The Digital Libidinal City: Part 2 – Jack Lowe

In responding to Alfie Bown’s observations on desire in today’s digitally-mediated cities, which comprised the first part of this Landscape Surgery session on The Digital Libidinal City, Jack Lowe used his discussion to focus on the relationships between digital technology and experience more generally within everyday urban life.

While much of the early scholarship on digital technology in the humanities and social sciences lauded the possibilities and dangers of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘the information age’, Jack proposed that the ‘digital turn’ in these disciplines arrived at a ‘sweet spot’ in academic exchanges. The critical scholarship of the 80s and 90s gave us the tools to dissect the representational power of digital media, while postmodern and post-structural approaches have helped us to make sense of the agency that digital media have within wider processes of societal function and everyday life. In particular, with the move since the turn of the millennium towards thinking about materialities and the post-human, research into digital technology has helped us become more aware than ever of how our lived experiences are shaped by our relationships with material things. Ultimately, Jack argued, this enables us to understand digital technology in context – as one agent within a wider field of human and non-human agents that assemble during our everyday experiences.

Turning to Alfie’s example of Pokémon GO, Jack discussed how studying this widely-played mobile game is useful for thinking about the geographical relationship between play and everyday life. While existing studies of the game’s geographies have largely focused on how the gameplay has changed practices of navigation, sociability and embodiment in cities (e.g. Evans and Saker, 2019; Apperley and Moore, 2019), much of the research on Pokémon GO focuses on what the game was like during the craze of summer 2016, despite the game having changed significantly since then.

Most impactfully, players have since been able to participate in raids, a very popular activity in which groups of players gather in designated locations at particular times, working together to defeat powerful Pokémon and ultimately capture them. Jack contended that geographers could fruitfully employ techniques of rhythmanalysis (Lefebvre, 2004) to examine how the desire to get a strong Pokémon influences the timelines of those participating, and their relationships with other players, non-players and their environment. For it is this intersection between the rhythms of everyday life and the timescales of raids where the game has often had the greatest impressions on the everyday experiences of players (and non-players), provoking users previously unknown to each other to organise themselves using social platforms outside the game, change their routines, interact with the mundane events happening at the raid location, and develop intimate connections (memories of past raids and friendships formed, knowledge of signal strength, etc.) with the locations in which raids take place.

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Raid battles are time-limited events where players must group together to defeat powerful Pokémon.

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A raid battle in progress on Pokémon GO. You can see other players’ monsters battling at the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In relation to Alfie’s discussion of dating and food delivery apps, Jack drew connections with geographer James Ash’s (2015) work on interfaces. Ash’s research has explored the digital media used by payday loans providers, for example, examining how the affective qualities of app design features such as sliders and buttons can purposefully alter users’ experiences of them (Ash et al., 2018). Nonetheless, Ash and other interface scholars have been keen to emphasise that the ways these digital products are designed and used do not amount to straightforward manipulation, with the qualities of the experience depending on a number of contingent factors. Indeed, many people will be familiar with having used commercial websites owned by large companies that are frustrating to navigate; and accessing any digital services can always be curtailed by technology failures, or simple lack of affordability (e.g. of smartphones).

Furthermore, Jack emphasised the need to be nuanced in thinking about the different kinds of desire that can be fostered through various types of digital products. Not all apps and games are intended to foster, or result in fostering, deliberate patterns of consumption or generation of data for commercial and/or surveillance purposes. For example, media artists such as Blast Theory have experimented with these platforms to evoke experiences that question the ethics and affordances of digital technologies, as well as the social relationships that are mediated by them. Desire itself is a concept that encompasses a wide range of affective relationships that could be harnessed, for example, towards artistic, community-building and health-improving ends using digital media, and some could even provide methods of potentially subverting capitalist forces mediated by these technologies. Jack accepted, however, that such goals are always hindered by the detachment we experience from the working conditions through which digital products are made, and the lack of clarity regarding the ethics of how they are used.

To make sense of these nuances, Jack advocated for the value of ethnographic and autoethnographic research into the everyday geographies of digital media, so that we might perceive how they affect our lives at the level of experience (Duggan, 2017). Notably, he highlighted the need for more practice-based research in this area, where academics are actively involved in creating products using digital tools. This process can enable researchers to identify how each of their design decisions, as well as the affordances of the technologies used, influence the outcomes of the product being made for individual and collective experiences. In doing so, such research could potentially reveal the level at which these design decisions and technological affordances impact on our everyday behaviours.

Jack finished his response by drawing together three key questions that geographers might consider in relation to experience in digitally-mediated cities:

  • How can we as geographers critically examine the ways digital technology affects our everyday experiences and behaviours, both theoretically and methodologically?
  • How is power distributed in different kinds of digitally-mediated experiences, and what roles do space and place play in these relationships of power?
  • In line with aiming to adequately contextualise the production and experience of digital technology, how would we study and interpret digitally-mediated relationships in societies in the Global South, or across diverse communities of people more generally?

This post is Part 2 of a three-part series based on The Digital Libinal City session. Part 1 featured Alfie Bown’s presentation on desire and digital media in contemporary urban life. Part 3 concludes the series with Megan Harvey’s discussion of the psychoanalytic dimensions of desire and its relationship with capitalist reproduction, dreamwork and subversion in the digital sphere.

 

References

Apperley, T. and Moore, K. (2019) “Haptic ambience: Ambient play, the haptic effect and co-presence in Pokémon GO” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 25(1): 6-17.

Ash, J. (2015) The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, Power. New York and London: Bloomsbury.

Ash, J., Anderson, B., Gordon, R. and Langley, P. (2018) “Digital Interface Design and Power: Friction, Threshold, Transition” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36(6): 1136-1153.

Duggan, M. (2017) “Questioning “digital ethnography” in an era of ubiquitous computing” Geography Compass 11(5). DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12313

Evans, L. and Saker, M. (2019) “The playeur and Pokémon Go: Examining the effects of locative play on spatiality and sociality” Mobile Media & Communication 7(2): 232-247.

Lefebvre, H. (2004) Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London and New York: Continuum.

 

Written by Jack Lowe, edited by Alice Reynolds

The Digital Libidinal City: Part 1 – Alfie Bown

Our final Landscape Surgery session of the Spring term, The Digital Libidinal City, delved into the topic of desire and digital media in contemporary urban life. For this session we welcomed Alfie Bown, lecturer in the Media Arts department at Royal Holloway, author of The Playstation Dreamworld (2017) and Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (2015), and contributor to The Guardian and The Paris Review. Acting as discussants for Alfie’s presentation were Jack Lowe and Megan Harvey, PhD students in the Department of Geography and members of the department’s Social, Cultural and Historical Geographies Research Group.

Seeking in his presentation to frame the smart city as the scene for relationships of love and desire, Alfie introduced his presentation by pointing to past representations of desire in the early Romantic literature, in which love is framed as a scene composed of objects arranged with semiotic significance in the urban environment. Unlike ‘love at first sight’, the love experienced by the narrators of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, is not a single moment of encounter between a subject and their desired object, but rather ‘love at last sight’ – the broader scene in which desire is activated.

 

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In thinking about this scenography of desire, Alfie finds value in Roland Barthes’ work on semiotics, which examines how objects are organised into meaningful relationships that reflect wider cultural values. Alfie contended that desire in today’s digitally-mediated cities is evoked through the same process – through the arrangement of objects using interfaces, not just a singular association between subject and object of desire. Whether the desire is for a lover (e.g. Tinder, Grindr), food (e.g. Uber Eats) or something entirely fictional (e.g. Pokémon GO), the moment when this desire begins is the point at which a new relationship between the subject and implicated objects is formed – and increasingly these relationships are mediated through the digital technologies of smartphone applications, artificial intelligence (AI) and data profiling.

To illustrate his argument, Alfie presented three examples of contemporary smartphone apps that mediate this arrangement of objects using data, in an attempt to produce ‘desirable’ outcomes.

Replika is an AI chatbot that learns what the user wants in a friend by asking them a series of questions. Alfie explained that even if the user chooses to submit the bare minimum of personal information in advance, the chatbot can learn a great deal of personal information by offering the kind of helpful conversation that a supportive friend would provide, “a space where you can safely share your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, experiences, memories, dreams”. Replika is consequently marketed as the “the AI companion who cares”.

 

replika

 

Shapr is an app that uses LinkedIn data to suggest connections that could be relevant to your career. Its algorithm recommends 15 people each day that you may want to connect with, which users then swipe through to determine who they are keen to meet or not. If the interest to connect is mutual, users can organise to meet each other in person through the app’s messaging system. Through this activity, the app claims to help people “find inspiration and new opportunities” and “make professional networking simple, efficient and enjoyable for everyone”.

Lastly, Serendipity is an app that alerts the user when they happen to be near another person with a similar data profile. Based on the idea that there are only six degrees of separation connecting everybody on earth, the app encourages users to meet new people and find out who you know or what you have in common, so that you will “never miss a connection again”. Among other features, the app also allows you to track friends you are meeting with (if they are late), or those who are part of your group (if they are lost). All that is required for these services is for users to import all their contacts, and the app will do the rest.

These three apps, Alfie suggested, demonstrate the close interrelationship between objects of various forms that are represented through interfaces, and the desires that manifest in urban life today – for companionship and personal support, for making relevant professional contacts, and for expanding your network of friends and acquaintances.

