What happens after? Thoughts on dark real estate, legal psychogeography and bunker-pooh.

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Back in the bunker

So, I’m standing in the sparse canteen, sipping a glass of something fizzy. My neighbour turns to me and we exchange names. Then there’s a pause. She looks at me quizzically. ‘You’re Luke Bennett? You’re Luke Bennett?’ She looks like her mind is trying to catch up. There’s something about me that apparently doesn’t fit my name. She’s a cultural geographer, we’re in York Cold War Bunker and I’m amused. This isn’t the first time this has happened.

I have two arms, two legs, stand just over six feet tall and have no distinctive features. My once very dark brown hair is starting to look like I’ve been in a fight with a sack of flour. I’m middle aged and dress like it. I’m not sure what she was expecting me to look like (or be like), but from the work of mine that she’d read it seemed that she was expecting something different.

I then gleefully enhanced the mind-warp effect by explaining that I’m not a card-carrying geographer, but instead a slightly wayward environmental lawyer who spends his daylight hours teaching real estate students. To add the knockout blow I then introduced my SHU colleague, Sarah (a chartered surveyor) and explained how we are currently working on a project that explores the role of estate managers and estate agents within the ROC Post network, and that we’re spending most of our time looking at old Air Ministry estate management files, Land Registry title records and  landowner’s files. We think (and our bunker-acquaintance agreed) that this focus on the day to day forming, holding-together and dissembling of the ROC Post network is an angle that’s not been done before, and that it is worth doing.

Since finishing my PhD journey last month I’ve had lots of people coming up to me asking me one or both of the following: ‘So, what’s your next project then?’ and ‘so, are you going to leave SHU now?’. In reply to the second question is: ‘No, I’m not’ and the answer to the first is more complex. My PhD portfolio took me up to work published in 2013. I’ve carried on working on further projects since, and still have some of these in hand (and others in prospect). So, in that sense it’s just a case of keeping on going. I’m still interested in the same fundamental question (how we make, manage and encounter the built world through discursive-materialities) and I still prefer investigating this through case studies. Maybe there has been some subtle refocussing since 2013 – trying to pull the strands more closely together, and so recent work has tried to pull the legal geography and ruins stuff together (and I’m working on a very exciting funding bid on that, more on that when it’s not secret). Maybe also I’m getting a bit more historical in my focus – I’m finding the lure of archives an appealing one. I miss my days spent trawling through stacks of documents as a lawyer, looking for a smoking gun.

But I can’t seem to escape the bunker. My bunkerology is continuing via the book project (now entitled ‘In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, Materiality and Meaning-making), which has been commissioned by Rowman & Littlefield International, and I have 12 contributors inputting to that.

As I strolled around No. 20 Group (York) ROC command bunker last night, all sorts of future angles proliferated. One study that I’d attempt, if I had more time and was even more dissident, would be on bunker-pooh. Yes, bunker-pooh. There’s a ‘sewage ejector’ machine in the York bunker. The sign indicated that this would – if the drains became blocked – expel excrement from the shelter, presumably at quite some speed and force. That certainly summons a strange image and related set of questions (was that machine the culmination of a technician’s life’s work?; was there a committee that identified the need for a shit-cannon?). I’ve tried (and failed) to encourage a fellow academic bunkerologist to write up his findings on problematic pooh at his bunker. He’s far more serious-minded than me though. His research identified that his bunker had revealed itself to the surrounding, outside, everyday world precisely because of its noxious emissions. That bunker’s existence wasn’t ferreted out by valiant oppositional detective work. It was disclosed by wayward excrement.

Anyway. You get the idea – wandering around a bunker you get to encounter all of the technology and logistics of basic human existence. The bunker thus becomes organic, in that it must have mechanical organs to duplicate/aggregate its human denizens’ bodies. It is like walking around inside a body.

The other thing (in a related, but non-scatological vein) that drew my attention was the bureaucratic architecture of resource depletion. This bunker was stocked for 30 days of operation. The commanding officer had a chart on the wall on which he would meticulously log how much food and other consumables were left. When these ran out the bunker’s role (and operability) would expire, along with its occupants too, unless they chose to leave and take their chances in the post-apocalyptic terrain beyond the entrance hatch. This place only offered temporary survival, and had no provision for beyond that. It was a place of pure function and duty (to co-ordinate ROC Post fall-out observations).

Dark Real Estate

Earlier this week, ‘Becoming Spatial Detectives’ my synoptic review of legal geography (co-authored with Antonia Layard) was published in the journal Geography Compass (it’s available open access here). If you want to know how we’d like legal geography to evolve, or you are curious about shipwreck cannibalism, we think it’s well worth a read.

By exploring the legal geography direction, and in other projects examining the fate of particular place-formations, I’ve found a way of re-embracing my law, and also ‘land management’ sides, but doing so within a context that is productive for the existing geographically-inclined topics that I’ve been exploring to date. Maybe such a conjunction needs a name, with Carolyn Gibbeson (another hybrid surveyor/cultural geographer) we’ve come up with ‘dark real estate’. My work has been on bunkers, Carolyn’s is on abandoned mental asylums, and a few years ago we wrote jointly about cemeteries. That makes it all sound like murder-house studies (an emergent sub-genre in the US), but I think its wider, less about studying stigma and more about examining redundancy and the awkwardness of afteruse for properties of a type that are too big (asylums) or too small (ROC Posts) to be either easily repurposed or erased. The intended analogy is with ‘dark tourism’ studies, but I’m also thinking of that more technical sense of ‘occult’ (occluded, hidden, not noticed). In some ways ‘grey real estate’ would be better (in terms of linking to ‘studies of everyday life’), but just as ‘dark real estate’ sounds a little too gothic, ‘grey real estate’ sounds self-defeatingly dull. So, ‘dark’ it is, for now at least.

