SHU SPG 2019 conference – the comforts and discomforts of place, 10 July 2019

bench

“…what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors…have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?”

Khalil Gibran (1923) On Houses.

This free day-long event hosted by Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group at Kelham Island Industrial Museum on 10 July 2019 (as part of the University of Sheffield’s From Brooklyn Works to Brooklynism programme) brings together academics from across SHU, and beyond, to explore different ways of researching spaces and places, specifically from the perspective of comfort and discomfort. This event is a culmination of a series of workshops held at SHU over recent months, with an evolving set of speakers and attendees. This final event picks up on the themes from those earlier sessions:

  • the awkward legacies of prior uses and configurations of spaces;
  • the instrumentalisation and commercialisation of iconic places;
  • different patterns of dwelling and experiencing private and public spaces; and
  • the commodification (as a measure of efficiency and or exchange value) of space.

Intentionally the assembled presentations are eclectic and juxtaposed in a way intended to draw out connections between themes and perspectives which may not at first glance have much apparent connection. Woven through all of the presentations is a concern to acknowledge that places are often simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable. Sometimes this duality is productive, sometimes it is painful. In either case, often it is necessary. In the afternoon we will be exploring whether (and if so how) how particular atmospheres and experiences can be designed into spaces and the events that occur within them.

The programme (including each speakers’ abstract) is set out below.

[Please note that the event is free to attend but that places (subject to availability) must be booked via Eventbrite here. Lunch will not be provided at this event: instead delegates will be invited to dine locally at one of the many pubs, cafes and restaurants now available in the Kelham Island district.]

PROGRAMME

09.00-9.30        ARRIVALS & REFRESHMENTS

9.30-9.40           WELCOME & INTRODUCTION

Luke Bennett, Reader, Natural & Built Environment (SHU)

‘Exploring the comforts and discomforts of place and dwelling’

9.40-10.40        SESSION 1: [DIS]COMFORT IN PUBLIC SPACE

09.40-10.00         Amanda Crawley Jackson, Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies &  Faculty Director of Impact and External Engagement (Arts & Humanities)  (University of Sheffield)

“Restoring discomfort: using large format photography to unsettle the comfortable ordinariness of Syria’s Execution Squares”

Hrair Sarkissian (b. 1973, Damascus) is an Armenian-Syrian artist working primarily in the medium of photography.  He is perhaps best known for his 2008 series, Execution Squares, in which he explores the sites of public hangings that traumatised his childhood. In this paper, I’ll consider Execution Squares in the context of my current work on post-traumatic landscapes, focusing on the ways in which these large format photographs of ostensibly ordinary public squares in Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia betray something of the violence that has taken place there. With reference to Georges Didi-Huberman’s work on visibility and visuality, I will make the case that images – and landscapes – such as these exhort us to see differently. Finally, I will argue that  Sarkissian’s work, as a complex meditation on time, plasticity and absence, affords a critical prism through which to interrogate the ways in which the past survives in the present. 

10.00-10.20         Elaine Speight, Research Fellow, ‘In Certain Places’ (UCLAN)

“Making a boob of it: Some thoughts about breastfeeding in public”

This short talk will discuss ideas of comfort and discomfort in relation to the maternal body, through a focus upon the politics and practicalities of breastfeeding in public. As evident from the recent social media furore surrounding Meghan Markle’s ‘baby bump habit’, the ways in which maternal bodies are presented and performed is an ongoing cultural concern. As ‘a leaking, secreting embodied Other’ (Longhurst 2001), the breastfeeding body is a specific source of anxiety, particularly when encountered within supposedly ordered public spaces. Drawing upon my recent experience of becoming a mother, I will examine some of the physical challenges of breastfeeding outside of the home, as well as the social unease it provokes. Touching on ideas of exhibitionism/discretion and the maternal/sexual, I will discuss how the act of breastfeeding disrupts and is disciplined by existing spatial norms, and raises the question ‘who has the right to be comfortable in public?’

10.20-10.40         Ian Whiteside, Senior Lecturer, Events Management (SHU)

“Creating visitor experience in the National Trust”

A visit, like an event, is time out of the everyday. Staff at National Trust properties welcome visitors, except at the Workhouse where they make them uncomfortable as part of the experience. Using the Workhouse at Southwell, Nottinghamshire and Belton House, Lincolnshire as case studies this paper looks at visitor experience in terms of making visitors comfortable or setting an atmosphere of unease. The Workhouse at Southwell is owned and managed by the National Trust and is the most complete workhouse building still existing in Britain. Belton House is the quintessential English Country house and one of the National Trust’s most popular properties. Through a series of conversations, with volunteers and staff, issues including the visitor experience and reasons to visit and return (or not) are discussed and then analysed with reference to the work of Lovell (2018), Boje (2001) and Dorst (1989). This paper, based on empirical data, will look at issues of welcoming visitors, or not.

10.40-10.45      COMFORT BREAK

10.45-11.45      SESSION 2: WARM & WELL?

10.45-11.05         Aimee Ambrose, Reader, Centre for Regional Economic & Social Research (SHU) & Graeme Sherriff, Research Fellow, School of Health & Society (University of Salford)

“Comfort and discomfort in ‘low-energy’ homes in the increasingly inhospitable climate of South Australia”

The energy performance of the housing sector is an important contemporary challenge in the context of environmental constraints such as climate change and social issues such as fuel poverty and social inclusion. This is not a purely technical issue: how occupants live in and negotiate comfort impacts upon to what extent energy efficiency goals can be achieved and this has implications for their quality of life. This paper draws on interviews with residents of the Lochiel Park Green Village in South Australia who have moved into purpose built low energy homes. Using an oral history approach to situate experiences of energy within individual housing histories in order to better understand the evolving relationship between the occupant and the building. Within the context of debates around adaptive comfort practices, this innovative methods reveals that, despite the expectations of some residents, moving to a ‘low-energy’ home has reduced rather than eliminated their active involvement in maintaining a thermally comfortable environment.

11.05-11.25         Michael Roskams, Workplace & Wellbeing Analyst, Technical facilities Management (Mitie plc)

“Can smart sensors support employees’ physical and psychological comfort in the workplace environment?”

Environmental discomfort is rife in the modern workplace environment and can lead to ill health and unproductive work. In this presentation, I will discuss my PhD research, which explores the relationship between environmental comfort, wellbeing, and productivity. The presentation will focus on the partnership with facilities management Mitie, who are pioneering the use of wireless environmental sensors to monitor key parameters of the physical environment in real time. I will discuss the strengths and the limitations of this technology-led approach, and will also discuss the importance of recognising psychological comfort as well as physical comfort.

