After a Period of Contemplation, Identifying Sites

One of the areas of my research that I have had to define for my proposal is the geographic regions I will be working in.

My photographic practice will be undertake in five geographic regions of Great Britain based on Nairn’s map of proposed subtopian development:


Map of Subtopian Development
Map of Subtopian Development
  • Thames Gateway (Docklands- Sheppey)
  • M4 Corridor (Bristol- Swansea)
  • Central Midlands (Leicester- Leeds)
  • North East (Middlesborough- Newcastle)
  • Manchester Shipping Canal corridor (The Wirral- Greater Manchester)

I will build up studies of the areas over the period of the research through a number of extended field trips, placing them within the wider framework of local communities, economies (utilising pre-existing community groups and archives). I will use landscape and documentary photography, as well as field sound recordings, moving image and aural histories to explore the sites and the people who use them. During this time I will reside in close proximity to the sites in order to facilitate participant observation

I will work using a mixture of the 5×4 and 6×7 formats, linking my work to the traditions of landscape photography.  My proposed practical outcomes will be a series of individual but interconnected books that will be able to be read on a local, regional and national scale or cross-compared.

Taken from draft two of my Proposal, Archipelagos of Interstitial Ground:  Investigating edgelands in the UK through photographic practice

I have tried to cover as wider area of Britain as possible too create a map of contemporary regional geopolitics, however I have had to miss out some areas that I would still love to research if time allows. Both the region of Greater Birmingham, especially around the Aston Expressway, and the M/A27 corridor from Southampton to Brighton.

The one obvious region missing from Nairn’s map is Scotland, and I am still very torn whether to stay true to the original map or explore the region between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Nairn believed that area above this line was:

The only big area of Great Britain that is still wild. It is also the only big area in Great Britain with underdeveloped agricultural and industrial resources. It is a part of Scotland that Lowland Scots feel they have amoral duty to develop and improve after the early nineteenth century clearances and 150 years of neglect.

However the new towns around Glasgow, designed to deal with the overflow from the inner city slum clearances, have in the proceeding years developed a reputation for dilapidation and deprivation. In 2002 Cumbernauld was voted the worst town in Scotland and famously topped the poll for Channel Four’s Demolition (2005).

The areas chosen are a mixture of locations I know well, especially the Thames Gateway as I grew up in the South east of England and studied at Rochester. To areas I have some knowledge of, Sheffield and the M4 corridor around Barry, Port Talbot, and Neath. To areas I have never visited, the northwest, and Liverpool to Manchester.

At the moment I am trying to explore these areas through literary and photographic references as well as through OS maps and Google Street View, to try and get a sense of place. However the work will only develop once I start spending prolonged periods in each location.

Urban Artist Boris Seiverts, director of the brilliantly named Office for city breaks, Expeditions in Terra Incognita, has developed a guide to visiting cities.

Screen shot 2009-11-26 at 10.20.34

The information taken from the Office of City Breaks website, describes their work as:

The Office of City trips organises excursions into the unexplored inner and outer fringes of our cities and metropolitan areas.

The single and multi-day trips link brownfields and housing estates, car parks, shopping centers and forests, meadows and highways, schools, factories and homes for asylum seekers, underground car parks and hotels, maneuvering spaces and landfills, airports. The city’s image is put into perspective beyond recognition. The orientation of buildings and roads dissolves and landscape contexts resolve as extremely disparate environments are visible.

From his findings, the Office for city breaks develop – in addition to the tourist ‘site seeing’ trips – Visions and further interpretations of the studied environments and feeds them into spatial planning and the cultural industry.


The East Anglian Plains, The Topographic Sublime

Yesterday was my Birthday. A long time ago my relatives learnt a couple of things, I am very hard to buy for, and I hate surprises. So for as long as I have been mature enough to spend it, I have received cheques instead of presents. This is brilliant as it allows me to go out and buy exactly what I want, even if I don’t know what I want at the time. The downside of cheques is that I physically have to go to the bank to pay them in.

I have lived on the outskirts of Norwich for the last five years, and currently live just above the River Yare valley. A place that is eloquently described in Mark Cocker’s Crow Country (2007).

