A Very Brief Introduction to ‘Geographies of Impulse’

First and foremost I’d like to apologise for having not posted in almost six months; this year has been extremely hectic so far. However, as I am presenting this research at the RGS-IBG International Conference, which seems to be looming on the horizon, I thought it would be a wonderful time to introduce the research for my MA thesis.

For those of you that don’t know me personally, I have Tourettes Syndrome. TS is a neurological syndrome characterised by involuntary tics that take the form, mainly, of physical movements and sounds. My dissertation research will be exploring the ways in which the impulsive body (a body occupied the genetic makeup causing TS) experiences the world.

There is a lot of research into the post-phenomenological body which spans across cultural geography and disability studies as a discipline, so why should I study the impulsive body? What can it bring to the discipline? Not wanting to go into too much detail for the sake of avoiding self-plagiarism (and spoilers for those attending the RGS-IBG Conference of course!) through my methods of tic diaries, focus groups, and making a zine with the participants, I’ve gained many insights that I had not previously considered previously. My research has taken a turn to focus on ideas of the societal panopticon (c.f. Fagan, 2013), and the ideas of pre-acceleration and plastic dynamism (Manning, 2009) in the case of the tourettic, impulsive body. These two themes act as the foundational pillars to this study, highlighting the post-phenomenological aspects of the tourettic experience and how the impulsive body’s post-phenomenological worldy experience is significantly different to that of the bodies written about previously in literature, both in the case of able-bodied and of those that are disabled or impaired. Ultimately, studying the post-phenomenological body through the tourettic lens is important in challenging existing understandings of everyday world experience and will assist in the production of a new way of theorising a body that is not ‘normatively scripted’ in the eyes of society.

I’m really excited to publish my findings more explicitly on this site following the project’s submission, but in the mean time I am hoping to start publishing posts that are related to the themes I am using in this research in order to somewhat preface the publishing of my thesis findings, such as exploring the phenomenological body, zining as method, and potentially more about Tourettes Syndrome as a whole.

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Andy Goldsworthy and the temporariness of things

Standfoto RIVERS AND TIDES

Andy Goldsworthy is described as “a British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist” who produces site-specific art pieces out of natural materials. His photographs are full of colour, and generally very aesthetically pleasing as a result of direct manipulation of natural materials into a specific shape, to produce certain lines, etc. I remember stumbling across his work when studying for an A Level in Art & Design, but little did I know the relevance of his work in the discipline of cultural geography!

Within geography, there have been many recent debates regarding materiality and matter. Previously the material study of things was focussed primarily around their consumption and production, but more recently there has been various calls to re-focus our attention in other areas. One of the key academics doing this is Tim Ingold, of the University of Aberdeen. His approach is to consider materiality and it’s production. Whilst previous literature had focussed how human consumption altered the identity of an object, Ingold argues that we mustn’t disregard the potentials of the non-human in the process of materiality. Talking about so-called ‘weather-scapes’, he refers to how matter is subject to change not only by direct human interference but also through climatic factors such as heat, moisture levels, and wind direction. This is exactly what Goldsworthy’s work represents.

 

 

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Within the art world, it is common to want to conserve artworks for as long as possible. We see this in cases such as the Mona Lisa, which is protected with a bulletproof layer in between the viewer and the piece itself, and is even shown through the fact that universities such as UCLA and Northampton offer degrees in ‘art preservation’ and ‘fine art conservation’, to name just two. This is exactly what I like about Goldsworthy’s work, as it celebrates the temporariness of matter, which is currently off-trend. Understanding that identity, even of inanimate objects, is only temporary, he allows the natural process of decay to occur – the moment in time being captured only by coloured photographs. His work explores materiality as a process, acknowledging the currents of the lifeworld whereby both human and non-human direct and non-direct actors play their own significant parts.

