Capturing Transition

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Monday Feb 6, 2012 Under Academia, Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Film, Geography, Heritage, History, London, Research, Spatial Politics

“…for cities change — alas! — more quickly than a mortal’s heart.”
- Charles Baudelaire

Gentrification in process

In 2010, myself and five fellow PhD students at Royal Holloway, University of London wrote a research proposal in a pub. We were subsequently awarded a small grant from the 2012 olympic Creative Campus Initiative to make a 30-minute film about the relationship between the olympics, geography and water. The result was London’s Olympic Waterscape, a film about an East London area with a rich industrial history built around a series of braided waterways in the Lea Valley that is currently undergoing a complete landscape reconfiguration as part of the 2012 olympics. I wrote about that production of that film back in 2010 and if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s here:

A secondary goal on this project was to hold an exhibit at Royal Holloway during the Creative Campus Initiative garden party in 2010. The exhibit was a huge success and soon after we were contacted by the British Library asking if they could host our film on the Sports and Society page. Then, incredibly, we were contacted by The Archaeology Channel, asking if they could play it during their video news. The number of hits on the video quickly exceeded all expectations (relative to most academic work).

Vibrant matter

I think everyone on the team, at this point late in 2010, was stunned that the project had taken on such a life of it’s own. We were even more shocked when David Gilbert, the Head of Department at Royal Holloway (who initially alerted us to the competition), asked us if he could contribute departmental funds to help develop the research project into a school module with a lesson plan and DVDs. These were eventually sent out to 500 schools across the UK. Then, in one final chapter, we were invited to author an article about the project for the International Journal of Heritage Studies be be included in a special issue about the 2012 olympics which we have been working on for over a year now (yeah I know, academia is slow!). So, with all that said, I am proud to announce the release of London’s Olympic Waterscape: Capturing Transition by Michael Anton, myself, Alison Hess, Ellie Miles and terri moreau.

I wanted to relay the whole story of this project for two reasons. First, I want to encourage budding researchers to write proposals for projects like this when the opportunity arises. Yes, they are a pain and yes, you don’t really have the time, but often these things can spin off into all sorts of wonderful directions you can’t imagine. You also often get to meet a lot of great people who can teach you unexpected things and may one day become collaborators on other projects. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I want to continue to relay to the wider geography community the power of new media. The way this project took off was a result of our combined use of photography, video and text, mashed up in different ways, some of which we didn’t plan or intend. The end result can be a project imbued with far more gravitas than an article alone.

Future ruins

I would just like to end this post with a thank you to Alison Hess, Ellie Miles, Michael Anton and terri moreau for their wonderful collaboration (and friendship!) throughout this process. This was the most fun I’ve ever had working on a research project. I’d also like to thank Amy Cutler and Elisabeth Guthrie for their valuable contributions and Iain Sinclair, Toby Butler, Rob McCarthy, Nick Bateman, Nathalie Cohen, Alex Werner and William Raban for agreeing to be interviewed for the film. Thanks as well to David Gilbert, Tim Cresswell and Phil Crang at Royal Holloway for the support and, of course, to the London Creative Campus Initiative for the funding the work.

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The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.

In association with

Silent UK
Sub Urban

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“Our waking existence… is a land which, at certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld – a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise.” -Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Wanderlust

Few places in the world are as enshrined in the pantheon of urban explorer mythology as the Carrières de Paris, often referred to more colloquially (though inaccurately) as the Paris Catacombs. Since 2008, we have spent dozens of hours underneath Paris, exploring the system and meeting those who map and build it. And despite that lively and active present day cataphile culture, it is clear from looking at the history of these spaces that we are all only a blip in the long history of subsurface Paris. Parisians are melded into the very fabric of the earth through these quarries.

Sightings

As early as the 13th Century, open air quarries, and later mines, were sunk into the Left Bank of Paris to feed architectural projects on the Right Bank. Eventually, as the city became pressured for space, people began building over the Left Bank. A voidspace was created which, since the 13th Century, has been continually lost and relocated, condemned and celebrated, backfilled and re-excavated. As Winch writes on his blog, exercising access to this voidspace is not a right or a privilege, it’s just something that can be done. And we do – again and again. These sunken tombs have a magnetic pull, despite, or maybe due to, the potential for visceral terror they harbour.

Taking the privilege

While in the quarries, we find ourselves in a negative space, a spatial gap that exists because earth matter has been excavated to build something else entirely. In architecture and urban planning this is sometimes referred to as space left over after planning or SLOAP.  Geographers and urban planners find that those modern negative spaces are used for various urban subversions, like skateboarding and street art, being largely ignored and disused space; but we rarely imagine SLOAP being as vast as the urban underground in Paris. As Marc Explo told me while we were wandering the 180 miles of subterranean galleries and chambers “if you want to know how big the quarries are, just look at all the buildings made of limestone in Paris. Then you understand the immensity of what we’re in.”

