Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Sidings and the Substation

I return the same day after nightfall having picked what seems an easy spot: a narrow strip of land between Carpenter's Road (one side of which has by now been cleared of buildings) and the Channelsea River. The towpath runs right down one side of it and it's protected only by a flimsy six foot fence. The space is home to railway sidings but I've not seen a train there yet.

The dogs are out in force (well, there are two of them). Both kick up an almighty racket as I approach their respective territories. The first, at the dump, scampers energetically to and fro next to the caravan which I presume houses its owner. I have often wondered about that caravan - the idea that someone could live out here and not in one of the traveller communities but alone, with a stinking mound of twisted junk for company and thick layer of industrial dust stripping the moisture from his skin.

I lock up my bike and make my way down the towpath on foot, soon enough the second dog starts up, a large Alsatian on the opposite side of the canal, it stands still and barks rhythmically. I make fairly quick if ungraceful work of the fence, using a small tree as a foothold. The mesh flops beneath my weight, depositing me in a pile of nettles on the other side. I am going to have to get better at this.

The area is strewn with fairly typical industrial junk: empty oil barrels, oversized cable reels, large stacks of plastic tubing. I begin to improvise a few photos, finding a composition that captures the sense of the place and then working out where to put myself. My presence in this project is never by implication, behind the camera, but active and actual. I am in every image, but I could be anyone (at least any-unauthorised-one). I overstretch my hamstrings trying to hug one of the cable reels for the full fifty second exposure. My scavenging impulse kicks in and I scour the ground for useful bits of metal but soon abandon the idea of taking a trinket - this work is clutter-free, it's just me, the place and the camera, I have set the limits and intend to push them.

Before long I notice a continual deep hum in the distance and wander cautiously towards the source. It turns out to be a substation, an impressive array of high voltage transformers, towering pylons, neat stacks of ceramic insulation all ringed with the usual three-prong fence. I circle the substation a few times, listening to the subtly changing overtones. My fascination with the sound provokes me to return here a couple of months later. The drone is not so magical the second time around and my microphone not quite up to the challenge at the distance enforced by the fence. Nevertheless the fence itself proves remarkable once bowed and along with other sounds from this location makes up a large portion of the Lament mentioned below.

The droning substation has lulled me into a sense of security and I amble about the site calm and unhurried until an approaching helicopter shocks me back into unnecessary paranoia. I run for cover, quite literally, ducking into the shadow of some shapeless mound, where I pause and consider just how ridiculous the notion of a helicopter patrolling a wasteland actually is. I try another shot, striking what I imagine to be an Olympian pose atop the heap, and then wander back towards my entry.

On my way back over the fence my trousers get caught, ripping the entire back portion of the thigh off, so that's for tonight, with pants and leg bared for no one to see I return to my bike.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Casing the Olympic Joint

When I return to London I am armed with camera, tripod and hooded dark clothing. At this early stage the project is both easy and difficult. Easy in that I can legally traverse the entire site. In fact the numerous canals cause greater problems for access than security: they chop of the land into slivers making east-west movement possible by only a couple of major routes. Difficult because while the businesses are still operative, many of them remain protected by high fences, barbed or even razor wire, and dogs. I have aways hated dogs. The situation now could not be more different, it's easy to get where I want to be (because anywhere inside the fence is fair game) but it's very hard to move around unnoticed once inside.

I wander the streets, tirelessly looking for gaps in fences, natural leg-ups, any chink in the rusting hotch-potch of industrial armour. It is still a hive of activity and I don't go unchallenged. I am glanced at with mild suspicion by the workers in the skip yard, apprehended by a security guard in the car park of the evangelist church and again by a Turkish gardener on the allotments. The most (aesthetically) desirable locations are for the most part the best protected. The gas bottling plant at the top of the Eastway has strategically placed CCTV cameras, the most impressive (and best-lit) business on Marshgate Lane hasn't a single boy-sized gap. Even at the dump there's a dog that sounds like he would happily rip out your gullet.

I spend a whole day traversing the site in all directions, acquainting myself with the layout, unaware of just how fast this will change over the next few months. I have done my research, printed off the public access maps of the twelve or so compulsory purchase order zones that make up the future Olympic Park, transposed it all laboriously into a single enormous birds-eye view with the help of Google Earth (a perspective which has already passed into obsolescence). I am saddened that it is the open public spaces that are the first to go. The Arena Recreation Ground and Eastway cycle circuit which comprise the northernmost corners of the site are now ringed in cheap fencing and patrolled by dog units. What are they protecting? and even more to the point what are they protecting it from? Between this makeshift fence and the towpath a group of Italians have set up a temporary home in a family tent, eeking out the last possible days of squatting that the area has to offer.

