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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image credit:

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

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

RGS 2014 – ‘Cold War Bunkers – exceptionalism, affect and aftermath’ – final session details

York RSG

John Beck (University of Westminster), Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) and I are convening four sessions on Cold War Bunkers at the Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference in London at the end of August. A previous post on the overall aims of the sessions is here , and now below are the abstracts of the individual papers:

When?: Friday, 29 August 2014, 9am to 6.30pm

Where?: Imperial College, London in Skempton Building, Room 163

How?: Details of booking procedures and the full RGS 2014 programme are here.

http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/ConferencesAndSeminars/Annual+International+Conference/Annual+international+conference.htm. The single day delegate rate is: £185.

9.00 – 10.40am, Session 1 – encountering the bunker

Cold War bunkers as a post traumatic landscape – Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University)

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.

The Cold War bunker and/as cinema – John Beck (Westminster University)

This paper considers the ways in which Cold War bunkers, both large-scale military fortifications and domestic shelters, have been imagined in films. Central to the narrative construction of bunkered space is the sense of the bunker as a time machine, incarceration within both stopping time and altering perception of time passing. Living inside the bunker intensifies the anxieties and tensions of Cold War society but also renders them irrelevant, as there is often no accessible world left beyond the walls of the shelter. In this way, the bunker might be said to merge with the function of the cinema as a sealed space with its own temporal logic and peculiar relation to the external world. Does the cinema, then, provide a privileged space through which the containment embodied in the bunker can be affectively as well as symbolically encountered? Works discussed include Cuban Missile Crisis-era films such as Ladybug, Ladybug (1963), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Fail-Safe (1964); 1970s paranoid horror films like Chosen Survivors (1974) and the Polish Communist-era parable Seksmisja (1984); and post-Cold War responses to the legacy of nuclear dread, from grim speculations like Paul Bartel’s Shelf Life (1993) to mainstream comedies like Blast from the Past (1999).

The sublime myth of the Cold War bunker – Kathrine Sandys (Rose Bruford College)

As civilians, films, novels and public information programmes have shaped our knowledge of the Cold War, both during the period and even following decommissioning. The fictional architecture portrayed through this mediated experience was exotic and of a structure never experienced in a domestic environment, with designers such as Ken Adam creating the mysterious and epic subterranean operational bunkers for the villains of the Cold War period Bond films. The reality of these ‘secret’ spaces is often closer to the fiction than imagined, in their unusual, purpose-built vernacular, improvised style with many bunkers and hardened shell military buildings displaying their purpose through their unusual shape and form. Without knowing this purpose however, to the civilian eye, these structures maintain their mythical qualities and presence. This illustrated paper presents a series of public art installations created between 2004 and 2011, animating and mythologizing Cold War military bunkers. These works were the build up to an entire PhD project exploring the sublime imbued in the unknown of the Cold War military space, through phenomenology. In the case of this research, the intangibility of lighting and sound were applied as scenographic devices where the audience explored the derelict sites, animated by subtly integrated lighting and/or infrasound (sound as sensation of nuclear pulse or machinery), in order to form their own stories and desire for authenticity around the purpose of the spaces. Notions of journey, expectation, isolation and framing were explored throughout the research, now offered in this presentation.

Torås Fort and the military sublime: A macro and granular study of war architecture in landscape – Matthew Flintham (University of Newcastle)

Over a three year period Matthew Flintham has undertaken a photo and videographic study of the military facility of Torås on the island of Tjøme, Norway. The site was established as a naval defensive post in anticipation of a Nazi invasion but was rapidly captured and significantly modified by the invaders. The site was again remodeled during the Cold War against Soviet incursion with a maze of subterranean tunnels blasted into the dramatic Larvikite rock formations that are typical of the region. Previously closed to civilian islanders the gates were suddenly thrown open in 2007 (?) and the remote base, once almost entirely hidden in the dramatic topography of the island, is now revealed as a unique fusion of landscape, architecture and weapon systems. The Norwegian landscape often prompts reference to the ‘sublime’, but the notion of the ‘military sublime’ (a problematic term that has been applied the work of contemporary fine art photographers working in conflict zones) is perhaps more relevant here. Flintham’s paper will describe his micro and macro visual methodology for studying the hasty transformation of landscape into military architecture, and the much slower process of bunker into ruin and ruin into dust. This paper will ultimately address the role of images in the analysis of geological time, or more specifically, the ‘dark’ stratum of human conflict and the transformation of its material presence in the landscape. The presentation will be accompanied by moving image footage of Torås Fort and the surrounding area.

