Christmastide

Stories of the nativity are stories of the liminal.  A baby – both corporal and spirit – born of a virgin in a place that belongs ‘partly to humans and partly to humans’ – neither a ‘house nor the open air’ – and worshipped both by royal magi and lowly shepherds. As Hutton notes, this birth of a hero occurs ‘at the junction of many worlds’ (Hutton, loc 207). The uncertainty of the betwixt and the between suffuses the days of December and beyond. At midwinter, as at midsummer, the sun appears to rise and set in the same place for several days (this is the solstice – the time when the sun stands still). In the pagan Roman calendar, this period was a ‘quiet and mysterious one’ bordered by two festivals: Saturnalia and the Kalandae (Hutton, loc 241).

Christmas1For the days of Advent are days of both preparation and closure. The year is dying with a new year soon to be born.  This is a season that slips the net of classification: it assumes, like the liminal persona in a rite of passage, both the symbols of death and decomposition and those of growth and regeneration (Turner, 1967). The green yew that decks the ‘altar, font and arch and pew’ (Betjeman, p.41) defies the withered leaves strewn on the gravel path outside.

And so these days reflect not only a Christian mythology but a parallel tradition. Hutton argues that there is sufficient evidence from Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Welsh heritage to argue for a major pre-Christian festival ‘marking the opening of the new year, at the moment at which the sun had reached the winter solstice and its strength was being renewed’ (Hutton, loc 386). This duality – this intertwining – is seen in how, before 1038, the feast of the Nativity was starkly described in Anglo-Saxon literature as ‘midwinter’ (midne winter or middum wintra)’ (Hutton, loc 329). There was no Christmas here.

And, is it any surprise, that when we view our organisations through the kaleidoscope of these traditions that such liminality shifts, transforms and transmutes. In their study of the sacrilization of Christmas commerce, Bartunek and Do see a complex interplay between the sacred and the profane. This is not just a simple paradox which revolves around a Christian holy day and a secular occasion for commerce. Rather, the ‘paradox of Christmas is that organized commercialism has become sacred, and the religious experience of Christmas has lost a good deal of its sacred character’ (Bartunek and Do, p.803).

Christmas2And, as a liminal time, is it any surprise that the organisational Christmas is marked by rite and ritual? Speaking to friends and colleagues, they revealed the Christmas work customs they enjoyed. The responses were varied. The donning of Christmas jumpers, ‘secret Santa’, home-made treats communally shared, mince pies in the meeting rooms, a seasonal quiz over lunch, directors serving lunch in the staff restaurant. Their eager emails hinted at the sense of belonging and conviviality such customs engendered. Burtunek and Do identify how Durkheim’s definition of the sacred includes the set-apart which has no connection to the supernatural or religious. Rather, it involves beliefs, rituals and duties that comprise a ‘symbolic projection of the group identity’ and provide a ‘source of social cohesion (Bartunek and Do, p.796). So, maybe, we should re-appraise these seemingly trivial customs – not trivial but sanctified by the sacred?

If we look hard enough, we see further evergreen evidence of the betwixt and between. In his study of a Christmas party at a US advertising agency, Rosen categorises the event as both a ‘party’ and an ‘organisational activity’.  It is both work and not work: a ‘relatively free space in which people can and do play, but it is also a space in which ‘fun’ has been institutionalized’ (Rosen, p.468). Such parties are surely similar to the business dinners we encountered in an earlier post on restaurants: they are ‘liminal spaces where the burden of many of the rationalistic rituals of the organisation is suspended, lessened or proscribed’ (Sturdy et al, p.930).

Christmas3And, of course, the party is also a space for transgression. It integrates ‘dance, music, food, alcohol, performance, laughter, sex and talk’ where the ‘hierarchically arranged relationships of the office are to a degree stripped and levelled during and through play’. (Rosen, p.468). Like the directors serving dinner (a tradition mirrored by officers serving Christmas lunch to the ranks), the hierarchy becomes, albeit temporarily, topsy-turvy. For, as Turner observes, the liminal phases ‘invert but do not usually subvert the status quo’ (Turner, 1982, p.42). When the lunch ends, the roles reverse again; and this time for good. For Rippin, such formalised misrule is a feature of carnival and, quoting Bakhtin, once the carnival is over, the ‘normal order is quickly and completely restored’ (Rippin, p.824).

Maybe such rituals are betwixt and between time too. Their modernity conceals deeper roots: older, sometimes darker, traditions. Hutton shows how the the misrule involved in role reversal reaches back in time to the Saturnalia, the Feast of Fools, the tradition of the Boy Bishop and the school custom of ‘barring out’. In an entertaining analysis of how festive headgear helps us understand contemporary organisational rituals, Rippin sees the humble paper hat – our modern manifestation of a magi’s crown – as symbolic of this power to be king for a day (Rippin, p.825). She also identifies the office Christmas party as a convergence of two further traditions: the feasting of craft guilds and the donning of disguise. The mummer – or ‘guiser’ – took advantage of their camouflage to entertain and/or extort money as they visited door to door. Their behaviour was frequently ‘lively’: at the end of December 1657, a west countryman called Frome complained that he had been beaten up on the 26th by a group who had been ‘drinking, playing cards, and fiddling all day in disguised habits’ (Hutton, loc 698). In my area of East Anglia during the 19th century, agricultural workers engaged in a winter street performance called Molly dancing.

Disguised with blackened faces and women’s clothing, they performed versions of local social dances in exchange for largesse. They could be destructive, drunk and disreputable in appearance. (Bradtke, p.199)

Is it but a step from such guising to the weaving office workers navigating from pub to pub, paper crowns, tinsel halos, Father Christmas hats and reindeer antlers jauntily – or forlornly – displayed? For Rippin, such reindeer antlers reach further back in time. They represent the ‘reintroduction of masculine, ‘natural’, unmediated nature into organizations’ (p.892). They belong to the ‘Green Man whose function might be to bring new vigour to moribund organizations’. This brings yet another liminal turn; for, as we have seen, the Green Man thrives in the margins; the corners; the places we overlook. He is also of all time and every time: our tinsel, baubles and lights mere kitsch simulacra of a face wreathed in ivy, holly, laurel and bay.

