Edinburgh (March 2016)

We walked along the river and I don’t remember any of our conversations, just that it was good to walk. My memories of this trip – starbursts: the café where we ate éclairs; the weak morning sun coming through the thin yellow curtains in our rented house in Pilrig; Ocean Terminal – empty, bluntly lit, shops closed; figuring out how the buses worked and travelling over and over between Princes Street and Leith.

I had not remembered that the trees were leafless, their branches thickly crosshatched across a pale grey sky.

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Performing the past at Furnace Park

We’re delighted to announce that Alice Collins, a local resident and writer, is currently preparing a monologue performance that takes as its subject the accident in 1886 that resulted in the deaths of 8 children from the Shalesmoor area of Sheffield.

In 1886, 8 local children were killed by a deluge of iron bars, roofing timbers and slates when one of Doncaster’s stockyard walls collapsed as they played beneath: Martha Armitage (aged ten), John Armitage (two), Henry Crisp (six), William Cullingworth (seven), Clifford Anderson (five), Samuel Oates (five), William Henry Ward (five), Herbert Crookes (five). 

As she prepares the monologue, Alice would welcome any information you might have regarding the accident (or the Shalesmoor/Neepsend area and its industries at the end of the 19th century). If you would like to contact her, please email a.j.jackson@sheffield.ac.uk in the first instance.

We anticipate two performances of the monologue on site at Furnace Park. These will be prefaced by a poster display and a small number of talks by local historians and participants in the 2013 occursus symposium on post-traumatic landscapes.

The event will be free and open to all. More information about the dates and times will be posted here shortly.

Write here, write now? On the vertigo of you and me

We live and move and are still in a series of interlocking and overlaid spaces, none of which can be abstracted from the other. The temporalities that govern and constitute these spaces are complex and enfolded. What I write now, online, is more or less immediately available all over the world, to unimaginable numbers of interlocuters. Time and space have, in this sense, contracted. And time itself has at once, paradoxically, become more compact and more diffuse. As I write now online, in this present of my writing, I engage the future perfect: this writing will have been. To publish online is to open Pandora’s box. The infinite reproducibility of the text, its proliferation and circulation (in fragments or in its integrity) contribute to the legacy of the text that survives the obliteration of the original. We’re all acutely aware of this. The internet affords us the opportunity to spread our words and images as we have never been able before, but we know that what we make available online is at once insecure (in terms of intellectual property and the integrity of the text or image) and durable (in the sense that once it has been published online, it is virtually impossible to erase – it becomes an obdurate fact, threatening always to leak into the refreshed present). This is not, of course, a new thought. But what I would like to note here is how the technologies we use to communicate and disseminate our thoughts have the effect of temporalising space and of spatialising time. My present is the present of the globe; and yet that present remains multifarious. I encounter in my present presents which are not my own, and which cannot be reduced to my own. The present of communication constellates, rather than homogenizes. In the encounter between my present and that of my interlocuters, new lines of flight are produced, projecting other futures and unpredictable meanings. Also at stake, of course, in this encounter of presents is the (shared and contested) meaning of the past.

We can no longer speak only of a space-time contraction. What we are talking about here is something infinitely more vertiginous, like the effect produced by Hitchock’s signature dolly zoom (in French, le trans-trav). Our perspective dramatically changes (what was here is now there, what was there is now here) while our locational, embodied existence remains the same. We struggle very viscerally (for this does not take place, in the first instance at least, at the level of reflection) to make sense of the conflicting clues that present to us as we write and engage online, with others. Here, we occupy that very space ‘where bodies cannot be fully anchored in the site they occupy’ (Christine Ross, 2012).

Another effect of this spatialisation-temporalisation is to create a sense of openness, of vulnerability. While I am here (in this room, in front of this computer), I do not know where and when you are. I am not talking here about the collapse of Euclidean space, but the disjointed plurality of spaces (national, cultural, juridical, judicial, virtual, topological) that extend beyond and point back towards me, temporally deferred, always possible, never certain. What kind of relations do I develop with others who are more or less relational to me in that space where the physically/corporeally located conflagrates with the virtual? What kinds of assemblage are produced (or constituted already) between technology and the users of technology? Between me (a subject who writes – who will have written) and you?

The internet and social media have produced a commons that is not in itself, but articulates and produces itself continuously.  This commons is un/written and coded into being every day. It is a political space, in that it brings a community into play. It is unequally distributed and it is far from being uniformly shared. But what interests me here is specifically the way in which the online commons configures the relationship between you and me. It is easy to think that in the era of ‘selfies’, blogging, micro-blogging and social media more generally we have become a generation of narcissists, concerned only with promoting ourselves, our image and our views online. And yet, as Jean-Luc Nancy wrote in The Inoperative Community (published in the original French as La Communauté désoeuvrée in1986; English translation by Peter Connor et al, 1991), ‘the mode of existence and appropriation of a “self” (which is not necessarily, nor exclusively, an individual) is the mode of an exposition in common and to the un-common’; ‘“To be exposed” means to be “posed” in exteriority, according to an exteriority, having to do with an outside in the very intimacy of an inside’ (xxxvii). To have access to what is proper to my own existence requires an expropriation, ‘“my” face always exposed to others, always turned toward an other and faced by him or her, never facing myself’ (xxxvii).

