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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In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. -Hunter S. Thompson

Pod

I couldn’t believe we were back in Vegas. Being the neurotic adventure-seeking pendulums of desire that we are, we had oscillated between one extreme and another, passing through my beloved quiet desert from LA to Sin City, through blistering days and freezing nights under the stars, from my Mom’s home cooking to endless Del Taco – only to find that Emily Fish had already arrived from Mexico and been camping in McCarren Airport for at least 24 hours. She had constructed a little shanty town out of Indian shawls and suitcase remnants in the baggage claim area and fended off TSA security with honey in the ear and incense sticks. I walked in dripping sweat, stinking of whiskey and gunpowder. She looked me up and down and said, “well honey, I guess we had better go explore everything”. Damn right. We started with a gaudy carpet by the toilets in the Bellagio.

Subtle Clues

Vegas was in shambles. The Sahara casino had closed down. New construction had ceased. The only skyscraper with cranes on site when we arrived was Fountainebleau which Aurelie Curie assured me was secured tighter than Fort Knox. 1 of every 9 homes was in foreclosure due to non-payment of mortgages and unemployment was astronomical. Thinking back to my jaunt though the Las Vegas underworld just a few months back, it was clear nothing had changed since the last time I left poolside to go crawling around underground. The summer of 2011 in Sin City felt like the apocalypse. But as I had already found, Las Vegas history, the real Las Vegas history, makes fops and fools of even the most sincere explorers. The city’s story is riddled with blind alleys, dead ends, crazy twists, and outright fabrication; nothing should be taken at face value here, we had to get out on the strip and take score.

Alarmed drains

As much as I love the city, Vegas is one of those places that you really must assume you may never return to every time you leave, fragile as it is, so you’ve got to milk it. It made sense to start with the Sahara, a Vegas icon recently deceased after 59 years of pwning poor saps and breaking people’s hands with hammers in back rooms. We called up Aurelie and she gave us a hot tip – they were having a liquidation sale. The idea was to pose and buyers taking pictures of potential purchases for a client and walk through the front door, head for the lifts and see where you can get. Solid. Floor 24 please.

Spectacolypse

Angulated

There was a spooky sincerity to the liquidation of the Sahara, evident in the faces of employees and the place itself. The architecture was slumped over against a wall, baking in the heat clutching a bottle, shrugging to passerbys and laughing to itself while trashy families picked at its carcass and wondered to their partners wielding tall cans of Natural Ice whether they could put this on eBay, holding the item in question aloft in the glaring casino floorlights with a discerning eye. We bypassed the hordes and wandered backstage where Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, George Carlin & Bill Cosby had performed. Later I found out Aurelie had gone up in the flies the week before. You don’t know until you try.

Soundcloud

Marc Cooper writes that Vegas is purposefully constructed as a self-enclosed and isolated biosphere, sort of what a recreational colony built on the moon might be like. The Sahara in the summer of 2011 was the perfect example of this, a biosphere with holes in the glass, oxygen seeping out into the desert wind with a hissing sound, ready to explode at the flick of a match.

I don't tip

To imagine that for 59 years this place had never closed. Ever. Yet there we sat, alone in quiet buffets and silent rooftops, not even an air conditioner running. It was a spectacular privilege. Extrapolating what we saw in the Sahara, it’s clear this city would ruin like a a hot rod – in the sexiest way possible.

And then we saw it

From the roof of Sahara we could see our last and final target in Vegas – Fountainbleau. It was the only skyscraper in the city under construction, the only one with cranes on it and, as Aurelie had warned us, getting up there would likely require a distraction of immense proportions such as a catastrophic desert thunderstorm or nuclear bomb blast. However, we were determined that it must be done, despite the security patrols vigilantly rolling around on ATVs like circling sharks. There were at least three teams on the ground down there and they were better prepared than us, wielding binoculars and radios.

The final frontier

However, before we could tackle it, we encountered another opportunity altogether. Essentially, we were walking down Las Vegas Boulevard and saw that there was a new Walgreens under construction. The front gate was open and it was 2 in the afternoon, the street swarming with red-faced tourists. We figured we should give it a shot – the worst that would happen is that we would walk into a worker or security, feign drunkenness, apologise, head for the gate and run like hell when we hit the pavement. An archetypal tactic straight out of Access All Areas. As it turned out, though we were all sweating it, there appeared to be no one there. I guess they just took lunch and left the gate open. Cheers guys.

