Category Archives: Postdoctoral

Collecting Natural Selection: The multi-sensory collecting journeys of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace

by Dr. Janet Owen

The collecting journeys of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were undertaken to remote parts of the globe. They were, hazardous, multi-sensory journeys of heat and cold, tempest and calm. They were intense physical and mental encounters with alien environments: natural as well as cultural. They involved intense fear and diseases that brought them close to death. Throughout these travails they wrote how it was their zeal to collect natural history which helped them cope and gave them the will to live. For both men these journeys were uniquely memorable and life-changing. My research explores these complex experiences in more detail by focusing on two of the remotest locations on the European nineteenth-century world map: Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan which Darwin visited in 1832-3 and 1834, and Dorey in New Guinea which Wallace visited in 1858. They are places where both naturalists made rare acquisitions of human cultural artefacts as well as prolific collections of natural history specimens. Collecting specimens from the human and natural worlds provides a rare opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on the drive to collect which Wallace and Darwin embody. That these took place in two environments and cultures that could hardly be more different provides an opportunity to explore concepts of deep mapping and place this in an appropriate sensory framework.

I am currently writing an article for submission to the British Journal for the History of Science about these historical, multi-sensory journeys. As part of my research methodology, I travelled to these past theatres of collecting and captured my own sensory data, which helped me to ask new questions of the historical data left behind by Darwin and Wallace. I plan to prepare an article about these travels in due course, and am working on the idea of a long-term research project which centres on the interactive digital mapping of Darwin and Wallace’s collecting journeys.

 

Film: returning from Cape Horn 9th February 2016, in waters where HMS Beagle sheltered from storms in January 1833

Film: Wulaia Bay 9th February 2016. Where Darwin collected geological specimens, Yaghan body paints and other items for his zoological collection. 

Dr Janet Owen is currently an honorary research fellow in the Geography department at Royal Holloway. With an original background in archaeology and anthropology, she works in the arts/ museum sector and is the author of ‘Darwin’s Apprentice: An Archaeological Biography of John Lubbock’. All film content is author’s own.

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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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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

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INTRODUCING “LIVING IN THE MOBILITY TRANSITION” PROJECT

Think of radical changes in the ways humans have been mobile throughout history. How did those changes happen, how did they influence every sphere of life, how did they reshape societies or reinforced already existing identities, classes and norms? What probably comes to one’s mind first is a series of inventions: from a wheel to a car. Then one may think beyond innovative vehicles: both daily and global mobilities have been entangled into a variety of (geo-)political processes, societal transformations and development of new technologies in other spheres, for instance, ICT.

Now as the societal awareness of the consequences of the climate change grows and new policies are adopted by states and local governments, will that induce a series of changes in the way we move, a mobility transition?1-другое соотношение сторон

The two year project “Living in the Mobility Transition” aims to identify policies, visions, organizational forms, technologies and practices that develop in 14 countries in direct or indirect relation to climate change. Will we move more or less? What vehicles will we be using? What meanings will mobility have in various contexts? Who is steering relevant policies and what are the rationales behind introducing new regulations, vehicles and practices? How are the questions of social justice implicated into the visions of transition? How are visions of mobility transition contested, how do they succeed or fail, become exported or abandoned?

The project team will seek answers to these questions through analysing grey literature and conducting interviews with key stakeholders in fourteen countries as well international and surpranational organizations. The research has started with the two pilot case studies conducted in Canada and the UK, focusing on a variety of policies from encouraging active travel and flexible working arrangements to building public transportation infrastructure and supporting the use of new low-carbon vehicles.

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

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Wobbly Ground: Climate, chaos and creativity

I’m Miriam, and I’m an artist -turned geographer; along the way getting terrified and fascinated by climate change. This blog post is a summary of a presentation I gave summarising the research I have done in the first year of my PhD at RHUL…

I’m interested in the way that art can prompt and suggest ideas about the way that we interact with our natural world – especially in terms of the climate. The very idea of climate change is a really difficult one to relate to – in fact “you almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology”1, it’s big, it’s longterm, it’s horrifically negative and it’s a global problem; and joyfully, western populations are, for the most part, apathetic. People feel distant from the issue, there’s a focus on negativity and guilt and there’s an awful lot of media generated uncertainty and confusion. There are lots of studies – mostly from social psychology – which look at the barriers to people engaging with climate change, but I’m intrigued to find out the ways that people do in fact engage with the climate, in order to build on these.

I look at art and climate change, not as using art as an illustration of scientific facts, but as knowledge about climate change, and the lived experience of climate that can inform how we can instigate and cope with changes to come. I have been thinking about my own art practice in regard to the philosophy of Elizabeth Grosz, in order to understand the work that these imaginative forays into the idea of climate change do…. 

