‘If nobody else likes it, so what?’ Sewing as a queer lifeline

Image: Queer house music artist Kiddy Smile sewing (still from Facebook video)

Right at the beginning of the lockdown, I started sewing again. Before I became a geographer, I was a fashion student, and I still have all my sewing equipment in my room: a Singer machine, a pattern cutting ruler, assorted tape measures, scissors and metal tools, and several boxes filled with fabric, buttons, thread and needles. At the moment, I am not making clothes for myself – apart from my current quilting experiment – but rather face masks and scrubs, due to an utterly preventable shortage in the UK. Various groups have set up sewing hubs – either for ‘production line’ type sewing, for resource distribution (mostly fabrics or bedsheets) or for the distribution of the actual attire. I have always enjoyed sewing, however, talking to some of my female friends, it sounds like there is a clear divide: either, there is a total rejection of sewing as gendered oppression, or a total embrace as empowerment and liberation from the impositions of the fashion and home decoration industries. In terms of the NHS situation, it very much feels like gendered impositions: where male politicians fuck up, an army of mostly women with sewing machines has to come to the rescue. In the English language, even sewing related vocabulary feels gendered. At the same time, there is a pleasure in competence and creativity, which, although often exploited by people in power, cannot entirely be discredited. This made me think about why I started sewing, and why I kept persisting, although I was not actually that competent.

One reason was definitely an escape from the constraints of gender expectations. While I appreciated both extreme feminine and masculine styles (my childhood photos are rather trippy), clothes shopping became stressful when I had to negotiate concerns about adequate gender representation from parents and nervous shop assistants. This movement between clothes designated ‘male’ or ‘female’ still remains a problem, as many shops insist on separate changing rooms between rigidly gendered departments (for more reflection on unnecessarily gendered spaces, see geographer Petra Doan’s work). This is not helped by designers and companies that produce clothes for a narrow range of female stereotypes. I vividly remember not being able to find non-pink or purple indoor sports shoes for girls in my hometown even in the 2010s. There are some queer led companies now – US label Haute Butch being one example (some more labels discussed here) – that specialise in female masculinity or non-binary looks, but they sadly can’t be found on the high street, and they also do not cover the entire range of clothing needs.

Image: Two tomboys in female drag

My first attempt at rejecting ‘girl’ designated colours and patterns was through permanent markers and spray paints, received with thanks from my friend Nadine – via her dad who ran a Bosch garage. ‘Put edding on it’ became an in-joke as a solution for all sorts of social weirdnesses that presented themselves to us as teenagers. The logical progression then was to make my own clothes by sewing. Thankfully, my grandmother had won a near-indestructible sewing machine in the early 60s – she participated in every magazine and advertisement competition she could get her hands on – so I didn’t have to stitch everything by hand. First there were alterations, followed by things made from scraps and finally patterns and store-bought fabric. I remember the first big sewing project I attempted. I had found some ugly 80s white jersey with a black leopard pattern. For some reason, I thought this would make good shirt material, and decided to compliment this with black velvet cuffs and collar. Unsurprisingly, this was really hard to sew with a shirt pattern intended for a much lighter fabric and not jumper or coat fabric. Although the outcome was badly sewn and totally hideous, I wore it proudly, with a red beret and a wide black patent leather belt that my mother had lent me. Over the years, I tried my hand at overalls, sparkly blazers, brocade suits, bat costumes and musketeer shirts. Unsurprisingly, my friends and family made fun of me, but, despite everything, I really loved these home made clothes: I felt best, when I looked like an extra in an 80s B-movie.

When I finished school and a year’s job training as a secretary and translator, I decided to study fashion. It became impossible to get a job as a secretary anyway with my increasingly crazy hair. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to work in the fashion industry – I had undergone sufficient ‘reality shock’ through work placements at a local fashion factory and the local theatre’s costume department. However, I felt that fashion might be a space where I could be myself, meet other queer people and gradually shake off the mental prison that I could feel but not yet dismantle. I knew I had a lot of work to do against my imposed and internalised homophobia, which I would not have been able to put into words then – it was more intutitive. I also didn’t know about drag culture and the sewing practices that circulate in the queer community, and that even straight people are now familiar with through films, TV series and pop videos. Despite this lack of knowledge, in my teenage imagination, this mental work could not be completed in a regular job. While this now sounds totally naive, it actually worked – kind of. I feel that it was the moving to a different space – and growing older and more confident, being able to put things into words – that was helpful in the end, rather than fashion specifically.  Nevertheless, I still associate the building of my queer identity with sewing.