Map of the Norfolk Broads
Map of the Norfolk Broads

Cocker turns to look at his own recent past, describing how he and his family moved from inner-city Norwich to make a home in the flat country of the nearby Yare valley. The change is presented as an act of migration, which is at once bird-like (because it is driven by instinct) and falteringly human (because the new house, at least to start with, leaves him feeling disoriented). As he begins to acclimatise, he finds that rook-watching charges “many of the things I had once overlooked or taken for granted . . . with fresh power and importance”. The birds, he says, are “at the heart of my relationship with the Yare . . . my route into the landscape and my rationale for its exploration”.
Andrew Motion, Taken from The Guardian

I find the plains of the Norfolk Broads and the rivers that feed them, to be incredibly spiritual. I think it has to do with the scale of the landscape, the huge skies, and the horizons that may be a mile or 20 miles away.

But to walk in the landscape is worse. To the human eye the valley is an extensive plain of grassland interrupted now and then with alluring reed-fringed pools, circled with alder carr or poplar plantations. It seems a gentle, unpeopled, easy place, but its very flatness is the source of the illusion. Bounding every field, and initially invisible to the visitor, is a network of water filled dykes. Farmers and wildfowlers have bridged many of them with old rotting planks, known as liggers, but many others have no means of access. And memorising navigable routes takes a lifetime of familiarity. My walks across the open spaces were often reduced to a tedious tour of each field’s inner perimeter, made more frustrating by the sight of my goal and the impossibility of its attainment.

One consequence of the valley’s intractability is that I take a map with me every time I go out. No other landscape has made such a demand. Other places I’ve lived in or known resolve into a complete mental picture relatively quickly. The different facets link up like parts of a jigsaw, and as the last few fragments drop into their unique, logical place there is that sweet sense of completion. But it didn’t happen like that in the Yare Valley.
Mark Cocker, Crow Country (2007)

In 1999, the nature writer Mark Cocker moved from Norwich to live in Claxton. He bought a house called 'The Hollies' and his move to the village is documented in his book Crow Country.
In 1999, the nature writer Mark Cocker moved from Norwich to live in Claxton. He bought a house called ‘The Hollies’ and his move to the village is documented in his book Crow Country.

The witness to the sublime is overwhelmed, by vastness, by awe, by wonder, by terror. The sublime is crushing!

According to Burke, the sublimes qualities include, ruggedness, lack of clarity, infinity. Succession and uniformity of parts of which constitute the artificial infinite, give the effect of sublimity in architecture… Greatness of dimension is also requisite.
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

The sheer manpower that has gone into producing the landscape, an estimated 900 million cubic feet of peat was removed for up to the 14th century when the land was finally taken by rising seas levels. They are a true definition of the sublime, at once man humbled by the Creator (read nature), and at the same time pushing back against in. They have a power that no Casper David Freidrich painting can challenge, and that the Norwich School was unable to capture.

If we consider that our entire rural idyll is a man made construct, through years of farming and other interventions, then we can apply Burkes statement to the so-called natural world.

Mankind usurped God, man kind has to put it mildly augmented the inventory of the sublime. Not though pictorial or literary representation, not by making art about it, but by matching it, by mimicking nature, by emulating the elements, by acting like camoufleurs.
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

They have more life than the never-ending flats of North Norfolk and the Wash. The hedge lines and copses of trees, ground them with a human scale, and give the audience a reference point that the Wash is missing.

I am no stranger to wide landscapes, having spent a large amount of my youth on Dartmoor, and living on the Sussex Weald, stuck between he North and South Downs. I also went to college in Croydon, anyone that has had too commute on the train through South London is well aware of the mini Manhattan of Croydon looming on the horizon. However the landscape around the Broads has really got to me.