While none of the outcomes of these three apps may seem particularly concerning at face value, Alfie warned that the purposes of digital media like these can easily expand beyond modelling and predicting user characteristics and actions, to actively manipulating their behaviours. While working in Hangzhou in eastern China, Alfie learned about the development of AI cars powered by Alibaba’s big data lab City Brain, which can respond to passenger needs. Not only do the cars use data generated by the user’s patterns of behaviour and language to tell you when you are hungry, but they can tell you exactly what you want to eat, taking you directly to the food outlet serving what you desire. This is an example of smart technology directly changing how users navigate the city and, most disturbingly, in a way that actively benefits one corporation over another.

Smart technology changing how we navigate the city is not a trend restricted to China’s smart cities. Alfie explained that Transport for London already has the technology to monitor where and when people are gathering, and could use these algorithms, and the data generated by passengers, to direct people along different routes using their journey planning services. Beyond applications that aim to move people more efficiently across the city, this technology could effectively play a role in, for example, preventing people from joining a political protest.

Elsewhere, manipulation of movement has entered the sphere of leisure activities. Alfie was in Hong Kong during the summer of 2016 when the hugely popular mobile game, Pokémon GO, was released worldwide. One Pokémon that was especially rare in those early months, Porygon, could only be obtained by visiting one particular shopping mall in the territory. With catching all the available Pokémon being one of the principal aims of the game, this meant that players were guided through the gameplay towards certain sites of consumption. Across many countries, this trend linking the mobile gameplay with locations of consumption has manifested through Pokéstops – in-game sites mapped onto physical landmarks where players can receive items in Pokémon GO – being sponsored by companies such as McDonald’s and Starbucks.

 

Trees Street Pokemon Game House Pokemon Go Lawn

 

Through these different examples, Alfie aimed to demonstrate how three seemingly disparate desires of contemporary urban life – Pokémon, food and lovers – all share the same qualities algorithmically and conceptually, in that the interfaces through which these desires are mediated can be structurally organised in ways that are open to manipulation, particularly when it comes to how people navigate cities. What makes this risk even more prevalent is that people today often implicitly trust digital services and big data to make the best choices for them.

Alfie struck a different chord at the conclusion of his presentation, however, by indicating that there are possibilities for resisting and subverting the algorithmic manipulation of desire. In another Chinese city, Shenzhen, where Pokémon GO is banned (as it is across the mainland), people with the technological know-how have found a way to play the game by layering the in-game map of New York – a city whose streets share a similar grid layout – on top of the map of Shenzhen. Due to the inevitable differences between the street layouts, players would embrace methods of navigating the city that are socially unacceptable and on occasions dangerous: reaching particular Pokémon spawns and Pokéstops by climbing over fences, walls and train tracks, alongside other forms of trespass.

Perhaps, then, there are still opportunities for desire to be harnessed as a tool for asserting what we individually or collectively want in our increasingly digitally-mediated cities.

We would like to thank Alfie for sharing his path-breaking research with a geographical audience, and for helping to continue the strong relationship between the Geography and Media Arts departments at Royal Holloway.

This post is Part 1 of a three-part series based on The Digital Libinal City session. In Part 2 we will feature Jack Lowe’s response to Alfie’s presentation, which focused on the relationships between digital technologies and everyday urban experience, particularly in the form of video games and apps. Part 3 concludes the series with Megan Harvey’s discussion of the psychoanalytic dimensions of desire and its relationship with capitalist reproduction, dreamwork and subversion in the digital sphere.

Written by Jack Lowe, edited by Alice Reynolds

Minor Theory: A workshop with Thomas Jellis and Joe Gerlach

For our third Landscape Surgery of the term, we were delighted to host visiting speakers Dr. Thomas Jellis, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford and Research Fellow at Keble College, and Dr Joe Gerlach, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Bristol, who put together an engaging workshop to discuss the growing necessity to reinvigorate geographical dialogues with the ambiguous investments of minor theory.

 

Part one:

Keen to establish an agenda from the outset, Thomas foregrounded the conversation by dissecting certain perceptions of theory that have developed in the study of Geography of late. Central to this argument stands the impression that human geographers have begun to express a deep scepticism towards conceptual work. A somewhat surprising notion given the on-going explosion of theoretical engagement that rings throughout the scholarly field. For Thomas, this scepticism is couched within a general feeling that hegemonic and widely cited bodies of theory are becoming overstatements or parodies of the issues they were originally devised to overcome. For others, he suggested, there is a fear that the discipline has become so engulfed in faddishly adopting and critiquing the work of mainstream theorists that we have begun to take all theory (namely Major totalising theories “bent on mastery” (Katz 1996: 488)) for granted.

Or perhaps more problematically, the issue lies in a focus on the ‘wrong kind’ of theory, meaning we are now drowning in an abundance of work which fails to coherently shape politically robust and passionate senses of the world around us. Particularly at the expense of gendered, racial, class-based and LGBTQ+ accounts. With these vehement concerns in mind, Thomas critically questioned whether we have exhausted all working parameters of credible theory, leaving us at an awkward stalemate of doing theory purely for the sake of theory.

If this diagnosis is true, what does this mean for theory as a whole? As a discipline, are we now suffering a disengagement with theoretical work because it is seemingly impractical, impenetrable, and politically inflexible? Or does this position give us more incentive to recapture and reclaim theory, forcing us to think beyond impact and to reshape how concepts are used so they cannot be reduced to the stagnation of stability?

More decisively, Thomas deliberated what these concerns have to do with minor theory. His answer put briefly- everything.

Whilst this is undoubtedly an intimidating prospect, we cannot begin to unpack this claim without revisiting our elemental understandings of the minor. Following Thomas and Joe’s own work on micropolitics and the minor (Jellis and Gerlach 2017), we can begin to comprehend the minor as an innately ambiguous assemblage that teeters along the edge of knowing, allowing it to avoid the constraints of definitive conceptualisation. As a basis, we should appreciate that “both the micropolitical and the minor cannot be allied to any particular scale or register of significance” (Jellis and Gerlach 2017: 564). Alternatively, as uncertain as it seems, we need to view the minor as uncommitted or unbound to any political spectrums. “If anything”, they write, “the minor ‘demands a ‘letting-go’ of the left and the right as political axioms, as much as it requires an abandonment of the affixation of labels ‘radical’ and ‘critical’, imposed by way of intellectual vogue. Instead, micropolitics and the minor are always, already present; it is what one makes of it as a mode of action that matters. Part of this mode of action is, simply, to ask awkward questions’’ (Jellis and Gerlach 2017:  564).

Offering further clarity, Cindi Katz aimed to push the threshold of what constitutes the minor by pondering how it could be apprehended as a tool to both expose and debunk the major.  Put briefly, Katz (1996) comments that the minor does not exist merely on the peripheries or in total opposition to the major, but fundamentally offers different ways to work with theoretical material. This is largely because the minor is not about naming or labelling something as solid or definite, but rather is about engaging with a language or vocabulary that feels uncomfortable and unsettling, making the minor an unstable form that is both “relentlessly transformative and inextricably relational” (Katz 1996, p489) to the major, rather than its direct antonym. For Thomas and Katz (1996) alike, there is enormous power in this relationship, allowing us to re-work, re-structure and re-negotiate the major from within, without wholly dismantling it.

Certainly, many scholars over the years have similarly tried to navigate this tumultuous terrain, producing new and eclectic retorts to popular bodies of theory that assertively demand we problematise the normative. Non-Representational Theory (NRT), for instance, critiques mechanic theories that have the inability “to do anything other than hold onto, produce, represent, the fixed and the dead” (Harrison 2000: 499), meaning that they fail to “apprehend the lived present as an open-ended and generative process”. Dewsbury et al. (2002: 438) similarly suggest that such approaches ultimately drain the vitality of the world around us “for the sake of orders, mechanisms, structures and processes”. Expectedly then, leading NRT thinker Nigel Thrift (2000) stresses the need to abandon the embalming fascination of believing theory is capable of fabricating totalising solutions and answers. Therefore, rather than seeking worldly explanations from theory, we need to consider new ways of experiencing, observing and practicing the “responsive and rhetorical” (Thrift 2000, p223) realm of encounter, and in order to do so, we must view all theory as a toolkit or supplementary resource that helps to co-produce the world, rather than exclusively rationalise it.

Isabelle Stengers’ equally provocative work with the minor contemplates the linguistic frictions that arise when dealing with theoretical abstractions and propositions. For Stengers (2008), theory often falls into the trap of ‘adequacy’, in which our ideas or perceptions are inherently shaped by inhibiting linguistic interpretations. Her resolution is not to apprehend experience as devoid of interpretation, but to redesign language in such a perplexing and disarrayed manner that nothing can be entirely defined by a specific noun or adjective. As such, theoretical abstractions for Stengers (2008: 95-6) “are not ‘abstract forms’ that determine what we feel, perceive and think, nor are they ‘abstracted from’ something more concrete, and, finally, they are not generalizations”. They are “lures” enticing our attention “toward something that matters, vectorising concrete experience […] to induce empirically felt variations in the way our experience matters” (Stengers 2008, p96). Resultantly, luring abstractions (propositions) act as a mode of the minor. They are theories in the making that are not bound to unbending binaries of ‘true’ or ‘false’, or even ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because they are not entrapped within the judgements of language. Propositions are therefore novel theories always under construction, that critically have the potential to collapse thought patterns, individual feelings and more ferociously; social order (Stengers 2008).