Image: ‘Remixed’ clothes from charity shop

In the present, I am reunited with my long suffering student machine, which has mostly been sitting idle, apart from the odd bit of mending and new human related presents. As soon as I dusted it off and started threading it up – with terracotta thread still from a charity shop in Wakefield where I lived as an undergrad – I felt a new relationship with my craft. I got out my scissors, my pattern cutting ruler, tracing paper, sellotape, pens, and started working, in a mode completely unknown to me: I suddenly knew what I was doing. I didn’t just feel unnaturally competent, even though my sewing/pattern cutting probably wasn’t that much better. I think I felt more in the moment, because I became aware of why I was doing what I was doing (Matrix moment alert!). On the one hand, I felt more connected to generations of women (and men) in my family who had sewn, woven and practiced other crafts; on the other, I felt connected to generations of queer people who had used sewing as a tool for identity finding and affirming, teaching and even grieving (my gay housemate immediately associates sewing with the AIDS Memorial Quilt). Technically, this should create considerable dissonance, given the fact that most people across my family history would not approve of my gender identity and sexuality. But somehow it doesn’t. Here is perhaps why:

In addition to the above, I feel a wider geographical connection through the ‘queer’ mix of people at my local sewing shop who represent a wide range of ethnicities, ages, (dis)abilities, gender, technical competence and purpose. These interactions have especially shaped my view of ‘craft’. Usually, craft is associated with necessity, enforced ‘tradition’, reproduction and lack of expressive and emotional power, in order to delineate it from art. By contrast, associate expressive and emotional power more with craft than with art. In fact, I associate art with a valuation as such from the outside. Although both art and craft are frequently practiced without the hope or desire for economic valuation, I feel that there is a different connection between valuation and how art and craft manifest in space, especially in terms of self-expression. For example, craft items tend to be things that one uses or looks at on a daily basis, and in many ways that one is judged by. It feels like the question: ‘is this art?’ is by-passed to go straight to questions such as ‘why does this guy have/make pastel pink bowls with penguins on them?’ This also allows for an interesting relationship with referencing, whether this involves geographical references, messing with gender stereotypes or juxtaposing time periods. While this sometimes leads to ethical issues with asymmetric cultural appropriation – for example, of Indigenous crafts – there is also an argument for a more hopeful kind of synergy.

Video: Many people agree that the quilts of the Gee’s Bend Collectiver are masterpieces. They are, in fact, now sold as works of art, although there is controversy around who actually profits from the sales (many thanks to Kirsten Barrett for the source!)

At my local sewing shop, and some offline and online sewing communities that I have visited, there is considerable sharing between people from different backgrounds, as well as considerable agreement on what constitutes great work (see video above). This could be seen as a sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ type of environment where conversations can take place as long as you don’t perform your specific identity too much. However, it could also be seen as a nerdy focus to which other identities, at least temporarily, come second. By this I do not mean that the other identity does not matter or should be treated as less important. The focus on the craft obviously does not erase tensions – I have had and witnessed many difficult interactions in craft spaces – but it also potentially gives a way in through curiosity about how someone else does something. This may, over time, translate into curiosity about how someone else is something. I understand that, for some people, this may be too invasive and undesirable, but it can also be a way to understand more of yourself rather than (as much as? by way of?) helping others understand you. For some craftspeople this is a very deliberate move – to flaunt skill and claim a space – whereas for others this is is more of a quiet, accidental or even unintentional practice. Although one could argue that there is always (self)expressive intention in craft. As one of the women in the Gee’s Bend documentary says: “And, if nobody else likes it, so what? [The quilt] is going on my bed – because it’s mine.” This is an attitude and way of making space that, for me, epitomises craft, and this is pretty much exactly the point from which I started.

This post is dedicated to my late godmother Sieglinde Wenck who passed away on Easter Sunday & whose fabric scissors I’m still using. 

Covid-19, “European Science” and the Plague

Image: Plague doctor from Jean-Jacques Manget, Traité de la peste (1721) You can find out more about this ‘hazmat suit’ prototype here.

Note: this blog post has been republished over at Discover Society.

I am writing this post from my room in South London, where I am currently in self-isolation. I have to think about how, about a month earlier, I gave a lecture to our Geography first years about the plague. To a room full of novice human and physical geographers, I said: “I know I am always banging on about the plague, but plague outbreaks have been really important events in history that continue to have repercussions for many things today – from legal rights to the way we do science.” I usually get some weird looks, especially when I start talking about things such as Byzantine refugees, witches, and other perhaps unusual entities in Geography. It is very likely, however, that this lecture will resonate quite differently from next year onwards. It is not that Covid-19 is like the plague – the plague is not even a virus, it is caused by bacteria. However, comparative social measures were adopted, and reinforced during these earlier outbreaks. From the current situation, we can see what even a comparably small outbreak of an infectious disease can do to society at various scales. I want to put this less as a scholarly task than as a helpful resonance that may build an affective connection not just to the past, but across today’s geographical regions.

