetry, geography, landscape and media from SHU, University of Sheffield and the University of Leeds. Details of the presentations are set out below. The event is free to attend, but you will need to book a place via the Eventbrite site here.

Each presentation will be ‘bitesize’ with an emphasis on visuality and with the aim that we spend as much time in discussion as in presentation.

Collectively the presentations will explore COVID-19’s destabilising of the certainties of dwelling, of its temporal and spatial disruptiveness. Across the talks we will think about:

  • confinement’s amplification of dwelling’s urge to ordering, routine and care
  • the creativity at the heart of (and inspired by) dwelling within an edgeland community
  •  the heightened sense of the importance of the recreational outdoors released by circumstances of its denial
  • the ways in which we make order out of the circumstances of the confinement: how can we ‘see’ Coronavirus, and sense the times and places of its own dwelling.

Here are our speakers’ abstracts:

>>Einräumen<<
Making room within rooms: Thinking-at home/Furnishing-the-universe

Hester Reeve, Art & Design, SHU

bell

I have an ongoing ‘art work’ that was initiated by working site-specifically in the small square bell room of St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney (October 2019). Small square rooms, one on top of the other, accessed via a well-worn spiral staircase. When the church bell rangout the hour, I stopped reading, opened the mould, removed a hand bell and rang it about my head into the large brass dome a few feet above my head. Since that time, I have almost sub-consciously started to amass a series of objects of a similar dimension to the mould. I find I am strongly satisfied –mentally and aesthetically – to arrange these square objects together in my studio, ‘keeping house’ (cleaning, finding places for things, using and cleaning things, making work stations for various projects etc.). Recently, since working at home due to COVID-19 lockdown regulations, I have really felt more enabled to think and create because I have a better balance of ‘sculpting my dwelling environment’ and ‘doing my work’ (the former gets rushed or ignored when busy out in the world). In my presentation I will present a visual essay exploring the relationship between furnishing space and ‘abstract’ thinking-creating. To do so I will draw upon Heidegger’s use of the term Einräumen which has a two-fold meaning: 1.To concede a point, give someone room to air their ideas, and 2:To put things in their proper place, furnish a house to make it liveable.

The Fitties: Plotland in Lockdown

Harriet Tarlo, Department of Humanities, SHU &
Judith Tucker, Art & Design, University of Leeds

We have been staying on and working at the Fitties Chalet Park Northeast Lincolnshire for over five years. They spoke about the project at a SHU SPG meeting in 2016. Since then they have been working on a series of paintings and poems about this long-established plotland in the closed season, at night-time and now in lockdown. They will show some atmospheric recent paintings, read some poems and reflect on changes at the Fitties, particularly those triggered by the COVID-19 lockdown.

slow

Slow: photo by Fitties resident, Jackie Nixon

driftwood

Driftwood Lodge: photo by Fitties resident Laura Porter

Accidental insights into confinement – stories of nature in the city from people with mental health difficulties.

Jo Birch, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

This short talk will introduce some confinements and escapes with nature in the city of Sheffield and beyond: indoor, outdoor, local, imagined, lively, helpful and unhelpful. I draw on a recent research project that used arts-based workshops for participants often ‘confined’ by their mental health difficulties and illnesses and ‘stuck’ in physical and mental spaces. The presentation makes a little space to wonder how concepts such as vitality and enchantment might be helpful. How might they aid understanding more about the value of nature to enable nurturing kinds of confinements and also freedoms during difficult times?

Unconfined? The (un)social life of urban green spaces

Julian Dobson, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

One of the ironies of the COVID-19 lockdown is the sudden prominence of public parks and green spaces. Government ministers have stressed the importance of keeping parks open despite concerns about overcrowding. Yet for more than a decade these spaces have been the undervalued poor relations of urban planning. This contribution will draw on current research for the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Health Foundation with colleagues at CRESR on the value of public space to different groups. It will intersperse this with snapshots from a series of walks and runs around Sheffield undertaken during the lockdown, to ask which publics are served by public space in a pandemic, and who is being made invisible and excluded.

COVID-19 Lockdown: a perfect storm of Geo-datafication

Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat, Media Arts and Communication, SHU

The global Coronavirus pandemic has become the perfect geo-datafication storm. Entire countries came to a standstill reducing body-mobility, transportation, and confining us to our kitchens, while forcing a massive move to online interactions. The heavy fleshed landscapes of brick, road, and everyday life commuting transformed into new flows of datafied interactions. But data is not an immaterial impulse that carries our words, images, and keystrokes through the air to a white floating cloud. Data is embodied and materialised in massive world-wide infrastructures that build a rather intentional and geopolitically defined geography. This contribution will describe the features of this data geography at three levels: spatial transmission, storage places, and material geographies of data. The contribution offers, afterwards a coda with a reflection about the epistemologies of geodata as a signature of a metahuman presence that constructs place and reality, identity and belonging.

Picture credit

‘It’ll Be Reyt’. Photo by me, artwork by neighbour, meaning by Yorkshire. As the metro puts it:

Reyt: Translated to non Yorkshire folk as ‘it’ll be alright’, this phrase is used as a reassurance in a situation, which most likely won’t turn out alright.”

https://metro.co.uk/2017/05/18/10-things-youll-have-heard-if-you-live-or-grew-up-in-yorkshire-6642116/