To summarise this section of the session, Thomas highlighted a common denominator in the semi-tonal shifts that aim to rework the language of the major, allowing for reconciliations and apprehensions of the ways in which we encounter the trajectories of life to become fully realised. Considering this, it is evident that the minor is always interlaced within the fabric of the major, disrupting its standardisation and questioning its seemingly stable structures. As the minor’s inert instability courses through the major, resisting crystallisation and oscillation, we are forced to interrogate the rigid political axioms of representation that the major aims to preserve. In essence, the minor is perhaps best understood as a moving target that collides with, congeals, and rearranges our geographical imaginations. It insists on deterritorialising a spectrum of universal truths presented to us by the major, and offers a chance to decolonise our thoughts, senses and articulations of the world in ways that cannot be anticipated. Perhaps a consequence of Thomas’ evident passion, or indeed the minor’s own capacity to dislodge prior judgements, it is evident that a minor theory has radical potential that is too important to be ignored.

 

Part two:

Before leading onto the closing conversation, Joe and Thomas prepared a workshop task designed to play on the notion of a ‘Landscape Surgery’. Presented with a collection of fragmented and detached statements about the minor, the session convenors asked us to collectively and forensically recompose our own diagnosis of the minor, for the minor. Joe and Thomas then asked us to write a postcard of our final assemblage and address it to someone or something. This assignment saw a number of expressive outputs from our surgeons, from postcards addressed to Freud and the RGS, to more tangible dismemberments and reconfigurations of the collection of snippets offered to us. Below lie a few examples of our surgeons’ efforts:

 

Part three:

In the final discussion, Joe took the opportunity to offer some further thoughts on the composition of the minor in relation to thematic geographic concerns. Echoing earlier conversations, Joe reinforced the view that the minor does not derive from its essence, but comes from the act of minoritizing, and whilst the push to minoritise is becoming increasingly urgent, neither he nor Thomas is certain of what actually it looks or feels like. Their goal, nonetheless, is to contemplate biography, fieldwork and ethics in order to begin to trial new ways of doing minor theory in practice. Of course, to outline a manifesto would be entirely oxymoronic, as once the ethos of the minor is sedimented within strategy it loses the potency of its desired resistance. Instead, this segment sought to pitch several loosely bound techniques of minoritisation that amplify the minors disruptive micropolitical affectivities.

 

Biography

For Joe, biography and geography are indivisible notions. On the surface, their prefixes are similarly rooted within some kind of worlding, a coming together of life, being and earth. But they become even more inseparable when their theorising becomes composed within the minor. However, as Joe commented, it is difficult to write a biography in a minor tenor, particularly when the passions and indifferences of life become swallowed in the oscillating macropolitical experiences of intensity and monotony- an erroneous pitfall that many authors have succumbed to. Joe singled out the epitaph’s suspiciously vivid plot, suggesting the temptation of reputation and fame often surpasses rectitude, but all is excused as nothing is ever as it truly seems anyway.

So how can we allow the minor to apprehend biography? Can we alter the pathways of these (ropey) life-stories to make way for minor lines of flight?

Following Guattari’s (2012) psychoanalytical work, Joe argued that we can try to write a minor biography by staging a series of spatially and temporally fragmented accounts of inexplicit encounters that narrowly avoid the threshold of consistency. Through doing so, we can suspend biographies in a limbo of sorts, a space devoid of taxonomic distinction between the virtual and the actual, the real and fiction – a flamboyant schizoid style that decentres the biographer with intent to disrupt the status quo (Guattari 2012). As Joe indicated, such an approach allows biographies to become stories of existence that aren’t merely the colourful tales of a single author, but hijacked encounters that are strung together through a collective resonance of an event (Manning 2016). The force of a minor biography is therefore highly unstable and its trajectories uncertain, reified only by its relation to other bodies, objects, sensitivities and energies.

 

Fieldwork

For Joe, all fieldwork is bound into major structures of application, empiricism and impact, leaving opportunity for a minor fieldwork meditation to critique the problematic nature of empirical work more generally. Non-representational geographies for example, have sought to expand the parameters of what counts as empirical fieldwork by playing between the boundaries of reality and representation, although Joe admits that this has gotten somewhat lost in the asphyxiation of the theory into brand name ‘NRT’. Alternatively, Didier Debaise (2009) aimed to liberate the terms ‘impact’ and ‘applicability’ to ponder what they might mean under speculative or minor empiricisms. Here, Debaise (2009) suggests that the contrived nature ‘applicability’ places not only a heavy burden on fieldwork to account for the all-encompassing epistemologies of experience, but also increases the relational aperture between subjects and objects. Resultantly, he urges the need to move away from a vocabulary of ‘applicability’ to one of ‘adequacy’. This does not pertain to commenting on the competencies of fieldwork to accurately testify experience, but to the pragmatics of thought, thinking and theorising that occur in experiential fields during empirical work.

By tuning into these subtle variations in experiential and elemental conditions, Joe hinted that the minor can become foregrounded as its own unique methodological technique. As such, minor fieldwork is less about identifying a particular category or case study to investigate, but about detecting the minute folds in our existence. For Joe, minor fieldwork is therefore pivotal in conceptually energising, enlivening, and charging the dimensions and details of the world. As ever, the minor in this geographical motif is not about mastery, and will not add any clarity to empirical work, but instead intervenes with and valorises the meaning entrenched into all aspects of fieldwork encounters.

 

Ethics

Ethics served to be the most problematic of the three geographic concerns to minoritize for Joe, as its stubborn political contexts seem to ardently reject the minute tonal shifts exerted by minor energies. Keen to probe the plasticity of this resistance, Joe sought to examine the frequently coupled tropes of morals and ethics that have become something of a well-established obligational concern within social scientific ethical fields. Ethics, he argued, shouldn’t be about willing or controlling certain events to happen smoothly, nor is it about resenting lapses in their ability to adhere to expectations. Instead, ethics is about building certain ontological capacities through the performance of bodies, spaces, temporal zones, geographic imaginations and embedded histories that exist within ethical contexts of an event.

As such, minor ethics relates to post-humanist thought because it speaks to the anthropogenic concerns of ontological vitalism. In this sense, it would be comfortable to construct a minor ethics that contemplates the willing of events expressed via the affective nodes of the human body, anticipating how this affectation subconsciously predisposes, and on some level controls, the outcomes of ethical procedure. Yet, a minor ethics is one of composition, a coming together of multiple sensitivities, tangibilities and sensibilities, and whilst a somatic speculation of an event is necessary, it paints an incomplete picture of the minor’s capacity; silencing the importance of value when aiming to disrupt major ethics.

In a return to earlier claims to resist the major’s totalising mastery of theory (Katz 1996), Joe argued that we must abandon popular theories that hold concepts hostage in suffocating hierarchies of value, and instead use a minor ethics to reassess the transformative coupling of ontology and judgement (Hemmings 2005). Indeed, as Brian Massumi (2002) hints, we need to move away from the ecologies of power produced within political and economic domains that necessitate a quantitative relation to value, and now focus on the affective force of value regardless of how unsettling it may feel. Value should therefore be about attuning our registers to the elemental – the aesthetic and the atmospheric qualities of ethics – rather than its assumed agency and power (Engelmann and McCormack 2017).

 

In an attempt to summarise this deeply provocative surgery, Thomas and Joe suggested that the minor should be thought of as a ‘productive paradox’; a working methodological and theoretical practice that seeks to mainstream the minor whilst simultaneously minoritising the mainstream. Importantly, a call for the minor is not about imploring temporary engagements within dominating bodies of work, nor is it about soliciting haphazard cosmetic overhauls of their theory. For Thomas and Joe, an embracing of the minor is about shifting the mechanisms of the major to conjure new articulations, imaginations, languages, and possibilities for the discipline of Geography. Certainly, the analytic dimensions of the minor must be practiced, its nebulous style rehearsed through extensive performance to allow for the dubious politics of the major’s totalising universalisms to be questioned. After all, as Joe romantically postulated, minor flourishes have the capacity to change the shape of the universe, and as a discipline it is crucial that we are well equipped for major ruptures inevitably caused by the minors’ cosmic waves.

 

We would like to extend our warmest thanks to Thomas and Joe for sharing their critical work with the minor with us, and for creating a surgery that was both engaging and insightful. We wish you every success for the forthcoming release of ‘Why Guattari? A Liberation of Cartographies, Ecologies and Politics’ as seen in the image below (Jellis, Gerlach and Dewsbury 2019).

9781138183490

 

References

Debaise, D. (2009) The Emergence of a Speculative Empiricism: Whitehead Reading Bergson. Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson, pp.77-88.

Dewsbury, J., Harrison, P., Rose, M. and Wylie, J. (2002) Enacting geographies. Geoforum, 33(4), pp.437-440.

Engelmann, S. and McCormack, D. (2017) Elemental Aesthetics: On Artistic Experiments with Solar Energy. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 108(1), pp.241-259.

Guattari, F. (2012) Schizoanalytic cartographies. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Harrison, P. (2000) Making Sense: Embodiment and the Sensibilities of the Everyday. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18(4), pp.497-517.

Hemmings, C. (2005) Invoking Affect: cultural theory and the ontological turn. Cultural Studies, 19(5), pp.548-567.

Jellis, T. and Gerlach, J. (2017) Micropolitics and the minor. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 35(4), pp.563-567.

