Ruinphobia, the New Ruins and the anti-ruination reflex – my newly published chapter is out

1988 ruined shop

“The problems associated with empty properties are considerable. They attract vandalism and increase insecurity and fear. And this all reduces the value of surrounding businesses and homes. So the decision to leave a property empty is not just a private matter for the landlord. It affects us all.”

Mary Portas, The Portas Review: The Future of Our High Streets, 2011, p 35.

Portas here reveals that any discussion of transience and permanence in urban development engages deeply embedded cultural assumptions about utility and progress. I explore the origins and effects of this anxiety in a contribution to a recently published collection of essays on the theme of temporary re-uses of vacant urban property. In my chapter I show how an underlying ruinphobia quitely but powerfully shapes the fate of abandoned buildings, regardless of how some might more loudly valorise them through a ruinphiliac (or ruin lusty) gaze.

In my chapter I place recent (largely ruinphiliac) ruin studies scholarship in the arts and humanities alongside insights from both critical urban studies and the more professionally focused concerns of real estate practitioners in order to see what happens when ruinphobia and ruinphilia try to inhabit the same space. As a taster here’s a snippet, in which I set up the juxtaposition by taking Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher off for a walk in a direction he didn’t intend:

“The ruin is a provocative mix of time and matter – it shows us simultaneously the longevity and the ephemeral nature of both buildings and their uses. It also holds a mirror up to our relationship with their constituent matter, destabilising our perception of and reaction to the building as a whole, and the building as an assemblage. It is also paradoxically both a lawless prospect – and yet strangely of the law. To pursue these points let us dwell for a moment at the threshold of The House of Usher. Let us imagine that we are standing there with Edgar Allan Poe’s unidentified narrator as he looks upon the bleak vista, scrutinising the building before him and searching out its sublime import:

“more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity […] yet all of this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts and, the crumbling condition of the individual stones” (Poe, 2003, p 94)

But what if we re-contextualise the scene, replacing Poe’s intimated ruinphiliac frisson with a workaday ruinphobia? Then – perhaps – our unidentified narrator becomes the occupant’s tax adviser, come to advise the decrepit titular owner upon demolition or a creative ruination ruse to avoid Business Rates. Perhaps he has come to disassemble the building, totting up as he looks on, how many stone blocks, lead pipes and copper cupolas the House of Usher will yield when levelled. Perhaps he has come from the local council and will shortly serve legal notice upon the owner, commanding corrective works under the Building Act 1984. Perhaps he has come from next door, alleging recourse against Usher under the common law principles of Private Nuisance, for damage sustained by his own property caused by this decaying structure. Perhaps he is a local councillor concerned about the adverse effects of this dereliction upon the amenity of the neighbourhood, and is contemplating the scene with a view to producing a report to his Council’s cabinet in favour of action being ordered under Section 215 Town & Country Planning Act 1990. Perhaps he is the local crime prevention officer attending to warn the owner that the degenerating condition of his place is a magnet to crime. Perhaps he is an insurance broker, steeling his nerve before breaking the news to his client that policy premiums are now prohibitively expensive, on account of the recent decline of this once stately house.

The Fall of the House of Usher is fiction, it is just a story. It is presented as an entertainment – predicated on the assumption that there is a willing audience for tales that summon the prospect of standing, contemplating the degeneration of a ruinous building, and getting some unsettling thrill from vicariously doing so, whilst reading the story in the safety of our own warm, cosy and familiar homes.  But, much as we might enjoy TV crime shows and their grizzly exceptionality, we do so only from a safe distance: we only want ruination in controllable amounts, too much or its occurrence at a time and place not of our choosing is cause for a different type of unsettling – one that calls for action, intervention and eradication of the ruin.”

The edited collection in which my essay appears is Transience & Change in Urban Development (ed. John Henneberry, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), and its rather pricey (more details here). But there’s an early version of what eventually became my chapter here, worked up with some initial help from my SHU colleague Jill Dickinson. The book’s chapters derive from an international EU funded workshop convened by John Henneberry in January 2015.

