Middenstead

Middenstead. The ‘place where a dunghill is formed’. This is the dust-heap, the rubbish pile, the flecked land of litter and waste. Here we find the discarded; the despoiled; the contaminated and the forgotten. These are spaces we shun or, more passively, we fail to see. They flicker at the margins of sight. For Shoard, the edgelands — the industrial, wasteland areas between town centre and country — are the ‘repositories for functions we prefer not to think about’ (Shoard, 2000).

And the liminal is a tainted land. Mary Douglas, in her analysis of societal attitudes towards dirt and pollution, observes how the blurred and contradictory are regarded as unclean (Douglas, 1966). There is a stain to that which cannot be categorised. This violation of boundaries disorientates and subverts. We crave clarity and the liminal resists our desires. And the result? Nausea, perhaps, disgust, revulsion.

In a fascinating study of filth, liminality and abjection in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Robert Lougy views the novel as ‘congested with slime’ (Lougy, 2002).  With relish he describe Krook’s spontaneous combustion as ‘extraordinarily slimy’. His body is rendered — literally — to ‘black fat’, ‘a thick, yellow liquor’ and a ‘stagnant, sickening oil’. And slime is, undoubtedly, a liminal substance. Neither liquid nor solid, it both flows and adheres. For Sartre, the slimy offers ‘a horrible image’. It is an ‘aberrant fluid’. A something in-between; a something that is a non-thing (Sartre, 1973).

And the rubbish of the middenstead is also betwixt and between. Materially, it disintegrates from what it was to what it will become. Bottle, can and bag —  all fade, splinter and decay. And, spatially too, the middenstead, this realm of the unwanted and the consumed, is consigned to the margins. As I walk the local lanes, the middenstead is all around me. In the hedges, on the verges, by the styles. For many this litter is shameful, a taint that must be removed. Diligent volunteers, tabarded in luminescent yellow, painstakingly and enthusiastically remove each polluted item from its lair.

Yet, is there perhaps not strange beauty and mystery here too? For there is agency in every can and wrapper discarded. And where there is agency, we sense causation, plot and narrative. Who was drinking from the bottle of Budweiser discarded half a mile from any road? What were they doing there? Were they alone? Why were they drinking: celebration, relaxation — or a forgetting? And, occasionally, these items seem not abandoned, renounced nor forsaken, but carefully offered. Placed with care and devotion — strange and curious gifts to Gods we will never know.

And the land is not indifferent to these votive goods. It embraces and covets. It envelops in greenery and growth, claiming each item as its own. For the land is jealous and guards what is given to it. It consumes what we discard. And who are we to deny what it desires.

 

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Beer

 

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Water

 

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Coke

 

Created with RNI Films app. Preset 'Kodak Portra 160'

Cigarettes

 

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Milk

 

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.

Lougy, Robert, E. (2002) ‘Filth, liminality, and abjection in Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”‘, ELH, 69(2), pp. 473-500.

Sartre, Jean Paul. (1973) Being and nothingness: a phenomenological essay on ontology. Washington Square Press.

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

Wedlich, S. (2019) Das buch vom Schleim. Matthes & Seitz.

 

All illustrations, Ian Rodwell. South Norfolk, December 2019 – March 2020.

Road

It goes something like this.

You’re driving. It’s night – let’s say late October. A country road, moon bleached behind threadbare clouds.

You pass the crossroads and see a figure in the rear-view mirror. Strange. You could swear it wasn’t there before.

And then you see the outstretched hand; the extended thumb. You take pity for tonight, of all nights, is not a time to be hitch-hiking alone. You come to a halt and open the passenger door. But the figure – a girl, slight, her face shadowed by the hood of her coat – slips into the back of the car. She whispers the name of the next village along the road before shrinking into silence. You drive on.

*  * * * * * * * * *

For Marc Augé, the autoroute is a non-place. It ‘avoids, for functional reasons, all the principal places to which it takes us’ (Auge, p.79). The only connectors are the road-signs alerting the driver to nearby sites of interest. The symbols and ideograms signify vineyards, hill-top villages, lakes and canyons – yet our only pleasure is the mere knowledge of their proximity rather than the experience itself. As Malcolm Andrews observes, they are a ‘constant reminder of what we might be missing by choosing to travel in this way’ (Andrews, p.63). On the motorway, we are there but never there. The road is always skirting, avoiding, bypassing. A liminal track forever on the margins.

