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.

‘Approaching the bunker’ – an early glimpse of the book project

guardian1

The email arrived during the summer, catching me slightly off guard. A writer for the journal Improbable Research wanted to check a few details with me for a piece he was preparing for their website on my ‘bunkers and gender’ paper published last year. From a quick glance I couldn’t tell whether Improbable Research was ironic in its plaudits for the research that it featured. Their motto: “Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK”, left me none the wiser. Who wants to be the butt of ‘You got funding for that?!?’ type jibes (and no – I didn’t get finding for it anyway). I still can’t make my mind up on whether I won the academic equivalent of a Golden Raspberry Award, but here’s the article:

http://www.improbable.com/2014/10/24/bunkerology/

I spent 2013 trying to avoid bunkers, but 2014 has sucked me back in good and proper. It seems that the bunker doesn’t let you go once it has your attention.

This summer’s day-long session on Cold War Bunkers at the Royal Geographical Society Conference is now spawning an edited collection – I’m currently pulling together the proposal for a publisher who’s keen. The working title is: “Approaching the bunker: bodies, materialities and meaning-making in Cold War ruins

The idea is to focus on what these bunkers mean to us (or others) now – in their early 21st century state of abandonment. The collection will thus look at a range of engagements with these relics and the purposes and methods behind those attempts at knowing and/or (re)valorising them. As such this project is a continuation of my “multivalence” thesis – that there are a number of stable ways of performing bunkerology, and that there are identifiable practices and motivations out there: ‘logics’ if you like (thus producing ‘bunkerologies’). Some of the contributions will seek to interpret bunker-hunters motivations, but others will showcases the authors’ own engagements with these structures, in doing so reflexively questioning their own motives, methods and representational conventions. The collection will also look at ‘official’ attempts to condition views of and/or practices within these places, and there will also be a look at the materiality of the bunker itself – and its resistances and affordances as they act upon the mind and body of the enquiring subject.

I’ve got 18 contributions, from across the academic spectrum: from artist to archaeologist, architect to anthropologist, geographer to a germ warfare specialist. And the greatest thing is the gender split: exactly 50:50 as things currently stand. Now at one level this causes me some problems – because I’ve previously concluded that the bunker’s call is louder for males than females. But I didn’t contend that there was an essentialist reason as to why bunkerology was gendered, I’d pointed out that I’d come across some women involved in bunkerology, and that the gendering was at best situational (and in many cases occupational). My contributors are all academics, heritage professionals and/or artists so perhaps no surprise there that the gender gap might be far less evident.

John Schofield and others have pioneered the co-opting of artists into Cold War related material culture studies (and in particular contemporary archaeology), but my collection will take this into the social sciences, and specifically geography where it is less common. The plan is to set up provocative juxtapositions between contributions, rather than to group them into clusters of methodological or disciplinary affiliation. Instead I will group the contributions into thematic pairings. So, for example, I have a paper from Martin Dodge (geographer) looking at the difficulties faced in piecing together the history and physical extent of  Manchester’s ‘Guardian’ Underground Telephone Exchange from  archival sources. I’m pairing this with artist Stephen Felmingham’s essay on his attempts to interrogate ROC Posts through in-situ drawing using his peripheral vision. It struck me that each of these ‘researchers’ is trying to find ways to penetrate beyond physical or mental blockages raised in the name of ‘secrecy’ for such installations, so it will be interesting to have such divergent (and yet in some ways similarly challenged) methodologies sitting side by side.

Here’s short video in which Stephen talks about his project:

 

Photo credit:

Air shaft/surface structure for Manchester’s underground telephone exchange: http://mancbible.fullist.co.uk/2014/10/manchesters-darkest-secret/

 

 

What’s so special about bunkers anyway? – a tentative answer from the RGS Cold War Bunkers sessions

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What’s so special about bunkers anyway?

That question came up yesterday, at the RGS 2014 conference’s day-long session on Cold War Bunkers. The question was actually, what’s so special about Cold War bunkers?, but widening it out opens a bigger provocation.

As I write I’m sitting in a cramped train compartment, my elbows intruding upon my neighbour as I clumsily type this. If she glances across in this artificially intimate space she will see that I’m now writing about her. I feel compelled to type quickly so that these words will scroll up out of view. But my point in mentioning my physical predicament in writing this is that here I’m in an unusually confined space, this is a place of singular purpose (conveyance), here special codes of embodiment and behaviour rule, and where necessarily I surrender to physical forces that I cannot control (pulling my body backwards at speed to Sheffield). My view from my window is fractional, my vision half blocked by labels warning me of deadly danger should I feel inclined to stick my head out of the window, or to engage with live rail and overhead wires, in each case should I proceed to instigate an escape from this capsule using the emergency hammer presented exquisitely in a glazed recess above my head. This portion of the carriage – with its contemplation of dangerous exceptional futures, and the need to script and physically enable them is oddly bunker-like, and yet if I proposed a conference session on train spaces I don’t think I’d get 18 high quality papers examining carriage-confinement from a variety of disciplines (geography, film, theatre, anthropology, history, archaeology, heritage, architecture and fine art) from the UK, Netherlands, Norway, Cuba, Germany and Switzerland.

So, why did I get them in reply to a call for papers on Cold War bunkers? Does this imply that there is something special about studying confinement, extremis, bodies and materiality in these concrete chambers?

Probably. It’s something that I need to unpack more, but here are my first thoughts on this important question, grouped for convenience (but not as a manifesto, other formulations and critiques are possible and welcome).

Bunkers as therapy

I find that often when I let slip my bunker-thing in conversation that first reactions are a mix of incredulity and distain, a why would you expose yourself to ridicule in spending time on such a perverse topic?  To which my stock reply is either it’s the universality of your distain that I want to understand, why do you regard it as unsuited to scrutiny? or to let them simply carry on talking, because usually – within a sentence or two – they’ve started telling me about their recollections of growing up in the nuclear angst of the 1980s, of relatives with some connection to war institutions or of  a room or shed at their home that – they wonder – might be a bunker. So, something’s there, just below the surface and in bunker-talk situations it comes tentatively to the surface.

The artists participating in the bunkers conference sessions (Kathrine Sandys, Matthew Flintham, Stephen Felingham and Louise K. Wilson) all acknowledged that there work was influenced by this sublimated, formative anxiety of youth (and yes, I realise that nuclear weapons are still as real as they ever where, but the cultural situation has changed, a specifically nuclear anxiety has faded from now, and become then). Nuclear bunkers, represent a there, at which to recover something that has gone (or at least changed) since then. Thus as ruins (intact or otherwise) the abandoned bunker becomes a site for evocative reflection on a war that never was, and end that never came. And yes, that refection is made from a place of safety. It is precisely because it is past that it is safe to ponder, and perhaps even to play, with that past. The bunker (each individually, and collectively in the networks and taskscapes that they comprise in aggregate) are a join-the-dots puzzle that can now be performed and whether as recovery, recuperation and/or recreation.

