Sleepless at Stansted: A Nocturnal Airport and its Representations

Recently, I had an early morning flight from London Stansted Airport, located 40 miles outside the capital’s city centre. The day before, while cursing myself for not flying from central Heathrow Airport, I checked my travel options to Stansted and was left with two alternatives. Either, I would take the last evening train and sleep at the airport; or I could get some sleep at home but leave in the middle of the night to take, first, a night bus and, then, a coach. A little curious, I chose the first option, which inspired this blog post. Needless to say, I did not sleep at all. In what follows, I seek to make sense of this nocturnal experience of an out-of-town airport architecture and how different media play into that experience. Three types of representation formed part of my trip: a website about spending the night at airports; a TV show that another night guest watched on her laptop; and an airport information screen. Throughout, I explore night-time Stansted in relation to what anthropologist Marc Augé has established as typical of airports, in order to pin down what made my experience so peculiar.[1]

First of all, I started an internet search at home to check under which conditions a stayover at Stansted was possible. Google pointed me to “The Guide to Sleeping at Airports.” This website assures you that “[a]irport sleeping is no longer just for the cheap young backpacker” but an accepted activity for any early flyer. The online guide normalises the idea of being private and restful in a space commonly associated with publicness and passage. This approach challenges Augé’s definition of airports as non-places which are destined for transit and in which time is spent economically.[2] It suggests that, at least for a few hours every night, people can try to turn this site from a non-place into a place. The guide even promises first-timers to become part of an established community of “fellow airport sleepers.” This counters the loneliness that individuals experience in the typical non-place where they only share their status as consumers with others. [3]

The tips and reviews do not only verbally invite the travellers to imagine the upcoming experience but the website also visualizes it in illustrative drawings of what the bivouacs should look like. A lady in one illustration has gotten comfy on a row of seats, equipped with blanket, pillow, slippers, alarm clock, and magazines. Are past airport sleepovers shaping their representations on the website or is the online guide moulding future airport behaviour? The website leaves it undeterminable which influence is stronger, yet the acts of normalising and visualising the sleepover help to establish it as a cultural practice.

I arrived at Stansted shortly after midnight. Indeed, a considerable amount of people had come to sleep there and they had come prepared with blankets and even air mattresses. The check-in and security-check counters were shut. Individuals, couples, and families with children had begun to populate the floor in front of the security check. Early settlers had occupied the desirable electricity sockets to keep their devices charged for the sixty free minutes of Wi-Fi flagged in the Stansted review online. Others were wrapped up in sleeping bags and snoring. A quasi-colonization was in progress, leaving the colder, windier spots around doorways empty. Couples walked around, contemplated a spot as if it was a piece of real estate, only to move on and find a more favourable night quarter. Pathways remained clear in the middle for wheeled (suitcase) traffic. I observed in miniature what non-places in Augé’s view do not accommodate: the becoming of an “organic society.”[4] At first, people attempted to keep some distance from others. This was not an act of isolation but mutual respect of privacy. As the fringes of the hall filled up, settlers became neighbours.

This proximity put me next to a lady watching Desperate Housewives on her laptop. Her choice of entertainment is strikingly intimate. She did not turn to video games or YouTube clips, both of which are connected to usage in various locations, from desktops to parties to means of transport. The (horizontal) reception of a television show like Desperate Housewives is most closely linked to the home living room or bedroom. Additionally, this specific show concerns itself with residential space and its intimacies. By lying down on a pillow and watching this series, my neighbour privatised her airport spot. Her individualisation problematizes Augé’s claim that the airport non-place defies identity.[5] My neighbour brought a hint of her personal living room to her nocturnal stay at Stansted.

Another screen attracted my attention almost simultaneously: while the hall lights were dimmed, an airport animation on the wall stoically showed the steps for placing hand-luggage into security trays. Yet no one was currently allowed to pass through the security area. Stansted Airport neither stopped this light source nor customized it with information tailored to the nocturnal settlers. The screen confirms what the website guide suggested: Stansted “tolerates” but does not endorse this colonization. This standard communication which is neither specific to this airport nor the stayover passengers, corresponds to Augé’s writing on airports: the abstract institution of the airport contacts an anonymous mass of customers through depersonalised signs.[6] Stansted continues this communication at night, reminding everyone of its ultimately de-individualised nature.

Stansted Airport presents a paradox: it is both tailor-made and badly-suited for inviting sleepovers. Located out of the city and not easy to reach, it tempts the guide’s sleep-community to arrive the evening before their flights by train. They avoid the longer and more stressful trips by bus in the middle of the night. The airport is a likely target for individual nocturnal appropriations which shake up the characteristics of this non-place for a couple of hours a night and which made my time there feel so unusual. Yet, specializing in cheap flights, Stansted does not provide additional comfort to its stayover customers inside the airport hall.[7] The unpleasant lights of the daytime screen keep flashing throughout the night. They prevent the travellers from making the airport really homely – and from ultimately turning it into a place.

Around 2:30AM, my night ended abruptly. The shutters went up and the night quarters became an airport hall again. The website guide does not prepare users for this part. People looked unsure, hesitant, before they started wrapping up their camps. They joined the queue at the security check behind which duty-free shops encouraged a nocturnal shopping spree in glistening light. But that is a story for another night…

[1] Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Super-Modernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995).
[2] Augé, Non-Places, 96, 103-104.
[3] Augé, Non-Places, 101-104.
[4] Augé, Non-Places, 112.
[5] Augé, Non-Places, 103.
[6] Augé, Non-Places, 96, 101-102.
[7] The only option for such comfort is to book a room in one of the surrounding bed and breakfasts.