To end where we began. Both the liminal and midwinter breathe stories, so here is one I heard many years ago. A friend told of three senior consultants from his company who had travelled to the States to research new clients. As they travelled through tumbleweed states from business to business, the three consultants drove through the December night and dusty, abandoned towns: one at the wheel, one navigating, one asleep. And finally their perseverance brought success in the form of a new account. So why did such a simple tale take such deep roots in my memory? Perhaps because it is a secular re-telling of the Journey of the Magi. Three wise men (for they were, sadly, all men), royalty in their own organisation, who came from the East and endured hardship and a long, sore journey before they found a salvation (of sorts).  So, just as Eliot recast a sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, ancient stories are reinvented for modern times: the ending never written; forever betwixt and between.

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

(Eliot, p.97)

Bartunek, J. M. and Do, B. (2011) ‘The sacralization of Christmas commerce’, Organization, 18(6), pp. 795–806.

Betjeman, J. (2006) ‘Christmas’, in Williams H. (editor) John Betjeman. Faber.

Bradtke, E. (1999), Truculent Rustics: Molly dancing in East Anglia before 1940. The Folklore Society.

Eliot, T.S. (1954) ‘Journey of the Magi’, in Selected Poems: Faber, pp. 81-93.

Hutton, R. (1996), The Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press.

Rippin, A. (2011) ‘Ritualized Christmas headgear or “Pass me the tinsel, mother: it’s the office party tonight’, Organization, 18(6), pp. 823–832.

Rosen, M. (1988) ‘You asked for it: Christmas at the bosses’ expense’, Journal of Management Studies, 25(5), pp. 463–480.

Sturdy, A. Schwarz, M. Spicer, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.

Turner, V. (1967), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. (1982), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. PAJ Publications.

 

 

Staircase

There is a throng outside the lift. Or, maybe, we wish to avoid the taint of guilt that comes with ascending or descending so effortlessly, so painlessly. Decisive, emboldened, we make the decision: “let’s take the stairs”. Perhaps though, what attracts us is a suppressed taste for the marginal, the overlooked, the liminal. For, make no mistake, as we push open the doors clearly marked ‘Stairs’ or, more opaquely, ‘Fire Escape’, liminality has claimed us.

IMG_0526Stepping between floors, we are, spatially, betwixt and between: poised between one zone of experience and another. Or, as AA Milne (and, yes, the Muppets) phrased it: ‘It isn’t really anywhere! It’s somewhere else instead!’ In a recent Radio 4 Thought for the Day broadcast, Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer describes the painting by the Baroque artist Jusepe de Ribera called Jacob’s Dream. The sleeping Jacob dreams of a ladder that climbs to heavens with angels ascending and descending. Brawer draws attention to how Ribera depicts Jacob’s face: it ‘exquisitely captures the betwixt and between of liminality, reflecting Jacob’s suspension between two realities; the terrestrial and the celestial.’

And where there is liminality, there is possibility, opportunity. A few years ago, a friend showed me the open plan office where he worked. “What do you see?” he asked. “Well, nothing”, I replied: there was no conversation, no energy. People worked, heads down, fearful of disturbing their colleagues. My friend and I agreed how ironic it was, that a space designed for collaboration engendered its very opposite. Or, to recast it in a Lefebvrian light: conceived space was demonstrably at odds with lived space (Dale and Burrell, pp.8-10). “So, I asked, where do the conversations, the stories occur?”. With a grin, he took me by the arm, led me around the corner and through a door. “Here,” he replied, pointing to the utilitarian, white walled, concrete stairwell that rose before us.

For my friend, the stairs represented a space for random exchange or, as the short broadcast by Monocle (The Beauty of Stairs) notes, a ‘stage for incidental conversations’. And where there are conversations, there are always stories. Curiously, the metaphor of the stage is also identified by Patrick McGuinness in his recollection of childhood – Other People’s Countries.  He observes of a couple’s arguments that they were ‘always held, like dialogue in Racine, in transitional spaces – hallways and corridors and staircases’. [and thank you Mark Gould for the reference].

Stair2The staircase serves as a vertical corridor – a space for serendipitous encounter and exchange. Such happenstance can, of course, be gamed. Gieryn indicates how innovation in high-tech companies was enhanced by the artful design of micro-geographies that provoked the unexpected.  For example, by installing a single stairwell, ‘open and inviting enough to encourage lingering talk’ (Gieryn, p.477). Such a stairwell may not possess physical centrality yet it is functionally central (Fayard and Weeks, p.615). It also, I suspect, embodies Kornberger and Clegg’s ‘architecture of complexity’ where ‘space has to contain possibilities, which might be perceived as emptiness’. Such ‘generative buildings’ create ‘margins where things are loosely coupled’: for example, stairs ‘which invite us to stop and pause for a minute’ (Kornberger and Clegg, p.1106). Underpinning this is the opportunity for movement. As Markus (quoted in Dale and Burrell, p.282) notes:

The traditional means for movement were cloisters, corridors and staircases – static spatial systems through which people and objects moved. Lifts and hoists reversed this; there was now a dynamic system where a piece of moving space contained static people or objects.

Yet our movement up and down stairs is perhaps more conscious than that along cloister or corridor. The perils of a fall or stumble are always present. Edensor discusses sensual engagement with ruined spaces and, just as he is aware of the ‘well-worn smoothness of a wooden stairway’s handrail’ (Edensor, p.119), we too are alert to the secure feel of a step underfoot. And maybe this heightened consciousness where touch and sight elide is another sign of the liminal. With flux comes perception.

