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 #1 & #2: some reflections on our recent SHU Space Place / HEC online seminars (session recordings here too)

“In an increasingly home-based, privatised society, universities are among the few surviving institutions that draw people out of their private spaces and, for a brief but crucial time, encourage them to engage in shared public activity.”

Krishan Kumar (1997) ‘The Need for Place’ in Smith & Webster (eds) The Postmodern University: Contested Visions of Higher Education in Society, SRHE/Open University Press: Buckingham, p.34

The covid pandemic has shaken education – like so much else – to the core. For long periods of lockdown and transitional caution, Higher Education has lurched online, the physical focus of ‘the University’ shifting from the communal classrooms and cafes of campus life, to solitary student bedrooms and tutor kitchen tables. In a sense far removed from what Kumar was contemplating, Higher Education has become very privatised.

As we (hopefully) start to emerge from covid and its warping effects on daily life, questions are being asked within – and beyond – the sector, about the future of place within University life. Talk is of an ‘extended campus’ of hybrid spaces and modes of teaching and learning.

We all nod in resignation, that – somehow that we can’t yet fully express – things are unlikely to ever return to how they once were. Sometimes this feels good – that the disrupting break with how things were, opens up new possibilities, perhaps even new freedoms. But at other times the prospect seems bleaker – institutions now used to running on a crisis footing of ‘change everything, daily’, now have much higher expectations of the gymnastic, change-absorbing capabilities of their staff, and of the adaptability of their now-less-fully-occupied buildings.

So how to make sense of this challenge to the timeless physicality of the University and its civic presence? How can a new – distributed – sense of the University’s purpose as device to draw people together and to encourage them to work and grow together be instilled?

In the SHU Space & Place Group (working in collaboration with our university’s Interdisciplinary Higher Education Research Cluster) we’ve recently hosted two online seminars to consider these issues. The recordings are below, and my other recent posts summarise the content. And we are now planning a third event for May 2022.

In The Changing Campus #1 we considered how the experience of being on campus can be researched using visual and narrative methods to understand how users of University space seek to carve out territories, temporary possessions of space that they hope will protect and/or empower them.

After a short introduction from me, surveying the different ways in which University place-makers have envisaged an instructional power to their campus formations, Harriet Shortt (University of the West of England) presented an intriguing account of her use of visual methods to capture how staff and students experience the environment of a new, flagship, university building. In doing so Harriet flagged how user generated photographs reveal the multiplicity of place, and of the micro-contestations and territorial emplacement that acts of inhabitation entail. Meanwhile Amira Samatar (SHU) then gave us a powerful account of black women’s experience and use of campus spaces, and in doing so showed how the trend towards opened-out, free-for-all space can unsettle some precisely at the moment at which the place-makers are proudly declaring greater inclusivity.

In The Changing Campus #2 we looked at how being on campus entails multiple engagements with things – the stuff of the world and its arrangement: intentional or otherwise. In dynamic interaction with others: other people, other objects and their respective resistances and affordances, a person is affected (for good or ill) by the act of being upon campus.

The session was chaired by Becky Shaw, who opened up the event by pointing to the myriad ways in which our (human) lives on campus are enmeshed with inanimate (but nonetheless potent) non-human objects. Hiral Patel (Cardiff University) then took us further into this multiplicity, setting out how her research work seeks to account for how buildings (and the things that comprise and fill them) change over time, and do so via complex – multiple – ontologies, formed amidst any single building’s enmeshment in multiple parallel projects, perspectives and temporalities.

James Corazzo and Layla Gharib (SHU) then took us into their design studio and in the course of exploring the instructiveness of informality, emphasised how that informality is an active socio-material creation, something forged and sustained by hard work with choices of movement, manner and soft furnishings. In choosing to include the viewpoint of a sofa within their presentation James and Layla attracted the scorn of Private Eye which (some how) found their abstract and published it in their magazine’s Pseud’s Corner section. But James and Layla give a wonderful repost to the sneering satirists in their presentation, rightly questioning the ‘don’t they know their place?’ condescension of those who ridicule others as upstart imposters, and denying their right to think and question.