The Broads is an area reclaimed from the sea, and it still has a hold on the landscape. Mark Cocker writes:

For all it’s history as terra firma, the sense of Haddiscoe and Halvergate (an area on the southern edge of the Broads) as a stretch of open water remains imprinted on my imagination, as if a ghost image of the sea lays just below the physical features. Haddiscoe also retains one of the sea’s fundamental qualities. It is a landscape that yields very little sense of its age… it makes me think that in order to project a sense of the past upon a geographical place the human imagination requires something three dimensional, some relief, on which to frame it. Think of mountains. Their monumental scale is permeated with a sense of age and of the past. They dwarf us both physically and chronological, looming behind and beyond us.

But flat landscapes, like open water, resist the processes of memory. They seem too plain, too ordinary to have acquired a history… it reminds me to show reverence towards this wonderful place, to give thanks for its spare features, its simple line, its open skies and its emptiness.
Mark Cocker, Crow Country (2007)

However it is a region steeped in history and conflict, the Iceni uprising against their Roman despots, the sacking of the region by a puritanical Matthew Hopkins, self titled Witch Finder General during the early part of the 17th century. The history of Dunwich as the location of the bishop’s seat in the kingdom of East Anglia, until the port was reclaimed by the sea in the 17th century. There is nothing hugely remarkable about this, except for the fact that Dunwich elected two members of parliament until the mid 19th century to represent a constituency that was mostly underwater.

In it’s more recent history East Anglia has been home to major military establishments. The region was during World War two, dotted with air force bases, and still includes several active sites including the home to one of the UK’s apache gunship forces. On the mouth of the river Deben sits Bawdsey Manor, the first home to the development of radar during the start of World War two.

Sublimity and terror are found in technological warfare, listening devices, choreographed mass rallies, explosions of atomic bombs, cloud seeding, the multiplication of means by which the atrocious can be achieved.

They are found in pylons, great dams, oil refineries, power stations, bridges, cooling towers, chimneys who’s smoke colours the sky.
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

Further up the coast is the shingle spit of Orford Ness, home to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, used for environmental testing. When a laboratory test is conducted to determine the functional performance of a component or system under conditions that simulate the real environment in which the component or system is expected to operate. Many of the buildings from this time remain clearly visible from the quay at Orford, including the distinctive “pagodas”. Whilst it is maintained that no fissile material was tested on the site, the very high explosive initiator charge was present and the buildings were designed to absorb any accidental explosion, allowing gases and other material to vent and dissipate in a directed or contained manner. In the event of a larger accident, the roofs were designed to collapse onto the building, sealing it with a lid of concrete.

Orford Ness, Pagodas
Orford Ness, Pagodas

Nature throughout much of mankind’s term on this planet has been determined by God.

Mankind when it discovered there was no God, saw an opportunity, there was a void to be filled, and filled with ostentatious earnest and grandiose exultation. This was a near sacred project undertaken with the upmost gravity. It usurped the God that wasn’t
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

I first visited the region on a scout camp and my sixth form art field trip. I had no knowledge or understanding of the sublime at this point, but felt myself being intrinsically pulled towards the places we visited, Sizewell B nuclear reactor, or sitting on the banks of the river Orwell, painting the bridge crossing it towards Ipswich. Most importantly we stayed in Bawdsey Manor, and I remember wandering around the disused and unloved radar and Bloodhound missile station.

This is readily apparent in the East Anglia landscape, covered in monumental structures. From the glorious basilica of power sitting on the coast at Sizewell, shining for miles around, partnered by it cuboid sibling, Magnox series A.

Sizewell Power Station,  A & B Reactor
Sizewell Power Station, A & B Reactor

The huge sugar beet factories at Cantley and in the middle of the roundabout at Bury Saint Edmonds, belching its bizarre smell into the air.

Cantley Sugar Beet Factory, on the banks of the River Yare
Cantley Sugar Beet Factory, on the banks of the River Yare

I love living close to Norwich, it has most of the benefits of a city, but feels small and comfortable. It is quite a bohemian place and in many ways feels like a smaller, cleaner version of Brighton. It has an excellent music scene and reasonable art community, fueled largely by the constant influx of students to Norwich University of the Arts, however is has no notable photography scene. It is just too far from London to have an arts council funded gallery that specialises in photography, and any small community based galleries and groups have found that there isn’t the traffic to make them viable. The two major galleries are NUA space, which I find has fallen into the trap of many smaller funded spaces, and only displays work from traveling shows, many of which increasingly only speak to themselves and the educated fine art community. The far larger but no less dismal space is the Norman Foster designed Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts at UEA. It was built to house a collection of colonialist works of world art, and many of the shows it puts on are a reflection of this collection, stuffy white and very middle class.

