Urban exploration as deviant leisure

Oooh, this is good! A very thoughtful essay on the ironies of urbex’s ‘double-helix’ relationship with commodified leisure culture. Too many great quotes to pick from, so this one will do: “the performative project of (individualised) identity construction and intense competition for (subcultural) status are now primary motivations driving the practice of urban exploration towards increasingly spectacular manifestations.” Well worth the read…

deviantleisure

By Theo Kindynis (University of Greenwich)

Under London, an urban explorer is dwarfed by the massive Lee Tunnel “super sewer” construction, the deepest and largest tunnel ever built under the city. Photo: Theo Kindynis. Under London, an urban explorer is dwarfed by the massive Lee Tunnel “super sewer” construction, the deepest and largest tunnel ever built under the city. Photo: Theo Kindynis.

Recreational trespass, or as it has become known in recent years, “urban exploration” (often abbreviated as UrbEx or UE) is the practice of illicitly gaining access to forbidden, forgotten or otherwise off-limits places, ‘simply for the joy of doing so’ and / or in order to document them photographically (Garrett, 2013: 21). Such places typically include: derelict industrial sites, closed hospitals or asylums, abandoned military installations, construction sites and cranes, sewer and storm drain networks, subterranean utility tunnels and rapid transit (metro) systems – the list goes on. In the past two decades, and particularly since the mid-2000s, an emergent global subculture has coalesced around this activity, facilitated by the Internet and online discussion forums such…

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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.

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).

Scree is here

scree end

Later this month I will be receiving some of the limited edition print run of Scree, my collaboration with landscape photographer Katja Hock. These will be rubber bound artefacts, the significance of the scuffed matt industrial covers being explained here. But in advance of this, and because we’d like to share our work beyond the confines of those who might normally want a ‘coffee table’ art book, here’s a link to a free pdf copy of the main part of our publication:

Bennett & Hock (2013) Scree

Scree was kindly commissioned by Amanda Crawley Jackson (Occursus) via the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund, and is published as part of the ‘TRACT’ series of collaborations between text and other media.

The unspoken question that haunts Scree is ‘what happens if we dwell on wasteland?’. Here ‘dwell’ can be taken in a number of directions: ponder, linger, inhabit, exist. Here’s the opening text to Scree to set the scene…

Starting out

The Wadsley Bridge to Neepsend escarpment runs along the northern edge of the upper Don valley. To the geologist this ridgeline is made up of coal measures and shales overlain by sandstone. To the local residents of north western Sheffield it is comprised of scrub, dereliction, pylons and a landfill tip. To the local historian it is an area rich in industrial and urban history.  To my kitchen refuse it is a final resting place.

To me it is all of these things, and more. In the pages that follow, Katja I and I set out to traverse this ridgeline and to depict in words and images what we find there. We can’t claim that what we find are essences – for the truth of this place is infinitely multifaceted – but what I do hope that we’ve brought closer to surface is the richness of materiality and meaning that can be found even on this steep scrubby hillside.

What is a hill?

The topography under examination here is a hybrid: pre-human geological processes sculpted this landform, but human activity added to it (and took away from it). This place may seem a grubby backwater now, but it was not always thus. The hill came to be a dynamic human-geologic assemblage, particularly in the heyday of the industrial era. Successive attempts were made to colonise this area and turn it to a variety of productive purposes. These have all left their marks. They have shaped this place, and they in turn have been shaped by it.

In a modest way we seek to give a sense of the hillside’s agency. It is not a passive, dumb brute. It has the ability to shape how humans and other creatures engage with it, and yet it is not a singular thing. It is a collection of materials, each resting on the other. The hill is a set of layers, craters and fill plus a surface crust of living and dead things that – in the main – are just passing through.

The capacity of this landform to absorb, flex and channel human activity is what has struck us most. These, like many of the city’s other hills, are rich outcrops, worked for hundreds of years for their stone, earth, water, timber, iron and game. Over recorded time these hills have been gouged by mine workings, slashed by deforestation, riven by roadways and confected by settlement. Yet each successive engagement has brought a process of human-hillside accommodation. Schemes adapted to fit geology; local topology yielded to enable temporary slithers of human incursion.

A note on style

The style of writing and reflection that follows is broadly in step with contemporary psychogeography, specifically a variant defined by Nick Papadimitriou as ‘deep topography’. In this form attention to everything is important – but in a way that avoids the crowding in of dominant (or expert) accounts of the place, as Papadimitriou puts it:

“But while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through – a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered – are screened out all too easily if the primary purpose is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmitted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s”

This approach celebrates the subjective affective response to the hillside and its human-material form. But it also (as Papadimitriou does in his work) weaves in this place’s equivalent of cornicing and the names of building companies. All are part of this hillside. Thus the end result is wantonly promiscuous, a mix of both cornicing-detail and impressionistic revere: a hybrid approach that revels, as Mike Parker has put it:

“in the connections made, the eye for the rusty and rotting, the sometimes haughty disregard for over-hyped landmarks, the comprehensive sweep that fuses politics, history and topography through observation and trenchant supposition.”