Image credit:

Abandoned shop front, 1988: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/414190496956316175/

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image credit:

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

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

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.

 

Gazing up, looking down: following cathedral stone back to its source

“Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the property of spaces and the possibilities of time.”

Jacques Rancière (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum: London, p. 13.

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You’re standing in the vast nave of Exeter Cathedral, staring up at the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England.

“When visiting such places most of us have gazed in awe at lofty stone arches and intricately carved tracery, each paying tribute to the masons who have fashioned them with loving care. Few amongst us, however, have given a passing thought to the men who provided them with their raw materials by working deep underground, enduring conditions of extreme hardship and danger, to wrest the stone from its natural bed” (Scott & Gray n.d.: 1)

In a previous post I’ve written about the after-life of stone fragments released (or prised) from crumbling ruins [here]. In contrast, in this post I will wander Beer Quarry Caves – the origin point of stone blocks that went into many of the grandest Medieval English cathedrals – in the company of a tour guide, walking through the vast underground spaces from which the cathedral’s rock was hewn and thinking about the possibilities of animating absent quarrymen, their toil and their stone prize.

Beer Quarry Caves, in East Devon were founded by the Romans in AD50 and then worked continuously for nearly two thousand years. The Roman entrance sits beside the Norman one, slightly apart – a few feet – and yet a thousand years too, the intruding rays of sunlight revealing thousands of pick marks on each threshold, in each case the ancient scrapes of very long ago. The Roman’s quarried into the cliffs from landward, at first in open workings and then following the ¼ mile wide seam of this 65 million year old chalk limestone underground, beneath the burden of 100 feet of overlying rock. In doing so, generation by generation, they and their successors inched forward a trail of Cathedral-like voids of excavated space: the pitch-black darkness now the spent inverse of the evacuated beautiful creamy-white, fine textured limestone won from this strata’s 13 foot seam of desire.

The Bishops of Exeter leased the quarries for centuries – but the reformation in 1540 saw the collapse of ecclesiastical demand for Beer Stone, and for a while the mine fell silent, then finding more modest secular (and local) uses for it, with some resurgence in the Victorian thirst for urban church building. Production finally ceased in 1920, leaving a 75 acre underground labyrinth comprised of sturdy stone pillars and the void spaces between: the extracted stone now elsewhere: dried, hardened and discoloured by centuries of exposure to sky.

What is there to see in the dark?

As Strangleman (2013) notes, a mine erases itself, though fulfilment (and exhaustion) of its purpose. It is a place at which there is nothing to see as such. The extracted stone is normally the story – and the places created with it – as Knoop & Jones noted back in 1938 the histories of stone are of their use, not their production.

The recorded story of Beer Stone is of its diffusion, its mobility (by sea) – Beer stone recorded on masons’ stock rolls at London Bridge (1350), Rochester Castle (1368) and Westminster Abbey (early 1400s), the result of impressive networks of supply. Tracing these networks is a challenge in itself, a trail only partially satisfied by ancient archives, as Edensor has argued. Seeking to explicate the networks by which metropolitan Manchester’s stone found its way into (being) the heart of that Victorian city,  Edensor set out to trace stone’s urban materiality: seeking out the relations and the consequences of the mineral ‘stuff-ness’ of cities and their buildings, and adopting multiple methods to find the “multiple traces of other time-spaces … [amidst]… an affective and sensual encounter with materiality that promotes empathy with other times, people, events and non-human agents.” (450) This tracing takes Edensor (and us) to the stone-source, the quarry: a former ‘workspace’ (literally worked-space) – a space made by work.

At Beer Quarry Caves the remains of quarrying tools from Roman era onwards, found within spoil filled chambers, testify to a day in day out playing out of working lives, alongside the working marks, scrapes, scratches, spoil, candle burns and graffiti. Walking into the workings is to walk amongst eras of excavation within paces of each other – but out striding as spectator the inch by inch creep of the working faces: Roman arches, then the more rudimentary square openings of the Saxons, then a turn into the expanded halls of the Normans, all adjacent to hundreds of subsequent years of steady workings up to 1920, and connected up by the mine’s poly-era workways, and their ‘robbed pillars’ showing the scars of subsequent trimming of stone from these ancient bulwarks, the quick winning of stone by shaving it from the pillar by sawing the one remaining connecting face, rather than an arduous six (as entailed in cutting a block free from virgin rockbed).