Senior Hunger, Spatial Hurdles

Elderly people going hungry is a problem that many people still do not know about or act upon. Enid Borden, president of the American Meals on Wheels Association, contends that the phenomenon has long been neglected in the country.[1] In 2013, nearly one in six of those above sixty years of age were at least slightly “food insecure.”[2] Ethnic minorities are hit harder than white seniors. Hispanics, for instance, are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanics to deal with hunger.[3]
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) engages with senior hunger. It has funded an award-winning, eight-part mini-documentary about the issue in the American city of Providence. The programme’s title Hungry in the West End (2013) firmly roots senior hunger in a specific underprivileged locale of the city. Sixty-five per cent of West End residents are Hispanic, and the unemployment rate among this community was the highest nationwide in 2011. The documentary reveals the difficulties of tackling senior hunger by filmically emulating the spatialities of victims and volunteers.
“Isolated seniors, by definition, are difficult to find,” admonishes the voice-over narrator early in the programme. The hungry elderly are rarely willing to admit their hardship. Moreover, numerous seniors suffering from hunger are homebound, so the documentary tells us. The only person you see outside on the filmic city streets is the Meals on Wheels driver on his way to those citizens in need. Hungry in the West End does find elderly people who speak in front of the camera and it does go to their homes. Yet, here, a sense of isolation and claustrophobia prevails. Medium shots and medium close-ups of talking heads, which are not introduced by establishing shots, lock the seniors inside a narrow camera space. This space is reminiscent of the small room the elderly are allocated in their city and in society. Significantly, the Meals on Wheels concept of food delivery is rare among food banks.[4] A worker of a different association explains that most volunteers feel “safe” serving food inside a public centre but refuse to deliver it to strangers’ homes. Spatial seclusion and the anonymity it spawns inhibit the fight against senior hunger.
If the documentary aims to raise public awareness, it struggles in similar ways as the support organisations themselves. The local head of Meals on Wheels regrets their long waiting list and assumes that the number of eligible applicants is far greater than they know. Since they are not able to aid all those in need, they refrain from advertising, as it would be of no avail to attract more people. Similarly, the film never shows any food bank or other institution from outside. It gives no clue as to where in town one might find remedy against hunger and how one would recognise the place. Even inside the centres and soup kitchens, most shots recall the claustrophobic framing of the elderly’s homes. The documentary doubles the institutions’ spatial difficulties to spread support against senior hunger in the city.
Like so often in capitalist society, solutions hinge on money. Recurrently, interviewees from aid organisations emphasize how difficult funding is. The documentary itself only came to life thanks to AARP funding. Yet a study featured in the documentary suggests that food-delivery programmes could save the state a lot of money in the future. By allowing seniors to “age in place,” that is, in their homes, their twilight years might not only be happier: such schemes might also drastically reduce the number of applications for nursing homes that state medical aid covers. The findings by Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger reinforce this view: seniors threatened by hunger are also facing other health risks more than food-secure people, from depression to asthma to heart attack or failure.[5]

The documentary’s focus on the West End yields a delimited space that illustrates the spatial, social, and economic dynamics at play in the fight against senior hunger. But the issue cannot be pared down to Providence. In times of an ageing society, the number of elderly in the U.S. has more than doubled in the new millennium. Likewise, the figure of those who are at risk of going hungry in America has become twice as high as in 2001.[6] In our ever-changing world, senior hunger is here to stay – unless society acknowledges and tackles it.

[1] Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. 2012. Nutrition and Healthy Ageing in the Community: Workshop Summary. Washington: The National Academies Press, 119-120.
[2] Ziliak, James P., and Craig Gunderson. 2015. The State of Senior Hunger in America 2013: An Annual Report. Report submitted to National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, 2-3, 14.
[3] Ziliak and Gunderson, 3.
 The documentary uses the North American term “food pantry.”
[5] Feeding America and National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH). 2014. Spotlight on Senior Health Adverse Health Outcomes of Food Insecure Older Americans. Referenced on:
 Ziliak and Gunderson, 2, 14.

It All Comes Down to Space: The Forensic Potential of CCTV

The visual capacities of CCTV cameras are inextricably tied to space: the space they capture in their frames versus the space that falls outside their ranges. The camera eye also conditions the knowledge that viewers can gain from the surveillance footage: the space CCTV analysts do not see is a space they do not know. Even within the field that the camera covers, space can become the decisive tool for making monitored information meaningful. The American true-crime series Forensic Files (Season 11, Episode 30, 2007) depicts how so-called photogrammetry uses the architecture surrounding a perpetrator on CCTV in order to establish the criminal’s height.

The TV show, itself sensationalist, traces the matter-of-fact methods of scientific experts for solving seemingly unsolvable offences. In an episode titled “A Tight Leash,” the car of a murdered woman is left on a supermarket parking lot in the early morning. Investigators assume that the murderer entered the store to avoid stirring attention by simply leaving the lot. They notice a suspicious man on the supermarket’s surveillance tape. Cunningly or coincidentally, the man outwits the CCTV’s visual capabilities. He does not clearly show his face to the lens or give away distinctive body features as he wears a large dark parka and a wool hat. The technology’s restricted optical quality renders the security tape too grainy to identify physical details. Enter the photogrammetry specialist who declares that the footage of the suspect is still useful if analysed in connection to the store’s floor tiles which the wanted man traverses.

