Monthly Archives: April 2015

A Week in Leipzig: From censored punk portraits to Johann Sebastian Bach’s motets on Saturday afternoon, 18 April 2015

view from Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, April 2015

View from Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, April 2015

April 2015

April 2015

I had spent time over the Easter break with the family at my parents’ place in Eastern Frisia on the Dutch-German border (I am German, from the former West). My train ride to Leipzig took me on a journey from West to East starting at Emden via Oldenburg, Bremen, Hannover, Magdeburg, and Halle, to Leipzig in the former German Democratic Republic. Leipzig has been very visibly renovated since the ‘Wende’ in 1989, a term for the reunification that has crept into everyday use but is criticized by some as a flawed term in as much as it implies some form of restoration. For others that time of change is characterized as the Friedliche Revolution (Peaceful Revolution).[i] This study trip afforded me insights into the city’s complex past beyond the recently gilded and contemporary glassy facades.

My doctoral research, provisionally entitled ‘Experimental Fields: Curating Art and Environment Projects in the Age of the Anthropocene’ considers the relationships between humans and the natural environment with particular attention to field and expeditionary practices, to the co-production of knowledge, and to re-enactment.

One of my case studies is the photographic album ‘Kohle unter Magdeborn’ (Coal beneath Magdeborn), 1976, by photographer Nguyen The Thuc (b. 1949 in Nam Dinh, Vietnam). During the time of the German Democratic Republic he documented the environmental and the social impacts of the intensifying coal mining in Espenhain, near Leipzig. The historic village of Magdeborn was only one of many swallowed up by the expanding open-pit brown coal mine, but seemed to have attracted the most attention. Its around 3500 inhabitants were decanted to nearby villages or the newly-built ‘Plattenbauten’, buildings made from prefabricated concrete slabs, on the outskirts of Leipzig. Thuc accompanied this process over a period of a few months, creating a unique documentation of the bulldozed buildings and the displaced life.

The Espenhain surface mine scored deeply into the landscape to unearth the crumbly brown coal between 1937 and 1994 and was closed after having extracted coal to depths of 60 to 100 m. The site was transformed into the Störmthaler See, which began to be flooded in 2003, creating a lake with a sailing and other leisure facilities. The re-cultivated area and its futuristic landscaping was photographed last year by Leipzig-based photographer Christiane Eisler. Both artists, Thuc and Eisler, were educated at the famous Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts or Hochschule for Grafik und Buchkunst (HGB), where they studied photography. My attention was drawn to the Magdeborn project by Thuc and the retake by Eisler through the exhibition ‘Freundschaftsantiqua’, curated by Julia Blume and Heidi Stecker for the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, which marked 250 years of the school in 2014. The curatorial proposition was to show works by foreign students at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig as a much neglected chapter of international art in the GDR, with a special focus on photography. Interestingly these students often worked on themes that were not officially recognized or were subversive, selecting themes that were taboo in the GDR at the time.[ii]

You can see some works and exhibition installation shots here Freundschaftsantiqua

Thuc documented the people of Magdeborn. A lot of the inhabitants had small holdings, and Thuc recorded details of their everyday lives, their festivities, and their religious celebrations. His photographs became particularly poignant knowing that it was forbidden to talk about the process of ‘decanting’ and the problems of environmental transformation and of pollution. In fact, religious groups in particular started to draw attention to the toxic environments around Leipzig at the time, contributing to the dissidence that led to the change in the late 80s.

Eisler (called Schwenn at the time of her studies) has taken a long-term interest in documenting social environments of marginalized individuals under an oppressive regime and those affected by a changing society. Her portraits of East German punks of the 80s were considered undesirable and were censored. She contributed to the ‘Freundschaftsantiqua’ exhibition with her photographs of defunct sites of labour, the immigrant situation of Leipzig’s Eastern district and by revisiting the former Espenhain site, in whose depths lie the remains of the Magdeborner Heimat (homeland).

Through these photography projects I have started to explore a critique of a utopian societal and economic model. Thuc’s intercultural encounters within the ‘closed society’ of the GDR afford subtle and subversive observations of the dramatic changes in the industrial landscape and the effects on people. I am beginning to explore how Thuc’s transcultural perspective from the 1970s, and Eisler’s existing and commissioned photographs, were reframed through contemporary curating practices.

During my stay, I interviewed one of the exhibition curators, other artists who had photographed the changing landscape, and inhabitants of the extinguished Magdeborn. One day was spent driving and walking the outline of the 1-year old Störmthaler See, which was opened for public use last April. My site-visit started on the Grade 3 waste deposit that now covers part of the former mining site, from which vantage point I could oversee the lake. It was the hottest day of the week when I climbed this ashen mountain of waste.

