What’s behind the fence? Exploring dead land and empty buildings – 10 paper session proposal submitted to RGS-IBG 2020 conference

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I’m delighted to announce that I’ve today submitted a proposal to the RGS for a 10 paper session investigating vacancy at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference, 1 – 4 Sept in London.

Under the title What’s behind the fence? Exploring dead land and empty buildings the session will seek to move beyond contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites which tend to celebrate vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everyday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed. This conference session will open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators.

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and of the important role of (positive or negative) place attachment in determining the speed at which a site is withdrawn from vacancy, or how it is maintained purposively in that state.

If accepted into the event programme the session will feature contributions by scholars from Switzerland, France, Russia, Ireland and the UK that will range across the following:

Investigating the lives of dead places

  •  Polphail: Scotland’s ghost village left abandoned in the wake of structural changes in the North Sea oil industry
  •  Vorkuta: 16 Arctic settlements built around now-defunct coal mines
  •  Dublin’s ghost estates and their ambiguous place in Dublin’s housing crisis
  •  Halle-Neustadt’s stubbornly enduring highrises, in a city that is trying to shrink

Methods of investigating vacancy

  •  How far can heritage archives shed light on prosaic phases of inactivity?
  •  Do we pay sufficient attention to what owners and developers think and do around vacancy?

Who are the occupants of empty places?

  •  Squatters, pop-ups and the interplay of DIY and institutionalised usage of wasteland sites in Paris and Glasgow
  •  Urban explorers motivations in accessing the Paris catacombs
  •  Inhabitation of a muslim graveyard in Tangier by Cameroonian migrants
  •  Tensions between guards, recreational trespassers, artists and institutional owners in the management of a Scottish modernist ruin.

I’ll post full abstracts here once the session has been adopted by the RGS.

Picture credit: St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross (near Glasgow) https://sites.eca.ed.ac.uk/fabricformedconcrete/workshops/surface-texture-and-light/st-peters-seminary-cardross/

 

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

Greenham Green Gate May 2018

CALL FOR PAPERS

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

Proposed Conference Session:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Image result for polish bunker ants

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

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

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

Still alive: ongoing cultural production in the abandoned bunker

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

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

Survival cell: the bunker’s battle against entropy

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

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

Still transmitting: the bunker’s ongoing resonance

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Image credit

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fig 4 - Cambridge RWR

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

Luke Bennett, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2019…

 

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

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

How bunkers live-on

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

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

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

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

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

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

How bunkers die

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

 

Image Credit:

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

 

Gazing from ruined pavements: A postcard from Berlin

Potsdam

“Broken fragments of stone become evocative ruins when someone gazes upon them and imbues them with significance; otherwise they linger on as worthless rubble to be swept away or ignored.”

(Michael Meng (2011) Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. London: Harvard University Press, p.10)

I’ve just finished reading Meng’s book. It examines the ways in which abandoned and ruined Jewish public places (principally synagogues and cemeteries) fared across various eras of neglect, erasure, re-purposing and (in some cases) rediscovery and restoration between 1945 and 2010, in Germany and Poland, under both communism and capitalism. Meng features the arresting image (above) of a crowd of passers-by photographed halted from their travels on the pavement and gazing at the ruins of Potsdam synagogue, in the daylight that followed Kristallnacht (the ‘night of broken glass’: 9-10 November 1938) and its orgy of coordinated ruin-making inflicted on Jewish buildings by the Nazis. Chillingly his sparse commentary draw us into the image, he suggests that we can’t discern from the image what the spectators were thinking, or even why they had stopped to look. This made me scour the picture – searching through the crowd, staring at the back of their heads – hoping to find a face that would meet my gaze and give me some clue. But the image – as Meng rightly notes – gives us no closure, and (as his book provides) requires a detailed meditation on context and an assaying of the ebbs and flows of two rival structures of feeling and acting: “redemptive antisemitism” and “redemptive cosmopolitanism” in each of Germany and Poland in the postwar years.

