“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.

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(Almost…) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker – materiality, affect and meaning making

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Nearly there – the manuscript will be with the publisher by the end of this week. Here’s a sneak peek at the 14 essays that make up my bunker book (due for publication by Rowman & Littlefield International in August 2017, as part of their Place, Memory, Affect series…

Part I – Introducing the Bunker: Ruins, Hunters and Motives –  features a general introduction followed by a second chapter written by me, Entering the Bunker with Paul Virilio: the Atlantic Wall, Pure War and Trauma, in which I discuss the importance of the seminal bunker hunting of French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, who between 1958 and 1965 systematically visited, photographed and researched the imposing bunker formations of the Nazi Atlantic wall, and who did so at the height of the Cold War. I outline Virilio’s affective engagement with these bunkers, their impact upon his later theorising and argue that this compulsive hunting can be shown to be the product of traumatic wartime experiences. I then use this finding to argue that compulsive bunker hunting of the Cold War’s shelters, may also be understood in this way, with even Virilio having described the nuclear anxiety based trauma of the Cold War as greater than that of the Second World War.

Part II – Looking at the Bunker: Representation, Image and Affect – then presents three chapters written by artists, who each explore how established and newly emergent practices of representation engage with the Cold War’s bunkers and what they formerly, and may now, stand for (both for them and for others). First, in Peripheral Artefacts: Drawing [out] the Cold War, Stephen Felmingham discusses his use of experimental drawing techniques to access the ‘hidden in plain sight’ uncanny qualities of now abandoned ROC Posts. In doing so Felmingham shows how his bunker-entering reconnaissance accessed his sublimated childhood trauma of growing up in East Anglia in the 1980s amidst USAF and RAF nuclear bases, pointing to the potency of material and spatial triggers to memory and feeling. Next, in Sublime Concrete: The Fantasy Bunker, Explored scenographer and sound artist Kathrine Sandys, explores the atmospheres, properties and possibilities of the Cold War bunker, situating an account of her own installation-based works, within a wider discussion of the fact vs fiction confusion of these places, and their link to an emergent military sublime. Sandys finds in these remains, a blankness which calls for meaning making to be undertaken actively by those who engage with the bunkers and their phenomenological properties. Finally, in Processional Engagements: Sebaldian Pilgrimages to Orford Ness, Louise K. Wilson considers the ways in which a variety of artists have engaged the iconic Orford Ness site, and the extent to which those engagements have come to be conditioned by certain strong, framing tropes. Specifically, Wilson considers the enduring influence of W.G. Sebald’s melancholic reading of this site and its most iconic remnant structures. Whilst attentive to recent departures from this representational mould, Wilson chronicles the persistence of engagements which seek to foreground (and/or create) an inaccessible (and open, plastic) ‘mystery’ for the site – thereby producing art ‘about’ the site which relies more on imagination than upon deep engagement with its archival or material facticity.

In Part III – Embracing the Bunker: Identity, Materiality and Memory – the concern is with how an emergent attentiveness to the physicality of the world and our ‘entanglement’ with it (Hodder 2012) (this being the sense in which ‘materiality’ is used in this collection) affects the way in which we can account for human engagements with the remains of Cold War bunkers. The first two chapters in this part examine the entanglement of the material world and the identity of the explorer within the act of interpreting Cold War remains, with each author using experimental writing techniques to destabilise seemingly conventional forms of investigatory narrative. First, in Torås Fort: A Speculative Study of War Architecture in the Landscape, artist Matthew Flintham uses the techniques of speculative fiction to unsettle an account of a geologist’s compulsive analysis of the materialities of the remains of a Norwegian coastal battery, fusing the styles of the natural sciences and horror writing to do so. Flintham’s account reflects the ‘weird realism’ stylistics and concerns of contemporary writers (like De Landa 1997; Negarestani 2008; Bogost 2012; and Harman 2012) who each ascribe ominous, ‘hidden in plain sight’ posthuman mystery to seemingly dumb brute banal geological objects.

