Losing Ground: On holes and Other Absences

Workshop and Exhibition report


It has been just about over a month since our workshop and exhibition “Losing Ground: On holes and other absences”. The idea of the event was provoked by the sudden appearance that popularly characterizes the event of a sinkhole. A geological phenomenon that gains increasing media coverage and that captures popular imaginations across the world. To follow the sinkhole is to ask “what happens when the ground gives way?” What does it mean philosophically, metaphysically, politically and architecturally “to lose ground”? Holes are powerful, yet they are under-theorised, unthought, perhaps even non-existent; however, as soon as they arise or emerge as a provocation, a rupture or a question, holes appear to be everywhere. They pose an ultimate critique, we like to think.

mirranda burton.jpg
Courtesy of Sam Wallman


The event took place over two days in a small hole of our own making in the University of Warwick (UK). It consisted of a cross (non/ un)-disciplinary workshop and an exhibition with performances as well as academic lectures. As such, we tried to trouble the disciplinary boundaries of conversation between artistic and academic practices. Digging or excavation is a dirty business, as holes by their very nature ‘dis-place’, but that is the price we were willing and even keen to pay for our political ungrounding.

We organised four panels, one around sinkholes and orifices chaired by Harriet Hawkings (Royal Holloway), another one on visualising holes, more geared to the “here and now” of holes chaired by Angela Last (Warwick). A third panel focused on bodies and urban voids chaired by Sam Hind (Warwick), and a last one led by Ben Richardson (Warwick) on structural and networked short-circuits and ground faults. The discussions bridged around themes of spatiality, temporality and corporeality, and while punching many holes through the thick layers of conservative academic conventions, they crossed entire universes, perforating moons and planets, giving rise to new horizons.

We started the event with an introduction by one of us. Marijn Nieuwenhuis took us on a journey through different holes, inviting us to fall into them, see and travel through them.

You might wonder why organise an event on holes? Is organising and talking about something that is not there not counterintuitive? And what can possibly be interesting about things that perhaps do not even exist? Are holes even things? How to go about in assessing the ontological status of a hole? Indeed, what is a hole?

Karl Schoonover (Warwick), Natalie Koerner (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts), and Tarquin Sinan (Université Libre de Bruxelles) directed our attention to this last question and commenced their presentations from the vantage point of film, architecture and sculpture. Natalie’s contribution, framed around a Heideggerian-inspired mode of analysis, argued for a ground that is very much involved in the act and of dwelling, against a conception of the ground as stable, passive and nurturing. Natalie interrogated the sense of shock and awe of a sinkhole, a theme and experience which also appeared in Karl Schoonover’s presentation on contextualised sinkholes in films and gifs. Karl demonstrated how sinkholes appear as a portal to the unknown or to ‘unknowability,’ as our conventional parameters of time and space seem to come to a halt, are altered or maybe even disappear. Tarquin Sinan shifted our attention to holes in the body in Antony Gromley’s series. In an engaging presentation, Tarquin followed 20 years of Gromley’s evolving sculpting interventions, which constantly negotiate the ecological insides and outsides of the human body, questioning its solidity, destroying it, scattering it.


The ‘holey’ body – not a reference to Deleuze’s espace troue – was also the subject of Aya Sabry’s (American University, Cairo) evocative and creative film On the W/hole: Foldings and Flux. Aya’s contribution was a creative narrative piece on the anthropology of holes in everyday life. It followed the maker as she walks, drives, navigates life and death in Egypt, through a bullet-hole that opens up a body yet does not kill; the presentation fundamentally toys with what a hole does in our everyday negotiation of life and death. Similarly focusing on Egypt, one of us (Aya Nassar)  presented on a building’s journey of demolition. It was also a personal account on the helpless spectatorship of the destruction of a symbolically and politically charged building. She sought to question the assumed sudden rhythm of the sinkhole, by also focusing on the slow and methodological process of ruination as hole-making. Holes are never silent. Japhy Wilson’s (Manchester University) presentation was also concerned with temporality, yet with a focus on utopian and revolutionary dreaming and awakening. By using gaps and thresholds (and through a reading of Kafka), Japhy asked us to join him in his narration of a revolutionary movement twice, highlighting that, perhaps, by pausing on the threshold of dream and awakening, we might be able to recover solidarity and revolutionary potentialities that are left traceless in a narrative that glides over gaps.

Stay with us, in our rabbit hole, just a little longer, as the workshop also saw three forms of holes, gaps, and absences that were interrogated for their creative and political potentialities. Dimitris Panayotopoulos-Tsiros (UCL) challenged the idea of an urban void (from an urban planning and architectural perspective) by looking at the Eleonas, an industrial area in western part of Athens. Dimitris showed how and why an urban void can only be understood in relational terms. A similar concern with the relationally of absence could be found in Maria Audi Kiskowski-Byrn’s (University of South Alabama) video presentation “The Deleted Tweet.” Maria fretted over the lost geographies of deleted tweets. Where does the deleted tweet go? Does it leave a hole, a trace?  While a deleted tweet may raise considerable anxieties, especially in our Trumpian age, Lucy Finchett-Maddock (University of Sussex) finds revolutionary potential and promise in a-legal spaces, that is the space outside/ inside of law. Her Agambian presentation provided a holey focus on property and squatter rights.

As we came to occupy space – lawfully or not – Chris Write (independent artist) invited us to accompany her on a journey in the holes of her own designed bubbles and crevices, as she herself prepared to inhabit a hole in an upcoming residency project of fellow artist Linda Duvall. Chris brought along her own manufactured holes to show, see, touch and feel and experience. To hold, feel, see (and not see!) a hole, hovering as a blown bubble in the room was her way to invite us to share in her attempt to make sense of a hole.

As the workshop’s presentations were digging deeper and deeper, Heide Fasnacht and Jenny Perlin (both New School) had segments of their artistic work installed to accompany those of the presenters. Heide’s showcased photographic imagery of her Suspect Terrain and Jenny video looped her One Hundred Sinkholes. On the second day, the two visiting artists gave two inspiring performance lectures based on these segments and their broader work on holes. Heide’s performance carried the provocative title “Everything I make is a sinkhole,” and was an invitation, not only to her creative practice but also to the possibility of thinking through materiality, temporality and emotional involvement with instability, destruction, and catastrophe. Jenny’s emotionally moving performance was a temporal and sensorial adventure into the cave where sleepers and dreamers meet and inhabit spaces of lightness and darkness, in joyful anticipation or dread of the (re)surface.

The two performances were most generously received and commented on by Teresa Stoppani (London South Bank) and Divya Tolia-Kelly (Durham University), who from architectural, geographic and postcolonial points of view offered their own rendition of how creative practices around sinkholes might tell us something about our ceaseless attempts to make sense of that which we fear, to find multiple and coexisting ways of knowing and to disturb our complacency towards geophysical and social worlds.

Eventually, therefore, the event ended on the same note with which we started, a thought experiment on how we can rethink the “ground” on which we base our knowledge and lay claims of truth. This all in an attempt to transform the ground’s imagined stability, solidity and fixity into a more open-ended question. Ungrounding requires suitable instruments and tools to dig beneath our feet. At least, that it, if we wish to recover a sinking earth that is alive, that composes and decomposes; an earth whose meaning is not determined but fluid, relational and, ultimately, political and ethical.

Recordings of the event can be found here.
(Aya Nassar & Marijn Nieuwenhuis, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

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