occursus is back – 1/9/22

The first get-together will be on Thursday September 1st, 7-8pm (U.K. time) and online.

I’ll share a link nearer the time.

The first book we’ll be discussing together is On Time and Water by Andri Snaer Magnason.

If you would like to make suggestions for forthcoming sessions, please let me know in the comments below, or via Twitter (@occursus1)

I am SO looking forward to this 😊

(landscapes of avoidance)

In 1824, when Charles Dickens was 12 or 13 years old, his father was arrested for debt and incarcerated in the Marshalsea prison in Southwark. The young Charles was sent out to work in Warren’s Blacking Factory (located in Hungerford Stairs, then Chandos Street) and found himself living alone in lodgings on Little College Street in Camden Town.

In John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens (1875), which was based in part on autobiographical fragments given to him by Dickens himself, we read the following description of life at Warren’s:

The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.

A few pages later, Forster quotes Dickens again, this time describing his adult responses to the site of his childhood trauma:

Until old Hungerford market was pulled down, until old Hungerford Stairs were destroyed, and the very nature of the ground changed, I never had the courage to go back to the place where my servitude began. I never saw it. I could not endure to go near it. For many years, when I came near to Robert Warren’s in the Strand, I crossed over to the opposite side of the way, to avoid a certain smell of the cement they put upon the blacking-corks, which reminded me of what I was once. It was a very long time before I liked to go up Chandos Street. My old way home by the borough made me cry, after my eldest child could speak.

In my walks at night I have walked there often, since then, and by degrees I have come to write this. It does not seem a tithe of what I might have written, or of what I meant to write.

It is not uncommon for post-traumatic landscapes to be structured by strategies of avoidance – of places, people or activities which trigger memories or thoughts of the traumatic event. Let’s say that someone undergoes a traumatic experience in Berlin.   In the first instance, they may simply decide never to return to Berlin and thereby avoid putting themselves in the situation of being confronted with disruptive memories they would rather not have.  They may also, however, decide  to cut all ties with friends who live in Berlin, for they remind them when they speaks to them of what happened there. They may find it difficult to answer the phone or read their emails, in case they bring news from Berlin. They may become uncomfortable or upset when watching the news on TV and an item about Berlin comes up. If Berlin is in the news, they may decide to no longer watch the TV, listen to the radio or read the newspapers. They will look away from the news stands, their heart racing, in case the front page carries an image or a story that reminds them of the traumatic event, or presents any new information about it. They may be forced to make changes to their professional practice and networks in order to avoid attending conferences and meetings in Berlin, or perhaps meeting colleagues from Berlin in conferences and meetings elsewhere. A newsagent’s decision to stock a German-language newspaper means that a whole detour has to be invented, in order that they do not put themselves in a situation where they might accidentally see a headline that perhaps has a resonance with what happened to them before.

As what happened in Berlin – and Berlin itself – present themselves to them in so many ways, and as their strategies of avoiding anything to do with Berlin proliferate and become more complex, so – to others – their behaviours and responses become more oblique. Avoidance (like trauma, perhaps) is perceived only in the constellation of behaviours and responses that coalesce around it. Sometimes, avoidance behaviours seem so far removed from the original trauma – (why are they refusing to go into the newsagents to buy a coffee from the machine? Why are they making us cross the station to buy a coffee somewhere else, when we’re already running late for our train?) – that they defy understanding, causing others to be irritated, impatient, curious or even angry.

The relief that accompanies the avoidance of trauma reminders is fleeting (though gratifying in the immediate present); each new day threatens the subject with a series of mnemonic and associative dangers. The post-traumatic landscape is constantly and vigilantly re-mapped. As more and more experiences and previously neutral stimuli present themselves as potential dangers, the number of ‘safe routes’ through the landscape is diminished. A space experienced as benign may, due to the spiralling, rhizomic association of perceived dangers, be re-cast as off-bounds.  The world becomes significantly smaller.

Dickens felt more able to be near the former site of Warren’s factory only when ‘the very nature of the ground changed’. The transformation to which he refers took place in 1831, following an Act of Parliament that ordered the demolition of the increasingly insalubrious buildings of the Hungerford market area (of which Warren’s was one) and the incorporation of a new company to oversee the site’s redevelopment.

“Old Hungerford Market (from a view published in 1805)”. The bust of Sir Edward Hungerford (d.1711) is visible set into the north wall.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OldHungerfordMarket1805.jpg
“Hungerford Market, from the bridge, in 1850” (1878)
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HungerfordMarket1850.jpg

The new Hungerford market was a dramatic and ornate construction that had little in common architecturally with the site Dickens had known as a twelve year-old child. And yet the site is clearly sticky with its past. The Hungerford name lingered in the area, lending itself to a new hall, a street and a bridge; but perhaps more importantly, the affective resonance of what happened in that place continues to play out. When, as an adult, Dickens finds himself taking the same route he used to take as a child, he experiences involuntary responses that are both embodied and emotional. It is interesting too that the site of trauma bleeds beyond its original spatial containment. Dickens avoids Chandos Street, where Warren’s relocated, because the smells coming from the business’s new premises remind him unbearably of the place where he worked as a child.

Although he mentions the area around Warren’s in his notes to Forster, he barely spoke of this early traumatic experience during his lifetime. His family found it equally difficult to address and articulate what had happened to him: ‘My father and mother had been stricken dumb upon it’ (The National Archives, 2010). Even as the adult Dickens walked those streets, learning, somehow, to absorb the mnemonic shock of the place, he found himself unable to put those place feelings into words. Instead, they play out in a sensory, affective register, the marks of which can be read only obliquely through his scarred spatial practice.

occursus reading group 3

The next reading group will take place at 7pm on Tuesday November 8th. We’ll be discussing Assembly, by Natasha Brown.

If you’d like to attend, please email a.crawleyjackson@lcc.arts.ac.uk

It would be helpful if you could put “occursus reading group” in the subject line.

occursus reading group 1.9.22

Register for the occursus reading group and get your joining link here : bit.ly/3JA4CrS

Thursday September 1st, 7-8.30pm (online)

We’ll be discussing “On Time and Water” by Andri Snær Magnason.

I’ve allowed an hour and a half, as it’s our first get-together, but anticipating about an hour.

All welcome!


So a few years ago, as some of you may remember, we had a thing called the occursus reading group, out of which emerged some residencies, workshops, walks and exhibitions.

Every week, we read and talked together.

I learned so much.

Anyway, we’ve been thinking that the time may be right – for all kinds of reasons – to start occursus up again. We’d like to read theory and fiction and creative non-fiction and poetry and …. And we’d like to think about the times we’re living in and the times we want to live in.

At the moment, we’re thinking of starting in early September and meeting online in the first instance (though up for discussion). And who knows – maybe some exhibitions and residencies and other spaces of reflection, creativity and sharing may emerge too.

