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Dan Keech & Owain Jones 'Ruins' RGS 2014


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Dan Keech teamed up with former CCRI colleague, Professor Owain Jones (now Bath Spa University), to deliver a presentation at the 2014 annual international conference of the Royal Geographical Society - Institute of British Geographers, which was held in London on August 27th-29th. Two sessions were convened on the co-productive influences of ruins.

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Dan Keech & Owain Jones 'Ruins' RGS 2014

  1. 1. All ruins are narratives. All narratives are ruins. All narratives are co-produced. Dan Keech, University of Gloucestershire and Owain Jones, Bath Spa University RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 28th August 2014 1
  2. 2. This presentation is in three parts, following the title 1 – All ruins are narratives: this is a relatively straightforward claim, (we hope), and will be discussed with reference to the works of Wordsworth, Sebald and especially the contemporary artist Stephen Turner, and ideas of future ruins. 2 – All narratives are ruins: this claim is more speculative/provocative, but, with reference to Serres, Thrift and others, can be argued in a number of ways. 3 – All narratives are co-produced. We feel this is in 2 ways. Firstly in their consumption, narratives are re-created; secondly, drawing upon Sebald again, in how the agency of things – or others – co-construct narrative. 2
  3. 3. Part 1 – All ruins are narratives Portals to stories know and unknown Ruins speak of other (past) stories. That “of” is important because it implies complexity and variation in how they do so. (i) The ruin is a material indicator of some chapter (narrative) of something that has (in some sense or other) ended. The chapter itself may be known, or not. In this respect, ruins are portals to (other) narratives – both known and unknown (ii) Ruins as portals into unknown narratives have a great (affective) power – “there is some great story here but I don’t know what it is”. 3
  4. 4. Ecologies of narratives Ruins not only portals to other narratives but connectors between narratives – esp. life stories and history Wordsworth’s poem Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey… (i) He begins by refamiliarising himself with the physical aspects of the landscape of the place, after a 5-year period of absence. (ii) The Abbey, there, but not emphasised in the text itself, we feel, offers a prompt for melancholic reflection on his aging and changing, and how the landscape holds both shadows (ruins) of his former youth and the ‘sober pleasure’ of his maturity. A prompt to think about time, self, others. 4
  5. 5. Ecologies of narratives Shelley in "Ozymandias", illustrates how ruins are both direct narratives of history but also portals to unknown narratives and deferred narratives – ‘I met a traveller from an antique land who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone…’ "I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows The wonders of my hand." A narrative of a narrative of a narrative… Nature itself can also offer such links of narrative chains. In particular, ecological renewal is a form of narrating past chapters, as well as re-creating narrative patina (to follow). In summary - Because of their temporal signatures and their resonances, ruins are precociously eloquent, but perhaps in a foreign tongue, or perhaps in how they whisper new life and directions (cf. Wordsworth) into people’s own/other stories. 5
  6. 6. 6 The trouble with heritage There are critiques of, and much debate in, organisations such as English Heritage about the extent to which, and consequences of, heritage narratives being made over explicit e.g. through digital/locative media “If only we could accurately interrogate this millennia-long memory, we would somehow discover what the monument truly is and, in the process, find out who we, the English, are.” (Will Self)
  7. 7. Imagined – future ruins - narratives Woodward opens his book on ruins with a reference to one of the great sci-film moments - the closing shot of Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston finally realises he is on planet earth when he comes across the ruins of the Statue of Liberty 7
  8. 8. A number of artists similarly imagine narratives of the near future – e.g. climate change – through future ruins Jethro Brice – Future Museum - M5 Bridge Avonmouth 8
  9. 9. Ruins as dynamic 3 ecologies (Guattari) In A Natural History of Destruction, Sebald explores the consequences of WW2 allied bombing in Germany, citing Böll’s description of desperate people living among the ruins. Sebald describes nature reclaiming these cities: “nature’s ability to regenerate did not seem to have been impaired by firestorms. … many chestnuts and lilacs had a second flowering in Hamburg…” (p.40) Like in the Gormenghast trilogy – Mervyn Peake – ruins not only speak of narrative – but are (made) narrative 9
  10. 10. Introducing Turner Sebald’s narrative connects characters of historic ‘catastrophe through its ruins in the present’ (Presner, in Hell & Schönle 2010, p.205). Similarly, work by Turner, which is simultaneously narrative, creation and performance, connects past realities with current life by crossing temporal boundaries between culture and nature. Pic: Turner 10
  11. 11. (WW2) Ruins as vibrant habitat The interface between obsolescence (ruin), nature and art is a central theme in the work of Turner, via this illustartion of Seaforts. www.seaforts In the summer of 2005, ST spent 6 weeks living on a former air-raid warning fort in the Channel, 8 miles from land, mirroring the tour of duty during WW2. Pics: Turner 11
  12. 12. Exbury Egg Turner’s latest project, The Exbury Egg, saw his isolation extended to a year. Living on a wooden egg-shaped boat near Lymington, he noted, through real-time film (a 1:1 map?), the effects of climate change on shorelines, bird migration and plant life. ‘50˚47’08.10″N x 1˚24’27.91″W July 13th, 2014 Last year the Samphire grew thickly on the marsh beside the Egg, but this year there is none at all in prospect here. The mud bank has lost height and has been covered in a thick layer of green algae for the last few weeks, which may have had an effect. My sense overall is of the width of marsh narrowing.’ Pics: Turner 12