Then, in Bunker and Cave Counterpoint: Exploring Underground Cold War Landscapes in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, anthropologist María Alejandra Pérez uses techniques of counterpoint and ethnographic surrealism to juxtapose her autoethnographic accounts of visits to the US Congress bunker built beneath the luxury Greenbrier Resort with the remains of a far more rudimentary public nuclear shelter located within the Organ cave complex, 14 miles away. In doing so Pérez emphasises the iterative, unsettled process of meaning making, infusing her account with the bleed between these places’ multiple histories and uses and also the provocations of her own identity: both as an immigrant with a very different cultural experience of the Cold War, and as a caver.

Thereafter, two chapters address the role of affective-materialities in the production of collective identities via practices of recuperation enacted at particular material sites of encounter. First, in Recuperative Materialities: The Kinmen Tunnel Music Festival, cultural geographer J.J. Zhang explores the important role of the material properties of the Zhaishan tunnel complex, part of a defensive network of fortifications protecting the Taiwanese island of Kinmen from Chinese invasion. Only a few miles from the Chinese mainland the island was the scene of repeated exchanges of artillery fire during the Cold War. Now decommissioned, the tunnel is the site of a classical music festival, which Zhang analyses in terms of the affective-material recuperation afforded by the acoustic properties of the tunnel itself, ascribing to it a sensuous agency and showing how ‘rapproachment tourists’ find the tunnel to act as a healing sensorium – an externalized seat of sensation where humans and tunnel come together. Finally, in Once Upon a Time in Ksamil: Communist and Post-Communist Biographies of Mushroom-Shaped Bunkers in Albania, archaeologist Emily Glass considers the seemingly ambivalent relationship of Albanians with the material legacy of the hundreds of thousands of small bunkers constructed upon their landscape during the Cold War – the physical embodiment of Cold War era Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha’s defensive, isolationist paranoia. Glass shows how a strict control over knowledge about the bunker production during the Cold War era gave way to a multivalent afterlife for these structures, in which locals appropriated them for mundane and illicit uses whilst tourists and the tourism industry adopted them as a symbol of Albania.

In Part IV – Dealing with the Bunker: Hunting, Visiting and Remaking – the attention shifts to how meaning making is organised.  In the first pair of essays, the focus is upon heritage practices and specifically the lay/professional divide. First, cultural geographer Gunnar Maus, applies Theodore Schatzki’s practice theory to an analysis of the parallel bunker hunting by heritage officials, bunkerologists and geocachers in the former West Germany in Popular Historical Geographies of the Cold War: Hunting, Recording and Playing with Small Munitions Bunkers in Germany. Maus finds structural affinities in the ways in which these three communities of bunker hunters seek out and interact with Sperrmittelhäuser: demolition charge storage bunkers that formed part of West Germany’s ‘preconstructed obstacle’ system of Cold War defence. Maus explores the important difference between motivations (which here were divergent) and methods of practice (which both demonstrate affinities and evidence of collaboration between these diverse communities of bunker hunters). Then in Why the Cold War Matters: Exploring Visitors’ Identity Constructions at Cold War Sites in Britain, tourism studies researcher Inge Hermann, reports her study of the ways in which visitors engage with UK Cold War bunker ‘attractions’, highlighting the ways in which individual visitors actively form their own interpretations of Cold War ‘attraction’ sites. Hermann contrasts the vitality of this active reading by audiences with, what she regards as a rather closed approach imposed by heritage professionals, arguing that the effect of an ‘authorised heritage discourse’ in relation to the rendering of Cold War bunkers as ‘heritage’, pays insufficient regard to how individual visitors react to these places.

Hermann’s analysis is then followed by Rachel Bowers’ and Kevin Booth’s discussion of the decisions necessitated in their curation of English Heritage’s York Cold War bunker in Preserving and Managing York Cold War Bunker: Authenticity, Curation and the Visitor Experience. This both sets up a counterpoint to Hermann’s argument – with Bowers and Booth presenting an insiders’ account of the emergence of the Cold War as heritage’ discourse, and also their attentiveness to matters of affect and materiality (alongside discourse) within their reflexive analysis of their own experience of presenting this place as a heritage ‘attraction’. In their focus on the physical limits of curation, and the affective potentialities of place (re)making, Bowers and Booth then set the scene for Dutch architect, Arno Geesink, who considers the spatial possibilities and limitations of his proposals to redevelop a Dutch former nuclear shelter into a public events space in The Anomalous Potential of the Atoombunker: Exploring and Repurposing Arnhem’s Ruins. Geesink shows how his search for sites for redevelopment is informed by his interest in military history, once more disrupting a simplistic dichotomy of enthusiast vs professional bunker hunters.

