Beyond the broken building – dereliction, progress and ruinphobia

“The scars left behind by industrial development of the past, the abandoned waste heaps, disused excavations and derelict installations and buildings no longer needed by industry, are an affront to our concept of an acceptable environment in the 1970s”

Peter Walker, Secretary of State for the Environment, 1971 – quoted in Wallwork (1974) Derelict Land – origins and prospects of a land-use problem, David & Charles: Newton Abbot, p. 13.

 

Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters 1976 by John Latham 1921- 2006

 John Latham (1976) Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/latham-derelict-land-art-five-sisters-t02071

Big Ruins and dereliction

There’s always this danger when writing two pieces in parallel: that they will converge. Over recent days I’ve been working on my papers for the Big Ruin conference (Manchester, Wednesday next week) and the Land Art/Abandoned Quarries conference at Yorkshire Sculpture Paper the following day. Whether through collision, or otherwise, I find myself thinking a lot about derelict land in relation to both papers, in each case as a conscious opposition to the currently dominant focus upon the discrete buildings and structures in ‘ruin studies’. To foreground blank, indeterminate wasteland feels both dissident, and necessary.

Dereliction was seen as a major policy issue in the 1960s, and essentially as one of un- or under productivity. Notions of landscape aesthetics (eradicating the unsightly, the eyesore) played a part in the call to arms, and safety and environmental drivers came increasingly to the fore with (respectively) the Aberfan tragedy of 1966, and the rise of ecological sensibilities – but predominantly dereliction was something to be tackled because it was a ‘waste’ of land, expressing a deeply held view (that still has powerful sway today) that neither land nor labour should be left idle.

 

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My presentation for the ‘Big Ruins’ conference is streamed here. The gist of my talk is a desire to acknowledge recent calls (from critical, urban and economic geographers) to widen the context in which ruins are studied, and in particular to look at the political economy of ruination – the process by which ruins are made.

But in my presentation I will also argue that the aim should not be to throw the baby out with the bathwater, for the more aesthetically (and matter/affect) based approaches that have dominated ruinology in recent years, have an important role to play in helping us to understand how orientations towards ruins, ruination and dereliction ‘matter’. And I mean ‘matter’ here (in the double-play advanced by Karen Barad) both in the sense that ‘it is important’, but also in the – theoretically more complex – sense that orientations towards matter (i.e. stuff) affect how that stuff exists, occurs, survives, is reacted to, is able to influence us etc. To understand ruination we need to understand why it is objectionable to many, attractive to some and how those orientations affect the matter of the ruin and its stability as a loosening assemblage of wood, stone, metal, cement, brick, fabric etc under the dissipating action of time, human and ‘natural’ processes.

Thus, in my Big Ruins talk my desire is to emphasise the multiple gazes through which ruination is framed – and how those gazes (particularly those that are broadly anti-ruin) affect the occurrence, subsistence and fates of ruins and the dereliction of which they form a part. As a consequence, my talk will deal only briefly with ruinphilia and will instead concentrate on the ruinphobic gazes that frame ruins as a contagion, a waste of space and/or a waste of matter. Inevitably these are (in contrast to the ‘high’ arts roots of ruinphilia) earthy, pragmatic gazes of policy, law, taxation, economic development and their attendant discourses of efficiency, progress, modernisation and monetary value. But understanding these gazes and their effects is crucial to an understanding of contemporary ruination and – I contend – these gazes have received scant attention within ruin studies (where the aesthetic and Romantic ruinphiliac gaze has been privileged almost to the point of excluding all other ways of looking upon broken buildings). In my presentation I also point to the irony that ruinphobia both strives to eradicate ruin and yet at times actually amplifies it.

Land Art and dereliction

Towards the end of his recent documentary series on Brutalism, Jonathan Meades issued a rallying call for the nascent Brutalist revival, in doing so harking back nostalgically to a Modernist era in which – in his view – human will aspired, unapologetically to stamp its identity and presence upon the planet, raising gigantic forms towards heaven either in challenge to the gods, or in declaration that the gods are no more. In doing so Meades contrasted Brutalism’s aggressive confidence with a present day eco-modesty, through which, he asserted, humankind has lost sight of his specialness and its faith in progress.

I suspect that Meades, like John Latham, would celebrate the monolithic forms of the Five Sisters (shale tips – or locally ‘bings’ shown in the image above) in West Lothian. Yet Meades’ Brutalism is but one version of Modernism. Working back in time, to the height of Modernism we find John Barr (a journalist) castigating Iain Nairn (an architectural critic) as typifying a certain type of metropolitan aesthete thus:

“It is some academic opinion makers, usually living far from the nearest spoil heap, who defend dereliction on aesthetic grounds. To them, and, one suspects, to them alone, reclamation is seen as an enemy of the wonderous heaps and holes and tears-in-the-hillsides which shout proudly MAN WAS HERE!”