IMG_7223And there are margins to the margins. The hard-shoulder, the lay-by, the aire. Yet are these liminal spaces entirely what they seem? In a quest to recreate both Robinson Crusoe and JG Ballard’s Concrete Island, Les Roberts marooned himself on a motorway traffic island on the M53 – a ‘liminal space of oblivion par excellence’ in which ‘memory afforded ‘little in the way of traction’ (Roberts, p.572). By exploring the ‘rhythms and cadences’ of this shielded patch of scrub and woodland, he sought the ‘negation of the negation of place’ (p.570) and to reinvent the liminal as ‘a launch pad of the imagination’ (Roberts, p.596).

This revelatory reading of the motorway is echoed by Tim Edensor who, countering Augé’s ‘dystopian assumptions’, finds it ‘rich in mundane comfort and sensation, replete with small pleasures and diverting incidents and thoughts’ (Edensor, p.151). This is an enchanted place of myth and sly magic where the tarmac peels to release ‘memories of other journeys, those of the past and those still to be completed’ (Edensor, p.164). For the landmarks we pass are invested with our own symbolic resonances that shimmer with memory and association. I recall the excitement when, as a child from the East Anglian flatlands, we passed the first cooling towers on the long journey north to Scotland – for this was a sign of difference, an index of alterity. Transport café, Little Chef (where the pancake, vanilla ice cream and maple syrup were richer in association than any Proustian madeleine) and the roadside gibbet at Caxton. These were sanctuaries of the imagination imbuing the unknown with familiarity. And with each journey, the memories accrete as the ‘elsewheres, pasts and futures’ enfold and elide (Edensor, p.153).

The negation of the negation even embraces the service areas. Simon Armitage’s poem Gymnasium concludes a list of the emblems of loneliness – the life guard ‘two years without a shout’, ‘Christmas for one’, ‘shower blocks and spent soap’ – with ‘The drive. The motorway service station/as a destination in its own right’.

IMG_7210But even this bland sign of sterile mundanity reveals a past of nuance and faded enchantment. When first built, they were ‘glamorous, semi-touristic’ places’ (Moran, p.108) with bridge restaurants where diners, treated to silver service, liveried waiters and seven course meals, could watch the passing traffic. Such was their exotic allure, eager visitors could buy postcards to enthral envious friends. These, and similar postcards from the 1960s and 1970s depicting shopping precincts, caravan parks and holiday camps, are collected in Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards. With their ‘overprocessed colour, clumsy tinting and cheap lithography’ (Moran, p.124), they appear eerie, unnatural. Our disorientation is enhanced by a tendency to picture these spaces without cars or people ‘so that they seem almost like ancient ruins, opened up to questions of memory and history’ (Moran, p.125). This cadence of dissolution is echoed by Martin Chell who senses the ‘bittersweet nostalgia of a future ruin’ in the now abandoned Forton Tower.  As it presides ‘like a doomed sentinel over a sclerotic M6’ (Chell, p.13), we hauntologically glimpse a future that never was.

And, like all liminal spaces, this is a place of ludic transgression. The early service stations suffered from theft and vandalism with motorists stealing cutlery, lavatory seats, toilet-roll holders, mirrors and coat-hooks (Moran, p.109). Meanwhile night at the service station exposes ‘another world…beneath the sheen’ (Lawrence, p.85). And this world is one where ‘disorder beckons’: a site of crime, sex and violence.

Our expectations are subverted in other ways too. For Augé, it is ‘anthropological space’ – the antithesis to the non-place – where ‘a story can be made out’ (Merriman, p.148). But the liminal has other ideas. When commemorating the 600th anniversary of the death of Geoffrey Chaucer, BBC Radio decided that an M1 service area would serve as the ideal meeting place for the travellers to recite their tales. These are ‘in between places, unconnected in many ways to their surroundings’ (Quoted in Merriman, p.160) and the in-between is always a storied space. It was in service stations that motor-cycle groups congregated to ‘share stories’ and bands, criss-crossing the country in battered Transits met to ‘exchange news and knowledge’ (Lawrence, p.86). Intriguingly, Liminal Residency – ‘an alternative writers’ retreat which takes place in a range of neglected and unusual spaces’ – held its first event at Peterborough Services Area. For ‘there is every chance that you have been here without ever even knowing it’.

