Audio-visual Countertopograpies of ‘Another’ Lockdown – A Collaborative Assessment

by Emilia Hermelin

Introduction: A Change in Rhythm  

“[Foss] Well, the lockdown was absolutely transformative. It was as though time itself…stood still. Life suddenly suspended in amber. Birds frozen in place in midair. 

The planet quite literally stopped revolving. 

[Nerrick] It was so quiet. You could actually hear yourself thinking…”

            (Death to 2020, 2020, 00:21:04)

On the 31st of October 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a second national lockdown for England, forcing ‘non-essential’ businesses to close for one month commencing Thursday 5th November. This meant that the hotel where I worked as a receptionist would have to close. Up until this point the hotel and restaurant had been busy with guests enjoying the last bit of warmer weather before the winter really set in. We were fully booked every day, the phone lines were constantly busy, and the office was filled with the sounds of ringing phones, tapping keyboards, and slamming doors. But in the last hour leading up to the much-anticipated announcement of a second lockdown the office went quiet. No one was booking in; no more email enquiries and the phones stopped ringing. It was as if everything had been placed on hold again. There was a break in the tapestry, a new landscape began to emerge. 

When we were asked to create an audio-visual topography of our experiences of lockdown, it was the contrast of going from spending my days in a busy office environment to staying at home with my own quiet that stood out for me. I wanted to communicate a change of pace and the sense of stillness that I had felt during lockdown. In my audio topography I have reflected on sounds and rhythms of capitalist landscapes. I have suggested that these landscapes are produced through a continuous ‘going-on’, of us partaking in repetitions of disciplined rhythms of everyday life – waking up, taking the bus to work, shopping, going to the gym, and so on. I suggest that during lockdown a lot of these rhythms were interrupted. I no longer had to be anywhere; I did not have to do anything in particular. This felt like a welcome break to me and I found myself breathing in the stillness that began so set in. 

It has been suggested that within neoliberal capitalist societies, stillness is often thought of as “a problem to be dealt with. A moment of emptiness or missed productivity” (Bissell & Fuller, 2011, p.3). Many of us feel lazy or guilty when we are not doing anything. Doing, producing, performing have become integral to our everyday lives and sustains systems of power that above all else relies on productivity and accumulation. Continued and uninterrupted productivity may therefore not always be effective ways to resist capitalist structures. Instead, it has been suggested that resistance can be found in the refusal to operate within the pre-orchestrated flows and rhythms of capitalist productivity (Cocker, 2009). Stillness within this framework becomes the opposite of passivity, and rather creates potential for change, a friction, something uncomfortable and new takes place – both in the sense that it is occurring not as a lack of an event but as an event in and of itself, and also in the sense that it takes up space and creates a new place within a hegemonic structure. 

            In the rest of this blogpost, I will reflect on the process of creating audio-visual topographies of lockdown and I will use Cindi Katz’s (2001) concept of countertopography to trace capitalism’s disciplining of time across multiple experiences and reflections on idleness during lockdown. I will begin by introducing the method of countertopography and explore its potential uses for a feminist critique. I will then move on to discuss my choice of using audio to create my topography, following the call of Smith (1997) who has urged geographers to move beyond the visual and pay more attention to how spaces are created through and by sounds. I will then explore how my audio-topography can be seen to connect and relate to Ceara and Adam’s topographies. This will lead into a discussion of the political value of telling collective stories as a way to build alliances.

Topographies and Countertopographies

In her article On the Grounds of Globalization…, Cindi Katz (2001a, p. 1214) asks; “What is a topography?” She begins to explore an answer by quoting the Oxford English Dictionary which defines a topography as “the accurate and detailed delineation and description of any locality” and “the features of a region or locality collective” (OED cited in Katz, 2001a, p.1214). A topography is therefore both the description and definition of particular places and the place, with all its features and particularities, itself. Importantly for Katz (2001a), “both are produced” (ibid., p.1215) through disciplining modes of power. Topography creates places by ‘mincing’ and ‘shredding’ the world into definable locations with a particular set of borders. It aims to uncover and map ‘truths’ about the world, often with the purpose of gaining control over localities for economic, military or political purposes. 

            Katz (2001a, p.1215) argues that if “topographical knowledge is so integrally important to capitalists and other agents of domination […] its appropriation should be important to countering them”. In her project of creating countertopographies, Katz (2001b) switches the geographical definition of topography to one that attempts to “[develop] a translocal politics opposed to globalized capitalism and other forms of oppression” (ibid., p.710). A critical topography is one that aims to produce ‘thick descriptions’ (Geertz, 1973) of how particular processes, for example that of capitalism’s disciplining of time, materializes in particular locations and further asks the question of how such processes can be seen to affect other locations.