Jellis, T., Gerlach, J. and Dewsbury, J. (2019) Why Guattari? A Liberation of Cartographies, Ecologies and Politics. Routledge.

Katz, C. (1996) Towards Minor Theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 14(4), pp.487-499.

Massumi, B. (2002) Parables for the virtual. Durham: Duke University Press.

Stengers, I. (2008) A Constructivist Reading of Process and Reality. Theory, Culture & Society, 25(4), pp.91-110.

Thrift, N. (2000) Afterwords. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18(2), pp.213-255.

 

Written by Megan Harvey, edited by Jack Lowe, Alice Reynolds and Ed Armston-Sheret.

Photography and Urban Change

Our second Landscape Surgery of 2019, titled ‘Photography and Urban Change’, was convened by Katherine Stansfeld, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. We were delighted to be joined by two guest speakers: Dr. Geoff DeVerteuil, a Lecturer of Social Geography at the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University, and Gill Golding, an urban photographer and Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. Dr. Oli Mould, lecturer in Human Geography in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, responded to the two speakers as a discussant and encouraged further discussion from the rest of the room.

To commence the session, Katherine presented a screen capture video of her navigating the Woodbury Down Estate in Hackney, London, using Google Street View. When moving around the site, the views shown in the video changed drastically, as the Street View platform had stitched together images taken at different stages of the estate’s recent redevelopment. Katherine used the video to express the ambivalent relationship of visual technologies such as Google Maps towards urban change, asking the group to question what this means for the (re)production of spaces, and why it is important to document and engage with our changing cityscapes – a point which remained at the heart of later discussion.

The session moved swiftly to our first guest speaker, Dr. Geoff DeVerteuil, whose presentation was entitled ‘Visualizing the urban via polarized landscapes’. In the study of photography and urban change, Geoff proposed a critical and constructive visual approach, suggesting that we must not avoid the visual or take it for granted, as geographers have in the past (Rose, 2003; Driver, 2003), but think critically around visual data. For Geoff, images begin the conversation, not end it.  And indeed, in thinking beyond simply ‘what can be seen’, the urban visual is also about the invisible; that which hides in plain sight. The aim with Geoff’s photographic projects has been to start conversations, document and expose, raise questions and challenge assumptions through visual methods – a need that he claimed is greater than ever in the ‘Instagram’ era of today’s society.

Geoff’s work adopts a range of visual methods based on 25 years of photographing cities and their increasingly unequal and polarized landscapes, which he recognises as a form of ‘slow research’. This is a purposeful reaction to the current state of urban studies, Geoff’s disciplinary background, which he contends is characterised both by conceptual overreach and empirical modesty. For example, in response to the prevalence of theory deriving from the Global North in understanding cities, Geoff has curated carefully-selected picture collections from his portfolio that blur images from cities in the Global North and South. By highlighting their similarities as much as their differences, these collections illuminate how cities often do not adhere to Northern conceptions of urban life as much as scholars tend to believe.

Another interest of Geoff’s is in using image-driven methods to explore the landscapes of power that exist within what he calls urban ‘backwaters’. In his presentation, this centred on photographs that document processes of forgetting and remembering: such as African-American graveyards in the US that have become overgrown and untended, or the placing of painted bicycles in locations where cyclists have been killed on roads in European and North American cities. Linking these image collections with his interest in making the invisible visible, Geoff also presented photographs that seek to highlight the hidden labour that takes place in cities across the world – from people waiting for work, shoe shining and recycling in Global South cities, to window-washers on skyscrapers in Canary Wharf.

The final part of Geoff’s presentation considered photographs that engage directly with processes of urban change: images of the interstitial. In this regard, Geoff’s work makes particular use of time-series and juxtaposition. For the former, this has included images that document processes of redevelopment rather than the commonplace fetishization of urban decline; while elsewhere Geoff has photographed time-series where seemingly nothing has changed within the space of a year or multiple years.

For the latter, Geoff’s juxtapositions have studied the relationships between ‘power landscape’ and ‘backwater’, fixed and mobile in cities. In one particular example, Geoff illustrated this tension with a photograph of a large plane flying low over a nearby residential area close to Heathrow, which is under threat from the airport’s potential expansion. In the Global South, Geoff has explored the same tensions by photographing informal settlements, such as shanty towns, that are situated within a stone’s throw of skyscrapers that tower behind them.

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Geoff presenting a photograph of the ‘gentrifying edge’, another of his juxtapositions, exposing the borderlines of urban redevelopment

Poignantly, Geoff finished by presenting photographs he had taken of Grenfell Tower after the June 2017 fire. Situated in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Geoff’s juxtaposition of the burnt skeleton of Grenfell Tower amidst a background of newly-built buildings illustrated the stark inequalities prevalent in processes of urban change.

Ultimately, Geoff intends to use his photography as a catalyst to continue conversations around visual urbanism as a way of doing research – of how to approach current debates in urban studies from a less distant and desktop approach, and visual methods from a more infused urban theoretical background.

Following Geoff’s presentation, our second invited speaker was Gill Golding. Her presentation discussed the process of making Welcome to the Fake, a series of photographs focusing on the recent redevelopment of King’s Cross in London, and its wider significance for diversity in spaces of urban regeneration.

Having taught in the King’s Cross area in the 70s, when it had a reputation for crime, dereliction and poverty, Gill was shocked to see the extent of change when she returned to London in 2012, and later in 2016. Describing what she witnessed as somehow lacking in reality, she began employing what she calls her ‘ground-based approach’ to photography: walking copiously in the locality over a long period of time, before eventually taking photographs that spoke to her experience of inhabiting environments that felt ‘simulated’.

In stark contrast to the deprivation Gill recounted from a few decades ago, King’s Cross is now being marketed as London’s ‘hottest’ area – a vibrant hub for young professionals and creatives, supported by a host of brands that people typically associate with wealth. This is evident from the types of hoardings that surround the site. Gill explained that she often photographs hoardings because they tell you a great deal about imagination – how we envision places to be. These imaginations can be derived from the use of language, with words such as ‘unique’ implying a certain exclusivity – that you are ‘special’ in some way for being there – but also in how people are represented in their images. In this case, the hoardings depicted mainly white, younger people; but most strikingly for Gill, she remarked that you never see images of young people just ‘hanging out’. They were always doing something purposeful, as if their presence in the space were tightly choreographed, contributing to the sense of unreality that Gill detected from walking around the development.

As an artist, Gill’s response to this feeling was to take photos that mimicked the simulated images the developers displayed on hoardings at King’s Cross, such that they were effectively indistinguishable from the site’s promotional material. This took no small effort on her part. She had to wait a long time for moments when just the right number of people occupied the space, all behaving ‘appropriately’ in the manner you would expect to see in approved images of the development – walking calmly through the space, using street furniture, on-site businesses and amenities, and not doing anything to contradict the intended purposes of the space.

View Gill’s photographs for Welcome to the Fake here.

Through this process, Gill’s photographs demonstrated how the regenerated spaces of King’s Cross really do operate in the ways that their developers imagined – which is to say, in a highly choreographed, ordered and functional manner that leaves little room for behaviours and events that deviate from the simulations.

Asserting that cities are characterised by spaces of surprise and spontaneity, Gill claimed that the redeveloped areas of King’s Cross are, in contrast, spaces characterised by micromanagement. Being privately-owned spaces, security employees are always on-hand to keep the ‘wrong’ type of people out; the water fountains shoot water in highly coordinated patterns; the architecture is bland and uninspiring; the trees are manicured with precision; and even the grass is fake. The entertainments provided in the ‘public’ areas of the development are carefully vetted, whether it is live acts or televised films and events being shown on big screens. In line with the world portrayed on the hoardings, these really aren’t spaces where young people feel they can just hang out – and all of this has significant implications for diversity in what is one of London’s most diverse boroughs. For ultimately, what types of entertainment are shown and what behaviours are allowed say a lot about how welcoming the site’s spaces are to different kinds of people.

Gill concluded her presentation by arguing that gentrification, following Anna Minton (2017), is not a strong enough word to describe the nature of urban change that is taking place at locations such as King’s Cross. It is a transformation marked by inequality and socio-spatial polarisation, pervasive and undemocratic control by private corporations, a lack of social diversity, and a choreography of the space that is fundamentally different from the spontaneity we typically associate with urban public spaces.

Following the presentations from Geoff and Gill, Dr. Oli Mould responded to the two speakers as a discussant.

Oli began his discussion by using Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) triad of the production of space as a framework for thinking about the presenters’ work on urban photography: representations of space, representational spaces and spatial practices. In Geoff and Gill’s talks, Oli suggested, representations of space denote the ways that the city is visualised; particularly the ‘utopian’ simulated images that create certain imaginations of the city, such as those appearing on the hoardings described by Gill. Representational spaces of urban photography are the surfaces that we project such images onto. The two presentations drew particular attention to the borders and barriers between different zones of development, such as Geoff’s juxtapositions, and the boundaries between what is visible and invisible. As Gill’s discussion of the diversity portrayed in redevelopment imagery highlights, photography can both reveal and mask the power relationships that shape urban landscapes. Lastly, spatial practices here referred to creative acts of photography and the materialities associated with these practices, such as the technologies used to produce the images, or the particular methods undertaken as part of the process.