And within the conference room yesterday, there was a palpable shared sense of that familiar refrain (usually reached by paragraph three of the ‘let them talk’ scenario above) Phew, it’s not just me then. Frequently it felt like a group therapy session – a Bunkers Anonymous for those still haunted somehow by nuclear bunkers.

Bunker as place of work

But (and this but was possibly the most important point to emerge yesterday). This ‘bunker as post traumatic landscape’ angle (to adopt Amanda Crawley Jackson’s phrase) is not the only form of bunker signification that can be observed at work. It is not the only reason why people draw together, in thrall to the bunker.

This was exemplified by separate contributions from archaeologists Bob Clarke (University of Exeter) and Steven Leech (University of Manchester), and by contributions by Kevin Booth and Racheal Bowers of English Heritage. These places are often held in fond regard by those who once worked there. The reminiscences these bunker visitors are not about the psychic damage of having once worked with the rehearsal of world-ending. If there is trauma at all, it is that of a job, role, communal purpose having abruptly come to an end with waves of bunker decommissioning – and the standing down of the Royal Observer Corps, at the end of the Cold War and an attendant alienation effect (Clarke calls this ‘disenfranchisement’) caused by that abandonment of roles and practices that had given ROC members a  sense of purpose (and specifically that of duty and service) and a regular acquaintance with weekends of bunker dwelling camaraderie. As Steven Leech showed us, this network of identities lives on in the recursive ritual life observable at ad hoc ‘preservation’ sites, like a former RAF radar station now manned by ex-services personnel turned volunteer guides, in each stride, word and caress exhibiting their strong attachment to the knowledges, practices and artefacts of a once purposeful bunker.

Bunker as exceptional space

The artists, and also other speakers pointed to the special spatial and atmospheric properties of bunkers, with John Beck (University of Westminster) pointing to the irony of watching films about bunker confinements within similarly confined dark spaces – cinemas. Meanwhile Katherine Sandys (Rose Bruford College) explored the use of light and sound to subtly demark what would otherwise be the pitch black, non-spaces within bunkers. Louise K. Wilson took back to Orford Ness, a military site which has – in the footsteps of W.G. Sebald’s visit – achieved iconic (and some might say hackneyed) status in bunker and ruin writing. Louise pondered the pros and cons of this eternal return to the Suffolk shingle strip and constant re-meditation on the nature-reclaiming-ruins riff as it plays out upon this site and its Pagoda-like bomb fuse testing bunkers. How many ways are there to portray sea-salted air corroding military metal and concrete, and does it matter if methods are re-performed, are we too obsessed with ‘firsts’ and originality? Dutch architect Arno Geesink (Kraft Architectuur) then guided us through is exploration of Cold War structures in Arnhem, and of their novelty as forms, and the possibilities of their creative repurposing.

And the bunker is also a novel geopolitical place – the space, practices and purposes of the bunker rendering it characteristic of a space of exception, or heterotopia. Zoe Svendsen (University of Cambridge) showed how her studies of Cambridge’s bunkers had influenced subsequent performance work on the geopolitical performance of crisis decision making within confined, purely logistical space. Ian Klinke (University of Oxford), then picked up this point in his study of the West German Government’s bunker HQ, and its war game exercises there. Thus the bunker was presented as a place of unusual atmospheres, shapes and spatial arrangements. But it was also shown to materially embody distilled geopolitical goals and single purpose logistics, forming abject citadels of death and survival via mundane repeat performance of processual rehearsals within these redoubts.

Bunker as geopolitical bodies

Ian Klinke’s paper pointed to the internal and external political effects of the bunker – situating the bunker as a localisation of vital nodes of geopolitical systems, and in doing so brought forth from the inevitable focus upon the confined spaces and logistics at work there, a sense of the bunker as a place of bodily conditioning. This theme was also developed by Silvia Berger Ziauddin (University of Zurich) in her examination of the Swiss Government’s requirement that all domestic dwellings must have a basement bunker – a requirement still in force today. She pointed to the dual relationship of technical compliance with this physical directive, but with the widespread flouting of related commands seeking to condition citizen’s bodies and their weekly routines, rather than their buildings. These performative ordinances never managed to turn the Swiss into regular testers of their own bunkers, and despite such (unenforced) requirements for dry-runs and attentive upkeep of their shelters, a diverse range of cultural engagement (and non-engagement) with these ubiquitous bunkers ensued.

But bunkers come in all shapes and sizes, with markedly different degrees of visibility. In contrast to the Swiss government’s hollow exhortations seeking to prompt a public engagement with their domestic bunkers, state secrecy was the order of the day in UK Cold War – Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) and Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) highlighted the limits of their archival based attempts at researching the still closed to access Guardian Exchange complex beneath the streets of central Manchester. Here, the lingering effect of official secrecy and techno-bureaucratic exceptionalism deny any glimpse of this bunker or of those who worked there. Here, the bunker’s geopolitical bodies are those conditioned to be excluded from access to it, either physically or in terms of clear representation of it.   This theme was echoed in a number of papers via the notion of ‘hiding in plain site’ – that such bunkers (in terms of there sheer physical existence at least) are never hidden from view, yet somehow we learned not to notice them. Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth College of Art) shared with us his attempts at finding ways to mobilise peripheral vision as a way of bringing the half-noticed into view in his ROC post drawings. This contrasted interestingly with Gunnar Maus’ (University of Kiel) work to characterise public engagements in (the former) West Germany with Cold War remains. Maus showed how the same mundane bunker-objects (in his distributed local stores for demolition munitions) were the subject of signifying attention by a variety of communities of practice, with each took from that material the opportunity to construct different uses, and knowledge accumulating and circulating practices about these multiple bunkers – and whether as state heritage official, bunkerologist or geo-cacher. Yet still – for most passers-by, these structures remained unnoticed amidst the West German border’s roadways, bridges and forests.