The Bunker Project: claustrophobia, performance and influence – Zoe Svendsen (University of Cambridge)

The Bunker Project ran from 2005-8 and was a community-focused performance research project, exploring hidden war spaces in the city of Cambridge – from dilapidated air-raid shelters in peoples’ back gardens to a Cold War era Regional Seat of Government. The project brought together oral history and performance theory, site-specific theatre and changing concepts of ‘rehearsal’, to produce a powerful cultural intervention. This paper will outline the structure of the project and its aesthetic and cultural aims, showing how subsequent work from Metis Arts (the theatre company which ran the project) has been shaped by this initial thinking about bunkers. Thus the paper will then consider 3rd Ring Out (2010-11) a theatre project concerned with planning for climate change through the mode of rehearsal, which directly drew on Cold War exercises for its rationale. The performances toured the UK in two twenty-foot shipping containers (3rd Ring Out was nominated for a Total Theatre award and won a Tipping Point arts and environment award). World Factory (2013-ongoing) is Metis Arts’ current project, an interdisciplinary performance work, which aims to explore the relationship between China and the UK through the lens of the textile industry. Global textile production – from 19th century Manchester to contemporary Shanghai – might seem remote from bunkers, and the thinking they engender. But the paper will conclude by showing how and why they are linked.

11.10 – 12.50pm, Session 2 – the bunker as exceptional space

From survival cell to ‘empty space’: bunker rites vs acts of resistance in Cold War Switzerland – Silvia Berger (University of Zurich, Switzerland)

Imagine a nation peppered with high-security cells in every home. Five decades ago, this vision materialized in Switzerland. Since the early 1960’s, the country has built 2300 collective and 360’000 private nuclear shelters, the majority of them in the basements of single-family homes. By 2006 the authorities announced that Switzerland has enough shelter space for 114% of its population. No other country in the world has ever established such a comprehensive and carefully calibrated system of subterranean bunkers. Inspired by studies on space, body and ritual, my paper zooms in on the operational lives of this megalomaniac underground world. I will trace the fervent government action programs launched in the 1960s and 70s for the control and regulation of the shelter society and the shelter subject. Displayed in behavioural scripts and inscribed in spatial forms and technical objects of the bunker, specific rituals and bodily routines were supposed to be practiced in order to guarantee an orderly passage to the post-apocalypse, without any violation of norms, social roles and affective regimes. The citizens’ compliance to the official bunker rites was rather poor though. This disobedience and the authorities’ operational shortcomings facilitated individual, antagonistic forms of appropriating and imagining the bunker (“autonomous republic”, “zero-star hotel” etc.). Given the myriads of tactics and ideas used to transform the language and materiality of space, I will argue that Swiss bunkers gradually transmogrified into “Empty Spaces” (Kostera/Kociatkiewicz)—i.e. places that defy all attempts at stable classification, and are devoid of clear ownership and meaning.

The bunker and the camp: Inside West Germany’s nuclear retreat – Ian Klinke (University of Oxford)

Recent research has located the camp as the paradigmatic space that emerges when geopolitics and biopolitics intersect. In doing so, it has neglected another space that is indispensible for an understanding of the nexus of these two modalities of power – the nuclear bunker. This paper explores the West German government’s nuclear bunker in Marienthal, a subterranean lebensraum (living space) constructed on the site of an underground WWII concentration camp. Designed as a shelter for up to 3,000 politicians, bureaucrats and military staff, this cryptic concrete space was home to a number of NATO-exercises, which included the simulation of pre-emptive strikes on the Warsaw Pact as well as on West German cities that had been taken by the Red Army only hours before. The paper relates the nuclear bunker to its predecessor – the camp – and uncovers a number of spatial inversions and overlaps between the two. Whilst the nuclear bunker seemingly turns the camp inside out by protecting its inhabitants from the nuclear holocaust outside, it was similarly governed by legal exceptionality, pure logistics, hygiene, semi-invisibility and a genocidal rationality. Yet, it was also an ambiguous space where a fundamental blurring between inside and outside materialised. This porosity and insecurity revealed the nuclear bunker’s deadly character for it was here that sovereign power and total war sought to find eternal peace.