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Oli using the whiteboard to explain Henri Lefebvre’s triad of the production of space

With this theoretical approach in mind, what can Geoff and Gill’s visual work help us to understand about how urban space is (re)produced?

What Oli gleaned from their presentations was the ability of photography to bring the unknowable to the fore; finding creative ways to illustrate how certain spaces are produced through interrelationships of distinct representations of space, representational spaces and spatial practices that are not always obvious to us. Yet Oli also warned that we are experiencing the loss of the right to create the city in this way, especially through the fetishization of the urban image. Connecting to Gillian Rose’s talk in Egham the day before this session on ‘seeing the city in digital times’, he remarked upon the proliferation of urban images as a result of digital media, which have enabled us to create and share photographs instantaneously and en masse. The images we produce on a daily basis can easily get lost in the overwhelming quantity of visual data communicated digitally, meaning that the political power of taking a photograph has become more difficult to extract. For example, images of homeless people have become canon in urban photography, and this expectation has served to normalise the occurrence of homelessness in cities.

The challenge that Oli identifies for urban photography, then, is to find ways to reclaim the emancipatory potential of urban photo-taking. In what ways might photography enact a democratic method of engaging with the city, and what possibilities could this entail for urban futures?

We’d like to thank our two presenters Geoff and Gill for sharing their innovative and important work with us, and Oli Mould for directing what was a lively and insightful discussion, delving into the possibilities and pitfalls of photography as both a method and object of study for making sense of urban change.

References

Driver, F. (2003) “On Geography as a Visual Discipline” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 35(2): 227-231.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Minton, A. (2017) Big Capital: Who’s London For?. London: Penguin.

Rose, G. (2003) “On the Need to Ask How, Exactly, Is Geography “Visual”?” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 35(2): 212-221.

Written by Jack Lowe and Alice Reynolds

INVESTIGATING THE EXPLORER’S BODY

The first Landscape Surgery of 2019 brought together three different perspectives on explorers’ bodies. This interdisciplinary session was organised by me (Ed Armston-Sheret), and included papers by Dr Vanessa Heggie (Reader in the Institute of Applied Health at the University of Birmingham), Rosanna White (PhD candidate from the GDSJ group of Royal Holloway’s Geography Department) and myself. In bringing together cross-disciplinary perspectives on the explorer’s body, the papers sought to develop insights relevant to scholarship on the body, the history of geography, and the continuing role of explorers in debates about heroism and national identity.

Bodies in ‘the Death Zone’

Vanessa Heggie presented a paper titled ‘Standardised Encounters,’ examining the disproportionate attention given to the white-male body within much medical research about the effects of extreme environments. She began by talking about the ‘Death Zone’ on Everest — the area near the summit of the mountain where there is not enough oxygen to sustain human life. Vanessa highlighted how the Death Zone is a subjective concept: atmospheric conditions and latitude can cause the amount of oxygen in the air to vary considerably, while bodily differences mean some are able to cope with it better than others. Such high-stakes spaces consequently offer valuable opportunities to consider the relationships between different kinds of human and non-human bodies.

Mountain range towards Mount Everest (Credit: Carole Reeves)

Until the 1950s, the Death Zone, Vanessa argued, was constructed as a white-male space. Women were excluded from Everest expeditions for much of the 20th century and the experiences and bodies of Sherpas and other ‘porters’ were frequently ignored.  Vanessa explained that the standardisation of the white-male body as the normal body for physiological experiments in extreme environments had a number of consequences. On one level, it defined what medics viewed as the ‘average’ or ‘normal’ body in medicine — and has since led to a diminished scientific understanding of how female and non-white bodies respond to altitude. In turn, this problem became self-reinforcing, as the lack of knowledge about women’s responses to altitude was used as an excuse to exclude women from future expeditions.

Vanessa also highlighted how a focus on the white-male body has shaped the design of clothing and equipment.  While white-male members of expeditions had bespoke clothing and equipment designed to fit their bodies, this was not true of women or Nepalese climbers.  Indeed, oxygen masks weren’t designed to fit Nepalese faces until 50 years after the first use of oxygen on Everest, despite the central role Nepalese climbers played in every Everest expedition in the intervening period.

Tabloid medicine chest used on the 1933 Mount Everest Expedition (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Finally, Vanessa explored how bodies themselves mark the Death Zone. The bodies of dead climbers are often difficult to remove because of both altitude and weather conditions, meaning that most people who die in the Death Zone remain on Everest. This has meant that some bodies have even become waypoints that mark routes up the mountain, taking on a cultural significance that exceeds their physiological attributes and the physical conditions that led to their deaths.

Bodies and Sovereignty

The second paper of the session was presented by Rosanna White. Rosanna’s paper examined the efforts of the Canadian government to claim sovereignty over the Arctic through representations of exploration heritage. Rosanna explained that the Arctic presented a particular challenge for traditional notions of sovereignty, and historically made it hard for the Canadian government to settle the Canadian Arctic in the same way as other parts of Canada. As Rosanna noted, the inhospitable conditions of the Arctic made many traditional expressions of sovereignty — e.g. establishing large settlements, building transport links or other state infrastructure — expensive or impractical.

Reflecting on how the Canadian government approached the discovery of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, wreckages of two ships led by Victorian British explorer Sir John Franklin, Rosanna argued that Canada had used these ships to try to demonstrate the longevity of Canadian presence in the Arctic. By deciding to leave these ships on the sea-bed of the North-West Passage, where they have become both historic landmarks and ecosystems for sea life, the Canadian government articulated a form of sovereignty underpinned by a consistent heritage of exploration and stewardship of nature.

Image of an 1850s expedition searching for HMS Erebus. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Another angle from which Rosanna approached this situation was the Canadian state’s changing policy towards Inuit communities living near the ships. In recent years, Rosanna noted, Inuit communities have been actively involved in the management and stewardship of the wreck sites. Not only was this a practical measure to help preserve the wreckages, but simultaneously an innovative way to extend the reach of the Canadian government into the Arctic by encouraging local participation in maintaining national heritage. In particular, Rosanna recognised that the project intersected with national guilt surrounding the state’s colonial practices towards Inuit communities.

A razor blade recovered from the Franklin expedition (Credit: Science Museum, London).

The final part of Rosanna’s presentation discussed a Canadian stamp series which featured HMS Erebus, one of the Franklin ships. One stamp image depicted the ship trapped in ice, highlighting both the ice’s materiality and the hindrances it presented to exploration; while another included a map of the area where the ship was found, using Inuktut place names. Rosanna contended that these stamps were exemplary of the Canadian government’s efforts to use evidence of historic exploration and indigenous culture to demonstrate sovereignty over the Arctic.

Is brandy a tropical medicine?

Finally, my presentation analysed how late nineteenth-century British explorers used alcohol to help them cope with the effects of travel in the tropics. I highlighted how many travel guides and some explorers advocated moderate and regular drinking when a traveller was in the tropics. Therefore, alcohol became defined in spatial terms: practices of drinking that might be harmful in Europe were often considered beneficial elsewhere.

I contextualised this debate within nineteenth-century thinking about acclimatisation. Some thought that Europeans were inherently unsuited to warm climates; others thought the body could adapt if the correct precautions were followed. The tropics were often constructed as a moral arena, where good conduct and ‘clean living’ were considered important. Notably, these ideas intersected with changing medical attitudes towards drink over the course of the nineteenth century, as other medical treatments fell into decline and the temperance movement grew in prominence throughout Europe.

Explorer's medicine chest

Medicine chest used by the explorer David Livingstone (Science Museum, London)

Delving further into these historic moral geographies of alcohol consumption, my presentation identified how ideas about tropical drinking were simultaneously rooted in Victorian notions of racial difference. While alcohol was often listed as a medicinal supply for European members of an expedition, local people were generally seen as not needing to drink in the same way. But because curbing ‘native alcoholism’ was often used as part of the justification for colonial rule, European drinking in the tropics could also prove problematic for both the travellers themselves (who often found ‘moderate’ consumption hard to define) but also to the moral basis for colonial rule. By the early twentieth century, drinking in the tropics was widely discouraged, partly down to the rise of tea and coffee as alternative stimulants and partly because of accusations that Europeans were drinking too much.

Ultimately, I argued that these issues highlighted the importance of travel and globalisation in changing attitudes towards drink, temperance, and consumption, as well as the central role of environment in much nineteenth-century thinking about the body.

The papers were followed by a lively and wide-ranging discussion that unpacked a diverse set of themes arising from the presentations. One of the questions put to the presenters considered the role of non-human bodies in both exploration and extreme environments. This question highlighted how the exploration of extreme environments was only possible through the use/exploitation of various non-human bodies. Another question addressed the issue of vulnerability and imperviousness, which provoked a discussion about the role of national rivalry and ideas of racial difference in extreme-environment physiology. Other questions addressed the differentiation between the bodies of leaders and subordinate members of expedition teams, and the degree to which leadership required a certain type of body. The panellists were also asked about affective practices of care and co-operation among team members.

I would like to thank my fellow presenters Vanessa and Rosanna for sharing their insights on the topic of explorers’ bodies alongside me in this session, and to those who attended for engaging so fully in the discussion prompted by our presentations.

Written by Ed Armston-Sheret, edited by Megan Harvey, Jack Lowe and Alice Reynolds

A VISIT TO THE SEAMAN’S BETHEL, NEW BEDFORD (PART 2 of 2)

A second guest post by Rachael Utting, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, whose project is entitled ‘Collecting Leviathan: curiosity, exchange and the British Southern Whale Fishery (1775-1860)’.

