Living beyond the limits of survival: five articles on ongoing cultural production in abandoned bunkers

Image result for polish bunker ants

“the wood-ant ‘colony’ described here – although superficially looking like a functioning colony with workers teeming on the surface of the mound – is rather an example of survival of a large amount of workers trapped within a hostile environment in total darkness, with constantly low temperatures and no ample supply of food. The continued survival of the ‘colony’ through the years is dependent on new workers falling in through the ventilation pipe [of this abandoned Cold War bunker]. The supplement of workers more than compensates for the mortality rate of workers such that through the years the bunker workforce has grown to the level of big, mature natural colonies.”

Czechowski W., Rutkowski T., Stephan W., Vepsäläinen K., (2016) ‘Living beyond the limits of survival: wood ants trapped in a gigantic pitfall’. Journal of Hymenoptera Research, 51, 227-239 at 237.

As previewed in last month’s blog post, all of the contributions to my guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies are now available on the journal’s website [here]. The five papers (plus my extended editorial essay, portions of which were presented in last month’s blog post, and further extracts below) are all concerned with the after-life of Cold War bunkers, and particularly with the ways in which these obstinate places refuse to disappear, either from the space that they inhabit or from the cultural milieu that they still haunt. Like an automatic beacon faithfully continuing to transmit long after the ship has been abandoned, or in the survival instinct of a colony of ‘lost’ ants, the modes and means of abandoned bunkers endurance (and of life and meaning-making playing out within them) is subjected to analysis by the contributing – multidisciplinary – authors, with each interpreting this endurance as a form of ongoing cultural production.

Still alive: ongoing cultural production in the abandoned bunker

The Journal of War and Culture Studies’ aims include promoting exploration of the relationship between war and culture during conflict and in its aftermath, and examining the cultural production and circulation of both symbols and artefacts of conflict. Bunkers are very potent and enduring symbols and artefacts of conflict, which are deeply embedded in contemporary culture (Bennett 2011). To draw out this embeddedness, this special issue takes a very broad view of the bunker’s cultural production. As Raymond Williams (1983, 87-93) notes ‘culture’ is not a settled term. The contributors to this issue tend towards using the term in its anthropological sense – with cultural production thus here being regarded as the processes by which social groups produce shared meaning about abandoned bunkers, and whether that arises within small groups of enthusiastic bunker preservationists or across wider society via popular culture. Therefore, the narrow, elitist, sense of ‘culture’ promoted by Matthew Arnold (1960) as the production only of the fine arts is elided.

Additionally, the expression ‘cultural production’ is used here in a way intended to emphasise that that the generation, modification and circulation of cultural symbols and artefacts is always ongoing. Meanings evolve – therefore the cultural production of the bunker is not a one off, originating event. The meanings and uses of these places evolve over time, and in response to a variety of broadly societal trends (e.g. how bunkers are portrayed in popular fiction) and in how individual actors actively engage in a process of appropriation within the bunker, each projecting and inferring upon the bunker in accordance with the needs of their own purposes and practices. Thus Sean Kinnear portrays the variety of actors, motives, and resulting re-use schemes, brought about recently in four Scottish bunker sites. Meanwhile Phil Kokoszka and I investigate the medley of stakeholders and their entangled cultural logics at play in the stilted after-life of the former cruise missile bunkers at Greenham Common. Furthermore, the articles by Louise K. Wilson, and Becky Alexis-Martin, Michael Mulvihill and Kathrine Sandys, show how the phenomenological qualities of the abandoned bunkers appeal to them as artists, as largely ‘blank canvas’ sites which they can appropriate (albeit often only temporarily) and are used in their production of site-specific installation and performance works. Notably, Wilson – as an artist working mainly in the medium of sound – shows how the bunker can be valorised for its acoustic, as well as its visual, atmospherics. Matthew Flintham (also an artist) appropriates an even more unusual cultural feature of the abandoned bunker: its mould. In doing so he productively pushes the notion of cultural production to its extreme – for mould is a culture which replicates itself, taking hold within the bunker’s stale air. As Williams (1983, 87) notes, one of the earliest meanings of ‘culture’ is “the tending of natural growth”. Flintham’s then is a view of the more-than-human enculturing of the bunker – if the mould culture can be said to be self-tending of its own growth. Alternatively, a human cultivator or sorts can be identified in Flintham’s own semantic cultivation, his human valorisation of the mould’s bunker colonising expansion drives by subjecting it to meaning making, by rendering it aesthetic.