Katz refers to these processes as contour lines and it is our “analytical task to trace these lines across places to show how places are connected by the same processes even as they are always situated within the specifics of their fully three-dimensinal space” (Pratt, 2004, p.162). However, this does not mean to say that the method of creating counter- topographies implies an attempt to homogenise the affects of specific processes. Rather, it is attuned to the partial and particular and recognises how issues and concerns that arise “can vary and play out differently depending upon the constellation of social relations encountered in various locations” (Katz, 2001b, p.722).

 Is has been argued that the method may therefore be a valuable tool for feminism as it has the potential to reinvigorate the material and geographical in feminist theory and critique. Katz has argued that although feminism recognises how knowledge is always situated (Haraway, 1988) and socially located, location is all too often conceptualised “as a subject position” (Pratt, 2004, p. 163), a space “from which materiality is largely evacuated” (Katz cited in Pratt, 2004, p.163). Countertopographies are both abstract and “thoroughly material” (Katz, 2001b, p.720) which allows them to “provide literal and figurative grounds for developing a critique of the social and political- economic relations sedimented into space” (ibid., p.721). The method takes a radical standpoint against the workings of power and offers a possibility to map alliances between otherwise separated localities and actors (Pratt, 2004).  

Creating an Audio-Topography

Katz (2001a) has highlighted how topographical data is commonly used in mapping and suggests that “[p]eople in power seem to have gone map-crazy” (ibid., p.1215). Mapping for Katz is not an innocent process that simply records ‘what is there’ but is a form of power which assumes that the world can be known through acts of looking and measuring (Dodge et al., 2009). A map offers a view of the world from above. Rose (2008, p.172) writes that the visual should therefore be recognised as often being “central to claims to geographical knowledge […]. Seeing and knowing are often conflated”. But even so, Smith (1997) argues that this does not necessarily mean that we have fully understood what it means to ‘see’ and “the power of the gaze” (ibid., p.503). Smith further argues that due to sight and the visual being given priority within geography, other senses are often not valued in the same way. Nevertheless, other senses equally contribute to our sense of space as our worlds are made up by so much more than what can be visually captured.

              Smith (1997) argues in particular for the value of sound because of how it can “evoke a sense of space and of society that differs from, and is complementary to, that

evoked by sight” (ibid, p.524). As I approached the task of creating a topography using audio-visual methods, I decided to explore the potential of audio separate from the visual. The topography that I have created builds on reflections on ‘spaces of sounds’ and I was particularly interested in capturing the rhythms of capitalist soundscapes. I wanted to explore how audio may be used as a method to bring into awareness the sounds that are taken for granted and often fade into the background of everyday life. Gallagher & Prior (2014) have argued that audio has the capacity to magnify that which is “hidden, fleeting, beyond or at the periphery of everyday awareness” (ibid., p. 271). This magnifying quality of sound also exists in the sense that it can bring us closer to environments or an event. Audio is said to have an affective quality that gives rise to emotions, associations (Gallagher, 2015) and memories (Butler, 2007). 

            The topography that I have created layers a vocalised narrative with sounds of everyday activities. I wanted to take the listener on a journey through the business of a capitalist soundscape with the sounds of car engines, supermarket checkouts, restaurant ambience and so on. I suggest that these sounds are created through repetetive processes that can be linked to neoliberal capitalism and my aim was to capture the continual overlapping of sounds that create flows of production and movement. These sounds are then contrasted with the stillness of lockdown which I suggest can be seen as a pause that created frictions and a break within these flows. At this point in the recording, I begin to reflect on other sounds; of sounds of silence, breath, shoes on the ground during a walk in the park, the making of a cup of tea and so on. The listener is invited into the new soundscape that I found myself in during lockdown, and although the sounds are personal and intimate, they are also relatable and recognisable. 

