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

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

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“Cheap holiday in other people’s misery”

Sex Pistols (1977) Holidays in the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

(Almost…) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker – materiality, affect and meaning making

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Nearly there – the manuscript will be with the publisher by the end of this week. Here’s a sneak peek at the 14 essays that make up my bunker book (due for publication by Rowman & Littlefield International in August 2017, as part of their Place, Memory, Affect series…

Part I – Introducing the Bunker: Ruins, Hunters and Motives –  features a general introduction followed by a second chapter written by me, Entering the Bunker with Paul Virilio: the Atlantic Wall, Pure War and Trauma, in which I discuss the importance of the seminal bunker hunting of French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, who between 1958 and 1965 systematically visited, photographed and researched the imposing bunker formations of the Nazi Atlantic wall, and who did so at the height of the Cold War. I outline Virilio’s affective engagement with these bunkers, their impact upon his later theorising and argue that this compulsive hunting can be shown to be the product of traumatic wartime experiences. I then use this finding to argue that compulsive bunker hunting of the Cold War’s shelters, may also be understood in this way, with even Virilio having described the nuclear anxiety based trauma of the Cold War as greater than that of the Second World War.

Part II – Looking at the Bunker: Representation, Image and Affect – then presents three chapters written by artists, who each explore how established and newly emergent practices of representation engage with the Cold War’s bunkers and what they formerly, and may now, stand for (both for them and for others). First, in Peripheral Artefacts: Drawing [out] the Cold War, Stephen Felmingham discusses his use of experimental drawing techniques to access the ‘hidden in plain sight’ uncanny qualities of now abandoned ROC Posts. In doing so Felmingham shows how his bunker-entering reconnaissance accessed his sublimated childhood trauma of growing up in East Anglia in the 1980s amidst USAF and RAF nuclear bases, pointing to the potency of material and spatial triggers to memory and feeling. Next, in Sublime Concrete: The Fantasy Bunker, Explored scenographer and sound artist Kathrine Sandys, explores the atmospheres, properties and possibilities of the Cold War bunker, situating an account of her own installation-based works, within a wider discussion of the fact vs fiction confusion of these places, and their link to an emergent military sublime. Sandys finds in these remains, a blankness which calls for meaning making to be undertaken actively by those who engage with the bunkers and their phenomenological properties. Finally, in Processional Engagements: Sebaldian Pilgrimages to Orford Ness, Louise K. Wilson considers the ways in which a variety of artists have engaged the iconic Orford Ness site, and the extent to which those engagements have come to be conditioned by certain strong, framing tropes. Specifically, Wilson considers the enduring influence of W.G. Sebald’s melancholic reading of this site and its most iconic remnant structures. Whilst attentive to recent departures from this representational mould, Wilson chronicles the persistence of engagements which seek to foreground (and/or create) an inaccessible (and open, plastic) ‘mystery’ for the site – thereby producing art ‘about’ the site which relies more on imagination than upon deep engagement with its archival or material facticity.

In Part III – Embracing the Bunker: Identity, Materiality and Memory – the concern is with how an emergent attentiveness to the physicality of the world and our ‘entanglement’ with it (Hodder 2012) (this being the sense in which ‘materiality’ is used in this collection) affects the way in which we can account for human engagements with the remains of Cold War bunkers. The first two chapters in this part examine the entanglement of the material world and the identity of the explorer within the act of interpreting Cold War remains, with each author using experimental writing techniques to destabilise seemingly conventional forms of investigatory narrative. First, in Torås Fort: A Speculative Study of War Architecture in the Landscape, artist Matthew Flintham uses the techniques of speculative fiction to unsettle an account of a geologist’s compulsive analysis of the materialities of the remains of a Norwegian coastal battery, fusing the styles of the natural sciences and horror writing to do so. Flintham’s account reflects the ‘weird realism’ stylistics and concerns of contemporary writers (like De Landa 1997; Negarestani 2008; Bogost 2012; and Harman 2012) who each ascribe ominous, ‘hidden in plain sight’ posthuman mystery to seemingly dumb brute banal geological objects.