As the narrator explains, “[p]hotogrammetry is using a two-dimensional photograph to create a three-dimensional image. And it’s done with mathematics and physics.” The photogrammetrist isolates a frame grab in which the stranger’s feet and the grid pattern of the tiles align. The body is at a right angle to the tiles. The expert calculates the man’s height in relation to the tile size by placing a vertical line with a scale along the body. Thanks to the architecture surrounding the suspect, the visual information about that suspect becomes readable. Architecture puts into perspective what we see.

As the show clarifies, other pieces of evidence are necessary to determine who the man on tape is and that he is guilty of homicide. Yet the photogrammetric analysis is a relevant piece of the puzzle. The CCTV footage does not only help to prove the culprit’s physical identity but also that the built environment is significant for surveillance technologies to work.

The Stasi Headquarters: A Nodal Point in Past and Present Topographies of Walls, Escapes, and Access

This November, the former headquarters of the GDR Ministry of State Security (MfS, or Stasi) have begun to accommodate refugees. Twenty-five years after demonstrators stormed this remainder of the East-German dictatorship to secure the accessibility of the innumerable surveillance documents, the headquarters again negotiate the question of open doors.

The bone structure of the infamous Stasi building complex in Berlin Lichtenberg is today the same as a quarter of a century ago. The historical moment is different, yet not without parallels to the past. Both German reunification in 1990 and the 2015 migrant crisis have been labelled as pivotal moments in recent German history, which is inextricably linked with European history. The reunited country has re-awoken fears of a dangerously powerful German nation-state at the heart of Europe.[1] Germany’s further interlacing in a community of nations has thus been central to European politics since the 1990s. The establishment of the European Union in 1993 is tied to these efforts.[2] This union faces at present an enormous influx of refugees. Again, Germany is a key actor – as the destination to which most migrants are heading.[3] And again, the political rhetoric connects the challenge to the viability of Europe as a whole.[4] The Stasi headquarters, a single physical complex, link these two vital moments in past and present Europe.

Then and now, the architectural site has been a manifestation of the same themes, yet each time pulling in opposite directions. The section now appropriated as refugee quarters had formerly accommodated the MfS department for espionage in foreign countries. As part of its activities, the department was concerned with thwarting escapes from the GDR to these countries.[5] At the same spot, the incoming refugees currently complete successful escapes to a foreign state.[6] They thereby redefine the building’s role in the international geography of migration. In a historical turn of events, some of the migrants coming to Berlin Lichtenberg have fled from dictatorial regimes that monitor or regulate people’s freedom of movement. The former headquarters now invite arrival instead of hindering departure. The people dwelling here hope for freedom instead of exercising suppression.

The Stasi building has historically not only communicated that there was no way out but also that there was no way in. The GDR surveillance apparatus engaged in secretive operations.[7] The accumulated materials about the people were kept out of reach of the people. Two months after the fall of the Berlin wall, East Germans stormed the formerly closed-off headquarters. On 15 January 1990, the disgruntled citizens sought to ensure the preservation, and ultimately accessibility, of the countless secret surveillance documents that the Stasi was in the process of destroying.[8] Twenty-five years later, the repurposed architecture opens its doors to people at a moment when the image of an inaccessible “fortress Europe” keeps reappearing in the refugee debate.[9] The rhetoric is reminiscent of retrospective descriptions of the GDR and its surveillance headquarters as fortresses.[10] Today, the vocabulary finds its material expressions if not in walls then in fences that currently threaten to rise along European borders. Amid these developments, the MfS site as a former hallmark of seclusion practises inclusion.[11]

The Stasi headquarters have become an intersection of space and time. The construction unites central questions – of geopolitics and migrant geography – that have continued to matter throughout recent European history. The past and present coincide in a particularly vivid way on this site since this year a new exhibition has opened in another part of the headquarters. It explores the workings of the Stasi in its former operating spaces.[12] The building complex thus synthesizes two major historical moments of both freedom of movement and freedom from authoritarian control. The Stasi site crystallizes how central the question of basic human rights is to the definition of modern Europe.

[1] Marla Stone. “Introduction.” In When the Wall Came Down: Reactions to German Unification, edited by Harold James and Marla Stone. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2013, 19.
[2] Manfred Görtemaker. “Verhandlungen mit den Vier Mächten.” Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. 19 March 2009.
[3] Jörg Diehl and Anna Reimann. “Flüchtlinge auf der Balkanroute: Zehntausende wollen nach Deutschland.” Spiegel Online. 22 October 2015.
[4] E.g. “Sondertreffen in Brüssel: EU-Innenminister beschließen Verteilung von 120.000 Flüchtlingen.” Spiegel Online. 22 September 2015.
[5] Stephan Wolf: Hauptabteilung I: NVA und Grenztruppen (Handbuch). Berlin: BStU, 2005, 8.
[6] This success is, however, merely physical and, as such, temporary. Whether the refugees will remain in the country or whether their escape was futile, will be a legal question.
[7] Jens Gieseke. Der Mielke-Konzern: Die Geschichte der Stasi 1945-1990. Pantheon: München, 2011, 10.
[8] “Die Erstürmung der Stasi-Zentrale.” Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. 13 October 2010.
[9] E.g. “Auf dem Weg zur Festung Europa.” Handelsblatt. 15 September 2015.; Dirk Schümer. “Nur die ‘Festung Europa’ kann jetzt noch Leben retten.” Die Welt. 14 September 2015.
[10] Frank Herold. “Sturm auf die Stasi-Festung.” Berliner Zeitung. 14 January 2015.,10808018,29567534.html; Hans Michael Kloth. “Im Herzen der Finsternis.” Spiegel Online. 15 January 2010.; “Filme zur DDR: Dokumente einer bröckelnden Festung.” SRF. Accessed 23 November 2015.—dokumente-einer-broeckelnden-festung?id=c9605ad2-e949-4b78-9cbc-9bc4be29b918; Marius Zippe. “‘Mit Fantasie gegen Stasi und Nasi.’” Zeit Online. 15 January 2015.
[11] An element of regulation remains in this inclusion as the refugees have no say as to where they are accommodated. Their stay at the MfS headquarters is no active choice.
[12] Stasi Museum.

