Following old leads: exploring the cable-mountain, and why I can’t throw mine away

“Today we have made the common charger a reality in Europe! European consumers were frustrated long with multiple chargers piling up with every new device. Now they will be able to use a single charger for all their portable electronics. We are proud that laptops, e-readers, earbuds, keyboards, computer mice, and portable navigation devices are also included in addition to smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld videogame consoles and portable speakers. We have also added provisions on wireless charging being the next evolution in the charging technology and improved information and labelling for consumers”.

Alex Agius Saliba, European Parliament Rapporteur (European Parliament News, 2022)

The summer starts with a provocation in June: “You need to get rid of all of those cables”.

July then brings the above birthday card and its accusatory meme.

August then brings annual leave and a negotiated list of jobs to be done. Clearing out the cables is item 4.

I ruminate. I clear out other stuff, but can’t bring myself to tacking the cable mountain. I ponder the reasons for this.

  1. Throwing these items away is a waste of rubber and copper.

The residue of illicit cable stripping or burning occasionally stumbled upon in dog walks reminds me of the value inherent within cabling, if sufficient metallic mass can be gathered together. My cables would not produce enough bounty to attract a scrap dealer. But this argument for inaction has become shaky. There’s a recycling site in my city that takes domestic cables, and sends them for reprocessing. So, Reason 1 is becoming untenable.

  1. I might need them

Here we touch on something primal. Being a competent adult is about being able to solve things, and to have the right tools for the job. In the recent BBC drama series Marriage, the husband of the couple (played by Sean Bean) is a shuffling, somewhat emasculated figure. He is unemployed, slightly lost in the world, and presented to the audience as largely impotent in his interactions. But there’s scene in Episode 2 where the family home’s router is playing up, causing major productivity challenges for his more in-the-world and active wife. He is called upon to fix the problem. He shuffles into his hallway and opens the door below his stairs and reaches in. He pulls out a plastic basket, full of cables. It is clear that this is his solutions store. He finds and fits a replacement cable. The router starts working again. His wife is relieved, and appreciative of the arcane magic that he has just performed. The cable basket returns to its under the stairs lair. The husband’s cable-hoard has proven its worth. It has also vanquished threats to its existence; for a while there will be no talk of the useless, tangled nest of electric string. The husband seems less emasculated for the remainder of the episode. There is a subtle air of competence to his shuffling.

  1. Throwing out a lead is a very final step

Sharing our lives with an ever-changing array of electronic equipment has empowered us but it has also shackled us. We are (or at least need to be) tethered to our devices, and their cables are those essential umbilical cords that feed power and data to our electric friends. To throw away cables is to alienate yourself from previous devices, to abandon the prospect of rebooting that outsourced memory unit from 10, 15, 20 years ago. It is a decision to kill, because it is a decision to not just unplug life-support but rather to pull the plug on a machine in suspended animation, to renounce its possibility of resurrection. Yes, I know that most of these devices will never be reactivated (giving little – if any – resumed companionship or glimpse-of-the-past if they were lead back to life). But the decision to thrown away a proprietary charger is a death knell, and thus a decision easier to defer indefinitely.

  1. Each lead is a talisman, acquired via a quest

With the power to breathe life back into a device, the humble charge or data lead takes on the demeanour of a key or talisman. Only the correct lead will reanimate the device, and finding the correct lead has quest-like properties. The unboxing of the newly purchased device will have been the first glimpse of the devices lead-key. The view of that element will have been unremarkable, but essential. The first act (the act of digital birth) is to power up and/or connect the device. And then in later life of that device there will perhaps have been a moment when a replacement lead was needed – triggering and online or on-the-high-street search for a replicant. The box of leads is the end stage of this questing – and in the pile is invested the effort and urgencies of the circumstances in which each lead was originally acquired. That each once had to be urgently hunted and recruited into essential projects of machine-interaction, has left a resonance within this pile. The cable-pile is a the trophy mound of former questing: this stuff was once so very important, and that residue remains, like the smouldering embers of a once-roaring open fire.

  1. The cable-pile is a material history of our industrial revolution

Azhar (2021) reminds us that the act of living through an industrial revolution looks very different to the contemporary participants than it does to historians looking back at it from a critical distance. To live through an Industrial Revolution is to live in a state of constant adaptation, and to habituate to that. To live through an Industrial Revolution is to be in the state of the slowly boiled frog – it takes effort to notice how far you (and your society) has travelled over recent years. The change is incremental, but adding those increments together leads to a big gap between the world and ways of ‘then’ and ‘now’. We can only cast off our acclimatisation – and notice change, by pausing to consider the accumulated, materialised debris of earlier increments; totems that mark out steps along the way and remind us of our journey. Old leads serve this function. Azhar also points out that a hallmark of our technological progression is a move towards interoperability. He illustrates this with text messaging on mobile phones – originally messages could only be sent within (rather than between) each provider’s network. The ability to send messages between networks was mandated by legislation and licensing. The cable-mound speaks of something similar: the oldest leads are fully proprietary – they are designed only to work with one originating device. The direction of travel has been towards common standards for cable design: USB mini, the micro, then ‘C’. In the case of mobile phones by 2009 there were 30 different chargers, but now most phones charge with one of three leads (USB micro, USB ‘C’ or Lightning). Already we see some devices being sold without cables, the expectation being that every household already has an ample supply of generic USB cables of the right type.

As Criddle (2021) notes the European Commission’s research estimates that disposed of and unused charging cables generate more than 11,000 tonnes of waste per year. As indicated by the epigram, there is now pressure for interoperability of cabling, with the European Parilament pressing for EU-wide legislation to mandate that all new mobile phones, tablets and cameras must only be designed to be powered and data-fed by a USB C cable, by 2024. Apple is presently fighting to preserve the existence of its proprietary ‘Firewire’ cable, but it seems only a matter of time before iPads and iPhones must themselves submit to the ubiquity of the USB C cable.

One day all leads will be USB C leads. One day I will throw away all of my other leads. But for now, I prefer to ruminate, rather than to eradicate.

References

Azhar, Azeem (2021) Exponential: Order and Chaos in an Age of Accelerating Technology Penguin.

Criddle, Cristina (2021) ‘EU rules to force USB-C chargers for all phones’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-58665809, 23-9-22

European Parliament News (2022) ‘Deal on common charger: reducing hassle for consumers and curbing e-waste’, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20220603IPR32196/deal-on-common-charger-reducing-hassle-for-consumers-and-curbing-e-waste, 7-6-22

Approaching the painted cannons of Lisboa

“As I concentrated on these forms in the middle of apartment buildings, in courtyards, and in public squares, I felt as though a subterranean civilisation had sprung up from the ground.”

Paul Virilio (1994) Bunker Archeology(Princeton Architectural Press, Princeton, NY), P.12

This blog is an attempt to come to terms with painted cannons. A recent trip to a conference in Portugal brought me into a series of encounters with four former coast artillery emplacements, their bunkers and their painted guns. The details of these places and their roles in guarding the approaches to the harbours of Lisbon and Setúbal as part of the mid Twentieth Century ‘Plan Barron’ will remain to be substantively addressed on another occasion.

What I want to unpack today is more universal, more phenomenological. I want to make sense of my serial encounter with ‘big guns’ across the four sites, that each (but differently) emphasised to me the role of paint in the present manifestations of these structures.

We will start this meditation on paint and coastal artillery with a painted picture of a cannon: John Minton’s (1953) Portuguese Cannon, Mazagan, Morocco, painted in 1953.

Portuguese Cannon, Mazagan, Morocco 1953 John Minton 1917-1957 Presented by the Royal College of Art in memory of the artist 1957 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00159

Looking closely at the barrel of the cannon we see the patina, and this is an effect created with paint. But we see it (and the broken gun carriage) and we think of rust, decay, disempowerment. In the Tate (n.d.) commentator’s view we see Minton signalling (and materialising) the stretched-across-time (and now aged) effects of colonisation (the fortress dates from shortly after the Portuguese invaded the area in 1502).

Here then we have two intertwined meaning-making processes: the symbolic potency of cannon (what they may stand for) and the physical fact and form of cannon and their not-quite-as stable-as-we-think presence over time materiality.

In launching its ‘Save our Cannon’ campaign in 2018 English Heritage drew together these two aspects, asserting the heritage-value of coastal cannon as “precious objects, vital alongside our castles and fortifications in telling the story of England as an island nation” (English Heritage, 2018) and then raising the spectre of the material vulnerability of these sturdy-seeming structures, for “coastal guns are regularly battered by strong winds blowing corrosive moisture and salt spray over then which means that, untreated, they can corrode 20 times faster than those just a mile or so inland.” (English Heritage, 2018).

Big guns (and cannon in particular) are a quiet but ubiquitous feature of heritage sites. Sometimes the guns are survivals from the site’s former defensive purpose, at other times they are interposed. Think for example of cannon encountered at stately homes which speak to former owners’ colonial campaigns ‘abroad’ rather than the original defence of the cannon’s new-found home.

