In ruins in 2014

bigruins3

“For [Walter] Benjamin, the truth content of a thing is released only when the context in which it originally existed has disappeared, when the surfaces of the object have crumbled away and it lingers precariously on the brink of extinction.”

Gilloch, G. (1996) Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, Polity: Cambridge

Oddly, it’s suddenly become very unfashionable to talk or write about ruins. So, it’s probably not good timing that I’m set to use the ‘R’ word copiously in at least three conference sessions this year. Ho hum…

Here are my abstracts.

Fragment 1 – ‘Big Ruins’ Conference – University of Manchester, 14 May 2014

The ruin of ruins – image, utility and materiality in the fate of broken places

We see the hilltop castle ruin as frozen, rather than continuing to crumble. ‘Ruin’ is both a noun and a verb, yet we tend to talk only of ruins as static, certain and final end points of a building’s life.  In this presentation I will consider the human and other processes by which ruins are denied a stable, final identity. I will look at how ruination is ultimately an irresistible process, its pace can be retarded but not halted – and ultimately ruination becomes self-erasing. As a disease-like entropic force ruination permeates the built environment revealing itself via culturally and materially inflected manifestations in local sites of rupture. This paper will illustrate the diversity of these manifestations ranging across the shifting fates of different corners of the economy and their structures, the demolition urge of contemporary business rates taxation, the anxieties of owners and their insurers, the powerful material effects of ideas of ‘dereliction’, ‘regeneration’, utility, safety and the marauding of scavengers.  It will also consider the non-human material factors and processes – the building pathologies – that assail the body of the ruin and drive it onwards towards disassembly, degeneration and desiccation. In keeping with the ‘big ruin’ focus of the conference, this paper will work outwards from the single building level scale of the Romantic ruin trope, first by following Edgar Allen Poe in peering up close into the materiality of the decaying sub-elements of the House of Usher, and then zooming out to figure degenerating urban terrain as a resource-scape, a field of matter intermixed with ideas, values and utilities each propelling ruination as a destabilizing flux   channeling matter out of the city, and summoning in an urge-to-change, in the face of a perennial fear of disuse and abandonment.

NB: more details of this FREE conference here: http://narratingwaste.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/big-ruins-the-aesthetics-and-politics-of-supersized-decay-manchester-wednesday-14-may-2014/

Fragment 2 – Royal Geographical Society Conference (Legal Geographies session), 26-29 August 2014

The law in ruins: co-production, nomic traces and the sedimented taskscapes of the world’s first factory

The Legal Geography canon rests on a principle of co-production: namely that the social, the spatial and the legal act upon each other to form the ‘nomosphere’ (Delaney, 2010) and/or a ‘splice’ (Blomley, 2003). This paper will seek – through application of such thinking to a case study – to reframe the co-productive triumvirate, as matter, discourse and practice, and thereby align the co-production model towards a more processual and relational understanding of ‘worlding’ (Massey, 2005), pointing in particular to the generative role of human purpose, context and contingency in local instances of pragmatic co-production: Ingold’s (1993) notion of ‘taskscape’. Specifically, the presentation will advance its argument by examining the ‘entanglement’ (Hodder, 2012) of matter, purpose and normativity (which I take to include – but be wider than – legal discourse) in the founding, expansion, decline and ‘rescue’ of the world’s first factory scale cotton mill, at Cromford in Derbyshire, UK. If Legal Geography’s co-production model is right we should expect not just to find material traces of law in the physical world, but also evidence of the accommodation of law to site specific and circumstantial effects of topography, geology, commercial conventions and social mores. The presentation will thus focus upon explicating the physical sedimentation of a variety of taskscapes across the site’s 250 year life, and their attendant socio-spatial normativities, within the fabric and layout of the Mill complex.

Fragment 3 – Royal Geographical Society Conference (Cold War Bunkers session), 26-29 August 2014

Cold War bunkers as a post traumatic landscape

This presentation will set the scene for the Cold War Bunkers strand by situating my work on ‘bunkerology’ alongside a wider interpretation of the psycho-cultural drivers for ‘bunker gazing’. It will seek to show that just as Paul Virilio’s Atlantikwall bunker hunting in the late 1950s / early 1960s was rooted in his desire to make sense of the “geostrategic and geopolitical foundations of the total war I had lived through in Nantes, not far from the submarine base of Saint-Nazaire” (Virilio & Parent 1996: 11), so Cold War bunker hunting can be seen as an ongoing processing of the trauma of an ‘ultimate’ war that never happened, but which none the less left spatial and psycho-cultural scars. The paper will follow the sublimation of this trauma, through Peter Laurie’s 1970s attempts to read the materialisation of power in the Cold War’s landscape, W.S. Sebald standing before the ‘Pagodas’ of Orford ness contemplating the post-traumatic landscape before him shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Sarah Vowell writing in 2004 of the potency of ruined bunkers for the last Cold War generation, and of their validation of the apocalyptic anxiety that suddenly vanished with adulthood, but yet still haunts. This investigation will be pursued by reference to the testimony of bunker hunters, my own journey to bunker gazing and by drawing upon the anxieties of Cold War era psychologists and their concerns for the effects that apocalyptic anxiety might (and perhaps did) have upon children raised in the era of the Cold War bunker building.