Personally I feel that there needs to be movement away from the obsession with preserving art. The question of whether art is in the ‘process’ or the ‘product’ is long debated, but drawing upon ideas of the fluidity of object identity, I would argue that Goldsworthy’s work ends this argument with great clarity. However, it simultaneously raises interesting questions about what the implications of representing the temporality of his work with still photographs might be. If he is attempting to expose the temporality of art as a constantly flowing, non-static phenomenon (or never-ending process) then surely photography contradicts this? Realistically, the use of photography is likely to make his work easier to distribute to larger audiences, and therefore spread this celebration of temporality more widely. However, this digitalisation of the sculptures opens the work up to a whole range of other potential actors, both human and non-human, which have the potential to alter the object biography of a specific piece even further.

I’m aware that this is just a splurge of thoughts on materiality and art, but if you’re interested then I’d definitely recommend giving Andy Goldsworthy a quick Google search for sure! There’s a whole bunch of his work shown on ArtNet also!

“IT’S CALLED FASHION, LOOK IT UP”

If you’ve ever chatted to me about my research interests I will likely have talked about my research into spatial identity and it’s construction. However, I’ve recently found interests in applying this to the space of the body. If you know me personally, you may know that I currently work in fashion retail for a popular brand in order to fund my masters degree, and through working within this industry I have many thoughts…

A ‘trend’ is defined as a general direction in which something is developing or changing, and one obvious example to use to illustrate this is with the fashion industry. These trends evolve over time, and this evolution coincides with what is deemed as what is generically sexually attractive at the time. We can see this in the extreme contrast between the women’s fashion trend of the low-waisted, hip-hugging jeans in the disco scene of the 1970s, versus the rise of the high-waisted jeans of the 1990s. Evidently, these trends are extremely different. In order to delve deeper we must discuss the differences between commercial style and personal aesthetic style.

 

 

 

Clothes are an “extension of our private skin” (McLuhan, 1964)

The first, commercial style, is a lot easier to define. It is simply what is seen as generically sexually attractive within society. It ties in closely with ‘fashion’ which is the manner in which something is done, notably the act of dressing in this circumstance. Ultimately, the presence of commercial style along with our capitalistic society has resulted in fashion style as seemingly one of the easiest routes into social integration; the entire industry thrives on the natural human desire to fit in. This is where it may get confusing with personal aesthetic style. Obviously, we are all different with different levels of melanin, different facial features, varying heights and sizes – the list goes on. If clothes are a mere extension of our skin as McLuhan suggests, then how we dress reveals what is on the inside – it could be argued that the self is embodied in the clothes we wear.uglybettyblog

Popular media such as television plays a key role in exhibiting garments in different ways that create associations with certain social groups. For example, if I were to say the word ‘nerd’ I’m pretty sure you would picture somebody with big glasses, a buttoned up checkered shirt tucked into trousers that cut off mid ankle (or something very similar). Popular media’s influence creates imagined identities of different clothes and if this is done so in a negative light, such is done so with ‘nerds’ then it becomes socially undesirable to become associated with said group. The ‘nerd’ becomes a sexually undesirable group to be associated with. With fashion being an easy routine into successful social integration, this feeds the evolution of various fashion trends; just as all objects eventually disintegrate, the positive associations with certain fashion trends do too. This, in turn, means less of said undesirable garmants will be produced, and therefore will ultimately be worn by fewer people. Working in fashion retail, I regularly get customers making their buying decisions on what I tell them our most popular items are, even if they express that they don’t particularly like the item of clothing that is more popular.

This being the case, how can we ensure the retention of our true, unlimited creativity through fashion? Is it possible at all? One comment I get a lot whilst on shift is “You must love working here and having discount on such trendy clothes” (or something along those lines). Interestingly enough, whilst I find a lot of the clothes aesthetically pleasing I don’t necessarily identify with the clothes. Personally, I identify as cis-male who and personally I don’t identify with many of the clothes designed for female customers. Yes, I think some of them look great, but I don’t identify with them. The same goes for some of the men’s clothes too.