But stairs have other uses in our organisations. In her superb study, Harriet Shortt explores how hairdressers make meaning out of the liminal spaces that surround them. Stairs become places for privacy and refuge: intimate ‘dwelling places’. Away from the public spaces of the salon or staffroom, the margins can be reclaimed, recolonised.  Once, when descending to a damp and fungal basement, I found a colleague contentedly sitting on a cold step: sandwich, cheese and onion crisps and tabloid by his side. Like Shortt’s hairdressers, he had reconfigured this desolate pace to create ‘a sense of belonging and attachment and meaning’ (Shortt, p.654).

Yet liminality, as Brawer indicates, is also ‘ambiguous and disorientating’. With each twist of the staircase, the view below and above is obscured. Who knows who – or what may be coming?  For T.S. Eliot, the first turning of the second stair reveals the ‘same shape twisted on the banister/Under the vapour in the fetid air’ while the first turning of the third stair brings the ‘hawthorn blossom’ and the ‘broadbacked figure dress in blue and green (Eliot, p.87).  It may stimulate congregation and creativity but the staircase is also haunted by Nosferatu’s shadow.

Stair3In a perceptive analysis of white spaces, Connelan notes the visceral reaction of one interviewee to the staircase in an art school: it ‘gives me the creeps, it reminds me of [the detention centre the person was incarcerated in] (Connelan, p.1543). There is a ‘brutality inscribed into the identity-less space’. The blank institutional whiteness of steps and stairs create a stark backdrop against which it is easy to be seen. You are isolated, silhouetted, the object of the carceral gaze. Here, white materialises power and exerts control. This creates not Foucault’s mobile panopticon but a ‘ubiquitous panopticon’ in which ‘watchfulness is everywhere and nowhere’ (Connelan, p.1545). The staircase encourages us both to linger and to escape.

So next time, you visit a new building, resist the lure of lift and elevator. Instead seek out the liminality of the stairs. They may bring possibility, comfort, enlightenment. For, as the song – which always remains the same – reminds us, the stairway leads to heaven. Yet never forget, stairs go both up and down: so, beware, your destination may – equally – be warmer than anticipated.

Brexit: the power and danger of liminality (2017) BBC Radio 4,  24 October. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05kszgw.

Connellan, K. (2013) ‘The Psychic Life of White: Power and Space’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1529–1549.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The Spaces of Organisation & the Organisation of Space: Palgrave Macmillan.

Edensor, T. (2005), Industrial Ruins: Spaces, Aesthetics and Materiality: Berg.

Eliot, T.S. (1954) ‘Ash-Wednesday’, in Selected Poems: Faber, pp. 81-93.

Fayard, A.-L. and Weeks, J. (2007) ‘Photocopiers and Water-coolers: The Affordances of Informal Interaction’, Organization Studies, 28(5), pp. 605–634.

Gieryn, Thomas F. (2000) ‘A Space for Place in Sociology’, Annual Review of Sociology, 26, pp. 463-496.

Kornberger, M. and Clegg, S. R. (2004) ‘Bringing Space Back in: Organizing the Generative Building’, Organization Studies, 25(7), pp. 1095–1114.

McGuinness, P. (2015), Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory: Vintage.

Shortt, H. (2015) ‘Liminality, space and the importance of “transitory dwelling places”, Human Relations, 68(684), pp. 633–658.

The beauty of stairs (2017) Monocle, 16 June. Available at https://monocle.com/film/design/the-beauty-of-stairs/.

Illustrations

Rodwell, I. (2017) Stair 1, Stair 2, Stair 3

 

Bunker

BarbicanThe Barbican in London is a source of solace. Walking the grey, water-stained ramparts, I feel protected by its coarse solidity. The hard, excoriating drag of bush-hammered aggregate reassures rather than pains. This is a place – fittingly given its name – of defence, retreat and enclosure.  In my more oneiric moments, I imagine a dystopian city of hand to hand fighting – a Stalingrad for a future age – with the Barbican providing the last refuge for defiance and resistance. With a morbid eye, I see the walkways and towers pitted by shellfire revealing the twisted steel rods within.

Given its genealogy, such a role is not mere fancy. In a beautiful yet unsettling book – Bunker Archeology – Paul Virilio charts through image and essay his fascination with the Atlantic Wall: 1500 World War II bunkers built to deter an Allied landing.  The stark concrete of these observation posts, towers, firing slits and embrasures are progenitors for Brutalist architecture. And the setting – the French littoral of Normandy and beyond – is of, course, liminal.  Beaches are a ‘perfect example of marginal, in-between spaces, zones of liminality that hold a fascination for many that few other landscape forms do’ (Meethan, p.70). Or, more disturbingly, they function as a ‘space of defamiliarization…marked by rough borders and unsolid ground.’ (Burleigh and Jung, p. 246). This unease is identified by Virilio who records:

looking out over the void, over this moving and pernicious expanse, alive with menacing presences; in front of the sea Hitler rediscovered ancient terror: water, a place of madness, of anarchy, of monsters

BunkerSeveral of these bunkers are themselves liminal. Slumped into the beach like fallen, hamstrung beasts, the boundary between sand and structure is in constant negotiation. With each tide, each storm surge their material identity – like those of any ruin –  is simultaneously effaced and remade. The simile of beasts also suggests something further. There is a robotic anthropomorphism to many of these bunkers. The prow and aperture of a control tower juts like a jawline with an open mouth above – these are Easter Island statues recast for the modernist age.

This humanisation of military architecture is also apparent in Sophia Davis’ experiential account of a walk around the abandoned secret scientific research stations on Orford Ness in Suffolk: ‘the laboratories nestle into the shingle, crouching and hiding behind it in comfort from intruding eyes’ (Davis, p.147). Yet there is nothing, I feel, comforting in such anthropomorphic imagery. For does it not emphasise this ‘space of defamiliarization’? Using Fisher’s definition of the eerie –  ‘there is nothing present where there should be something’ (Fisher, p.61) – the sentries, observers and soldiers that inhabited these bunkers are gone yet their absence is re-imagined (literally re-incorporated) into the features and posture of the structures.