Bunker materialities

Stephen Felmingham also showed us close up the mundane materiality of the ROC Post form as it was co-opted into his drawings, performed on-site in the bowels of these small dank chambers, soot and other residues purposively incorporated into his pictures. Elsewhere we zoomed out to a wider scale. Bunkers are places where form unapologetically follows function, and yet these monolithic structures, where visible above ground can take on mountain-like or monumental forms. Artist Matthew Flintham (University of Newcastle) took us – through lingering film treatment – to a vast concrete fort establishment in Norway, co-opting a group of children as guides to the surfaces, textures and scale of this now ruined structure – in doing so positioning this man-made mountain within its landscape, unsettling clear notions of where the bunker ends and ‘nature’ begins. This point was also brought to the fore in Maria Alejanda Perez’s (University of West Virginia) work on the revolutionary and military interest in cave complexes within Cuba during the Cold War, reminding us that many of the larger bunker complexes around the world are actually modified cave systems and/or former underground stone quarries. The seeming semantic gap between man-made and natural places of confinement and shelter is destabilised by such hybridisation, concrete and limestone are two variants of essentially the same matter.  Here stalactites – to be found emergent in both – come into play as linking devices, reminding us that underground structures are more unstable than their surface cousins – under attack constantly from water ingress from above, below and all around. These subterranean chambers defy the water which they have displaced from the surrounding earth, but that water seeks ways back in, afflicting the bunker and artefacts and people in it with dampness, mold and calcite formations, testifying to the particular dynamics of water led ruination faced by the bunker, as illustrated by the early fortunes of York ROC HQ bunker after it came into the hands of English Heritage, and the curators struggled not just with questions of authenticity, but also those of air quality. The underground bunker, then – stands in unique testimony to the limits (or at least the difficulties of) human colonisation of the ‘underworld’, yet also of its affinity with the universality of cave dwelling.

So, that’s what I’ve come up with so far. The question (what makes bunkers special) is still bouncing around in my head. There is more to be done on this, and no doubt it will influence the edited volume that we’re now planning as an output from this day spent peering into the bunker.

RGS 2014 – ‘Cold War Bunkers – exceptionalism, affect and aftermath’ – final session details

York RSG

John Beck (University of Westminster), Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) and I are convening four sessions on Cold War Bunkers at the Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference in London at the end of August. A previous post on the overall aims of the sessions is here , and now below are the abstracts of the individual papers:

When?: Friday, 29 August 2014, 9am to 6.30pm

Where?: Imperial College, London in Skempton Building, Room 163

How?: Details of booking procedures and the full RGS 2014 programme are here.

http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/ConferencesAndSeminars/Annual+International+Conference/Annual+international+conference.htm. The single day delegate rate is: £185.

9.00 – 10.40am, Session 1 – encountering the bunker

Cold War bunkers as a post traumatic landscape – Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University)

This presentation will set the scene for the Cold War Bunkers strand by situating my work on ‘bunkerology’ alongside a wider interpretation of the psycho-cultural drivers for ‘bunker gazing’. It will seek to show that just as Paul Virilio’s Atlantikwall bunker hunting in the late 1950s / early 1960s was rooted in his desire to make sense of the “geostrategic and geopolitical foundations of the total war I had lived through in Nantes, not far from the submarine base of Saint-Nazaire” (Virilio & Parent 1996: 11), so Cold War bunker hunting can be seen as an ongoing processing of the trauma of an ‘ultimate’ war that never happened, but which none the less left spatial and psycho-cultural scars. The paper will follow the sublimation of this trauma, through Peter Laurie’s 1970s attempts to read the materialisation of power in the Cold War’s landscape, W.S. Sebald standing before the ‘Pagodas’ of Orford ness contemplating the post-traumatic landscape before him shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Sarah Vowell writing in 2004 of the potency of ruined bunkers for the last Cold War generation, and of their validation of the apocalyptic anxiety that suddenly vanished with adulthood, but yet still haunts. This investigation will be pursued by reference to the testimony of bunker hunters, my own journey to bunker gazing and by drawing upon the anxieties of Cold War era psychologists and their concerns for the effects that apocalyptic anxiety might (and perhaps did) have upon children raised in the era of the Cold War bunker building.

The Cold War bunker and/as cinema – John Beck (Westminster University)

This paper considers the ways in which Cold War bunkers, both large-scale military fortifications and domestic shelters, have been imagined in films. Central to the narrative construction of bunkered space is the sense of the bunker as a time machine, incarceration within both stopping time and altering perception of time passing. Living inside the bunker intensifies the anxieties and tensions of Cold War society but also renders them irrelevant, as there is often no accessible world left beyond the walls of the shelter. In this way, the bunker might be said to merge with the function of the cinema as a sealed space with its own temporal logic and peculiar relation to the external world. Does the cinema, then, provide a privileged space through which the containment embodied in the bunker can be affectively as well as symbolically encountered? Works discussed include Cuban Missile Crisis-era films such as Ladybug, Ladybug (1963), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Fail-Safe (1964); 1970s paranoid horror films like Chosen Survivors (1974) and the Polish Communist-era parable Seksmisja (1984); and post-Cold War responses to the legacy of nuclear dread, from grim speculations like Paul Bartel’s Shelf Life (1993) to mainstream comedies like Blast from the Past (1999).

The sublime myth of the Cold War bunker – Kathrine Sandys (Rose Bruford College)

As civilians, films, novels and public information programmes have shaped our knowledge of the Cold War, both during the period and even following decommissioning. The fictional architecture portrayed through this mediated experience was exotic and of a structure never experienced in a domestic environment, with designers such as Ken Adam creating the mysterious and epic subterranean operational bunkers for the villains of the Cold War period Bond films. The reality of these ‘secret’ spaces is often closer to the fiction than imagined, in their unusual, purpose-built vernacular, improvised style with many bunkers and hardened shell military buildings displaying their purpose through their unusual shape and form. Without knowing this purpose however, to the civilian eye, these structures maintain their mythical qualities and presence. This illustrated paper presents a series of public art installations created between 2004 and 2011, animating and mythologizing Cold War military bunkers. These works were the build up to an entire PhD project exploring the sublime imbued in the unknown of the Cold War military space, through phenomenology. In the case of this research, the intangibility of lighting and sound were applied as scenographic devices where the audience explored the derelict sites, animated by subtly integrated lighting and/or infrasound (sound as sensation of nuclear pulse or machinery), in order to form their own stories and desire for authenticity around the purpose of the spaces. Notions of journey, expectation, isolation and framing were explored throughout the research, now offered in this presentation.