Style and substance

What follows adheres to that pattern, but if this style of landscape enquiry is to be anything other than competent word plays and an antiquarian’s eye for quirky detail, it must add some character and some insight – something that rises above the mechanical formulae by which such mix-and-match accounts can be assembled. For my part I would hope that what we present here goes that extra step in attempting to give a voice to the ‘stuff’ and ‘processes’ of the hillside by foregrounding matter – the brute ‘stuff’ of this hill – and consequential human encounters with this materiality.

In the final section I step back from my own direct experience of this place, and try to show the rich interaction with the ‘stuff’ of this hillside by people who have lived, worked or visited there and contributed their memories and enthusiasm to on-line community forums like Sheffield Forum. There is an unexpected richness in the way in which former denizens write of their experiences on (and with) the hillside.  They did not just visit or live there, they stood, dug, searched out, picked up, played upon and made and/or threw away things there. And in doing so they projected meaning and significance onto this matter, and onto the hillside.

The word ‘matter’ conjures both senses of what I’m pursuing here. How is matter made to matter? If we approach the hillside from this question we find a rich symbiotic relationship: the hill, its matter, its (only ever partial) colonisation for industry and dwelling and the daily interaction with human bodies entailed in all of that. This was evocatively struck home for me in one recollection I came across:

         the stories of local tramps

                                                                         gravitating to

                                                                                                                        the  Neepsend   brick    works

                                                                                                                        at night, to sleep in the warm

                                                                                                                        shadow  of the massive kilns.

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/

On Three Outcrops: Limestone – hide and seek on Rock Walk

Image

So, I decided. Torquay’s limestone deserved some attention.

And the more attention I gave it the more it haunted. Something not noticed, became waiting for me around every corner – indeed, it was every corner: angular slabs amassed in revetments, flanks of wall, ornamentation and dross. Lumps of local limestone all about this place, and all underlying it.

The classic Devonian red dust-rock is bisected by a fault line, the Sticklepath Fault, that summons (or permits) mounds of limestone to rise up across this town.

One such outcrop overlooks the bay. A notice tells me that the steep terraced gardens that I knew here as Rock Walk were opened in 1893, their terracing and sub-tropical planting having been to the design of the Borough Engineer and Surveyor, a Major Garrett, as part of comprehensive and confident harbourside land reclamation works (a part of which is now sinking slowly – but assuredly – back into the sea). Seventeen years later the rocks had prime view of the southern fleet, a bay full of imperial Dreadnaughts assembled for a game changing war that they didn’t realise was on its way.

The Rock Walk that I knew was a verdant place of withdrawal. A place for youthful drinking and other experimentation. Under the multi-coloured arcs of the floodlights casting this steep place into spreads of blinding colouration and corresponding patches of ultra-darkness in which these private scenes played out. There were dog-leg terraces to claim for the evening, often with a municipal bench, and irregular stone steps to reach it, rendered all the hardest to navigate courtesy of that strange blinding and darkening effect of these arc lights. Then to tarry a while, the details will remain unstated.

Nearby there was the narrow wooden bridge clinging somehow to the sheer cliff. We called this place ‘Trolls Bridge’. Once, leaning upon the rail of the bridge, staring out across the bay, a swig of drink went the wrong way. Then, spirits suddenly in the nasal cavity. Intense sensation. Too much to be pleasant. And a lesson learnt the hard way. Don’t gargle with Vodka.

So – this outcrop was a special place to me many years ago. The was is important here. Back in 2010 the rockface was stripped of all vegetation, Trolls Bridge and all of the elderly pathways ripped out. The rock laid bare was inspected, bolted, netted and fenced off. For it had become increasingly clear that this surface was a restless one, large grey boulders threatening the road beneath. These works had left a barren rock mass where I had once known darkness and exotic sub-tropical thickets. A new walkway had then been stapled back onto this barren surface. Approaching it today it looked shorn, denuded – Samson after Delilah. The bolts, nets and lashings having the feel of some trapped animal. Caged, cowed but still potent and dangerous to its captors.

I followed my family up the new walkway with truculence. I hated what this place had become, what had been stripped from it. But as we walked, the view was better that I’d remembered. Looking out from this vantage it made sense. An eclectic array ‘informational’ signs laid out along the route took my fancy too. This was a kooky take upon a tourist trail. Whether the burghers of this town realised that this was what they were getting I do not know. But to know that clotted cream may be Phoenician in origin, that the harbour’s granite came from Norway or that in 1940s a B17 bomber crashed with hundreds of tonnes of oranges on board took me by surprise, and made me chuckle in this barren place. It gave it some new – randomised – meaning. An ANT-lite take on the process of looking-out across a bay, ascending a headland and thinking about its materialities.

Thinking back to those youthful nights upon this restless hill I don’t know what these rocks, saw, heard, felt back in those days but it was the bushes and the lights that gave this place those meanings. They have disappeared in the clearance. New memories were laid down upon the same rock today, but amidst a different terrain, tone and purpose.

You can bolt the rock down, but not the events that once passed across them.