Advertisements

Parkwood Scree: the stuff of war, the comfort of rubber

repair inside barrage balloon

Ok, so this week’s blog essay was going to be another extract from Scree, my and Katja Hock’s collaboration about the Parkwood hillside. But in chewing over which snippet to post-up, my mind started wandering and I find myself compelled to overlay rubber, bombs and the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, as I picture the hillside’s landfill site.

Circling the tip

The Parkwood hillside has had municipal tipping taking place upon it for over 100 years. The current operations are due to be concluded within the next decade. As I gaze down upon the as yet unused Cell 4, it appears that beneath the shallow earthen skin of the hill lies a shell of black rubber. The birds are the only occupants at the moment, basking in the warm east facing flanks of the cell’s impermeable liner. The cell looks like a vast garden pond waiting for its hose-water.

The first time I came to the tip I was ‘killing time’. I had dropped off one of my kids at the Ski Centre for a friend’s birthday party. I had 90 minutes to waste and decided to circumnavigate the tip, to see whether that was even possible. It was.

It was a grey, wet day and my dog and I squelched off up the fence line away from the habitation of the then buoyant Ski Centre.  It was a Saturday morning but I saw no-one else on my wander. Reaching the summit I cut through a ravine of dark, dank shale rock, a fissure that felt quite disturbing to encounter. My thoughts turned to an ailing elderly family member and by the time I came upon the open Cell 4 my head was already in a gloomy place. Looking down upon the vast expanse of black liner, patiently awaiting its fill this place took on a special meaning which I still find difficult to shake off.

Here was where I came to terms with my grandmother’s mortality, and it’s a place I now return to as a way of continuing to grasp that sense. Cell 4 has the connotation for me of a grave, waiting to be reunited with its content.

            Ashes to ashes,

                                    dust to dust.

                                                All of it finds its way

                                                                        up onto this hillside.

Behind me there was a strange stone pad, a remnant of an anti-aircraft gun emplacement. Nearby Burngreave had suffered casualties in a Zeppelin raid in the First World War, the dense industrial use of the Don Valley prompted early co-option of the hilltop as an Anti-Aircraft post, and by December 1940 there were heavy AA guns at Shirecliffe. Later the site became a rocket based emplacement (a Z battery) manned by the Home Guard. Rumour has it that this hilltop also flew barrage balloons, extending the effective height of the hill by up to 6,000 feet in defence of the attractive target of the power station, gas works and foundries at the foot of the hill.

Unsurprisingly the war brought matériel (as military matter is known) to the hill. The AA battery brought bunkers, shells, metal and munitions. Enemy bombers brought bullets and bombs. On the night of 11th December 1940 a parachute bomb targeted at the AA battery destroyed houses in nearby Musgrave Terrace. Meanwhile on other occasions bombs and incendiaries fell onto the hillside. 25% of the houses in Parkwood Springs were damaged.

I pause. Most of the above text is taken straight from Scree. But as I recall what I have previously written, I find myself thinking again about the exposed liner of Cell 4.

On our last visit to the hillside, Katja and I stood there, she captivated by the photographic potential of this expanse of stretched blackness. I stood and looked also, as she arranged various shots and angles. The liner was bulbous, shimmering, undulating. It was larger than life, mundane and yet mesmerising. It was also sensuous. I nervously blurted out this impression, fully aware of the stock seedy connection between PVC and erotica. But my gaze wasn’t a lustful one, if there was a body part emerging from the heap of this rubberised mountainside it was a maternal, nurturing bosom.

The assembly room

A similar sensation hit me one evening, towards the end of my career as a lawyer. I’d been working on some projects involving the redevelopment of some former munitions factory sites. A client had passed me a copy of 1942 training film relating to a once secret site and its production processes. I’d had a bad day, week, month. I put the film on to block out the doubts preying in my mind about the suitability of my then career. A woman appeared on screen, arriving for her shift in the assembly room. The camera followed her to the changing area, she started to undress and the camera cut away through ranks of lockers and benches. In the next scene she was clothed, shrouded in what looked like a very heavy rubber apron, gloves and boots. She strode off to the production line.

That image of an ordinary woman from the ’40s, transformed via wartime exigencies to rubberised worker haunts me – set, as it was, in the context of my gloomy mood that evening.