John Barr (1969) Derelict Land, Penguin: Harmondsworth, p.25

I find myself with both Meades’ and Barr’s words ringing in my head as I prepare for my contribution to the Land Art in quarries conference at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The wind has turned recently against Ruin Lust. The counter-forces are amassing, the label of ‘Ruin Porn’ now ever-present,waiting to pounce on those who linger too long in gazing at broken buildings. Doubtless a genealogy of  ruinphilia would find similar castigation at any earlier formative era (remember here that ‘nostalgia’ was originally conceived as an illness). But, for me, this week it has been appropriately moderating, to know that the battle between old and new, bombastic and modest, use and pause is nothing new.

My slides for the Land Art talk are streamed here:

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Latham’s work upon the Five Sisters was the result of a placement within the Scottish Development Agency organised by the Artist Placement Group (who had the mission of opening commerce and public administration to new ways of seeing the aspects of the world that they managed), the aim being to find new ways to see the vast bings as something other than “eyesores of spent energy” (Richardson 2012), and that according to Derek Lyddon, Chief Planner of the Scottish Development Agency at the time of Latham’s residency:

“The object of APG placements may be described as ‘organisation and imagination’; to place an artist in an organisation in the hope that his creative intelligence or imagination can spark off ideas, possibilities and actions that have not previously been perceived or considered feasible; in other words to show the feasibility of initiating what has not occurred to others to initiate. Hence the product is not an art work, but a report by the artist on new ways of looking at the chosen work areas and on the action that might result.” (quoted in Richardson 2012)

In part as a result of Latham’s work, and partly in the light of a post-industrial turn towards the preservation of industrial ‘heritage’, at least some of the bings have now been listed as ancient monuments (though hardly ancient in origin, the tipping that formed them ended in the early 1920s) and thus now have protection against demolition or reworking (the oil bearing shale having value to recyclers).

Latham’s creative visioning helped the civil servants to see this dereliction – these man made mountains – as positive features of the contemporary landscape. However, Latham’s own design for their artistic augmentation – the Meadesean sounding “Handbook of Reason”, a 24 metre cruciform beacon tower to be erected atop one of the bings, was rejected on cost grounds. If built, that bunker-like structure (shown in design mock-ups below) would certainly have signalled to the surrounding land, (perhaps to the delight of Meades and the consternation of Barr): “MAN WAS HERE”.

 

Documents as Part of APG Feasibility Study – Scottish Office 1976

 

Further details of Latham’s project are detailed in Craig Richardson (2012) ‘Waste to Monument: John Latham’s Niddrie Woman’  Tate Papers Issue 17, from which the above image is taken.

 

In ruins in 2014

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“For [Walter] Benjamin, the truth content of a thing is released only when the context in which it originally existed has disappeared, when the surfaces of the object have crumbled away and it lingers precariously on the brink of extinction.”

Gilloch, G. (1996) Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, Polity: Cambridge

Oddly, it’s suddenly become very unfashionable to talk or write about ruins. So, it’s probably not good timing that I’m set to use the ‘R’ word copiously in at least three conference sessions this year. Ho hum…

Here are my abstracts.

Fragment 1 – ‘Big Ruins’ Conference – University of Manchester, 14 May 2014

The ruin of ruins – image, utility and materiality in the fate of broken places

We see the hilltop castle ruin as frozen, rather than continuing to crumble. ‘Ruin’ is both a noun and a verb, yet we tend to talk only of ruins as static, certain and final end points of a building’s life.  In this presentation I will consider the human and other processes by which ruins are denied a stable, final identity. I will look at how ruination is ultimately an irresistible process, its pace can be retarded but not halted – and ultimately ruination becomes self-erasing. As a disease-like entropic force ruination permeates the built environment revealing itself via culturally and materially inflected manifestations in local sites of rupture. This paper will illustrate the diversity of these manifestations ranging across the shifting fates of different corners of the economy and their structures, the demolition urge of contemporary business rates taxation, the anxieties of owners and their insurers, the powerful material effects of ideas of ‘dereliction’, ‘regeneration’, utility, safety and the marauding of scavengers.  It will also consider the non-human material factors and processes – the building pathologies – that assail the body of the ruin and drive it onwards towards disassembly, degeneration and desiccation. In keeping with the ‘big ruin’ focus of the conference, this paper will work outwards from the single building level scale of the Romantic ruin trope, first by following Edgar Allen Poe in peering up close into the materiality of the decaying sub-elements of the House of Usher, and then zooming out to figure degenerating urban terrain as a resource-scape, a field of matter intermixed with ideas, values and utilities each propelling ruination as a destabilizing flux   channeling matter out of the city, and summoning in an urge-to-change, in the face of a perennial fear of disuse and abandonment.

