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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our presenters at Haunts #4 will be:

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

Building an intentional social haunting?: The Sheffield Cholera Monument

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

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

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

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

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

Rituals: How perception of the disembodied establishes identity

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

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

Becoming-Jewish among the social ghosts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sap is rising: the vibrant force of this noisy spring

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Rachel Carson (1956/1998) The Sense of Wonder: A Celebration of Nature for Parents & Children, HarperCollins: p. 100

Rachel Carson is – of course – more famous for summoning a sense of a silent spring. In her 1962 masterwork, The Silent Spring, Carson gave us the cautionary image of the cessation of the eternal return that should be spring’s noisy bursting back into life. And the agent of silencing was chemical – liquid death seeping into a vulnerable nature, suffocating and snuffing out life and its sounds. For Carson pesticides were invader substances, alien chemicals surging through innocent and vulnerable capillaries.

But a couple of events have got me thinking this week about how the springtime ‘springing to life’ is itself a product of surging, swelling, insistent chemicals.

Like everyone (I suspect) I’ve particularly noticed the spring this year. Maybe, like me you’ve yearned for it as a target point that will be the end of Lockdown 3, you’ve seen parks and countryside heaving with human bodies as the new agora. But whilst observing spring’s return more intently this year I’ve found it becoming more complex too. Those Easter cards with their cute bunnies and neat daffodils just don’t capture the sheer vibrant throb of life, and of its non-cuddliness. My failing to find cute comfort in the spring is partly wrapped up in the intensity of my watching it this year – those young birds are fighting, that bumble bee emerging from hibernation is struggling to adjust to its living – if it continues to deny the reality of the window pane it will soon be a dried up husk (a bit like that young toad lying like a strip of biltong on my patio). Spring is raw, vibrant but not cute.

There’s also the problem that spring, and my garden’s blossoming back to life, brings forth strong memories of this time last year – of spring 2020, warming air, flowers and the anxious uncertainties of ‘the first wave’. It also reminds me of a sunny lunchtime sitting outside in my yard, listening to the US President suggesting that I shoot up with disinfectant, or shine a really strong light into my body to kill off the nasty bugs. Contaminated with these memories, spring is more complicated now, it has lost its innocent connotations.

And so I find myself looking at spring differently. And I find myself thinking about the vibrant force of rising sap. Why? Well, let’s now unpack the two events that have led me to this.

Event one. I’m sat at my work desk earlier this week. I’m bleeding. Intentionally. I’m struggling to ‘milk’ my finger (as the instructional notes so delicately put it). I’m trying to bleed into a sample vial, so that I can complete a covid antibody test. My fingers are tacky with glutinous blood, but little of it wants to drip into the vial. I have to make repeated pin pricks. I wage war upon my fingers, with increasing desperation. I’m trying to harvest my own recalcitrant sap, in order that a lab can confirm to me that I have the right kind of human-made contamination within me, so that I can withstand the ambivalent life force of the covid virus were it to come upon me as a future host.

Event two. A random chain of events bring me to Nick Zinner’s 41 Strings (2014) performance piece, it’s a rock musician’s modern take on a ‘four seasons’ concerto. I listened to the ‘spring’ movement first via the YouTube recording of its live performance and it blew me away. The other three movements (the other three season pieces) are ok but counter intuitively it is ‘spring’ that has the noise, the force, the vibrancy. The ‘spring’ movement has a ascending motif woven through it – which to my mind wonderfully summons the force of sap rising. In contrast the ‘autumn’ movement (fitting titled ‘fall’ – in line with the US convention) has a descending motif. ‘Summer’ is pastoral and not driven like spring. Winter is somewhat frozen: this also not driven. But spring rocks, and has the surprisingly – but now-fitting seeming – violent edge to it.