Meng’s analysis shows how, since the 1980s, Jewish ruins in Germany and Poland have become valorised – via the ascendancy of redemptive cosmopolitanism – in particular through their role in international commemoration and heritage pilgrimages. This seems self-evident, from our contemporary vantage point. But Meng’s book shows that there is nothing eternal or inevitable about this attachment of significance to these places, and his is a meticulous analysis of the unpredictable end-of-life-cycle of any ruin, and of the vital importance of understanding how the materialities (and costs) of dereliction intersect with the rise and fall (and dereliction) of the bodies of ideas that give meaning (and whether for good or ill) to any place. But Meng is also attentive to local contingencies for the sites that he chronicles, the story of each ruin cannot be contained within that building alone. The fate of a place may be collateral damage (or collateral salvation) related to some other local issue or project. To be effective then, the explanatory lens has to be able to move in (towards local prosaics) and out (to be able to situate the site’s fate as at least to some extent within wider sociopolitical trends).

Meng’s book was my holiday reading for a recent short family holiday sightseeing in Berlin. I’d been there once before, 10 years ago, and had done the whole ‘Berlin – city of traces’ thing then, absorbing myself with dark heritage guidebooks and trying to cram in as many glimpses of “the ghosts of Berlin” (Ladd 1997) as I could. This second time around I was happy to navigate the city via family consensus. I was politely but firmly told that this holiday wouldn’t be about ‘Dad’s dark ruins thing’.

The impression I came away with from this re-visit was that Berlin’s traces are neater and tidier now – presented as part of international heritage tourist circuits. The dark stuff is there, but it is increasingly ‘just’ part of those circuits. This impression may simply be a product of the different circumstances of my re-encounter with Berlin, and I’m not suggesting that Berlin in 2010 was somehow purer, more authentic or less touristic. Any experience of any place (and whether ruined, ‘dark’ or otherwise) is at least in part an outcome of what you go looking for. And I’m not going to be po-faced and suggest that somehow my exploring of Berlin in either 2010 or 2019 was itself anything other than a form of tourism. In short, each time I went to Berlin with certain expectations and each time found ways to ‘join the dots’ so as to meet those expectations.

There was one exception however to this ‘I went – I saw – I came home having seen what I expected’ intentionality. And it happened on the day where my teenage daughter had control of our itinerary. She decided that we would go to Berlin Zoo, and so we did.

Climbing out of the metro stations we were a little disorientated. We could see various signs to the zoo, but they seemed contradictory. We shuffled along in a direction that we thought might work, and soon came upon a bulky security barrier, painted in black and yellow, and with the (English) words “Truck Stop” repeated in very insistent, prominent letters. This street architecture seemed overly keen to announce itself and rather awkwardly positioned, laid down in an already cluttered street scene – pavements, market stalls, infrastructure. Then we saw some votive candles on the steps rising from this pavement and on closer inspection could see memorial photographs and a few flowers laid out besides them. Getting even closer (having weaved across the pavement’s heavy traffic of passers by to get nearer) we saw names engraved into the otherwise normal pavement steps. Collectively it started to dawn on us (but not in a tranquil, contemplative way – because our senses also had to remain focused on the perils of stopping within this pavement’s flow of incessant movement): this place was the scene of the 19 December 2016 Christmas Market terrorist attack, in which 12 of the pedestrians who had been using this pavement were murdered by being run down by a truck. Trying to take this in as the world incessantly and very mundanely carried on its flows around us felt unsettling. As I tried to process the newly-acquainted significance of this place fragments of the scene: the steps, the market stall to my left, the pavement beneath my feet, and the recently encountered Truck Stop barrier, all coalesced into a sense of place – that this otherwise unremarkable portion of pavement was a distinct location and that it was more important than any other stretch of the pavement further along this busy road. And yet, as I fought to stabilise this image  of a distinct, important place, it struggled to stay separated from the urban realm and flows of which it was part. Bodies buffeted me as I slowed to survey the scene, elements appeared at the periphery of any provisional framing of this scene – extending it further along the pavement and beyond the steps into the nearby church, the plaza beyond and the bulk of the market stalls. 