Survival cell: the bunker’s battle against entropy

Flintham seeks to show, through his attentiveness to these cultures of mould, that bunkers are ultimately ironic spaces. For within the heart of their hermetic isolation, decay and degeneration (as instances of the entropy – the drive towards loss or energy – that afflicts the eventual dissolution of all things), derelict bunkers are found to be generative, living places. Thus they are ironic because they are both hostile and habitable. Engineered originally as survival cells for humans, these places are now abandoned and inhospitable to their intended denizens. They have been rendered toxic to humans through the proliferation of these moulds and other entropic processes of decay. And yet, the mould, and those wider processes of change, are themselves a form of dynamic change – and if viewed in a wide frame of reference – signs of survival and endurance. In short, the bunker endures and has an existence (and cultures of sorts) even when fully abandoned. Flintham links his ruminations on the resilience of mould to the Cold War-era theorising of cybernetics, the science of distributed systems and self-organisation. Cold War theorising (and the art and fiction that Flintham identifies as influenced by this anxious milieu) was influenced by existential questions of how – and where – to best face-down the accelerated entropy to be witnessed in the face of a nuclear blast. And the best answer to that question was usually ‘the bunker’. Conceived as a sealed survival space intended to facilitate the autonomous survival of Cold War human bodies and other culture-preserving vessels of information, Flintham’s Cold War bunker is largely bereft of human life and apocalyptic scheming. But conflict and survival are both still enacted there, for the bunker is now host to daily battles of territorial expansion and defence waged between extremophiles deep inside this now hostile-to-human terrain.

Meanwhile, approaching decay and degeneration from a more avowedly human (and heritage preservation) standpoint Kinnear makes an impassioned plea for greater attentiveness to Scotland’s Cold War-era bunkers, presenting that call within the context of a narrative of loss (through sites falling victim to both material decay and unsympathetic redevelopment). He argues that increased attentiveness to the architectural significance of these places could spur their greater protection. However, Kokoszka and I show that setting out to save an iconic site may require more than protective heritage and land-use planning designations. We show how the interplay of drives for demilitarisation, heritage preservation and sustainable economic re-use have led to the Greenham Common cruise missile site being stuck in limbo (neither fully alive nor fully dead) since the site was sold off by the Ministry of Defence in 2003. Thus regulatory intervention may have slowed GAMA’s entropy but by no means has it been halted or reversed.

Still transmitting: the bunker’s ongoing resonance

Paul Virilio collaborator Sylvère Lotringer, writing in support of Virilio’s claim that the Atlantic Wall bunkers had a strong mnemonic resonance for him,  has recalled drawing up close to an abandoned Nazi bunker as a child, placing his ear upon its concrete flank and listening to hear the “roar of war still trapped inside” (Virilio & Lotringer 2003, 10). This depiction both acknowledges the distinctive acoustics of cavernous bunker-spaces, as the sound of waves echoes within them, and also their affective, mnemonic quality, whereby they trigger his memories of the war. It seems unlikely that Lotringer means us to take his statement literally (i.e. that the bunker itself somehow holds memories of the war independent of its human interlocutors), and Nadia Bartolini (2015) has recently argued persuasively against suggestions that bunkers themselves have a historical and/or militaristic essence which they store and transmit independent of the projections and inferences of particular visitors.

But certainly, the acoustic properties of bunker-spaces are affective, and can be utilised by artists and musicians in their work. Wilson shows how the distinctive acoustic signatures of sites like the domed Teufelsberg listening station in Berlin have been preserved digitally, such that the very distinctive reverb of that structure can be used as an ambient sound-shaping technique in the production of wholly unrelated sound recordings. Thus, an acoustic mapping of a bunker and its echo characteristics may outlast the site itself, its virtual form preserving and transmitting an aspect (but only an aspect) of the bunker’s being. Commenting upon the possibility of virtual preservation and/or recreation of long-lost bunkers Kinnear suggests that virtual recreations inevitably lose a quality that only the bunker itself can deliver – the affective charge of being there as a fully embodied visitor, picking up the musty smells and sense of confinement that Flintham also depicts in his explorations into the Torås mountain-bunker complex.

But to acknowledge these affective charges is not the same as believing that these places are haunted by their histories. Alexis-Martin, Mulvihill and Sandys note the affective charge of abandoned bunkers but conclude that the contemporary cultural interest in abandoned bunkers more rooted in their ‘blank space’ affordances – their semantic openness – than it is in any firmly determining past essence. They argue that abandoned bunker sites do not throw an obstinate military essence at any visitor. Indeed, Mulvihill finds that even when operational military sites may not seem very distinctive at all. Furthermore, Alexis-Martin reports that despite working daily within a former local government Cold War bunker, it was many months before she came to realise that the basement offices in which she was working had started life as a facility designed for nuclear war.

