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.

Furnace Park // a free magazine

We’re pleased to announce that a free magazine about the first year of Furnace Park is now available as a pdf download:

Furnace Park Magazine

The magazine includes articles by Amanda Crawley Jackson, Matt Cheeseman, Luke Bennett, Ivan Rabodzeenko, Katja Porohina, Jane Hodson, Joseph Moore, Millie Travis and Nathan Adams.

After September 2nd, 2000 free print copies will be distributed across Sheffield. Watch this space for details of where you can get your hands on one!

If you’d like to volunteer at Furnace Park, please email Amanda Crawley Jackson (a.j.jackson@sheffield.ac.uk) for more information or visit the Furnace Park website

Simon Bill // artist in residence at Furnace Park

Simon Bill is currently working as artist in residence at Furnace Park. He is making a series of paintings of optical illusions which will be installed on the perimeter fences.

motion–illusion1

Most people have heard of Optical Illusions, and could probably recognise one or two, but may not realise there are actually hundreds of them, some with names – for example the Fraser spiral, the Necker cube, the Müller-Lyer illusion, Rubin’s face/vase, the Zollner illusion, Jastrow’s duck/rabbit, Kitaoka’s rotating snakes, and the ‘blind spot’ illusion. The effects themselves are diverse – static images can appear to move, identical quantities to differ; the same picture can seem to be pictures of two entirely different things, spots and flashes can appear or disappear, straight lines appear to curve, objects flip alternately between convex and concave, and so on – But where do they come from, and do they mean anything?

neon–spread3

The psychologist Richard Gregory defined Optical Illusions as ‘systematic deviations from fact’ – in other words you are seeing something you know isn’t right, but this mistake or misperception will be the reliable outcome of a particular set of circumstances. It isn’t random, and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you when you see them; quite the opposite.

motion–illusion3

In fact it’s important when talking about Optical Illusions to make it clear that they are not at all the same thing as hallucinations, nor are they the same as other sorts of ordered mistake in perception such as mirages, or a pencil looking bent when stood in a glass of water (which is caused by the refraction of light). Optical Illusions occur in your mind but are not caused by being drunk or mad. The many hundreds of known Optical Illusions were discovered by (and often named after) psychologists trying to work out how normal vision works. This is not as simple as it might seem on the face of it. What happens when you see feels like the full and immediate disclosure of the world around us – You open your eyes and there it all is. In fact visual perception is not like that at all, and what seems to be happening when you see and what is really happening are very different things. The process of seeing may begin in your eye, but most of the work is carried out in the brain (which is why so much it, about half, is used in processing vision). Our eyes don’t really collect actual images; they can only collect fragmentary and fleeting scraps of data, all of which are fractionally out-of-date by the time they get to the brain. Visual perception is the complicated, and yet seemingly effortless, business of creating the full experience of vision out of this meagre raw sense-data. Think of it as being like creating a whole complicated jigsaw picture from a handful of scattered pieces.

neon–spread1

How does the brain do this? – It does it by conjecture, or hypothesis. What you seem to be seeing when you see – what seems like the whole and immediate projection or disclosure of the world in to your head – is actually your brain’s best guess about what’s there, based on knowledge and experience applied to these fleeting fragments of information furnished by your eyes. The fact that these conjectures are almost always correct, and what you seem to see is actually pretty much what is really there, shows that the brain uses reliable rules of thumb to form its hypotheses. But sometimes, in some unusual conditions, these rules are applied wrongly, or in such a way that you notice them being applied. Optical Illusions are the accidental exposure of the mechanisms that must be at work all the time in normal vision.

motion–illusion2

One example that demonstrates this clearly is the ‘blind spot’ illusion. To observe this effect place two blobs of Blu-tack at eye-level about a metre apart on a pattern wallpapered wall. Stand about four metres away, shut your right eye and look at the Blu-tack blob on the right whilst moving slowly forwards. At a certain critical distance the other blob disappears. This is because that blob has become aligned with your left eye’s ‘blind spot’, which is a patch of the retina that is not light sensitive because it’s where the neural ‘wiring’ from the rest of the retina leaves the eye and goes to the brain. But if this patch of the visual field is blind, how is that you can still see the wallpaper pattern, instead of a dark patch, or just nothing? It’s because the brain is ‘filling in’. Your brain reasons that an area from which it is receiving no information is likely to be the same as the area around it, so it just colours in the blank with an approximation of its surroundings. The blind spot illusion shows that a good part of what we presume to be direct data from the outside world is actually just unconsciously reasoned (and in this case correct) conjecture.

Simon Bill 2013

neon–spread2

Simon Bill is an artist, writer and curator based in Sheffield. He studied at Central St Martins and the Royal College of Art, London, and has exhibited internationally. His novel BRAINS, about a painter becoming artist-in-residence at a neurology clinic, was published in 2011 by Cabinet 2. He has been engaged in PhD research on art  and the neuropsychology of visual perception at Kingston University. Simon is represented as an artist by Patrick Painter Inc, Santa Monica, and as a writer by Piers Blofeld of Sheil Land Associates, London.