The GDR in the 1980s was the world’s leading producer of brown coal. The Federal Republic of Germany still ranks among the most significant extractors of the remains of the carboniferous forest, and is engaged in mining sites from West to East. Despite the Energiewende (energy transition) and heavy investments in alternative energies, Germany still relies on coal, the more so since its stepping away from nuclear power following Fukushima. A layered model of an anthropogenic Earth would picture the gaping holes in the land left by coal extraction, a transformed society through energy generation, and an atmosphere laden with CO2 caused by burning coal. How do artists critically represent our hunger for energy? Can we afford to be sentimental about the loss of Heimat as the cost of the energy demands that underpin our standard of living? Does our understanding need the top of a waste heap from which to look down onto the moonscape of a surface pit or the turquoise mirror of a leisure lake?

On my last day in Leipzig I went to the motet in the protestant St. Thomas church, where Johann Sebastian Bach, was cantor. Every Saturday at 15h the motets are sublimely sung, this time with the world-famous St. Thomas boys’ choir. 70 years earlier to the day, the American troops had entered Leipzig in the last throes of the Second World War. Back home in London I had a heated debate with a German friend about which verb to use for the advancing and the retreating armies and the German population caught up in these battles. Were the Germans in Leipzig ‘liberated’ or were they simply ‘defeated’? The pastor speaking from the pulpit in the St. Thomas church related that the Americans were in Leipzig until 1 July 1945. When American troops withdrew as agreed with the Soviet Union, Leipzig was taken over by the Soviet army. During the time of the GDR the official story was that the Soviets had liberated Leipzig, thereby erasing 10 weeks of American rule from history.

I will use the research material gathered during an intense week to trace the layers of the living archive south of Leipzig. The photographic representations and the narratives evolving around these images are my primary sources. The artists’ works appeal to social justice in their portrayal of the individuals within the different states, which is something I will particularly draw out.

I am exploring landscape as a palimpsest of human interventions and the agency of nature. Artists’ representations of environmental change can draw on the fields of economy, science and technology, and culture. In my thesis research I study and trace these through a number of artists’ works including photographer Chrystel Lebas, installation artists Mark Dion and Hu Yun, and painter Daniel Boyd. Their explorations led them to the re-enactment of archives and to working in the field to create their art. The current debates around the geological age of the ‘Anthropocene’ serve as a framework to analyse and interpret these works afresh. I will look at the understanding of time in nature and humans and the complex role humans assume within nature by being passive observers and active agents.

Bergit Arends

2nd year PhD candidate in Geography and Drama, Reid scholar

I would like to thank the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group in the Department of Geography and the Department of Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London for the support of this study trip.


[i] Simon, A, (2014) ‘Wende? Revolution!’, Die Zeit Online, No. 44

[ii] ‘Freundschaftsantiqua. Ausländische Studierende an der Hochschule fὒr Grafik und Buchkunst – ein internationals Kapitel der Kunst in der DDR’ exhibition curated by Julia Blume and Heidi Stecker at the Galerie fὓr Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, 1.2.2014 to 1.6.2014, and accompanying Journal #2, issued by the HGB

Advertisements
Tagged ,

Researching non-heterosexual lives

In this blog post, I wish to address the following question: should only non-heterosexuals do non-heterosexual geography? As ridiculous as this question may sound initially, I am regressing here to consider Kim England’s (1994) piece published in the The Professional Geographer where she discussed her own sympathy for the argument that ‘lesbian geographers should do lesbian geography’. 21 years on, I intend here to further comment on this particular argument; one which has since been primarily silent throughout the geographical discipline since England’s initial consideration.

Kim England’s (1994) piece was written during an epoch when the entire process of the making of geography utilizing traditional neopositivist methodologies by social scientists was subjected to considerable scrutiny. Acknowledging the intersubjective realities of social life had resulted in an academic environment where – to use England’s own words – the ‘socially constructed and situated nature of knowledge [was] increasingly commonplace’. At the heart of this realisation was feminism, which critiqued the orderly, binaric and qualitative thinking inherent to the social sciences. England’s piece describes this academic scene in more depth, before then drawing on her own research experiences regarding the lesbian communities of Toronto for further exemplification. Initially conceiving of Toronto’s lesbian communities as mostly self-contained, she employed a lesbian research assistant who she conceived would be able for her to ‘gain entry into the lesbian world’. Regardless of this, this research project is described by England from the outset as having ‘failed’. She notes how one of the reasons for this was that she could not fully understand what it is like for another women to live her life as a lesbian when she herself was straight. Whilst I do not believe she needed to worry that she was ‘colonizing lesbians in some kind of academic neoimperialism’ as she described, her portrayal of her ‘failed’ project does fundamentally speak to the question I posed at the beginning of this post. In inscribing this particular question regarding whether non-heterosexuals should do non-heterosexual geography onto the academic map, in my opinion her supposedly ‘failed’ project was not such a failure! It is here that I return to this question many years on, and its potential resonance given the current state of the discipline of the geographies of sexualities.