Secrecy, obscurity, security, obsession: The ‘Guardian’ telecommunications bunker deep under Manchester city centre and Cold War urbanism – Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) & Richard Brook (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Our paper focuses on a massive bunker space built in Manchester’s urban heart and seeks to (re)interpret its meanings through different periods of time and perspectives: official secrecy, technical obscurity of service space, securitised critical infrastructure, and conspiratorial obsessions. The bunker, known by its code-name ‘Guardian’, was conceived architecturally as a site of atomic-bomb resistant telecommunication equipment and given the large scale expenditure to construct it 30 metres beneath city streets it clearly had strategic importance to the British Government in terms of advancing its Cold War doctrine in the 1950s. The paper draws as an evidential base on our primary archival research, historical news reporting and first hand accounts of GPO / BT staff. It is theoretically grounded in the spatiality of technological development, focused at the architectural scale on the make-up of the facilities, their geographical configuration across the region/nation, and their how they were planned as work places for particular kinds of ‘cold warriors’ over several decades. Through this place-specific interpretation of Manchester and its infrastructural imperative around communications we also want say something more broadly about the underlying processes of Cold War urbanism as it played out in Britain in the 1950s and 60s and the legacy of these spaces in subsequent decades.

War, peace, and affect in Cuban cave science and exploration – María Alejandra Pérez (West Virginia University, USA)

During the Cold War, Cuba hardly had any need for building defensive concrete structures. Instead, the Revolutionary Armed Forces spearheaded the selection and modification of some of the country’s thousands of caves for the purposes of military defense. Indeed, the link between Cuba’s karst landscape and its political history predates the consolidation of socialist Cuba: the indigenous Taino culture used caverns as sites of ritual and hideouts during the Spanish conquest. African slaves relied on and modified caves by extending passages to escape their owners. During the independence war against Spain, and then again during the Revolution against the Batista regime, caves were critical rebel hideouts and weapon storage sites. This last chapter earned Cuban speleology Fidel Castro’s recognition and support. It was in 1960, during the 20th anniversary of the Speleological Society of Cuba, that Castro famously declared, “The future of our homeland is necessarily a future of men of science.” This paper examines the intricate relationship between the development of cave science, or speleology, and the militarization of the country’s karst landscape, from the perspectives of Cuban speleologists both living in Cuba and abroad. Their stories reveal contrasting views on the impact of the Cold War on the internationalization of Cuban cave science. All share, however, how much fieldwork and underground exploration promoted camaraderie and unity of purpose. Thus, Cuba’s “geographies of speleology” (Cant 2006) are as much about militarization and science as they are about the affective bonds that fieldwork and underground exploration facilitates and engenders.

2.40-4.20pm, Session 3 – the bunker as post traumatic landscape

The Royal Observer Corps – a study in transitory archaeology and the disenfranchised – Bob Clarke (University of Exeter)

The taskscape has become a necessary interpretive component when considering human endeavour. No more so than when investigating the archaeology of Cold War Britain. By its very nature, the Cold War maintained a level of subterfuge; often transitory activities of a secret or clandestine nature segregated the general populous from the activities acted out by those initiated into its order. In the Western World, this forced increasing tensions between state and public, manifesting itself in civil disobedience or apathy and disenfranchisement. Now just over two decades later we have an opportunity to investigate the secret landscape of the Cold War. Recent work has demonstrated that a perceived landscape of security fences, miss-representative signage and ordnance survey designations intended to mislead the user does represent an array of related activities. Moreover, those who participated in the development of this taskscape, moving through their own, and the organisations life-cycle are still available for comment. Engaging with those who were members of secret organisations allows for a hitherto un-narrated account of a taskscape now made visible. Utilising the national landscape of the Royal Observer Corps it is possible to map certain behaviours – especially the landscape of the disenfranchised. This paper describes the landscape of the ROC, its bunkers and the transition it has experienced as it transits from a secret landscape to a public one. It investigates the premise that secret landscapes, whilst transitory, do maintain longevity through the memory of those who now act out remembrance by telling their story.

Emerging from the bunker: embodiment, practice and Cold War legacies – Steven Leech (University of Manchester)

Russian artist Yevgeniy Fiks highlights a tension between the “living breathing remnants” of the Cold War and contemporary social memory. In his work, the ageing body of the former ‘Cold Warrior’ is juxtaposed to a sense of ambivalence (surrounding a “war that was not a war”). Through the lens of portraiture, the artist’s subjects, members of the marginal American Cold War Veterans Association (2009), emerge as a forgotten collective. His work is presents a set of questions; how do we make sense of the presence of these veterans and how does thinking through their corporeality help us articulate the character of Cold War ambiguities? Similarly, this paper will raise questions about the military body and its impact upon the management and representation of Cold War legacies in the landscapes and subterranean spaces of the UK. Drawing upon oral history interviews and ethnographic research with former radar engineers and operators, it will highlight the ways in which they negotiate forms of identity, authenticity and disconnection through a range of cultural practices. For example, it will discuss their participation as guides and volunteers at military and bunker museums, visiting former sites of operation and grass-roots heritage work. Specifically, It will argue that these experiences are, partially, an attempt to relocate themselves in relation to the conflict and as a means of making sense of the transition of former places of work, from sites of national security to facets of the historic environment – as heritage sites – or as places of abandonment and ruination.

