Friday, 28 November 2008

Slash and Burn

"London's on fire" he said.
"What!?" I often forget about the capital, my hometown, while living in the countryside. It seems so much further than the three hour train ride, a different type of distance.
"Yeah, the Olympic site is burning down".
"Where exactly?" I said leaning across the counter excitedly, suddenly I felt out of it, away from the action. Tom peered deep into his screen scanning the text for the information,
"Waterden Road". I spent the afternoon plodding between news sites, searching for the exact location of the fire, which did not take long. Two days later the whole internet was awash with photos, and my mind was made up. I had to go, and soon.

The building in question was less than one hundred metres from my first and favourite entry point, next to the bus garage which was, I believe, the last non-olympic operation to leave the site and was still functioning on this cold november night (a year ago). Perched atop the fence I was struck by the most impressive of all the panoramas I had yet witnessed here. On the left the mangled silhouettes of corrugated sheeting buckled under the intense heat of the flames, all backlit by the disturbing orange/purple glow of the city at night. On the right probably the most cliched image of demolitio-philia: a towerblock in mid-teardown, its framework fraying at the edges to strands of steel knotted with clumps of concrete.

Once again there was no sign of any life, or even security, just some distant lights, which by now I had learned to ignore - they were as likely to have been left on or have a sleeping guard beneath them as they were to indicate any danger. I approached the building, really at a loss to know how to deal with such a subject. I could still feel smouldering warmth and a smell that took me back to childhood tube journeys: melting brakes wafting up the tunnels. That evening produced my most straightforwardly sympathetic reactions to these places. Although I have often engaged in emotive postures, only this building has provoked genuine sadness. I slumped in forlorn imitation of its sagging structure, tried to haul it upright and bodged mending one of its gaping holes with my body.

On its other side was emblazoned the clue as to the reason for the fire. I think the official version still reads that a welder's torch was left burning while the workers ate their sandwiches. The sign read something along the lines of ASBESTOS NO ENTRY. A few days later the front of the Hackney Gazette read ARSON. I am not in the business of investigative journalism and have no wish to be, so all that follows is strictly speculation. There is no reason to weld inside a condemned building, I guess one might want to use an oxyacetylene cutter, but judging by the demolition strategies in evidence elsewhere in the area, this would be anomalous in the extreme, buildings were not being dissected. This building it seems was cremated. One can only assume that the health and safety procedures governing the safe removal of asbestos proved impracticable to a high profile project with a deadline considerably more strict than that of the Scottish Parliament. Hackney Council now seem to have adopted this as a favourite tactic (there have been nine fires in five years in derelict buildings occupying Dalston's development area): the slash and burn mentality of siege warfare prevailing to this day in local development disputes.

I heard distant footsteps, over my shoulder, and froze. I am told it would take 120,000 individual speakers arranged in a sphere to test the spatial awareness of two human ears. On this night mine served me well, I turned around and spied a fox making it's way along the mud embankment beneath the proposed undulating roof of the Olympic Pool.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Supporting Industry

Two months after the completion of the fence I was in London with the sole intention of catching up with friends and seeing some live music. But when my plans were thrown awry by a situation beyond my control I found myself in a fowl and frowning mood traveling east on the Silverlink North London Line with a few hours to while away. I looked up from my self-absorbed misanthropy when I reached Hackney Wick and not wanting to end up in Stratford, leapt off. The thought of trespassing that evening had not crossed my mind until the train pulled away, but I was now in the habit of carrying the camera and ancient portable tripod that I used with me on all visits to the capital, and it seemed a suitable pursuit on which to vent my aggression.

I went over the fence in one of my favoured spots, and the post-apocalyptic abondenment I had witnessed in the same spot just a couple of months before had begun to be torn down. The JCBs had moved in and the landscape had begun it's journey towards wasteland. Acrid sodium lighting shone all around casting twisted shadows on exposed interior walls, the whole ground seemed to glow a lurid orange when compared with the calming deep blue of the night sky. With the buildings coming down and the rubble heaps going up staying hidden could not have been easier. At a distance of a hundred metres I reckoned a passing security van stood zero chance of spotting me - even in the bright red hoody I was wearing, having not planned to be 'jumping' tonight - as long as I was frozen still.

