Gazing from ruined pavements: A postcard from Berlin

Potsdam

“Broken fragments of stone become evocative ruins when someone gazes upon them and imbues them with significance; otherwise they linger on as worthless rubble to be swept away or ignored.”

(Michael Meng (2011) Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. London: Harvard University Press, p.10)

I’ve just finished reading Meng’s book. It examines the ways in which abandoned and ruined Jewish public places (principally synagogues and cemeteries) fared across various eras of neglect, erasure, re-purposing and (in some cases) rediscovery and restoration between 1945 and 2010, in Germany and Poland, under both communism and capitalism. Meng features the arresting image (above) of a crowd of passers-by photographed halted from their travels on the pavement and gazing at the ruins of Potsdam synagogue, in the daylight that followed Kristallnacht (the ‘night of broken glass’: 9-10 November 1938) and its orgy of coordinated ruin-making inflicted on Jewish buildings by the Nazis. Chillingly his sparse commentary draw us into the image, he suggests that we can’t discern from the image what the spectators were thinking, or even why they had stopped to look. This made me scour the picture – searching through the crowd, staring at the back of their heads – hoping to find a face that would meet my gaze and give me some clue. But the image – as Meng rightly notes – gives us no closure, and (as his book provides) requires a detailed meditation on context and an assaying of the ebbs and flows of two rival structures of feeling and acting: “redemptive antisemitism” and “redemptive cosmopolitanism” in each of Germany and Poland in the postwar years.

Meng’s analysis shows how, since the 1980s, Jewish ruins in Germany and Poland have become valorised – via the ascendancy of redemptive cosmopolitanism – in particular through their role in international commemoration and heritage pilgrimages. This seems self-evident, from our contemporary vantage point. But Meng’s book shows that there is nothing eternal or inevitable about this attachment of significance to these places, and his is a meticulous analysis of the unpredictable end-of-life-cycle of any ruin, and of the vital importance of understanding how the materialities (and costs) of dereliction intersect with the rise and fall (and dereliction) of the bodies of ideas that give meaning (and whether for good or ill) to any place. But Meng is also attentive to local contingencies for the sites that he chronicles, the story of each ruin cannot be contained within that building alone. The fate of a place may be collateral damage (or collateral salvation) related to some other local issue or project. To be effective then, the explanatory lens has to be able to move in (towards local prosaics) and out (to be able to situate the site’s fate as at least to some extent within wider sociopolitical trends).

Meng’s book was my holiday reading for a recent short family holiday sightseeing in Berlin. I’d been there once before, 10 years ago, and had done the whole ‘Berlin – city of traces’ thing then, absorbing myself with dark heritage guidebooks and trying to cram in as many glimpses of “the ghosts of Berlin” (Ladd 1997) as I could. This second time around I was happy to navigate the city via family consensus. I was politely but firmly told that this holiday wouldn’t be about ‘Dad’s dark ruins thing’.

The impression I came away with from this re-visit was that Berlin’s traces are neater and tidier now – presented as part of international heritage tourist circuits. The dark stuff is there, but it is increasingly ‘just’ part of those circuits. This impression may simply be a product of the different circumstances of my re-encounter with Berlin, and I’m not suggesting that Berlin in 2010 was somehow purer, more authentic or less touristic. Any experience of any place (and whether ruined, ‘dark’ or otherwise) is at least in part an outcome of what you go looking for. And I’m not going to be po-faced and suggest that somehow my exploring of Berlin in either 2010 or 2019 was itself anything other than a form of tourism. In short, each time I went to Berlin with certain expectations and each time found ways to ‘join the dots’ so as to meet those expectations.

There was one exception however to this ‘I went – I saw – I came home having seen what I expected’ intentionality. And it happened on the day where my teenage daughter had control of our itinerary. She decided that we would go to Berlin Zoo, and so we did.