Engaging bunkers: how a popular historical geography of the Cold War is practiced – Gunnar Maus (University of Kiel, Germany)

Many Cold War bunkers are hidden in plain sight. They acquire meaning as traces of world and local history only when engaged as such. A popular historical geography of Cold War militarized landscapes is in the making in Germany. I will visit a variety of concrete bunkers, atomic shelters and depots through accompanying geocachers, local historians, ‘bunkerologists’ (Bennett 2010), museum specialists and state conservators. I argue that by asking how these groups bestow meaning upon these relics, one can observe a cultural memory in-the-making. Their occupations can be described as practices of memory that transcend group delimitations. Conceptually, this follows on from work on the geography of memory, which has generally characterized memory as a means to socially construct place-based narratives of collective and individual identity. In this view, informed by practice theory, a set of more or less universal (in a Western context) set of practices of memory is confronted with material arrangements of a time past. The end of the Cold War, understood as a contextual break for the way bunkers are enacted, affords new ways of dealing with them. Re-contextualizing them as traces of the Cold War is one of those ways.

Cold War heritage (and) tourism: exploring discourses of neglect and engagement – Inge Hermann (Saxion University of Applied Sciences, Netherlands)

This paper explores the idea of ‘Cold War heritage (and) tourism’, that is, the process of construction and negotiation meanings that develop through tourism, whilst simultaneously being a moment that also resides within tourism (often termed heritage tourism) at Cold War sites in Britain. The entanglement of heritage (and) tourism has led to two sets of dominant practices; the first is concerned with the preservation and conservation management of sites, places and objects for future uses and generations to enjoy, whilst the second regards heritage as something that can be used here and now as a tool for community development, social unity, or as an economic resource which, according to some, is part of and stirred by processes of commodification and touristification. Through examining the representational practices at five Cold War sites in Britain which are opened as tourist attractions this paper, based on a previous doctoral research, aims to identify the order of discourses that surround Cold War heritage, including who engages in the dialogue of what should remain of the Cold War for tourism uses and human engagement.

4.50-6.30pm, Session 4 – ruination and afteruse

Peripheral artefacts: drawing [out] the Cold War – Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth College of Art)

The systems of fortified bunkers built during the twentieth century have become, especially since the end of the Cold War, objects of troubled fascination for artists and their relationships to the landscape, to geo-politics and to the speed of modern warfare have been well delineated. This paper will describe other, largely unconsidered, aspects of these sites and the drawings made during my practice-based doctoral research: ‘Drawing, Place and the Contemporary Sublime’, which uses as its basis the network of Royal Observer Corps observation bunkers built across the UK in response to the nuclear threat. The paper will describe the agency of the drawn line, as an active, dynamic and responsive element and a ‘primary means of symbolic communication’ (Downs, 2007, xi). This status, the paper will argue, offers the possibility that the fleeting and uncanny visions carried in our peripheral vision, largely repressed by the perceptual system, can be uncovered through the agency of drawing and that these can begin to describe the residues of traumatic memory remaining in the concrete crucible of the bunker. The paper will outline the fieldwork carried out in the bunkers, the innovative drawing techniques utilised and its implications for theories of place, the sublime and perception. It will conclude that the communication that drawing can make, through the tracing of gesture and its echoes that lie far back in the psyche, has the potential to uncover cultural anxieties that remain in the collective unconscious from this most dangerous time in man’s history.

Processional engagement: Sebaldian pilgrimages to the Ness – Louise K. Wilson (Sound Artist)

The shingle spit of Orford Ness in Suffolk – known locally as ‘the island’ – is owned and run by the National Trust – charged with the difficult task of managing tourism while stewarding the fragile habitat on this nature reserve. This role primarily involves the fraught guardianship of a significant territory for 20th century history – espousing a policy of continued ruination for the structures that represent a 70 odd year history of military testing. The Trust’s webpage on the Ness additionally cites one aspect of their work as “enriching with art”: it is approached by and actively approaches artists to be resident and to respond to this unique landscape. This presentation will critically reflect on the place of novelty in these numerous and successive responses. This presentation will examine the different and repetitive methodologies (and cultural references) employed by artists gathering and processing visual/ auditory material there. Of particular interest when considering questions of (artistic) access and (architectural) legibility, are influential texts by Paul Virilio and the late W G Sebald whose works are recurrently cited by artists, archaeologists and writers. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (1995) it is argued offers a seemingly mandatory lens through which to ‘see’ the Ness now. This notion will be contextualized in a wider framework, addressing the tension between difference and repetition that arises in artists’ engagements with fraught and ‘difficult’ historical sites.