Alexis-Martin, Mulvihill and Sandys show how such places are increasingly sites of free-form play and projection rather than clear communion with an immovably encoded past. Kinnear would take issue with the desirability of such free-play and in his article argues for the importance of preserving (or sympathetically adapting) these structures as a way of retaining both their mnemonic connection to the Cold War past and to their distinctive atmospheres and taxonomic forms. For Kinnear taking the bunker former into the future requires a delicate balance to be struck between preserving the embodied mnemonic traces of the past and finding ways to bring about an enduring preservation via new-found uses. Kinnear believes that there is a resonance from these places – but it could be easily missed if not carefully sought out and protected. Meanwhile, Kokoszka and I find an ambivalence at the heart of attempts to find an enduring heritage status for the GAMA site at Greenham Common. On paper the site has a very strong claim to internationally significant heritage status, but we find heritage significance to be but one shaping influence in the battle for its after-life. The past, per se, is seemingly not an ultimate dead-hand controlling influence over even this iconic bunker site.

Meanwhile, Wilson shows us a second type of resonance – a cultural reverberation. She describes how anxiety about the heightened risk of nuclear war in the early 1980s insinuated itself into popular culture (and popular music in particular), often using bunkers as a motif. This conflation of nuclear anxiety, bunker-talk and new wave synth-pop has in the last decade seen a wry, nostalgic revival; a cultural production that merges a new-found attentiveness to the once-unattainable shelters with the lo-fi musical stylings of the early 1980s, by pop-ironicists such as Luke Haines. These ironic pop-cultural appropriations of the Cold War bunker are perhaps the most playful appropriations of all.

 

Luke Haines interviewed in 2015 about his British Nuclear Bunkers LP.

 

Image credit

Wojciech Czechowski (2016) photograph of the ant-trap bunker: an abandoned ammunition bunker (part of the ‘Special Object 3003 Templewo’ Soviet nuclear weapons complex, western Poland) via https://metro.co.uk/2019/11/05/cannibal-ants-escape-soviet-nuclear-weapons-bunker-11044125/

References

Arnold, M. 1960. Culture and anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Bennett, L. 2011. ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality and management’. Culture and Organization. 17(2): 155-173.

Virilio, P. and Lotringer, S. 2003.Crepuscular dawn. New York: Semiotext(e). Trans. Mike Taormina.

Williams, R. 1983. Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana Press.

The bunker is dead, long live the bunker: announcing my forthcoming guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies

 

Fig 4 - Cambridge RWR

“I try to escape, but the bunker keeps pulling me back in.”

Luke Bennett, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2019…

 

Following in the footsteps of Paul Virilio’s (1994) investigations of the ruins of the Nazi Atlantic Wall fortifications, but by changing the focal point to the ruins of the Cold War, the bunker studies presented in my forthcoming bunker-themed guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies broadly echo Virilio’s method: combining accounts of embodied exploration with attentive archival work, and their concern is to achieve both a phenomenological account of the nature of these now-abandoned places, and a taxonomic assessment of the trends that shape the original, present and future lives of life of these structures. Bradley L. Garrett and Ian Klinke and (2019) have recently laid down a challenge to the hegemony of Virilio’s methods and concerns in bunker studies. They point out that the dominant scholarly approach tends to depict the bunker as both a symbol of, and an artefact of the past – rather than of the present and future. They point out that the bunker (as an emplacement of military power) is still very much alive. They also persuasively argue that Virilio’s framing tends to figure bunkers as places of shelter (with its inhabitants as victims) rather than as places of relative safety from which perpetrators plan the extermination of whole cities.

Garrett’s and Klinke’s critique is well made, and points to new areas of scholarship which need to be explored within bunker studies. However, it is not the case that the Virilio-type approach is exhausted. There is still plenty of work still to be done to understand the end-of-life stage of bunkers and of the cultural effects of their affective and symbolic resonance in abandonment. Accordingly, this special issue’s five articles each seek to build upon the broadly Virilio-type studies presented in my 2017 edited collection In the ruins of the Cold War bunker: materiality, affect and meaning making. That collection presented a multidisciplinary investigation of contemporary bunker re-engagements from around the world by 13 contributors, touching in particular on artistic and heritage based-appropriations of these now-abandoned Cold War spaces. As befitting the Journal of War and Culture Studies’ concern with the points at which war and culture meet (and the forms of cultural production related to that intersection), the new articles assembled in the special issue develop an even wider and more provocative set of lenses with which to detect the multiple forms and intensities within which post-military forms of use and meaning making come to be projected onto the blank walls of bunker spaces (including – variously – appropriations by mould, sound, commercial storage, heritage and fine art). Through this they reveal the processes by which (and rate at which) originating war-related uses and meanings fade from these places, thereby enabling the bunker’s after-life.

