By Josh Lepawsky, Max Liboiron, Arn Keeling, Charles Mather

(T)he family of repair activities share the aim of maintaining some kind of continuity with the past in the face of breaks or ruptures to that continuity. They involve returning in some manner or other to an earlier state … (B)oth repairer and restorer want to pick up a thread with the past.

Repair’s etymology includes notions of return to home or to a place, a coming back again. There are obvious spatial connotations to this etymology. On the other hand, when ‘we’ think about repair, temporal connotations leap to the fore. A machine is brought back to working order equivalent to before it broke. A landscape is remediated of toxicants to levels before it was polluted. Why is it comparatively easy to conceptualize repair in a temporal sense, but more difficult to do so in a spatial sense?

Our question is not to suggest that temporal aspects of repair are easy, uncomplicated, or without their own deeply contested politics. Our goal instead, is to draw attention to what is gained when we understand repair spatially.

As geographers, we are predisposed to think with the notion of spatiality: the qualities of space; its performative, produced, and generative characteristics; its aesthetic and embodied qualities. We are sensitized to the idea that space is not merely a static stage on which the dynamism of history plays out.  Rather, spaces are co-constituted through interrelations of difference and multiplicity amongst entities. As key thinkers in both geography and science and technology studies show us, world making and its spatialities can always be otherwise.[2]

In rethinking repair,[3] we aim to insert this dynamic notion of spatiality. How might doing so change how we think about – and practice – repair? In what follows, we describe four cases from our research projects that highlight the spatialities of repair. We begin with a repair site that is familiar to scholars of repair and maintenance: Information and Communication Technology (ICT) repair shops in Lima, Peru. We then shift to less familiar contexts by examining the repair of socionatural systems in the form of Atlantic salmon, degraded mine sites in northern Canada, and a decolonial, feminist science laboratory. We end by drawing the cases together, to flesh out the implications of thinking about repair spatially.


Repair Sites

Figure 1: Calle Leticia streetscape, 2014. Photo by Josh Lepawsky.

Repairing Circuits, Assembling Geographies (Josh Lepawsky)

Calle Leticia is a short street in the heart of Lima, Peru. It is a quintessential site of repair: street vendors hawk all sorts of used electronics parts; technicians in stores and stalls fix various electronics.

But what else is happening here when electronic machines are repaired to (brought back to) working order? Circuits are connected, but so are sites. The street and “the jungle” are joined, says Alicia, who has been fixing CRT monitors here for nearly two decades. The city and “the province[s]” says Jimmy, here more than 15 years. These are where some of Alicia’s and Jimmy’s customers come from. Some of Jessica’s and her brother Santos’ customers come from other places 270-1000 kilometers away: Ica, Cajamarca, Piura. Repairing electronics here does more than make machines whole again. The work makes connections between things, places and people. Sites are assembled through this work into geographies of repair.

And more: identities are assembled. When women do this repair work they are being women in ways and in locations where some customers do not expect. Sandra, in reply to a customer’s question about where the technician is says, “I am the technician”. Sandra connects her presence behind the counter of her stall to her customers’ surprise, even disbelief: her skills with electronics; her presence in this place. They generate an identity surprising to others. It is an assembly of a particular location, gendered roles, skills, and machines that make space and identity anew. This is what Whinny, another repair technician nearby, means when she says, “little by little machismo is being pushed aside”. To push aside is to make space differently. To claim new conditions of space.

Figure 2: Fishway on the Rocky River, Newfoundland. Photo by Charles Mather.


Repairing Salmon (Charles Mather)

How can recent thinking on maintenance and repair travel beyond the sociomaterial? How can maintenance and repair be relevant when the object of our analysis is socionatural? The attachment site for this research is Atlantic salmon in Eastern Canada, a species that has been under pressure for many decades. Fisheries officials and non-governmental organisations have responded to declining salmon stocks through a range of interventions aimed at repairing damaged sites that are crucial to salmon reproduction. These involve a range of repair activities on rivers that have included building fishways around hydro and other developments that block salmon from reaching spawning grounds, and colonizing new areas for salmon reproduction, often through constructing fishways. In socionatural contexts like Atlantic salmon, landscapes and species are tightly knotted together. Rehabilitating spawning beds for salmon and building ‘sutures’ around human-made obstacles on salmon rivers aim to repair reproductive landscapes, which in turn will hopefully repair species health, expressed as population. There is, of course, much uncertainty and indeterminacy associated with these efforts because the health of Atlantic salmon stocks depends on much more than the reparation of reproductive landscapes. And if these efforts are successful, we will need to ask this political question: what nature are we supporting through our efforts to repair what have become “fully-worked over” landscapes?[4]

Figure 3: A water-filled open pit at the nominally reclaimed Pine Point Mine, NWT, Canada. Photo: Arn Keeling.