Sofa’s matter! (As do all aspects of the formation and enactment of spaces intended for learning – and we need to understand how each element operates (and its other possibilities and potentialities) in order to create and sustain places that can (in Kumar’s words) “draw people out of their private spaces and, for a brief but crucial time, encourage them to engage in shared public activity“.

Finally, Justine Pedler, Programme Lead for the Future Spaces Project (Extended Campus) at SHU followed this theme of how the campus can be arranged to enable learning in place – and to do so by acknowledging multiplicity – by titling her presentation as “Variety is the condition of harmony” (Thomas Carlyle). She gave us an insider’s insight into an ongoing project at Sheffield Hallam aimed at understanding how the new campus spaces being created at the University are being perceived and used by a variety of students. She showed how photo elicitation has been used to get a student ‘eye’ on these developments and as an aid to focus group insights.

[NB: As a change to the originally published programme, Professor Carol A. Taylor was unable to join us as a presenter for The Changing Campus #2 – but we hope to welcome Carol to a future session in this strand.]

Picture credits: Author, January 2022; Private Eye, 3-2-22

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).

‘The Changing Campus #1: experiencing being on campus’ (free SHU SPG online event, 2-4pm, 19 January 2022)

[A recording of this event is now available here]

This event is the first 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, and will examine how university campuses are changing, due to changes in student expectations and the exigencies of Covid-19.

For our first online sessions, we have three presenters who are each concerned with the experience of being on (or off) campus and how this can be researched.

Harriet Shortt (UWE, Bristol) – keynote

Spaces, staff, students, and Instagram: a visually-led post-occupancy evaluation of a Business School Building

The Bristol Business School building has been occupied since April 2017. It is a flagship space that aims to attract international, EU and home students, facilitate links with businesses and foster a collaborative space for staff to work together. In February 2018 we conducted a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of this new building. Our aim was to investigate how the ethos of the building has impacted user experiences of working, studying and visiting this space. How does a transparent, collaborative, and flexible building affect working/ studying practices? What influence does it have on users’ perceptions of the University and is the building operating as predicted? Using innovative visual methods including Instagram and participant-led photography, data was collected over 12 months with over 250 participants contributing to the study, and over 740 photographs collected.

In this presentation I will discuss the background to the research; some of the unexpected and surprising parts of the research – including the complexities of using Instagram in visual field studies; and some of our initial findings – including the paradoxical love/hate relationships staff and students have with particular spaces.

Amira Samatar (SHU)

Negotiating university spaces: an insight into female students of colour’s experiences

Amira is a postgraduate researcher whose academic interests centre around the educational experiences and journeys of racially minoritised students in British universities, with a specific focus on Black British women’s experiences beyond the postgraduate level. Amira’s presentation will draw on her master’s research which explored the lived experiences on campus of five female undergraduate students of colour. This work employed a critical race theory perspective and was inspired by CRiT walking, with walking interviews utilised to explore experiences of marginalisation.

Amy Ramdehal, Kiran Mahmood & Tom Savage (SHU)

A Digital Day in the Life: an Exploration of the changing Student Experience during Covid-19

This research was conducted to explore how the student experience has changed during Covid-19, in order to establish areas of priority and concern, and in turn influence policy and practice at the university. The research solicited frequent diary entries (uploaded to the Blackboard site) from current Sheffield Hallam University students about their regular teaching and learning activities, over a 3-month period in March, April, and May 2021. The students also took part in three 1-hour focus groups to discuss the diary entries in more detail. Each phase of the research focused on a specific theme, and an accompanying report of the findings was produced after each stage of data collection: Timetabling and Organisation; Engagement; and Assessment and Feedback.