11.25-11.45         Becky Shaw, Reader, Fine Art (SHU) and Frances Williams, PhD student (MMU)

“Class, Cool and Care: The Maggie’s centre and the discomfort of criticising the ‘Well-being’ aesthetic”

The Maggie’s Centre, Manchester, is seen as an exemplary model for the value of arts in healthcare- cool architect designed, displaying art from The Whitworth Collection, using Orla Keilly towels and hand-made raku mugs, with a stylish wild allotment-style garden and a non-clinical patient engagement format. As part of a nascent research group (Critical Arts for Health) six artists and academics visited Maggie’s and spent time thinking about the particular expression of well-being at work. During our visit we questioned: why the ingredients of the ‘well-being’ aesthetic are so often predictable and how, together, they perform a familiar construct of good taste; the extent to which this spatial and material language delivers care, comfort and is inclusive; and the extent to which the aesthetic language is designed to appeal to patients or to function rhetorically for private sponsors- or if both, how does this intertwine? At the same time our position as critics was deeply uncomfortable, partly because to criticise Maggie’s feels sacrilegious as it is so established as the pinnacle of good cancer care, but also because it caused us to reflect on the distance and privilege of a critical position. This brought to life the complexity of trying to think critically about the often warm and cosy terrain of arts in health.

11.45-12.00      REFRESHMENTS

12.00-1.00        SESSION 3: ARE WE SITTING COMFORTABLY?

12.00-12.20         Esther Johnson, Professor, Film & Media Arts (SHU)

“Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches”

Esther will introduce and screen her film Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches. Through the experiential capacity of film via a series of oral testimonies and carefully composed portraits, the work explores how individuals and groups spend time in two distinctive London public spaces. Revolving around the micro-space of the humble bench, the film incorporates contributions from a diverse range of visitors. These testimonies highlight themes such as the psychological feeling of being in a space, the rhythm and flow of visitors to a place, and the importance of design for everyday street furniture. The film acts like a stranger who joins you on a bench to ‘watch the world go by’, and to break the ice by starting a conversation with their fellow bench user. Made whilst Esther was co-investigator on an AHRC Connected Communities innovation project, The Un-Sociable Bench, and other urban micro-territories of encounter and intimidation.

 http://blanchepictures.com/alone-together

 12.20-12.40         James Corazzo, Principal Lecturer, Graphic Design (SHU)

“Sofa Pedagogy”

This talk will explore the comforts and discomforts of the educational design studio through a study of the squashy object par excellence – a sofa. To anybody familiar with studio environments (professional or educational), a sofa is an unremarkable presence. Indeed, contemporary HE learning spaces are now replete with hub/break-out/informal spaces, often signalled by the judicious use of colour and soft furnishings and evangelised for their apparent capacity to enable collaboration, innovation and flexibility. Eschewing such causal and monochromatic accounts of learning spaces, I will argue the sofa, in this particular studio setting, is a surprisingly mutable object affording a variety of encounters and paradoxical models of occupation: hard/soft, formal/informal, intimate/indifferent, teaching/not teaching. Through talk and draw interviews with tutors and observation, I will show the sofa in this studio is not just a comfortable place to sit, but itself a significant pedagogic actor.

12.40-1.00           Phil Crowther, Reader – Events Management (SHU)

“The comforts and discomforts of business executives sleeping with the homeless on a city’s streets for a night”

The intentionality of charity events (from the charities perspective) is – it can be proposed – to design meaningful experiences to either provoke (or consolidate) behaviour change in participants; often related to donations or advocacy.  Facilitating such experiences that participants perceive as meaningful and thus generate emotional connection underlying behaviour change is – from an experience design perspective – challenging.  We live in an age of ‘attention scarcity’ (and experience overkill) and therefore to achieve such an outcome, an appreciation of the persona of attendee, linked to empathy mapping, is pivotal.  In this presentation I will juxtapose the archetypal charity experience, with all of its comforts, with the discomforts of a charity sleep out event in Sheffield.   A fascinating lens through which to unpick the purposeful design of discomforting experiences.

1.00-1.10              Luke Bennett & Phil Crowther

Wrap-up for the morning, tasking for the lunchtime exploration of Kelham Island’s experiencescapes and an outline for the afternoon’s session

1.15-2.30           LUNCH

NB: no lunch will be provided. Delegates will be invited to eat at one of the local pubs, cafes, restaurants and to take the opportunity there to analyse how the experience offered there is staged and its atmosphere of comfort/discomfort engineered.

2.30-3.30           SESSION 4: ANALYSING THE COMFORTS AND DISCOMFORTS OF LUNCH

A facilitated discussion of delegates’ lunchtime explorations of local experiencescapes. This will showcase the variety of disciplinary perspectives upon – and varied methodologies for – ‘reading’ places and their atmospheres.

3.30-3.50           REFRESHMENTS

3.50-4.50           SESSION 5: SHU ‘EXPERIENCESCAPES CLUSTER’ INAUGRAL MEETING

The ‘Experiencescape research cluster’ has very recently been formed and in its very early stages of capitalising upon the wideranging engagements of SHU academics across psychology, sociology, hospitality, tourism, events, marketing, architecture, design, media and communications, lawyers and real estate in the study, design and critiquing of ‘experiencescaping’. The overarching interest of the cluster is the purposeful facilitation of physical and virtual spaces in order to stimulate a positive mental response from their consumer; underpinning desired actions or behaviours in the short term, and longer-term patronage and advocacy. Experience design is prevalent, and a topic ripe for examination, and the cluster seeks to deepen collaborative links both within the university, but also with industry partners engaged in the production of experiencescapes; retail, visitor attractions, stadia, city / town centres, events, and more. This discussion will – developing the themes of today’s earlier sessions – present some early ideas about the cluster and most importantly seek colleagues views on how the cluster can prosper.

(NB: all delegates are welcome to participate in this, and whether SHU staff or otherwise).

 4.50-5.00           CLOSING REMARKSLuke Bennett & Phil Crowther

 

 

Image Source: Still from Esther Johnson’s 2015 film, Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches

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

Image result for hitler's bunker

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

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

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

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

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

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Here’s my abstract for the conference presentation:

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

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

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

 

 

References: for these please see my Geographia Polonica article.

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

 

They’re behind you!: Phelgm’s giants and mining the excess of their event

Phelgm giant

“There is no smoothness without striation. Creation is never free and savage, just as there is no life as a generative principle beyond diagrams. Life or desire is not a romantic substance outside the logic of the norm (which is only a way to reactively confirming it), but rather an inhuman and impersonal potential for relations to emerge. Life, or desire, are always machined, hence the need to explore the real conditions of possibility which simultaneously close and open the smooth paths of creation, rather than simply chanting the glory of transgression.” (Pavoni, 2018: 155)

The van pulls up suddenly, having turned sharply into this side street. The burly driver leans across the passenger seat and calls out to us.

