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

 

 

Ghost

Our organisations are haunted places. They swarm with ghosts. Maybe not ghosts in a conventional sense; but ghosts nevertheless. If you wait long enough, you may discern the ‘sense of a presence of those who are not physically there’. In offices, factories, call-centres, shops and salons,  we ‘constitute a place in large measure by the ghosts we sense inhabit and possess it’ (Bell, p.813).

GhostAnd, as we have intimated before, these ghosts are creatures of the liminal. For Derrida, they are this ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Orr, p.1055). Immaterial themselves, their power is to make the space around them immaterial too; their liminality infects.  They can ‘elide the distance between the actual and the imagined’ so that ‘frail and cherished distinctions collapse’ (Beer, quoted by Jackson, p.69).

Think of an upmarket City meeting room. Let’s call it room 148. For your guest, experiencing this space for the first time, it is like any other meeting room: neutral in its ubiquity.  Subdued colours, art work on the wall, maybe coffee and pastries arranged on the table. For you, however, the experience is different. It is enhanced, tinted (or maybe tainted?) by all the other meetings you have attended there. The spectral voices and faces of those you previously met haunt the room. These presences are many. The room is a palimpsest of recalled conversations, arguments, emotions and the tone of those meetings (productive, boring, confrontational) now begins to affect your mood.  You too are haunted.  The room, familiar, comfortable, known, is infiltrated by the uncanny – das Unheimlich – infusing it, albeit momentarily, with the unfamiliar, the strange, the alien.  You sense a ‘feeling of estrangement, of being not ‘at home’ in the world’ (Jackson, p.65).

Ghosts appear in other guises. At a business school I know, the portraits of past deans frequent a corridor. They are sombre, besuited, the ties and haircuts indicative of past decades.  I wonder to what extent this ‘picture book of the dead’ (Orr, p.1047) troubles the current dean. Do these ghosts – for that is what they are – act as vengeful revenants forever comparing the shortcomings of the present to the glories of the past; or are they more comforting spirits offering inspiration, wisdom and succour.

TivetshallSuch ghosts possess other objects too. A long time ago, I asked a colleague to identify an artefact that encapsulated our then organisation. After a pause, he spoke fondly of the chair that his former boss had left behind on retirement. Each time he saw it, he took strength from the memory of his mentor, guide and protector.  It had what Weber called the ‘charisma’ of the object’ and Walter Benjamin, ‘the aura of the original’ (Bell, p.817).  That chair was not just any chair; it contained a ‘kind of life’.

We also talk to our organisational dead. Think of the role models, those presences from the past that you turn to in times of uncertainty.  You ask what they would have done; how they would have reacted; what guidance from beyond can they proffer? In short, we are accustomed to communing with our role model spirits.

And where there are ghosts, there are ghost stories. I have heard many such narratives in every organisation I have known. Tales of role models, heroic (and tragic) leaders, tricksters and fools. This cast of ghosts is conjured again each time the story is told. They are never exorcised. And with each raising of the dead, we re-assess our current actions. We think and sense anew.  These ‘inheritances of the past haunt the relations and struggles of the present’ (Orr, p.1041).

In one of the most famous ghost stories, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the ‘ghosts’ are only perceived within the liminal – the ‘tops of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools’ (Klapcsik, p.5). So look again at your organisation. Those corridors, meeting rooms, staircases and lifts – are they really what they seem? For if you look carefully enough, you might – beyond the posters, filing cabinets and workstations –  glimpse the symbolic equivalent of shorelines, the gibbet on the cross-roads, and the decaying mansion on the hill.

Bell, M. M. (1997) ‘The Ghosts of Place’, Theory and Society, 26, pp. 813–836.

Jackson, J. (1981). Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. Methuen.

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

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local Government Chief Executives ’ Everyday Hauntings : Towards a Theory of Organizational Ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Illustrations

Cruikshank, G. (1842) ‘The Dead Drummer’.  Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/dead-drummer/

Rodwell, I. (2016) St Mary’s Church, Tivetshall St Mary, Norfolk

Railway

The railway carriage is a liminal place. It represents both spatial and temporal transition. Within its utilitarian or luxurious confines (for it is a place that also likes to classify us), we are moved from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging space.  This in itself is problematic – as De Certeau observes there is both immobility inside and outside of the carriage. The fields, villages and towns have only ‘trompe-l’oeil movements…vision alone continually undoes and remakes the relationships between these fixed points.’ (De Certeau, p.112).

CarriageWe also progress in time, a movement governed by – or more accurately suggested by – timetables and schedules. Before 1840, such definitions of time were also inherently fluid. A journey was not just through time but between time with different towns deploying local systems of time. For the Victorians however, the modern railway carriage was, as John Bailey intriguingly explores, liminal in many other ways. If we peek through the smoke-smudged windows, we might discern a place of adventure, blurred identities, erotic escapade and transgression.

From one perspective, the carriage was a place of anxiety, discomfort and potential danger. There were no toilets, washrooms nor, in early carriages lacking corridors, an easy means of escape. Cardsharps, confidence men and tricksters (for where else does the phrase ‘taken for a ride come’?) were a recognised hazard. As Bailey observes, there was also a ‘persistent unease at confinement in the close presence of unknown others’ (p.6).  However, this close proximity might also dissolve reserve while mutual anonymity encouraged confidential disclosure and the relaxation of normal protocols.  The roles, identities and behaviours of everyday life could, for the duration of the journey, be altered or even abandoned.  This ambiguity is characterised by De Certeau as a ‘incarceration-vacation’ (De Certeau, p.114).