An extract from the journal of whaling surgeon Dr Eldred Fysh describes the committal to the deep of the body of a deceased whaleman early one morning. The attending doctor laments that the dead man will be forgotten by teatime, such was the callous nature of whalemen. He was not alone in this viewpoint. Whaling surgeon John Wilson described the crew of the whaleship Gypsy “the very lowest dregs of society, the refuse of Ratcliffe Highway and New Gravel Lane [in Wapping.]” However, a visit to the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford tells a very different story. The Bethel, or sailor’s church was built in 1832 to cater to the spiritual needs of the town’s large whaling population, particularly before embarking on a voyage, or to give thanks for a safe return. The Seamen’s Bethel sits in the New Bedford Historic District, a cultural area designated to protect and promote the towns whaling history. That history can be read on the small, neat marble plaques lining the walls of the Bethel, erected to the memory of whalers lost at sea and members of the local fishing community lost in more recent disasters.

new bedford 1There are stories of shark attacks, accidents, drownings, and disease. What strikes me in the Bethel is the palpable sense of sadness at the passing of crewmates. Many memorials states, “payed for by his crewmates”, “erected with respect”, “payed for by subscription.” Whalers were a notoriously poor bunch, earning a ‘lay,’ a percentage wage based on the amount of oil brought home and their seniority within the vessel. Some whalers came home owing more money than they had earned, their meagre lay having been eaten away by the extortionate prices of ships stores, known as ‘slops.’ That on their return to port they were prepared to spare their pennies to remember a crew mate lost at sea, perhaps several years previously rather counters Dr Fysh’s comments. It also tells us that crewmen were maintaining the relationships forged onboard whilst back on land. It would take time, organisation and communication to bring together the funds to erect a memorial. In the coastal towns of the Eastern seaboard many men went whaling with family members, sons, cousins and brothers (a trend mimicked in the London whale fishery but to a lesser extent.) However, the plaques also memorialise foreigners such as John Glover of London, lost overboard, Daniel Burns of Pictou, Nova Scotia, and Charles Wilson of the Sandwich Isles (Hawaii.) These show the international nature of the nineteenth-century whaling trade and highlight the strength of bonds created between crew members during long whaling voyages, irrelevant of nationality. As the epitaph to Londoner, John Glover reads,

“This sacred cenotaph is reared,

By those who shar’d his grief and joy:

To them his memory is endeare’d

By ties which death cannot destroy

Nor could their effort save him there,

Those who may meet a watery grave

Should for a sudden death prepare.”

Considering the American portrayal of the heroic golden age of whaling and conversely the lack of historical memory regarding whaling in Britain, the Seamen’s Bethel offers us an opportunity to recast whalers in a more nuanced vision; less as the dregs of Wapping Wall, but not quite the American vision of heroic masculinity fighting the elements. It allows nineteenth-century whalers to be seen as human and caring. To be both sombre and sober.

Epitaph1.jpg

Curating the Oslo Architecture Triennale

For our final Landscape Surgery session of this term we welcomed Cecilie Sachs Olsen, a British Academy post-doctoral research fellow at Royal Holloway’s Centre for the GeoHumanities, alongside Matthew Dalziel, an associate of the transdisciplinary architecture and engineering practice Interrobang, as two of the four-person curatorial team for next year’s Oslo Architecture Triennale.

Taking place from 26th September to 24th November 2019, this event is the Nordic region’s biggest festival of architecture, and an internationally-important arena for discussion around the challenges of architecture and urban space. Cecilie and Matthew’s joint presentation focused on the process of curating the Triennale around their chosen theme of ‘degrowth’, the role that art and performance will play within their practice, and the challenges they’ve encountered since starting work on the Triennale programme.

 

Degrowth and architecture

Matthew, speaking as a practising architect himself, began the presentation by outlining how individual architects often have very little agency in the construction industry to which they contribute. Despite typically being motivated by social, cultural and artistic values, 60% of architects at any given time are working on private housing, with much of it marketed towards the wealthiest 1% of the population.

However, cultural events such as the Triennale are one outlet that architects have for more critical interventions, giving these individuals opportunities to experiment with ideas outside of a ‘project’ ecosystem, and into an arena that could potentially inspire a global conversation.

The curatorial team chose their conversation for the Oslo Architecture Triennale to be about ‘degrowth’.

Degrowth has been understood to stand for “a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions” (Research & Degrowth, 2018). Central to this definition is the reasoning that the drive for continued economic growth in our societies is unsustainable for a world that supports life.

Many will recall that this argument has been made for decades by organisations such as The Club of Rome, whose famous report The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) is widely recognised as one of the first significant studies that illuminated how the unprecedented economic growth occurring throughout the 20th century was causing, and would continue to cause, widespread ecological destruction.

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Cecilie illustrating the arguments in The Limits to Growth with a cartoon showing a hamster gradually consuming the earth, based on the idea that a hamster doubles in size every day until it reaches puberty (author’s own)

Nonetheless, according to the presenters, reports such as The Limits to Growth failed to capture the impetus of the public and policymakers due to the tone of doomsaying that accompanied the stark environmental impacts indicated by their studies. Indeed, a continual problem confronting the degrowth movement has been the negative connotations associated with the notion of reducing economic growth, as it might seem to imply a logic of austerity.

In order to avoid this risk of scaremongering by simply offloading information to the public, the curatorial team instead wanted to use the theme of degrowth to change how people think about urban environments in a way that is relevant to their lives. And in particular, to challenge the assumption that the function of the spaces we use in everyday life is already predetermined, which is one reason why people can feel alienated from the spaces they inhabit.

According to Cecilie, this is why art and performance are so important, as they have the ability to free people from their everyday roles in society and experiment with other ways of being in the world. In theatre, for example, if a person acting as a queen sits on a normal chair, the chair becomes a throne. The pre-given conception of an object can be transformed simply by putting it in a context where re-imagination is welcomed, and the enchantment accompanying such experiences can help us to rethink the agency we have within our own surroundings.

 

Curating transformational spaces

This is exactly what the curatorial team is aiming to achieve in their programme for the Oslo Architecture Triennale, for which they will be creating three ‘transformations’ in three different sites in Oslo to turn them into spaces of sharing, play and connecting.

The first location is Oslo’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. An institution whose buildings are made to house conventional exhibitions of art, crafts and design work, the space the team were given for the Triennale was a typically bland, concrete room.

The challenge facing the curators was to convert it into a catalytic space, and the idea they came up with was to create a library within it. Cecilie reflected that not only are libraries environments of sharing and making, but the most celebrated libraries also often have a uniquely awe-inspiring atmosphere to them. How could they construct such an effect in what was a small, rather uninspiring room?

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Trinity College Library, Dublin (Skitterphoto, public domain)

In their design of the ‘library’, they were particularly inspired by Olafur Eliasson, whose work has used light, mirrors and liquids to evoke seemingly limitless spaces within physically restricted sites. At present, the curatorial team are planning to craft four mirrored rooms separated by walls of varied thicknesses, with participants moving between them to gradually transition into the imagined space of the library from the ‘real’ space of the museum building. Immersion is central to the curators’ vision of the library experience, and they are keen to employ techniques used by interactive theatre companies such as Punchdrunk, which give participants the opportunity to explore and engage with fictional environments in meaningful and believable ways, guided solely by their own interests and inclinations.

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Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (Tate Photography, source: https://olafureliasson.net/archive/exhibition/EXH101069/the-weather-project)

This journey into the imaginary will begin from the moment visitors reach the building, where they will be given library cards to enter the space rather than museum tickets. Upon leaving the ‘library’ and re-entering Oslo city centre, participants will then be invited to extend the experience by taking part in an immersive audiowalk that zURBS, the ‘social-artistic urban laboratory’ that Cecilie co-founded in 2011, will be running.

The second transformation will take place in the urban public space of Oslo through the creation of a ‘playground’. Here, the curators will be drawing on the capacity of play to de-emphasize the urban environment’s economic value and functions and instead render them as arenas for “pleasure, surprise and critical possibility” (Dickens, 2008: 20).

Previously, play has been considered an activity that takes place in alternate realities separate from our everyday lives (sports pitches, games tables, virtual realities, etc.) where different rules apply, in what Huizinga (1955 [1950]) calls the ‘magic circle’ of play. By using public playful art to expand the magic circle spatially (beyond designated environments), temporally (beyond specific time limits) and socially (beyond designated players) (Montola, 2005), the stages of everyday life can be re-enchanted as realms of the possible (Klausen, 2014).

Through play centred around the concept of degrowth, the curatorial team wants participants to imagine opportunities for an improved way of living, rather than a reduction in individual agency that might be inferred from the term. Central to this viewpoint is the idea that non-essential activity should be understood as an enjoyable state of being, rather than something defined through the lens of economic growth as ‘unproductive’. Games don’t necessarily lead to the most efficient ways of completing a task – golf is a rather complicated way of putting a ball in a hole, for example – but negotiating the affordances games present to players in creative and skilful ways can ultimately lead to enrichment that wouldn’t occur otherwise.

The final transformation will take place in DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture, which will become the site of a makeshift theatre.