In the concluding chapter, Presencing the Bunker: Past, Present and Future I pull together the book’s themes and contributions in order to examine the tension between on the one hand the politically-inspired desire to reveal and preserve the bunker as an unmasked cypher of state power, and on the other hand, pressures (and enticements) to re-appropriate bunker-ruins and to move beyond Cold War memorialisation. This enquiry into the question of the bunker’s futurity pits concerns for authenticity and sincerity against the opportunities of plasticity and playfulness, a quandary that appears to affect many contemporary engagements with the ruins of the Cold War bunker.

Image credit: Matthew Flintham, Torås Kommandoplasse (2010) (four frame captures from Lehmann’s footage of Torås). Digital video. Reproduced by kind permission of Matthew Flintham.

This is New Uses for Old Bunkers #40.

Making Common Ground at Furnace Park: place, purpose and familiarisation

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I’ve been increasingly exploring the stabilities of place. In recent years writers on place have tended to emphasise place’s flux: the way in which it is a momentary, fragile assemblage of the varied intentions, actions and desires of those who happen to be present in (or otherwise having influence over) any seemingly coherent action-space. I get this kick against formalism, but I think that it tends to present place as too fluid. My recent projects have been examining various ways by which places become stabilised (and replicated). My recent article (details here) on the role of law in shaping the form and proliferation of the ‘classic’ cotton mill published in Geoforum earlier this year is an early outing on this. And now – after three years of gestation, my article co-written with Amanda Crawley Jackson of the University of Sheffield has been published in Social and Cultural Geography. At the end of 2012 I was invited to observe the site assembly process for the experimental Furnace Park project, and specifically to think about how the project came together in that first phase – how ‘common ground’ came about both amongst the diverse range of stakeholders (all with their own orientation on what this prospective place would be) and also how those (human) protagonists made common ground with the ground itself. Amanda and I then set out to write our joint paper, and to find our own disciplinary common ground (and once we’d found it, then reconcile it with the differing views of our article’s peer reviewers and editors). In due course our text – and its various iterations – took on much of the machinations of the place-making and its pressures towards attunement and accommodation.

Our article is available to view here for free (for the first 50 uses of this link). I’m not going to re-write the article here, but here’s the abstract as a taster, which explains that it was written as part of a special issue on the ‘geographies of strangers and strange encounters’:

“In this article we seek to widen the debate about the sites and processes of encounter with strangers by examining the ways in which ‘strangeness’ necessarily fades within the familiarisation processes at play in any sustained and situated place-making. Our analysis draws upon our experiences of encountering strangers – and of our familiarisation with them – in the initial, year-long, site acquisition and preparation phase of a project to create Furnace Park, an experimental urban space in a run-down backwater of central Sheffield. We show the tensions between a project commitment to the formation of a loose, open place and the pressures (which arose from our encounters with the urban development system) to render both the project and the site certain, bounded and less-than-strange. Furthermore, at Furnace Park the site itself presented to us as a non-human stranger, which we were urged to render familiar but which kept eluding that capture. We therefore show how the geographies of strange encounters could productively be widened to embrace both recent scholarship on the material-affective strangeness of ground itself, and a greater attentiveness to the familiarisation effects born of the intersection of diverse communities of practices within place-making projects.”

The first iteration of our joint paper was presented at the ‘geographies of strangers’ session at the 2013 Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference, and we were subsequently invited aboard this special issue project. I think we are the only article that regards ground itself as a stranger, which considers place-making (and in particular professional interactions) as anything to do with strangers, and which emphasises that strangeness (and familiarity) are both unstable, perhaps necessarily so in place-making.