Then, in Bunker and Cave Counterpoint: Exploring Underground Cold War Landscapes in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, anthropologist María Alejandra Pérez uses techniques of counterpoint and ethnographic surrealism to juxtapose her autoethnographic accounts of visits to the US Congress bunker built beneath the luxury Greenbrier Resort with the remains of a far more rudimentary public nuclear shelter located within the Organ cave complex, 14 miles away. In doing so Pérez emphasises the iterative, unsettled process of meaning making, infusing her account with the bleed between these places’ multiple histories and uses and also the provocations of her own identity: both as an immigrant with a very different cultural experience of the Cold War, and as a caver.

Thereafter, two chapters address the role of affective-materialities in the production of collective identities via practices of recuperation enacted at particular material sites of encounter. First, in Recuperative Materialities: The Kinmen Tunnel Music Festival, cultural geographer J.J. Zhang explores the important role of the material properties of the Zhaishan tunnel complex, part of a defensive network of fortifications protecting the Taiwanese island of Kinmen from Chinese invasion. Only a few miles from the Chinese mainland the island was the scene of repeated exchanges of artillery fire during the Cold War. Now decommissioned, the tunnel is the site of a classical music festival, which Zhang analyses in terms of the affective-material recuperation afforded by the acoustic properties of the tunnel itself, ascribing to it a sensuous agency and showing how ‘rapproachment tourists’ find the tunnel to act as a healing sensorium – an externalized seat of sensation where humans and tunnel come together. Finally, in Once Upon a Time in Ksamil: Communist and Post-Communist Biographies of Mushroom-Shaped Bunkers in Albania, archaeologist Emily Glass considers the seemingly ambivalent relationship of Albanians with the material legacy of the hundreds of thousands of small bunkers constructed upon their landscape during the Cold War – the physical embodiment of Cold War era Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha’s defensive, isolationist paranoia. Glass shows how a strict control over knowledge about the bunker production during the Cold War era gave way to a multivalent afterlife for these structures, in which locals appropriated them for mundane and illicit uses whilst tourists and the tourism industry adopted them as a symbol of Albania.

In Part IV – Dealing with the Bunker: Hunting, Visiting and Remaking – the attention shifts to how meaning making is organised.  In the first pair of essays, the focus is upon heritage practices and specifically the lay/professional divide. First, cultural geographer Gunnar Maus, applies Theodore Schatzki’s practice theory to an analysis of the parallel bunker hunting by heritage officials, bunkerologists and geocachers in the former West Germany in Popular Historical Geographies of the Cold War: Hunting, Recording and Playing with Small Munitions Bunkers in Germany. Maus finds structural affinities in the ways in which these three communities of bunker hunters seek out and interact with Sperrmittelhäuser: demolition charge storage bunkers that formed part of West Germany’s ‘preconstructed obstacle’ system of Cold War defence. Maus explores the important difference between motivations (which here were divergent) and methods of practice (which both demonstrate affinities and evidence of collaboration between these diverse communities of bunker hunters). Then in Why the Cold War Matters: Exploring Visitors’ Identity Constructions at Cold War Sites in Britain, tourism studies researcher Inge Hermann, reports her study of the ways in which visitors engage with UK Cold War bunker ‘attractions’, highlighting the ways in which individual visitors actively form their own interpretations of Cold War ‘attraction’ sites. Hermann contrasts the vitality of this active reading by audiences with, what she regards as a rather closed approach imposed by heritage professionals, arguing that the effect of an ‘authorised heritage discourse’ in relation to the rendering of Cold War bunkers as ‘heritage’, pays insufficient regard to how individual visitors react to these places.

Hermann’s analysis is then followed by Rachel Bowers’ and Kevin Booth’s discussion of the decisions necessitated in their curation of English Heritage’s York Cold War bunker in Preserving and Managing York Cold War Bunker: Authenticity, Curation and the Visitor Experience. This both sets up a counterpoint to Hermann’s argument – with Bowers and Booth presenting an insiders’ account of the emergence of the Cold War as heritage’ discourse, and also their attentiveness to matters of affect and materiality (alongside discourse) within their reflexive analysis of their own experience of presenting this place as a heritage ‘attraction’. In their focus on the physical limits of curation, and the affective potentialities of place (re)making, Bowers and Booth then set the scene for Dutch architect, Arno Geesink, who considers the spatial possibilities and limitations of his proposals to redevelop a Dutch former nuclear shelter into a public events space in The Anomalous Potential of the Atoombunker: Exploring and Repurposing Arnhem’s Ruins. Geesink shows how his search for sites for redevelopment is informed by his interest in military history, once more disrupting a simplistic dichotomy of enthusiast vs professional bunker hunters.