Here, the curators are enlisting the skills of METIS, a Cambridge-based performing arts organisation, and more specifically their interactive piece We Know Not What We May Be. Originally performed at the Barbican in September, this participatory performance asks the audience to imagine a more sustainable future, featuring talks from experts about what the future could be, and giving the audience the option to decide which one they want. These participants can then see their decisions become a reality, as the actors perform scenarios based on what has been chosen, followed by further discussion about these possibilities amongst the actors and audience.

One of the difficulties faced by the team when arranging this performance is the institutional context in which it will be set. DogA is funded by the municipal government’s budget for the economy, creating tensions between the theme of ‘degrowth’ and the continued demand for growth in Oslo’s economy today. In order to reconcile this apparent contradiction, the curators have emphasised that the performance will be focused on facilitating discussion between a wide range of people – including elites – rather than silencing points of view to further a particular political agenda.

Alongside the three transformations, as highlighted previously, Cecilie’s artist collective zURBS will be using audiowalks as a way to engage citizens and planners to think about alternative futures. These will be framed in an imaginative way. For example, in one walk participants will imagine they are researchers from the future, and will choose individually between different options of what Oslo might look like in the decades to come. Collectively, participants will then traverse the present-day environment and attempt to identify how these brave new worlds began, without knowing what futures the other walkers chose to seek.

Cecilie explained that the idea behind the audiowalks was to de-centre accepted understandings of how the city operates. By encouraging citizens to identify the transformative potential of the present city, such ‘defaults’ don’t have to exist. As soon as we’re afforded the agency to redefine what a space is for, the alternative futures we dream in our heads could become possible.

 

Challenges

Nonetheless, in talking about the challenges the team have faced so far throughout the curatorial process, Cecilie and Matthew accepted that there are often limits to what people are able to imagine as they think about better ways of inhabiting urban space. If the street is seen inherently as an instrument of consumption, this epistemology will mean that even seemingly beneficial changes, such as pedestrianisation, will be become tools to reproduce the dominant paradigm of consumption through processes such as gentrification.

Language is another force that imposes epistemological limitations on how the curatorial theme can be explored. Most problematically for the curators, the term ‘degrowth’ doesn’t even exist in Norwegian, meaning that they have had to think about alternative prefixes to use other than ‘de-’, while attempting to remain faithful to the understanding of degrowth that is implied when used in English. Yet even without language barriers, reaction to degrowth as a concept has frequently been ambivalent, as was highlighted in the discussion after Cecilie and Matthew’s presentation when its usefulness for societies in the Global South was questioned.

The last challenge the curators discussed was one that many academics will be familiar with: the need to be rigorous in their engagement with the material they are discussing, while also making their work accessible enough for members of the public to engage with it. This necessity was brought sharply into focus when the curators of the last Oslo Architecture Triennale were criticised for making works that ‘normal people’ couldn’t understand.

In contrast, the curatorial team’s efforts to avoid a similar fate are reflected in the participatory qualities of the installations, performances and other artworks they are curating, which give ‘normal people’ the greatest power to define and interpret what is meaningful within the installations and experiences on offer.

 

We’d like to offer enormous thanks to Cecilie and Matthew for taking time out of their busy schedules to talk to us about their work, and we wish them every success over the coming months as they prepare for the Oslo Architecture Triennale, which starts on 26th September 2019.

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Matthew Dalziel and Cecilie Sachs Olsen (author’s own)

 

Bibliography

Dickens, L. (2008) “‘Finders keepers’: performing the street, the gallery and the spaces in-between” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 4: 1-30.

Huizinga, J. (1955 [1950]) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press

Klausen, M. (2014) “Re-enchanting the city: Hybrid space, affect and playful performance in geocaching, a location-based mobile game” Journal of Urban Cultural Studies 1(2): 193-213.

Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J., Behrens III, W.W. (1972) The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.

Montola, M. (2005) “Exploring the Edge of the Magic Circle: Defining Pervasive Games” Proceeedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Copenhagen, Denmark [online] Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=AB62B5B3CD2B349DE8846879B58B4AC8?doi=10.1.1.125.8421&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Research and Degrowth (2018) “Definition” Research and Degrowth [online] Available at: https://degrowth.org/definition-2/

 

Written by Jack Lowe, edited by Megan Harvey and Alice Reynolds

Safe Space

For our fourth Landscape Surgery of the autumn term, we were kindly joined by members of our affiliated research group, Geopolitics, Development, Security and Justice (GDSJ), to deliberate the notion of ‘safe space’. The surgery was chaired by Professor Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway), and was divided into two presentations given by Dr Janet Bowstead (Postdoctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway) and Riina Lundman (Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Turku, Finland) respectively, before concluding with an open panel discussion that sought to think more broadly about the geographical importance of ‘safe space’ in today’s social and political climate.

From the outset, the task of defining ‘safe space’ presented itself as a challenging undertaking, perhaps a consequence of the expression’s resurgence within the public domain of late that has prompted rather unapologetic and heated debates “over what ‘safe spaces’ mean and if they should be encouraged and protected” (Djohari et al., 2018, p351). As noted within the latter group discussion, it seems as though the term has become obscured to negatively describe ‘sanitised’ spaces of ‘free expression’, often being paired with other culturally loaded neologisms such as ‘snowflake generation’ and ‘political correctness’ to incite adverse confrontations of speech (Djohari et al., 2018). Whilst these particular mobilisations of the term cannot be ignored, Katherine noted that ‘safe space’ in its most rudimentary form, describes:

“A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.” – (Oxford dictionary)

Indeed, when probed further this particular explanation raises important questions surrounding the theorisation of the material, physical, emotional and imagined capacity of ‘safe spaces’. However, it is starkly apparent that the concept is inherently contested, diverse and subjective, meaning that no solitary definition is ever quite appropriate, and its geographical relevance is substantially entwined within ever expansive political and social webs of understanding.

Safespace

A pink inverted triangle encased within a green circle used to symbolise alliance with LGBTQ+ rights. This is just one example of a safe space symbol. Source: http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safe_space

To highlight the individuality of our own perceptions of ‘safe space’, the session’s convenor, Katherine Brickell, encouraged the group to mental map our own spaces of safety through the medium of language and illustration. As a critical methodology, mental mapping has been utilised by feminist geographers to allow participants to reflexively consider their own “geographical imaginations and complex identity negotiations” in relation to social locations (Jung, 2012, p985).  In this sense, mental maps are not solely reflections of an individual’s cognitive identity, but are a multi-layered artefact rife with emotion, impression and knowledge.

Among the group, the home and the bedroom featured heavily as perceived sites of safety. Whilst this is unsurprising given the popular tropes of peace and security that resonate in imaginations of the domestic, it is evident that for many the home is deeply unsafe, with 1.9 million adults in the England and Wales experiencing abuse within the home in 2017 alone (ONS, 2017). For others, ‘safe space’ was recognised to be unbound by specific locations, but as visceral encounters between friends, family, animals and nature. Similarly, for some, safe space is temporally attached to particular hours of the day, fleeting feelings of comfort found in the early morning or the last few moments before nightfall.

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A mental map of my own safe spaces. Source: Authors own, 2018. 

Our first speaker, Dr Janet Bowstead, is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. Janet conducts interdisciplinary research that cuts across geography, sociology and social policy to examine strategies of safety for women who have suffered from domestic violence. In her presentation, entitled: “Safe Spaces of Refuge, Shelter and Contact”, sought to consider service responses to women and girls at risk of abuse in both the global North and South by examining a forthcoming selection of articles in the journal of Gender, Place and Culture.

Janet begun by suggesting that safe spaces of shelter have the potential to offer freedom to victims of violence when (1) explicit boundary work is done to carve out safe spaces in hostile environments, (2) the practices for ensuring safety are central in allowing women to evoke relational place-making performances, and (3) the shelter becomes a temporary contact zone of refuge, safety and autonomy.

Thinking specifically about research conducted by the ASPIRE Project (Analysing Safety and Place in Immigrant and Refugee Experience) that examined community-led responses to violence against immigrant and refugee women in Australia, Janet noted that minority groups of women face unique barriers when attempting to access domestic violence services (Murray et al., forthcoming). For instance, many women travelled long distances or entirely relocated to gain access to help, yet once they had moved were judged or shamed by other members of their community for leaving violent relationships. Moreover, language barriers between shelters and vulnerable women ultimately impacted their overarching perceptions of safety, as services could not regularly provide appropriate interpreters with correct ethical training, resulting in women feeling fearful that confidentiality breaches could leave them at risk.

Similarly, research conducted in shelter homes in Eastern India by Mima Guha (forthcoming) found that shelters can prevent emotional healing from abuse by enforcing punitive measures, leaving women feeling isolated and punished for their experience as victims. As Janet further highlighted, some protection schemes in East Indian shelters showed evidence of mistreatment by the state and families to punish ‘sexually deviant’ young women for eloping with partners without familial consent. In these cases, women’s subversive sexual behaviour became reframed as ‘victimhood’, resulting in alleged ‘safe spaces’ becoming a site in which to control and manage female agency under the guise of state protection and rehabilitation.

It is clear that “women need to be safe from abuse before they can be safe to achieve wider control, autonomy and freedom” (Lewis et al, 2015 n.p.). As such, it is necessary for shelters and refuges to offer support throughout the emotional stages of recovery and empowerment following abuse. For Janet, this is carried out through the nature of the safety, and by the nature of the space. For instance, shelters with communal facilities produce a very different rehabilitation programme than those with self-contained flats. Likewise, shelters that implement collaborative participatory creative outputs ‘can enable processes of self-help and collective support to counteract the isolation of abuse and to help prepare women for their lives after the refuge’ (Bowstead for RGS-IBG, 2017). However, this is not to suggest that the onus for rehabilitation is solely the role of shelters and the individuals themselves. Instead, it is critical that discussions on ‘safe space’ continue to be opened up and dissected to generate a new narrative for a human rights approach that allows women to feel truly, and unequivocally, safe and free within society.