 “Albedo”

 Albedo

I’ll try to keep this snappy: Albedo, for those non-physical science types, refers to the reflectivity of a thing – usually a planet. So, a white or silver thing will have high albedo, as it is very reflective, and a black thing will have low albedo as it absorbs energy and radiation. In terms of climate change, the more areas of snow and ice there are, the more energy from the sun is reflected straight back out to space; rather than warming our atmosphere. As areas of sea and ice shrink, and give way to dark areas of open water or coniferous forest, these dark areas absorb more energy and the world warms.

My work, albedo, is an attempt to ‘cool’ the planet by making small wax casts of my fingertips, and placing them outside the gallery. In this work, there is a connection between familiar fleshy fingers, and the massive, and often incomprehensible forces that govern not only our climate, but the very universe itself. Elizabeth Grosz describes art as a means to ‘slow down chaos’, and I’m interested in the ways that these artworks can offer a space for pondering the connection that we – as bodily creatures – have with the world that we inhabit, that so often gets forgotten about in the business of day to day life…

“Drawing of a Piece of Chalk, Drawn with the Piece of Chalk, Until all that is Left of the Piece of Chalk, is the Drawing of the Piece of Chalk”

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I hope the title of this work is relatively self explanatory. This is one of a series of drawings of pieces of chalk that I collected on walks in the south downs in Sussex. The idea for the drawings arose out of many, long conversations with the wonderful Dr. Peter G. Knight, glaciologist extraordinaire at Keele University (www.petergknight.com) – so I can’t take all the credit! Again, I take inspiration from Grosz’s writing, when she says that art can offer a means of connection across scales – and a way for us to relate to things that are ‘beyond relations’. This work is a way to explore the histories of the materials; for the chalk is composed of long dead sea creatures that swam in the warm tropical seas that covered Southern England in the late Cretaceous period. They have been subjected to geological processes of time and pressure, but also of climate change. This work observes and transforms the materials once more – again, with the help of my fleshy formed fingers – turns the piece of chalk into not an accurate representation of itself, but a prompt to enable us to think about the histories, stories and memories of changing climates that are contained within the material itself. 

“Preserved Snowballs”

 Stack

A few years ago, one January, I was at Liverpool Street underground station when a boy of about 9 or 10 came down onto the platform carrying a snowball. The station was hot and the snowball was beginning to drip. He looked at his snowball, looked a the display which told him the next eastbound train was 3 minutes away, looked back at his snowball and ran off, up the stairs.

Snowballs-1

This moment really stuck with me, and in response I learned how to ‘preserve’ snow on glass with superglue, and created these hanging ‘preserved snowballs’. I feel that this is something that we have all wanted to do at some point in our lives (I mean, who hasn’t seriously considered slyly popping a small snowball in the freezer?). But it also alludes to a sense of loss and melting ice on a global scale. But for me, there are 2 things going on in this work: one is the idea that we wish to preserve the world just as it is – but the world is changing faster than we can ‘preserve’ it, and indeed it is always changing, so perhaps, preservation is no longer an option for us. Instead, we need to come to terms with the scale of the loss all around us, and learn to cope with the changes to come. The second aspect of this work, which relates to the first is the idea of stories; stories help humans through difficult times, and it is in cultural reservoirs and memories of tales and stories which, perhaps will be exactly what we will need as the impacts of climate change really do start to to bite. 

Future research

This post has focussed (perhaps rather narcissistically I feel) on my own artwork. But my PhD research is about encouraging others to create their own stories, and images of climate change as a way to investigate what is important to ordinary people who (importantly) are not already engaged with the idea of climate change. At the moment, this involves a group of women on an estate in Hackney, many knitting needles, copious amounts of tea and a lovely young man called Richard at the London Wildlife Trust… Watch this space, and I’ll post something about this soon! 

  1. http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2014/socialbrain/climate-change-experts-beginners/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+rsaprojects+%28RSA+blogs%29

By Miriam Burke

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Helpful Session: Career Development

Screen shot 2013-01-28 at 22.04.15

To kick off the term we held, on 22 January, a “helpful” session around career development, breaking into small groups we covered a range of different topics from conferences and networking (What to go to? How many? Do you have to present? How do you organise a session?) to publications (When? How many? How to get started?) as well as what to do next…

We heard some great tips about contacting people at conferences in advance and asking if you can buy them coffee, about organising your own small events and invite your idols – then they will know who you are! – about starting publishing by writing book reviews and conference reports for blogs like this one (hint hint!) as well as for journals, writing with your friends, and always remembering the mantra *quality not quantity.*

Perhaps one piece of advice that the session itself best exemplified was that some of the most useful contacts we make at conferences are with our peers (thanks for reminding us of this Innes), not just because we can write with them, talk with them, and drink with them, but also because they are a source of wisdom on the sorts of questions we are worrying away at here.

Towards the end of the session we turned to the question of what next…

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One option is a post-doc, and some of the possibilities for grant schemes that let you do your own research as a post-doc are detailed in the power-point attached below… also join jobs.ac.uk ( thanks Oli) and crit-geog forum and generally keep your eyes peeled for great projects that are looking for post-doctoral researchers.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the discussions
HH
PPT on post-docs