21 years on, the discipline has progressed immeasurably. Academics have considered the geographies of non-heterosexual lives in a plethora of public spaces and private spaces: homes, hostels, hotels, parks, landscapes, moorlands, mountains and the outback, to name but a few. To consider England’s ideas in more depth, we can look to the methodologies being used most recently to research the geographies of sexualities. The new methodological turn within this discipline within the last 10 years revolves around either the completion of an ethnography of non-heterosexual life by a non-heterosexual researcher (e.g. Cattan and Vonolo, 2014), or instead the use of an autoethnographically oriented methodology whereby the non-heterosexual researcher becomes both researcher and researched as their own lived experiences become the primary data (e.g. Eichler, 2012). Indeed, arguably one may conceive of this to be a validation of England’s experiences, as in both these cases a non-heterosexual is doing non-heterosexual geography, and incredibly convincingly in both cases! When recording my own experiences autoethnographically as a gay man of rural public spaces for my undergraduate dissertation, I found myself further sympathetic to this argument. I questioned how would someone else be able to conceive of the spatially intricate construction and contestation of my sexual identity throughout the landscape without having experienced a similar sexuality-based marginalization? But then in querying this in such a way, am I arguing that there is some shared sense of spatial experience between all non-heterosexuals?

Ultimately, I hold no specific answer to the initial question regarding whether only non-heterosexuals should do non-heterosexual geography. It seems to pose more questions than it answers in my above reflection. I do however believe this debate should be one more openly discussed in literature regarding the geographies of sexualities. It may seem at times like it becomes a non-academic debate, or one replete with essentialisms, yet I believe we must be open to such a dialogue for the further progression of this research area. As far as I am concerned, a comprehension of reflexivity as a researcher is fundamental to any research project. After all, ‘a researcher is positioned by her/his gender, age, “race”/ethnicity’, sexual identity, all of which may inhibit or enable certain research method insights in the field’ (England, 1994).

Oliver Knight (MA Cultural Geography Student).

 References

Cattan, N. and Vanolo, A. (2014) ‘Gay and lesbian emotional geographies of clubbing: reflections from Paris and Turin’, Gender, Place & Culture, 21(9), pp.1158-1175.

Eichler, M. (2012) Consuming My Way Gay: An Autoethnographic Account of Coming Out as Consumptive Pedagogy’, Sage Open, 2(3).

England, K.V.L. (1994) ‘Getting Personal: Reflexivity, Positionality, and Feminist Research’, The Professional Geographer, 46(1), pp.80-89.

Tagged

Hot off the press

2015 sees the publication of a number of books written or edited by members of Landscape Surgery. In order of publication these include

Maps and Memes: Redrawing Culture, Place, and Identity in Indigenous Communities

by Gwilym Lucas Eades

(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 264 pages)

Maps and Memes: Redrawing Culture, Place, and Identity in Indigenous Communities

Maps and cartography have long been used in the lands and resources offices of Canada’s indigenous communities in support of land claims and traditional-use studies. Exploring alternative conceptualizations of maps and mapmaking, Maps and Memes theorizes the potentially creative and therapeutic uses of maps for indigenous healing from the legacies of residential schools and colonial dispossession.

Gwilym Eades proposes that maps are vehicles for what he calls “place-memes” – units of cultural knowledge that are transmitted through time and across space. Focusing on Cree, Inuit, and northwest coast communities, the book explores intergenerational aspects of mapping, landscape art practice, and identity. Through decades of living in and working with indigenous communities, Eades has constructed an ethnographically rich account of mapping and spatial practices across Canada. His extended participation in northern life also informs this theoretically grounded account of journeying on the land for commemoration and community healing.

Interweaving narrative accounts of journeys with academic applications for mapping the phenomena of indigenous suicide and suicide clusters, Maps and Memes lays the groundwork for understanding current struggles of indigenous youth to strengthen their identities and foster greater awareness of traditional territory and place.