And in other modes cannon become appropriated as a surface to be written upon, a scribble pad to articulate new (and sometimes fleeting) meanings. Take for example the 1797 naval cannon in given Tufts University in 1956 and which since the era of the Vietnam war has been a beacon of ‘multilayered meaning’ (Ferguson 2018). As a focal point for anti-war protest the cannon was removed from display between in the mid 1960s. It was reinstated in 1977 following a campaign by alumni, but then painted by a protestor opposing the conferral of an honorary degree upon Imelda Marcos. Almost immediately it was repainted by counter-protestors. Thereafter it became a canvass for successive paintings, accruing over 1,000 coats of paint. A recent stripping of the accumulated paint players took contractors six weeks to accomplish, as they closely worked through the layers, hacking off chunks of multicolour paint, some of which ended up in the hands of the University’s art collections registrar, Laura C. McDonald: “we’re object people – we love objects – and we were amazed that, through the simple act of repeatedly painting an object over and over, the paint had become an object, with a top and bottom, cross-sections and colors. It was something you just wanted to look at and hold” (Ferguson, 2018).

Restoring the Tufts Cannon

Ferguson’s account of the refurbishment work suggests broad support not just for the stripping away of the paint layers – but also for the iterative work that the successive paintings represented. However, she also points to the guarding necessary to preserve one iteration of the paint scheme (for example, on the eve of a sporting event). As one defender put it: “we organized guarding shifts in an Excel spreadsheet, and divvied up blankets, sleeping bags, snacks, hot cocoa…several groups tried to either bribe or non-maliciously attack us, but we fended them off. You might think painting the cannon is easy, but nothing about the cannon is that simple”. (Ferguson, 2018).

And in other recent instance of US cannon-contestation a homeless man was seemingly paid by a protester to deface a Civil War era cannon in Mobile, Alabama that had been painted in rainbow hues in celebration of Pride month, with the blessing of the city officials. The protestor’s colour of choice was black paint: perhaps seeking to restore the cannon to its original military colour scheme (Mobile Real Time News, 2022).

(The Mobile Pride Cannon: John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

Cannons then can become a canvass onto which both symbolic notions of identity are projected and enacted with paint. They are also chunky metal objects which have strange sculpture-like, phenomenological qualities.

My recent encounters with Twentieth century cannon around Lisbon brought me to extant gun emplacements in various states of abandonment (and not always ruination). At some sites the emplacements were in near pristine condition (despite having been decommissioned from military service in the 1990s) – due to still being on sites under the care and maintenance of veterans (or the military itself) elsewhere the guns had become blank canvasses for colourful graffiti. But at each site paint was at work, either holding these guns in their original mode, or distorting their form and purpose far away from military uses.

It would be easy to ascribe an anti-military purpose to the graffiti-covered state of guns at other, unguarded, sites – but very little of the paint added to these structures was a commentary upon what the guns had been (or arguably still were). Graffiti of unattended flat surfaces in the Lisbon area seems to be a fairly ubiquitous thing – this graffiti was no more a protest against militarism than an equivalent image painted at the rear of a supermarket should be taken as a critique of consumer capitalism. And there was nothing final (and everything provisional) about these continually overlain and overpainted graffiti at these unguarded sites.

If this painting was an instance of what Giorgio Agamben (2006) has called ‘profanation’ then it is an example of how the effect of profanation (moving something out of a cherished and foregrounded state into something more prosaic and unremarkable) is not dependent upon a particular motive to bring that about. Instead, the profanation can simply be the side-effect of a new use having been found for the thing, its place and/or its surfaces. Indeed, only one graffiti image seemed to directly engage with form of the gun (below) all other graffiti ignored the three-dimensional form of the gun emplacement, treating the surfaces instead opportunistically, and simplistically, as flat ‘canvasses’.

Meanwhile, at the ‘pristine’ emplacements the fresh-looking, super-thick and uniform grey-green paint communicated order and a timelessness: provided this paint continues to be applied this scrupulously, this gun will remain ‘as-is’ (with the clarity of its ‘gun’ identity unfettered) forever.

But in either case the clue to these gun emplacements’ survival is the paint. Without regular painting and overpainting by either crew (the military or the graffiti brigade) these structures would succumb to entropy, especially in salty, coastal air.

I hear talk of unease in the heritage sector about the fetishization of bladed weapons within similar presentations of ‘our’ island story. But this press release (and its connected campaign) suggests no squeamishness about coast artillery. In part perhaps this reflects the ‘defensive’ nature of that type of gun fortification, but the outbreak of a new artillery-based war in eastern Ukraine makes in harder to unquestioningly ‘love your local cannon’.

And yet, once again, I find the phenomenological taking over. I’m tumbled back to visceral recollections of childhood: of super-thick paint on myriad tanks, planes and warships presented to me as places of curious encounter and clambering during ‘Open Days’; of the chipped paint of the sea mine sitting innocently as a tourist ‘attraction’ on the seafront promenade; and of the feverish dreams of the anticipatory child the night before a visit to Salisbury Plane to clamber into the wrecked hulks of exploded tanks. It is the overwhelming impression of being inside a machine, of metal wrought into shapes and sizes larger than any everyday from and encounter: these were the strongest impressions stirred by my trips around the Portuguese gun emplacements.

In short, the mere presence of a gun signals something. But what that thing is seems to be somewhat elusive (or at least multitudinous). A cannon can summon an impression of the past. Or it can be a less certain phenomenological object – something large, unusual, and distorting expectations of local sound and temperature (think the sounds of struck cannon, and of the colder (or hotter) surfaces of the cannon than of its surroundings).

Cannons sit in a family of objects that register in multiple ways, and this is why I can’t make up my mind about my encounters with these Portuguese guns. Should I approach them as strange, alien objects that leave the mind and body to ponder metaphorically. Or should I situate them squarely in in a context – read them as materialisations of militarism and celebrate their decline (or survival) accordingly?

References

Agamben, Giorgio (2006) Profanations. New York: Zone Books. (trans Jeff Fort).

English Heritage (2018) ‘Save our Cannons’ https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about-us/search-news/save-our-cannons/ (press release, 29-3-2018)

Ferguson, Laura (2018) ‘A Thousand coats of paint: Restoring the Tufts cannon’, Tufts Now: https://now.tufts.edu/2018/09/05/thousand-coats-paint

Mobile Real Time News (2022) ‘Rainbow Pride paint scheme defaced on Mobile’s landmark cannon’ Alabama.com https://www.al.com/news/mobile/2022/06/rainbow-pride-paint-scheme-defaced-on-mobiles-landmark-cannon.html

Tate (n.d.) John Minton – Portuguese Cannon, Mazagan, Morocco (1953) – https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/minton-portuguese-cannon-mazagan-morocco-t00159

Changing Places #1 & 2: reflections on our recent SHU Space & Place Group sessions

“…whenever [Mozhayev] forgets who he is, and what he should do next in life, he gets on a bus and rides to the old familiar bus stop where he grew up and suddenly everything makes sense again”.

Peter Pomerantsev (2017) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia. Faber & Faber: London

In his book chronicling the strange, ‘through-the-looking-glass’, world of modern Moscow, Pomerantsev presents a chapter chronicling the hectic and disorienting pace and nature of that city’s recent ‘regeneration’, wherein:

“The city changes so fast that you lose all sense of reality, you can’t recognise the streets. You look for a place where you went to eat a week ago, and before your eyes the whole block is being demolished.”

Set against this disorientation, Pomerantsev introduces Alexander Mozhayev, an urban explorer cum psychogeographer cum rescue archaeologist. Mozhayev leads walking tours in search of vanished and vanishing buildings, who declares there to his audience:

“We’re here to say a wake, to this building, to old Moscow, all these buildings are set to be destroyed.”

In Pomerantsev’s portrayal at least, Mozhayev is driven by a strong sense of a need to find and preserve the past, in order to hold his own sense of individual identity together. For Mozhayev:

“When my parents died, I could remember them through the building that we lived in. Buildings aren’t so much about recollecting time as about the victory over time.”

This strong sense of the power of place to ground an individual’s identity, and in particular of the role of the local and familiar material environment and its arrangement as a cherished store of personal memory and meaning struck me as running deeply through the five presentations given in our recent two ‘Changing Places’ online events, for which the session recordings are now provided here.

In Changing Places #1: Changing Places & Changing Identities (held on 24 March 2022) Nantia Koulidou (Art & Design, SHU) explored her experience of international migration through the design of electronically activated jewellery that could be programmed to comfort the wearer through release of visual and/or audio mementos when triggered by the environmental effects (e.g. altitude) of travelling between home countries and new horizons. This brought a sense of the way in which both jewellery and mobile electronic devices are now intimate companions in our life-journeys, props by which we remember, below and move-on.