Our claim to novelty is perhaps also captured in the following paragraph (taken from our article):

“Our aim in this article is to present a case study examination of how the unknown – or strange to us – was encountered and how it was familiarised within our place-making endeavours. Our article broadens the place-making-by-encounter-and-familiarisation scholarship in three ways: first by being an ‘insider’ account – a reflexive examination by us as academics implicated in the making of a place; secondly, by our concern to focus not upon the transformative (or otherwise) effects of human to human encounter, but instead upon our human encounters with the unknown materiality of the case study site, thus figuring the site itself as a stranger; thirdly, by our concern to show  the directive, shaping role of pre-existing cultural expectations brought to our site, and our project, by the myriad (human) stakeholders who needed to come together to make the project happen. Here we seek to show how these expectations drove forward an attempted (but never fully realised) elimination of the unknown and of how a restless surplus of strangeness remained.”

Amanda is the director of the Furnace Park. It is now an up-and-running project, with details of the site’s many past and future events, alongside Amanda’s wider projects with the occursus collective showcased here. My involvement ended after site assembly, but the insights from working on this paper have certainly influenced my subsequent projects, such as the prospective St Peter’s, Kilmahew stabilisation project (details here) and work that I’m currently doing on the peculiarities of contingent places (yes, that’s more bunkers).

 

 

Mill-mania: how does law spread place-formations? My new Geoforum article

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“we all looked up to him and imitated his mode of building…our buildings were copied from the models of his works”

Sir Robert Peel, 1816 Parliamentary Inquiry on the factory system

It’s almost trite in cultural geography to state that place is a multiplicity of individual and collective framings, that it has no singularity and is a flux or swirl of moment by moment encounters. Yes, fine – but surrounding that experiential swirl there are stablisations, common and shared framings which do take root and then influence those encounters. These also act to influence the form and evolution of a locality and they also have the power to influence the framing and evolution of other places. In short, some place-types become clear and potent. In the last couple of years (when not thinking about the potency of the cultural framing of abandoned bunkers) I’ve been thinking about the genesis of one now very dominant (and taken for granted) place-formation: the industrial scale factory. And I’ve done this by looking at the moment, 250 years ago when ‘the factory’ emerged almost accidentally as a new spatial form, and how it became stabilised and started to spread. I’ve been particularly interested in looking at law’s role in the framing of this (then) nascent place-formation.

Accordingly, my article published yesterday in Geoforum (free access here until 12 August) examines how law is implicated in the formation of ‘factory’ as a type of place, and how in turn such places shaped law. It is an empirical exploration of Bruno Latour’s call for researchers to study the global through its local instantiations. Drawing upon recent theoretical work in both material culture studies and legal geography my article examines the interplay of law and material formations at one originating site, Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills in Derbyshire in order to examine the creation and circulation of a new form of place in the late eighteenth century: the industrial scale cotton mill. It shows how a diverse array of legal elements ranging across patent law, the textile tariffs and ancient local Derbyshire lead mining laws all helped to shape the cotton-mill as a place-form, its proliferation across the United Kingdom, and ultimately further afield. In doing so the article conceptualises processes of localisation, translocalisation and thing-law by which the abstractions of both place-forms and law elements become activated through their pragmatic local emplacement. Whilst the case study concerns 200 year old place-making machinations, many of the spatio-legal articulations of Arkwright and his opponents have a surprisingly modern feel about them. The paper therefore advocates the benefits of a longitudinal, historical approach to the study of place-making, and in particular, calls for a greater attentiveness in legal geography to law’s role in the intentional formation of (work)places by their owners.

In my article Cromford Mills is presented as an exemplar of Latour’s maxim that “the world is … brought inside … places and then, after having been transformed there … pumped back out of [their] narrow walls” ( Latour, 2005, 179, italics in original). Whilst both the actions of Arkwright and the influence of Cromford Mills are atypical, and few industrialists have ever engaged in such sustained and well documented lobbying and litigating, or produced industrial places that were so directly replicated, the atypical extremity of Arkwright’s industry-forming story, and the influence of Cromford Mills as an emergent place-model, helps us – via sharp relief – to witness processes of localisation and translocalisation that would be harder to spot in more mundane circumstances. Through Arkwright’s plethora of place-making efforts we see the ways in which law enables a place to stabilise (and prosper) through the localisation of law’s command and permission in specific spatial circumstances. We also see how law has the power to crush or alter any place. In the campaigning against the Calico Acts we see the role of lobbying around thing-law, the all-important framing of the matter that will matter at a particular place ( Barad, 2007). In the proximate influence of the place-formations of Derbyshire mining laws we see the multiplicity of place-law, and its tensions and resolutions.

