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 illustrate 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/

Details of the 11th May 2016 SHU Space & Place Workshop day – programme, registration link and abstracts

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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. 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.

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?”.

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.

There will be talks in the morning (see bottom of this post for the abstracts):

9.00 – 9.20      REGISTRATION

9.20-9.30        INTRODUCTION TO THE SPG AND THE DAY

Luke Bennett – Senior Lecturer, Department of the Natural & Built Environment,

09.30-11.00       SPATIAL REPRESENTATIONS: FOUR VIEWS OF PLACE

Chair: Carol Taylor, Reader, Sheffield Institute for Education, SHU

9.30 – 9.50 Joanne Lee – Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design, Sheffield Institute of Arts –Exploring a vague terrain

9.50 – 10.20 Chi-Yun Shin – Principal Lecturer in Film Studies at Sheffield Hallam University –Liminal Zone: Rooftops in Cinema

10.20 – 10.40 Kaeren Harrison – Senior Lecturer, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU – Place and interface in late 20th century mass housing

10.40 – 11.00 Val Derbyshire – PhD Candidate, Department of English Literature, School of English, University of Sheffield – In Pursuit of the Picturesque: Places and Spaces within the Works of Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)

11.00 – 11.20        COFFEE BREAK

11.20 – 12.50        IN-PLACE: IDENTITY, CREATIVITY AND LEARNING

Chair: Ian Ellison, Senior Lecturer, Sheffield Business School

11.20-11.40 Jenni Brooks – Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Psychology and Politics, SHU – Constructing identity: finding a space in someone else’s workplace

11.40-12.00 Jenny Slater – Lecturer in Education Studies, Sheffield Institute for Education, SHU – Conversations around the toilet…

12.00-12.20 Andrew Middleton – Head of Academic Practice & Learning Innovation, SHU –Vernacular, interstitial and dominant spaces: what they mean for learning at university.

12.20-12.50 Eve Stirling – Senior Lecturer, Interior Design, Sheffield Institute of Arts – Social media places as sites for creative production.

12.50 – 1.10         GROUP DISCUSSION ON THE MORNING PAPERS

1.10 – 2.00           LUNCH

2.00 – 5.00           EXPLORING THE HEART OF THE CAMPUS

In the afternoon session we intend to explore SHU’s new Heart of the Campus area, and use a variety of contrasting 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,and places are limited, so early booking is recommended.

Accessability

There are no car parks and extremely limited on-street parking near Collegiate Campus. We recommend parking in the city and walking or travelling by public transport to the campus.

If you’re a blue badge holder, you can arrange parking at either campus by phoning 0114 225 3868. The HOTC building has several blue badge specific parking spaces right next to the main entrances. The Moot Suite has two entrances, one upper and one lower; access to the former is on the regular ground level, the latter has a wheelchair-specific lift to negate the few steps.

WHEN?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (BST) – Add to Calendar

WHERE?

Heart of the Campus Building, Room HC 0.03 (The Moot Suite), – Sheffield Hallam University Collegiate Campus, Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield S10 2BP, United Kingdom – View Map

HOW TO BOOK

Here’s the Eventbrite booking link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/shu-space-place-group-workshop-day-tickets-23241847993?ref=estw We have a limit of 40 places, so please book early to avoid disappointment. Light refreshments and a sandwich lunch are being kindly sponsored by the Department of Psychology, Sociology & Politics. A cafe is also available on site for more exotic purchases.

ABSTRACTS

Session 1 : SPATIAL REPRESENTATIONS: FOUR VIEWS OF PLACE

Joanne Lee: Exploring a vague terrain

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design, Sheffield Institute of Arts (SHU)

This paper will present recent work on space and place emerging from Returns, a collaboration between artist-researchers at Sheffield Hallam University and Nottingham Trent University, which developed from Topographies of the Obsolete, an international cross-disciplinary initiative focusing on post-industrial landscapes. An artists residency for the project enabled me to make a photographic exploration of surfaces and artefacts found at the former Spode ceramics factory in Stoke-on-Trent; this prompted a return to previous research I’d pursued on places lying in between use, and as a result I went on to discuss and reframe a series of actual and conceptual terrains vagues in my Pam Flett Press independent serial publication. Since then, having recently moved back to Sheffield, I have been walking and photographing urban lanes in the city in order to consider how close visual attention to their most infra-ordinary aspects both reveals and transforms the complexity of these sites.