If you’re interested, please let me know 🌻 🙏🏼

(walking into the blank page)

Magnolia, Saltaire (2022)

I recently changed job and, as I’ve been settling into new routines and getting to know new colleagues, I’ve had less time for writing. I haven’t stopped walking – though my routes have also changed. During the week, I’ve walked by the Thames and wandered around Southwark, Lambeth and Camden. At the weekend, I find myself walking, as I have for years, beside Sheffield’s rivers – the Don, the Loxley, the Rivelin. Walking remains a constant amidst all the change.

Magnolia, Saltaire (2022)

I’ve always struggled with writing, however. I express myself better through my photographs, which together, and obliquely, have created something like a notebook of my experiences, feelings, reflections. At present, as I try to write more regularly again, I’m confronting what the French refer to as ‘blank page syndrome’ – writer’s block. Picking up this blog again is way to recreate a writing routine and rebuild some confidence.

Magnolia, Saltaire (2022)

In 2020, working with Emily-Rose Baker, I published an edited volume – Invisible Wounds: Negotiating Post-Traumatic Landscapes to accompany an exhibition I co-curated with Museums Sheffield – Invisible Wounds: Landscape and Memory in Photography. Since then, my writing has stalled. Maybe it’s the pandemic, the change of job, the commute. Experts tell me it’s more likely to be my tendency to edit as I write, this sense I always have that the first draft needs to be perfect, my lack of self-confidence. Perhaps it’s just that I have gotten out of the habit. Whatever the reason, all the ideas that course freely through my mind while I walk simply freeze in my fingers as soon as I pull out my laptop.

So, a return to occursus and to this blog. I’ve blocked out regular slots in my diary to read and to write. I’m planning my new writing project and allowing myself to write in chunks, rather than overwhelming myself with vertiginous views of the whole. I’ll be writing about my walks and the peripheral urban landscapes that have been my passion and my consolation since growing up as a child in east Hull. I’ll also be thinking and writing about affect theory, the twin canons of contemporary nature and ‘edgelands’ writing, and the work of artists and photographers whose interests similarly lie in place. Some of the pieces I publish here will be reflections on my reading and research; others may be extracts from the writing project itself.

Thank you for walking with me into this blank page.


Vale Road, Sheffield, April 2022

I lie down, amidst soft shards of tarmac, flecks of glass, cans squashed by unknown fists. The scrubby ground yields forget-me-nots, coltsfoot, spring draba, herb robert. I learned these names during the pandemic, as the perimeter of my wandering contracted. Sycamore, Scots pine, bird cherry. From the trees, thin trails of birdsong. This is a place of remains. The hill that rears steeply behind me is seared with twisted dendix. Fly tippers have dumped black bags, white goods, a sagging red sofa.

I record a minute of birdsong on my phone. A gold rescue blanket, ballasted with tyres, susurrates in the breeze.

From Brooklyn Works to Brooklynism? An exhibition review by Anna Netri

Review and photographs by Anna Netri

This text was written in response to an exhibition of works by Louise Finney, Nick Grindrod, Laura Page, Sean Williams, Jonathan Orlek and Goran Vodicka at Kelham Island Museum (June-August 2019).

This exhibition is part of a series of cultural events in Kelham Island that explores the contribution of heritage and creativity in urban identity. A key area of discussion concerns the role of artists and maker communities in transforming a neglected industrial area into an award winning neighbourhood.

It is proven that the character of architecture influences our lives, as does urban planning at a bigger scale. This exhibition examines the role of urbanism, exploring how inhabitants interact with the built and unbuilt environments.  This leads to an exploration of how we perceive the spaces we live in and the way we acknowledge them.

Our awareness of place is certainly individual and selective, but also creative. Through creativity, we constructively participate in the making of place. The exhibition explores this process and reconstructs our awareness through the narratives of the artists’ perceptions, the heritage of the Kelham Island Museum, the neighbourhood and its inhabitants . The environment that shapes our lives is made visible or imaginable.

The first part of this tripartite exhibition is hosted in an enclosed room, suggestive perhaps of a more abstract or inner perception.  Two different types of awareness of our surroundings and relationships with time can be recognized in the works by artists Nick Grindrod and Sean Williams. Grindrod ‘controls’ space, shaping and exploring it, with a subjective perception of time, which is continuous or timeless; while Williams ‘controls’ time, freezing it and immobilising the light. Each second ticks by and is captured through this subjective perception of the space, which is also reality.

Some of the tools of urbanism can be associated with Grindrod’s artworks. Lines and shapes are used like streets and buildings to create places. However , the way the colours are applied in ‘From Every Angle’, reminiscent of spaces of congregation and flow, seems to suggest that spaces are determined only by the human use of them, without real physical constraints. The notion that streets and buildings are not the only main elements that shape the framework of a city emerges in another artwork, where dark stripes are like traces of human presence and consequently marks on the landscapes. ‘Non-Digital Memories’ seems to recall how scales, proportions and compositions, along with memories, have a significant role in the design of the urban spaces.

Sean Williams’ artwork speaks beautifully to what is evident and what impacts on our environment, and how we barely see it. Whilst site works and temporary installations significantly modify landscapes, we often don’t acknowledge that, or how it impacts on our lives. Williams captures these modifications, freezes time and returns to us what our senses unconsciously capture. The artist’s crystallisation of a certain type of light and his use of detail with colour open a reflection on what the abilities and opportunities are to make the spaces we live in beautiful.

A video installation by Jon Orlek and Goran Vodicka, positioned at the far end of the room as a focal point of perspective, resembles a door frame to the Parkwood Springs area. A dialogue between two observers while they cross this landscape between the landfill site and Kelham Island, it’s more like an open conversation giving voice to various individuals and various spatial imaginaries and realities. There is the perception of the architects, who have ideas just by seeing marks on the landscape, and the perception of the passers-by or users. This video is like an extension between an individual and the built environment, the  community and the landscape transformed by both, the nature and the users.

In this exhibition, the way the works have been selected and set amidst the collections of Kelham Island Museum, itself a heritage building, generates recognition and narrative.  Louise Finney’s collection of drawings is installed in the ground-floor display area, alongside some industrial machines and next to the River Don Steam Engine. At first sight these technical drawings, with all their attention to the details of mechanical components, seem to recall the inventiveness of the designers of industrial machines or of the architects who create the spaces we live in. But the handwritten notes on the drawings further reveal further detail – of the memories, stories, and associations within Kelham Island’s surrounds and those of the residents and passers-by. Finney’s work creates bridges between the present and the past (or memories); between the individual and the community.

By walking out of the main museum’s building and entering the café area, you will reach the third display. An exhibition of photos emerging from Laura Page’s collaboration with Dr Komarine Romdenh-Romluc (a philosopher from the University of Sheffield) reveals how the architecture and heritage of Kelham Island have subconsciously inspired people’s lives and how they belong to this place.  Each photo captures the individual and his/her contemporaneity and their relationship with the surrounds.

