03 August 2015

Done and dusted!

After a most successful viva, I am delighted to announce that my PhD thesis entitled "Keeping shop, shaping place: The vernacular curation of London's ad hoc consumption spaces" has been completed.  I am thrilled to share it with you here.  What a journey!

The thesis is available for download via the RHUL website here.  Please note, it is best viewed in spreads.  In Acrobat: View --> Page layout --> Facing pages.

Here is the abstract:

This thesis explores material and practice in the ad hoc shops of a London neighbourhood. These discount shops, corner shops, kiosks, and souvenir stands are not organised or managed according to top-down design strategies, but emerge from everyday rhythms of shopkeeping and the heterogeneity of their materials. Overall the project asks: how do these everyday ad hoc shops work through and on various powerful urban forces? It draws from wider debates about everyday places, retail geographies, and city building and is driven by intellectual impulses concerning material geographies and the politics of improvisation. It sees these shops – and the neighbourhood that houses them – as powerful assemblages of animated matter and approaches shopkeeping as a meaningful material practice. Insights into the shops were gained by in-shop and visual ethnography, interviews with officials, and discussions with shopkeepers. The alternate format of this thesis resonates with the complexity and contradictions of the shops and represents an experiment in visual storytelling.  Stories of material, practice, and politics are woven through four empirical chapters. The first introduces the neighbourhood and shops, and outlines external interests in managing the shops’ matter. Secondly, I detail the work and material of shopkeeping – stocking, displaying, rejigging, making do – and the moral economies of these vernacular curatorial practices. Thirdly, I explore the interdependence of the shops and the brands they offer, outlining how they work together. The last empirical chapter focuses on the precarity of the shops and the translocality of their keepers. The concluding chapter summarises themes running throughout the thesis: the politics of material difference; the spontaneity and liveliness of material; the aesthetics of order and disorder; creative practice and domestication; and the politics of affective atmospheres. It reflects on the potential of ad hoc-ness and ad hoc shops in the city, and the politics of their recognition.

I will soon be taking up a SSHRC-funded postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto. Though ad hoc shops may not be the focus of this next research, my respect for them is enduring.  Thanks to all for your interest in the project.

06 March 2014

Surgeons discuss: Place, Materiality, Photography

On the 18th of February, the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group at Royal Holloway (a.k.a. Landscape Surgery) delved into issues of place, materiality, and photography.  The session, which I co-organised with Philip Crang, is summarised on the Landscape Surgery blog here. Please check it out. 

27 February 2014

Cultural Geography / Urban Photography: Spaces, Objects, Events

My article entitled: Cultural Geography / Urban Photography: Spaces, Objects Events is now in press with Geography Compass.

An earlier version of the paper is available here.  And here is the abstract:

Image-making is bound up in our experience of urban space.  In artistic and academic practice, contemporary urban photography has critically reworked street photography traditions, embracing its energy and spontaneity, while inviting a more dialogic and reflexive approach.  Although the use of urban photography has been somewhat limited in cultural geography research, the practice has enormous potential to complement and enhance contemporary enquiries in the field – particularly those that highlight feelings, experience, and textures of place, and draw from more-than-representational approaches.  A return to making urban photos also chimes with current approaches that incorporate creative practice and performative methodologies to introduce uncertainty into research.  Here I consider what cultural geographers might gain by exploring city spaces, objects, and events through the lens.  I focus not on the images themselves, but on the practice of doing urban photography and on what these images may do for research.  In particular, photography may help evoke the feeling of place and its material richness.  By focusing on urban micro-geographies, and by opening work to ambiguity and chance, geographers may create new space for interpretation.  Attending to material with the camera also enables us to play with value and hierarchy, and provoke the animation and agency of matter.  Finally, as well as highlighting the matter of things, images can capture the matter of our own bodies caught up in events with the cities we inhabit.  Urban photography offers a way of doing research that opens up city spaces, objects, and events, so we can better reflect on the complex textures, feelings, and experiences of urban space. 

20 January 2014

City Building and Vernacular Practice

A new year, a new phase, and a proposition:

This project considers an area of Central London which is itself an ad hoc place: a mix of people, paths, architectures, smells, materials, institutions, animals, stories, homes… Material on the street shows a vernacular process of city building that is mirrored in local ad hoc shops. These places are rich in material complexity, heterogeneous, and familiar sites of making do. They are also intrinsically nested in the local rhythms and urban material of Central London. The neighbourhood – my neighbourhood – is in perpetual motion. It has felt particularly rapid change and seen significant investment in recent years. Due in part to these changes, ad hoc shops have seen increased external interest in their matter. Material, long part of the neighbourhood, and long part of these shops, is increasingly deemed out of place. Ad hoc shops are all-embracing – through practice, these places absorb new material and identities in their complex folds. Despite the influence of current revitalisation strategies, it may be that they are absorbed into the matter of these shops as just another layer.

