Setting to work on a modern ruin: investigating the future of St Peter’s Seminary at Kilmahew

“There is no place like it, on these islands, for the mutual battery of multiple forces, for the thumping, pummelling and attrition of creation and destruction, the incessant beating of weather, vandals and arson against rocks of obstinate architecture. It is like watching medieval knights club each other to death yet stay standing. It is a mud-wrestle of culture and nature.”

Rowan Moore, The Guardian, 17 January 2015

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St Peter’s-Kilmahew (SPK) located in Argyll, Scotland, is a place rich in narratives of human settlement. Originally a sacred landscape associated with an early Christian saint, then the woodland demesne of a medieval castle-keep, during the mid-19th century SPK was transformed into a country estate, with an extensive arboretum and pleasure-gardens encircling a baronial mansion-house. In the 20th century, the entire property was acquired by the Roman Catholic Church, and its designed landscape re-centred on a newly-built seminary complex. St. Peter’s, the striking Modernist building, opened in 1967 to critical acclaim, operated for fifteen years, and was then abandoned by the Church. Since the 1980s, the entire site has fallen ever deeper into a condition of charismatic ruination. The seminary structure remains iconic, internationally celebrated but controversial; it has been subject to repeated calls for complete demolition and campaigns for full restoration; but until very recently, SPK has frustrated all such attempts to ‘fix’ its future.

However, since 2010, detailed plans for occupying the site as a ‘transitional ruin’ have been developed by NVA, Scotland’s leading public arts charity (www.nva.org.uk). Presently, SPK is being readied for its latest transition: from a ruin into its inverse: a construction site. NVA’s radical plan to stabilise the ruined structure and open out the abandoned estate landscape has been granted £3 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with an additional £0.5 million backing secured from Creative Scotland. Over the next six years, dereliction will be thrown into reverse, with SPK becoming simultaneously charismatic ruin and construction site. Phased works are scheduled to begin in 2016, with completion projected for 2022 when SPK will be fully accessible for public, educational and artistic use, as a stabilised ruin and redesigned cultural landscape.

I’m excited to announce that I’m part of an AHRC grant bid submitted earlier this week seeking funding for a three year study of the stabilisation and repurposing of this iconic site. The intended project would enable a multi-disciplinary team of researchers to conduct a ‘live’ study of the transformation of this ruin site into a future facing community, arts and heritage venue. The bid is led by Ed Hollis (Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art), supported by Prof Hayden Lorimer (Historical & Cultural Geography, University of Glasgow) and me (Law & the Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University).

The project aims to explore how approaches derived from arts and humanities research can productively valorise sites in transition, opening up areas which are conventionally screened away or fenced off from public view. The project’s key concerns are:

  • how can processes of ruin-transformation can be better understood, and more widely engaged with?
  • how might the notion of a site’s ‘closure’ during building work be challenged via the collaborative design of experimental landscape interventions?
  • how can this be done within a context of ensuring the safety of all concerned?

This investigation will be pursued via three interlinked work packages, that reflect the three disciplinary perspectives of the investigators:

  1. What are the risks surrounding processes of material change in relation to human health and safety and how are these governed? How do common law and/or legislative frameworks construct this risk and liability, and how might policy be developed to allow more scope for public access to heritage sites in transition?
  2. How can artists, designers and architects work collaboratively with heritage sites that are in process? How can creative interventions harness processes of change, engage communities, and challenge regulatory frameworks to revise traditional models of heritage preservation predicated on the prevention of material change?
  3. How do stakeholders in historic sites engage in the contested processes of redevelopment and ruination? For example, through participation in decision-making, public debates, community art and archiving, acts of protest, remembrance, forgiveness and forgetting?

The project will explore these questions simultaneously, but with high degree of cross-over, as (for example) our findings on risk and liability influence the commissioning of the onsite creative interventions and vice versa. Thus through multiple methods of investigation, and through its combination of ethnographic, archival, design and regulatory perspectives and its engagement with local community, professional and policy stakeholders the project will develop a rich range of outputs, spanning scholarly collaborations, creative commissions and a practice-focussed interpretive toolkit, with all of these aimed at inspiring and facilitating  more creative, and inclusive, engagements in the future at other sites in transition.

In pursuit of this innovation and our desire to build interpretive common ground and practice for sites in transition, this project will be able to draw upon the experience and perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders who have already affiliated to the bid, including NVA, Scottish Heritage, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and  the former head of the CBI’s Health & Safety Panel. Through these links our project will uniquely well placed to broker innovative dialogue between publics, creative practitioners (both of whom would like to access sites-in-process) and construction managers whose instinctive reaction (based on a certain overly anxious perceptions of risk and liability) is to close them off to all access.

Our bid presents the SPK works programme as a unique opportunity to investigate in an interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder,  live and longitudinal way both how we deal with the emergent ruins of modernist heritage, and how we might better reconcile the difficulties of providing public access to heritage sites which are, inevitably, often in a perpetual state of reconstruction and repair.

If our bid is successful, the research project will commence towards the end of 2016.

 

Images credits: images from:

(1) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/jan/17/the-extraordinary-ruins-of-st-peters-seminary-near-glasgow-in-pictures;

(2) http://nva.org.uk/artwork/kilmahew-st-peters/

(3) http://nordarchitecture.com/projects/kilmahew-st-peters/

with originators credited there.

 

 

 

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return. Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

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As a great proof of the merits of  ‘follow your instincts’ and see what happens, I’ve now been invited to give a presentation – as part of a symposium at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 15 May 2014 – about the legal aspect of doing Land Art in abandoned quarries. This nicely adds to the symposium work I’ve done on law and abandoned quarries elsewhere in the last 18 months for the British Mountaineering Council (climbing in them), the National Water Safety Forum (swimming in them) and the Mineral Products Association (not dying in them). It also marks another step in the strange convergence of what once seemed a very dichotomous project: the occupiers’ liability stuff on one hand vs the urban exploration/psychogeography/bunkerology stuff on the other. This is both, in a single event!