Although I’m not an expert on the plague, it is often mentioned in work relating to my lectures, whether it’s in discussion of climate data or of class struggle in Europe. For this reason, I have been reading about it from different perspectives. This weekend, I was delighted when a friend and science scholar (thanks, Uli!) recommended a podcast on German radio that featured a historian of infectious diseases, Katharina Wolff (she also participated in another useful broad/podcast). What I enjoyed in particular was how Wolff moved between the scale of society and that of the individual. In particular, she stressed that ‘an epidemic something that one does’ (‘Seuche ist etwas, das man tut’). We are not powerless during an epidemic, and there is quite a lot one can do – especially by not doing a lot of things. As my local MP, A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan, has also emphasised in her messages: anyone can take action, regardless of government inaction, and that action should primarily be to withdraw from physical social life as much as possible. Here is a great video by US doctor Emily Porter that explains why this is helpful:

At the same time, Wolff made an argument about the lasting social consequences of an epidemic. On one occasion, Wolff phrased this along the lines of (I put this as a summarised translation): ‘illnesses affect the individual, epidemics affect societies – every epidemic or pandemic leaves traces in social life, from legal changes to cultural practices’. As mentioned earlier, this does not only include laws that regulate behaviour during epidemics – it also includes gestures, new kinds of cultural events and forms of solidarity. I really liked Wolff’s building of resonances across time, especially through the reading of old decrees from a Munich municipal archive. Although written in the Middle Ages, such instructions sound surprisingly modern. Further, she explained how, in the Middle Ages, many cities were visited by the plague every 10-12 years. Because of this, legal and social measures had to be put in place that would help with the response at the onset of the next wave. Over time, these measures have, of course, eroded, so now we are lacking these habitual practices and are experiencing them as an exceptional intervention.

A large part of the podcast was about these measures, and how people should critically evaluate them. Since epidemics function as a catalyst, they can be a force of good or evil. We are seeing this right now in public discussions of mobile phone tracing or pub closures. People are asking: how long are we okay with such measures, and are the necessary at all? Another discussion that relates to the loss of habitual practices is the perception of many people in the West that epidemics are a problem for everyone else in the world, but not them. In the podcast, this “geographic exceptionalism” was particularly emphasised by cultural anthropologist Hansjörg Dilger. That large numbers of people are dying in Europe and America comes to many as a shock. Despite the lack of trust in struggling healthcare systems, people are expecting them to still cope with the latest biological mutations. Since they are not, people are looking for analogies that may them help with the sudden shift in world view. These include making links with a Europe (or places nearby) that experienced similar events in the past. Tellingly, books such as Pale Rider by Laura Spinney and The Plague by Albert Camus are sold out in many online bookshops (the #coronavirussyllabus project may be of additional help).

Image result for pale rider book

In my lecture last month, the focus on the plague and other epidemics allowed me to (I hope!) build exactly this connection to events that may seem distant, but have on-going repercussions. Now we find these analogies in the mainstream press. For example, the current re-evaluation of whose work is indispensable echoes post-plague advances in worker’s rights, even if these may have been only temporary. There are concerns about the effect on women, LGBTIQ+ people and minority groups given the experiences during the plague. Women and queer people may no longer be burnt as witches, and minorities such as Jews may no longer be officially persecuted, but different communities will be affected differently (see the violence against “Chinese looking” people, or special warnings going out to multi-generational Muslim households here in the UK). In some ways there are even direct parallels, in that queer people are still getting blamed and persecuted in some societies whenever there is a crisis, across the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world.

There are also parallels regarding from a physical geography perspective. As physical geographers are painfully aware, past large-scale losses of human life through epidemics (e.g. the Orbis spike) have resulted in carbon being taken out of the atmosphere. This is an argument that is currently, and very insensitively, advanced by some climate activists. A more benign version focuses on the lack of airplane, ground traffic and industry pollution. Further, climate fluctuations itself are linked to disease. For example, some scientists and historians have argued that the consequences of climatic events such as the Little Ice Age (brilliantly illustrated in the animation below) may have made people more susceptible to disease. In the present, environmental destruction, more than climate change, has been blamed for the outbreak of new epidemics. The climate is mainly seen as a compounding factor, especially when combined with environmental mismanagement, on-going consequences of colonialism and capitalism, and other natural and political disasters.

One thing that I especially emphasise is the loss of oral and written knowledge during the plague, which is perhaps more difficult to imagine today (unless we stop being able to maintain the internet or our libraries). Perhaps the experience of quarantine may help students understand – I hope in the most benign way – that people who had no internet or phones were somewhat more cut off from each other. Like today, cities tended to be the focus of both knowledge production and outbreaks – they are densely populated and experience a lot of through-traffic. During an upheaval such as an epidemic, intellectual life eventually gets put on hold. As a mild analogy, lecturers may still be giving online seminars this week, but when things get worse, they may be busy volunteering for food banks, hospitals, or neighbourhood organisations. The same goes for the students. Indeed, some university VCs have encouraged such pursuits for both staff and students. In the worst case scenario, people get sick to varying degrees. Now scale this up to imagine the conditions during the plague(s), not just with schools, monasteries and institutions closing, but also with the fragility of print media. The first major plague wave was before the advent of book printing, with select hand copied manuscripts that may also have had to serve as fuel during quarantines, or became destroyed in riots.