I lived with my grandmother for most of my childhood years. For some of that time my great grandfather also lived with us. I grew up with the accounts of his gassing on Passchendaele Ridge and her close scrapes with air-raids in the Second World War. I came to know these stories by heart, but never tired of hearing them. My own kids would hear them too, and did three days before my Nan died peacefully last Spring. But to them they were just abstract stories from an old lady they occasionally spent a few hours with. I doubt whether they will inculcate a strong, strange association between bombs, rubber and the dignity of female war-labour.

My grandmother had spent her pre-war years working in local shoe-shops, but was steered towards war related work in the run up to D-Day. Each day she would cycle to a motor garage at the other end of town and change into overalls, before sitting down to clean disassembled torpedo boat engine parts day in, day out. It was wartime contingency that placed her in this strange role, she never learnt to drive, had little mechanical interest or knowledge and – after the war – had no cause to ever again coat her hands with grease, oil or to ponder the intricacies of grooves, recesses, and other articulations of these alien mechanical components.

One day a messenger came to the garage, calling her home as a matter of urgency. Arriving there she found a telegram curtly advising her of her husband’s death on 11 June 1944. A machine gun had cut him down amidst the clatter of his encampment’s Sunday breakfast. My Nan resolved that that was the end of her war work. She had given enough. She never went back to the garage, the grease or the engines.

What made rubber matter?

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This rhyme is first recorded in John Gower’s Confesio Amantis of 1390. It playfully attests to the vital role of small things in the success or failure of greater things that – whether we realise it or not – depend upon them. A missing nail could bring down a horse and a kingdom, a defective rubber seal (D ring) brought down the Challenger space shuttle in 1986.

Something similar could have happened during the Second World War with rubber. The rapid advance of the Japanese forces across East Asia had by 1942 withdrawn 90% of the world’s natural rubber production from Allied grasp. Only Ceylon (Sri Lanka) remained under Allied control. The material consequences of rise of Japanese power in the late 1930s had been noticed, and the US authorities had set up an option agreement whereby 500,000 bales of cotton would be traded for 90,000 tons of British Empire rubber in the event of war. However the fall of British Malaya and the Netherlands Indies undermined this careful planning: if Ceylon had fallen to the Japanese the Allies would have been left with access to only two weeks supply (via small sources in Africa, South America and Mexico) for the then burgeoning war economy.

In the face of this the US Office of Economic Warfare took control of rubber supply, stockpiling and rationing and sought to promote an expansion in rubber production in Latin America and in California, and an acceleration of the development of synthetic rubber production (from oil). As the war progressed a plethora of market (and resource) controlling agencies appeared: the Rubber Director, the Rubber Branch, the Rubber Reserve Company and the Rubber Research Board

As a recyclable material rubber also became the subject of collection-drives, gathering up hosepipes, old tires, raincoats and gloves for the war effort. A statement published by the U.S. War Production Board in April 1942 illustrates the sense of urgency behind the attempts to accelerate the extraction of material and its co-option into the production of matériel:

“The rubber situation is also critical.  In spite of the recent rubber drive, there is a continuing need for large quantities of scrap rubber.  We are collecting every possible pound from the factories, arsenals and shipyards; we are speeding up the flow of material from automobile graveyards; we are tearing up abandoned railroad tracks and bridges, but unless we dig out an additional 6,000,000 tons of steel and great quantities of rubber, copper, brass, zinc and tin, our boys may not get all the fighting weapons they need in time…  Even one old shovel will help make 4 hand grenades.”

Bringing things to the surface

My grandmother never talked about her bike and the rubber tyres on which she rode to and from the garage. By the time that I met her that portion of her wartime stories had faded back into the mundane, unnoticed, layer of ‘everyday items’, yet at the time the near-impossibility of obtaining a replacement tyre or inner tube would have been a pressing concern, with strategies devised to ‘make do and mend’, to elongate the working life of everyday components made of this material. In the US restrictions on mileage (and fuel allowances) were targeted both at preserving oil resources, and the effective life of tires.

gas_milage_ration_windshield_B_stamp_reverse

Wartime brings a strange focus to the existence and flow of commodities, and of their centrality within the greater, more complex and/or more evident assemblages of which they are seemingly but a small part. But wartime rationing and redirection of labour jumbles up these priorities, expectations and familiarities. Mundane materials like rubber become foregrounded, and our material dependencies – and their vulnerabilities – are revealed, and both my grandmother and I come to encounter those materials with an intimacy and an association that might otherwise have never come upon us.