How to attend

The event is free to attend – but you’ll need to book a place using the Eventbrite link below (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-changing-campus-1-experiencing-being-on-campus-tickets-234930743177)

Image credit:

https://stridetreglown.com/projects/faculty-of-business-and-law-university-of-the-west-of-england/

Further information

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

‘Changing Places’ – The Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group’s theme for 2021/22 – a Call for Ideas

“The more things change, the more they stay the same” (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1849)

The SHU SPG’s theme for this academic year will be ‘Changing Places’. As with last year’s (very successful) ‘Haunts’ theme, the plan is to have a number of self-contained events, each of which finds an inventive (and interdisciplinary) way to explore the year’s theme.

This is an invitation to anyone (at Sheffield Hallam University or beyond it) who would like to propose a contribution to the group’s examination of ‘Changing Places’, contributions could include:

  • creative ways of recording both the material processes of changing places and the lived experience of such change (and whether by inhabitants, instigators or passers by)
  • consideration of the role of changing places as a device within visual art and literature
  • critical evaluation of documentary portrayals of changing places (e.g. Manctopia)
  • analysis of stakeholder networks within bringing about (or resisting) changing places
  • performative work that explores the interconnection of the two senses of changing places (i.e. changing identity and changing location)
  • studies of the management of how places are changed, and what strange contingencies have to be provided for in order to make change happen either safely, or at all
  • reflection on the connection between fear of change and the materialities of place
  • philosophical reflections on incremental change (the Ship of Theseus) and/or attempts to change a place back to its ‘original’ form

Dependent on what expressions of interest we receive we will devise a programme of events accordingly to run between January and July 2022. At least some of these events will be online (thus enabling disembodied participation).

A couple of strands that we already have under development are:

  • ways of researching the changing campus
  • ways of re-presenting construction sites as modes of public engagement

We also have some interest in sessions on:

  • evaluating how the covid-19 pandemic has caused places like hotels and convention centres to be reconfigured as places of healthcare
  • considering how heritage conservation motivations are squared with urban regeneration projects within Sheffield city centre.

We intend to have a workshop to scope out a programme of events, and this will be held online (via Zoom) on Wednesday 15 December 2021, 2-4pm. So, please submit details of your proposed contribution to me (Luke Bennett: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) by 10 December 2021, for consideration at that programme-planning meeting (at which all will be welcome to attend – I will circulate log in details nearer the time).

Picture reference: Luke Bennett, city campus development site, Sheffield (September 2021)

Defying gravity: construction and deconstruction campaigns against gravity and their pitfalls

When even the gravitational field — geometry incarnate — becomes a non-commuting (and hence nonlinear) operator, how can the classical interpretation of  as a geometric entity be sustained? Now not only the observer, but the very concept of geometry, becomes relational and contextual.”

Sokal, A.D. (1996) ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, Social Text, 46/47: 217-252

Not accepting the gravity of the situation

The so-called ‘Sokal Affair’ ridiculed the postmodernism critics of modernist science who, building upon literary deconstruction, were seemingly keen to show the relativity (and instability) of all knowledge. Sokal’s academic paper in a respected and peer reviewed postmodern journal wove postmodern theorists together in a way which seemed to argue (but actually didn’t quite) that gravity itself was a relative socio-cultural construct. Actually the paper was more subtle than that – and its chief mischief is actually that it didn’t really say anything at all.

But when planning the short essay that follows it seemed a good place to start. In contemporary folklore at least the Sokal paper ridicules postmodern relativity by suggesting that that journal’s reviewers and readership were happy to endorse a relativisation of gravity – an accusation that leaves open the prospect of the defying of gravity’s force by simply unmasking its socio-cultural and/or ideological nature. Taken this way – as a crude parody of deconstruction – the Sokal paper summons the impression of an intellectual campaign against gravity (and in doing so creates ridicule of postmodernist critiques of science: because clearly – as experienced in our daily lives – gravity is real and undeniable).

Having raised a chuckle at the absurdity of a (faked) intellectual campaign against gravity by deconstructionists, in this short piece I want to think about the phenomenon of the daily campaigns against gravity waged by constructionists on myriad building sites across the world.

Taking total possession of a site

Think about it. What happens shortly after a site is transformed into a building site via the erection of a boundary fence or hoarding? Scaffolding is what happens.