Torås Fort and the military sublime: A macro and granular study of war architecture in landscape – Matthew Flintham (University of Newcastle)

Over a three year period Matthew Flintham has undertaken a photo and videographic study of the military facility of Torås on the island of Tjøme, Norway. The site was established as a naval defensive post in anticipation of a Nazi invasion but was rapidly captured and significantly modified by the invaders. The site was again remodeled during the Cold War against Soviet incursion with a maze of subterranean tunnels blasted into the dramatic Larvikite rock formations that are typical of the region. Previously closed to civilian islanders the gates were suddenly thrown open in 2007 (?) and the remote base, once almost entirely hidden in the dramatic topography of the island, is now revealed as a unique fusion of landscape, architecture and weapon systems. The Norwegian landscape often prompts reference to the ‘sublime’, but the notion of the ‘military sublime’ (a problematic term that has been applied the work of contemporary fine art photographers working in conflict zones) is perhaps more relevant here. Flintham’s paper will describe his micro and macro visual methodology for studying the hasty transformation of landscape into military architecture, and the much slower process of bunker into ruin and ruin into dust. This paper will ultimately address the role of images in the analysis of geological time, or more specifically, the ‘dark’ stratum of human conflict and the transformation of its material presence in the landscape. The presentation will be accompanied by moving image footage of Torås Fort and the surrounding area.

The Bunker Project: claustrophobia, performance and influence – Zoe Svendsen (University of Cambridge)

The Bunker Project ran from 2005-8 and was a community-focused performance research project, exploring hidden war spaces in the city of Cambridge – from dilapidated air-raid shelters in peoples’ back gardens to a Cold War era Regional Seat of Government. The project brought together oral history and performance theory, site-specific theatre and changing concepts of ‘rehearsal’, to produce a powerful cultural intervention. This paper will outline the structure of the project and its aesthetic and cultural aims, showing how subsequent work from Metis Arts (the theatre company which ran the project) has been shaped by this initial thinking about bunkers. Thus the paper will then consider 3rd Ring Out (2010-11) a theatre project concerned with planning for climate change through the mode of rehearsal, which directly drew on Cold War exercises for its rationale. The performances toured the UK in two twenty-foot shipping containers (3rd Ring Out was nominated for a Total Theatre award and won a Tipping Point arts and environment award). World Factory (2013-ongoing) is Metis Arts’ current project, an interdisciplinary performance work, which aims to explore the relationship between China and the UK through the lens of the textile industry. Global textile production – from 19th century Manchester to contemporary Shanghai – might seem remote from bunkers, and the thinking they engender. But the paper will conclude by showing how and why they are linked.

11.10 – 12.50pm, Session 2 – the bunker as exceptional space

From survival cell to ‘empty space’: bunker rites vs acts of resistance in Cold War Switzerland – Silvia Berger (University of Zurich, Switzerland)

Imagine a nation peppered with high-security cells in every home. Five decades ago, this vision materialized in Switzerland. Since the early 1960’s, the country has built 2300 collective and 360’000 private nuclear shelters, the majority of them in the basements of single-family homes. By 2006 the authorities announced that Switzerland has enough shelter space for 114% of its population. No other country in the world has ever established such a comprehensive and carefully calibrated system of subterranean bunkers. Inspired by studies on space, body and ritual, my paper zooms in on the operational lives of this megalomaniac underground world. I will trace the fervent government action programs launched in the 1960s and 70s for the control and regulation of the shelter society and the shelter subject. Displayed in behavioural scripts and inscribed in spatial forms and technical objects of the bunker, specific rituals and bodily routines were supposed to be practiced in order to guarantee an orderly passage to the post-apocalypse, without any violation of norms, social roles and affective regimes. The citizens’ compliance to the official bunker rites was rather poor though. This disobedience and the authorities’ operational shortcomings facilitated individual, antagonistic forms of appropriating and imagining the bunker (“autonomous republic”, “zero-star hotel” etc.). Given the myriads of tactics and ideas used to transform the language and materiality of space, I will argue that Swiss bunkers gradually transmogrified into “Empty Spaces” (Kostera/Kociatkiewicz)—i.e. places that defy all attempts at stable classification, and are devoid of clear ownership and meaning.

The bunker and the camp: Inside West Germany’s nuclear retreat – Ian Klinke (University of Oxford)

Recent research has located the camp as the paradigmatic space that emerges when geopolitics and biopolitics intersect. In doing so, it has neglected another space that is indispensible for an understanding of the nexus of these two modalities of power – the nuclear bunker. This paper explores the West German government’s nuclear bunker in Marienthal, a subterranean lebensraum (living space) constructed on the site of an underground WWII concentration camp. Designed as a shelter for up to 3,000 politicians, bureaucrats and military staff, this cryptic concrete space was home to a number of NATO-exercises, which included the simulation of pre-emptive strikes on the Warsaw Pact as well as on West German cities that had been taken by the Red Army only hours before. The paper relates the nuclear bunker to its predecessor – the camp – and uncovers a number of spatial inversions and overlaps between the two. Whilst the nuclear bunker seemingly turns the camp inside out by protecting its inhabitants from the nuclear holocaust outside, it was similarly governed by legal exceptionality, pure logistics, hygiene, semi-invisibility and a genocidal rationality. Yet, it was also an ambiguous space where a fundamental blurring between inside and outside materialised. This porosity and insecurity revealed the nuclear bunker’s deadly character for it was here that sovereign power and total war sought to find eternal peace.

Secrecy, obscurity, security, obsession: The ‘Guardian’ telecommunications bunker deep under Manchester city centre and Cold War urbanism – Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) & Richard Brook (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Our paper focuses on a massive bunker space built in Manchester’s urban heart and seeks to (re)interpret its meanings through different periods of time and perspectives: official secrecy, technical obscurity of service space, securitised critical infrastructure, and conspiratorial obsessions. The bunker, known by its code-name ‘Guardian’, was conceived architecturally as a site of atomic-bomb resistant telecommunication equipment and given the large scale expenditure to construct it 30 metres beneath city streets it clearly had strategic importance to the British Government in terms of advancing its Cold War doctrine in the 1950s. The paper draws as an evidential base on our primary archival research, historical news reporting and first hand accounts of GPO / BT staff. It is theoretically grounded in the spatiality of technological development, focused at the architectural scale on the make-up of the facilities, their geographical configuration across the region/nation, and their how they were planned as work places for particular kinds of ‘cold warriors’ over several decades. Through this place-specific interpretation of Manchester and its infrastructural imperative around communications we also want say something more broadly about the underlying processes of Cold War urbanism as it played out in Britain in the 1950s and 60s and the legacy of these spaces in subsequent decades.

