RED COATS AND WILD BIRDS

On November 15th, Landscape Surgery was delighted to welcome Kirsten Greer, Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Histories and Geographies at Nipissing University, Ontario, to discuss her monograph Red Coats and Wild Birds. How Military Ornithologists and Migrant Birds Shaped Empire (The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill; 2020). Chaired by Innes Keighren, the session adopted an ‘author meets surgeons’ format, with general discussion energised by Kirsten talking through her intellectual trajectories prior and subsequent to the book, and responsive readings from Caroline Cornish (Honorary Research Associate and Humanities Research Coordinator, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew) and PhD students Christina Hourigan and Michelle Payne.

Red Coats and Wild Birds Front Cover. Cover Illustration: Cornelius Krieghoff, An Officer’s Room in Montreal (oil on canvas), 1846. Used with permission of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Red Coats and Wild Birds reflects on the ornithological practices of British army officers in the nineteenth-century, outlining their wider importance to cultures of nature, the accumulation of geographic knowledge, and empire building. More specifically, it focuses on the ‘British Mediterranean’ as an imperial space of connection where the mobile lives of military men and migratory birds intersected. The four substantive chapters of the book focus on specific life geographies, ‘avian vignettes’ and places: Thomas Wright Blakiston, the Great Bustard, and the Crimea; Andrew Leith Adams, the Hoopoe and Malta; Leonard Howard Lloyd Irby, the Golden Oriole and Gibraltar; and Philip Savile Grey Reid, the Osprey, and the English army home-base of Aldershot, Hampshire. The book’s Introduction and Afterword foreground questions of colonial afterlives and amnesias through reflections on twenty-first century conflicts over the hunting and conserving of migratory birds in the post-colonial context of Malta.

Author-Meets-Surgeons: from left to right, Caroline Cornish, Michelle Payne, Kirsten Greer, Christina Hourigan and Innes Keighren (photo — and arrangement of abandoned diary, notebook, book, pen and woollen hat — courtesy of Philip Crang)

The discussion reflected the thoughtful, suggestive texture of the book. The combining of human and bird ‘life geographies’ was one main area of reflection; for example, Michelle noted how the visual presence of bird portraits and human migratory diagrammatic tracings inverted expected representational tropes. Shaped by our group’s, and the panel’s, investments in the plant humanities, another talking point, as raised by Christina, was how ornithological knowledge and collection might differ from the botanical. Caroline opened up discussion of the masculinities that Kirsten argues were performed through this nineteenth-century ornithology, the ‘British Military Scientific Hero’, ‘Temperate Martial Masculinity’, and ‘Muscular Adventurism’ included. We debated how the migratory geographies of birds both chimed and chafed with imperial, national and local framings. And the role of critical historical geography in countering colonial amnesia was a particularly strong conversational thread, enhanced by Kirsten’s comments on her on-going assistance to First Nation Communities in Northern Ontario.

As a PhD researcher initiating this project, Kirsten had spent six months as a ‘visiting surgeon’ at RHUL under the supervision of David Lambert, so it was a particular pleasure to welcome her back to reflect on the fascinating book that work became, and the wider commitment to critical historical geography she has developed. Fortuitously, and mirroring the session’s theme of connective mobilities, the session’s participants included Joan Schwarz, Kirsten’s erstwhile PhD co-supervisor at Queens, with us as Leverhulme Visiting Professor in 2022-23.

Philip Crang

DRAWING OUT VIRAL ECOLOGIES

Landscape Surgery was delighted to host a creative workshop led by Dr Sage Brice (British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Geography, University of Durham). Focusing on past and on-going experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, we explored her participatory drawing method for engaging with vulnerabilities and their potentials.

Sage convened a two-part session, both involving us in a version of the creative research process she has developed to explore pandemic experiences, and staging critical discussion about that methodology.

The novel Coronavirus (WHO)

Practically, working in smaller groups of five or six, we focused on cartooning the early stages of the pandemic (for example, through lockdowns), with a brief to do this from the virus’ point of view. Particularly notable was the care that Sage exercised in bringing us into the process, and the clear emphasis not on representational skill but on a generative contemplation enacted through acts of drawing. Iconic virus images (round, fluffy spikes / tufts; see above), bodies, bubbles, doors / windows, outside environments, emotional sensings (fear, loneliness, calm, love, care), disabling physical states and more were sketched out with widely varying graphic skills. I shouldn’t speak for the whole group, but personally I failed, I think, in the viral point of view: my hand more mobilised by remembrance of personal experience, and with viral relationality largely reduced to projections from my own imagination (a variously angry, pleading or mocking virus observing my precautionary behaviours). Particularly powerful imagery and testimony came from others drawing the problematic relations of infection; the ‘virus’ not separate from ‘us’, but part of new embodiments. In parallel, our picturings of lockdown behaviours evoked the sense of changed subjectivities in relation to COVID-19.