“What’s going on here then?”

There is no reply. Everyone in the line tries to pretend that the question is not addressed to them. And indeed it is not addressed to anyone individually. But a moment later the driver is still there, waiting for someone to catch his eye. The driver’s cab is directly opposite me. Sooner or later our eyes are going to meet.

I surrender to the instinct to not leave a question unanswered. I feel the need to respond.

“It’s an exhibition.” I announce awkwardly. Phrasing that statement in a way that shuns further elaboration.

The driver smiles as something slots into place in his mind.

“Ah, ok. I’ve kept seeing this queue and wondered what it was for.”

And with that he was gone. Gone to the bottom of this shabby road to complete his delivery.

The queue pretended nothing had happened and I stood wondering why I couldn’t bring myself to say the words that were really in my head. I had settled for the worthiness of ‘exhibition’ rather than the exclusiveness of ‘art installation’. Even in a queue of self-selected art fans this didn’t seem the kind of thing to shout out too loudly in this neck of the woods.

The queue moved in slow pulses, one rhythmic shunt forward every 20 minutes as another batch of 35 punters were marshalled inside the former Sheffield cutlery works to see street artist Phelgm’s ‘Mausoleum of the Giants’ installation. As we waited we were kept updated by the volunteer guides on today’s and otherday’s waiting times.

“It was three hours waiting time yesterday. We had to close the line early”.

Entry to this free event would be paid for by its own trial of ordeal – queuing. It felt appropriately ritualistic, our waiting our turn to pay respects to the giants in their mausoleum.

This event – a temporary occupation of a factory-building-soon-to-be-refurbished-as-apartments – has attracted considerable local interest, drawing the arty types into the heart of this backwater zone at the bottom of the city centre, disciplining our bodies and minds to the locality and its potentiality as we stand on display to passers-by. Here we are an incidental installation of sorts. We’ve come to experience the area. But the area must experience us too, it must sniff us out, just as we sniff out fresh cultural fare. We – temporarily at least – must learn to inhabit the same space and make sense of each other.

Entry

This post opens with a quote from Andrea Pavoni’s (2018) book, a complex text that I’ve been reading this week. The book is about many things and can be read (used even) at a variety of levels of abstraction. Put simply Pavoni’s key point (building on the work of Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2015) regarding lawscapes and their engineering of atmospheres) is that law (in its widest sense, as normativity) is always present. Sometimes its presence is clearly evident, whilst at other times it is harder to spot. But it is always there, and modes of engagement that try to deny or destroy its presence will simply lead to a (slight) reorientation of law’s form of presence. Pavoni, then extends this logic to urban events, arguing that contemporary capitalist urbanism will always co-opt (increasingly as eventful “brandscaping” (Pavoni 2018: 168)) any attempt to subvert itself, and that anyone who thinks that they can create spaces that are autonomous from this milieu is deluded.

Pavoni and Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos each try to rescue some progressive potential from the bleakness of their conclusion. They seek to do so through a form of play – a tactical embrace of multiplicity that works with the inevitable excess that any place or situation holds. Just as law is always struggling to consume its own excess, so any experiencescape engineered or co-opted by commerce will inevitably have its own excess, something that is both an opportunity for differentiated engagement with the event or place (simultaneously something pleasurable and painful: the openness of possibility (of ‘happening’) for the participant and the anxiety of unpredictability for the place/event manager, who has to try and anticipate all of the potentialities that could spill as excess from the intended event/place).

And risk assessment – a modelling of those potentialities – and event planning is how that excess is identified and controlled.

So, back in the queue, and as we approach the entrance I’m ruminating on this (and was this – the ruminating academic who might get so wrapped up in his thoughts that he trips on the factory’s uneven floors – factored into the risk assessment and its resulting management plan?). You can never think of everything. You can never cover-off all eventualities.

sign layers

This event is enabled by the developer. They have made the space available. It helps to raise the profile of their development, it gives them a funky urban edge. It has certainly mobilised Sheffield. Is this co-option bad? Would the installation be better, more authentic if it was illicit, unsanctioned? Why would that make any difference?

I sense that Pavoni would point out that co-option is inevitable, and there is no ‘free space’ beyond it. The productive challenge is how you multiply meaning within it. Pavoni suggests how this working-within might be done. His argumentation is targeted at law but his examples are mostly instances of arts practices and (re)interpretive effects applied to abandoned buildings. He characterises tactics that seek to activate the “inoperose” potential, from working within it. Likened at one point to gardening, the inoperose stance would notice the weeds, and find a role for them too.

duty of care

I’m still chewing on Pavoni and Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ thoughts on modes of engagement with the inescapable within and the potentialities of its excesses. Their work – in part – grows out of Gilles Deleuze’s writings, in particular his idea of the ‘virtual’ as the source of this excess and its potentialities and his interpretation of action as fuelled by networks of desire rather than knowledge/power. I need to dig in further and work out how it can fit my needs (and desires!). But there’s already an analogy here: academic thinking is a process of digging into and reconfiguring concepts into new combinations to see what effects that releases from the as-yet-not-quite-captured-by-others swirl of potentialities within any field’s excess. But that production has to work within existing canon and interpretive communities. In short, games have to be played within the board or on the pitch, norms conformed to, pacts entered into with commerce. There is no other, pure uncaptured space outside of these already striated spaces.

So, why should the ‘meanwhile use’ equation of art + empty buildings + commerce be any different?

And maybe the acid test (after Pavoni and Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos) should be how well the event has left open the possibility of other readings – of cross-readings of the situation’s excess, by looking behind Phlegm’s three dimensional creatures.

Phelgm juxtaposed

So, for my part, my perusal of the mausoleum / old factory was trying to spot where the building’s two identities were juxtaposed.

 

And to read the weary, battered signs of health and safety compliance as a parallel event, one showing that the lawscape never fully leaves the scene. Instead its indicia now beat out a contrapuntal rhythm alongside the art – a strange place-jazz, speaking to two different pasts: the past of the labouring bodies regulated here and the invented (but foregrounded) past of Phelgm’s giants. 