Then Jess Scott (Social Science, SHU) outlined her ongoing research into how younger residents of care homes acclimatise to their new dwelling places, and make sense of their past, present and future by reference to the physical arrangement of their new surroundings. Jess’ concern is to better understand ow such transitions occur, in order to find ways in which the managing of that adjustment can be made to be the most positive experience possible.

Finally Joanna Dobson (SHU Humanities) presented an intimate account, through memoir and wider reflection, of a very formative family event, showing how the experience and recollection of childhood home and holiday locations was framed for her and her family members by that event and its perceived incorporation into the very form of the local landscape. [Joanna’s presentation was not recorded]

Meanwhile, in Changing Places #2: Change and the Material Fate of Place, Joanne Lee (Art & Design, SHU) and Rosemary Shirley (Museum Studies, University of Leicester) outlined the five key areas of inquiry that they are developing for their intended project to explore ‘the local’ (and it’s quality of ‘local-ness’) led by development of creative methods for the investigation of place. Growing out of their own experience of dwelling within narrowed ranges of existence during the covid years, their work seeks to find ways to characterise and explore the multiple locals inherent in any seeming place, and of the mundane (but fundamental) ways by which such senses of the local are made and transacted. In discussion it was noted that teasing out how ‘community’ and ‘locality’ differ (but potentially overlap) could be key, as will showing how qualitative (and narrative) based ‘creative’ techniques now used by marketeers and ‘place branding’ consultants can be distinguished from the more holistic (and less instrumentalist) aims of their project.

Then film-maker Esther Johnson (Media, SHU) outlined her multi-modal attempts to preserve both the form and symbol of Hull’s Co-Op department store’s ‘three ships’ mural. Esther’s project, and its collaborations with Hull residents and contemporary heritage campaigners, brought us back round to the question of where the urge to preserve the cherished built environment comes from, and how it reflects both individual and collective identity and (perhaps) a positive dimension to nostalgia, now that modernism’s faith in the-future-as-progress has itself become something of the past. It also flagged how, if (contrary to Mozhayev’s desires) buildings themselves are not good bets for “victory over time”, then perhaps a more durable victory (and aspiration to memory-survival) can be achieved by multiplying and disseminating the most iconic symbolic representations of the building’s former identity-power. Through Esther’s efforts the ‘locals’ of Hull now connect as a community of collective memory, carrying the three-ships mural emblazoned on T-shirts and other printed, portable media even in the face of the Hull Co-Op building’s imminent demolition.

Image Credit: Esther Johnson, mural on former Hull Co-Op department store

The Changing Campus #2: learning in place? (free SHU Space & Place Group online event, 2-4pm, 16 February 2022)

This event is the second in the Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group’s 2022 series of events, running under the theme of ‘Changing Places’.

Our first two events are being curated jointly with the University’s Interdisciplinary Higher Education Research Cluster. Our first event (on 19 January 2022, see details here) explores how the experience of being ‘on campus’ is changing, due to changes in student expectations and the exigencies of Covid-19, and how this can be researched.

For our second online session, we have three presenters who are each concerned with investigating the constitutive role of socio-materiality and ‘thingly’ relations in forming and transforming the campus.

Our speakers for event #2 are:

Hiral Patel (Cardiff University)

Aligning learning and space – a tale of buildings, users and technologies

Learning approaches within higher education are continuously evolving and diverse. This is evident through changes in pedagogies, curriculum content and programme structures. University buildings are required to act in tandem and need to be continuously adapted. My research on adaptations of a library building over 50 years demonstrates the fluidity of the building in response to emerging technologies, pedagogical innovations and the creation of new library services. These observations demand a shift from thinking about learning spaces as fixed entities. Instead, conceiving buildings as socio-material practices highlight their constant state of flux and the ‘ontological politics’ (Mol, 1998) that surround them.

Such a conception has two implications. Firstly, we need to rethink the design and management of learning spaces that integrate different scales (a chair to the city) and sectors (work, living, cultural and learning). Secondly, we need to develop tools and capabilities to continuously align learning practices and learning spaces.

The talk will conclude with provocations for future learning spaces. These provocations emerge from the work of LE-DR Lab, which focuses on the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on university spaces.

Mol, A. (1998) ‘Ontological Politics. A Word and Some Questions’, The Sociological Review, 46, pp. 74–89. doi: 10.1111/1467-954X.46.s.5.

Carol A. Taylor (University of Bath)

Research-creation in the ‘posts’: Institutional kitchens, doors, cupboards

For a long time I’ve been interested in how mundane materialities constitute institutional life. In this talk, I focus on how human-nonhuman relations produce practices of mattering within material assemblages. The mundane materialities I focus on – kitchens, doors, cupboards – are often ignored, unnoticed, or taken-for-granted within the broader life of higher education workspaces. My argument is that such liminal, marginalized spaces/places/materialities can help shape the habits, routines, practices, values and norms of the everyday institutional life they are enmeshed within. The empirical materials I draw on were generated through a variety of research-creation encounters which favoured an experimentalist practice and an attentive stance. The analysis I offer is shaped by three ‘posts’: posthumanism, post-methodology and post-disciplinarity. I draw out some insights into the material, affective and political dimensions of the mundane materialities of our institutional lives and how these vital materialities produce resonances and connections across bodies, spaces and times.

James Corazzo & Layla Gharib (SHU)

Part of the furniture: encountering people and sofas in the design studio

Part of the furniture: a person or thing that has been somewhere so long as to seem a permanent, unquestioned, or invisible feature of the landscape.

The unquestioned things we shall be questioning in this talk are a pair of green sofas. Arranged in an L-shape around a coffee table and forming a small domestic looking space within a larger open-plan design studio at Sheffield Hallam University. At first glance, the sofas appear ordinary, invisible even. However, upon closer scrutiny, we begin to see the sofas as active participants in how teaching and learning practices unfold in the studio. We suspect these sofas are not innocent or invisible features in this educational setting but objects with power and significance that materialize different kinds of relations (Suchman 2005), different kinds of knowers and different ways of knowing. In an attempt to understand these sofas, we sat down with them, had a conversation with them and believe it or not, they spoke back…

Suchman, L. (2005) ‘Affiliative Objects’, The Interdisciplinary Journal of Organization, Theory and Society Vol.12(3) pp.379—399

Image credit:

James Corazzo & Layla Gharib

Further information

Is available from the organiser, Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk).

What’s behind the fence? – exploring dead land and empty buildings at the RGS-IBG 2021 Annual Conference (online session, Weds 1st Sept 2021)

“They came from everywhere… I fixed the fence, over and over I fixed the fence, but they kept on coming.”

A lone, vulnerable security guard, 2017

As part of next week’s Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) annual international conference (which this year is running online: details here) I’m convening a double-session next Wednesday morning (1st September), comprising eight presentations, each considering the quiet and only-noticed-if-you-look human ecology of seemingly empty sites.

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everyday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed.

This conference session will open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators. Taking a life-cycle approach, presenters will explore the stories and structures that have caused abandonment at both remote sites and those within the heart of otherwise active and occupied urban centres. They will tease out the logics of opportunistic appropriators (urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, artists, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places. The role of professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management will also be explored. In each case these readings of the motives, modes and meanings of vacancy will be attentive to the wider ecologies in which these sites and their actors are imbricated and of the important role of (positive or negative) place attachment in determining the speed at which a site is withdrawn from vacancy, or how it is maintained purposively in that state.

Here are the abstracts for our international array of presenters:

Session 1Experiencing and managing dead places (9.00 – 10.40 AM BST)

Ruins of (Post)Soviet Arctic: perceiving, coping with and commemorating abandoned sites

Maria GUNKO Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences / National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia) [presenting]

Alla BOLOTOVA Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland); Elena BATUNOVA Politecnico di Milano (Milano, Italy) [non-presenting]

The Arctic is passing through different economic and political development stages which result in changing economic and social settings, as well as shifts in the cityscape dynamics (Sellheim et al., 2019). During state socialism in Russia, large-scale development of northern territories was due to the need for natural resources extraction with the establishment of control over a vast sparsely populated area (Josephson, 2014). The collapse of the system has led to a reduction of state support for industries, science and military activities causing a structural crisis in many Arctic cities outside oil and gas provinces. Abandoned and dilapidated buildings, industrial ruins, idle infrastructures, and marginalized spaces here remain “monuments” to the Soviet period indicating the changing trends. At the same time, these cities remain home to people with community bonds, sharing values, and place attachment (Bolotova, 2018). The aims of the current research are two-fold. First, we explore the perception of and strategies to cope with abandonment in the Russian Arctic. Second, we look at the examples of abandoned sites commemoration by their former residents. The empirical evidence for the study is drawn from Vorkuta – a conglomerate of urban settlements in the Komi republic. At its peak, it comprised 16 settlements built around 13 coal mines, currently less than a half of these settlements are still habitable having severely shrunk in size. The data were obtained from a comprehensive analysis of various sources, such as planning documents, archival materials, expert and in-depth interviews (in person and via Skype), as well as non-participant observations carried out in January 2019.