Page’s work shows that it was not just the convenience of cheap rents that attracted people to open their businesses in Kelham Island.  The character of the architecture, the freedom of an open plan warehouse, the sense of interconnection with the atmosphere and past identity of this former industrial area in Sheffield, together inspired the new occupiers  and enabled their creativity.

Programme of events – #interrupteur . Artist-writer Emma Bolland in residence at Jessop West, MarchApril 2019

The #interrupteur residency, now in its second year, brings artist-writers into the everyday space of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield.

The aims of the residency are to forge future links between artists, writers, academics, and students, exploring the possibilities of continuing creative/academic partnerships to impact of the life of the University and on the city of Sheffield’s creative community.

This year’s #interrupteur artist-writer in residence for the University of Sheffield’s School of Arts and Humanities is Emma Bolland. During March and April 2019, they will be spending a number of days installed in the foyer of Jessops West, working alone and with guest collaborators to facilitate a space for writing, speaking, reading, text-based performance and installation, and other interventionist surprises. Emma and their guests welcome interruption, conversation, and participation, both planned and impromptu.

The Longer Story, The Bigger Picture (Representing Migration)

In 2017, I worked alongside Dr Sophie Watt and Dr Casey Strine to create an undergraduate research project, which was funded by the University of Sheffield’s SURE scheme. 

The six second-year undergraduate students worked all summer on the visual representation of refugees in the media:

The research explored how images of migrants and refugees shape public understanding and opinions of migration. Discourses around the threat posed by migrants and refugees to security, order, national identity and integrity have clearly impacted on the contemporary political landscape (for example Brexit, Trump’s election victory and the rise of populism and ethno-nationalism in Europe). As many scholars have observed, the media play a key role in both conveying and legitimising these political messages about migration. Less attention has been paid, however, to the specifically visual representation of displaced peoples and the impact this has on the public perception of migration – a gap this research will seek to address.

The outputs of their research included a 6000-word article, a poster and a film.

In 2016-2017, along with Dr Alastair Buckley from the Department of Physics, I developed a MOOC entitled “10bn”, which offered second-year undergraduate students at the University of Sheffield the opportunity to work together on a variety of wicked problems associated with a predicted global population of 10bn. One of the chapters in the MOOC featured the research project on which I work with Dr Sophie Watt: The Longer Story, The Bigger Picture. It was this work, along with a workshop delivered by Dr Casey Strine on his research about the representation of migration in the Bible, that provided the second-year SURE students with the inspiration for their own research project.

Sophie and I are particularly interested in the ways in which Calais has been represented by artist Mathieu Pernot, in whose images the so-called “jungle” is seen as a post-traumatic landscape from which refugees have been forcefully evacuated. Thus, in Pernot’s work, we see not the refugees themselves, but only a ‘hollow portrait’, a presence in absence made manifest in the scraps and traces they leave behind in the landscape of northern France.

See Mathieu Pernot, Les Migrants (Paris: 2012), translated by Amanda Crawley Jackson;

and Sophie Watt, ‘Voicing the Silence: Exposing French Neo-Colonial History and Practices in Mathieu Pernot’s Les Migrants‘, in Engagement in Twenty First Century French and Francophone Culture, edited by Helena Chadderton and Angela Kimyongür (2017).

Entre Guillemets // Quote Unquote.

On December 4th-5th 2018, artist Joseph Edwardes Evans presented a new series of small sculptures in an exhibition entitled Entre Guillemets // Quote Unquote.

The works, made entirely of found objects and ‘scrap’ or ‘waste’ materials, emerged in response to the conversations Joseph and I had about post-traumatic landscapes.

Joseph writes:

Made of found metal and severed branches, the sculptures’ construction and display is tightly post-traumatic: they perform as citations by re-appropriating and putting forward material extracted from elsewhere, as if plucked from the receding past at the moment of being consigned to it. This extracted material is made to enter (the “entre” of “entre guillemets”) the present as a vase-type object, testifying to, presenting, or pointing towards histories of use and waste. But at the moment of enunciation, the vases are suggestively illegible as to what their specific material past is. Haphazard, contingent and diverse, they are an uncertain record. […] Whilst the vases represent citational space, an ambiguous plane, they can only bring the idea of the past to us. What we do with it then – what we put there – remains to be decided.

During the course of the two days, visitors were invited to create works around, and in response to, the sculptures. We provided watercolours, typewriters, marker pens, ink, glue and pencils on a large table in the rather chilly foyer of Jessop West.  What emerged was a collaborative scrapbook and an agreement that mental health and wellbeing might be significantly improved if we were able, in our cities and public spaces, to create similar spaces of conversation and creativity. 

What were the key insights of the two days? 1) Coffee has become a tax on interactions; 2) we need spaces to make a mess, be directionless, take a risk and not fear being unproductive;  3) art makes space – it isn’t a thing we add to space. This table, then. as ‘ritournelle’ – a space that emerges through the scratching of pencils and the putting of paint on paper; through conversations and encounters, and a shared desire to do this again.

With thanks to Joe, Lucy, Seth, AJ, Emma, Jordan, Neve and Rebekah for all their hard work, creativity and insight.

Post-traumatic vases

Joseph Edwardes-Evans has made a series of extraordinary, tiny vases which respond to the matter of post-traumatic landscapes.  Each of them is made with found materials typically discarded as waste or scrap. Twisted fragments of metal are mounted on slices of carefully sanded wood from plants such as buddleia, which are considered by many as  weeds. The material remains of our past, neither forgotten nor remembered, re-emerge and are re-formed in the present.

What is a post-traumatic art? The telling of an anteriority, which is to the past what the memory is to reality, taking form and placing its truth in the present. The post-traumatic vase is the oblique arrival, and presentation, of this anteriority where it meets the present, in the way that a vase puts forward as spectacle something past, dead or dying, and hovers it between our world, where it can be contemplated, and the non-world, to which it belongs.

Post-Traumatic Vase, by Joseph Edwardes-Evans

Post-traumatic vase

I was so touched to receive a gift from MA student and artist Joseph Edwardes-Evans in the form of a work he made in response to some of my research on post-traumatic landscapes. This is a text he wrote about his piece.

fullsizeoutput_29ae“The object constitutes the straightforward presentation of a section of found copper pipe, mounted in a block of buddleia – straight and forward, as a gestural surface to be met, like a mirror. The copper pipe had been kicked around on the ground and is scarred, polishing it has not effaced these marks. The buddleia has been sanded so that it is very smooth; as the metal has taken on an accidental, arrhythmic texture not unlike bark, so the wood becomes sheer and nearly metallic – the two reach towards each other in what is a becoming-monument, the enunciation of a common project by means of a combination where one component on its own is a sign, and two components a place.

What is a post-traumatic art? The telling of an anteriority, which is to the past what the memory is to reality, taking form and placing its truth in the present. The post-traumatic vase is the oblique arrival, and presentation, of this anteriority where it meets the present, in the way that a vase puts forward as spectacle something past, dead or dying, and hovers it between our world, where it can be contemplated, and the non-world, to which it belongs.