So here’s the organisers’ promo for the event, followed by my abstract…

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return 
Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

This one-day symposium, led by artists Charles Danby and Rob Smith, in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979’ (5 April – 15 June 2014), has been organised in collaboration with the Arts Council Collection, Northumbria University and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The symposium explores Land Art in relation to contemporary practices and historical precedents. It investigates the quarry as an active physical site for the production of new artworks and for the re-visiting of past works. Bringing together theoretical and practical positions in relation to chalk and limestone quarries, it focuses on approaches leading to the making of works, films, documents, field recordings and archives.

In the anthropocene the quarry becomes a site of new relations, that connects historical, material, technological and social revision through changing land use and post-industrial / post-ecological occupation. The day will examine the status of these quarry sites, the removal of materials, their social and physical reparation and the negotiation of their borders and thresholds in physical, legal and artistic frameworks, through to what Robert Smithson characterised as ‘an expensive non-site’ in 1969, the moon, as a speculative quarry.

Details of the speakers

Joy Sleeman – Senior Lecturer at Slade School of Art, University College London, and co-curator of Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/people/academic/profile/ASLEE78

Luke Bennett – Senior Lecturer in the Department of Natural & Built Environment at Sheffield Hallum University and researcher into owner and climber attitudes to recreational access to abandoned quarries
http://www.shu.ac.uk/faculties/ds/built-environment/staff/luke-bennett.html
http://www.lukebennett13.wordpress.com

Charles Danby – Artist, writer, curator & Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, Northumbria University
http://charliedanby.co.uk/
http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/sd/academic/sass/about/arts/staff/charlesdanby

Rob Smith – Artist and co-director of Field Broadcast
http://robsmith.me.uk
http://fieldbroadcast.org

Onya McCausland – Artist and co-researcher of Turning Landscape into Colour
http://turninglandscape.com/

Mark Peter Wright – Artist and editor of Ear Room and researcher with CRIASP, London College of Communication
http://www.crisap.org/index.php?id=40,393,0,0,1,0
http://mpwright.wordpress.com

Rob La Frenais – Critic and curator at Art Catalyst, and founder of Performance Magazine
http://www.artscatalyst.org

Neal White (video screening)- Artist and Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice at Bournemouth University, Director of Emerge – Experimental Media Research Group, and founder of the Office of Experiments
http://www.nealwhite.org
http://staffprofiles.bournemouth.ac.uk/display/whiten

For booking visit: www.thequarry.org.uk

And my abstract:

Encountering law and land art in abandoned quarries – excavation, legacy, return

My research work focuses upon the intersection of legal, aesthetic and pragmatic site management practices in the stewardship and re-valorisation of abandoned and/or physically damaged places such as quarries, derelict factories and decommissioned military sites. My presentation will explore the (feint) intertwined presence of law, proprietors and enthusiastic  ‘re-energisers’ within abandoned quarries. In doing so it will draw from my former experiences as an environmental lawyer advising on the decommissioning and safeguarding of extractive industry sites, as an academic now teaching land managers and as an active researcher of enthusiast groups who seek access to derelict spaces for recreational, creative or illicit purposes. My research work on quarries is  characterised by a desire to understand both how these places are forgotten, and how they are re-activated by enthusiasts finding new uses for them (and of the ‘challenges’ this may pose for their owners). This ongoing research project is ‘multi-stakeholder’ and opportunistic in nature, with me seeking to explore and understand each perspective and its processes of meaning making, within specific sites of occurrence. My project thus has at times been deeply ‘managerial’ in focus and at other points has explored the affective dimension. Thus at various points my project has seen interest and support from key stakeholder groups, including the Forestry Commission, the British Mountaineering Council, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Mineral Products Association and also a small commission in 2013 from the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund to research and write Scree, a deep topographical assay (with photographer Katja Hock – Nottingham Trent University) of the mine and wastescape of an excavated industrial hillside in the heart of Sheffield. In addition to giving an account of my various investigations, my presentation will also sketch out the key legal drivers that shape managers’ and regulators perceptions (and anxieties) about these voids, in doing so touching on the legal-materialities of spoil-spreading waste disposal scams, restoration and instability, contamination, re-mining and how the proximity of humans alters the legal status of excavated rock faces and abandoned mineshafts.

Uninhabited and En-habited spaces: thoughts on private law’s public space

The following piece has been written as a teaser for my paper entitled “Old habits die hard: owners, liability anxiety and accidental territoriality” which I’ve been invited to present at an ESRC symposium at Warwick University later this month. The theme of the conference is ‘Private Law’s Public Face’ and my paper’s argument will run somewhat against the grain of the  event’s likely focus on resistance, ‘right to the city’ and private law’s role in urban enclosure processes.

Essentially my concern is with more mundane – abandoned – spaces and whether (and if so in what sense) we can meaningfully say that law’s territorial effects subsist there even when no-one is present and/or after an owner or use has vanished.  The only thing left to encounter in these spaces is the remnant fences and faded signage. But is law within that remainder, or are the signs only activated when someone is looking at them? (yes – I know – that’s getting a bit like ‘if a tree falls in the empty forest does it make a sound?‘).

