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 #1: Haunted Places & Haunted Practices (full recording of the event)

“As folklorists, we don’t need to try and prove whether or not something like a ‘ghost’ is real. We should be interested in the experience itself and the witnesses’ interpretation of it based on other similar stories”

Comment by Folklore Podcast, during the event’s chat

This event – comprising eight short presentations and discussion ranging across the creative arts, folklore, and real estate – was the first in an irregular series which across 2020-21 explores new ways to investigate the relationship between places and their hauntings, through provocative and productive interdisciplinary conversations and juxtapositions. 

Key themes covered in Haunts #1, included:

– the role of contemporary culture (and its memory and representational practices) in shaping our sense of hauntedness

– how the haunted nature of place is dealt with within professional real estate and land management practices

– the force of recurrent media tropes in the portrayal, and perpetuation, of hauntings

– the power of narrative in accounts of spectral and prosaic hauntings

– the duality of ‘haunts’ as both denoting a favourite place, and an act of troubling a place and/or a practice.

The presenters for Haunts #1 were the following Sheffield Hallam academics:

Creative arts & computing: Joanne Lee; Andrew Robinson; Elizabeth Uruchurtu.

Journalism & media: David Clarke; Diane A. Rodgers; Carolyn Waudby.

Real estate: Luke Bennett, Carolyn Gibbeson, Louise Kirsten.

The presenters’ abstracts are available here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2020/10/20/haunts-haunted-places-and-haunting-practices-a-shu-spg-online-event-thurs-29-oct-7-9-30pm/

Haunts #1 was a collaboration between Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group and its Centre for Contemporary Legend and was curated and chaired by Dr Luke Bennett, Associate Professor in SHU’s Department of the Natural & Built Environment.

The event took place online on the evening of 29 October 2020. It was attended by an audience of over 100 people, from the UK and around the World.

Information the Space & Place Group and about forthcoming arrangements for Haunts #2 to #4 will be released via the following channels:

Twitter: @lukebennett13

Blog: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com

Alternatively, email l.e.bennett[at]shu.ac.uk and ask to be added to SHU SPG’s e-mailing list.

Further information about the Centre for Contemporary Legend is available via:

Twitter: @Centre_4_Legend

Blog: https://contemporarylegend.co.uk/

Email: centre.contemporary.legend@gmail.com.

‘Haunts: haunted places and haunting practices’ – a SHU SPG online event, Thurs 29 Oct 7-9.30pm

“Although the cultural language of modernity usually prevents us from speaking about their presence, we constitute a place in large measure by the ghosts we sense inhabit and possess it.”

Michael Mayerfield Bell (1997) ‘The ghosts of place’, Theory and Society, 26: 813-836

Thursday, 29 October 2020, 7.00-9.30pm, online, via Zoom, Free (but registration required – see end of this post)

This event comprising eight short presentations – is the first in an irregular series which across 2020-21 will explore new ways to investigate the relationship between places and their hauntings, through provocative and productive interdisciplinary conversations and juxtapositions.

PROGRAMME

Introduction: the haunted paddock

Luke Bennett, Associate Professor (Real Estate), Dept of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

Introducing the theme for this evening, and it’s melding of contemporary folklore and dark real estate, this introductory presentation will seek to widen the ways in which place-based haunting is perceived, by arguing that a place can be as much haunted by the dead-hand of the expectations and practices sedimented within it, as by supernatural forces.

On the Thinnest of Nights
Carolyn Waudby, Senior Lecturer (Journalism), Dept of Media, Arts & Communication, SHU

In this contribution I will read a poem from my collection Apus, (published 2020) written for a Mexican Day of the Dead event. It draws on the arrival of millions of monarch butterflies to the oyamel fir forests in the mountains of Mexico, coinciding with Day of the Dead (Nov 1st – 2nd), and the traditional belief that the butterflies represent the souls of the dead. Dr Elizabeth Uruchurtu will give a brief introduction about this belief.

The Return of the Plague: a haunted village

Andrew Robinson, Senior Lecturer (Photography), Dept of Media, Arts & Communication, SHU

For over 350 years the village of Eyam has been haunted by the visitation of the bubonic plague in 1665-66 during which the majority of villagers perished. The legend of the ‘plague-stricken Derbyshire village’ has been repeatedly revisited across the years, most recently by the media in relation to the Covid-19 crisis, while the sites of haunting remain key to the iconography of the village.

Haunting Histories: are historic hospitals haunted by their pasts?

Carolyn Gibbeson, Senior Lecturer (Real Estate), Dept of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

Does a building’s history haunt it through time? How does this history affect the life and ongoing future of that building? Are buildings tainted forever more because of an event or events during their lifespan or is there a way of exorcizing their “ghosts”? Looking at historic former asylums, this presentation will seek to answer these questions through the perceptions of the stakeholders involved in their redevelopment.

Triangulations

Joanne Lee, Senior Lecturer (Graphic Communication), Dept of Media, Arts & Communication, SHU

Fragmentary extracts from a pandemic journal* which focus on the activities of a group of young people who hang out on the vague terrain behind our triangular house. Their presence haunts the year and amplifies past illicit activities on this land.

(*150000 words written – almost – daily since 31 March 2020)

The Devil’s Elbow: the genius loci of a Dark Peak landscape

David Clarke, Associate Professor (Journalism), Dept of Media, Arts & Communication, SHU

The Longdendale valley of northern Derbyshire is a liminal place that sits on boundaries between past/present, urban/rural and natural/supernatural. Drawing upon traditional and personal narratives collected during fieldwork for my PhD alongside image and audio this presentation explores extraordinary experiences reported by ordinary people in their interactions with the landscape. 

A Survey of the Supernatural.

Louise Kirsten, Senior Lecturer (Real Estate), Dept of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

I propose to present an eery review of how inspections of property can really go bump in the real estate night. In my career as a surveyor I have visited many different types of property and for most times I have comfortably referenced, measured, and photographed with no ghostly encounters. However, not all have been so accommodating, very occasionally the building has quite literally come back to haunt me, whether it is a faint whisper, a cold breeze or something more malevolent in the dark recesses of the structure. These are the spectral visitations I wish to share.

