New Uses for Old Bunkers #43: un-used and de-valued citadels

“Now these survivals from the Cold War are, in their turn, disappearing fast, like medieval monasteries and bastioned forts before them – only with more limited scope for regeneration and reuse. In such circumstances it is clearly part of the remit of English Heritage to understand and record the scope and diversity of this body of material, to assess its cultural value, and to make the results of our work widely known.”

Sir Neil Cussons, Chairman, English Heritage, 2003 (in foreword to Cocroft & Thomas (2003) Cold War: Building for Confrontation. English Heritage: Swindon.)

It is the brute, stubborn nature of a nuclear bunker than it does not – in fact – ‘disappear fast’. As a copious amalgam of concrete, steel and earth these modern day tumulus take quite a bit of effort to make-disappear. Their very reason-for-being is to resist the ultimate forces that could be unleashed upon them (Thermonuclear weapons). But brutal persistence of these human-made hills is not quite the same as an assured continuation of habitability. To dwell in these unnatural, subterranean places depended upon atmospheric engineering – mechanical ventilation and de-watering. In short, these structures, following abandonment, experienced a quick onset of internal ruination: they rotted from the inside, becoming uninhabitable through water ingress, toxic mold blooms and corrosion.

Last week I spoke an online conference on the re-use of former military sites organised by the Universita luav di Venezia, which drew together urbanists from across Europe (largely) reporting success stories of the conversion of docks, forts and barracks into 21st century post-military, civilian uses. My paper countered this optimism with a comparative account of the post Cold War fate of four bunkers built in the late 1980s at considerable cost to provide a new generation of UK Government citadels from which a post-nuclear attack civil recovery would be organised.

My paper on the four bunkers will be published in due course as part of the conference proceedings, it looks at the fate of these four bunkers as a follow on to my article (Bennett & Kokoszka, 2020) examining the stilted progression of the Greenham Common cruise missile complex (known as ‘GAMA’) following its sale to a private owner in 2003. In that article I’d suggested that the heritage designation imposed upon that site (also in 2003) had resulted in the site being trapped in limbo, neither able to move on entirely unfettered into a post-military use, nor sufficiently directive to deliver a monumentalisation of the site. So, noting that the four Regional Government Head Quarters (RGHQ) bunkers did not appear to have been given heritage protection (although I subsequently discovered that – like GAMA – Ballymena had (in 2016) been scheduled by the Northern Ireland Government immediately prior to its marketing for sale) I wondered what the fate of these sites had been. In my presentation I explored the reasons why these structures remained extant (that stubborn materiality point mentioned above), how they have each experienced interior ruination (leading to loss of habitability / useability) and the mundane improvisational uses to which each site has fallen, thus:

  • Cultybraggan (Scotland) – acquired as a data bunker
  • Chilmark (England) – scene of a £6million cannabis farm, raided in 2017
  • Crowborough (England) – used as stores and offices by Sussex Police
  • Ballymena (Northern Ireland) – unused, attempts to sell it in 2016-17 having been unsuccessful

But here I just want to explore my final slide, and its implications for studies of contemporary ruins. Here is the slide:

The build costs are estimate gathered across various commentaries. The sale prices are more reliable, taken from seller press releases and/or HM Land Registry data. What strikes me here is another aspect of ruination – the way in which ascribed value dissipates. A thing is only worth what a community of potential bidders think it is worth. And for all the titillating talk in newspapers (the Daily Mail in particular) getting rather excited each time a bunker comes up for sale, the reality is that even if sold (and Ballymena – even though, unlike the others, it had been maintained in operable and habitable condition by the Northern Ireland Government until 2016 – failed to find a buyer), the monetary value ascribed to the site is but a tiny fraction of the original construction cost. These multi-million pound doomsday creations sell for around the average price of a house. And then the buyers are likely to find (as has been shown in the case of these four sites) that it is hard to work out what the viable after-use for these places actually is (with or without heritage protective designations) and they can’t be regarded as simply land plots for new – clean slate – development because of the cost and difficulty of demolishing them and returning the land to a clean slate condition.

So, as regards Cold War Nuclear Bunkers at least, Neil Cussons was half right: they indeed only have limited scope for reuse or regeneration. But he was wrong regarding their ‘disappearing fast’ – there exterior stubborn forms will likely endure for quite some time, and they quietly decay from the inside out.

References

Bennett, L & Kokoszka, P. (2020) ‘Profaning GAMA: exploring the entanglement of demilitarization, heritage and real estate in the ruins of Greenham Common’s cruise missile complex’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 13(1) 97-118.

Images:

Ballymena RGHQ, Northern Ireland (2016) – from Lambert Smith Hampton sales particulars, used by permission.

Cultybraggan RGHQ, Scotland (2014) – photo used by permission of Martin Briscow.

What’s behind the fence? – exploring dead land and empty buildings at the RGS-IBG 2021 Annual Conference (online session, Weds 1st Sept 2021)

“They came from everywhere… I fixed the fence, over and over I fixed the fence, but they kept on coming.”

A lone, vulnerable security guard, 2017

As part of next week’s Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) annual international conference (which this year is running online: details here) I’m convening a double-session next Wednesday morning (1st September), comprising eight presentations, each considering the quiet and only-noticed-if-you-look human ecology of seemingly empty sites.

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everyday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed.