Anyway, I quite like this idea of ‘en-habited’ uninhabited space – space with habit written materially onto it, a space controlled dead-hand like by its material arrangement and ordering…

31 Dec 2010 (3)

The signs just sit there, flapping in the wind held fast by now rusting drawing pins, their texts  becoming indistinct as their home-printed inks are bleached by the monotonous daily succession of the harsh summer suns passing overhead year upon year. Along this fence lie aging signifiers of a stale something. But the fence itself is crumbling now, a structure collapsing in upon itself. Eventually these messages will self erase, fully succumbing to the elements, but until then they continue to send out their signals – weak now and indistinct, vague messages of warning, deterrence, liability aversion. Like a dying radio beacon, carrying on long after the ship has sunk, marking out a vestige, a ghost territoriality of the orders and arrangements that once were intended here.

I’ve been keeping an eye on this signage for over 10 years, intently so for the last six. I’ve seen the pub that the signs relate to pass through a succession of ownerships, then finally close and be redeveloped as apartments. I’ve seen each incoming publican – amidst buoyant commercial talk of ‘turning over a new leaf’, perpetuate this signage – perhaps reprinting it with his new logo – but keeping all else the same as before. The base text of these signs is silently handed down between the parade line of owners, and replicated by their own sign-affixing actions.

Even now, the remnant signs greet the passer by with exclusionary intent. Why would you enter a field festooned with lots of dense, textual messages? Why would you even go up to them and read them, engage with their specificity?

In the above description I’m seeking to raise a challenge to a rationalist belief that legal signage is deployed by place owners for reasons of clear purpose, and that whenever encountered it will still be valid, intended and territorial in intent.

Clearly there will be instances where space is conspicuously under control – and where the facilities of private law (ownership, trespass) are actively being invoked in order to enclose space and/or to channel possible (or permissible) uses within it. But scholarship must not just seek out and dwell upon those extreme spaces, it should also have a way of understanding invocations of private law in more mundane, more ambivalent spatial settings.

Also (in my view) we need to be careful in how much intentionality (and legal sophistication) we impute to the managers of everyday spaces. They are busy people, they have many things to mediate – suppliers, customers, neighbours, lenders, councillors, spouses, children, friends – they do not have time to dwell on the finer points of legal detail (unless locked into the disproportionate attentiveness of a spatial dispute of some sort). For most commercial place managers the signification of their property is an incidental – a tick line on a checklist of place managing rather than an entree to a grand scheme of territorial dominion.

My presentation will outline research that I have been doing in recent years, looking at small case studies of how place managers formulate a pragmatic understanding of what occupiers’ liability law requires of them – and work out (individually and via professional networks) what is a reasonable safety provision for visitors and trespassers who may pass through their spaces. These studies have explored occupiers’ anxieties attached to unstable tombstones in municipal cemeteries, street trees, derelict buildings and open bodies of waters, working variously in conjunction with RoSPA, the Forestry Commission, the Arboricultural Association, the British Mountaineering Council and the Mineral Products Association. In each instance the law (and legal duties) appear in the minds and hands of these lay actors as understood through wider frameworks of task orientation, organizational purpose, and short-hand stereotypes of visitors and the likely behavior of them. Yes, at times their spatial management behavior can betray a quest for privacy or territorial dominion, but at others apparently territorial behavior has appeared – on closer inspection – inchoate, habitual and/or related to received rules of thumb about how properties of a particular type ‘should’ be managed.

And thus, we return to the aging fence. My presentation will draw out provocations from my longitudinal study of this fence, and its material traces of occupier engagement with private law: in this case disclaimers of liability for any customers who might choose to enter this occasional ‘beer garden’ area at the periphery of this pub. I will show how, having watched this accretion of cautionary signage I approached the then owner and enquired of the motivations behind this ranked mobilisation of the liability restricting principles of private law – of its ‘story’ – only to find that there was no story and that this sign affixing behavior was a ritual practice. How this pub ‘should’ be operated – including the refreshing of the fence’s signage – was encoded into the fabric and deportment of the pub itself, acting back upon the succession of owners, the pub presenting as an unwritten user’s manual on how to run it. The publican could not account for his signage, the best he could do was link to a notion of performing (and perpetuating) the proper ways of doing and being within this urban fringe pub:

“…Here you’ve got to be kid friendly where we are, in like the Tap Room you’ve got to be dog friendly: because that’s how it’s always been…so it’s easy for me to come and say “I’m not having any dogs in there” – but it’s not; its part and parcel of this, the history of the pub I suppose”

Here we confront a strange dead-hand effect, a force of habit – the permeation of approximate, sufficient and workable approaches to place management, decisions and actions implemented in thousands of establishments day by day, hour by hour based not upon deep, lawyer aided deliberation on how to control space, but instead replicating – as part of a dull facilities management performativity – generalized, materially sedimented practices which may only incidentally have any connection to a notion of ‘legal’ aspects of the world.

 

 

 

 

Entangled bodies: urban exploration, matter and meaning making

MiruKim3

Entanglement as a term aims to allow a materialism but

embedded within the social, the historical, the contingent.”

Hodder (2012: 96)

What does it mean to be embodied? That seems to be the contested territory standing between Garrett & Hawkins (2013) and Mott & Roberts (2013a & b) in their recent Antipode exchange. Garrett & Hawkins table a body/environment ‘entanglement’ (Hodder 2012) as the object of a new era of research into urban exploration. Mott & Roberts (2013b) counter that the main thrust of their critique of existing scholarship remains unaddressed: namely where is the appreciation of embodied difference amongst those who do – and those who don’t do – urban exploration?

Mott & Roberts’ approach is broadly concerned with the social: how can this practice be culturally situated? How can it be understood in terms of identity politics? Who is dominating this practice, and whose voices and presence is absent? In what senses (and for whom) can urban exploration be said to be liberatory? For them embodiment is a question of human identity, hinged around physical and social difference. And there’s is a call for mobilisation of a greater sense of critique of urban exploration as a predominantly white, male, young, over-educated and professional class pastime.

Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins (whilst seemingly acknowledging the ‘masculinist’ nature of at least some urban exploration culture), avow (via considering the work of a female artist – Miru Kim – working in an urban exploration type terrain) urban exploration as a new way of reading and researching body/environment relations by looking at the embodiment of the human participant within the built environment structures that they explore.

Each then, figures embodiment differently. For Mott and Roberts bodies are carriers of human identity and difference: vectors of identity bio-politics. Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins focus upon the experience and meshing of flesh in the world. Given their different theoretical starting points it is not surprising that agreement is not reached in their exchange.

Each ‘side’ do however appear to be helpfully raising questions under-explored in scholarship to date on this topic. Yes (aligning with Garrett & Hawkins), it would be too easy ‘just’ to examine urban exploration as a gendered practice, a frat-ish rite of passage. There is more to be said about what it is like to pit oneself against the hazardous-to-human arrangements of high, deep and otherwise inhospitable terrain in the built environment, and Garrett is prodigiously advancing this project. However the ‘what it’s like to be there?’ dimension must not become the sole focus, for there is much more that needs investigating (and critiquing) alongside developing deeper understanding of edgework and of the human/matter meld: in particular, the politics, ethics and impacts of urban exploration, and this brings me to a wider issue.

It takes more than urban explorers for urban exploration to exist. To date the focus has been upon the explorers, and often the treatment has been reverential in tone: the explorer as somehow pushing boundaries and thereby contributing in some – never quite articulated way – towards socio-spatial justice. But is exploration done ‘on behalf’ of anyone other than the explorers? What is achieved, and at what cost? The ‘downside’ is never probed, nor the limits of desirable infiltration ever fathomed. Just because it is possible to climb the latest skyscraper in London, is it right to do so? Who is affected by urban exploration and what are their rights? So far, the voices of non-participants (those who choose not to be urban explorers), of property owners and infrastructure managers, of security and rescue services, and of other types of incursionist – have all been absent.

Urban exploration may take place in buildings that are (or seem to be) empty, but they are not places that have become meaningless, and most are not actually abandoned. Many others (non explorers) have desires, and anxieties about, and relationships with these places – and the matter to be encountered within them –   the night watchmen, the site operators, the insurers, the regulatory authorities all need to be heard if we are to understand ‘urban exploration’, for it is not just a pastime that exists in isolation from the world – it is precisely its embodied (in the sense of being-in-the world and amidst matter and other people) aspect that raises these questions. Recreational trespass has consequences, it is an interaction not just with matter, but also with other human bodies and socio-technical systems. There is a human/matter ecology within the targeted buildings and infrastructure.

And urban exploration is a part of that ecology – but it is not the only actant that mobilises it. Those who perceive urban exploration as ‘done to them’ rarely draw neat distinctions between the motivations (and/or backgrounds) of the incursionists whom they encounter the traces of after a weekend of ‘infiltration’ in their premises. The modus operandi of urban explorers – viewed from the perspective of the site owner – is little different from that of the squatter, the arsonist or the metal thief or other scavenger. To understand urban exploration we would need to understand not just how individually or collectively urban explorers define themselves, but also how others (non urban explorers) make sense of recreational trespass and react to it. Intersubjectivity is not just played out between urban explorers, it also happens between others about urban exploration. There is discourse, there is representation, there is power, there is law: all in play around this issue. And all of that swirl of discursive stuff is intimately entwined with bodies and the hazards (and/or purposiveness) of matter.

To interview site owners about urban exploration – as I have done on occasion over recent years – is to encounter bewildered adults struggling to find a way to make sense of recreational trespass, of its implications for them and of rules of thumb by which they may distinguish one type of incursion from another. These bodies matter too: these are human beings facing anxieties as a consequence of site incursion, perhaps occasionally seeing fatalities and having to ‘pick up the pieces’ (in all senses). They also ‘matter’ in the sense used by Karen Barad (2007) : these bodies are just as involved as the explorers in sense making and prediction about human/matter interaction brought about through urban exploration: classically in the realm of risk assessments, and their narration of possible human/matter fateful contact. And, yes – to agree with Mott and Roberts here – owners and other reactors to urban exploration will frame their response decisions around bodily difference. Plainly, in the post 9/11 western world Moslem urban explorers are likely to be treated with greater suspicion or alarm than WASP ones – our bodies carry identity, and are interpreted by others on account of those manifest (and socially foregrounded) features of difference. Thus it is clearly (socially) more dangerous for some to do urban exploration than others.

Let me be clear, the above is not intended as an attack upon urban exploration. As my previous contributions to recent work in this area have hopefully shown, I have considerable respect for the investigatory endeavours of the urban explorers whom I have come across. I have also suggested to site owners in a variety of projects (for the British Mountaineering Council and other pro-access organisations) that site owners need to become more relaxed about adventurous recreational use of their properties.

But, if the talk is now of opening up new avenues of study in this area, I would like to endorse Garrett & Hawkins’ call for greater attention to human/matter relations, and also Moss & Roberts’ call for greater social critique. But, I would suggest that achieving both might actually require a much broader view of the field of study to emerge, one in which:

First, urban exploration is truly engaged with as a ‘spectrum’ (as per Craggs et al, 2013), putting the athletic boundary-pushing dimension into place alongside more ‘down to earth’ – and more inclusive – variants (and whether psychogeography, architectural enthusiasm or urban ‘sightseeing’) in which difference matters less; and

Secondly, one in which exploratory urban engagements of whatever hue are understood as a complex entanglement of many materialities, policies, peoples, priorities and politics, a mesh in which the urban explorer becomes but one actant amongst many.

References

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University.

Craggs, R., Geoghegan, H. & Neate, H. (2013). ‘Architectural enthusiasm: visiting buildings with the Twentieth Century Society’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31: 879-896.