Nothing is vaster than empty things

When I was very young, I would spend most weekends at my grandmother’s house – a modest two-up, two-down Victorian terrace that sat in the middle of one of the sprawling industrial estates in east Hull. The toilet was in what my nan called the verandah – a precarious lean-to attached to the back kitchen that also housed the dog basket and twin-tub. The bathroom, which had no toilet, was in what had once been a bedroom, looking out over the back alley that we all called the tenfoot and across to the back yard, where my grandfather, a mechanic, worked all day on motorbikes and his own blue Morris Minor van. The front bedroom, where I would sleep with my aunt, gave on to Leads Road, which at night juddered and trembled with the thunder of lorries.

My brother and I would spend much of the weekend scrabbling around in a square of patchy scrub and mud that we – like all the others who lived on Leads Road – called bomb site. It yielded rich finds: pieces of shrapnel, red bricks, nuts and bolts, wild flowers, weeds and old pennies. We played out innumerable scenarios amidst the small tummocks of rough grass. Usually, they related to a war which – although we were born in the 60s and 70s – did not feel so distant to us. My cousin once cut his wrist there, having fallen on some broken glass while pretending to be a commando, and had to be taken to hospital for stitches. As his mother, my other aunt, led him away, he cried out to us, ‘I’m wounded, men, I’m wounded!’

We knew that the houses which once stood on the land where we played had been destroyed during the Second World War, during one of the many bombing raids which razed vast swathes of Hull. Sometimes, I asked my grandmother about the missing houses, but she never really told me anything, other than that she knew the families who had lived (but, she seemed to intimate, not died) in them. Once she told me the story of how, during an air raid, she chose – for reasons she never understood – not to enter the nearest shelter but ran instead to another, which was much further down the road. The first air raid shelter suffered a direct hit and all the people inside were killed. This, she would say, pointing at a space only she could see in the road, is where I escaped death. As she spoke, I could smell the sweetness that drifted at tea time from the cocoa factory round the corner.

I went back to Hull a couple of years ago with my camera. I wanted to take a picture of bomb site (there was never any definite article). When I got there, I saw that new houses have been built on the land and they look as though they’ve been there for a while now.

project reflections #27

Moss 

Quiet, of course, it adheres to

The cracks of waste-pipes, velvets,

Velours them; an enriching

Unnatural ruff swathing the urban ‘manifestation’:

The urban nature is basemented, semi-dark:

It musts, it is alone. 

John Silkin,  Penguin Modern Poets 7

In the places that have most recently been abandoned to returning nature – such as disused car parks and the various hard standings from newly failed enterprise – we have found the first pioneering clumps of dark green moss. Somehow, these most ancient of botanical life-forms have found the most fragile of germinative footholds for their diminutive spores – often within the shallowest cracks created by fluctuations of heat or by settling of the ground.

It is thus the brave mosses that are the first to re-vivify the sterility of such terrain.

Favouring the dank (and low levels of light) these pioneering plants – known as bryophytes – began a very similar enterprise some 65,000,000 years ago; leaving the ancient seas to break ground across the barren land … and it was the dead, damp, mosses that made the first soils for the vascular plants that subsequently spread their living carpets across the earth.   

Mosses are small, soft plants that are typically 1–10 cm (0.4–4 in) tall, though some species are much larger. They commonly grow close together in clumps or mats in damp or shady locations. They do not have flowers or seeds, and their simple leaves cover the thin wiry stems. At certain times mosses produce spore capsules which may appear as beak-like capsules borne aloft on thin stalks.

Botanically, mosses are bryophytes, or non-vascular plants. They differ from ‘higher’ plants by not having internal water-bearing vessels or veins, and no flowers and therefore no fruits, cones or seeds. They are small (a few centimeters tall) and herbaceous (nonwoody) and absorb water and nutrients through their leaves. Mosses have stems which may be simple or branched and upright or lax, simple leaves that often have midribs, roots (rhizoids) that anchor them to their substrate, and spore-bearing capsules on long stems. They harvest sunlight to create food through photosynthesis. Mosses do not absorb water or nutrients from their substrate through their roots, so while mosses often grow on trees, they are never parasitic on the tree.

They can be distinguished from the similar liverworts by their multi-cellular rhizoids. Also, in most mosses, the spore-bearing capsule enlarges and matures after its stalk elongates, while in liverworts the capsule enlarges and matures before its stalk elongates. Other differences are not universal for all mosses and all liverworts, but the presence of a clearly differentiated stem with simple-shaped, ribbed leaves – without deeply lobed or segmented leaves and not arranged in three ranks – all point to the plant being a moss.

There are approximately 12,000 species of moss classified in the Bryophyta.

Moss is often considered a weed in grass lawns, but is deliberately encouraged to grow under aesthetic principles exemplified by Japanese gardening. Moss is thought to add a sense of calm, age, and stillness to a garden scene.

A passing fad for moss-collecting in the late 19th century led to the establishment of mosseries in many British and American gardens. The mossery was typically constructed out of slatted wood, with a flat roof, open to the north side (maintaining shade). Samples of moss were installed in the cracks between wood slats. The whole mossery would then be regularly moistened to maintain growth.