Confronting objects, waste, histories: a conversation between Amanda Crawley Jackson and David McLeavy

Diary Entry, September 2012 (Amanda)

Furnace Park is being cleared by two men sent by the University’s environmental services team. I watch them scrape up scratchy foliage, broken glass, iron rods, lumps of metal stuff that we can’t identify, condom wrappers, syringes, plastic bags, CD boxes… The detritus of lives played out around the edges of the security fence, thrown over its gates. I try to ignore the layby opposite the main entrance, where tyres and condoms, wet wipes and plastic bottles, stained mattresses and police cones pile up one on top of the other, dishevelled pyramids of crap.

The rubbish is being sorted into waste streams and taken away – somewhere. The upper part of the site is becoming visible for the first time. Here and there, the dried-out, headless carcasses of birds, greasy feathers ligatured to hollow bones, their substance sucked out by the foxes I’ve heard live on the site. Some bevelled, rusting rods emerge from the lip of land that overhangs the concreted part below. We can’t pull them up so have to cover them with painted plastic bottles, identifying them as trip hazards. Resistive, non-compliant stuff, incorporated nonetheless in our scheme of things. Some soft black rubber hoops, which look like bicycle inner tubes but which I’m told are used to seal window frames, lie half buried beneath the loose rubble, wood chippings and leaves. They slither easily out of the humus, bringing their friends with them, tangled coils of dirty black snakes eating their own tails.

David is wearing thick gloves and collecting fifty objects from around the site. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with these things yet, but we’re anxious to salvage stuff before it all disappears. It seems invested with an importance connected to this place that none of us understand. Once it’s gone from here it’s gone.

All over the site we see lumps of industrial stuff, chunky hieroglyphs that none of us know how to interpret. Someone finds a Tate membership card, sheathed in orange plastic, hiding dirtily under the buddleia. A couple of our brand new padlocks, sawn off with angle grinders by contractors frustrated by the awkward tilt of the gates, squat shiny and scarred, fat round scarabs on the suspect soil. This surface is awash with disordered pasts.

 Email from David to Amanda, March 2014

Being asked to select objects from a site you’re unfamiliar with, within a strict timeframe and for a project you may have no real idea about poses certain issues.

Firstly there is the problem of understanding a site within a short time frame. What is Furnace Park and why have Amanda and the team invested so much time in it? On an entirely visual level it seems to be just like any other brownfield site once used for industry that has been left to stew in its own detritus, the only possibility being that one day it may provide affordable parking opportunities for commuters. How do you go about navigating and appreciating this site without any prior knowledge of it?

The second is the selection of the objects themselves. The site is strewn with debris from empty spray cans to condom wrappers, all of which provide a conflicting account of the site’s history. It is apparent that some of the objects may have no real connection to the rich history of the site. However, how am I to decipher between the myriad of urban and industrial histories?

And thirdly, why am I doing this? The site is scheduled to be cleared the day following my visit so the objects will no longer be there. It seems like a frantic scavenge attempt in which I am attempting to collect anything that may hint at an interesting history, leaving the conceptual aims a post ‘collection day’ thought.

I never knew picking up rubbish would be this hard.

Contrasting with the representative scene of the visibility of speech is an equality of the visible that invades discourse and paralyses action. For what is newly visible has very specific properties. It does not make visible; it imposes presence… (and possesses an) inertia that comes to paralyse action and absorb meaning” (Jacques Rancière 2009, p. 121)

Diary Entry, September 2013 (Amanda)

The temptation is always to see sites such as the one on the corner of Doncaster Street and Matthew Street as blanks or voids, the negative spaces of the city’s redevelopment. But this presumed negativity (which is both ontological and moral) is a complex product of discourse, an illusorily static nexus of largely unchallenged perceptions.