Clearly there’s nothing new in seeing spring as a time of heady – and beyond our control and rational comprehension – life-force. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring culminates with a young maid dancing herself to death. Here the conjured Russian folk rites echo the Dionysus / Bacchus cults of ancient Greece and Rome. Euripides’ play The Bacchae depicts the frolicking of the god of fertility’s maidens – the maenads (in Greek – Bacchae in Roman) who – according to Plato ‘milk’ the environment – releasing its fecund liquids, thus:

“…the god-intoxicated celebrants draw milk and honey from the streams. they strike rocks with the thyrsus [a vaguely phallic vine adorned stick], and water gushes forth. They lower the thyrsus to the earth and a spring of wine bubbles up. If they want milk, they scratch up the ground with their fingers and draw up the milky fluid…” (Otto, 1965, p.96)

In short, spring is wet, sticky and slightly out of control. It is also ‘many’ not ‘one’. Multiple rhythms – only somewhat and incidentally harmonious. This – for me – is all there in Zinner’s ‘spring’, watch the musicians – a loose, dense crowd (like a flower bed) all almost acting as a single entity but not quite, each struggling to be an individual component and make sense of what they are doing. Like saplings they jostling for space, light and moisture. And that jostling all the stranger to our current eyes because we’ve almost forgotten what densely packed crowds and/or group endeavours look like.

References and links:

Otto, Walter, F. (1965) Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Indiana University Press.

Mp3 recordings of each part of ’41 strings’ can be downloaded for free here:

And recordings of the performance of each of the four movements can be found on YouTube.

Image Reference:

Loxley Common, Sheffield: Luke Bennett, 2020.

People in Property 2021: reflections on our series of four online panels exploring architecture’s shadow identity as real estate

“The market, technology, taste and fashion play their part in the making of obsolescence. They do so through architecture’s shadow identity as real estate.”

Cairns, S. & Jacobs, J.M. (2017) Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture. MIT Press, p.103

I don’t usually post about my teaching role. In the daytime I’m course leader for Sheffield Hallam University’s BSc Real Estate course. This draws on my practical / professional side and that isn’t really what this blog is for. But, partly because it’s consumed the best part of the last six weeks setting this up, and partly because it serves no-one well to perpetuate rigid distinctions between an unequivocally virtuous urbanism and a irredeemably dastardly real estate sector I’m offering up this reflection of our series of events.

The idea for the sessions – unsurprisingly – springs from our forced embrace of video-conferencing. That which was written off as a very poor substitute for the ‘in the flesh’ benefits of face to face meeting and conferencing has become the new normal over the last 12 months, and its has certain benefits too. Pulling together a total of 30 former SHU Real Estate students (and other industry contacts) from around the world would have been near-impossible if attempted the ‘old way’. But through Zoom it became very do-able and felt like an opportunity not to be missed. Also, we were very conscious that normally our students would be getting out on field trips and meeting professionals and touring their sites. But that’s not been possible this year.

So, we thought we’d use our networks, and this new techo-reality and bring that world to our students. When I thought up the events, my focus was probably on how the panellists could tell our students about the projects they were working on and give them a virtual sense of the physicality of their sites. But something made me opt for a series title of ‘People in Property’ (it may simply have been the alliteration that hooked me). But actually – looking back on the events – it is the way in which the sessions gave access to these real estate professionals as people that has been the project’s best value.

The exigencies of ‘broadcasting’ from your spare bedroom and trying to make intelligible to an unseen viewer what has driven your career, forced an openness and honesty that makes each of the encounters surprisingly intimate.

Many of the panellists described real estate as being ‘about people’ – and by extension about communication, interaction and trying to anticipate how people are going to want to associate (at home, work in their leisure) in the post-covid future. None of the panellists chose to speak about buildings per se, instead they invariably spoke about processes involving the interaction of people. Clearly interaction isn’t always harmonious, all projects engender conflict, compromise and a degree of competition. But all of that acts out in an arena of people, and is shaped by our collective notions of progress, value, community and lifestyle. And the panellists were (perhaps surprisingly) very open about consensus-building, as key to moving their careers, projects and communities forwards.

There are many rich career insights for our real estate students in these videos, but perhaps there is something of wider relevance too. I think there is a sense of real estate professionals as people – people in property – people who are acting in and upon the physical world, and who individually and collectively have a variety of hopes, dreams, fears, motivations, practices and logics. Yet, it is much more conventional to write of such things for architects. These videos give a glimpse of the human face of architecture’s shadow identity: real estate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our programme

19.00 -19.05

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

Welcome & Introduction

19.05-19.45

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

Archaeology, Heritage and the Ghosts of War

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

19.45 – 20.05

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

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

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

20.05 – 20.15 comfort break

20.15 – 20.35

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

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

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

20.35 – 21.00

Rob Hindle, Sheffield-based Poet

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

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

21.00 – 21.20

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

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

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

21.20 – 21.30 Closing discussion

Chaired by Luke Bennett

How to attend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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