Beautiful

Accident

Failed Security

That was the end of our time together as a group in Vegas. Emily went back to Washington, Witek to Ottawa and Otter to London. Marc Explo and I were left alone to pack up our stuff for a final leg of the trip before our summer was over. But we had one mission left to complete. Since it was unlikely I was coming back to Vegas, I felt compelled to do something grand to mark my time there, to push the bar higher, as our crew does, wherever we go. This desert has attracted all manner of dreamers, from millenarian cultists to visionary artists to advanced weapons scientists from the United States Air Force. They have all made their mark, they have all tested something or other on America’s proving ground. Like bleached bones these dreams lie in the desert sand, faded and chipped but intact; they have their own story to tell, as compelling as the accounts of written history or the stirring narratives of museums. So at 3am on Sunday before we flew out, Marc and I dodged the security patrols and alarms and climbed the 68 story Fountaineblue skyscraper. These photos are my parting gift to one one my favorite cities in the United States. With love.

We did it

It will never be done again

Lick it or click it. No really, click it. Click it.

Thank you to all my friends in Vegas including Matthew O’Brien, Joshua Ellis and Aurelie Curie. Thanks as well to Marcia and Jack Kulpa for allowing me to look after your beautiful house for the summer.

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place is a crossroads, a particular point of intersection of forces coming from many directions and distances. -Rebecca Solnit

Slice

Most people, I would venture to guess, tend to think of home as a place of comfort and rest, peace and solace. The Inland Empire of Southern California in the 1990s, where I grew up, did not hold these qualities for me. Perhaps that’s because home exhibits a certain plastic tendency that enables its boundaries to expand and shrink, which allows it to signify other geographical scales and although my family and friends were steadfast, I never saw SoCal, on a larger scale, as place I could call home. It was too pretentious, too materialistic, too filled with mischanneled testosterone. Riverside was a place in the midst of thriving, unsustainable gentrification on the road to inevitable economic collapse, a contested border zone caught between violent gang-fueled street warfare driven by teenagers like myself eager to claim identity in primaeval non-places and an increasingly Disneyfied social landscape which wasn’t necessarily conducive to rootedness and largely rejected our aggressive attempts at placemaking.

Homefront

When I turned sixteen and finally got a car (the hallmark of Southern California freedom), I absconded every chance I had. I usually ventured into the Mojave Desert, a landscape full of dry lake beds washed long ago to a surface as flat and inviting as a dance floor when dry. These are the places where the desert is most itself: stark, open, free, and invitation to wander, a laboratory of perception, scale, light, a place where loneliness has a luxurious flavor… The inhospitable Mojave Desert is, I think, primarily envisaged as a barrier to overcome between places, perhaps even the antithesis of home. For me, as for Rebecca Solnit and Harold Budd, two people I greatly admire, it was always more home than home was, a space I could always find room to carve a place for myself.

Delicate

However, Marc Explo, Otter, Witek and I had now emerged from the desert, stopping for our successful infiltration of The Boneyard on our way to the City of Angels. There was only one road back to L.A. – U.S. Interstate 15. Just a flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo. Then onto the Hollywood Freeway, and straight on into frantic oblivion. We rolled into the ghetto of Los Angeles late and failed to get into the Belmont Tunnel (it had been turned into a museum or apartments or an amusement park or something – it all looks the same) and then succeeded climbing on top of the Queen Mary before arriving at my parent’s house to take our first shower in a long while.

Queen Mary

We were looping around to my brother Pip’s house in Canyon Lake. When we arrived, he pulled out tequila, maps and firearms and gave us three hot tips before taking us on a drunken ride in his pimped-out 4×4 golf cart and sending us on our merry way. Tip one was that in the mountains near Big Bear, he knew a series of radio towers we could climb to get proper David Lynch-esque skyline shots of the Inland Empire. Tip two was that there was a water park in nearby Redlands called Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom that was apparently abandoned. Both sounded like great opportunities for me to try and apply my placehacker skills acquired in Europe to home – making place ours by learning it from the inside out – just as Pip and I had done a year back at the March Air Reserve Base Hospital.