That this site was not separated from its surroundings felt strange (given the way that memorial sites usually are separated: e.g. presented as calm, contemplative oases in a nearby park). But it also gave it an unusual affective charge – this place and its unexpectedness had pricked me, and in circumstances where I had not been looking to be pricked. As we walked away I turned to look back at the ‘site’ (and to try and get a synoptic grasp of it). It was then that I noticed a very subtle form of memorialisation that had been installed to ‘frame’ this place. Running down the steps and across the heavily trafficked pavement was a narrow golden slither or rivulet. It was impossible to see the slither in its entirety because of the flow of passersby. It also proved impossible to photograph – for unlike a conventional sculpture it was but a flat mark across busy ground. It looked like a rivulet of golden blood and seemed in its context life affirming rather than mawkish.

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Subsequently I’ve read that this memorial is actually meant to signify a crack – positioning this within the distinctly German post-war tradition of ‘mahnmal’ (warning monuments): for the crack here symbolises the attack (and thus the momentary breach in Berlin’s self-image of redemptive cosmopolitanism, and acting as a call for alertness and vigilance to guard against the risk of such cracks in the tolerant, democratic polity).

The creation of this artwork, by designers Merz Merz, actually involved first the chiselling out of a 17 metre long, narrow crack across the steps and pavement and then the elimination of that void with the golden infill. In that sense the re-joining of the pavement – via the elimination of the damage inflicted upon it – was intended as a redemptive gesture, a gesture augmented by involving the bereaved in the smelting of the gold.

But without knowing this process and backstory I reacted to this as a rivulet. Either way the enmeshment of this site and its subtle monument within the throng of daily life stopped me in my tracks. I had to stop, look from the pavement and make some sense of these broken-and-mended fragments of stone and what they could or should stand for.

 

Image credits: Postdam Synagogue, Potsdam Museum via http://www.grahamfoundation.org/grantees/3950-shattered-spaces-encountering-jewish-ruins-in-postwar-germany-and-poland ; Merz Merz (2017) Der Goldener Riss https://www.rbb24.de/politik/beitrag/2018/07/terror-breitscheidplatz-entschaedigung-antraege-gedaechtniskirche-berlin.html; Making Der Goldener Riss https://www.bento.de/today/berlin-so-sieht-das-mahnmal-fuer-die-terroropfer-vom-breitscheidplatz-aus-a-00000000-0003-0001-0000-000001951349

 

Awkwardly exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence in the ruin of Hitler’s Bunker

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“Fixating on the historical locale feels naïve, even juvenile; the prime epistemological illusion of ‘heritage’, after all, is to substitute place for process, thus to manufacture ersatz ‘experience’.”

Patrick Finney (2007) ‘Finding the Führer Bunker’ Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory & Practice, 11(2) 287-291

As Finney notes in his short essay (which is an apology for him having momentarily drifted off into thinking about Hitler’s bunker when he meant to be doing other, proper academic work), showing an interest the specifics of iconic Nazi places may not be a good career move. Instead it may lead to you being bracketed with a motley collection of conspiracy theorists and fanatics. Writing about Cold War bunkers is just about passable now as an academic endeavour, but turning the spotlight onto a previous era’s concrete caverns is more risky.

So it’s been with some awkwardness that I’ve worked up a study of the post 1945 afterlife of the subterranean site of Hitler’s last days, and the resulting article has now been published in the Polish Geography journal Geographia Polonica as part of their special issue on ruination, demolition and urban  regeneration. The article is free to download here: http://www.geographiapolonica.pl/article/item/11707.html

The aim of this short blog is to add visuals to the story, and the argument, that my article sets out in its text by displaying my slides for a presentation of my paper at the ‘Thrill of the Dark:  Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy’ conference being held at the University of Birmingham at the end of the month (details here: https://thethrillofthedark.com/).