 

This is not to say that the safety signage would have been invisible to the other art-visitors, the ephemera of deactivated signage and its authenticity is a stable of industrial ruin aesthetics – and already commodified and aestheticised as such. But even so, the relations of these signs to each other and to the otherwise invisible lawscape is something that only comes fully to the fore if the place is read with a certain forensic background knowledge. So, my inoperose investigation was a legal archaeology of sorts. As I wandered around I was starting to piece together which sign would have originated when (based upon when the legislation requiring them to be put up was enacted) and thinking of them as another slow moving processional movement – this time the year-by-year implementational actions of a likely foreman (perhaps later re-titled as ‘health and safety manager’). What was the object of his desire? Maybe he was driven by a sense of pride in keeping up to date with “the latest requirements” and mapping these onto his establishment. Perhaps he drew his power and authority from this ‘writing onto space’ and his desire was for respect or purpose. Or maybe his desire was actually anxiety: he laid out this sedimented trail out of perennial fear of the accident (the ultimate excess of risk, always waiting to leap violently out from the grinding wheels and presses).

More conventional, front-facing, images of Mausoleum of the Giants can be found here: https://mausoleumofthegiants.co.uk/

References:

Pavoni, Andrea (2018) Controlling Urban Events: Law, Ethics and the Material. Abingdon: Routledge.

Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Andreas (2015) Spatial Justice: Body, Lawscape, Atmosphere: Abingdon: Routledge.

Image credits: Mine, all mine.

Comfortable // Uncomfortable Places: details of the SHU Space & Place Group’s theme and programme of events for 2019

anja-uhren_what-is-home (4MB)

“The villa thus combined in a single unit of material production the general traits of Roman society (an order grounded in juridical principles), refined, albeit not very creative – aesthetic taste, and a search for the comforts of life.”

Henri Lefebvre (1991) The Production of Space, p. 252.

All cultures have their cults. A quick Amazon search for recently published books on “home” finds a plethora of user guides to life improvement through home rearrangement: Shearer & Teplin’s The Home Edit: Conquering the Clutter with Style, Walton’s This is Home: The Art of Simple Living, Rapinchuk’s Clean Mama’s Guide to a Healthy Home: The Simple, Room-by-Room Plan for a Natural Home and Blomquist’s Home is Where the Heart Is: How to Create a Home You Love, to mention but four works published over the last year. The message is clear: greater contentment, greater achievement and self-actualisation are there for the grasping through an explicit design and practice of dwelling. We may sneer at the programmatic optimism of such guides, but to at least some degree we all do it – we take active steps to dwell comfortably – we all arrange the place we live and work in, in order to (hopefully) achieve desirable effects and to eliminate, or hold at bay those things that might otherwise leave us feeling disorientated, and alienated from our surroundings. Matters of comfort and discomfort have profound effects upon our built and natural environments, upon our society and our economy (the UK ‘home improvement’ market is said to be worth £12 billion p.a.).

With these thoughts in mind, the SHU Space & Place Group’s programme of events this year will be enquiring into the comforts and discomforts of place.

The SHU SPG group promotes dialogue and collaboration across the full range of disciplines interested in matters of space and place, both within Sheffield Hallam University, and beyond. We have been active since 2012, each year running informal events which playfully explore relevant themes. Previous years have seen us focus on ‘the politics of space’, ‘infrastructure’, ‘soundscapes’, ‘seaside towns’ and ‘spaces of learning and doing’.

The SHU Space & Place Group will be running three events this semester, as warm ups for our Annual Away-Day in early July.

Details of our events are given below. Each event is free-standing (and free to attend) but each will explore an aspect of the year’s theme, through different angles and formats. The first two events are intentionally small, in order to maximise participant engagement, the third is a little larger and the fourth (our Annual Away Day) will feature a mix of sessions which – based on previous years – will attract around 60 delegates.

Booking for Events 1 and 2 is via email to me (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) due to the need to keep an eye on participant numbers. An Eventbrite booking sites will be set up for Events 3 and 4 in due course. The links will be added here when available, as will further details of the Annual Away Day programme as it evolves over the course of the three warm-up events.

EVENT 1: a discussion workshop on “The afteruses of ‘Uncomfortable Heritage’ places”12-1.30pm on Friday 8 March (City Campus, Norfolk 503) [please note change of time]

This discussion will focus upon Pendlebury et al’s recent paper on the reuse of ‘uncomfortable’ heritage places (Pendlebury, Wang & Law (2018) ‘Re-using ‘uncomfortable heritage’: the case of the 1933 building, Shanghai’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 24(3) 211-229). The discussion will be led by Carolyn Gibbeson, Luke Bennett and Simon Kincaid (all of SHU, Natural & Built Environment) who will each briefly explaining how their own research work touches on aspects of managing (or erasing) ‘difficult’, ‘dark’ or ‘uncomfortable’ buildings and places. This will then lead into a wider, open group discussion of Pendlebury et al’s paper in relation to themes such as:

i) Is re-use imperative for Uncomfortable Heritage? Can/should it be left to die? Is an imperative to utility maximisation and/or profitable reuse wrong?

ii) Is there a gap between studies of conservation (and its materialities) and heritage (and its focus on meaning making)? How better could this gap be closed?

iii) Do we see the ‘buildings of control and reform’ category as helpful in explaining why certain types of building are particularly hard to re-purpose?

iv) Isn’t academic writing about the (former) lives of buildings as much an example of narrative engineering and a selective memorialisation and forgetting as that of the redeveloper/marketer?

v) How helpful do we find Luna’s (2013) classification of reuse types as autonomous, symbiotic or parasitic?

vi) Is heritage preserved and/or revealed in the materiality, architectonic and experiential qualities of being within a re-purposed building? How important are those qualities and the atmosphere that they create, and is it always benign / something that adds value, authenticity etc?

Delegates will need to have read Pendlebury et al’s paper before the event and to have registered for the event (by emailing l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk).

EVENT 2: a discussion workshop on “Getting comfortable with Lefebvre’s spatial triad”2-4pm on Wednesday 10 April (City Campus, Harmer 2401)

This workshop will be led by Yvonne Rinkart (SHU, Natural & Built Environment), and it will offer up an opportunity to explore Henri Lefebvre’s notoriously Delphic but ubiquitous ‘spatial triad’, The session will be based around a close reading of extracts from Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (pages 33 and 38 to 43 of Donald Nicholson-Smith’s translation published by Blackwell in 1991) combined with an opportunity to ‘learn by doing’ by interrogating ‘concepts in space’ within the setting of the City Centre campus’ atrium. This active investigation of theory and research practice is in keeping with the SHU SPG’s interdisciplinary assay of the Southbourne Building in 2013. Big times lie ahead for the atrium space (it is soon to be closed for a 16 month refit). This makes it a great venue to think about the past, present and future weave of designed intentions, everyday uses and rhythms to be found in this busy University space.