 

Sources

Wendt, P. (1947) ‘The Control of Rubber in World War II’ The Southern Economic Journal, XIII (3) 203-227

Tyre/Tire poster – http://www.ameshistoricalsociety.org/exhibits/events/rationing.htm

Cecil Beaton barrage balloon picture – http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/magazine/article3541009.ece

Art + Law / SLSA Slides: connecting mundane law, everyday aesthetics and objectification

Here are my slides from the 15 May 2013 Art + Law Symposium. In my presentation I tentatively explored the co-constitutive roles of the discursive, the affective and the material dimensions in the everyday ‘noticing’ of mundane elements of the built environment. Essentially I tried to pull together some thoughts on how we can understand these daily encounters as processes of non-human objectification. My talk drew together a number of threads from my research case studies – trees, gravestones, quarries, metal theft, recreational trespass etc and presented four features of non-human objectification that appear to determine the ‘stability’ of objects (as practical, action oriented representations): Use, Valorisation, Representation and Affiliation.

This is still a work in progress – and will get refined and written up in due course – but it is likely to become the first step towards the development of a theorised account of how the various case studies and disciplinary strands that I’ve been working on (access/liability, bunkerology, legal geography) all fit together within an interpretation of human representational practices that objectify places and structures within the built environment, and of the relative contribution of law and legal cognition within that object and place reading.

What follows praises the gritty beyond-human realism of object oriented ontology, but then retreats to a human-centred account of object formation, as a representational practice. As such it adopts Karen Barad’s hybrid (realist/constructivist) position. I’ve a paper touching on this in the context of representation as a practice in bunkerology, due for publication in Environment & Planning D: Society and Space this summer. More in due course…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Postscript

An abridged version of this presentation was used for my subsequent contribution to the Art, Heritage & Culture session of the Socio-Legal Studies Association 2013 conference at the University of York, on 27 July 2013. My presentation was nestled amidst talks on export controls for works of art, the legalities of expropriation of indigenous artefacts and attempts to police tomb raiding / treasure hunting. Actually, there was more commonality than I’d anticipated. The word ‘object’ kept cropping up in the other speakers’ talks (most notably in the legislation that they were reciting from), and clearly even though they were concerned with ‘high art’ (i.e. conventional aesthetics) the legal dimension (and theory/practice tension) being examined in these talks was often hinged around the difficulties of object framing within heritage law and the challenges thrown up by the differential affiliation and valorisation directed towards these artefacts by their different stakeholders. So it was pleasing to find that some of issues I’m concerned with here within the ‘everyday’ were cropping up in similar ways in these other quarters.

Here’s the overly ambitious abstract that I’d submitted for the SLSA conference. In the end, my talk was only able to cover a fraction of what I’d bitten off when I wrote the abstract!

“This paper will consider law’s ‘ways of seeing’ (Berger, 1972) and knowing the everyday material world of metal, stone and concrete. Specifically it will consider law’s contribution to ‘everyday aesthetics’ (Highmore 2011), and will do so by reference to the object/subject relationship entailed in everyday contemplation of four physical structures:

 1)            The Diana Memorial Fountain

2)            Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Two Forms (Divided Circle)’ sculpture

3)            A television transmitter aerial in North Wales; and

4)            Graffiti art on a rock face in Snowdonia

The focus will be both discursive and object oriented, following Harman (2009), Bryant (2011) and Bogost (2012) in foregrounding the materiality of the objects themselves, and then considering how law’s concepts, preoccupations and representational practices contribute to cultural cognition of these structures, via processes of human speculation about, and interaction with them.

Yet, the analysis presented will be a grounded one, for I will show how risk assessment and other anticipatory readings of these objects entails practical rumination on the materiality and agency of things. Through this segue from high theory to daily practice I will show  how the recent work of object oriented ontologists can, via both the relations-tracing focus of actor network theory and the requirements of object and event focussed laws, be (and already is) applied to concrete practical scenarios and material relationships.

The four examples will be drawn from my research into the pragmatic conceptualisation of place and objects by persons who own, manage, visit, cherish and/or otherwise engage with them. In each instance I will show how – via public safety anxieties, metal theft vulnerabilities, property misdescription and quarry ownership – law attempts to ‘know’ these objects, but also how other ways of seeing and desiring these objects exert powerful influence too, and the ensuing synergies and tensions that emerge from this.”

“It was willingly that I crossed over into the darkness of danger” – thoughts on the anti-aesthetics of electricity sub-stations

Aargh, she’s done it again.

There I was happily sitting eating my Sunday breakfast, content in the knowledge that I didn’t have any blog-essays budding in my mind to conflict with the need to show attentiveness to family socialities. I was grazing through tweets and then @venusingortex set my mind all swirling again.

I sit here now at the kitchen table, hastily typing out this post. Trying to purge my now preoccupying thoughts before my family wake up.

Towards the danger

“It rose before me, the space between us electric. It was willingly that I crossed over into the darkness of danger.”

It’s not the innuendo of @venusingortex’s tweet that has grabbed me, but rather its reminded me of the lure of places of electrical danger. And these are places that find a curious overlap of a variety of aesthetics: those of the thrill-seeker; the industrial aesthete; the occupational risk assessor and the metal thief. Each notice these stations, read them in their own way and take from them rich meaning.