It therefore always comes as a surprise when I discover new photography in Norwich. Opposite the NatWest on Gentleman’s Walk is a small independent bookshop The Book Hive, that was voted the best small bookshop in Britain by The Telegraph in 2011. They always have an excellent collection of books, and I always walk away with something to read for my PhD (books are one of my only vices). It has helped me find some of the more interesting literary references that I wouldn’t come across on amazon. Generally however I find its art section to be very limited and generally full of design books for first year BAs.

Today I went in on the off chance that they would have something interesting, and city on the table display by the door was a copy of Patrick Keiller’s The View From The Train, Cities & Other Landscapes (2013). I have been meaning to buy a copy for some time, and while I could have got it cheaper from Amazon, I think it is important to support small bookshops. After I paid for it, I stopped to put it in my rucksack, which I rested on top of a pile of books, while I wrestled with my bag and the contents of my daughters changing bag. Two books caught my eye, at first merely for their design and fonts. The New English Landscape by Jason Orton and Running Wild by Frances Kearney. As I leafed through them I was surprised that both contained images of East Anglian interstitial sites.

Canvey Wick, Essex, March 2013,  Jason Orton
Canvey Wick, Essex, March 2013, Jason Orton
Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013,  Jason Orton
Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013, Jason Orton
Untitled IV, 2009, Frances Kearney
Untitled IV, 2009, Frances Kearney
Untitled I, 2009, Frances Kearney
Untitled I, 2009, Frances Kearney

Both of these publications reminded me of the work of Mark Edwards, who’s work I first came across at a show at the Forum Library in Norwich entitled Photo-ID. This was the only major show I remember in Norwich and I was struck by Mark’s huge images of the Yare Valley taken on a 10”x8” field camera. At the time, Mark also lived in a similar area of the Yare Valley as Mark Cocker and myself. He is now teaching at University College Suffolk.

Overpass No 3, 2005, Mark Edwards
Overpass No 3, 2005, Mark Edwards
Overpass No 4, 2005, Mark Edwards
Overpass No 4, 2005, Mark Edwards

Over the next few days I will post more detailed critiques of their work, something I’m slightly nervous of as Jason Orton is following this blog.

Nation Builders, BBC 4

This is going to be a short post, but I wanted to draw attention to a recent season of programs on BBC4, going by the title Nation Builders. For the last couple of weeks the BBC has been running documentaries about post War British building, including a program on Ian Nairn. Cassian Harrison, Editor for BBC Four, says:

Architecture remains one of Britain’s most influential exports, and yet it’s left us with a landscape that some think has been ravaged with carbuncles and concrete. This season will be a fascinating opportunity for BBC Four to explore the work of some of our most renowned architects in a unique season of programmes which explores the history and inspiration behind some of the world’s most iconic buildings, but also celebrates some of architecture’s less graceful creations.

The Man Who Fought the Planners: The Story of Ian Nairn, is an hour long documentary comprised of talking head interviews by the usual Nairn suspects such as, Jonathon Glancey, Jonathon Meade, Gillian Darley and David McKie, and Owen Hatherley . However it also includes interviews with his former colleagues at the AR, Observer and Times, along with his BBC TV director.

As well as the interviews it also contain plenty of archive clips from his various BBC series. To me these are the far more interesting aspects as much of the interview material is readily available to anyone who has read anything about Nairn’s work. Unfortunately Nairn’s TV output has only been shown in full one time since his death and as the 16mm of the shows still exist, I suggest it it either time the BBC repeated them, or the BFI put them out, either as a retrospective or as a DVD. Some of them do exist on YouTube if you search.