Each of us (often separately, occasionally simultaneously) hangs out with geographers (and our work often makes more immediate sense to geographers and the wider humanities than to the econometrics dominated world of ‘real estate research’). We use qualitative research methods and cultural geographic concepts, and yet we’re also addressing questions that are (or we think should be) central to studies of how types of buildings (and the places that they form) persist (or don’t).

In pursuit of this question, I also seem to have fallen into the company of contemporary archaeologists recently (those who apply archaeological methods to the physical remains of recently abandoned places). I’m trying to work through the relationship between their near-present focus on built environment heritage, and our dark real estate near-past focus on passage of buildings through use-phases (and their ultimate arrival at redundancy). I’m speaking on this at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference in Sheffield in November, so it will be interesting to see how that goes, particularly as I will be building my talk around the (archive based) ROC Project.

Multiple faces

To return to the beginning.

Doing ‘dark real estate’, places us at the boundary between two (or more) very different disciplines, slightly orphaned, but also strangely empowered because our vantage point lets us be in both worlds, and to mediate between the two. This inevitably entails a degree of active management of the presentation of self (as Erving Goffman would put it). We adjust our register, and present slightly different faces as we engage with each audience. This is much easier to manage in hyperspace though (i.e. through this blog). In face to face encounters it seems to trigger those uncomprehending looks and someone frantically strives to pigeonhole us into one or other identity. It’s hardest when the diverse communities are all in the same room at the same time – and you are trying to address them all at once.

In my last post I wrote about this selectivity of ‘faces to the world’, and of how we never show (nor indeed ever could show) all of the versions of ourselves to the world in one go. We code-switch as circumstances require. This links to a key argument in my contribution to Tina Richardson’s edited collection Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography, published earlier this week. My chapter is called ‘Incongrous steps toward a legal psychogeography’. In being part of this collection I align to a more arts and humanities milieu in style and methods, but my aim in doing so is actually to fly the flag for an attentiveness to the constitution of the built environment, the actual laws (rather than the ‘social’ laws that Guy Debord thought psychogeography could uncover). To achieve this (and to subvert the existing legal geography canon in doing so along the way) I take a passage from Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp (2012) and apply détournement to it – making Nick’s words work for me, taking them for a walk in a different direction (Nick and I have corresponded and he’s told me that the two passages my chapter works with were ‘passing thoughts’ in his text, so it’s me not he who builds them toward significance). Anyway, here’s an excerpt from my chapter:

“…Papadimitriou takes us – early on in his traverse along the escarpment of what is now the lost county of Middlesex – to ‘Suicide Corner’, a stretch of the A41 snaking out its path North West of London. He recounts for us a succession of fatal car crashes, and of the people, creatures and other matter caught up in each event that occurred there. In doing so he draws forth isolated incidents, from the pages of long forgotten local newspapers and memory, activating these incidental archives in order to show a reverberation of these events within the landscape itself.

At one point in his rumination Papadimitriou figures an anonymous “civil engineer working for the transport ministry” who “through eyeing the scraggy wood just to the north of the farmhouse, sees only camber, curve and how best to extend the planned M1 extension over this high ground from its present terminus” (Papadimitriou 2012, 20).

Papadimitriou captures in this passage how the task-orientated gaze of the engineer sees the topography as a set of logistical challenges, a puzzle to solve as he works through in his mind’s eye the most feasible path for his roadway. Papadimitriou’s description seeks to show how all other sensory inputs are blocked (or discarded) as irrelevant to this man’s purpose. He is standing there for a reason. He is harvesting the landscape for what he needs today. This applied gaze foregrounds certain features, and backgrounds all else. This spectator is in the engineering-professional equivalent of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 2008 – for whom flow is an optimal immersion in the moment, marked by both physiological and psychological change). He is portrayed as at one with his task, the landscape presenting to him as a specific “taskscape” (Ingold 1993, 1570) – the very perception of a landscape being formed by the requirements of the task to be carried out there.

And yet, Papadimitriou then importantly shows how even that intent focus is vulnerable to undermining by the assault of the disregarded ‘background’, as an irresistible reverie – or least a momentary noticing of other things – takes hold:

Momentarily distracted from his plans by the chirping of some unnamable night bird, he looks eastwards across the brightly lit Edgware Way, towards the high ground at Edgewarebury. Perhaps moved by some spontaneous memory of childhood holidays spent in the New Forest, his imagination lingers in the woods and fields like a slowly drifting plant community and then dissolves into ditches lined with black waterlogged leaves – a residue of previous summers – and the ghosts of dead insects (Papadimitriou 2012, 20).

I then chart how this connects to the material-affective turn in cultural geography (suggesting that it’s time to recognise psychogeography’s affinity with Non Representational Theory (Thrift 2008)) and then try to switch psychogeography’s attachment to an escapist ‘reverie’ back upon itself, thus:

“But, there is more work to be done. Whilst the landscape poet can happily leave us with a Romantic resurgence of ‘nature’ overwhelming instrumentalist man, psychogeography’s embrace of incongruity can – and should – be taken further. Psychogeography should equally be able to show how the workaday preoccupations of an instrumentalist science can invade a thought-stream of more affective purpose, showing how the ‘straight’ world reasserts itself, barging itself back to the foreground, in short how it re-colonizes consciousness and gaze. So for example, Papadimitriou’s engineer’s reverie – his tumble back to environment related childhood memories – is fleeting, itself inevitably undermined by the ‘day job’ returning to his consciousness, the ‘real world’ bringing him back down to earth, and back to the prosaic task in hand, as he turns away from reminiscence and resumes his survey of this countryside and its future road course.”