Delegates will need to have the Lefebvre’s extracts before the event and to have registered for the event (by emailing l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk). Delegates will also find it helpful to have considered the aspirations of the SHU Estates Masterplan for the refit [here] alongside the following critical article on the link between University design, comfort and productivity: Hancock & Spicer (2011) ‘Academic Architecture and the Constitution of the New Model Worker’, Culture and Organization, 17 (2) 91-106.

EVENT 3: a seminar on “Feeling comfortably at home: Four investigations”, 2-4pm on Wednesday 15 May 2019 (Collegiate campus, HC 0.16)

This event, which will be led by Jenni Brooks (SHU, Sociology), will draw together a cross section of researchers and creators who have as their core concern the design, use and enjoyment of comfortable dwelling, both in domestic and other settings. Giving 15 minute presentations, each speaker will range across questions such as: Where is home? What does it mean to dwell comfortably? How can different groups’ (and individuals’) needs for comfortable dwelling spaces differ? To what extent can design that pursues homeliness be divisive or discriminatory? Speakers will include:

  • Jenni Brooks presenting on how people with dementia articulate their sense of home and community in their blogging activities;
  • Jonathan Took (SHU, Natural & Built Environment) on the inclusive design of school environments to better address the needs of autistic learners:
  • Joanne Lee (SHU, Institute of Arts) on the strange correspondence of the Danish hygge home-aesthetic and UK notions of cleanliness and anti-immigration sentiment; and
  • Anja Uhren (freelance illustrator, anjauhren.com) talking about the inspiration for, and her execution of, her graphic works Home: Forgotten Places Remembered and What Is Home?.

There will then be an open discussion of ‘comfort’ across all sense of ‘dwelling’. All welcome. Further details on venue and how to book will be provided nearer the time.

EVENT 4: the SHU Space & Place Annual Awayday 2019 “Comfortable and Uncomfortable Places”: 9am-5pm Wednesday, 10th July 2019 (Sheffield, venue tbc)

The Awayday will pull together (and/or extend) strands emerging from Events 1 to 3 within its more expansive and playful format. Therefore the content for this event is likely to emerge over the months ahead, and we’re happy to receive any expressions of interest from colleagues (within or beyond SHU) who would like to do something to contribute to exploring the comfort // discomfort of place at our event in July. We already have a keynote presentation by Amanda Crawley Jackson (French Studies, University of Sheffield) who will speak on discomfort from the perspective of plasticity, post-traumatic landscapes & difficult urban memory, drawing upon Lefebvre and Georges Didi-Huberman to do so.  If you would like to offer any suggested contribution please email any ideas to me, at: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk.

Booking and venue details will be confirmed by an announcement here in due course.

Image credit: Page from Anja Uhren’s What is Home?: (https://anjauhren.myportfolio.com/what-is-home-) – reproduced with permission.

 

[NB: This page will be updated from time to time: last revised on 25 March 2019 to add venue for Event 3 and change date of Event 4]

From the bottom drawer: on rescuing three old thoughts about law’s quiet presence in place

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“…spread the parts out on the table and try to work out the relations between them.”

Nick Papadimitriou (2012) Scarp, Sceptre: London p. 254.

A rejection arrives. A colleague grabs for some consolation: “You’re not alone, I have a bottom drawer full of papers that never got anywhere”.

This is a strange sport – offering up sacrificial items to the shape-shifter known as Peer Review. It makes sense to have quality control, but it can produce strange effects. A line of analysis developed across a number of linked intended papers becomes thwarted when a component part is struck dead by The Arbiter. A major rewrite then ensues for the project, to swerve around the carcass now thrown down from Olympus.

Arguments can be refined this way – their salience improved in the astringent logics of truncation. But what is to become of these thrown off, defeated pieces? You place them in the lower drawer, and quickly (for the sake of your ego) turn you mind to other things. But those fragments still haunt. They remain a key, formative part of your other still-living components and their rejection gnaws at you. Over time those voices variously murmur away: speaking of the dead time still locked in them and of the things you really would still like to be saying publically. But you know that starting something new is a safer bet.

So what to do?

Well, for me I’ve managed the murmur over the years through this blog – for every potential project that springs to mind whilst out walking the dog only 1 in 10 is every going to have the luxury of a formal investigation and write-up. As time ticks by (“you’re not getting any younger Luke” comes another murmur) the best I can do is fire off an approximate sketch of WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN. Perhaps in a parallel universe somewhere, a different me catches the idea and does something proper with it. I wish him well.

But sometimes the murmurs niggle away because one or more of the pieces discarded to the prison of the bottom drawer need to live – because its siblings, still in play in various stages of review or public circulation depend implicitly on ground mapped out in the hidden fragment. Here comes the need for reanimation: to stew up the bones of the discarded papers, to extract the vital juices and DO SOMETHING with these fragments.

And so – it seems – I’m currently in a soup-making phase. I presently have on the hob (sorry – this metaphor is getting rather loaded) three reanimated papers which I’m bringing back into the light of day for a combination of reasons. First, because we all have to be seen to be productive and leaving things unpublished is just not playing the game. Secondly, because what I want to write next (about law, ruins and haunting) needs these precursors publically in place, otherwise only I will know why I’m saying what I’m trying to say and thirdly, because the opportunity has arisen to get these reanimated papers published.

So, what I have coming soon is (with the caveat that these re-workings of old rejects might yet be potentially re-rejected, but hopefully not):

The remix: I’m working on a comprehensive reworking of my ‘tentative steps towards a legal psychogeography’ chapter from Tina Richardson’s Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography 2015 edited collection). The aim here is to reposition the argument so that it is addressing legal geographers rather than psychogeographers, and urging them to be more attentive to the approximation and messiness of law’s presence and prominence in mundane situations. In the recasting of the paper I try to show using passages from Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp how attentiveness to law and other formal framings of any spatial situation are present but often at a comparatively low level of appearance than other less formal normative influences. What I will be seeking to show is how a half-thought of law may quietly – but only quietly and approximately – contribute to the making of and action within a place. If my minor corrections are accepted this will appear as an article in French geography journal in 2019.

The reanimation: the second item, also awaiting confirmation that minor corrections have been cleared, is a write up of a study that I did back in 2009. A couple of years later I tried to get it published in a built environment law journal. The proposed article outlined my early thoughts on the mechanism of law’s haunting: how places and people (and their entanglement) replicate in dead-hand fashion established normativities for a site, and perpetuate them long after their original purpose has disappeared. The key issue in the study was how (and why) precautionary signage was maintained by successive owners of a field attached to a countryside pub. The journal’s reviewers hated it. One said that “it was the kind of postmodern clap-trap that passes for research these days”. You have to choose your outlet and audience carefully in this game. The editor suggested some major rewrites to make it more conventional, but I felt this would make the paper miss its own point. So I pulled it and placed it gently in my bottom drawer. But over the years I’ve kept on needing to cite it in my subsequent work, and haven’t been able to. After a few years I tried to get it into an edited collection but that project fell through. Then I saw a call from an online journal. This was never going to be a way of keeping my institution’s REF police at bay in terms of high quality outputs – but getting it published would mean that I could at least reference it in future, more ‘top drawer’ REF-focussed outputs. So, I retooled the paper for the special issue and have my fingers’ crossed that my 2009 research will finally see the light of day soon.