And if we re-align our gaze on these bunkers – a metaphoric twist of the kaleidoscope perhaps – we gain a final perspective on their liminality. In a blog on Paul Virilio and accidental utilitarian art, A Year in the Country observes how these bunkers ‘could be artefacts from an almost science fiction-esque future that never was, a form of hauntology possibly.’  Or to put it another way: this is a zone where past, present and future elide.

Now, if we retrace our steps to the Barbican (which, if anyone familiar with the area knows, is often more difficult than it sounds), I see its inherent ‘bunkerness’ as infecting not just the immediate City but a world far beyond that. In every organisation, there are stories of the silo mentality – ascribed variously to individuals, departments, offices and divisions.  But surely, ‘bunker mentality’ is a far more apt term? The buttresses of these fortresses may be material – another office, a different floor – but equally they can be spatially ethereal, signified by a turn in the corridor perhaps or a different desk alignment on an open plan floor. And just as a different style or cut of uniform alert the bunker inhabitants to the presence of an alien, so here the signifiers are equally distinct. Professional jargon, acronyms, attire (the creatives in jeans, the management in suits?) serve as the poker ‘tells’ that warn the wary observer of our origins and organisational provenance.

But what do these fortresses protect; what do our bunkers defend us from? Virilio argues that just ‘as the eighteenth-century bastion materialized the ballistic systems of rudimentary artillery’ (Virilio, p.39), the bunker’s ’rounded or flattened angles, the thickness of its walls…its armor plating, iron doors, and filters’ were designed to hold up under a new climate of ‘shelling and bombing, asphyxiating gasses and flamethrowers’. However, for us, surely change is the threat our organisational bunkers are designed to repel.  That is the ‘climatic reality’ jeopardising the brightest jewel in our barbican’s strong room: namely the culture of our particular organisational tribe. What we are often mistakenly protecting is ‘how we do things around here’; that nebulous amalgam of values, beliefs, behaviours and norms.  New technology, processes, ways of working are, or so we perceive, the fire, poison and artillery that assail and threaten to change us. And so we construct our metaphorical bunkers.

Yet history shows that such an approach is flawed. For Virilio, the remnants of the Atlantic Wall serve as ‘funerary monuments’ (Virilio, p.29) and the sobering reality is our own bunkers threaten to bury not preserve us. They deter, repel and beat back – they are symbols of closure. But in an increasingly complex and volatile world, survival depends on open innovation and collaboration. And just as Virilio’s bunkers were often built with no foundations, our own bunkers are similarly constructed on mere sand. So, let’s join hands and leave our chthonic shelters, ammunition stores and dressing stations to emerge, eyes blinking, by the open seas and far horizons of our progressive futures. It is the beach, not the bunker, that will save us.

 

A Year in the Country. (2016) ‘Paul Virgilio’s bunker archaeology and accidental utilitarian art’, A Year in the Country, 18 August 2016. Available at: http://ayearinthecountry.co.uk/week-3352-bunker-archives-4-paul-virilios-bunker-archaeology-accidental-utilitarian-art/ (Accessed: 21 October, 2017)

Burleigh, P. and Jung, S. (2010) ‘The Beach as a Space of Defamiliarisation’, Journal of Visual Art Practice, 9(3), pp. 245–257.

Davis, S. (2008) ‘Military landscapes and secret science: the case of Orford Ness’, Cultural Geographies, 15, pp. 143–149.

Fisher, M. (2016), The weird and the eerie. Repeater Books.

Virilio, P. (1994), Bunker archeology. Princeton Architectural Press.

Illustrations

Day, M. (2010) Balmedie Dunes. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/whoisthatfreakwiththecamera/6647864153/in/photolist-b8s3pt-3ESGu-gaKgg4-qnAGZE-qE5Q3h-ajc41C-3ESG6-ahtV3F-fesFje-RJBaBy-5d97Z8-3JtukF-dVd1fP-8hFfLP-9m2ksu-4RZX85-4MrUP-3bjge-cFnkJ1-g22hse-9m2knq-6Qw1Xo-6QvUZw-UhmhgF-6UuLf-8sMzha-jvEFxN-dmfkK2-e8Pgz-9m2kpj-e8PgC-6kVBaK-hcgHU-dNVbQZ-dmfvcE-5M8yxK-5FMyw-njAqfb-e8PgA-7w7A7T-73eV6J-4vhJem-yrhYMA-bREwKD-yc5RgV-3mrzoA-FhDLD-yuifa6-xwzDis-9N7fY2 (Accessed: 21 October, 2017). Link to Creative Commons Licence.

Rodwell, I. (2017) Barbican, London

 

Corridor #2

Let us return to the corridor – intrigued and delighted by Rachel Hurdley’s Radio 4 broadcast, The hidden history of the corridor. Poised between public and private; open and closed; movement and stasis; the pragmatic and the eerie, corridors are ‘time and ‘matter out of place” (Hurdley, p.50). From one perspective, opening the door to the corridor provides release and stimulates new modes of thinking. In the broadcast, Sir Christopher Meyer tells how deadlock in political negotiations might be broken by small groups convening in the corridor during breaks and solving hitherto intransigent problems. Movement into different spaces engenders fluidity of both movement and thought. The dynamics of the formal meeting room are recast by the new space encountered.

HeadWe have seen how the corridor is a place that welcomes storytelling. In other ways too, it is a space of production. Via a study of hospital staff interactions, Gonzalez-Martinez explores how medical staff use the corridors for brief and frequent conversations that rarely involve stops. The spaces are deployed for ‘informing someone of something; making enquiries about cases, colleagues or other matters; clinical conferring on a case; giving orders or instructions; making requests; checking how something is going; and offering help’ (Gonzalez-Martinez et al, p.525).  Similarly, Hurdley shows how a printer in a university corridor becomes a meeting place for research students to chat (Hurdley, p.55). A place for transit is simultaneously one of congregation. Here, the edgelands of a corridor ‘garret’ are transformed from mundane sterility to fecund possibility.