And what is the post-traumatic if not also a site/sight of a certain form of monument to a state of affairs no longer visible but nevertheless producing something today? Copper the conductor, buddleia the hardy non-native, or ‘weed’: in this sense the two together create a tenacious memory, locked into space and surfacing with irresistible autonomy. What that memory might be however is not clear, and on this point the vase remains silent. Looking again at its construction we see that, as both support and surface, ambiguous plane, the vase can only bring the idea of the past to us. What we do with it then – what we put there – remains to be decided.”

Joseph Edwardes-Evans, September 2018




The former coal fields of South Yorkshire are threaded through with thick skeins of disused and dismantled mineral lines. Connecting ironworks and collieries that have long since been erased from the landscape, replaced by retail parks, wildlife reserves and housing estates, these lines are now fragmented and overgrown. Only track beds, spoil heaps, the occasional run of sleepers and narrow corridors of skinny silver birch point to what was once here. Some of the lines have been co-opted into the newly fashioned, post-industrial landscape, transformed into heritage lines and rail trails for locals and tourists. Others, such as the Roundwood and Dalton colliery railway (the history of which is recounted by Thomas Spain elsewhere in this book), slipped through the net of the extensive re-wilding and redevelopment initiatives that followed the pit closures. They linger, instead, as stubborn ribbons of ‘the wrong kind of landscape’ (Matless 26), winding slivers of scrub that exert an inexorable pull on fly tippers, quad bikers and kids with airguns and spray paint cans. Buddleia and bramble provide scant cover for all the rubbish that’s discarded here. But it’s this marginality that makes the old colliery lines so valuable and interesting: not from a nostalgia or urban exploration perspective, but because they have the potential to get us thinking more critically about the status of the past in the post-industrial present.

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 09.19.57
Andrew Conroy, Uncoupled, 2018.

There’s an extensive and well-known body of literature in French about the railways. The great nineteenth-century novelists spoke at length about the transformations wrought by the railways on landscape, labour and industry, as well as recording all the excitement and the great shifts in perception and sociality that the advent of rail travel engendered. In Émile Zola’s La Bête humaine (1890), the steam engine is a ‘prodigious and irresistible force that naught could now stay’ (Zola 410). Locomotives, ‘in a deafening rush of scalding steam’ (Zola 212), course through the landscape,borne away in the same breath that brought them. Not one had even slackened speed. They saw them dash ahead, fade in the distance, disappear, before they had time to learn anything about them. The whole world filed past; the human multitude carried along full steam, without them having knowledge of aught else than faces caught sight of in a flash – faces they were never more to set eyes on… (Zola 216)

The logistical complexity of the railways appears barely to contain these ‘metal muscles’ (Zola 212):

Trains flew along without intermission, in the increasing darkness, over the complicated network of rails, threading their way through lines of carriages standing motionless on the sidings. One started for Argenteuil, another for Saint Germain. A very long train arrived from Cherbourg. Signals succeeded one another, accompanied by whistles and blasts of the horn. Lights appeared on every side, one by one: red, green, yellow, white. There seemed to be a regular confusion at this troubled hour when day glides into night and it looked as if a tremendous smash would ensue. But everything passed on. The trains brushed by each other, detaching themselves from the entanglement… (Zola 25)

It’s not insignificant that Marcel Proust chooses to open the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu – a lengthy meditation on modernity, memory, consciousness and perception – with a reverie of rail travel. Here, the eponymous, insomniac narrator lies awake in his bed, listening to the distant whistles of trains and visualising

the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again at home. (Proust 7-8)

For both Zola and Proust, the railways are about the jolt of the unfamiliar. Each author, despite their differences in tone, conveys the sensorial turbulence produced by what Trachtenberg describes as the railways’ capacity to produce ‘novel experiences – of self, of fellow-travelers, of landscape (now seen as swiftly-passing panorama), of space and time’ (Schivelbusch xiv). The new railway technologies of the 19th century, he asserts, gave form to nothing less than a ‘revolutionary rupture with past forms of experience, of social order, of human relation’ (Schivelbusch xv). They exposed human beings to the strange, and to strangers, as they had never been exposed before. In the late 20th century, a number of writers including Jacques Réda, François Bon and François Maspero used journeys by rail as a starting point and structure for their experimental works of creative nonfiction. In this age of time-space compression, when ‘all journeys have been done. […] All travelogues have been written’ (Maspero, cited in Forsdick et al 167), these authors chose to take the train to destinations nearer to home in order to seek out the unfamiliar. The journey itself represented a surprising means, given its ubiquity in the landscape, of unsettling routine perception and expectations. Tactics such as travelling by commuter train to the suburbs (Maspero); repeatedly travelling the same line and writing in real time (Bon); or using trains as a ‘portable window’ on the world (Réda, Aller auxmirabelles 50) promoted a sense of productive estrangement that enabled the writers to re-experience and re-examine the everyday.


Jacques Réda’s works are shot through with meditations on the railways and rail travel. His most famous work, Les Ruines de Paris (The Ruins of Paris) was published in 1977, in the midst of the 5th Republic’s massive programme to transform Paris. Driven by the market, rather than by plan,

Real estate developers tore down small-town neighborhoods in the city’s outlying arrondissements and replaced them with towering blocks of offices and apartments. The city’s traffic flows changed as highways and automobiles colonized the sleepy quays of the Seine while the desertion of markets and factories for the suburbs turned bustling neighborhoods into ghost towns. (Clark)

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 09.27.37
Construction of the Front de Seine complex, 1967.

Ruins is a series of extraordinary prose poems recounting the poet’s perambulations through various recently demolished and derelict sites, including the abandoned railway lines on the edges of the conurbation. In the second part of the book, he describes a series of journeys made by train, through landscapes where there is ‘nothing but an algebraic tangle of rails and catenaries for comfort’ (Ruins, 114). It’s from the vantage point of the capital’s ‘forbidden territory’ (Ruins, 107) that Réda observes the birth of the neoliberal city, with all its attendant violence, iniquities and erasures. He contemplates the evacuation of industry, and of the working classes and their homes, casting a deprecatory eye over the skyscrapers and luxury apartment blocks that are proliferating at the city’s western edge. Wandering along the track beds of la Petite Ceinture (a circular railway disused since 1934) and through other dilapidated sites, allowing his attention to be distracted by the inspiring minutiae of his environs, he toys with the idea of creating a Union for the Preservation of Waste Land (Ruins, 38). At least half of the derelict and vacant lots smashed out of the urban fabric by the voracious maws of the demolition excavators should, he argues, like the abandoned railways ‘be left to run wild, even with the danger that would come from these mounds of plank and plaster and the health risks of these piles of filth all over the place and the dirty water’ (Ruins, 38).

