Big Ron

Ron Johnston – who died last night of a heart attack – was one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever known.

We became firm friends when I joined him, Peter Haggett, David Smith and David Stoddart as a co-editor of the first edition of the Dictionary of Human Geography; I wrote about our first collective meeting when our wonderful publisher (and another good friend) John Davey died three years ago.  We all met in the bowels of John’s club (and I say bowels advisedly); I was nervous about meeting such luminaries, but Ron was warm, welcoming and immensely enthusiastic – as always – and even at that first meeting combined a tremendous sense of fun (the jokes and banter came thick and fast on all sides) with intellectual vitality (this wasn’t going to be like any other Dictionary!) and a deep sense of responsibility (without Ron’s managerial and organisational skills I doubt that even John would have been able to guilt-trip us into finishing the project).

We worked closely together on multiple future editions, each one more demanding, and yet Ron never lost those fine qualities.

I’ve found a wonderful video of him talking with Peter about their love of Geography; it’s a promo for the University of Bristol, but it’s much more than that, and it’s here.

Ron moved from Monash through Christchurch (Canterbury) and Sheffield to Bristol via an interlude at Essex.  I vividly remember him resigning from the Vice-Chancellorship of at Essex to return to the world he loved most: teaching and research.  I wrote to say how much I admired his decision; Bristol was so very smart to appoint him once he stepped down. His move created a sensation at the time, but it was a humble and considered decision.  No careerist, Ron had no time for the brown-nosing that so many saw as the route to preferment; neither did he want to administer the work of others.  No matter how high his star rose, he never saw his colleagues, co-workers or students as somehow beneath him.  He was honest, forthright, and quick to acknowledge when he was wrong (apart from his love of Swindon).

He never stopped writing: writing, for Ron, was thinking – never a simple record of what he had done.  So he never stopped writing because he never stopped thinking (I had a message about his most recent publication on the same day that he was taken to hospital).  Writing for Ron was also living – once you knew Ron, you could hear his voice when you read his work, see the set of his jaw, the twinkle in his eye, and that lovely grin.  Just look at that video.

At one conference where we were supposed to be on the same panel, he was late (a rare event: he was unfailingly courteous), and I joked that he was presumably opening the Publishers’ Exhibition – which got a laugh – and then I added “Now I think of it, he is the Publishers’ Exhibition”, which brought the house down. Ron’s productivity was (and remains) legendary.  And it wasn’t jobbing-writing:  I’ve always marvelled at his ability to write so much and yet to hit the target so many times.

Those who live by citation counts (Ron didn’t) might do well to look at his and shrivel.

This isn’t the place to highlight even some of Ron’s books – how to choose?  But he once told me that his best selling book was his Atlas of Bells – he was a keen and talented campanologist – and I never did find out if he was joking.  It was of course published by John Davey, and now I can’t ask either of them.

We did very different things, but it didn’t matter.  And throughout our long friendship Ron also taught me – by doing rather than saying – that our collective work matters only in so far as it makes a difference to the world.  Ron wrote and wrote and wrote, but it wasn’t a personal odyssey (though he surely gained tremendous satisfaction from it – even if he was rarely satisfied with what he wrote).  He was passionate about the importance of university education, about our calling as teachers and researchers, and his textbooks spiralling through multiple editions showed that in spades; but he had no time for those who thought of universities as ‘ivory towers’, and he was more aware than most of how they are affected by and in turn affect the societies in which they are embedded.  He wanted to captivate his readers, many of them students, by guiding them to the frontiers of geographical research, and cultivating in them a love of ideas – and a profound responsibility for their practical implications.  Much of his substantive research focused on political geography, to which he made a host of vital contributions, but there was also a rich, deep and remarkably generous politics to all Ron’s writing and publishing.

And to his living too.

Material Witness

A new book from the wonderful Susan Schuppli – I was going to say ‘of Forensic Architecture‘ fame, except that her work involves so much more than that!  You can see both her entanglements with forensic architecture and the ‘so much more’ on full display in Material Witness: media, forensics, evidence (MIT Press):

In this book, Susan Schuppli introduces a new operative concept: material witness, an exploration of the evidential role of matter as both registering external events and exposing the practices and procedures that enable matter to bear witness. Organized in the format of a trial, Material Witness moves through a series of cases that provide insight into the ways in which materials become contested agents of dispute around which stake holders gather.