I then go on to suggest that Legal Geography’s recent interest in the pragmatics of everyday engagement with (and production of) place could provide the avenue for fulfilling Debord’s prescription that:

“Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” (Debord, 1955).

Elsewhere I try to outline the methodology that lies at the heart of this disciplinary-blurring intent (lining it to James Clifford’s (1988) ‘ethnographic surrealism’).

I’m really pleased with this essay (and slightly frustrated that for copyright reasons I can only put snippets here). But if dark real estate has a programme, if it has a methodology and if it has a sense of playfulness, it is here…

References

Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture – Twentieth Century ethnography, literature, and art. London: Harvard University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 2008. Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. London: Harper Perennial.

Debord, Guy. 1955. “Introduction to a critique of urban geography”. Les Levres Nues, 6. http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2.

Ingold, Tim. 1993. “The Temporality of the Landscape”. World Archaeology, 25(2): 152-174.

Papadimitriou, Nick. 2012. Scarp: in search of London’s outer limits. London: Sceptre.

Thrift, Nigel. 2008. Non-representational Theory: Space, Politics and Affect. Abingdon: Routledge.

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What’s so special about bunkers anyway? – a tentative answer from the RGS Cold War Bunkers sessions

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What’s so special about bunkers anyway?

That question came up yesterday, at the RGS 2014 conference’s day-long session on Cold War Bunkers. The question was actually, what’s so special about Cold War bunkers?, but widening it out opens a bigger provocation.

As I write I’m sitting in a cramped train compartment, my elbows intruding upon my neighbour as I clumsily type this. If she glances across in this artificially intimate space she will see that I’m now writing about her. I feel compelled to type quickly so that these words will scroll up out of view. But my point in mentioning my physical predicament in writing this is that here I’m in an unusually confined space, this is a place of singular purpose (conveyance), here special codes of embodiment and behaviour rule, and where necessarily I surrender to physical forces that I cannot control (pulling my body backwards at speed to Sheffield). My view from my window is fractional, my vision half blocked by labels warning me of deadly danger should I feel inclined to stick my head out of the window, or to engage with live rail and overhead wires, in each case should I proceed to instigate an escape from this capsule using the emergency hammer presented exquisitely in a glazed recess above my head. This portion of the carriage – with its contemplation of dangerous exceptional futures, and the need to script and physically enable them is oddly bunker-like, and yet if I proposed a conference session on train spaces I don’t think I’d get 18 high quality papers examining carriage-confinement from a variety of disciplines (geography, film, theatre, anthropology, history, archaeology, heritage, architecture and fine art) from the UK, Netherlands, Norway, Cuba, Germany and Switzerland.

So, why did I get them in reply to a call for papers on Cold War bunkers? Does this imply that there is something special about studying confinement, extremis, bodies and materiality in these concrete chambers?

Probably. It’s something that I need to unpack more, but here are my first thoughts on this important question, grouped for convenience (but not as a manifesto, other formulations and critiques are possible and welcome).

Bunkers as therapy

I find that often when I let slip my bunker-thing in conversation that first reactions are a mix of incredulity and distain, a why would you expose yourself to ridicule in spending time on such a perverse topic?  To which my stock reply is either it’s the universality of your distain that I want to understand, why do you regard it as unsuited to scrutiny? or to let them simply carry on talking, because usually – within a sentence or two – they’ve started telling me about their recollections of growing up in the nuclear angst of the 1980s, of relatives with some connection to war institutions or of  a room or shed at their home that – they wonder – might be a bunker. So, something’s there, just below the surface and in bunker-talk situations it comes tentatively to the surface.

The artists participating in the bunkers conference sessions (Kathrine Sandys, Matthew Flintham, Stephen Felingham and Louise K. Wilson) all acknowledged that there work was influenced by this sublimated, formative anxiety of youth (and yes, I realise that nuclear weapons are still as real as they ever where, but the cultural situation has changed, a specifically nuclear anxiety has faded from now, and become then). Nuclear bunkers, represent a there, at which to recover something that has gone (or at least changed) since then. Thus as ruins (intact or otherwise) the abandoned bunker becomes a site for evocative reflection on a war that never was, and end that never came. And yes, that refection is made from a place of safety. It is precisely because it is past that it is safe to ponder, and perhaps even to play, with that past. The bunker (each individually, and collectively in the networks and taskscapes that they comprise in aggregate) are a join-the-dots puzzle that can now be performed and whether as recovery, recuperation and/or recreation.

And within the conference room yesterday, there was a palpable shared sense of that familiar refrain (usually reached by paragraph three of the ‘let them talk’ scenario above) Phew, it’s not just me then. Frequently it felt like a group therapy session – a Bunkers Anonymous for those still haunted somehow by nuclear bunkers.

Bunker as place of work

But (and this but was possibly the most important point to emerge yesterday). This ‘bunker as post traumatic landscape’ angle (to adopt Amanda Crawley Jackson’s phrase) is not the only form of bunker signification that can be observed at work. It is not the only reason why people draw together, in thrall to the bunker.