English judges developed a ‘doctrine of allurement’ in the Victorian period, by which a landowner (usually an industrial operator) could be held liable for injury sustained by child trespassers mangled by their heavy machinery. The doctrine was a pragmatic means to an end, a way of getting around the then very limited other protection in law for the safety of trespassers. But what the doctrine had at it’s heart was a strange belief in the Siren’s call of dangerous objects. That machines almost summon their victims towards them: that their non-human agency overwhelms the human power to resist their summon. This doctrine has now rather been overtaken by other trespasser protections (the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1984), but the ghost of that way of thinking about human-object relations in a safety context remains there, just below the surface.

As part of my work on occupiers’ liability and child trespass I’ve come across the occasional case in which someone young is electrocuted whilst trespassing within an electricity sub-station. The children (if still alive) usually say that they went in there to get their ball back (the classic excuse), though I suspect that sometimes the challenge was simply to see if they could get inside. A recent case examined in forensic detail just how many fences and other barriers that the youth had to assail to reach the point at which he was seriously injured. The judge marvelled at the youth’s climbing prowess and ingenuity but concluded from this that such determination left the youth solely to blame for the injury that had befallen him.

This forensic examination of the clambering is replicated in a series of medical studies in the US. Here postmortems have attempted to contribute to metal theft research. Trying to work out the intruders’ motivations by examining the chemical composition of their blood. And the conclusion? – that most of the dead intruders were high on drugs of one sort or another. Yes, unsuprisingly, trying to negotiate a safe path amidst high voltage electrical equipment is even more risk-prone if you are off your face.

Yet, in South Yorkshire alone each year there are a handful of serious injuries (and some fatalities) caused by metal thieves drawn to the sub-stations as a source of ‘free’ copper, but without the requisite appreciation that cutting into live conductive cabling will deliver them deadly electric shocks for free too. Somehow the lure of the copper is picked up in local knowledge-networks, but not the appreciation of the danger – what the sub-station actually does.

Here I’m reminded of a quote in a book by Roger Atwood examining the cultures of Peruvian tomb raiders, and how they overcame taboos about grave robbing:

“When you first start doing this, it makes you nervous. Digging up bones, you think you are going to incur a curse. But after a while it becomes easy. You don’t even think about it….Around here there is no other kind of work. I used to work at the diary factory but it closed. There is no work but looting” (2004: 32)

Thus, that act became normalised, the spiritual risks forgotten about in the face of material gain.

The sub-station as aesthetic object

Before embarking on my bunker project I had thought about selecting electricity sub-stations as my focal point. The bunker seam does probably allow for deeper mining in chasing after representational and usage mutations, but I did notice some of the artisitic co-option of sub-stations before my bunker-swerve. The work of the Brechers (and their studies of industrial site elemental forms in the Ruhr) come close, but it is the mundane-embracing work of John Myers that is the exemplar. Here Myer’s picture (part of his mid 1970s Middle England series) speaks a thousand words about the non-place status of the rudimentary places at which the power networks intersect the local.

And then there’s the issue of how electricity infrastructure writes itself upon the landscape (a name check here for @lines_of_landscape’s photos of pylons). Lawyers have a special word for it: ‘wayleaves’. Little possessory footpads allowing the National Grid to march across the country, joining up the local encampments of transformers, huddled in hostle human country like the advance forts of a robot invasion.

But I think we can also readily see an aestheticisation of nodal points of electricity distribution in many Hollywood blockbusters. The strange transformer poles at the derelict power station or factory site that is the scene of the final show-down between the good and bad guys (perhaps set agains a thundery sky with the crackle of lightening to add a natural frisson to the proceedings). From Frankenstein through to Iron Man the electric, and its places of production and use offer us a deadly fascination.

P.S. If I had time I’d now digress into the aesthetics of risk assessment and CEGB public information films – but I think that will get an essay in its own right someday…

References

Atwood, R. (2004) Stealing History – tomb raiders, smugglers and the looting of the ancient world, St. Martin’s Press: New York

Bennett, L. (2011) “Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability” International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, Vol. 3 Iss: 2, pp.126 http://shura.shu.ac.uk/2862/

@Lines_of_Landscape’s photographs of pylons: http://telegraphpolesandelectricpylons.tumblr.com

Pictures:

Angular transformer poles: https://twitter.com/VenusInGoretex/status/264327427847770113/photo/1/large

Rural substation: http://s0.geograph.org.uk/photos/21/46/214651_6be2e545.jpg

Myers substation picture via: http://rikrawling.wordpress.com/

New uses for old bunkers #21: geocaching and memory-work in German Cold War bunkers

This short post is a signpost to Gunnar Maus’ account of his investigation of geocaching and other recreational engagements with German Cold War bunkers at:

http://www.militarisiertelandschaft.uni-kiel.de/?p=54

I met Gunnar briefly at the RGS-IBG conference in Edinburgh earlier this Summer and I was struck by his account of the ambiguity of these places both in terms of their future use and their disciplinary status – in the sense of them falling into no singular department of study: archaeology? anthropology? real estate? history? heritage studies? In my view, a bit of each, and more.