Ghosts in the Machine: Haunted screens 

Diane A. Rodgers, Senior Lecturer (Film), Dept of Media, Arts & Communication, SHU

Television programmes with supernatural themes have often spooked the nation and, on occasion, fooled viewers into thinking what they were watching was real. On Hallowe’en in 1992, the BBC broadcast Ghostwatch which, presented in the guise of live television, became one of the most complained-about television programmes of all time. 

About this event:

– the SHU SPG is playful, and this event will be presented in that spirit

– feel free to dress up in keeping with the theme, or to come as you are

– the event will be recorded and disseminated afterwards

– the event will be inclusive and respectful, but is intended for an adult audience

This SHU SPG event is a co-production with SHU’s:

To register:

Thursday, 29 October 2020, 7.00-9.30pm, online, via Zoom, Free (but registration required – see below):

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

[Image credit: David Clarke]

On Confinement: Dwelling in the time of COVID-19 (SHU SPG online seminar, 3 June 2020)

IMG_3057

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room”.

Blaise Pascal, 1650s

(quoted in ‘On Confinement’ an essay at

www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/on-confinement/)

This time last year the SHU Space and Place Group was getting ready for its annual conference, which for 2019 was on the theme of ‘the comforts and discomforts of dwelling’. This year we were all set to move on to a new theme and we were busy finalising the 2020 conference programme the day that lockdown struck. So, in the absence of an opportunity to move on to fresh pastures, and to meet there face to face, it seems strangely fitting to revisit the restless pleasure/pain duality of dwelling in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The session will run online on Wednesday, 3 June between 11am and 1.00pm. It will comprise six contributions, ranging across the fine arts, poetry, geography, landscape and media from SHU, University of Sheffield and the University of Leeds. Details of the presentations are set out below. The event is free to attend, but you will need to book a place via the Eventbrite site here.

Each presentation will be ‘bitesize’ with an emphasis on visuality and with the aim that we spend as much time in discussion as in presentation.

Collectively the presentations will explore COVID-19’s destabilising of the certainties of dwelling, of its temporal and spatial disruptiveness. Across the talks we will think about:

  • confinement’s amplification of dwelling’s urge to ordering, routine and care
  • the creativity at the heart of (and inspired by) dwelling within an edgeland community
  •  the heightened sense of the importance of the recreational outdoors released by circumstances of its denial
  • the ways in which we make order out of the circumstances of the confinement: how can we ‘see’ Coronavirus, and sense the times and places of its own dwelling.

Here are our speakers’ abstracts:

>>Einräumen<<
Making room within rooms: Thinking-at home/Furnishing-the-universe

Hester Reeve, Art & Design, SHU

bell

I have an ongoing ‘art work’ that was initiated by working site-specifically in the small square bell room of St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney (October 2019). Small square rooms, one on top of the other, accessed via a well-worn spiral staircase. When the church bell rangout the hour, I stopped reading, opened the mould, removed a hand bell and rang it about my head into the large brass dome a few feet above my head. Since that time, I have almost sub-consciously started to amass a series of objects of a similar dimension to the mould. I find I am strongly satisfied –mentally and aesthetically – to arrange these square objects together in my studio, ‘keeping house’ (cleaning, finding places for things, using and cleaning things, making work stations for various projects etc.). Recently, since working at home due to COVID-19 lockdown regulations, I have really felt more enabled to think and create because I have a better balance of ‘sculpting my dwelling environment’ and ‘doing my work’ (the former gets rushed or ignored when busy out in the world). In my presentation I will present a visual essay exploring the relationship between furnishing space and ‘abstract’ thinking-creating. To do so I will draw upon Heidegger’s use of the term Einräumen which has a two-fold meaning: 1.To concede a point, give someone room to air their ideas, and 2:To put things in their proper place, furnish a house to make it liveable.

The Fitties: Plotland in Lockdown

Harriet Tarlo, Department of Humanities, SHU &
Judith Tucker, Art & Design, University of Leeds

We have been staying on and working at the Fitties Chalet Park Northeast Lincolnshire for over five years. They spoke about the project at a SHU SPG meeting in 2016. Since then they have been working on a series of paintings and poems about this long-established plotland in the closed season, at night-time and now in lockdown. They will show some atmospheric recent paintings, read some poems and reflect on changes at the Fitties, particularly those triggered by the COVID-19 lockdown.

slow

Slow: photo by Fitties resident, Jackie Nixon

driftwood

Driftwood Lodge: photo by Fitties resident Laura Porter

Accidental insights into confinement – stories of nature in the city from people with mental health difficulties.

Jo Birch, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

This short talk will introduce some confinements and escapes with nature in the city of Sheffield and beyond: indoor, outdoor, local, imagined, lively, helpful and unhelpful. I draw on a recent research project that used arts-based workshops for participants often ‘confined’ by their mental health difficulties and illnesses and ‘stuck’ in physical and mental spaces. The presentation makes a little space to wonder how concepts such as vitality and enchantment might be helpful. How might they aid understanding more about the value of nature to enable nurturing kinds of confinements and also freedoms during difficult times?

Unconfined? The (un)social life of urban green spaces

Julian Dobson, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

One of the ironies of the COVID-19 lockdown is the sudden prominence of public parks and green spaces. Government ministers have stressed the importance of keeping parks open despite concerns about overcrowding. Yet for more than a decade these spaces have been the undervalued poor relations of urban planning. This contribution will draw on current research for the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Health Foundation with colleagues at CRESR on the value of public space to different groups. It will intersperse this with snapshots from a series of walks and runs around Sheffield undertaken during the lockdown, to ask which publics are served by public space in a pandemic, and who is being made invisible and excluded.