This was exemplified by separate contributions from archaeologists Bob Clarke (University of Exeter) and Steven Leech (University of Manchester), and by contributions by Kevin Booth and Racheal Bowers of English Heritage. These places are often held in fond regard by those who once worked there. The reminiscences these bunker visitors are not about the psychic damage of having once worked with the rehearsal of world-ending. If there is trauma at all, it is that of a job, role, communal purpose having abruptly come to an end with waves of bunker decommissioning – and the standing down of the Royal Observer Corps, at the end of the Cold War and an attendant alienation effect (Clarke calls this ‘disenfranchisement’) caused by that abandonment of roles and practices that had given ROC members a  sense of purpose (and specifically that of duty and service) and a regular acquaintance with weekends of bunker dwelling camaraderie. As Steven Leech showed us, this network of identities lives on in the recursive ritual life observable at ad hoc ‘preservation’ sites, like a former RAF radar station now manned by ex-services personnel turned volunteer guides, in each stride, word and caress exhibiting their strong attachment to the knowledges, practices and artefacts of a once purposeful bunker.

Bunker as exceptional space

The artists, and also other speakers pointed to the special spatial and atmospheric properties of bunkers, with John Beck (University of Westminster) pointing to the irony of watching films about bunker confinements within similarly confined dark spaces – cinemas. Meanwhile Katherine Sandys (Rose Bruford College) explored the use of light and sound to subtly demark what would otherwise be the pitch black, non-spaces within bunkers. Louise K. Wilson took back to Orford Ness, a military site which has – in the footsteps of W.G. Sebald’s visit – achieved iconic (and some might say hackneyed) status in bunker and ruin writing. Louise pondered the pros and cons of this eternal return to the Suffolk shingle strip and constant re-meditation on the nature-reclaiming-ruins riff as it plays out upon this site and its Pagoda-like bomb fuse testing bunkers. How many ways are there to portray sea-salted air corroding military metal and concrete, and does it matter if methods are re-performed, are we too obsessed with ‘firsts’ and originality? Dutch architect Arno Geesink (Kraft Architectuur) then guided us through is exploration of Cold War structures in Arnhem, and of their novelty as forms, and the possibilities of their creative repurposing.

And the bunker is also a novel geopolitical place – the space, practices and purposes of the bunker rendering it characteristic of a space of exception, or heterotopia. Zoe Svendsen (University of Cambridge) showed how her studies of Cambridge’s bunkers had influenced subsequent performance work on the geopolitical performance of crisis decision making within confined, purely logistical space. Ian Klinke (University of Oxford), then picked up this point in his study of the West German Government’s bunker HQ, and its war game exercises there. Thus the bunker was presented as a place of unusual atmospheres, shapes and spatial arrangements. But it was also shown to materially embody distilled geopolitical goals and single purpose logistics, forming abject citadels of death and survival via mundane repeat performance of processual rehearsals within these redoubts.

Bunker as geopolitical bodies

Ian Klinke’s paper pointed to the internal and external political effects of the bunker – situating the bunker as a localisation of vital nodes of geopolitical systems, and in doing so brought forth from the inevitable focus upon the confined spaces and logistics at work there, a sense of the bunker as a place of bodily conditioning. This theme was also developed by Silvia Berger Ziauddin (University of Zurich) in her examination of the Swiss Government’s requirement that all domestic dwellings must have a basement bunker – a requirement still in force today. She pointed to the dual relationship of technical compliance with this physical directive, but with the widespread flouting of related commands seeking to condition citizen’s bodies and their weekly routines, rather than their buildings. These performative ordinances never managed to turn the Swiss into regular testers of their own bunkers, and despite such (unenforced) requirements for dry-runs and attentive upkeep of their shelters, a diverse range of cultural engagement (and non-engagement) with these ubiquitous bunkers ensued.

But bunkers come in all shapes and sizes, with markedly different degrees of visibility. In contrast to the Swiss government’s hollow exhortations seeking to prompt a public engagement with their domestic bunkers, state secrecy was the order of the day in UK Cold War – Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) and Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) highlighted the limits of their archival based attempts at researching the still closed to access Guardian Exchange complex beneath the streets of central Manchester. Here, the lingering effect of official secrecy and techno-bureaucratic exceptionalism deny any glimpse of this bunker or of those who worked there. Here, the bunker’s geopolitical bodies are those conditioned to be excluded from access to it, either physically or in terms of clear representation of it.   This theme was echoed in a number of papers via the notion of ‘hiding in plain site’ – that such bunkers (in terms of there sheer physical existence at least) are never hidden from view, yet somehow we learned not to notice them. Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth College of Art) shared with us his attempts at finding ways to mobilise peripheral vision as a way of bringing the half-noticed into view in his ROC post drawings. This contrasted interestingly with Gunnar Maus’ (University of Kiel) work to characterise public engagements in (the former) West Germany with Cold War remains. Maus showed how the same mundane bunker-objects (in his distributed local stores for demolition munitions) were the subject of signifying attention by a variety of communities of practice, with each took from that material the opportunity to construct different uses, and knowledge accumulating and circulating practices about these multiple bunkers – and whether as state heritage official, bunkerologist or geo-cacher. Yet still – for most passers-by, these structures remained unnoticed amidst the West German border’s roadways, bridges and forests.