Bored of traipsing the now well-trodden roads I squeeze between some dilapidated fencing onto a decommissioned towpath that runs almost the whole length of the zone, in the hope that it will offer me easy access to places that make a show of security at their front gates. No such luck. After pushing my way through the overgrowth for what seems like half a mile I suddenly happen on an empty building. The hoardings have long since been torn away, as have the window-grills. Inside are all the signs of a party that once was: paint-pen scrawls line the stairwell, crushed beer cans and then on the first floor I am transported direct back to my first experience of this place. On the wall, in huge black and red lettering the name CROSS-BONES is graffiti'd, and all of a sudden I am tripping over pasty-faced ravers, pushing my way up the staircase, slouching through treacle thick basslines, head soaring through the ceiling. I briefly recreate an ebullient dance move for the camera and return to the outdoors.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Trespassing Totnes

At the end of the summer, 2006, I moved to Devon to study and it's here that the project takes root in my mind and is formed into the current practice. Thinking back over the activities described below, the unwitting performativity that ties them all together, all of a sudden this is enough. The need to invite an audience to some neglected spot, to perform a series of planned actions, to be equipped with props, all vanish. I am left with the act of trespass alone and it is this which is interesting. Once this breakthrough is made, decisions come quickly - they seem obvious.

1) No domestic property (just too garden-hopping), in fact...
2) No private property.
3) No government or military installations (the work may be akin to activism but I am no saboteur)

That doesn't leave much.

I decide to focus entirely on transitional space, the three Ds: dereliction, demolition and development. Living in Totnes my options for a test run are limited (although if it were today then the abandoned Dairy Crest factory would be the perfect location). I settle on the industrial estate, specifically an aluminium fabrication plant, it is the most urban location in a small rural town. Of course I will immediately be breaking the second rule as I am sure it is privately owned but immediate self-contradiction suits my thoughts on artistic integrity these days: no dogmas, few principles.

I set off, armed with digital camera and portable tripod. It's Sunday, the industrial estate is deserted so I squeeze between the fence (being a skinny runt will continually prove a great asset to this project) and clamber around the site, a big kid refusing to leave the climbing frame. It all goes swimmingly until I make it onto the roof of the warehouse and am immediately spotted by a couple of elderly Sunday strollers from the adjacent car park. They stand and stare. I stop my clamberings and try to photograph my unexpected audience but the adrenalin kicks in too quickly and I forget to change the self-timer settings. The picture comes out a grey-green blur and I am gone pronto before they manage to tell anyone.

I am pleased with the images I get from this test-run, and buoyed up by the overall success of the trip. Getting spotted won't be such a problem in London - people just aren't nosy and if they do see me most wouldn't risk a confrontation, and anyway I won't be trespassing in daylight. Plus I am thrilled by this new perfomer/viewer relationship: the accidental audience, an incidental performance. A performance practice which is desperate to avoid attention.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

A Rude Awakening

One afternoon, spelunking for sounds around Stratford, outside the current park perimeter on the other side of the A11, I come across a large warehouse. Not a single window remains intact on any floor, and the boards that barred entrance on ground level are hanging loose. I slip inside. The ground floor is dominated by a industrial duct, wrenched from its fixings on the ceiling, it dives across the space; empty gas bottles litter a small buddleja-crowded courtyard. On the upper floors, the light pours in, the edge of the space littered with large shards of glass - the sport of local listless kids, I imagine. The building has been reclaimed at some point, the second floor has piles of human faeces at regular intervals along two of its sides.

I spend some time collecting broken glass and laying it out in a square in the middle of the space, looking a little like an abandoned arte povera piece. Mic in hand, I pace slowly around it, gently shifting my weight and recording the resulting cracks, scrapes and pops. Suddenly I become aware that I am not alone, I glance up nervously and meet the blank, silent stare of the building's sole inhabitant. Worst case scenarios reel through my head. We look at each other for what seems like a minute, but neither of us say a word, then swiftly and calmly he turns back through the door from which he must have come.

I cannot continue recording, despite his lack of concern with my presence. Every sound I make is now amplified ten times in the knowledge I am not alone, his silence is emphatic and my invasion of his derelict privacy all too awkward. I head back for the stairwell and peep through his doorway. He has made the toilet his bedroom: the only domestically scaled space available. The top floor is surprisingly homely: empty food wrappers, beer cans, palette-furnishings and an improvised washing line slung with damp tops. I am shocked by my own continued voyeurism. I scarper, quietly.

Thursday, 3 April 2008


As ever the first sign of changes on the ground is the surveyors. Roaming around Carpenters Road and Marshgate Lane (I guess this must have been late in 2006) I come across them all time, trios and quartets of men, clad needlessly in hi-vis jackets gazing through their mysterious camera-less tripods. These are the new daily inhabitants of the Lower Lea Valley, they seem to be trying to ignore the import of their job and the interest they attract from the local workers: the mechanics eye them with territorial suspicion. They are the pioneers. The first wave of hi-vis site clothing.

With them arrive the first hoardings. I think they were navy blue (or maybe purple), the all-over cyan branding of the five-mile nine-ply ring has yet to be chosen. Public relations optimism is channeled through community projects. Local primary schools have been enlisted to draw athletes and sportsmen (you can't argue with the vision of a five year old) and the products are displayed proudly, gathering industrial grime on this first partition. And not long afterwards, the first road closure, my instinct is to climb it, but it is daylight. Using the handily placed road-block bollards I get a better view and look down on a large marquee, I flash back to breaking into a festival the summer before, landing directly beside the security tent creeping out of its shadow, straight into a cluster of guards on their fag break, not to be repeated. I give this spot a miss when I return after dark.