Here – in this gloom – is human/matter relationality: the pragmatism of ‘corner cutting’, the working lives and family fortunes entwined in the prising out of this stone.  These traces speak to the toil at this place, as does the following scrawl, scratched into a pillar in angry Norman French deep within the workings:

 “Master mason, you built your cathedral towards heaven

With stone that was quarried from hell.”

But in what sense can we know this toil? What illuminates these voids? What creates the experience of being there? How much hangs on the interlocutor and the narration of this place? Without lighting, without a pathway through the cave complex this would be meaningless unilluminated space – truly dark void. This place becomes animated by our guide’s (re)performance of the lives of this quarry, his eloquent foregrounding of background, of revealing the worked – made – space of this subterranean honeycomb: the incidental cathedral-like spaces of this evacuated rock mass.

Our guide’s incantations make us think of the 15 hours a day, 6 days a week toil, and of a quarryman presenting a four tonne quarried block to the foreman – the ‘touchstone’ – at the end of the lightless day – only to be paid if the rock ‘rang true’ in retort to his expert strike upon it. Our guide also emotes, narrating centuries of local antagonism, speaking a bitterness towards the productive focus of the Bishopric, and its driving of production at this site in the Middle Ages, of the collapse of a piece of the quarry roof in 1758 response to a surface explosion – 48 men and one boy killed, the owner’s only question in response to that news: “Have we lost any horses?”

There is ancestral bitterness directed at the masons too. An up-welling of the ages-old division between the local quarrymen and the far better paid stone masons who would often visit the site, sourcing blocks and working them underground in their softer – still moist – form. The secrecy of the masons kept the local quarrymen at bay, keeping to their brotherhood their valuable stone carving skills. It was not until 1856 that one – William Cawley – finally became a stone mason – entering the brotherhood using a community collection given to William’s grandmother after her husband was killed during a local smuggling accident in 1801.

And that smuggling – our guide told us – also still resonated within the culture of the local village and of its underground quarry. Brandy from France, Port from Spain and Portugal, hidden in the darkness sought out by customs men, deadly skirmishes and all. And to this day, the fisherman of the village chide our guide that he is the descendant of a customs man. There is then – via our evocative guide and his story-telling – a sense of a lingering symbiotic connection between the caves and the local village, and that there is much that is left behind in the caves, sedimented there:  discarded tools, voids, relations, attitudes, grievances and their attendant affects. And quarrying phrases too, now hovering – decontextualized – in everyday speech: ‘To broach’ – to prick, indent or furrow the surface of stone with a narrow-pointed stone chisel. ‘Stone deaf’ – occupational deafness from the thunderous echo of constant blows, iron against stone. ‘Worth a candle’ – each quarryman having to buy five animal tallow candles per day, and decide whether an area of rock was worth the effort – and cost – of the meagre lighting to be brought to its working.

Visiting the past?

Norman working area Beer Quarry

And so, we stand as an audience listening to these stories – but are we communing with stone, with the quarrymen or just with our narrator? Standing in the spot of the 1758 roof collapse we know – and feel – nothing of this incident until told of it. We walk Roman to Saxon to Norman in the space of a few strides. The arch work changes, that is our only sign, the stone is uniform throughout. This area’s substance is its void. This place is a curation of absence.

High and Lewis (2007) in their attack upon urban exploration, reject industrial experiential tourism, asserting that “Spelunking can be read as akin to dancing on a grave” (29). For them such spectatorship completes an insensitivity twice meted out by the non-working class, first in bringing about closure, second in the spectatorship of a “post-industrial necrology.” (29). But High and Lewis’ attack on urban explorers for a decontextualized appropriation, of generic – disconnected – fetishized images, assumes that no attempt is being made to connect with the specificity of a former workplace, its tasks and histories. Strangleman (2013), defends modern attempts to construct an engagement with sites of past labour – and sees in short-term engagement with them – each generation making its methods, finding its own way to take something from the past, and pursue (each generation for its own reasons) a ‘remembrance of lost work’ – there are indeed many ways of remembering.

