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

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.

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.

Haunts #2: ‘The Haunted Home’ – a SHU SPG online event, Thurs 10 December, 7-9.30pm

“I just keep hearing your footsteps on the stairs

When I know there’s no one there

You’re still such a part of me (ghost in my house)

Still so deep in the heart of me (ghost in my house)

I can’t hide (ghost in my house)

From the ghost of your love that’s inside (ghost in my house)”

There’s a Ghost in my House (1967)

– Dozier, Holland, Taylor & Holland.

We’re delighted now to be able to announce here the programme for Haunts #2, the follow-up to our very successful Haunts #1 event in October. Haunts #2 will be themed around the home as a place of haunting, and taking a very broad view what may haunt a home we will weave together a range of scholarship and perspectives, as detailed below.

Haunts #2: Thurs 10 December 2020, 7-9.30pm (via Zoom)

The Programme

Introduction & Session Chair

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

Co-habiting with ghosts

Caron Lipman, Honorary Research Fellow, Queen Mary University of London

This talk will offer examples from two research projects, both exploring experiences of the ‘presences’ of the past at home. In ‘Co-habiting with Ghosts: knowledge, experience, belief and the domestic uncanny’, Caron interviewed a number of people living in a variety of English homes, all of whom had experienced uncanny phenomena. In a recently-published follow-up book (‘Heritage in the Home: domestic prehabitation and inheritance’), she broadened the scope of her enquiry to investigate the range of objects, spaces, stories, atmospheres (and ghosts) inadvertently ‘inherited’ when people make a pre-inhabited place their home. In both studies, the focus was to explore the ways people negotiate a desire to feel at home with experiences of living with unknowable ‘strangers’, how they interpreted their experiences, and what they reveal of the complexity of the spaces and times of home.

Remnants and layers: hauntings of everyday domestic space

Jackie Leaver, Senior Lecturer in the Art & Design Dept (BA Product & Furniture Design, & MA Design), Sheffield Hallam University

The activities that constitute our everyday domestic lives have changed little over recent generations. We continue to carry out tasks such as cooking eating, cleaning, washing and raising a family, often in a blur of activity, with little time to reflect on our impact on the spaces we occupy, our activities and practices. The home is also a place of intimacy, individualism and ritual; a reflection of class, culture, taste and aspiration. (Pink et al, 2017, Filippides, 2019). Through this process of dwelling we are manifest in the artefacts and material form of our domestic interior space, with ‘traces of the inhabitant […] imprinted in the interior’ (Benjamin, 1999, p.9 in Paramita and Yandi, 2018). In this talk a recently renovated Victorian terraced house shares its story through spectral traces of former occupants that haunt the domestic space with the layers and remnants of habitation, offering tantalising clues to past lives.

The Gothic sofa – most uncanny, most fantastic

Mary Peace, Senior Lecturer, Department of the Humanities, Sheffield Hallam University

My paper will address the question of why such a modern item of furniture as the sofa became a stock and central feature in the first Gothic novels. The Gothic Novel was born in 1764 with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Tale. But the genre would find its feet in the 1790s with the publication of the works of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. Like Walpole’s novel these enlightenment writers were considered ‘gothic’ because their novels featured tales of barbarism and supernatural happenings set in the dark ages. But one of the striking and discordant features of these gothic tales is their enthusiastic adoption of the sofa- an item of furniture which had only come into being in the 1690s and was still in the late eighteenth century scarcely considered a decent furnishing for the British drawing room. No self-respecting gothic novelist of the late eighteenth century fails to furnish their castle with a sofa where the heroine might dream up phantoms or collapse in fright at a supernatural sight and where she will undoubtedly fall into a state of madness or unconsciousness. My paper will consider the construction of this modern interloper in the Gothic cultural imagination as the ultimate recess or Bachelardian corner — an ‘uncanny,’ sometimes ’fantastic’ space where the rational self is undone by unconscious desires, primitive urges and projections or indeed, even by supernatural phenomena.