The program is still available on IPlayer for a short period of time, and acts as an excellent starting point into exploring Nairn’s work

As part of the season the also showed a new two part Jonathon Meades Documentary, Bunkers Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry

Unite D'Habitation
Unite D’Habitation

described by the BBC as a;

Two-part documentary in which Jonathan Meades makes the case for 20th-century concrete Brutalist architecture in an homage to a style that he sees a brave, bold and bloodyminded. Tracing its precursors to the once-hated Victorian edifices described as Modern Gothic and before that to the unapologetic baroque visions created by John Vanbrugh, as well as the martial architecture of World War II, Meades celebrates the emergence of the Brutalist spirit in his usual provocative and incisive style. Never pulling his punches, Meades praises a moment in architecture he considers sublime and decries its detractors.

Jonathan Meades delivers a unique and distinctive essay on the story of brutalist architecture across Europe. Meades asserts that modernist buildings, often maligned, are instead monuments to optimism and grandeur. The film draws on extraordinary buildings from all over Europe in a lavish, and sometimes surreal, visual collage.

Like all of Meades documentaries it will keep you on your toes as he throws scatter-shot references at you. The down side to this is his programs often feel like an exclusive club, if you haven’t widely read on the subjects of architecture, art and social history you can often be left behind. It may take several viewings to get everything he is saying. However as his programs are now on BBC4, it suggests that you haven’t found them by accident and are already interested in the subject. The program contains some incredible shots of architecture and his prose is always tinged with more than a little humor.

Meades published an excellent article in the Guardian as a sister piece to the program,
The incredible hulks: Jonathan Meades’ A-Z of brutalism (2014)

I really would recommend that you view these programs on the IPlayer before they are deleted (BBC sort out you online archive, 4OD manages to keep it’s programs accessible). To accompany the season there is also a collection of archive programs curated by Janet Street Porter available at Post-War Architecture.

Are ‘Friends’ Electric? A Sense of Place in Contemporary Televison

This is not the post that I originally intended to write today, but found myself reaching for a my IPad to tweet an image from the title sequence to the new HBO drama True Detective (2013-), written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed the superb Sin Nombre (2009).

Before I go into more detail, some back-story would be useful. While studying for a my BA at Falmouth a new small art bookshop opened up for a short period, in one of the back streets well away from the main shopping area. While browsing I came across a stack of magazines and picked up Aperture 162, at first too look at the interview with Sally Mann’s daughter, Jessie and her experiences with growing up as a muse for her mothers work.

As I continued to flick through the pages I came across an image that stopped me dead in my tracks entitled Abandoned Trailer Home by the photography Richard Misrach, taken from his series then titled Cancer Alley.

Abandoned Trailer Home (1998)
Abandoned Trailer Home (1998)

Moments like this are very rare and the only thing that had this level of impact on my up until this point was the first time I saw Thomas Struth’s work at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was stuck by the scale and detail they contained. This was the first time I had come across Misrach’s work, and it would help inform my interests and projects from that point on.

Misrach’s images have been a huge influence on me over the years, be it informing the subject matter of my work The Smell of Bitumen,

The Smell of Bitumen, Grain (2007)
The Smell of Bitumen, Grain (2007)

The Smell of Bitumen, Fawley (2007
The Smell of Bitumen, Fawley (2007

or psychogeography in his series Desert Cantos.

Don and Barbara, Salton Sea, 1985
Don and Barbara, Salton Sea, 1985

I was therefore very surprised to watch the opening credits of True Detective and come across Misrach’s Cancer Alley images used a series of double exposure moving stills. For more information on the titles

What immediately struck me was how these images of edgeland spaces were being used as a means to discuss the psychological affects on the characters inhabiting the region. They were depicted as being a physical part of the psyche.

True Detective follows a seam of contemporary television that places the landscape, front and centre of the narrative. The affect of the locale on the characters acts as a catalyst for the story, and in many cases the landscape is a much a cast member as the people it shares top billing with.