But it is also important to not just focus on the immediate disaster, but also the future that is simultaneously being ‘incubated’. Here, we may have some useful parallels again. Many authors in the UK media currently write hopeful pieces about the relaxation of both austerity measures and immigration rules. The NHS is deliberately underfunded to artificially prime it for privatisation – people are hopeful, that this changes, along with the punishing living and working conditions of precarious, but essential workers. In a related argument, migration scholars have called for a lifting of the ‘skilled worker’ earnings cap that ignores how much the current UK economy relies on ‘inferior’, so-called ‘unskilled’ work. Indeed, what eventually helped Europe recover was in part an influx of Byzantine refugees after the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople. While the emphasis here has been on the ‘skilled workers’, it is nevertheless an interesting analogy.

Byzantine refugees are credited for bringing some of the lost knowledge back, and not just ‘European’ knowledge (the Greeks and Romans were never just European anyway, given their geographical distribution), but also Middle Eastern and Indian texts (there is an interesting story map about this here). This event was key in reconnecting scholars geographically. A painting that illustrates this is The School of Athens by Raphael (1509-11). Although not every person in this painting has been clearly identified, there is certainty that it includes Muslim polymath Averroes/Ibn Rushd and Iranian spiritual leader Zoroaster. Likewise, Dante’s Divine Comedy also features three Muslim philosophers: Averroes, Avicenna and Saladin. An articled called The grandfather of the European Enlightenment was Muslim in fact argues that Averroes was a key influence not only on the European Renaissance, but also the European Enlightenment. There are many more sources that confirm that European intellectual movements were not just European, but influenced by cross-cultural developments (check out Jim Al-Khalili‘s Science and Islam on BBC Player). If we look at our basic scientific measuring devices such as the compass (Chinese), calendar (Egyptian), clock time (Babylonian) and our numeral system (Hindu-Arabic), this should be evident. “European science” is not an entity that can be so easily isolated.

Image: The School of Athens – Painting by Raphael (Wikipedia)

Knowledge contracts and expands throughout history, because of events such as epidemics, wars, and migration. This is easy enough to understand, but it usually feels a lot more abstract. While I was not hoping for a crisis to make this connection more real, we are currently in the midst of one, and this spatio-temporal resonance may actually become more and more needed. Not only do past events highlight the need for a different way of teaching European science and history, but studying connections can also provide emotional support. What we are dealing with right now is not (just) a scary state of exception, but something that keeps recurring – not just in ‘other’ parts of the world, but right here. As difficult as this may be, given the ubiquitous narrative about ‘Fortress Europe’ in more than one sense, I really hope that this connection rises to the surface not just in terms of disease control, but also in terms of shared knowledge and culture. This is something to which we can all contribute, in much the same way that we can contribute to keeping people physically healthy.


Political Geology: Active Stratigraphies and the Making of Life

I have just received a hardcopy of the ‘Political Geology‘ collection, edited by Adam Bobbette and Amy Donovan. I have a chapter in it called ‘Against ‘Terrenism’: Léopold Sédar Senghor, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Fear of a De-spiritualised Earth’. The title of the book may seem confusing: when isn’t geology political? Aren’t we constantly fighting over resources or negotiating geologic sources of disaster? What the book is trying to do is to look at how geology can also move into politics in other ways, for instance, as a foundation for political philosophies or related intellectual challenges. My own chapter looks at the tension within organicist visions of the inorganic, and how they are politically utilised in problematic ways.

In 1961 Négritude poet and Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor organised a conference entitled ‘Construire la Terre’ (Building the Earth), which was inspired by the work of the French geologist, palaeontologist, philosopher and Catholic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. What Senghor attempted in his speech could be described as an attempt at imagining African post-independence politics through geological dimensions. This chapter looks at the political issues with Senghor’s vision of planetary development, and compares it with today’s desires for ‘ancestral geographies’ across the political spectrum.

A night at the local history museum

Image: Tiny Lüneburg on top of massive geological layers

I left my hometown in Northern Germany 20 years ago to live in the UK. It has been interesting to watch the changes in Lüneburg from afar – from the re-development of the small local university into Leuphana to the integration of the town into the nearby city of Hamburg’s transport system. Two building projects have recently been at the centre of attention: an extravagant and pricey central building for Leuphana University designed by US architect Daniel Libeskind, and a new museum of local history that brings together natural and human history. This year, I finally managed to visit both, and, a few weeks ago, I had the luxury of having the museum to myself for one whole afternoon, while people were out doing last minute Christmas preparations. I was curious how the museum connected the different aspects that made the town, and was not disappointed.