War, peace, and affect in Cuban cave science and exploration – María Alejandra Pérez (West Virginia University, USA)

During the Cold War, Cuba hardly had any need for building defensive concrete structures. Instead, the Revolutionary Armed Forces spearheaded the selection and modification of some of the country’s thousands of caves for the purposes of military defense. Indeed, the link between Cuba’s karst landscape and its political history predates the consolidation of socialist Cuba: the indigenous Taino culture used caverns as sites of ritual and hideouts during the Spanish conquest. African slaves relied on and modified caves by extending passages to escape their owners. During the independence war against Spain, and then again during the Revolution against the Batista regime, caves were critical rebel hideouts and weapon storage sites. This last chapter earned Cuban speleology Fidel Castro’s recognition and support. It was in 1960, during the 20th anniversary of the Speleological Society of Cuba, that Castro famously declared, “The future of our homeland is necessarily a future of men of science.” This paper examines the intricate relationship between the development of cave science, or speleology, and the militarization of the country’s karst landscape, from the perspectives of Cuban speleologists both living in Cuba and abroad. Their stories reveal contrasting views on the impact of the Cold War on the internationalization of Cuban cave science. All share, however, how much fieldwork and underground exploration promoted camaraderie and unity of purpose. Thus, Cuba’s “geographies of speleology” (Cant 2006) are as much about militarization and science as they are about the affective bonds that fieldwork and underground exploration facilitates and engenders.

2.40-4.20pm, Session 3 – the bunker as post traumatic landscape

The Royal Observer Corps – a study in transitory archaeology and the disenfranchised – Bob Clarke (University of Exeter)

The taskscape has become a necessary interpretive component when considering human endeavour. No more so than when investigating the archaeology of Cold War Britain. By its very nature, the Cold War maintained a level of subterfuge; often transitory activities of a secret or clandestine nature segregated the general populous from the activities acted out by those initiated into its order. In the Western World, this forced increasing tensions between state and public, manifesting itself in civil disobedience or apathy and disenfranchisement. Now just over two decades later we have an opportunity to investigate the secret landscape of the Cold War. Recent work has demonstrated that a perceived landscape of security fences, miss-representative signage and ordnance survey designations intended to mislead the user does represent an array of related activities. Moreover, those who participated in the development of this taskscape, moving through their own, and the organisations life-cycle are still available for comment. Engaging with those who were members of secret organisations allows for a hitherto un-narrated account of a taskscape now made visible. Utilising the national landscape of the Royal Observer Corps it is possible to map certain behaviours – especially the landscape of the disenfranchised. This paper describes the landscape of the ROC, its bunkers and the transition it has experienced as it transits from a secret landscape to a public one. It investigates the premise that secret landscapes, whilst transitory, do maintain longevity through the memory of those who now act out remembrance by telling their story.

Emerging from the bunker: embodiment, practice and Cold War legacies – Steven Leech (University of Manchester)

Russian artist Yevgeniy Fiks highlights a tension between the “living breathing remnants” of the Cold War and contemporary social memory. In his work, the ageing body of the former ‘Cold Warrior’ is juxtaposed to a sense of ambivalence (surrounding a “war that was not a war”). Through the lens of portraiture, the artist’s subjects, members of the marginal American Cold War Veterans Association (2009), emerge as a forgotten collective. His work is presents a set of questions; how do we make sense of the presence of these veterans and how does thinking through their corporeality help us articulate the character of Cold War ambiguities? Similarly, this paper will raise questions about the military body and its impact upon the management and representation of Cold War legacies in the landscapes and subterranean spaces of the UK. Drawing upon oral history interviews and ethnographic research with former radar engineers and operators, it will highlight the ways in which they negotiate forms of identity, authenticity and disconnection through a range of cultural practices. For example, it will discuss their participation as guides and volunteers at military and bunker museums, visiting former sites of operation and grass-roots heritage work. Specifically, It will argue that these experiences are, partially, an attempt to relocate themselves in relation to the conflict and as a means of making sense of the transition of former places of work, from sites of national security to facets of the historic environment – as heritage sites – or as places of abandonment and ruination.

Engaging bunkers: how a popular historical geography of the Cold War is practiced – Gunnar Maus (University of Kiel, Germany)

Many Cold War bunkers are hidden in plain sight. They acquire meaning as traces of world and local history only when engaged as such. A popular historical geography of Cold War militarized landscapes is in the making in Germany. I will visit a variety of concrete bunkers, atomic shelters and depots through accompanying geocachers, local historians, ‘bunkerologists’ (Bennett 2010), museum specialists and state conservators. I argue that by asking how these groups bestow meaning upon these relics, one can observe a cultural memory in-the-making. Their occupations can be described as practices of memory that transcend group delimitations. Conceptually, this follows on from work on the geography of memory, which has generally characterized memory as a means to socially construct place-based narratives of collective and individual identity. In this view, informed by practice theory, a set of more or less universal (in a Western context) set of practices of memory is confronted with material arrangements of a time past. The end of the Cold War, understood as a contextual break for the way bunkers are enacted, affords new ways of dealing with them. Re-contextualizing them as traces of the Cold War is one of those ways.

Cold War heritage (and) tourism: exploring discourses of neglect and engagement – Inge Hermann (Saxion University of Applied Sciences, Netherlands)

This paper explores the idea of ‘Cold War heritage (and) tourism’, that is, the process of construction and negotiation meanings that develop through tourism, whilst simultaneously being a moment that also resides within tourism (often termed heritage tourism) at Cold War sites in Britain. The entanglement of heritage (and) tourism has led to two sets of dominant practices; the first is concerned with the preservation and conservation management of sites, places and objects for future uses and generations to enjoy, whilst the second regards heritage as something that can be used here and now as a tool for community development, social unity, or as an economic resource which, according to some, is part of and stirred by processes of commodification and touristification. Through examining the representational practices at five Cold War sites in Britain which are opened as tourist attractions this paper, based on a previous doctoral research, aims to identify the order of discourses that surround Cold War heritage, including who engages in the dialogue of what should remain of the Cold War for tourism uses and human engagement.