COVID-19 Lockdown: a perfect storm of Geo-datafication

Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat, Media Arts and Communication, SHU

The global Coronavirus pandemic has become the perfect geo-datafication storm. Entire countries came to a standstill reducing body-mobility, transportation, and confining us to our kitchens, while forcing a massive move to online interactions. The heavy fleshed landscapes of brick, road, and everyday life commuting transformed into new flows of datafied interactions. But data is not an immaterial impulse that carries our words, images, and keystrokes through the air to a white floating cloud. Data is embodied and materialised in massive world-wide infrastructures that build a rather intentional and geopolitically defined geography. This contribution will describe the features of this data geography at three levels: spatial transmission, storage places, and material geographies of data. The contribution offers, afterwards a coda with a reflection about the epistemologies of geodata as a signature of a metahuman presence that constructs place and reality, identity and belonging.

Picture credit

‘It’ll Be Reyt’. Photo by me, artwork by neighbour, meaning by Yorkshire. As the metro puts it:

Reyt: Translated to non Yorkshire folk as ‘it’ll be alright’, this phrase is used as a reassurance in a situation, which most likely won’t turn out alright.”

https://metro.co.uk/2017/05/18/10-things-youll-have-heard-if-you-live-or-grew-up-in-yorkshire-6642116/

 

What’s behind the fence? Exploring dead land and empty buildings – 10 paper session proposal submitted to RGS-IBG 2020 conference

See the source image

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve today submitted a proposal to the RGS for a 10 paper session investigating vacancy at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference, 1 – 4 Sept in London.

Under the title What’s behind the fence? Exploring dead land and empty buildings the session will seek to move beyond contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites which tend to celebrate vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everyday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed. This conference session will open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators.

Taking a life-cycle approach, presenters will explore the stories and structures that have caused abandonment at both remote sites and those within the heart of otherwise active and occupied urban centres. They will tease out the logics of opportunistic appropriators (urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, artists, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places. The role of professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management will also be explored. In each case these readings of the motives, modes and meanings of vacancy will be attentive to the wider ecologies in which these sites and their actors are imbricated and of the important role of (positive or negative) place attachment in determining the speed at which a site is withdrawn from vacancy, or how it is maintained purposively in that state.

If accepted into the event programme the session will feature contributions by scholars from Switzerland, France, Russia, Ireland and the UK that will range across the following:

Investigating the lives of dead places

  •  Polphail: Scotland’s ghost village left abandoned in the wake of structural changes in the North Sea oil industry
  •  Vorkuta: 16 Arctic settlements built around now-defunct coal mines
  •  Dublin’s ghost estates and their ambiguous place in Dublin’s housing crisis
  •  Halle-Neustadt’s stubbornly enduring highrises, in a city that is trying to shrink

Methods of investigating vacancy

  •  How far can heritage archives shed light on prosaic phases of inactivity?
  •  Do we pay sufficient attention to what owners and developers think and do around vacancy?

Who are the occupants of empty places?

  •  Squatters, pop-ups and the interplay of DIY and institutionalised usage of wasteland sites in Paris and Glasgow
  •  Urban explorers motivations in accessing the Paris catacombs
  •  Inhabitation of a muslim graveyard in Tangier by Cameroonian migrants
  •  Tensions between guards, recreational trespassers, artists and institutional owners in the management of a Scottish modernist ruin.

I’ll post full abstracts here once the session has been adopted by the RGS.

Picture credit: St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross (near Glasgow) https://sites.eca.ed.ac.uk/fabricformedconcrete/workshops/surface-texture-and-light/st-peters-seminary-cardross/

 

Gazing from ruined pavements: A postcard from Berlin

Potsdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related image

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

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

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

 

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

 

SHU SPG 2019 conference – the comforts and discomforts of place, 10 July 2019

bench

“…what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors…have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?”

Khalil Gibran (1923) On Houses.

This free day-long event hosted by Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group at Kelham Island Industrial Museum on 10 July 2019 (as part of the University of Sheffield’s From Brooklyn Works to Brooklynism programme) brings together academics from across SHU, and beyond, to explore different ways of researching spaces and places, specifically from the perspective of comfort and discomfort. This event is a culmination of a series of workshops held at SHU over recent months, with an evolving set of speakers and attendees. This final event picks up on the themes from those earlier sessions:

  • the awkward legacies of prior uses and configurations of spaces;
  • the instrumentalisation and commercialisation of iconic places;
  • different patterns of dwelling and experiencing private and public spaces; and
  • the commodification (as a measure of efficiency and or exchange value) of space.

Intentionally the assembled presentations are eclectic and juxtaposed in a way intended to draw out connections between themes and perspectives which may not at first glance have much apparent connection. Woven through all of the presentations is a concern to acknowledge that places are often simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable. Sometimes this duality is productive, sometimes it is painful. In either case, often it is necessary. In the afternoon we will be exploring whether (and if so how) how particular atmospheres and experiences can be designed into spaces and the events that occur within them.

The programme (including each speakers’ abstract) is set out below.

[Please note that the event is free to attend but that places (subject to availability) must be booked via Eventbrite here. Lunch will not be provided at this event: instead delegates will be invited to dine locally at one of the many pubs, cafes and restaurants now available in the Kelham Island district.]

PROGRAMME

09.00-9.30        ARRIVALS & REFRESHMENTS

9.30-9.40           WELCOME & INTRODUCTION

Luke Bennett, Reader, Natural & Built Environment (SHU)

‘Exploring the comforts and discomforts of place and dwelling’

9.40-10.40        SESSION 1: [DIS]COMFORT IN PUBLIC SPACE

09.40-10.00         Amanda Crawley Jackson, Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies &  Faculty Director of Impact and External Engagement (Arts & Humanities)  (University of Sheffield)

“Restoring discomfort: using large format photography to unsettle the comfortable ordinariness of Syria’s Execution Squares”

Hrair Sarkissian (b. 1973, Damascus) is an Armenian-Syrian artist working primarily in the medium of photography.  He is perhaps best known for his 2008 series, Execution Squares, in which he explores the sites of public hangings that traumatised his childhood. In this paper, I’ll consider Execution Squares in the context of my current work on post-traumatic landscapes, focusing on the ways in which these large format photographs of ostensibly ordinary public squares in Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia betray something of the violence that has taken place there. With reference to Georges Didi-Huberman’s work on visibility and visuality, I will make the case that images – and landscapes – such as these exhort us to see differently. Finally, I will argue that  Sarkissian’s work, as a complex meditation on time, plasticity and absence, affords a critical prism through which to interrogate the ways in which the past survives in the present. 

