Tag Archives: Sheffield

Feersum endjinn

Or “what I did on my mid-week day off”: The River Don Engine, now housed at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, UK. The largest working steam engine left in Britain, and quite possibly in the world.

I was surprised by how quiet the engine itself was, though I imagine that’s partly down to it now being powered by a gas-fueled boiler in another part of the complex, rather than a big ol’ firebox like it had back in the days when it was used for rolling steel plate as thick as your hand is wide for battleship armour, reactor shielding etc etc. The audience of kids are pretty loud, though.

A few stills included below, for those who I’m sure would have rather seen the crankshaft moving… but that would’ve meant getting in the way of the school-trip audience, and I’m not quite that much of a dick.

Posting this well-tuned engine largely because a well-tuned engine is the exact opposite of what today is turning out to be. Sympathetic industrial magic, innit.


Gig alert: “Beneath the city streets: urban infrastructure and its invisibility”, Sheffield Hallam, 1 March 2018

Attention, urbanists and infrastructure-heads who are geographically proximate to Sheffield, UK (or who just really like travelling a long way for seminars): Luke “Bunkerology” Bennett is chairing a panel discussion on 1st March 2018 at Sheffield Hallam University under the title “Beneath the city streets: urban infrastructure and its invisibility”. It’s free to attend, but you’ll need to book via Eventbrite. Here’s the promo blurb:

Sewers, cables, roads and myriad other infrastructural networks are the enabling frameworks of modern life, and yet we so rarely notice them. This free, open-to-all, evening event will present a panel of four researchers who are each exploring urban infrastructure with the aim of making it better known. The presenters will each give an account of their practical and/or conceptual explorations and in doing so also offer up thoughts on how their work seeks to render infrastructure’s existence and operation better known. They will also reveal why this unmasking is of concern to them.

This event is jointly organised by the SHU Space & Place Group, a network of academics keen to sustain interdisciplinary conversations about the researching of places and spaces, and C3Ri, SHU’s Cultural, Communicaton and Computing Research Centre.


  • Dr Luke Bennett, Reader in Space, Place and Law, Department of the Natural and Built Environment, SHU.


  • Dr Paul Dobraszczyk, author and Teaching Fellow, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College, London.

In his recently published book, The Dead City: Urban Ruins and the Spectacle of Decay (IB Taurus, 2017), Paul explores Manchester’s Irk Culvert as a way of excavating lesser known features of that city’s urban history. Paul will present an account of that unmasking and also discuss the way in which he uses urban exploration as a research methodology.

  • Dr Becky Shaw, Reader in Fine Art, C3Ri, SHU

Becky will discuss her participation in the ‘Watershed Plus’ Dynamic Environment lab (http://www.watershedplus.com/) which saw five artists following the City of Calgary’s water supply from its glacial source through rivers, treatment plants, maintenance yards, pipes, meters and households. Her ongoing project, ‘How Deep Is Your Love?’ uses ‘dirty’ pop music to travel through the necessarily inaccessible, hygienic industrial, economic and romantic water infrastructure. The project follows the movement, actions and technologies of Calgary’s leak locators, exploring the role of public art in relationship to the water infrastructure as a material negotiation of publicness.

  • Dr Chris Bailey, Lecturer, Sheffield Institute of Education, SHU

Chris will juxtapose examples from his doctoral study of children’s virtual-world-creation within a Minecraft club with experiences of physical investigation of urban spaces. Within the after-school club children made worlds, and in doing so made assumptions about the layout and provisioning of built forms and of their infrastructural interconnections. Here children, in their play, tested out and reinforced adult assumptions about what is foregrounded in the experience of the built environment and what falls conventionally to be unseen or unexplored.

  • Paul Graham Raven, PhD candidate at Sheffield Water Centre, University of Sheffield

Paul is a science fiction writer, critic and essayist who recently completed his doctoral studies in infrastructure futures and theory at the University of Sheffield. He is also affiliated to the Institute for Atemporal Studies. Paul’s research is rooted in a novel relational model of sociotechnical change, and is aimed at developing and deploying narrative prototyping methodologies for the critical assessment of speculative future infrastructures. In his contribution to this event Paul will explore the illegibility of the hidden city by theorising the metasystemic self-effacement of infrastructure: asking, in other words, how the hidden city came to hide itself.


It’s quite the honour to be invited, as my interaction with the good Doctor Bennett to date has largely consisted of me asking him a few rambling questions after he spoke at seminars; they must have been interesting questions, I guess? I’ve something of a quibble with the use of the word invisible — infrastructure isn’t invisible so much as it’s illegible, or so my own research would have it — but I suspect it’s exactly those sorts of theoretical semantics we’re going to get into on the day, so I’mma keep my powder dry for now. If you’ve got opinions about cities, infrastructure and urban exploration, and you’re in the area, you should come along.

(Postscript: the whole not-yet-being-an-actual-Doctor thing becomes much more painful when you see yourself on a roster like that. I guess I should be proud I get asked to speak with researchers far more experienced than myself — and I really am! — but it still kinda sucks to be the one person who has yet to officially pass the bar.)