How bunkers live-on

Over the last decade the after-life of bunkers has become a subject of study across a number of disciplines: from archaeology to real estate, from cultural geography to fine art (see, for example, the array of disciplines represented in Bennett 2017). Accordingly, the contributors to this special issue represent a broad spread of disciplinary perspectives, and survey a wide range of bunker interactions.

Matthew Flintham is an artist and an academic whose work focuses on representations of military landscapes. In his article ‘Vile Incubator: a pathology of the Cold War bunker’, he investigates the after-life of the Torås bunker complex in Norway, reflecting on both the embodied act of bunker exploration and the ongoing non-human cultural production that he finds in this supposedly dead, lifeless abandoned place.

Louise K. Wilson is also an artist and an academic, and her work has investigated iconic Cold War military sites like the former testing range at Orford ness in Suffolk, through site-based installations and audio art. In her contribution entitled ‘Sounds from the bunker: aural culture and the remainder of the Cold War’, Wilson considers the appropriation of Cold War bunkers’ distinctive acoustic atmospheres and of 1980s bunker-themed pop songs in contemporary music production.

In their collaborative article ‘“Mine are the dead spaces”: a discussion of bunker work’s atmospheres, limits and routines’, Becky Alexis-Martin, a cultural geographer whose work specialises in nuclear geographies, leads a discussion with artists Kathrine Sandys and Michael Mulvihill, using the surroundings of the Churchill War Rooms, a Second World War bunker deep beneath Whitehall in London, as a prompt for considering the valence of the bunker to artists and its other denizens. Sandys is an artist and academic who, like Wilson, has worked with the distinctive audio-visual properties of empty bunkers. Mulvihill is an artist who has recently completed a practice-based PhD based around a residency at RAF Fylingdales.

As an architect, Sean Kinnear’s article ‘Reopening the bunker: an architectural investigation of the post-war fate of four Scottish nuclear bunkers’, presents an assessment of the underappreciated architectural significance of Scottish Cold War bunkers, outlining their distinctive architectonic qualities and profiling in his four case study sites, four different approaches to preservation and after-use of these structures. Kinnear calls for greater heritage protection to accorded to these sites in Scotland.

In the special issue’s final article, ‘Profaning GAMA:  exploring the entanglement of demilitarisation, heritage and real estate in the ruins of Greenham Common’s cruise missile complex’, I consider with my former student Philip Kokoszka (who contributed fieldwork as part of his 2018 MSc dissertation) the strangely mundane, indeterminate fate of GAMA, the once-iconic cruise missile bunker complex built at RAF Greenham Common in the early 1980s. We do so from the perspective of real estate and land-use planning, and seek to show how an appreciation of the entanglement of a number of contemporary cultural drivers (demilitarisation, ruination, heritage preservation and re-utilisation) can help to account for the site’s unexpected ‘failure’ to become a formal monument to its Cold War past. In conclusion, reflecting upon this out-turn, we attempt to suggest – using the work of Giorgio Agamben on ‘profanation’ – that this failure of the site to achieve a singular new meaning may in itself be fitting.

How bunkers die

The autumn of 2019 saw much attention focused upon the iconography of the ‘Berlin Wall’, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of its fall. Considerable efforts were expended to destroy the wall in the early 1990s – achieving its near-total erasure in a matter of months. This was a campaign of physical demilitarisation that assured the ending of German partition would be irreversible. In contrast my special issue considers the endurance of a more diffuse, harder to destroy, and less prominent set of Cold War material culture: the bunker. As with the Wall, these structures are iconic, mnemonic even. The articles contribute to the ongoing development of bunker studies by showing that these obstinate structures are not just materially durable (for they manage to retain some of their original war-related purpose embodied within their strange, brutal forms) but also fluid, in that they are caught up in an ongoing cultural production which over time enables a loosening of war-related meanings, a loosening that can bring both new utility, and also episodes of playful irony. This loosening contributes to the attrition of the bunker’s original form as both war-related materiel and as a potent symbol of war. Ultimately, this loosening is found to be the product of a quiet, long-term semantic decay, a subtle, slow-burn form of cultural demilitarisation which strikes quite a contrast to the speedy, systematic physical erasure of the Cold War’s more evident and destroyable military structures, like the Wall.

Note: the JWC special issue will be published in January 2020. The articles will appear online at the Journal’s website (https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ywac20/current) in advance of formal publication, and three of those articles have been uploaded there so far.

 

References

Bennett, L. (ed.) 2017. In the ruins of the Cold War bunker: affect, materiality and meaning making. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Garrett, B.L and Klinke, I. 2019. ‘Opening the bunker: function, materiality, temporality’. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 37(6): 1063-1081.