Ruins is a series of extraordinary prose poems recounting the poet’s perambulations through various recently demolished and derelict sites, including the abandoned railway lines on the edges of the conurbation. In the second part of the book, he describes a series of journeys made by train, through landscapes where there is ‘nothing but an algebraic tangle of rails and catenaries for comfort’ (Ruins, 114). It’s from the vantage point of the capital’s ‘forbidden territory’ (Ruins, 107) that Réda observes the birth of the neoliberal city, with all its attendant violence, iniquities and erasures. He contemplates the evacuation of industry, and of the working classes and their homes, casting a deprecatory eye over the skyscrapers and luxury apartment blocks that are proliferating at the city’s western edge. Wandering along the track beds of la Petite Ceinture (a circular railway disused since 1934) and through other dilapidated sites, allowing his attention to be distracted by the inspiring minutiae of his environs, he toys with the idea of creating a Union for the Preservation of Waste Land (Ruins, 38). At least half of the derelict and vacant lots smashed out of the urban fabric by the voracious maws of the demolition excavators should, he argues, like the abandoned railways ‘be left to run wild, even with the danger that would come from these mounds of plank and plaster and the health risks of these piles of filth all over the place and the dirty water’ (Ruins, 38).

Réda’s descriptions of the neoliberal city are starkly premonitory. He rails, for example, against the ‘cultural freelancers’ commissioned by the local authorities to decorate the hoardings that conceal the newly vacant lots. ‘Their phoney naïve paintings and their pink graffiti’ (Ruins, 39) ‘art wash’ the violent processes of gentrification. This is art put to the service of regeneration, driving an economy of signs through which urban value is created and measured, and where freedom is reduced to the choice of which readymade place to consume, providing, of course, you have the money. In contradistinction, the abandoned railway lines and other derelict sites represent a profoundly illegible space amidst the semiotic overdrive of the image-city. They’re a space in which meanings might still be made. Hidden away behind hoardings and set apart from the disciplined spaces of the increasingly privatised urban fabric, it is here that the railway flâneur recovers critical and creative ways of representing – and inhabiting – the city.

The ribbons of land and overgrown track beds that Réda describes are not so visually dissimilar from the abandoned lines we find in Yorkshire. In the ‘ferroscape’ (Bon) of la Petite Ceinture, ‘a dozen sickly birch trees are dying. They should simply have left the anarchic seeds from building sites to grow here; this desert would not be what it is now, a forest star-studded with tin cans and phosphorescent eyes’ (Ruins, 66). The ‘metallic and wooden objects among heaps of coal and bundles of papers, some obscure residue from the railway’, and this ‘polymorphic heap of oil drums, many of them – yellow, blue, green’ (Ruins,14) could describe the debris strewn along any of the lines we walked as we were researching our piece for this book.

Réda isn’t, however, nostalgic about trains: ‘Are we going to start crying our eyes out over a construction of pistons, wheels and a boiler? No, I don’t think so’ (Ruins, 116). His is a more critical engagement, which explores the capacity of rail travel and railway lines, both working and dismantled, to disrupt normative perception and recover the emancipatory potential of memory. It’s as though they afford him a kind of Claude glass, with which to reframe and rethink the naturalised ordinariness of space.


The abandoned Yorkshire mineral lines cut through what is now a post-industrial mosaic, affording a critical prism, much like the one deployed by Réda, through which to de-naturalise the remediated landscapes that have become the taken-for- granted reality of our everyday lives. On either side of the track beds, more or less hidden by corridors of silver birch and successional scrub, there are steel-framed warehouses, busy retail parks and new houses. This is a landscape transformed by the closure of the pits. The former Yorkshire coalfields are what Iain Sinclair might call a ‘damaged topography’ (Sinclair, Ghost Milk 61), ‘bad turf’ with a ‘suppressed history’ (Sinclair, London Orbital 71). Land that belonged to the nationalised extractive industry passed into the hands of private sector property developers (Mingay) who, since the 1990s, have transformed recalcitrant extractive landscapes into neat residential developments, nature reserves, retail, manufacturing and business parks. This process continues apace today. Permission has been recently granted to construct a theme park on the site of the former Pithouse West colliery, near Rotherham. The BBC reported that the complex will include an ‘adventure centre, “glamping” woodland lodges, a hotel and holiday village’ (BBC, ‘£37m Theme Park Plan’).

In these ‘acres of new space, clawed out of old space’ (Lewis, Open to the Sky), there are few reminders of the recent past. We followed the Roundwood and Dalton colliery line to the site of what used to be the Silverwood colliery, closed down on Christmas Eve, 1994. This privately-owned land, managed by the Woodland Trust, has been reclaimed and transformed into a vast nature reserve. The former slurry pond is now a freshwater lake and more than 120,000 new trees have been planted. For nature enthusiasts, there are now plovers, lapwings, wagtails and short-eared owls to be seen – species that were introduced to increase the site’s biodiversity. A large visitors’ information panel at the entrance to the site summarises key moments in the colliery’s history, but focuses for the most part on telling the story of the site’s remediation and re-wilding. We’re informed, for example, that the first deep mine shafts were sunk in 1900 and that the Queen and Prince Philip visited Silverwood in 1975. Then, without mention of the miners strike of 1984-1985, the text describes how, in 1985-86, with a workforce of just 1342 men, the colliery produced over a million tonnes of coal, ‘holding the second highest profit in the area’. There are pieces on landscape restoration and wildlife management, as well as the new village of Woodlaithes, constructed at the eastern edge of the site, which has its own village ‘pond’ (and here I retain the unwittingly incisive quotation marks used in the panel text). Finally, there’s a short section explaining that the old colliery winding wheel, sunk into a commemorative plinth at the entrance to the site, was installed ‘as an interesting heritage feature’. There’s no mention of the distinctive methane vents that have been installed just behind it, betraying a residual subterranean past that could not be washed away.

Silverwood Colliery, 2018. Ph. Amanda Crawley Jackson.
Silverwood Colliery, 2018. Photograph by Amanda Crawley Jackson.

For artist Karl Hurst, the regeneration of the South Yorkshire coalfields has been structured by a ‘deliberate depoliticisation’, the result of which is ‘geopolitical dysmorphia, a fantasy world’. Orgreave has been detoxified and rebranded as ‘Waverley’ and, where the Rossington colliery once stood, there’s now an Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’. Glossy hoardings sell ‘fictional styles of life and imaginary behaviors’ (Christine Boyer, cited in Crinson 4). Local developers promise clean, sustainable jobs and futures, set amidst a bucolic ‘countryside’ that’s modelled on a wholly imagined pre-industrial past. The authorised historical narrative of coal mining in the area is hewn through a process of selective curation, which excludes painful and subaltern memories of the strike, the pit closures and ‘the recent trauma of de-industrialisation’ (Mingay).

The geology of the extractive landscapes and nostalgic accounts of hardship and hard graft are visually and discursively prioritised over more painful (and proximate) living memory. Martha Mingay has drawn attention to the extensive use, for example, of anodyne ‘regional material motifs’, such as the dry-stone walls at the entrance to the Waverley residential development, featuring ‘corten steel fins, their weathered rust colour chosen to embody iron ore’. ‘Amid the stones’, she writes, ‘lies a darker solid band, to represent the coal seam’.

