Anti-Space

When I think of space, it tends to have a tangible quality, a 3D rendering in my mind that I can zoom in and out of. But the very notion of this imagery fails at a fundamental level, serving at best as the plastic surface of something richer. As Bucky Fuller remarked, “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.” As is 99% of where we are. I’m not speaking to Hubble’s law and the unobservable universe. I’m speaking to the ordinary things around us that have been disguised from our version of space.

The Tate Modern sits on the southern bank of the Thames. Like most museums, the building is itself a piece of the art, its sheer massiveness echoing a post-industrial emptiness. It has all the fixings of a wealthy city’s patronage: Mondrian, Picasso, Dalí, etc. But tucked away in the boxy maze was a temporary gallery by Taryn Simon. Her photography exhibit, called “The Hidden and the Unfamiliar,” challenges our convention of the spaces we live in. She draws attention to spaces which are restricted, hidden, or overlooked.

The exhibit has only six photos. The first photograph is of the wall art behind the doors of the CIA’s top secret access. The next is the feed facility for a tiger at a wildlife refuge. Another gives the perspective behind a two-way mirror in a jury deliberation room. Another is a picture of a pile of junk, mostly fruits and vegetables, inside the US customs and border control contraband room. Another peeks at a machine room where the transatlantic submarine cables reach land. The last photograph shows the abandoned movie set of “City of the Pharaoh,” half swallowed by the Nipomo sands.

Simon exposes what’s missing from our internal models of the space around us. We ignore things, forget them, or never even consider them in the first place. We’re excluded by law from parts of the world. Or we’re blind to the vast internal workings of the infrastructure we walk along. Or we lose interest after its purpose has been served. Or we simply walk by without taking a closer look. In a way, her exhibit is the antithesis of our group: it is anti-space. It is the places we cannot see, we cannot go, and cannot imagine.

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Time, Space, History, and Experience

As we prepare for our final full day in London, I’m struck by the number of experiences we’ve had in such a short period of time. Museums, tours, restaurants, pubs, meetings, performances, (and pubs) have all provided insight into different perspectives on time and space. I’m equally appreciative of all of the things we haven’t seen or done. London is a city steeped in history, and in a week we’ve only scratched the surface of what it has to offer.

Across from our hotel is the famous Savoy Hotel, which opened in 1889. Gershwin debuted Rhapsody in Blue there in 1925. Lena Horne made her debut there in 1955, and Frank Sinatra was a regular performer. On the ground floor right next to the Savoy is a pub called the “Cole Hole.” It is repurposed space that was formerly the coal cellar of the Savoy. We also visited a bar called “The Cellar Door” that was formerly a set of underground restrooms. There are no doubt thousands of stories like this across London. It is a city of layers, and this “repurposing of space” has been going on here for thousands of years.

Of course, there are different perspectives on change. For example, we had dinner with Michael Parker Pearson of University College London, a leading archeologist at on the Stonehenge site. He told us about a recent new discovery near Stonehenge that could be the resting place of human remains more than 5,000 years old. His best guess as to Stonehenge’s purpose is that it was designed as a monument to the dead for persons of note (not entirely unlike Westminster Abbey).

However, our time with Frank the Druid provided a very different perspective on Stonehenge. Frank sees these archeological digs as desecrating the graves of his ancestors. DNA testing is underway that may provide some clarity to the questions of exactly who the descendants of the Stonehenge architects are. According to Michael Parker Pearson, the answer is likely to be either everyone or no one.

Reflecting on our visits with Frank and Michael, I noted some stark differences in how we responded. We were far more likely to ask tough questions of the archeologist. Various members of our group poked and prodded and challenged the hypotheses that he presented in a way that any scientist might expect. With Frank the Druid, we were far more willing to simply listen and learn. It’s uncomfortable (and usually not very productive) to challenge someone’s religious beliefs. One question that we did ask both men was “How did you decide to become a Druid/Archeologist?” Michael said that he knew he wanted to become an archeologist at the age of 4 after finding fossils in a load of stone that had been dumped in the drive. Frank came to be a Druid later in life after some personal crises and a particularly low point in his life.