Image: Leuphana Audimax. Source: NDR.

Museum Lüneburg joins an existing landscape of museums in town that include the German Salt Museum (the town’s wealth was based on salt, an important food preservative in the Middle Ages), the Northern German Brewery Museum (did you know that sociologist Niklas Luhmann came from a family of local brewers and owned a pub?) and the controversially titled East Prussian National Museum (the town’s population doubled with refugees from this region after WW2, including some of my own family). It brings together the collection of the former local Natural History Museum and the Museum of the Principality of Lüneburg that were both previously combined in a ‘Knight’s Academy’ collection that was used to prepare young 18th and 19th century aristocrats for university. Conceived in 2007 to update the presentations of the museum contents, the new and rather beautiful museum was finally opened in 2015.

Image: The Museum Lüneburg by day. Photo: Bernd Hiepe

From the UK, I was used to not paying for public museums, so I accidentally walked in without going to the information desk first. After being politely alerted to the entry fee, I purchased a ticket – and delighted the museum worker by telling her that I was from abroad (“this will look great in our statistics!”) – phew! The 8 Euros turned out to be rather good value for money, considering that I spent three hours trawling through two levels (thankfully, entry is free for under-18s and students, and there are a variety of discounts). I was actually surprised how long I spent there, considering that I was familiar with much of the material. I could easily have spent more time there, but the building was closing for the evening. So, what kept me fascinated for so long?

Image: One of the many (bilingual) museum panels

First of all, I really loved the combination of big and small narrative arches. To me, the museum managed to shuttle back and forth between natural and human history, and between references across time. I emerged from the tour with an uncanny sense that everything is now, rather than somewhere located in the past. The earth had shoved together this strange place, and we’re still (badly) managing what’s underneath and around us. It very much felt like walking through a local version of Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.

Image: Lüneburg on the move!

The exhibition began with geological history and especially drew attention to the formation of the salt domes that the town is famous for. I especially loved the 3-D model of the town with its geological layers underneath (photo at the beginning of this post) – a very humbling experience. I also liked the many framed cross-sections and ground formation models, some of which illustrated movement over time as well as the current state.

Image: One of those beautiful cross-sections

The following section introduced local wildlife and showed past and present occupations such as shepherding and river pearl harvesting. Due to the town’s dependency on the salt production, which required copious amounts of firewood, the surrounding forests were decimated so badly that an entirely new landscape developed – Lüneburg Heath. Add to this peat production from the local moors, and you might understand how, for centuries, the outskirts were shunned as a bleak desert. However, with the rise of Romanticism, the landscape became reinterpreted to such a degree that it started to give rise to a tourism industry. Many German Heimatfilme are set in the Heath and its sheep filled purple bloom, and there is also a new soap opera called ‘Rote Rosen’ (Red Roses) set in the town, so the tourists keep on coming.

Image: Recent touristic portrayal of the Totengrund (dead ground/grounds of the dead) on Lüneburg Heath.

The next section was dedicated to local power struggles and how these tied in to wider dynamics – struggles between centres and peripheries, nobles and burghers, Catholics and Protestants. Brutal changes marked local developments, including the destruction of the town of Bardowick – an extremely powerful place in the Middle Ages, but unwilling to cooperate with Henry the Lion who practically erased the place in response and granted the tiny village of Lüneburg town status instead. Local myths were folded in, too, such as folk heroes, a strange moon cult around the market place’s water feature, and the mysterious appearance of materials from the Middle East.

Image: Replica of the Ebstorf Map (original destroyed in WW2)

Education and knowledge was also a big topic, since the area was littered with monasteries, one of which was responsible for creating the 13th century Ebstorf Map. As in many other places at the time, a new relationship to the world was formed, which not only resulted in new maps, but in new scientific instrumentation and ordering systems.

Image: Wendland traditions, old and new…

The final section then brought together more recent history with everything else that had gone on before. Pottery and other artefacts from various ages and people gave the impression of an on-going familiar domesticity, not just across time, but also across different human species and other cultures. For instance, traditional headdresses from the Wendland area were juxtaposed with anti-nuclear protest versions of those hats (see image above), since the salt domes are now being used for nuclear waste storage. In the same section, the story of the Heath from desert to tourist destination was treated in more detail, but also the Nazi’s use of medieval and pagan traditions to forge local culture (such as a barrel race on horseback through the town). The heavy uptake of ‘pagan culture’ amongst neo-Nazis still makes celebrations such as winter or summer solstice celebrations problematic – celebrations that tend to have very positive connotations in the UK (when I tell my friends in Germany that I went to a UK friend’s solstice celebration, they look at me in shock).