The Guardian’s review by Sam Wollaston, Could the real star of True Detective be Louisiana? concludes his review with the following;

So it has movie stars and a movie director (Cary Fukunaga, who did Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre) to give it a big cinematic look. But the star with no credit is the scenery, mostly sliding slowly by beyond the window of an unmarked police (first syllable stress, PO-lice) car. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I have now, Louisiana captured. Flatlands, massive skies, shacks, plenty of weirdness and bible belt lunacy, the ghosts of lost children. Erath “is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading”, says Cohle. Then there’s the sad whistle of a freight train.

We don’t see that train, but it sounds to me like one of those real slow ones that goes on and on, rolling by. You sit and watch though, transfixed, maybe even after it’s gone, because it’s beautiful. Bit like True Detective.

The last time I remember US show’s having a title sequence of this nature was David Simon’s Treme (2010-13), Which over it’s three series has included the work of a number of stills photographers including Deborah Luster and Will Steacy. Photography inhabiting popular culture, and further blurring the line between traditional photo-journalistic publishing.

along with the often-referenced opening to David Chase’s The Sopranos (1999-2007),

both of which immersed the viewer in the sites and sounds of New Orleans and New Jersey’s Meadowlands. A good title sequence should set out the premise of the programme, and all of these examples clearly state that this is a show about a place and time.

While it is still unusual for place to play an intrinsic part in the story for mainstream American television. It is less uncommon in European television and I would argue that that is greatly down to the popularity of Scandi-Noir, including recent programmes such as The Bridge (2011- Denmark)/ The Tunnel (2013- UK), Wallander (2005-13 Sweden,2008-14 UK) , The Killing (2007-12) and The Returned (2012-). However I would argue that the Scandinavian Noir borrows at times from the US western, so the idea of place as character is not new to American screens and have been recently embraced by films borrowing from the Western, such as Winter’s Bone (2010) and Frozen River (2008).

In the UK, independent cinema has also embraced the landscape, particularly in Fish Tank (2009)

and last years criminally overlooked The Selfish Giant (2013).

It is an idea that is far more common in literature, where the author has the space to create mood and embellish a scene through description of the surroundings. In light of the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I have found myself thinking of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965).

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far Western than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.

Holcomb, too, can be seen from great distances. Not that there is much to see—simply an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the center by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad, a haphazard hamlet bounded on the south by a brown stretch of the Arkansas (pronounced “Ar-kansas”) River, on the north by a highway, Route 50, and on the east and west by prairie lands and wheat fields. After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the direst mud. At one end of the town stands a stark old stucco structure, the roof of which supports an electric sign—Dance—but the dancing has ceased and the advertisement has been dark for several years. Nearby is another building with an irrelevant sign, this one in flaking gold on a dirty window— HOLCOMB BANK. The bank closed in 1933, and it is one of the town’s two “apartment houses,” the second being a ramshackle mansion known, because a good part of the local school’s faculty lives there, as the Teacherage. But the majority of Holcomb’s homes are one-story frame affairs, with front porches.

It is an opening that perfectly places the reader in a physical location, just like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899);

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

Perhaps the reader is far more willing to let a story evolve, perhaps it has a lot to do with the average attention span of those viewing mainstream programming. I would say that certainly down to the resurgence of the long form TV drama, audience are starting to embrace the idea of evolving narratives and characterisations, long master shots setting the scene.

The thing I find strangest writing this post is the number of flat flood planed landscapes I have described, perhaps after five years the Norfolk landscape has found it’s way in.

Inside The Circle of Fire- A Sheffield Sound Map by Chris Watson

A couple of weeks ago I was in Sheffield to see Dr Anna Jorgensen from Sheffield University’s Landscape Architecture department to discuss her work on urban wildscapes. In my down time I not only had an excellent burger and Pulled pork fries at the Twisted Burger Company, but I also went to see Inside the Circle of Fire at Sheffield Millennium Museum.

Co-founding member of electronic pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield-born Chris Watson has nurtured an enduring fascination with sound.