Urban Subversion and the Creative City

by Oli Mould

(Routledge, 206 pages)

Urban Subversion and the Creative City

This book provides a comprehensive critique of the current Creative City paradigm, with a capital ‘C’, and argues for a creative city with a small ‘c’ via a theoretical exploration of urban subversion.

The book argues that the Creative City (with a capital ‘C’) is a systemic requirement of neoliberal capitalist urban development and part of the wider policy framework of ‘creativity’ that includes the creative industries and the creative class, and also has inequalities and injustices in-built. The book argues that the Creative City does stimulate creativity, but through a reaction to it, not as part of it. Creative City policies speak of having mechanisms to stimulate individual, collective or civic creativity, yet through a theoretical exploration of urban subversion, the book argues that to be ‘truly’ creative is to be radically different from those creative practices that the Creative City caters for. Moreover, the book analyses the role that urban subversion and subcultures have in the contemporary city in challenging the dominant political economic hegemony of urban creativity. Creative activities of people from cities all over the world are discussed and critically analysed to highlight how urban creativity has become co-opted for political and economic goals, but through a radical reconceptualisation of what creativity is that includes urban subversion, we can begin to realise a creative city (with a small ‘c’).


Geographical Aesthetics: Imagining Space, Staging Encounters

edited by Harriet Hawkins and Elizabeth Straughan

(Ashgate, 320 pages)

Geographical Aesthetics: Imagining Space, Staging Encounters

Geographical Aesthetics places the terms ‘aesthetics’ and ‘geography’ under critical question together, responding both to the increasing calls from within geography to develop a ‘geographical aesthetics’, and a resurgence of interdisciplinary interest in conceptual and empirical questions around geoaesthetics, environmental aesthetics, as well as the spatialities of the aesthetic.

Despite taking up an identifiable role within the geographical imagination and sensibilities for centuries, and having what is arguably a key place in the making of the modern discipline, aesthetics remains a relatively under-theorized field within geography. Across 15 chapters Geographical Aesthetics brings together timely commentaries by international, interdisciplinary scholars to rework historical relations between geography and aesthetics, and reconsider how it is we might understand aesthetics. In renewing aesthetics as a site of investigation, but also an analytic object through which we can think about worldly encounters, Geographical Aesthetics presents a reworking of our geographical imaginary of the aesthetic.


Travels into Print: Exploration, Writing, and Publishing with John Murray, 1773–1859

by Innes M. Keighren, Charles W. J. Withers, and Bill Bell

(University of Chicago Press, 392 pages)

Travels into Print: Exploration, Writing, and Publishing with John Murray, 1773–1859

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, books of travel and exploration were much more than simply the printed experiences of intrepid authors. They were works of both artistry and industry—products of the complex, and often contested, relationships between authors and editors, publishers and printers. These books captivated the reading public and played a vital role in creating new geographical truths. In an age of global wonder and of expanding empires, there was no publisher more renowned for its travel books than the House of John Murray.

Drawing on detailed examination of the John Murray Archive of manuscripts, images, and the firm’s correspondence with its many authors—a list that included such illustrious explorers and scientists as Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell, and literary giants like Jane Austen, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott—Travels into Print considers how journeys of exploration became published accounts and how travelers sought to demonstrate the faithfulness of their written testimony and to secure their personal credibility. This fascinating study in historical geography and book history takes modern readers on a journey into the nature of exploration, the production of authority in published travel narratives, and the creation of geographical authorship—a journey bound together by the unifying force of a world-leading publisher.

Texts in Place/Place in Texts I

Miranda Ward delivering the opening paper at “Texts in Place/Place in Texts I”.

For geographers and literary scholars, place is both a significant intellectual focus and an important organisational concept. In its various guises, place is something captured by, and responded to, in texts; it is where texts are written and where they are read. Place, in various ways, is also tangled up with memory and identity. This special session of Landscape Surgery—organised as part of the HARC Fellowship strand on “Cultural Participation in Place”—brought together postgraduate geographers and literary scholars to discuss the question and significance of place.

The Department of English was represented by Ben Felderhof, whose research concerns the representation of the jungle in British fiction, and James Cutler (co-supervised in the Department of Media Arts), whose work investigates the dominant position of place in the cultural memory of Charles Dickens, the Brontes, and Thomas Hardy. The Department of Geography was represented by Miranda Ward, whose work has examined creative approaches to writing place, and Katie Boxall, whose research concerns the cultural geographies of dyslexic creative writing.

The session was convened by Finn Fordham (English) and Innes M. Keighren (Geography). It is to be followed by a one-day symposium—“Texts in Place/Place in Texts II”—at Royal Holloway on 21 May. In what follows, the speakers summarise (in the order in which they presented) their contributions to the session.