4.50-6.30pm, Session 4 – ruination and afteruse

Peripheral artefacts: drawing [out] the Cold War – Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth College of Art)

The systems of fortified bunkers built during the twentieth century have become, especially since the end of the Cold War, objects of troubled fascination for artists and their relationships to the landscape, to geo-politics and to the speed of modern warfare have been well delineated. This paper will describe other, largely unconsidered, aspects of these sites and the drawings made during my practice-based doctoral research: ‘Drawing, Place and the Contemporary Sublime’, which uses as its basis the network of Royal Observer Corps observation bunkers built across the UK in response to the nuclear threat. The paper will describe the agency of the drawn line, as an active, dynamic and responsive element and a ‘primary means of symbolic communication’ (Downs, 2007, xi). This status, the paper will argue, offers the possibility that the fleeting and uncanny visions carried in our peripheral vision, largely repressed by the perceptual system, can be uncovered through the agency of drawing and that these can begin to describe the residues of traumatic memory remaining in the concrete crucible of the bunker. The paper will outline the fieldwork carried out in the bunkers, the innovative drawing techniques utilised and its implications for theories of place, the sublime and perception. It will conclude that the communication that drawing can make, through the tracing of gesture and its echoes that lie far back in the psyche, has the potential to uncover cultural anxieties that remain in the collective unconscious from this most dangerous time in man’s history.

Processional engagement: Sebaldian pilgrimages to the Ness – Louise K. Wilson (Sound Artist)

The shingle spit of Orford Ness in Suffolk – known locally as ‘the island’ – is owned and run by the National Trust – charged with the difficult task of managing tourism while stewarding the fragile habitat on this nature reserve. This role primarily involves the fraught guardianship of a significant territory for 20th century history – espousing a policy of continued ruination for the structures that represent a 70 odd year history of military testing. The Trust’s webpage on the Ness additionally cites one aspect of their work as “enriching with art”: it is approached by and actively approaches artists to be resident and to respond to this unique landscape. This presentation will critically reflect on the place of novelty in these numerous and successive responses. This presentation will examine the different and repetitive methodologies (and cultural references) employed by artists gathering and processing visual/ auditory material there. Of particular interest when considering questions of (artistic) access and (architectural) legibility, are influential texts by Paul Virilio and the late W G Sebald whose works are recurrently cited by artists, archaeologists and writers. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (1995) it is argued offers a seemingly mandatory lens through which to ‘see’ the Ness now. This notion will be contextualized in a wider framework, addressing the tension between difference and repetition that arises in artists’ engagements with fraught and ‘difficult’ historical sites.

Preserving and managing York Cold War bunker: authenticity, curation and the visitor experience – Rachael Bowers (English Heritage) & Kevin Booth (English Heritage)

An exploration of the curation and management of York Cold War Bunker, this paper details the transformation of an abandoned Cold War structure into a heritage attraction and its ongoing management. The relative perfection of the building in comparison with other Cold War monuments is shown to have informed the presentation of artefacts and the museum’s collections policy, creating an authentic representation of the experiences of the Royal Observer Corps personnel who served here between 1961 and 1991. The difficulties encountered in presenting the building are discussed, illuminating why English Heritage chose to protect and manage the bunker in its present form. Initial suggestions for how best to use, interpret and manage the building are also examined. The physical restrictions of the bunker with regards to space and safety (of both collections and visitors) have also dictated the form of interpretation offered, leading to the development of high quality but labour intensive personalised interpretation. York Cold War Bunker’s success as a heritage attraction is then measured in relation to the achievement of its original aims, the authenticity of experience and the effectiveness of the interpretation offered. Central to the examination of its success are the reactions and responses of visitors to York Cold War Bunker, and the continuing development of the site as a heritage attraction. This analysis leads to a discussion of ways in which York Cold War Bunker can continue to develop.

The conversion of resilience: on turning bunkers to new uses – Arno Geesink (Kraft Architectuur, The Netherlands)

Many bunkers still linger around in the landscape not because they were conserved, but because they are built to withstand extreme external forces. This resilience – the core of their being – is the primary reason why people try to put them to new use, as destruction is not an affordable option. All these constructions were built for an extremely specific military purpose and in a different time or setting, new users are faced with the problem of the specific functional layout combined with the extreme inflexibility of the material. Most of the times these structure don’t have any connection with the existing urban fabric; they adhere to a completely different reality of war maps, lines, sectors and schemes. After this reality is gone, the bunker is left as an erratic in the landscape, disposed of its reason to exist. The raw essence of its origination is still readily available. When one walks through it one can feel the confinement, the claustrophobic spaces, its small openings and its immense walls.  The readability of the rigid functionality of its design and the frequent beauty of their strategic locations make bunkers grateful objects for conversion. As Arnhem has been a strategic garrison town for ages, its landscape is riddled with remains from medieval times till the end of the Cold War, combined with its beautiful natural surroundings, which makes it fertile ground for bunker conversion projects. As an architect I use the intriguing robust remains of conflict heritage and its stories and connotations as the basis for new architectural proposals. By giving these objects a new purpose, giving them a new life, conservation becomes part of their exploitation, instead of just a matter of conservation expenses.

 

 

 

Photo credit: York Regional Seat of Government Bunker, http://davstott.me.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/bunker.jpg

 

 

With a cast of thousands – George Haydock’s film in homage to wasteland at Pomona Island

I’ve never been backed by a string quartet before – and George Haydock’s meditative short film below is probably the only time in my life that it’s going to happen.

It’s always disconcerting watching yourself. And there’s a moment in this where I suddenly realised where my sentence was going to take me and couldn’t resist a smile (it’s the point about Salford docks exporting itself until only emptiness was left). Hopefully it doesn’t look smug (it’s borderline I think). I developed a new-found respect for TV presenters that day – that art of keeping on talking, and thinking – with just the right buffer between the two.

So, there I was – an overgrown pixie – sitting on a rock for an hour and half trying to constantly think of something more to say about this overgrown and unregenerated wasteland portion of Salford docks.  I’d also been speaking earlier that day at a National Water Safety Forum symposium at The Lowry (in the now rather scuffed looking – regenerated – portion of the docks) on drownings in inland waterways, so my head was already in a strange place (and my body in a suit). Earlier that day I’d travelled up and down the quays in a boat, my RoSPA colleague pointing out all of the locations at which adventurous water users had come unstuck, some fatally.

Every few minutes we had to stop filming, as a tram trundled past. Occasionally it was a jogger or dog walker who provoked the pause. Having to sit on a rock and talk about a place that you’ve never visited before is actually quite difficult. There’s almost something fakir-like about it; a trial of endurance.

An endurance taking me towards revelation?

Maybe

So, I eventually realised that the big point (my attempt at a ‘big’ point at least) about Pomona was that there is no big point. It is a pause place, a gap in the intense meaning otherwise foisted on the landscape in the city making, regeneration, repurposing. Pomona just ‘is’.

That’s it.