Preserving and managing York Cold War bunker: authenticity, curation and the visitor experience – Rachael Bowers (English Heritage) & Kevin Booth (English Heritage)

An exploration of the curation and management of York Cold War Bunker, this paper details the transformation of an abandoned Cold War structure into a heritage attraction and its ongoing management. The relative perfection of the building in comparison with other Cold War monuments is shown to have informed the presentation of artefacts and the museum’s collections policy, creating an authentic representation of the experiences of the Royal Observer Corps personnel who served here between 1961 and 1991. The difficulties encountered in presenting the building are discussed, illuminating why English Heritage chose to protect and manage the bunker in its present form. Initial suggestions for how best to use, interpret and manage the building are also examined. The physical restrictions of the bunker with regards to space and safety (of both collections and visitors) have also dictated the form of interpretation offered, leading to the development of high quality but labour intensive personalised interpretation. York Cold War Bunker’s success as a heritage attraction is then measured in relation to the achievement of its original aims, the authenticity of experience and the effectiveness of the interpretation offered. Central to the examination of its success are the reactions and responses of visitors to York Cold War Bunker, and the continuing development of the site as a heritage attraction. This analysis leads to a discussion of ways in which York Cold War Bunker can continue to develop.

The conversion of resilience: on turning bunkers to new uses – Arno Geesink (Kraft Architectuur, The Netherlands)

Many bunkers still linger around in the landscape not because they were conserved, but because they are built to withstand extreme external forces. This resilience – the core of their being – is the primary reason why people try to put them to new use, as destruction is not an affordable option. All these constructions were built for an extremely specific military purpose and in a different time or setting, new users are faced with the problem of the specific functional layout combined with the extreme inflexibility of the material. Most of the times these structure don’t have any connection with the existing urban fabric; they adhere to a completely different reality of war maps, lines, sectors and schemes. After this reality is gone, the bunker is left as an erratic in the landscape, disposed of its reason to exist. The raw essence of its origination is still readily available. When one walks through it one can feel the confinement, the claustrophobic spaces, its small openings and its immense walls.  The readability of the rigid functionality of its design and the frequent beauty of their strategic locations make bunkers grateful objects for conversion. As Arnhem has been a strategic garrison town for ages, its landscape is riddled with remains from medieval times till the end of the Cold War, combined with its beautiful natural surroundings, which makes it fertile ground for bunker conversion projects. As an architect I use the intriguing robust remains of conflict heritage and its stories and connotations as the basis for new architectural proposals. By giving these objects a new purpose, giving them a new life, conservation becomes part of their exploitation, instead of just a matter of conservation expenses.

 

 

 

Photo credit: York Regional Seat of Government Bunker, http://davstott.me.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/bunker.jpg

 

 

Micro-Habitats: Bunkers, Sheds & Space Capsules

“Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.” St Anthony the Great, c. 300AD

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Here are my slides for my presentation at today’s Occursus/University of Sheffield symposium on ‘Micro-Habitats’. As my title will already have revealed, I used the opportunity to talk again about bunkers. This time my focus was on bunkers as micro-worlds. Through a clip from Lost I highlight the two faces of ‘the bunker’ in popular culture – the space-age bachelor pad and the abject, dank crisis space of last resort. I also took the ‘bunker as womb’, ‘bunker as shed’ and ‘bunker as man-machine’ riffs for a walk again. So far, so good (or at least, so far so familiar), then I ventured – via the Unabomber’s shed – into Outer Space aided by key scenes from the 1971 motion picture Silent Running, and in doing so invoked Paul Virilio’s conceptualisation of the spaceship as the bunker transposed into orbit. I then focussed in on the space-bunker’s hermetic nature – both in its sense of sealed off from the outside world, and as an essence of monastic retreat. I concluded with images of Lowell (Silent Running’s eco-hero) as lone bio-pod space shepherd to the remaining fragments of Earth’s vegetation, of Saint Anthony withdrawn from the world into the Egyptian desert and dwelling within its abandoned Roman forts, praying for his and the world’s salvation and of Desmond (Lost’s bunker dweller) now revealed as less the carefree bachelor enjoying his well equipped pad, more like a modern day Sisyphus typing code numbers regularly into his keyboard – as he believes he must – to prevent the detonation of some unspeakable device to which he is in thrall. So – bunker as hermitage…

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 Oh, and the ‘men and bunkers’ riff was challenged by the audience – and a great discussion had around whether women and men equally attach to machines, objects, intimate spaces. Yes, they probably do. But we all agreed that conditioning plays a role too. Kitchen vs Shed does seem to have a gendering, and both can be domestic.

