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).
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.
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.
…place is a crossroads, a particular point of intersection of forces coming from many directions and distances. -Rebecca Solnit
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.
Time is a rubbery thing
The last few months, I’ve been rather entrenched in writing my PhD. With 5 chapters now done and under review, things are well on their way. However, this time for reflection during my self-imposed exile here in the Mojave Desert has also been fruitful for other writing projects, including 2 book chapters, 5 journal articles and 3 web publications. This work has pulled my attention from Place Hacking for the moment. However, I thought it might be worth rounding up what’s gone down lately in this scattershot update.
First, I was invited to write an op-ed piece for the Domus architecture and design magazine on the fragmentation of urban exploration. Essentially the article is about how an unlikely mix of media attention and marketing exploitation threatens to polarize an otherwise apolitical practice. The article can be found here. Immediately after publication, Control from the LTV Squad in New York City posted a great response which has sparked renewed discussion about the social and political salience of urban exploration as a practice. That can be found here.
Finally, Otter at SilentUK has uploaded a trailer for the film “Crack the Surface” which myself and JD at sub-urban are co-producing with him. More exciting than tinfoil in the microwave.
All and all, it’s been a heavy few months for urban exploration but I am heartened by the new debates and discussions sparking everywhere about the practical and theoretical issues around the practice. As I wrote recently to Snappel, I think that it’s really vital those of us who are willing to engage with our practice on more than a superficial level do so and, as such, I am really encouraged by the thoughtful responses from both Control and Bennett.
Urban exploration is at a crossroads right now and it is up to us which path we take. As it should be clear from these publications, I for one am not content to allow herds of ruin fetishists, bitter armchair commentators or corporations define what history will see us as. Urban exploration seethes with potential as a critical spatial practice at a time when space is rapidly constricting under the control of pseudo-apocalyptic forces manufacturing fear and distraction daily to keep desire and dissent at bay. It is my hope that through these publications and exchanges, the potential for urban exploration to sap those illusions is slowly being unleashed.
It’s time fellow earthlings. Smash and grab it. Explore everything.
One of the most unique things to explore in and around London for the past 20 years or so has been the county asylums, many of which were shut down in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher‘s privatization of UK government systems. Asylums like Severals, Cane Hill, Horton, Manor, Long Grove, and West Park have been places that inspired slow strolls, beautiful photography and space for quiet contemplation about local histories that we seem to have collectively forgotten.
In January of last year, I wrote about West Park, about how the legendary security guard lovingly called The Hammer came down on us like a ninja and walked us off the property. He was a good sec and likely the reason why the place was so beautifully preserved.
Then, in July, I wrote about it again, this time making it in after The Hammer had been laid off, probably due to the recession. I predicted at the time that this may be the end of our beloved asylum, with the economy crumbling and every developer grubbing around for areas to “redevelop” in line with the government’s plans to embed a curtain of concrete, metal and glass over the whole of greater London before the Olympic games in 2012.
Where we still play
Well, sure enough, I just got word that Jonathan Lees, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Epsom & Ewell has announced plans to level the site and build “a total of 373 new homes.”
When I posted the news story to my facebook page, I was surprised by two things. First, there was no cry of “let’s stop them!” (as my archaeologists friends might do) and second, the two comments that were posted (by UrbExers) were very reasonable in terms of letting go of the place. The first from Midnight Runner who say this “always happens but who’s going to buy their buildings in this financial climate?” and the second from Statler who said “interesting that they propose to convert the water tower into 4 dwellings, that tower has a HUGE crack down the middle of it and is held together by steel bands!”
Well thought out?
These comments reinforce my earlier postings about the UrbEx communities enjoyment of architectural transition and the lack of a need to hold on to the physicality of a place. But these comments also say something about the depth of our relationships with these places. Who else in this city has such detailed information about dangerous substances, unsafe architectural elements and archaeological points of interest?
Granted, most of us who explore this place never saw West Park as an active asylum and maybe there are some memories here that people might want to forget. Perhaps this concept sits behind the scenes like a memory architect, quietly guiding the hand of redevelopment. We get nostalgic about the London Asylums but as David Lowenthal writes in The Past in Foreign Country “nostalgia is memory with the pain removed. The pain is today. We shed tears for the landscape we find no longer what is was, what we thought it was, or what we hoped it would be.” But does our discomfort with particular memories warrant an erasure of that past? Certainly a lesson here could be learned from Germany, a country which humbly preserves horrible memories because even memories of difficult times can help us to better understand who were are today, even if it is just about not repeating certain mistakes.
The question that lingers is an important one – do we need the physical space to remain in order to remember? The UrbEx community seems content to look at thousands of photos taken and say “yeah, I was there when it was something different” yet we know an intimacy of place through experience. It seems to me a very mature response to spatial change, memory without attachment to place. But the archaeologist in me still wants to cry foul.
One comment on Lee’s blog by Dave Baker asks whether “there also been budgetary arrangements and provisioning for a photographic survey prior to demolition”. Dave, just so you know, there is probably no building in the city that has been better documented. The better question in my mind is whether our digital archiving is all that is needed to make sure these places are never forgotten. Where is the room in the agenda for experience of place?
I guess the likelihood of that argument holding weight in a society based on a commodity system is not likely to sway many hearts or minds but in terms of documentation, whenever the council would like to thank us for our wonderful work in preserving memories of these neglected places, including Rookinella’s controversial tour offered to The Independent, I am sure the UrbEx community would be happy to hear it. In the meantime Mr. Lee, just from an economic standpoint, please consider the possibility that the Asylum would make more money as a London County Asylum living museum and heritage park that as a housing development in the middle of a recession. Just a thought.