In ruins in 2014


“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:

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.

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.

On Three Outcrops: Sandstone – on the broken red cliff


The house is perched.

“Ominously precarious” – an expression first encountered aged 13 in a heavily thumbed school exercise book. A phrase so rarely used, but most apt here. The remains of a house hanging, at the top of this recently slumped cliff.

Below, 300 feet of deep rich red Devonian sandstone, slewed upon the beach below, bleeding into the sea.

Until the sudden failure last year, this was the primest of Torquay’s real estate. The safe, solid seats and views of the town’s ruling fathers and daughters. But now worthless in conventional terms, the half-house now attracts illicit visitors, those wishing to add a frisson of peril to their cliff top picnic, scavengers and arsonists: a beacon for those who are drawn to peer over into the abyss.

But what catches my attention most is that red. That unfeasibly rich red of the soil I grew up with in these parts. That red that I saw swirling up from the beaten path as we strode across the field to visit the hilltop spot where I scattered my nan’s grey-white ashes last year. Those eddies caught in the low, strong rays of the last hours of daylight. That red, that sun, that familiar hilltop overlooking the bay, and its sister hills. Comfort, all.

Until I left here aged 18 I thought soil everywhere was this colour. And I thought rocks everywhere were this friable too, destructible by a petulant kick and in a perpetual state of disintegration. Where I grew up this apology-for-stone was everywhere, and looking at a geological map of the town for the first time today I now understand why. As I travel across the town I move between bands of underlying geology. My part of town was a Breccia belt of loosely composed compressed red earth and its conglomerate. All around me the houses and their garden walls were made of this readily to hand stuff. A suburb of red, dessicated blocks, just a few generations away from mud. It all felt very primitive, and approximate. The cliff collapse told me I’d got something right. This stuff is barely rock.

But this is not the only rock in Torquay. Moving across the town – so the map now tells me – the seven hills on which the town sits (or at least the town’s foundational myth rests) are mostly limestone, and now I see with freshly opened eyes: there are plenty of rough hewn grey stones lining gardens, holding back embankments and otherwise adapting local civilisation to the extreme up-down typology of this place. There is rock everywhere co-opted upon this surface. No bricks: just grey ones, red ones, smooth ones, rough ones. Rock, rock, rock. Torquay is born of its rock, its confluence of geological epochs and processes.

Even the name of the town is a nod to its rock – ‘Tor’ means hill. Thus my town:  the quay by the hills, by the bay of the hills.

Yet strictly in Devon-speak, Tor is a reference to the granite outcrops of Dartmoor, 20 miles landward of this red edged coast. Looking west (peering awkwardly between the rays of the dying sun) I can see the silhouette of the moor’s sentinel Tors on the horizon. Perhaps as they sit there surveying the lowland scene beyond, they mock the fake coastal Tors, these imposters made of squashed mud, sand, pebbles and eons of tiny shell-fall.

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.


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.



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

Tyre/Tire poster –

Cecil Beaton barrage balloon picture –

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…

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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.”

“This is not a place of honour, you should not have come here” – nuclear waste repositories and their messages for the future


In the 1960 cold war sci fi classic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr, a post apocalyptic history is charted through the eyes and research of an order of desert dwelling monks who preserve the last vestiges of pre-doomsday culture. They problem is they can’t decipher the documentary fragments that they are dedicating their lives to transmit through successive generations. In this future dark age, the monks operate in a similar fashion to those of the pre-medieval Dark Ages. In both cases they are withdrawn into their remote redoubts, praying, contemplating and seeking to extract meaning from the ancient cultural fragments in their care. The irony in Canticle is that the fragment venerated by these monks yet to be, is actually a mundane shopping list.

This blog post is about the difficulties of transmitting messages into the future, specifically warning messages about high level nuclear waste burial sites. This essay is a companion piece to my short article for here on the limits of human contemplation of deep-time in connection with such sites. That other piece is entitled Why it’s very hard to think like a mountain, and links its rumination on the limits of human temporality to the ‘geologic turn’ heralded recently by Ellsworth & Kruse (2013) and the notion of the anthropocene, the man-made strata being laid down in the current epoch. This blog post does not pre-tread the steps of that other piece. Instead it will contemplate how time affects the transmissibility of key messages about such places, into the deep future.

There are over 250,000 million tonnes of high level radioactive waste in the world today. It is presently held in surface (or shallow) interim storage facilities, solutions that depend upon human management and power systems. ’Permanent’ disposal will see this material buried within purpose built deep rock repositories. None of these places of ‘final’ disposal have yet been commissioned, but construction has commenced in Scandinavia (and is currently stalled in the US and the UK). Finland’s repository, Onkalo, is most advanced, and over the coming decades over 6km of roadways will be driven deep underground there, with a network of disposal chambers then fanning out from the subterranean terminus.

These facilities will take over 100 years to design, authorise, build and fill with waste. But sometime in the 22nd century they will be sealed, the wastes inside entombed to remain isolated from future people and their environment for 100,000 years (in the US Congress has recently revised this required period of confinement to 1 Million years, and there are signs of other national law makers following suit). But how do you ensure than an abandoned underground repository will remain undisturbed by future generations?

Here we come closest to the monks of A Canticle for Leibowitz, for experts commissioned to think through how best to project the information needed to understand this toxic legacy into the deep future consider that this task might require – amongst other things – a trans-generational  nuclear priesthood  to raise up this technical information to religious-like veneration so that it has best chance of persisting through the centuries ahead. How one would go about founding a religion for this timescale, and energising its sacred knowledge in this way, has not – to date – been mapped out. But the talk, within these otherwise sober circles, is of the greater power and durability of myth, legend, faith and ritual than of science. Indeed, this call for a sect-like focus on preserving nuclear knowledge into future generations has even been seriously advocated as a way of addressing the feared nuclear trade-skills shortage that may otherwise arise later this century and jeopardise future nuclear decommissioning and/or new build.