Scaffolding – and whether internally or externally – is set up in order to enable works access to areas of a site which are (literally) beyond the reach of ordinary inhabitation of that place. The ceilings and exterior walls of an existing building suddenly become surfaces that will feel the refurbishment touch of the builder. And where scaffolding cannot reach, other gravity defying access techniques will ensue, via ladders, roped access, cherry pickers. Increasingly this reaching for access to the totality of the site’s 3D space is technologically enhanced, using devices once thought of as science fiction: remote viewing through the eyes and flight of drones, or now as enabled by the Iron Man engineering of personal jet packs which are now being directly marketed for construction and engineering site applications.

A construction project is a campaign waged against space with material, labour and ideas against the vagaries of time, weather, stakeholders and finite finances. It is also a campaign against the limitations of gravity. That campaign requires a total – albeit temporary – acquisition and control of 3D space upon a site. It is not sufficient to occupy only the gravity dictated surfaces that future inhabitants will confine themselves to. Indeed, the very formation of those floors and walkways may only be possible via the temporary imposition upon the building envelope of numerous levels of scaffold, to form an infra-building – a distorted ghost image of the building yet to come.

The cost of defying gravity

The temporary campaign against gravity is necessary, but such gravity-defying structures come at considerable cost, and gravity’s urge to reassert its power, and the attendant limits to occupancy must not be treated lightly. Falls from height remain one of the most common types of accidents on construction sites in the UK – 47% of all fatal construction site accidents in 2019/20 (HSE 2020) and a variety of legal requirements apply to edge protection and a whole industry of consultants and engineering solutions providers exist to facilitate appropriate safety measures where-ever gravity is being defied on a site.

Meanwhile, in New York State the Labor Law 240(1) – otherwise known as the ‘Scaffold Law’ and which was originally enacted in 1885 as a response to accidents arising in the then-emerging skyscraper construction boom, in particular because the hoists being used to transport workers up the side of the buildings were proving to be unsafe – imposes strict liability upon all construction site operators who chose to defy gravity (see Powers & Sanola (2021)).  What this means is that if a construction worker is harmed by a “gravity risk” (which includes both a worker’s fall from hight and a worker being struck by an article dropped from height) then the site operator is liable regardless of whether or not they (or the worker) can be shown to have been careless in their gravity defying actions. As a New York court put it in ruling on an accident claim brought in 2009:

“[the]single decisive question is whether [the claimant’s] injuries were the direct consequence of a failure to provide adequate protection against the risk arising from a physically significant elevation differential” (quoted in Faley, 2010)

What is notable here is the explicit acknowledgment of gravity as a force to be reconned with – gravity becomes a character in the story of each accident (and each requirement to have prevented it). In contrast applicable UK legislation – like the Work at Height Regulations 2005 – concentrate more upon the health risk of falls and means of safeguarding, rather than picturing gravity itself as a force to be named and assuaged in construction site’s temporary campaigns to defy gravity in their total possession of their worksites.

But whether we give it a name or not gravity is a very real and sobering adversary in construction (and in deconstruction too).

Image Source: M.C. Escher (1953) Relativity https://www.wikiart.org/en/m-c-escher/relativity-lattice

New Uses for Old Bunkers #43: un-used and de-valued citadels

“Now these survivals from the Cold War are, in their turn, disappearing fast, like medieval monasteries and bastioned forts before them – only with more limited scope for regeneration and reuse. In such circumstances it is clearly part of the remit of English Heritage to understand and record the scope and diversity of this body of material, to assess its cultural value, and to make the results of our work widely known.”

Sir Neil Cussons, Chairman, English Heritage, 2003 (in foreword to Cocroft & Thomas (2003) Cold War: Building for Confrontation. English Heritage: Swindon.)

It is the brute, stubborn nature of a nuclear bunker than it does not – in fact – ‘disappear fast’. As a copious amalgam of concrete, steel and earth these modern day tumulus take quite a bit of effort to make-disappear. Their very reason-for-being is to resist the ultimate forces that could be unleashed upon them (Thermonuclear weapons). But brutal persistence of these human-made hills is not quite the same as an assured continuation of habitability. To dwell in these unnatural, subterranean places depended upon atmospheric engineering – mechanical ventilation and de-watering. In short, these structures, following abandonment, experienced a quick onset of internal ruination: they rotted from the inside, becoming uninhabitable through water ingress, toxic mold blooms and corrosion.