It’s still a confusing concept for me to dress with clothes I identify with as opposed to what will help me fit in. In a world where we grow up being told what to wear at school, with specific tie length in our school uniform, and often having parents choose our outfits when we are younger, it seems that the whole system of capitalised fashion is ingrained into us from birth. If so much of our identity and upbringing is based on fitting in and on being normal then how can we truly fulfil our full creative potentials as humans through fashion. I would argue that the clothes we wear are not an extension of our skin, but rather a representation limited capitalism and desire for social integration.

Can we ever have a true personal aesthetic style portrayed through fashion and the clothes we wear? Who knows, but at least now you can wow people with a much deeper response than “It’s called fashion, look it up!” that should keep your haters at bay! As always, I’d love to hear some opinions about this so please do leave a comment or get in touch!

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“Black Mirror: Metalhead” & the Cultural Geographies of Nature I

Spoiler alert – Black Mirror: Metalhead

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I’m sure I speak for many when I say that when Season 4 of “Black Mirror” was released recently I completely stopped anything productive and binged the entire season. I’ve always loved the show, providing critical commentaries on society, to put it as simply as possible, and Season 4 is no exception whatsoever. Episode 5 “Metalhead” features scavengers searching for supplies in an abandoned warehouse, only to be chased out and hunted by a ‘robot dog’. A critique of the relationship between humans and nature, the episode draws many parallels to the academic study of nature within cultural geography.

The first thing to note in ‘Metalhead’ is the monochrome styling of the entire episode. The other episodes in this season are filmed in full colour, so my first question was “why this episode?”. If you think about ‘nature‘ right now, I can pretty much assure you that you’ll think of colourful forests, full of green shades. I do too. By using monochromatic filming, the episode contradicts everything we build up these imagined identities of nature to be. You don’t expect to sit down and watch a nature documentary in black and white, you expect to see how aesthetically pleasing all the colours in the jungles and the oceans are. Colour is key in allowing us to make a decision about whether or not something is considered ‘natural’, and ‘Metalhead’ toys with this idea. Monochromatism portrays a somewhat bleak future for nature should we carry on treating it the way we are presently, showing shifted power relations and even featuring the human within stereotypically nature documentary-esque ariel panning shots. An approach of the tables turning and of nature fighting back is taken by director David Slade.

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The dog featured in the episode appears to be a military robotic technology of artificial intelligence, but what I found the most interesting was the humanisation of the machine. If we were to look at a dog, we would speak of it’s four legs, however in one scene where Bella is hiding from the dog in a tree, she screams

“You can’t do it! Your arm’s fucked so you can’t climb the tree.”

At first I passed this off, but later on when the dog breaks into the house in which Bella is hiding, it spots a knife and instead of using it’s guns or seemingly more powerful weaponry, it decides to use the kitchen knife to attack her. This is interesting due to the fact that the dog has clearly been programmed to have some form of emotional response by it’s creator(s), as it chooses it’s weapon seemingly based on what would cause the slowest, most painful death possible. It values the pain and suffering of Bella over the practicality of it’s own weaponry in killing her quickly. This was the intention of Slade’s direction, as quoted in an interview “she has to confront the humanity of [the dog]”. The humanity he speaks of here seems to be the intense emotion and need to hunt down and kill Bella, an emotional response that seems very revenge-like.

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Within traditional nature-writing themes of nature as something to be conquered by a lone male, and as a site whereby masculine sexual scripts can be strengthened, have been recurring. Kathleen Jamie writes in response to Robert Macfarlane,

“What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! … Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.”