In his blog-essay Gunnar gives an evocative account of his first encounter with hunting bunkers through the lense of geocaching. Along the way Gunnar mentions metal theft (another of my pet projects), access/trespass (and another), concrete materialities (gosh, another) and hints at their paint balling potentiality, a possible revalorisation of these emplacements as places good for fighting in. This passing aside poses the intriguing question of how paintballing ‘fun’ in real bunkers would deal with its affective and symbolic complexities. As Gunnar puts it:

“Only half-jokingly, we concurred that this would be a cool place for paintballing. But in a moment of reflectiveness inbetween our‚ play, a somewhat terrifying thought crossed my mind: This is not for play. They meant it.”

Gunnar presents his initiatory exploration in ethnographic fashion, acknowledging an anxiety attached to both an association of physical danger with these now abandoned places, and one concerned with the propriety of access: matters of trespass and land-owner reaction in his opening paragraph thus:

‘It’s April 26th, earlier this year. I’ve been anxious all day, and even the night before. I had found a geocache called‚ abgerüstet’, that is ‚disarmed’ in English, a couple of weeks before on the geocaching dot com website. The description promised exactly what I was looking for: a cache hidden at a disused Cold War military site. According to the description, this was a former nuclear arsenal run by the US Army on a German training ground. Close to the site was a German barracks complex that housed artillery and tank troops until it closed down in 2008, the cache description goes on. They are now planning a large-scale leisure centre on the grounds and the cache owner remarks sceptically: “Goodness knows if that’s really going to happen”…[and] some of the older log postings for this cache warned of an‚ angry’ forest official apparently loose in the area. Therefore, I was quite unsure whether one might have to climb fences or otherways illegally gain access to the site, which I wasn’t really prone to do. One couldn’t really tell from google earth’

Like Gunnar I’m shocked if its the case that anglophile geographers are unaware of geocaching. Come-on people…

Anyway, Gunnar’s essay is well worth a read and I will be following his further reports with interest.

How I kicked the habit: life, Lego and everything

There is a subculture out there, an underground movement, that I got caught up with a few years ago. This, in brief, is the story of my entrapment, and my eventual escape.

For a few years, I hung around the fringes of the AFOL cult – the self-styled ‘Adult Fans of Lego’. I learnt their ways of doing, read their books, used their on-line forums and Lego-hunting resources. It was like stepping into a parallel world. There are a lot of AFOL members out there, but most keep their plastic brick obsession secret, for fear of the ridicule of the grown up world: “what, you play with Lego!?!”

Foolishly or otherwise (probably churlishly in my case) I didn’t keep my obsession secret. I mentioned it to those who (I thought) were interested, and quickly changed the subject whenever I realised that – actually – they weren’t. But, more often than not people seemed to ‘get it’. Their eyes would look skyward in reminiscence and a smile of recalled childhood play would briefly pass across their face.

AFOLs have a way of describing the re-discovery of Lego in adulthood – they portray it as an emergence from an adult darkness, as an enlightenment. The adult life before Lego is portrayed as a personal dark age in which the joy of Lego had been forgotten, lost somewhere along the path to maturity. That moment of re-discovery, is an epiphany, a step forward into the light of a contented Lego-embrace.

In my case, it was a combination of events that led me back to the joy of multi-coloured plastic building bricks. As I recall it now, looking back from a perspective that finds me (sort of) back in the darkness Lego-wise, the paths were first sown by my (then very young) kids being given small Lego sets as presents. Helping them to put these together reacquainted me with that distinctive combinatory urge that spills out whenever two or more Lego bricks are to hand. I just fall, even now post-rehab, into fidgeting with them, cycling through the available combinations, innately judging some creations as more successful than others (there is an aesthetics by which to judge even the most simple Lego assemblages).

Then, a short while later my wife and I realised that our house was drowning in pieces of toys and related plastic tat strewn by our kids. What to do?

The initial adult urge was to thrown all this stuff away and limit the kids to a handful of ‘quality’ and sturdy, single-component toys. But then it struck us, get rid of the broken tat and move towards a toy that’s meant to be broken (in the sense of having no single form). Replace this dead toy detritus with Lego…

So, we logged onto ebay and started looking for second hand Lego. That was the start of my fall headlong into endless nights of Lego hunting. A couple of kilo (yes, on ebay Lego can be bought in big amorphous piles) would have been sufficient for our needs, but this bright shiny world sucked me in, much to my wife’s increasing frustration. I scrutinized fuzzy pictures of Lego lots, trying to work out what sets might be included, fragmentised, within these heaps. I would look for rare shapes or colours sticking up out of the pile. In a spririt of ‘reverse engineering’ I could then use online resources to identify the part numbers of those pieces and, with online directories of Lego sets work out what riches these fragments might bode (each Lego piece and every set has unique serial numbers which facilitate this obsessive archaeology).