What’s the use? Rethinking urban vacancy amidst Dublin’s housing crisis

Kathleen STOKES & Cian O’CALLAGHAN, Trinity College Dublin (Ireland)

The results of the 2016 census found 183,312 vacant homes in Ireland, a figure that included around 30,000 vacant homes across the four Dublin local authorities. While the Central Statistics Office indicated that this figure was a static rather than long-term measure, the ensuing political storm equated vacant properties with empty homes that could be used to solve Dublin’s burgeoning homelessness crisis. Amidst Dublin’s housing and homeless crisis, calls for affordable housing and fairer property markets have paralleled growing attention in urban housing and land vacancy. A spate of policy measures targeting vacancy have testified to the increased visibility of the ‘problem’ of urban vacancy in the post-crisis period. However, policy objectives construct vacancy within a simple dichotomy between space either ‘in use’ or ‘not in use’, therefore reproducing normative understandings that fail to acknowledge that such sites are always active, in property market formation and subject to ongoing ordering and management. As a riposte to these conceptualisations, this paper puts policy objectives and key measurements of urban vacancy in Dublin into dialogue with the critical literature on vacancy in urban and cultural geography (Ferreri & Vasudevan, 2019; Kitchin et al., 2014). We reflect on the limitations of normative understandings of urban vacant space in revealing the role of vacancy in capitalist cities and suggest that more critical assessments can unearth a multitude of urban processes pertaining to the ordering and management of such sites. This paper draws upon ongoing research in Dublin, which investigates underlying factors contributing to urban vacancy and questions how urban vacancy is identified, categorised and measured.

Empty buildings in the re-making: The case of the Hochhausscheiben A-E in Halle-Neustadt, Germany

Hendrikje ALPERMANN, Université de Lausanne (Switzerland)

Four of the five high-rise slabs Hochhausscheiben A-E in the centre of Halle-Neustadt are empty. And this for over 20 years. Between 2003 and 2016, the shrinking city of Halle reduced vacancy in Halle-Neustadt by half through demolition, enabled through the national program Stadtumbau Ost (Stadt Halle (Saale) 2017). In contrast to many other buildings in Halle-Neustadt in the beginning of the 2000s, the high-rise slabs were not chosen for demolition, but for endurance. But how can their endurance be ensured in the context of a shrinking city? While the buildings have been increasingly dilapidated since they have been abandoned in the late 1990s, a number of practices and relationships have prevented them from being demolished or renovated and contributed to their continuous life between life and death. Against what has been written on ruins in recent academic literature, the high-rises do not stand for a site of disruption (Buchli, 2013; DeSilvey; Endensor, 2012) or “the end of the world” (Pohl, 2020), but rather for a series of promised of renovations and postponed renovations. This turn towards practices and endurance allows us to reflect on techno-political modes of organizing urban change and emptiness. It will lead us to ask how agency and responsibility are distributed and enacted.

In Praise of Shutters: Hidden activity within Neepsend, Sheffield

Charlene Cross, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

This presentation takes inspiration from the 1933 Japanese aesthetic essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Junichiro Tanizaki, who made a case for accepting transience, flaws, patina, and shadows within in the built environment. ‘In Praise of Shutters’ draws attention to the shutters and fences of several ’empty’ buildings in Neepsend, Sheffield, to challenge the preconception that these are inert spaces. The images presented form part of a land use study that initially focused upon inert urban spaces, such as wastelands or seemingly empty buildings. However, as the study has progressed, no truly inert spaces have been found to date. Using narratology and a series of photographs taken in Neepsend between July 2020 and the present day, these images of physical boundaries entice curiosity within the onlooker. If the building is not derelict, what’s behind the fence? Walking past a warehouse, the shutters are up and metal work is underway. People heading to the food court across the road, which is made of shipping containers, pause to peep in. The next day, the shutters are down. To those not in the know, will they view the patina of the signage as an aesthetic remnant of the long forgotten past, rather than a marker that provides testament to their long established presence in the area?

Session 2 – Empty sites, re-use, utopia and other potentiality (11.00 – 12.40PM BST)

Rethinking Utopia: The Search for ‘Topias’ in the Paris Catacombs

Kevin BINGHAM, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

Although the idea once had great influence, utopias have proven themselves to be unattainable. Therefore, rather than viewing utopia as an actual destination this paper will argue that belief in the existence of special places of perfection has been replaced by a faith in leisure. As it will be argued, it is the activity of ‘urbex’ that can turn ruins, abandoned places and vacant sites into something similar, albeit temporarily. With this is mind, the paper continues by drawing on the work of Peter Sloterdijk and Tony Blackshaw to accentuate the point that the good life is about inventing oneself through a process of self-creation that has been referred to as anthropotechnics. To unpack this standpoint, the paper examines how a group of urban explorers – people who explore man-made spaces that are generally inaccessible to the wider public – find various substitutes for utopia in the subterranean space of the Paris catacombs. As it is argued, forms of leisure such as ‘urbex’ emerge as ‘primary spheres’ of anthropotechnics that instigate the formation of intertwining and interpenetrating ‘topias’ which have been referred to here as ‘reterotopia’, ‘heterotopia’ and ‘scotopia’. Viewed independently of one another, these ‘topias’ refer to the way urban explorers’ experiment with space nostalgically, compensatorily and in a way that incites the five basic senses. As the paper reveals, each ‘topia’ plays an important part in allowing people to discover performativity, locate a sense of collective consciousness, feel intense pleasures and pains, and, above all, experience the euphoria of freedom.

“The dead are tugging at our backs”: exploring migrant life among the headstones of an abandoned cemetery in Tangier

Maria HAGAN, University of Cambridge (UK)

Renewed and intensified criminalisation of sub-Saharan Africans in the northern Moroccan borderlands since 2018 has made their spaces of shelter precarious and their access to accommodation, particularly in cities of the north, a perpetual struggle. Those seeking passage to Europe increasingly resort to life in concealed, abandoned urban spaces. This paper explores the socio-material ecologies of an abandoned Muslim graveyard in Tangier overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar and serving as a primary space of life for a group of young Cameroonian men. Drawing on 5 months of ethnographic fieldwork with the community in 2019 & 2020, this paper discusses how, concealed and lawless, this abandoned and decaying urban space operated as a rare negotiated space of presence and sociability for the community. Detailing practices of shelter construction between the headstones, the routine destruction of that shelter by authorities, and processes of camp reconstruction and renegotiation attempted by the graveyard’s inhabitants, the paper proposes an analysis of the liveliness of a deathscape in a context of urban hostility against the migrant body. It traces how the appropriation of this undesirable territory affected the men’s self-perception and influenced their space-claiming practices elsewhere; namely the establishment of a cemetery camp in another Moroccan city.

Fortifying the empty ruin: the nightwatchman, the artists, the trespassers and their antagonisms

Luke BENNETT Sheffield Hallam University (UK) [presenting];
Hayden LORIMER, Edward HOLLIS and Ruth OLDEN of University of Edinburgh (UK) [non-presenting]

The cabin is for use by the nightwatchman,
…who is employed by the security firm,
…that is contracted by the small arts company,
…to protect the now fortified ruin of the former seminary,
…which it hopes to take off the hands of the church,
…who desperately want shot of the whole damned place themselves,
…because of recreational trespass and the liabilities arising,
if only a viable model for transferring ownership can ever be found.

This is the premise for an illustrated piece of performed storytelling, and the predicament that it explores. The modern architectural ruin at its centre is a place of competing claims, and complex social dynamics created by the securitization of property. Lately, it has operated antagonistically, existing as an aggressive milieu. The presentation delves into the ruin’s complex relational ecology, introducing its protagonists, affects, spaces, encounters and events. Ultimately, its chief concern is with the architecture of lives as much as it is the lives of architecture. In particular, the presentation will focus upon how the precarious minimum-wage lifeworld of the nightwatchman, and his embodied relationship to this abandoned site, is both more elaborate and more sculpted by the active concerns of others who rarely appear in person on-site, than we might readily assume. The presentation reports on part of the collaborators’ 2017-2019 Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland funded study of attempts to manage and reactivate the modernist ruins of St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, a few miles west of Glasgow. Bennett will present drawing upon Olden’s fieldwork, Lorimer and Hollis’ writings upon the site and Bennett’s reflections on the pressure of anxieties about vacant site ownership.

