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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“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others”
-Pericles

Departure

When I started Place Hacking two years ago, I conceived of it as a place to get ideas out, a place to dry run new thoughts, a repository for all the weird shit in my head. Over time though, it’s taken on a new form, a life of it’s own to a degree. As I scroll though the photos of our various adventures, I realise that Place Hacking has become one of the story threads of a community that we didn’t really know was forming. I am implicated everywhere; as an ethnography, I don’t know how I could have dug any deeper or threaded myself any tighter.

Hand crafted

The community we have built in London, especially in the past year, is unprecedented. Our move from ruin exploration to urban camping trips to infrastructure to elicit parties and urban adventuring led to a mend between “teams” in the London community to the point that we almost can’t even tell what the “teams” are anymore. We all go out together now, night after night, cracking new tube, locating new drain junctions, sharing ideas, refining techniques and getting more stuff done more quickly than ever in the history of London exploration. Our hosting of the IDM this year, spurred by Otter, and the organisation of multiple events that have connected us to the larger international community really indicates to me that London exploration has come of age. Let it be written that it wasn’t always so!

Written and rewritten

To an extent, we have also begun to redefine what urban exploration is to the wider UK scene. This began, I think, with the move into infrastructure, to infiltration, but also with our desire for desire, the point at which we decided that enjoying what we were doing was more important than whose toes we stepped on or which ‘codes’ we subscribed to.

Urban exploration as a practice requires a bit of a leap to decide to turn a wild idea into action. But it takes another brave leap to take responsibility over aspirations for more depth in the practice. At some point, we decide that not only would we go into places, we would also do what we like while in them, whether that meant throwing a party, sleeping in them or changing the locks and seizing disused space as our urban playgrounds. In all honesty, what we put on the internet to showcase London’s potential is probably half of what we have accomplished. I will let your mind wander about what kind of fun may have taken place but rest assured it’s been nothing short of a beautiful rampage.

From a different angle

And so, with a bitter taste in my mouth I announce that I left London. In fact, right now, as I type this, I am sitting on a plane. Two hours ago, I checked in a bag full of high vis, waders, camera gear, torches, tripods, hard drives, a sleeping bag and a Neil Stephenson novel – everything I need to survive really. I’m on a mission to return to LA and Sin City, the sands from which I emerged so long ago, to sit quietly and write our stories. I have chosen to give up my cherished role as an agitator to become a scribe for our tribe. It has to be done – the myths and legends of this age can’t go unrecorded. I am determined, above all else, to make sure that whoever comes after us knows that in a world rendered increasingly mundane, we refused to let adventure die.

Slipping

My decision to leave the city has broken my heart more than I could have ever imagined. London, for me, will always be the place where the world was cracked open; where I realized the core was full of scorching, beautiful light; London will always be the place where it became impossible to ignore the potential in everything.

Potentially exciting

This potential was unleashed one last time in what had to be the most bizarre and wonderful subterranean party in South London history, put together by Winch, to see me off. The crew snuck into a space 30 meters under the city dragging a massive sound system hooked up to a car battery, lights and cases of Belgian beer picked up on Winch’s last trip to the Continent. I walked into a surprise party of epic proportions populated by all the usual suspects and a few fresh faces. We played Bunker Frisbee, undertook bolt climbing practice upside down on the walls, spayed each other with champagne, made ridiculous gushing speeches, ran through the tunnels screaming, we puked, we danced. It was bliss.

Bunker Party (photo by Gigi)

Determined to keep the mood going, when this planes lands in Syracuse, NY, I will get into my friend Erika Sigvardsdotter’s 1988 Dodge that she left behind after she returned to Sweden and drive across the United States toward the Wild West via Canada, sleeping in ruins along the way. My first major stop will be Detroit, the heart of US industrial urban exploration where I will search, alone and with no knowledge of the city, for glitches and ruptures to exploit. After that, I will head to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul (MSP), to go underground with Shotgun Mario, Darlingclem and the infamous MSP heavy hitters.

Too ambitious?

I will miss London. More importantly though, I will miss my friends. When I began exploring with the Can Openers, I expected to learn more about the city. I also hoped to become a better filmmaker and photographer (which I have, though I’ve got a long way to go still!). What I didn’t expect was to reach a to find some sort of divine wisdom in that dank, wet, cold city. In London, through our explorations, I finally found the desire to be a part of a community where I have always felt like the geek standing on the side in every other group. It has been such a blessing to find more geeks like me who were not content with virtual adventure and who strive to make the impossible possible.

Unvirtual

In the end, I found a community full of practitioners who aren’t afraid to try something new. I have found a community who, when I see their name pop up on my iPhone, make my heartbeat accelerate because I know when I pick it up, something daring will ensue. I have found a community of people that I respect on the deepest level for their audacity, bravery, courage and passion.

I have never felt bonds so strong – we have entrusted our lives to each other so many times that we have become nothing short of a band of raiders. I often used to imagine us as the Band of the Hawk from Berserk or a World of Warcraft raiding guild until I realised at some point that I couldn’t even sit through movies or play video games anymore because our lives were more fun than what was one the screen. We killed my desire for media through embodied experience – what a revolution that is in this age!

Out there it's

Better than a video game

This community has pushed me, time and time again, to put down the pen and to pick up the passion. What they were teaching me the whole time, I now think, was to learn to live in the present. Surprise. After years of roaming the world looking for magical wisdom hidden is some drippy Australian rain forest, practicing yoga and meditation on Hawaii beaches, and chillin out with Native Americans in Nothern California, it took a bunch of urbanites with cameras to show me that every moment in life must be lived with the upmost respect, care and appreciation. It took a group of what I thought in the beginning to be alternative historians to show me that there is nothing glamorous about nostalgia and that we own the future, come what may! The only thing that really matters is what we do with each of these sacred moments.

Picked through

Although I am going away to try and make good on the investment this community has made in me, I can never repay them for all they have done – it was the essence of life itself offered to me, a drink from a chalice that made us all immortal. From Canada to Detroit to MSP to Sin City, I feel like I now travel with an awareness that will never fail me, London watching my every move with a wry smirk. So while Place Hacking may morph into something else over the next few months while I write up, I know it must and I am not afraid – because everything changes.

Keep it in mind

Long live London! Long live curiosity! Explore everything!

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