And with that revelation a nirvana-lite passed over me. Phew, I’d finally worked out something that they might be able to use in the film…

 

 

There’s an interview with George about his take on Pomona at http://www.theskyliner.org/pomona-island-on-film/ which includes the following account of his intentions and inspiration for his film:

“My main intention was to capture the essence of this unusual space, to glorify it, live with it and let it dwell for while. I wanted to celebrate the areas state of limbo – and see it with open eyes. A lot of people who look at the space see and feel nothing, they might see this film and think it’s trivial, but in a way that tension is what interested me. The film is ultimately an attempt to challenge and cause friction against most people’s perspective. For me, film should speak at an intuitive level – and this is what I aimed to do with Pomona Island.”

Ironically the photograph at the start of this post comes from a locations agency website (http://www.filmandtvlocations.co.uk/locations/pomona) – it seems Pomona’s wasteland status is productive in and of itself, with that site praising the venue as offering “a unique opportunity to film on an open quayside location in front of the back drop of Manchester City Centres impressive skyline.”

So, Pomona shows us that flux that is the succession of urban uses that any ground can testify to. But Pomona shows that procession in a freeze-frame. The recirculation is slower. The docks have lain empty for 40 years, and when they arrived in the early Twentieth century they displaced a range of earlier leisure uses formerly of this boundary between Salford and Manchester, including Pomona gardens and zoo.

Very fitting then, that ending to the film, that ‘cast of thousands’ – but I won’t spoil the surprise.

Great stuff!

 

Plasticity at Cromford Mills: Arkwright’s Brain, Water, Cotton and Fire via Malabou & Hegel

Here are my slides for the PlastiCities conference on Tuesday (3 June). This Occursus / University of Sheffield event seeks to explore the concept of ‘plasticity’ thus:

“Scientific discourses on neuroplasticity abound with metaphors both of (neuronal) landscapes and (cortical) ‘real estate’. This cutting-edge symposium brings together speakers from across the disciplines to explore the ways in which recent advances in the understanding of neuroplasticity might be used to construct new models for negotiating urban landscapes and temporalities. Our discussions will include a consideration of how brain trauma and cerebral re-organisation can yield new understanding and insight regarding the complexity and resilience of the damaged topographies that punctuate the post-industrial, post-colonial and post-traumatic cityscape. Thinking through the sculptural dynamic of cerebral morphology will also open up a debate concerning the ways in which critical methodologies from the arts might find their place in the sculpting of new forms of stability within the contemporary built environment, participating in the ‘real life’ making of cities, at both grass roots and policy level.”

The event will feature speakers from neuroscience, psychology, art, archaeology, geography, French studies and built environment. Here’s a link to the programme:

http://occursus.org/2014/05/21/plasticities-a-free-symposium-3-june/

This truly cross-disciplinary selection of speakers will outline the rise of plasticity as a concept in neuroscience, its take-up in the recent work of philosophers like Catherine Malabou, and then seek to explore whether (and if so how) plasticity can be applied to landscape – thus moving from metaphors of cortical real estate to real estate itself.

My presentation will introduce this shift of focus – and will seek to operationalise Malabou (and Hegel who has a potent influence on both Malabou and plasticity in philosophy) via a case study which will take the concepts for a walk, and consider them at a specific place and set of circumstances. In doing so I’m seeking to implement Chris Van Dyke’s call (in Environment & Planning D: Society and Space last year) for empirical deployment of plasticity in landscape studies. Van Dyke will also be speaking at the event via Skype.

The site I will be examining is Cromford Mills, Sir Richard Arkwright’s first textile factory, established in 1771 near Matlock, Derbyshire. I will draw upon a rich vein of industrial archaeology and economic history scholarship (both enthusiast and academic) and analyse it through the frame of Malabou’s four plasticities (developmental, modulational, reparative and destructive), looking at  change and stasis across the site’s 250 year span, thereby considering plasticity’s dual character – the partial persistence of form and the potentiality of certain degrees of change. Think of the resistance and affordance of ‘memory-foam’ mattresses and you get the idea.

My current presentation is very much an interim report upon a work in progress – there is more to be done on thinking through plasticities at Cromford, and perhaps thereafter widening the focus to later era mills. I’m also working on a parallel analysis of Cromford using David Delaney’s ‘nomosphere’ theory, to look at the ways in which law can be found materialised and manifested within the social and spatial circumstances of this site. More on that at RGS 2014 in August.

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My presentation for the PlastiCities conference seeks to trace not just the stasis and change of the Cromford site – but also to draw out the link to ‘self-development’ and neuronal ‘freedom’ (the focus of Malabou’s work) by intertwining an analysis of Sir Richard Arkwright’s ‘self-made’ status, and the way in which his success was lauded by the mid Victorian liberals, specifically Samuel Smiles in his book, Self Help (1859). This is potentially contentious, as Malabou frames neuronal plasticity as a chance to consider what else the self-aware human mind could choose to be (in resistance to neo-liberalism), yet the ghost of Hegel oddly replicates a neo-liberal focus on ‘plastic individuals’ and their achievements (or potentialities), for example where she writes of plasticity in Hegelian terms as  “a process where the universal and the particular mutually inform one another, and their joint outcome is that particularity called the ‘exemplary individual’.”(Malabou, C. (2004) The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, Routledge: London: 16)

Arkwright is an exemplar of self-making, and in my case study I’m interested in what his self-making made at Cromford, of how he acted on matter and landscape, and how landscape and matter acted back on him. That’s plasticity.

(I’ve also written an earlier blog post about my first visit to Cromford, its here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/cromford-mill-surveying-the-ruins-of-the-worlds-first-factory/

 

Image source: Cromford Mill at http://www.nationalmillsweekend.co.uk/pages_water/cromford.htm; and many Cromford Mill images in the slide presentation originated by The Arkwright Society / Cromford Mills:http://cromfordmills.org.uk/

 

 

Beyond the broken building – dereliction, progress and ruinphobia

“The scars left behind by industrial development of the past, the abandoned waste heaps, disused excavations and derelict installations and buildings no longer needed by industry, are an affront to our concept of an acceptable environment in the 1970s”

Peter Walker, Secretary of State for the Environment, 1971 – quoted in Wallwork (1974) Derelict Land – origins and prospects of a land-use problem, David & Charles: Newton Abbot, p. 13.

 

Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters 1976 by John Latham 1921- 2006

 John Latham (1976) Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/latham-derelict-land-art-five-sisters-t02071

Big Ruins and dereliction

There’s always this danger when writing two pieces in parallel: that they will converge. Over recent days I’ve been working on my papers for the Big Ruin conference (Manchester, Wednesday next week) and the Land Art/Abandoned Quarries conference at Yorkshire Sculpture Paper the following day. Whether through collision, or otherwise, I find myself thinking a lot about derelict land in relation to both papers, in each case as a conscious opposition to the currently dominant focus upon the discrete buildings and structures in ‘ruin studies’. To foreground blank, indeterminate wasteland feels both dissident, and necessary.