NB: more details of this FREE conference here: http://narratingwaste.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/big-ruins-the-aesthetics-and-politics-of-supersized-decay-manchester-wednesday-14-may-2014/

Fragment 2 – Royal Geographical Society Conference (Legal Geographies session), 26-29 August 2014

The law in ruins: co-production, nomic traces and the sedimented taskscapes of the world’s first factory

The Legal Geography canon rests on a principle of co-production: namely that the social, the spatial and the legal act upon each other to form the ‘nomosphere’ (Delaney, 2010) and/or a ‘splice’ (Blomley, 2003). This paper will seek – through application of such thinking to a case study – to reframe the co-productive triumvirate, as matter, discourse and practice, and thereby align the co-production model towards a more processual and relational understanding of ‘worlding’ (Massey, 2005), pointing in particular to the generative role of human purpose, context and contingency in local instances of pragmatic co-production: Ingold’s (1993) notion of ‘taskscape’. Specifically, the presentation will advance its argument by examining the ‘entanglement’ (Hodder, 2012) of matter, purpose and normativity (which I take to include – but be wider than – legal discourse) in the founding, expansion, decline and ‘rescue’ of the world’s first factory scale cotton mill, at Cromford in Derbyshire, UK. If Legal Geography’s co-production model is right we should expect not just to find material traces of law in the physical world, but also evidence of the accommodation of law to site specific and circumstantial effects of topography, geology, commercial conventions and social mores. The presentation will thus focus upon explicating the physical sedimentation of a variety of taskscapes across the site’s 250 year life, and their attendant socio-spatial normativities, within the fabric and layout of the Mill complex.

Fragment 3 – Royal Geographical Society Conference (Cold War Bunkers session), 26-29 August 2014

Cold War bunkers as a post traumatic landscape

This presentation will set the scene for the Cold War Bunkers strand by situating my work on ‘bunkerology’ alongside a wider interpretation of the psycho-cultural drivers for ‘bunker gazing’. It will seek to show that just as Paul Virilio’s Atlantikwall bunker hunting in the late 1950s / early 1960s was rooted in his desire to make sense of the “geostrategic and geopolitical foundations of the total war I had lived through in Nantes, not far from the submarine base of Saint-Nazaire” (Virilio & Parent 1996: 11), so Cold War bunker hunting can be seen as an ongoing processing of the trauma of an ‘ultimate’ war that never happened, but which none the less left spatial and psycho-cultural scars. The paper will follow the sublimation of this trauma, through Peter Laurie’s 1970s attempts to read the materialisation of power in the Cold War’s landscape, W.S. Sebald standing before the ‘Pagodas’ of Orford ness contemplating the post-traumatic landscape before him shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Sarah Vowell writing in 2004 of the potency of ruined bunkers for the last Cold War generation, and of their validation of the apocalyptic anxiety that suddenly vanished with adulthood, but yet still haunts. This investigation will be pursued by reference to the testimony of bunker hunters, my own journey to bunker gazing and by drawing upon the anxieties of Cold War era psychologists and their concerns for the effects that apocalyptic anxiety might (and perhaps did) have upon children raised in the era of the Cold War bunker building.

Moving forward with Legal Geographies at RGS 2014

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We have been delighted with the response to our recent Legal Geography call for papers for RGS 2014, with submissions coming from the UK, France, Italy, Australia, Brazil, the United States (3), covering empirical work in Nauru, Estonia, Cambodia as well as the US, UK and Europe. We have submissions from disciplines including law, geography and politics. As a result we’ve got 15 great papers for our session, and this is a very positive response rate, which bodes very well for this (re)emergent hybrid field.

Antonia Layard (University of Bristol) and I have had to secure special permission from the RGS to run a three-part session to fit all of these papers in. We’re delighted to have heard back this morning that this permission has been granted. The breadth of coverage and strength of the proposed papers have helped us to secure this dispensation. The RGS’ conference is focused upon ‘co-production’ this year, and so our array of topics, scales of analysis and the global reach of the papers has helped to press the right buttons. We’ve decided on the session title ‘Moving forward with Legal Geographies’ – the plural here reflecting the wonderful variety of legal geographic endeavour and concern that the papers attest to, and the ‘moving forward’ bit pointing to the way that the papers show the boundaries of legal geography being stretched both methodologically and theoretically.