In the concluding chapter, Presencing the Bunker: Past, Present and Future I pull together the book’s themes and contributions in order to examine the tension between on the one hand the politically-inspired desire to reveal and preserve the bunker as an unmasked cypher of state power, and on the other hand, pressures (and enticements) to re-appropriate bunker-ruins and to move beyond Cold War memorialisation. This enquiry into the question of the bunker’s futurity pits concerns for authenticity and sincerity against the opportunities of plasticity and playfulness, a quandary that appears to affect many contemporary engagements with the ruins of the Cold War bunker.

Image credit: Matthew Flintham, Torås Kommandoplasse (2010) (four frame captures from Lehmann’s footage of Torås). Digital video. Reproduced by kind permission of Matthew Flintham.

This is New Uses for Old Bunkers #40.

Perec’s Borescope: urban exploration with a fat book and fully charged power tools

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“What is there under your wallpaper?”Georges Perec (1973) The Infraordinary

Earlier this week, I was a presenter at the AHRC/University of Sheffield symposium on Georges Perec’s Geographies. I’m not a Perec scholar, but was invited because – so I was told – my work has an affinity with Perec’s methods and chosen point of focus: the infraordinary. In opening the event Richard Philips (University of Sheffield), pointed out that much that is labelled ‘psychogeography’ these days has an un- (or under) acknowledged affinity to Perec’s literary project, and perhaps even a stronger connection to Perec than to the Situationists. I think he has a point – and I can certainly see more of Perec than Debord in (for example) Nick Papadimitriou’s writings.

The cast for the event featured a great spread of disciplines. The literary types drilled into Perec’s body of work (across text, stage, radio and film) and drew out connections, disjunctures and influences. Perec characterised his writing as having four modes: the ludic, the narrative, the biographical and the sociological. We saw how each piece of work brought one or more of these to the fore, but each time with a sombre, restless searching lying somewhere beneath the surface – no matter how playful the project in hand seemed to be. In the early 1970s Perec engaged in a variety of projects seeking to exhaust the everyday spaces of Paris – seeking to describe everything that would normally be left out of anyone else’s depiction of any place, on the grounds of being unremarkable. Thus his Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris (1973) is a 40 page account of watching buses, people and pigeons come and go at the same Paris street-corner over a three day period.

Having paid £10 for this slim book and sat down avidly to read it in my prep for the symposium I was left underwhelmed. In this text Perec resisted any urges to find a narrative – storylines – to join these observations together, or to follow their hints towards more interesting conjectural spaces.

This and the other projects of that time mapped the groundwork for Perec’s novel Life: a User’s Manual (1978), which he started writing a couple of years later. In his influential extended essay Species of Spaces (1974) Perec had alluded to this embryonic project, stating that he would write an exhaustive account of the life of an apartment building, its residents, their rooms and lives.

The gist of my presentation (as shown in the slides below) was to note that Perec’s sociological mode, to the fore in Attempt sharply fell away in Life, and that instead a narrative concern took over – the denizens being giving stories which intricately interconnect them into the lived totality of this place. This narrative imperative is – I think – inevitable. Who would read a 600 page stream of pure observational data? But I think this set of choices emphasises the impossibility of capturing everything and that some frame or other will have to apply to the infraordinary’s infinity.

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In my talk, I went on to reflect on how Perec’s approach in Life might speak to contemporary urban exploration. In conclusion I presented at first a positive – that Perec reminds us of the importance of people and their making of place through myriad actions and daily concerns. Contemporary urban exploration writing often foregrounds the solitude of the lone explorer or the place itself and these wider connections to a social world of living, feeling, otherwise-preoccupied people gets lost. But my second concluding point was the inverse of this Perecquain virtue – and which, I concede, is a point that comes into being in the early 21st century in way it possibly could not in 1970s French literary culture – is the paucity of attention given to the apartment building and its materiality and its other residents. Perec’s focus in Life is almost exclusively a human one. I illustrated this by complaining about the ease with which Perec dissolves the apartment’s exterior wall in order to ‘see’ the people inside. I then ruminated on techniques (literary, artistic and technological) that would enable a lingering within the wall.