Hours spent in the local studies library unearthed a series of histories associated with the Furnace Park site. In 1886, a stockyard wall collapsed and tons of iron bars and timbers cascaded on a group of children playing below, killing eight. In 1899, a boiler explosion at the Don Cutlery Works, now a listed but derelict building that adjoins Furnace Park, killed seven men. In 1931, Cllr Graves opened a children’s playground on the part of the site where the Doncaster Arms had once stood. The gate that currently stands at the entrance to Furnace Park traces the pub’s ghostly outline. On the lower part of the site, where the ground is more stable (a mixture of concrete and brown floor tiles) we have been able to make out a wall that used to be part of the Council’s Municipal Lighting Department. Before that, this part of the site was overlaid with slum housing, arranged in grandly named ‘courts’.

Looking at photographs of the playground with a local policeman, we conclude that the handful of twisted iron rods, a couple of feet long and protruding from the surface of the soil by the lip of land that overhangs the lower site, probably once anchored the seesaws and swings. We’ve been unable to pull them up, so deeply are they rooted. But the majority of the objects we find on the site are alien supplements – weirdly disconnected from the activities and architectures that have come up in our research. They refuse to give themselves up as material expressions of their own owners and users; they resist our expression of them (and overflow it).

When I asked David to collect objects he found interesting and may be ‘able to do something with’, I’m not really sure what I was asking of him. I have an idea that we might just exhibit them in a provisional museum of the rusty, tattered and ordinary, or that we might cast them in concrete or polish them up. But to what end? Why this urge to salvage, protect, collect, display? The semantic texture and density of the site, the multiplicity of its historical and recent uses, rendered in this anarchic proliferation of things, countermand the idea of the site as void (in the sense of its begin devoid of meaning, if not of ‘value’). But they also resist incorporation into a narrative or an aesthetic. They remain a paralysing jumble of stuff, awaiting (impossible) re-enchantment in David’s studio.

David McLeavy, 2013

David McLeavy, 2013

David McLeavy, 2013
All images copyright David McLeavy, 2013.

Diary Entry, November 2014 (Amanda)

Behind the shipping container, two large water butts are filled with waste: banana skins, blackened, soft; sandwich cartons; plastic bottles; packing tape; latex gloves. When people come to work on the site, they leave their rubbish here, in the expectation that it will be removed, taken away. But at the moment we have no provision for waste removal, other than taking it ourselves to the local tip. The problem is that none of us drive.

A group of students have just put forward an idea for a site-specific performance which would involve bringing two tonnes of sand on to the site. My first question was not about the performance itself, but how they planned to get rid of the sand afterwards, when those two tonnes – wet with rain – may well weigh in at four tonnes. How would they stop it dispersing across the site? How would they dispose of it when rats and foxes may have soiled it, thereby making it unsuitable for donation to a school or playground? Their immediate thoughts were about the suitability of the site in terms of bringing in the sand. They couldn’t, for example, do this at a smaller indoor venue they had also considered for their performance. My concern at the moment is: how will you take what you bring away?

Getting rid of our waste is something we take for granted. Contrary to all the laws of physics, in our world stuff disappears. Even the materials we put in the blue bin for recycling aren’t recycled by us; they aren’t re-used and re-incorporated in our world. Other people, other bodies, do that for us.

At the moment, however, we are confronted with sights and smells of decay; with waste we struggle to manage and dispose of ourselves. Each time I go down to the site, it seems people have tipped their waste – wet wipes, cans, food packaging – over the fence. Others must come in vans, throwing their tyres, signs, boards and rubble into the buddleia which, not yet flowering, barely functions as a screen. This ‘wasteland’ – a repository for waste. Yesterday, in my orange work gloves, catching my face on the dried stalks as I crouched among them, I picked up as much detritus as I could, cramming everything into plastic bags from the garage down the road. I’m scared of coming across a syringe (I don’t) and I don’t want to pick up the wet wipes. I have an idea of what they have been used for. In the end, I propped up a large fibreglass mould that someone had pushed under our gate (the site economy relies on the donation of ‘useful’ or ‘interesting’ waste) against the buddleia that grows by the gate in an attempt to hide the rubbish I didn’t have time to collect and store away, for now, behind the shipping container.