We don’t yet know which day (27, 28 or 29th August) our session will run. That will be notified to us around April. There are more details about the conference here:

http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/ConferencesAndSeminars/Annual+International+Conference/Annual+international+conference.htm

Antonia and I are collaborating to promote Legal Geography and to develop a UK community with active links to the established LG communities in Australia and Northern America, but also to help spread the focus out from its Anglo-Saxon predominance. To that end anyone who’s interested can join our open conversations at our (very basic but workable) wiki site:

http://lawandgeography.wikidot.com/.

We are also currently guest editing a Legal Geography special edition of the International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, to be published towards the end of the year (papers currently in review), and are working upon our own LG outputs (jointly and individually).

As a taster of our session’s content, here’s the overarching session description from our proposal document:

This legal geography stream proceeds from the assumption (which appears to be widely accepted, though critiques are always welcome) that space, society and law are co-constituted, that there is a nexus, which ebbs and flows, co-producing the legal, spatial and social everyday. Legal geography has, in other words, been ‘born’. Given this assumption, this stream aims to consider how the cross-discipline is being applied and extended, presenting papers that identify new and ongoing lines of spatio-legal inquiry, research and theory.

The first session, Legal productions of spaces and environments, focuses on the co-production of legal, economic and political practices and principles across space. By examining diverse examples ranging across the judicial imagination’s regard for Brazilian environments, the Severnscape and the relational networks formed through contract law in West Midlands engineering supply chains, it asks how legal discourse and practices contribute to the making and control of identities, relationships and sites of encounter at multiple scales. Reaching back through an American reading of E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters and considering Italian constructions of ‘security’, the session also investigates how scale is used as a framing device to govern across social and spatial distances.

The second session, Interrogating assumptions of legal closure, investigates the critique of legal practice, that it is enclosed, which lies at the heart of legal geography. The session begins with two papers, drawing on material from UK/European legal decisions and empirical legal work in New Mexico, which demonstrate the effect that legal closure still has in governing space. However, papers investigating legal pluralism, in domestic violence in Cambodia, ‘Indian country’ in the United States and constructions of families in Ghana and the United States, illustrate the slippage, and discretion, in formal legal rules when studied as ‘laws in action’.

The third session, Legal materialities, asks how spaces and places are themselves co-produced – legally and politically as well as socially and spatially. It emphasises the importance of materiality, asking how the spatio-legal is implicated in managing places (including the International Court in the Hague, the island of Nauru, a Derbyshire cotton mill and an Estonian car park) as well as troublesome resources such as phosphate, dye and nuclear wastes. The session considers, in particular, how the spatio-legal frames and marshalls the arrangements of things in space and constellates the environments of which they form part. It also considers how law is translated into flows of matter, giving rise to resultant assemblages of materials, provisions and practices and their resultant landscapes.

As the conference approaches I will post more details here, identifying the speakers and more about their papers.

In closing, here’s a glance across to ‘where next’ visions offered up by two recent synoptic reviews of the Legal Geography field, one from Australia and one from North America/Israel:

“Legal geography would benefit from deepening its connections with posthuman and critical animal studies scholarship and from studies of the vibrancy of matter (Jane Bennett 2010), and its science and entanglements (Karen Barad 2007) in particular. Such explorations will ground legal geography in corporal matters, moving us away from abstract notions of space into “more-than-human” (Sarah Whatmore 2006) legal geographies…. Although legal geographers are already actively engaged with postcolonial theory, science studies, poststructuralism, thing theory, performativity and many other fields, we should be engaging with still more fields, such as the humanities and posthumanities, physical geography, economics, psychology and psychoanalysis, material culture, architecture, organizational studies, and visual culture.”

(Braverman et al 2013: 20-21)

And:

 “…By situating law in space, that is, within its physical conditions and limits, legal geography encourages place based knowledge to form law’s basis. We are advocating for a paradigmatic shift, from the alienation of people and place in law and geography to their necessary connection. In this way legal geography provides both intellectual insight and real-world application: it can produce work of practical policy relevance as well as speak truth to power.”

(Bartel et al, 2013: 349)

The array of presentations at RGS 2014 respond very positively to those pointers to new areas of a relational and materiality focussed legal geographic enquiry, they also embrace other territories of investigation called for by Braverman et al (2013) variously addressing rural legalities, spatio-temporal effects, pragmatism, legal pluralism, the relationality of power and purpose, variation of scale and comparison across jurisdictions alongside that interrogation of the materiality of law’s objects, law’s spaces and law’s habits.