Virilio, P. 1994. Bunker Archeology, New York: Princeton Architectural Press (Translated by George Collins).

 

Image Credit:

Sean L. Kinnear (2018). Cambridge Regional War Room now incorporated into a residential estate development.

 

CFP – AAG 2020 – New Directions in Subterranean Geopolitics (abstract submission deadline: 18 October 2019)

Sadly I’m not able to go to this – but if interested abstracts are due by 18 October 2019.

Image result for government bunker

Call for Papers: American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting (AAG) 2020, April 6-10, Denver, CO, USA.

Session Title: New Directions in Subterranean Geopolitics

Session Organizers: Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway University of London), Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) and Chih Yuan Woon (National University of Singapore)

Sponsored by the Political Geography Specialty Group

This proposed session will broach the interface between the subterranean and geopolitical. Subterranean geopolitics, as a starting proposition, is one that is attentive to the material and imaginative. It builds on an interdisciplinary body of work that have sought to re-evaluate the flatness of geopolitical and cartographic imaginaries. Within geography, scholars have insisted that geopolitics needs to account for and investigate the depth dimensions of human and more-than-human life. To put it another way, they are interested in how understandings of the politics of space morph and change when depths alongside surfaces are brought into conversation. This research inquiry has opened up opportunities for the interrogation of several pertinent questions: how can we grasp and understand such (sub-surface and ‘lesser known’) spaces? How are they rendered visible and sensible as opposed to being invisible and incomprehensible? How are they being subjected to various forms of control and exploitation? Are subterranean encounters also characterised by counter-movements and resistance politics?

This session welcomes both conceptual and empirical engagements with subterranean geopolitics. Presentations can draw on a number of thematic directions such as, but not limited to:

  • The constructions, representations and imaginations of subterranean geopolitics in official discourses and popular cultural mediums
  • The elemental qualities (e.g. air, rocks and water) that shape and impact upon the ‘playing out’ of subterranean geopolitics
  • The institutional, legal and political arrangements that govern subterranean geopolitics and the resultant resistances and challenges
  • Living and experiencing subterranean geopolitics and their affective/emotional dimensions
  • Methodologies to research and negotiate the complexities of subterranean geopolitics

Interested participants should submit an abstract of no more than 250 words to Klaus Dodds (k.dodds@rhul.ac.uk), Ian Klinke (ian.klinke@ouce.ox.ac.uk) and Chih Yuan Woon (geowcy@nus.edu.sg by 18 October 2019. The organizers will notify authors of acceptance in the session latest by 25 October 2019. Details about attending the conference are available from the AAG website: https://www2.aag.org/aagannualmeeting/

Picture credit:  Cheyenne Mountain Complex — Colorado Springs, Colorado from https://www.history.com/news/inside-the-governments-top-secret-doomsday-hideouts

 

 

 

 

 

Awkwardly exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence in the ruin of Hitler’s Bunker

Image result for hitler's bunker

“Fixating on the historical locale feels naïve, even juvenile; the prime epistemological illusion of ‘heritage’, after all, is to substitute place for process, thus to manufacture ersatz ‘experience’.”

Patrick Finney (2007) ‘Finding the Führer Bunker’ Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory & Practice, 11(2) 287-291

As Finney notes in his short essay (which is an apology for him having momentarily drifted off into thinking about Hitler’s bunker when he meant to be doing other, proper academic work), showing an interest the specifics of iconic Nazi places may not be a good career move. Instead it may lead to you being bracketed with a motley collection of conspiracy theorists and fanatics. Writing about Cold War bunkers is just about passable now as an academic endeavour, but turning the spotlight onto a previous era’s concrete caverns is more risky.

So it’s been with some awkwardness that I’ve worked up a study of the post 1945 afterlife of the subterranean site of Hitler’s last days, and the resulting article has now been published in the Polish Geography journal Geographia Polonica as part of their special issue on ruination, demolition and urban  regeneration. The article is free to download here: http://www.geographiapolonica.pl/article/item/11707.html

The aim of this short blog is to add visuals to the story, and the argument, that my article sets out in its text by displaying my slides for a presentation of my paper at the ‘Thrill of the Dark:  Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy’ conference being held at the University of Birmingham at the end of the month (details here: https://thethrillofthedark.com/).