10.00-10.20         Elaine Speight, Research Fellow, ‘In Certain Places’ (UCLAN)

“Making a boob of it: Some thoughts about breastfeeding in public”

This short talk will discuss ideas of comfort and discomfort in relation to the maternal body, through a focus upon the politics and practicalities of breastfeeding in public. As evident from the recent social media furore surrounding Meghan Markle’s ‘baby bump habit’, the ways in which maternal bodies are presented and performed is an ongoing cultural concern. As ‘a leaking, secreting embodied Other’ (Longhurst 2001), the breastfeeding body is a specific source of anxiety, particularly when encountered within supposedly ordered public spaces. Drawing upon my recent experience of becoming a mother, I will examine some of the physical challenges of breastfeeding outside of the home, as well as the social unease it provokes. Touching on ideas of exhibitionism/discretion and the maternal/sexual, I will discuss how the act of breastfeeding disrupts and is disciplined by existing spatial norms, and raises the question ‘who has the right to be comfortable in public?’

10.20-10.40         Ian Whiteside, Senior Lecturer, Events Management (SHU)

“Creating visitor experience in the National Trust”

A visit, like an event, is time out of the everyday. Staff at National Trust properties welcome visitors, except at the Workhouse where they make them uncomfortable as part of the experience. Using the Workhouse at Southwell, Nottinghamshire and Belton House, Lincolnshire as case studies this paper looks at visitor experience in terms of making visitors comfortable or setting an atmosphere of unease. The Workhouse at Southwell is owned and managed by the National Trust and is the most complete workhouse building still existing in Britain. Belton House is the quintessential English Country house and one of the National Trust’s most popular properties. Through a series of conversations, with volunteers and staff, issues including the visitor experience and reasons to visit and return (or not) are discussed and then analysed with reference to the work of Lovell (2018), Boje (2001) and Dorst (1989). This paper, based on empirical data, will look at issues of welcoming visitors, or not.

10.40-10.45      COMFORT BREAK

10.45-11.45      SESSION 2: WARM & WELL?

10.45-11.05         Aimee Ambrose, Reader, Centre for Regional Economic & Social Research (SHU) & Graeme Sherriff, Research Fellow, School of Health & Society (University of Salford)

“Comfort and discomfort in ‘low-energy’ homes in the increasingly inhospitable climate of South Australia”

The energy performance of the housing sector is an important contemporary challenge in the context of environmental constraints such as climate change and social issues such as fuel poverty and social inclusion. This is not a purely technical issue: how occupants live in and negotiate comfort impacts upon to what extent energy efficiency goals can be achieved and this has implications for their quality of life. This paper draws on interviews with residents of the Lochiel Park Green Village in South Australia who have moved into purpose built low energy homes. Using an oral history approach to situate experiences of energy within individual housing histories in order to better understand the evolving relationship between the occupant and the building. Within the context of debates around adaptive comfort practices, this innovative methods reveals that, despite the expectations of some residents, moving to a ‘low-energy’ home has reduced rather than eliminated their active involvement in maintaining a thermally comfortable environment.

11.05-11.25         Michael Roskams, Workplace & Wellbeing Analyst, Technical facilities Management (Mitie plc)

“Can smart sensors support employees’ physical and psychological comfort in the workplace environment?”

Environmental discomfort is rife in the modern workplace environment and can lead to ill health and unproductive work. In this presentation, I will discuss my PhD research, which explores the relationship between environmental comfort, wellbeing, and productivity. The presentation will focus on the partnership with facilities management Mitie, who are pioneering the use of wireless environmental sensors to monitor key parameters of the physical environment in real time. I will discuss the strengths and the limitations of this technology-led approach, and will also discuss the importance of recognising psychological comfort as well as physical comfort.

11.25-11.45         Becky Shaw, Reader, Fine Art (SHU) and Frances Williams, PhD student (MMU)

“Class, Cool and Care: The Maggie’s centre and the discomfort of criticising the ‘Well-being’ aesthetic”

The Maggie’s Centre, Manchester, is seen as an exemplary model for the value of arts in healthcare- cool architect designed, displaying art from The Whitworth Collection, using Orla Keilly towels and hand-made raku mugs, with a stylish wild allotment-style garden and a non-clinical patient engagement format. As part of a nascent research group (Critical Arts for Health) six artists and academics visited Maggie’s and spent time thinking about the particular expression of well-being at work. During our visit we questioned: why the ingredients of the ‘well-being’ aesthetic are so often predictable and how, together, they perform a familiar construct of good taste; the extent to which this spatial and material language delivers care, comfort and is inclusive; and the extent to which the aesthetic language is designed to appeal to patients or to function rhetorically for private sponsors- or if both, how does this intertwine? At the same time our position as critics was deeply uncomfortable, partly because to criticise Maggie’s feels sacrilegious as it is so established as the pinnacle of good cancer care, but also because it caused us to reflect on the distance and privilege of a critical position. This brought to life the complexity of trying to think critically about the often warm and cosy terrain of arts in health.

11.45-12.00      REFRESHMENTS

12.00-1.00        SESSION 3: ARE WE SITTING COMFORTABLY?