It seems trite to say that people and spaces change over time. However, the deep sense of history in this place brings this truism into a laser-like focus. It brings new perspective and awareness of how our time is spent.

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Overlapping Times and Spaces: Ghosts and Modern Technology

Our trip down the back alleys of White Chapel in London’s East end following the trails of the gruesome murders by Jack the Ripper and our sojourn to the Roman baths in Bath provided intriguing views into the past thanks to modern technology.  The images provided through “Ripper Vision” and the projections and “soundscapes” of ancient Romans appearing next to visitors to the baths today worked to open windows into the past; windows that asked us to imagine a very different time in the same space.

The website for the “Jack the Ripper Tour” promises that “you will feel like you’ve been transported back to the mean streets of the Victorian East end” and states that out tour is “not just a ghost walk” but an experience that “utilizes the latest technology to bring the 19th century to life”.  Our tour guide set the context for the Ripper Tour as she asked us to “remove all thoughts of movies and what you think you see” as we look around us. She relied on a micro projector to share images of the original old photos of the buildings and back alleys in area in 1888.  This image is what drew me originally to this tour when we were planning our trip:

 

 

The tour was broken up by stops during which she flashed images on the ceilings or walls of old newspaper photos of the crime scenes and the victims.  Our views of the projections of the victims’ photographs brought their “ghosts” to join us in space.

 

Our guide engaged our imagination to envision the past.  We learned that this area was full of Irish and Jewish immigrants living in extreme poverty in 1888.  Fifty five percent of children died before the age of 5.  Thousands of people did not have a permanent roof over their heads, especially women who were forced into prostitution to “make ends meet” and earn the 4 pence they needed for a night’s shelter.  And it was these women that Jack the Ripper stalked and  brutally murdered.

It was sometimes difficult to “see” the past, though. There is considerable altering of the spaces here; our tour guide pointed out the new “ugly” buildings that had replaced the older, historical back alleys and buildings from Ripper’s time.  What this means for the tour is that it will become harder to use the projector to “envision” the past onto the present, if the historical space can no longer be found as it rests beneath a modern building.  There were several places in the tour where we had to really “imagine” a space that only five months ago had still been in place.  But I wasn’t sure that folks really cared too much about that on our tour.  I think many of our group were  more interested in the gruesome details and pictures of Jack’s victims.

Our “gaze” on the buildings and spaces of today and the projections of the past created by our guide truly masked an important dimension of our walk.    England and Wales combined has seen a population increases of 7.1 percent this year, the largest since 1801.  The area in which we walked today has seen a spike in hate crimes and in attacks in the streets on British Muslims.  The Guardian noted on June 7, 2017, that Muslim women and non-Muslim female activists had been kicked and punched by hate groups.  And on July 7, 2027, The Guardian reported that the police has recorded an increase of 10% in crime in this area and noted that violent crime has increased by 18%, and gun and knife crime was up by 20%.  Sexual offenses were up by 14,000 since the same time in 2016.  And according to Wikipedia, the Whitechapel Market and A11 corridor has received a 20 million pound investment to improve the public spaces along the very route we took as we followed Jack the Ripper in 1888.  This remains a contested space and time but the current dimension of this is reflected loss of the settings for the time of 1888 as London changes in response to today’s issues.

The present wasn’t completely masked, however.  It wasn’t discussed by our guide, but she began our tour in front of contemporary graffiti as she set the stage for our visit to the past.  I couldn’t help noticing the commentary on current events:

 

The Roman baths were an important stop on our exploration of time and space.  I had hoped this experience would reveal the past through carefully documented archaeology and well crafted labels.

