real underground

In the urban exploration culture there is a very straightforward but, arguably, most genuine solution for organizing exhibitions. Where to make an exhibition of photos from the roof-tops if not on a roof-top? Where to make an exhibition of pictures and photos from underground if not in an unfinished construction of the heat header?

In the urban exploration culture there is a very straightforward but, arguably, most genuine concept for organising exhibitions. Where to make an exhibition of photos from the roof-tops if not on a roof-top? Where to make an exhibition of drawings and photos from underground if not in an unfinished construction of the heat header?

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In July 2011 a group of ‘diggers’ (those who explore the underground world of the city) led by moscowhite, have organised an exhibition featuring drawings by hatever and kreazot_13. It took place in a heat header right in the central district of Moscow. During one day (due to the illegal and spontaneous nature of such events they essentially have a very short life span) dozens of people would be climbing down not only to see the works but also to get the real feel of urbex life. While most of the guests were from the community itself, there were quite a few for whom the process of getting to the location was a real adventure. The location was specifically chosen so it was not very dangerous and illegal (the header is abandoned) and everyone who wanted could get to the location without getting lost in the tunnels. The exact address was not revealed – only the nickname of the place. Thus, everyone from the community knew it and could get there straightforwardly while all other guests could write a message to organisers and get directions. During that one day several hundreds of people have come down and walked along the tunnels to see the exhibition.

The organisers have installed lights (apart from candles and torches brought by spectators) and played ambient music which could already be heard in advance, as you were approaching the location along the tunnel.

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Have a look at the very atmospheric video from the event: ‘Real Underground’ by Anastasia Zotova.

Photos: w-molybden, huan_carlos, jst-ru

The Star Road

Have you ever tried simply to walk out of your house and keep walking in a straight line through your city? Imagine how many obstacles you will meet: roads, authorities, fences, closed doors, rivers and forests. Recently a Russian artist Anastasia Ryabova has explored this topic by organizing a ‘Star Road’ expedition, where the participants were invited to walk through the city recreating the shape of a star.

Have you ever tried simply to walk out of your house and keep walking in a straight line through your city? Imagine how many obstacles you would meet: roads, authorities, fences, high walls, closed doors, rivers, ponds and forests. Recently a Russian artist Anastasia Ryabova has explored this topic by organising a ‘Star Road’ expedition, where the participants were invited to walk through the city recreating the shape of a star.

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When I say ‘through’ I do literally mean it. The emphasis in the project, a bit similar to the urban practice of parkour, is on the physicality of the experience of the city with your own body. Also, it is not simply a spontaneous act of walking through the city following a certain pattern but is an expedition which is researched into and prepared well in advance. It engages with the history, the structure, the bureaucracy and the authorities of the city. Thus, it offers a new experience and engagement with the city.

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As Anastasia puts it in her own words:

The Star Road is a heroic expedition, which aims to carve out a new route over existed urban landscapes. A group of pioneers will overcome all kind of obstacles, and walk through existing concrete/administrative barriers. This new street will be inspired by the form of a star.

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Il Viale della Stella 

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sites we like

Personal, detailed and highly enjoyable accounts of guided tours offering a subtle critique of an aspect of the tourist industry via an enthusiastic engagement with it.

The Tour of All Tours is a blog by performance artist Bill Aitchison, described as:

A creative review of guided tours worldwide and thinkpad for art and tour projects more generally.

This seems to have started as a diary of Bill’s work of the same name in Stuttgart last year, but a lot of the posts are personal, detailed and highly enjoyable accounts of guided tours he has taken, with lots of photos, offering a subtle critique of an aspect of the tourist industry via an enthusiastic engagement with it. The latest posts are about tours around the area of Shoreditch, east London, as research for a site-sensitive performance of the Tour of All Tours he is giving at Rich Mix in July. Easy to spend hours wandering round this absorbing blog and we’re looking forward to taking Bill’s Tour …

Tour of All Tours

Bill Aitchison Company

Picture by Bill Aitchison, from the Alternative Tour around east London

the Lenin House of Culture, Nizhny Novgorod

More than 1 200 people used to seat in this huge hall. And now it is totally abandoned with only a giant chandelier hanging in the middle. The round stage itself has apocalyptically fallen down.