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Here’s my abstract for the conference presentation:

“Within days of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his subterranean command bunker deep beneath the Reich Chancellery, the Führerbunker came to be framed as an object of dark fascination and illicit access. First Red Army looters, then Allied investigators, and a few months later Winston Churchill all came to pick over the remains of this place. Then in 1947 Hugh Trevor Roper, propelled this cold, dank underground bunker into a symbol of thwarted meglomania, the stage for a Götterdämmerung, in his account of his search for Hitler’s missing corpse. Through such framing the site has sustained a lure for Anglo-American war veterans and tourists ever since. Yet to Germans (East and West) this site was a place of political contamination, the tomb of a potential contagion that had to be kept contained (by successive demolition action and cycles of banalisation and profanation). Almost forgotten, the site was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1990s scrubland of the Berlin Wall’s death strip, and amidst the subsequent redevelopment of that now prime real estate a questioning of the site’s meaning, and of its potentialities, started to emerge: oscillating between calls for the primal darkness of this subterranean lair to be constructively co-opted into holocaust memorialisation and (more recently) in an increasing co-option of the site as part of heritage tours. Cultural representations of this place have become increasingly decontextualised and denatured, transformed by the generational passing of time into a more free-floating, titillating glimpse of a darkness that once was. Through this case study this paper will interpret this semantic decay, showing that ascribed darkness, fear and moral-coding for a site are not eternal givens but rather that they ebb and flow over time, and that studies of attachment to dark places need to be able to account for this, by becoming more processual.”

My Geographia Polonica article uses this chronological account of the slow-death of the Führerbunker as a way of thinking through what ruination really entails – considering the interweaving of material and semantic decay, and intentional and incidental attrition in that place’s slow, faltering fade. As shown above, my presentation also follows this trajectory, and its concern to identify the stages of that faltering fade, but it additionally touches on this bunker’s iconic on-going reverberation, showing how material obliteration of such an undesirable, dark place does not ensure its elimination from culture. Accordingly, towards the end of the presentation I chart how this place increasingly becomes a disembodied signifier – a metonym for evil and failing ‘last days’ governance. In doing this I’m connecting back to the first paper I ever wrote about bunkers:  Bennett, L. (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. [free copy here].

So, by the end of the presentation I’m thinking about ruination in a non-material way and with a concern for how a (dark) symbol fades: what are its processes of semantic ruination and stubborn persistence?  In the final flurry of images I present the last days of the Führerbunker as now a free-floating meme that is not dependent for its survival upon the clarity of the spatio-material co-ordinates or physical condition of its site of origination. And this roving meme (this virtualised Führerbunker) has increasingly looser, multivalent rules of use (testimony to its normative ruination). It is now freely appropriated for a wide variety of irreverent re-purposing. These appropriations retain the essential ‘last days of governance’ abject motif, but appropriate it for new satirical projects of varying degrees of importance or seriousness. In doing so these appropriations reinforce the generality of the ‘bunker mentality’ metaphor, but also weaken the specificity of a real Hitler having inhabited a real Berlin bunker during a real total war that lead to millions of real deaths. And there’s nothing better to encapsulate this than the Downfall parodies:

 

 

References: for these please see my Geographia Polonica article.

Picture credit: https://www.express.co.uk/travel/articles/633088/hitler-grave-resting-spot-berlin-germany

 

In the bunker with Virilio again. This time with the walls closing in.

“For me the bunker is a kind of metaphor for suffocation, asphyxiation, both what I fear and what fascinates me”

(Paul Virilio in Virilio & Lotringer, (2002) Crepuscular Dawn: 23).

Image result for star wars compactor

It often happens this way. This time it’s breakfast. I’m half listening to the radio. BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenessberg has arrived in the studio to do a live chat with the presenter, offering up her thoughts on the aftermath of the Chequers declaration (the UK Government’s terms to be proposed to the EU for Brexit). You can sense it in Kunessberg’s voice, she’s building up to something. Here it comes. Ah, yes and its out. The B-word…

The bunker has been deployed once again as a poignant political metaphor, a way of encapsulating a leader’s seemingly last-days predicament. And, furthermore Kuenessberg was especially proud of her abject image-making, for she had added for even greater effect the suggestion that not only was Theresa May ‘in the bunker’ but that also (via some strange, unstated physics-defying mechanism) the walls of this structure were also closing in on her. Kuenessberg was so pleased with her doubling of the peril-image that she referenced it again, with palpable satisfaction, a few days later on the same programme.

But (apart from the addition of the cross-allusion to another cultural artefact: Han Solo and friends trapped in a shrinking garbage chamber in Star Wars: A New Hope) there was nothing new in this coinage. Political posters regularly roll out the bunker-image (and its never-quite-spelt-out allusion to Hitler’s final days confined – and losing the war –  beneath the burning streets of Berlin in Spring 1945). One of my first bunker related academic articles (Bennett 2011) was an attempt to identify and analyse the material and metaphoric routes of the bunker meme in present day organisational discourse. Writing that back in 2010 I drew on the ways in which former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s last days had been repeatedly framed in this way.