Drawing courtesy of Sage Brice

More broadly, we discussed the development of Sage’s creative research practice, both in relation to conceptual fields such as queer ecologies and her biography of work on ‘transindividual’ relationalities. Discussion picked up on the traditions of drawing research in Geography and their renewed role within the GeoHumanities today, including amongst ‘surgeons’ present and past (Helen Scalway’s long-standing contributions deserving of particular mention). There was also a thread of discussion about the role of technical skill in drawing research, even when participatory in ethos. Does limited drawing skill inhibit or prevent evocation, despite the open, safe environment produced by a skilled convenor?

Issues around creative research methods will return at various points in our programme; so, particularly warm thanks to Sage for her generosity and care in visiting us and running such a rich workshop. Her departmental profile is here; and her twitter handle is Sage_Brice.

Philip Crang

CITIZEN SENSING OF AIR AND ATMOSPHERE

After introductions from returning and newly joined ‘surgeons’, our first Landscape Surgery meeting of the term focused on Sasha Engelmann’s new AHRC-funded fellowship on Advancing Feminist and Creative Methods for Sensing Air and Atmosphere.

Running from September 2022 until September 2024, Sasha’s fellowship is focused on developing citizen-led sensing of both air quality and weather. It draws on, and aims to contribute to, wider work on citizen sensing by scholars including Nerea Calvillo, Jennifer Gabrys and Max Liboiron. One key topic for discussion was how feminist thinking emphasises the relationality of environmental data, and promotes an environmental sensing committed to care as well as precision. We also reflected on how creative methods can advance these agendas, in particular when they foreground the sociality of environmental knowledge making.

open-weather, 2020. Decoding weather satellite transmission during a DIY Satellite Ground Station workshop led by Sasha Engelmann and Sophie Dyer at the Wagenhallen Kunstverein Cultural Centre in Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Sasha Engelmann)

The fellowship focuses especially on two projects. First, open-weather, where Sasha is working with Sophie Dyer and other collaborators on developing citizen-led weather monitoring networks that form an international ‘open-weather’ community, decoding weather satellite transmissions to image and imagine Earth’s weather systems. Second, a project on air quality in Villa Inflamable (‘the flammable town’, situated next to the largest petro-chemical facility in Argentina). Here Sasha will be working with residents of the town, Buenos Aires-based anthropologist Dr. Débora Swistun, the artistic Aerocene Community and others, to develop forms of air quality sensing that are locally embedded and attuned to residents’ lived experiences.

Aerocene sculpture launch in Villa Inflamable, Argentina, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sasha Engelmann)

The discussions rightly focused largely on the methodological ambitions and case study projects of the fellowship, but Sasha kindly pre-circulated a version of the proposal, which gave us all a chance to reflect on the crafting of not only a ‘case for support’ but data management plans, work plans and justifications of resources that can combine precision with ethoses of collaboration and co-production.

The group’s thanks are extended to Sasha for sharing her work with us. Learning more about what she has planned for the next two years provided a suitably energising start to the new academic year.

Philip Crang

Machines in Flames

In May 2022 we welcomed the directors and producers of the film Machines in Flames, Thomas Dekeyser and Andrew Culp. For the first half of the session we each watched the film individually, which was then followed by a discussion with Thomas and Andrew.


Machines in Flames is an experimental documentary that details the journey Thomas and Andrew underwent in the search for the group CLODO (Committee for Liquidation and Subversion of Computers). CLODO were/are an elusive group who were invested in attacking and burning down computer centres in France in the early 1980s. After a series of attacks in Toulouse, they disappeared and were never discovered.

Screenshot from Machines in Flames © Provided by Thomas Dekeyser

Thomas and Andrew are interested not only in CLODO’s actions, but their anonymity as a group – how they were present and then absent; and, how they disappeared without any arrests. Through the film, they try to make sense of CLODO and how they evaded ever being known. The film also addresses methodological questions of what it means to archive and what it means to conduct archival research. The evasive nature of CLODO can be seen in the difficulties Thomas and Andrew had in unearthing information on CLODO. They began their search by using investigatory computational tools, the exact tools that CLODO had fought against. Traces of the group can be found only in the remaining records – in the newspapers, legal documents, and photographs that have been archived since the 1980s. By combining footage of stakeouts, desktop choreography, and archival traces, Machines in Flames takes the audience on a journey to investigate cybernetics and fire (Machines in Flames, 2022).

Finding CLODO proved a challenge that required going beyond a computational search – CLODO had successfully evaded detection and concealed their actions. Therefore, to know CLODO, the filmmakers needed to become CLODO. Discussing the embodied approach to the film, by visiting the sites CLODO would have visited, Thomas and Andrew said they could gain an understanding of what CLODO experienced. They could gain familiarity with the buildings CLODO staked out and the streets they roamed. They could ask similar questions about the threats of computation and attempt to understand the reason behind CLODO’s attacks. This provided a connection to CLODO that had not been experienced before, a connection that was not possible by solely investigating newspaper articles or viewing locations through investigatory computational tools, e.g., Google Earth. Knowing CLODO meant becoming CLODO.