But roads, motorways and service stations are not just sites for storytelling but the very subject itself. Listen carefully and you will hear these stories told by ‘commercial travellers and sales personnel, lorry drivers, maintenance staff, traffic police, motorway service workers, and coach drivers’: motoring experiences exchanged as ‘gossip and tale-telling’ (Edensor, p.164). And one mythic thread that runs through this folklore of the road is that of the hitch-hiker. The ‘unpredictable…potentially dangerous…often uncanny other…who haunts the verges and slip roads’ (Edensor, p.164).

So let us end at the beginning.

* * * * * * * * * * *

You drive for several miles, glancing at your silent companion huddled in the back. The car is cold and you turn up the heating but it seems to have little effect.

As you drive into the village, you ask whether the destination is nearby. There is no response, so you repeat the question. Again, there is silence so you glance in the mirror and see…nothing.

Of course, the narrative – familiar yet ever mutable in its telling – demands you stop the car and search with desperation, puzzlement, disbelief. The story ends, as it always has, with you alone on star-starved lane, as the wind scatters the leaves in the nearby churchyard.

 

And the diamonds on my windshield

And these tears from heaven

Well I’m pulling into town on the interstate

I got me a steel train in the rain

And the wind bites my cheek through the wing

Late nights and freeway flying

Always makes me sing

It always makes me sing.

Tom Waits, ‘Diamonds on My Windshield’

 

Andrews, M. (2012) ‘The autoroute and the picturesque’, Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.

Armitage, S. (2010) ‘Gymnasium’, in The motorway service station as a destination in its own right. Smith/Doorstep Books.

Augé, M. (2008), Non-places: an introduction to supermodernity. Verso

Chell, E. (2012) ‘Foreward’, in Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.

Edensor, T. (2003) ‘Defamiliarizing the mundane roadscape’, Space and Culture, 6(2), pp.

Lawrence, D. (2012) ‘When A to B is not the point…’, in Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.

Moran, J. (2005), Reading the everyday. Routledge

Merriman, P. (2004) ‘Driving places’, Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4–5), pp. 145–167.

Parr, M. (1999), Boring postcards. Phaidon.

Roberts, L. (2015) ‘The rhythm of non-places: marooning the embodied self in depthless space’, Humanities, 4(4), pp.569-599.

The Liminal Residency. (2018) ‘Peterborough Services Area’, 23 February 2018. Available at: https://www.liminalresidency.co.uk/portfolio/peterborough-service-area/.

Bus Stop

We rarely see them. Or rather, we see but fail to acknowledge. They inhabit a shadowland of the banal, the unremarkable, the unnoticed. Concealed in their own mundanity, they gently erase themselves from view. Yet in Christopher Herwig’s remarkable Soviet Bus Stops, these drab artefacts of lane and street are re-invented, as Jonathan Meades observes in his foreward, as ‘components of some unimaginably vast pyritic bauble’ (Herwig, p.5). Exuberant, modernistic, audacious, these ‘cubistic concrete tents’ resemble the bunkers described by A Year in the Country as ‘artefacts from an almost science fictionesque future that never was, a form of hauntology possibly.’

IMG_1257This elision of time, a never realised past imagining of the future in the present, marks their liminality – as does their gentle ruination. For 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). And these liminalities compound. Meades notes how, ‘deserted and neglected’, these bus stops were ‘cut off’, ‘not close to villages or even hamlets’ (Herwig, p.5). Designed for a purpose, this purpose is now absent. They function without function. The effect is puzzlement and curiosity. And maybe a sense of the eerie too? As we view the photographs, there is disconnect between the often barren landscapes and the exotic bus-stops in the foreground. They should not be there but they are. For Mark 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).

This sense of disappearance and appearance manifests in the taxi drivers, who ferrying Herwig across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, speed past the bus stops ‘as if they were invisible’ (Herwig, p.9). Yet, occasionally, one would develop ‘an appreciation for something he had forgotten existed’. For them, the banal is re-enchanted; the lost are resurrected. Inspired by Herwig’s quest, the taxi drivers see with new eyes. Like their liminal cousins, the beach, these bus stops function as a ‘space of defamiliarization’ (Burleigh and Jung, p.246).