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

Here are the abstracts for our international array of presenters:

Session 1Experiencing and managing dead places (9.00 – 10.40 AM BST)

Ruins of (Post)Soviet Arctic: perceiving, coping with and commemorating abandoned sites

Maria GUNKO Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences / National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow, Russia) [presenting]

Alla BOLOTOVA Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland); Elena BATUNOVA Politecnico di Milano (Milano, Italy) [non-presenting]

The Arctic is passing through different economic and political development stages which result in changing economic and social settings, as well as shifts in the cityscape dynamics (Sellheim et al., 2019). During state socialism in Russia, large-scale development of northern territories was due to the need for natural resources extraction with the establishment of control over a vast sparsely populated area (Josephson, 2014). The collapse of the system has led to a reduction of state support for industries, science and military activities causing a structural crisis in many Arctic cities outside oil and gas provinces. Abandoned and dilapidated buildings, industrial ruins, idle infrastructures, and marginalized spaces here remain “monuments” to the Soviet period indicating the changing trends. At the same time, these cities remain home to people with community bonds, sharing values, and place attachment (Bolotova, 2018). The aims of the current research are two-fold. First, we explore the perception of and strategies to cope with abandonment in the Russian Arctic. Second, we look at the examples of abandoned sites commemoration by their former residents. The empirical evidence for the study is drawn from Vorkuta – a conglomerate of urban settlements in the Komi republic. At its peak, it comprised 16 settlements built around 13 coal mines, currently less than a half of these settlements are still habitable having severely shrunk in size. The data were obtained from a comprehensive analysis of various sources, such as planning documents, archival materials, expert and in-depth interviews (in person and via Skype), as well as non-participant observations carried out in January 2019.

What’s the use? Rethinking urban vacancy amidst Dublin’s housing crisis

Kathleen STOKES & Cian O’CALLAGHAN, Trinity College Dublin (Ireland)

The results of the 2016 census found 183,312 vacant homes in Ireland, a figure that included around 30,000 vacant homes across the four Dublin local authorities. While the Central Statistics Office indicated that this figure was a static rather than long-term measure, the ensuing political storm equated vacant properties with empty homes that could be used to solve Dublin’s burgeoning homelessness crisis. Amidst Dublin’s housing and homeless crisis, calls for affordable housing and fairer property markets have paralleled growing attention in urban housing and land vacancy. A spate of policy measures targeting vacancy have testified to the increased visibility of the ‘problem’ of urban vacancy in the post-crisis period. However, policy objectives construct vacancy within a simple dichotomy between space either ‘in use’ or ‘not in use’, therefore reproducing normative understandings that fail to acknowledge that such sites are always active, in property market formation and subject to ongoing ordering and management. As a riposte to these conceptualisations, this paper puts policy objectives and key measurements of urban vacancy in Dublin into dialogue with the critical literature on vacancy in urban and cultural geography (Ferreri & Vasudevan, 2019; Kitchin et al., 2014). We reflect on the limitations of normative understandings of urban vacant space in revealing the role of vacancy in capitalist cities and suggest that more critical assessments can unearth a multitude of urban processes pertaining to the ordering and management of such sites. This paper draws upon ongoing research in Dublin, which investigates underlying factors contributing to urban vacancy and questions how urban vacancy is identified, categorised and measured.

Empty buildings in the re-making: The case of the Hochhausscheiben A-E in Halle-Neustadt, Germany

Hendrikje ALPERMANN, Université de Lausanne (Switzerland)

Four of the five high-rise slabs Hochhausscheiben A-E in the centre of Halle-Neustadt are empty. And this for over 20 years. Between 2003 and 2016, the shrinking city of Halle reduced vacancy in Halle-Neustadt by half through demolition, enabled through the national program Stadtumbau Ost (Stadt Halle (Saale) 2017). In contrast to many other buildings in Halle-Neustadt in the beginning of the 2000s, the high-rise slabs were not chosen for demolition, but for endurance. But how can their endurance be ensured in the context of a shrinking city? While the buildings have been increasingly dilapidated since they have been abandoned in the late 1990s, a number of practices and relationships have prevented them from being demolished or renovated and contributed to their continuous life between life and death. Against what has been written on ruins in recent academic literature, the high-rises do not stand for a site of disruption (Buchli, 2013; DeSilvey; Endensor, 2012) or “the end of the world” (Pohl, 2020), but rather for a series of promised of renovations and postponed renovations. This turn towards practices and endurance allows us to reflect on techno-political modes of organizing urban change and emptiness. It will lead us to ask how agency and responsibility are distributed and enacted.

In Praise of Shutters: Hidden activity within Neepsend, Sheffield

Charlene Cross, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

This presentation takes inspiration from the 1933 Japanese aesthetic essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Junichiro Tanizaki, who made a case for accepting transience, flaws, patina, and shadows within in the built environment. ‘In Praise of Shutters’ draws attention to the shutters and fences of several ’empty’ buildings in Neepsend, Sheffield, to challenge the preconception that these are inert spaces. The images presented form part of a land use study that initially focused upon inert urban spaces, such as wastelands or seemingly empty buildings. However, as the study has progressed, no truly inert spaces have been found to date. Using narratology and a series of photographs taken in Neepsend between July 2020 and the present day, these images of physical boundaries entice curiosity within the onlooker. If the building is not derelict, what’s behind the fence? Walking past a warehouse, the shutters are up and metal work is underway. People heading to the food court across the road, which is made of shipping containers, pause to peep in. The next day, the shutters are down. To those not in the know, will they view the patina of the signage as an aesthetic remnant of the long forgotten past, rather than a marker that provides testament to their long established presence in the area?