Dizzy spell

Place of fear

Quiet up here

The radio tower did indeed turn out to be a wonder. As a bonus, when we pulled up to it, there was a herd of local kids gearing up to climb it as well. We shared our beer with them and climbed the tower together. Afterwards, they went back to their Ford F-350 and started blasting country music and I was unhappily reminded of our current geographic location on earth. I left satisfied regardless, having never seen the IE from that scale. After the successful climb we were pumped to sneak into the abandoned water park. Which didn’t exactly go as planned.

Infiltration

When we arrived Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom, it was clear that the abandoned areas of the park had been quickly knocked down and the ground salted, all memory of that failure erased from history (go California!). What remained standing was very much active. However, it was two in the morning, we’d had a few beers up the tower and we were gearing up to head back into the desert, so we decided to run through the sprinklers and hop the fence anyway. Inside, we climbed the first waterslide where we could see the security guard off in the distance talking to a girl in a car. Easy. We climbed down the slides, which were surprisingly unslippery without water, and then grabbed some inner tubes off a big pile and floated around in the pools. Then we turned a corner and hit the jackpot – a snack booth with an open window. I slid through and found a fridge full of energy drinks, a nacho cheese dispenser and a Slurpee machine. Breakfast served. With a car full of fresh beverages, two new guns from Pip, and a few hot photos to tell the tale, we bailed from the Inland Empire again – I had hit my three-day tolerance threshold. Plus, Pip had a final mission for us – he suggested we hit some mines in the Calico Mountains on the way back to Vegas. So we found ourselves back in the Mojave again driving by torchlight into the hills somewhere near Yermo, California, set up camp and built a fire.

Shared

Inside the tunnels of an old mine where the extraction of silver from the earth had long ceased, we were soon 10 meters underneath the ground level, climbing deeper into the belly of the earth through long forgotten mine shafts. Outside is was blisteringly hot. Equipped with cameras, a multitude of light sources and an unquenchable thirst to find out what was left behind, we climbed as deep as we could go. The deepest levels of the mines eluded us on this trip but our time was running out and we were not yet done with Vegas. Like gill-breathers, we had to keep moving, stillness would surely mean death for us all in this heat. We popped off a few more rounds and smoked the tires onto I-15 again.

Temperature rise

Nosedive

Although I was again a tourist here, passing through this surly desert, we were, as intended, beyond conventional tourism in our Powerslide delirium. But we were also beyond urban exploration. Was it even urban anymore? We were on an adventure pilgrimage, a quasi-spiritual journey, a failing search for a solitudiness, personal, semi-spiritual relation to place where we kept running into plastic and Wal-Mart super stores. Our romantic gaze reinforced the mythology of the desert in the most predictable ways, finding the only place where the Western Frontier still exists as some horrible shattered and lonely revenant, even as we worked to stake our promised claim to the freedom of the American West. It was toxically intoxicating and caused spontaneous moments of frustrated Tourette-like outbursts from the crew.

Unlikely cowboys

Leftovers

In my quest to remake home turf utilising a social template I was more comfortable with, all I really succeeded in doing was creating a Frankensteinien iteration that no one understood, just like every post on this site. Although home is posited as relational – the ever-changing outcome of the ongoing and mediated interaction between self, others and place, I am not sure we ever found home on this trip – we remained the urban nomads we have become. Though we did succeed, perhaps, in layering up my relationship with my past in new ways and I always enjoy the process of overcomplicating things that are supposed to be simple like nostalgia. To wit, if we consider home as a set of intersecting and variable ideas and feelings, which are related to context, and which construct places, extend across spaces and scales, and connects places, then maybe I can justify the ways I have always thought of that stretch of I-15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles as an escape hatch, my personal pilgrimage trail of meditative space between two extreme forces of Western capital, violence and rampant resource consumption, the eye of the storm.

Long term

Occupation

For some, the I-15 trail is a right of passage, the road trip that marks the 21 year old transition into adulthood (with the associated benefits of inebriated gambling). To others, the trail itself is the journey to seek. In either case, it’s obvious that the myths of this place go deeper than the notion of  ‘a place between here and there’. We can explore the Mojave as a simultaneous destination and journey that speaks to different scales of home and to the fragile geopolitical climate of the now.