The stakeout © Screenshot from Machines in Flames, provided by Thomas Dekeyser

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the film is the embodied projection of the stakeout, of becoming CLODO. The audience is emerged in the nocturnal stakeout as the camera travels across the various locations throughout the film. More than just panning, the camera moves like a person, embodying the role of the observer, the planner, the attacker. Suspenseful music accompanies the night-time scenes, the anticipation of the attack mounting, leading you to question how CLODO felt. Were they nervous? Did they get a thrill out of it? Why were they doing it?

To know CLODO is to become CLODO © Screenshot from Machines in Flames, provided by Thomas Dekeyser

Knowing CLODO’s view of the use of computers as tools to exploit and control sheds light on why they attacked them. Through the attacks, CLODO was not resisting the computational technology of these machines, but what these machines could lead to. They could be used to cause destruction through military violence, and they could be used for surveillance within everyday life, therefore, CLODO saw these machines as dangerous. Their focus of concern was on computers, and unlike other groups, CLODO caused violence-without-death. They did not target the people working or monitoring the computers, but the machines themselves, burning them to the ground. Engulfing these machines in flames destroyed an archive of data, it was present and then absent, lost in the flames with only fragments left behind.

The outcome of an attack by CLODO © Machines in Flames (2022)

Through the production of a documentary film, Thomas and Andrew engage in an interesting conversation about conducting archival research. In creating new traces, they suggest that they are adding – to the archive – material on a collective whose existence was concentrated on the need for self-erasure. Mapping out the locations of CLODO’s attacks on Toulouse, through the use of people of interest and archival material, led Thomas and Andrew to question whether all they discovered in their investigation was in fact adding to the archive they should have been depriving. Should an archive shrouded in destruction, both by the cause and effect of the attacks, be celebrated when additions are made several years later? Furthermore, Thomas and Andrew admit that they relied on machines throughout their research, the opposite of what CLODO warned of doing. Was this CLODO’s point then? That the archive cannot be undone by its own logic. This leads the filmmakers to ask a number of questions on the nature of archives; what it means to document a particular form of knowledge; if there can ever be an anti-authoritarian archive; and, the destruction of archives by flames.

Map of attacks linked to people and archival material © Screenshot from Machines in Flames, provided by Thomas Dekeyser

Machines in Flames provokes a discussion around CLODO as a group and its politics, exploring how control and surveillance through computation led to a response with flames. CLODO showed coordination and purpose in their attacks, targeting computers that were being used to control, dominate, and exploit. The film also investigates important methodological questions around producing a documentary film and the nature of the archive. CLODO realised that the archive is not only underpinned by control and containment, but also by an “uncontainable entropy that leads only to self-combustion” (Machines in Flames, 2022). As Derrida (1996) argued in Archive Fever, the archive is both memory and loss, where things are created but also destroyed. Therefore, like fire, the archive is a measure of both life and death.


We would like to thank Thomas and Andrew for presenting such a thought-provoking documentary film which led to an engaging discussion at Landscape Surgery. You can find Machines in Flames on Twitter (@flames_film).

Written by: Beth Williamson

Edited by: Eva Barbarossa

Derrida, J. (1996) Archive Fever: a Freudian impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

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Why All Poetics Must Ultimately be Considered as Geopoetics

On 18th January 2022 we welcomed Oliver Dawson, a final year PhD student at University of Bristol, to Landscape Surgery. Oliver’s thesis, titled “Poetic Cartographies and Ecosophic Thought” focuses on poetry as a process of encountering non-human forces which operate within this world, disrupting its obvious and performative imagination of worlds.

About

After finishing his Undergraduate degree in American Literature at the University of Sussex, Oliver began working in the arts and cultural sector and ran The Poetry School, an organisation based in London which provides poetry writing classes for adults. Through this organisation, Oliver was introduced to a range of poets and began to explore the contemporary poetry scene in the UK. The organisation saw people from all walks of life engage with poetry, many of whom went on to publish their work and return to teach at the The Poetry School.

Oliver went on to study an MSc in Human Geography: Society and Space at the University of Bristol where the university’s strong philosophical roots influenced his approach to poetry. Through his exposure to the works of thinkers such as Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari, Oliver began to approach poetry as an encounter with impersonal forces and sensations.

Research and Influences

Whilst Oliver did not set out his career as a ‘geographer’ he states that he is on a journey to become a geographer. The combination of his studies, work and research have situated his research within cultural and historical geography, with a particular interest in geopoetics.

“Geography is not confined to providing historical form with a substance and variable places. It is not merely physical and human but mental, like the landscape” Deleuze & Guattari 1994: 96

Guattari has had significant influence on Oliver’s research; his thesis aims to enact a certain ecosophic thought traditionally associated with Guattari, focusing on the combined importance of mental, social, and environmental domains in the production of subjectivity.