The monstrous idea of a white, middle-class man coming over the hill in the horizon ready to conquer the wilderness is exactly what this episode seems to be a response to. We see the dog appearing in the horizon, running closer and closer. This man-made nature of sorts is coming over the hill, ready to conquer the very humanity that made it. If we continue to view nature as something to be conquered, how can we expect to truly treat it in a sustainable way? We destroy forests to make way for human activity, hunt animals for the fun of it, and even assist in it’s degeneration from a distance through the carbon emissions we produce at home. As we come over the hill, we must take a minute to acknowledge that nature is coming over on the other side of the very same hill.

Nature has been viewed as weak, as something being destroyed by human activity. However, are we moulding it into something more human than it once was? Perhaps we are implementing our ideals of conquering anything other than ourselves into nature’s very being, causing environmental changes that can only be seen as consequences, such as increasingly strong and frequent extreme weather events, habitat destructions, and rising sea levels. We destroy the environment, and nature fights back. But the real question is how exactly can we change our relationship with nature? We need to begin to explore multiple representations, other than simply as weak and as a victim of human activity, and ‘Black Mirror: Metalhead’ begins to facilitate this too a much larger, more mainstream audience.

There are a vast array of other points that I could make about this episode, not all so relevant to my main discussion here. I’m aiming to write another post to outline these so keep an eye out for that, and as always if you have any opinions don’t hesitate to comment!

Aokigahara; are imagined spatial identities dangerous?

Trigger warning: Suicide

During my final year of my undergraduate degree, I was researching popular media’s representations and portrayals of ‘the wilderness’ and came across a film titled “The Forest” (2016). I watched the film, to find it was based on the well-known Aokigahara Forests in Fujikawaguchiko, Japan. It follows a woman who goes into the so called “Suicide Forest” in order to find her sister, only to be confronted by supernatural powers loosely based around Japanese folklore associated with the forests. I remember thinking that this was a potentially problematic and exploitative representation of a real place, but I passed it off as it wasn’t so relevant to the essay I had been working on. However, following all of the recent drama surrounding YouTuber Logan Paul, I felt that it was an appropriate time to express my thoughts on the matter.

In short, Logan was visiting the forests of Aokigahara whilst on holiday in Japan and came across a man who had appeared to have committed suicide. He proceeded to film this man, capturing members of the cohort shouting comments such as “Yo, are you alive, are you fooling with us?” I won’t go into the entire story in depth, as you’ll be able to find it pretty easily; articles about the situation are everywhere right now. My point isn’t to rant and recycle hateful prose about Logan Paul, but is to bring attention to the much deeper, long standing issues at hand here.

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Source: http://247latestnews.com/aokigahara-inside-japans-suicide-forest/

Popular media portrayals of the forests of Aokigahara have very much turned it into a tourist attraction, so much so to the point where most people don’t know it’s real name; most seem to only know it by it’s nickname “The Suicide Forest”. Films such as “The Forest” (2016) that I previously mentioned contribute to making-light of the much darker contexts of the forests. Mental health treatment in Japan has been noted as significantly underdeveloped in comparison to other countries at similar stages of socio-economic development, and therefore it is much more of a taboo topic than we might initially imagine. Japanese folklore says that the forests may have been a place where ubasute was practiced, which is the bringing and leaving of elderly and sick individuals to die. Following an increase in suicide rates in Fujikawaguchiko in 2004, the authorities decided not to publicise the suicides of the bodies found in the forests, in the fear it might gloriglorify the act. This ultimately has resulted in it being viewed as a place of privacy, where suicide would not be reported, and so no shame would be cast upon the individual nor their families; a suicide within the forests of Aokigahara has been viewed as ‘honourable suicide‘ in Japanese culture. From a Western perspective, to a certain extent I view it as space that is producing an extremely dangerous imagined community of anonymity for suicidal Japanese individuals.

However, my anger comes mainly from the argument that we, Western society, are the very ones who are funding and strengthening Aokigahara as a tourist attraction; it is us who are unethical enough to take photographs and produce horror films, reinforcing the ideas of Aokigahara as a fun, scary place to visit with friends. We are helping to fund this place as a tourist attraction, as shown through the whole situation with Logan Paul’s video. On another note, is it just me who finds it disrespectful that he wore a bright green alien hat?