 

 

 

 

 

But Monica and I were very disappointed as we met up inside.  The artifacts of the Roman occupation and the spaces we explored were very ambiguous in terms of time; there were no real dates or explanations of the different archaeological horizons we were viewing.  There were few labels and the ones that were there had no real information on them to help interpret what we saw.  The museum also relied heavily on technology to bring the past into the present:

 

 

 

The moving images and sounds of their passage that were projected onto the original walls of the bath existed side by side with the tourists moving through the space.  These “ghosts” were everywhere, but in the case of the baths, the physical space of Roman culture was revealed in a most confusing and disconnected time.  The projections of Roman citizens moving through this space helped to make our experience more “real” than the actual artifacts and excavations sites we viewed.  But of course, these figures were actors performing a script written by the curators of the museum today.

I was intrigued that this was also a “sacred” place in which weddings could occur:

 

But the “sacred” nature of museums is certainly discussed by scholars in museum studies and I will treat that topic again after our visit to the Natural History Museum.

In any event, our explorations of the area haunted by Jack the Ripper and our visit to Bath relied on modern technology to make the tour successful.  And the history of spaces in time for both tours was incomplete.  I was left with wanting to know more, though.  Sometimes it really doesn’t help to be a social scientist!

 

 

 

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Break heart; I prithee break!

The opening of Nancy Meckler’s Lear at the Globe is a bit bumpy—literally–as the cast enacts a Harry-potter style luggage trolley “trip” through a seemingly solid door. But if one expects an inventive use of doors, windows and traps, one will be disappointed—staging is not the strength of this production, which is a mostly two-dimensional affair. This, however, doesn’t diminish Kevin McNally’s terrific interpretation of Shakespeare’s ancient monarch. Particularly in the mad scenes, McNally exhibits a range that will probably surprise audience members who know him only as Gibbs from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. Anjana Vasan is an affecting Cordelia, and Emily Bruni and Sirine Saba do creditable turns as her less than virtuous sisters. There was some disagreement about Loren O’Dair who plays the fool—some thought her histrionics got in the way of the development of the character while others appreciated the way that her seemingly inappropriate and potentially dangerous behavior communicated “foolish” truths to Lear. Meckler made the interesting choice to cast Saskia Reeves as Kent, Lear’s faithful follower. I love her work, but not every one thought her performance as compelling (even if they appreciated the choice to cast a woman in the role). Traditionally, just before the curtain drops, Edgar and his illegitimate (and bad) brother Edmund reconcile. Meckler made the curious choice to omit this, so that the end (Cordelia, her sisters, Lear, Cornwall all dead and Kent on the way) is even darker than usual.

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Pam finds the “Faith Room” in the Natural History Museum

Who would have imagined that the Natural History Museum, often called “The Cathedral of Nature” had a “Faith Room”? Pam Frese.

The majority of the Museum is dedicated, however, to science. In the main lobby is a daunting skeleton of a blue whale.

The section on Human Evolution displays Lucy (Australopithecus). Lucy is estimated to be over 3 million years old.

The main lobby is closely watched over by a marble statue of Charles Darwin.

And, who could resist a photo opportunity with Darwin?

This was obviously only a small tip of the iceberg. The Museum left me in awe. I could have spent a week there and not been able to take it all in.

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Time Passages: Greenwich

1.Getting There

 

 

In a sense we were going back in time as we traveled to Greenwich–essentially a late 17th century planned town–so it made sense to take a boat (albeit a motorized one), even as we began our excursion in the usual way: one which has been a tradition from time immemorial: standing in line–with coffee in hand.

The boat–slowly made its way past the most famous monuments of London, allowing us to chart both tourist time (the slow, time-suspended, checklist march from famous site to famous site) and historical time–

not only by moving from the medieval Westminster Abbey to the twenty-first century Shard, but reflecting how the Shard itself was built over the medieval Tabard Inn made famous in The Canterbury Tales.  The latter reminds us that most of these medieval and Renaissance buildings have been torn down and built over, or suffered badly over time–the 17th century fire of London and World War II in particular–so they are essentially re-imagined versions of their original selves: the space of the historical is and is not itself.