So as I write, right here, right now, I expose myself to you. What I write (my face) will be reassembled in the no/w/here. There are many reasons I write this, and these involve no small sense of disciplinary anxiety, a sense of exposure, of being adrift in a sea of transversal spaces. Of not really knowing who I am (for me, for you) anymore.

Bruno Boudjelal, Bentalha (2002) // Post-traumatic landscapes

I am currently working on a project about post-traumatic landscapes – the sites where atrocities have occurred and yet where no visible sign of the event remains.

I am looking in particular at the work of Hrair Sarkissian (Execution Squares, 2008), Bruno Boudjelal (Bentalha, 2002) and Paul Seawright (Sectarian Murder, 1988), whose work forms a contemplative counterpoint to the dramatic spectacle offered up by ruin and aftermath photography.

As part of this broader project, I have just finished a paper on Bruno Boudjelal’s work in Algeria (1993-2003), including images from his visit to Bentalha – a small town just 15km from Algiers, where 400 people were massacred on the night of 22-23 September 2002.

Bruno Boudjelal’s journey to Bentalha is a detour, an unplanned deviation which takes him to a site where – unlike the documentary photographer or photo-journalist – he is unsure what to do, which visual information to look for or capture. He arrives – as is perhaps always the fate of the photographic project – too late, in the aftermath.


The massacre presents itself obliquely, in the gestures, poses and demeanour of those who remain; in the stubborn residues that are produced by, survive and encircle it and in the inscrutable (though for this no less resonant) reconfiguration of the everyday that attends what we might describe as post-traumatic landscapes. Boudjelal’s photographs show Bentalha as a town much like any of the others that cluster along the length and breadth of Algeria’s poorly maintained roads. Water and mud collect in the streets, which are full of potholes and alternately dilapidated and half-built housing blocks. Pylons and power lines punctuate a landscape dominated by an overwhelming sense of dirt and entropy, as human constructions appear to slide back into the miasma from which they have emerged. The interiors are basic and unadorned. There is little or no furniture and only minimal traces of any human presence (for example an abandoned pair of trainers or a mirror). A simple standpipe set against the wall provides water; televisions are omnipresent.

And yet this apparent banality is punctured by a number of ‘poignant details’ (I draw here on the vocabulary that coheres around Roland Barthes’ punctum [i]) or strange bodies that are at once meaningless and meaningful, and which attest to the presence within the broader landscape of unincorporated residues from the past. In one photograph, two fully clothed men sleep on a rug on a bare floor, using their rucksacks as pillows. They do not stir as Boudjelal enters the room but remain indifferent to his presence. Nothing in the image enables us to understand what their circumstances are, how or why they have come to sleep here or indeed who they might be; and yet they articulate, obliquely, some connection we cannot understand with Bentalha’s past and the ways in which that past continues to contaminate or make itself present in the present. The sleeping men are a kind of ‘fistula’, a term from the biological sciences meaning ‘abnormal passageway’ and which has been appropriated by the historian Eelco Runia to describe ‘holes through which the past discharges into the present’, ‘a kind of “leak” in time through which “presence” wells up from the past into the present’. [ii] Another photograph is filled entirely with an expanse of rough concrete floor, stained with brown patches that may or may not be traces of blood. The photograph evokes Jean Dubuffet’s sols paintings, [iii] both in terms of its textured abstraction and the way in which it draws the gaze into its irreducible detail, while at the same time resisting all totalising spectatorial appropriation. This is a fragment or detail that is at once complete in itself, yet which points also beyond its own frame to an experience that remains outside the cognitive range of the spectator.

The representation of sites like Bentalha and events such as the dirty war must negotiate an impossible path between both a surfeit and absence of meaning. The hermeneutic, semantic and affective networks in which Bentalha is enmeshed and through which it discloses itself to Boudjelal in the aftermath of the massacre – even if he cannot make immediate sense of what presents to him while he is there, in the midst of the (unclaimable) experience – inevitably inflects the way in which the site signs to him and how he makes meaning of the site. The very name – Bentalha – carries a powerfully resonant charge, functioning metonymically as a cipher for the worst atrocities of the dirty war and the state’s (hidden and disavowed) involvement in attacks against its own citizens. And yet when Boudjelal visits Bentalha, what he discovers is an incarnated negative space produced by what happened there and which now structures what remains as a potent presence in absence. Everything in Bentalha points to the event, yet the event itself remains a hole in cognition – a blind spot.

[i] Roland Barthes, La Chambre claire: note sur la photographie (Paris: Gallimard, 1980).

[ii] Eelco Runia, ‘Presence’, History and Theory, vol. 45 (February 2006), pp. 1- 29, p. 16.

[iii] See, for example, Fruits de feu du sol (1959), a photograph of which can be viewed at http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/jean-dubuffet-fruits-de-feu-du-sol-5392548-details.aspx