Garrett, B. & Hawkins, H. (2013) ‘And now for something completely different…Thinking through explorer subject-bodies: a response to Mott and Roberts’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Hodder, I. (2012) Entangled: an archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. London: Wiley.

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013a). ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: Urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography.’ Antipode doi: 10.1111/anti.12033: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013b). ‘Difference really does matter: a reply to Garrett and Hawkins’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/

Image credit:

Naked City Spleen by Miru Kim at http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/naked-city-spleen-by-miru-kim-1 (where there are more images from her Naked City sequence and her video presentation about her project).

On the shoulders of giants? mountaineering, buildering and the vertigo of others

“When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me…”

The Drifters – Up On The Roof (1962) Gerry Goffin & Carolyn King

We’re at the museum, exiting for some odd reason at rooftop level. My two teenage boys are standing beside me by the railing, looking over to the slightly lower roofs clustered around this summit building. Something distracts my thought or attention, and when I drift back to the roof I abruptly notice that my eldest, G has vaulted the railing and is running with glee across the shinning white-lead expanse of the profiled roofscape beyond. He’s then joined by his younger sibling, L, and they start to race each other, running in parallel away from me across that surface. I call to them to return to me, but my voice evaporates in the wind. They are whooping with joy and abandon but then something goes awry. Both start to tumble and slide down the now sloping roof. Momentarily they appear to be enjoying themselves – but then the peril of their situation dawns on them, and me. They are not in control of their descent, and are rapidly gathering pace. On the smooth surface there is nothing to grab onto, no friction, no purchase. I see G manage to wedge himself into a gully, coming to a juddered halt in a crumpled heap. But L speeds on, and beyond the edge of the roof. He flies out into space like a child from a water chute at a fun fair. This a child, but there is no water, and now no fun. He flies through the air for what seems like ages, then lands roughly on the lower roof of the next building on. A sense of relief momentarily passes through me, but even as that feeling is spreading out through my body, his body starts to move again, slipping onward down this equally smooth roof. I see him hurtling towards another edge. I sense the inevitability. All I can do is watch. I see him fly off the end of the roof. There is nothing I – or he – can do.

Then I wake up. My first thought is that my dream is all about realising that my kids are at that age where I can’t control everything that they do. I can’t ensure their safety. Then I add a gloss to my interpretation, I’m guilty about having encouraged them to see their city as a playground. All the talk of bunkers, urbex and recreational trespass has passed into them. I have made this monstrousness. Over the days that follow another – additional – interpretation steps forwards: that this is what happens if you gorge on mountaineering books. This summer I’ve been reading rather a lot of them, and there have been plenty of tales of climbers slipping off mountainsides along the way. A latter stage of the dream had the dilemma of how to drag my surviving son back over to my rooftop – across the yawning crevasse of the gap between two buildings.

I’ve been reading these books as part of thinking through the relationship between ‘classic’ exploration (mountaineering and polar trekking) and contemporary recreational echoes (climbing, parkour, urbex). I’m not a climber (I’m not good with heights) so reading all this stuff makes for an interesting tangent to my fondness for taking my adventure at ground level and in small, local, bitesize pieces – embracing the psychogeographical rather than the athletic side of ‘exploration’.

From this reading, combined with what I’ve observed of climbers so far in my encounters with the British Mountaineering Council, it appears that the link between climbing and urban exploration are not as close as one might expect. Climbing’s roots lie in mountaineering. The rise of crag (outcrop) climbing in the UK was originally as a training ground for alpine expeditions, only latterly becoming an end in itself (with the emergence of industrial working class recreational crag-climbing from the 1930s). But throughout, the focus has remained resolutely upon climbing rock. Enthusiasts stuck away from rock might occasionally scale the nearest available structure: a church steeple, a clock tower, a chimney – but such escapades seem always to have been regarded as a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’, and the butt of dismissive comment by both the grandees of climbing and critical onlookers like Charles Dickens who regarded climbing’s pursuit of its goal as pointless as:

“The scaling of such heights… contributes as much to the advancement of science as would a club of young gentlemen who should undertake to bestride all the weathercocks of all the cathedral spires of the United Kingdom.” (quoted in Macfarlane 2003: 96)

Nowadays climbers can do their thing far away from inspirational mountains, but the natural aesthetic remains to the fore, as Simon Thompson colourfully puts it:

“it is possible to climb in a disused quarry full of rusting cars and stagnant pools or on a specially constructed wall in the middle of an industrial estate, but for the majority of climbers the beauty and grandeur of the surroundings are an intrinsic part of the sport.” (2007: 3)

I expected to find more interest in (and/or awareness of) ‘buildering’ (urban climbing) amongst climbers than I so far have in the histories and officials who I have consulted, and despite the highly visible exploits of successive climbers of the Shard, and the conquests of Alain Robert (‘the human spider’) few rock climbers appear to take the built environment, and its surfaces and structures, as an attractive playground.