Homelessness behind closed doors: the unheimlich

Lindsey McCarthy, Research Fellow (Housing), Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University

Drawing on verbal and photographic narratives with women experiencing homelessness in the North of England, this contribution interweaves women’s meanings of home and homelessness with the Freudian concept of the unheimlich. Freud describes the unheimlich as a disturbing combination of dread and horror in which ‘the homelike’ and ‘the unhomely’ merge. This contribution explores how the unheimlich can be located within the walls of the house itself – in shattered familial relations, grievous memories and unwanted impositions. For some, homelessness stemmed from within the family home, and ‘home memories’ continued to shape lived experiences of homelessness and home. Participants were also haunted by lost homes, giving bittersweet and nostalgic descriptions of home-life which suggested a notion of home located in the past; distant and unapproachable.

The home as a haunted crime scene in the early modern true crime classic: Arden of Faversham

Susan Anderson, Reader in English at Sheffield Hallam University

In 1551, Thomas Arden, a wealthy businessman from Faversham in Kent, was murdered in his own home. The crime clearly caught people’s imagination, and the site where Arden’s body had been found became a local tourist attraction for a time. The story haunted the public imagination in the decades immediately following the murder, and was dramatized for the stage in around 1590. This play, Arden of Faversham, centres around the home where the murder took place as a location that seemed safe to its inhabitant but was in fact fraught with danger. This paper looks at the way the play’s retelling shapes the continuing reverberation of this violent crime, and the way that the repeated telling of Arden’s brutal end in his own home haunts cultural memory.

The haunted home from home: why school has never been modern

Jo Ray, Lecturer in Design, University of Derby, & Research Associate: ‘Odd: Feeling Different in the World of Education’ MMU.

Becky Shaw, Reader in Fine Art, Sheffield Institute of Arts, Sheffield Hallam University.

During a three-year cross-disciplinary research project to explore children’s experiences of ‘not fitting in at school,’ we explore the ways that the material substance of school generates and interacts with children’s experiences, curriculum and school ‘time’. As such, the home comes to haunt the school, as also do the material remnants of both educational pasts and futures, and their related political aims and atmospheres. These hauntings come in many different orders: materials that literally leak from home to school, the homely structure of ‘carpet time;, the presence of the miniature domestic; attitudes to behaviour ‘management’ in the ‘chill out room’; legacies of attitudes to knowledge, work and labour, found in store cupboards and teachers’ drawers; haunted typography; anachronistic technologies transformed for and by, play; and continuous presences of school customs. Additionally, children themselves find ghosts in school: ‘jiin’ or ‘zombies’ under the ground in the playground, and ‘bloody Mary’s’ in the bathroom.

How to attend

The event will be held online (via Zoom) and will be free to attend – but registration is required via Eventbrite here:

With over 140 bookings received for Haunts #1, we almost reached maximum capacity prior to that event, so – to avoid disappointment – early booking is recommended.

Please note: the Zoom link for the event will be emailed to each registered attendee 24 hours before the event.

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

Future events in the Haunts series will be Haunts #3 (‘The Haunted Battleground’), in February 2021 and Haunts #4 (‘Atmospheres of Social Haunting’) in Spring 2021. Further details of these will be released early in 2021, and announced via this blog.

For further details about SHU’s Space & Place Group or this event please email Luke Bennett: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Preview and discount code for my ‘In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker’ edited collection which is being published on 30/6/17.

In the Ruins - final cover

Provocative and informative yet personal and thoughtful, this diverse collection of essays offers a much needed exploration of that defining cultural space of the 20th century – the bunker. Bennett and his collaborators approach the ruins of the Cold War not just as historical curiosities but as the starting point for a myriad of transdisciplinary journeys and adventures.”

Ian Klinke, Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Oxford and the author of the forthcoming monograph Cryptic Concrete: A subterranean journey to Cold War Germany.

I’m pleased to present below a copy of the publisher’s flyer for my book, and delighted at the reviews featured there (and above).