A trip to Beer Quarry Caves shows that a good guide, using the time and space of passage through a place and a deft unfurling of its stories, can animate even the darkest, emptiest subterranean void.

But, in our journey back towards the mouth of this mine there is a spectre to meet, the (as Derrida styled it) ‘spectre of Marx’. Our guide frames this place in the conventional politico-materialist language of people actualising through work, through actions upon matter, socio-economic relations of production and the progressive movement of distinct historical epochs – all the raison d’etre of amateur industrial archaeology. As such this framing alludes to “concrete political forms” (Cheah, 2010: 89) flowing back to Marx’s dialectical materialism (that history is headed somewhere, that it embodies conflict between distinct social groupings, that history is driven by relations with matter and power). Edensor’s materialism is more vitalist, and in seeking to speak the alterity of urban stone (its flux over time, ungovernability of matter, its otherness and resistance to human dominion). Given that the human-labour-achievement-over-matter frame remains so dominant it is perhaps no surprise that ‘new’ materialists get accused of forgetting the toils of labouring people. New materialists would point out – perhaps – that human labour is not being denied, but rather shown alongside a much wider constellation of factors and forces. But that does result in a de-emphasis, the moral-political implications of which perhaps need working through more.

We leave our guide now, he’s back at the entrance, gathering the next tour group, getting them in the mood by passing around a Roman coin found recently near the entrance. Our guide knows both what he will say, and how to pace it for maximum effect. Whether in the bravura of performance or genuine ancestral angst, he will once again take the opportunity to colourfully re-assert the quarryman over the masons, the cathedral, the sky and the surface world.  He will once again weave thing and story in a way that activates some slight – but compelling – sense of others’ (and our own) material relations.

Sources

Beer Quarry Caves Ltd (n.d.) Beer Quarry Caves – www.beerquarrycaves.co.uk

Cahill, K. (2008) Beer Quarry Caves – Global & Western Media Productions at: http://www.jurassiccoast.org/downloads/news/beer_quarry_caves.pdf‎

Cheah, P. (2010) ‘Non-Dialectical Materialism’ in Coole, D. & Frost, S.A. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics, Duke University Press: London.

Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Vital urban materiality and its multiple absences: the building stone of central Manchester’ Cultural Geographies, 20, 447-465.

High, S & Lewis, D.W. (2007) Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of De-Industrialisation, New York.

Knoop, D. & Jones, J.P. (1938) ‘The English Medieval Quarry’ The Economic History Review, 9 (1), 17-37.

Scott, J. & Gray, G. (n.d.) Out of the Darkness: A brief history and description of the Old Stone Quarry, Beer, Axminster Printing co. Ltd

Strangleman, T. (2013) ‘“Smokestack Nostalgia”, “Ruin Porn” or Working-Class Obituary: The role and meaning of deindustrialised representation’ International Labour and Working Class History, 84, 23-37.

Images:

www.beerquarrycaves.co.uk

www.englishcathedrals.co.uk/cathedral/exeter-cathedral/

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return. Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

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As a great proof of the merits of  ‘follow your instincts’ and see what happens, I’ve now been invited to give a presentation – as part of a symposium at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 15 May 2014 – about the legal aspect of doing Land Art in abandoned quarries. This nicely adds to the symposium work I’ve done on law and abandoned quarries elsewhere in the last 18 months for the British Mountaineering Council (climbing in them), the National Water Safety Forum (swimming in them) and the Mineral Products Association (not dying in them). It also marks another step in the strange convergence of what once seemed a very dichotomous project: the occupiers’ liability stuff on one hand vs the urban exploration/psychogeography/bunkerology stuff on the other. This is both, in a single event!