Remediation as repair (Arn Keeling)

Only since about the mid-twentieth century has serious thought and effort been directed towards the repair of post-mining landscapes, such as those I study in the Canadian North (Figure 3). My work in these broken, toxic territories engages with recent debates around mine remediation, showing how surprisingly contested the notion of cleaning up mine wastes can be. Landscape repair, whether reclamation, remediation or restoration, aims at no less than putting back together what has been “wastelanded”: disassembled, rendered lifeless, or made poisonous. In spatial terms, a landscape is defined by continuity (aesthetically or functionally); thus, repair would seem to indicate a process of reassembling elements of the landscape into some sort of restored spatial order (which is also a temporal one, referenced in the quixotic effort to establish ecological “baselines” as targets for restoration). But landscapes, too, are places of multiplicities: of cultural significance; of multispecies assemblage; and of embodied experience – so determining what condition to repair “to” is often contested (for instance, by local Indigenous communities). If repair is often conceptualized as a problematic gesture of temporal return and continuity, the uncertain ontological status of a ruined or remediated landscape suggests similar spatial ambiguities around the possibilities and limits of post-mining repair.

Figure 4: CLEAR member gathering fish carcasses from local fishermen and women at St. Phillip’s wharf, Newfoundland. Photo by Bojan Fürst.

Fixing science by putting it in place (Max Liboiron)

Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) is a decolonial, feminist, marine science lab. While we invent, hack, and repair DIY scientific instruments, ultimately we seek to fix Western science. Western science did not become broken – it was born that way. It was foundational to imperial, colonial, and capitalistic practices of extracting value from the Indigenous periphery for the colonial center. It violently turns Land, a complex set of human and non-human intergenerational relations, into abstract and universal landscapes or research sites that can be measured, compared, extracted of value, and left behind. CLEAR seeks to introduce reparative work within Western science by creating place-based methods that do not produce universal results. We follow Indigenous nation’s protocols when on their Land, and we foreground equity and humility in all aspects of the scientific method. We look at the rocks and the fish (these rocks, that fish) and then ask what methods we can use, rather than starting with a sampling strategy and work to contain the rocks and the fish within it. Through place-based methods, the lab is our site for repair and comes to bear on other sites and Land,[5] but more importantly, our relations with Land then come to bear on the lab and how we repair. Unlike the Science Must Fall movement in South Africa, we are not looking to replace Western Science. We assume our reparative work will always be compromised, imperfect, and incomplete within the academy. As such, we are “repairing towards” values rather than ends: equity, humility, solidarity, place-based knowledges, and justice.  

Spatializing Repair

In the repair practices we have described, the significance of space becomes apparent.  Most obviously, our cases of repair involve the transformation of space: streetscapes are transformed to foster the repair of objects and to make new connections between people and places; contaminated landscapes are literally reassembled; rivers are stitched up with ladders to allow for salmon reproduction; and new laboratory sites are constructed to repair the focus of scientific inquiry. In this way, our work stresses the significant relationship that exists between repair practices and space – these are our repair-scapes.

Yet repair-scapes are much more than the sites where repair happens. We are arguing for more than the need to add a “spatial sensibility” to existing scholarship on maintenance and repair. We are inspired by geographers like Doreen Massey, who has argued that space should not be understood as the static backdrop against which we theorise dynamic processes of temporal change.[6] Space is not, in other words, a flat surface providing us with the stable foundation we need to trace lively repair practices over time. Space is instead the product of interrelations where heterogeneous socio-material practices associated with repair coalesce: space is “the sphere of relations, of contemporaneous multiplicity, and always under construction”.[7] 

Understood in this way, repair-scapes are sites where relation-making practices work to sustain the very possibility of spatial and temporal continuity, or its disruption. These relation-making practices do not happen in space, they constitute and make these spaces. Repair practices in Lima make gendered spaces. Ladders in rivers make healthy reproductive spaces. Yet, since they are a product of diverse relations that are in dynamic flux, repair-scapes are always characterised by multiplicity and they are never static. They are always under construction. New relations can be established and sustained, or they may falter and break down.

What questions does this view of space as a product of ongoing interrelations raise for us in our cases, and for broader thinking on repair practices? How does it make us look at repair differently? How does it change how we formulate questions about maintenance and repair?