Chi-Yun Shin

Principal Lecturer in Film Studies at Sheffield Hallam University

Liminal Zone: Rooftops in Cinema

At the beginning of the climatic scene of the 2010 comedy action film Date Night, Tina Fey’s Claire Foster tells the mob boss Joe Miletto to give them a minute as they’re “trying to do a rooftop thing”.  Although it is never clear what the character (a suburban, married woman) meant by this rooftop thing, this remark constitutes the film’s self-conscious or self-aware moment, as it leads to a spectacular appearance of the NYPD helicopter at the count of three.  And it is the rooftop space – whether it is a set or real location – that allows this showdown.  With its uniquely liminal quality (in-and-outside-ness) and inbuilt riskiness, the rooftop space is a cinematic site that articulates or facilitates a tipping point or crisis in the narrative or action, whether it is chases, murders, suicides, secret meetings, celebrations or protests.  Paying attention to the consistent qualities such as generic patterns (be it in superhero films or romantic comedies), or particular narrative modes associated with rooftop space, this paper explores the rich relationship between film and rooftop space.

Kaeren Harrison

Senior Lecturer, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, SHU

Place and interface in late 20th century mass housing

Over the last fifty years housing development has been increasingly dominated by mass delivery through private sector speculative builders. This suburban housing typology has attracted extensive criticism including that it is ’anywhere housing’ and lacks a ‘sense of place’. There is however little empirical research into place within this residential context. The use of Lefebvre’s spatial triad; lived (spaces of representation), conceived (representations of space) and perceived (spatial practice) will be used to explore  how residents, public and academics perceive the relationship between place and the public private interface: defined as ‘components of the urban order where interior becomes exterior, enclosed becomes open, social becomes spatial, public becomes private.’ (Thwaites et al 2013). A qualitative case study will be developed, using research techniques including morphological analysis, photo-elicitation and resident narrative, to explore the interface/place relationship in five residential developments from the nineteen seventies to the present day. This research is being undertaken for a PhD based in the Landscape Department at the University of Sheffield.

Val Derbyshire

PhD Candidate, Department of English Literature, School of English, University of Sheffield   

In Pursuit of the Picturesque: Places and Spaces within the Works of Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)

Charlotte Smith was a poet, novelist, playwright and author of educational works for children.  Within her life, she hardly ever left the area surrounding the South Downs of Sussex and many critics have described her as a regional writer.  However, Smith covered an enormous range of places within both her novels and her poetry and her writing takes her readers upon a global journey across continents. Many of these locations all have one aspect in common: their picturesque and scenic nature.  Looking at some of the landscapes described in Smith’s works, this paper will analyse these scenes and will consider the methods by which Smith’s artistry within her novels and poetry formed part of this wider movement of visual culture of the Romantic era, depicting places which were not necessarily real, but rather artistic renderings of them.  This artificial construction of landscape within her texts then, strangely, seems to lead to the realism of Smith’s novels being made more realistic by virtue of their reliance on artists and their works.

Session 2: IN-PLACE: IDENTITY, CREATIVITY AND LEARNING

Jenni Brooks

Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology, Sociology and Politics, SHU

 Constructing identity: finding a space in someone else’s workplace

Personal assistants who provide support to physically disabled people in their workplaces occupy a potentially problematic space. They are physically present in their employer’s workplace, and yet to perform their duties effectively, they must become ‘invisible’. They have little autonomy over their work, which is solely to facilitate the independence and work of their employer. Our new research project explores the role of workplace PAs by tapping into the experiences of PAs themselves, the disabled people who employ them, and the disabled people’s employers. How do workplace PAs negotiate their professional identity when they may not be introduced in meetings (other than as ‘the PA’), and their names are not written in minutes? Their employer’s colleagues are not their colleagues. They have no relationship with their employer’s employer – no IT login, no swipe card, no contract. They are present, and yet no proof of their presence exists.

Jenny Slater

Lecturer in Education Studies, Sheffield Institute for Education, SHU

 Conversations around the toilet…

Around the Toilet (https://aroundthetoilet.wordpress.com/) is a cross-disciplinary, arts-based research project, funded through the AHRC, which explores the toilet as a place of exclusion and belonging. Although the toilet is often thought to be a mundane space, for those who lack adequate or accessible toilet provision on a daily basis, toilets become a crucial practical issue which can create and reaffirm feelings of exclusion and regulation. Disabled people, for example, frequently report that ‘accessible’ toilets are not accessible enough, while other studies show that diminishing numbers of public toilets can prevent older people leaving the house. Toilets can also present a stark visual and material enactment of a gender binary in ways that can be problematic for trans, genderqueer or non-binary people. Thinking around toilets and their function as material as well as socio-cultural environments presents an opportunity to consider forms of identity in multi-faceted ways. Researchers on the project are based across three universities (Sheffield Hallam University, University of Sheffield and University of Leeds), and community organisations (Queer of the Unknown (a performing arts collective) Action for Trans* Health and The Loiterers Resistance Movement). In this talk we will reflect on the findings of our project and the arts-based methodologies that allowed for potentially ‘awkward’ conversations.