 

References

Bartel R, Graham N, Jackson S, Prior J.H, Robinson D.F, Sherval M and Williams S (2013) ‘Legal Geography: An Australian Perspective’, Geographical Research, 51(4), 339-353.

Braverman I, Blomley J, Delaney D and Kedar A (2013) The Expanding Spaces of Law: A Timely Legal Geography, Buffalo Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Paper No. 2013-032, SUNY Buffalo Law School, New York.

Image source: Vellum parchment at UK parliamentary archives via http://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/the-parliamentary-archives-with-london-historians/ photo by Peter Twist.

 

Lost in the fens, a shortsighted man writes feverishly of shadows

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I’m sitting here. In a hotel room somewhere in the Fenlands. I’ve just arrived. I’ve just walked to the middle of nowhere from  the cold heart of somewhere. It was dark in that town and here it’s darker still, except for the arc lights guarding the shiny executive cars in the showroom at the turn into this business park.

My hotel room is pleasantly warm, certainly clean and my companions are the gentle rumble of air conditioning pumps and vents. In the distance a helicopter is wandering the sky, its beams teasing the evacuated gravel pits and flat fields surrounding this building.

In situations like this  I stubbornly walk, but I’m getting too old for this ‘find the ring road hotel in the dark’ game. I’ve played it too many times before. Everywhere starts to look the same behind each railway station. It’s the same old mud, tarmac and pot holes as I bisect the suburbs in search of my bed.

Will Self, writing about his compulsive walking at the start of his book Psychogeography depicts urban walkers of his ilk as middle aged men incubating slowly swelling prostates. I have no idea how swollen mine is, but the onset of myopia is certainly making it harder for me to search for clues about where I am as the light starts to fade. This liminal world beyond the city fringe and beyond daylight is getting hard to fathom. As I trudge along the road, I see shadows, splays of light, I hear muffled sounds (my hearing’s not so good these days either). Some of the apparitions thus encountered are fanciful things-out-of-place, but many are likely things but wrong. I tend to mis-see things that could readily be here, but – it just so happens – as I peer closer, are actually not. Phantom petrol stations, shimmering lakes that turn out to the loading bays of distribution sheds, that kind of thing. Maybe they lie in real form around the next bend in the road, just over the brow of the next hill.

Maybe.

And so now I sit.

I’m meant to be reading. I’m supposed to be on a self-imposed break from blogging. 

And I sit.

Really, I’m not supposed to be doing this kind of stuff at the moment.

I sit back.

Nice sturdy chair, gentle carpet beneath my feet, a strong floor, the reception desk below all marble effect and welcoming smiles, the concrete foundation slab beneath, then engineered clay, geotextile matting, capillary drainage runs and thereafter tonnes and tonnes of still rotting rubbish, quietly gurgling in a pitch beyond my failing earshot, the remains of long forgotten meals, long lost toys, accidents and incidents of daily lives all slumbering in the heap beneath my feet as the air conditioning lulls me gently to sleep.

Scree is here

scree end

Later this month I will be receiving some of the limited edition print run of Scree, my collaboration with landscape photographer Katja Hock. These will be rubber bound artefacts, the significance of the scuffed matt industrial covers being explained here. But in advance of this, and because we’d like to share our work beyond the confines of those who might normally want a ‘coffee table’ art book, here’s a link to a free pdf copy of the main part of our publication:

Bennett & Hock (2013) Scree

Scree was kindly commissioned by Amanda Crawley Jackson (Occursus) via the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund, and is published as part of the ‘TRACT’ series of collaborations between text and other media.

The unspoken question that haunts Scree is ‘what happens if we dwell on wasteland?’. Here ‘dwell’ can be taken in a number of directions: ponder, linger, inhabit, exist. Here’s the opening text to Scree to set the scene…

Starting out

The Wadsley Bridge to Neepsend escarpment runs along the northern edge of the upper Don valley. To the geologist this ridgeline is made up of coal measures and shales overlain by sandstone. To the local residents of north western Sheffield it is comprised of scrub, dereliction, pylons and a landfill tip. To the local historian it is an area rich in industrial and urban history.  To my kitchen refuse it is a final resting place.

To me it is all of these things, and more. In the pages that follow, Katja I and I set out to traverse this ridgeline and to depict in words and images what we find there. We can’t claim that what we find are essences – for the truth of this place is infinitely multifaceted – but what I do hope that we’ve brought closer to surface is the richness of materiality and meaning that can be found even on this steep scrubby hillside.