The elephant in the room?: a facilitated discussion about absent owners

Carolyn GIBBESON, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

To what extent does scholarship on vacancy include an exploration of the motives and meaning-making of owners and their professional agents? Where mentioned do site owners only ever appear as cyphers for capital, striped of any attentiveness to their emotional labour? Does attempting to give analytical space or voice to owners and their motivations for vacancy risk loss of a Critical and/or progressive edge? This contribution will facilitate a discussion of these questions, by reflecting on the Session’s nine papers. It will open with a short presentation in which I will draw on my former experiences of working in the real estate sector as a property manager responsible for a variety of property types including vacant sites, and on my more recent doctoral research into the awkward interaction of developers’ and heritage professionals’ differing world-views and practice-logics. Through this I will consider how different groups of people within the built environment and academic sectors view each other to ask why owners are usually ignored despite their control over a site. I will then invite discussion on whether (and if so, how) a greater attentiveness to owner perspectives could augment studies of vacancy, and also tease out the particular difficulties that lie ahead for anyone trying to research owners’ creation and/or toleration of vacancy, whether as profit-maximising landbanking or for more prosaic reasons.

Image credit: Author’s photograph, St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, Cardross, Scotland, Oct 2017.

Here and hear: reflections on SHU SPG’s Haunts#4: atmospheres of social haunting online event, 17 June 2021

The psychologist of visual perception speaks of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, the figure being that which is looked at while the ground exists only to give the figure its outline and mass. But the figure cannot exist without its ground; subtract it and the figure becomes shapeless, nonexistent. Even though the keynote sounds [of a soundscape] may not always be heard consciously, the fact that they are ubiquitous there suggests the possibility of a deep and pervasive influence on our behaviour and moods. The keynote sounds of a given place are important because they help outline the character of men living among them”.

R. Murray Schafer (1977) The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Destiny Books: Rochester, Vermont. p.9.

Yesterday we held our final event in our ‘Haunts’ series, Haunts#4 was focused on “atmospheres of social haunting“. Introducing the session I tabled a definition of Social Haunting thus:

“The ways in which aspects of the past are somehow mobilised – whether as ‘heritage’, ‘community’, ‘nostalgia’ or ‘trauma’ – so as to impose a strong affective (or atmospheric) charge upon a site of present action.”

But I left ‘atmosphere’ undefined, thinking that that would remain a background, unexplored element. But as it turned out (for me at least) it was the mechanisms of atmospheric engineering – and in particular sound (and silence) as key techniques for that – that seemed to resonate across (and connect together) the five papers. Looking back on it there was a trajectory – from silence through to loudness which I’m now going to try and account for.

Other linkings and cross-readings are possible, and the event recording is presented below.

The quote from Schafer above, reflects the importance of the un- or under-acknowledged role of sound and silence in composing a sense of place, and of how ever if seemingly present only as ‘background’, this environmental quality is vital to the formation of the sense of place, and of the grounding of human living (and dwelling).

The focus on sound and its contribution to the affective weight and endurance of memorial rituals (like the annual Cenotaph ‘Remembrance Day’ and its summoning of a sense of previous generations’ loss in the name of a passed-on ‘remembering’) was introduced by John Land’s presentation. John dissected the elements of the ritual and material arrangement that embedded the sense that each iteration of the Remembrance Day was acknowledging and connecting to a past. As John pointed out, sound is used to orchestrate that intentional social haunting, for example the lone bugle playing the ‘Last Post’, or orchestrated cannon fire. But it is also used in order to frame silence: a feature of these rituals that is perhaps even more potent: in silence the world is marked as stopped in its tracks. Symbolically, a portal opens up, a space of reflection in to which the social ghosts are invited to fill our thoughts.

John suggested that sound connects us to sense of a past precisely because it is ephemeral and incomplete. It leaves room for the mind to wander and (seem to) make its own novel connections (though – of course – working within received cultural schema).

This ‘summoning power’ of sound and silence followed on through into Max Munday’s performative reflections on his use of activity and movement to connect with the traumatic experiences of his Jewish ancestors. In a moving clip (not included in the recording below for copyright reasons) Max inhabited a space, spinning and contorting his body in relation to empty chairs around him as the recording of a mournful lament sung by an elderly Cantor grew louder and louder.

Esther Johnson’s short film A Role to Play summoned the intertwined features that compose the atmospheric essence of Bolsover, a small hillside town in Derbyshire, with a dual claim to fame: an Industrial-era association with coal mining and a long pre-industrial association with aristocracy though its castle. Yet, the town is now post-industrial, a fate sealed by the death of coal and the rise and rise of the logistic sector. Esther gave voice to a selection of residents, giving them space to speak of the highs and lows of their dwelling there. Woven alongside these voices, and the visual depiction of Bolsover’s heterogeneous landscape elements, were ‘local’ sounds buried in the background but giving that sense – as Schafer suggests above – that this ambient soundscape is key because it is constitutive: the sound is binding the the place together. In addition to ambient sounds in the mix, Esther subtly features a brass band’s recording of John Dowland’s 1600 lute song Flow My Tears, which rendered in modern transcription laments:

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their last fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days, my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts, for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world’s despite.

But this elegiac reference is truly backgrounded – because the band is performing the instrumental version. And Esther’s foregrounding of her interviewee’s voices is more more positive: yes speaking to adversity, but also to community, individual and collective agency and mutual aid. Whilst not included in the above recording, a copy of Esther’s film can be viewed separately below:

My own presentation – which considered the erection in the early 1830s of a stone memorial to commemorate a mass burial site for Sheffield’s Cholera victims – spoke of the power of voice in terms of the powerful co-option of poetry and civic engagement by James Montgomery to aspire to embed a lasting sense of lament upon the hillside site at which the burial ground had been hastily created. I then – perhaps moving away from a focus on sound – showed how difficult it is to sustain an atmosphere of loss at a particular site. I charted the rise, fall and recreation of the monument, and questioned whether much of the affective intensity originally intended by Montgomery to be seared into the landscape remained: in short whether his vision expressed in the final stanza of his poem The Cholera Mount (1832) had been met for long:

With statelier honours still, in time’s slow round,

Shall this sepulchral eminence be crown’d,

Where generations long to come shall hail

The growth of centuries waving in the gale,

A forest landmark on the mountain’s head,

Standing betwixt the living and the dead;

Nor while your language lasts, shall traveller cease

To say, at sight of your Memorial, “Peace!”

Your voice of silence answering from the sod,

“Whoe’er thou art, prepare to meet thy God!”

Meanwhile, Charlene Cross sought to give voice to a stranger – a Mrs Violet Murphy – piecing together fragments of a life story for a lady who now existed only through the assortment of momentos and official documents found secreted in a box, in a cupboard, in the basement of Charlene’s childhood home. The dogged application of family history techniques – and the affectionate intensity of Charlene’s searching to try to establish who Violet was, and why her archival remains were lodged in her Blackpool home – was all the more poignant for how those documentary fragments took us around the world, but never managed to reveal a connection to the home (or the town) in which her documents were found. Presented as though a detective story, the reveal – that the question of connection could not be answered – provocatively disrupted and denied assumptions that (even with the Internet) all of the past, and the people and places that may be partially recallable from it, can be neatly fitted back together.

But, as with Max’s summoning of his ancestors life-defining moments, and as with Esther’s giving voice to her interviewees, so Charlene’s act of generous, inquisitive care offered to a stranger in summoning Violet’s life by narrating to us what she had found out brings new pertinence to a popular quoted fragment of Schafer’s key 1977 text: that “hearing is a way of touching at a distance,” (p.11). Although (of course) – and to echo a closing theme of my own talk – this assumes that Violet Murphy actually wanted to be remembered and also raises the question of whether the urge to remember a stranger, just as the urge to renovate a derelict proto-Victorian monument, is an act of care-for-the-past or more a sign of our own contemporary magpie (selective appropriation) tendencies. As the Ghost Lab folk would put it (as ably summarised by Max), remembering the past and its social ghosts can have positive effects in the present and aid action towards future-making, but (as Esther’s film also suggests) to overly dwell on (for example) the loss of past collective identity (e.g. valiant coal mining labouring) could blind us to the (actual or latent) agency of the living.

Image Credit: Road workers and pedestrians fall silent and bare their heads in a mark of respect during the “Great Silence”; the two minutes silence held at 11.00am on the 11th November, 1919, a year on from the end of The Great War at TH2epuq.png (1002×711) (imgur.com)

‘Haunts #4: atmospheres of social haunting’ – announcing the final SHU Space & Place Group ‘Haunts’ session: Thursday, 17 June 2021, 7-9.30pm (online)

“To understand the social power of the ghost and of the dead to emancipate or captivate we have to understand how they become part of corporeal entities and human frames. It is also important to understand how they come to inhabit territories, landscapes and cross borders. Further, what are their intentions and the intentions of those who summon them to their aid?”

Martyn Hudson (2017) Ghosts, Landscapes and Social Memory. Routledge, p.10

The final instalment in Sheffield Hallam University’s Space and Place Group’s season of ‘Haunts’ related online events will be taking place on 17 June 2021, and you’ll find details of our panel of speakers below, along with a link to the Eventbrite booking site.