Shooting Pictures, Shooting People: A Challenging Perspective on Military Training Grounds 

This year witnessed the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Sadly, war and military sabre-rattling have anything but vanished from the global sphere. German photographer Herlinde Koelbl spent six years capturing army shooting ranges around the world, testifying to a contemporary military culture and the ingrained readiness to kill. A selection of images from her book Targets[1] has been published in 2014 in the German Zeit Magazin,[2] alongside an interview with Koelbl. This condensed photographic collection raises urgent questions about ways of looking, fiction, and gender – both on military training grounds and beyond.

Koelbl’s photographs are alienating. The shooting grounds they show are propped up as ordinary private or public spaces from bedrooms to streets, and peopled by dummies. One German training area consists of a meadow fitted with hand-painted wooden cows and persons – the latter heavily armed but not in uniforms. These spaces in and of themselves have shock value as they carry warfare into the quotidian, civilian realm. But Koelbl’s camera multiplies the effect because it offers a civilian perspective on the targets and the spaces in which they are embedded. Soldiers’ lenses on the grounds feature hairline crosses. These military devices make objects state-sanctioned targets, visually legitimising the act of shooting. The training grounds are built for this type of vision, not for civilian eyes.[3] Photographs taken through camera lenses such as Koelbl’s are the customary iconography through which we are used to seeing people in the press, adverts, and personal collections. We inadvertently take it for granted that shooting the picture did not kill people and that they were not physical targets. It is different with the shooting ground. The contrast between the habitual, harmless way of looking and the irregular, hazardous space creates a heightened sense not only of alienation but also of perversion regarding the military training ground. In her interview, Koelbl refers to the existence of catalogues where different styles of targets can be purchased.[4] Glossy advertisement pictures are another customary form of visual representation in civilian life. They are meant to entice, or at least facilitate, shopping. The idea of advertisements for targets is disturbing as this type of representation turns the procurement of materials into “enemy” shopping.

The allusion to firing ranges as playgrounds further fuels the sense of perversion. The South Korean shooting simulation, where soldiers navigate through virtual space, is reminiscent of today’s popular video games. The childishly hand-painted setting of the German meadow suggests playfulness. As Koelbl points out, Hollywood designers have created a mock city for military exercise in the United States.[5] Soldiers literally play out the fiction of killing in these environments. Yet, while these spaces do not see real killings, they are also not identical to Hollywood fiction or video games. They are in-between. In films and games, a shot person and the scene of the crime quickly vanish from sight, or “site,” to use film theorist Giuliana Bruno’s terminology for film as space.[6] Out of site, out of mind.[7] It is almost as if no real harm is done. Death and its physicality are played down. Koelbl’s photographs reveal that the shooting grounds, by contrast, register lasting signs of violence, because they are permanent material sites continuously serving changing actors and exercises. A setting in the Emirates integrates stone dummies in painted-on civilian dress strewn with bullet marks. A German training ground includes a bedroom wall dotted with bullet holes above a mattress that is itself nearly shot to pieces. By capturing these material traces, the shooting ground photographs act as disturbing warnings to perceive neither violence as play nor its effects as fiction.

These warnings apply to any of the photographed firing ranges. But ideas of the enemy’s identity differ. In the opening essay to Targets, Koelbl points to the different concepts of the enemy that the training grounds mirror depending on culture and era.[8] She gives the example of targets on an American training area that now carry oriental dress instead of the formerly used Soviet red star. She further expresses her interest in gender questions. This concern registers astutely in the Zeit Magazin series. Repeatedly, and throughout different countries, the targets are women while Koelbl explains that still today the majority of combat units consist of men.[9] The female targets’ appearances suggest that they are here for men’s eyes and guns. One target displays a curvy woman in tight top and jeans, with sensual lips. Another dummy, in mini skirt and with a large bust, shows extensive bullet marks where her nipples would be. A French target features painted bare breasts and an oversized string. Between, it reads: “C’est ta mère” [That’s your mother]. These targets might be intended to lower inhibitions in male soldiers and to stir ferocity by appealing to both their sexuality and sense of honour.[10] The implication would be that the men are training to overcome their conscience. Koelbl’s photographs, by contrast, become direct appeals to the beholders’ conscience by capturing these stark manifestations of disrespect toward women in all their overtness.

The Targets photographs themselves turn into a training ground for spectators by challenging the viewers to engage with alienating and disturbing views.