Bunker materialities

Stephen Felmingham also showed us close up the mundane materiality of the ROC Post form as it was co-opted into his drawings, performed on-site in the bowels of these small dank chambers, soot and other residues purposively incorporated into his pictures. Elsewhere we zoomed out to a wider scale. Bunkers are places where form unapologetically follows function, and yet these monolithic structures, where visible above ground can take on mountain-like or monumental forms. Artist Matthew Flintham (University of Newcastle) took us – through lingering film treatment – to a vast concrete fort establishment in Norway, co-opting a group of children as guides to the surfaces, textures and scale of this now ruined structure – in doing so positioning this man-made mountain within its landscape, unsettling clear notions of where the bunker ends and ‘nature’ begins. This point was also brought to the fore in Maria Alejanda Perez’s (University of West Virginia) work on the revolutionary and military interest in cave complexes within Cuba during the Cold War, reminding us that many of the larger bunker complexes around the world are actually modified cave systems and/or former underground stone quarries. The seeming semantic gap between man-made and natural places of confinement and shelter is destabilised by such hybridisation, concrete and limestone are two variants of essentially the same matter.  Here stalactites – to be found emergent in both – come into play as linking devices, reminding us that underground structures are more unstable than their surface cousins – under attack constantly from water ingress from above, below and all around. These subterranean chambers defy the water which they have displaced from the surrounding earth, but that water seeks ways back in, afflicting the bunker and artefacts and people in it with dampness, mold and calcite formations, testifying to the particular dynamics of water led ruination faced by the bunker, as illustrated by the early fortunes of York ROC HQ bunker after it came into the hands of English Heritage, and the curators struggled not just with questions of authenticity, but also those of air quality. The underground bunker, then – stands in unique testimony to the limits (or at least the difficulties of) human colonisation of the ‘underworld’, yet also of its affinity with the universality of cave dwelling.

So, that’s what I’ve come up with so far. The question (what makes bunkers special) is still bouncing around in my head. There is more to be done on this, and no doubt it will influence the edited volume that we’re now planning as an output from this day spent peering into the bunker.

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return. Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

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As a great proof of the merits of  ‘follow your instincts’ and see what happens, I’ve now been invited to give a presentation – as part of a symposium at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 15 May 2014 – about the legal aspect of doing Land Art in abandoned quarries. This nicely adds to the symposium work I’ve done on law and abandoned quarries elsewhere in the last 18 months for the British Mountaineering Council (climbing in them), the National Water Safety Forum (swimming in them) and the Mineral Products Association (not dying in them). It also marks another step in the strange convergence of what once seemed a very dichotomous project: the occupiers’ liability stuff on one hand vs the urban exploration/psychogeography/bunkerology stuff on the other. This is both, in a single event!

So here’s the organisers’ promo for the event, followed by my abstract…

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return 
Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

This one-day symposium, led by artists Charles Danby and Rob Smith, in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979’ (5 April – 15 June 2014), has been organised in collaboration with the Arts Council Collection, Northumbria University and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The symposium explores Land Art in relation to contemporary practices and historical precedents. It investigates the quarry as an active physical site for the production of new artworks and for the re-visiting of past works. Bringing together theoretical and practical positions in relation to chalk and limestone quarries, it focuses on approaches leading to the making of works, films, documents, field recordings and archives.

In the anthropocene the quarry becomes a site of new relations, that connects historical, material, technological and social revision through changing land use and post-industrial / post-ecological occupation. The day will examine the status of these quarry sites, the removal of materials, their social and physical reparation and the negotiation of their borders and thresholds in physical, legal and artistic frameworks, through to what Robert Smithson characterised as ‘an expensive non-site’ in 1969, the moon, as a speculative quarry.

Details of the speakers

Joy Sleeman – Senior Lecturer at Slade School of Art, University College London, and co-curator of Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/people/academic/profile/ASLEE78

Luke Bennett – Senior Lecturer in the Department of Natural & Built Environment at Sheffield Hallum University and researcher into owner and climber attitudes to recreational access to abandoned quarries
http://www.shu.ac.uk/faculties/ds/built-environment/staff/luke-bennett.html
http://www.lukebennett13.wordpress.com

Charles Danby – Artist, writer, curator & Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, Northumbria University
http://charliedanby.co.uk/
http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/sd/academic/sass/about/arts/staff/charlesdanby

Rob Smith – Artist and co-director of Field Broadcast
http://robsmith.me.uk
http://fieldbroadcast.org

Onya McCausland – Artist and co-researcher of Turning Landscape into Colour
http://turninglandscape.com/

Mark Peter Wright – Artist and editor of Ear Room and researcher with CRIASP, London College of Communication
http://www.crisap.org/index.php?id=40,393,0,0,1,0
http://mpwright.wordpress.com

Rob La Frenais – Critic and curator at Art Catalyst, and founder of Performance Magazine
http://www.artscatalyst.org

Neal White (video screening)- Artist and Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice at Bournemouth University, Director of Emerge – Experimental Media Research Group, and founder of the Office of Experiments
http://www.nealwhite.org
http://staffprofiles.bournemouth.ac.uk/display/whiten

For booking visit: www.thequarry.org.uk

And my abstract:

Encountering law and land art in abandoned quarries – excavation, legacy, return

My research work focuses upon the intersection of legal, aesthetic and pragmatic site management practices in the stewardship and re-valorisation of abandoned and/or physically damaged places such as quarries, derelict factories and decommissioned military sites. My presentation will explore the (feint) intertwined presence of law, proprietors and enthusiastic  ‘re-energisers’ within abandoned quarries. In doing so it will draw from my former experiences as an environmental lawyer advising on the decommissioning and safeguarding of extractive industry sites, as an academic now teaching land managers and as an active researcher of enthusiast groups who seek access to derelict spaces for recreational, creative or illicit purposes. My research work on quarries is  characterised by a desire to understand both how these places are forgotten, and how they are re-activated by enthusiasts finding new uses for them (and of the ‘challenges’ this may pose for their owners). This ongoing research project is ‘multi-stakeholder’ and opportunistic in nature, with me seeking to explore and understand each perspective and its processes of meaning making, within specific sites of occurrence. My project thus has at times been deeply ‘managerial’ in focus and at other points has explored the affective dimension. Thus at various points my project has seen interest and support from key stakeholder groups, including the Forestry Commission, the British Mountaineering Council, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Mineral Products Association and also a small commission in 2013 from the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund to research and write Scree, a deep topographical assay (with photographer Katja Hock – Nottingham Trent University) of the mine and wastescape of an excavated industrial hillside in the heart of Sheffield. In addition to giving an account of my various investigations, my presentation will also sketch out the key legal drivers that shape managers’ and regulators perceptions (and anxieties) about these voids, in doing so touching on the legal-materialities of spoil-spreading waste disposal scams, restoration and instability, contamination, re-mining and how the proximity of humans alters the legal status of excavated rock faces and abandoned mineshafts.