Image: The synagoge of Lüneburg before its destruction. Source: Jüdische Gemeinden

The museum’s dealings with the local National Socialist past was particularly engaging, despite the comparatively small space dedicated to it. A 3-D town model built by a local Social Democrat politician and Nazi opponent was used to narrate the history of over 20 sites of Nazi crime. This included the destruction of the enormous local synagogue and the persecution of its congregation, the transformation of a progressive mental health clinic to a euthanasia programme, but also many small, insidious ways such as charity, local history and sports programmes, which helped Nazism gain such popular following. Remarkably, quite a few of the artefacts and description implicated existing local families, businesses and politicians, to show how horrific events from the time still benefit the perpetrators and the local population.

Image: Rewilding Exhibition poster

Following on, a temporary exhibition gave information on the rewilding debate – the reappearance of wolves and other previously disappeared animal species in the forests. In a mostly rural area such as that surrounding Lüneburg, the debate is almost bigger than the refugee debate, although themes tend to overlap: do wolves contribute to keeping the local deer and wild boar population in check that is spiralling out of control due to biofuel related monoculture? Or do wolves ‘not have a place in Europe anymore’ and ‘should stay in the East where there is more space, and they can do whatever they want’?

Image: Middle Eastern Buffet in Kaltenmoor, housed by the AWO (German Social Democrats affiliated charity). Source: AWO

Sadly, I did not have much time left for this exhibit, but I think that the museum did not seek to make the natural and human history connection here. This uncomfortable intersection, however, made me wonder whether the museum could highlight some of the international/cross-cultural connections of the town, in particular in connection with the refugees debate and the high occurrence of mostly Asian ‘mail order brides’ in rural areas. Are people, things and practices from other places really a new phenomenon (e.g. where do those “German potatoes” really come from?), or is Germany particularly good at erasing such influences? The manifold attempts across German history at suppressing Afro-Germans come to mind, but also early Middle Eastern influences. Coming from a family with a diverse ethnic background, and from an area of town with a high immigrant population (Kaltenmoor) that is frequently portrayed in the media as a ‘social problem area‘, some of the exhibits that implied outside influences made me wish to probe such connections more deeply.

Mutable Matter turns 10!

Apologies for the long radio silence, but a lot has been happening behind the scenes. First of all: Mutable Matter is ten years old today! I started this blog on 24 September 2007 as part of my Open University PhD research and because I wanted to communicate with OU students and people beyond academia. I also wanted to experiment with writing and communication styles, and to show how our imagination of matter manifests in different spaces. Initially, the blog focused more on the material processes at ‘invisible’ scales such as the atomic and molecular scale, and how these affect the geographical imagination. Since then, the blog has kept morphing and moving across a diversity of on- and offline spaces, and has never been short of providing me with surprising encounters. An enormous thank you is due to all my readers and subscribers. Thank you also for all the feedback over the last ten years.

What is happening at the moment?

From January 2018, I will be starting a lectureship at the University of Leicester, in the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment. The post has a focus on the geohumanities, and am looking forward to some exciting teaching, research and other creative experiments with colleagues from different disciplines. I am also working on two books, one on materialism and and another one on Mutable Matter. I am also in the process of assembling a printed zine that is based around both publications and tries to make the work that I do accessible to a wider audience. Some exciting events are also coming up: the Mutable Matter/Warwick Social Theory Centre workshop Cosmos & Crisis: Interdisciplinary Conversations (funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant) is happening this coming Wednesday and Thursday. It focuses on challenges to the Western worldview from different viewpoints. I have also been invited to present at two other events: the second part of the Political Geology workshop at Cambridge University on 17 November 2017, and at a workshop on experimentation at Oxford on 8 January 2018. And of course, there is Curved Radio, to which I keep contributing (many thanks to Gayle Austin for having me!).

Thank you again for staying tuned – here is to future blog mutations! I am going to eat some cake now… (not the one pictured above)

Imagining “World Music”

My spot on last week’s Curved Radio programme was on ‘world music’. Since the topic overlaps with my research, I thought I’d post a short summary. Basically, I played three tracks by French bands that are classified as ‘world music’ and have quite different relations with the ‘world making’ of ‘world music’.

‘World music’ has been a controversial term since its conception. Mainly used as a Western marketing term for non-Western ‘traditional’ music in the 80s, it has expanded to included almost anything that isn’t anglophone Western pop music (which, could be argued, isn’t just ‘Western’ in the first place). As South African trumpet player and composer Hugh Masekela, interviewed by Anya Wassenberg for the Huffington Post, describes it: “At one point, the term ‘world music’ was coined,” he remarked dryly. “I woke up one day and people told me I was playing world music.”