A creative multiplicity: the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari | Aeon  Essays
Deleuze & Guattari. Image Source: https://bit.ly/DeleuzeGuattari

Ecosophic thought centres on how thinking these domains together actively composes a ‘wisdom of the home’. Oliver talked us through the understanding processes and productions of subjectivity as more than human, as a process which always involves non-human forces and therefore can be seen as a way of “thinking with the earth”.

“Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter.” – Deleuz, 1998

Oliver’s research aim therefore, is to think of poetry as an operational part of this world, as opposed to a commentary of the world. “Once poetry is a commentary it is a representation and confirmation of existing thoughts and ideas, the realities of what we already know”. Discussing the climate emergency, he argues that geopoetics should be less attached to commenting and responding to preconceived problems. Instead we should use geopoetics as a way of thinking with the earth when addressing realities such as the climate emergency. Oliver states that he has resisted engaging with ‘obvious’ poetry within his field such as eco-poetry, in doing so he establishes the challenges of geopoetics as not thinking from the self but instead thinking with the forces of the earth, deterritorialising the language used by thinking without a ground or foundation. By removing the ‘ground’, poetry and language have the potential to connect with the changes and movements of the earth.

His research reveals an interest in the relation of poetry and language, and understanding language as a system which covets order. In his attempt to address the asignifying side of language, Oliver draws on the disruption to order, by assigning events with poetry as ‘sites of disruption’ for performative ways of thinking. This has influenced his research methodology whereby he takes onboard the experience of meeting a poet, reading their work as well as the work which has influenced them, and then introducing his own philosophy. This method allows Oliver to be alert to the potential eruption of ideas by letting things emerge through the encounter, disrupting habitual patterns of thought and altering the production of subjectivity in novel, unpredictable ways.

Oliver sees geopoetics as a field he would like to explore further, potentially through the publication of a book. He is particularly interested in further exploring the meaning within the ‘geo’ and how his approach to poetry can act as a contribution to geopoetics as a whole.

We would like to thank Oliver for sharing with us his thought-provoking research and look forward to seeing his further exploration of geopoetics.

By Evie Gilbert

DELEUZE, G. & GUATTARI, F. 1994. What is philosophy?, New York, Columbia University Press.

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In Conversation with Ed Armston-Sheret

Landscape Surgery@25

Landscape Surgery Alumni 2017-2021 

About

Ed Armston-Sheret completed his PhD at Royal Holloway in the Geography department in 2021. His PhD, titled ‘Exploring Bodies: Recentring the Body in Histories of British Exploration, c.1850–1914,’ investigated the history of exploration and the bodies of explorers and those they travelled with. By offering a new perspective on Victorian exploration, Ed’s research is attentive to the contributions and experiences of people who are often ignored in mainstream histories of exploration, such as the porters who carried explorers’ equipment, sailors who worked on the ships, and so on. Ed is also interested in the role of animals in exploration and the collaboration between humans and animals on expeditions. 

Ed now works for the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in the Research and Higher Education Team.  

What are your reflections on the atmosphere and the community of Landscape Surgery? 

I always enjoyed going to Landscape Surgery. It was a nice community and there were always lots of fantastic discussions – it always made me realise what a broad discipline geography is. As a historical geographer you often have certain types of conversations, but interacting with people from the broader research group was always interesting to learn about something slightly different and seek parallels between that and your own work. It also created a cohort of PhD students who went through it at the same time which I think was really valuable in terms of building up a community spirit.  

What do you remember about who was there when you were a part of Landscape Surgery, and can you remember any of the key topics or trends that were spoken about? 

I remember in my second year of Landscape Surgery organising a session which was on the history of exploration. We used some funds from Landscape Surgery to invite Vanessa Heggie, who is doing some interesting research on extreme environment physiology, to speak. I remembered that talk because she is a fantastic scholar, and it was great to meet her.  

Session can be found here. 

There was a great talk from Flora Parrott, Rachel Squire, and Pete Adey on analogic spaces, caves, and the ends of the earth.  

Session can be found here 

I also remember discussing the project Making Suburban Faith with Natalie Hyacinth, a PhD student working on the project. Making Suburban Faith explores how suburban faith communities create space and focuses on eight different faith communities in Ealing in West London. Laura Cuch presented her film, Spiritual Flavours, at Landscape Surgery which is part of the wider Making Suburban Faith research project. 

Session can be found here 

I always enjoyed the first year presentations which I thought was a good aspect of Landscape Surgery. You would meet people in Landscape Surgery, but you didn’t always know what they were researching, therefore it was always fantastic to get people to talk about their research.   

What impact do you feel Landscape Surgery had on your work as a student? 

I think it was always the chance encounters and conversations you would have with people which was productive in terms of thinking about your own research. You would say what you had been up to, and someone would suggest something to read or give ideas to think about which was really useful. Conceptually I remember it being invaluable because the value of collaborative working is something I end up talking about in my own research. I think the importance of collaborative work within geography is something you realise by doing it, it’s not just specific conversations but working with other people which contributes to your own work. 