Countertopograpies of Another Lockdown: Stillness in Capitalist Time

As discussed above, countertopography creates the potential to connect and relate disparate experiences and locations by tracing contour lines of particular processes. The remaining part of this text will therefore engage in a discussion of how my audio topography may be seen to relate to the topographies that Adam and Ceara have created, and later I shall discuss the political value of telling our stories collectively. The contour lines that I trace in mine, Adam and Ceara’s topographies, are inspired by an essay by Katz (2011) in which she considers how neoliberal capitalism plays out in the lives of children. Here Katz considers capitalism’s obsession with creating value and its desire to hide and contain ‘waste’. Considering what capitalism defines as ‘waste’ she discusses children’s play as something that “some consider a ‘waste of time’” (ibid., p. 55), suggesting that time should not be wasted. In my recording, I reflect on lockdown as a break that has provided me with time to ‘not do anything at all’. This is something that usually brings on a feeling of guilt for not being productive, but instead I allow myself to just sit with the stillness. Reflections on time and stillness also exist within Adam (Smith, 2020) and Ceara’s (Webster, 2020) topographies.

Adam uses video and audio to reflect on creativity during lockdown. At one point the video comes to an end and we are left with the audio recording of a conversation during which it is discussed how difficult some people have found it to be alone during this time. This statement is followed by someone arguing that this might at times encourage a person to be creative, suggesting that moments of ‘emptiness’ or of boredom may allow us the space to ‘play’ and for creativity to grow (Biondo, 2019). The conversation suggests that we have an uneasy relationship with stillness. Although we might at time find it useful, it still feels troubling, lonely and boring, and these are all the things capitalism tells us not to be (Peeren, 2019). By “economic necessity” capitalism engages us in “repetitive, routinised labour (ibid., p.102), and if we are not active, we are told we are lazy. There is a “disciplining associated with capitalist production” which focuses on “channelling […] time and how it is ‘spent’ by whom, so that idleness is reserved for some and punished in others” (Katz, 2011, p.57).

But for some of us stillness broke into lockdown. Ceara’s video topography lacks sound completely, this gives the video a sense of being ‘at a loss for words’ or of numbness. Her use of visuals invites us to journey with her through an experience of loss and we sit with her in still (but not inactive) contemplation. Towards the second half of the video a text appears on the screen that says; “And it became apparent that we all need to find breathing spaces” (Webster, 2020, 00:02:55). All three topographies seem to speak to the importance of having time to oneself and they reveal a potential in idleness. Stillness is not just immobility, laziness, or a “gesture of refusal” (Bissell & Fuller, 2011, p.3) to be active. Rather, “stillness has a capacity to do things” (ibid., p.5) and creates frictions against the regulated flows that are produced by neoliberal capitalism (Cocker, 2009). It is a breathing space, a space for creativity and contemplation – a waste of capital’s time.

Telling Collective Stories

Feminists have for a long time argued that the ‘personal is political’ (Hanisch, 1969) and that there therefore is political value in personal stories. Countertopographical methods show how rich and detailed narratives of individual experiences and a focus on the local and particular have the potential to tell us something about “broader social and political context, and their telling can move, affect, and produce collectivities” (Cameron, 2012, p.574). Lorimer (2003) therefore suggest that geographers should acknowledge the value of the knowledge that is produced by its ‘grass-root’ practitioners, or ‘minor figures’. Small stories, as he calls them, can offer a new perspective and “encourages repeated shifts between different scales of enquiry” such as between “the institutional and the intimate” (ibid., p.200). Small stories break into and challenge major narratives and academic authority. In their telling, they reveal complexities and differences that often get lost in grand narratives.

            Although it has been suggested that stories may at times fail to resist dominant worldviews since they are always “constituted through ideological lenses” (Stone-Mediatore, 2003, p.1) which shape personal experiences, I believe that it is precisely the analytical capacity of countertopography that can enable us to trace contour lines of ideology and dominant processes across both what is being explicitly told within stories and also in what is left out. Paying attention to how narratives are constructed, what we can and cannot say, whose voices are heard and how they are represented are all important in knowledge making. Stories emerge through particular processes and their collective telling trace common histories and build alliances by ‘unhiding’ the effects of oppressive powers (Katz, 2001a).

 I would like to argue that the audio-visual methods used to create our topographies of lockdown have enabled us to create stories of intimate experiences in a way that is self-representative (Gislason et al., 2018). These counter-narratives speak with and to one another from multiple locations to subvert “the persistent hierarchy of knowledge producers and knowledges” (Nagar, 2013, p.3). Far from seeking one overarching ‘truth’ or master narrative, they allow for a “polyvocal framework attuned to a complex politics of difference” (Connolly-Shaffer, 2012, p.171) which may allow authors to “scrutinize their multiple – sometimes conflicting – experiences and truths” (Nagar, 2013, p.4). In this way, collective storytelling enables a self-reflexivity that can trace “epistemic shifts on personal and intimate terms” (Lorimer, 2003, p.214). 