And, as we have seen, the liminal attracts the social. Meades is struck by two men meeting at an isolated bus stop to open cans of beer and ‘put the world to rights’ (Herwig, p.5). These are ‘drop-in centres’, a ‘place to hang out’ which function as an ‘adhoc social service’. As Kavalkova-Halvarsson notes, ‘every day the same people met at the same bus stop, talking, exchanging ideas, arriving and departing’ (Herwig, p.11).

IMG_1255This communality suggests another way to view the bus stop. In a study of chiropody clinics, Karen Pettigrew introduces the concept of the ‘information ground: an ‘environment temporarily created by the behaviour of people who have come together to perform a given task, but from which emerges a social atmosphere that fosters the spontaneous and serendipitous sharing of information’ (Pettigrew, p.811). In later research (writing as Fisher), she identifies the ‘ambient role of place’ and the ‘specific effects of social settings on information flow’. These include places of worships, restaurants, cafes and ‘hostage phenomena such as self-service laundries, stores queues and, yes, bus stops (Fisher, Landry and Naumer, 2007).

We might also conceptualise these bus stops as an example of Oldenburg’s third place: a neutral ground that hosts the ‘regular, voluntary, informal…gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work’ (Oldenburg, Loc 760) and where the primary activity is conversation (via which, no doubt, information and stories flow).

But what is it about the bus stop or shelter that nurtures this eruption of sociality? From a study of photocopying rooms, Fayard argues that settings must have the ‘correct propinquity, privacy and social designation to afford formal interaction’ (Fayard, p.611). And these elements are influenced by architecture, geography and function. For the two men, sitting alone at their bus shelter in Kazakhstan, cans of beer in the plastic bag at their feet, the ‘concrete tent’ affords an element of privacy – or, at least – separation from the environment around. The open aspect also enables surveillance. It is private because those approaching can be easily seen – they are subject to the gaze.

Propinquity manifests in the functional centrality of the bus stop. This is the place to go if you want to catch a bus (if the buses still run). Or, if the spatial function is more that of ‘drop in centre’, this is the place to go if you want to drink, converse and simply hang out. These affordances are bolstered by the bus stop’s social designation: a ‘set of imperfectly shared expectations and understandings about what was appropriate and normal there’ (Fayard, p.624). What strikes Meades as noteworthy and dissonant is, for the actors themselves, an unremarkable ritual in the daily round.

IMG_1253And for those in rural England, we need not look as far as the former Soviet Republics to appreciate such spatial affordances. For the village bus stop is not solely reserved for those desiring to travel. As dusk falls, this becomes the haunt of more youthful phantasms. The detritus of cans, broken cigarette and runic scribblings on the brick walls marks their presence. For this is also a youth club, congregation point and playground. A ‘third place’ for the young and spatially dispossessed with its perfectly imbricated blend of privacy, propinquity and social designation. It also conceals a sly subversion of power. Applying a Lefebvrian lens, the conceived space of the architect and planners – which designates the actions and behaviours to be carried out there – is resisted and contested. Our phantasms have appropriated it for other uses: their routines and behaviours (perceived space) belie the sanctioned use (Lefebvre, 1974/1991).

So just as every village has its physical bus stop, perhaps every organisation has its metaphoric bus-stops too. Those reclaimed spaces where the symbolic kinsfolk to Meades’ old men gather with their lumpen bag of beer cans. Or where the youthful whisper behind cupped hands and mark their tribal allegiances and enmities in paint can and marker pen. Harriet Shortt tells of hairdressers reclaiming towel rooms and fire escapes as spaces to share information, build relationships and construct a sense of identity. While, Sarah Warnes, in a fascinating study of the staff in an English cathedral, shows how corridors and pathways – spaces of transit and movement – are ‘manipulated’ by one employee’s slow walking pace to create a social space to ‘mingle and linger’ And such lingering creates opportunities to ‘share problems with colleagues, together forming resolutions and therefore increasing productivity at work’ (Warnes, p.199).

So, as we close the pages of Soviet Bus Stops, let’s open our eyes to these elusive, liminal spaces which hide, modestly of course, in plain view: recognisable to all but visible to few. Let’s celebrate their unremarkable uniqueness and the quiet joy they instil in those who inhabit them. For beige, I hear, is this year’s black. And, as we have seen, beige is rarely quite what we expect it to be.