The redux: the third item, never even made it into peer review, it was spat out by a journal’s editors after I had the temerity to submit a semi-fictional account of the making and abandonment of a place to a history journal. Major suggestions were offered for how I might re-present the material in a more conventional and evidence-based manner. But I sensed that meeting their requirements would have destroyed what I was trying to depict – that the life cycle of a ROC Post could only be presented in aggregate, by stitching together fragments of prosaic place-life that I’d found in Air Ministry archives for 100 sites. No single real site allowed the entire story to be presented: the story of what happens at such places of exceptional purpose but of very mundane assembly. Essentially what I wanted to preserve was a view of a very mundane legal element (based upon standard agricultural property dealings) at work at the heart of the UK’s provisioning for the Third World War, and also of how those law processes jostled for place-structuring influence alongside a host of other material and parochial concerns. Again, this is an attempt to write of law’s quietness, of its co-dependence with some much else in its vicinity in any instanciation of place. So, now I’m reworking the ‘story’ (and its contextualisation) for a forthcoming international legal geography anthology.

The above is not to suggest that nothing should ever be consigned to my bottom drawer to die: there is still plenty there which deserves to stay there. But to move wider projects forward I’ve need to heed the niggling voices because sometimes future developments need the early building blocks to be deployed. No one sets out to write papers that they intend not to be of good REF standard – but on second pass, those that have been passed over for the premiership may still have an important role to play in paving the way for more ambitious stuff ahead.

Image source: https://www.masterfile.com/search/en/messy+file+cabinet

After darkness (a Halloween special): How undead places find their after-lives within architecture’s shadow identity.

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“The temporality of architectural obsolescence is quite varied. It can happen incrementally, detail by detail: a room whose assigned use is forgotten, a window whose insulating capacities no longer meet new standards, or an ornamental schema whose time has passed. But it can also happen suddenly and emphatically, as when a purpose-built building is left abandoned when intended occupants never materialize, or move on soon after they arrive. The market, technology, taste and fashion all play their part in the making of obsolescence. They do so through architecture’s shadow identity as real estate.”

Stephen Cairns & Jane M. Jacobs (2014) Buildings Must Die: A perverse view of architecture. The MIT Press: Cambridge MA & London.

During daylight hours I teach – and help manage – undergraduate and postgraduate real estate degrees at Sheffield Hallam, a vocationally focused university. I came here straight from legal practice as an environmental lawyer, brought in to teach the legal side of property management practice. But something happened shortly after I arrived. Stranger shoots started to grow, and step by step I ended up writing much more about bunkers, modern ruins and weird materialities than I did about real estate law.

But – in my head at least – it’s never been a contradiction, or an abandonment of the ‘day job’. Fundamentally my research is all about understanding the life-cycle of place formations, and looking to the wilder extremes of place and life-or-death purpose in order to bring processes of place making, operating and abandonment all the more into sharp relief. Such investigation finds nuances and complexity where others might assume simplicity: and whether their distain is of the “building managers are only interested in profit” or “urban explorers are childish” variety. Extreme places are good to study to tease out these logics of being and doing, because they tend to be better documented and their existential tensions and motives tend to be more explicit.

Everywhere is somewhere, and most places have affinity to other places of their type. Indeed, extreme places often reveal an underlying commonality when given a lingering look and my research has often found that there’s a prosaic dimension that lies at the heart of even the most unique-seeming place formations.

Teasing out the logics that see the pragmatics of real estate management intersecting with the rich desire-worlds and/or anxiety-worlds of those who strive to enter them (with or without permission) also remains a fascination for me, for whilst very different in their logics, the vivid – and fantasy based – worlds of the anxious building manager and the desiring visitor only really exist because of (and in symbiosis with) the other.

My interest is in particular how tension between the real and the imagined plays out across the full life cycle of any place – from its inception to its obliteration, but in particular in its final stage: the way place dies. This is probably borne partly of some sublimated gothic taste laid down in my youth, but it also has a more abstract and necessary root, for as Cairns & Jacobs note elsewhere in Buildings Must Die, built environment practitioners and academics alike are obsessed with beginnings of buildings and pay scant attention to their endings. Understanding the material and cultural factors that play out across and between an array of actors (some human, some not; some corporeal, some existing only in the realm of the symbolic) is both an act of pure and applied inquiry.

The utility of property is axiomatic to both professional real estate practice and to its study in academia. Real estate is a system of practices aimed at maximising utility and understanding the creation and transfer of value imputed to material places and structures as a quantification of that utility. Thus you’d think that studying the problematic of how things fall out of a chain of gainful use would be a core area of research. But it hasn’t been. Instead most research scholarship in the real estate field is fixated on examining how development schemes (at a variety of scales of analysis) come into being. This field’s research is often econometric in method (and profit-seeking in ideology). In seeking to study the end of life portion of the property use cycle I take a different methodological stance, one informed by my own research training in interpretive socio-cultural analysis. Due to this being a rather alien style for built environment scholarship, I have had the good fortune to find outlets for my work in cultural geography. Thank you geographers for letting me shelter in your (very) broad church.

And it is cultural geographers and contemporary archaeologists whose work I have found most helpful. Tim Edensor’s (2011) work on the mutability of St Ann’s Church in Manchester as it passes through time, and Caitlin DeSilvey’s writings on palliative curation have given important insights into the processual (and inevitable and universal) character of building deaths. Rodney Harrison’s writings in critical heritage studies on the force of contemporary urges to unquestioningly preserve ever more of the remnants of the past – and the ensuing crisis of accumulation that it creates – has helped me realise the importance of heritage effects in causing some sites (for good or for ill) to become stuck in an undead state, trapped by the heritage valourisation’s infinity. To be saved is to be kept alive, in a weak, low-utility state in perpetuity. The work of heritage scholars looking at the slow-death fate of notorious, “Difficult Heritage” (MacDonald 2009) sites has also helped me to consider how the death-stage of a place can troubled and prolonged, and scholars of “Dark Tourism” (Lennon & Folely 2000) have showed me how the emotional attachment of some to the remnants of such (former) places of malign purpose affect the ability of the site to be reborn as something new. Meanwhile Mélanie Van der Hoorn’s (2009) work on the apparent indispensability of certain eyesore buildings has opened up an important insight into the symbolic necessity of waste, of disorder and distaste in order to balance both the built environment and the moral universe that is imprinted upon it as symbols of heritage and culture.