Also, even through the spatio-legal place-making machinations described in this case study took place over 200 years ago, they are surprising time-less in their feel. There is nothing particularly ‘eighteenth century’ about the strategic dilemmas and tactical choices that the early factory masters wrestled with, or in the ways in which we have seen law being used tool-like in some situations or left ‘on the shelf’ in favour of some other solution in others. In the case study we have seen elements of the law (and the case study reminds us the that ‘the law’ is not a coordinated, monolithic system, but rather a swarm of only loosely associated discursive elements and pragmatic applications) sometimes present as enabling Arkwright’s project, and at others presenting challenges to it, challenges to be met sometimes by a legal solution, sometimes by some other manoeuvre, in each case rationally selected.

Picture credit:

http://www.dovedalemodels.co.uk/cromford-mill-model/

Perec’s Borescope: urban exploration with a fat book and fully charged power tools

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“What is there under your wallpaper?”Georges Perec (1973) The Infraordinary

Earlier this week, I was a presenter at the AHRC/University of Sheffield symposium on Georges Perec’s Geographies. I’m not a Perec scholar, but was invited because – so I was told – my work has an affinity with Perec’s methods and chosen point of focus: the infraordinary. In opening the event Richard Philips (University of Sheffield), pointed out that much that is labelled ‘psychogeography’ these days has an un- (or under) acknowledged affinity to Perec’s literary project, and perhaps even a stronger connection to Perec than to the Situationists. I think he has a point – and I can certainly see more of Perec than Debord in (for example) Nick Papadimitriou’s writings.

The cast for the event featured a great spread of disciplines. The literary types drilled into Perec’s body of work (across text, stage, radio and film) and drew out connections, disjunctures and influences. Perec characterised his writing as having four modes: the ludic, the narrative, the biographical and the sociological. We saw how each piece of work brought one or more of these to the fore, but each time with a sombre, restless searching lying somewhere beneath the surface – no matter how playful the project in hand seemed to be. In the early 1970s Perec engaged in a variety of projects seeking to exhaust the everyday spaces of Paris – seeking to describe everything that would normally be left out of anyone else’s depiction of any place, on the grounds of being unremarkable. Thus his Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris (1973) is a 40 page account of watching buses, people and pigeons come and go at the same Paris street-corner over a three day period.

Having paid £10 for this slim book and sat down avidly to read it in my prep for the symposium I was left underwhelmed. In this text Perec resisted any urges to find a narrative – storylines – to join these observations together, or to follow their hints towards more interesting conjectural spaces.

This and the other projects of that time mapped the groundwork for Perec’s novel Life: a User’s Manual (1978), which he started writing a couple of years later. In his influential extended essay Species of Spaces (1974) Perec had alluded to this embryonic project, stating that he would write an exhaustive account of the life of an apartment building, its residents, their rooms and lives.

The gist of my presentation (as shown in the slides below) was to note that Perec’s sociological mode, to the fore in Attempt sharply fell away in Life, and that instead a narrative concern took over – the denizens being giving stories which intricately interconnect them into the lived totality of this place. This narrative imperative is – I think – inevitable. Who would read a 600 page stream of pure observational data? But I think this set of choices emphasises the impossibility of capturing everything and that some frame or other will have to apply to the infraordinary’s infinity.

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In my talk, I went on to reflect on how Perec’s approach in Life might speak to contemporary urban exploration. In conclusion I presented at first a positive – that Perec reminds us of the importance of people and their making of place through myriad actions and daily concerns. Contemporary urban exploration writing often foregrounds the solitude of the lone explorer or the place itself and these wider connections to a social world of living, feeling, otherwise-preoccupied people gets lost. But my second concluding point was the inverse of this Perecquain virtue – and which, I concede, is a point that comes into being in the early 21st century in way it possibly could not in 1970s French literary culture – is the paucity of attention given to the apartment building and its materiality and its other residents. Perec’s focus in Life is almost exclusively a human one. I illustrated this by complaining about the ease with which Perec dissolves the apartment’s exterior wall in order to ‘see’ the people inside. I then ruminated on techniques (literary, artistic and technological) that would enable a lingering within the wall.