Session 2 – Empty sites, re-use, utopia and other potentiality (11.00 – 12.40PM BST)

Rethinking Utopia: The Search for ‘Topias’ in the Paris Catacombs

Kevin BINGHAM, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

Although the idea once had great influence, utopias have proven themselves to be unattainable. Therefore, rather than viewing utopia as an actual destination this paper will argue that belief in the existence of special places of perfection has been replaced by a faith in leisure. As it will be argued, it is the activity of ‘urbex’ that can turn ruins, abandoned places and vacant sites into something similar, albeit temporarily. With this is mind, the paper continues by drawing on the work of Peter Sloterdijk and Tony Blackshaw to accentuate the point that the good life is about inventing oneself through a process of self-creation that has been referred to as anthropotechnics. To unpack this standpoint, the paper examines how a group of urban explorers – people who explore man-made spaces that are generally inaccessible to the wider public – find various substitutes for utopia in the subterranean space of the Paris catacombs. As it is argued, forms of leisure such as ‘urbex’ emerge as ‘primary spheres’ of anthropotechnics that instigate the formation of intertwining and interpenetrating ‘topias’ which have been referred to here as ‘reterotopia’, ‘heterotopia’ and ‘scotopia’. Viewed independently of one another, these ‘topias’ refer to the way urban explorers’ experiment with space nostalgically, compensatorily and in a way that incites the five basic senses. As the paper reveals, each ‘topia’ plays an important part in allowing people to discover performativity, locate a sense of collective consciousness, feel intense pleasures and pains, and, above all, experience the euphoria of freedom.

“The dead are tugging at our backs”: exploring migrant life among the headstones of an abandoned cemetery in Tangier

Maria HAGAN, University of Cambridge (UK)

Renewed and intensified criminalisation of sub-Saharan Africans in the northern Moroccan borderlands since 2018 has made their spaces of shelter precarious and their access to accommodation, particularly in cities of the north, a perpetual struggle. Those seeking passage to Europe increasingly resort to life in concealed, abandoned urban spaces. This paper explores the socio-material ecologies of an abandoned Muslim graveyard in Tangier overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar and serving as a primary space of life for a group of young Cameroonian men. Drawing on 5 months of ethnographic fieldwork with the community in 2019 & 2020, this paper discusses how, concealed and lawless, this abandoned and decaying urban space operated as a rare negotiated space of presence and sociability for the community. Detailing practices of shelter construction between the headstones, the routine destruction of that shelter by authorities, and processes of camp reconstruction and renegotiation attempted by the graveyard’s inhabitants, the paper proposes an analysis of the liveliness of a deathscape in a context of urban hostility against the migrant body. It traces how the appropriation of this undesirable territory affected the men’s self-perception and influenced their space-claiming practices elsewhere; namely the establishment of a cemetery camp in another Moroccan city.

Fortifying the empty ruin: the nightwatchman, the artists, the trespassers and their antagonisms

Luke BENNETT Sheffield Hallam University (UK) [presenting];
Hayden LORIMER, Edward HOLLIS and Ruth OLDEN of University of Edinburgh (UK) [non-presenting]

The cabin is for use by the nightwatchman,
…who is employed by the security firm,
…that is contracted by the small arts company,
…to protect the now fortified ruin of the former seminary,
…which it hopes to take off the hands of the church,
…who desperately want shot of the whole damned place themselves,
…because of recreational trespass and the liabilities arising,
if only a viable model for transferring ownership can ever be found.

This is the premise for an illustrated piece of performed storytelling, and the predicament that it explores. The modern architectural ruin at its centre is a place of competing claims, and complex social dynamics created by the securitization of property. Lately, it has operated antagonistically, existing as an aggressive milieu. The presentation delves into the ruin’s complex relational ecology, introducing its protagonists, affects, spaces, encounters and events. Ultimately, its chief concern is with the architecture of lives as much as it is the lives of architecture. In particular, the presentation will focus upon how the precarious minimum-wage lifeworld of the nightwatchman, and his embodied relationship to this abandoned site, is both more elaborate and more sculpted by the active concerns of others who rarely appear in person on-site, than we might readily assume. The presentation reports on part of the collaborators’ 2017-2019 Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland funded study of attempts to manage and reactivate the modernist ruins of St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, a few miles west of Glasgow. Bennett will present drawing upon Olden’s fieldwork, Lorimer and Hollis’ writings upon the site and Bennett’s reflections on the pressure of anxieties about vacant site ownership.

The elephant in the room?: a facilitated discussion about absent owners

Carolyn GIBBESON, Sheffield Hallam University (UK)

To what extent does scholarship on vacancy include an exploration of the motives and meaning-making of owners and their professional agents? Where mentioned do site owners only ever appear as cyphers for capital, striped of any attentiveness to their emotional labour? Does attempting to give analytical space or voice to owners and their motivations for vacancy risk loss of a Critical and/or progressive edge? This contribution will facilitate a discussion of these questions, by reflecting on the Session’s nine papers. It will open with a short presentation in which I will draw on my former experiences of working in the real estate sector as a property manager responsible for a variety of property types including vacant sites, and on my more recent doctoral research into the awkward interaction of developers’ and heritage professionals’ differing world-views and practice-logics. Through this I will consider how different groups of people within the built environment and academic sectors view each other to ask why owners are usually ignored despite their control over a site. I will then invite discussion on whether (and if so, how) a greater attentiveness to owner perspectives could augment studies of vacancy, and also tease out the particular difficulties that lie ahead for anyone trying to research owners’ creation and/or toleration of vacancy, whether as profit-maximising landbanking or for more prosaic reasons.

Image credit: Author’s photograph, St Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, Cardross, Scotland, Oct 2017.

Here and hear: reflections on SHU SPG’s Haunts#4: atmospheres of social haunting online event, 17 June 2021

The psychologist of visual perception speaks of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, the figure being that which is looked at while the ground exists only to give the figure its outline and mass. But the figure cannot exist without its ground; subtract it and the figure becomes shapeless, nonexistent. Even though the keynote sounds [of a soundscape] may not always be heard consciously, the fact that they are ubiquitous there suggests the possibility of a deep and pervasive influence on our behaviour and moods. The keynote sounds of a given place are important because they help outline the character of men living among them”.