In this ambitious new exhibition, Chris will transform the Millennium Gallery into an immersive ‘sound map’ of Sheffield, charting its boundaries on the edge of the Peak and traveling its waterways to the bustling heart of the city. Recorded over the past 18 months at locations in and around the city, the sound map will use the latest technology to create a sound which changes throughout the gallery, depending on the listener’s location. By truly hearing the sounds of the city, perhaps for the first time, we hope that visitors will gain a new perspective on Sheffield in 2013.

You walk in to be confronted by 4 sofas set around a square rug, with 3 projectors behind you. The whole space is ringed by speakers, including some hung from the ceiling .

The exhibition space
The exhibition space

The projections show a slowly evolving series of black and white photos, mainly depicting the industrial decline of the city, inhabited by ghosts of it’s glorious past. Photos of the bell casting works, are accented by the harmonious peel of their creations, while in the background the foundry siren screams. This is even more evocative having walked past a series of Sheffield bells on the way into the gallery.

At times photos compete with each other on two opposite walls, either conflicting or in harmony with the aural motif.

In my opinion the main themes of the piece, apart from the industry, are the rivers and the football. Pictures of Hillsborough and Bramall Lane are devoid of people, but the ghosts of matches live on in the chanting and singing of ‘High-ho Sheffield Wednesday.’

Recording the sounds of the urban river
Recording the sounds of the urban river

It’s a real shame that sound work is such a hard sell with the general public, with many people walking in; realising there isn’t anything to look at and leaving. For those who take the time to sit and let themselves be enveloped in the sounds of the city, find they leave with a richer experience of the city’s personality.

Chris records audio for the exhibition
Chris records audio for the exhibition

The sounds had an ability to wash over you, and in fact I’m not sure if the photography actually took something away from the experience. When I lay back and shut my eyes I was transported to an image of the spaces.

Interview excerpt from The Quietus

How did you decide on using photographs to accompany the piece?
CW: I don’t often use visuals in my work and I was concerned, putting a sound piece in a public gallery, what I was interested in doing, of course, was engaging people. I thought one way to do this was to use visual aspects, apart from the lighting, apart from the comfy seating, so Alan, this great photographer who works at the gallery, came out with me and documented lots of the recording trips I did, and then we put this series of images together which were black and white, so it’s not too distracting. I mean people can go in and close their eyes and just choose to listen, [but] I know some people like that sense of being able to engage with an image, so we used a series of non-synchronised images. What I didn’t want was to have a slideshow – everywhere you see is a place that you hear in the piece, but not necessarily at the same time.

The early beginnings of Sheffield’s electronic scene in the 80s are readily apparent, with the mixture of field recordings echoing cabaret Voltaire’s first recordings. The sounds of Sheffield have always been informed by its industrial legacy.

Recording the industrial soundscape
Recording the industrial soundscape

Something that was documented in Eve Woods excellent film Pulp: The Beat Is The Law – Fanfare For The Common People.

“Watson captures sounds that we take for granted and illuminates them to art form level.”

The Guardian, click for full interview

The First Step is Admitting We Have a Problem

Before I start this post, I would like to point out the title is a reference to my struggle with writing my proposal and Ian Nairn’s view on Britain and Subtopia. It is not to be viewed as a bad taste reference to his eventual alcoholism.

Since I started this blog it has been decidedly quiet. This is down to two things:

• The first is down solely to laziness. Adjusting to the concept of working on a self negotiated body of research has taken some time.

• The second is the fact that I have been working on my final proposal for registration. This has been both a rewarding and soul destroying activity, with endless drafts and feedback going backwards and forwards. It has however forced me to strip the project back to its bare bones and look at what is really important.

Over the next few posts I am going to look at the elements that have informed my thinking, and are at the forefront of the project.

The first of these is Ian Nairn and his concept of Subtopia. Nairn was born in 1930 and in his early career flew Meteor jets for the RAF. Upon leaving the forces he started working for the Architectural Review and at 25 years undertook a journey from Southampton to Carlisle that would lead to the publication of a special edition of AR and cement his place as the fiercest of architectural critics.