For Georges Simmel, modernity created the opportunity for ‘adventure’, an episode of heightened experience, informed by both risk and excitement and ‘torn-off’ from everyday life. But the railway carriage was not just a place of adventure, but also, as Bailey suggests, misadventure: in a society where gender relaxations were strictly governed, such an ‘enclosed space carried its own built-in erotic charge’ (Bailey, p.7).

Contemporary press reports revealed how first class carriages were much in demand by courting couples; popular song told of ‘tunnels so dusky’ where you can ‘kiss fondle and kiss with a double encore’; while musical halls echoed to Marie Lloyd’s rather less than innocent ‘She’d Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before’ (Bailey, p.9). Elsewhere, Ian Carter observes that ‘some ladies of the street had found that the seven-minute run [between Cannon Street and Charing Cross], provided ideal conditions for their activities at a rental that represented only a minute proportion of their income.’ (Carter, p.52).

Such transgression – albeit temporary – of the accepted social order is recognised by Turner who sees the liminal phase in tribal society as one where members of the community can ‘for a brief while have a whale of a good time being chaotic, in some saturnalian or lupercalian revelry…or institutionalised orgy’ (Turner, p.41).

And railway carriages generate other narratives of transgression. Narratives where morality and rationality are subverted. Carter identifies ‘the many hundred British crime novels and short stories’ with railway settings (Carter, p.46).  They also invite in that ultimate liminal character: the ghost.  A.M. Barrage’s The Green Bungalow, Steve Duffy’s Running Dogs and M.R. James’ A Warning to the Curious are just a few of the narratives that see the railway carriage as a haunted space – home to the dead but not dead; the there but not there.

And organisations too generate their own narratives of transgression. They rarely feature railway carriages but rather other liminal spaces: the Christmas party, the awayday or offsite, the business trip.  Here the physical space might be the office, a pub or hotel (identified by Pritchard and Morgan as a ‘place for transgressive behaviours’). We all, I suspect, have such stories.  In some, the mode is comic. Many years ago at the organisation I then worked for, the turgid annual address by the CEO at the Christmas Party was repeatedly and wittily heckled sotto voce by the office electrician  – in the character of trickster. In others, the mode is tragic.  I overheard such a story two days ago, ironically when returning from a conference on organisational storytelling.  The story was co-constructed by two, unseen travellers in the seats behind me and the plot a depressingly familiar one.  An office party, too much drink, unwanted sexual advances and a dismissal the following day. The characters too were familiar – the non-deserving victim, the villain, the supporter (the HR director perhaps?) (Gabriel, pp. 84-85).  Such stories suggest that while transgression brings creativity, release and the frisson of Simmel’s ‘adventure’, it also carries a darkling side of danger, anxiety and humiliation.

There is a final irony. For, as you have no doubt guessed, the place where I overheard this story was a railway carriage: the liminal space that is simultaneously narrative source, scene and progenitor.

Bailey, P. (2004), ‘Adventures in Space: Victorian Railway Erotics, or Taking Alienation For a Ride’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 9(1), pp. 1-21.

Carter, I. (2002), ‘The Lady in the Trunk’, The Journal of Transport History, 23(1), pp. 46–59.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Gabriel, G. (2000), Storytelling in Organisations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies: Oxford University Press.

Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (2006), ‘Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transition and transgression’, Tourism Management, 27(5), pp. 762–772.

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

 

 

 

shoreline

img_1962

Story master Shawn Callahan was kind enough to comment on my first post and suggest an additional metaphor for receptions.  Whereas I had riffed on the concept of a border crossing, Shawn wisely emphasised the idea of a shoreline.  And it’s a metaphor I like.  For receptions are places of ebb and flow, subject to a diurnal low and high tide as employees and visitors arrive and depart.   And just as the tides leave a detritus of seaweed, driftwood and, in my native Norfolk, rucksacks of carefully wrapped  cocaine, so the human flow leaves its own traces: a temporary imprint on a leather seat; a corporate magazine left open at a nonchalantly scanned page; a half drunk cup of earl grey.

Similarly, as deserted shorelines exude a certain melancholy, so receptions, in those late evenings or weekends, possess a lonely, even uncanny, mood.  The lighting subdued, the aggregate floors and walls prone to echoes, the security guard, a lonely sentinel peering through the plate glass windows to the wild seas beyond.

These shorelines – liminal, deserted – are places for story.  Each attracts the other.  M.R James, probably our greater writer of the uncanny, knew it well.  In Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to You, My Lad, the antiquarian Professor Parker dreams of a terrified, exhausted man pursued by a ‘figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined’ along a ‘stretch of shore – shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water’.   As a result of his horrifying experience at the climax of the story, Parker is arguably a changed man – his ‘views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be’.  Although, such enlightenment comes at a price: ‘the spectacle of a scarecrow in a field on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night’.

As the story shows, the liminal can be a place of discomfort, of knowledge gained and innocence lost: a place of ambiguous transformation.  So, next time you find yourself in a deserted reception, not only may the artefacts around you carry a greater potency (as there is less to distract you from the stories they carry), but you may find it prudent not to look behind you. Those footsteps you hear are getting closer, and closer still…