This is precisely the kind of thing geographer Mark Crinson is referring to when he talks about nostalgie de la boue (the ‘nostalgia for mud’): it’s ‘memory with the pain taken out’ (Crinson xi). At Orgreave/Waverley, there’s an official plaque remembering all the miners who worked at the colliery until its closure in 1981.

The dates do not account for the memory of the coking plant, which didn’t close until 1990 and was the site of the 1984 ‘Battle of Orgreave’. It’s the same at Silverwood. The plaque on the winding wheel formally remembers the men who worked and died in the pit during its 89-year history, and yet this striking ‘memory-prompt’ (Sinclair, Hackney 24) bears no mention of the very history that triggered the reclamation and re-wilding of the site it was chosen to emblematise: de-industrialisation, changing labour relations and Thatcher’s imposition of a neoliberal economy. Perhaps Sinclair is right to assert that today, ‘history isn’t the province of memory-men, it belongs to the speculators’ (Sinclair, Hackney 15).

It’s extraordinarily difficult, however, to contain the living past in the sarcophagus of the post-industrial present. The old colliery lines, in all their stubborn persistence and difficult materiality, are a good example of how memory leaks. Another is the site of the former Hatfield Main colliery, a striking anomaly in the regenerated landscape. At its edge, there’s a small plinth with a plaque bearing the words: ‘Here stood the miners and families of Hatfield N.U.M. in defence of their jobs, communities & against industrial genocide. Loyal, Proud & True. NEVER FORGET – NEVER FORGIVE’.

Two sets of headstocks stand as distinctive anachronisms in a landscape that has been largely divested of the mining apparatus that sculpted it. They were saved from demolition in November 2015 when, following a campaign by the Hatfield Main Colliery Community Heritage Association, DCMS listed the structures on the basis of their rarity and historical and technological interest (Historic England). The listing had been opposed by Doncaster City Council, who argued that while the local authorities were ‘immensely proud of Doncaster’s coal mining heritage’, the headstocks were nothing but ‘an accident waiting to happen’, and would undoubtedly ‘cost taxpayers millions over the coming years’ (BBC, ‘Hatfield Colliery’).

The headstocks – ‘the most readily recognisable structure of the coal industry, an industry of the very highest historical significance nationally’ (Historic England) – are also a potent symbol of that same industry’s destruction and erasure. This ambivalence is reinforced by their use as an icon – interestingly, alongside that of a mineral wagon – in the N.U.M. logo. Today, they’re fenced off and patrolled by security guards; half a dozen terrifying Canary mastiffs ensure that no one comes too close. The rest of the extensive site is much more loosely managed: flocks of dirt bikes roar across the black sludge and greasy spoil heaps. It seems the history of Hatfield Main will not be easily ‘decontaminated’ (Mingay).

Hurst has noted that ‘rarely in the former coalfields has land been left to naturalise as a post-industrial site’. In fact, the abandoned colliery lines, too extensive and expensive to contain within security fences, afford a good example. The animal tracks are an indication of the ecological succession that has taken place here. Criss-crossed with desire lines as complex and entangled as the railway lines described by Zola, there’s plenty of evidence of non-sanctioned place-making going on along the trackbeds. There are tents in which people are camping, or maybe even living; blackened circles of ash where fires have been lit; and, in the trees, myriad tin cans like those seen by Réda, that have been used for target practice. Graffiti adorns the bridges and lineside ruins: ‘Tories out!’, ‘RIP Lee Bob’, ‘Shell is a slag’, ‘Scargill’… Here, memory is an open work. There’s a vital sense that the meaning of past and present are still to be negotiated; that neither has yet been set in stone. It’s in the shock afforded by this unruly ‘simultaneity of stories-so-far’ (Massey 12) that the disruptive and creative potential of today’s abandoned railways inheres.

Amanda Crawley Jackson & Andrew Conroy

This article was originally published in Railway Cultures, edited by Chris Leffler & Amanda Crawley Jackson (2018).

Works Cited

Anon. “South Yorkshire Historic Environment Characterisation.” Extractive | South Yorkshire Historic Environment Characterisation, http://www.sytimescapes.org.uk/zones/ rotherham/R17.

BBC, “£37m Theme Park Plan for Rotherham Pithouse West Colliery Site.” BBC News, 10 Sept. 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-34200100.

—. “Hatfield Colliery: £1m Warning after Listing Move.” BBC News, 11 Nov. 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-34785700.

Bon, François. Paysage fer. Verdier, 2000.

Clark, Catherine E. “‘C’était Paris en 1970’: Amateur photography, urbanism and photographic history.” Etudes photographiques, 31, Spring 2014, http://journals.openedition.org/etudesphotographiques/3407#bodyftn14.

Crinson, Mark. Urban Memory. Routledge, 2005.

Farley, Paul & Symmons Roberts, Michael. Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness. Jonathan Cape, 2011.

Forsdick, Charles, Feroza Basu and Siobhán Shilton. New Approaches to Twentieth-Century Travel Literature in French. Genre, History, Theory. Peter Lang, 2006.

Graham, Brian J., et al. A Geography of Heritage: Power, Culture and Economy. Arnold, 2004.

Historic England. “Numbers 1 and 2 Headstocks at the Former Hatfield Main Colliery, Stainforth – 1430590.” Historic England, 2018. http://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1430590.

Hurst, Karl. “In Praise of the Ordinary.” Longbarrow Blog, 30 April 2016, http://longbarrowblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/30/in-praise-of-the-ordinary-karl-hurst/.

Lewis, Brian. “Open to the Sky.” Longbarrow Blog, 27 Feb. 2018, http://longbarrowblog. wordpress.com/2018/02/26/open-to-the-sky-brian-lewis/.

—. “Ground Work.” Longbarrow Blog, 30 April 2017, http://longbarrowblog.wordpress. com/2017/04/30/ground-work-brian-lewis/.

Maspero, François. Les Passagers du Roissy-Express. Éditions du Seuil, 1990. Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

Matless, David. Landscape and Englishness. Reaktion Books, 2016.

Mingay, Martha. “Orgreave 30 Years On: An Uncontaminated Name?” Failed Architecture, 17 March 2015, http://www.failedarchitecture.com/orgreave-30-years-on-an-uncontaminated-name/.

Moshenska, Gabriel. “Charred Churches or Iron Harvests?” Journal of Social Archaeology, vol. 10, no. 1, 2010, pp. 5–27.

Olivier, Laurent. The Dark Abyss of Time. Archaeology and Memory. Trans. Arthur Greenspan. Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.

Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 1. Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1922. Project Gutenberg Ebook, 21 March 2009. http://www.gutenberg.org

Réda, Jacques. Aller aux mirabelles. Gallimard, Coll. L’un et l’autre, 1991.