Indeed, as Janet’s presentation summarised, safe spaces across the global North and South are not static or singular in their ability to afford safety and freedom for women. However, “temporary spaces of shelter, refuge and contact can be powerful places of protection and recovery” (Bowstead, 2018 in presentation) that can transform lives, inspire collective support and encourage wider societal change in attitudes towards women who have experienced violence.

Our second speaker, Dr Riina Lundman, is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Turku, Finland, with interests in urban studies, public space and creative geographies. Riina’s presentation continued the session theme and discussed the idea of ‘safe(r) spaces’ for the elderly.

Paraphrasing Furedi (2002: n.p.), Riina suggested that “safety has become one of Western society’s fundamental values”, as organisations, institutions and social groups strive to offer diverse spaces of inclusivity, to which everyone feels welcome. However, for Riina, ‘safe space’ is intrinsically paradoxical by nature. If one space is safe, does that mean all others are unsafe? And if that is the case, is it possible to generate a new ‘safe(r) space’ attitude that reduces the disparity?

In response, Riina argues that a ‘safe(r) space’ narrative could be pivotal in bridging this gap, particularly in Finland where social and political knowledges on ‘safe space’ are yet to build substantial prominence within legal research. As such, Riina is currently in the process of investigating Finnish laws and policies to examine what safe(r) spaces could mean for elderly people, and moreover, the kinds of solutions that could be implemented to allow a more sustainable practice for creating and managing elderly spatial safety.

Following Koskela’s (2009) dimensions of safety and security, Riina illustrated that in order for senior care homes to become safe(r) safes, they should cohere to the following aspects: (1) be well calculated and measured, (2) designed to be experienced and to feel personal, (3), respect cultural differences and structural duties of care, (4) have strong social elements to reduce isolation, (5) be imaginative and creative, and finally, (6) have these ideals manifested in physical and material elements, rather than allowing the notion of safety to exist solely on a theoretical basis.

However, as one would expect, the generational group of the elderly is incredibly diverse, from differences in social, cultural and political values, to what is needed and required from a medical standpoint to ensure that a space is entirely safe. With this in mind, Riina is sympathetic that there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ formula to generating ‘safe(r) spaces’ for the elderly, but rather that there is a wealth of work to be done in social and legal policy to enable the best care to be given.

For Riina, much of this can be done by confronting the negative stigmas of ageism and ableism that frequently infiltrate discussions on senior safety. By looking at specific case examples of senior co-housing communities that offer more relaxed approaches to elderly care, for instance the Loppukiri in Helsinki that provides private housing clustered around communal spaces, Riina is hopeful that spatio-legal approaches to safe(r) spaces will begin to adopt a far more open and accepting attitude towards elderly care.

We would like to extend our warmest thanks to Katherine, Janet and Riina for their fantastic Landscape Surgery session, and for their continued work in sustaining what can be extremely difficult conversations regarding safe space.

 

Bibliography

Bowstead, J. (2017) AC2017 – Geographies of Safe Space (1): Spaces of embodiment, identity and education. [online] Conference.rgs.org. Available at: http://conference.rgs.org/AC2017/315.

Djohari, N., Pyndiah, G. and Arnone, A. (2018) Rethinking ‘safe spaces’ in children’s geographies. Children’s Geographies, 16(4), pp.351-355.

Furedi, F. (2002) Epidemic of Fear | Frank Furedi. [online] Frankfuredi.com. Available at: http://www.frankfuredi.com/article/epidemic_of_fear.

Guha, M (2018) ‘Safe spaces’ and ‘bad’ girls: Child-marriage victims experiences from a shelter home in Eastern India. Gender, Place and Culture (forthcoming)

Jung, H. (2012) Let Their Voices Be Seen: Exploring Mental Mapping as a Feminist Visual Methodology for the Study of Migrant Women. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3), pp.985-1002.

Koskela, H. (2009) The Spiral of Fear: Politics of Fear, Security Business, and the Struggle over Urban Space. Helsinki: Gaudeamus.

Lewis, R., Sharp, E., Remnant, J. and Redpath, R. (2015) ‘Safe Spaces’: Experiences of Feminist Women-Only Space. Sociological Research Online, 20(4), pp.1-14.

Murray, L., Warr, D., Chen, J., Block, K., Murdolo, A., Quiazon, R., Davis, E., Vaughan, C. (2018) Between ‘here’ and ‘there’: family violence against immigrant and refugee women in urban and rural Southern Australia. Gender, Place and Culture (forthcoming)

Ons.gov.uk. (2017) Domestic abuse in England and Wales – Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2017.

Written by Megan Harvey, edited by Alice Reynolds and Jack Lowe.

A visit to the Nantucket Whaling Museum (Part 1 of 2)

Guest post written by Rachael Utting, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, whose project is entitled ‘Collecting Leviathan: curiosity, exchange and the British Southern Whale Fishery (1775-1860)’.

During my month-long stay in America on a research visit looking at British whaling log books and journals in American collections, I was lucky enough to spend a week on Nantucket Island. This former whaling colony is an hour by ferry from Cape Cod and nowadays is a very exclusive holiday destination.  I was housed by the Nantucket Historical Association at Thomas Macy House, 99 Main Street, used by the NHA as accommodation for staff and visiting researchers (this offsets the astronomical price of hotel accommodation on the islands which would be prohibitive for most visiting researchers!). Dating from the 1700s, this former whaling captain’s house is complete with artefacts and paintings belonging to previous owners and functions as a ‘living museum’. This means that tours visit on weekdays and house residents have to scurry away and hide, and you can’t put anything on the furniture.

The NHA, founded in 1894, manages five historic buildings on Nantucket Island including the Whaling Museum. This was established in 1930 on the site of the Hadwen & Barney Oil & Candle Factory built in 1847, and was based on the whaling collections of local congregational minister Edward F. Sanderson. The museum opened in its current extended guise in 2005 with eleven exhibition spaces dedicated to Nantucket history, scrimshaw and whaling, with a central exhibition hall housing a 46ft sperm whale skeleton from a stranding on Nantucket in 1996, and a huge sperm whale jaw bone collected in the Pacific in 1865.

The 18ft jaw (from an enormous 80ft bull whale) was so impressive that showman BT Barnum tried to purchase it. The visit to the museum was extremely relevant for my work on the collecting activities of whalers because the museum has a permanent exhibition showcasing the many ‘curios’ that American whalers brought home during the nineteenth century. These were donated to the Nantucket Atheneum, an institution incorporating a private library, museum and philosophical society founded in 1834. Such was the diversity of the museum collection, a visitor in 1843 stated, “I can not [sic] stop to a enumerate even a specimen of the almost infamy of curiosities, natural and artificial here deposited by the whalers.”

The Atheneum museum collections were largely destroyed in a fire in 1846. When the remaining artefacts outgrew their home, they were donated to the newly formed Nantucket Historical Association in 1905. What this collection (roughly 400 artefacts; see examples below) demonstrates is that American whalers were collecting widely. As whaling ships of this era had international crews, with many Americans manning British Southern Whale Fishery vessels, there is nothing to suggest their British crewmates were not following suit. If this is true, and British South Seas whalers were collecting, donating and selling their collections and, as I believe, were a significant acquisition source of island material culture (particularly from the Pacific Islands), then this is not reflected within British museum displays. Despite having a significant whaling economy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain has no dedicated whaling museums and whalers have been largely ignored as a collecting phenomenon. The Nantucket Whaling Museum exhibition proves that they were perfectly placed to collect and that there was a flourishing market for their souvenirs. This included the Atheneum, private Island collectors and also mercantile ventures such as Mrs Polly Burnell’s shell shop, run from her Nantucket home from 1831-1854.

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Advert for Polly Burnell’s shell shop, The Inquirer and Mirror, 8/4/1854.

My weekdays were spent visiting the NHA Research Library attached to the Island’s Quaker church. I read five logbooks and one journal during the week, scouring them for evidence of collecting. These were all vessels belonging to the British Southern Whale Fishery and registered in Britain, several of them with Nantucket captains, which would explain how they ended up in the Island archive. Within these fascinating documents I encountered hostage situations between crew and Islanders, the gruesome massacre of 10 crewmen at the Marquesas Islands, a meeting with John Adams (Bounty mutineer) at Pitcairn, evidence of beachcombers on the Galápagos Islands and an apprentice boy who tried to kill himself twice by throwing himself overboard. Most relevant for my work was the journal of Dr Eldred Fysh, surgeon on-board the Coronet 1837-1839. Fysh documented his interactions with the Islanders across Indonesia purchasing shells, tools and live birds. The crew collected weaponry in New Ireland and also animals. What happened to Fysh’s acquisitions is a mystery; he returned to his native Norfolk and died in 1849, aged just 37.

My investigations are ongoing!

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Drawing from the Journal of Dr Eldred Fysh on-board the Whaling ship Coronet 1837-1839.
© Nantucket Historical Association.

Written by Rachael Utting, edited by Jack Lowe.