12.00-12.20         Esther Johnson, Professor, Film & Media Arts (SHU)

“Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches”

Esther will introduce and screen her film Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches. Through the experiential capacity of film via a series of oral testimonies and carefully composed portraits, the work explores how individuals and groups spend time in two distinctive London public spaces. Revolving around the micro-space of the humble bench, the film incorporates contributions from a diverse range of visitors. These testimonies highlight themes such as the psychological feeling of being in a space, the rhythm and flow of visitors to a place, and the importance of design for everyday street furniture. The film acts like a stranger who joins you on a bench to ‘watch the world go by’, and to break the ice by starting a conversation with their fellow bench user. Made whilst Esther was co-investigator on an AHRC Connected Communities innovation project, The Un-Sociable Bench, and other urban micro-territories of encounter and intimidation.

 http://blanchepictures.com/alone-together

 12.20-12.40         James Corazzo, Principal Lecturer, Graphic Design (SHU)

“Sofa Pedagogy”

This talk will explore the comforts and discomforts of the educational design studio through a study of the squashy object par excellence – a sofa. To anybody familiar with studio environments (professional or educational), a sofa is an unremarkable presence. Indeed, contemporary HE learning spaces are now replete with hub/break-out/informal spaces, often signalled by the judicious use of colour and soft furnishings and evangelised for their apparent capacity to enable collaboration, innovation and flexibility. Eschewing such causal and monochromatic accounts of learning spaces, I will argue the sofa, in this particular studio setting, is a surprisingly mutable object affording a variety of encounters and paradoxical models of occupation: hard/soft, formal/informal, intimate/indifferent, teaching/not teaching. Through talk and draw interviews with tutors and observation, I will show the sofa in this studio is not just a comfortable place to sit, but itself a significant pedagogic actor.

12.40-1.00           Phil Crowther, Reader – Events Management (SHU)

“The comforts and discomforts of business executives sleeping with the homeless on a city’s streets for a night”

The intentionality of charity events (from the charities perspective) is – it can be proposed – to design meaningful experiences to either provoke (or consolidate) behaviour change in participants; often related to donations or advocacy.  Facilitating such experiences that participants perceive as meaningful and thus generate emotional connection underlying behaviour change is – from an experience design perspective – challenging.  We live in an age of ‘attention scarcity’ (and experience overkill) and therefore to achieve such an outcome, an appreciation of the persona of attendee, linked to empathy mapping, is pivotal.  In this presentation I will juxtapose the archetypal charity experience, with all of its comforts, with the discomforts of a charity sleep out event in Sheffield.   A fascinating lens through which to unpick the purposeful design of discomforting experiences.

1.00-1.10              Luke Bennett & Phil Crowther

Wrap-up for the morning, tasking for the lunchtime exploration of Kelham Island’s experiencescapes and an outline for the afternoon’s session

1.15-2.30           LUNCH

NB: no lunch will be provided. Delegates will be invited to eat at one of the local pubs, cafes, restaurants and to take the opportunity there to analyse how the experience offered there is staged and its atmosphere of comfort/discomfort engineered.

2.30-3.30           SESSION 4: ANALYSING THE COMFORTS AND DISCOMFORTS OF LUNCH

A facilitated discussion of delegates’ lunchtime explorations of local experiencescapes. This will showcase the variety of disciplinary perspectives upon – and varied methodologies for – ‘reading’ places and their atmospheres.

3.30-3.50           REFRESHMENTS

3.50-4.50           SESSION 5: SHU ‘EXPERIENCESCAPES CLUSTER’ INAUGRAL MEETING

The ‘Experiencescape research cluster’ has very recently been formed and in its very early stages of capitalising upon the wideranging engagements of SHU academics across psychology, sociology, hospitality, tourism, events, marketing, architecture, design, media and communications, lawyers and real estate in the study, design and critiquing of ‘experiencescaping’. The overarching interest of the cluster is the purposeful facilitation of physical and virtual spaces in order to stimulate a positive mental response from their consumer; underpinning desired actions or behaviours in the short term, and longer-term patronage and advocacy. Experience design is prevalent, and a topic ripe for examination, and the cluster seeks to deepen collaborative links both within the university, but also with industry partners engaged in the production of experiencescapes; retail, visitor attractions, stadia, city / town centres, events, and more. This discussion will – developing the themes of today’s earlier sessions – present some early ideas about the cluster and most importantly seek colleagues views on how the cluster can prosper.

(NB: all delegates are welcome to participate in this, and whether SHU staff or otherwise).

 4.50-5.00           CLOSING REMARKSLuke Bennett & Phil Crowther

 

 

Image Source: Still from Esther Johnson’s 2015 film, Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches

Awkwardly exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence in the ruin of Hitler’s Bunker

Image result for hitler's bunker

“Fixating on the historical locale feels naïve, even juvenile; the prime epistemological illusion of ‘heritage’, after all, is to substitute place for process, thus to manufacture ersatz ‘experience’.”

Patrick Finney (2007) ‘Finding the Führer Bunker’ Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory & Practice, 11(2) 287-291

As Finney notes in his short essay (which is an apology for him having momentarily drifted off into thinking about Hitler’s bunker when he meant to be doing other, proper academic work), showing an interest the specifics of iconic Nazi places may not be a good career move. Instead it may lead to you being bracketed with a motley collection of conspiracy theorists and fanatics. Writing about Cold War bunkers is just about passable now as an academic endeavour, but turning the spotlight onto a previous era’s concrete caverns is more risky.