Across the preceding three ‘Haunts’ themed events we’ve surveyed haunted homes, battlegrounds and wider landscapes, and from an array of disciplinary perspectives. Recordings of our previous sessions are available here. We started our journey six months ago, looking at the ways in which folk beliefs and practices create a haunting of sorts and we return to this ‘social’ aspect of haunting for our final event. Here we are less concerned with ghosts themselves than with the ways in which aspects of the past are somehow mobilised – whether as ‘heritage’, ‘community, ‘nostalgia’ or ‘trauma’ – so as to impose a strong affective (or atmospheric) charge upon a site of action. In short, how do we come to feel collectively haunted by certain moods, affinities or sentiments?

In particular, our presenters will be looking at how these atmospheres of social haunting are constructed. They will consider what techniques of affective engineering are used to summon a sense of hauntedness, and for what purpose? And how effective are such stratagems? Do they always succeed, and if so for how long do they endure? And can they be harnessed for good (to help – for example – to revive a sense of class consciousness, through a sense of connection to a sense of past labour and community)? Alternatively, how can they conspire to destabilise social bonds?

Our presenters at Haunts #4 will be:

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

Building an intentional social haunting?: The Sheffield Cholera Monument

This presentation will introduce the theme of ‘social haunting’ by exploring the origins of Sheffield’s Cholera Monument. Commissioned in 1833, the founders’ aim was that this monument would carry lament and sorrow through into future generations. The subsequent fate of the monument suggests that intentional affective engineering, whether composed with stone and mortar, and elegiac text, both struggle to impose stable meaning and intense affect upon the future generations who may come into proximity with these beacons of intended poignancy. 

Charlene Cross, PhD Student, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

On finding traces of another’s past: Assembling an affective biographical narrative from found items and the Internet 

Upon moving into a new house in Blackpool in 1995, my family discovered a box of black and white photographs and yellowing paperwork in the basement. Keen to learn more about the story hidden in plain sight, this presentation shares the original photographs and official documents belonging to Mrs Violet Daisy Murphy (nee Hard) as a springboard into her life story.  The visual clues present in the artefacts takes the observer on Violet’s journey from marriage, to employment in 1930s Hong Kong, and back to England, where she served in the women’s branch of the British Army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), during WWII. Who did she meet along the way, and how did these items end up in Blackpool when her last known destination was Australia? Alongside unfurling Daisy’s story, this presentation will also be an account of my family’s efforts to find a sense of acquaintance with the lingering traces of a stranger that this box at first presented. 

John Land, PhD Student, Department of Psychology, Sociology & Politics, SHU

Rituals: How perception of the disembodied establishes identity

Each year, people across the United Kingdom observe two ceremonies, Armistice Day, and Remembrance Sunday, which define not only Britain’s memory landscape, but its identity as a nation. These ceremonies should not be gazed upon idly by academics or the general public. This is because rituals like these inform our understandings of how and why we relate to those absent, and further still, how this process of relating sustains broader social and national identities. In this presentation, I will explore the mechanisms at work during these rituals which allow onlookers to interact with their perceptions of the absent and disembodied to produce national identity. Attention will be paid to how the sonic aspects of these ceremonies create a symbolic space within which connection to the absent, and the creation of national identity, is engendered.

Max Munday, PhD Student, Department of Media & Communications, SHU

Becoming-Jewish among the social ghosts 

This paper reflects on my developing art practice-based PhD which brings together notions of haunting and Deleuzean process philosophy. (Manning, 2010; Massumi, 2017). From making lemonade for marauding Russian Cossacks to finding the Western Wall in a Sheffield scout hall, I seek to attune my body to the experience of social haunting and its insistence, in Avery Gordon’s words, that something must be done. (Gordon, 2008). Inspired by my involvement in Geoff Bright’s Social Haunting projects (Bright, 2015, 2016, 2017) and by the ethos and theory behind Erin Manning’s SenseLab in Montreal, the practice is moving from solitary experimentation to a series of improvised movement-based workshops with other young Jews living in Sheffield. Gordon’s hauntings destabilise and defamiliarise our environment, and this project aims to move our bodies into this generative and open field and to animate the entanglement of what, in Deleuzean terms, becoming-Jewish might feel and move like. 

Esther Johnson, Professor of Film and Media Arts, Sheffield Hallam University 

A role to play?: showing social haunting through collaborative filmmaking

Esther will introduce and screen her short film a ROLE to PLAY, research supported by WORK Animate Projects, funded by Jerwood Arts and Arts Council England. Working with Freedom Community Project adult reading group members, (former miner and local MP) Dennis Skinner, and food bank users and volunteers, a ROLE to PLAY illuminates experiences of contemporary working life in post-industrial Bolsover, a Derbyshire constituency where coal was once king. The film experiments with methods of co-creation, radical documentary theatre and oral testimony, with project participants storytelling privileged over the questioning/answering scenario of traditional documentary. The title echoes the participatory film process, and also the roles everyone takes in their working and non-working lives. Made in direct response to the increasing numbers of unemployment and zero hour contracts across the UK, the film explores the realities and struggles that some residents of Bolsover have encountered in gaining and sustaining employment amidst the town’s post-mining legacy of deindustrialisation.  

http://blanchepictures.com/a-role-to-play/  

And we’ll have some time at the end to discuss the journey we’ve been on across Haunts#1-4.

Attendance at Haunts #4 is free – but you must book a place here:

Picture credit: Sheffield Cholera Monument & grounds, photographed at the start of the Covid 19 pandemic, 25 February 2020 by Luke Bennett.

The ghosts we summon from the battlefield: reflections and event recording for SHU SPG’s Haunts #3 event

To the uninitiated, the landscape is flat and unremarkable, punctured only by the bulk of the Lion’s Mound amid miles of grassland and the occasional thicket of trees or a charming barn conversion. To others it is the final stop on an eerie pilgrimage of devastation and loss.”

Rebecca L. Hearne (2020) ‘The Weight of the Past’

Rebecca was due to be one of our presenters at yesterday’s online Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group event, ‘Haunts #3: The Haunted Battlefield’. Sadly, she wasn’t able to be with us, but I read extracts from her paper at the start of our event, and these set us up nicely for our collective ruminations around how battlegrounds have haunted qualities.

Rebecca’s paper gave a vivid account of her experience of conducting an archaeological dig at the Waterloo battleground, in the vicinity of the Lion’s Mound, a monumental landform commissioned by King William I of the Netherlands to commemorate the dead of the 1815 battle there. I read the following passage, which reminded us of the materiality and mortality not just of battlegrounds per se, but of this mound as a particular place, and of this mound as a testimony to the disruption of particular lives:

“The Lion’s Mound is powerful, its impact on visitors visceral. Standing atop the monumental pedestal, it is difficult to visualise the thousands of tons of soil collected to form the mound beneath one’s feet. This soil, drawn from the battlefields, contains bone fragments, lost teeth with historical fillings, clay pipe bowls blackened from anxious chain-smoking, and tatters of cloth punctured by bayonet blades, sometimes decayed and sometimes stained with young men’s blood. Musket balls, unfired but flattened on one side, preserve the moment when a young man jammed his ramrod too hard down the barrel of his gun while loading it in panic, causing it to misfire, injuring or — most likely — killing him. Shreds of family photographs, letters, memorandum books, tokens and talismans imbued with meaning and significance and intended to ensure a safe passage home were instead swallowed by thousands of tonnes of blood-soaked soil. As one project participant mused, standing atop the monument on that searing July day, ‘You just feel that… that weight. All the weight of the past is here.’”

Rebecca’s fellow excavators were 21st century military veterans with PTSD, who found the act of digging and being at anothers’ battleground a powerful and helpful way of working through their own trauma.

Thinking back on the five presented papers that then followed, it has struck me that all of them – each in different ways – were concerned with the summoned nature of ghosts at battlefields. The presentations (which are all available to watch in the session recording below) each showed how, just as ‘place’ is ‘space’ infused with meaning projected onto it, so each battleground’s sense of haunting is at least in part (created or sustained) by present generations’ orientations towards these sites.

Thus, in the event’s keynote presentation, conflict archaeologist and post-conflict heritage specialist Gilly Carr from the University of Cambridge looked at how in the Channel Islands the material remains of the Atlantic Wall defences (Nazi bunker complexes) have been appropriated by successive generations of post-war islanders, sometimes playfully, sometimes as ‘heritage’, sometimes as emblems of islander spirit. And within that, the islanders openly share stories of encounters with the ghosts of these places. Gilly contrasted this with the awkwardness that arises within most academic circles when talk turns to ghosts. Gilly was keen to portray this local attachment to these bunkers and their ghosts as a potent mix of tangible and intangible heritage. Just as there has been growing attentiveness to the need to identify and preserve cultural practices and ideas in indigenous cultures, so can the logics of this be brought closer to home. The significance of these bunkers is – at least in part – because of the importance attached to them by the visiting, re-appropriation and story-telling projected upon them as part of the islanders’ local culture. Perhaps, by extension, these ghosts (or at least the practices enacted by the living in relation to them) should be protected as intangible heritage.