[1] Herlinde Koelbl, Targets (New York and London: Prestel, 2014).
[2] Herlinde Koelbl and Christine Meffert, “Feuer frei,” Zeit Magazin, no. 19 (2014): 11-32.
[3] Koelbl went through sometimes difficult application processes to be able to access and photograph the spaces (Koelbl and Meffert, 28).
[4] Koelbl and Meffert, 31.
[5] Koelbl and Meffert, 29.
[6] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York; London: Verso, 2002), 15-16.
[7] Television shows such as CSI that dwell on the space of the crime scene turn it into the investigators’ playground before replacing it by a clinically sterile laboratory where the evidence is examined out of its spatial context.
[8] Herlinde Koelbl, “In the Cold Morning Light,” in Targets, 9-12 (9).
[9] Koelbl and Meffert, 28.
 See Koelbl’s essay for an explanation of how the shooting ranges in general contribute to lowering inhibitions and to “desensitisation” (Koelbl, “Morning Light,” 10-11).

UNESCO, Skyfall, and the question of Hashima’s ethical representation

On 5 July 2015, UNESCO added eleven Japanese properties to the World Heritage List. UNESCO explains the decision by pointing to Japan’s expeditious nineteenth-century industrial revolution that the edifices bespeak.[1] Whether this appreciation is appropriate is highly controversial. Hashima, one of the properties and a now abandoned island, accomplished its enormous output of coal in the Second World War with the aid of Korean and Chinese slave labourers.[2] In the run-up to the UNESCO decision, South Korea admonished that the Japanese localities in question do not look today as they did at the end of the lauded industrial revolution, but continued to change their faces. South Korea argues that the built environment which UNESCO seeks to protect can thus not be separated from its later history.[3] Historian Brian Burke-Gaffney contends that exactly during Japan’s atrocities in WW2 Hashima constituted the only place in Japan where the built environment kept growing to ensure the large coal supply for war.[4]

This meaning-laden island provides the location for villain Silva’s headquarters in the latest James Bond film Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012). Except for the establishing shots, the island sequence has been filmed in a replica in Britain’s Pinewood Studios because the original site was deemed too hazardous.[5] While the film fictionally locates the island in the vicinity of Shanghai, Silva asserts that the insular built environment itself “tells a story.” In light of the current debate about an ethical representation of Hashima, I explore into which story the fictional account of Skyfall integrates the island space (even if mostly replicated) and how this relates to Hashima’s material history. I highlight how the film readdresses the interconnected themes of progress, control, and violence that the island evokes, and how the film itself ultimately raises the question of an ethically tolerable representation of Hashima.

Control is inscribed into the material appearance of Hashima. On an island as small as 15.6 acres and enclosed not only by water but also by enormous sea walls, access and escape do not come easy. [6] The power of those who control the island is thus not easily contested. A Korean labourer brought to Hashima by force termed it the “Prison Island.”[7] Regarding the Japanese residents, Burke-Gaffney advances that Mitsubishi, which was the island’s sole proprietor and the islanders’ employer from 1890 to 1974, acted as a “benevolent dictator[ ].”[8] The company organised the gratuitous supply of water and electricity in return for the active upkeep of facilities. When as a result of the industrial shift to petroleum Mitsubishi informed the islanders in January 1974 about the closure of the coal mine, it took merely three months for Hashima to become completely abandoned.[9] Mitsubishi, which had once kept the island alive, even had the power over its demise.

This abrupt human flight from the site left the material world of Hashima largely intact.[10] Skyfall, four decades later, exploits the idea of a fully built yet vacant space and the authoritative intervention which is a likely explanation for this unusual spatial situation. In the Bond film, Silva is the island’s “dictator.” Unlike Mitsubishi, he does not clear the island on an economic basis but misinforms people about a leak in a chemical plant. He does not leave the island with the population but makes them leave to claim it entirely for himself. When 007 approaches the island by boat, the extreme long shots emphasise its resemblance to a fortress – or, as it has become vernacularized in Japan, the “Battleship Island.”[11] The filmic time dedicated to the boat’s straightforward passage toward the concrete citadel, filled with an ominous score, creates the sense that this is a one-way street and that entrapment at the hands of Silva awaits. Even after Bond has overpowered the villain, the latter incredulously jokes: “What are you going to do now? Take me back to her [M, head of MI6]? All on your own?” Only with the help of the MI6 air fleet can Bond successfully retrieve the adversary from his fortress and position of power.

Hashima’s materiality, indicator of the control mechanisms on the island, also signals power structures in the world beyond its confines. Burke-Gaffney calls the historical site a Japanese microcosm of the industrial age and its demise. When coal was important, Hashima was important because of its soil. In the 1940s, the minuscule space helped to fuel Japan’s engagement in a world war.[12]  At the end of the 1950s, the industrial hotspot sported the largest population density around the globe.[13] Silva, a cyber-terrorist, re-appropriates the island for his personal worldwide war. In the digital age, not a mass of human bodies labouring the soil signifies power. Skyfall casts instead the individual connected to a virtual network as the most dangerous combatant of present times: a single man who blows up the MI6 headquarters and prides himself for the capacity to interfere in elections or the stock market. The deserted island occupied by one (and a few henchmen) manifests the clash between two eras, the industrial and the digital. Yet the film also represents the re-appropriation of the derelict place in the context of contemporary crime. The fictional story proposes forgotten spaces at the margins of the populated world as ideal centres from which criminal spiders such as Silva can spin their webs throughout that world without being easily detected. After the digital revolution, so Skyfall suggests, the island can still engage in worldwide power struggles exactly because it is now abandoned.