This play between those who walk purposefully along the corridor and those who linger is teasingly suggested by a work of art in a certain City of London office. In the corridor outside the client meetings rooms run a line of artworks representing 3-D walking figures. As you approach the installation, the figures are static; however, as you walk past them, they leap into life keeping pace with you. When you stop, they stop. The convention of engaging with art through static contemplation is subverted: here, appreciation requires you to walk away.  Preferably, quickly.

StatueOf course, we could read this artwork in another way. By encouraging us to navigate the corridor in a physically prescribed way, we are reminded how space acts as the ‘materialization of power relations’ (Taylor and Spicer, p.330). In Hurdley’s broadcast, the curator of Tyntesfield House describes how the corridor to the ‘virgins’ wing’ (where the female servants lived) was ‘protected’ by the Foucaldian panopticon of the cook’s bedroom: the senitel who detects and deters transgressive behaviour. In other grand houses, corridors are used to demonstrate monetary wealth and cultural learning. At Chatsworth, the Chapel Corridor evokes a grand collector’s gallery bringing together sumptious art works from the Devonshire Collection.

And just as the 3-D installation subtly manipulates our physical movement along the corridor, such gentle coercion can be experienced in many museums and National Trust properties. Our progress is often determined by signs, barrier ropes and the room attendants (as vigilant as any cook monitoring a misbehaving maid). Such routing can also reflect a particular narrative about the exhibits and artefacts that we are encouraged to absorb. This ‘organised walking’ is a ‘form of control that incorporates both mind and body.’ (Dale and Burrell, p.72).

There are also other ways to experience corridors. As spaces for potential anxiety perhaps. We wait there anticipating the summons: a doctor’s examination; a promotional interview; a make or break presentation. As we sit (or pace), vainly attempting to control our nerves, perceptions are disturbed – like static on a badly tuned radio station – by recollections of previous meetings. No experience is wholly in the present – the past intrudes, whispers, infects.

In The hidden history of the corridor, Karen Krizanovich notes how films often instil corridors with a sense of dread and foreboding. Her cited example is The Shining and the famous sequence of Danny Torrance pedalling his tricycle along the deserted corridors of the Overlook Hotel. For Mark Fisher, the very subject of the film is the ‘experience of a time that is out of joint’ (Fisher, p.20). The Overlook is a place ‘whose corridors extend in time as well as space’.

A Swedish series, Black Lake, that is about to conclude on BBC4, draws on many of The Shining’s tropes and themes. A snow-bound lodge; revenants from a tainted past; and, of course, corridors. For Fisher, the eerie is ‘constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence…where there is something present where there should be nothing.’ (Fisher, 2016, p.61). In Black Lake, a significant plot device is a door to the cellar that constantly opens of its own accord (so consistent with Fisher’s definition of the eerie). The corridor outside is monitored by a camera but here the attempt at control is subverted. At crucial moments, the camera is found to have been turned away. There is a nexus between the corridor and power; but there is uncertainty as to the source of the power. Is it natural or unnatural?

BroadgateThe scent of the uncanny also infuses our quotidian places of work. Should we ever visit after hours or at the week-end, they always invoke, I feel, a sense of the strange. And this is most apparent in the corridors: quiet, denuded, almost sentient in their calm. This effect heightens perception: sounds are subtly amplified; and the signage and art work somehow appear more prominent.  We might attribute this to the failure of presence –  ‘there is nothing present where there should be something’ (Fisher, p.61).  This quality of the eerie is forensically explored by the artist Tim Head in a series of photographic collages showing de-humanised spaces: empty corporate receptions, hotel entrances, underground car parks. Enhanced by pale tinting, the collages portray the uncanny and alien while evoking the melancholy of lost and half-imagined futures.

So, the next time you walk along a corridor, just pause. Take time to look around and listen, breathe deep, touch. For this is not just a corridor. This is a space that materialises power, subversion, production, congregation, solitude, creativity, anxiety, movement, stasis, excitement, foreboding and, of course, liminality. It is a space where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

 

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The spaces of organisation & the organisation of spacepower, identity & materiality at work. Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, M. (2012) ‘What is Hauntology’, Film Quarterly, 66(1), pp. 16–24.

Fisher, M. (2016), The weird and the eerie. Repeater Books.

González-Martínez, E., Bangerter, A., Lê Van, K. and Navarro, C. (2016) ‘Hospital staff corridor conversations: Work in passing’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72(3), pp. 521–532.

Hurdley, R. (2010) ‘The Power of Corridors: Connecting Doors, Mobilising Materials, Plotting Openness’, The Sociological Review, 58(1), pp. 45–64.

Taylor, S. and Spicer, A. (2007) ‘Time for space: A narrative review of research on organizational spaces’, International Journal of Management Reviews, 9(4), pp. 325–346.

The hidden history of the corridor (2017) BBC Radio 4, 29 September. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b095tkgx (Accessed: 30 September 2017)

Illustrations

Head, T. (1982) Transient Space 3 [Hand tinted photographic collage]. Parafin, London. Transient Space, 21 July – 16 September 2017.

Rodwell, I. (2017) Broadgate, London

Rodwell, I. (2017) Veiled Vestal, Chatsworth

 

 

edgeland

They are there; but we rarely see them. Or, rather, we see them but they fail to take root in mind, memory or heart. A soft flicker on the retina while our thoughts are held by other concerns. Yet glance through the windscreen or out of the elevated train window and, chances are, at some stage on our journey we will encounter them. But it is an encounter we are unlikely to recall.

