For me, 2017 was about transitions and realignment.
I saw in the year with a friend in the Netherlands, in the afterglow of suburban fireworks, rambling through Muiderslot and dredging through my previous year’s social media exhaust, with daytrips out to Utrecht and Rotterdam.
At the end of January, my housemates and I moved to Hebden Bridge, in West Yorkshire. They’d been planning the move for a while, having spent many years in Brighton, hoping to find a better balance of town and country and a more amenable cost of living. I’d been havering on whether or not to join them, but, aware that they’d be moving on with or without me, concluded that a change—any change—would ultimately prove healthy, an opportunity to shrug off some strictures, to grow and shift.
As an emblem of the stress of the move, a POÄNG armchair wedged in a stairwell.
Perched on the side of the valley, one of a terrace block once inhabited by textile workers, our house up here is roomy and comfortable. Though broken boilers and gas leaks mean it hasn’t all been smooth waters, and our landlord plans to sell later in the year, it’s been a good staging post, a space for us to get used to a rougher landscape and different set of rhythms. It’s been nice having a kitchen island and a proper guest bedroom, and being able to host friends from further afield.
We got a dog, a border collie called Charlie, a gentle beast who I have since inadvertently dyed terracotta orange, rescued from a noose trap, carried over any number of stiles and barbed wire fences, and frequently fallen asleep under. (He’s a good dog, even-tempered and a dream to walk, if overly fond of licking pockets.)
Long walks, with varying degrees of success. Wind turbines, llamas, and fell runners. Reservoirs, chimneys, almost being taken out by a heron in flight. Mud, ice, and blooming heather. Frogs basking in a millpond on a summer day, then, months later, a duck treading carefully on the iced surface of the same.
At the end of October, as the culmination of four years of academic bog-snorkelling, I submitted my doctoral thesis. Forged in a crucible of sleeplessness and cascading PDFs, the written text swiftly deviated from my original plan, as a chapter-long review of existing work mushroomed into three lengthy chapters of theory, squeezing out much of my own ethnographic material. The full Frankenstein’s monster. It’s taken me most of the rest of the year to bounce back from the traumas of those final weeks of writing, making peace with the fact that, although the document is far from my original ambitions and intent, and bears the scars of stress and anxiety, much of what I submitted is actually pretty great. I’ll be defending sometime in late January or February, and, while it needs more work, I’m sufficiently convinced of my overall argument that returning to it no longer fills me with a rising horror.
The combination of moving house while being manacled to the thesis has frustrated my attempts to put down roots or bed in. Looking back, the solitary, lithic texture of this year’s thesis efforts clearly left a lasting dent, and, in the months ahead, I’m keen to switch that up. While I want to continue working on these topics (‘infrastructure’ and ‘change’, broadly defined), I’ll be taking the time to cultivate some smaller, more modest experiments, and find better ways of working with and for others.
Amid the desert of reading and typing and coffee and forgetting to have lunch, I found a couple of oases. In July, I turned 30, celebrated with mushroom bhajis and a beer festival at a working men’s club in the woods. Weddings in Southwark and Sussex yielded Amaretto shots and enthusiastic dancing. A stag do that started in the debris of London Pride concluded, after karaoke, in the cavernous bar of St Pancras’s Midland Grand Hotel.
To mark Jour de la vertu, a holiday in the French Republican Calendar, I outran my housemates over a tenth of mile (mostly because they were laughing so hard). I went to a queer pop punk gig in a Manchester pub’s basement on the advice of a friend from DC. I asked my Airbnb hosts about the cryptocurrency mining rig on top of their kitchen cabinet.
In September, I spent a few days participating in ‘Fieldwork’, a series of workshops running alongside Abandon Normal Devices, a film and digital culture festival taking place in and around Castleton, in the Peak District National Park. The organisers convened a interesting crowd, including folks from Lagos, Mexico, Goa, and South Africa; a diversity of angles from which to grapple with some gnarly and difficult questions around arts, culture, and the shifting role of institutions. As part of the programming, we got to check out Studio Roosegaard’s Waterlicht, an installation flooding a limestone pass with light and smoke, instantly one of my cultural highlights of the year.
For the second year running, I’ve been back as a part-time tutor on Anab Jain’s “design investigations” programme at Angewandte, the Vienna University of Applied Arts. This year’s student brief has leant speculative, focusing on climate change and resource scarcity, and, in particular, how these forces might play out in an Austrian context. The semester kicked off at the start of October, with an excursion to Vorarlberg’s Bregenz Forest, a field trip which included time with local museum curators, furniture makers, a chef, a forestry professional, a park ranger, and a visit to a gravel quarry. I got to tend bar in a converted 1950s hotel, while my (long) journey back to Yorkshire took me via the Friedrichshafen Zeppelin Museum, on the shores of Lake Constance.
The rest of the semester has kept from dwelling too much on my now-submitted thesis, as we’ve driven our students through a gauntlet of week-long mini-projects. Weekly check-ins with students over video chat have given us space to grapple with the kinds of knotty problems I most enjoy, while return visits to Vienna have taken me to the city’s revamped Weltmuseum and Architecturzentrum, and seen Anab and I ambushed by the Krampus. In November, our studio was joined by design researcher Sara Hendren, who ran a two-day design workshop on adaptation, ability, and the city, with student responses including audio of urban textures, a portable induction loop, and a scheme that would grant blind people access to museums after dark. My work on this draws to a close at the end of January, as students shift from research to fabrication and making, but I look forward to catching up with them in the autumn, as they bring their finished work to London. (Watch this space.)
In terms of books, I particularly enjoyed Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, Christopher Priest’s The Gradual, and Kim Stanely Robinson’s New York 2140. The dappled prose of Matthew Battles’ Tree held me, enraptured; likewise for Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, which has refactored my thoughts in ways both subtle and profound.
As a television fan, the final seasons of Halt and Catch Fire and The Leftovers were pitch perfect, catharsis and oxygen. Neruda was shaggy and stylish, my film of the year, and choosing to see Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin in the hours after my thesis submission helped put things in perspective—a welcome reminder that, however bad things may have seemed, at least my work colleagues weren’t trying to kill me.
I’ve spent much of the past couple of months haunted by this image, from Reuters photojournalist Carlos Jasso, of rescue teams removing a framed painting of a wizard while searching for survivors in Mexico City following September’s earthquake. Something inexplicable, salvaged from the ruins.
Happy 2018, all.