Dereliction was seen as a major policy issue in the 1960s, and essentially as one of un- or under productivity. Notions of landscape aesthetics (eradicating the unsightly, the eyesore) played a part in the call to arms, and safety and environmental drivers came increasingly to the fore with (respectively) the Aberfan tragedy of 1966, and the rise of ecological sensibilities – but predominantly dereliction was something to be tackled because it was a ‘waste’ of land, expressing a deeply held view (that still has powerful sway today) that neither land nor labour should be left idle.

 

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My presentation for the ‘Big Ruins’ conference is streamed here. The gist of my talk is a desire to acknowledge recent calls (from critical, urban and economic geographers) to widen the context in which ruins are studied, and in particular to look at the political economy of ruination – the process by which ruins are made.

But in my presentation I will also argue that the aim should not be to throw the baby out with the bathwater, for the more aesthetically (and matter/affect) based approaches that have dominated ruinology in recent years, have an important role to play in helping us to understand how orientations towards ruins, ruination and dereliction ‘matter’. And I mean ‘matter’ here (in the double-play advanced by Karen Barad) both in the sense that ‘it is important’, but also in the – theoretically more complex – sense that orientations towards matter (i.e. stuff) affect how that stuff exists, occurs, survives, is reacted to, is able to influence us etc. To understand ruination we need to understand why it is objectionable to many, attractive to some and how those orientations affect the matter of the ruin and its stability as a loosening assemblage of wood, stone, metal, cement, brick, fabric etc under the dissipating action of time, human and ‘natural’ processes.

Thus, in my Big Ruins talk my desire is to emphasise the multiple gazes through which ruination is framed – and how those gazes (particularly those that are broadly anti-ruin) affect the occurrence, subsistence and fates of ruins and the dereliction of which they form a part. As a consequence, my talk will deal only briefly with ruinphilia and will instead concentrate on the ruinphobic gazes that frame ruins as a contagion, a waste of space and/or a waste of matter. Inevitably these are (in contrast to the ‘high’ arts roots of ruinphilia) earthy, pragmatic gazes of policy, law, taxation, economic development and their attendant discourses of efficiency, progress, modernisation and monetary value. But understanding these gazes and their effects is crucial to an understanding of contemporary ruination and – I contend – these gazes have received scant attention within ruin studies (where the aesthetic and Romantic ruinphiliac gaze has been privileged almost to the point of excluding all other ways of looking upon broken buildings). In my presentation I also point to the irony that ruinphobia both strives to eradicate ruin and yet at times actually amplifies it.

Land Art and dereliction

Towards the end of his recent documentary series on Brutalism, Jonathan Meades issued a rallying call for the nascent Brutalist revival, in doing so harking back nostalgically to a Modernist era in which – in his view – human will aspired, unapologetically to stamp its identity and presence upon the planet, raising gigantic forms towards heaven either in challenge to the gods, or in declaration that the gods are no more. In doing so Meades contrasted Brutalism’s aggressive confidence with a present day eco-modesty, through which, he asserted, humankind has lost sight of his specialness and its faith in progress.

I suspect that Meades, like John Latham, would celebrate the monolithic forms of the Five Sisters (shale tips – or locally ‘bings’ shown in the image above) in West Lothian. Yet Meades’ Brutalism is but one version of Modernism. Working back in time, to the height of Modernism we find John Barr (a journalist) castigating Iain Nairn (an architectural critic) as typifying a certain type of metropolitan aesthete thus:

“It is some academic opinion makers, usually living far from the nearest spoil heap, who defend dereliction on aesthetic grounds. To them, and, one suspects, to them alone, reclamation is seen as an enemy of the wonderous heaps and holes and tears-in-the-hillsides which shout proudly MAN WAS HERE!”

John Barr (1969) Derelict Land, Penguin: Harmondsworth, p.25

I find myself with both Meades’ and Barr’s words ringing in my head as I prepare for my contribution to the Land Art in quarries conference at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The wind has turned recently against Ruin Lust. The counter-forces are amassing, the label of ‘Ruin Porn’ now ever-present,waiting to pounce on those who linger too long in gazing at broken buildings. Doubtless a genealogy of  ruinphilia would find similar castigation at any earlier formative era (remember here that ‘nostalgia’ was originally conceived as an illness). But, for me, this week it has been appropriately moderating, to know that the battle between old and new, bombastic and modest, use and pause is nothing new.

My slides for the Land Art talk are streamed here:

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Latham’s work upon the Five Sisters was the result of a placement within the Scottish Development Agency organised by the Artist Placement Group (who had the mission of opening commerce and public administration to new ways of seeing the aspects of the world that they managed), the aim being to find new ways to see the vast bings as something other than “eyesores of spent energy” (Richardson 2012), and that according to Derek Lyddon, Chief Planner of the Scottish Development Agency at the time of Latham’s residency:

“The object of APG placements may be described as ‘organisation and imagination’; to place an artist in an organisation in the hope that his creative intelligence or imagination can spark off ideas, possibilities and actions that have not previously been perceived or considered feasible; in other words to show the feasibility of initiating what has not occurred to others to initiate. Hence the product is not an art work, but a report by the artist on new ways of looking at the chosen work areas and on the action that might result.” (quoted in Richardson 2012)

In part as a result of Latham’s work, and partly in the light of a post-industrial turn towards the preservation of industrial ‘heritage’, at least some of the bings have now been listed as ancient monuments (though hardly ancient in origin, the tipping that formed them ended in the early 1920s) and thus now have protection against demolition or reworking (the oil bearing shale having value to recyclers).

Latham’s creative visioning helped the civil servants to see this dereliction – these man made mountains – as positive features of the contemporary landscape. However, Latham’s own design for their artistic augmentation – the Meadesean sounding “Handbook of Reason”, a 24 metre cruciform beacon tower to be erected atop one of the bings, was rejected on cost grounds. If built, that bunker-like structure (shown in design mock-ups below) would certainly have signalled to the surrounding land, (perhaps to the delight of Meades and the consternation of Barr): “MAN WAS HERE”.

 

Documents as Part of APG Feasibility Study – Scottish Office 1976

 

Further details of Latham’s project are detailed in Craig Richardson (2012) ‘Waste to Monument: John Latham’s Niddrie Woman’  Tate Papers Issue 17, from which the above image is taken.

 

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