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If you look at this screen shot from a Google search for “Aokigahara” you can see that the issue has been around longer than since the publishing of Logan’s YouTube video. With a 4.1 star rating, 699 visitor reviews and ‘opening hours’ information, it’s obvious to see this is deeper than most people are initially considering. Yes, it could be argued that the old folklores of the forest result in Aokigahara being an interesting and heavily loaded socio-cultural site of meaning, but it’s delusional to suggest that we are not contributing to a significant extent. As popular media creates these ‘Suicide Forest’ identities of Aokigahara, we must realise that we are not only helping to fund it as a tourist attraction but we are simultaneously exploiting the tabooization of mental health in Japan. Western society seems to be constantly raging about how mental health shouldn’t be a taboo subject, so why do we ignore the fact that we are assisting in the advantage-taking of the taboo in Japan for capitalistic gain?

Of course I’m aware that I am very explicitly writing from a Western perspective, but the film “The Forest” wasn’t received well in Japan when it was released, as it is somewhat viewed as an ‘honourable suicide’ when committed within the forests of Aokigahara. I’m also aware that I’ll never be able to write from a native, Japanese perspective as opposed to as a mere spectator of Japanese culture, but even so we must question what the dangerous potentialities of imagined spatial identities produced by the medias are, and the impact they may have further along the line.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear what you have to say, so please do comment and drop me messages if you have anything to say!

 

Performing wild geographies; voice[s] of nature

At the end of last term, I had the privilege of being involved in a workshop on performing wild geographies, an ongoing project with the Geography and Drama departments at RHUL. It’s no secret that geography is a heavily interdisciplinary subject, covering everything from quaternary science, to artistic practice, to international development, and that was exactly what the workshop was about. Exploring how scientists, geographers and artists might work together, the project attempts to imagine the repopulation of nature with its previous inhabitants.

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Photograph by Verity Bell, 2017

The first thing we were asked to do that day was to choose a specific tree and listen to it, writing down everything we hear the tree say, zoning out everything else around us. Personally I found this really hard, and found that my journal entries ended up being about the sounds I imagined such as the branches at the top of the tree hitting each other, and even ended up discussing intensity of the silence of the tree; there were moments of silence that felt stronger than others, as such. Afterwards we were asked to produce a series of performances – some individual, some in groups. It was really interesting to see how much everyone’s performances differed. Some were extremely chaotic and high energy, whereas others were delicately, precisely choreographed movements.

Reflecting on these activities has made me think a lot about the ways in which we make sense of nature, and nature’s voice. But more so about how we force certain narratives into the scenarios. The question in my mind is “how do we give nature a voice when it is unable to speak, and what is this voice saying?” If you were to ask about the voice of nature, how many people would think of David Attenborough’s dulcet narrations of natural phenomena? I know I’m guilty of this. However, watching everybody’s performances in the workshop made me realise that we all have individual voices to give nature, and upon reflection I’ve begun to understand that the way in which this project aims to impact the way publics engage with wildlife and wilderness isn’t necessarily through listening directly to nature, but through listening to the hybrid interpretations of scientists, artists and geographers. Previously I’d made assumptions that giving nature a voice was always a negative and bias act, but this workshop helped me realise that through giving nature these multiple, hybrid voices we make interaction with the wilderness more of a publicly accessible act.

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The more voices that nature has, the more likely that somebody else will be able to relate, and this is much like a snowball effect whereby changing engagements with nature will continue at an exponential rate. This project is a great way of triggering this snowball effect, and if you get an opportunity to be involved then definitely don’t pass it up. At first, I must admit, I was sceptical about the project. But through participating I began to understand the ways in which performance making as a research method can offer a lot in terms of social influence.