Ian Nairn
Ian Nairn

‘The issue started out being called Outrage in the Name of Public Authority, but in collecting the material it became clear that the issue was much wider… Public authotities are responsible for nearly all the faults exposed…  they have the most power and often the least awareness of visual responsibility that should go with it, but they are only the corporate reflection of what goes in the mind of each of us. So the title simply became outrage.’
Foreword to Outrage (1955)

The first section of Outrage published in 1955, part introduction, part manifesto, part battle cry paints a bleak picture of Britain. ‘This issue is less of a warning than a prophecy of doom: the prophecy that if what is called development is allowed to multiply at the present rate, then by the end of the century Great Britain will consist of isolated oases of preserved monuments in a desert of wire, concrete roads, cosy plots and bungalows’. ‘They would go on to describe this as a creeping mildew that already circumscribes all our towns. This death by slow decay we have called Subtopia, a compound word from suburb and utopia, i.e., making an ideal of suburbia.’

‘The symptoms of Subtopia will be that the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton’

‘An England reduced to universal Subtopia, a mean and middle state, neither town nor country, an even spread of abandoned aerodromes and fake rusticity, wire fences, traffic roundabouts, gratuitous notice-boards, car-parks and things in fields. It is a morbid condition, which spreads both ways from suburbia, out into the country, and back into the devitalized hearts of our towns.’

Map of Subtopian Development
Map of Subtopian Development

‘Subtopia is the world or universal low-density mess.’
Outrage (1955)

Considering this was written in 1955, before Thatcher’s government and the unions of the late 70s and 80s could work their magic on British industry. Nairn paints a very recognisable picture of modern Britain. The introduction, while full of rabble-rousing hyperbole, gets many of the features of our town and cities spot on. The world of Subtopia can be recognised as Marion Shoard’s idea of Edgelands.

The issue I have with the whole publication is Nairn’s black and white view on the situation. By looking at the world from a visual perspective it is easy to divide feature into good and bad, however life is never that simple. The idea that whole of Britain has become a homogenised mess is offensive. Nairn’s map of proposed Subtopian development (sprawl) covers huge geographic regions and suggests that Sheffield is identical to Leeds or Leicester. Yet if you were to suggest this to locals they would very likely laugh at you.

It is however unsurprising that Nairn chose to look at the issue from a regional or national level. As a pilot he would have been used to seeing the spread of our cities from a wider topographic viewpoint. When we look at the world from Google Earth’s perspective it is rendered as blocks of endless urban mess.

Subtopia on the March
Subtopia on the March

By looking at our cities from a local perspective I hope to show that Nairn’s perceived bleak view of the world is only partly true.

One of the things that will strike anyone reading outrage is how quaint and tame many of the images within the book are, considering it’s asking us to think about the world from a visual perspective. However the text remains the enduring image, and is has been unfairly adopted to push an anti development message.

Page from Outrage
Page from Outrage

I first came across Nairn’s work in Jonathon Glancey’s introduction to John Davies The British Landscape.
Recalling it from memory, the bit that stands out is the usual quotes about, mildew and slow decay. However with my copy open in front of me, the quote that now jumps out is, ‘Nairn was a fierce individualist, who tired himself out fighting low-grade change… The defence of the individuality of places, is the defence of the individuality of ourselves.’ Glancey sums up Davies work ‘ views of the British landscape are ultimately about one particular certainty… of a world, and of places we care for, subject to permanent change.’

Stockport Viaduct, Stockport 1986
Stockport Viaduct, Stockport 1986

‘Writers and journalists, including JG Ballard, Will Self, Jonathan Meades, Patrick Wright, Iain Sinclair, as well as a younger generation of commentators such as Owen Hatherley and the mysterious blogger, Ghost of Nairn, have all been influenced one way or another by Nairn, who so wanted everywhere to be different when everywhere was threatening to be the same.’
Ian Nairn’s voice of outrage, Jonathon Glancey (2010)

Ian Nairn died of Liver Cirrhosis aged 52, his last years spent in a ‘tide of Guinness’. He is buried in Hanwell Cemetery under the flight path of Heathrow and close to a Kwik-fit exhaust centre.

During the course of my research I expect to challenge some of Nairn’s ideas and confirm others. The important thing to me is defending the individuality of places.