What is a hill?

The topography under examination here is a hybrid: pre-human geological processes sculpted this landform, but human activity added to it (and took away from it). This place may seem a grubby backwater now, but it was not always thus. The hill came to be a dynamic human-geologic assemblage, particularly in the heyday of the industrial era. Successive attempts were made to colonise this area and turn it to a variety of productive purposes. These have all left their marks. They have shaped this place, and they in turn have been shaped by it.

In a modest way we seek to give a sense of the hillside’s agency. It is not a passive, dumb brute. It has the ability to shape how humans and other creatures engage with it, and yet it is not a singular thing. It is a collection of materials, each resting on the other. The hill is a set of layers, craters and fill plus a surface crust of living and dead things that – in the main – are just passing through.

The capacity of this landform to absorb, flex and channel human activity is what has struck us most. These, like many of the city’s other hills, are rich outcrops, worked for hundreds of years for their stone, earth, water, timber, iron and game. Over recorded time these hills have been gouged by mine workings, slashed by deforestation, riven by roadways and confected by settlement. Yet each successive engagement has brought a process of human-hillside accommodation. Schemes adapted to fit geology; local topology yielded to enable temporary slithers of human incursion.

A note on style

The style of writing and reflection that follows is broadly in step with contemporary psychogeography, specifically a variant defined by Nick Papadimitriou as ‘deep topography’. In this form attention to everything is important – but in a way that avoids the crowding in of dominant (or expert) accounts of the place, as Papadimitriou puts it:

“But while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through – a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered – are screened out all too easily if the primary purpose is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmitted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s”

This approach celebrates the subjective affective response to the hillside and its human-material form. But it also (as Papadimitriou does in his work) weaves in this place’s equivalent of cornicing and the names of building companies. All are part of this hillside. Thus the end result is wantonly promiscuous, a mix of both cornicing-detail and impressionistic revere: a hybrid approach that revels, as Mike Parker has put it:

“in the connections made, the eye for the rusty and rotting, the sometimes haughty disregard for over-hyped landmarks, the comprehensive sweep that fuses politics, history and topography through observation and trenchant supposition.”

Style and substance

What follows adheres to that pattern, but if this style of landscape enquiry is to be anything other than competent word plays and an antiquarian’s eye for quirky detail, it must add some character and some insight – something that rises above the mechanical formulae by which such mix-and-match accounts can be assembled. For my part I would hope that what we present here goes that extra step in attempting to give a voice to the ‘stuff’ and ‘processes’ of the hillside by foregrounding matter – the brute ‘stuff’ of this hill – and consequential human encounters with this materiality.

In the final section I step back from my own direct experience of this place, and try to show the rich interaction with the ‘stuff’ of this hillside by people who have lived, worked or visited there and contributed their memories and enthusiasm to on-line community forums like Sheffield Forum. There is an unexpected richness in the way in which former denizens write of their experiences on (and with) the hillside.  They did not just visit or live there, they stood, dug, searched out, picked up, played upon and made and/or threw away things there. And in doing so they projected meaning and significance onto this matter, and onto the hillside.

The word ‘matter’ conjures both senses of what I’m pursuing here. How is matter made to matter? If we approach the hillside from this question we find a rich symbiotic relationship: the hill, its matter, its (only ever partial) colonisation for industry and dwelling and the daily interaction with human bodies entailed in all of that. This was evocatively struck home for me in one recollection I came across:

         the stories of local tramps

                                                                         gravitating to

                                                                                                                        the  Neepsend   brick    works

                                                                                                                        at night, to sleep in the warm

                                                                                                                        shadow  of the massive kilns.

Announcing: ‘plastiCities: re-thinking the past, present and future of damaged topographies in urban environments’

FP montage

We are very excited to announce that an occursus led post-disciplinary bid for a major 5 year funded research project to investigate urban plasticity has been submitted this week. The bid is led by occursus director Amanda Crawley Jackson (French Studies, University of Sheffield), with  Luke Bennett (Built Environment – Sheffield Hallam University), Katja Hock (Fine Art – Nottingham Trent University), Tom Stafford (Psychology, University of Sheffield), John Barrett (Archaeology, University of Sheffield), Cristina Cerulli (SSoA), Vanessa Toulmin (University Head of Engagement) and Sophie Watt (French Studies, University of Sheffield). The bid is grounded upon the existing collaborations and explorations already catalysed by occursus and the Furnace park project, such as Scree (Bennett & Hock) and academic papers reflecting upon the site assembly phase of the Furnace Park Project (Bennett & Crawley Jackson).