R. Murray Schafer (1977) The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Destiny Books: Rochester, Vermont. p.9.

Yesterday we held our final event in our ‘Haunts’ series, Haunts#4 was focused on “atmospheres of social haunting“. Introducing the session I tabled a definition of Social Haunting thus:

“The ways in which aspects of the past are somehow mobilised – whether as ‘heritage’, ‘community’, ‘nostalgia’ or ‘trauma’ – so as to impose a strong affective (or atmospheric) charge upon a site of present action.”

But I left ‘atmosphere’ undefined, thinking that that would remain a background, unexplored element. But as it turned out (for me at least) it was the mechanisms of atmospheric engineering – and in particular sound (and silence) as key techniques for that – that seemed to resonate across (and connect together) the five papers. Looking back on it there was a trajectory – from silence through to loudness which I’m now going to try and account for.

Other linkings and cross-readings are possible, and the event recording is presented below.

The quote from Schafer above, reflects the importance of the un- or under-acknowledged role of sound and silence in composing a sense of place, and of how ever if seemingly present only as ‘background’, this environmental quality is vital to the formation of the sense of place, and of the grounding of human living (and dwelling).

The focus on sound and its contribution to the affective weight and endurance of memorial rituals (like the annual Cenotaph ‘Remembrance Day’ and its summoning of a sense of previous generations’ loss in the name of a passed-on ‘remembering’) was introduced by John Land’s presentation. John dissected the elements of the ritual and material arrangement that embedded the sense that each iteration of the Remembrance Day was acknowledging and connecting to a past. As John pointed out, sound is used to orchestrate that intentional social haunting, for example the lone bugle playing the ‘Last Post’, or orchestrated cannon fire. But it is also used in order to frame silence: a feature of these rituals that is perhaps even more potent: in silence the world is marked as stopped in its tracks. Symbolically, a portal opens up, a space of reflection in to which the social ghosts are invited to fill our thoughts.

John suggested that sound connects us to sense of a past precisely because it is ephemeral and incomplete. It leaves room for the mind to wander and (seem to) make its own novel connections (though – of course – working within received cultural schema).

This ‘summoning power’ of sound and silence followed on through into Max Munday’s performative reflections on his use of activity and movement to connect with the traumatic experiences of his Jewish ancestors. In a moving clip (not included in the recording below for copyright reasons) Max inhabited a space, spinning and contorting his body in relation to empty chairs around him as the recording of a mournful lament sung by an elderly Cantor grew louder and louder.

Esther Johnson’s short film A Role to Play summoned the intertwined features that compose the atmospheric essence of Bolsover, a small hillside town in Derbyshire, with a dual claim to fame: an Industrial-era association with coal mining and a long pre-industrial association with aristocracy though its castle. Yet, the town is now post-industrial, a fate sealed by the death of coal and the rise and rise of the logistic sector. Esther gave voice to a selection of residents, giving them space to speak of the highs and lows of their dwelling there. Woven alongside these voices, and the visual depiction of Bolsover’s heterogeneous landscape elements, were ‘local’ sounds buried in the background but giving that sense – as Schafer suggests above – that this ambient soundscape is key because it is constitutive: the sound is binding the the place together. In addition to ambient sounds in the mix, Esther subtly features a brass band’s recording of John Dowland’s 1600 lute song Flow My Tears, which rendered in modern transcription laments:

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their last fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days, my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts, for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world’s despite.

But this elegiac reference is truly backgrounded – because the band is performing the instrumental version. And Esther’s foregrounding of her interviewee’s voices is more more positive: yes speaking to adversity, but also to community, individual and collective agency and mutual aid. Whilst not included in the above recording, a copy of Esther’s film can be viewed separately below:

My own presentation – which considered the erection in the early 1830s of a stone memorial to commemorate a mass burial site for Sheffield’s Cholera victims – spoke of the power of voice in terms of the powerful co-option of poetry and civic engagement by James Montgomery to aspire to embed a lasting sense of lament upon the hillside site at which the burial ground had been hastily created. I then – perhaps moving away from a focus on sound – showed how difficult it is to sustain an atmosphere of loss at a particular site. I charted the rise, fall and recreation of the monument, and questioned whether much of the affective intensity originally intended by Montgomery to be seared into the landscape remained: in short whether his vision expressed in the final stanza of his poem The Cholera Mount (1832) had been met for long:

With statelier honours still, in time’s slow round,

Shall this sepulchral eminence be crown’d,

Where generations long to come shall hail

The growth of centuries waving in the gale,

A forest landmark on the mountain’s head,

Standing betwixt the living and the dead;

Nor while your language lasts, shall traveller cease

To say, at sight of your Memorial, “Peace!”

Your voice of silence answering from the sod,

“Whoe’er thou art, prepare to meet thy God!”

Meanwhile, Charlene Cross sought to give voice to a stranger – a Mrs Violet Murphy – piecing together fragments of a life story for a lady who now existed only through the assortment of momentos and official documents found secreted in a box, in a cupboard, in the basement of Charlene’s childhood home. The dogged application of family history techniques – and the affectionate intensity of Charlene’s searching to try to establish who Violet was, and why her archival remains were lodged in her Blackpool home – was all the more poignant for how those documentary fragments took us around the world, but never managed to reveal a connection to the home (or the town) in which her documents were found. Presented as though a detective story, the reveal – that the question of connection could not be answered – provocatively disrupted and denied assumptions that (even with the Internet) all of the past, and the people and places that may be partially recallable from it, can be neatly fitted back together.