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.

Fayard, A.L. and Weeks, J. (2007) ‘Photocopiers and water-coolers: the affordances of informal interaction’, Organization Studies, 28(5), pp. 605–634.

Fisher, K.E., Landry, C.F. and Naumer, C. (2007) ‘Social spaces, casual interactions, meaningful exchanges: ‘information ground’ characteristics based on the college student experience’, Information Research, 12(2). Available at: http://www.informationr.net/ir/12-2/paper291.html (Accessed: 16 August, 2018)

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

Herwig, C. (2015), Soviet Bus Stops: Fuel.

Lefebvre, H. (1974/1991), The Production of Space: Blackwell Publishing.

Oldenburg, R. (1999), The great good place: cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community: Da Capo Press.

Pettigrew, K.E. (1999) ‘Waiting for chiropody: contextual results from an ethnographic study of the information behaviour among attendees at community clinics’, Information Processing and Management, 35, pp. 801-817.

Shortt, H. (2015) ‘Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’ at work’, Human Relations, 68(684), pp. 633-658.

Warnes, S. (2015) Exploring the lived dimension of organisational space: an ethnographic study of an English Cathedral. PhD thesis, University of Essex, UK.

Illustrations

Rodwell, I. (2018) Bus Stop, Tivetshall, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2018) Bus Shelter, Eye, Suffolk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghost Sign

They are there. And you have seen them. Perhaps from a train as it lurches and jolts over the points and junctions outside a city terminus. A glance through the window and they emerge into view. Or, perhaps, on a busy street, you raise your eyes from pavement and shopfront to glimpse what you have never noticed before. Faded, translucent; pallid imprints on brick and stone. Maybe an advert, no longer shouting but whispering about a long-forgotten brand – clothing, cigarettes, flour, razors. Or a sign that tells of former use and occupancy: grocer, hostel, furrier. These are ‘vestiges of spaces and places, industries and individuals’ that tell stories of ‘history, identity, cultural memory, desire, nostalgia, and erasure’ (Shep, p.209).

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps (Italo Calvino, quoted in Shep, p.210)

IMG_0974These signs – material and metaphoric – ‘both reveal and hide their identity’ (Shep, p.209). They exist in plain view yet their meaning has to be negotiated via erosion, neglect and decay. Like Baudelaire’s flaneur detective, we need to decipher and deduce (Benjamin, p.37). For these signs exist at the liminal convergence of topography, typography and temporality (Shep, p.210). They inhabit multiple margins; permeate many thresholds. And this very materiality is, of course, liminal. As scouring wind, rain and pollution ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.477), their journey of transition is constant: as ‘palimpsests, they register change over time’ (Shep, p.209).

These signs are also ghosts. And ghosts, we know, are spectres of the liminal. They are the ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Derrida, quoted in Orr, p.1055). They show us ‘that which appeared to be not there’ (Edensor, p.159). A brand of beer last drunk in the 1950s; a business whose final invoice predated the dot-matrix printer.

FullSizeRender 6And there is something both poignant and heroic about these ghost signs. Even though their purpose – their signified is absent – they continue to signify to an intended audience that, in all probability, are ghosts now too. It brings to mind an abandoned turntable endlessly playing the same track to a long-departed listener. For these ‘names and slogans…were not meant for our contemporary eyes’ (Roberts and Marshall, p.3). And this, maybe, is what captures our gaze from train and street. This prickling of curiosity; a glimpse of something we can’t immediately comprehend yet sense, in some way, to be important. The sudden sound of static that interrupts our car radio on a moonless country road: significant but unknowable.

IMG_0966Such ghosts ‘haunt the present in such a way as to suddenly animate the past’ (Edensor, p.159). As I walk up the lane towards the sign of the former Chequers pub, I am conscious that my steps echo those of villagers who, for many years, would have tramped the same route after a day working the fields. And their embodied practices and daily rituals are now re-enacted by those now drawn by the sign.  The past is reinvented and reimagined with each step. As Edensor notes, we ‘perform the past by putting our bodies into its flow’ and, in so doing, ‘it ceases to be pure memory; it is lived in the present’ (Edensor, pp. 150-151). And these experiences, these micro-narratives we co-create through such embodied empathy, although fragmentary and seemingly incoherent, ‘offer opportunities for constructing alternative versions of the past, and for recouping untold and marginalized stories’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.471). The ‘enigmatic traces’ of the Chequers pub invites me to ‘fill in the blanks’ (Edensor, p.162). My imagination – via stories – aims to ‘impose a formal coherence on what is otherwise a flowing soup’ (Weick, p.128).