Email from David to Amanda, April 2014

I have a strange relationship with objects (to use the word in this context as the ornaments and signifiers of memory that we surround ourselves with on a daily basis). On one hand I have little time for the act of hoarding, which Channel 4 amongst other sources have made us increasingly aware, is a common issue within cramped domestic dwellings. I dispose of a lot of my ‘stuff’ on a regular basis, as I don’t feely terribly precious over the banal objects I tend to posses. On the other hand I do envy collectors in a romantic way. The idea of a ceramics mogul collecting historical pots from progressive artists such as Braque and Bindesboll has always seemed attractive, perhaps that’s due to the inherent value that the ceramics possess or perhaps its the enviable status that a collector of such rarity possesses in certain social circles.

It’s interesting to note why people collect things. My impression is that its due to a number of reasons, ranging from hierarchical social ambitions, a genuine interest in the formal, contextual and conceptual value of the objects to a more addictive scenario in which the collecting becomes more of a compulsion. There is also the sense of inherent monetary value that these collections begin to acquire (the common example of a mint condition Star Wars figurine still in its packaging that becomes the sci-fi pornography to a certain generation of uber fan). In most cases this results in the collectors projecting a specific value onto an object that far exceeds its material value or the value of its constituent parts.

 This brings me to Furnace Park and the objects that I was urged to collect. The interesting opposition to my previous statement is that these objects have no value or very little at best. More often than not the value of the materials is more than what they are worth as a whole. I imagine this is due to their function, or in fact their lack of function. The objects I collected are often broken parts ripped from working machinery along with fragments of machinery that has since become obsolete. The only value they seem to have is determined by their new home, or by someone willing to project a value. The difficulty I am finding is trying to project a value on the objects I have collected when I have no emotional or melancholic connection with them at all. Perhaps this is something that will form over time, like the friendship between Tom Hanks and Beasley the dog in Roger Spottiswoode’s classic feature Turner and Hootch. Or perhaps my hunt for an emotional connection with the objects is a wasted pursuit altogether.

 Initially I thought that the outcome of my research and residency period at Furnace Park would take the form of some sculptural works inspired or using the various fragments that I collected. Instead it seems to have fuelled more of a critical dissemination of the point of collecting and our forced relationship with objects that we project a false melancholy upon.

All photographs copyright David McLeavy, 2013.

Some maps, some words (before Furnace Park)

1894 map of area where Furnace Park now stands
1894 map of area where Furnace Park now stands
1853 map of site
1853 map of site
1890 map showing the layout of the back to back houses laid out in 'Courts' on what is now the Furnace Park site
1890 map showing the layout of the back to back houses laid out in ‘Courts’ on what is now the Furnace Park site

In 1914, Sheffield’s Medical Officer of Health described properties on Matthew Street and Doncaster Street  (along with others in the adjacent area) as being ‘in a condition so dangerous or injurious to health as to be unfit for human habitation’ (see Scott Lomax, The Home Front: Sheffield in the First World War [Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2014], p. 2). A municipal slum clearance project began in the 1920s and was clearly still ongoing when, in 1936, George Orwell stayed with a family living on Wallace Street, just a mile or so away from what we now call Furnace Park.

Had a very long and exhausting day (I am now continuing this March 4th) being shown every quarter of Sheffield on foot and by tram.  I have now traversed almost the whole city.  It seems to me, by daylight, one of the most appalling places I have ever seen.  In whichever direction you look you see the same landscape of monstrous chimneys pouring forth smoke which is sometimes black and sometimes of a rosy tint said to be due to sulphur.  You can smell the sulphur in the air all the while.  All buildings are blackened within a year or two of being put up.  Halting at one place I counted the factory chimneys I could see and there were 33.  But is was very misty as well as smoky – there would have been many more visible on a clear day.  I doubt whether there are any architecturally decent buildings in the town.  The town is very hilly (said to be built on seven hills, like Rome) and everywhere streets of mean little houses blackened by smoke run up at sharp angles, paved with cobbles which are purposely set unevenly to give horses etc, a grip.  At night the hilliness creates fine effects because you look across from one hillside to the other and see the lamps twinkling like stars.  Huge jets of flame shoot periodically out of the roofs of the foundries (many working night shifts at present) and show a splendid rosy colour through the smoke and steam.  When you get a glimpse inside you see enormous fiery serpents of red-hot and white-hot (really lemon coloured) iron being rolled out into rails.  In the central slummy part of the town are the small workshops of the ‘little bosses’, i.e. smaller employers who are making chiefly cutlery.  I don’t think I ever in my life saw so many broken windows.  Some of these workshops have hardly a pane of glass in their windows and you would not believe they were inhabitable if you did not see the employees, mostly girls, at work inside. The town is being torn down and rebuilt at an immense speed.  Everywhere among the slums are gaps with squalid mounds of bricks where condemned houses have been demolished and on all the outskirts of the town new estates of Corporation houses are going up.  These are much inferior, at any rate in appearance, to those at Liverpool.  They are in terribly bleak situations, too.  One estate just behind where I am living now, at the very summit of a hill, on horrible sticky clay soil and swept by icy winds.  Notice that the people going into these new houses from the slums will always be paying higher rents; and also will have to spend much more on fuel to keep themselves warm.  Also, in many cases, will be further from their work and therefore spend more on conveyances.