Climbing out of the metro stations we were a little disorientated. We could see various signs to the zoo, but they seemed contradictory. We shuffled along in a direction that we thought might work, and soon came upon a bulky security barrier, painted in black and yellow, and with the (English) words “Truck Stop” repeated in very insistent, prominent letters. This street architecture seemed overly keen to announce itself and rather awkwardly positioned, laid down in an already cluttered street scene – pavements, market stalls, infrastructure. Then we saw some votive candles on the steps rising from this pavement and on closer inspection could see memorial photographs and a few flowers laid out besides them. Getting even closer (having weaved across the pavement’s heavy traffic of passers by to get nearer) we saw names engraved into the otherwise normal pavement steps. Collectively it started to dawn on us (but not in a tranquil, contemplative way – because our senses also had to remain focused on the perils of stopping within this pavement’s flow of incessant movement): this place was the scene of the 19 December 2016 Christmas Market terrorist attack, in which 12 of the pedestrians who had been using this pavement were murdered by being run down by a truck. Trying to take this in as the world incessantly and very mundanely carried on its flows around us felt unsettling. As I tried to process the newly-acquainted significance of this place fragments of the scene: the steps, the market stall to my left, the pavement beneath my feet, and the recently encountered Truck Stop barrier, all coalesced into a sense of place – that this otherwise unremarkable portion of pavement was a distinct location and that it was more important than any other stretch of the pavement further along this busy road. And yet, as I fought to stabilise this image  of a distinct, important place, it struggled to stay separated from the urban realm and flows of which it was part. Bodies buffeted me as I slowed to survey the scene, elements appeared at the periphery of any provisional framing of this scene – extending it further along the pavement and beyond the steps into the nearby church, the plaza beyond and the bulk of the market stalls. 

That this site was not separated from its surroundings felt strange (given the way that memorial sites usually are separated: e.g. presented as calm, contemplative oases in a nearby park). But it also gave it an unusual affective charge – this place and its unexpectedness had pricked me, and in circumstances where I had not been looking to be pricked. As we walked away I turned to look back at the ‘site’ (and to try and get a synoptic grasp of it). It was then that I noticed a very subtle form of memorialisation that had been installed to ‘frame’ this place. Running down the steps and across the heavily trafficked pavement was a narrow golden slither or rivulet. It was impossible to see the slither in its entirety because of the flow of passersby. It also proved impossible to photograph – for unlike a conventional sculpture it was but a flat mark across busy ground. It looked like a rivulet of golden blood and seemed in its context life affirming rather than mawkish.

Related image

Subsequently I’ve read that this memorial is actually meant to signify a crack – positioning this within the distinctly German post-war tradition of ‘mahnmal’ (warning monuments): for the crack here symbolises the attack (and thus the momentary breach in Berlin’s self-image of redemptive cosmopolitanism, and acting as a call for alertness and vigilance to guard against the risk of such cracks in the tolerant, democratic polity).

The creation of this artwork, by designers Merz Merz, actually involved first the chiselling out of a 17 metre long, narrow crack across the steps and pavement and then the elimination of that void with the golden infill. In that sense the re-joining of the pavement – via the elimination of the damage inflicted upon it – was intended as a redemptive gesture, a gesture augmented by involving the bereaved in the smelting of the gold.

But without knowing this process and backstory I reacted to this as a rivulet. Either way the enmeshment of this site and its subtle monument within the throng of daily life stopped me in my tracks. I had to stop, look from the pavement and make some sense of these broken-and-mended fragments of stone and what they could or should stand for.

 

Image credits: Postdam Synagogue, Potsdam Museum via http://www.grahamfoundation.org/grantees/3950-shattered-spaces-encountering-jewish-ruins-in-postwar-germany-and-poland ; Merz Merz (2017) Der Goldener Riss https://www.rbb24.de/politik/beitrag/2018/07/terror-breitscheidplatz-entschaedigung-antraege-gedaechtniskirche-berlin.html; Making Der Goldener Riss https://www.bento.de/today/berlin-so-sieht-das-mahnmal-fuer-die-terroropfer-vom-breitscheidplatz-aus-a-00000000-0003-0001-0000-000001951349

 

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On being [un]comfortably [un]comfortable

Hygge

This slide seemed to go down well at the recent Space & Place Conference, and I was chuffed when a colleague said that they might use it in their own work. I was trying to work through a vague idea that had lurked in the background of the recent series of SPG events: all on the comforts and discomforts of dwelling and place. I wanted to think through how it wasn’t simply a binary (of either comfortable or uncomfortable) but that instead these qualities combine in different ways, producing different effects (and affects).

So with Donald Rumsfeld’s idea of ‘known unknowns’ to mind (and with a never-quite-fully-thought-through nod to AJ Greimas’ semiotic square) I stumbled upon my own formulation. I find it helpfully connects some of the strands I’ve been working on recently.

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

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/).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Image result for messy filing drawer

“…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