If you’d like to find out more about the project, make sure to have a browse of the Performing Wild Geographies RHUL page!

Grow Heathrow: thoughts on [un]safe spaces

Just over a week ago, me and the rest of the 2018 MA Cultural Geography (Research) class put down the books and our laptops to take a break from essaying, and visit Grow Heathrow.

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Photo: Daniel Jones, 2017 / Instagram: @danielpjones

Grow Heathrow is a squatted community / commune, occupying land near Heathrow Airport. Many volunteers and residents have come and gone, but all have contributed to the creation of this ‘safe space’. After ten minutes of banging a metal drum that acted as a doorbell, a really nice guy named Will came and welcomed us into the site. As he gave us a quick tour around the site, I was fascinated by the fact that at some points within the closed off space you could see the motorway, and hear the planes flying overhead. Whilst hearing about the amazing ways in which solar panels were made from scratch and that the site was 100% energy self-sufficient, and about how inclusive and safe the space was, I couldn’t help but just feel a little tense.

To give you some context, the residents at Grow Heathrow do not own the land; as I already mentioned it is a squatted community, living in opposition of Heathrow’s expansion plans. It even states on their website that “Grow Heathrow is under threat of eviction. Since 15 Aug 2014, bailiffs may arrive unannounced at any time. This will be the same long term, unless the landowner lets us buy the land”. It was clear that the very act of existing in that private space had been causing mixed reactions amongst the community, and as I walked past tents and tree-houses and humanure compost latrine-styled toilets, I wondered how inclusive this space really was.

I questioned the site’s true accessibility firstly through it’s accessibility, particularly for those with mobility issues. I bumped my head a number of times ducking under planks of wood, hanging wheels, and tree branches and I dread to think how I would have handled this situation had I been in a wheelchair for example. Not to mention the shards of glass scattered around the site – I would definitely not feel comfortable seeing children around. A safe space is supposed to be an inclusive space, regardless of gender, race, political views, etc, where people can openly discuss opinions without fear of reprisal. If people cannot get to the physical space in the first place, or dwell there safely, then the idea of this imagined safe-space is somewhat pointless.

Secondly, the residents pride themselves on maintaining a balance, diverse community, including different races, genders, sexualities, etc. However, one thing I noticed as I looked around and took pictures of the various environmentally inclined slogans and art dotted around the place was just how politicised the site actually was.

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Photo: Carwyn Greaves, 2017 / Instagram: @carwyngreaves

Evidently Theresa May is not a popular figure amongst the residents at Grow Heathrow, and they feel very strongly about people who think otherwise. Even if you are lucky enough to have the mobility-abilities required to access and navigate the site, you could be considered “lower than vermin” depending on your political views.

I discussed the importance of inclusivity within academia in a previous post, and this is no exception in a practical context. Views that sometimes go against our own are important to listen to; it’s counter productive to completely blank them and to exclude them from a physical space, as the residents seemed to be trying to do through their Tory-hating graffiti. Evidently there is, in fact, a fear of reprisal for any politically Conservative individuals who may choose to speak their minds in, or even simply enter, the Grow Heathrow space. However it’s not solely what a ‘safe space’ is by definition that raises questions over the legitimacy of their claims of a truly safe space, but also with the site as a whole being extremely inaccessible does it even matter? Are the attempts at creating a so-called safe space useless? The site is extremely politicised, not only in terms of Heathrow expansions, but also in the extremely anti-Conservative vibe, and even if an individual with opposing views was feel welcome to express their views they may not be able to, depending on their circumstances regarding mobility.

We must question when a ‘safe space’ becomes unsafe. To the residents of Grow Heathrow, they are free to express political views, and are mobile enough to navigate the site. However, this is not the case for everybody. We are all individuals, with different abilities, views and personalities. A safe space looks different to every single one of us, so we must begin to critique claims of spaces as safe rather than acknowledging them as simply ‘what is says on the tin’.