Lastly, the material appearance of Hashima turns into a metaphor for MI6 and Britain. As Silva holds Bond captive on the island, he uses the presence of the replicated environment to drive home that “England, the Empire, MI6: You’re living in a ruin as well. You just don’t know it yet.” The space prompts the villain to recall his grandmother’s island where rats ended up eating each other. Only two specimens survived to remain on the insular territory. In Silva’s parable, the grandmother stands in for M, the rats are spies, and the two survivors are Silva and Bond. This comparison makes the world of the secret service a closed-off island that no one leaves alive. The film exploits Hashima’s physical state to evoke a vivid image of decline and terror regarding the larger space in which the film is set.

Skyfall heightens its narrative power by connecting control, entrapment, and danger to the location of Hashima whose very materiality bespeaks these themes. The recent controversy over UNESCO’s appreciation of the site makes it all the more pressing to ask: should an entertainment blockbuster make use of spatial features that once controlled, entrapped, and endangered real people? Should audiences take pleasure in a space where others suffered, even if some of what they see is “only” a replica? Is it justifiable for the film and even its credits to entirely overlook the historical suffering? The example of Hashima acutely demonstrates that representation is never free of ethical responsibility.

[1] “Sites in Japan, Turkey, Mexico, Uruguay Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List; Extension of Spanish Site Approved,” UNESCO, accessed July 7, 2015,
[2] Brian Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima: The Ghost Island,” Crossroads 4, no. Summer (1996): 38; Christoph Gunkel, “Koreaner Empört Über Japans Welterbe-Pläne: ‘Einfach Ins Meer Springen Und Mich Ertränken,’” Spiegel Online, June 26, 2015, sec. einestages,
[3] Gunkel, “Welterbe-Pläne.”
[4] Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima,” 37-38.
[5] Diana Magnay, “Dark History: A Visit to Japan’s Creepiest Island,” CNN, accessed July 9, 2015,; “Skyfall (2012) – Filming Locations – IMDb,” IMDB, accessed July 9, 2015,
[6] See Ibid. 38, 40-43.
[7] Cited in Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima,” 39.
[8] Ibid., 35, 41-43.
[9] Ibid., 41-43.
[10] Christoph Gunkel, “Vergessene Orte Geisterstadt Im Ozean,” Spiegel Online, November 27, 2009, sec. einestages,
[11] Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima,” 35.
[12] See ibid., 39, 43; see also Gunkel, “Vergessene Orte.”
[13] Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima,” 40.

Setting the Stage for the Home: 500 Days of Summer, 1 Day in the Furniture Store

In an earlier blog post, I explored the representation of an individual junk shop. I look this week at the opposite end of the spectrum, which is the corporate furniture store. And what epitomises this space better than Swedish furniture giant IKEA? The American film 500 Days of Summer (2009) explores the interior of an IKEA store, raising questions about the connection of space to reality and about the visualisation of past and present values.
The visit to IKEA in 500 Days illustrates how the furniture shop operates as a Foucauldian heterotopia, a site that has the qualities of a real space and yet remains always different from it.[1] IKEA is a space that features all furnishing of a home; yet the building never functions as a real living space. While a poster in the filmic store promises “true everyday quality”, protagonists Tom and Summer joke about the television and sink that are not working – and never will. Tom’s ironic exclamation “Home! Sweet home!” harks back to John Howard Payne’s eponymous 1823 song that proclaims “there’s no place like home.”[2] Indeed, IKEA as that Foucauldian “Other Space[]” is no home.[3] This holds true even if the corporation promotes “the right to belong” that is characteristic of the modern Swedish welfare state, as design historian Sara Kristoffersson explains.[4] In the furniture store, ideas of belonging are tangible and yet slipping through your fingers.
500 Days demonstrates the workings of the furniture store most illustratively by highlighting the shop’s kinship to filmic space. The film, reflecting on its own spatial but also narrative and technological workings, explains the mechanisms of the film-like space of IKEA. Both film theorist Giuliana Bruno and cultural historian Jann Matlock have advanced how cinematic space, too, is a heterotopia, linked to the real world and yet set apart.[5] 500 Days as a heterotopia integrates the heterotopic furniture store to similarly revelatory effect as the films that, in Matlock’s study, double the heterotopic spaces of hotels.[6] The dating protagonists in 500 Days navigate through IKEA’s different show areas – from the living room to the bedroom – just as cinema audiences, according to Bruno, navigate through the three-dimensional space of the film world.[7] Rather than plan a home on two-dimensional paper at the “Plan Here” desk in the aisle, the lovers act out a home life in three-dimensional space, pretending to live together as “Honey” and “Darling.” Their overstated performance emphasizes their fictional relationship to the space in which they perform. Summer’s stagy choreography as she throws herself into Tom’s arms in one of the kitchens recalls the dramatic love scenes of classical Hollywood films. The bedside lamp in the bedroom is, as is so often the case in the cinema too, not the main light source in the furniture store. The bright room lighting off-camera ensures the visibility of the intimate scene on the IKEA bed. The on-looking family in the adjacent bathroom provides the apex of the IKEA-as-cinema sequence, acting as the personification of the much-cited voyeuristic film gaze.[8] By showing a quasi-film within a film, 500 Days demonstrates the otherness of the furniture store. IKEA has more in common with cinematic space than with the real space of the home due to its spatiality and the evocation of fiction, the technology, and the spectatorship that come with it.
The film does not fail to stress the cinema’s ultimate superiority over the furniture store: In the protagonists’ fiction of living, IKEA functions as a stage set that looks like a home. The fiction performed by the two actors playing those protagonists takes place, not on a film set, but on location in the actual IKEA in Burbank, California. The cinema’s mobility surpasses the capacities of the stationary spatiality of the furniture shop.
The film produces a clash between the meanings that the characters’ performances evoke and those meanings with which IKEA endows its furniture design. The clash engenders a palimpsest of meanings in the film narrative. Tom and Summer’s performance conjures up the gendered domesticity of post-war America. He puts his feet up on the coffee table and waits to be served in the kitchen, speaking in an exaggeratedly masculine voice. She serves him an imaginary dish that she cheerfully claims to have prepared herself. The woman among modern kitchen appliances is, according to Ruth Oldenziel, a common image in 1940s and 1950s media promoting American designs.[9] The lovers’ evocation of this iconography is expressively ironic, stressing it to be a thing of the past that today serves as nothing more than a joke. Yet when Summer ends the sequence by announcing she does not want “anything serious”, Tom’s disappointment betrays his underlying hopes. His look reveals that all he wished for was a monogamous relationship that involves exactly such intimacies as choosing your shared home and even traditional gender roles. His first sight of Summer in the film had sparked a black-and-white sequence picturing her in Fifties’ clothes and riding a bike through a suburban street. This earlier sequence corroborates Tom’s dream of a traditional relationship.
Unlike the patriarchal values of American post-war media, IKEA’s self-image mirrors the idea of equality in Swedish society, as Kristoffersson points out.[10] According to law scholars Eva-Maria Svensson and Åsa Gunnarsson, the Swedish notion of equality includes that women are not bound to the domestic sphere but frequent the workspace.[11] These ideas do not fit the fictional narrative of domesticity that the characters layer over the furniture design but it relates to Summer’s actual attitude. Whether or not customers really attribute the notion of equality to the IKEA store, Summer chooses exactly this space to convey to Tom that she is an independent woman and wishes to remain so. The fiction of her as a homemaker will not become reality; and anyway she is visiting IKEA to buy nothing more than trivets.
With this sequence, 500 Days relates cinematic to furniture-store space, and seemingly obsolete American post-war values to materially present Swedish values. The film negotiates the relationship between the real and the heterotopic, and between the now and then. In the cinematic furniture store, the values of both IKEA and Summer eventually prevail.