Materials transform. Spontaneous solutions are needed. Ad hoc-ness comes to play.

30 April 2013

Pregnant pause

Admittedly there’s been a radio silence on my end, and here I am announcing another:  I am now officially on maternity leave and will be returning to the PhD and the blog in October.

Wishing everyone a wonderful summer. 

x Mia

20 January 2013

New Year’s (Low) Resolution

Whereas the year is fresh, this new start seems to call for a more blurry-eyed look at the everyday – as if looking through the crinkled cellophane on a packet of jujubes.  What better way to look anew than through the lazy eyes of a pinhole camera.  As discussed once before, it may be that the hazier the image, the more you see. 

20 November 2012

Standard deviation

In Camden, plans are afoot to tidy up street trading.  Although the Street Trading Strategy devotes only one short page to “miscellaneous sites” (the kiosks that are separate from markets), it is exacting in its criticism.  The Strategy states “there are some sites where kiosks have become tired, unattractive and not in keeping with the area that they are in. They have advertising and sponsorship that doesn’t have full permission of the Council and the type of commodities which the trader sells has increased without the full knowledge of the Council. There have also been examples of traders over spilling the boundaries of their area and adding to the feeling of street clutter.”  These concerns were echoed in a number of interviews with representatives from the Camden Council.

(In contrast to these perceptions, I hope my photos generally highlight the order of these places despite their ad hocness.)

One solution put forward to address these issues is the standardisation of kiosks.  Currently, Camden owns the land on which the kiosks sit and the traders own their own structures.  Standardisation would see Camden purchasing new kiosks for all 50 or so miscellaneous traders and owning both the kiosks and the land.

As far as the Council is concerned, this would have three main benefits:  it would create visual and material coherency across the borough; it would allow the Council to control signage and advertising on the kiosks (which could generate some income in a division that currently operates at a loss); and it would clean up the “messiness” they associate with these sites.  When asked how these three points are ranked, the latter was deemed most pressing.  As such, the materiality of the kiosks is of greatest concern.  And while there are ways to control the goods sold through licensing and the sprawl of kiosks through a demerit point system, the Council currently has no way to manage the perceived “tattiness” of these businesses.

Standardisation has been on the agenda for some time.  In 2011 a design intensive – and controversial – kiosk was proposed with the help of Make Architects (see rendering below).  Ultimately the project was shelved, not only because of the polarising design, but also because the Council recognised that management problems were paramount.

For some time, the Council has allowed miscellaneous sites to trade with limited enforcement or interference – in part because street trading in markets is more demanding of the Council’s energies.  This has been of great benefit to miscellaneous traders who have long been able to make decisions which best suit their business.  Despite this permissive history, the belt seems to be tightening.

A standardised kiosk is now back on the agenda, with the kiosk below presented as a possible design.  Traders cite a number of issues with this model, including: the lack of canopy, which will have negative implications in inclement weather; the cramped quarters inside, which would challenge many traders with specialised equipment and those needing storage; and the limited space for display inside and out, which is especially an issue in the sale of larger items, fruit, and flowers.

With such a diversity of street trading, it will be challenging to find a “one size fits all” solution.  Currently kiosks are purpose built in a vernacular fashion to suit both the trader and the goods they display.  They have developed over time through minute tweaks and modifications, trial and error.  After such a long period of self-management and self-fashioning, this proposed shift in aesthetic and material control is sure to cause a stir. 

04 November 2012

Photo finish

On the 31st of October, the kiosk where I worked last summer closed its doors.  Although it could have been a sober day, the closure signals a great relief for the managers who have other projects on the go – projects that tend to generate more income.  

The challenges of convenience retailing cannot be overstated.  In a neighbourhood saturated with Tescos and Sainsbury’s, it is hard to stay afloat.  Not only do chains enjoy huge volumes of loyal shoppers, but they also have much larger profit margins than smaller shops.  For example, a bottle of water may cost Tesco 20p and is sold for 53p.  Instead of purchasing the water directly from the supplier – like Tesco – smaller retailers buy the same bottle at a cash-and-carry for an inflated price.  At my kiosk, the same bottle is purchased for 30p and sold at 52p.  Although you will find this bottle sold for £1 or even more than £1.50 (at both independents and chains) my kiosk held fast to its commitment to compete with Tesco on price.  (Did this seal their fate?)  This example may be slightly deceptive, as the mark-up on water is relatively high, compared to something like cigarettes, for example, which are marked up only 6%.  In any case, any kiosk relies on volumes, something that this one did not enjoy. 