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Here’s my abstract for the conference presentation:

“Within days of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his subterranean command bunker deep beneath the Reich Chancellery, the Führerbunker came to be framed as an object of dark fascination and illicit access. First Red Army looters, then Allied investigators, and a few months later Winston Churchill all came to pick over the remains of this place. Then in 1947 Hugh Trevor Roper, propelled this cold, dank underground bunker into a symbol of thwarted meglomania, the stage for a Götterdämmerung, in his account of his search for Hitler’s missing corpse. Through such framing the site has sustained a lure for Anglo-American war veterans and tourists ever since. Yet to Germans (East and West) this site was a place of political contamination, the tomb of a potential contagion that had to be kept contained (by successive demolition action and cycles of banalisation and profanation). Almost forgotten, the site was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1990s scrubland of the Berlin Wall’s death strip, and amidst the subsequent redevelopment of that now prime real estate a questioning of the site’s meaning, and of its potentialities, started to emerge: oscillating between calls for the primal darkness of this subterranean lair to be constructively co-opted into holocaust memorialisation and (more recently) in an increasing co-option of the site as part of heritage tours. Cultural representations of this place have become increasingly decontextualised and denatured, transformed by the generational passing of time into a more free-floating, titillating glimpse of a darkness that once was. Through this case study this paper will interpret this semantic decay, showing that ascribed darkness, fear and moral-coding for a site are not eternal givens but rather that they ebb and flow over time, and that studies of attachment to dark places need to be able to account for this, by becoming more processual.”

My Geographia Polonica article uses this chronological account of the slow-death of the Führerbunker as a way of thinking through what ruination really entails – considering the interweaving of material and semantic decay, and intentional and incidental attrition in that place’s slow, faltering fade. As shown above, my presentation also follows this trajectory, and its concern to identify the stages of that faltering fade, but it additionally touches on this bunker’s iconic on-going reverberation, showing how material obliteration of such an undesirable, dark place does not ensure its elimination from culture. Accordingly, towards the end of the presentation I chart how this place increasingly becomes a disembodied signifier – a metonym for evil and failing ‘last days’ governance. In doing this I’m connecting back to the first paper I ever wrote about bunkers:  Bennett, L. (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. [free copy here].

So, by the end of the presentation I’m thinking about ruination in a non-material way and with a concern for how a (dark) symbol fades: what are its processes of semantic ruination and stubborn persistence?  In the final flurry of images I present the last days of the Führerbunker as now a free-floating meme that is not dependent for its survival upon the clarity of the spatio-material co-ordinates or physical condition of its site of origination. And this roving meme (this virtualised Führerbunker) has increasingly looser, multivalent rules of use (testimony to its normative ruination). It is now freely appropriated for a wide variety of irreverent re-purposing. These appropriations retain the essential ‘last days of governance’ abject motif, but appropriate it for new satirical projects of varying degrees of importance or seriousness. In doing so these appropriations reinforce the generality of the ‘bunker mentality’ metaphor, but also weaken the specificity of a real Hitler having inhabited a real Berlin bunker during a real total war that lead to millions of real deaths. And there’s nothing better to encapsulate this than the Downfall parodies:

 

 

References: for these please see my Geographia Polonica article.

Picture credit: https://www.express.co.uk/travel/articles/633088/hitler-grave-resting-spot-berlin-germany

 

Back in the Grotto: elf ‘n’ safety, providence and thrill

 

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“law is a project aimed at manipulating, governing and channelling senses into precise categories, boundaries and definitions; at the same time, it is a process emerging out of the sensorial intermingling of human and nonhuman, tangible and intangible bodies, as such inseparable from this continuum.”

Andrea Pavoni, Controlling Urban Events: Law, Ethics and the Material (2018) Glasshouse/Routledge. p.159

All around me elves and safety, as we walk along the winding path at the come-and-pet-a-goat-this-used-to-be-a-working-farm-once-y’know attraction. I’ve been here before – to this place and to this theme – I didn’t come here as research. A mid December family outing saw us rock up. The place is near-empty, slightly too cold, and not quite close enough to Christmas to have any air of anticipation. It would also make more sense if there was snow. Too much ex-farmyard scrub and scrap remains in view, a blanket of white would knit everything together nicely. But that cold unity would create problems of its own – paths to be cleared and gritted to ensure maximal circulation of this place.