Conclusion

In this text, I have wanted to reflect on the process of collaboratively creating an audio-visual countertopography of a second lockdown. I have wanted to explore how countertopography can be used to trace political processes across multiple stories, locations and experiences. This, I have suggested, allows a mapping of “continuities and discontinuities” and “involves a partial folding of one geography onto another” (Pratt, 2004, p. 163) without reducing one experience to the other. Rather, it seeks to counter the way in which conventional topographies come to ‘know’ the world through processes of ‘shredding’ and ‘mincing’ (Katz, 2001a), creating a world of borders, where one location needs to be made distinctly separated from another. By telling collective stories using the method of countertopography we engage in work that seek connections across these borders and draw attention to how seemingly disparate locations and experiences overlap and are affected by globalizing processes, such as capitalism.

I have attempted to trace contour lines of how capitalism manages and disciplines time, and I have suggested that our topographies can be seen to contain narratives and reflections about lockdown as a space that produced frictions in the way capitalism otherwise manages and channels time for the benefit of economic profit. Each topography is attentive to our unease with being ‘inactive’, but they all also seemingly find value in idleness. By producing ‘thick descriptions’ (Geertz, 1973) and detailed accounts of ‘minor figure’ experiences (Lorimer, 2003) our collective stories therefore give us an insight into how our everyday lives are all seemingly affected by these processes and discourses, although they are affected in different ways. Storytelling, with its attention to the everyday, the minor, and the particular, give us new perspectives of how capitalist processes and discourses play out on different grounds and at different scales.

References

Biondo, J. (2019). ‘Stillness in Dance/Movement Therapy: Potentiating Creativity on the Edge and in the Void’. In: American Journal of Dance Therapy, Vol. 41, 2019, pp. 113–121. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10465-018-9291-7 [Accessed 09/01/2021].

Bissell, D. & Fuller, G. (2011). Stillness in a Mobile World. London & New York: Routledge.

Butler, T. (2007). ‘Memoryscape: How Audio Walks Can Deepen Our Sense of Place by Integrating Art, Oral History and Cultural Geography’. In: Geography Compass, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 360-372. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749898.2007.00-017.x [Accessed 01/01/2021]. 

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Cocker, E. (2009). [Article]. ‘From Passivity to Potential: The Communitas of Stillness’. In: M/C Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.119 [Accessed 30/12/2020]. 

Connolly-Shaffer, P. (2012). [Ph.D. Theses]. Staging cross-border (reading) alliances: Feminist polyvocal testimonials at work. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/11299/141437 [Accessed 06/01/2021]. 

Death to 2020 (2020). [Online Film]. Directed by Charlie Brooker & Annabel Jones. England: Broke and Bones for Netflix. Available from Netflix [Viewed 01/01/2021]. 

Dodge, M, Kitchin, R. & Perkins, C. (2009). Rethinking Maps: New Frontiers in Cartographic Theory. London & New York: Routledge.

Gallagher, M. (2015). ‘Sounding ruins: reflections on the production of an ‘audio drift’’. In: Cultural Geographies, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 467–485. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/1474474014542745 [Accessed 29/12/2020]. 

Gallagher, M. & Prior, J. (2014). ‘Sonic geographies: Exploring phonographic methods’. In: Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 38, No. 2 (April 2014), pp. 267–84. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132513481014 [Accessed 29/12/2020]. 

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Gislason, M. K., Morgana, V. S., Mitchell-Fostera, K. & Parkesa, M. W. (2018). ‘Voices from the landscape: Storytelling as emergent counter-narratives and collective action from northern BC watersheds’. In: Health & Place, Vol. 54, November 2018, pp. 191-199. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2018.08.024 [Accessed 07/01/2021]. 

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Katz, C. (2011). ‘Accumulation, excess, childhood: Toward a Countertopography of risk and waste’. In: Documents d’Anàlisi Geogràfica, 2011, Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 47-60. PDF Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/39021106.pdf [Accessed 30/12/2020].

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Smith, A. (2020). [Video] Another experience of lockdown. University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences. Unpublished Video, Bristol.

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Webster, C. (2020). [Video] Another experience of lockdown. University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences. Unpublished Video, Bristol.

Speaking with nature by speaking with each other, featuring the Art and Science Research Group at the University of Bergen.

Connections are everywhere and it is always interesting to see how different societies interact with space and the environment. 

Image by: Ceara Webster.