Andrew Middleton

Head of Academic Practice & Learning Innovation, SHU Learning Enhancement & Academic Development

Vernacular, interstitial and dominant spaces: what they mean for learning at university

The University is committed to developing its understanding of learning spaces fit for the future. But what spaces are we talking about and what do we understand learning to mean? This short presentation will ask us to consider learning, what it means and what it looks like by using Hamilton’s (2000) idea of vernacular literacies as a way to value what Cross (2007) referred to as natural informal learning. We will compare ideas about liminality, translocation and Third Space with notions of the dominant, formal, institutional space. In amongst these ideas of space, learning and literacies, we will examine interstitialility and the lived connections found and made by students as they experience learning through their course. By understanding learning as it is experienced in and across formal and non-formal spaces, a university can begin to foster a deeper learning engagement.

Eve Stirling

Senior Lecturer Interior Design / Programme Leader MA/MFA Design, Sheffield Institute of Art (SHU)

Social media places as sites for creative production.

My work currently focuses on the hyper-layered nature of social media use by students studying on Design courses at a university in the UK. It explores data across Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, as sites of creative productions.  Social media sites are places of creative production, where the ecosocial systems of student and design company converge. The relationship between the trainee designers studying in a university and the trained designers in the external industry is changing. The mass socialisation of digital and online communications has meant that content is authored, curated, critiqued and reconfigured by a mass of users. Through the collective efforts of the users – posting, liking, commenting and sharing – connection and collaboration takes place. There is a context collapse between creative learning, production and working practices. I present these digital places that connect students and creative industries through their hyperlinked ecocsocial environments.

Image source: http://www.shu.ac.uk/eventservices/venues/heart-campus

 

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.

Setting to work on a modern ruin: investigating the future of St Peter’s Seminary at Kilmahew

“There is no place like it, on these islands, for the mutual battery of multiple forces, for the thumping, pummelling and attrition of creation and destruction, the incessant beating of weather, vandals and arson against rocks of obstinate architecture. It is like watching medieval knights club each other to death yet stay standing. It is a mud-wrestle of culture and nature.”

Rowan Moore, The Guardian, 17 January 2015

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St Peter’s-Kilmahew (SPK) located in Argyll, Scotland, is a place rich in narratives of human settlement. Originally a sacred landscape associated with an early Christian saint, then the woodland demesne of a medieval castle-keep, during the mid-19th century SPK was transformed into a country estate, with an extensive arboretum and pleasure-gardens encircling a baronial mansion-house. In the 20th century, the entire property was acquired by the Roman Catholic Church, and its designed landscape re-centred on a newly-built seminary complex. St. Peter’s, the striking Modernist building, opened in 1967 to critical acclaim, operated for fifteen years, and was then abandoned by the Church. Since the 1980s, the entire site has fallen ever deeper into a condition of charismatic ruination. The seminary structure remains iconic, internationally celebrated but controversial; it has been subject to repeated calls for complete demolition and campaigns for full restoration; but until very recently, SPK has frustrated all such attempts to ‘fix’ its future.

However, since 2010, detailed plans for occupying the site as a ‘transitional ruin’ have been developed by NVA, Scotland’s leading public arts charity (www.nva.org.uk). Presently, SPK is being readied for its latest transition: from a ruin into its inverse: a construction site. NVA’s radical plan to stabilise the ruined structure and open out the abandoned estate landscape has been granted £3 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with an additional £0.5 million backing secured from Creative Scotland. Over the next six years, dereliction will be thrown into reverse, with SPK becoming simultaneously charismatic ruin and construction site. Phased works are scheduled to begin in 2016, with completion projected for 2022 when SPK will be fully accessible for public, educational and artistic use, as a stabilised ruin and redesigned cultural landscape.

I’m excited to announce that I’m part of an AHRC grant bid submitted earlier this week seeking funding for a three year study of the stabilisation and repurposing of this iconic site. The intended project would enable a multi-disciplinary team of researchers to conduct a ‘live’ study of the transformation of this ruin site into a future facing community, arts and heritage venue. The bid is led by Ed Hollis (Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art), supported by Prof Hayden Lorimer (Historical & Cultural Geography, University of Glasgow) and me (Law & the Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University).