I also got hooked on hunting particular set families – I had a Japanese book, Lego Museum 1, to guide me. It was written in Japanese, which meant I couldn’t actually read it – but the pictures, the dates, the serial numbers, countries of issue and the taxonomic curation of these sets into distinct genealogies gave me everything I needed.

Suffice it to say that for a few years, my obsessive Lego hunting was problematic within our household. Yes, the kids enjoyed playing with it, but they preferred new Lego – they wanted to play with sets that they saw in the shops, sets that were themed around films they knew (a canny move by Lego in recent years). They didn’t need Lego by the kilo, and much of what arrived sat in boxes unused.

But my thrill was in the pursuit – particularly getting a set for the fraction of the price that it would have cost when ‘new’. Often it would be possible to ‘win’ sets on ebay that had been played with (or perhaps never touched by) a child 25 years before. These would arrive (with another knowing look from the postman) at our house complete and with original packaging in pristine condition. Most ‘collectors’ at that point would make the model and then put it and the packaging safely to one side. But I found my biggest thrill was actually in (a few months later) smashing up the model and surrendering its pieces into this ever growing mound of homogenised Lego bricks. It was the sheer abundance of this plastic that thrilled me most.

The attentive reader, will have noticed that I’ve said very little so far about actually building stuff with this Lego mountain. We did, and one summer I even painstakingly sorted (a fraction of) the Lego mountain by colour and shape, as a prelude to some planned factory-scale world building project. But it never happened, there was never enough time. Much like people buy books but never get around to reading them, it was the thrill of hunting and acquiring that drove me on. This for me was a warped accumulation drive, stuff for the sake of stuff. For this reason, I can’t claim to have ever fully joined the AFOL clan. Most of these people acquire their Lego in order to do something with it, and there are some amazing examples out there of Lego engineering and creativity.

During one family conversation my wife suggested that I try adjusting my ‘hobby’ to virtual-hunting, something akin to ‘fantasy football’. She suggested that I could pretend to bid on items, that I could thereby render this pursuit an abstract one in which I was not actually spending money or bringing more plastic bricks into the house. It was a good suggestion, but didn’t feel right. Actual and virtual hunting aren’t the same. In particular, virtual-hunting offered me no ‘rush’ feeling either at the moment of a winning bid or the opening of a packet to find verification of my Lego archaeology skills.

Looking back, I think this obsession just burnt itself out. Life was too busy, I was fed up with treading on Lego pieces and my well-worn attempts to justify my continued hunting weren’t even convincing me anymore. I started a new job and other distractions and channels of ferreting around opened up. Intellectually I can see the suitability of a virtual approach to such hunting, but I don’t think that would have worked out for me. Too much of my obsession was wrapped up in a desire to create a sheer accumulating of this stuff, this mountain of potentiality, a plastic monument to my hunting and research endeavours.

But I have no regrets about this period. I learnt a lot (and not just about Lego serial numbers). First, my eyes were opened to the power of on-line enthusiast communities, the ability of fans to organise and circulate bodies of knowledge and practice in a mutually-supporting manner. This interest led me on into my studies of the on-line communities of practice of tree surgeons, urban explorers and bunkerologists (and yes, I know I will get flak for likening urbex people to Lego geeks).

Secondly, it got me thinking about urban mining. There are millions of attics around the world in each of which lie kilos of abandoned Lego awaiting rediscovery. Indeed, enough pieces have already been produced by Lego for every person on the planet to have 57 bricks (clearly, in reality, Lego-capital is concentrated in far fewer hands, and my house still has far more than its fair share). But what still intrigues me is the factors that influence whether or not this attic-Lego finds its way back into circulation and use. When I was a Lego hunter I tended to find that most sets and by-the-kilo piles of Lego tended to be around 7-10 years old, suggesting that much of this stuff is returning to the secondary marketplace when the kids for whom it was originally bought leave home as young adults. Ultimately this curiosity about resource recirculation led into my work on metal theft

Thirdly, it got me thinking about the power and endurance of classification systems and specifically the way in which Lego is physically structured as a system. It is (and was designed to be) a system of infinite combination. That combinability is a function of the uniformity of the standard brick stud design incorporated in each piece. There is now an increasingly wide variety of pieces, but they all fit together because of this ‘inter-locking’ design rule adhered to by each piece.