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And it was at that point that I got out a power drill and suggested drilling into the lecture theatre’s wall to insert there a borescope – a probe for cavity inspection. Borescope also offers up a nice Perecquain duality – both the name for the probe, but also a new name for Perec’s infraordinary investigations: of scoping (intently looking into) the boring.

I closed out my talk by contrasting the wall-noticing (and multiplying) work of Gregor Schneider, who modifies residential buildings, principally by shrinking their rooms and thus creating ‘spare’ voids beyond the reduced rooms. These are then unsettling extra spaces – some accessible, some not – that disrupt the otherwise homely feel. These spaces emphasise the spaces of the walls rather than effortlessly passing through them.

Schneider gives a fascinating account of his work in this 80 minute lecture from the Architectural Association:

 

Image credit:

http://www.877quicdry.com/inspection_hi_tech_equipment.cfm;

https://aadivaahan.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/two-hammer-blows-and-a-random-walk/

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

Redux 2016

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

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

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

undertaken through images and language.  Because behind the accursed images

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

 

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

University of Chicago Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Details here: http://languagelandscape.info/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sheffield Space & Place Workshop – May 2016 – local call for papers

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The Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Research Group are planning an ‘awayday’ workshop at the end of Semester 2. Whilst the event is largely targeted at SHU staff, all are very welcome if you are in the Sheffield area and the day takes your fancy.

Here’s our CALL FOR PAPERS

Does your discipline engage with matters of space and place?

 Most do, albeit at a variety of scales, in myriad ways and for many divergent reasons.
The interdisciplinary SHU Space and Place Group was set up in 2012 by Jenny Blain (Sociology), Luke Bennett (Natural & Built Environment), Cathy Burnett and Carol Taylor (Education) to explore the common ground between our various interests in space and place. It meets 3-4 times a year to discuss conceptual, methodological and practical issues around the question “how do we make sense of the spaces and places within which stuff of interest to us happens?”.
In his 2012 book, The Memory of Place, Dylan Trigg suggests that an interdisciplinary ‘place studies’ has emerged in recent years at the intersection of philosophy, geography, architecture, urban design and environmental studies. But in our experience the ambit of place studies is even wider, for our group also includes SHU place-researching academics from education, management studies, law, sociology, psychology, real estate and performance studies. We are always keen to welcome new voices into our conversation and we’ve organised our (informal) ‘conference’ on 11 May 2016 as a way of widening participation in the Group’s endeavours. It will also showcase what we’ve already achieved through our group’s open and creative collaborations.

So, if you’d like to come along and speak for 15 minutes on what space and place research means to you and/or how you have investigated space and place in your research, please submit a title and an up to 150 word abstract to Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) by 29 February 2016. A committee of SHU SPG members will then select speakers by mid March. In the afternoon session we intend to explore SHU’s new Heart of the Campus area, and use a variety of research methods to do so. The group attempted something similar at the former Southbourne building in 2013, and one of the papers arising from that – Jon Dean’s study of the assignment management zone and its sociality – has recently been published in the journal Qualitative Inquiry http://qix.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/11/19/1077800415605050.

 

All are very welcome – please forward to anyone interested in participating. We will circulate a full programme once finalised and give directions on how to book a place. The event will be free to attend, but may be on a bring or buy your own food and drink basis. There is indeed rarely such thing as a free lunch.

 

 

Image source: https://hermosodesign.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/sheffield-hallam-university-heart-of-the-campus/

Vibrant voids: how some places ignore you, and others trip you up

Felimngham - Leominster

“The bunker is not a trace or shadow as it is present and also part of the foundation of an office building, and it does not haunt the landscape since, as a shelter, it was never meant to be seen in the first place” (Bartolini, 2015: 204)

Writing of a Mussolini era bunker beneath the streets of Rome, Nadia Bartolini incisively ponders the nature of such concealed places and of the awkwardness of attempting to subject them to the light of day. As she puts it, “the concrete bunker if visible, would meld with its concrete surroundings” (203). The subterranean bunker then exists as background, it is unexcavatable, it is its own container and “there is no need to disentangle and excavate it from the earth to archive it elsewhere” (200). In short, it is only a fortified hollowing out, it is an absence of ground within it, yet defined by the mass of earth around it. Whether as bunkers, cellars, crypts, tombs or chambers these subterranean places are defined only by their capacity to shelter bodies and/or valued objects. Without such contents, these voids are simply empty spaces edged with concrete.