The ghosts of infrastructures past

Somewhere along Brindcliff Edge Road in Sheffield, you can still see this wonderful infrastructural relic:

That’s a sewer-gas destructor lamp, of which there are maybe a dozen or so remaining in the city, though only a very few of them are a) undamaged, and b) still lit. Destructor lamps took a tricky infrastructural problem (the way in which noxious gases would accumulate in sewer sections near the top of hills) and solved it in a way that had a useful function (mixing said sewer gas with town-gas and burning it to light a street). I have a particular soft spot for this one because of the way it has been incorporated into the wall.

Becalmed in the storm’s eye

It’s been a busy couple of months. I hope regular readers will forgive this recap of the past two months or so, which is as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s; I transcribe it here in what I suspect is the hope that I’ll be able to convince myself it all actually happened.

The corollary of getting my contract extended mid-March was that a lot of theretofore speculative deadlines became concrete things, which made for a whole lot of heads-down keyboard-mashing; this was complicated somewhat by my first encounter with true physical burn-out, which, it turns out, feels a lot like being in the lingering run-down phase of a nasty cold for something close to six weeks. Still, it’s good to know your limits, and to have a precedent for the signs that you’re about to hit them.

Chronology is a suitable framework, so: My last post here followed directly after Weird Shi(f)t Con UK, a gathering of some of the more peripatetic irregulars of the Institute for Atemporal Studies and allied forces which took place in in the endearingly cobwebbed decay of Limehouse Town Hall (whose chilliness may well have contributed toward the aforementioned burn-out); many profound matters were discussed, and the post-it notes were plentiful.

London: Weird Shit Con

Afterwards we went to Wilton’s Music Hall, which was full of people attending a stage version of The Great Gatsby; not perhaps an ideal aftervenue given the circumstances, but apropos in an atemporal kind of way. (Wilton’s is ace, though; recommended to all and sundry as one of LDN’s most characterful places to hang out, especially on nights when there’s no show on.)

That Sunday I went to see the legendary Damo Suzuki perform with a Sheffield noise/drone/kraut band in the cellar bar beneath a former picture-house. (Stuffed-animal venues are a definite theme of my life these days.)

Monday following was the final internal meeting for one of the projects I’ve been working on with the PWG; the website for the project is currently offline (nothing to do with me, I might add), but should hold various documents and presentations for public edification. One of the larger papers to come out of the All-in-One project with my name in the author list is now in press at the journal Futures, by the way; drop me a line if you’d like a copy but don’t have institutional access to Elsevi*r’s rentier knowledge-silo.

After the dissemination bash, it was back to Sheffield to see Gojira and Ghost at the Academy. Gojira were good enough, if a little lost on a too-large stage; Ghost were laughably bad, all (obvious and done-to-death) gimmick and no substance. Utterly at a loss to understand why they’re so popular right now. Kids these days.

March 21st saw me pop over the Pennines for the first day of the FutureEverthing conference in Manchester; a chance to catch up on interesting ideas in digital urbanism, reassert my believe that marketing is the only profession with a higher shysters-per-capita than futurism, and hang out with Justin Pickard and Scott Smith, co-conspirators in contraPanglossian gonzo foresight. (Usman Haque dropped Borgesian bombs, which made me want to marry him.) Regrettably, the physical symptoms of burn-out were digging in hard by this point, and I skipped the next day of the conference due to exhaustion and the promise of snow. (Productivity took a serious nosedive around about his point of the proceedings.)

Week after that I fielded a call from a journalist for the Boston Globe; apparently she couldn’t find anyone else willing to argue against the transhumanist narrative that animal uplift is obligatory. So I did.

That weekend, thinking I was over the worst of the exhaustion, I went over to Bradford for the Saturday of EightSquaredCon, the 2013 Eastercon. It was a decent day — what I can remember of it, anyway. I was drafted onto a panel within twenty minutes of arriving; spent some time chatting to various people, but probably making little sense, including an addled attempt to explain to Cory Doctorow what I’d been up to recently (sorry, Cory; I really shouldn’t have been out of bed at that point). My booked train home was cancelled, which shunted me onto a slower and longer route, with the last leg an all-stations stopping service on an old diesel train with no heating or window seals.

I expect that frigid transit contributed to rebooting the exhaustion, which hit me like Chicxulub in the days to follow, and sent me into a serious emotional slump on the side; the black dog bites hardest when my immune system is low, but that’s a knowledge I’m slowly internalising — or so I hope, at any rate. The week following was an agony blended from anxiety over a massive workload and the utter inability to give more than three hours of coherent attention a day to anything at all. Somehow I still managed to go to Lincoln on the Friday and give a paper at the New Genre Army conference in celebration of Edam Rarebits…

… or rather, I gave a methodological manifesto for an as-yet incomplete prototype of the genre of Cut-up Critique; the moral of this story is that if one decides to try trolling the academy, one should be prepared to have one’s bluff called. Luckily for me, the general tone of the day — unsurprisingly, given its object — was one of irreverence blended with seriousness, and I got away with it. (It’s my native medium, after all.) Whether I got away with another cold train-ride home is an open question, however. Maybe my mum’s right, and I just need to buy a new coat.