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Finally, the slides don’t have citations – but these can be found in the two papers that this talk drew from:

  • Bennett, L. (2013). Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers. Gender, Place and Culture. 20 (3), 630-646 
  • Bennett, L. (2011). The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management. Culture and Organization, 17 (2), 155-173.

Pictures: two views of The Temptation of St Anthony

1) Heironymus Bosch,  (detail), c.1500: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/bosch/tempt-ant/

2) Anon, Star Wars mash-up of Salvador Dali’s 1946 painting: http://mentalfloss.com/article/52970/11-great-salvador-dali-art-mash-ups

 

This post is New Uses for Old Roman Forts #38

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.

In the bunker, the last man

Oooh, I’m going to do so much with this clip in 2014. Now that I’ve tracked it down (from the depths of fond memory) I’ve realised how well it will work as a focal point for the various bunker talks I’m booked to give later this year.

Lost (the TV show) lies close to the heart of my bunker obsession. The series got ever weaker (and incredulous) as it progressed, but in the first two series the tension and mystery of a strange island was fresh and energising, and there was a physical network of strangeness for the protagonists to trace and make sense of: an interconnected array of sealed concrete bunkers. Big ones, small ones, fat ones, thin ones: all signifying something (in the past or the present, which was splendidly unclear) that the explorers were struggling to make sense of.

Series 2 opens with this clip: a sudden view of someone very at home inside a cosy bachelor pad somewhere, a man at ease with himself, self contained with all that he needs. The music plays, the machines whir, his calm and contented morning rituals are enacted. But then the scene distorts, an industrial scale daily inoculation, dust, uncovenanted movement upon the record deck. Darkness, guns, uniform, surveillance – all as a sudden lurch to a defensive mode. Then our eyes travel up, up a rough hewn dirt encrusted shaft. Up to an open hatch at the surface and the fascinated/terrified faces of the two bunkerological explorers, contemplating the unknown-to-them in the chamber below, and their next move.

The Lost bunker clip gives me a wonderful vehicle to work through many themes, some of them related to my 2013‘men ‘n’ bunkers’ Gender, Place and Culture paper, others more to do with my 2011 Culture and Organisation paper on the bunker’s image/materiality relationship – a duality splendidly captured in both the clip and the following quote from Tom Vanderbilt:

“While actual shelters were usually dark, cramped, mildewed affairs, in the realm of the subconscious desire they were always spacious, ridiculously well-stocked playrooms with artificial sunlight and state-of-the-art entertainment systems, inhabitable for years and years.” (Survival City, 2002, 110)

So, for now, a teaser…

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CFP – RGS 2014 – Cold War Bunkers: exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath

CALL FOR PAPERS

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference,

London 26-29 August 2014

 

Proposed sessions on:

 

Cold War Bunkers:

exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath

 

bikini

Session Convenors:

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University), Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) and John Beck (University of Westminster)

 

“… the closer I came to the ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where I was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.”

W.G. Sebald (2002) The Rings of Saturn, London: Vintage (trans. Michael Hulse)

The Cold War era defensive concrete structures that proliferated in the late Twentieth century were a co-production of myriad material and discursive processes. The proposed sessions seek to investigate this meld by bringing together contributions from scholars working across a number of disciplines (geography, tourism, cultural studies, politics, history and archaeology to name a few). The sessions will explore the histories, meanings, materialities and fates of Cold War Bunkers, across a range of scales; from individual human encounters to their role as semi-secret nodes and exceptional spaces in global geo-political systems.

Virilio (2009) has pointed out the ‘cryptic’ characters of bunkers. Like stone chambers beneath Christian churches, they function as places of shelter, worship and salvation. Beck (2011) has written of the ‘ambivalence’ of host cultures to the decaying remains of these structures, and of how no settled meaning is possible for these now abandoned places given their apocalyptic but also contingent nature: for, these are remnants of a war that never was, places of preparation for an endtime that never came. Others (McCamley 2007; Bennett 2011, 2013) have written of those who engage in eager and earnest projection of meaning onto these places, many of whom seem inspired to do so in order to make sense of that era of brooding melancholy attached to prospective nuclear war.