[1] Michel Foucault. “Des Espace Autres.” Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité, March 1984. Translated by Jay Miskowiec as “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” 3-4. Accessed May 27, 2014.
[2] Scott R. MacKenzie, Be It Ever So Humble: Poverty, Fiction, and the Invention of the Middle-Class Home (University of Virginia Press, 2013), 22, n. 6.
[3] Foucault, “Des Espace Autres.”
[4] Sara Kristoffersson, Design by IKEA: A Cultural History (Bloomsbury, 2014), 58.
[5] Jann Matlock, “Vacancies: Hotels, Reception Desks, and Identity in American Cinema, 1929-1964,” in Moving Pictures/Stopping Places : Hotels and Motels on Film, ed. David B. Clarke, Valerie Crawford Pfannhauser, and Marcus A. Doel (Lanham ; Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2009), 78; Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 57, referred to in Matlock, “Vacancies,” 78.
[6] Matlock investigates the heterotopic hotel as an architecture that is also just not a home and that raises intricate questions about (fictions) of identity. She demonstrates how the heterotopic film space doubling the spatiality of hotels teaches us in complex ways about the workings of these hotels. Significant to the experience of both the cinema and the hotel is the movement with which we pass through those spaces. Matlock, “Vacancies,” 77-79, 100, 107-115, 119-121.
[7] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York ; London: Verso, 2002), 15-16.
[8] See especially Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.
[9] Ruth Oldenziel, “Exporting the American Cold War Kitchen: Challenging Americanization, Technological Transfer, and Domestication,” in Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users, ed. Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011), 315.
[10] Kristoffersson, Design by IKEA, 57-58.
[11] Eva-Maria Svensson and Åsa Gunnarsson, “Gender Equality in the Swedish Welfare State,” Feminists@Law 2, no. 1 (2012), 1.  

Willi Ruge’s Parachute Selfie (1931): Pulling the Rug from under the Feet of Control

In 1931, German photojournalist Willi Ruge captured his own parachute jump at the Berlin airfield of Staaken on a camera attached to his belt.[1] I explore how one of the photographs, called Seconds before Landing, challenges strategies of empowerment in urban space, creating the sensation of being powerless.

The photograph opens up a birds-eye view visualising the built environment on the ground. In his study of the urban spaces of film noir, film scholar Edward Dimendberg has illustrated how aerial images function as tools of control and surveillance at the hands of institutional agents such as town planners.[2] While Seconds before Landing sets up this monitoring perspective, it simultaneously undermines that view by registering the jumper-cum-photographer’s free-floating feet just as prominently in the frame. Whereas a controlling gaze places the world at your feet, the picture stresses that the jumper does not even have both of them on the ground. Philosopher Michel de Certeau contends that people navigating through urban space on foot have the power to daily withstand seemingly omnipotent control.[3] But the photograph undercuts such individual empowerment as well: far away from the grounds of the city, the tilted, almost vertical bearing of the feet does not suggest that these shoes are made for walking. The picture leaves it hanging in the air if the jumper will manage to land safely and transform into an urban pedestrian. Negating any claim to control, the photograph, imbued with a pioneer spirit, celebrates the thrill of uncertainty. It invites onlookers to be swept off their feet and to participate in this sensation. Seconds before Landing transforms in the eyes of its viewers, who are safely on the ground, into a spectacle of risk precisely because it subverts the practises of power that are connected to the gaze and feet.