In terms of Riverside, well, I readily admit cowardice to my childhood associates. I ran from the Inland Empire and every time I go back, just like this trip, I fail to connect with it in a meaningful way and return to my crew in London. However, I can’t help but think that if I return enough times, trying to carve out a place for myself in my home turf in whatever ways I am able, one day I might be able to return. In the meantime, we headed back to Vegas for one final blowout before Otter and Witek flew back to their respective countries. See you back on the strip.

Photo by Katie Draper

Explore what’s left. Make what’s not.

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“Understanding the past embraces all modes of exploration.”
- David Lowenthal

Military security

Graveyards come in many forms. When I was an archaeologist, I used to dig them up all the time. I remember once, when I lived in Hawai’i, I was digging up this skeleton that was embedded in beach sand. I had my trowel under his ribs chipping away at the sand particles embedded in the ribcage and then the whole body came tumbling down on me. This guy Kulani that I worked with said, “cool bro, now you’re cursed like the rest of us”. I put the skull in a brown paper bag and marked it XJ-107 or something. It was clearly a traumatic experience. In Paris, we party in mass human graves. And of course, the whole dereliction fetish component of urban exploration is really just an obsession with decay, death, waste and transition. We explore architectural and memorial graveyards all the time. I don’t think it’s strange though. As Geoff Manaugh muses,

…the quasi-archaeological eyes of those poets and artists [from the past] would still be enraptured today. Wordsworth could very well have gone out at 2am on a weeknight to see the cracked windshields of car wrecks on the sides of desert roads, new ruins from a different and arguable more interesting phase of Western civilisation. 

Beauty in death, filled with life

So when I was in Las Vegas this summer and heard there was a massive desert graveyard filled with hundreds of “retired” planes, beautifully preserved in the dry Mojave air, I knew we needed to get in there and play around. The problem was that it was on an active military base. So I called up the crew and they flew into McCarran from Ottawa, Paris and London. We rolled out the satellite images over a few cans of Tecate on the kitchen countertop. With Witek, Marc and Otter on this mission, success was the only option.

The Job

After driving for ages from Vegas to the high desert outside Victorville, stopping to build massive bonfires in the Mojave and climb around in some old mines at Calico, we rolled up the the perimeter fence around George Air Force Base (The Southern California Logistics Airport). I won’t lie, the security was intimidating. But, as always, there was a weak point and we found it. Luckily, the military security patrol didn’t see us before we cracked their security routines.

In our sights

Shots in the dark

Fast forward to 2am. The problem with exploring in the desert is, firstly, that you have to drive there and, secondly, that you have to park your empty automobile in a blatantly obvious place, given there’s no cover. Given the only thing within 10 miles is the military base and we really didn’t like the idea of having our truck found while we were in there, we parked it in a ruined meth den roughly two miles from the access point; rammed it in-between the buildings and prayed for the best as we set off across the desert with our camera gear. As we neared the gate, security was doing their patrol. We saw the headlights and dove behind some knee-high sage bushes, turning around the bush as they went past like a Scooby-Doo cartoon. When they had passed, we ran like hell and threw my Mom’s clearly expensive bathroom towel borrowed from the Vegas pad over the barbed wire. Once over, we booked it for the first plane we could see, a massive United Airlines 747.

Behemoth

This first fat boy was a cargo freighter (maybe converted?) and the ladder was down. It was pretty stripped out inside and not very interesting. We exited and saw the next plane in the row – a British Airways 747! Someone asked for my truck keys and popped the hatch behind the landing gear – up we went. Inside, it was sticky and hot and awesomely intact.

Saw it

Did it

Loved it

There were endless planes of all sorts, learjets, FedEx planes, little short-flight hoppers and massive military cargo aircraft. It was a wicked playground.

On time for

This encounter

It was a long night. We must’ve gone in six or seven planes. We photographed dozens. We saw hundreds. At some point we realised there was a security guard inside the fence as well and had to hide in landing gear a few times. It was the most fun I have ever had in the United States.

Hiding from security

The tail end of an

Endless array

The Boneyard was like nothing I have ever experienced – it was massive, pristine and surreal. We had a great time there and I would love a revisit, especially given we only went in something like 2% of the planes there. Then again, I hear there’s a much bigger one in Arizona that has a space shuttle in it…

 

London Consolidation Crew. 2011. All up in your military base.

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