This proposed session seeks papers that examine the origins and operational life of these places, of their subsequent acculturation (or lack of it), of their material legacies and attempted repurposing. A broad range of papers are invited, approaching bunkers at a variety of scales, perspectives and national contexts. The contributions might – for example – be case studies, analysis of bunker imagery in media representations, empirical studies of public engagement with bunker ‘museums’ and/or theoretical treatments of the meaning/matter meld that bunkers comprise.

Submissions might also address such matters as:

  • The excavation of the ‘secret’ history of specific bunkers – and/or analysis of bunkers’  intentional and inadvertent secrecy, of the changing status of such sites and the techniques of investigation
  • The bunker as an exceptional space at the intersection of sovereign and bio-power; how can the history of particular sites and particularly their decommissioning be fed into theories of sovereign power and legal exceptionality?
  • The significance of the subterranean nature of most bunkers – their hiddenness from sight and encounter; their womb-like properties; their primitivism; their confinement; the costly hubris of going underground; the hyper-control required or enabled in subterranean dwelling
  • The gap between fantasy and reality – ‘space age bachelor pad’ vs ‘concrete submarine’ (Vanderbilt 2002); local improvisation and vernacular styling in bunker construction; the nuclear bunker as concrete fantasy, a space where geopolitical fantasy materialises
  • Civil defence and the encouragement (or suppression) of private bunker building
  • The link between bunkers, modernism and civic infrastructure (e.g. telecommunications networks and their bunkerization)
  • The fate and aftermath of these bunkers: studies of decommissioning (policy and reality); markets in purchasing and reusing bunkers; the (in)significance of public perception in attempted reuse; the preservation of cold war heritage
  • Artistic engagements with bunkers
  • Oral history and reminiscence work with bunker personnel
  • The influence of bunker engineering on Brutalism (and vice versa)
  • Bunker hunters and their motivations
  • The (post) modern bunker – how has the bunker evolved?

How to propose a contribution:

Please submit an abstract (maximum 250 words) and single paragraph biography (including institutional and disciplinary affiliation) to Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) by 15 February 2014.

Further information about the conference, venue, delegate fee etc is available via the RGS website: www.rgs.org

Each selected presenter will have a 15 minutes slot, with PowerPoint facilities provided. The sessions are subject to approval/adoption by the RGS.

A fault on the line – carpets, cables and invisible things

carpet

“…the ordinary course of life demands nearly constant efforts to maintain or salvage situations that are falling into disarray by restoring them to order. In everyday life, people never completely suppress their anxieties, and, like scientists, ordinary people never stop suspecting, wondering, and submitting the world to tests.”

Boltanski, L. and Thévenot, L. (2006) On Justification, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p37.

His phone rings

as he’s standing by the sink. With attention abruptly turned from cleaning to talking – suds dripping as he reaches across the floor – he picks up the handset.

“Hello.”

“I’m really sorry to bother you, but my phone’s stopped working and I don’t know what to do.”

“So how are you calling me then?” he feels compelled to ask, and then instantly regrets its surly impression.

“I’m on a mobile. My son gave it to me, but I barely know how to use it. My proper phone has gone dead.”

In the ensuing conversation the talk maps out the arrangement of this elderly lady’s hallway, the telephone ‘table’ under the stairs, the ‘old style’ composure of this device as a caller, a visitor from outside to be kept at bay, waiting uncertainly in the hallway, not invited properly into the depth of the home. To make phone calls she climbs into the space under the stairs, adjusts the register of her voice. And here is where she is most comfortable calling from, huddled in the cavity, hunched over a rickety G-Plan assembly, amidst a pile of long superseded telephone directories, and a frayed and heavily annotated contacts directory: the sedimented strata of evolved and lost acquaintance.

He suggests she checks the phone socket. Carpet fitters visited her hallway yesterday. Perhaps they tugged the cable loose.

“Take the cover off and look inside.”

From the silence at the other end it is clear that he might as well have said “fire up the warp drive and set course for the heart of the sun”.

Eventually she replies: “No, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that.”

From the onward conversation it’s clear that she holds the telephone in some reverence, it’s a magical device that provides a service, but it is not hers to tinker with. The whole assembly is other. She owns a screw driver, a wooden handled one from the last century. It’s lain in a box for years, only ever used for opening cans of paint. It won’t get wielded here. She will call the telephone company instead. She hangs up.

The next day she calls again.