I’m told the book (hardback and ebook formats) will be available to buy from 30 June 2017, and using the code below on the publisher’s website you’ll be able to get 30% off either format. Please note that all author and editorial royalties are being donated to www.msf.org.uk (Medecins Sans Frontieres).

In the meantime my introductory chapter is available to view for free here:

https://www.rowmaninternational.com/book/in_the_ruins_of_the_cold_war_bunker/3-156-afdcfe7a-b585-4303-82a2-23ee9b64e05d#

and here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ruins-Cold-War-Bunker-Materiality-ebook/dp/B072SSPTXS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498233592&sr=8-1&keywords=ruins+of+the+cold+war+bunker

Further details of launch events will follow soon.

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New Uses for Old Bunkers #42 : Schadenfreude in the swanky bunker-hotel

Here’s a teaser from the final chapter of my forthcoming edited collection, In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making…

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“Cheap holiday in other people’s misery”

Sex Pistols (1977) Holidays in the Sun

As Per Strömberg notes, abandoned bunkers have become a ‘cultural playground’ (2013, 67), repurposed via the ‘well-established art practice of borrowing or stealing, making new uses for and changing the meaning of objects, images and artefacts of a culture’ (2013, 67),  and these interventions are usually spurred by economic agendas of re-use and re-generation (driven by a fear of what might happen if any building is left unused: Bennett 2017), thus (so the logic goes) ‘the cultural alchemy of appropriation turns the materiality of bare concrete walls into new economic value’ (Strömberg 2013, 78).

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Strömberg (2013) provides a striking example of a Swedish bunker refurbishment scheme that tries to reconcile economic regeneration, affective authenticity and heritage conservation. The result reveals something very strange about what we appear to what from the bunker. The scheme concerned the Swedish coastal battery fortress of Fårösund on the northern tip of Gotland. The Swedish State’s National Property Board was keen to repurpose this former military site, and to stimulate local employment to redress the job losses of military closures. Accordingly, it supported a proposal for a ‘sympathetic’ heritage-focussed luxury hotel: one where (as Strömberg 2013, 69 notes):

“you can sleep in one of the former bomb shelters furnished as fancy hotel rooms and enjoy a gourmet dinner prepared by fashionable chefs at the place where artillery pieces once were positioned to command the sea. The whole concept is adapted to a military theme. Everything is low-key in colour, scale and finishes: grey and green. Raw materials of local limestone and steel, articulated in a severe minimalism, arouse ‘post-military’ relaxation in the bunker lounge.”

Meanwhile, the perimeter of the site remains ‘authentically’ edged by rusting barbed wire and deserted defence obstacles (presenting as ‘fossils of the military era’ – Strömberg 2013, 70), all now co-opted into the themed hotel’s ‘design scenery’ (69).

This semantic confusion appears to be a vindication of John Beck’s (2011) ‘ambivalence’ thesis: it seems that we may want contradictory things from the bunker, and resolve that incongruity via a wilful conflation of tastes and registers: military – holiday – future – past, all rolled together to service the taste for novel experiences. Our relationship to bunkers, their past, present and future is complex. Perhaps we can detect some evidence of a sublime nostalgia at play – that we can scare ourselves safely now by invoking the atomic- or military-sublime by choosing to visit these places for a short break: safe in the knowledge that this abjection is temporary, of our choosing and that we can choose to leave this experience at any point. Such experience is sublime because we feel that ultimately we are safe – the Cold War has ended, and we have chosen to dabble in this reminiscence or this abjection-lite. This is the ultimate tourism, safely visiting a sanitised version of the past, tasting a remembrance of a childhood fear whilst sipping fine wine.

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Jonathan Veitch (2010) takes the point even further – reflecting on his visit to the remains of Survival Town, the mock up cluster of buildings and their mannequin inhabitants, blasted in the civil effects tests held deep in the heart of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) in the 1950s. He admits that there is something erotic in the fascination he feels there: ‘these test houses at the NTS convey, more palpably than any other place I can think of, our longing for apocalypse, the desire to bring everything down around us’ (335).