And confronted by ghost signs, maybe we too become liminal.  In Stefan Schutt’s account of ghost sign hunting through the streets of Adelaide, he speaks of an ‘initial sense of estrangement and disconnection’ (Schutt, p.55). It as if, gently shifted from our usual, habitual way of perceiving the world we become more attentive to those ‘talking walls’ (Shep, p.209). And, in becoming attuned to these new frequencies, this unfamiliar language, we are, momentarily, disorientated. Our senses are truly betwixt and between. Schutt reflects that in searching for old signs, ‘elements of serendipity and arbitrariness break down invisible barriers formed by habits of use, letting the walker see their environment in new ways’ (Schutt, p.54). This quest on foot is also a ‘space of enunciation’ that ‘affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks”(de Certeau, p.99). Here we find estrangement, enlightenment and transgression: the liminal experiences that our search for ghost signs engenders.

As a final reflection, we should not forget that in reanimating the past, urban ephemera also serve ‘to illuminate and transform the present’ (Massey, quoted in Schutt, p.57). For these signs gift us a warning. We are complacent in our organisations – comforted by the demand for products we make and services we offer – yet, if we glance in the shadows, the memento mori gather. Edensor identifies the mirthless irony of ghost signs faded to indecipherability – a bitter way to  mock ‘the energy expended on fixed meaning through branding and advertising’ (Edensor, p.162). Like the ochre and yellow wall paintings of the three living and the three dead uncovered from the peeling plaster of a medieval church, our ghost signs have an admonitory message: such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be. Organisations and institutions rise and fall. Products and brands come and go. Are we any different?

But maybe dissolution is not inevitable. Yesterday, I went searching for a particular ghost sign in Clerkenwell. However, this sign advertising the now vanished Black Cat Cigarettes brand has, itself, vanished. Completely hidden by a new residential block which has erased it from view.  But perhaps not erased from existence. Although hidden, it merely sleeps: suspended between past, present and future; revelation and enclosure; communication and silence. And, as fashions change, perhaps the new apartments that conceal it will, in their turn, succumb to the demolition notice. Then, as the wrecking ball strikes, the Black Cat – a typographical Sleeping Beauty – will wake again. And just as some deceased brands – like East Anglian beers, Lacons and Bullards (but alas not Morgans) – have risen like Lazarus from their corporate graves, so others may emerge blinking in the light. For, in the final reckoning, our signs are indeed ghosts; but ghosts who speak not only of decay and negation but of resurrection too.

Benjamin, W. (1983). Charles Baudelaire: a lyric poet in the era of high capitalism.Verso

De Certeau, M. (1984), The practice of everyday life: University of California Press.

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2005). Industrial ruins: spaces, aesthetics and materiality. Berg.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local government chief executives’ everyday hauntings : towards a theory of organizational ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Roberts, S. and Marshall, G. (2017) ‘What is a ghost sign?’, in Schutt, S., Roberts, S. and White, L. (eds.) Advertising and public memory: social, cultural and historical perspectives on ghost signs. Routledge.

Roberts, S. and Groes, S. (2007) ‘Ghost signs: London’s fading spectacle of history’, Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, 5(2). Available at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2007/robertsgroes.html (Accessed: 27 April, 2018)

 

Schutt, S. (2017) ‘Rewriting the book of the city: on old signs, new technologies, and reinventing Adelaide’, Urban Geography, 38(1), pp. 47–65.

Shep, S. J. (2015) ‘Urban palimpsests and contending signs’, Social Semiotics, 25(2), pp. 209–216.

Weick, K.E. (1995). Sense making in organisations. Sage.

Illustrations

Rodwell, I. (2018) Clerkenwell, London

Rodwell, I. (2018) Spitalfields, London

Rodwell, I. (2018) A loke, Norfolk

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