Expanse

In 1774, a hundred feet of the Rue d’Enfer collapsed, revealing the voidspace underneath. When King Louis XVI asked engineers to report on the implosion, he was told that much of Paris could collapse; it was built over fragile quarries that stretched for miles. This triggered an epic ongoing urban stabilisation project that spawned many of the shafts, rooms, mines and galleries that we now temporarily occupy. But the rich history of these spaces had just begun by this point. Into the 19th century, the caverns and tunnels were mined for building stone and by the end of that period, they would contain the skeletal remains of eleven million Parisians exhumed from graves where they impeded development – the quarries were transformed into a massive Necropolis.

This system have harboured criminals, French revolutionaries and Nazis, they have been used to grow mushrooms and store wine and, increasingly, give Parisians an unmonitored space to throw parties and get high in our age of the ever-present watchers. Today the tunnels are roamed by a different clandestine group, a loose and leaderless community whose members sometimes spend days and nights below the city. This is our urban playground, a timeless organic underworld of caves, water, bone and soil.

Their underworld

Our tombs

The contemporary relationship between explorers and the catas is thought to stretch back to 1793 when a Frenchman named Philibert Aspairt journeyed by candlelight into the abandoned quarry system to find a “lost” wine cellar. His body was found eleven years later and a monument erected to his memory, which still stands to this day. In Ninjaicious’ Infiltration Zine Issue 9, back in 1998, the urban explorer Murray Battle tells tales of multi-day sub-urban rambling, nipple-crunching tunnel crawls and and port sipping in La Plage. Not much has changed since then. As National Geographic wrote in their recent article, entering the quarries has been illegal since 1955, so cataphiles tend to be young people fleeing the surface world and its rules – freedom reigns underground, even anarchy. One of the cataphiles the authors run into down there is a guy called Yopi who says “many people come down here to party, some people to paint. Some people to destroy or to create or to explore. We do what we want here. We don’t have rules.” Our time in the catas costs us nothing but the battering on our bodies and psychological stability – an increasingly rare direct feed into the nervous system and hypothalamus – and contributes nothing to society except to add the the surreal project in whatever ways we desire. Money is of no use here, imagination is the currency.

Tarry

Of course, the phenomenological primacy of accessing the void cannot be ignored. After entering the Paris catacombs last year, on our Kinky Paris trip, our expectations of what to expect, think and feel began to melt with every sip of port, dripping off of us with the sweat and blood and caked quarry mud. It seemed all we could do was act, except in those moments when we were so shocked by some sight, smell or crushing feeling we were rendered temporarily inert. We would sometimes run into other sub-urban dwellers down there, cataphiles who spend the majority of their lives below the City of Light. We also encountered groups of people hunched over single file with bobbing headlights and plastic cups full of beer, and we would nod hello as we passed, acknowledging our shared experience in this space of unregulated sensory madness. It seemed to go on endlessly, and we achieved a state of supreme disillusionment or exceptional clarity (the meld). When we left and had to reconform to social expectations the come down hit hard.

Come down

Every time I am in the catas, I can’t help but think I am headed to the last party at Zion, just before the machines drill through to inevitably annihilate the remaining humans and their wonderful little dystopia. The catas feel like a post-capitalist future where everyone took the red pill and woke up. And yet, an 1877 engraving by Charles Barbant also relays this sense that we need not go to Herculaneum or Pompeii to find buried cities, for they occur beneath our own feet. Whether those spaces are a terror or a utopia, or indeed both simultaneously, perhaps can only be known subjectively to each distinct voidspace entrant. These experiences, like so many we seek as the intrepid explorers of this age, often verge on incommunicability (perhaps contributing to my reliance on multimedia in attempts to relay these stories – see below).

Subterranean utopia

So where do these thoughts fit into the hack? Well my friends, the quarries of Paris are perhaps the best Western example of a place where humanity has become intricately interwoven into the informal subterranean urban matrix. Paris culture would suffer a grave setback with loss of access to these spaces (not that such a thing could ever happen, they are far too vast). A co-addictive symbiotic relationship has been built over nine centuries where the populace continually hacked the closed system open again and again, leading to a consistent stratigraphic memorialisation of rediscovery and renewal that is now layered so thick with history and culture you can almost eat it (I tried). The catacombs are proof that just as virtual social systems can be maintained by the multitude, so can physical space. Enter the void.

Occupied

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Want to see more? Have a look at the video footage from my first trip to the Carrières de Paris:

Then read about it in my just-released article in ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies:

 

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The first episode of Crack the Surface, a series of documentaries on the culture of urban exploration.

Produced in association with

Silent UK
Sub Urban

Tags : , , , , , , | 1 comment

This film cost $31 million. With that kind of money I could have invaded some country.
- Clint Eastwood

Silent Motion and Statler on the road

Hobohemia was a series of three trips in 2009 and 2010 organised by The Winch into continental Europe. As an experiment in raw living and in an effort to experience something new, we began sleeping in the ruins we were exploring, eventually making it as far East as Poland on our final journey. I filmed each of the trips, work that was incredibly difficult given the conditions we were travelling under. The result is the Hobohemia Triptych, a series of 3 films that compose this ethnography in its rawest form. It is dirty, shaky, visceral footage that speaks to the excitement, exhaustion and eventual deliriousness that travelling in this way induces. I hope you find them inspirational.

On to new adventures. Explore everything!

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