Living with the dead – notes from the ‘Community of the Dead’ conference – 30/1/14, Cambridge

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The following are my notes and thoughts from a one day conference organised by Anglia Law School (Anglia Ruskin University) on:

“the contested claims to human remains and our relationship both individually and as a community with the remains of the dead. This conference engages both with this relationship and the practical difficulties of the ever-increasing challenge of full cemeteries and the exhumation of remains in the course of construction and archaeological excavations” (ARU 2014)

The dead amongst us

Carl Jung pictured the collective unconscious, using the metaphor of a house: specifically of waking up to find the dead in the basement. Ian Hodder (2012) has found a real life mirror for this metaphor – a Neolithic civilisation at ÇatalhÖyÜk in what is now Turkey, who inserted the remains of their predecessors into the very fabric of their homes – skulls incorporated into structural columns and the dead buried beneath their homes’ plastered floors. In contrast we in northern Europe rarely visit our basements, and certainly would not expect to confront the remains of our ancestors there.

Whilst the dead vastly outnumber the living, they are usually invisible to us. We only glimpse the dead of generations whose lives didn’t overlap with our own in a fragmentary way. We stumble upon their texts, their artefacts, their graves and – only very occasionally for most of us – their bones.

This multidisciplinary conference looked at our relationship to the materiality of the dead – of our laws, procedures, cultures and technologies as they interface with mortal remains. In these notes I will highlight themes that meant most to me. This account in no way claims to be definitive, particularly authoritative or even complete. It is not a transcript, and reorders the flow of points and, perhaps, finds meaning other than what was actually intended by the presenters.

The conference was advertised under the banner of ‘the community of the dead’ but it quickly became clear that no single community could be ascribed to that title, and indeed none of the presenters figured the dead themselves as being the community in question. The presentations actually accounted for a number of different communities of the living constellated around bones. I will therefore use this multiplicity as a way to present my notes – looking at each presentation as indicative of one of a number of communities of the dead.

Bones and the community of the living

Event organiser, Jane Martin of Anglia Law School opened the conference with a case study based upon her own village and a barrow noticed in a recently constructed municipal cemetery, subtitling her talk “a confusion of bones in our landscape” she set out the quest that she had undertaken to make sense of this strange local hump. Her finding was that the barrow was indeed of recent origin – built by the Parish Council for the interment of the skeletal remains of four Anglo Saxons, from a cache of 60 discovered during nearby housing development works.

For Martin this investigation was anchored in her wanting to understand her place in history – to become more deeply embedded in her adopted local community. Likewise she saw the actions of the Parish Council as that of the living reaching out to the dead – bringing the dead into our reality to make sense of our continuity. This engagement, therefore, was essentially a question of belonging and communion. It seemed to matter little, in this civic plan, that only a fraction of the human remains were being interred in this structure, or that a barrow-style burial would not have been in keeping with the modest 6th century AD fortunes of the village.

Martin concluded that just as ancient barrows were placed into the landscape as territorial markers – using the bones of the dead to make a foundational point about the living’s claim to place – so the ‘new’ barrow was doing just that – making a statement about place and territory in the early twenty first century.

Bones, pipes and wires – the community of function and future

Martin’s presentation was followed, by a contrasting presentation from John Doyle, a Construction Manager working on Crossrail, with particular responsibility for the Liverpool Street element of the project. Doyle’s presentation intriguingly spent much time outlining the elements and aspirations of the complex construction works programme. Through this he revealed a community that deals in change, future and the maintenance of life sustaining urban functions: development and construction. Doyle illustrated the complexity of the existing subterranean realm at the site – of the existing services – the pipes, cables, machine rooms, tunnels and conduits that must all be moved before work on the construction of the new underground station can begin. Amidst images of engineering diagrams, superimposing what-is-to-be upon what-needs-to-be-moved, mention of an area of ‘archaeological’ constraint finally emerged. Thus the 4,000 or so bodies interred in the former Bedlam Hospital cemetery would need to be excavated in order that the utilities could be repositioned as a preliminary for freeing up the three dimensional ‘box’ to be excavated for the underground station – a project element described functionally and dispassionately in project documents as “sterilisation of the ticket hall footprint”.

In presenting the issue of bones in this light, they fell into an entangled relationship (both conceptually and literally) with the wires, pipes and other enabling works. The bones were given no priority, accorded no special level of difficulty or ontology. Doyle did explain the particularity of the processes triggered by the encounter with these bones, but it was this meshing aspect – the bones as just another constraint to be solved – that struck me most.

That, and his – almost tender – description of the fragility of cast iron Victorian water mains, and the great care needed to avoid them shattering when being worked upon. Perhaps this – in contrast to his more matter of fact references to the exhumation of the cemetery – reflected a differential in the level of contact – that others (archaeologists and ‘clearance contractors’ as exhumation teams seem to be known) exhibit care upon the bones, and that he and his construction colleagues are more directly involved in care for the frailty of pipes, the care of adjacent buildings, the care of workers going onto deep excavations and the hazards therein.