But, as with Max’s summoning of his ancestors life-defining moments, and as with Esther’s giving voice to her interviewees, so Charlene’s act of generous, inquisitive care offered to a stranger in summoning Violet’s life by narrating to us what she had found out brings new pertinence to a popular quoted fragment of Schafer’s key 1977 text: that “hearing is a way of touching at a distance,” (p.11). Although (of course) – and to echo a closing theme of my own talk – this assumes that Violet Murphy actually wanted to be remembered and also raises the question of whether the urge to remember a stranger, just as the urge to renovate a derelict proto-Victorian monument, is an act of care-for-the-past or more a sign of our own contemporary magpie (selective appropriation) tendencies. As the Ghost Lab folk would put it (as ably summarised by Max), remembering the past and its social ghosts can have positive effects in the present and aid action towards future-making, but (as Esther’s film also suggests) to overly dwell on (for example) the loss of past collective identity (e.g. valiant coal mining labouring) could blind us to the (actual or latent) agency of the living.

Image Credit: Road workers and pedestrians fall silent and bare their heads in a mark of respect during the “Great Silence”; the two minutes silence held at 11.00am on the 11th November, 1919, a year on from the end of The Great War at TH2epuq.png (1002×711) (imgur.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our programme

19.00 -19.05

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

Welcome & Introduction

19.05-19.45

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

Archaeology, Heritage and the Ghosts of War

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

19.45 – 20.05

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

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

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

20.05 – 20.15 comfort break

20.15 – 20.35

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

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

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

20.35 – 21.00

Rob Hindle, Sheffield-based Poet

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

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

21.00 – 21.20

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

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

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

21.20 – 21.30 Closing discussion

Chaired by Luke Bennett

How to attend

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

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

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

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

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

‘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]

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/

 

CFP for RGS-IBG 2020: What’s behind the fence? Exploring the secret lives of ambivalent owners, dead land and empty buildings

Greenham Green Gate May 2018

CALL FOR PAPERS

RGS-IBG 2020 Annual International Conference, London 1 to 4 Sept 2020

Proposed Conference Session:

What’s behind the fence?: Exploring the secret lives of ambivalent owners, dead land and empty buildings

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate these vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everday 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.

For our conference session we seek to open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators. Reflecting ruin studies’ inherent multidisciplinarity we invite contributions whether theoretical, empirical or performative from across the social sciences, humanities and the arts that speak to this sense of abandonment being a purposive, active project – sometimes expressing an intentional “curated decay” (DeSilvey 2017) but more often revealing more conventional notions of a low-maintenance preservation of some, presently latent, utility or value for the future. We envisage that these contributions, and whether critical or managerial, could range across diverse aspects of the cultures and practices of vacancy, including:

  • Investigating the professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management
  • Comparative international perspectives to reveal the similarities and differences between attitudes to, and management of, vacancy
  • Measuring the effect of strength of place attachment by neighbours and former site occupants upon the extent of stigma and blight that a vacant site engenders
  • Ethnographic investigation of opportunistic appropriators (and whether urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places
  • Detailing the “naturecultures” (Haraway 2003) of weeds, overgrowth and the more-than-human ecologies of untended sites
  • Regulatory perception of dead land and empty buildings as “riskscapes” (Müller-Mahn and Everts 2013) by police, fire and rescue service, local authorities, insurers
  • Assessing the market for site fortification, in terms of the evolution of technologies and practices of territorialisation and bordering for abandoned sites
  • Exploring the legal dimensions of “property guardianship” and other emergent forms of vacant site defence and fortification
  • Appropriating the aesthetic affordances of fences, hoardings and other bordering strategies, and affecting how abandoned sites are separated from the explicitly occupied and active world around them.

Please send suggested abstracts for suggested 15 minute conference session contributions to Luke Bennett, Reader in Space, Place & Law at Sheffield Hallam University at l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk by Monday, 10 February 2020.

 

Image credit: Green Gate, former GAMA facility, Greenham Common, May 2018. Photograph by Phil Kokoszka.

Living beyond the limits of survival: five articles on ongoing cultural production in abandoned bunkers

Image result for polish bunker ants

“the wood-ant ‘colony’ described here – although superficially looking like a functioning colony with workers teeming on the surface of the mound – is rather an example of survival of a large amount of workers trapped within a hostile environment in total darkness, with constantly low temperatures and no ample supply of food. The continued survival of the ‘colony’ through the years is dependent on new workers falling in through the ventilation pipe [of this abandoned Cold War bunker]. The supplement of workers more than compensates for the mortality rate of workers such that through the years the bunker workforce has grown to the level of big, mature natural colonies.”

Czechowski W., Rutkowski T., Stephan W., Vepsäläinen K., (2016) ‘Living beyond the limits of survival: wood ants trapped in a gigantic pitfall’. Journal of Hymenoptera Research, 51, 227-239 at 237.

As previewed in last month’s blog post, all of the contributions to my guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies are now available on the journal’s website [here]. The five papers (plus my extended editorial essay, portions of which were presented in last month’s blog post, and further extracts below) are all concerned with the after-life of Cold War bunkers, and particularly with the ways in which these obstinate places refuse to disappear, either from the space that they inhabit or from the cultural milieu that they still haunt. Like an automatic beacon faithfully continuing to transmit long after the ship has been abandoned, or in the survival instinct of a colony of ‘lost’ ants, the modes and means of abandoned bunkers endurance (and of life and meaning-making playing out within them) is subjected to analysis by the contributing – multidisciplinary – authors, with each interpreting this endurance as a form of ongoing cultural production.