We have set out the summary below that was submitted with the bid. We will know at the start of 2014 whether our bid has been shortlisted, and if successful in the process will commence this exciting project in October 2014. Fingers crossed!

plastiCities is a project about the damaged topographies that litter our contemporary urban environments – brownfield, neglected and abandoned sites; wastelands and tipping grounds; and the post-traumatic, post-industrial sites that are awkwardly left over in the gaps between regeneration and housing projects. A post-disciplinary team of researchers will investigate the ways in which recent advances in understanding the plasticity of the brain might help us repair and re-purpose such sites, evolve new futures for them and connect them to wider urban recovery. Through an innovative live project, Furnace Park in Sheffield, and through widening engagement with other similar projects, we will develop and disseminate effective and innovative practice through case studies, workshops, guidance notes and a variety of other resources (including extensive online media). Our concern in this project is to examine both how ‘wasteland’ sites have adaptive potential and to understand also those material and other resistive factors that retard change – for example, contamination, structural remnants, liability and powerful narratives of perceived risk, redundancy, blight and danger.

The fate of the places we are concerned with is wrapped up in their pasts, but there is an urgent need for these pasts to be considered in a more holistic way. It is precisely for this reason that the project engages voices from the arts and humanities in order to disrupt and re-cast perceptions, putting forward other visions and narratives of damaged topographies drawn from literature, art and film, in order to release and expose alternative futures. This will be complemented by the work of artists in residence and other creative practitioners who are embedded in the research team, alongside lawyers, geographers, archaeologists, psychologists, architects and literary and cultural theorists. Voices and expertise from the arts will therefore play a part in developing creative but also pragmatic responses to caring for the future of damaged topographies, acknowledging the resistance of the past while at the same time refusing to remain bound by it.

We will explore the idea that the past is multi-layered and multi-populated (by humans, animals and other things). We will suggest that it is as important to consider the materiality of the past as it is its human spectres. This stubborn materiality, we will argue, radiates out into our future, creating constraints and strange knock-on effects that we often struggle to understand within conventional forms of urbanism. The resonance of the past in the present and future is not always understood, but it is tangible nonetheless. The past piles up and forms the made ground of the sites humanity occupies, abandons and passes through.

This is what we mean by plasticity: first, it recognises the ways in which past, present and future are enfolded in and impact on each other. Secondly, it affords both the possibility of change and, in its appreciation of the vibrant agency of the ground itself (the site in which the past is barely contained), an acknowledgement of both contingency and constraint.

The ethos of our project is one of learning and reflecting through doing, as the gardener learns how to work her site through her hands-on engagement with it. From this vantage point, which characterises, critiques and builds on traditional and established practices within urbanism, we will develop novel ways of seeing, defining and managing damaged urban topographies in order to contribute tangibly to their future repair, recovery and resilience. We aim, finally, through this research, its dissemination and a series of spatial interventions, to improve community well being and show how other groups of practitioners, enthusiasts and citizens might reconsider and reconnect with  these ‘dead’ spaces, which have hitherto been assumed to exist outside of community purview.

‘Fixing a hole where the rain gets in': everyday inundation and the assault of objects

“I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in,

And stops my mind from wandering”

The Beatles (1967) ‘Fixing a hole’

So, I pick up the phone. It’s my mother calling to tell me how the first day of having her hallway and landing redecorated has gone.

So, I listen to the radio and Paul McCartney is trying to stop his mind wandering.

So, Twitter talk gets me thinking about Thomas Dolby’s 1982 LP, The Golden Age of Wireless.

So, I’m skim reading Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and I’m beguiled by its wild talk of poromechanics and Tellurian lubes.

So, I’m sitting in a class listening to student presentations. A colleague, urges the participants – next time – to take a note of the weather on the date of inspection. One fresh faced youth asks me why this is needed.

I’m not sure.

But my colleague explains:

“You see how the building works when it rains.

You notice whether the gutters manage to channel water,

you see how it encounters the exposed surfaces,

and whether they are watertight.

And in the wet air and its collision with cold zones

you see condensation saturating window panes.”

In the occurrence of wetness, a dynamic is revealed. A creeping wave of action – staged upon an event surface – rises to prominence and material finishes and conduits alike are subjected to a trial by ordeal. This is an inundation battle-space.

My colleague’s calm but confident acknowledgement of the revelatory agency of occasional precipitation leaves me slightly stunned. All the books I’ve been reading recently about object oriented ontology and vibrant matter tell me – in theoretical terms – that nature should be seen in this way, as agentive. But my colleague already gets this, and doesn’t need theory to guide her there. For her, buildings sit exposed to the elemental. They can be abstractified by the designer’s plans, marshalled for utilisation and valued using sophisticated techniques. But their properties are put to proof by a humble, universal (and unpredictable) visitor: rain.