I intend no criticism by these observations – I think it’s really interesting that the bones were incorporated into the overall process – they were not seen as standing in some separate realm.

The possibilities that inhere in bone – the Edinburgh University Bones Collective

Dr Joost Fontein and Dr John Harris, both of Edinburgh University’s ‘Bones Collective’, gave a joint presentation each illustrating through field examples (Newfoundland and Zimbabwe) what bones do to people, what they enable, afford, provoke, constrain or allow. They presented these as excessive potentialities – actions that are object forming in the sense that the bones have no stable meaning in and of themselves and become a projection space for a variety of communities and purposes in their unearthing and subsequent attempts to stabilise their meaning, once these “hard enduring remains of humanity [have been] dragged into visibility” for our purposes (whether ethical, scientific, forensic or otherwise). In short, they become embroiled in a “politics of remaking” (both quotes Harris) – both remaking the physicality of the skeleton, as an assemblage of bones, and remaking meaning for the unearthed elements as they pass between multiple hands and purposes.

In his case study, Fontein gave a glimpse of an alien – to us – mode of interpreting bones, with the vernacular exhumation techniques used by war veterans in Zimbabwe, and in particular their use of spirit mediums to identify the bodies, a practice proudly defended in counter to criticism by European observers of their lack of formal forensic expertise with the anti-colonial retort “we use African methods here”. He also pointed to the important role of material culture in the sense making process – that in these exhumations items such a mobile phones found with the bones were richer information about the provenance of the bones than the bones themselves.

Like Harris, Fontein emphasised the processual aspect of bones – that they are caught up in a flow of material and meaning. Their location, assemblies, condition and meaning change over time. As such, their assemblages are made and remade repeatedly. Bones resist stabilisation, they remain unsettled unless and until a final accommodation can be made for them, facing contestation and controversy along the way. Constantly those charged with care of the dead strive to achieve this finality and whether through physical means or conceptual assignment, but slippage remains a potentiality in all cases. The bones cannot be totalised, they cannot be fully laid to rest.

Working with old bones – the community of archaeologists

A number of speakers pointed to the ambiguous relationship between archaeologists and bones, but it was Duncan Sawyer’s (UCLAN) presentation that set this ambiguity – and its essential tension regarding the obtaining and holding of bones by archaeologists in the name of scientific enquiry – to most sustained analysis. Bones have always been seen as research material, but Sawyer explained that it is only since the mid 1960s in the UK that digging up bones by archaeologists has been seen as having ethical connotations, and – in particular – that it has come to be regarded as subject to the exhumation licensing requirements of the Burial Act 1857.

Sawyer charted the course of this recent history, of the evolution of Ministry of Justice guidance and illustrated by reference to projects both the frustration of archaeologists at having to give up research material for reburial and public concern at insensitive treatment of human remains. In doing so he revealed how progressively archaeologists have come to realise that the law does indeed apply to them.

Contestation remains however around how long archaeologists should have for the analysis of excavated human remains, and in what circumstances they might – on the basis of ‘national’ research value – be retained indefinitely. Debate remains around what reburial actually should entail, and whether the requirement to screen exhumation sites from public view serves any purpose – there being no clear idea as to whom that requirement is meant to protect – whether the sensibilities of bystanders or the dignity of the dead.

Bones, flesh and the demands of making and maintaining burial spaces – communities of need

Julie Rugg of York University’s Cemetery Group articulated the world of the policy maker – and also that of burial authorities who must find sufficient space for the dead. Rugg explained that with cremation rates now plateaued at 70% the need for burial space remains a pressing one. Rugg sought to interrogate attitudes both towards the dead, their corpses and also to their decomposition. For her, the stage of passing beyond bones – the eventual disintegration of the remains and their dispersal into the ground of the surrounding burial plot was a part of the process of burial that had least public purchase – the dematerialisation of the dead in their graves. Rugg argued that if policy could better understand this process of disappearance, advocacy of the re-use of graves would be more successful.

This led to debate with Sawyer and others in the audience, who pointed to instances of bones lasting many hundreds of years. All agreed that the contemplation of in-grave decay presented something of a Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum – with decay being affected by so many factors and their being so little research upon it that all are left guessing how long it takes for a grave to fall ‘empty’.

If there was a common thread connecting the presentations, it was an acknowledgment of the processual nature of the ‘life’ of bones – that their status is never final, and rarely settled. They are an affective materiality, loaded with connotations and contest. They speak to something universal and yet are concealed from normal view. We don’t know how to live with them.

References: 

ARU (Anglia Ruskin University) (2014) Community of the Dead web flyer: Link 

Hodder, I (2012) Entangled – An archaeology of the relationships between humans and things, Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester.

Image source: further excavations at the Leicester car park at which Richard III was disinterred in September 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/29/coffin-richard-iii-burial-site-inside-tomb_n_3671397.html

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.

From the pavement at Pimlico: metropolitan streets and what lies beneath

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“They are the real Dasein.

Streets, buildings, airports, boats, tents, fireplaces, quartz quarries…

they are in place and they manifest themselves to us as familiar

…they appear where we expect them to be

…[they] are all within reach.”

Olsen (2010)

So, I’m preparing for a trip to Pimlico; to speak at a summit about public safety in abandoned quarries and a colleague quips, “that’s ironic, ‘cos there are no quarries in London”. He has a point, but it sets a deeper thought running.