Many have argued that it is practically meaningless, other than as a commercial, quasi-colonial construct. In a discussion on Reddit, contributor Scaredoftriangles comments: “World music has always been such a derogatory term to me…pan pipes, chimes, old men in non-ironic wolf shirts selling dreamcatchers.” Indeed, this sight can be experienced at many ‘world music’ events, and even bigger festivals such as Peter Gabriel et al’s Womad. One of the more famous rants against ‘world music’ is David Byrne‘s 1999 New York Times Commentary: ‘I Hate World Music’. In this article, he criticises both its absurdity as a category and its exoticisation. This exoticisation works down to the shape of award figurines given out for ‘world music’. For Wassenberg, the term ‘world music serves to ‘ghettoiz[e] great music’.

At the same time, there have been many defences of ‘world music’, even from people who are uncomfortable with the term. There appear to be two broad directions: the ‘conservation’ and the ‘decolonisation’. The ‘conservationists’ believe that ‘world music’ contributes to ‘discovering’, supporting and thus preserving types of music that would otherwise have gone out of fashion and thus cultural practice. From ‘ethnological’ recordings to Buena Vista Social Club, there is a huge spectrum of attempts to create ‘revivals’, some more successful than others. Advocates of this practice argue that the commercial appropriation, insufficient contextualisation and frequent dependence on Western valudation outweighs the benefits to the culture in question.

The ‘decolonial‘ direction is characterised by the impulse to use Western/non-Western cultural exchange to dislocate the West as a centre. This is also the direction that Curved Radio tries to follow. This direction more or less comfortably unites, for instance, people who have found their world expanded through hearing music from other places, and people who are struggling against losing further ground in the struggle over cultural hierarchies. Here, the entanglement of economic and cultural power are hotly debated, and the various means that could work toward subverting the worlds sonic hierarchies and towards creating a different one. Particularly here, the terms of presenting music from other cultures are constantly negotiated, although this impulse can also sometimes be found with the ‘conservationists’. I tried to illustrate some of these issues through three band that I encountered in France around the same time in the early 2000s: Edgar de L’est, Monkomarok and Lo’Jo.

Edgar de L’est (Isabelle Becker and Edgar Daguier), as the name already implies (a world play on ‘at Gare de L’Est’), hav a very tongue-in-cheek take on ‘world music’. If I remember correctly, I read in an interview that were founded on the idea to sonically imagine other places through music. To me, their chanson, folk and jazz inflected music reflects the German term Fernweh – a longing to be in a far-away place. With titles such as ‘Mon Cowboy’, ‘L’Orient’, ‘Slavinka’, they could easily be accused of exoticisation. At the same time, their music feels both innocent (like a child discovering the world, not being able to go anywhere and contextualise yet) and knowing (playing with Western/non-Western clichés through ‘trashy’ renditions). It is an approach that we have attempted with a song in my own band, now, where we took a ridiculous commercial jingle for Asian food and deconstructed it in a song called ‘Ethnik Snack‘. In the song ‘L’Orient’, Edgar de L’Est use a different method of subversion: they go through every imaginable orientalisation, but also give a look behind the scenes where the lonely, miserable narrator sits drunk in a bed in Paris, a city and sound fraught with its own struggle against commercial caricature. It’s about exoticisation as both a form of sad escapism and as an inevitable perpetuation of that which one is trying to escape from. (I did actually play ‘Slavinka’ on the programme, but now I think the ‘L’Orient’ song illustrates their method best – plus there is a video online!)

The second track that I played was from Toulousian experimental ‘world’ band Monkomarok (Alima Hamel, Laurent Rochelle, Sylvain Fournier, Loic Schild) – who were active from 2000-2008. Their first album blew my mind with its range of influences and its trippy sound. I still love how they worked with tension and energy, it felt like they were using acoustic music (although they sometimes also use synthesisers) to produce an electric surge. The sleeve notes to this 2002 album, entitled ‘Au plafond’, talk about the profundity of their own musical encounters and about creating an imaginary place within them. This is also reflected in the many thankyous to people they count as influences, supporters and collaborators. Their use of vocals is particularly interesting, with Alima Hamel (who is also a poet) singing in languages such as Algerian Arabic, French and German but also experimenting with sound textures. On ‘Au plafond’, she is doing a lot of impressive percussive work with her voice, as well ‘controlled chaos’ vocalisations which make her sound like a human randomizer. For me, this ‘what on Earth is this??’ reaction that the band often elicits, paired with their definite Western and non-Western influences, is an interesting musical provocation – to the imagined commercial ‘world music’ utopia but also to many music genres that appear to have ossified into particular forms such as ‘dance music’ or ‘jazz’. While I played the hypnotic ‘dance’ track ‘Le Sueur’ (Sweat), there is no online recording, so here, instead, is a rare live recording of ‘Au Plafond”s opening refusal, ‘Non Merci’.

The lyrics of this song are remarkable, too, especially through the play on the double meaning of the French word for ‘everyone’: ‘tout le monde’. For the current world to work, everyone is supposed to hide their anger – the machine must run smoothly – but she is celebrating refusal.