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And it was at that point that I got out a power drill and suggested drilling into the lecture theatre’s wall to insert there a borescope – a probe for cavity inspection. Borescope also offers up a nice Perecquain duality – both the name for the probe, but also a new name for Perec’s infraordinary investigations: of scoping (intently looking into) the boring.

I closed out my talk by contrasting the wall-noticing (and multiplying) work of Gregor Schneider, who modifies residential buildings, principally by shrinking their rooms and thus creating ‘spare’ voids beyond the reduced rooms. These are then unsettling extra spaces – some accessible, some not – that disrupt the otherwise homely feel. These spaces emphasise the spaces of the walls rather than effortlessly passing through them.

Schneider gives a fascinating account of his work in this 80 minute lecture from the Architectural Association:

 

Image credit:

http://www.877quicdry.com/inspection_hi_tech_equipment.cfm;

https://aadivaahan.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/two-hammer-blows-and-a-random-walk/

Back to the wall, back to the cave, back to the edge: three re-visits for 2016

Redux 2016

“The present has become a phantom that he searches for without ceasing,

and which always disappears the moment you think you have it in hand.

What remains is the journey through the present, even if it’s decidedly one of destruction

undertaken through images and language.  Because behind the accursed images

and words waits the wished-for life.” (186)

 

Bernd Steigler (2013) Traveling in place – a history of armchair travel,

University of Chicago Press

I’m dusting off some of my favourite blog essays to give them an outing at three conferences later this year…

Seeing through walls: Georges Perec and the prospects for a new urban exploration

At: Perec’s Geographies / Perecquian Geographies Symposium – University of Sheffield, 6-7 May 2016

Details here: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/geography/news/symposium-1.532816

This presentation will consider the ways in which Perec provides a pointer towards a more expansive form of urban exploration, but in doing so it will also examine the limits of his approach. Perec’s Humanism is both the primary strength, and the primary weakness of his mode of exploration. Taking Perec’s concern – articulated in Species of Space and implemented in Life: A User’s Manual –  for the creation of an omniscient account of the lives of an apartment block by stripping away its front wall as its focal point, this presentation will consider how Perec’s sensitive peopling of his accounts of place, his search for pattern, valorising of textual rather than visual representation (all expressed in meticulous forensic detail), lays down a challenge to the more momentary, athletic urban exploration of the 21st century. Alongside this, the limits of Perec’s contribution towards finding a new, wider, urban exploration will be presented by contrasting his approach and its concerns with recent writings in both contemporary psychogeography and in the New Materialisms (and wider). Here, in relation to his interest in wall-piercing, I will argue that Perec’s approach paid insufficient attention to the wall itself and thus lost something in his literary dissolving of it. The presentation will suggest that the new frontier for urban exploration is be found in a flatter ontology in which visual accounts of embodied movement (mainstream urbexers), observations of others’ dwelling (Perec) and speculative narration of the life-worlds of non-human forms and environments (New Materialism) are held together and reported upon by ambulant empiricists (psychogeographers) who both write well and ruminate upon the world beyond their own experience and endeavour – something that Perec achieved much, but not all of.

Blogs involved: Through walls with Perec (2012); This house is making me walk funny (2012); Going Inside (2012); Exploring building services with Slavo Zizek (2013).

