History is a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance of a thousand different hands. -Raphael Samuel

Art & Artefact

As many Place Hacking readers will know, I have been doing doctoral research on urban exploration for the past three years. With my PhD coming to a close soon, it seems like everything is coming full circle.

I am proud to announce the release of my new article in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Stuart Elden, the editor of the journal, has been very supportive of my work and has agreed to leave the article open access for one month so everyone outside the Ivory Tower can read it. And I hope you will. This article was two years in the making and attempts to address one of the most significant aspects of urban exploration – our engagements with history through the practice.

The Society and Space journal has donated a fair number of its pages this year to urban exploration. In June, they published a piece by Luke Bennett on ‘Bunkerology‘ which Professor Elden has also made open access for the next thirty days. I then wrote a response to Bennett’s paper and he replied. These debates are worth reading in the context of my new paper, as they tell very different stories, ostensibly about the same practice.

The last thing I will mention is that if you head back to my Hobohemia Video Triptych post from July, you will find the video footage from the excursions discussed in the Society and Space paper.

Legacy

On a final note, thank you again to everyone I have explored with in the past few years. This paper is of course in many ways co-authored with you all and would not have been possible without your enthusiasm, support and friendship. As always, I am honoured to be the scribe for the tribe.

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Lurking in the Shadows

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Sunday Jun 13, 2010 Under Academia, Cultural Geography, Film, Urban Exploration

My friend and colleague Alan Rapp who runs the excellent blog Critical Terrain has just finished his MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts in New York City. Alan wrote a wonderful thesis about urban exploration called The Esoteric City which I really hope he publishes soon. In the meantime, he recently gave a short presentation on his work (in which I make a few cameos!) that is really worth watching.

http://vimeo.com/11656809

I am always amazed by how much overlap there is between Alan’s work and my own. Sometimes I feel like we are psychically quoting each other across the Atlantic Ocean. Telepathic communications aside, congratulations to Alan on completing the MFA program – I look forward to seeing what comes next!

While I am at it, I would also like to mention another friend, Shreen Ayob, recently put up 4-minute video on her blog Shreen Distracted shot entirely in the soon-to-be-demolished West Park Asylum that I really love. Between the Alan and Shreen, I have your evening viewing sorted for you!

http://vimeo.com/16638650

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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.

Better housing?

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

Shiny

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.

Dangerous?

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.

Thinking space

Documented

Young ones

Left behind

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Everyday you look on the forums, there seems to be some ‘breaking’ news about one of the derelict asylums around London being damaged or demolished. London UrbExers love these asylums for their unique histories, aesthetics and affectual qualities and often on weekends you can find dozens of groups roaming their corridors. But with the (almost complete) destruction of Cane Hill, perhaps the most famous of these asylums, I began thinking about what happens when these places disappear. I also began thinking, naturally, about how the anticipated transience of a place affects our experiences while in them.

Anticipated transience is a term I heard used by geographer Dr. Caitlin Desilvey at the Royal Geographic Society / Institute of British Geographers conference last week. As soon as she said the words, they stuck in my mind and got the gears turning about experiencing ruins as braided strands of past, present and future. I could make a case for these thoughts by discussing my visit yesterday to the West Park asylum with Marc.

West Park Courtyard

Working linearly through these three concepts, we can first imagine that we go to ruins to read their histories. Sometimes this is actually literal. Yesterday is West Park, I found countless ledgers, notepads, pamphlets and newspapers.

A shitty picture of handwritten notes

Images of bodies are conjured up often in ruins, particularly by people’s jettisoned clothing and empty chairs which held bodies, but these other artefacts reveal that these ghosts also had minds. Notepads with logs of playtime activities in the child ward remind us that this was a work space/place for some and of childhood memories for others. Do these people still live? Do they think of this place? Is it full of their childhood memories, inscribed in the walls, peeling off with the puke-coloured yellow wallpaper? Would these artefacts that I am photographing be important to them, do these objects contain love or demons?

Love?

Demons?

So these histories, fair enough, are enticing, but what about the present? Here we might begin to think about our experience, not in contrast with, but interwoven with these residual emotions and fleeting memories. We go to these places to read the inscriptions, to have bodily encounters which challenge our conception of everyday experience and to eventually begin writing ourselves into the landscape by photographing it / photographing ourselves in it. But we can also imagine the tendrils of emotion that we leave behind, the shared moments of fear and excitement that are left floating in the corners like smoke in a still room.

Writing ourselves into local history?

At some point we arrive at door of the future, and this is where I really get fired up about these new ideas. Part of our enjoyment of these places is clearly because of their ephemeral qualities – every time we go back to an asylum, it is different. Some explorer moved an old typewriter a meter to get better lighting on it, some chav tagged the place up, a group of kids had a party here., security put up a new board, a fox dragged the outside in. At the same time, the surrounding foliage is doing its slow work, with ivy creeping though the windows, mould taking down the walls, trees pushing through the floorboards, rain slowly picking at the roof tiles, encouraging the mould like a cheering fan in the stadium, “Yes, it screams, we can have this back too! Quick, they are not looking!” Our excitement registers when we see these changes because of our imagination of the future, because of the anticipated transience of these places. It gives us an image our ourselves written into this decaying future, our footprints in the dust.

And this, I would argue, is exactly what is missing from interpreted historic spaces or managed heritage sites – we cannot anticipate their transience because their material and memorial trajectory is regulated. We cannot see ourselves written into their futures because we are not ‘allowed’ to write ourselves into them. This is a point that heritage managers would be remiss to ignore.

But Marc was quick to reveal yet another aspect of these possible futures; that it is not just decaying places with are in a state of exciting anticipated transience. Infiltration of live sites such as construction sites also reveal potential futures, ones that we can imagine but may be difficult to see.

With rumours swirling about the imminent death of the West Park asylum, reinforced by the loss of Cane Hill, I thought about the fact that yesterday might be my first and last visit to West Park. Although it was bittersweet, I have to say that the awareness heightened my experience, creating an impetus for appreciation that may not otherwise have been as sharp. Maybe this is the point (conscious or unconscious) of these sorts of rumours – to heighten our experiences of exploration.

A premature goodbye?

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