So it’s been with some awkwardness that I’ve worked up a study of the post 1945 afterlife of the subterranean site of Hitler’s last days, and the resulting article has now been published in the Polish Geography journal Geographia Polonica as part of their special issue on ruination, demolition and urban  regeneration. The article is free to download here: http://www.geographiapolonica.pl/article/item/11707.html

The aim of this short blog is to add visuals to the story, and the argument, that my article sets out in its text by displaying my slides for a presentation of my paper at the ‘Thrill of the Dark:  Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy’ conference being held at the University of Birmingham at the end of the month (details here: https://thethrillofthedark.com/).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here’s my abstract for the conference presentation:

“Within days of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his subterranean command bunker deep beneath the Reich Chancellery, the Führerbunker came to be framed as an object of dark fascination and illicit access. First Red Army looters, then Allied investigators, and a few months later Winston Churchill all came to pick over the remains of this place. Then in 1947 Hugh Trevor Roper, propelled this cold, dank underground bunker into a symbol of thwarted meglomania, the stage for a Götterdämmerung, in his account of his search for Hitler’s missing corpse. Through such framing the site has sustained a lure for Anglo-American war veterans and tourists ever since. Yet to Germans (East and West) this site was a place of political contamination, the tomb of a potential contagion that had to be kept contained (by successive demolition action and cycles of banalisation and profanation). Almost forgotten, the site was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1990s scrubland of the Berlin Wall’s death strip, and amidst the subsequent redevelopment of that now prime real estate a questioning of the site’s meaning, and of its potentialities, started to emerge: oscillating between calls for the primal darkness of this subterranean lair to be constructively co-opted into holocaust memorialisation and (more recently) in an increasing co-option of the site as part of heritage tours. Cultural representations of this place have become increasingly decontextualised and denatured, transformed by the generational passing of time into a more free-floating, titillating glimpse of a darkness that once was. Through this case study this paper will interpret this semantic decay, showing that ascribed darkness, fear and moral-coding for a site are not eternal givens but rather that they ebb and flow over time, and that studies of attachment to dark places need to be able to account for this, by becoming more processual.”

My Geographia Polonica article uses this chronological account of the slow-death of the Führerbunker as a way of thinking through what ruination really entails – considering the interweaving of material and semantic decay, and intentional and incidental attrition in that place’s slow, faltering fade. As shown above, my presentation also follows this trajectory, and its concern to identify the stages of that faltering fade, but it additionally touches on this bunker’s iconic on-going reverberation, showing how material obliteration of such an undesirable, dark place does not ensure its elimination from culture. Accordingly, towards the end of the presentation I chart how this place increasingly becomes a disembodied signifier – a metonym for evil and failing ‘last days’ governance. In doing this I’m connecting back to the first paper I ever wrote about bunkers:  Bennett, L. (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. [free copy here].

So, by the end of the presentation I’m thinking about ruination in a non-material way and with a concern for how a (dark) symbol fades: what are its processes of semantic ruination and stubborn persistence?  In the final flurry of images I present the last days of the Führerbunker as now a free-floating meme that is not dependent for its survival upon the clarity of the spatio-material co-ordinates or physical condition of its site of origination. And this roving meme (this virtualised Führerbunker) has increasingly looser, multivalent rules of use (testimony to its normative ruination). It is now freely appropriated for a wide variety of irreverent re-purposing. These appropriations retain the essential ‘last days of governance’ abject motif, but appropriate it for new satirical projects of varying degrees of importance or seriousness. In doing so these appropriations reinforce the generality of the ‘bunker mentality’ metaphor, but also weaken the specificity of a real Hitler having inhabited a real Berlin bunker during a real total war that lead to millions of real deaths. And there’s nothing better to encapsulate this than the Downfall parodies:

 

 

References: for these please see my Geographia Polonica article.

Picture credit: https://www.express.co.uk/travel/articles/633088/hitler-grave-resting-spot-berlin-germany

 

Living with the dead – notes from the ‘Community of the Dead’ conference – 30/1/14, Cambridge

o-DOUBLE-COFFIN-RICHARD-III-570

The following are my notes and thoughts from a one day conference organised by Anglia Law School (Anglia Ruskin University) on:

“the contested claims to human remains and our relationship both individually and as a community with the remains of the dead. This conference engages both with this relationship and the practical difficulties of the ever-increasing challenge of full cemeteries and the exhumation of remains in the course of construction and archaeological excavations” (ARU 2014)

The dead amongst us

Carl Jung pictured the collective unconscious, using the metaphor of a house: specifically of waking up to find the dead in the basement. Ian Hodder (2012) has found a real life mirror for this metaphor – a Neolithic civilisation at ÇatalhÖyÜk in what is now Turkey, who inserted the remains of their predecessors into the very fabric of their homes – skulls incorporated into structural columns and the dead buried beneath their homes’ plastered floors. In contrast we in northern Europe rarely visit our basements, and certainly would not expect to confront the remains of our ancestors there.

Whilst the dead vastly outnumber the living, they are usually invisible to us. We only glimpse the dead of generations whose lives didn’t overlap with our own in a fragmentary way. We stumble upon their texts, their artefacts, their graves and – only very occasionally for most of us – their bones.

This multidisciplinary conference looked at our relationship to the materiality of the dead – of our laws, procedures, cultures and technologies as they interface with mortal remains. In these notes I will highlight themes that meant most to me. This account in no way claims to be definitive, particularly authoritative or even complete. It is not a transcript, and reorders the flow of points and, perhaps, finds meaning other than what was actually intended by the presenters.

The conference was advertised under the banner of ‘the community of the dead’ but it quickly became clear that no single community could be ascribed to that title, and indeed none of the presenters figured the dead themselves as being the community in question. The presentations actually accounted for a number of different communities of the living constellated around bones. I will therefore use this multiplicity as a way to present my notes – looking at each presentation as indicative of one of a number of communities of the dead.

Bones and the community of the living

Event organiser, Jane Martin of Anglia Law School opened the conference with a case study based upon her own village and a barrow noticed in a recently constructed municipal cemetery, subtitling her talk “a confusion of bones in our landscape” she set out the quest that she had undertaken to make sense of this strange local hump. Her finding was that the barrow was indeed of recent origin – built by the Parish Council for the interment of the skeletal remains of four Anglo Saxons, from a cache of 60 discovered during nearby housing development works.

For Martin this investigation was anchored in her wanting to understand her place in history – to become more deeply embedded in her adopted local community. Likewise she saw the actions of the Parish Council as that of the living reaching out to the dead – bringing the dead into our reality to make sense of our continuity. This engagement, therefore, was essentially a question of belonging and communion. It seemed to matter little, in this civic plan, that only a fraction of the human remains were being interred in this structure, or that a barrow-style burial would not have been in keeping with the modest 6th century AD fortunes of the village.

