Mirror on the bathroom and Hackney on a plate

Geographers look at queer lavatories, GPS, urban food production and humour, writes Matthew Reisz

September 1, 2011

From educational mobility to "robot-cow relationships", energy management to "the spacing of emotion", the annual international conference of the Royal Geographical Society ranged across every imaginable aspect of human life, and sometimes beyond.

Conference chair Stephen Daniels, professor of cultural geography at the University of Nottingham, said that "in troubling times, environmentally as well as economically, a geographer's ability to envision the world, its physical and cultural processes and its potential for change has never been more important to wider society".

He was keen both to "draw on the discipline's traditional sense of adventure to cross intellectual borders" and to "develop new ways of capturing the public imagination" in order to bridge scholarship, teaching and social engagement.

Already the largest gathering of academic geographers in Europe, this year's conference was 15 per cent bigger than the 2010 event, with 1,500 delegates and more than 350 sessions delivered over three days.

The 1,300 speakers included experts in art, economics, history, philosophy and public health, as well as the many subdisciplines within geography itself.

Sheila Cavanagh, associate professor of sociology at York University in Toronto, chaired a session of "Queer bathroom monologues", a stage performance based on 100 interviews with "lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer folk about their experiences in public facilities". This drew on stories she was unable to use in her 2010 book on the subject, Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination.

They ran, she said, "from the devastating to the sublime, the traumatic to the passionate, the mundane to the comic and everything in between".

The dramatic format made it possible to "capture emotion along with inter-subjectivity in ways that are often lost in academic texts".

Other events took delegates on field trips, at least within London.

Artist Jeremy Wood used Hyde Park as his canvas to explore the power of global positioning systems.

Meanwhile, Mikey Tomkins, who is working toward a research degree in urban agriculture at the University of Brighton, used an "edible Hackney" map to show the area's food-production potential.

A rather more traditional session on "Imagining the future of the journal" looked at the particular challenges for a discipline such as geography - on the borderline between the sciences and social sciences - posed by the changing modes of access and dissemination that are transforming scholarly communication.

And, in a return to more light-hearted material, "Humour in practice and practising humour" considered the role of humour in creating bonds within society, in challenging authority and between researchers and participants.

The conference at the Royal Geographical Society's headquarters in London opened on 31 August and will finish on 2 September.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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