The four cases we present provide insights into the rich diversity of how space is integral to repair practices. On Lima’s Calle Leticia, gender relations and identities are remade in and through space. Shifting identities cannot be understood outside of the spatial configurations – booths and face-to-face transaction – that emerge out of repair practices. In Newfoundland, the efforts to conserve salmon involve repairing geographically discrete watersheds in ways that connect humans, fish, rivers, water, anglers, and modernist development into specific assemblages. The spatial is the social in these salmon repair-scapes. In the Canadian north, the matters of concern associated with repairing toxic landscapes are fundamentally about space-time. In these spatially heterogeneous landscapes, reparation can never be only about time and return to “before,” as hotspots, buried toxicants, and atmospheric dispersion of pollution play a role in how the landscape is understood and navigated from both engineering and Indigenous points of view. CLEAR’s goal of developing place-based scientific methods is explicitly spatial: it seeks to undo the work of Western science that effaces the multiplicity, specificity, and histories of Land. Place-based scientific practices, such as following Indigenous Land protocols when removing samples, are world-making, and aim to transform knowledge and space itself.

Bringing space to repair in the ways we have suggested provides new insights into repair as socio-material practice.  But it also demands a new sensibility and a new form of politics where space, as we see it, is itself a “political project”.  To this end, we need to ask whether it is “good” that the street and the jungle and the city and the province are connected in Lima’s repair-scapes. Are these relations characterised and shaped by responsibility and care or should we be wary of the ways in which repair practices assemble distant geographical sites? The politics of repair may seem less controversial when it comes to the women who work in Lima – machismo is being pushed aside, and new more progressive spaces are being forged. At the same time what risks inhere in romanticizing repair techs as gendered entrepreneurial heroes?[8]

Two of our cases involve landscapes that have been damaged and require repair and remediation. In these cases – involving endangered salmon and toxic mining wastes – the focus is on how repair practices reconfigure and reassemble landscapes, and to what effect. In heterogeneous toxic landscapes, the existence of multiple potential remediation trajectories raises the question of who are we repairing for? In toxic mining landscapes, aesthetic continuity may be ideal for tourists, but not for Indigenous groups who have to remember sites of permanent contamination for generations in terms of subsistence activities, ceremony, and travel.  For salmon, the political stakes are different: when salmon rivers are “fixed” with ladders, it is a different river – an obvious cyborg. For the ecologists that aim to repair wild salmon, what kind of nature is being fostered through these stitched up landscapes?

For CLEAR, place-based methods are in constant tension with universalist Western science, and each point of conflict is an opportunity to think through the goals and strategies of decolonizing science. When peer reviewers challenge us on the methodological premises of trusting local “citizen scientists” to identify fish species for us (“how are you certain the fish are Atlantic cod, and not another type of cod?”), we discuss whether we will dodge the question with science-speak (“speciation was confirmed by third party observation”) or do we choose to make the case for local knowledge, and likely have our paper rejected (“Newfoundlanders Know cod; it’s in their songs and art, it’s on their plates, and it pays their mortgages. It was goddamn cod!”)? The good and right path is not set out in advance, and mis-fit can make this tension analytically available.

In conclusion, the breakage, damage, rupture, violence, malfunction, erasure, and other forms of harm that repair address are always spatial in nature, and so strategies of repair are also spatial. By tracing spatiality in addition to temporality in repair practices we can open new analytical vistas for looking at how power and politics are implicated in repair and disrepair. Moreover, because space is always an ongoing “sphere of relations, of contemporaneous multiplicity, and always under construction”[9], it means that these politics are never complete. Consequently, sites of repair can be revisited and reanalyzed even after repair has “fixed” the motherboard, stitched up the river, decreased levels of contamination, and finished its ceremony. Since continuity is never guaranteed in advance (and discontinuity always a risk), repair politics – and their spatio-temporalities – are never done.



[1] Elizabeth V. Spelman, Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World. (Beacon Press. 2003) 4-5

[2] For example: Doreen Massey, For Space. (London: SAGE, 2005), Annemarie Mol,The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002). Donna Haraway, When Species Meet. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2008).

[3] Steven J. Jackson, ‘Rethinking Repair’. In Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society, edited by Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kirsten Foot (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014). 221-60

[4] Bruce Braun, From critique to experiment? Rethinking political ecology for the Anthropocene, in The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology 2016, edited by T. Perreault, G. Bridge and J. McCarthy, (London: Routledge, 2016) 102—14.

[5] Robert E. Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[6] Doreen Massey, For Space. (London: SAGE. 2005).

[7] Doreen Massey, For Space. (London: SAGE. 2005) 148

[8] Ananya Roy, “Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35, no. 2 (2011) 223–238.

[9] Doreen Massey, For Space. (London: SAGE. 2005) 148

One thought on “Repair-scapes

Comments are closed.