Je suis toujours en colère
Ca ne se voit pas
C’est parce que je m’applique
Je fais comme tout le monde
Je trompe mon monde
Je fais semblant

Ani kolwun mkelba
Ndil kime koul ness
Nralat lribed
Ndil bel reni

Ma colère?
Je l’ai soingneusement cousu contre mon sein
Les mains plenes contre mon coeur
Qu’est ce que je deviendrai sans ma colère?
Un pantin raide couleur glaise.
Une machine à fabriquer des ronds.
Une chose parfaite qui ne dit jamais non.
Un indigne mouton borgne sans rêves.
Non merci, sans façon…
Je fais l’apologie du refus.
Je fais l’éloge du pas d’accord
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka

The final track of the show was from Lo’Jo, who are much more well-known in the offical ‘world music’ circuit due to their participation in WOMAD and collaborations with groups such as Tinariwen and Gangbe Brass Band. They initially started out in the early 1980s as a duo or trio (Denis Péan, Richard Bourreau), which seemed to grow into a community that combined music with street theatre, acrobatics, dance, film. The group did not become a more fixed formation and did not record albums until the mid-1990s. The sound of Lo’Jo is frequently described as ‘Gypsy’, tribal, nomadic (initially they were even called Lo’Jo Triban) or even shamanic, as they combine folk music from North and West Africa, Eastern and Western Europe and the Caribbean. I have also seen the term ‘global fusion’ applied to them, and one album review (for ‘Au Cabaret Sauvage’, 2002) reads “Tom Waits meets the Touaregs. Very tasty.”

What drew me to them were their epic, ecstatic sound, that is produced by a super-tight arrangement of string instruments (khora, violin, bass), percussion and vocal harmonies (amazing singers Yamina and Nadia Nid el Mourid, supported by Kham Meslien and Baptiste Brondy on bass and drums). John Lusk from the BBC argues that despite their many influences, they have a distinctive local sound: “As the barriers around ‘fortress Europe’ get ever higher, Lo’Jo’s open-minded and outward-looking approach to music seems to make them more and more identifiably French.” Lusk is quick to point out that around 56% of the French population identify as being of ‘foreign’ background, and that the band’s local support and ties very much contribute to the development of their sound:

“The group’s core still live and work collectively in a farmhouse given them by the mayor of Angers in return for providing local children with musical education. Another municipally inspired boost for the unlikely idealists came with twinning of their hometown with the Malian capital of Bamako.”

In many ways, Lo’Jo personify the utopian and problematic tropes of works music, and I cannot help thinking about them when listening to their undoubtedly beautiful music. The band describe themselves as ‘plantetary troubadours’ who maintain an ‘anarchic garden’ of ‘world rhythms and universal harmonies’, which may raise alarm bells with cultural and especially decolonial critics. At the same time, Lo’Jo emphasise and try to practice cultural exchange on equal terms. In and outside their music campaign for a multicultural French national ideintity (e.g. their song “La Marseillaise en Creole“), and in an interview in the New York Times, where Denis Péan explains: “The name Lojo means nothing. It is just a sound. Basically, Lojo is a school. Everybody learns. Everybody teaches.” For me, the sound and journey(s) of Lo’Jo exemplify that, especially for white ‘Westerners’, different forms of cultural exchange need to be attempted despite the many problems on the way. We all shape world music and the economy and relations it is embedded in, and music is a place as good as any other to start experimenting.

RGS-IBG 2017 RACE Working Group Call for Sessions

The Race, Culture and Equality (RACE) Working Group would like to invite proposals for sessions to be sponsored by RACE at the RGS-IBG annual conference 2017 titled ‘Decolonizing geographical knowledges: opening up geography to the world’. A key objective of the RACE Working Group of the RGS-IBG is to promote scholarship on topics of racial inequality, colonization, decolonization and whiteness, and to encourage dialogue on race that advances academic knowledge and progressive practices. The RACE Working Group therefore welcomes proposals on these topics more generally, but we strongly encourage proposals that critically and creatively engage with these topics in relation to the conference theme specifically, for example; by exploring the limitations, contradictions and injustices of organising a conference on the topic of decolonization in western neoliberal academic settings; and/or by examining the contemporary co-option of decolonial thinking in a range of settings. We are also interested in sponsoring sessions and activities by activists and scholar-activists, as well as artists and scholar-artists, that propose and explore practical initiatives for dismantling colonial processes within the discipline, within the university system, and within the RGS-IBG.

Please email proposals to raceworkinggroup@gmail.com by 22 January 2017. Submissions should include a title, an abstract (max 250 words), the format of the session or activity, the number of timeslots requested (if applicable), and name(s) and affiliation(s) of the organizers. The guidelines for organising sessions can be found here http://tinyurl.com/pdrjfek. We will endeavor to respond to organizers by the end of January 2017.

  1. For more on decolonization, please see Tuck, E. and Yang, K. W. (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), p. 1-40.