Low volumes and margins mean empty registers and limited capacity to purchase new stock.  The challenge of filling the shelves was a persistent ordeal over the months I spent at the shop.  Without an abundance of product, attractive displays are difficult to create.  In addition, if customers aren’t sure to find their Mayfair Superkings or Extra Cool Breeze every time, they will soon find other more dependable retailers for their everyday purchases.

Shelves stayed empty due in part to challenges of buying stock and also as a result of product expiry.  Enjoying attractive offers at cash-and-carry shops meant that expiration dates often arrived before products were purchased.  Our in-kiosk offers, and strategic positioning, couldn't always clear them away.  Restocking the empty shelves was often funded through the managers' other jobs.  In fact, these other jobs tended to support running the kiosk.  To add to the challenges, with margins so low, the managers were never able to pay themselves, and working at the kiosk meant not working at their other paying jobs.  

Under the flourescent lights, we packed up the stock in Tesco carrier bags and large black bin liners – our fingers black with the dust that collected over the summer.  The shop took a surprisingly short time to pack and was collapsed into a pile of plastic bags within a couple hours. 

It was strange to displace items that had amassed so many stories, and so much familiarity, over the summer: the Mars bars that melted in the crawl space during the heat wave; the assorted sizes of Doublemint gum – bought by accident – which always posed a challenge for pricing and display; the Chew-its that required extra dusting in the folds at their square ends; the boxes of matches that didn't quite fit in the TicTac containers used for their display... 

With any luck, the managers will sell some stock to other shops.  The rest will likely be consumed at home or sent to family in Bangladesh.  I also took a number of things as well at a deeply discounted rate.

24 October 2012

Brandscape Architects

After a trip, a move, and a short ailment, I’m back wandering the streets of Camden.  At times, I’ve been doing so in the company of representatives from corner shop brands. 

Each ad hoc display is an assemblage of material brought together by different actors, and branding reps play an important part in this curation.  As well as information about current promotions, these reps provide shops with a bounty of branded materials, including carrier bags, canopies, posters, stickers, sign boards, Ramadan schedules, Oyster card holders, window displays, leaflets, and pads of sticky notes.  While some of this material is used at the discretion of shopkeepers, materials are most often put up by the reps themselves.  The reps also advise shopkeepers on styles of display and, when allowed, reorganise products.  They may, for example, move their products to the front and centre of a display or assemble like products so direct comparisons can be made by consumers.

As discussed in earlier posts, brands become markers for ad hoc shops and help announce shops’ presence in space.  The identities of brand and shop are intertwined, especially in kiosks, which seldom display a business name.  To discuss these connections with a brand representative, I suggested how the Wall’s sign acts like the barber pole of the corner shop.  To further my analogy, he told me his posters are like the hairstyle photos inside the barber shop – they tell customers what’s on offer and educate on the latest styles.  

Competition is fierce for surface area and – with shop keepers’ permission – reps will cover the promotional materials of others.  Although reps remove outdated posters, layers of material are evident on all surfaces.  Constant visits to these shops ensure that materials are current, unobscured, and in good shape.

Material properties of the promotional stuff and the shops themselves pose challenges to the reps.  In one shop, packing tape doesn't adhere well to a new "silent" plastic newspaper box.  In another, a stairwell in front of a shop window makes applying stickers a challenge for Lyca reps, whose stickers are sticky only on the back.  Unlike Oyster stickers with double-sided adhesive, they cannot be applied from the inside.  Each new addition is documented with photographic evidence and submitted to the brands’ head office. 

Some reps explain that shop keepers are fortunate to don their brand.  They believe the benefits of brand association are payment enough.  Others offer shop keepers product vouchers or cash to display their promotional materials.  In either case, many brand representatives strike exclusive deals with shop keepers, to limit the presence of other branding on the shop front.  In businesses with such small margins, these deals are hugely advantageous.  Interactions between brands and shop keepers are not without dispute.  Negotiations for exclusivity are on-going and some shop keepers shared their frustration after waiting months for canopies promised after reps reorganised their displays.  Many are still waiting.