Standing safely at the edge: risk, law and the landscape sublime

At: Language, Landscape & the Sublime Conference – Dartington Hall, Totnes, 29-30 June 2016

Details here: http://languagelandscape.info/

Writing in 1792, in a statement encapsulating the Romantic landscape sublime, Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared “I must have torrents, fir trees, black woods, mountains to climb or descend, and rugged roads with precipices on either side to alarm me”. But less often mentioned is his caveat that “a great part of my amusement in these steep rocks is [that] they cause a giddiness and swimming in my head which I am particularly fond of, provided I am in safety.” As Edmund Burke put it, “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close.” For the Romantic sublime was not an unmitigated embrace of “delicious terror” (Coates 1998). This paper will consider this safety-consciousness at the heart of sublime engagement with landscape, by suggesting that much of the Romantic sublime remains embedded within what, at first glance seems its antithesis: contemporary ‘health ‘n’ safety’ culture. The paper will pursue this argument by a textual analysis of the reasoning and asides of senior judiciary in a spate of legal cases culminating in the House of Lords decision in Tomlinson –v- Congleton Borough Council in 2003. In these cases we see a deep seated belief that opportunity to congress with the landscape sublime is a public good, worthy of legal protection and something to be balanced alongside appropriate provision of edge protection in the countryside.

Blogs involved: Virtually on the ledge (2012); Risk and outdoor adventure (2012)

Noticing stone in the dark: narrating past, place and materiality in an abandoned subterranean quarry

Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference – Cultural Geologies of Stone session – London, 30 August – 2 September 2016

Details here: http://www.rgs.org/NR/exeres/3D2D0BA2-4741-45DE-8C91-EB9AEAE860BB.htm

This paper will explore the ways in which meaning is brought to a quarried void in southern England. Until its closure in the 1920s the site had been a source of fine building stone for over 2,000 years, that rock quarried in turn by Romans, Anglo Saxons, Normans and subsequent generations. The site is now a small scale tourist attraction, with enthusiastic local guides taking visitors below ground and into the emptiness of the evacuated strata. According to a guide’s deft narration of the pasts of this site this place is rich with history and yet it is also a place at which there is nothing to see. This is a tour of a void, the only meaning here is that cast into this stone-framed emptiness by the interpreters of this place. This presentation will examine the narrative and performative practices by which a sense of the labour and lives once lived here are summoned, and also how a sense of the materiality of this place is necessarily also framed and presented. In doing so the analysis will consider – after Samuel (1977) and Strangleman (2013) – the motivations of post-industrial homage at sites of former (hard) labour, and the sense in which historical-materialist and neo-materialist (and posthuman) accounts of the physicality of our world and our relationship to it collide in such places.

Blogs involved: Gazing up looking down (2014); A miner’s life (2015); Staring at empty spaces (2015)

 

Image sources: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) Caspar David Friedrich; Beer Quarry Caves; author.

Vibrant voids: how some places ignore you, and others trip you up

Felimngham - Leominster

“The bunker is not a trace or shadow as it is present and also part of the foundation of an office building, and it does not haunt the landscape since, as a shelter, it was never meant to be seen in the first place” (Bartolini, 2015: 204)

Writing of a Mussolini era bunker beneath the streets of Rome, Nadia Bartolini incisively ponders the nature of such concealed places and of the awkwardness of attempting to subject them to the light of day. As she puts it, “the concrete bunker if visible, would meld with its concrete surroundings” (203). The subterranean bunker then exists as background, it is unexcavatable, it is its own container and “there is no need to disentangle and excavate it from the earth to archive it elsewhere” (200). In short, it is only a fortified hollowing out, it is an absence of ground within it, yet defined by the mass of earth around it. Whether as bunkers, cellars, crypts, tombs or chambers these subterranean places are defined only by their capacity to shelter bodies and/or valued objects. Without such contents, these voids are simply empty spaces edged with concrete.

Bartolini’s article seeks to take issue with (or at least to refine) Jane Bennett’s (2010) Vibrant Matter thesis, by which analysists are encouraged to pay more attention to materiality per se, in order to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of matter, and of their effects in the world separate from human cultural projections upon them. Bennett’s book sets out to illustrate the vibrancy of matter (and of the eco-political implications of this) via a series of case studies on the vitality of stem cells, foodstuffs and electrical power networks. But Bartolini questions the vibrancy of concrete and of the Rome bunker formed from it, and through examining the less-than-expected potency of an art show staged within the Rome bunker, argues that Bennett’s vibrancy thesis does not adequately account for the static existence of this ‘dumb brute’ matter. She concludes that without curation (an interpretive provisioning of the space of the art show) “the bunker is only a mass of concrete, a structure whose inherent materiality does not do anything in its fixed, solid state” (197).