So here’s the organisers’ promo for the event, followed by my abstract…

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return 
Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

This one-day symposium, led by artists Charles Danby and Rob Smith, in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979’ (5 April – 15 June 2014), has been organised in collaboration with the Arts Council Collection, Northumbria University and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The symposium explores Land Art in relation to contemporary practices and historical precedents. It investigates the quarry as an active physical site for the production of new artworks and for the re-visiting of past works. Bringing together theoretical and practical positions in relation to chalk and limestone quarries, it focuses on approaches leading to the making of works, films, documents, field recordings and archives.

In the anthropocene the quarry becomes a site of new relations, that connects historical, material, technological and social revision through changing land use and post-industrial / post-ecological occupation. The day will examine the status of these quarry sites, the removal of materials, their social and physical reparation and the negotiation of their borders and thresholds in physical, legal and artistic frameworks, through to what Robert Smithson characterised as ‘an expensive non-site’ in 1969, the moon, as a speculative quarry.

Details of the speakers

Joy Sleeman – Senior Lecturer at Slade School of Art, University College London, and co-curator of Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/people/academic/profile/ASLEE78

Luke Bennett – Senior Lecturer in the Department of Natural & Built Environment at Sheffield Hallum University and researcher into owner and climber attitudes to recreational access to abandoned quarries
http://www.shu.ac.uk/faculties/ds/built-environment/staff/luke-bennett.html
http://www.lukebennett13.wordpress.com

Charles Danby – Artist, writer, curator & Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, Northumbria University
http://charliedanby.co.uk/
http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/sd/academic/sass/about/arts/staff/charlesdanby

Rob Smith – Artist and co-director of Field Broadcast
http://robsmith.me.uk
http://fieldbroadcast.org

Onya McCausland – Artist and co-researcher of Turning Landscape into Colour
http://turninglandscape.com/

Mark Peter Wright – Artist and editor of Ear Room and researcher with CRIASP, London College of Communication
http://www.crisap.org/index.php?id=40,393,0,0,1,0
http://mpwright.wordpress.com

Rob La Frenais – Critic and curator at Art Catalyst, and founder of Performance Magazine
http://www.artscatalyst.org

Neal White (video screening)- Artist and Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice at Bournemouth University, Director of Emerge – Experimental Media Research Group, and founder of the Office of Experiments
http://www.nealwhite.org
http://staffprofiles.bournemouth.ac.uk/display/whiten

For booking visit: www.thequarry.org.uk

And my abstract:

Encountering law and land art in abandoned quarries – excavation, legacy, return

My research work focuses upon the intersection of legal, aesthetic and pragmatic site management practices in the stewardship and re-valorisation of abandoned and/or physically damaged places such as quarries, derelict factories and decommissioned military sites. My presentation will explore the (feint) intertwined presence of law, proprietors and enthusiastic  ‘re-energisers’ within abandoned quarries. In doing so it will draw from my former experiences as an environmental lawyer advising on the decommissioning and safeguarding of extractive industry sites, as an academic now teaching land managers and as an active researcher of enthusiast groups who seek access to derelict spaces for recreational, creative or illicit purposes. My research work on quarries is  characterised by a desire to understand both how these places are forgotten, and how they are re-activated by enthusiasts finding new uses for them (and of the ‘challenges’ this may pose for their owners). This ongoing research project is ‘multi-stakeholder’ and opportunistic in nature, with me seeking to explore and understand each perspective and its processes of meaning making, within specific sites of occurrence. My project thus has at times been deeply ‘managerial’ in focus and at other points has explored the affective dimension. Thus at various points my project has seen interest and support from key stakeholder groups, including the Forestry Commission, the British Mountaineering Council, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Mineral Products Association and also a small commission in 2013 from the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund to research and write Scree, a deep topographical assay (with photographer Katja Hock – Nottingham Trent University) of the mine and wastescape of an excavated industrial hillside in the heart of Sheffield. In addition to giving an account of my various investigations, my presentation will also sketch out the key legal drivers that shape managers’ and regulators perceptions (and anxieties) about these voids, in doing so touching on the legal-materialities of spoil-spreading waste disposal scams, restoration and instability, contamination, re-mining and how the proximity of humans alters the legal status of excavated rock faces and abandoned mineshafts.