But – actually there is evidence that some do, and I’ve recently found that there is more to those passing, throwaway sentences about urban climbing in the official histories. It seems buildering is at least 100 years old in the UK. A number of climbing guides to Cambridge’s iconic buildings were published (anonymously) every few decades throughout the Twentieth century, the first  – Trinity Roof Climber’s  Guide – was penned in 1900 by a young Geoffrey Winthrop Young – who later became a grandee of the mountaineering establishment, a president of the Alpine Club in the 1940s. It seems that the 1930s were the boom years for Cambridge buildering – or ‘night climbing’ as it was then known. In a guide published in the 1937 – The Night Climbers of Cambridge – the anonymous author ‘Whipplesnaith’, pondered the relative anonymity of the night climber in comparison to the mountaineer. Clearly this was in part a function of the illicit nature of this recreational trespass, and the consequences (explusion) of being caught by the University authorities. The author pointed eloquently to the discontinuity of Cambridge’s night climbing heritage (now collated by the extensive efforts of Andy Buckley at http://www.insectnation.org/projects/nightclimbing/), there was no:

“continuity of purposes and cross-purposes, developments and declines, ambitions and differences which make history.” (3)

Thus the secret nature of the practice (and the then absence of route grading) meant that students drifted into night climbing (perhaps at first as an out-of-hours drain pipe shin to re-enter their halls after curfew), tried a few excursions and then left the field – there being no escalation path to stretch out their engagement longer, with declared ‘harder’ routes to work at. Thus – in Whipplesnaith’s view – the absence of many circulating accounts or gradings of routes stifled the formation of night climbing into a settled cultural practice. Yet, ironically, the Cambridge night climbing guides give an erudite and structured glimpse of buildering and its ways of doing, presenting what may have existed in an inchoate and entirely unrecorded form in other towns and minds. Night climbing became a local practice in Cambridge, capable of transmitting its ways through the generations, via these guides and memoirs. Conversely, the only way I have found to glimpse un-organised, ad-hoc buildering is in court case reports, in which judges must make sense of the vertical recreational trespass of injured youths (Bennett 2011).

Nowadays DIY cultures can circulate much more easily – via blog, fan-site and forum and we can find sites dedicated to ‘buildering’ (e.g. http://urban-climbing.com/; http://buildering.net/). The links to athletic endeavour (parkour) and an artistic, urban clique seem clear here, one that is attuned to situationist practice and urbex ethos. I’m thinking here particularly of Lottie Child’s participatory performance art pieces – her ‘Climbing Club’, and specifically its ‘Risk In The City’ offshoot, that encouraged her audience (and passer-by merchant bankers) to scale the walls of City of London buildings, marking out with bodies the peaks and troughs of financial graphs and risk analysis.

I like the idea of this mundane adventuring – of mountaineering entering the city. It reminds me of a TV version of Manfred Karge’s play The Conquest of the South Pole on Channel 4 back in 1989. A group of unemployed Edinburgh young men wander the semi-derelict Leith docks and in that liminal space re-stage Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole. They do so by co-opting boxes, crates (as mountains), sheets (as snow fields) and industrial freezers (as the cold). They stage a heroic adventurism amidst everyday ruins, animating those places with their playful intensity, showing that – in part at least – adventure is a state of mind. That play summons an image of a performative, collaborative proto-urbex. It all hinges on pretending to be penetrating virgin terrain, on mimicking that imperial ‘first-ness’. But it has an ironic tinge to it, an awareness that the event is constructed. It is also notably social.

In a recent academic article, Carrie Mott and Susan Roberts (2013) comment on interpretations of urban exploration to date (including my own). They point out a number of under-developed avenues of study. Here I will delve only into one of them: that urbex practice is rooted in a fundamentally Romantic mind-set, and as such privileges the achievement and insight of the lone (male) practitioner. They argue that urbex shows a fondness for withdrawal from society and also competitiveness at the heart of any residual sociality. There is something similar to climbing in this – that urge for the withdrawal to the mountains, the man-matter contest, some risk bearing forth insight (a la Nietzsche “that which doesn’t kill me makes me strong”) and thereafter writing up an account of that adventuring and disseminating it as a spur to status.

Reading through the histories of mountaineering what struck me was how each assault against an unconquered peak was actually a massive logistical operation – hundreds of support staff, tonnes of equipment to enable one or two men to claim ‘first-ness’ at that mountain’s summit. Like the summit shape of the mountains that were being climbed, only the summiteers are remembered.

Mountaineers may be drawn by the individualistic Romantic mountain aesthetic, and the idea of ultimate solitude attainable upon a virgin summit, but they each – to some degree – take society with them up onto that peak, and their actions affect others to whom they are connected. As Peter Hansen (2013) points out this social connection can be as physical and direct as being joined by a rope to a climbing partner, but it also extends to connection to logistical networks, political and economic contexts (e.g. the imperial opening up of Tibet in 1904 such that Everest could be approached for the first time) and also basic human emotional interconnections, for the explorers have families, friends, work colleagues who are affected by their absence, and self-imposed jeopardy.

In non-expeditionary climbing the social is still there – in the clubs, the climbing ethics, the guidebooks; and in all of the trappings of the “industry of ascent” (2003: 142) as Macfarlane deftly styles it. Through all of this rock climbing becomes a practice shaped and circulated by its practitioners. What struck me about buildering is that it has always been there, in the shadow of rock climbing, but (apart from the exception of Cambridge) not attaining a social identity until recently, with the rise of urbex and social media. And yet, in thinking about my dream urban climbing has always existed as an instinctual activity, what is new is the way that its ways of doing might come to be defined and individual builderers come to see themselves as part of a community.

My kids’ urge to climb and explore is partly innate monkey urges, but also part of a context of Romantically shaped philosophy of withdrawal and self-development through ordeal. As Robert Macfarlane (2003) puts it with regard to the heavy cultural baggage carried on George Mallory’s shoulders on his 1924 fatal ascent of Everest, born of:

“the hundreds of other people who each made tiny adjustments to the way mountains were imagined – [are] involved in Mallory’s death. He was the inheritor of a complex of emotions and attitudes towards mountainous landscape, devised long before his birth, which largely predetermined his responses to it – its dangers, its beauties, its meanings.” (226)

Whipplesnaith considered that night climbing had not progressed to form (what Etienne Wenger (1998) would call) “a community of practice”, because of the isolated nature of its performance. But the rise of social media and urbex forums would suggest that buildering may well attain an identity in the years ahead, due to its new found opportunities to solve the dilemma that Whipplesnaith had through unsolvable in 1937, due to:

“the blanket of the dark [that] hides each group of [night] climbers from its neighbours, muffles up a thousand deeds of valour, and almost entirely prevents the existence of dangerous rivalry.” (2007: 1)

But my kids, builderers, and all climbers are also and already part of their day-to-day communities. Climbing of any sort is an activity that has consequences both for the participants and those (like Ruth Mallory as an anxious wife, or me as a nervous parent) who wait for the explorer’s safe return home.