Last week I spoke an online conference on the re-use of former military sites organised by the Universita luav di Venezia, which drew together urbanists from across Europe (largely) reporting success stories of the conversion of docks, forts and barracks into 21st century post-military, civilian uses. My paper countered this optimism with a comparative account of the post Cold War fate of four bunkers built in the late 1980s at considerable cost to provide a new generation of UK Government citadels from which a post-nuclear attack civil recovery would be organised.

My paper on the four bunkers will be published in due course as part of the conference proceedings, it looks at the fate of these four bunkers as a follow on to my article (Bennett & Kokoszka, 2020) examining the stilted progression of the Greenham Common cruise missile complex (known as ‘GAMA’) following its sale to a private owner in 2003. In that article I’d suggested that the heritage designation imposed upon that site (also in 2003) had resulted in the site being trapped in limbo, neither able to move on entirely unfettered into a post-military use, nor sufficiently directive to deliver a monumentalisation of the site. So, noting that the four Regional Government Head Quarters (RGHQ) bunkers did not appear to have been given heritage protection (although I subsequently discovered that – like GAMA – Ballymena had (in 2016) been scheduled by the Northern Ireland Government immediately prior to its marketing for sale) I wondered what the fate of these sites had been. In my presentation I explored the reasons why these structures remained extant (that stubborn materiality point mentioned above), how they have each experienced interior ruination (leading to loss of habitability / useability) and the mundane improvisational uses to which each site has fallen, thus:

  • Cultybraggan (Scotland) – acquired as a data bunker
  • Chilmark (England) – scene of a £6million cannabis farm, raided in 2017
  • Crowborough (England) – used as stores and offices by Sussex Police
  • Ballymena (Northern Ireland) – unused, attempts to sell it in 2016-17 having been unsuccessful

But here I just want to explore my final slide, and its implications for studies of contemporary ruins. Here is the slide:

The build costs are estimate gathered across various commentaries. The sale prices are more reliable, taken from seller press releases and/or HM Land Registry data. What strikes me here is another aspect of ruination – the way in which ascribed value dissipates. A thing is only worth what a community of potential bidders think it is worth. And for all the titillating talk in newspapers (the Daily Mail in particular) getting rather excited each time a bunker comes up for sale, the reality is that even if sold (and Ballymena – even though, unlike the others, it had been maintained in operable and habitable condition by the Northern Ireland Government until 2016 – failed to find a buyer), the monetary value ascribed to the site is but a tiny fraction of the original construction cost. These multi-million pound doomsday creations sell for around the average price of a house. And then the buyers are likely to find (as has been shown in the case of these four sites) that it is hard to work out what the viable after-use for these places actually is (with or without heritage protective designations) and they can’t be regarded as simply land plots for new – clean slate – development because of the cost and difficulty of demolishing them and returning the land to a clean slate condition.

So, as regards Cold War Nuclear Bunkers at least, Neil Cussons was half right: they indeed only have limited scope for reuse or regeneration. But he was wrong regarding their ‘disappearing fast’ – there exterior stubborn forms will likely endure for quite some time, and they quietly decay from the inside out.

References

Bennett, L & Kokoszka, P. (2020) ‘Profaning GAMA: exploring the entanglement of demilitarization, heritage and real estate in the ruins of Greenham Common’s cruise missile complex’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 13(1) 97-118.

Images:

Ballymena RGHQ, Northern Ireland (2016) – from Lambert Smith Hampton sales particulars, used by permission.

Cultybraggan RGHQ, Scotland (2014) – photo used by permission of Martin Briscow.

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.

Quiet bubbling: observing the silent co-existence of co-workers on building sites

“The ways in which bodies move through, inhabit and occupy space on a construction site (and elsewhere) rely on both conscious and deliberate acts and on an array of taken-for-granted, unintentional modes of being.”