Martin concluded that just as ancient barrows were placed into the landscape as territorial markers – using the bones of the dead to make a foundational point about the living’s claim to place – so the ‘new’ barrow was doing just that – making a statement about place and territory in the early twenty first century.

Bones, pipes and wires – the community of function and future

Martin’s presentation was followed, by a contrasting presentation from John Doyle, a Construction Manager working on Crossrail, with particular responsibility for the Liverpool Street element of the project. Doyle’s presentation intriguingly spent much time outlining the elements and aspirations of the complex construction works programme. Through this he revealed a community that deals in change, future and the maintenance of life sustaining urban functions: development and construction. Doyle illustrated the complexity of the existing subterranean realm at the site – of the existing services – the pipes, cables, machine rooms, tunnels and conduits that must all be moved before work on the construction of the new underground station can begin. Amidst images of engineering diagrams, superimposing what-is-to-be upon what-needs-to-be-moved, mention of an area of ‘archaeological’ constraint finally emerged. Thus the 4,000 or so bodies interred in the former Bedlam Hospital cemetery would need to be excavated in order that the utilities could be repositioned as a preliminary for freeing up the three dimensional ‘box’ to be excavated for the underground station – a project element described functionally and dispassionately in project documents as “sterilisation of the ticket hall footprint”.

In presenting the issue of bones in this light, they fell into an entangled relationship (both conceptually and literally) with the wires, pipes and other enabling works. The bones were given no priority, accorded no special level of difficulty or ontology. Doyle did explain the particularity of the processes triggered by the encounter with these bones, but it was this meshing aspect – the bones as just another constraint to be solved – that struck me most.

That, and his – almost tender – description of the fragility of cast iron Victorian water mains, and the great care needed to avoid them shattering when being worked upon. Perhaps this – in contrast to his more matter of fact references to the exhumation of the cemetery – reflected a differential in the level of contact – that others (archaeologists and ‘clearance contractors’ as exhumation teams seem to be known) exhibit care upon the bones, and that he and his construction colleagues are more directly involved in care for the frailty of pipes, the care of adjacent buildings, the care of workers going onto deep excavations and the hazards therein.

I intend no criticism by these observations – I think it’s really interesting that the bones were incorporated into the overall process – they were not seen as standing in some separate realm.

The possibilities that inhere in bone – the Edinburgh University Bones Collective

Dr Joost Fontein and Dr John Harris, both of Edinburgh University’s ‘Bones Collective’, gave a joint presentation each illustrating through field examples (Newfoundland and Zimbabwe) what bones do to people, what they enable, afford, provoke, constrain or allow. They presented these as excessive potentialities – actions that are object forming in the sense that the bones have no stable meaning in and of themselves and become a projection space for a variety of communities and purposes in their unearthing and subsequent attempts to stabilise their meaning, once these “hard enduring remains of humanity [have been] dragged into visibility” for our purposes (whether ethical, scientific, forensic or otherwise). In short, they become embroiled in a “politics of remaking” (both quotes Harris) – both remaking the physicality of the skeleton, as an assemblage of bones, and remaking meaning for the unearthed elements as they pass between multiple hands and purposes.

In his case study, Fontein gave a glimpse of an alien – to us – mode of interpreting bones, with the vernacular exhumation techniques used by war veterans in Zimbabwe, and in particular their use of spirit mediums to identify the bodies, a practice proudly defended in counter to criticism by European observers of their lack of formal forensic expertise with the anti-colonial retort “we use African methods here”. He also pointed to the important role of material culture in the sense making process – that in these exhumations items such a mobile phones found with the bones were richer information about the provenance of the bones than the bones themselves.

Like Harris, Fontein emphasised the processual aspect of bones – that they are caught up in a flow of material and meaning. Their location, assemblies, condition and meaning change over time. As such, their assemblages are made and remade repeatedly. Bones resist stabilisation, they remain unsettled unless and until a final accommodation can be made for them, facing contestation and controversy along the way. Constantly those charged with care of the dead strive to achieve this finality and whether through physical means or conceptual assignment, but slippage remains a potentiality in all cases. The bones cannot be totalised, they cannot be fully laid to rest.

Working with old bones – the community of archaeologists

A number of speakers pointed to the ambiguous relationship between archaeologists and bones, but it was Duncan Sawyer’s (UCLAN) presentation that set this ambiguity – and its essential tension regarding the obtaining and holding of bones by archaeologists in the name of scientific enquiry – to most sustained analysis. Bones have always been seen as research material, but Sawyer explained that it is only since the mid 1960s in the UK that digging up bones by archaeologists has been seen as having ethical connotations, and – in particular – that it has come to be regarded as subject to the exhumation licensing requirements of the Burial Act 1857.

Sawyer charted the course of this recent history, of the evolution of Ministry of Justice guidance and illustrated by reference to projects both the frustration of archaeologists at having to give up research material for reburial and public concern at insensitive treatment of human remains. In doing so he revealed how progressively archaeologists have come to realise that the law does indeed apply to them.

Contestation remains however around how long archaeologists should have for the analysis of excavated human remains, and in what circumstances they might – on the basis of ‘national’ research value – be retained indefinitely. Debate remains around what reburial actually should entail, and whether the requirement to screen exhumation sites from public view serves any purpose – there being no clear idea as to whom that requirement is meant to protect – whether the sensibilities of bystanders or the dignity of the dead.

Bones, flesh and the demands of making and maintaining burial spaces – communities of need

Julie Rugg of York University’s Cemetery Group articulated the world of the policy maker – and also that of burial authorities who must find sufficient space for the dead. Rugg explained that with cremation rates now plateaued at 70% the need for burial space remains a pressing one. Rugg sought to interrogate attitudes both towards the dead, their corpses and also to their decomposition. For her, the stage of passing beyond bones – the eventual disintegration of the remains and their dispersal into the ground of the surrounding burial plot was a part of the process of burial that had least public purchase – the dematerialisation of the dead in their graves. Rugg argued that if policy could better understand this process of disappearance, advocacy of the re-use of graves would be more successful.