Edgeland_PylonThese edge lands – where ‘urban and rural negotiate their borders’ (Farley and Roberts, loc 183) – seem no more than ‘repositories for functions we prefer not to think about’ (Shoard, p.75).  Gasometers, electricity sub-stations, security lit business parks, car pounds, sewage works, pylons, razor-tipped fencing and marshalling yards. They circle our towns and cities: uneasy crossing places haunted by ‘the neglected, the disposed of, and the repressed’ (Edensor, p.833). But, if we look carefully and without prejudice, we can recast these ‘unobserved parts of our share landscape as places of possibility, mystery, beauty’ (Farley and Roberts loc 198).

Edgeland_wallFor look beyond the abandoned pallets and rusty JCBs, and vitality, energy and creativity emerge. What more could we expect in the marginal and liminal? Marion Shoard argues how edgelands are rich in plant and wildlife diversity: protected, forgotten and free of monoculture, pesticides and our compulsion to trim and prune. Similarly, Richard Mabey tells how rosebay willow herb and other ‘weed tenantry – ‘green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife’ – proliferated in the bombed out City warehouses and offices of the Blitz (Mabey, p.216). Glimpses of these ruderal fireweeds can still be found. By the ruins of St Alban’s church in Aldersgate, the broken walls of Roman fort and merchants’ houses shelter over 80 different plants with bee-hives too (maintained, fittingly enough, by the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers). Not just ruins, these are ancient edgelands for the original London Wall lies just yards away.

These are also places of ludic potential where ‘dereliction stimulates the imagination’ (Shoard, p.84). In Melanie Manchot’s stunning video installation Tracer (2013), parcour runners move through a series of shifting Gateshead edgelands. De-populated, framed at sunset and snowfall, these spaces of pylon, allotment, bridge, underpass, factory and escalator attract not the passivity of the flaneur nor the shielded gaze of the passer-by but a vivacity of movement and possibility that transforms the marginal to the magical.

Yet these edgelands with their invitation to subversion and transgression also conceal admonitory stories. I come from a generation who may recall – often with a shudder – a series of terrifying Public Information Films that frequently revealed the edgelands as a dangerous zone where injury, disfigurement and death were a mere moment of inattention away.  In The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, ‘the unwary, the show off and the fool’ drown in waters fringed by rubbish dump and quarry while the figure of Death watches gleefully on.  The bleached colour gives the quality of a sun-faded instamatic print and this queasy nostalgia has been referenced by musicians such as The Advisory Circle and Belbury Poly. With samples of PIFs, library music and forgotten segments of tv Programmes for Schools they create their own eerie sonic edgelands.

These films are fairy stories for a modern age. But for our 1970s Hansel and Gretel, it is not the forest they should be wary of but the gravel pit, the pylon (‘please don’t fly your kite there, Hansel’) and the train track.  And here the foe of witch and ogre take more elemental form: water, energy, power. These truly are fairy stories as written by Futurists.

But perhaps the liminality of the edgelands exerts its influence in other ways. We focus on the victims – but what of those left behind? For them, this is surely a rite of passage albeit one that is undesired. Scarred by what they have witnessed, these edgelands are spaces where innocence turns to experience. They carry both the curse and gift of knowledge.

And our places of work have their edgelands too. Hirst and Humphrey describe how a local authority consigned its paper storage unit to the edgelands of a business park: both an operational and physical marginality. This is becoming commonplace. Finance, IT, shared services are increasingly relocated to the edgelands of a town, country or continent. But, in doing this, we should heed Shoard’s warning. She hints that we place our ‘mundane’ activities in the edgelands because we do not esteem them but we:

might all be better off if we both understood better and respected more the apparently mundane yet vital activities which make our society work

Such respect should accord to every function and operation of the organisations of which we are part. We may forget our edgelands; but they will rarely forget – or forgive – us.

Edgeland_DissEven in one building though, we can locate edgelands. Think of lifts, basements, the maintenance workshop or, indeed, the humble photocopier room. Utilitarian in design and decor, it seldom provides a home to the artwork that decorates other walls or offers panoramic views of tower and sky. But, as wasteland attracts the detritus we casually discard there – fridges, tyres, thieved and ransacked slot machines – so here we find the box of Christmas decorations and a rag-tag of superseded office equipment. And, as we know from apocryphal tales of office parties, these humble backwaters generate their own transgressive stories.

Other stories surface too. In my first job, I worked in a university library. Delivering a trolley of books across the campus, I was forced to use an open, trellised goods lift. As we pulled at the stiff and unyielding doors, my experienced colleague told me of a student who, using the lift one October evening when everyone else in the building had gone home, became trapped in the metalwork and bled to death between floors. His ghost, my colleague solemnly confided, was occasionally sensed, especially ‘when the evenings draw in’.

We might read this story in various ways. Perhaps it served as a rite of passage – an initiation to the community. If I accepted the tale with amused equanimity, the test had been passed. Or, perhaps, it served as my own Public Information Film. An admonitory narrative that provided both a warning against inattention and insight to the culture of the university: health and safety is treated seriously here and transgression carries sanctions. It also, perhaps, hints at the ambiguity that infuses all edgelands. For this is an environment where both the rational and the irrational co-exist.

And, as I sense this is a question you might well ask: even today, when faced by one of those old, open, trellised lifts, I prefer to take the stairs. Especially in October, ‘when the evenings draw in’.

Edensor, T. (2005) ‘The Ghosts of Industrial Ruins: Ordering and Disordering Memory in Excessive Space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), pp. 829–849.

Farley, P. and Roberts, M.S. (2011), Edgelands. Jonathan Cape

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting Power in its Place: The Centrality of Edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Mabey, R. (2010), Weeds: the story of outlaw plants. Profile Books

Shoard, M. (2000) ‘Edgelands of promise’, Landscapes, 2(August), pp. 74–93.