“I’m in a call box” she announces, with some distress. Apparently her mobile has now stopped working too. He asks a few questions to try and ascertain the symptoms of this fatality, but soon realises that this is not what she wants to talk about. Earlier that day she stood in that draughty call box for 40 minutes, eventually getting through to the phone company but getting little sense out of them. There was muzak, there was continual ringing, there was referral between different departments and eventually an undertaking to send out an engineer within the next five days.

He phones the company on her behalf to try and get things expedited. He too waits in an auditory limbo land, marvelling at just how crap the service is (and the irony that you need a phone to report a broken phone). Eventually there’s a connection. Yes, an engineer call is booked, no they can’t (or won’t) expedite for an elderly lady living on her own (unless she declared her ‘special needs’ at the time of signing up with them).

A couple of days later, she calls him again. This time from her home phone, now happily huddled back under the stairs. Her phone problem has been fixed. An engineer called yesterday. He pulled up the freshly laid carpet and carefully traced the phone cable from the socket towards its point of entry to the house.  Eventually he found it, the break in the connection:  the cable was cleanly and fully severed – cleaved by a carpet fitter’s Stanley Knife blade moving at speed and with force. The engineer held up the two ends, some shock on his face. This wasn’t a knick; this was a full cut through.

“Could they have chopped it without realising?” she asked the engineer – the forensic instinct suddenly to the fore in the hallway, all attention and thought focussed on the moment at which that cable switched from one length to two.

“Oh, they would have known” he replied with theatrical gravity.

Back in the call her spoken thoughts turn to minutiae of the fitters’ moment by moment afternoon residence in her house.  She recalls a moment – that seemed odd at the time, but which only now tumbled back to thought because of its emergent significance, when the fitters suddenly went outside to the van, but brought nothing back from that trip. She remembers the abruptness of their departure at the end of the job. In conversation with the engineer (who by then had ascended to a gallant ‘white knight’ in her narrative, contrasting with the opposing figuration of the fitters, now hunched, ruddy and vaguely Neanderthal in the imagery of the story) matters of fault and blame are mapped out. She returns to civilisation both through the restoration of her phone line and in the validation of her anger, vulnerability and sense of having been assailed. No, she didn’t imagine it. This event was real and her feeling of distress and inconvenience proportionate. She felt that she had returned to the world.

Hunting invisible things

In the above event, we find – if we choose to look – an entanglement of the personhood, matter and abstract notions of service. Whilst we do need to pay more attention to (physical) things themselves, we must not ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. To talk of a telephone ceasing to work is as much as social situation as it is a technical one. Yes, the existence of the telephone system (and our dependency upon it) is revealed in the moment of its failure, but exploring the thing that is revealed requires more than tracing the cable to the point of its severance. Many things flow from that cut, and many of them are invisible.

As a lawyer my gut response to that telephone call would be a flurry of sentences floating into mind, hovering before my eyes like subtitles to the event and situation beyond. I’d see section 13 of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982:

“In a contract for the supply of a service where the supplier is acting in the course of a business, there is an implied term that the supplier will carry out the service with reasonable care and skill.”

I’d see paperwork, a pathway to effective arguments – all so many words marshalled as ammunition for a campaign against the carpet fitter. But, that’s me. She didn’t read the situation that way. Perhaps at some vague level she realises that she has some form of contractual connection (and attendant rights) in her relationship with the carpet fitters – but if she does this element is far from mind. Her reaction is more instinctive and driven by an embedded sense of what is right and wrong, what is appropriate and not appropriate and what order and disorder look and feel like. What restores the balance is the reconnection of the phone (an important part of her identity and sense of security) and the confirmation by others (the engineer, the carpet shop) that her dislocation caused by the event was significant to others, not just her.

In her reflection upon the event – in its becalming aftermath – she also sees paper. But she does not reach for the law-makers’ vellum, the call handler’s laminated flow chart or the crinkled job-sheet of the carpet fitter. No, she reaches for her Basildon Bond and her Parker Pen. Such situations – for her – call for a stiff letter, written on her luscious watermarked cream pad. This is her way of completing the stabilisation of the situation, to commit umbrage to paper; to send off a missive. This is what the situation calls for. She invests careful thought in her letter, these things must be said for their own sake. For her they are part of the resolution of this situation.

She directs her volley to: “To whom it may concern” and awaits its return service. But she is doomed to be disappointed. For neither the carpet fitter nor the telephone company are playing the same game as her. For them the situational framing and the modes of engagement are so different, an anonymous instance of generic processes. There will be no parley. This cable, this carpet, this space under the stairs – so much to some, so little to others.

Image source: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/business/industries/retailing/article3886403.ece (NB: generic image, no aspersions intended on the fitter pictured or the carpet co featured in the source article)