Most tourists got off at the Tower of London–itself an oddity of modern tourism–the desire to get historical frissons of pleasure/horror from stories of decapitations, deprivations, suffocations, and torture.  Our group stayed on, moving  past some of the areas that historically had been the poorest and most rife with rats and cholera, but now theses same spaces are sites of personal wealth and of new business enterprises, as the gleaming buildings of Canary Wharf reminded us.  Two stories stood out: the actress Dame Helen Mirren is selling her flat in the historically poor east of London for 6.5 million pounds; and the Isle of Dogs–once so infamously poor and barren that it inspired the title of Ben Jonson’s 1601 savagely satirical play against the London Council (and soon destroyed and lost to posterity by order of the London Council)–is now a place of show-offy prosperity.

Greenwich

If any place is about time and space, it is Greenwich: Greenwich mean time.

Greenwich–the place of pleasure and escape from London for so many of its prosperous citizens from the Middle Ages through today, also attests to the way that the British ability to transform navigational time and space into mathematical equations was key to its colonial expansion.  As such, it is a place whose elegant neo-classical buildings show off Britain’s pride in its conquest of time and space, but also a place somewhat frozen in time.  Almost the first man-made object one encounters in Greenwich is an 18th century ship.

 

And, throughout, the beautifully, and beautifully spaced out, buildings and parks reflect the mathematical beauty of proportion and balance–the situation of the Royal Observatory prominently displaying this love of symmetry, as if scientific innovation and aesthetic beauty must necessarily accompany each other.

Climbing to the apex, the group paused for a quick conversational refresher before moving into spaces dedicated to beauty, time, and navigation.

Here are just a few examples of the tributes to time and beauty that we encountered:

If then, this group trip is about time,one might say that we found the place where our modern notions of time were invented, particularly as we stood, one-by-one, on the point of zero degrees longitude and latitude.

 

So, perhaps it is fitting to end our day being reminded that we are slaves to time; our anticipated short stop at a pub for lunch ended up taking up almost two hours, as we were preceded by a large group of tourists.

 

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Charles Darwin and “Deep Time”

Today in London we will visit the Natural History Museum. Often called a “cathedral of nature” the museum is home to many of the specimens collected by Charles Darwin. This will be our second experience with Darwin on the trip. The first was at Westminster Abbey where he is buried.

Darwin’s work would not have been possible without a keen sense of “deep time,”an understanding of time on a multi-million year scale. Deep time is difficult for most people to grasp because it can’t be experienced directly. Functionally, the difference between a thousand and a billion years is meaningless to any individual. Yet, the difference is profound in evolutionary terms. To demonstrate, consider that a thousand seconds a just over 16 minutes. A billion seconds is over 30 years.

Darwin’s keen understanding of the ramifications of deep time coupled with his dedication and brilliant insight yielded an idea that has been the guiding principle of the life sciences ever since. In my Evolutionary Psychology course, I try to impress upon students an understanding of deep time. Modern humans have been around for only about 200,000 years. Many of the behaviors in which we engage have been shaped by evolution over this time and by the time before in our evolving ancestors.

Darwin himself saw the potential for evolutionary theory to make an impact on Psychology:
“In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”
― Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859

Unfortunately, it took Psychology a long time (over 200 years) to finally begin recognizing what Darwin clearly saw. Today, Evolutionary Psychology is a rapidly growing multi-disciplinary field. However, not unlike Darwin’s original ideas on evolution, it was initially met with scorn and even ridicule. As recently as 1997 Cognitive Psychologist lamented that in the Psychological Sciences

“Evolution is said to be irrelevant, sinful, or fit only for speculation over a beer at the end of the day.”
― Pinker, How the Mind Works, 1997

That Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey is a bit of a surprise given how his ideas challenged the current views of the Anglican Church at the time. Darwin himself expected to be buried at St. Mary’s in Downe. However, through the efforts of Sir Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin), some members of Parliament, and the public a petition was made to the Dean of the Abbey to lay Darwin to rest at Westminster. It was immediately accepted. The simple inscription on Darwin’s grave belies his enormous contributions:

Our trip to London revolves around the theme of “Time and Space.” However, in the human experience, time and space are inexorably intertwined with knowledge, relationships, beliefs, and ideas. Our xperiences in London have brought these themes front and center for me. One can hardly visit Westminster and not consider that our time on earth is limited. Nor can one visit Stonehenge and ignore the beliefs and ideas of those who created it. Exchanging perspectives and ideas with such an interdisciplinary group of colleagues over dinner or at a pub is an experience that enriches the time that we share here and will enhance our time going forward.