References

Bennett, Luke (2011) ‘Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability’, International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 3 (2) 126-158.

Hansen, Peter H. (2013) The Summits of Modern Man – mountaineering after the Enlightenment, Harvard University Press: London.

Macfarlane, Robert (2003) Mountains of the Mind – a history of a fascination, Granta: London.

Mott, Carrie & Roberts, Susan M. (2013) ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography’, Antipode, advance online publication.

Thompson, Simon (2010) Unjustifiable Risk? The story of British climbing, Cicerone: Milnthorpe.

Wenger, Etienne (1998) Communities of Practice – Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

‘Whipplesnaith’ [Noel H. Symington] (2007 [1937]) The Night Climbers of Cambridge, Oleander Press: Cambridge.

Picture credits

Caspar David Friedrich (1818) The Traveller above a Sea of Clouds

Shoulder stand, 1900 http://www128.pair.com/r3d4k7/HistoricalClimbingImages8.html

Roald Amundsen at the South Pole, 1911:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amundsen’s_South_Pole_expedition

George & Ruth Mallory (1916) http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWmalloryG.htm

1930s Cambridge Night Climbing:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/may/21/urban-climbing-1930s-style

Geoffrey Winthrop Young (1930s?) http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37073/

Everest camp, 1953: http://www.bahighlife.com/News-And-Blogs/Adventure-Blog/The-1953-Everest-expedition.html

The Conquest of the South Pole (1989) from www.film4.com.

Risk in the City: urban climbing meets financial risk analysis, 2005: http://malinky.org/wikka.php?wakka=RiskInTheCity

Urban Climber Magazine, 2008: http://www.rockwerxclimbing.com/upload/wysiwyg/urban-climber-cover.jpg

Urban climbing, 2009: photo by Chrzaszczu at http://www.panoramio.com/photo/17932791

Russian urban climbing 2012: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4134286/Urban-climbing-Russian-Roulette-is-lethal-new-kids-craze-in-Moscow.html

Buildering meets climbing wall (n.d., accessed 2013): http://www.oobject.com/category/great-climbing-walls/

On Three Outcrops: Granite – trial and ordeal

“A rock, an event, a past, cannot write itself…and yet it does” (Schlunke, 2005)

I now close this outcrop trilogy with a multi-site rumination on the imperviousness of granite.

Haytor

haytor1

Granite always involved a journey inland, and a negotiation too. Growing up in a household without a car it was always a convoluted trek to Dartmoor to commune with its stout grey sentinels. It would entail finding a spare seat on the extended family’s convoy into those hills. But the relative difficultly of reaching these rocks added to their lure. To be there, amongst them was to be somewhere made meaningful through its relative unattainability; special through a (modest) trial and ordeal. Whilst barely 30 miles from my town, these bulbous grey mica flecked outcrops felt regional, rather than local. I hold cherished memories of actual visits, but the yearning to visit was always stronger than the specific memories of actually being there. In melancholic moments the image of being up amongst these windswept peaks was a strong one. A wished for recuperative:  something to blow the cobwebs away, to recharge the batteries, to fill a hole.

Granite sits and broods, squat and strong, its forms asking to be clambered upon, pored, investigated. But it doesn’t give much away. It leaves you to speculate. Unlike the perishing, unstable and ubiquitous rocks of Torquay, granite has a resolute firmness and mystery. And there is something sinister in granite’s sly Easter Island faces: a silent leeching of radon from its radioactive pores, that gas seeping into basements, slowly poisoning unventilated air and bringing 1,200 lung cancer related deaths each year in the granite zones across the UK (Laurance 2010). A slow, silent-but-deadly, rock fart.

Bluff Rock

“Bluff Rock sits. Bluff Rock towers. It is the silent main character in this crime cum ghost story – it is always there, it always remains.”

Bluff Rock

Kristina Schlunke’s Bluff Rock (2005) is an account of her attempt to investigate an 1844 massacre of aborigines atop a local granite outcrop close to her Australian outback childhood home.  Schlunke ‘s research ranges across contemporary accounts, wider cultural context and the material conditions of the event-space. The rock itself is offered up as a mute witness to whatever happened there. For Schlunke preoccupations of the present inevitably seek to project onto any attempt to interpret the past. She sees the urge to order and make sense via selection and narrative as something to be – if not resisted – then at least laid bare. In that sense her investigation becomes resolutely autobiographical and deconstructive. The outcrop itself is presented as resistant to this ordering, resistant to the writing (or revealing) of the ‘truth’ of the event. In the swirl of interpretations, Schlunke clambers to the top of Bluff Rock and finds there no plateau, no clearly defined edge from which the cornered aborigines could have been ‘thrown’ (as in the testimony of the perpetrators). Schlunke is not seeking to deny the atrocities of colonialists and their actions against those already inhabiting the supposed Terra Nullis, but she finds threads that cannot be neatly assimilated into any of the circulating accounts. She concludes that the massacre probably did take place – once amongst many in this locality – but probably not at this landmark, that scenery having been added later, as though the event required geological ‘sexing-up’, bringing in a dramatic staging point, a crescendo for the endemic casual violence of such frontier encounters.