 

 

Ruin

Ruins pose a constant negotiation between glory and dissolution; success and failure; substance and nothingness. They ’embody a set of temporal and historical paradoxes’ (Dillon, p.11). The abandoned warehouse or the tumbledown barn reveal a memory of the past and simultaneously a projection of our own futures. In the medieval motif of The four living and the four dead, four young nobles, hunting with hawk and hound, are confronted by four cadavers. Their hoarse and emphysemic breath utters the warning ‘As you are, so once were we…as we are now, so you will be’. Ruins provide a mirror on our own decay while hinting at their own survival: a ‘fragment with a future’ (p.11) which will outlive us.

SmithfieldBut these suggestive, liminal ruins are betwixt and between in other ways. Their journey of transition is constant as agents such as wind, rain, lichen, moss, birds and insects recast their identities and ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.477). This is not necessarily a cruel or pitiless destruction.  Looking into a marble fountain,there is ‘intimacy in the contact’ between stone and water that ‘here produces a gleaming surface veined with unsuspected colours, here magnifies fossil or granular structure’ (Stokes, p.26). Ruination can be gentle, caressive, revelatory.

A place for ruins is also a site for the uncanny – Das Unheimlich – where ‘the familiar and homely suddenly become strange’ (Edensor, 2005, p.835). Let us, for example, walk through the ruined church of Tivetshall St Mary in Norfolk. As we stand in the open nave with the sky above and incomplete walls around us, we sense a familiar space. We orientate ourselves around the chancel and mound where a tower once stood; the piscina full of dust a recognisable feature. Yet the customary is subverted. The floor is surreally experienced as a meadow – for grass grows where flagstone and marble are expected. The flint and mortar that line the nave are not cool to the touch but warmed by the sun high above us. Our perceptions and senses are tilted.

St MarysFor this is a place where the visual is less privileged and where, unlike the usual tourist spaces, ‘the tactile, auditory and aromatic qualities of materiality’ are enhanced (Edensor, 2007, p.219). We are keen to the sound of the strimmer in the overgrown churchyard; the smell of the cut grass in the porch; the feel of the twig that bends underfoot as we navigate around fallen gravestones.  This is Lefebvre’s perceived space – the ‘phenomenologically experienced spaces, that may be taken for granted through the habits of the body’ (Dale and Burrell, p.8). Note how we stoop past the shrub overhanging the south door – an automatic, reflex action.

And, as we might expect, this is also a site for stories. The official narrative – how the church was destroyed by a sonic boom in 1949 following years of neglect and increasing dereliction – can be found on a noticeboard by the entrance.  Such histories ‘seamlessly banish ambiguity and the multiplicity of the past’ (Edensor, 2005, p.831) but ruins ‘offer opportunities for constructing alternative versions of the past, and for recouping untold and marginalized stories’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.471).  Like ghosts, ‘involuntary memories come upon us, rekindling the past through unexpected confrontations with sounds, ‘atmospheres’, and particularly smells’ (Edensor, 2005, p.837). And one such story springs to mind, prompted by the sound (and fresh wheat aroma) of harvesting on a neighbouring field. A story of how a farmer, ploughing late on a winter’s evening, saw something in the churchyard illuminated in the sweep of his tractor’s lights as it rounded the headland.  Whatever it was (he never said), it was enough to make him flee, the tractor engine found still running the next morning.  This reminds us too that liminal spaces are sites of transgression – albeit often more ludic than demonic: children playing on the fallen houses of the Blitz or, strangely, beachcombers seeking illicit liaisons with a a statue…(Andrews, p.163)!

Ruins infiltrate our organisations too. Some are physical: our own spatial edgelands or dark terrains.  In Hirst and Humphrey’s study of spatial redesign in a local authority, they contrast the new central office –  ‘a very large, bright space, with light flooding through the glass roof and walls and reflecting off the pale, polished limestone floor’ (p.1513) – with the paper storage unit located in an out-of-town business park. Placed close to wasteland, a sewage works and a derelict railway, the conditions of this unit are ‘austere, with several discomforts, such as artificial light, dust and cold.’ (p.1518). I am sure we know similar ruins – the less privileged parts of our buildings where transient teams seek shelter: the desks scuffed, the IT antiquated and the chairs threadbare.

But, if we look carefully, other more ethereal ruins emerge: the rubbled remains of past initiatives, projects, ways of working.  Some were, like half-finished tower blocks, prematurely suspended, victims to changes in strategy, new technology or structural re-organisation. Others were completed but lie superseded by new priorities. Sometimes such ruins are manifested through physical traces: the forgotten folder of past business plans or the office directory with faded photographs from years past.  Like any ‘bare, ruin’d choir’ these are stimuli for involuntary memory and story – ‘Goodness, there’s a photo of X – do you remember that occasion when…’. But often such archaeology is virtual: excavating document management systems for spreadsheets and emails (where the recipients, once so urgently cc’d, are now often ghosts – long departed, absent, forgotten).

And like St Mary’s destruction by the sonic boom, such ruins carry official narratives to explain their failure or demise. Promulgated via the established channels, these stories serve as our guidebook and exhibit caption. Yet, as we know, ruins carry ghosts that are hard to exorcise. Unofficial stories – traded in corridors, cafes and the other liminal spaces we inhabit – are the mischeivous revenants that playfully subvert grand narratives.  However, are stories but ruins themselves?  Like the marble fountain, they are sculpted and worn – not by water but through memory, caprice and intent. For the stories we tell are not necessarily the same as the stories we hear. So, maybe, in the sharp (artificial) light of day, ghosts are not to be believed in after all.

Andrews, H. (2012) ‘Another place or just another space? Liminality and Crosby Beach’, in Andrews, H. and Roberts, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experience and spaces in-between. Routledge.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The spaces of organisation & the organisation of space: power, identity & materiality at work. Palgrave Macmillan.

Dillon, B. (2011) ‘Introduction: a short history of decay’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2005) ‘The ghosts of industrial ruins: ordering and disordering memory in excessive space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), pp. 829–849.

Edensor, T. (2007) ‘Sensing the ruin’, The Senses and Society, 2(2), pp. 217–232.

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting power in its place: the centrality of edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Stokes, A. (2011) ‘The pleasures of limestone’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.