Still alive: ongoing cultural production in the abandoned bunker

The Journal of War and Culture Studies’ aims include promoting exploration of the relationship between war and culture during conflict and in its aftermath, and examining the cultural production and circulation of both symbols and artefacts of conflict. Bunkers are very potent and enduring symbols and artefacts of conflict, which are deeply embedded in contemporary culture (Bennett 2011). To draw out this embeddedness, this special issue takes a very broad view of the bunker’s cultural production. As Raymond Williams (1983, 87-93) notes ‘culture’ is not a settled term. The contributors to this issue tend towards using the term in its anthropological sense – with cultural production thus here being regarded as the processes by which social groups produce shared meaning about abandoned bunkers, and whether that arises within small groups of enthusiastic bunker preservationists or across wider society via popular culture. Therefore, the narrow, elitist, sense of ‘culture’ promoted by Matthew Arnold (1960) as the production only of the fine arts is elided.

Additionally, the expression ‘cultural production’ is used here in a way intended to emphasise that that the generation, modification and circulation of cultural symbols and artefacts is always ongoing. Meanings evolve – therefore the cultural production of the bunker is not a one off, originating event. The meanings and uses of these places evolve over time, and in response to a variety of broadly societal trends (e.g. how bunkers are portrayed in popular fiction) and in how individual actors actively engage in a process of appropriation within the bunker, each projecting and inferring upon the bunker in accordance with the needs of their own purposes and practices. Thus Sean Kinnear portrays the variety of actors, motives, and resulting re-use schemes, brought about recently in four Scottish bunker sites. Meanwhile Phil Kokoszka and I investigate the medley of stakeholders and their entangled cultural logics at play in the stilted after-life of the former cruise missile bunkers at Greenham Common. Furthermore, the articles by Louise K. Wilson, and Becky Alexis-Martin, Michael Mulvihill and Kathrine Sandys, show how the phenomenological qualities of the abandoned bunkers appeal to them as artists, as largely ‘blank canvas’ sites which they can appropriate (albeit often only temporarily) and are used in their production of site-specific installation and performance works. Notably, Wilson – as an artist working mainly in the medium of sound – shows how the bunker can be valorised for its acoustic, as well as its visual, atmospherics. Matthew Flintham (also an artist) appropriates an even more unusual cultural feature of the abandoned bunker: its mould. In doing so he productively pushes the notion of cultural production to its extreme – for mould is a culture which replicates itself, taking hold within the bunker’s stale air. As Williams (1983, 87) notes, one of the earliest meanings of ‘culture’ is “the tending of natural growth”. Flintham’s then is a view of the more-than-human enculturing of the bunker – if the mould culture can be said to be self-tending of its own growth. Alternatively, a human cultivator or sorts can be identified in Flintham’s own semantic cultivation, his human valorisation of the mould’s bunker colonising expansion drives by subjecting it to meaning making, by rendering it aesthetic.

Survival cell: the bunker’s battle against entropy

Flintham seeks to show, through his attentiveness to these cultures of mould, that bunkers are ultimately ironic spaces. For within the heart of their hermetic isolation, decay and degeneration (as instances of the entropy – the drive towards loss or energy – that afflicts the eventual dissolution of all things), derelict bunkers are found to be generative, living places. Thus they are ironic because they are both hostile and habitable. Engineered originally as survival cells for humans, these places are now abandoned and inhospitable to their intended denizens. They have been rendered toxic to humans through the proliferation of these moulds and other entropic processes of decay. And yet, the mould, and those wider processes of change, are themselves a form of dynamic change – and if viewed in a wide frame of reference – signs of survival and endurance. In short, the bunker endures and has an existence (and cultures of sorts) even when fully abandoned. Flintham links his ruminations on the resilience of mould to the Cold War-era theorising of cybernetics, the science of distributed systems and self-organisation. Cold War theorising (and the art and fiction that Flintham identifies as influenced by this anxious milieu) was influenced by existential questions of how – and where – to best face-down the accelerated entropy to be witnessed in the face of a nuclear blast. And the best answer to that question was usually ‘the bunker’. Conceived as a sealed survival space intended to facilitate the autonomous survival of Cold War human bodies and other culture-preserving vessels of information, Flintham’s Cold War bunker is largely bereft of human life and apocalyptic scheming. But conflict and survival are both still enacted there, for the bunker is now host to daily battles of territorial expansion and defence waged between extremophiles deep inside this now hostile-to-human terrain.

Meanwhile, approaching decay and degeneration from a more avowedly human (and heritage preservation) standpoint Kinnear makes an impassioned plea for greater attentiveness to Scotland’s Cold War-era bunkers, presenting that call within the context of a narrative of loss (through sites falling victim to both material decay and unsympathetic redevelopment). He argues that increased attentiveness to the architectural significance of these places could spur their greater protection. However, Kokoszka and I show that setting out to save an iconic site may require more than protective heritage and land-use planning designations. We show how the interplay of drives for demilitarisation, heritage preservation and sustainable economic re-use have led to the Greenham Common cruise missile site being stuck in limbo (neither fully alive nor fully dead) since the site was sold off by the Ministry of Defence in 2003. Thus regulatory intervention may have slowed GAMA’s entropy but by no means has it been halted or reversed.

Still transmitting: the bunker’s ongoing resonance

Paul Virilio collaborator Sylvère Lotringer, writing in support of Virilio’s claim that the Atlantic Wall bunkers had a strong mnemonic resonance for him,  has recalled drawing up close to an abandoned Nazi bunker as a child, placing his ear upon its concrete flank and listening to hear the “roar of war still trapped inside” (Virilio & Lotringer 2003, 10). This depiction both acknowledges the distinctive acoustics of cavernous bunker-spaces, as the sound of waves echoes within them, and also their affective, mnemonic quality, whereby they trigger his memories of the war. It seems unlikely that Lotringer means us to take his statement literally (i.e. that the bunker itself somehow holds memories of the war independent of its human interlocutors), and Nadia Bartolini (2015) has recently argued persuasively against suggestions that bunkers themselves have a historical and/or militaristic essence which they store and transmit independent of the projections and inferences of particular visitors.