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Meanwhile Marc Lafleur’s (2007) ethnographic study of the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima / Nagasaki bombings at the National Atomic Museum, Los Alamos, picks out the ‘intimate spectatorship’ and ‘fleeting pit-stops’ (2007, 211) characteristic of touristic/heritage spectacle at Cold War attractions. For him these sites ‘constitute the fleeting and emptied out moments of politics siphoned through shock, sympathy and schadenfreude’ (214). Schadenfreude – because part of the experience is the (sublime-based) knowledge that yours was not the body that was hurt. Shock in the sense of an aestheticized spectacle, the ultimate effect of which is to anaesthetise through overstimulation (in the sense described by Walter Benjamin). Finally, in Sympathy, Lafleur leaves us some glimmer of hope: that such places have the potentiality at least to be ‘gathering points in the new public sphere, places where a ‘we’ can form, however temporarily, in the bloody haze of one more disaster your body has averted’ (215).

References

Beck, John (2011) ‘Concrete Ambivalence: Inside the Bunker Complex’ Cultural Politics 7: 79-102.

Bennett, Luke (2017) ‘Forcing the Empties Back to Work: Ruinphobia and the Bluntness of Law and Policy’ in John Henneberry (ed.) Transience and Dereliction in Urban Development and Property Markets, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Lafleur, Marc (2007) ‘Life and Death in the Shadow of the A-Bomb: Sovereignty and Memory on the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’ in Nico Carpentier (ed.) Culture, Trauma, and Conflict: Cultural Studies Perspectives on War. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 209-228.

Strömberg, Per (2013) ‘Funky Bunkers: The Post-Military Landscape as a Readymade Space and a Cultural Playground’ in Gary A Boyd & Denis Linehan, Ordnance: War + Architecture & Space. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 67-81.

Veitch, Jonathan (2010) ‘Dr. Strangelove’s Cabinet of Wonder: Sifting through the Atomic Ruins at the Nevada Test Site’ in Julia Hell & Andreas Schönle (eds.) The Ruins of Modernity. London: Duke University Press, pp. 321-338.

Image credits: (1) Barbed wire stands, Fårösund Fortress in Malmros, Sophie (2008). “Fårösunds fästning: från Krimkrig till lyxhotell” (PDF). Kulturvärden (in Swedish) (1): 24–29 : ill (2) Green roof, grey edges, Fårösund Fortress – http://farosundsfastning.com/ (3) Nevada Test Site Dummies – http://falloutshelternyc.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/nycs-atomic-mannequin-veterans.html; (3) Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum -http://twilightzone518.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/atomic-bomb-museum-nagasaki.html

 

 

Back to the wall, back to the cave, back to the edge: three re-visits for 2016

Redux 2016

“The present has become a phantom that he searches for without ceasing,

and which always disappears the moment you think you have it in hand.

What remains is the journey through the present, even if it’s decidedly one of destruction

undertaken through images and language.  Because behind the accursed images

and words waits the wished-for life.” (186)

 

Bernd Steigler (2013) Traveling in place – a history of armchair travel,

University of Chicago Press

I’m dusting off some of my favourite blog essays to give them an outing at three conferences later this year…

Seeing through walls: Georges Perec and the prospects for a new urban exploration

At: Perec’s Geographies / Perecquian Geographies Symposium – University of Sheffield, 6-7 May 2016

Details here: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/geography/news/symposium-1.532816