In ruins in 2014

bigruins3

“For [Walter] Benjamin, the truth content of a thing is released only when the context in which it originally existed has disappeared, when the surfaces of the object have crumbled away and it lingers precariously on the brink of extinction.”

Gilloch, G. (1996) Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, Polity: Cambridge

Oddly, it’s suddenly become very unfashionable to talk or write about ruins. So, it’s probably not good timing that I’m set to use the ‘R’ word copiously in at least three conference sessions this year. Ho hum…

Here are my abstracts.

Fragment 1 – ‘Big Ruins’ Conference – University of Manchester, 14 May 2014

The ruin of ruins – image, utility and materiality in the fate of broken places

We see the hilltop castle ruin as frozen, rather than continuing to crumble. ‘Ruin’ is both a noun and a verb, yet we tend to talk only of ruins as static, certain and final end points of a building’s life.  In this presentation I will consider the human and other processes by which ruins are denied a stable, final identity. I will look at how ruination is ultimately an irresistible process, its pace can be retarded but not halted – and ultimately ruination becomes self-erasing. As a disease-like entropic force ruination permeates the built environment revealing itself via culturally and materially inflected manifestations in local sites of rupture. This paper will illustrate the diversity of these manifestations ranging across the shifting fates of different corners of the economy and their structures, the demolition urge of contemporary business rates taxation, the anxieties of owners and their insurers, the powerful material effects of ideas of ‘dereliction’, ‘regeneration’, utility, safety and the marauding of scavengers.  It will also consider the non-human material factors and processes – the building pathologies – that assail the body of the ruin and drive it onwards towards disassembly, degeneration and desiccation. In keeping with the ‘big ruin’ focus of the conference, this paper will work outwards from the single building level scale of the Romantic ruin trope, first by following Edgar Allen Poe in peering up close into the materiality of the decaying sub-elements of the House of Usher, and then zooming out to figure degenerating urban terrain as a resource-scape, a field of matter intermixed with ideas, values and utilities each propelling ruination as a destabilizing flux   channeling matter out of the city, and summoning in an urge-to-change, in the face of a perennial fear of disuse and abandonment.

NB: more details of this FREE conference here: http://narratingwaste.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/big-ruins-the-aesthetics-and-politics-of-supersized-decay-manchester-wednesday-14-may-2014/

Fragment 2 – Royal Geographical Society Conference (Legal Geographies session), 26-29 August 2014

The law in ruins: co-production, nomic traces and the sedimented taskscapes of the world’s first factory

The Legal Geography canon rests on a principle of co-production: namely that the social, the spatial and the legal act upon each other to form the ‘nomosphere’ (Delaney, 2010) and/or a ‘splice’ (Blomley, 2003). This paper will seek – through application of such thinking to a case study – to reframe the co-productive triumvirate, as matter, discourse and practice, and thereby align the co-production model towards a more processual and relational understanding of ‘worlding’ (Massey, 2005), pointing in particular to the generative role of human purpose, context and contingency in local instances of pragmatic co-production: Ingold’s (1993) notion of ‘taskscape’. Specifically, the presentation will advance its argument by examining the ‘entanglement’ (Hodder, 2012) of matter, purpose and normativity (which I take to include – but be wider than – legal discourse) in the founding, expansion, decline and ‘rescue’ of the world’s first factory scale cotton mill, at Cromford in Derbyshire, UK. If Legal Geography’s co-production model is right we should expect not just to find material traces of law in the physical world, but also evidence of the accommodation of law to site specific and circumstantial effects of topography, geology, commercial conventions and social mores. The presentation will thus focus upon explicating the physical sedimentation of a variety of taskscapes across the site’s 250 year life, and their attendant socio-spatial normativities, within the fabric and layout of the Mill complex.

Fragment 3 – Royal Geographical Society Conference (Cold War Bunkers session), 26-29 August 2014

Cold War bunkers as a post traumatic landscape

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.