And yet, there is one thing that the Rome bunker does. It endures. It is obstinate. It refuses to eliminate itself. It perpetuates its contained subterranean void. It endures without us. It is a chamber that sits and subsists, a repository for stale air, steady temperature and stillness (and home to a few spiders). And it remains true to the original design intent – to “immobilize time and space” (197), but now for its own sake, rather than for any purpose of human security.

But this is the destiny of any underground chamber – to lay there partly- or wholly un-known, perhaps existing in a dimension too small for human presence, to be perceived only remotely through the enquiring eye of an industrial endoscope, a bright light momentarily illuminating an otherwise constant darkness, like the torch flash of a deep sea diver, momentarily glimpsing another world in the enveloping darkness of the deep.

Both Paul Virilio and Gaston Bachelard have pointed to the atavistic, phenomenological qualities of such confined spaces and their reverberation through culture and psyche. These places take us closer to the underworld, and for Bachelard, the basement is the scene of our subconscious, a place perhaps to visit occasionally to in order to reconnect with our deeper drives, but it is not a place for us to dwell within.

Bartolini’s point is not to deny concrete its ability to influence the world, or to extend its reach into our world, but rather to argue that further delineation of how particular types of matter acquire a vibrancy. Her argument is that, in the heritage sector, we cannot entirely reject the role for cultural projection. If Mussolini’s bunker is dark, it is because someone left the lights off.

At one level Bartolini’s call is for a (re)acknowledgment of the important role of cultural projection within the framing of bland, function-formed places like these. She is challenging a suggestion that all matter is equally vibrant, and pointing out in that in the mundane built environment there is work to do – our work to do – to ascribe meaning to this space and its material composition. As she puts it: “a concrete container located underground is not equivalent to identifying the structure as ‘Mussolini’s bunker’” (207) – more is required (from us) for that to occur. This chamber doesn’t know itself as that human / heritage place (obviously it doesn’t know itself as anything, but indulge me a little here). All this place is, is a meshwork of elements held together by an interlocking set of forces that co-produce the stasis of that place. The ceiling can’t surrender to gravity because its downward fall is thwarted by the walls. If this place knows anything it is how to continue being in its current form.

So, this is what I took from Nadia’s article. But it was then odd to find myself in conversation with her at this week’s Historic Towns Forum conference. We ended up talking about dark real estate and the agency of material place formations (my phrase not hers). In our discussion Nadia argued in favour of some places having an intrinsic (i.e. an “it’s in the walls”) ability to haunt and provoke visitors. She illustrated her argument by pointing to the unsettling feelings triggered by standing within an industrial pottery kiln, the darkness, lack of edges and lines, the strange smells and the uneven floor. “But what if you worked everyday in that environment?” I asked, “it wouldn’t feel a strange place then would it?” And then I tried to push home an argument that any such strange affecto-material feelings are a product of our unfamiliarity, or of our cultural inference rather than of the place-matter itself.

But then I stopped. I’d suddenly remembered the strong feelings that morning as I’d walked into the meeting room that served as the venue for this conference. A London law practice’s building, all there was elegant clean magnolia walls, black marble topped dark lustrous cherry veneer cabinets and corporate chrome legged chairs, all bathed in beams of extra bright recessed halogen lights. Stepping into that chamber I’d been primed, and it only took the chink of a tea cup nestling back into its saucer, to tumble me back into an older, once familiar place-world.

So my conclusion was that it’s both: yes, it is us who make the meaning for the spaces we enter, but we are not always in control of that meaning-making. We can be provoked into doing so by the triggers and traps that rooms set for us. And yes, sometimes those triggers are engineered there to produce intended effects by curators or interior designers, but sometimes the effects are serendipitous: the chance meeting of a meaning brought with you, a thing lurking there that has no sense of you and a resultant feeling produced by that encounter.

 

References

Bartonini, N. (2015) ‘The politics of vibrant matter: Consistency, containment and the concrete of Mussolini’s bunker’, Journal of Material Culture, 20 (2), 191-210.

Image – Stephen Felmingham (2009) Leominster 6/31