“The copper cables all rust in the acid rain”

So sings Thomas Dolby in an album saturated with brooding wetness. I’ve known these songs for 30 years. Certain phrases – like this one – hang eternally in my mind, hummed mantra like in idle moments. These images of metal or flesh succumbing to a surfeit of hydration. Drowning, flood, clouds of enveloping damp air, all rolling into the scenes affecting the surfaces that they inundate. Wetness assailing human agency, curbing or ending life or co-opted as metaphor to the spent exhaustion of a liquid-like love:

“End of our summer

Your body weightless in condensation

My heart learned to swim

And the feeling was gone again”

I’m back in the phone call from my mother. She has great powers of recall, taking me through – blow by blow – the occurrence of her day. The story is dominated by surfaces and their disturbance; of the spatial and material disruption of re-decoration and specifically of the unsettling of her smoke detector, a sealed unit with no access to the battery inside.

The decorator had spent the day removing the existing wallpaper, exposing the raw poured concrete of this house’s walls, walls that bend any nail that you attempt to drive into them. The stairwell had filled with steam, tiny airborne particles of wallpaper and cement dust and an attendant sulphurous smell – so my mother curtly describes it – “of vomit”.

All of this has proved to be too much for the isotope encased in the smoke detector, steadily degenerating in the tick-tick of its half-life. This device works on the principle that smoke will disrupt that steady decay and the local ionisation that it will charge the air with, and the perturbation causes the alarm to go off.

This device has become spooked today. It has – my mother tells me, with jaded weariness in her voice – been intermittently going off every few minutes for the past 12 hours. She has improvised a paddle with which to waft the soiled air away and calm the nerves of this sentry, but the miasma now permeating the hallway, hanging as stale fetid damp air, keeps goading this sensor. The air and the sensor are locked in a quarrelsome dialogue, within the hallway of this now unsettled house, and there is little that she – as human bystander – can do about it.

A telephone call to the manufacturer’s helpline elicits a blank response – indeterminate advice on the theme of opening windows, repeated air-wafting and a polite chiding of

“well, we always recommend

that fire alarms are removed before any decorating works,

our alarms have very sensitive sensors you know”.

Bit late to tell me that now, my mother mouths through gritted teeth as she stares up at the agitated flying saucer pinned to her ceiling.

Reflecting on my mother’s account of her day, what struck me was how the entire event had been a narration of thing-led events, with her playing catch-up to the awkward interconnections and knock-on effects unleashed in the house by disturbing its equilibrium. This was description of an everyday encounter with matter, and a description of the rich challenge of simply facing matter – this was not things standing as symbols of ideas, positions or activities elsewhere. This was a description of an event in itself, born of an encounter with things themselves (walls, air, dust, an isotope). In the account the smoke alarm and its random bleeping was the story, there was nothing beyond the sheer irksomeness (and loss of control) experienced in this encounter.

As I thought about this I recalled something Daniel Miller wrote about the inherent experience of sari wearing in his book Stuff: that accounting for human relationships with saris should not just seek to characterise the symbolic role of sari wearing within cultures to which that apparel is indigenous, but rather also seek to explore the direct relationship of the wearer to the ‘thing itself’ – to give an account of the wrappings, the weight, the shaping of movement of the wearer: the embodied experience of the act of wearing this garment.

The weight of the sari should be heard for and of itself.

The smoke alarm in my mother’s hallway found a way to make itself heard today. Tomorrow it will fall silent. It will be wrenched from the ceiling, taken outside by my uncle, and rudely put to death with a brick. As he carries the disc to its point of brutal disassembly, a waft of fuggy air will no doubt follow out in his wake, stale air drawn inexorably towards the cooler outdoors with the opening of the door. The house will exhale, and – as it wafts past – the tendril of fetid house-breath will perhaps look down disdainfully at the now-vanquished smoke detector lying like a crushed insect in the yard, its battery and isotope now leaking their modest wet danger into the gaps between the paving slabs beneath.

References

Dolby, T (1982) The Golden Age of Wireless, Venice in Peril/EMI (LP): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Age_of_Wireless

Miller, D. (2009) Stuff, Polity: Cambridge

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia  – complicity with anonymous materials, re.press: Melbourne

Image source: http://news.warwickshire.gov.uk/blog/2012/10/26/check-smoke-alarms-as-you-check-clocks/

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