How did Covid-19 change the space of Landscape Surgery and impact the relationships between people at Landscape Surgery? 

I think the talks are still valuable online. A good thing was that you could have speakers from a wider cross-section of geography, as people couldn’t necessarily come to London. However, I did miss the in-person element. Working online affects the networking aspect of Landscape Surgery and getting to know people. 

Why do you think Landscape Surgery has been so successful? 

I think because it has got a lot of support from everyone in the department – people will try and attend the sessions. Also, people are interested in each other’s research, it’s a good way of hearing about that – it has become an established way for people to talk about their research. 

How important do you think the students who join Landscape Surgery are to its continued success? 

The students are incredibly important to Landscape Surgery. I think they are the centre of it in many ways as it keeps breathing new life into the surgeries, especially the first year presentations which are great because it gives students the opportunity to talk about their new research. As students play such an important role in organising Landscape Surgery sessions, keeping the blog up-to-date and so on, it is a good way of students gaining experience. 

What would you hope Landscape Surgery to achieve or continue to achieve in the next 25 years? 

One of the talks I remember, organised by Saskia Papadakis, was titled Why is my research group so white? I couldn’t attend but I remember talking to people about it afterwards and it started a really good conversation about the lack of diversity in geography in many ways. If I was to go forward 25 years, I would like Landscape Surgery to be more diverse, more representative of people who are currently excluded from academic geography. Some of that is down to Landscape Surgery, but we also need to put pressures on the wider system to make changes that need to happen.

Interview conducted by Beth Williamson 

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In Conversation with David Rooney

  Landscape Surgery@25

Landscape Surgery Alumni 2010-2016  

About

David Rooney completed his PhD in 2016 in Royal Holloway’s Geography department. His PhD research, supervised by David Gilbert, is titled ‘The Traffic Problem: Geographies, Politics and Technologies of Congestion in Twentieth Century London’ and explores movement in the country’s capital at the intersection of political, geographic and technological spheres. David is a writer and curator and has spent 25 years working in science and maritime museums. His latest book ‘About Time, A History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks’ is based on 15 years of research into why civilisations make clocks and why we should understand them better.  

A link to David’s website, with information on his new book other books and exhibitions can be found here.  

David joined Landscape Surgery around the same time he started his PhD in 2010. During his time in Landscape Surgery, David gave 2 presentations. In 2011 he worked alongside Mustafa Dikec and Carlos Alveros Galves on their project exploring time distribution and infrastructure in cities. In 2015 David presented his PhD research on traffic congestion in 20th century London, drawing on London as a global city through which he studied global flows of capital. 

What are your reflections on the atmosphere and the community of Landscape Surgery?  

Landscape Surgery and the Geography department was a big community, they had the most supportive, warm, inclusive and encouraging people I have ever worked within in my career. We met in Bedford square, which was a small room and you had to fight to get a seat! It was always sociable, you would be able to talk about work but also have social and moral support from the Landscape Surgery community.  

What do you remember about who was there, and what were the key topics/trends/turns? 

The diversity of topics was notable, all of the presentations were so far from your own research study but it did not matter because the work was all so thoughtful that you gain a lot out of everyone’s work. There was always a sense of togetherness and sharing, like a flat hierarchy. The presentation topic was only part of it, hearing people’s approach to their studies was something I had never experienced before and being able to see new ways of thinking and approaching research. You could apply other people’s approaches to your own studies even though your topics were worlds apart.  

What impact do you feel Landscape Surgery had on your work as a student and then later as a researcher?  

Landscape Surgery has definitely impacted my work now. It was so inclusive, so sharing, with no gatekeeping. People wanted everyone to benefit, and that’s something I have taken into my own work, I want to meet people and be able to share my work with them.  

Why do you think Landscape Surgery has been so successful?  

People feel like they are part of something bigger. My experience wasn’t unique though, I think that feeling applies to everyone. It was so inclusive that it encourages you to stay connected and stay involved.  

How important are the students who join Landscape Surgery to its continued success/ progression/ development? 

The inclusivity and sense of community among the students are what makes them want to be a part of it, and which helps with its success and its progression.  

What would you hope Landscape Surgery to achieve/continue to achieve in the next 25 years?  

I would hope to see it go back to Bedford Square, and back to in-person meetings. Landscape Surgery needs the in-person element to create that exciting atmosphere, you could be sat next to a fellow student or a hero of your field and the democratic nature of Landscape Surgery meant that you could speak to and learn from anyone.  

Interview conducted by Evie Gilbert

Look out for our next blog on Ed Armston-Sheret, his work, and his experience of Landscape Surgery by Beth Williamson.