We are given a map – cartoon style (as everywhere) it carves up this place into zones, allocating themes, promises of particular atmospheres and colour-coded do’s and don’ts. The design of the map, and the topography that it represents, assumes that we will walk at a certain place, along particular routes and have particular sensations and experiences along the way. The places we are not supposed to go – the backstage, attraction-enabling, zones – are shown only part-drawn at the periphery. No colour-coded lines of movement run through them. These places are meant to look so unexciting that they will be entirely uninviting. A subtle form of prohibition based upon an engineered reversal of desire – an aversion-lite. It is sufficient for most, though risks a beguiling counter-attraction effect for some contrarians.

It all gets me thinking again about how places are parsed and encoded in the name of ‘health and safety’, and how some of the resulting normative orders are clearly contributing to that goal, whilst others seem simply the modern – acceptable – way of saying, “this is private”. And also that in “attractions” like this place, there is a dual encoding, a conformity to the curator’s perception about provident risk management sits alongside a staging of thrill, simulated jeopardy, or authenticity.

I ponder the tensions between these as I stoop to bend my lanky body into the mesh, caged frame of a sheep trailer and set off on a jolting tractor ride around the site. We stare out at the park and its uncaged patrons, who stare back sometimes envious (we were ahead of them in the queue for this experience) and others who view us as entertainment – a cage of strangers trundling around the petting zoo. Human flesh, in a pen-on-wheels that smells like it was host to an incontinent flock earlier that day. Then the highpoint, first the three-point turn in the otherwise off-limits backstage storage bay, then being sprayed with water jets as we meander down dedicated tractor-only trails amidst the motley assortment of inflatable santas, elves and snowmen. They also stare at us, except for the ones who have fallen over or twisted away in the flatland winds, now facing obstinately elsewhere.

This wet smell-fest assault is hardly the glass skywalk in Shinuizhai National Geological Park, China, where an exposure to fear is the raison d’etre of the place, but clearly we are meant to be destablised by this tractor ride – and we might leave unfulfilled were there to be no simulated jeopardy at this place. We’re we to be feeling entirely safe and certain here would mean that the place had failed as an “attraction” – a place that offers the promise of an encounter with something non-standard, and not entirely under our control.

So, having obediently washed my hands and (having brought our own picnic) not eaten it in the warm cafe area but instead in the designated cold, outdoor shame-benches of the frugal, I decided to offer-up the following conference abstract to the ‘Practising Legal Geography’ session at RGS-IBG 2019 (London, 28-30 August) – see last month’s post for details of the CFP:

Providence in place management: can critical legal geography account for zonal risk assessment?

“You can go there, but not there, and only there if accompanied”. Risk assessment is a fundamental place-making technology, one which often results in the parsing of sites into zones of normative differentiation. How is this zonal arrangement brought about? This paper will examine the practices by which law’s concern for managing the risks of injury to recreational visitors is spatialised. These practices involve the pragmatic translation of law’s abstract fears into site-specific judgements by lay-actors, principally site managers, who as neither lawyers nor professional geographers must perform delicate normative encodings of their places. This deployment of law into place by managers is a two-step process, requiring first their reading of the features and circumstances of a site and secondly, their devising of locally workable rules of being-in-place. The paper’s analysis of these lay legal geographical translation practices will be based on a comparative survey of risk assessments prepared by hosts for visitors to ‘awkward’ heritage sites. The study will show how key ‘risky’ features of those sites are identified, evaluated and presented through the managers’ mediation between safety legislation and other ‘attraction’ priorities, such as thrill, authenticity and affordability. In interpreting this data the paper will explore how well-suited critical legal geography, and its customary focus upon tracing power relations and subaltern identities, is to examining and understanding the spatial aspects of risk assessment and its resulting place management, and whether alternatively Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ (2015) and Pavoni’s (2017) more acceptive legal geography can offer additional opportunities for investigation and insight.