But certainly, the acoustic properties of bunker-spaces are affective, and can be utilised by artists and musicians in their work. Wilson shows how the distinctive acoustic signatures of sites like the domed Teufelsberg listening station in Berlin have been preserved digitally, such that the very distinctive reverb of that structure can be used as an ambient sound-shaping technique in the production of wholly unrelated sound recordings. Thus, an acoustic mapping of a bunker and its echo characteristics may outlast the site itself, its virtual form preserving and transmitting an aspect (but only an aspect) of the bunker’s being. Commenting upon the possibility of virtual preservation and/or recreation of long-lost bunkers Kinnear suggests that virtual recreations inevitably lose a quality that only the bunker itself can deliver – the affective charge of being there as a fully embodied visitor, picking up the musty smells and sense of confinement that Flintham also depicts in his explorations into the Torås mountain-bunker complex.

But to acknowledge these affective charges is not the same as believing that these places are haunted by their histories. Alexis-Martin, Mulvihill and Sandys note the affective charge of abandoned bunkers but conclude that the contemporary cultural interest in abandoned bunkers more rooted in their ‘blank space’ affordances – their semantic openness – than it is in any firmly determining past essence. They argue that abandoned bunker sites do not throw an obstinate military essence at any visitor. Indeed, Mulvihill finds that even when operational military sites may not seem very distinctive at all. Furthermore, Alexis-Martin reports that despite working daily within a former local government Cold War bunker, it was many months before she came to realise that the basement offices in which she was working had started life as a facility designed for nuclear war.

Alexis-Martin, Mulvihill and Sandys show how such places are increasingly sites of free-form play and projection rather than clear communion with an immovably encoded past. Kinnear would take issue with the desirability of such free-play and in his article argues for the importance of preserving (or sympathetically adapting) these structures as a way of retaining both their mnemonic connection to the Cold War past and to their distinctive atmospheres and taxonomic forms. For Kinnear taking the bunker former into the future requires a delicate balance to be struck between preserving the embodied mnemonic traces of the past and finding ways to bring about an enduring preservation via new-found uses. Kinnear believes that there is a resonance from these places – but it could be easily missed if not carefully sought out and protected. Meanwhile, Kokoszka and I find an ambivalence at the heart of attempts to find an enduring heritage status for the GAMA site at Greenham Common. On paper the site has a very strong claim to internationally significant heritage status, but we find heritage significance to be but one shaping influence in the battle for its after-life. The past, per se, is seemingly not an ultimate dead-hand controlling influence over even this iconic bunker site.

Meanwhile, Wilson shows us a second type of resonance – a cultural reverberation. She describes how anxiety about the heightened risk of nuclear war in the early 1980s insinuated itself into popular culture (and popular music in particular), often using bunkers as a motif. This conflation of nuclear anxiety, bunker-talk and new wave synth-pop has in the last decade seen a wry, nostalgic revival; a cultural production that merges a new-found attentiveness to the once-unattainable shelters with the lo-fi musical stylings of the early 1980s, by pop-ironicists such as Luke Haines. These ironic pop-cultural appropriations of the Cold War bunker are perhaps the most playful appropriations of all.

 

Luke Haines interviewed in 2015 about his British Nuclear Bunkers LP.

 

Image credit

Wojciech Czechowski (2016) photograph of the ant-trap bunker: an abandoned ammunition bunker (part of the ‘Special Object 3003 Templewo’ Soviet nuclear weapons complex, western Poland) via https://metro.co.uk/2019/11/05/cannibal-ants-escape-soviet-nuclear-weapons-bunker-11044125/

References

Arnold, M. 1960. Culture and anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bartolini, N. 2015. ‘the politics of vibrant matter. Consistency, containment and the concrete of Mussolini’s bunker’. Journal of Material Culture, 20(2): 191-210.

Bennett, L. 2011. ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality and management’. Culture and Organization. 17(2): 155-173.

Virilio, P. and Lotringer, S. 2003.Crepuscular dawn. New York: Semiotext(e). Trans. Mike Taormina.

Williams, R. 1983. Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana Press.

The bunker is dead, long live the bunker: announcing my forthcoming guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies

 

Fig 4 - Cambridge RWR

“I try to escape, but the bunker keeps pulling me back in.”

Luke Bennett, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2019…

 

Following in the footsteps of Paul Virilio’s (1994) investigations of the ruins of the Nazi Atlantic Wall fortifications, but by changing the focal point to the ruins of the Cold War, the bunker studies presented in my forthcoming bunker-themed guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies broadly echo Virilio’s method: combining accounts of embodied exploration with attentive archival work, and their concern is to achieve both a phenomenological account of the nature of these now-abandoned places, and a taxonomic assessment of the trends that shape the original, present and future lives of life of these structures. Bradley L. Garrett and Ian Klinke and (2019) have recently laid down a challenge to the hegemony of Virilio’s methods and concerns in bunker studies. They point out that the dominant scholarly approach tends to depict the bunker as both a symbol of, and an artefact of the past – rather than of the present and future. They point out that the bunker (as an emplacement of military power) is still very much alive. They also persuasively argue that Virilio’s framing tends to figure bunkers as places of shelter (with its inhabitants as victims) rather than as places of relative safety from which perpetrators plan the extermination of whole cities.