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In Conversation with Ellie Miles

Landscape Surgery@25

Landscape Surgery Alumni 2008-2013

Ellie Miles was a Phd Student with Landscape Surgery between 2008 and 2013, completing a thesis on the subject ‘Curating the Global City’. Ellie specialises in online and digital curation, joining the London Transport Museum first as the Contemporary Collecting Curator and then later in her current role as Documentary Curator. Before joining the London Transport Museum Ellie also spent time as the Digital Curator at the Museum of London and as the Interpretations Officer at the British Museum.

As part of Ellie’s work, she is focussed on contemporary collecting, in particular exploring the ethical principles and practices which can inform museum curation. Ellie was also a visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster for 2 years, where she developed and taught the course ‘Online Museums and Galleries’.  

Follow Ellie’s work on her blog here, and on twitter here.

Interview conducted by Cynthia Nkiruka Anyadi

Look out for the next blog on David Rooney, his work and his experience of Landscape Surgery by Evie Gilbert

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Celebrating 25 years of Landscape Surgery

Landscape Surgery turns 25: A Series.

By Beth Williamson, Viveca Mellegård, Eva Barbarossa, Cynthia Anyadi and Evie Gilbert

Right from the beginning, Landscape Surgery has been a space for postgraduate students, researchers and artists to share fledgling ideas and work-in-the-making about landscapes – real and imagined, material and ethereal. Social, cultural and historical geographical research projects have been shaped and sharpened by generations of Landscape Surgeons.

The following blogs consist of interviews with students from across Landscape Surgery’s history, we talk to them about their experiences within LS and how being a part of LS has impacted their careers and research. The series starts with an interview with Luciana Martins who studied at Royal Holloway as part of her PhD in Geography at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro about the visualization of the landscape of Rio de Janeiro by British travellers in the first half of the 19th century.

Martins was part of the first group of Landscape Surgeons gathered together by the highly regarded cultural geographer, Denis Cosgrove who encouraged new ways of seeing and was influential in reinvigorating geography as a discipline spanning the humanities, social and natural sciences. Landscapes and our relationships to them continue to transform and the series will end with a look to the future from current convener, Dr Sasha Englemann.

In conversation with Luciana Martins

Landscape Surgery Alumni 1996-2001

By Viveca Mellegård

Luciana Martins is Professor of Latin American Visual Cultures and Co-Director of the Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. Originally trained in architecture and urban planning, she specialises in visual and material culture, historical geography, and digital humanities.

Since 2015 Luciana has been working with colleagues at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and other institutions in the UK, Brazil and Germany on an interdisciplinary research programme on the biocultural collections from the Amazon and the Andes of nineteenth-century botanist Richard Spruce. As part of this research programme, she was recently Principal Investigator on the British Academy funded project ‘Digital Repatriation of Biocultural Collections: Connecting Scientific and Indigenous Communities of Knowledge in Amazonia’. She also held a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to develop her project on ‘Drawing Together: The Visual Archive of Expeditionary Travel’. 

Look out for the next post in the series about Ellie Miles.

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Comfort Viewing: Detectorists in an Age of Anxiety

In the final, pitch-perfect episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, as the protagonists ready themselves to leave their Western-Front trench and take the fight to the enemy, George – the eager and idealistic lieutenant – is suddenly struck by fear and nostalgia. Recalling the enthusiasm with which he and his fellow Cambridge recruits had signed up at the outbreak of war, giddily leapfrogging one another to the recruiting office, George realises that he is “the last of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers from the Golden Summer of 1914”. “I don’t want to die,” he tells Captain Blackadder; “I’m really not overkeen on dying at all, sir”. If only for a moment, we have all – at some point in the last year or so – been George: apprehensive about the future and longing for the perceived certainties of the past. The COVID-19 pandemic has, perhaps indelibly so, divided the chronology of our lives into two distinct periods: before and after. Rarely in peacetime has everyday life been so disrupted and made so unpredictable for so many people at the same time. The fundamental uncertainties that the pandemic has brought in respect to health, money, and family and social life, has necessarily seen us seek comfort and reassurance in things that feel safe, familiar, and predictable. For many viewers in Britain and internationally, Detectorists has been a source of that assurance. In what follows, I consider why this might be so and what it might tell us about the programme’s continuing relevance and possible longevity.

“I’m the last of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers from the Golden Summer of 1914”.

In the middle of March 2020, as the world went into lockdown, Joanne Norcup and I were finalising the text of our soon-to-be-published edited collection, Landscapes of Detectorists. As we made a final round of phone calls to the rapidly emptying offices of cast members’ agents, striving to secure the permissions necessary to reproduce screengrabs in the book, we had a shared and growing sense that we had missed our moment: that, from the rapidly changing perspective of 2020, Detectorists seemed suddenly dated – a swiftly fading echo of the culture of a pre-pandemic, pre-Brexit Britain. Yet, in creating the temporal disjuncture that marked out Detectorists as coming from the “before” times, the socio-political events of 2020 served in unexpected ways to renew the programme’s relevance, both for existing fans and for new viewers. The advent of the pandemic, and the arrival of its associated lockdowns, was marked by a proliferation of articles in print and online offering advice on how best to navigate the “new normal”, many of which, in providing lists of recommended viewing, sought to guide readers through the vast range of entertainment available to them via television streaming services. Detectorists featured prominently in many of these lists.