—. The Ruins of Paris. Trans. Mark Treharne. Reaktion Books, 1996.

Roth, Michael. Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living with the Past. Columbia University Press, 2012.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey. The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. University of California Press, 2014 [1977].

Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital. Penguin, 2003.

—. Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report. Penguin, 2010.

—. Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project. Penguin, 2011.

Zola, Émile. The Monomaniac [La Bête humaine]. Trans. Edward Vizetelly. Hutchinson & Co., 1901


Museums in Context and Partnership: April 19th-20th, National Railway Museum, York.

We’re hosting a conference in collaboration with the rather wonderful National Railway Museum in York.

In this two-day conference, we will be discussing the role of heritage institutions in our cities and communities, and how museums, galleries and higher education might work together for teaching, research and public engagement purposes. We will be drawing upon expertise from both the culture and heritage industry and from academic practitioners, and the conference will serve as a space for discussion of both the benefits and challenges of such initiatives, as well as an ideas exchange on best practice.

This conference is free to attend.  Register for your free place here.


19th April: Day 1 – Museums, Cities and Communities 

8.45am – 9am: Registration & coffee

9.00am – 9.10am: Welcome and introduction – Professor Dawn Hadley (Acting Vice President for Arts and Humanities, University of Sheffield)

9.10am – 10.40am: Museums and galleries in urban contexts: case studies

Laura Sillars (Artistic Director at Site Gallery, Sheffield)

Helen Featherstone (Director of the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust & Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield)

Nicola Freeman (Director of Engagement & Learning at The Hepworth, Wakefield)

Anna Stolyarova (Director of the Amsterdam Street Art Museum, Amsterdam)

10.40am – 11am: Museum and gallery case studies: discussion and questions

11.00am: Coffee

11.10am – 12.10pm: Professor Dawn Hadley (University of Sheffield) & Nick Bax (Human)

‘Castlegate, Sheffield: heritage-led urban regeneration’

12.10pm: Lunch

1.15pm – 2.35pm: Panel 1

Adrian Steel (The Postal Museum)

‘Delivered: The Postal Museum’s new home in the heart of Clerkenwell’

Geoff Ginn (University of Queensland, Australia)

‘Heritage and Renewal: The North Ipswich Railway Workshops, the Queensland Museum and the challenge of ‘catalyst’ investment’

Gabor Stark (University for the Creative Arts)

‘EKR – The Friendly Army: Collective Remembrance and Collaborative Placemaking’

2.35pm – 4.00pm: Panel 2

Andrew Parkin / Sally Waite (Tyne & Wear Archives / Newcastle University)

‘Building a Community Curriculum: the Shefton Collection as a resource for schools’

Cynthia Johnston (School of Advanced Study, University of London),

‘A Pioneering Partnership: Blackburn Museum and the University of London; connecting cultures of research and management’

Kazz Morohashi (Norwich University of the Arts)

‘What did the dog see? Engaging with family audience through live listening and Go Walkeez’

Sue Perks (University for the Creative Arts)

‘The Importance of exhibition projects involving community engagement: my work with Aik Saath’

4.00pm: Coffee

4.15pm – 5.00pm: Andrew McLean (Assistant Director & Head Curator, NRM York)

‘Permanent displays as nexus of collaboration’

5.30 pm: Close

20th April: Day 2 – Museums, Galleries and Higher Education 

8.45am-9.15am: Registration & coffee

9.15am – 10.40am: Panel 1

Judith King (Arts & Heritage)

‘Meeting Point: Museums and contemporary artists working together’

Michael Eades (School of Advanced Study, University of London; Festival Curator and Manager, Being Human)

‘Plugging a Gap? ‘Being Human’ and a national perspective on university/museum partnerships’

Sarah Geere & Chris Baker (University of Sheffield)

‘The changing landscape of impact, knowledge exchange and partnership working’

10.40am – 12.00pm: Panel 2

Mike Esbester / Peter Thorpe (University of Portsmouth / NRM)

‘Crowdsourcing, collaboration, archives & accidents: the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project’

Jonathan Aylen & Bob Gwynne (University of Manchester / NRM)

‘From Steam to E-Mail: how computers shaped the railways and railways shaped computing’

Barbara Warnock / Christine Schmidt (Wiener Library, London)

‘Collaborating with academia – the experiences of a small museum’

12pm: Lunch

1.00pm – 2.20pm: Panel 3

Linda Thomson (University College London)

‘Museums on Prescription: museums-based social prescribing scheme for lonely older adults’

Helena Chance / Hannah Ellams (Buckinghamshire New University / Wycombe Museum)

‘“Living, Laughing and Learning in High Wycombe Furniture Town”: a Wycombe Museum and Buckinghamshire New University Partnership’

Rachel Pattinson (Newcastle University)

‘From Warhorse to the Wombles: Seven Stories and Newcastle University’

2.20pm – 4.00pm: Panel 4

Sophie Vohra (University of York, NRM)

‘The Academic and the Museum: The Benefits and Difficulties of a Collaborative Doctoral Award’

Lauren Stokeld (University of York, NRM)

‘Learning the Ropes: Research Students in Public Engagement and a Question of Expertise’

Sarah Morton (University of Bath)

‘The grass isn’t always greener: Towards good practice guidelines for student projects and placements in the heritage sector’

Simona Valeriani (Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal College of Art)

‘Between Museum and Academia: Combining Research and Postgraduate Teaching at the V&A’

4.00pm: Coffee

4.15pm – 5.15pm: Professor Julian Richards (Director of WRoCAH, University of York)

‘Opportunities and Challenges of Partnership Working’

5.15pm – 6.30pm: Route 57 & Railway Cultures – Publications launch & drinks reception

Dan Eltringham (University of Sheffield)

‘Editing the Loco-Motion: Creative Writing, Print and the Museum’

Readings from contributors to Route 57

Islands, camps, zones: towards a nissological reading of Georges Perec

Screen Shot 2018-03-17 at 15.35.28

I’m currently writing a chapter for a book on Perec (which will be published in 2019) that presents a nissological reading of Perec’s work.

[Update: You can purchase a hard copy of Georges Perec’s Geographies, or download it as a free e-book, from UCL press. Just follow this link.]