Later in the session, David Cotterrell (SHU – fine art), showed how his experiences as a war artist in Afghanistan in the early 2000s had been driven by a self-confrontation, when – as a pacifist – he was offered the chance to document a warzone. He felt the need to challenge himself, and to see this other (or alter-) reality for himself. His experiences showed him the complexities of ‘seeing’ war, that in 21st century warfare the view is often distant, totalising (as epitomised in the remote view of the drone pilot). This influenced David’s 2012 installation work, The Monsters of Id, which works across three different visual domains and degrees of proximity to other people (whether enemies, bystanders or otherwise others). The following video shows the three installation pieces comprising that work. As David explains in his contribution to Haunts #3, the presence of inhabitants in the artworks is directly influenced by the presence of spectators. Thus, no one looking results in no-one appearing in the artwork. The flip-side of this is that if spectators lingered in the gallery they would be visited by curious others – people visiting them from within the artwork. This uncanny device activated two important complexities. First, the notion that we summon that which we fear – we call it forth – and perhaps it only exists because we summon it. Secondly, the notion of various degrees of distance of spectatorship, and in particular the detachment that military views of desert-like landscapes engender, with targets as anonymous – ghost like – others glimpsed only vaguely or in aggregate.

Another presenter, Andrew Robinson (SHU – photography) looked at the history of battlefield photography as pioneered at Gettysburg during the American Civil War. With a near-forensic close attention to detail, Andrew showed how iconic photographs showing the aftermath of that battle were somewhat composed, through rearrangement of the placing of corpses. Andrew showed how a style of war photography had been forged there – by commercial photographers who were taking pictures for sale to the general public, and seemingly meeting a ‘need’ (prurient or otherwise) for the viewer to feel that they had (virtually) been there / seen the reality of conflict. Andrew then showed how as the battlefield morphed in successive generations into a totem of heritage and national identity, the site itself having become a visually choreographed object.

David Clarke (SHU – Journalism) presented an equally thorough investigation of the origins of the ‘Angels of Mons’ legend, showing how what came to be a widespread belief in spectral intercession in an early First World War battle had been triggered by fiction that then slid into assumed fact, embedding itself in enduring folk memory. The assumption of fact was a product of its time and context: a heady mix of patriotism, pre-existing national myths and spiritualism. Such myths take hold where there is a widespread desire for such things to be true. Once again, we summon the ghosts.

Rob Hindle (Sheffield based poet), shared this concern with the power of myth, and blended in his concern with the alter-reality of war and also his family history or ancestors caught up in the carnage of the Western Front. Rob read from his published collection The Grail Roads (Longbarrow Press, 2018), an evocative mix of his poetry and extracts from his interpretative essay “Iron Harvest: An archaeology of sources”. The following quote – describing Rob’s search with his father for the location at which his great-grandfather fell in 1917 – neatly returns us to the theme of ‘summoning’ (Rob is searching for a ghost) and adds a sense of the chilling ambivalence of place:

“His body wasn’t found. The buzzing pylon and surrounding scrub don’t feel like markers: we’ve just run out of track. We stand freezing for a few seconds, my dad and me; then go back to the car.

The villages are ancient and they aren’t; Aerial photographs from 1981 show nothing but dark weals; yet here are hedgerows, huge trees, honey-stoned cottages and walls. Graves cluster along the lanes, the same stone cut into trim slabs and lined up, almost touching. Everything is small and close: 100 graves in a garden plot; six villages in a ten-minute drive. A dozen fields run down to the Ancre. I look at the maps from 1914, 1916, 1971. The villages disappeared but the red lines were more or less the same. The men came up that road, year after year, and were killed. When it was finished people came back, rebuilt their houses, planted trees, ploughed the land again.” (p.137)

Image Source: Belgique_Butte_du_Lion_dit_de_Waterloo_cropped.jpg (2646×1577) (wikimedia.org)

Haunts #3: The Haunted Battleground – free SHU Space & Place Group Zoom conference, 7-9.30pm Thursday, 25 February 2021

“The Memorial Forest … looks quite strange; those are scars from bombardments that occurred on this site during the battle for Vimy Ridge in 1917 as well as failed military manoeuvres before and after the Canadians took the ridge in April of that year. When they began work on the site in 1922, it took them two and a half years to remove the majority of the dangerous unexploded bombs, shells, and undiscovered bodies, but even today visitors are not permitted to walk beneath the trees because it was impossible to remove everything.”

Lauren Markewicz (2012) ‘The Statues of Vimy: at the Ridge and in the Museum’ https://historyboots.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/vimy-ridge-research/

Having recently examined the links between folklore, practices and the hauntings of place (Haunts #1) and the haunted atmospheres of domestic dwelling (Haunts #2) Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group’s 2020-21 season of haunting themed events is now turning, for Haunts #3, to consider the ways in which battlegrounds have a variety of lingering effects that persist long after the shooting stops.

For our free evening session on Thursday, 25 February 2021 (7-9.30pm) archaeologists and creative writers and artists will consider the many ways in which the battle lingers, both immured in place, and seared into the psyche of both those who were there, and those who were not.

In keeping with the playful spirt of SHU SPG’s Haunts series, this proudly interdisciplinary event will be respectful but also informal, looking to tease out new insights and ways of seeing place through its hauntings. And the hauntings to be encountered in this search for the ghosts of war and their territories, will range widely: across real ghosts, patriotic phantoms, restless trauma, literary memory and that sense (readily enabled by ever advancing technology) of the ‘other’ as a dehumanised, figurative shadow.

Our programme

19.00 -19.05

Luke Bennett, Associate Professor, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University

Welcome & Introduction

19.05-19.45

Gilly Carr, Senior Lecturer and Academic Director in Archaeology, University of Cambridge [Keynote speaker]

Archaeology, Heritage and the Ghosts of War

Archaeologists aren’t allowed to write about ghosts. And yet a number of those working in my field are aware of stories of hauntings associated with the places and spaces where we work. Some of us have even experienced first-hand that which disturbs the local residents. How can those of us who are not anthropologists write academically about concepts of haunting and spectrality when the ghosts we want to write about are not metaphorical? How can we be sure that it’s not the sites that we visit cause or trigger in our minds the visions of the ghosts in the first place? In this session I will be discussing the ghosts of occupation from the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by German forces during WWII. I will explore the inextricable link between ghosts and German bunkers – the location of sightings for members of the second and third generations of Islanders.

19.45 – 20.05

David Clarke, Reader, Department of Journalism, Sheffield Hallam University

The Angels of Mons: summoning divine support onto the WW1 battlefield.

2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the birth of the most enduring legend of that conflict, The Angels of Mons. The ferocity of the battle and fear of early defeat encouraged an atmosphere on the Home Front that was receptive to the supernatural. From this cauldron of hope, faith and fear emerged an inspiring story of warrior angels that appeared to save British troops from the German onslaught in Belgium. The legend became part of the folk memory of the war and encouraged those who believed the Allies had divine support on the battlefield. This short presentation will be based on my book The Angel of Mons (2004).

20.05 – 20.15 comfort break

20.15 – 20.35

Andrew Robinson, Senior Lecturer, Sheffield Institute of Arts, Sheffield Hallam University

Photography, fake news and the restless ghosts of the Gettysburg battlefield.

The interplay of battlefield, landscape, memory and fictionalised narratives are central to the study of battlefield photography from the early years of the medium and are key to understanding one of the most iconic and contested images of the American Civil war, ‘The Den of a Rebel Sharpshooter’ a photograph from the Gettysburg battlefield captured two days after the fighting and published by Alexander Gardner. The accepted narrative, that this image was staged and constructed by the photographers who carried the dead soldier from another location, originates in a 1961 article in the Civil War Times and was popularised by William A. Frassanito in his 1975 book ‘Gettysburg: A Journey in Time’ since when it has been accepted as fact. This talk will explore the contested nature of this image which has haunted the memory of both photographer and soldier for more than 60 years.

20.35 – 21.00

Rob Hindle, Sheffield-based Poet

The Iron Harvest: unsettling grave goods and trauma in the killing fields of Western Europe

Poetry, according to Seamus Heaney, is an act of digging, or of dropping the bucket down. When you take the spade to, or wind the pail down through, the deep-contested strata of France and Flanders, you inevitably find horrors. Whether deep and ancient or poking from the surface, these remnants bear the same scars. Shell shock, PTSD, trauma. In my collection The Grail Roads, Malory’s ‘felyship’ of questers traverse the waste lands of the Western Front where past and present traumas leak through the trenches, ghosts of men sent to fight in wars not of their making are haunted by their dead, and survival is configured as incomplete, unhealed, a sort of failure or alienation.

21.00 – 21.20

David Cotterrell, Director of the Culture & Creativity Research Institute, Sheffield Hallam University

The Monsters of the Id: How can the creative arts summon the spectre of war – and why should we seek to do so?