Dawn Lyon (2013) ‘The labour of refurbishment: the building and body in space and time’ in Pink, Tutt & Dainty (eds) Ethnographic Research in the Construction Industry. Abingdon: Routledge, p35.

This photograph is a rarity. Other than a certain quirkiness (the doubling, of the doubled-over faceless pose) there is nothing of aesthetic value about this image, but it has got me hooked because it depicts a type of working that is actually very hard to find in visual depictions of building sites. Try it: a Google of ‘construction site’ finds either:

– a site devoid of people;

– a site populated by a group of workers or visitors who are all clearly engaged in a collective task; or

– a site view in which only one, task-absorbed, worker is visible

What captivates me about this picture is that it almost depicts a reality that hardly ever appears in published construction site photographs, but yet which is likely to be the glimpsed experience of any passer-by as they encounter their local building site. The under-acknowledged reality is that of the co-existence of multiple-but-separate activities.

Now, I say ‘almost’ above because these two workers seem to both be working on setting out the reinforcement shell for a concrete slab that is about to be poured. In that sense they have a common purpose – they are both acting upon the same task. Ultimately, it could be argued that all co-workers on a construction site are engaged in the same overarching task (the making of the building) even if one is doing brickwork, one is tiling, and another is laying cables. But as that sentence suggests, at the sub-project level each of those three workers is working on a separate task, one that has its own rhythms, reasons and ways of doing.

Wandering through a live building site (particularly after the structural work has been done) is to walk through a hive of individual projects, and to step awkwardly in and out of individual territorial bubbles of temporarily claimed space. Here, each worker has set themselves up in their part of the partly-formed place, in order to then set to work.  And in doing so they have formed their own little sphere of activity – a micro-territory of which they have possession, and they signal that territorial claim in subtle but clear ways, via the spreading out of tools, the playing of music or the laying out of signage. This way of taking a temporary claim to space is picked up ‘on the job’. At college there was no ‘how to claim space’ lecture aimed at cultivating proficiency in individual bubble-making. Yes, there would have been some sessions on how a contractor’s organisation acting as a multi-person organism might ‘take possession’ of a site, and in infrastructure (for instance rail transport) there are complex rules of taking possession of tracks, pipes or cables, but nothing at the level of the individual.

In such situations – where safety risks are otherwise high – the rules of temporary space-possession are made explicit. Thus, to enter the railway line or to descend the mineshaft a unique physical token must be presented. Failure to offer-up that token means that possession of that space cannot be claimed, because possession of the token ‘proves’ an entitlement to enter and the space’s presently unoccupied status. Meanwhile permission to enter confined spaces or to carry out hazardous operations in a particular area may be governed by a paper-trail, the ‘permit-to-work’: no permit, no entry and no work. But in the vast majority of circumstances there is no token, there is no permit, there is no negotiation. Instead, by convention and subtle cues, individual task-bubbles form and fade, and the individuals within them quietly work out how to co-exist alongside others.

This silent space-possession activity is also evident (in everyday experience, but not in photographs) in domestic environments. Think about the last time you “had the builders in” – what did they do to mark out your territory as temporarily theirs? How did they subdivide your space down into an array of individual bubbles of occupancy? And how they negotiate the interaction between these individual bubbles with you, and with their workmates?

I had the experience of co-habiting with a plasterer and his ‘mate’ in my own home last week: and it got me thinking about the above, because the way that the mate set up for his ceiling pulling-down task was so different to that of the plasterer who came a few days later. Where one focussed on simply taking space and keeping to himself (thereby emphasising the separation of his work bubble from the rest of the house), the other was far more deliberative and verbal, frequently asking permission and informing me of his intentions in order to check and define the way that his and my bubbles would interact during his residency. In the end it was the over-elaboration of these normally silent territorial co-habitational rituals that brought the whole thing into focus, making me think of the verbal and visual silence that usually cloaks the proximity of separate co-habitation.

Image source: commercialconcretedenver.com

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)