Bluff Rock passes no clue other than its own topography and density of thicket. It is impervious to rapid travel and interrogation alike. A material synonymous with memorials and headstones gives up little testimony of this past. Instead meaning comes from that projected onto this outcrop by its passersby:

“To drive past Bluff Rock is to see nothing but rock. To stop at the viewing place is to acquire a name and some history. To go to the Visitors’ Centre and ask for a leaflet is to be given a story of omnipotent white power.”

Cave Rock

Schlunke notes the instability of the very naming of Bluff Rock (and of the colonial urge-to-name as part of territorial conquest). An early – rain soaked – explorer came upon the outcrop in a wet July  and declared it ‘St Swithin’s Bluff’. That name didn’t stick, but – as for Schlunke – “This combination of rain and rock and the figure of a man’s body open to the elements and the effect of other men, creates a very nuanced image of that first ‘owner’”.

Cave Rock

Likewise Matthew & Michael Makley find something similar in Cave Rock (2010), their account of the disputed use of a Nevada lakeside granite mass, the remnant of a volcano that erupted there three million years ago. To the local native American Washoe tribes this outcrop is “De’ek wadapush” (Rock Standing Grey), to the white explorers who then sought to style a name for this landmark, it was variously “Rocky Point” then “Indian Rock” and then “Cave Rock”.

The Washoe detoured to avoid this place. It was a potent place, to be visited only by shamen and at which secret rituals of re-powering would be performed, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. But then in 1859 the white man’s gold rush saw a plank bridge-road skirt the edge of the mass. Then in 1931 engineers blasted a road tunnel straight through it (with a second tunnel added in 1957). The Washoe were not consulted.

Granite comes in many shapes and textures, but is often notable for its sheerness. As Schlunke puts it: “only straight, downward fissures and the simple immensity of granite”. Cave Rock was of a formation not well suited to traditional crack system based climbing, but the pioneering of bolt enabled sport climbing in the 1980s opened up the possibility of sheer rock faces to climbing. You don’t need cracks, seams and crevasses if you have runs of metal bolts fixed into a face.

In 1987 the first sport climbing route was pioneered at Cave Rock. Sports climbers bolted this vertical landscape and – in their view – improved the place by tidying up the litter and tunnel debris they found there, and paving the cave base. Ultimately 325 anchors marking the 47 distinct high-challenge routes written onto the face of Cave Rock by the scrutiny of the pioneering climbers who attentively read this vertical place and its route-potential, portraying this engagement with the rock in ecstatic, semi-spiritual terms, for example route pioneer Dan Osman:

“When I finished ‘Psycho Monkey’, I looked to the right and saw the line of ‘Phantom Lord’, which was harder [5.13b]. When I finished that, I looked to the right again and saw…the line of ‘Slayer’…I yelled to my belayer to lower me, and ran over to start working on it.” (quoted in Makley & Makley, 2010).

The climbers’ interest in Cave Rock coincided with emergence of a (slightly) greater attentiveness to Native American affairs in US Federal policy, sparking long debate amidst Cave Rock’s custodians, the US Forestry Service, about how the seemingly incompatible uses could be reconciled. The Washoe wanted all non Washoe use of Cave Rock to be banned. In retort the climbers developed a triple pronged argument, first that US constitutional law prohibited the Forestry Service from acting in a way that promoted the interests of a religion. Secondly, that the spiritual integrity of Cave Rock had already been erased by the road tunnels and thirdly, that Cave Rock now held a rich spiritual meaning for climbers too (hinting at an equivalence to that of the Washoe).  Meanwhile – to add to the messy reality and multiple meaning making in play at this site – Cave Rock had been designated as a Federal heritage site due to its historic transportation significance: the road tunnels!

Sadly, the dispute remained one largely polarised between the climbers and the Washoe, the vision of a march upon Cave Rock by an enraged mob of access defending road tunnel enthusiasts never materialised. Ultimately, after some extensive to-ing and fro-ing the Federal Appeal court decided that it was lawful for the US Forestry Service to ban climbing at Cave Rock without falling foul of the US constitution. The rock’s heritage value for the Washoe (and the general population of the area) could be acknowledged , and climbing upon this publically owned land could be prohibited as of deleterious character to the integrity of the rock itself.

Subsequently, the climbers bolts were removed, their holes plugged and the climbers flooring works taken away too. But Cave Rock remains publicly owned land, it has not been repatriated to the Washoe, and traffic still streams through the tunnels.

What the granite thinks of all this is not known.

 

 

References

Laurance, J. (2010) ‘Radon Gas: the silent killer in the countryside’, The Independent, 10 August.

Makley, M.S. & Makley, M.J. (2010) Cave Rock – climbers, courts and a Washoe Indian sacred place, University of Nevada Press: Reno.

Schlunke, K.M. (2005) Bluff Rock – autobiography of a massacre, Curtin University Books: Fremantle.

Image Sources

Haytor, Dartmoor – http://travel.aol.co.uk/2013/07/12/mother-son-die-falling-100ft-dartmoor-devon/

Bluff Rock, New South Wales – http://www.onthehouse.com.au/reports/property_profile/12445298/7417_New_England_Highway_BLUFF_ROCK_NSW_2372/

Cave Rock, Nevada – http://blog.skiheavenly.com/2012/08/01/hiking-to-the-top-of-cave-rock/

Souvenirs – George Haydock’s short film on urban exploration

George made this atmospheric short piece as part of his documentary film making studies at the University of Salford. Amidst the striking ruin atmospherics the voices of a handful of explorers and academics hover, sketching out avenues of deeper analysis and debate. Features Tim Edensor, Richard Brook, Martin Dodge, Amanda Crawley Jackson and, err, me…

George would like to make a full length documentary out of the material he gathered for this project. He can be contacted direct at:

george.haydock@hotmail.co.uk