I believe there was video taken of the papers at New Genre Army, but I haven’t seen them yet, and there’s no sign of them on YouBoob. I’ve been meaning to post the script and slides of my paper here, but… yeah. *adds another thing to the to-do list*

Then followed a week of frantic paper-writing, as deadlines were looming like limits to growth. The week after that, at the final dissemination event for All-in-One, I got to try explaining design fiction to infrastructure engineers and risk analysts for the first time, which involved first explaining it a bit more thoroughly to myself; the former was slightly more successful than the former. (Attempts toward codifying a theory of design fiction in the infrastructural context are ongoing; watch this space.)

I then went to Darlington to talk to a roomful of young water industry professionals about the postmodern crisis of infrastructure management; Borges, Latour, scientific hyperreality, the model is not the system, path dependency and progressive incrementalism, integral futures, that sort of thing. Got a much more positive reception than I’d hoped for, actually, but the other presentations were pretty dry, so I may have benefitted from delivering a shake-up at the end of the day; selah.

Day after Darlington was the annual PWG conference, which was more of a social cohesion operation than a proper conference; got to find out what else goes on in the further, more soc-sci orientated corners of the group, which is valuable knowledge to a generalist/synthesist like yours truly. We went for a nice meal afterwards. Lovely.

The last few weeks have been a little easier, although there were still a fair amount of deskjockey targets to be met, including editing a collaborative paper which has been accepted by (but is not yet in press at) Energy, and writing another paper on choice architecture, social media and gamification as applied to water use behaviour (which has just entered the reviewing process). Also wrote one of my increasingly editorial-esque book reviews for ARC (Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?, as yet not posted), and a deeply tangential rant about some halfway-passable psyche-rock album that the Demon Pigeon lads threw at me.

This Wednesday just gone, I got to talk as part of a panel at the WriteTheFuture conference, which was an excellent bolt-on gig connected to the Clarke Award. Not many folk at this stage of their careers can say they’ve spoken on stage at the Royal Society. What was I speaking about? These tweets capture the gist of it:


There’s a Storify of the whole day, courtesy the tireless (and triumphant) Tom Hunter. As for the Clarke itself, it went to Chris Beckett for Dark Eden; I don’t care much for awards as a reader and a critic, but it’s always nice to see them go to an author whose work you admire, especially when you consider them a friend as well. For the same reasons, I’d have been happy to see it go to Ken MacLeod, as well. Having read none of the shortlisted titles, however, that’s as far as my opinionating goes.

Friday just gone I went to see Owen Hatherley talk about Pulp, Sheffield and failed urbanism. It was interesting stuff, and naturally I bought the book (Uncommon) on which it was based (as it promises to provide another thematic spoke for the vague “secret history of the 1990s” novel idea I’m kicking around in spare moments), but — like many excellent writers of non-fiction — Hatherley’s not at his best behind a podium. To be fair, he may have been more than a little intimidated by the audience, which had to be close to 300 strong. Glad I went, though.

And now, here am eye, becalmed in the I of the storm, collecting my thoughts and task-lists before the madness starts up again in a new form, mutatis mutandis (and with, dare I say it, my earthly husk finally recovered from the burn-out). This Thursday coming I’m off to Brighton to talk conferences, drone art, infrastructure fiction and gonzo futurism with assorted colleagues, old and new, and around this time next week I’ll be heading off toward Heathrow, so as to catch an early Monday plane to Colombia via Madrid. In fair Medellin, I’m honoured to be an invited guest of Hernán and Vivi for Fractal’13, a design fiction conference with a difference (in that the audience does the fictioning, and the guests merely facilitate said fictioning). In effect, I think this is the closest thing I’m going to get to a holiday this year, and so I’m intending to enjoy it to the fullest.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing Medellin. I’m very much not looking forward to two long transits through the geopolitical unspaces of airport security theatre, but you gotta take the rough with the smooth, I suppose. If nothing else, I should take it as an opportunity to reread Ursula LeGuin’s Changing Planes

Having unlocked my phone and demothballed my Flickr account, I’m planning to share my adventures in Medellin here at VCTB, and indeed to start sharing interesting in general from time to time. Chairman Bruce may claim (with justification) that blogging is dead, but even he’s got a Tumblr these days; having always had my own domain, I can’t see the point of tumblring on a service that claims the results as their own when my own site can do just the same job with me keeping control*. So it lacks the social features of Tumblr, sure; I’m increasingly unconvinced that’s a drawback and not a bonus. Besides, everything that happens here gets tweeted. Selah.

So, yeah; that’s what I’ve been up to. Who knows what’ll happen next, eh?

[ * – I still maintain that a social network with Twitter-, Tumblr- and Facebork-like characteristics could be built as a plug-in based interstitial peer-to-peer protocol for individual CMS-based websites; all the sharing and social, none of the centralised data collection and huckster leverage advertising attempts. Problem being that, by definition, such a service would be impossible to monetise externally, meaning it’d only get done by a team of FOSS nerds with a lot of time on their hands and no eye toward a lucrative IPO. So not something to hold your breath for at present, I’d guess. ]