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On to Greenwich

A Thames River trip today to the Royal Observatory. Time and space intertwine as we will stand on the Prime Meridian.

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Poets’ Corner

So Pam asked me yesterday if Westminster Abbey was haunted.  As far as I know, we only have one instance of a ghostly manifestation and that’s Elizabeth I who was probably peeved that she’d been buried in the same tomb with her “problematic” sister. But there are cultural hauntings. Poets’ Corner (the honored graveyard of writers in the South Transept) has been haunted by the absence of Shakespeare for over four hundred years. The poet William Basse suggested that his bones be translated from Stratford in 1622. Didn’t happen. They built a statue to the Bard in 1740 hoping to exorcize the ghost. Still, he troubled the space. When they buried the great Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, in 1779, it almost seemed as if they had buried Shakespeare himself, but the playwright’s presence persisted. And so he appears as a nocturnal spirit in a nineteenth-century piece of technology with two others (Scott and Byron) who had also been buried elsewhere.

 

 

 

In 1991, Laurence Olivier’s ashes were buried in the Abbey and an earlier commemorative service had suggested to Marjorie Garber that it was “as if it were the death of Shakespeare himself—only this time, much more satisfyingly with a body.” This would be the final burial in Poet’s Corner. Perhaps now the custodians of the Corner had finally laid his shade to rest . . . and yet they still hear the same question that has haunted them for so long. Where is Shakespeare?

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Sacred and Secular Space

Time alters when you are a group of eight: it takes longer to get your food at a restaurant, but waiting in line seems to take less time when you’re chatting with colleagues about things like how long it takes to wait in line and how many clocks there are in the area of Westminster Abbey. We began day one at what many might call the apex of sacred and secular London: Westminster Abbey.  If the word “secular” comes from the Latin meaning “of a time or age,” then Westminster, with its many surrounding clocks is indeed secularity.  And its perhaps most famous interior spaces mark locations of the profane–graves of kings and queens from 1066 into the 1950’s), along with the graves of such writers and actors as Chaucer, Dickens, and Laurence Olivier.  And the cathedral charts the secularity of religion, beginning as it did as a Catholic church, then becoming Protestant with the English reformation in the sixteenth-century.  At the same time, we were reminded once an hour that this is a space of prayer, as an announcement came over the loudspeaker about upcoming services, while also asking all of us for a minute of prayer each hour–the first time for someone we know who is in need, the second time for inner peace in a hectic world.  And yes, we spent a lot of time at the Abbey–close to three hours.

Tom gave a short lecture and tour of Westminster Abbey, which confirmed that visual evidence is not always trustworthy.  But I believe he is posting about that.

Group members noted that Westminster Abbey was cluttered.  Monica commented that it was a strong contrast to St. Peter’s in Rome, which was designed purposefully for large crowds and well thought-through spaces.  Westminster Abbey, in contrast, looks more like history = grandma’s attic, as tombs and monuments seem strewn hither and yon wherever space can be found, and you can find yourself looking at a 20th century monument right above a sixteenth-century one–probably a more accurate rendering than St. Peter’s about the way that history operates.

Space constricted in the claustrophobia of the smaller chapels finally opened up blissfully, as I exited into the less-used exit of Westminster Close.

If we never made it to the crypt of Westminster Abbey, we made it to the crypt of the nearby St. John’s church for a quite secular and lovely lunch at the Footstool restaurant to compare and contrast our experiences.

 

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