Last time I went to Pimlico, I was there to visit Tate Britain. The treasures inside were all very well, but I was equally transfixed by the vast white elevation of building’s exterior – that Portland stone and its shrapnel marks, a testimony to a nearby instance of the Blitz: the smoothness of that surface ruptured by pock marks, revealing the granularity of the exposed quartz grains within, glistening in the low summer sun that day.

Perhaps it’s trite to say that a city is made of stuff – yet, as Bjornar Olsen reminds us so evocatively in his book In Defense of Things – archaeology and the ontology of objects (2010):

“societies and cultures…are put together … [with] real building materials – …concrete and steel, rebar and pillars [are crucially] involved in their construction…we should pay far more attention to the material components that constitute the very condition of possibility for those features we associate with social order, structural durability, and power.”

So, as distraction from packing for my trip – and as a modest contribution towards Bruno Latour’s exhortation that we must “search for the missing masses” and challenge the “oblivion of things” (Olsen) in social theory and research informed by it, I started to sew together some thoughts about the fate of stone within Pimlico, and specifically its pavements.

As Raphael Samuels shows, urban growth in the nineteenth century sucked ever greater quantities of quarried stone into the burgeoning towns and cities. That material speaks to us today in the form of statement buildings (in London that could be the grandeur of ‘mercantile’ and/or ‘imperial’ hew). As a stunning illustration of the metropolitan appetite for stone, and also of the wide geographical ‘net’ thrown by that demand, Samuels exhibits the “promiscuous variety of stone” comprising the frontage of the new (in 1878) Oxford Street premises of silk mercers Marshall and Snelgrove:

“The facade…is carried out in yellow malms and Corsham Down stone [Wiltshire], all the cornices, string-courses, and weatherings being Portland Stone [Dorset]. The lower portion is divided into bays of pilasters of Portland stone, below which are Sharp [Westmorland] granite pillars on grey Aberdeen moulded bases, the Shap and Portland being finished at their bases with ornamental bronze bands.” (both 1977: 14)

But whilst building stone may – by these component names (Portland; Corsham; Aberdeen Granite) – be vaguely  familiar to us, they give a misleading impression. For the bulk of stone summoned into city was actually consumed in its highways and pavements as sub-base, setts, kerbs and gutters.

As a case study in the fate of its road stone, Samuels shows how Aberdeenshire’s first paving contract with the City of London was made in 1766 and by the 1830s London was already a major outlet for the district’s quarries. Yet of the 36,352 tons of stone sent down to London in 1831 only 143 tons was for use as building stone: 3,137 tons were for pavements and kerbs, and 33,072 tons for ‘carriage way’, these stones (setts) being supplied in six size grades.

Key London thoroughfares were prominently laid with Aberdeen setts in the 1840s, including London Bridge, Cheapside and Moorgate, before the harder Mountsorrel stone (from Leicestershire) first trialled at Euston in 1843 came progressively to dominate as the carriage way road stone of choice for the increasingly trafficked inner city (before, in time, Mountsorrel was itself eclipsed (or at least overlain) by the less elegant but more repairable tarmacadam method, and its voracious and indiscriminate appetite for crushed stone for its oil- meets-rock matrix).

And so the city grew and grew. It also adapted. The roads and pavements accommodating to sewer laying, distribution networks for electricity, gas, telecoms, the arrival of tram tracks, the removal of tram tracks, the expansion of networks, the renewal of networks, fibre optics and  broadband, traffic control technology. With each iteration the roads and pavements were cut into and patched up  – space ebbing and flowing, made in the conduits beneath: a proliferation of colours, angles, agencies and layers of churned and re-compacted subsoil, stone, metal, power, water, waste: the life blood and bile of the city.

Picture throbbing capillaries pulsing liquid, heat and information instant by instant beneath the busy street and its Aberdeen granite jigsaw.

Then – on 25 April 2013 – at the corner of Pimlico Road, outside an antiques shop, brooding and miscontent beneath the pavement – a power cable explodes, a flash forcing up pavers and ungirded power into the day: unchained energy violently seeking out earth through sky, and escaping from the thrall of 1,867 denied users.

 

This strange incident then proliferates (a meme spreading through the networks, coursing through the city’s ventricles), a multitude of iterations of this video and a new found anxious regard for the safety of pavements and all that normally silent stuff that lies beneath. And subsequent reports tell us that such eruptions are not as uncommon as we might expect: 8 in 2011, 29 in 2012 and 12 in the first 6 months of 2013 according to the Health & Safety Executive (LBC).

In this eruption – like Heidegger’s thumb-striking hammer – the normally ‘in place’ nature of pavement assemblages is destabilised, for [to return to the opening quote from Olsen and to invert it by way of closing]:

“… they [normally] are in place and they manifest themselves to us as familiar

…they [normally] appear where we expect them to be

…[they] are all [normally] within reach.

[But not always entirely

under our

Control.]”

References

BBC (2013) ‘Pimlico pavement explodes, narrowly missing passerby’ BBC News London www.bbc.co.uk/news

ITV (2013) ‘Pavement Power Explosion’ www.itv.com/news/London

LBC (2013) ‘New Threat to Londoners: Exploding Pavements’ www.lbc.co.uk, LBC 97.3FM.

Olsen, B. (2010) In Defense of Things – archaeology and the ontology of objects, Alta Mira Press: Plymouth.

Samuels, A, (1977) ‘Mineral Workers’ in Raphael Samuels  (ed.) Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, London: Routledge & Kogan Paul Ltd

Image sources:

Video of explosion – filmed by local resident Charlie Brook and uploaded to Youtube.

Hole in the pavement: www.itv.com

‘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/