Nissology, a term coined by Grant McCall in 1996, derives from the Greek nisos (island) and describes the interdisciplinary theory of islands and islandness. My chapter takes as its starting point three case studies from the Perecquian corpus: the imaginary island of W (which appears in W, ou le souvenir d’enfance, the semi-autobiographical text that was first published in 1975) and which functions as an allegory of the Nazi concentration camps; Ellis Island (the US migrant inspection centre that is the subject of Perec and Robert Bober’s 1980 film, Récits d’Ellis Island); and the Parisian îlots insalubres (usually translated as ‘unhealthy zones’, but more literally, small islands – or islets – of insalubrity) that dominated French planning discourse from the late nineteenth century right through the 4th Republic (there is still mention of ‘tubercular islands’ in planning documents dated 1956), and in one of which la rue Vilin (where Perec was born and which features in L’Infra-ordinaire, W and the unfinished Lieux project) was situated. The main thrust of the argument is that around these major islands, and through a series of textual and historical allusions, Perec constellates a broader carceral archipelago, made up of dispersed yet interconnected island territories that are located in multiple space-times. This nissological reading – which also draws in some of Perec’s many references to other insular places (including Madagascar, Tierra del Fuego, Pulau Bidong and Jules Verne’s imaginary Lincoln Island) suggests that Perec is concerned less with individual islands (or specific insular regimes) than with the ways in which island topographies are produced as networked sites in which sovereign power and bio-politics intersect. Finally, my chapter explores the ways in which Perec’s archipelagic topographies, when understood relationally, in both spatial and temporal terms, can be seen to speak both to the complex and extended networks of power that subtend the organization of the modern world, but also the ongoing (and performative) manifestations of the past in what Derek Gregory (2004) has insightfully described as the colonial present.

Railway Cultures

In January 2018, and in collaboration with the National Railway Museum in York, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield launched the Railway Cultures Project. The outcomes include 2 books (more on which later) and a conference, which will take place on April 19-20. The conference – Museums in Context and Partnership – will be free to attend and we’ll be publishing the final programme next week, at which point you’ll also be able to reserve a place. We do hope you’ll be able to join us for what promises to be a fantastic day!

Remembering Barberousse: The Construction of National Memory and State Power in Algeria

I’m currently writing an article on Barberousse, an infamous colonial prison built by the French in Algiers in 1856 and which, after three years of closure in the immediate post-Independence era, was re-opened by President Boumédiène in 1965, under the new name Serkadji.


On March 19th 2014, the day of the 52nd anniversary of the implementation of the Évian Accords, the Algerian Minister of Justice, Tayeb Louh, along with a delegation that included the Minister for Culture, Nadia Labidi, made a high-profile visit to Serkadji prison, which had recently been closed and its inmates transferred to other prisons across Algeria. A press announcement in December 2013 had already informed the Algerian public that the prison was going to be transformed into a museum dedicated to the national memory. The Minister’s statement to the media on March 19th – ‘‘Aujourd’hui, ce lieu historique redevient un lieu de recueillement et de mémoire’ (‘Today, this historic site becomes once again a site of contemplation and memory’) – was referring, however, not to Serkadji’s more recent history, but to the time when the prison was known as Barberousse – a renowned colonial penal insitution built by the French in 1856 and in which, during the war of independence, many FLN mujahidin were incarcerated and guillotined. In this article, the first substantial and holistic account of the discursive construction of Barberousse in cultural and political discourse, I will explore this most recent, but also other instances in which the prison has been deployed and harnessed as an emblem of repression and resistance, colonialism and the struggle for independence. I will begin with an overview of the what I identify as the key stakes in the quite extensive representation of Barberousse in cultural production, focusing both on the accounts provided by films, memoirs and novels (by Henri Alleg, Assia Djebar, Gillo Pontecorvo, Leila Djabali and Mohamed Saharoui) of the violence and abjection that constituted daily life intra muros, while highlighting also the prison’s becoming-symbol of the bloody birth of the independent Algerian state. In the second part, I will discuss the insoluble link between the prison and the (construction of the) nation state. Closed in 1962 by President Ahmed Ben Bella, who designated the prison an historic site and intended to turn it into a museum honouring the memory of the FLN, it was reopened in 1965, under its new name, Serkadji, by Houari Boumédiène, who – along with his successor, Chadli Bendjedid – used it to detain dissidents and political prisoners, as well as common law criminals. Thus, the prison became a means in the post-Independence era of shoring up the power of an increasingly contested regime. I will conclude with a reflection on the ways in which the museum now proposed by the Algerian state not only consolidates authorised histories, but also serves to erase others, including the massacre of 96 prisoners by state forces within the walls of Serkadji in February 1995.

Representing Migration

I’ve recently received the excellent news that I was successful in a funding bid to the SURE Network scheme to employ 6 University of Sheffield students to work as researchers over the summer on a project that will be led by myself, Sophie Watt (SLC, University of Sheffield) and Casey Strine (SIIBS, University of Sheffield). The project is about how migration, migrants and refugees are represented in the media and contemporary art.

The outcomes of the research will be an article and a short film about the project. In the longer term, we also hope to bring an exhibition of work by Francophone artists to Sheffield, which will explore the ways in which artists have sought to challenge some of the dominant tropes vehicled in press photography around the question of displaced peoples.

Representing migration logoSUMMARY OF RESEARCH PROJECT

This research will explore how images of migrants and refugees shape public understanding and opinions of migration. Discourses around the threat posed by migrants and refugees to security, order, national identity and integrity have clearly impacted on the contemporary political landscape (for example Brexit, Trump’s election victory and the rise of populism and ethno-nationalism in Europe). As many scholars have observed, the media play a key role in both conveying and legitimising these political messages about migration. Less attention has been paid, however, to the specifically visual representation of displaced peoples and the impact this has on the public perception of migration – a gap this research will seek to address.
The criminalization and discursive ‘othering’ of migrants and refugees by the mainstream media has been the subject of rigorous and insightful academic research (Ibrahim & Howarth, 2015; Philo, Briant & Donald, 2013). In the field of visual studies, scholars working on so-called ‘atrocity photography’ have dwelled at length on matters such as the ethics of representing vulnerable subjects, the risks of voyeurism, the commoditisation of suffering, the ‘victimal aesthetic’ and what Sontag (1977) called ‘compassion fatigue’. Scholars from the visual arts (such as T.J. Demos [2013]) have explored how artists have challenged standardised visual constructions of migrants and refugees in their practice. The proposed interdisciplinary research project is among the first, however, to draw together insights from these various – yet intrinsically connected – areas of scholarship in order to think more closely about the ways in which migrants and refugees are constructed in visual media, and how these representations impact on opinion and understanding.
In the first instance, the research will identify recurring and dominant tropes in the representation of migrants and refugees. It will examine the use of formal, symbolic and paratextual elements in the visual construction of migrants and refugees, paying attention also to the ways in which the ‘figure of the migrant’ (Nail, 2015) is variously set in – or extracted from – the contexts of migration (such as environmental change, violence and conflict, human rights violations or deleterious socio-political and economic conditions). Techniques of image and discourse analysis will be used to better understand how images of refugees and migrants might solicit certain responses in viewers. We will also consider the ways in which artists have sought to both denaturalise and contest the political and affective viewer responses prompted by hegemonic visual discourse.
An analysis of the visual construction of displaced people in these images will be complemented by empirical research. Students will work with a focus group (including artists) to draw out their responses to – and reflections on – news photographs and selected artworks. Students will also seek to determine to what extent alternative images of migration (or self-representations by artists who are migrants/refugees) might mitigate or change participants’ responses to the dominant tropes afforded by press photography.