Sheffield riverscape (1)

I walked with Daisy along the River Don from the Wardsend cemetery to Neepsend. At Wardsend, we started off a little way down the railway lines that run stark and clean through the undulating and overgrown cemetery, then veered off to follow the river itself, along the newly surfaced track that cuts through the vast mounds of debris – spolia from demolished works? – that loom either side. The electricity pylons hummed and crackled overhead and the thunderous engines of quad bikes rumbled and reverberated in an undefinable distance.

Everywhere we walk, waste. And amidst the waste, lilac and jack-in-the-hedge. The river bank is strewn with tyres and bottles and fast food wrappers, mattresses and plastic chairs, podgy black bin bags. A sign screwed to one of the metal kissing gates put there to stop the quad bikes : fly tippers – we are watching you.

At Wardsend, on the hill amidst the silver birch, there has been a fire. Graves squat in scorched earth, black tipped tendrils clasping shards of stone, displacing fragments of Victorian ironwork.

The Hillsborough playing fields are to our right. A man in a vermilion jersey sparks across the pitch. A sheep’s skull – or perhaps it is just a carrier bag – is revealed, briefly, as the river washes across it. Bottle-green, muddy mallards drift.

Neepsend. Eviscerated drag cars and deserted roads, leading to an empty, elevated horizon.

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.

Spencer Powell on Jorgensen and Keenan, Urban Wildscapes

Urban Wildscapes is an edited collection of writings which takes the forgotten, neglected, and abandoned spaces in the urban landscape and sets out to show how social and environmental value may be found in the most unlikely places. However, the book also goes beyond this in seeking to broaden the concept of wildscape as a spatially located place and establish it as a way of thinking about how we can best use the existing urban assets around us to create more cohesive, sustainable and meaningful landscapes. Christopher Woodward begins Part One on theorising wildscapes with an examination of the ruin voyeur’s favourite, Detroit, and how nature’s appropriation of the ostentatiously designed shrinking city presents a more troubling ruin than that of the spontaneously built, unplanned Plotlands community in Laindon, Essex. Questioning the very definition of what is meant by sustainable design, Woodward explores the disjuncture that exists between artistic representations of ruin, and ruin in the consciousness of those living in its shadow. The mirror he holds up makes uncomfortable viewing for those of us living in cities ‘built as if they would last forever’. Paul H. Gobster offers ‘a natural history’ of the Chicago city region and the role of its wildscapes in recreation and conservation, while Catharine Ward Thompson explores the ways in which the development of managed parkland and ‘official’ green space has gone hand in hand with increasing regulation and restriction of what activities are permissible in such spaces – particularly for young people. The socio-spatial exclusion which results from this is highly damaging, and Thompson makes a persuasive argument in favour of ‘urban wildscapes that welcome changing uses and users, and offer rich, edgy, exciting opportunities for so many young people who otherwise endure such poverty of environmental experience’. Katy Mugford similarly deals with the issue of young people’s detachment from the landscapes around them in her innovative comparison of the positive developmental qualities of wildscapes recognised and promoted in children’s literature, and the risk aversion ‘foisted on today’s children by those who experienced freedom only a generation before’.

Part Two provides a wealth of case studies demonstrating how wildscape ideas are being incorporated into practice. Renée de Waal and Arjen de Wit’s study of the restoration of former coal fields in Lusatia, Germany, provides a particularly thought provoking insight into the challenges associated with finding holistic new uses for wildscape on a regional level, while Marian Tylecoat and Nigel Dunnett’s chapter on the transformation of a former Sheffield wasteland into Manor Field’s Park demonstrates how the competing demands of sustainability, community opinions, and financial thrift may be reconciled to provide multifunctional, recreational wildscapes at a fraction of the cost of more traditional tabula rasa approaches – a particularly timely example in an age of austerity where budgets for parks, recreation and the environment are all under strain. Part Three seeks to establish the ‘implications for landscape practice’ of reconsidering how we view such wildscapes, though in reality it serves more as an extension of part two, with smaller scale case studies brought into the mix.

While written from a landscape architecture perspective, and therefore containing an abundance of detail regarding plant types and the process of natural succession, Urban Wildscapes concerns itself more with the positive potential of wildscapes as facilitators of social wellbeing and inclusion than with the technical process of landscape architecture practice. The book’s strength therefore lies in the breadth of its ideas, its rejection of established norms in contemporary urban design, and its accessibility to practitioners and non-practitioners alike. The left-field line of thought means it is unlikely to spark a paradigm shift in the way we view urban wildscapes and plan new urban landscapes. Indeed, at various points in the book the authors concede that the wildscape concept may only work in relation to a more ordered, sanitised, ‘other’ space which constitutes the mainstream. But as a contribution to the wider debate on sustainability and how to ensure cities remain responsive to their inhabitants underlying needs, Urban Wildscapes is a valuable, horizon-expanding read.

