Explorations on the Concepts of Place and Non-Place

Place and the concept of place has become an important part of my photographic work. I had a commonly held simplistic view of place for most of my life. Certainly, there were places to which I had a strong connection, and which felt quite different than places for which a connection was less significant or absent, but I didn’t really think beyond the physicality of the space.  A perfect example would be the difference in how I feel about the two places I own homes.  Dornoch in northeast Scotland is where my heart truly lives.  Of the 26 places I have lived in my life it is more home to me than any of the others.  I feel healthier mentally, spiritually and physically there.  In contrast, my South Carolina home is lovely, but I feel no connection to the place or anyone there.  I feel as alien there as if I had set foot on Mars and I am uncomfortable there. But the concept of place has expanded for me by reading the works of Marc Augé (2008) and Jim Brogden (2019) and I have found it has been key to informing my work in Coul Links.

We commonly consider place in terms of the physical; a space occupied by something or someone. Historically, before people were able to travel physically across the globe in hours and virtually across the globe in milliseconds, place was very much about physical proximity, about connectedness to one’s surroundings.  Marc Augé (2008, VIII-IX) notes that while “there are no ‘non-places’ in the absolute sense of the term” there are non-places in anthropological and sociological contexts and that ‘globalisation’ contributes to “unprecedented extension of spaces of circulation, consumption and communication.”

While Augé principally analyses place in terms of globalisation and urbanisation in a phenomenon he terms ‘supermodernity’, Brogden’s view is narrower and focuses on what he terms the ‘cultural erasure of the city’. Both accept that place has elements beyond the physical which are encompassed in the sociological and anthropological significance of spaces.  Both illustrate how more and more ‘places’ have become ‘non-places’ while also accepting that that status is both fluid and bi-directionally reversible, and to a degree subject to individual perception.

“If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place. The hypothesis advanced here is that supermodernity produces non-places…” (Augé, 2008: 63)

“We should add that the same things apply to the non-place as to the place.  It never exists in pure form: places reconstitute themselves in it; relations are restored and resumed in it; … Place and non-place are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations are ceaselessly rewritten. (Augé, 2008: 64)

Jim Brogden’s photographic practice focuses currently on the urban landscape and in particular those places which are essentially holes in the urban landscape; places where people once had a presence, and which have been abandoned.  He writes, “By discussing the significance of photographic representations in revealing the meanings attached to the visual evidence of human agency in non-place, I hope to show what people leave behind provides us with important information about why they left it and what it meant to them.” (Brogden, 2019: 111) Brogden’s notion of non-place differs from Augé’s, but both are rooted in the anthropological and sociological significance associated with spaces.

Both use the term palimpsest in their respective discussions of place and non-place.  Coul Links is a landscape that could well be described as a palimpsest.  It has had many uses inscribed upon it over the centuries. It has been a battlefield twice, in the 13th century and again in the 18th just before Culloden, a bombing range during WWII and a burial ground for surplus military equipment, grazing land, farming land, shooting ground, a tip, a tree plantation that has been harvested, home to a railroad through it, golf holes near the Embo school, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area and a RAMSAR Wetlands of International Importance treaty site, and likely other uses I have not yet discovered.  It was at one time key to the survival of many residents in the village of Embo, but in the past 50 years has lost much of its former significance to the local population.  It has fallen to neglect and the links land itself sees little human use. Those few who do still use the land do so almost exclusively at the perimeters and then only just.

I believe it is fair to argue that Coul Links while once a place of great significance to the villagers of Embo who survived from the land and the sea, the death of the herring fishing industry and the decline of the need to live from the land caused by taking jobs further afield has decreased the significance of Coul Links and it has become by either Augé’s or Brogden’s definitions a non-place.  It has been largely abandoned and left to rewild and to those that do visit it is often a transient interaction at the fringes.  But as described above, place and non-place are never fully formed and there remain some few people who have a deep and enduring relationship with Coul Links and for who it remains very much, a place.

I came to Coul Links in response to the new significance being attributed to it when a proposal was put forth to add to the palimpsest and build a world class golf course on the site. I came as a stranger, with no sense of its history and with some degree of concern for its future, but over the course of the two years I have spent roaming and photographing Coul Links, I have developed a deep connection to and affection for the uniqueness and complexity of the land itself and its multi-faceted history.  I am endlessly fascinated by the chameleon like response to the force of nature the landscape exhibits.  I am disturbed by the hyperbole and misinformation promulgated by the groups who have opposed the development and their failure to recognise the complex history the site has had.  And I am aware too of the environmental issues extant at this point in human history, both globally and at this place specifically, and the need to proceed carefully and sensitively with any future development.

The proposal to develop Coul Links has to a degree re-established its significance anthropologically and sociologically and begun the process of its re-emergence as a place.  It is something of a reversal of the phenomena described by both Augé and Brogden who note more places becoming non-places in modern society and this I think is an interesting point to note.  It has altered my thinking about Coul Links and when I discussed this point during my talk during my recent exhibition, I found it was the point that resonated most with the people in attendance.  Virtually all local people, they recognised how Coul Links had lost its significance over the years and the how the prospect of another layer on the palimpsest had altered the way in which the site was perceived.

 

References

Auge, M. (2008) Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. London, New York: Verso.

Brogden, J. (2019) Photography and the Non-Place: The Cultural Erasure of the City. First. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

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