The project aims to explore how approaches derived from arts and humanities research can productively valorise sites in transition, opening up areas which are conventionally screened away or fenced off from public view. The project’s key concerns are:

  • how can processes of ruin-transformation can be better understood, and more widely engaged with?
  • how might the notion of a site’s ‘closure’ during building work be challenged via the collaborative design of experimental landscape interventions?
  • how can this be done within a context of ensuring the safety of all concerned?

This investigation will be pursued via three interlinked work packages, that reflect the three disciplinary perspectives of the investigators:

  1. What are the risks surrounding processes of material change in relation to human health and safety and how are these governed? How do common law and/or legislative frameworks construct this risk and liability, and how might policy be developed to allow more scope for public access to heritage sites in transition?
  2. How can artists, designers and architects work collaboratively with heritage sites that are in process? How can creative interventions harness processes of change, engage communities, and challenge regulatory frameworks to revise traditional models of heritage preservation predicated on the prevention of material change?
  3. How do stakeholders in historic sites engage in the contested processes of redevelopment and ruination? For example, through participation in decision-making, public debates, community art and archiving, acts of protest, remembrance, forgiveness and forgetting?

The project will explore these questions simultaneously, but with high degree of cross-over, as (for example) our findings on risk and liability influence the commissioning of the onsite creative interventions and vice versa. Thus through multiple methods of investigation, and through its combination of ethnographic, archival, design and regulatory perspectives and its engagement with local community, professional and policy stakeholders the project will develop a rich range of outputs, spanning scholarly collaborations, creative commissions and a practice-focussed interpretive toolkit, with all of these aimed at inspiring and facilitating  more creative, and inclusive, engagements in the future at other sites in transition.

In pursuit of this innovation and our desire to build interpretive common ground and practice for sites in transition, this project will be able to draw upon the experience and perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders who have already affiliated to the bid, including NVA, Scottish Heritage, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and  the former head of the CBI’s Health & Safety Panel. Through these links our project will uniquely well placed to broker innovative dialogue between publics, creative practitioners (both of whom would like to access sites-in-process) and construction managers whose instinctive reaction (based on a certain overly anxious perceptions of risk and liability) is to close them off to all access.

Our bid presents the SPK works programme as a unique opportunity to investigate in an interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder,  live and longitudinal way both how we deal with the emergent ruins of modernist heritage, and how we might better reconcile the difficulties of providing public access to heritage sites which are, inevitably, often in a perpetual state of reconstruction and repair.

If our bid is successful, the research project will commence towards the end of 2016.

 

Images credits: images from:

(1) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/jan/17/the-extraordinary-ruins-of-st-peters-seminary-near-glasgow-in-pictures;

(2) http://nva.org.uk/artwork/kilmahew-st-peters/

(3) http://nordarchitecture.com/projects/kilmahew-st-peters/

with originators credited there.

 

 

 

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/

Urban exploration as deviant leisure

Oooh, this is good! A very thoughtful essay on the ironies of urbex’s ‘double-helix’ relationship with commodified leisure culture. Too many great quotes to pick from, so this one will do: “the performative project of (individualised) identity construction and intense competition for (subcultural) status are now primary motivations driving the practice of urban exploration towards increasingly spectacular manifestations.” Well worth the read…

deviantleisure

By Theo Kindynis (University of Greenwich)

Under London, an urban explorer is dwarfed by the massive Lee Tunnel “super sewer” construction, the deepest and largest tunnel ever built under the city. Photo: Theo Kindynis. Under London, an urban explorer is dwarfed by the massive Lee Tunnel “super sewer” construction, the deepest and largest tunnel ever built under the city. Photo: Theo Kindynis.

Recreational trespass, or as it has become known in recent years, “urban exploration” (often abbreviated as UrbEx or UE) is the practice of illicitly gaining access to forbidden, forgotten or otherwise off-limits places, ‘simply for the joy of doing so’ and / or in order to document them photographically (Garrett, 2013: 21). Such places typically include: derelict industrial sites, closed hospitals or asylums, abandoned military installations, construction sites and cranes, sewer and storm drain networks, subterranean utility tunnels and rapid transit (metro) systems – the list goes on. In the past two decades, and particularly since the mid-2000s, an emergent global subculture has coalesced around this activity, facilitated by the Internet and online discussion forums such…

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Staring at empty spaces – thoughts from the IoHR conference

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“…spaces conceal their contents by means of meanings,

by means of an absence of meaning

or by means of an overload of meaning…”

Henri Lefebvre (1989) The Production of Space, Blackwell: Oxford, p92

I spoke at the ‘Empty Spaces’ conference at the Institute of Historical Studies in London today. There were lots of great papers, and plenty to chew on. But rather than attempt a summary or synthesis of the presentations, I want to reflect on the Lefebvre quote above. I’m not sure how I’ve not spotted it before, but I’m glad now to be acquainted with this provocative statement.

