Thursday, 23 October 2008

Thanks to the Fence Builders

Early in 2007 there was a long break in my trespassing activities, I was living in Devon and other artwork was taking priority, my eyes wandered from the Olympic prize and I was trying to ignore the news to boot. I reurned to London that summer and was shocked to find the entire 'park' ringed by the blue fence which has since become such a contentious issue in the local community and unsurprisingly a site for numerous art-activist-antics. The extent to which the organisers were willing to go, not only to keep people out but, as has been pointed out elsewhere, to keep them from seeing was unbelievable as I had naively believed, even despite the road closures already in place, that access would not be quite so restricted, that we might be granted the opportunity to see the transformation at hand. Were it not for the natural viewing platform offered by the Greenway the whole project would likely have been carried out invisibly, the safety curtain raised after a five year interval revealing a scene-change of epic proportions.

In July 2007 the fence was not yet complete, although wandering down the canal on the 30th it was impossible to tell that half a mile to the east there was still (just) open access. I scaled the fence using one of several trees growing right up alongside it. These trees have all now been boxed into the fence, I strongly suspect that I have not been the only transgressor on this turfless turf and between us we must have made our mark (I will discuss my more conspiratorial and paranoiac musings on the updated security efforts in a separate post). Dropping down on the other side I became instantly aware of what a massive favour the fence builders had done me. I was standing in what used to be a car park for workers, located off Waterden Road, in the shadow of the colossal self-storage building. One month ago this would been accessible: not a trespass. Whereas before I paced the fews roads through the site, always on the lookout for a chink in the armour, now anywhere inside the fence was mission accomplished - I had simply to climb it and set foot on the other side.

Tonight was easy, if nervous, pickings. I decided not to stray too far, this was all of a sudden new territory, however familiar the buildings and spaces were the rules of the game had changed completely and I needed time and practice to accustomise myself to this. I stuck close to the fence, exploring only the two warehouses closest and the open space beside them until I saw the glowing portacabins and flashing orange lights of the security units and (probably needlessly) lost my nerve. Climbing back over to safety I was hit by the first serious rush of adrenalin, since my two experiences of capture, but this was different. I had succeeded. The fence builders had moved the goalposts to a place I had never expected, and much as I wish I could stop with the crass sporting analogies, I had raised my game. This was a fix that I would soon become fiercely addicted to, returning periodically over the next nine or so months, with increased nerve, cheek and commitment to get deeper into this forbidden territory, just because I could and am convinced that people should.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Caught (part two): By a dog unit

If you've read this whole page religiously the you'll know that I am terrified of dogs, I won't go into the childhood trauma which sparked this lifelong fear here, but suffice to say even a jack russell is enough to make every muscle in my body tense.

The end of an early evenings trespassing, very soon after the first sections of fence went up, at that stage it was just around Arena Recreation ground, the old cycle circuit and a few neighbouring plots where the businesses had already relocated. My final target that evening was the BOC gas bottling plant, right on the north-western corner of the main park. This had been a target ever since the first days of clambering in search of field recording material, but gas is dangerous and it had been well guarded with cameras spread evenly and placed well. Now they had departed, BOC's a big company and I don't imagine this site was any great loss to them, so I reveled at the chance to take a peek at the area in its state of abandonment, a chance I never got.

There was an access fence (two bits of standard steel meshing crudely nailed to the beginnings of the plywood ring) and by pulling out one of the nails I could flex it just far enough away from the rest of the fence to squeeze in. I'd only gone about five metres into the site when I stopped to set up the tripod in front of a small brick hut one end of which had been chewed by a JCB, plastic BOC sign still intact. Fiddling with the composition and trying to envisage where to put myself in the frame I heard a small sound to my right and looked up to see a broad barrel-chested dark-haired man, dressed all in black with the words dog unit glowing in white, it took me a second longer to notice the (as yet silent) dog, a very hairy Alsatian?

I had planned out and silently practiced the ensuing conversations often. Two options had presented themselves to me as replies to what I assumed would be the inevitable question: "What are you doing?" First the cheeky response "I'm trespassing", it was difficult to gauge what this might provoke in a captor: annoyance? confusion? The other was the 'harmless' approach: "taking photographs". To my surprise it took a long time for him to say anything at all. I was playing the standard trick of pretending there was nothing out of the ordinary, ignoring his presence and continuing to fiddle with the camera, trying my best to hide the rush of adrenalin surging through my torso. I seem to remember beginning to hum a tune, which must have made something click and exactly as I expected:

"What are you doing?"
"I'm just taking some photographs"

At this all of a sudden his brain flew into action, the dog began to bark (on demand, I assume) and his voice changed tone, pitch, volume all at once.

"oh, no you're not, stand up, put your hands on your head! no leave that there! keep your hands where I can see them! Right now walk towards me, keep your hands up! right, stop right there... Keep your hands up! The minute you came across that fence you were trespassing". I felt like saying: I know, that's the point - but thought better of it He pulled out his walkie-talkie and called for back-up. If you don't know me then you won't realise know how farcical it is for a man of his size with a trained police dog in tow to ask for back-up to apprehend me. I'm 5'11", have never weighed as much as 10 stone, I wear glasses, have thrown one punch in my whole life and I must have been visibly scared of the dog. I tried to put my camera away a couple of times, but each time he stopped me, telling me a story about one of his colleagues being shot at somewhere else on the site a few days ago and all the while his dog barking loud and rhythmically, intimidation tactics.

"If you move your hands once more I'll set the dog on you"

I think I asked if I couldn't just go out the way I came in, but he said no, mumbling something about how he was going to waste my time now that I'd caused him trouble. I understood him perfectly but responded:

"I can't hear a word, your dog's making so much noise, can't you shut him up"

The dog fell silent in seconds, and it wasn't much longer thankfully until two 4x4s both flashing orange (thankfully not blue) lights pulled up hurriedly on the kerb. The first person out of them was female and the look on her face when she saw who he'd caught was a picture. She clearly thought it pretty ridiculous the fuss that my captor had made over me and ushered me back through the gap in the fence. She was friendly and immediately set to asking me questions and only now did I fully realise the stance of the LDA and ODC to actions such as mine. When I explained I was taking photographs, she flinched and asked me suspiciously who I worked for, clearly expecting to hear the name of a newspaper or magazine in response she was surprised when I responded "I'm a self-employed artist", but quickly latched onto my purported aims of documentary photography. She took my address: I gave a false one, an old house, whose postcode stuck, and was sent away.

It turns out that even on official tours of the site, photography is strictly banned. The Olympic Delivery Committee will not stop short of complete overarching control of all the imagery that leaves the area, the propaganda machine which rolled into action as the fence went up is really far more impressive than the giant demolition crane that their leaflets boasted so proudly of.