The bunker is a powerful meme – at a whisper it evokes either the Hitler’s-last-days trope or the survival-machine nostalgia of the nuclear shelter. This latter form cropped up on Channel 4’s political satire show, The Last Leg last week – all wrapped up in a nice dose of futility (the bunker rolled onto the stage was a rudimentary wooden shed (or ‘man cave’) which was then effortlessly demolished before our eyes). This latter trope has been more prevalent since the rise of Trump, the chill of Cold War #2 and the increasingly rash sabre / weapon / willy waving of recent months.

Against this backdrop I’ve been pulling together one of my two presentations for the Royal Geographical Society 2018 conference. My working set of slides are scrolling below. I’ll probably cut them down for the talk, but the current set takes time to spell things out (I think).

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The aim of my presentation is to build upon one of my introductory chapters from my edited collection published last year (Bennett 2017). That chapter had sought to show how Paul Virilio’s seminal work on studying the cultural significance of bunkers could be located in his own wartime trauma, of living through Nazi occupation. The chapter then went on to argue that his bunker hunting in the late 1950s and early 1960s needed also to be set the context of the highpoint of the ‘first’ Cold War. The aim of the presentation is to take the analysis chronologically onward – following the bunker’s continued haunting presence into Virilio’s post-Cold War theorising of ‘Hyperterrorism’ and the siege psychosis that he characterises as endemic in contemporary urban living.

In following this trajectory I seek to show how Virilio invokes the bunker as a powerful motif in each era of his writing – and that he does so partly for effect (it is an evocative rhetorical stance) and partly because he needs to (in that the bunker serves as a fetish for him; a terror-object which he compulsively returns to, and perhaps seeks to control through making-it-known, and bringing it out into daylight).

But – as Mark Lacy notes – it is hard to ascribe Virilio’s repeated return to the bunker (in the ‘flesh’ in the 1950s and 1960s, and in writing since the 1960s)  as purely a driven dynamic of trauma – for there are other (probably equally traumatic) experiences that he has chosen not to write about in his work, notably his time as a French army conscript during the Algerian War of Independence. So, the motives and ethics of Virilio’s exegis of the bunker are complex. He has certainly raised the salience of ‘the bunker’ within cultural studies. Perhaps in rendering it highlighted he has countered some of its otherwise ‘withdrawn’ power (the architecture of martial power prefers to hide in plain sight). But equally he has helped to normalise, and fetishise, these terror-objects, adding somewhat to the ease with which the bunker has been packaged up as a consumable artefact via its cultural embrace as a trope, meme, metaphor and metonym. This familiarisation, and the shorthand and allusional effects that it commands, have myriad impacts, some capable of aiding resistance to martial power but some helping to feed a masculinist, war-imagery (and imaginary) that normalises the architecture of security.

And, yes. I’m fully aware of being vulnerable to the same accusations: and that’s something that I try to tackle head-on in the book’s final chapter.

Reference: 

Bennett, Luke (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. (There’s a free-to-access copy of my working draft of that article here, and (subscription required) the published version is here.)

Bennett, Luke (ed.) (2017) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, Materiality and Meaning Making (Rowman & Littlefield: London). Details here (NB: hardback and ebook currently available, paperback edition coming soon).

Image credit:

https://goo.gl/images/Pc7nsU

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

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

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

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

The cult of information meets the cult of the misty bull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Minotaur’s lair and the infinite tunnels to nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The undwellable clarity of ruins: on hanging out with rubble again in 2018.

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“…the original style of life at Skara Brae [w]as hopelessly cluttered and filthy. Now it is a place scoured clean and viewed from above and all at once, which thus becomes more abstract and model-like than spaces we can actually enter.”

Robert Harbison (2015) Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery. Reaktion: London.

One day I’ll fully get my head around Harbison’s book. His aphoristic, fragmented writing style is by turns insightful and thwarted. But his point is that fragments and ruins exist all around us – in texts as much as in buildings. We are creatures doomed to walk the Earth sticking pieces together to see what works, and what doesn’t. Not that the World is a puzzle waiting to be solved though, more like a giant instruction-less Lego set. A play of (near) infinite possibilities.

But in bringing forth some combinations, we inevitably deny others. Creating meaning, over-writes other possibilities. Harbison’s beef with Skara Brae seems to be that it’s semantic excavation is too neat – the erasure of the traces of other possibilities is too complete, and he goes on to point out that in the act of dissection the resulting place become uninhabitable. It becomes a specimen, stripped of any direct link to the authenticity of a messy, lived life. This I think is a sobering provocation for any researcher – that we must strive to be careful not to strip our quarry bare in the totalising glare of our analysis. Instead we must try to leave some life in the object of our study, even if that means that our interpretation seems somehow thwarted, denied a synoptic closure. That’s easier said than done though.

