PLACE symposium - main

Staff and students celebrating 10 years of Geography at the Penryn Campus.

Place Symposium

On 27th March 2015 Kelly Stevens attended the Place Symposium to celebrate ten years of Geography at the Penryn Campus.

This morning I woke up with a new word on my tongue: moraines. I’m not a geographer, but after a day of talks at Penryn campus, geography has got under my skin. Along with moraines (ice field boundaries in glacial landscapes), I’ve picked up earthy terms like terroir (the character of agricultural space) and urban terms like place hacking (trespassing in order to explore derelict spaces) and ruin porn (a reference to fetishistic image-gathering in those spaces). Geography, it seems, is more than meets the eye.

The event was organized by the University of Exeter’s geography department to celebrate ten years of being in Cornwall. “Place” was the theme, with physical, social and cultural geographers, artists and poets sharing their insights on landscape, people and their environment. The day was divided into two, the first half giving insight into the passion points of Exeter’s own geographers and partners, and the second featuring two keynote speakers, artist Kurt Jackson and urban explorer Bradley Garrett.

Every place has a story, and the range of stories we were regaled with was quite breathtaking. Every speaker had a story about their relationship with place, how they came to study or teach their specialty, what their places have meant and continue to mean to them as well as their significance in the wider world. It appeared that James Ryan’s comment, “historical places generate love” could be shortened to simply “places generate love”. There were stories about identity and origin and about protecting the places we love. We pondered Poldark, selfies, satellites, a ghostly lugger, the colour of ice, the ecology of the past and future.

One of my favourite moments was a story about a trip to Iceland taken by a geography cohort and the department’s first-ever poet in residence, Alyson Hallett. Together, they produced a book combining poetry and scientific descriptions of the landscape, a short part of which they performed for us. I loved Hallett’s quiet, dreamy poetry reading, which contrasted beautifully with the more strident, academic view of the landscape, read by Chris Caseldine.

Artist Kurt Jackson kicked off the evening’s talks. He described his touring exhibition, Place, for which he asked 32 writers to select and write about a personal place of meaning in Britain. Jackson relished the opportunity of viewing place through others’ eyes, and so did we, the audience, hearing how geography’s man of the moment, Robert Macfarlane, took part along with geography professor Catherine Leyshon, a GP friend from University, and Ted Hughes’s widow, Carol Hughes. The contributors sent Jackson all over Britain, from the Cairngorns to Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction (who could love such a place? John Crace, the novelist, apparently.) I loved the stories of personal connection and the idiosyncratic choices of location. At one point I rather felt I was in the midst of Radio 4’s touching Listening Project, as Jackson interviewed his GP and writer friend John about why he had chosen Scotland’s Isle of Lewis.

Our final speaker, Bradley Garrett, defied all my perceptions of what geography is and can be. He told tales about his work as an urban explorer. In a place-hacking project, he used the same kit as mountaineers and rock climbers to scale derelict buildings or explore hidden infrastructure underground. I hadn’t realized how much I’d loved Battersea Power Station – the ruins that I used to pass daily when I lived in London’s South East – until Garrett showed us a photograph taken from the top of one of the chimneys that is no more. I loved the interior image of an old control panel still in place – it was like a still from a 70s B-movie – and I wished I had been there at the breathless, exhilarating moment of discovery.

It was made startlingly clear that geography is an interdisciplinary world. The audience included artists, students, writers and academics, all bound together by a curiosity about what place means. I wrote furiously to try and capture all the new words and ideas I could – I had Robert Macfarlane and his word-hoarding Landmarks on my mind – but I couldn’t hope to get it all down. It was a bit like trying to learn the history of the world in a day. In the end, I came away feeling the power of place and the need to uncover multitudinous stories still untold. Recently re-launched as the Centre for Geography, Environment and Society, I think this dynamic department will be doing just that.

Kelly Stevens

Date: 20 April 2015

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