When it comes to the environment there are multiple ways we can approach it, for example through environmental ethics, personal experience, posthumanist engagements, ecoart, biological or earth sciences. The Art & Science Research Group decided to see what happens when some of these perspectives come together. The about section on their website delineates that it is a “new initiative that aims at establishing a fruitful relationship between the Academy of Art and Design and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, to further the research, dialogue and communication on Climate Change”. After they reached out to the University of Bristol’s Environmental Humanities research group, I felt it would be nice to keep the connection going by featuring their blog here. Hopefully, this provides another perspective for you, dear reader, on what connections to nature look like in different spaces.

Their blog has a spectacular array of engagements with the natural world. One of my favourites is “How does a plant view the world?” by Ådne Sandvik Dyrnesli which outlines some of the more scientific dynamics of how plants are impacted by human actions.

If, like me, you’re captivated by what people choose to focus on in their art, you may appreciate another piece by Ådne Sandvik Dyrnesli called “Looking at people looking at plants”. I was intrigued by the artistic (photographic) choices here. Although it features similar scientific information in the piece, intimate details accent the story. For instance, “during the summer months, they [the researchers] sit on their knees, counting the plants.” These photographs draw into the place being written about so we can imagine the sensations of sitting amongst that same nature and what it would be like to count the plants. However, we are not taken there through the photographs in colour, but in black and white. To me this made me wonder more deeply – how do colours render our experiences of nature?

If you feel the need to quell any worries you have or to understand what people mean when they talk about ‘eco-anxiety’, you can find your fix through Ariadna Rodriguez’s piece, The eco anxiety. Don’t worry, the piece doesn’t spiral you into a fear of environmental doom. Alongside an explanation of the phenomenon it provides some action points that allow us all to manage a sense of eco-anxiety we may experience in our lives.

Whether you are more swayed by science, delve deep into art theory, or find yourself walking the line of both, there will be a piece that you find interesting here.

Take a look at their blog here: https://www.art-science-research-group.online/ and keep wondering.

SpotlightOn: Ben GJ Thomas

SpotlightOn will be showcasing research projects undertaken by Society and Space students at the University of Bristol for the 2020-21 academic year. This is a space to celebrate people’s achievements, efforts, and interests as we explore what moves us.

Today’s spotlight is on Ben GJ Thomas. Ben completed his undergraduate degree in 2012 in Photography and moved to Bristol in 2014 where he was the Curator of Learning at Arnolfini until last year. Ben began the Society and Space programme in 2019 and is interested in: visual culture; intersections between film & photography; social practice and the city; and, as can be found on his website, who speaks and who is heard in the stories we tell.

Ben has been working on a podcast, which you can listen to here. It focuses on stories of populations that are spoken for, even though they do speak for themselves, though the topic of the podcast may not be what you are expecting. Our podcast protagonists are eels (yes, eels speak?!).

Ben’s inspiration for focusing on eels was sparked upon seeing a noticeboard erected by, he assumes, Bristol City Council. The eel stuck inside his memory and inspired the poetic storytelling podcast that we can listen to, or read through a full transcript, today.

The threads of the hour-long podcast are complex and immersive, taking you through the motion as though, eel-like yourself, you become woven through the tales of the eel and its adventures. It situates the listener, or, at least, it situated me, in a moment and position of appreciation and reverence of the aquatic creature. Its ability to cross huge distances – across the entire Atlantic Ocean – in a process we humans forget about because it is a life (hi)story unseen and unknown to most of us. 

Us human, terrestrial, beings fly over and migrate across the sea, whether that’s for a holiday, interrailing experience, a permanent move, or interwoven into our darker and more complicated histories of slave trade and forced migration. This movement has a history in every creature and places are imbued with, though not only, the stories of the moves of humans and other creatures inhabiting it. We are not so different from the humble eel.

Yet anthropogenic-induced climate change is threatening them too, as their population decline adds to the damage being inflicted upon biodiversity across and within the world. There they weave, in between the huge canal walls of the United Kingdom and the United States – two great polluters. 

The podcast brings into the auditory and visual horizons histories of place, realities that are difficult to face, and the magical mystery that we can experience by stepping beside ourselves for just under an hour. While we still look through our eyes and hear through our ears, our focus is on an experience other than our own species. Yet, we remain interconnected to that “Other,” interwoven into its story in some way or another. In fact, the podcast is revealing and makes the listener/reader question the distinctions between “Other” and “Us,” and you may find those distinctions are not so distinct, after all.