Bartolini’s article seeks to take issue with (or at least to refine) Jane Bennett’s (2010) Vibrant Matter thesis, by which analysists are encouraged to pay more attention to materiality per se, in order to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of matter, and of their effects in the world separate from human cultural projections upon them. Bennett’s book sets out to illustrate the vibrancy of matter (and of the eco-political implications of this) via a series of case studies on the vitality of stem cells, foodstuffs and electrical power networks. But Bartolini questions the vibrancy of concrete and of the Rome bunker formed from it, and through examining the less-than-expected potency of an art show staged within the Rome bunker, argues that Bennett’s vibrancy thesis does not adequately account for the static existence of this ‘dumb brute’ matter. She concludes that without curation (an interpretive provisioning of the space of the art show) “the bunker is only a mass of concrete, a structure whose inherent materiality does not do anything in its fixed, solid state” (197).

And yet, there is one thing that the Rome bunker does. It endures. It is obstinate. It refuses to eliminate itself. It perpetuates its contained subterranean void. It endures without us. It is a chamber that sits and subsists, a repository for stale air, steady temperature and stillness (and home to a few spiders). And it remains true to the original design intent – to “immobilize time and space” (197), but now for its own sake, rather than for any purpose of human security.

But this is the destiny of any underground chamber – to lay there partly- or wholly un-known, perhaps existing in a dimension too small for human presence, to be perceived only remotely through the enquiring eye of an industrial endoscope, a bright light momentarily illuminating an otherwise constant darkness, like the torch flash of a deep sea diver, momentarily glimpsing another world in the enveloping darkness of the deep.

Both Paul Virilio and Gaston Bachelard have pointed to the atavistic, phenomenological qualities of such confined spaces and their reverberation through culture and psyche. These places take us closer to the underworld, and for Bachelard, the basement is the scene of our subconscious, a place perhaps to visit occasionally to in order to reconnect with our deeper drives, but it is not a place for us to dwell within.

Bartolini’s point is not to deny concrete its ability to influence the world, or to extend its reach into our world, but rather to argue that further delineation of how particular types of matter acquire a vibrancy. Her argument is that, in the heritage sector, we cannot entirely reject the role for cultural projection. If Mussolini’s bunker is dark, it is because someone left the lights off.

At one level Bartolini’s call is for a (re)acknowledgment of the important role of cultural projection within the framing of bland, function-formed places like these. She is challenging a suggestion that all matter is equally vibrant, and pointing out in that in the mundane built environment there is work to do – our work to do – to ascribe meaning to this space and its material composition. As she puts it: “a concrete container located underground is not equivalent to identifying the structure as ‘Mussolini’s bunker’” (207) – more is required (from us) for that to occur. This chamber doesn’t know itself as that human / heritage place (obviously it doesn’t know itself as anything, but indulge me a little here). All this place is, is a meshwork of elements held together by an interlocking set of forces that co-produce the stasis of that place. The ceiling can’t surrender to gravity because its downward fall is thwarted by the walls. If this place knows anything it is how to continue being in its current form.

So, this is what I took from Nadia’s article. But it was then odd to find myself in conversation with her at this week’s Historic Towns Forum conference. We ended up talking about dark real estate and the agency of material place formations (my phrase not hers). In our discussion Nadia argued in favour of some places having an intrinsic (i.e. an “it’s in the walls”) ability to haunt and provoke visitors. She illustrated her argument by pointing to the unsettling feelings triggered by standing within an industrial pottery kiln, the darkness, lack of edges and lines, the strange smells and the uneven floor. “But what if you worked everyday in that environment?” I asked, “it wouldn’t feel a strange place then would it?” And then I tried to push home an argument that any such strange affecto-material feelings are a product of our unfamiliarity, or of our cultural inference rather than of the place-matter itself.

But then I stopped. I’d suddenly remembered the strong feelings that morning as I’d walked into the meeting room that served as the venue for this conference. A London law practice’s building, all there was elegant clean magnolia walls, black marble topped dark lustrous cherry veneer cabinets and corporate chrome legged chairs, all bathed in beams of extra bright recessed halogen lights. Stepping into that chamber I’d been primed, and it only took the chink of a tea cup nestling back into its saucer, to tumble me back into an older, once familiar place-world.