Spencer Powell, 2013

jorgenson-book

Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan (eds), Urban Wildscapes (London: Routledge, 2011). £32.99

Furnace Park // On Curating Strange Encounters

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University), Amanda Crawley Jackson and Matt Cheeseman (University of Sheffield) are currently preparing a series of papers on the Furnace Park project.
The first paper will explore the multiple readings that are projected on to the site and the ways in which together they produce meaning and place.
On curating strange encounters in multidisciplinary space: a case study on opening up a plot to multiple reading

In the long retreat from essentialism, prevailing orthodoxy has it that the experience of place is multivalent, partial, subjective and/or pragmatic (e.g. Creswell 2004; Harman 2009, Delaney 2010). In this paper we will explore what this means in concrete terms by examining our involvement in the valorisation and art-led repurposing of a small plot of derelict land in the heart of Sheffield’s industrial quarter. At the core of our project has been a conscious desire to reveal and then linger over the multiple ways in which stakeholders associated with this project have each brought their own ‘ways of seeing’ (Berger 1972) – their aesthetics in the widest sense of that term – to bear in making sense of the site for their purposes. Through this the project has seen a small abandoned scrubland site suddenly heavily traipsed by police, surveyors, writers, engineers, artists, scavengers, architects, police, film makers, ecologists, poets, lawyers, children, groundworks contractors and ambivalent bystanders. We will show how these visitors are strangers to each other, and this place, and yet through their proximity in time spent on site, their involvement in the project and the similarities and divergences of their sense making strategies, their paths, thoughts and actions start to interweave to create a rich, vibrant set of place-forming narratives for a supposedly ‘non-place’ (Augé 1995). In bringing these ways of reading out of their disciplinary silos, by creating a context in which their discursive grip of the situation was rendered slightly askew – we summoned intriguing patterns, commonalities and charming juxtapositional effects (Highmore 2002), a loose project specific community-assemblage of the type theorised by Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Rancière, that energised this forgotten site with new life, colour and purpose.

The Not Wasteland: In Pursuit of Equilibrium

The Not Wasteland:  In Pursuit of Equilibrium

We live in a world of order, classification and control.  The wild places are permitted to be wild.  Their necessarily porous boundaries are policed with sinew, poison and guile.  When we lack vigilance the wild seeps opportunistically into our lives.  Sometimes altruistic we invite the wild, like a temporary house-guest, to unfurl its tokenistic canvass.

The urban landscape yields up transient wilds.  In these spaces there is a lag-phase between, in human terms, past and future notions of utility.  To make sense of these places we apply labels:  wasteland; brownfield; contaminated.  In societal terms we see such opened-up spaces as emblematic of a deficit, constructing  them as loci of decline and decay.  They speak of failure and non-conformity.  In our optimism we seek to rehabilitate the ‘wasteland’, to domesticate the apparent anarchy of less orderly spaces .

Wasteland is of course, a pejorative term  that stigmatises place and space, making powerful connections with constructions of loss and a desire for reclamation.  In these intermediate states of spatial indecision we have, by default, granted temporary permissions for a different order to be expressed.   Paradoxically, nurture represses the natural pursuit of a new equilibrium, jostling and influencing the expression of a neo-wildspace, a plagioclimax of sorts.

Our neglected places can then become ecologically contested spaces.  The soil, a Noah’s Ark, is a gene bank gravid with potential,.  Awash with well kept secrets, the unpromising earth gently cradles life; magically dormant seed held fast for a vigil that might last 10 or a 100 patient years.  The gentle sleep of ‘orthodox’ seed is broken by the disruption of new rhythms, order now disposed to the quickening of breath.  These then are places where millennia old struggles play out.  Bindweed binds and chokes, dense thickets hold court and opportunistic migrants thrive.  In the wasteland a new economy is born in a race for the sun.  Rivalries are rekindled and draw a patchwork quilt of their possibilities, a chaotic tangle.  Species stake their pioneering claim in pursuit of primacy; freed to establish a new equilibrium.  To the human gaze there is only disorder, a madding jostling undifferentiated crowd, denounced through the sweeping and simplistic sobriquet ‘weeds’.

© Richard Ward, 2012

Reading Loop, Weds February 1st 2011

The next Reading Loop will take place at BLOC (studio 49) on Wednesday February 1st at 7pm.

The text we’ll be reading, chosen and introduced by Sam Ross, is The Housing Monster. We’ll be focusing particularly on the sections entitled “Development and Decay” and “Commodity and Community”.

We’ll also read a very short section (only a couple of pages or so!) of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – ‘Leonia’  (“Continuous Cities 1”).