This led to debate with Sawyer and others in the audience, who pointed to instances of bones lasting many hundreds of years. All agreed that the contemplation of in-grave decay presented something of a Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum – with decay being affected by so many factors and their being so little research upon it that all are left guessing how long it takes for a grave to fall ‘empty’.

If there was a common thread connecting the presentations, it was an acknowledgment of the processual nature of the ‘life’ of bones – that their status is never final, and rarely settled. They are an affective materiality, loaded with connotations and contest. They speak to something universal and yet are concealed from normal view. We don’t know how to live with them.

References: 

ARU (Anglia Ruskin University) (2014) Community of the Dead web flyer: Link 

Hodder, I (2012) Entangled – An archaeology of the relationships between humans and things, Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester.

Image source: further excavations at the Leicester car park at which Richard III was disinterred in September 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/29/coffin-richard-iii-burial-site-inside-tomb_n_3671397.html

Scree is here

scree end

Later this month I will be receiving some of the limited edition print run of Scree, my collaboration with landscape photographer Katja Hock. These will be rubber bound artefacts, the significance of the scuffed matt industrial covers being explained here. But in advance of this, and because we’d like to share our work beyond the confines of those who might normally want a ‘coffee table’ art book, here’s a link to a free pdf copy of the main part of our publication:

Bennett & Hock (2013) Scree

Scree was kindly commissioned by Amanda Crawley Jackson (Occursus) via the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund, and is published as part of the ‘TRACT’ series of collaborations between text and other media.

The unspoken question that haunts Scree is ‘what happens if we dwell on wasteland?’. Here ‘dwell’ can be taken in a number of directions: ponder, linger, inhabit, exist. Here’s the opening text to Scree to set the scene…

Starting out

The Wadsley Bridge to Neepsend escarpment runs along the northern edge of the upper Don valley. To the geologist this ridgeline is made up of coal measures and shales overlain by sandstone. To the local residents of north western Sheffield it is comprised of scrub, dereliction, pylons and a landfill tip. To the local historian it is an area rich in industrial and urban history.  To my kitchen refuse it is a final resting place.

To me it is all of these things, and more. In the pages that follow, Katja I and I set out to traverse this ridgeline and to depict in words and images what we find there. We can’t claim that what we find are essences – for the truth of this place is infinitely multifaceted – but what I do hope that we’ve brought closer to surface is the richness of materiality and meaning that can be found even on this steep scrubby hillside.

What is a hill?

The topography under examination here is a hybrid: pre-human geological processes sculpted this landform, but human activity added to it (and took away from it). This place may seem a grubby backwater now, but it was not always thus. The hill came to be a dynamic human-geologic assemblage, particularly in the heyday of the industrial era. Successive attempts were made to colonise this area and turn it to a variety of productive purposes. These have all left their marks. They have shaped this place, and they in turn have been shaped by it.

In a modest way we seek to give a sense of the hillside’s agency. It is not a passive, dumb brute. It has the ability to shape how humans and other creatures engage with it, and yet it is not a singular thing. It is a collection of materials, each resting on the other. The hill is a set of layers, craters and fill plus a surface crust of living and dead things that – in the main – are just passing through.

The capacity of this landform to absorb, flex and channel human activity is what has struck us most. These, like many of the city’s other hills, are rich outcrops, worked for hundreds of years for their stone, earth, water, timber, iron and game. Over recorded time these hills have been gouged by mine workings, slashed by deforestation, riven by roadways and confected by settlement. Yet each successive engagement has brought a process of human-hillside accommodation. Schemes adapted to fit geology; local topology yielded to enable temporary slithers of human incursion.

A note on style

The style of writing and reflection that follows is broadly in step with contemporary psychogeography, specifically a variant defined by Nick Papadimitriou as ‘deep topography’. In this form attention to everything is important – but in a way that avoids the crowding in of dominant (or expert) accounts of the place, as Papadimitriou puts it:

“But while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through – a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered – are screened out all too easily if the primary purpose is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmitted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s”

This approach celebrates the subjective affective response to the hillside and its human-material form. But it also (as Papadimitriou does in his work) weaves in this place’s equivalent of cornicing and the names of building companies. All are part of this hillside. Thus the end result is wantonly promiscuous, a mix of both cornicing-detail and impressionistic revere: a hybrid approach that revels, as Mike Parker has put it:

“in the connections made, the eye for the rusty and rotting, the sometimes haughty disregard for over-hyped landmarks, the comprehensive sweep that fuses politics, history and topography through observation and trenchant supposition.”

Style and substance

What follows adheres to that pattern, but if this style of landscape enquiry is to be anything other than competent word plays and an antiquarian’s eye for quirky detail, it must add some character and some insight – something that rises above the mechanical formulae by which such mix-and-match accounts can be assembled. For my part I would hope that what we present here goes that extra step in attempting to give a voice to the ‘stuff’ and ‘processes’ of the hillside by foregrounding matter – the brute ‘stuff’ of this hill – and consequential human encounters with this materiality.

In the final section I step back from my own direct experience of this place, and try to show the rich interaction with the ‘stuff’ of this hillside by people who have lived, worked or visited there and contributed their memories and enthusiasm to on-line community forums like Sheffield Forum. There is an unexpected richness in the way in which former denizens write of their experiences on (and with) the hillside.  They did not just visit or live there, they stood, dug, searched out, picked up, played upon and made and/or threw away things there. And in doing so they projected meaning and significance onto this matter, and onto the hillside.

The word ‘matter’ conjures both senses of what I’m pursuing here. How is matter made to matter? If we approach the hillside from this question we find a rich symbiotic relationship: the hill, its matter, its (only ever partial) colonisation for industry and dwelling and the daily interaction with human bodies entailed in all of that. This was evocatively struck home for me in one recollection I came across:

         the stories of local tramps

                                                                         gravitating to

                                                                                                                        the  Neepsend   brick    works

                                                                                                                        at night, to sleep in the warm

                                                                                                                        shadow  of the massive kilns.