These cases include an extraordinary videotape documenting the massacre at Izbica, Kosovo, used as war crimes evidence against Slobodan Milošević; the telephonic transmission of an iconic photograph of a South Vietnamese girl fleeing an accidental napalm attack; radioactive contamination discovered in Canada’s coastal waters five years after the accident at Fukushima Daiichi; and the ecological media or “disaster film” produced by the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Each highlights the degree to which a rearrangement of matter exposes the contingency of witnessing, raising questions about what can be known in relationship to that which is seen or sensed, about who or what is able to bestow meaning onto things, and about whose stories will be heeded or dismissed.

An artist-researcher, Schuppli offers an analysis that merges her creative sensibility with a forensic imagination rich in technical detail. Her goal is to relink the material world and its affordances with the aesthetic, the juridical, and the political.

Susan’s own, endlessly interesting web page is here, which includes links to some of her writing here.

Post-Atomic Eyes

An age ago I was asked to contribute to a symposium in Toronto on ‘Post-atomic eyes‘; I confessed at the time that I was taken aback – what on earth were the connections between drones and nuclear weapons?  Eventually I realised the root of the problem: I knew a lot about drones and other forms of more or less conventional aerial violence, but next to nothing about The Bomb (see here).

As I worked on my contribution – nervously, I freely admit – I came to realise that the connections between the two were close and intimate, and immensely consequential for both.  This is a tragically overlooked episode in the genealogy of drones (and aerial violence more generally), and I was asked to turn my presentation into an essay for an edited volume based on the conference.

You can find my first attempt under the DOWNLOADS tab – “Little Boys and Blue Skies“.  The essay was way overdue and over length; I’ve never found it easy to translate a presentation into a text.

But to my surprise (and delight) the editors, Claudette Lauzon and John O’Brian, graciously accepted the essay more or less as is, and the volume (also called Through Post-Atomic Eyes) is now published by McGill-Queens University Press:

What can photography tell us about a world transformed by nuclear catastrophe?

What does it mean to live in a post-atomic world? Photography and contemporary art offer a provocative lens through which to comprehend the by-products of the atomic age, from weapons proliferation, nuclear disaster, and aerial surveillance to toxic waste disposal and climate change.

Confronting cultural fallout from the dawn of the nuclear age, Through Post-Atomic Eyes addresses the myriad iterations of nuclear threat and their visual legacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Whether in the iconic black-and-white photograph of a mushroom cloud rising over Nagasaki in 1945 or in the steady stream of real-time video documenting the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, atomic culture – and our understanding of it – is inextricably constructed by the visual. This book takes the image as its starting point to address the visual inheritance of atomic anxieties; the intersection of photography, nuclear industries, and military technocultures; and the complex temporality of nuclear technologies. Contemporary artists contribute lens-based works that explore the consequences of the nuclear, and its afterlives, in the Anthropocene.

Revealing, through both art and prose, startling new connections between the ongoing threat of nuclear catastrophe and current global crises, Through Post-Atomic Eyes is a richly illustrated examination of how photography shapes and is shaped by nuclear culture.

Contributors include Karen Barad (UC Santa Cruz), James Bridle (Athens), Edward Burtynsky (Toronto), Blaine Campbell (Edmonton), Eric Cazdyn (University of Toronto), Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge (Toronto), Robert Del Tredici (Atomic Photographers Guild; Concordia University), Matthew Farish (University of Toronto), Blake Fitzpatrick (Ryerson University), Lindsey A. Freeman (Simon Fraser University), Derek Gregory (University of British Columbia), Kristan Horton (Berlin), Mary Kavanagh (University of Lethbridge), Kyo Maclear (Toronto), Joseph Masco (University of Chicago), Katy McCormick (Ryerson University), Karla McManus (University of Regina), David McMillan (Winnipeg), Andrea Pinheiro (Algoma University, Sault Ste. Marie), Public Studio (Toronto), Mark Ruwedel (Long Beach, CA), Julie Salverson (Queen’s University), Susan Schuppli (Goldsmiths, University of London), Erin Siddall (Vancouver), Charles Stankievech (University of Toronto), Peter C. van Wyck (Concordia University), Donald Weber (Royal Academy of Art, The Hague), and Eyal Weizman (Goldsmiths, University of London).