Miranda Ward

“An embodied act and process”: place, text, and the body in geographical writing

My paper examined the role of writing in geographical scholarship about place, focusing particularly on the potential to use “creative-critical” forms of writing to explore relationships between body and place through engagement with both the physicality of the act of writing as well as the spatiality of the text. This kind of writing was loosely defined as being characterised by personal modes of authority, a playfulness with language, and /or an experimentation with form and structure; I then framed my argument through reference to my own research on swimming bodies and the pool, suggesting that while there may be an especially noticeable tradition of using writing as a tool to explore the active male body in place, thinking of the body as a “recording machine” in the field (Dewsbury 2010: 327), or “something through which research is […] done” (Crang 2005: 232) allows us to consider the potential of writing to engage with as many kinds of bodies as there are scholars and writers, performing various duties and activities in various places.

By looking at a certain kind of geographical writing, one which is perhaps a bit more fluid and free-form than traditional scholarly writing but which nevertheless has some underlying geographical agenda, I therefore attempted to conceptualise texts as:

  • Records of bodily engagements with place
  • Bodily engagements with place themselves
  • Sites for further engagement with place (and its layers) via the space opened up between reader and author

Works cited:

Crang, M. (2005) ‘Qualitative methods: there is nothing outside the text?’, Progress in Human Geography, 29(2), pp. 225–233.

Dewsbury, J. D. (2010) ‘Performative, non-representational, and affect-based research: seven injunctions’, in DeLyser, D., Herbert, S., Aitken, S., Crang, M. and McDowell, L. (eds) The SAGE handbook of qualitative geography. London: SAGE, pp. 321–334.

Ben Felderhof

The forest in European literature, and its role in materialist and teleological views of nature

In summarising some of the background research I have conducted as part of my thesis on the tropical forest in British fiction, c.1885–1914, my paper attempted to relate a brief history of arboreal settings in European literature. I argued that, since ancient Greek philosophers first used the word for ‘uncultivated woodland’ to represent primordial chaos, forests have been used to substantiate conflicting views about the nature of the universe and humanity. On the one hand, Christian writing depicted existence outside God’s law as a dark, disorderly and savage tangle, which tends towards order and benevolence in accordance with divine influence. In texts influenced by materialist ideas, on the other hand, there is no meaningful development of the forest, only a deterministic cycle of creation, destruction and re-creation. My overall aim was to establish that the proliferation of jungle stories during the late-nineteenth century was due in part to a dispute arising from Darwin’s theory of evolution, between those who clung to a teleological view of the world and those who accepted the somewhat bleak implications of natural selection.

Katie Boxall

Cultural geographies of dyslexic creative writing practice: a place for mindful pageness, or a page for mindful placeness?

In this paper, I presented selected conversations between four practising dyslexic creative writers, illustrating ideas of more-than-page exchange, processual creative writing, and the literary habitations/habits evident in how writing takes place. The conversations were between a dyslexic poet, a dyslexic scriptwriter, a dyslexic personal experience narrator, and my own dyslexic autoethnography practice. My paper sought to highlight the messiness, and associative transcending facets, which cyclically ferment in what it means to write and be a writer. Through extracted tales, visual ethnography, and conversational interview extracts, I exemplified how these writers narrate within, beyond, and neighbouring the parameters of the page.

James Cutler

Place in Dickens/Dickens in place

My paper explored the key link between Dickens’s unrivalled enduring popularity and cultural legacy and place. More specifically, it focused on Oliver Twist (1837–9)—Dickens’s second-most-popular and culturally pervasive text after A Christmas Carol—and the text’s depiction of London; it then investigated the way in which Dickensian London had been sustained and shaped in a twenty-first-century cultural remediation (specifically through a Lloyds Bank television advert from the autumn/winter of 2014–15). The first part of the paper discussed Dickens’s original textual aesthetics of, and affective and fictive relations to, urban place. Mostly focusing on Oliver’s initial immersion in London (and the reader’s first experience of it) in Chapter VIII, the paper examined Dickens’s use of dialectical macro and micro montage as a means of reflecting late-1830s urban experience, and crucially contributing to the powerful resonance of London in the text to which the reader is drawn imaginatively and affectively. The second section explored the most recent mass cultural permeation of Dickens’s text: Lloyds Bank’s television advert which featured two clips from Carol Reed’s 1968 musical film, Oliver! Concentrating on the representation of Dickensian space and place in the two clips, the paper proposed a number of tentative suggestions about what this indicated about Dickens, Dickensian place, and us today.

Finn Fordham and Innes M. Keighren