Garrett’s and Klinke’s critique is well made, and points to new areas of scholarship which need to be explored within bunker studies. However, it is not the case that the Virilio-type approach is exhausted. There is still plenty of work still to be done to understand the end-of-life stage of bunkers and of the cultural effects of their affective and symbolic resonance in abandonment. Accordingly, this special issue’s five articles each seek to build upon the broadly Virilio-type studies presented in my 2017 edited collection In the ruins of the Cold War bunker: materiality, affect and meaning making. That collection presented a multidisciplinary investigation of contemporary bunker re-engagements from around the world by 13 contributors, touching in particular on artistic and heritage based-appropriations of these now-abandoned Cold War spaces. As befitting the Journal of War and Culture Studies’ concern with the points at which war and culture meet (and the forms of cultural production related to that intersection), the new articles assembled in the special issue develop an even wider and more provocative set of lenses with which to detect the multiple forms and intensities within which post-military forms of use and meaning making come to be projected onto the blank walls of bunker spaces (including – variously – appropriations by mould, sound, commercial storage, heritage and fine art). Through this they reveal the processes by which (and rate at which) originating war-related uses and meanings fade from these places, thereby enabling the bunker’s after-life.

How bunkers live-on

Over the last decade the after-life of bunkers has become a subject of study across a number of disciplines: from archaeology to real estate, from cultural geography to fine art (see, for example, the array of disciplines represented in Bennett 2017). Accordingly, the contributors to this special issue represent a broad spread of disciplinary perspectives, and survey a wide range of bunker interactions.

Matthew Flintham is an artist and an academic whose work focuses on representations of military landscapes. In his article ‘Vile Incubator: a pathology of the Cold War bunker’, he investigates the after-life of the Torås bunker complex in Norway, reflecting on both the embodied act of bunker exploration and the ongoing non-human cultural production that he finds in this supposedly dead, lifeless abandoned place.

Louise K. Wilson is also an artist and an academic, and her work has investigated iconic Cold War military sites like the former testing range at Orford ness in Suffolk, through site-based installations and audio art. In her contribution entitled ‘Sounds from the bunker: aural culture and the remainder of the Cold War’, Wilson considers the appropriation of Cold War bunkers’ distinctive acoustic atmospheres and of 1980s bunker-themed pop songs in contemporary music production.

In their collaborative article ‘“Mine are the dead spaces”: a discussion of bunker work’s atmospheres, limits and routines’, Becky Alexis-Martin, a cultural geographer whose work specialises in nuclear geographies, leads a discussion with artists Kathrine Sandys and Michael Mulvihill, using the surroundings of the Churchill War Rooms, a Second World War bunker deep beneath Whitehall in London, as a prompt for considering the valence of the bunker to artists and its other denizens. Sandys is an artist and academic who, like Wilson, has worked with the distinctive audio-visual properties of empty bunkers. Mulvihill is an artist who has recently completed a practice-based PhD based around a residency at RAF Fylingdales.

As an architect, Sean Kinnear’s article ‘Reopening the bunker: an architectural investigation of the post-war fate of four Scottish nuclear bunkers’, presents an assessment of the underappreciated architectural significance of Scottish Cold War bunkers, outlining their distinctive architectonic qualities and profiling in his four case study sites, four different approaches to preservation and after-use of these structures. Kinnear calls for greater heritage protection to accorded to these sites in Scotland.

In the special issue’s final article, ‘Profaning GAMA:  exploring the entanglement of demilitarisation, heritage and real estate in the ruins of Greenham Common’s cruise missile complex’, I consider with my former student Philip Kokoszka (who contributed fieldwork as part of his 2018 MSc dissertation) the strangely mundane, indeterminate fate of GAMA, the once-iconic cruise missile bunker complex built at RAF Greenham Common in the early 1980s. We do so from the perspective of real estate and land-use planning, and seek to show how an appreciation of the entanglement of a number of contemporary cultural drivers (demilitarisation, ruination, heritage preservation and re-utilisation) can help to account for the site’s unexpected ‘failure’ to become a formal monument to its Cold War past. In conclusion, reflecting upon this out-turn, we attempt to suggest – using the work of Giorgio Agamben on ‘profanation’ – that this failure of the site to achieve a singular new meaning may in itself be fitting.

How bunkers die

The autumn of 2019 saw much attention focused upon the iconography of the ‘Berlin Wall’, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of its fall. Considerable efforts were expended to destroy the wall in the early 1990s – achieving its near-total erasure in a matter of months. This was a campaign of physical demilitarisation that assured the ending of German partition would be irreversible. In contrast my special issue considers the endurance of a more diffuse, harder to destroy, and less prominent set of Cold War material culture: the bunker. As with the Wall, these structures are iconic, mnemonic even. The articles contribute to the ongoing development of bunker studies by showing that these obstinate structures are not just materially durable (for they manage to retain some of their original war-related purpose embodied within their strange, brutal forms) but also fluid, in that they are caught up in an ongoing cultural production which over time enables a loosening of war-related meanings, a loosening that can bring both new utility, and also episodes of playful irony. This loosening contributes to the attrition of the bunker’s original form as both war-related materiel and as a potent symbol of war. Ultimately, this loosening is found to be the product of a quiet, long-term semantic decay, a subtle, slow-burn form of cultural demilitarisation which strikes quite a contrast to the speedy, systematic physical erasure of the Cold War’s more evident and destroyable military structures, like the Wall.

Note: the JWC special issue will be published in January 2020. The articles will appear online at the Journal’s website (https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ywac20/current) in advance of formal publication, and three of those articles have been uploaded there so far.

 

References

Bennett, L. (ed.) 2017. In the ruins of the Cold War bunker: affect, materiality and meaning making. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Garrett, B.L and Klinke, I. 2019. ‘Opening the bunker: function, materiality, temporality’. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 37(6): 1063-1081.

Virilio, P. 1994. Bunker Archeology, New York: Princeton Architectural Press (Translated by George Collins).

 

Image Credit:

Sean L. Kinnear (2018). Cambridge Regional War Room now incorporated into a residential estate development.