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.

Green Man

“He is the spirit of the rebirth of nature. He is the chucked pebble that ripples out into every tree ring. He is a green outlaw and he is everywhere, like a Che Guevra poster”.  (Deakin, p.111)

FullSizeRender 3The Green Man lives in the margins. In the corners; the places we overlook. A painted boss high on the roof of the nave; a stone carving on a porch spandrel; a figure concealed as a misericord. And even if we see him, he resists knowing. A face concealed within leaves and vines that entwine him or spout from his eyes, nose or mouth.  Sometimes shy; sometimes pitiful; occasionally demonic. Why is he here? The theories that try to classify him are many yet our green man playfully eludes understanding. A symbol of the rebirth of nature or the Tree that bore Christ or a fragile promise of ecological survival? Possibly all, possible none – the only thing we know is that we will never know.

And this perhaps is the fascination. A figure seemingly out of place and thriving in the liminal. The green man is confined to the edgelands or the threshold and perpetually poised betwixt and between definition. In a teasing article, Richard Rottenburg explores his fascination with a bar in a small Polish border town. Its function changes through the day – from café to restaurant to nightclub – and not only do the clientele shapeshift accordingly but their puzzling heterogeneity “generated for me a peculiar feeling of classifactory uncertainty. Who are these people? Why are they sitting here of all places, and in this combination? What is happening here?” (Rottenburg, p.93). Such classifactory uncertainty is a characteristic of the liminal persona in rites of passages – as Victor Turner notes they are no longer classified and not yet classified. Borders here are permeable, porous, fluid.

Maybe this perspective helps liberate our green man from cloister, porch and chapel and place him (and her) all around us. Even in the corridors, receptions and offices in which we work. Look around you. Are there people that spark the same curiosity that transfixes Rottenburg? They don’t seem to fit the organisation; they seem out of place, out of time. Perhaps you’re even one of them. The character in a narrative that often runs like this…”Do you know Sarah/Jules/Mark/Cathy…could never work out how they ended up here…they’re so different…interesting to know though…some great ideas”. It’s a story I’ve often heard and one that’s thoughtfully probed in Marianne Cantwell’s recent TEDEx talk.

So is this the real power of the organisational green man? For Rottenburg and his German colleagues, classifactory uncertainty has emancipatory potential. Such fluidity provides an “outlook on future, better times” (p.96). Boundary crossing becomes, as Klapcik observes, “complex, covert, and disorderly”. And this transgression creates a “weird domain” (Turner, p.42), a ludic, subversive space where initiates are “taught that they did not know what they thought they knew”. Ideas, innovation, creativity, oblique insights – these are all gifts our organisational green men bestow upon us.

In a study of how stories that uphold or violate corporate values affect the behaviour of new joiners, Sean Martin cautions that not “all deviance is necessarily a values violation” (Martin, p.1720). Innovation often involves playing or subverting established ways of doing things. So, perhaps he concludes, we can encourage more innovative behaviour by “sharing narratives in which members deviate from the norm but are rewarded for it”.  Or, to put it another way, let us celebrate the green man. Let us liberate him from the corporate foliage and lure him from the secluded undergrowth of the organisational shadowland. He is both everything and nothing; our past and our future; and, undoubtedly, our unlikely saviour. For, as Roger Deakin beautifully observes, the “leaves flow from him like poems or songs”. (Deakin, p.110)

Deakin, R. (2007). Wildwood: A Journey through Trees. Hamish Hamilton

Doel, F. and G. (2010). The Green Man in Britain. The History Press

Klapcsik, S. (2012). Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach. McFarland & Company

Martin, S. R. (2016) ‘Stories about Values and Valuable Stories: A Field Experiment of the Power of Narratives to Shape Newcomers Actions’, Academy of Management Journal. Academy of Management, 59(5), pp. 1707–1724.

Rottenburg, R. (2000) ‘Sitting in a bar’, Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Societies, 6(1), pp. 87–100.

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

 

Church

Two faces carved on adjoining misericord seats. They appear to converse across the void. The one on the right – severe, ascetic – speaks urgently; the one on the left, eyes lost in concentration, (a milder, gentler face I think) listens thoughtfully. Or that is how I see them.

HeadsNo doubt clerics, momentarily distracted during evensong, have spun alternative stories to ease the chill of a November dusk. The characters, the dialogue, the plot constantly vary. Our two faces are actors in a never-ending play that is performed differently every night. But here’s the thing: we are compelled to write that play. We need a story – we demand a story – to explain, to make sense of these two adjacent figures.

And stepping out of the chancel – we are struck by the richness of narrative around us. For this is a place of stories. Some are artfully told; others whispered without knowing. The faded red and ochre of muted and half-erased wall-paintings tell of saints, apostles, judgement and salvation. The three living and the three dead emerge in the half-light: macabre strip cartoons relishing in the cadaverous decay of worldly beauty and wealth. Their story is an admonitory one: such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be.

Everywhere you look – from the roof bosses portraying mysteries in the life of Christ to the brasses embedded in the stone floor – stories are revealed at every turn. And there are stories that turn on other stories. In Salle church, you will see the Four Great Doctors of the Church painted on the rood panels. Each has their own history; their own story.  But if you look carefully at Pope Gregory, you will see his eyes have been violently scratched out – the paint flaked deliberately from the wood. This raises another tale – one of a Cromwellian soldier vandalising the panel bitter with reformational zeal. And the reason for doing so? Why, that’s yet another story concealed within like a Russian doll of enfolded narratives. For to look into the eyes of a Pope was to risk instant conversion: never stare in the eyes of a gorgon (or a Pope).

But should this incessant and vibrant storytelling surprise us. For a church is a liminal place. It shelters every significant rite of passage: baptism, marriage, death. Each stage on life’s journey is witnessed  here. And those multiple memories and experiences attach themselves to what Augé describes as this anthropological place “of identity, of relations and of history” (Augé, p. 43). So surely it is fitting that such transformation and reinvention, such never-ending twists in the plot, are consecrated in a place of multiple stories: biblical, social, historical and personal.

Augé, M. (2008), Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Verso.