  13. 13. Pin-ups, impressions, seabirds ‘I will enter one room at a time, exhaustively examine all the nooks and crannies. Each doorway is the threshold to a different stage of a journey; where the decaying reality of the fort …is, from within, the shaper of memories… It seems important to take this process slowly and for it to comfortably fill the time. …Today amongst a pile of feathers on the floor, were the leg rings of weary homing pigeons that never made it back – GB 2000A25848 and GB99 S44807. They lay not far away from a pair of Royal Artillery luggage labels belonging to RA140507 and RA171317.’ (Turner 2006 p. 14) ‘A cupboard on a stairwell is littered with fish bones… last night a gang of around forty [comorants] arrived ad took over the control tower and the eastern gun tower. I realise that the fort has never been abandoned at all.’ (ibid., p. 26) The floors are rich in stories, and their careful sweeping is at the core of creative action. (ibid., p.20) ‘The surface of the floor is a bituminous material… Partition walls, fixtures and fittings have very slowly sunk into it; leaving […] impressions… How many footsteps are Also logged here?, but just harder to see? … what percentage of the fort might now be part of me and me of the fort? (ibid., p.28) 13
  14. 14. Part 2 – All narratives are ruins ‘The fort buildings are decaying, as we all are. Ruin is what we live with. What keeps things alive is the telling of stories… about remembering sharable moment. …it has to be beautiful, otherwise it’s just more data.’ ‘Inside [the seaforts] was full of stuff and memories. Stories came thick and fast. I occupied one room and spent the first day sweeping up some debris to clear space to put up the tent. In the morning I noticed that the pile of debris was full of the skeletons of birds and bits of equipment’ he realized that if he wasn’t careful, he’d destroy them. ‘They were the stories of the building.’ From interview with ST 28th March 2014 14
  15. 15. 15 Humans are storying creatures “Stories are the essence of life, the essence of time” (A. S. Byatt) Narratives are key to senses of self, community, politics. Damasio (1999) has stated that affective becoming make us transient entities of the present moment, and yet, at the same time, we have an ‘autobiographical self', ‘a nontransient collection of unique facts and ways of being of systemised memory’ (17). So we are very good at concocting them - pulling together fragments and filaments into an apparently coherent whole. But all such narratives are full of ghosts (as any good ruin is) and ruptures, and scars of old ruptures Thrift (2008, 118, citing Gell 1998, 222–223) say that people are: rather ill-defined constellations [ …] not confined to particular spatio-temporal coordinates, but consist of a spread of biographical events and memories of events, and a dispersed category of material objects, traces, and leavings.
  16. 16. Mantel writes in her memoir Giving Up The Ghost ‘When the midwife says “it’s a boy” where does the girl go?’ Tamboukou (2010 ) turns to Michel Serres’s work on narrative as a source of methodological innovation and political possibility. For Serres narrative offers proliferation of difference and possibility through “the process of bifurcation”. Sense appearing not in coherence but in the ‘eruption of the moment’, which is constructed within “the here, there, yesterday, tomorrow” within the specifics of unfolding space-time . Narrative is a ‘force’ (ibid) [which] appears as fluent [ ] flow and eddy or backwash, pulling its elements forwards in a single direction but also redistributing them in new compounds, vortices, turbulences (16) Narratives: force (or field), rather than lines (cf. Ingold). 16
  17. 17. We suggest that even the most coherent, compelling narratives are confections of constructed order which overlay filaments, fragments, disjunctures, ghosts and untruths. Deconstruction “Narrative displaces and overlooks discontinuity, fragmentation and ambiguity.” Boje and Jørgensen (2008) We need, therefore, to analyse narratives and life materials, in order to treat them as instances of social action – as speech-acts or events with common properties, recurrent structures, cultural conventions and recognisable genres. (Atkinson 2005, 6) Noticing how someone narrates their life, we become aware of the ‘versions of self, reality, and experience’ (Chase 2005, 657) their story telling produces. This allows us to see how they conceive of their place in the world, and understand them as socially inscribed beings. 17
  18. 18. Part 3 – All narratives are co-produced In 2 ways at least: • Firstly and simply - a story only lives when it is consumed and in the consumption it is created afresh • Secondly in how the agency of things – or others – co-construct narrative. This happens as a matter of course, but some writers embrace it explicitly. Sebald’s method: profoundly ad hoc (cf. Waterman 1993) and a form of improvised co-production. ‘But then as you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons why I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian, which is in a tiny little museum somewhere, which you would never find in London. And in that you find odd details which lead you somewhere else, and so it’s a form of unsystematic searching, which of course for an academic is far from orthodoxy, because we’re meant to do things systematically.’ This brings us, in conclusion, back to Turner. 18
  19. 19. Summary observations Ruins hold known and unknown stories. Stories themselves are kinds of ruins/fragments/ghosts. Ruins are socially and ecologically produced in everyday experience but we are often to busy tidying them up to read their (our) narratives. Impressions are not simply perceptions but faint, palpable archaeology. Turner follows many in making creative use of isolation. However his isolation, while enabling removal into a different daily experience, nevertheless enables him to retell and share. Turner’s narratives allow transgression of temporal nature-culture interfaces – this means that narratives, as soon as they are articulated become ruins (artefacts) and by recounting them, we can use the past to co-produce their resurrection in the present. Former seafort medical officer. Pic: Turner Many thanks to Stephen Turner for his help and supply of photos. 19