Restaurant

When, in The Godfather, Virgil Sollozzo, Captain Mark McCluskey and Michael Corleone meet for dinner at Louis’ Italian American Restaurant in the Bronx, I suspect none of them reflect on the liminality of the moment. Their minds are, understandably, on other things. Yet the restaurant is betwixt and between: a neutral, non-place where none of the New York five families can claim ownership. Outside all territorial boundaries, its attraction lies in a resistance to categorisation; if it belongs to no-one then it belongs to everyone. This confers safety but also, paradoxically, threat. To McCluskey and Michael at least, the place is unknown. It is Virgil Sollozzo, an ironic echo of his namesake guiding Dante through Hell and Purgatory, who acts as cicerone – instructing his companions on the mysteries of the menu: “try the veal – it’s the best in the city”.

FullSizeRender 5Liminality infects the scene in other ways. For Michael, the shooting of McCluskey and Solozzo represents a true rite of passage. It is liminal in the original anthropological sense – the shooting is a rite that accompanies transition: from outside the Corleone family to inside. Michael’s status, authority and identity are now in flux. Victor Turner observes how ritual subjects are suspended between the positions assigned by law, custom, convention and ceremony. Their previous identities are erased; their clothing indicative of a loss of status; their behaviour is passive, humble. Think of Michael, fleeing New York for temporary exile in Sicily. He dresses like a peasant; he succumbs to local custom; when courting Appolonia, he is Michael yet not Michael. Mary Douglas notes how the unclear or contradictory is regarded as unclean or ‘polluting’. Consequently, as neophytes are structurally ambiguous and therefore ritually polluting, they are commonly secluded from the realm of culturally defined and ordered states/statuses. Such transgression is symbolised by the shootings. To kill a police officer transgresses mafia code and so Michael needs to be physically and psychically excluded.

The restaurant suggests a further liminality. This is where people come to eat. It is a social place. Yet it is also a place of business. While McCluskey chews his veal and drinks the red wine, Michael and Sollozzo talk business: alliances, demergers, strategic re-alignments. In a perceptive study of business dinners, Sturdy observes that ‘meals are indeed valued as liminal spaces where the burden of many of the rationalistic rituals of the organisation is suspended, lessened or proscribed’ (Sturdy et al, p.930). The transaction of business has escaped the physical confines of the workplace to colonise another space. It confuses work time and social time and the rituals of business conversation intertwine with those of eating and socialising. For the frustrated consultant in Czarniawska and Mazza’s analysis of management consulting and liminality, a client’s invitation to dinner means that ‘I kept consulting (to a certain extent) till midnight’ (Czarniawska and Mazza, p.274).  In this case, colonisation has turned to conquest.

Sturdy views such business meals more benignly. For some of the consultants and the clients they study, liminality was ‘a regular haunt’ and thus ‘a relatively comfortable space’ (p.952). It is also a space that stimulates stories. When the CEO and the partner of the consultancy firm meet at an up-market restaurant in a converted castle, the former talks of his past successes (no doubts as stories). Meanwhile when the more junior members of their respective teams visit an Italian restaurant (sound familiar?) for ‘pizza and a beer’ they swap ‘accounts of how weekends were spent’ and share ‘sporting stories and jokes’ (p.946). For those listening, such stories convey rich contextual knowledge: what it takes to succeed within the political and social culture of the client organisation; the likes, interests and motivations of colleagues and clients. Such revelations simultaneously offer and reinforce trust. It accretes with each story told. When interviewed later, the participants talked not only of the knowledge they had gained but the rapport and relationships developed. For Sturdy, it is the environment that facilitates this: the ‘suspension of the routines of rationality…provided a space where information could be traded’ (p.947).

But to conclude at our beginning. In Martin Parker’s study of how food and eating in the Mafia are symbolically deployed as a representation of community, he notes that ‘food, it seems, is one of the ways in which business can be more like the Mafia, in which the commensality of the common table can (partially) rub out the instrumentality of working for money, and perhaps even hide hierarchy for a moment’ (Parker, p.994). But, unlike in business perhaps, transgression of community – to ‘go against the family’, if you like – exacts a heavy penalty.  And what better way to throw such transgression into sharp and bitter relief than by transgressing the act of commensality itself.

‘It was only after the company of men had broken bread together that the violence that followed could mean what it was intended to mean. For the bullets to be about more than greed and brutality, about some territorial or hierarchical dispute, the community needed to be re-imagined around a table. The Last Supper had to be re-enacted. And after such a demonstration of care over the sanctity of boundaries, the community could continue to claim that it believes in honour and justice.’ (p.999)

Maybe, it was this symbolism that infused the events of November 30, 1982 in San Giuseppe Jato, Sicily. Cosa Nostra boss, Rosario Riccobono, was invited to lunch with Toto Riina, capo di tutti capi – an annual barbecue to celebrate the festive season. Riccobono, dressed in his smartest suit, was disarmed ‘as was de rigueur on these festive occasions of friendship and trust’ (Robb, p.83). When, after many courses and many different wines, he was ‘slumped in a digestive doze’, Riccobono was awoken with the words “Saru [nickname for Rosario], your story ends here” (Stille, p.112). Riina, armed with a cord, then throttled him while his men held the unfortunate ‘Saru’ down. So, the business dinner – this coalescence of commerce and commensality – not only has the power to bring stories to life but, so it seems, to bring them to a close too.

Douglas, M. (1966), Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge.

Parker, M. (2008) ‘Eating with the Mafia: Belonging and violence’, Human Relations, 61(7), pp. 989–1006.

Robb, P. (1999), Midnight in Sicily: on Art, Food, History, Travel and La Cosa Nostra. The Harvill Press.

Stille, A. (1995), Excellent Cadavers: the Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic. Vintage.

Sturdy, A., Schwarz, M., Spicer, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.

Turner, V. (1969), The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Aldine Transaction.