I have Harbison’s warning echoing in my mind as I set out on my next batch of conference presentations and related research projects. Once again I seem to have stumbled back into some pretty dark, ruinous labyrinths. The challenge will be to treat these awkward places and subjects necessarily with some respect and sensitivity, but also to find some way to say something new and non-local about them. I need to simultaneously lift the roof off and leave it on.

Here’s what I’ve signed up for:

March 2018: “Law in Ruins: searching for law in empty spaces”. Keynote presentation for the Institute of Australian Geographers – Legal Geography Study Group (at University of Canberra).

Here I’ll be presenting on the role and methods of the ‘spatial detective’, as a follow up my 2015 article with Antonia Layard of that name. Specifically, I’ll be looking at how law is implicated in the formation and replication of new types of places, how that place-forming function is shaped at local level by the perceptions (and feelings) of site managers, how law and materiality intersect and what happens when a place starts to die – how does law face the prospect of its own ruination?

April 2018: “Grubbing out the Führerbunker: Ruination, demolition and Berlin’s difficult subterranean heritage”. This abstract has been accepted for the ‘Difficult Heritage’ conference being held in York in April:

For a few short months in 1987, the ruined remains of Hitler’s Berlin bunker complex were quietly excavated by construction workers grubbing out its subsurface structures and in-filling its voids to enable the erection of a new East German apartment block and its associated grounds. Successive earlier attempts at erasure of this infamous site, had achieved only partial success, for mass concrete is difficult destroy, and even more-so when it lies underground. To this day portions of the complex remain inaccessible but extant beneath Berlin. This article will explore the implications of the slow, faltering physical erasure of this structure by drawing together conceptual insights from across the diverse fields of urban history and hauntology (Ladd 1997), the management/demolition of ‘difficult heritage’ (Macdonald 2010, Sniekers & Reijnders 2011), the political geographies of subterranea (Wiezman 2007, Bridge 2013, Elden 2013, Graham 2016) and studies of the material and symbolic fate of bunkers (Beck 2011, Bennett 2011, Klinke 2015, Bennett 2017). In particular, the analysis will use and develop scholarship on modern ruins in order to consider the slower-than-might-have-been-expected death of the bunker via Bartolini’s (2013, 2015) investigation of the differential rates of semantic and material decomposition of Fascist subterranean ruins in Rome and Moshenka’s (2010) work on the eruptive potentiality of the sudden resurfacing of buried (both literally and metaphorically) wartime artefacts and structures.

August 2018: “What really haunts the modern ruin?”  This abstract forms part of the 15 strong international array of contributions assembled for the proposed session entitled ‘Utility After Abandonment? The New Ruin as Cultural Asset and Public Space’ which Hayden Lorimer, Ed Hollis, Ruth Olden and I are hoping to run at the RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff this summer. There’ll be more details on this session here soon, but in the meantime here’s my abstract:

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

August 2018: “On hearing the roar of war still trapped inside: the reverberation of wartime trauma, and of the bunker, in Paul Virilio’s analysis of Pure War and Hyperterrorism.” Abstract accepted for a proposed RGS-IBG 2018 conference session entitled ‘Changing landscapes / Changing the landscapes of terror and threat: materialities, bodies, ambiances, elements’. Here’s the abstract:

“Occasionally I would put my ear against the bunker’s hardened shell to catch the roar of war still trapped inside” writes Sylvère Lotringer (Virilio & Lotringer, 2002) echoing Paul Virilio’s own captivation by these relics of the Total War of his childhood. Virilio’s account of his own first-encounter with the ruins of a Nazi bunker (Virilio, 1994), is a profoundly intimate and tactile phenomenological exploration of a terror-object. His experience provoked a heady mix of fear and fascination: fear in its recall of the deadly terror he had witnessed as a boy in wartime Nantes; fascination in the affordances presented by the affective materiality of these alien structures; and both fear and fascination in his sensing of the hostility of local residents to his untimely interest in these shunned structures of an enemy occupation. This presentation will look at how Virilio’s subsequent theorising of the evolution of war and terror has been haunted by his wartime formative experiences. These (and ‘the bunker’) resonate throughout his aphoristic writings on the Pure War condition of the Cold War, the subsequent transition to ‘hyperterrorism’, and “the emergency return of the ‘walled city’ and of the bunkerization that is blighting cities everywhere” (Virilio, 2005). A longitudinal, biographical approach will enable a critical examination of the apparent equivalence given by Virilio to the hot terror of the Nazi occupation, the cold terror of the nuclear standoff and the chaotic terror of contemporary hyperterrorism, each with their own logics for the “administration of fear” (Virilio, 2012).

Image credit:

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/skara-brae/