Beyond its obvious comedic qualities, Detectorists was often recommended as a visual treat – a bucolic escape from the domestic confines of lockdown. For the journalist Paul Kirkley, for example, Detectorists represented “a whole new genre of television – the pastoral sitcom”. While there are undoubtedly earlier examples of this genre, such as Green Acres in the US and Last of the Summer Wine in the UK, Detectorists is perhaps unique in the degree to which the rural landscape is central both to the programme’s narrative and to its visual identity and distinctiveness. “Watching the show,” Kirkley noted, “is like stepping into a landscape painting, with flat Essex fields laid out beneath vast Eastern skies, while bees and insects buzz drowsily in the cowslip and foxglove”. Here, Detectorists is seen to have value in relation to its visual spectacle – a quality more often associated with the cinematic rather than the televisual. The scholar of film and television Helen Wheatley has shown, however, that a wider cycle of “landscape programming” has seen television increasingly deliver the immersive viewing experience more ordinarily associated with film. For Wheatley, series such as Coast and Britain’s Favourite View, while depending for their success partly on the visual fidelity of high-definition film and broadcast technology, address a desire amongst audience members for a less frenetic and more contemplative viewing experience – a desire often associated with the so-called “slow television” movement. Detectorists sits firmly at the intersection of these trends, its visual richness matched by its measured tempo.

The first pastoral sitcom? © Chris Harris Photography.

The pacing of Detectorists is, by design, gently meandering – a choice that mirrors both the unhurried approach to life which Lance and Andy assume (often to the understandable frustration of their partners) and the leisurely and deliberate nature of the hobby they pursue. On the rare occasions during which this lack of hurry is subverted in the programme’s narrative, it is for comic rather than dramatic effect: think of the incomprehensibly rapid delivery of Kevin Eldon’s auctioneer or the chase sequence in which Lance and Andy in the TR7 pursue Paul and “Art” on an underpowered scooter. In Detectorists, speed, in all its guises, is rendered absurd and unnatural. The rural setting of Detectorists certainly plays into this construction of slowness as natural – the programme’s action (such as it is) unfolds in a landscape where time is marked out by the passing of seasons and the rhythms of nature. While the reality of rural life might not correspond with such an imagined ideal, the apparent slowness of Detectorists was, for many viewers during the pandemic, a source of its appeal. Together with programmes like Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, Detectorists was espoused by online commentators as a source of almost meditative calm – a tranquilising retreat from an anxiety-inducing world. Described variously as gentle, tender, sweet, and pure, Detectorists was seen by many to embody qualities that appeared otherwise elusive in a global culture defined increasingly by antagonism and hostility.

The rural setting of Detectorists, and the importance of landscape to its storytelling, has, of course, long been recognised by critics as central to the programme’s lure. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2015, for example, Robert Lloyd argued that Detectorists was “a pastoral comedy in which characters (philosophers, lovers, clowns) go from the town to the country and into the woods, to be translated, deepened, changed, improved or beloved, as in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ or ‘As You Like It’”. Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 2017, concurred with Lloyd’s analysis and heaped further praise on the programme in declaring it to be “the best pastoral comedy since As You Like It”. For audiences in lockdown in 2020, the pastoral qualities of Detectorists took on a new significance as a visual replacement for the landscapes to which their physical access was temporarily denied. Writing in Square Mile magazine – a publication targeting residents of the highly urbanised City of London and Canary Wharf – Max Williams called Detectorists “the perfect show for these troubled times,” on account partly of its calming and transportive visual qualities. “Gorgeous imagery abounds,” he noted, “imagery that makes you think, or perhaps realise, that tree leaves sparkling with the morning rain might be the most beautiful sight in creation”.

Our collective Golden Summer?

The cinematography of Jamie Cairney and Mattias Nyberg succeeds in capturing the mythical “Golden Summer” invoke by George in Blackadder Goes Forth. While such a vision of Britain, and of England specifically, might be dismissed as tritely nostalgic (a visual resonance of John Major’s “long shadows on county grounds”), the summer landscape of Detectorist comforts precisely because it elicits memories, real or imagined, of an earlier time. Redolent of the seemingly endless summers of childhood, landscape in Detectorists transports us not only in space but also across time. Detectorists is an escape because it takes place somewhere else but also, in effect, at another time in our collective past. Writing on Twitter the day after the UK entered lockdown in March 2020, the novelist Linda Grant captured this sense of the programme’s comfort: “I assert that it is the perfect diversion from our troubled times, in which everything is ordinary, the skies are blue and nothing bad happens”. It is, of course, not true that nothing bad happens in Detectorists – relationships are repeatedly strained and tested, individuals are lied to and hurt, and a priceless Roman mosaic is destroyed. Rather, it is truer to say that wrongs are generally righted in the end and that, by and large, the characters’ lives become richer and more fulfilled as the series progresses. Like our childhood summers in this respect, the programme becomes a comforting memory when considered in retrospect: its narrative ups and downs are smoothed out in the process of remembering.

While the gentleness of Detectorists might be understood pejoratively as tweeness, it is both more subtle and more important than that. Gentleness is not only the absence of violence and aggression, it is also the presence of empathy and care – both for others and for the world at large. Gentleness, in this sense, is evident in the actions of many of the programme’s characters: in Andy’s attentiveness to the welfare of wildlife, in Terry’s unswerving devotion to Sheila, and in Lance’s capacity to bury the hatchet and extend the hand of friendship (albeit one holding a glass of Sheila’s lemonade) to “Art”. Their gentleness does not mean, however, that the characters of Detectorists lack flaws – rather it shows that, despite their ordinary human faults, they retrain a capacity for decency. Gentleness is evident, too, in the way the programme deals with what might otherwise be considered difficult themes. This tendency is perhaps best exemplified in the subtle but deeply poignant way in which Sheila’s heartbreak over the presumed loss of a child is revealed to the audience. Disguised in words of support and reassurance to Lance, Sheila hints, much too delicately for Lance to realise, at a hidden personal tragedy, the precise details of which remain unspoken. Sheila’s pain is, as a consequence of her selflessness and of the programme makers’ gentleness of touch, turned into a gift of comfort for Lance. Gentleness – as a character trait and as an approach to storytelling – strikes a chord with viewers because it seems to run against the grain of so much of contemporary cultural and political life, in which a ruthless emphasis on individual difference feeds social polarisation and the erosion of compassion. Gentleness matters because it is a deeply humanising quality.

“But what you’ve got going for you now is that she’s met you, Lance, and you’re lovely, so she’s bound to come back when she’s ready”.

As much as Detectorists might appear so idiosyncratically British so as not to travel well as a cultural export, the positive international reception of the programme – facilitated by its availability across a range of streaming platforms and the provision of subtitling in various languages – has shown that its appeal is neither linguistically nor geographically specific. Whilst the pandemic is responsible for having created a shared context in which the programme’s intrinsic qualities became topically appealing, the way Detectorists deals with generic themes of friendship, belonging, and the search for meaning in life are arguably so universal that they are immediately relatable. Across the world, viewers have found comfort in Detectorists and a surprising sense of kinship with the DMDC. Taking to Twitter, one viewer in France epitomised the thoughts of many in describing the programme as “un petit cocon de bein-être [a little cocoon of well-being]”. That Detectorists has succeeded in transcending linguistic and cultural barriers is at least in part attributable to its hybrid status as a comedy-drama. For every reference to Blankety Blank or Linda Lusardi that might fall flat with international viewers, the character-driven nature of the programme presents a fundamentally relatable human story; we do not need to be from north Essex to care about, or to understand, the residents of Danebury and their hopes and their fears.

For all that the pandemic has brought new viewers to Detectorists, it has also encouraged many existing fans to return to the programme, often multiple times. The pleasure derived from the repeated viewing of a favourite television programme is well documented in the academic literature. Writing in the journal Television & New Media, Anne Gilbert – a scholar of popular culture – has argued, for example, that enjoyment in repeated viewing derives from the predictability and familiarity of the programme in question. Rather than a disincentive to watching again, knowing what will happen is precisely the reason for doing so – it is a guarantee of the temporary absence of uncertainty. In this respect, Detectorists sits alongside other sitcoms like Friends and Frasier in functioning for many viewers a self-prescribed treatment for anxiety – a safe and certain window of time in which there is no jeopardy, only predictability. Detectorists is one of those programmes that, for some viewers, has become more than simply a sitcom; it has become a lifeline. For one Twitter user writing in March 2020, the programme’s therapeutic value was clear: “When I find myself faced with a terrifying, unstable world, gripped by fear and anxiety, there’s one thing I can always rely on to make me feel safe: Detectorists”.

That Detectorists has become what the American journalist Ben White has called “an anxiety antidote”, goes some way to explain its cultural significance in 2020. Three years after the series ended, it acquired – as a consequence of the most exceptional of global events – both a new audience and a new meaning. When so much in the future can feel frightening – with climate change, democratic instability, and social polarisation making it difficult to feel optimistic about what is to come – we seek comfort in the things that counter that trepidation, in things that make us feel reassured and hopeful. For those who wish for a gentler and more inclusive world, Detectorists offers that reassurance – it is not a lost fragment of the “before” times, but rather is an image of what we might wish to see in our collective future. For as long as we live in an age of anxiety, Detectorists will remain relevant and will be there to comfort us.

Innes M. Keighren

This essay originally featured in issue no. 2 of Waiting for You: A Detectorists Zine, published by Temporal Boundary Press.