I didn't have to go far before I found a subject worthy of a whole evenings imagery. It was a building I had known well which stood on the site of the first temporary buildings in the zone. I almost missed the majestic state of semi dismemberment but glancing nervously back over my shoulder as I crouched beneath a dormant digger I was awestruck. I spent the next two hours in this small space of ground, mostly cowering beneath the JCB, staring intently at the crumbling facade, trying to work out my next move. And having planned my pose, set up the tripod and checked for approaching security vans; scuttled across the open ground counting the ten seconds of shutter delay and hurling myself into position, where I froze, counting the seconds again - this time to fifty, all the while tense and as still as my adrenalin pumped body could stay.

On that evening, in front of this epic crumbling cliff-face, I came up with two responses both attempting to create a dialogue between the foreboding scale of destruction and my own puny body. In the first - the only image as yet produced to have a title - I leant with all my might against the structure, performing the architectural role of a flying buttress. The image is titled 'Supporting Industry'. In the second I threw myself at a predetermined architectural springboard and clung to some handhold for the duration of the exposure. Heroic as this may hope to sound, it took several attempts to pull off with even vague success, only two of which produced 'usuable' images. On the final attempt, my arms aching from earlier fruitless efforts, clinging doggedly to some slice of conduit, I saw the telltale revolving orange light of a security van approaching in the metallic reflection an inch in front of my face. In an atypical moment of level-headed calm I reasoned that even were they to identify my form, the spectre of a human figure draped near lifeless beneath crumbling concrete would be too incredulous to register as anything but optical illusion. The reflection continued steadily across my field of vision fading into the distance. Almost half a minute after the shutter had closed I climbed down and scampered back to the safe shadow of the digger to calm my heart rate.

I took one final photo that evening, cowering among the sheets of twisted metal which had been torn from the building. I should here pay brief and possibly surprising tribute to the excellent job that was done of recycling the building materials. This night among many others I encountered heaps that had been meticulously sorted - metal from masonry, much was made of this in the publicity but as few people will have clapped eyes on the evidence, I thought it should be noted.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Cat and Mouse

Although my trespassing activities are intentionally clandestine in the real world, I have always presented the documentation in public online space with total transparency. To begin with I hid my face from the camera, but as the images became regularly published on a website bearing my name, I soon stopped even this pretense of anonymity. More important than my identity though are the landmarks that crop up in the pictures, many of which would give telltale details as to movements about the site, especially my entrances and exits: the achilles heels of Olympic security. Much as the intention of the project is to subvert the control of both access to and imagery from Europe's largest building site, I was pleased to give the powers that be a fighting chance in preventing my intrusions, should they care enough to notice. I have taken a self-defeating pride from the outset in clearly demonstrating the weaknesses of the (de)fences.

I made the project's iconic title image early on, lying in the road at the bottom of the new gate which blocked Carpenter's Road, demonstrating the ease with which I slipped beneath it. A sign above me clearly reading "OLYMPIC PARK. ROAD CLOSED HERE FROM MON 2 JULY". The fence, which had already been extended to 'fit' the space was, when I returned two weeks later, further extended: steel bars welded to within an inch of the road on every other fence post. A month later still, unwanted eyes were also excluded - the whole fence clad in the now ubiquitous blue plywood. Whether this gradual improvement was a response to the online visibility of my images seems unlikely, but I had taken one measure to deliberately draw attention to my website.