In questioning why certain abandoned or undesired places haven’t been erased and replaced in the ordinary course of urban churn I am not seeking to valorise change for its own sake – mine is not an anti-heritage standpoint per se. But, working within real estate’s concern with utility it is a concern to understand how and why underused sites (wasteland, modern ruins and so forth) come into being and survive despite the logics of repurposing that swiftly re-orientate most other sites.

I’m appreciative of the latitude given to me by my multi-disciplinary department that allows me to plough these strange furrows. I work in long arcs that don’t readily display their directionality. But I usually know where I’m trying to reach and why I’m taking the winding and obscure route to get there. After years of obstinately doing what felt right (but also rather out-on-a-limb) I’m delighted that a small team of likeminded colleagues is now coming together at SHU, each of us peering into the darkness of extreme and/or terminal places in order to tease out a better understanding of the latter stages of the life cycle of place-formations, and the logics by which their change to new uses, and/or new meanings comes about. In particular by colleagues Dr Carolyn Gibbeson, whose research looks at the afterlives of former mental asylums (link) and Simon Kincaid (link) who studies how fires present the limit-conditions for the continuation of historic buildings, and how systems of material things and people assemble in order to try to keep conflagration at bay. Where others of a terminal persuasion have gathered around their provocative sub-disciplinary banners of “dark tourism” and “difficult heritage”, we have started to gather threads for an “awkward real estate” battle flag (and maybe in time we’ll pluck up the rebellious courage and go the whole way: declaring for “dark real estate”).

With this thought in mind I’m delighted to announce that Carolyn and I have proposed related papers for the Thrill of the Dark: Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy Conference at the University of Birmingham, 25-27 April 2019 (Call For Papers details here) – with both of us taking that conference’s premise of investigating the fascination of some with dark places to its limit – its own terminal condition. For each of us is exploring through case studies of two different place-formations (mental asylums and bunkers) how such darkly encoded places, over time and awkwardly, transit to becoming less dark and prospects for new uses and new meanings. Here are our abstracts:

Something slowly emerging out of the dark: how former mental asylums journey towards new uses are affected by their dark heritage

Carolyn Gibbeson, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

Mental asylums are often depicted as dark, feared places. Since their mass closure in the 1990s, these imposing now abandoned and decaying sites have commonly been presented in the media as nightmarish places of torment and scandal. Yet slowly the negative perceptions (their “darkness”) appears to have receded. But, asylums have always been on a journey – with their meanings being reinterpreted over time: once considered as places of sanctuary and cure, asylums then passed on to being signifiers of confinement, disorder and care failings. But now, in abandonment they are increasingly valued for their heritage value and are being turned into luxury residential properties (Franklin, 2002). And yet some still chose to frame these places as dark: staging there macabre photo-shoots and other atmospheric engagements. The asylum seemingly can be both resolutely dark and becoming-lighter at the same time. This paper will explore the semantic and material changes in historic former asylums sites that have influenced the evolution and co-existence of these multiple frames of reference for these structures. In doing so, it will examine how we make these places meaningful by asking who the “we” in this question refers to. It will suggest that different people see former asylums as dark in different ways; that this is a subjective response and varies over time. In short, we must study why, and by whom such places are framed as dark – rather than simply taking that as a given quality. To explore this “multivalence” (Bennett 2013) I will examine three former asylum sites, their different pathways of after-use and redevelopments, showing how different stakeholders have viewed, valued and negotiated these spaces differently, how this framing has changed over time and how it has affected the individual after-use path of each of the three sites.

How and when does darkness fade? Exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence with Hitler’s Bunker

Luke Bennett, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

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

References

DeSilvey, Caitlin (2017) Curated decay: Heritage beyond saving. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis & London.

Edensor, Tim (2011) ‘Entangled agencies, material networks and repair in a building assemblage: the mutable stone of St Ann’s church, Manchester’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35(2): 238-252.

Harrison, Rodney (2012) Heritage: Critical approaches. Routledge: London.

Lennon, John & Foley, Malcom (2000) Dark heritage: The attraction of death and disaster. Cengage: London.

MacDonald, Sharon (2008) Difficult heritage: Negotiating the Nazi past in Nuremberg and beyond. Routledge: London.

Van der Hoorn, Mélanie (2009) Indispensible eyesores: An anthropology of undesired buildings. Berghahn Books: New York & Oxford.

Image source: Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, Buffalo, NY: https://backpackerverse.com/10-most-haunted-insane-asylums-in-america/

The android’s empty gesture: OOO, irony and the drug dealer’s watch

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“Irony is like a wink from an android. You think you know what it means, until you realise the signal you took for meaning emanates from a source for which meaning is meaningless.”

Ian Bogost (2016) Play Anything. Basic Books: New York.

We’ve met at conferences a few times. He’s always distinctively dressed. He appears to pay considerable attention to how he presents himself to the world. Like a roadie for Hot Chip, he favours a gauche retro ’80s stylee. He comes up to me and poses the question.

“So, what’s with the drug dealer’s watch then?”

I look down at my wrist, and he does too. We both stare at my Casio F-91W. He assumes that I mean something ironic by choosing to wear it. I find myself unable to account for my sartorial choice. Not because I can’t find a reason, but because I can think of half a dozen rationalisations, but I can’t remember whether any of them were ever the real reason why I started wearing this retro-watch:

  • I’m anti-flashy in intention, I’d never wear a watch that declares ostentation. So maybe I chose the cheapest watch I could find for that reason.
  • My last watch broke. And I couldn’t decide what watch to replace it with (I’d been wearing that one for 15 years). So, I decided to wear a neutral, statement-less watch in the meantime.
  • My first watch was a Casio F-91W. It was an object of delight and wonder when I got it as a teenager in the early ’80s. It’s hard to summon a sense of that wonder now – but digital watches were the smart phones of their day. Look at all of the functions. And the buttons. And its so multi-functional that it needs instructions etched onto its face. Maybe I’d hoped that wearing it again (and marvelling that it’s still being made) would connect me to that childhood wonder. Maybe it did in abstract – but I only use it to tell the time. It’s other functions are ignored. I’m served for those needs by even more complex 21st century consumer prostheses.