Postscript: Quentin Bajac and Lee Ann Daffner inform us that the jump ended in a broken bone.[4] Neither the camera gaze nor his feet could give Ruge the power to prevent this outcome of the parachute selfie.

[1] Quentin Bajac and Lee Ann Daffner, “Seconds before Landing: Description,” MoMa, accessed April 6, 2015,
[2] Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004), 46-47.
[3] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 2011), e.g. 93-98.
[4] Bajac and Daffner, “Seconds before Landing: Description.”

Vivian Maier’s Junk Shop Photograph (New York, 1954) and a Plea for Urban Treasure Hunts

Vivian Maier might be the greatest visual arts discovery in recent years. Her immense body of urban street photography began to surface in 2007 after author John Maloof first found sections of it during a minor auction in Chicago. Maier’s pictures have since become the centre of exhibitions, media coverage, and the Oscar-nominated documentary film Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof / Charlie Siskel, USA, 2013) that takes us on Maloof’s journey of retracing who Maier was.[1]

Maier’s repository includes the 1954 photograph of a New York junk shop interior and its presumed owner.[2] The viewer can tell that it is a junk shop by the characteristic arrangement of objects in space (or lack thereof). Retail stores selling new wares physically partition off product displays from areas for customer movement by means of counters, aisles, and shelves. Such spatial orchestration guarantees that the product does not encounter unnecessary contact with passing, disinterested customers and that it is left as untouched as possible for purchase. In these stores, you shop with your eyes before you buy with your hands. The interior space in Maier’s photograph foregoes this physical separation. Items in second-hand and junk shops have by definition passed through other hands. The junk shop’s deliberate negation of conventional shopping choreography imparts two messages: first, the objects are used, show traces of that usage, and are thus cheaper than new wares. Second, and more significantly, this room is a larger-than-life treasure trove abounding in lived history. The product display invites us to enter and embark on a spatial, tactile, and emotional treasure hunt. You have to be right in the middle of the items, move through them with your body and hands. You cannot shop with your eyes by throwing a glance inside from the secluded vantage point at the entrance since you cannot see what treasures are hidden under the piles of objects. The photograph offers a perspective from this very viewpoint in, or close to, the entrance area. Visual representation doubles the shop’s spatial invitation to an exploration rich in effort and surprising rewards. The junk shop image operates as a synecdoche for how Maier’s own discoverer and, thanks to him and recently his film, the rest of the world have come to access her vast photographic treasure trove. Therefore, the picture offers an entry point for exploring Maier’s larger body of work.

The owner, or vendor, in the photograph is seated in front of the main bulk of items, to the right of the frame but nevertheless prominent in the photograph. He is the gate keeper, the treasurer, of this repository. He does not block the entrance but the visitor has to pass by him first. Looking straight into the camera, his gaze is as rich as it is ambiguous. It is proud and challenges the visitor entering the owner’s handmade realm. The traces of dirt on his pants suggest that he has put physical effort into the store. The way the assortment is presently assembled is the result of his work which enables and shapes the customers’ subsequent experiences. At the same time, his face and hands are tense, betraying that he is unaccustomed to the camera’s attention. This interplay of emotions reflected in the vendor’s physical appearance endows the image and the space it portrays with a sense of honesty. This is no advertisement. The shop is what it is. You yourselves have to value the products.

The notions of a treasure chest and treasurer leave us with the question of what the treasure, or junk, of 1954 might be. The photograph displays lamp shades and light bulbs, frames and furniture. These objects are less ephemeral in their materiality than in their trendiness. The junk shop picture illustrates that, when urban fashion changes, the entire city does not immediately change with it. Commodities might vanish from the major retail stores but they are relayed to other spaces in the cityscape. This shift system calls for the treasure hunt on an urban scale. You cannot find outmoded objects in any of the interchangeable department stores and you might have to search through many of the different, dispersed junk stores to find an item comparable to what you had in mind. But you are likely to find many unexpected pieces of day-to-day history along the way. The story that this photograph evokes, along with the meta-story of Maier’s oeuvre, invites us to think about the logistics of urban treasure hunting.


[1] The information is based on: Vivian Maier (John Maloof / Charlie Siskel, USA, 2013);

The Science Fiction of Researching the City

Once a day in Dark City, the location of the eponymous science-fiction film (2008), aliens reorganise by force of their minds the physical reality of the urban space. Equally arbitrarily, they rearrange the urbanites’ memories. The cityscape functions, as one character terms it, as an “experiment” to study the essence of being human. The aliens’ method of “research” contrasts with how urban history scholars approach the city. Researchers do not arbitrarily change space but search in the space they find for influences and effects of urban conditions. The built environment and the recurring flows passing through it matter the way they have taken shape in time, representation, experience, and memory. Haphazard reconfigurations of that environment would deny researchers the opportunity to identify coherent meaning in the spaces we live in. Nevertheless, the aliens-cum-researchers’ mental freedom to create alternative urban scenarios is thought-provoking. When exploring city structures, a little bit of alternative thinking might enrich our reflection on our scientific research of the facts. What if a specific urban structure was different? What if this structure did not exist? The probing “if” might broaden our ideas of what difference the existing structures might make, enticing us to search the archives for causes, consequences, and correlations out of the box of what we have hitherto found. We cannot study that which is not, but a small mind game might inspire us to research unconsidered facets of that which is.