Newham council's website contains an anomalous page amidst the mass of local government public access buraucracy. It contains a live link to a webcam mounted on top of Stratford station. The camera pans and zooms automatically back and forth, in and out across the Olympic site, whether it was installed for the purposes of sating public curiosity I have no idea. I decided to try my hand at some primitive hacking and was shocked to find that simply copying the html code and pasting into my own website code made the camera broadcast live on any page I desired. I left it for the time being on my links page, watching it occasionally and plotting to make a performance specifically for this camera as soon as I could work out how to get within range of its lens and make myself visible, if only fleetingly, to its erratic movement. Before I had come up with anything, it disappeared. I went to the source - now a blank white space, it had been taken offline. I duly removed the code from my site and within a couple of days Newham had reinstated it, so I pinched it again, and again soon enough it was gone. I intentionally went through this process several times, largely in order to prove to myself that it vanished as a consequence of my code-piracy, but also in the hope that there would be further repercussions - perhaps a polite email asking me to stop, which would give me the opportunity to question their ideals of transparency if I were not allowed to post links to the camera (I had credited the footage properly). My final reason for continuing this virtual baiting game was simply to draw the authority's attention to the images. You can watch the webcam here

I was surprised therefore that it took a lot longer for any changes to be made at my most regular point of entry, a short row of trees that flank the fence on the towpath. I believe more than nine months passed with me regularly shinning up these trees before they were boxed into the fence for good.

Monday, 3 November 2008


The next night, spurred on by the new barrier, I returned to the opposite side of the site which is flanked by the Greenway, intending at least to stake-out the potential for breaching the fence. Soon enough another tree nestled against the fence and overhanging the no mans land presented me with an easy opportunity. Climbing to the top of the fence I stopped, concealed in its shadow and watched the empty landscape, playing the waiting game with the inevitable security patrols. None came and my fingers began to go stiff with cold so I took the plunge and clambered down the supporting structure. There was a small section of now obsolete fencing blocking the canal bridge before Marshgate Lane - I photographed myself squeezing beneath it. No sooner was I on my feet than I had my first close call with a security patrol but in the incongruous urban silence - the traffic and sirens all distant - their engine's purr was an early warning and I was safely opbscured in the branches of a weeping willow as they passed. Confident that another would not come past soon I strolled out onto the road. All the street lights were still burning and the demolition job had not yet been started, business looked from afar as usual, in fact one of the warehouses, apparently granted a stay of execution, was still functioning.

I headed straight for an old target that I had never yet managed to breach and was thrilled to find the razor-wired gate unpadlocked. The remnants of the works that used to inhabit the place were few, mostly signs warning of hazardous substances, prohibiting naked flames, two tumble down cabins at the entrance, a stairway leading to what I believe used to be a gantry running along the tops of the giant compression cylinders which held whatever toxic gas or liquid this place used to process, now lead to nowhere. I remember spotting it from afar on one of my first outings, lit up like a beacon, even in the dead of night, but now it was deserted, stripped of it's impressive industrial fittings, and unlit save for tonight's full moon. I spent quite a long time here. Hidden from the road by the various concrete structures I became relaxed and sat and admired the desolation.

This abandonment was the same everywhere, the stacked towers of skips no longer stood in the skip yard, gates had been left open and creaked in the wind. Had it not been such a familiar area, it might have felt something like the set for that old Charlton Heston film: Omega Man, in which he's the last man alive in a city depopulated by plague. Post-apocalyptic is surely an over-used term considering how unlikely such an experience is on our crowded island, but that is how it felt. Again the security van trundled past, I dashed across the open ground of the skip yard heading for cover, and there was still plenty to had, but I had become a little complacent in my distracted thoughts and should by rights have been seen.

I slipped between some loose railings, into areas of the site that had previously been patrolled by guard dogs, hotch-potch smaller plots most of which still looked exactly as they had before the fence went up. One contained a caravan-cum-dumping ground, a portacabin on stilts, indistinguishable junk. The last in the line was the creepiest of all, the Reception sign still hung above the door, torn pin-ups papered the walls and porn magazines strewn across the desk, the room behind promised to be treasure trove of useful found objects but was too dark to be investigated and I was tiring.

On my way back towards the fence I decided to stick my nose around the corner to see if the old artist's studio complex would be worth a return trip another day. Leaning around the corner into its internal courtyard I stared straight into the face of a sleeping security guard less than five metres away. I ducked back behind the wall, thanked my stars and made my way hurriedly back to the fence.