The general drift of the papers today was towards a tentative conclusion that empty places don’t really exist (a similar point to my conclusion about non-places, see here). This is born out in two senses with the aid of Lefebvre’s quote above. First, in that to be anywhere (a space) there will always (except perhaps in cold, dark vacuum of outer space) be some contents, in other words that there will always be some matter there. But – following Lefebvre’s point – we won’t always notice that there is stuff there. This brings in the second point, our perception of those contents depends upon the amount of significance (i.e. meaning) we give to the place in which they occur. Thus, too much or too little meaning attaching to that place can blind us to what is actually there, giving it an appearance of emptiness.

And thus my thoughts turn to a windy Tuesday morning last month, and the march up a bronze coloured rough path, to an observation platform. Here I stood with my family, gazing into a deep void, the scoured remains of Anglesey’s Parys Mountain. In its late 18th century heyday this mine was the world’s largest producer of copper ore. But all that we actually noticed there that day was the fearsome wind, its thumping waves of force tugging aggressively at our clothes. Standing at the platform I knew that I was being humoured in this cultural pit-stop. I knew that this gale rendered our vantage point precarious and our visit to it especially short-lived. And I was right, the family mutiny was near instant and we quickly marched back to the shelter of our car.

But I suspect that even if there had been glorious, welcoming weather my family would have found the experience of staring into an excavated void only bearable for a few moments. This was a trip for Dad’s benefit, just another occasional and reluctantly indulged deviation from the normalities of family holidaying. Doubtless they felt that getting it out of the way would, well – get it out of the way.

Seeking out this place was of interest to me as part of ongoing research into meaning-making in abandoned quarries, but I’m sensing recently that my project has turned in upon itself. Being interested in why some might be interested in such places isn’t quite the same thing as being directly stirred myself by these places. Or maybe I still am. I think I’ve lost the ability to work out which is the driver now. I’m no longer sure why I’m seeking to be there, starring into a big hole.

This place – Parys Mountain – has an interpretation board, a device intended to stir interest in this seemingly empty, evacuated place, by pointing to the content that is still there (or to explain how it left here – and why). It also signals the interest of others – those who have taken the trouble to build the viewing platform, and deem a place like this worthy of attention. They, and it, seek to make this place ‘an attraction’ (in the broadest sense).

Reading the board (with difficulty – as the rain slid horizontally across it) some key dates, sepia photographs and an interpretive diorama sought to portray this mine as active, showing how this void came into being.

Keying this place to its history of productive use is a standard tactic, aimed at giving it sufficient meaning such that the contents here (the void – yes an odd form of ‘content’ – and the variegated rust coloured tiers of ground comprising this deep crater) can be noticed. But on this day the insistent intrusion of the wind – the excess of weather ‘information’ foisted upon us – meant we could not even start to appreciate this place. There was too much noise (semantic and actual).

And this dissonance pushed a question up towards the surface – something I’ve been trying to ignore the nagging insistence of in recent months. The question (a painful one for a history junkie like me) is: “why does it matter that this barren place was once this, or once that? Why do we need to know and what in us does it help us to know?”

Perhaps if I lived in the constant shadow of this strange fractured hillside it would help my sense of dwelling to know this history. But I’m just a tourist passing by, what purpose does knowing this serve for me? From deep inside, my reflex answer is “we all need to know where things come from – we need to be grounded in the world, aware of the processes that make us and things we depend on”. But then a counter thought responds: “maybe, but why do we need to know where copper used to come from?”

In the ensuing self-conversation (which I’m sure must exhibit strange muttering and facial twitches erupting into the proximity of my family members) my thoughts link to that era of amateur industrial archaeology of the 1950s and 1960s. The (attempted) valorisation of local industrial sites like these is very much a product of those times. But what will happen when that generation has passed? Who will curate these sites then – managing that Goldilocks challenge of getting the temperature of the meaning-making just right for this industrial porridge?

Perhaps this will become a dying art – as curatorial attention of succeeding generations passes on to other nostalgic objects – and perhaps ultimately someone, somewhere will decide that the time has come to turn the practices and places of industrial memorialisation into meta-referential museums dedicated to preserving the lost arts of the industrial heritage industry itself.

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