As an installation artist working across media and technologies, I aim in my work to explore the social and political tendencies of a world at once shared and divided. I particularly seek to achieve this through intersection: whether via fleeting encounter or heavily orchestrated event. For this presentation I will talk about my depictions of haunted battlegrounds, specifically my work inspired by exploring the carpet-bombed and land-mined landscape of the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan. My work Observer Effect – part of my 2012 exhibition Monsters of the Id – summoned impressions of moving digital inhabitants onto representations of this blank seeming landscape, forcing encounters between gallery viewers and these resident, spectral others. I will talk about my motivations within this, and draw in examples from my other works inspired by my encounters with conflict zones past and present: ranging from the battleground at Waterloo to my current work with the Imperial War museum on a project focussing on the decade of history that has followed the Nato Intervention in Libya.

21.20 – 21.30 Closing discussion

Chaired by Luke Bennett

How to attend

The event is free to attend, but to join us you will need to register at Eventbrite here.

You will then be sent the Zoom link 24 hours before the start of the event.

This event will be recorded and uploaded alongside Haunts #1 and Haunts #2 here.

The final event in the Haunts series will be Haunts #4: Atmospheres of Social Haunting, in late Spring 2021. Details will be announced at https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com.

For further details of SHU’s Space & Place Group or this event please email Luke Bennett: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.ukImage credit: Lauren Markewicz (2012) The Memorial Forest, Vimy Ridge, France (used with permission). https://historyboots.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/vimy-ridge-research/

Time to show the chair the door?: Haunting, wrestling and cohabiting with material and immaterial others (Reflections on SHU SPG’s ‘Haunts #2: The Haunted Home’ and a full recording of the event)

“I’m standing up for myself as I walk through the house at night…I’m not going to be pushed around. If I got nervous in the house, I’m lost to the house…I have to walk the house in a way like – the beacon, like the energy of the house. I say what goes…I have to stand up to the history.” (p94)

So speaks Ben, the resident of a haunted house, interviewed in Caron Lipman ‘s 2014 book, Co-habiting with Ghosts: Knowledge, Experience. Belief and the Domestic Uncanny (Ashgate/Routledge). In her book, Caron focuses on co-habitation. Her concern is less with the ghosts, and more with the dwelling and sense-making practices of the current residents who must learn how to live with the uncanny, out-of-sorts, domesticity of the haunted home.

We were delighted to welcome Caron as our opening speaker at our Haunts #2: The Haunted Home online-event last week. What follows is my personal reflections and connections as chair of the event – other readings of the presentations and their juxtapositions are possible. Indeed, the presenters may not agree with what I have chosen to foreground from their work (their abstracts are here). The full event recording is embedded below, so you are free to formulate your own interpretation. But here’s mine take on that we gave house-room to last week.

Caron’s presentation reflected back on the places and people who had informed her first book’s exploration of this co-habitation. Caron also gave a glimpse of the follow-on concern of her second book (published earlier this year) Heritage in the Home: Domestic Prehabitation and Inheritance (Routledge, 2020). In that book, the accommodation of present-day residents is more with the material traces of past inhabitation, than with the spectral. This was interesting for Haunts #2 as, by setting our understanding of ‘haunts’ very broadly, many of the follow-on speakers focussed on the haunting effects of material traces, and thus upon the agency of those situationally-inherited objects. And of their (and their research subjects) attempts – like Ben above – to wrestle and wrangle such objects into order, in order to achieve a successful and sustainable sense of domestic dwelling.

For example, our second presenter Jackie Leaver, gave an evocative visual account of the investigation of her recently purchased home. Here the early stages of her renovation work, and home-making, entailed a stripping back of surfaces, and attentiveness to prior installations and adaptations made by previous owners. This stripping back was both reverential and purgative – for both the investigation and the renovation works were ultimately destructive, a prelude to cleansing, re-painting, re-wiring, re-moulding of the house into a contemporary home. The traces of the past became known, pondered but ultimately (and inevitably) erased and/or bent to the will of the present. As Jackie neatly put it: what would be the alternative? To keep this tired and dilapidated place frozen in time as a museum, where what was being celebrated was prior (but not present) dwelling.

From perusing the sedimented past within the materiality of a single house, we then turned to examine the power of an under acknowledged idea: the sofa. Surely a sofa is a thing, not an idea? Mary Pearce showed us how the idea of the sofa took a powerful hold upon literary culture in the 18th century. The sofa (a new direction in furniture appearing for the first time then) was taken up in Gothic literature as a highly charged affective space – a plush zone within the home which summoned seduction and congress with ghosts.

To see how potent and destabilising of living rooms this – now mundane – item of furniture had once been was a revelation. And this effect is an intentional aspect of Mary’s on-going research work to destabilise our present-day notions of this part of the domestic landscape. We do not fret about chaotic tendencies of sofas anymore, but Mary showed us how for the Gothic generation the question – or challenge – of how to keep in check the otherwise wanton agency of the sofa was very much a matter of active, urgent discourse.

In her research Lindsey McCarthy’s research has considered how the binary of homely/unhomely needs to be broken down and problematised, when considered in the context of the experience of homeless women and those living in shelters and refuges. Lindsey showed, using images taken by her research subjects, how they attempt to create cherished zones within chaotic (and sometimes violent) refuges, often through shrine-like configurations of their few, precious mementos. Here, the act – in the present – of dwelling within these chaotic spaces, required a summoning / investing of positive impressions of past family and domestic life into available objects. This – perhaps – is a form of reverse haunting – in that the resonance of those objects is impressed upon them by the women, rather than that it exudes as an uncontrollable excess of others’ pasts spilling into the present (as was the focus within Caron’s and Jackie’s studies).

In the next presentation, Susan Anderson recounted the dramatic reinterpretation of a real-life 16th century murder of Thomas Arden, a wealthy businessman from Faversham in Kent, who was murdered in his own home by his wife and her associates. The resulting play Arden of Faversham (c1590) – as Susan explains – picks up on the Elizabethan trope of cruentation, the belief that a body will resume bleeding if the murderer subsequently re-visits the corpse. It does so with a twist, for the cruentation in Arden is that the house (the scene of the crime) itself exudes blood, which the murderous conspirators try in vain to wash away. Here it is the entwining of the victim’s blood and the kitchen floor into which it has soaked which creates the haunting effect. The house itself becomes an obstinate witness to the crime enacted there by the occupants. The frantic – and unsuccessful – attempts to scrub the floor clear reveal the limits of an occupant’s control over not just of this unsettled home, but of any home.

Finally, Jo Ray and Becky Shaw reported to us their investigation into the uncanny (out-of-place) qualities of a school – and both of its school-times and school-spaces. Examining the institutional-atmospheric circumstances of unsettled children, Jo and Becky showed how attempts to create a settling atmosphere of school-time and school-place are often constructed by material and symbolic appeals to home and the domestic realm. Here, attempts are made to form pockets and moments of home-comforts, and that these attempts are made both by the school and by pupils (and their families). Ideas, artefacts and orderings of home bleed into the school realm. Often these domestications are clumsy (i.e. institutionally inflected) or incongruent (toys, curtains and other ‘props’ that have drifted to school from homes). In the clutter of the school these attempts to forge a ‘home from home’ often leave school-place and school-time feeing uncanny: neither fully homely, nor fully not-of-home, but rather – instead – unhomely (Freud’s notion of the uncanny being – in German – derived from the sense of the unheimlich, the un-homely).

Haunts #2 grew out of the Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group’s investigation (June 2019) of the ‘comforts and discomforts of dwelling’, as followed by our June 2020 session looking at the ‘dwelling in confinement’ aspects of the national Spring 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. All of the six Haunts #2 presentations added to this exploration by looking at the home – and the act of dwelling – as complex pleasure/pain melds. As thoughts turn to Christmas the dream of home is to the fore – but the social distancing imperatives of fighting Covid-19 this year make that dream’s image of domestic sociable comfort, calmness and order less attainable. And yet, even in non-pandemic circumstances the almost impossible to attain and sustain desired domestic bliss of the festive season reminds us of this complexity, and of how the performance of domestic sociable comfort, calmness and order requires frantic, ongoing effort to sustain successful co-habitation with people, to create and maintain the right atmosphere and to constantly wrangle of objects into line. So, just as it was fitting to have Haunts #1: Haunted Place & Haunting Practices at Halloween, so it has been fitting to have held Haunts #2: The Haunted Home and its meditation on the active work entailed in domestic co-habitation (with people, spirits and objects), in the run up to Christmas.

Haunts #3: The Haunted Battleground will follow-on in this series in late February / early March 2021 (and hopefully will break the pattern of timely resonance in its subject matter). Haunts #4: Atmospheres of Social Haunting will end the series in May/June 2021.

Details of Haunts#3 and #4 will be announced in due course via this blog.

Picture credits: (1) Luke Bennett (2012) Purging an old sofa in the back yard; (2) Slide from Mary Peace’s presentation.