I mumble an explanation (I forget which one I selected) and offer a knowing laugh. It does the trick and the conversation ends. In my mind the knowing laugh is an acknowledgement of the irony that opting for the most lo-tech option nowadays can single you out as having illicit intent. As I laugh I recall the image of a colleague stopped at airport customs because he had two mobile phones, and one of them was of the near-disposable, plain-vanilla variety. An unsmart phone. He was released after explaining that the suspiciously nondescript bland-phone was a University pool-mobile, issued for use during his field trip. It was not a phone for receiving drug orders.

These intertwined stories – of consumer devices and the intentionality assumed for them – came to mind as I read Ian Bogost’s Play Anything. Bogost’s is an odd book. I’d loved his Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s like to be a thing (2012, University of Minnesota Press) and I was hoping for more of the same. What I got instead was a strange book that seems to be trying to be two books at once. At one level it’s a continuation of his mapping out of his own take on Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), through a focus on the pleasures realisable through an active exploration of the possibilities of objects. But this line of argument seems overlaid by the book’s attempt to appeal to a wider, more general readership via its appearance as a (sort of) ‘self-help’ manual – an appeal to engaged worldliness as more outward looking alternative to (or augmentation of) mindfulness. The book’s rather longwinded subtitle, shows this direction of travel: “The pleasures of limits, the uses of boredom, and the secrets of games“. In pursuit of this Bogost ruminates on the positivity of ‘play’ and ‘fun’. He productively argues that play is not (necessarily) an opposite to work, but rather is a state of interaction with objects that seeks to explore their full qualities, rather than just a “things-for-us” instrumentality. But where it then gets a bit messy is in trying to then destabilise traditional understandings of “fun”.

But, hats’ off to Bogost for getting an OOO book positioned and presented as a mainstream paperback offering. And beneath some of the chatty, discursive filler (that the genre requires) there are a number of interesting, and provocative ideas playing out.

Most importantly, for the purposes of making sense of my ‘drug dealers’ watch’ moment, Bogost offers up a very interesting cultural diagnosis: something that he calls ‘ironia’. He argues that contemporary culture embodies a retreat from commitment to ideas, social positions and material things. Ironia causes us to cloak what we mean, align to or physically do by spraying out a trail of counter-statement and counter-actions. In ironia, our aim is to confound, to slip out of certainty, to defer finality or decision. In my case, to wear an anti-watch permanently because I can’t bear the weight of choice that the multitude of possible watches (and social-symbolic messaging) poses.

“Irony is the escape from having to choose between earnestness and contempt”. Through irony you can appear to align to both, simultaneously. Bogost argues that retreat to irony feels clever, it seems to let us have our cake and eat it,  it leaves us thinking that we are able to live in a permanent deferral of choice and/or action. You can be all things to all people. But this oscillation and indeterminacy produces headaches, and Bogost goes on to show that the ironic stance ultimately produces nothing, except alienation.

Bogost points out that whilst paranoia tends to be a condition of scarcity – a manifestation of (real or mistaken) glimpses of power at work over appropriation of finite resources, ironia is a condition of overwhelming over-abundance – of choices, of matter and of awareness of the possibilities of things going wrong (i.e. risk). Ironia is a syndrome of those lucky enough to be weighed down by an over-abundance of material and symbolic choices, and of knowledge of “how things bite back” (to adopt Edward Tenner’s (1997) Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences. Vintage: London) and can hurt us or at least fail to satisfy our expectations of them.

Bogost also argues that our retreat into ironia flows fundamentally from a state of fear, in which (in terms of politics, culture, material-relations): “we’ve trained ourselves to see commitments as affectations, and only to pursue a commitment ironically so that we can cast it aside if fear overtakes us.”

In diagnosing ironia Bogost makes a interesting link to nostalgia – by arguing that a turn to embrace of a thing-in-the-past is a control strategy, for appropriating a former thing is helpfully selective and controlled. Thus my remembrance of my first watch is fond – but only based on a few of its qualities and my experiences with it. Nostalgia enables us to keep at bay the enormity of things (material objects, cultural formations, social relations) and their risks of disappointing us. Fundamentally it is a simplifying strategy, and achieves its effect through temporal distancing – just as a holiday to a far off place where things seem simpler is a function of (social and spatial) distance from the complexity of the present at hand. As he puts it pithily, in this pillaging-to-simplify-and-keep-at-bay we “are all grave robbers now, even while mistaking ourselves as preservationists”. And the rise of social media has accelerated the pillage, giving us all and excuse [and perhaps also a fundamental need] to “abscond with objects, people, and situations by arresting them into assets imprisoned between sincerity and contempt. Online, we become digital poachers, stealing things’ souls in order to elevate ourselves above them, until we destroy those very things via incorporation or disposal. [Today’s] Safari spoils are made of pixels rather than ivory.”

Bogost’s book (as characteristic of most OOO based argumentation) is full of delicious mobilisations of aberrant mundaenity (as provocative poetics and metaphor are OOO’s analytic method), with Bogost here meditating on the act of sofa-covering in order to make his point:

“Rather than accept either the protected or the exposed state of the plastic sofa cover, irony celebrates the buffer—the plastic—as an alternative. Where grandma deployed the plastic cover out of paranoia that some mishap might befall a piece of furniture meant to last a lifetime, irony deploys it for the sake of experiencing the cover as an alternative to the cheap, crappy sofa that doesn’t warrant protection in the first place. Irony sells plastic sofa covers from the back of a truck in the IKEA parking lot.”

Having persuasively diagnosed ironia and its problems, Bogost then attaches the argument that play (as a fulsome, exploratory and committed engagement) leads to a more fulfilling (and authentic) relation with both material objects and socio-cultural objects.

So, regarding my watch. Bogost summons me off the fence: for “irony keeps reality at a distance”. He exhorts me to “pay close, foolish, even absurd attention to things. Then allow their structure, form, and nature to set the limits for the experiences”. In other words I need to declare for my watch, to accept that it is my watch, and that I have already made my choice of it. I then need to fully get to know it – to explore its affordances (as they assist me), its resistances (as they oppose my desires for my watch-tool) and play with my watch in a way that also touches the other qualities that it has – the ones that are not revealed to me by use or purpose but rather which exist none-the-less. Examples here might include, feeling the warmth of its face after exposure to the sun, exploring its crevasses and their grime-ecologies, embracing its scratches, chips and weathering as they unfurl over time.

My watch travels with me through time and space. It goes most places with me and is usually to be found resting upon the surface of my skin. It is a quiet but helpful (and reliable) companion. There are things I’ll never know about my watch – how it works, where its components have come from, who made them, or what lies in store for my watch, and how it will disassemble someday. Even with playful effort my relationship with my watch will be shallow and largely instrumentalist. But armed with OOO I can be a little more attentive to it and committed to its proximity to both my body and my social presentation of self to the world. I’ll give it a try and try and pass our time together in a more satisfying, connected way.