(From the diaries of George Orwell, 1936. Available at http://www.chrishobbs.com/orwellsheffield1936.htm)

Courts no. 4 & 6 Shepherd Street and elevation to Charlotte Square from Shepherd Street taken from under the works of J.W. Bartholomews and Sons, Doncaster Street (1937). Copyright Picture Sheffield, uu00686.
“The town is being torn down and rebuilt at an immense speed. Everywhere among the slums are gaps with squalid mounds of bricks where condemned houses have been demolished…” Courts no. 4 & 6 Shepherd Street and elevation to Charlotte Square from Shepherd Street taken from under the works of J.W. Bartholomews and Sons, Doncaster Street (1937). Copyright Picture Sheffield, uu00686.
Map showing Courts 4 & 6 on the corner of Shepherd Street and Doncaster Street
Map showing Courts 4 & 6 on the corner of Shepherd Street and Doncaster Street

In April 1931, just a few years before Orwell’s visit to Sheffield, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield opened the Matthew Street playground, the construction of which had been funded by local philanthropist Alderman J.G. Graves. The playground occupied a site made vacant by the recent demolition of the Doncaster Arms public house, which had fallen into a state of disrepair and dereliction, and 97 nearby houses.

Picture Sheffield, Image Ref No:u00349
Picture Sheffield, Image Ref No: u00349

The corner of the playground, visible here, is where the entrance to the Doncaster Arms once stood. The large building in the right-hand corner of the image is the Don Cutlery Works. The upper level of Furnace Park now occupies what was once this children’s playground. The smaller buildings which stand in front of the cutlery works (to the right of the image) were demolished many years ago.

Read this wonderful guest post by Anne Grange on what flourishes here today, where children once played.

Microhabitats

“When the image is new, the world is new.”
― Gaston BachelardThe Poetics of Space

In early summer 2013, Amanda Crawley Jackson worked with Luisa Golob from Ignite Imaginations to organise a series of den-building workshops at Furnace Park. SKINN designed maquettes for two of the dens, and a group of artists worked with children and young people (aged 3-18) to construct dens using reclaimed materials and willow. The results were fantastic.

 

 

The Children of Furnace Park // Free performance at 3pm, Saturday July 5th

In 1866, eight children were killed in Shalesmoor when the wall of a warehouse belonging to Daniel Doncaster & Sons collapsed on them, unleashing tons of steel bars, timber and slates. children We will be remembering this event on Saturday July 3rd as part of the Changing Gears festival when Elaine Parker and Dave Langridge will perform The Children of Furnace Park, written by Alice Collins. The performance begins at 3pm. Free entrance. Read Colin Drury’s piece on The Children of Furnace Park from when it was first performed in March 2014.

Changing Gears // Saturday July 5th & Sunday July 6th

 

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On Saturday July 5th and Sunday July 6th, there will be a free event at Furnace Park, midday till 7pm, with music, workshops, poetry, performance and talks.

All welcome.

At 7.30pm on both days there will be performances of Pedal Pusher by Theatre Delicatessen. Tickets cost £11 and £9 (concessions) and can be bought on the day.

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Photographs by Andy Brown