Onkalo means ‘hiding place’ in Finnish. At the heart of nuclear waste repository programmes is an unresolved tension between those who counsel that that non-disturbance will best be attained by erasing all surface indications that the facility exists at that location, and those who argue that future generations can only be protected against inadvertent encounter with these waste by provision of ‘future proof’ warning markers and related technical archives.

Legislators have decided that steps must be taken to ensure that future generations will be warned of these places and their properties, and that the information needed to understand the hazards there will be transmitted through culture. At the US Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, an underground repository for low level waste that has been in development since the 1970s, that site is to be physically signified as hostile using ‘forbidding blocks’, ‘hostile markers’ and ‘menacing earthworks’. There will be text warnings written in the six main UN languages, plus the local Navajo language, but aversion will be courted also through hostile symbolic architecture-sculptures. These proposed landscape features will aim at triggering affective – pre (or post) linguistic stimuli based upon an assumed universal human instinctual aesthetic reflex. The aim is that the site itself signals its message – following Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message”, in words of the expert report, that “the most emphatically delivered message is the meaning-bonded-to-form in the site itself” (Sandia National Laboratories, 1993: para 2.1). According to the US Department of Energy (2004) the final plan for the WIPP site markers is due to be submitted to the U.S. Government around 2033 (yes time moves very slowly on these deep-time projects).

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Alongside the proposed landscapes of thorns, spike fields and forbidding blocks, the WIPP site will also feature a text based warning not to drill or dig at the site before A.D. 12,000 augmented by drawings of human faces modelled on Edvard Munch’s The Scream it seems that the international experts regard Munch’s potent image as a universal expression of terror. But, if Munch’s painting always carries that allusion, if it can be a timeless synonym for ‘go away from this place’, could it not equally be interpreted by a slightly misinformed future traveller as the advertising hording announcing the concealed treasures of some ancient funky underground art gallery? Conversely, should a visitor to the National Gallery of Norway flee that place upon sight of that painting, due to an instinctive reaction that lingering in that place would be to expose him or herself to the invisible danger of an odourless, tasteless and delayed action dose of radiation?


The image above is an internationally agreed symbol (ISO 21482) for warning the public about radiation dangers. Jointly developed by the International Atomic Energy Authority and The International Organization for Standardisation it is intended to intuitively communicate hazard warning to a non-technical audience. It is the outcome of a five year project conducted in Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Poland, Ukraine and the United States. Yet it’s meaning still rests upon a host of cultural assumptions: that red is danger, that a trefoil is a hazard indicator, that a skull and crossed bones is bad, and that the stick figure is fleeing. Equally the sign could be read as a welcome to a splendid festival zone at which there is a fantastic sound-system, free food (served off the bone) and a charity fun run in the right-hand corner of the auditorium. I’m reminded of Grossberg et al’s (1998) retelling of the fate of an anti-malarial programme conducted by the US Army in the far east during the Second World War. The ‘natives’ were shown posters with blown-up images of mosquitoes and spray equipment for insecticide. Upon later enquiring why there technologies had not been put into use, the clan chief replied: “because we do not have any mosquitoes that big”. In that culture there was no notion of the ‘blown up’ image – that increasing an item beyond its natural size will draw attention to it.

In his haunting documentary on the Finnish Onkalo repository, Into Eternity (2010), director Michael Madsen sets his narrator to address an imagined deep future audience for his film, vocalising the intended aversion thus: ”this is not a place of honour. No esteemed deeds are commemorated here. You should not have come here”. But any attempt to deter attention to a site, particularly one based upon monumental scale artificial markers, portentous images and tablets on stone all serve to attract the attention of future generations to such places, sparking their curiosity. In reality, the only effective warning marker will be the radiation itself. Exposure will send the most compelling message to the community from which the irradiated tomb raiders hail.

There must be the distinct possibility that we may not be understood by the future – especially the distant future. History shows that knowledge, and civilisation itself can be lost – future civilisations may regress, lose a central fixation with science and technology. And even if the markers, nuclear-priests and distributed archives work to transmit a sense of aversion to these places, that very knowledge of their contents may spur some to seek to burrow into these places, whether for copper, plutonium or motivations that we cannot yet comprehend. Warnings appended to the entrance to the pyramids and to Viking tombs have each proven to be of little or no effect in deterring intrepid explorers or looters alike.

The post is a.k.a. Avoiding New Uses For Old Bunkers #29


Ellsworth, E. & Kruse, J. Eds. (2013) Making the Geologic Now – responses to material conditions of contemporary life, punctum books: New York, available for free at:

Grossberg, L., Wartella, E. & Whitney, D.C. (1998) Media Making – mass media in popular culture, SAGE: Lomdon.

IAEA (2007) ‘New symbol launched to warn public about radiation dangers’

Madsen, M. (dir) (2010) Into Eternity, Magic Hours Films

Sandia National Laboratories (1993) Expert Judgement on markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (ref: SAND92-1382/UC-721, p. F-49) excerpts at:

US Department of Energy (2004) Permanent Markers Implementation Plan, WIPP (rev.1)(DOE/WIPP 04-3302) Carlsbad, New Mexico:

Photos / drawings: Sandia National Laboratories (1993) and IAEA (2007).

“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…


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

@Lines_of_Landscape’s photographs of pylons:


Angular transformer poles:

Rural substation:

Myers substation picture via: