MY LIFE AT THE AIRPORT – An Unprepared Ethnographer

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AN UNPREPARED ETHNOGRAPHER

If you opened any cookbook on how to do ethnography, the first advice you would probably find there would be that a researcher should carefully prepare for their fieldwork, in part also by familiarizing themselves with the culture and the history of the place they intend to study, by visiting it a few times beforehand, and ideally by undergoing some trials before the actual fieldwork really happens. In this sense, my preparation for the life at the airport was very minimal. In fact, I had almost no preparation at all, in terms of engaging in any conscious activity or attempts to get ready for all the possible situations that I could encounter while being there. I’ve never been at the LHR before, I’ve never actually slept at any airport before, I haven’t checked out the place before nor haven’t I even tried to look up any information about it online or in other words…I haven’t really given it much thought. When the time came, I simply packed all of my possessions into one huge suitcase, two bags and a purse and moved directly to Terminal 1 Arrivals.

For the sake of a peaceful first night though, I have made an unconfirmed reservation for a morning flight to Munich…just in case anyone would try to check my travel documents during the night. No one did. Ever! Although there were great attempts to prevent the homelessness at the LHR at that time, and other fellow homeless overnight dwellers were controlled and kicked out quite regularly, no one was ever troubled with me sleeping there. Being a white, well-dressed, young woman with a laptop, a smartphone, a Lufthansa suitcase and a EU passport, there was nothing about me that could possibly raise any unwanted attention. Later on, I was thinking about how different it could have been if I were a male, if my skin was of another colour, if I for instance had a few dreadlocks, or a different fashion style slightly distinct from what is commonly perceived as ‘normal’ in a modern society. As John Urry (2007) once pointed out, the airports are the sites where the social hierarchy of today becomes visible in the greatest extend. And with the intensification of security checks at the airports following the terrorist attacks of 09/11, any sign of abnormality becomes automatically suspicious. Thus, although completely unprepared, thanks to my ‘normal’ appearance and the fact, that I could ‘speak their language’ not only in terms of English itself, but more importantly because I’ve learnt the airline jargon as well as I had a detailed knowledge of all the processes and logic of airports and passenger air traffic from the years I spent working for an airline, my starting position couldn’t, in fact, have been any better.

On the other hand, what I did in advance immediately after I’ve decided to conduct this experiment as an (auto)ethnographic sort of research was the formulation of my initial research questions. In a qualitative research it is recommended to formulate the research question(s) as both specific, to prevent the researcher from being overwhelmed by everything that is going on in the field and allow them to stay focused on a particular issue instead, and broad enough, to enable them to cope with the unexpected turns the ethnographic research can often take (Cloke et al. 2004). Following the advice, I came up with two research questions that would cover both issues I was mainly interested in. The first one stemmed from my curiosity about how the life at the airport is going to look like. Thus, it was aimed more at capturing the autoethnographic experience of me building a home at a site that is seen as sterile, impersonal, unfriendly, extremely dynamic and extremely under surveillance. I intentionally didn’t propose this question in terms of if it is possible to have a home at the airport, because although this was never addressed in a scientific research in any detail, there is still a good evidence of people calling airports their homes (see for instance an article ‘Heathrow is my home’ on dailymail.co.uk). Therefore I rather asked: How, if at all, can the London Heathrow Airport become a home for me ?

With my second research question I wanted to connect this unplanned fieldwork-to-be with the topic of my PhD research on frequent flyers and places in their mobile networks. Therefore, the issue of placeness of airports in general and the LHR in particular came forth. As Fuller and Harley say: “What the airport is, depends on where you are in it, and how and why you are travelling through it” (2004:17). This diversity of meanings, which they mention while using the perspective of a passenger, can of course be even wider considering the meanings the (LHR) airport can be given by, for instance, airline crew members, airport employees, taxi drivers, family members and friends of the ones that depart or arrive, numerous homeless people staying there, or members of the neighbour communities having to deal with the noise and pollution from the airport operations in their everyday lives. Therefore, in order to narrow down the issue of placeness of the LHR to something that is more manageable, I’ve decided to solely focus on the arriving passengers. Why? First of all, the arrivals are still a topic that is quite understudied in the geographic research, and that not only when it comes to air transportation. More importantly though, I strongly agree with Fuller and Harley’s statement cited above, that an airport is experienced very differently when one departs, transits or arrives there. During departures or transits the attention of the passenger is focused rather on what comes next, they are getting mentally ready for the destination they are heading to. Whereas in the case of arrivals the situation is quite unique, I believe, because the passenger is instantly confronted with the locality of the airport site as they have to deal with what is here and now. Being it local climate, local time, local currency, language or accent of the airport staff, local habits, smells and noises, local souvenirs, or billboards promoting the city and country one has just arrived in, the passenger has a very little chance to escape it. Thus in the case or arrivals, they would probably deal with the question of where they are much more intensively. My research question therefore tried to capture the nuances of what does it mean to land at the LHR. Where do passengers believe they are when they arrive at the LHR? Is this London, or just a node before reaching London? Or perhaps something else? Are there any signs of the LHR representing some kind of a meaningful place for its arriving passengers?

Welcome to London – the presence of the city being built in the arriving corridors

Welcome to London – the presence of the city being built in the arriving corridors

Having my research questions written down and a basic idea of how I would like to get closer to the answers in my mind, I jumped into this adventurous fieldwork legs first. Quite naively, I assumed that after a few days of my adaptation process, I would be able to start with the ‘proper’ observations of passengers in the arrival halls, and later on with interviewing them. It is only now that I know how useful it might have been at that point to read through some of the ‘warts and all’ reports on how ethnography can actually look like in practice. This ‘baptism by fire’ is strongly discouraged in the ethnographic research of these days (Cloke et al. 2004), mostly because there are now quite a lot of great cookbooks and reports from experienced ethnographers available for studying. However, their ability to truly prepare a novice researcher for the reality of what the actual fieldwork can bring up is only limited. And if nothing else, I like saying that at least it was a great practice for me – a sort of transformative learning of how to do ethnography – because I believe there are still a few things one can only learn by practising them.

One of the first things I have learnt very quickly was that the adaptation to a new environment can be really VERY exhausting. I remember the frustration of the first 9 days at the LHR, when all of my energy was drained by only trying to perform the ‘simplest’, or rather the most essential parts of living – sleeping, washing, eating and moving around. How could anyone, I thought, even think of performing some kind of intellectual activity while being in the same condition as I was in? My eyes were red and stinging from the lack of quality sleep, my back hurt from the benches I slept on as well as from all the bags I had to carry with me ALL THE TIME, and my stomach protested against the pre-packed food. Andre Novoa (2015) made a good point in his methodological paper on mobile ethnographies, saying that a researcher should have a few exit points in order to step away from his field and recalibrate his work as well as to recharge their own batteries. I haven’t planned this ahead either, and accordingly, it stroke me shortly after I started – only 9 days after my arrival at the LHR I ended up in a hospital (well, actually in a few of them) due to severe digestion problems and exhaustion. Interestingly, and in compliance with what Andre Novoa was describing, this forced exit gave me a whole new analytical perspective as it has made me reconsider my strategies and again, come up with some new innovative solutions. When I returned to the LHR after almost a month spent in hospitals, it was a return with a fully flexible business class ticket in my hand – later on I ended up having 5 of them, each from a different terminal. That not only provided me with the repeated and free-of-charge access to the marvellous business class lounges, where one can truly rest for a while, but also opened me a door to the complete trajectories of arriving passengers along the airport corridors. There is the beauty of ethnography! Precisely in these unexpected turns that are so difficult to predict… and for which even the methodological opportunism is a good way to go (Cloke et al. 2004).

An unplanned exit point

An unplanned exit point

 

References:

Cloke, P., I. Cook, P. Crang, M.Goodwin, J. Painter and C. Philo (2004). Practising Human Gepgraphy. London: SAGE Publications. 416 p. ISBN 0-7619-7325-7.

Fuller, G. and R. Harley (2004). Aviopolis: A Book about Airports. London: Routledge. 249 p. ISBN 0-203-93056-8.

Novoa, A. (2015). Mobile ethnography: emergence, techniques and its importance to geography. Human Geographies – Journal of Studies and Research in Human Geography 9 (1): 97-107. ISSN-online: 2067-2284.

Urry, J. (2007). Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity Press. 335 p. ISBN-13: 978-07456-3418-0.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1023183/Heathrow-home-Meet-100-homeless-people-live-airport.html

 

 

MY LIFE AT THE AIRPORT – When The Things Go Wrong

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WHEN THE THINGS GO WRONG…

When the things go wrong people start to be really creative. I don’t know if there already exists a saying such as this one, but if not, it should. I’ve noticed that on myself so many times. As if there was an emergency switch that turns on every time the situation looks desperate and it forces one to come up with solutions that they would otherwise never think of.

Let me tell you a story of how I ended up living at the London Heathrow Airport for precisely 31 days and how this turned up to be the most valuable experience of my PhD ‘career’ so far. Let me tell you about the strategies I’ve deployed in order to not only survive at the airport but to eventually live quite a comfortable life, about building a home in a place with a complete lack of privacy, about how to stay invisible, about how to become a frequent flyer without a single departure. Let me invite you to the world of homeless people sleeping on the benches as well as to the parallel universe hidden behind the secret doors of the VIP business class lounges. Let’s walk together along the airport corridors following the paths of arriving passengers … and by doing all of that, let me tell you about my observations of what kind of place an airport can be.

WELCOME TO THE LONDON HEATHROW AIRPORT! This is a first piece from the series of blog posts about my life at the airport – a sort of introduction, which I devoted to the evolution of the idea to pack my things and move to the airport as well as to the reason of writing a blog about it. So…sit back and enjoy the journey of a novice ethnographer!

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Let me begin by introducing myself: I am a PhD student based in Czech Republic where I am doing my research on frequent flyers focusing on how they perceive and give meanings to the places they visit by air. These frequent flyers became a subject of my interest while I was working for Lufthansa and talking to them over the phone every day. It was there when I’ve noticed for the first time that a meaning of what is near and what is far, and how a particular city/place is experienced is very much connected to the way one moves around in space. Building upon the ideas of the mobility turn (Sheller and Urry, 2006) and the aeromobilities literature, I’ve started to research the place perception of frequent flyers, which directly addresses the question of what is the role that airports play in all this. The representation of an airport as it is depicted in academic literature (as well as in novels, movies and commercials) has one common and very interesting feature – the fascination. Weather it is in positive or negative way, airports are often being seen as unique, extraordinary, (super)modern, emblematic, sometimes as new urban forms, cities of the future, non-places…there are many of these metaphors to be found. When thinking about where does this fascination come from, the issue of interpretation came to my mind as the first – one always tends to base the interpretation of things on their own experience. Therefore, the experience of an occasional passenger or even a more experienced passenger, as was I, naturally leads to the fascination with spaces and logic of the airports where everything is so different from the ‘normal’ everyday life, and herein it even enhances the excitement arising from the journey. But how to get closer to an experience of a frequent flyer for whom an airport could be a very familiar place, this “home-away-from-home” (2004:39) that Fuller and Harley describe? Being inspired by ethnography as a research method and paraphrasing Geertz (1973) claiming that every big concept becomes surprisingly simple once learned in homely circumstances, I’ve decided to gain this ‘other’ experience by inhabiting an airport for a period of time.

When I speak about my experience of living at the airport with my senior colleagues, or when I present it in front of an academic audience, I’m being very often given credit for an extremely courageous and ambitious student project. Well, to be completely honest, the origin of the idea of moving to the airport was far more pragmatic – I had no money to pay the rent. I came to London as a visiting PhD researcher and at the end of my stay, by the fault of my own, I got cut off of my funding. Thus I had to consider whether to return back home earlier than I planned or to somehow find another way to stay. The homelessness at the airports is not uncommon. Tim Cresswell (2006) mentions it very nicely in his book On The Move by pointing out the tendencies of homeless people to stay at the airport because it is a relatively warm and safe place also offering facilities such as free-of-charge toilets, and above all, at many major airports one can easily disappear in the masses of travellers. According to one of the articles in DailyMail magazine, which I came across once I travelled by the London Tube, at the London Heathrow Airport in particular there are about 100 homeless people currently calling it their home, which until recently also included a middle-aged couple that had been staying there for almost a year. So I thought that if they can do it, I can certainly do it too. And since I already had many years of experience in punk-style backpack travelling while sleeping under bridges, in parks and who knows where, I thought it would be just fine, and eventually even a source of fun. … Well, it wasn’t really. In fact, it was much more mentally challenging than I expected, but we’ll get to that later. So on the 1st of May 2015 I packed my things, I cancelled the rental contract for my room and moved to the LHR airport. Let the ethnographic adventure begin!

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Becoming an inhabitant – the very first morning at LHR

Before I go on with the story, I think I need to explain why I’ve decided to blog about it now. When I came back from the LHR airport I thought it was an interesting experiment as well as a valuable experience for me in terms of changing my viewpoint as a researcher. I started abandoning this fascinated image of an airport as being something extraordinary, and instead I got the homey sort of feeling of understanding how the life at the (LHR) airport looks like from the everyday perspective. Only after talking to some of my senior colleagues and advisors I realized how rich the empirical material I possess actually is. But still, as much as I have problems explaining why on earth did I do that and what kind of research and science is that to my family and friends; similarly I struggled to present my initial observations to the well-established academic audience at the recent AAG conference in San Francisco. One of the reasons is that I realized that I am not quite there yet and thus my interpretations still tend to be very simple. Interestingly, later on after talking to other fellow PhD students in the pub, some of them novice ethnographers themselves, I realized I could talk for hours and people were still amazed. That brought me to the idea of writing a blog in order to capture the flow of everything I have to say and I would very much like to say. Not being bonded by the academic style of writing that is required for papers, yet still writing for geographers and ethnographers, I believe this could maybe shed some light not only on how the life at the airport looks like and what kind of place an airport can be but also on the struggles of an ethnographer in process. After all, I do this because I strongly believe that writing is an essential part of ethnography and that the act of writing my thoughts down just as they are in my mind at this moment will help me analyse the data I have in my diary, field notes, photos, videos, and above all the fascinating, adventurous and life-changing experience of my life at the LHR airport.

 

References:

Cresswell, T. (2006). On The Move. Mobility in the Modern Western World. London: Routledge. 327 p. ISBN 0-415-95256-5.

Fuller, G. and R. Harley (2004). Aviopolis: A Book about Airports. London: Routledge. 249 p. ISBN 0-203-93056-8.

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. 480 p.

Sheller, M. and J. Urry (2006). “The new mobilities paradigm”. Environment and Planning A 38 (2): 207-226. doi:10.1068/a37268.

 

RHUL GEOGRAPHERS IN SAN FRANCISCO

The city of San Francisco. Birds eye view from the bay looking south-west. Library of Congress (G4364.S5A3 1878 .P3).

The city of San Francisco. Birds eye view from the bay looking south-west. Library of Congress (G4364.S5A3 1878 .P3).

The preliminary programme for the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers has recently been published. The Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London will be strongly represented by both staff and doctoral researchers (detailed below).


Felicity Butler

Abstract:

Valuing Unpaid Care Work in Community Fair Trade, Creating Resilient Households? A Case Study of The Body Shop Trading model with a Nicaraguan Sesame Cooperative

Sessions:

Producing Vulnerabilities 2: Gender and Cooperative Responses in Latin America — Presenter


Mike Duggan

Abstract:

The lived experiences of a digitalizing world: where sleek technologies come up against the harsh realities of our cultural geographies

Sessions:

Geographies of Media IV: Digital technologies, everyday geographies and experiencing space and place (1) — Chair, Organizer, Presenter
Geographies of Media V: Digital technologies, everyday geographies and experiencing space and place (2) — Chair, Organizer


David Gilbert

Abstract:

The creativities of everyday faith spaces and participatory research approaches

Sessions:

Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City 1: Embodied Practices and Narratives of Everyday Religion — Presenter
Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City 3: Negotiating Difference and Urban Space — Discussant


Harriet Hawkins

Abstract:

Making Earth Futures

Sessions:

Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City 2: Exploring Faith through Participatory Public-Engagement Art — Discussant
Editor Meet Critics: Harriet Hawkins and Elizabeth Straughan’s “Geographical Aesthetics” (2014, Ashgate) — Panelist
Editor meets critics: The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide — Chair, Organizer
Geographies of Making: Creative Practices and Agentic Materiality — Presenter
Global Art Worlds and a World of Cities 2 — Discussant


Natalie Hyacinth

Abstract:

SoundWorlds of the Sacred: Sense, Spirituality and Musical Performance

Sessions:

Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City 1: Embodied Practices and Narratives of Everyday Religion — Organizer, Presenter
Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City 2: Exploring Faith through Participatory Public-Engagement Art — Chair, Organizer
Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City 3: Negotiating Difference and Urban Space — Organizer


Rikke Jensen

Abstract:

The Social Military: networked spaces, military places

Sessions:

Geographies of Media XIV: Media, governmentality, and managing the ‘more than human’ environment (2) — Presenter


Anna Nikolaeva

Abstract:

Understanding Sociality and Agency of Mobile Publics: Expectations, Interventions and Possibilities

Sessions:

Making Sense of Heterogeneous and Unequal Geographies of Passengers II: Situated, Embodied and Active Aeromobile Passengerings — Presenter
Theorizing Mobility Transitions: Scales, Sites and Struggles — Chair, Organizer


Alasdair Pinkerton

Abstract:

The Social Military: networked spaces, military places (Co-Presenter)

Sessions:

Geographies of Media XIV: Media, governmentality, and managing the ‘more than human’ environment (2) — Co-Presenter


Katherine Stansfeld

Abstract:

Practising encounters: using visual ethnography to explore conviviality in super-diverse Finsbury Park, London

Sessions:

Contestations and negotiations over place in super-diverse neighborhoods 2: Everyday encounters with difference — Presenter


Pip Thornton

Abstract:

The Production of Context and the Digital Reconstruction of Language

Sessions:

Toward a Geographical Software Studies 2: Language and tools — Presenter
Toward a Geographical Software Studies: methods and theory — Panelist

Upcoming Event: TOXIC MATERIALITIES – Where Heaven Meets Hell

News of the next Passengerfilms event on Monday 29th February. There’s a stellar panel lined up to discuss toxic materialities and the stunning film by Sasha Friedlander: Where Heaven Meets Hell (2012). Join us if you can.

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Join us for a screening of Sasha Friedlander’s stunning film ‘Where Heaven Meets Hell’ (2012), and an exploration of toxic materialities presented by Passengerfilms in collaboration with followthethings.com

Indonesia’s stunningly beautiful Kawah Ijen volcano, a popular tourist spot, belches smoke hundreds of feet into the air. Through the smoke tourists can see men carrying heavy baskets on their shoulders. These contain blocks of bright yellow sulphur chipped from the volcano’s smouldering slopes, destined to help make a range of everyday stuff from matches and fertilizer to cosmetics and sugar. Sulphur dioxide gas is thick in the air. It corrodes the miners’ lungs and the filmmaker’s cameras. Winner of multiple documentary film awards, Where Heaven Meets Hell provides not only a vivid insight into the harsh industrial landscapes of resource extraction but also prompts wider questions about the toxic materialities of our modern consumer cultures.

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The film screening will be followed…

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LS VISITS THE BL

On 23 February, Surgeons were offered a special tour of the British Library by ex-Surgeon Phil Hatfield, now Lead Curator for Digital Mapping.

The visit began in the courtyard outside the building, where we were reminded we were standing above thousands of books stored in four floors of shelving, the largest subterranean tower block in the world. Phil talked about the structure of the building and its ‘ship-like’ design (which is only visible from the street), the history of the site, the broader area of Somers Town and the process of gentrification it has gone through over the past decades.
Inside the building, we were introduced to British Library’s founder collectors (Sir Robert Cotton, Sir Hans Sloane, Robert Harley, and King George III) and had the opportunity to wander through the Treasure Gallery, whose riches range from Magna Carta and Gutenberg’s Bible of 1455 to Coronelli’s celestial globe and handwritten lyrics by the Beatles.
We then moved into staff areas of the British Library with a collection display in Meeting Room H, where we had the privilege to take a close look at rare eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books related to polar collecting and exploration, including Thomas Pennant’s Arctic Zoology (1784) and William Scoreby’s An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), and books on plantations and anti-slavery. These included Sir Hans Sloane’s, Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbadoes, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (1707-1725), Olaudah Equiano’s, Interesting Narrative (1789) and Amelia Opie’s, The Black Man’s Lament (1826).
We are most grateful to Phil for this amazing opportunity.

FOLLOWING MOBILITY TRANSITIONS AROUND THE WORLD

 

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A still from the video “Do the Right Mix” (2014) by the European Commission.

On 26 January, 2015 we presented some preliminary results and insights from the two-year project “Living in the Mobility Transition”, funded by the Mobile Lives Forum. The project investigates how transitions to low-carbon mobility are envisioned by policy-makers in 14 countries as well as at the EU level and by the UN and associated bodies.

The countries covered in the study represent a diversity of geographical, political and socio-cultural contexts as well as ways of dealing with the low-carbon mobility agenda. They are the UK, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Norway, Portugal, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand.

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A bike-share docking station in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo by Anna Nikolaeva.

In each country members of our research team have produced surveys of national policy regarding low carbon mobilities as well as three “local” case studies, illustrating how national policies are applied locally or how alternative or complementary visions are developed in a bottom-up fashion. These include e.g. Rapid Bus Transit, cycle schemes, the development of electric vehicles, forms of telework and road pricing among other cases. In particular, we are interested in the ways that mobility policies portray and represent particular kinds of mobile life-styles and, ultimately, give mobilities meaning. Some of these policies are also quite speculative and so we are also interested in how certain mobile futures are being imagined and anticipated.

In the end we will have 14 accounts of national government policy and 42 local case studies in addition to accounts of policy constructed at the international and supranational level in the United Nations and European Union.

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A zero-emission truck “Cargohopper” on the streets of Amsterdam. Source: http://www.cargohopper.nl

The project is carried out by research teams at Northeastern University, Boston, and Royal Holloway, University of London. The team includes seven researchers: Tim Cresswell (Northeastern), Peter Adey (Royal Holloway), Cristina Temenos (Northeastern), Jane Yeonjae Lee (Northeastern), Andre Novoa (Northeastern), Anna Nikolaeva (Royal Holloway) and Astrid Wood (now Newcastle University).

The audience responded to the presentation both with comments on the theoretical underpinnings of the project (how to define a “transition”? how do we know that transitions are happening?), questions to the historical situation of mobility transition, as well as with questions on the specifics of findings (are mobility transitions primarily urban, and what historical urban networks have seen certain policies take hold in particular places?). A productive discussion also developed around the issue of the relevance of the nation-station for such a study: on the one hand, visions of low-carbon mobility are themselves mobile as consultants and experts travel the world and ideas are reposted and retweeted; on the other, the nation-states still officially carry the responsibility to report on CO2 emissions and reduce them. Our preliminary findings suggest that cities and NGOs may often be more actively involved in putting transitions forward (and may even sue the state in the court of climate inaction as Urgenda did [add link], yet the states still take decisions on key issues that have impact on mobility and climate change mitigation (e.g. taxation).

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New book: Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium

Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium

This month sees the publication of Veronica della Dora’s new monograph, Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium, from Cambridge University Press. The following blurb offers a sense of the book’s ambitious scope:

Nature is as much an idea as a physical reality. By ‘placing’ nature within Byzantine culture and within the discourse of Orthodox Christian thought and practice, Landscape, Nature and the Sacred in Byzantium explores attitudes towards creation that are utterly and fascinatingly different from the modern. Drawing on Patristic writing and on Byzantine literature and art, the book develops a fresh conceptual framework for approaching Byzantine perceptions of space and the environment. It takes readers on an imaginary flight over the Earth and its varied topographies of gardens and wilderness, mountains and caves, rivers and seas, and invites them to shift from the linear time of history to the cyclical time and spaces of the sacred—the time and spaces of eternal returns and revelations.

The book can be ordered from the Cambridge University Press website.

Innes M. Keighren

Making Suburban Faith

On 12th January, the ‘Making Suburban Faith: Design, material culture and popular creativity’ project team presented our research in the Landscape Surgery Seminar Series.

This project is a current research project funded by the AHRC as a part of its Connected Communities programme, and is a collaboration between the Geography Departments of UCL and Royal Holloway. The research team is Claire Dwyer (PI UCL), David Gilbert (CI RH), Nazneen Ahmed (PDR UCL), Natalie Hyacinth (PhD RH), Laura Cuch (PhD UCL) and Christian Sayer (Admin, UCL).

The project explores the ways in which suburban faith communities create space focusing on architectures, material cultures, rituals, music and performance. The project is based in Ealing in West London and focuses on eight different faith community case studies selected to represent different faith and migration traditions. These case studies also represent different aesthetic and material cultures in their faith traditions and practices and in their buildings and community spaces.

The project involves four main research strands: survey and ethnographic work in all eight case study sites; ethnographic work with community members to explore home-based faith cultures and practices; ethnographic work on religious music and performance; three artistic projects which involve people from across different faith communities. In his introduction to the session, David Gilbert discussed the relationship between religion and creative practices, arguing that recent work on the geographies of creativity has marginalized religion, and indicting the hidden creativities of everyday religion – in its music, dance and performance, its craft and material culture, and in its architectures. Central to the methodology of Making Suburban Faith is active participatory research, involving faith communities and other publics from Ealing, and professional arts practitioners. The first of these involved sixth-formers from Brentside School in Ealing working with the international architecture firm Mangera Yvars in imagining and developing a multi-faith space for the suburbs. This creative participatory methodology is the focus of a session at this year’s AAG in San Francisco.

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A feature of the project is that it includes two PhD projects – while these contribute to the overall research of the project team, they are also independent pieces of work, developing their own ideas and perspectives on issues related to issues of faith, creativity and place. These PhD projects, by Natalie Hyacinth (RH) and Laura Cuch (UCL) were the focus of the session, and they have both posted separately, reflecting on these presentations.

David Gilbert

Food, Faith, Home: A visual exploration of religious and domestic material culture

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It was a fantastic experience to present my doctoral research at the Landscape Surgery seminar series on 12th January. Mine is an interdisciplinary practice-based PhD, using photography and film to explore the relationship between religious practices and home of the different faith communities that form the case studies of the overarching project Making Suburban Faith, in which the PhD is embedded.

I structured my presentation through the key terms of home, faith and material culture, which I juxtaposed to the presentation of both visual work by artists that have explored these concepts and my own visual work developed over the first year of my PhD. The purpose was to create a dialogue between the theoretical and visual approaches underpinning my research.
I first drew on a critical geography of Home (Blunt and Dowling, 2006) to examine what might constitute “domestic” religious practices for different faith communities. This critical theoretical framework is poignant for my research as it enables an interrogation of home which is not limited to the physical space of a household, and which takes into account: imaginaries of home; relations of power which are constitutive of people’s identities and their experience of home, and how home is open to and constituted through the relationship of different scales.
Second, I drew on Sophie Watson’s paper ‘Performing Religion: Migrants, the Church and Belonging in Marrickville, Sydney’ (2009), which explores the role played by various Christian churches in Sydney from different religious traditions to accommodate and integrate migrant cultures, as well as Blunt and Dowling’s (2006) idea that experiences of home are multiple and mobile, to interrogate to what extent the congregational spaces of the faith communities in our case studies are experienced as home.

Linked to this question, I introduced an undergoing visual pilot project (with the provisional title of ‘Looking after Faith’), which reflects on the experience of people who undertake typically “domestic” tasks in congregational spaces, such as cleaning, cooking, decorating and caring. This project has a visual approach that combines interviews and images of objects, as well as portraits, which aim to make visible the more “behind the scenes” practices involved in the daily functioning of such congregations. Here, I drew on my experience as a photographer (lauracuch.com) to also elaborate on how visual practice and the interplay between image and text might be particularly relevant for the study of embodied and affective religious experiences.

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Betty cleaning at Our Lady & St Joseph Church in Hanwell (© Laura Cuch, 2015)

Throughout my presentation I also reflected on the significance of material culture, especially that which relates to food, in mediating religious practices at home, as well as those practices that cross the boundaries between the house and the congregational space. By paying particular attention to the material culture of food and food practices, my research also aims to contribute knowledge on the relationship between food, religion and home. This will be the focus of one of the main visual practice elements of my research and I ended my presentation with some preliminary visual notes.

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Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple in Ealing (© Laura Cuch, 2015)

Despite the limitations of time, some really interesting questions came up in the discussion, which I hope will develop further in conversation with the LS community. These covered: issues of representation and consent; the meaning and significance of ‘inter-faith’ research and; the necessity of making visible the significance of the particularity of the locality of our case studies.

Finally, it was very inspiring to see how presenting alongside other members of the Making Suburban Faith research team, David Gilbert and Natalie Hyacinth, generated a dialogue between some of the different dimensions of the overarching project, which people engaged with and gave really interesting feedback on.

AHRC Project: Making Suburban Faith
http://www.makingsuburbanfaith.org/
Laura Cuch’s photographer website:
http://www.lauracuch.com
Laura Cuch’s academia.edu website:
https://ucl.academia.edu/LauraCuch

Three Musics…Three Worlds: Religion and affective atmosphere in three West London faith spaces

I had a wonderful time presenting at my first Landscape Surgery seminar on Tuesday 8th January 2016. I introduced my first year PhD research into sacred sounds and presented findings of my autumn 2015 ethnographic fieldwork with three faith communities: the Sri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Hindu Temple, Ealing Christian Centre and St Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church. I spoke of my work as an ethnographically centred research project that contributes to the study of creativity, material culture and space in Ealing as part of the AHRC funded Making Suburban Faith team. I outlined my developing research questions that concern themes of the performativity of faith, the body and the senses and the construction of emotion and affect.

I explained to the group that affect and emotion are terms that have arisen much during my first year of research. Music is an undoubtedly emotive and affective art form and so I have become more and more interested in how emotions and affect are produced and understood within the musical celebrations of faith communities.

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A Sunday musical “celebration” service at Ealing Christian Centre, December 2015

I pre-circulated Ben Anderson’s 2009 paper ‘Affective atmospheres’, as I believe his related concepts and focus upon the term atmosphere provides an interesting route into my developing ideas, particularly with regard to the atmospheres created by faith spaces and through sacred sounds. I read to the group the 1856 Karl Marx quote Anderson outlines in the beginning of his paper, it reads:

“the atmosphere in which we live, weighs upon every one with a 20,000 pound force, but do you feel it?”

Anderson suggests that Marx’s quote discloses the ambivalent meaning and nature of the term “atmosphere”. On the one hand, an atmosphere is a real material phenomenon that physically “weighs” or “presses” upon people, things and areas. Yet atmospheres also affect in an ambiguous and often “unsayable” way. I also presented Anderson’s key concept of “intensive spatialities” as a method to explore how music affects the intensity of religious services and celebrations.

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Lord Ganesh shrine, Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple, December 2015
In order to illustrate the ways in which an affective atmosphere can be created, felt and produced in various ways through sound, I presented three central pieces of music from each community to the group. I played a snippet of the “Porti” chant from the Hindu temple, “Softly” by Will Todd which I sang at St Thomas’ as part of the Nine Lessons & Carols Christmas Choir and “Joy to the World” which is sung at the Ealing Christian Centre. I explained how an affective atmosphere is created in each space through various means of repetition, language and breathe.

For example, the Tamil word “Porti”, meaning praise, is repeated at the end of each line of a 108-line chant, the first page of which is below:

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“Porti” 108 line Chant, Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple

Hindu devotees at the Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple consider this repetition the necessary spiritual medium through which Goddess Thurkkai Amman’s cosmic energy, or “shakti”, becomes activated through the recitation of each line. I noted how Hindu devotional songs place much significance on the Tamil language as containing affective power and the importance of the repetition of sounds such as “porti” and “om” in creating a divine affective atmosphere.

I contrasted this with “Joy the World” sung at Ealing Christian Centre which focuses much less on language and words and so more on rhythm, “feeling” and the emotive, performative way songs are sung. For example, a whole verse of “Joy to the World” was left out so that a more seamless feel and focus upon the rhythm was ensured.

By contrast, the deliberate focus and application of “breathe” emerged as an important method in which to create a certain atmosphere of “softness” during rehearsals for the Will Todd carol “Softly” for St Thomas’ Christmas concert. Ironically, during my time rehearsing this song, “softly” became the hardest word to sing!! So it was interesting and helpful to present the contrasting findings of my research at these faith communities as it made me think through more closely the meanings and terms I had been working with.

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“Softly” by Will Todd
Finally, in relation to this I posed a query to the group regarding my thus far application of the terms “affect” and “atmosphere”, inspired by Anderson, to the musical celebrations of the three faith communities. I noted how I had found that each community had their own particular set of words or terms to describe the specific atmosphere that music and sound conjured in their world. I asked the group how translatable the term affect was, and importantly how could I approach and explore further conceptual ties that link each space.

I received really helpful comments from the group and though I was a little nervous at first, I quickly felt relaxed in what was a friendly and encouraging atmosphere…

Thank you to Surgeons for their kind and helpful comments, encouraging manner and patience!!
Natalie Hyacinth
Doctoral Researcher
AHRC Project: Making Suburban Faith
http://www.makingsuburbanfaith.org/

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