Fourthly, it made me aware of the power of emotional investment in toys – not only their interplay with childhood memories and absence or surfeit of toys, but also the way in which I became emotionally aligned to Lego as a brand. There are other, rival, plastic construction toy manufacturers – but they always felt like a heresy. I couldn’t bring myself to contaminate the systemic unity of my Lego mountain with Mega Bloks and other ’imitations’, even if functionally they readily could fit within it. Indeed, one of the things that (I think) helped wean me off my Lego obsession was the slight change to the plastic formulation a few years ago. Lego bricks simply don’t make quite the same noise now when rummaged, the lustre is duller and the surface texture feels different. All of this is feint and may well be imagined by me, a way of underpinning my aversion.

Finally, and most importantly, re-discovering Lego helped me to realise how my generation grew up in a Lego-world, a world shaped by a move towards componentisation and interchangeability of parts. This trend appears in both the material word (e.g. containerisation of freight, international harmonisation of product standards and the rise of system building in construction) and also in the ‘intellectual’ one: for I think playing with Lego builds a particular way of thinking, it encourages manipulation of concepts and ideas as interchangeable parts that can be known, played with and assembled into an infinite array of interesting combinations.

I could go on, but will leave it here for now, the adult world beckons. Maybe one day I will write more on this.

For now, I will close with my favourite Lego animation of them all:

 

NB: If you enjoyed reading this piece, you might also like to read an account of my much briefer dalliance with model railway world-building: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/skuffed-and-scratched-reflections-on-building-small-worlds/

New uses for old bunkers #16: a post about a book about a film about a journey to a bunker

This NUFOB# series is ploughing a psychological furrow at the moment – looking at the reverberation of bunkers and bunker imagery in a variety of manifestations. It won’t last forever, a more detached perspective will reappear soon, but here I’m staying in that moody place, and will be looking at the resonance of abandoned bunkers as places of mythic pilgrimage.

To do so I’m going to focus upon Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 file, Stalker and Geoff Dyer’s recent book Zona (2012) which I’ve just finished reading. Dyer’s book is a dreamy reflection upon how Tarkovsky’s film has weaved through his life and thoughts since he first saw it in the early 1980s. I will be doing likewise, linking Stalker, the roots of my bunker-awareness and interest in melancholic male wandering.

Dyer’s book is subtitled ‘A book about a film about a journey to a room’. And that neatly sums up what he has achieved. Except, that the room that the questers finally reach at the heart of the post apocalyptic ‘Zone’ is actually a bunker (one of the questers refers to it – in translation at least – as ‘Bunker 4’). Whether this large room is a bunker for containing the unspecified abnormality within, or protecting it from the normality that lies outside is never made clear. But the journey of the raggerdy middle aged questers is to this place. Everything builds up to the arrival there, and it is where the questers hope that everything will make sense.

 

 

I have only seen Stalker all the way through – in a single sitting – on one occasion. That was in the early 1980s, on TV. I was 12 and staying at my dad’s house. I remember thinking that this film was very strange. Much of it is in black and white and consists of three threadbare men shuffling their way towards ‘The Zone’. There are occasional tension points. But much of it is chilling for the absence of clarity about what is happening. Think Alien crossed with Waiting for Godot crossed with the melancholy spirit of a terminally slowed down Joy Division. In the rain.

One image stuck in my mind. The three characters clambering through a derelict factory in sodden clothing, looking small, frail, lost, abject against the backdrop of gnarled girders, corroding silos and pools of indeterminant industrial dross.

It was their dejected questing that struck me most – the travel – rather than the arrival. I think that frame, plus a few others, were the early seed for my interest in urban exploration and wandering. Other formative punctum were images of derelict Liverpool (it seemed always to be Liverpool) in circulation in gritty early 1980s TV dramas like Boys for the Blackstuff. Emasculated ex-labourers now picking over the carcass of former worksites (for a more light hearted version of this trope see the canal scene at the start of The Full Monty: an early instance of metal theft on film).

Then closer to home, there were my drawings aged five of complex interconnecting bunker-like complexes. A page wide array of tunnels, turrets and technicality. In those days ‘cuttaways’ were a common feature of print media, they seem less prevalent now. But then there seemed to be drawings and plans everywhere interpreting how things looked inside.

And there was a recurrent early childhood dream of a complex mechanical enfolding – an ambulant crush-monster that seemed to have some connection to a zebra crossing. Later-on a feverish dream one night of corroded tank cockpits the day before I was due to visit Salisbury Plain firing range with my dad. That visit didn’t happen, or if it did it didn’t leave much impression. But that dream-image lingered.

And then, me aged about six listening to my dad’s amateur dramatics group practising lines from a play he’d written for them. It was a play about the end of the world. The reason for that ending was unspecified, but the line that stuck in my young mind was “we ate Mrs Jones’ crackling yesterday”.

An innocuous line on one level – but only if you take Mrs Jones to have been the cook, rather than the cooked…