This presentation will consider the ways in which Perec provides a pointer towards a more expansive form of urban exploration, but in doing so it will also examine the limits of his approach. Perec’s Humanism is both the primary strength, and the primary weakness of his mode of exploration. Taking Perec’s concern – articulated in Species of Space and implemented in Life: A User’s Manual –  for the creation of an omniscient account of the lives of an apartment block by stripping away its front wall as its focal point, this presentation will consider how Perec’s sensitive peopling of his accounts of place, his search for pattern, valorising of textual rather than visual representation (all expressed in meticulous forensic detail), lays down a challenge to the more momentary, athletic urban exploration of the 21st century. Alongside this, the limits of Perec’s contribution towards finding a new, wider, urban exploration will be presented by contrasting his approach and its concerns with recent writings in both contemporary psychogeography and in the New Materialisms (and wider). Here, in relation to his interest in wall-piercing, I will argue that Perec’s approach paid insufficient attention to the wall itself and thus lost something in his literary dissolving of it. The presentation will suggest that the new frontier for urban exploration is be found in a flatter ontology in which visual accounts of embodied movement (mainstream urbexers), observations of others’ dwelling (Perec) and speculative narration of the life-worlds of non-human forms and environments (New Materialism) are held together and reported upon by ambulant empiricists (psychogeographers) who both write well and ruminate upon the world beyond their own experience and endeavour – something that Perec achieved much, but not all of.

Blogs involved: Through walls with Perec (2012); This house is making me walk funny (2012); Going Inside (2012); Exploring building services with Slavo Zizek (2013).

Standing safely at the edge: risk, law and the landscape sublime

At: Language, Landscape & the Sublime Conference – Dartington Hall, Totnes, 29-30 June 2016

Details here: http://languagelandscape.info/

Writing in 1792, in a statement encapsulating the Romantic landscape sublime, Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared “I must have torrents, fir trees, black woods, mountains to climb or descend, and rugged roads with precipices on either side to alarm me”. But less often mentioned is his caveat that “a great part of my amusement in these steep rocks is [that] they cause a giddiness and swimming in my head which I am particularly fond of, provided I am in safety.” As Edmund Burke put it, “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close.” For the Romantic sublime was not an unmitigated embrace of “delicious terror” (Coates 1998). This paper will consider this safety-consciousness at the heart of sublime engagement with landscape, by suggesting that much of the Romantic sublime remains embedded within what, at first glance seems its antithesis: contemporary ‘health ‘n’ safety’ culture. The paper will pursue this argument by a textual analysis of the reasoning and asides of senior judiciary in a spate of legal cases culminating in the House of Lords decision in Tomlinson –v- Congleton Borough Council in 2003. In these cases we see a deep seated belief that opportunity to congress with the landscape sublime is a public good, worthy of legal protection and something to be balanced alongside appropriate provision of edge protection in the countryside.

Blogs involved: Virtually on the ledge (2012); Risk and outdoor adventure (2012)

Noticing stone in the dark: narrating past, place and materiality in an abandoned subterranean quarry

Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference – Cultural Geologies of Stone session – London, 30 August – 2 September 2016

Details here: http://www.rgs.org/NR/exeres/3D2D0BA2-4741-45DE-8C91-EB9AEAE860BB.htm

This paper will explore the ways in which meaning is brought to a quarried void in southern England. Until its closure in the 1920s the site had been a source of fine building stone for over 2,000 years, that rock quarried in turn by Romans, Anglo Saxons, Normans and subsequent generations. The site is now a small scale tourist attraction, with enthusiastic local guides taking visitors below ground and into the emptiness of the evacuated strata. According to a guide’s deft narration of the pasts of this site this place is rich with history and yet it is also a place at which there is nothing to see. This is a tour of a void, the only meaning here is that cast into this stone-framed emptiness by the interpreters of this place. This presentation will examine the narrative and performative practices by which a sense of the labour and lives once lived here are summoned, and also how a sense of the materiality of this place is necessarily also framed and presented. In doing so the analysis will consider – after Samuel (1977) and Strangleman (2013) – the motivations of post-industrial homage at sites of former (hard) labour, and the sense in which historical-materialist and neo-materialist (and posthuman) accounts of the physicality of our world and our relationship to it collide in such places.

Blogs involved: Gazing up looking down (2014); A miner’s life (2015); Staring at empty spaces (2015)

 

Image sources: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) Caspar David Friedrich; Beer Quarry Caves; author.