So my conclusion was that it’s both: yes, it is us who make the meaning for the spaces we enter, but we are not always in control of that meaning-making. We can be provoked into doing so by the triggers and traps that rooms set for us. And yes, sometimes those triggers are engineered there to produce intended effects by curators or interior designers, but sometimes the effects are serendipitous: the chance meeting of a meaning brought with you, a thing lurking there that has no sense of you and a resultant feeling produced by that encounter.

 

References

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

Image – Stephen Felmingham (2009) Leominster 6/31

Solar Psychogeography – Into the light with a March-Riever, Eric O. Distad

I’ve recently read Eric’s essay ‘Psychogeography: Introducing the Zone and the March-Riever’ (available here – the pdf link is in the first paragraph) and having traded a few emails with Eric earlier this week I thought I’d offer up a brief summary of Eric’s standpoint, its innovations and a slight niggle I have on one aspect of his formulation of a ‘new’ form of psychogeographer, the ‘March-Riever’.

Eric’s essay is well worth a read. It is a very thoughtful, well grounded (both in the literature and embodied experience) exploration of a route towards a psychogeography that is less fixated on excavating a “storied metropolis” (3) (in other words excavating some hidden history), more appreciative of the redemptive qualities of the present (i.e. less nostalgic) and more celebrative of the resurgent power of nature.

Eric helpfully situates the roots of a recreational contemporary psychogeography (one perhaps expressed by many of the contributors to Walking Inside Out) at least in part in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (and even more helpfully situates that film in its own origins, the Strugatsky brothers’ 1972 book, Roadside Picnic). In doing so he adopts ‘The Zone’ as his name for the areas – potentially rural rather than urban or peri-urban – which he is drawn for his hybrid psychogeography/urban exploration.

Eric’s prescription for his ‘new’ type of psychogeographic practice is that it foregrounds subjective experience (with accounts of visits not aspiring to the unearthing of some hidden truth to ‘report back’ to the as yet unenlightened). But the tone to be applied to visits is a reverential one (rather than engaging zonal places wantonly as playgrounds: athletic, destructive or otherwise). Eric gives two main reasons for the reverential approach and I find myself attracted by one, but slightly cynical of the other. Let me explain.

First, Eric figures the Zone (as in Stalker) as a place in which the revenant power of ‘Nature’ can be experienced, and humans reminded of their frailty, temporality etc. This is classic ruin-gazing fare, grounded in 200 years of (variously European and North American) Romantic wilderness-worship. To be honest, I find reassertion of a Human/Nature exclusionary binary a turn off, and feel it risks leaving rural psychogeography indistinguishable from ordinary countryside walking. For me the revelation sought alongside a resurgent ‘nature’ found in ruins, would be a slightly different one, one based on realising that we and ‘nature’ are intertwined and co-dependent (co-constructed even) rather than that we can go to the Zone and humbly face a ‘separate’ (and ‘better’ non-human) realm. In my anti-binary stance, I’m thinking here of OOO writers like Timothy Morton’s (2009) Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics.

But Eric’s second reason for an experiential reverence has me hooked. As he puts it: “the march-riever’s approach to psychogeography makes conscious use of solar cues, the time-dependent effects of the sun” (21)

Eric thus appreciates the constantly changing lighting in the Zone as an emphasis of the uniqueness of each moment, and therefore the uniqueness of each experience of place. Eric takes this awareness from photographers (and painters too implicitly – all of whom are hyper-conscious of the place-compositional effects of changing light conditions), noting that “to the photographer, a reliance on solar cues is second nature, whether it is done subconsciously or with active awareness and effort” (24). The zone then, is read (by the artist) and experienced by the explorer, through the dynamic action of environmental illumination. And where there is no solar guide, the explorer must bring their own (puny and fragile by comparison) light source, the torch beams glare highlighting the dark absence around it as much as the features found within its narrow cone of vision.

Eric’s essay is a welcome hybrid in many ways, it is one of few North American commentaries upon contemporary psychogeography, it is an impressive ‘pro-am’ piece of work – a practitioner writing reflexively about their own enthusiastic practice, and by drawing out in its present-focussed and experiential oriented mode, it shows how how the ruin-based orientations of psychogeographers and urban explorers intersect.

Eric’s twitter name is @reluctantgod.

Image credit: http://www.reluctantgodproductions.com/