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On March 29 and 30 I attended an excellent event at University College London called Stadtkolloquium, organized by Sandra Jasper, a PhD student at UCL’s Urban Laboratory.  The event was attended by over thirty postgraduate researchers and early-career academics from various fields within urban studies, and from a number of European institutions.  The University of Manchester was represented by myself, fellow PhD geographer Jana Wendler, and Leandro Minuchin, a lecturer at the Manchester Architectural Research Centre.

At the event, I presented a paper called “Infrastructure and Indeterminacy: The Production of Residual Space.”  This was a draft of an eventual book chapter that I am presenting at a The Anti-Landscape at the University of Southern Denmark. Basically, what I am trying to do is look at ways that socio-technical systems are theorized in the social sciences and connect these conceptualizations with the way that urban infrastructural spaces are imagined within the fields of urbanism (architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, planning).  Central to this is the imaginary of “left-over spaces”, “urban voids” and “no man’s lands”, using Manchester’s Victorian railway viaducts as an exemplar.  Honestly, this paper has been in the works for way too long, and I probably haven’t been very pragmatic in trying to undertake it during the short length of a PhD. This was all the more reason to sound some ideas and get some feedback.

I truly appreciated the opportunity to present this paper to a group of geographers, architectural historians and designers.  It’s rare to be in a room full of people who are so engaging, and whose work approaches urban space from a variety of perspectives and at different scales.  Everyone presented their research, collectively developed a critical dialogue about ontology, epistemology and method, and found commonalities among our research interests.  To my surprise, there were many overlaps with my areas of interest– a number of researchers presented work on infrastructural landscapes, cultural memory (and amnesia), visuality, modernity and postmodernity, and experimental research practice.

The whole event got me thinking about the different ways that researchers, especially when discussing theory and philosophy, mobilize certain metaphors.  Some were questioning the implications of thinking of their research as an “archive”, others were describing redundant infrastructure as “phantom limbs”, which draws from the historical reference to the city as alternatively a body and a machine (or, as others described it, a cyborg).

On the second day, we had a “method lab” (I don’t know why I was the only one that laughed at that).  After a somewhat contentious conversation about Actor-Network Theory, Matthew Gandy and Leandro Minuchin presented on historical research methods, and Andrew Harris presented on the role of audio-visual documentation in his research of the “vertical geographies” of Mumbai.  With his focus on the leftover spaces of infrastructure and his use of photography, audio and mapping, I realized that our work had a huge amount of commonalities.  Last was a presentation by Michal Murawski, a PhD anthropologist at Cambridge, which I found especially interesting and subversive.  Through an approach he described as “ethnographic conceptualism”, he uses agit-prop to approach the relationship between a particularly dominating building, The Palace of Culture and Science, and the city of Warsaw.  If you can read Polish, his blog looks interesting.

Thanks a lot to everyone who helped put this on, it was excellent.  I had more stimulating conversations about urban research than any other event I have attended so far as a PhD student.

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