More than 1 200 people used to seat in this huge hall. And now it is totally abandoned with only a giant chandelier hanging in the middle. The round stage itself has apocalyptically fallen down.

The Lenin House of Culture in Nizhny Novgorod was built in 1927 to commemorate 10th anniversary of the Great October revolution. Lenin is still present here: there is a giant smashed head of Lenin and the other bust is standing facing the corner. A lot of artifacts are scattered everywhere: books, film rolls, slides and course materials. As a souvenir we took tokens, which would be given to people in the cloakroom.

Standing as it is, a sort of contemporary ruin, the former Lenin House of Culture could be a great sight for a performance. So I really hope to come back one day – if it will still be there as life of such buildings is unsecure and unpredictable.

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a letter to freedom

‘I live in Freedom!’ Not many people can say that – but some people can. Idea, Freedom, Hope, Ahead!, Happiness, Ideal, Future – if you look hard on the map of Russian Federation you can find out that these are the real names of towns and villages. Do they stand as signs of forever gone soviet utopia? Does it make one feel happier to live in a town called Happiness or it sounds more like a mockery?

‘I live in Freedom!’ Not many people can say that – but some people can. Idea, Freedom, Hope, Forwards, Happiness, Ideal, Future – if you look hard on the map of Russian Federation you can find out that these are the real names of towns and villages. Do they stand as signs of forever gone soviet utopia? Does it make one feel happier to live in a town called Happiness or it sounds more like a mockery?

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At his recent show in Vinzavod (19.05-17.06 2013) a Russian artist Mikhail Zaikanov exhibited envelopes, which he has sent to all of the above cities. He addressed them to the non-existed people so that the post office had to return the letters back and make a stamp, which would confirm the existence of these places.

Together with those letters the exhibition consisted of canvases with fragments of the map. All of the colours and details were erased making these beautiful titles of towns and villages as if hovering in the created pauses.

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So can you imagine how it feels to write, when filling your address, that you are not from London but from Happiness?

Photos by Anastasia Blyur

the lost world

I am Russian. I was born in 1989. When I fill in a visa application form I need to write that I was born in USSR, Moscow. I was born in the country, which you can no longer find on a map and in which I only lived for a little more than two years. From the 21st of August 1991 it no longer existed…

I am Russian. I was born in 1989. When I fill in a visa application form I need to write that I was born in USSR, Moscow. I was born in the country, which you can no longer find on a map and in which I only lived for a little more than two years. From the 21st of August 1991 it no longer existed.

Urban exploration (urbex) is popular in many countries. However, it is very specific on the post-Soviet territory. In this particular case we are dealing with the abandonment of a whole country, an almost century-long historic period and a never fulfilled utopia.

These buildings stand as phantoms, often with complicated ownership situation, abandoned and in decay. Although not completely destroyed, they are as if suspended between existence and absence.

Together with my friends I have been practicing urbex, travelling around the former Soviet Union countries, for more than three years now. In this blog I will be constantly sharing with you some of the photos (both by me and my friends) of the abandoned buildings we’ve been to.

an abandoned factory ‘Zarya’, Dzerzhinsk, Russia

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Photos by Alisa Oleva

Almost lost in the ancient future

Who needs actual historic buildings if we can fly through their reconstructions like a bird and see the layers of the past peeling away beneath us? Time-travelling through a couple of tourist attractions…

The other day I came across a new (or revived) walk that allows walkers to make a modern pilgrimage between Lichfield and Chichester. Called the Two Saints Way, it describes itself as both a new route and as having been “recreated” (it follows existing footpaths ) – it’s not entirely clear how that works – and it boasts a whole bullet-point list of “themes”, one of which seems to sum up the way the enterprise messes with the concept of time: “Journeying forward to the ancient future”.

I was sort of hoping this would involve a time-travelling immersive sci-fi/fantasy experience including aliens dressed as medieval monks (okay, yes, an episode of Doctor Who), but it seems to mean that the pilgrimage trail includes “high-tech interpretation panels” as well as virtual tours you can download to your mobile. And if you’re lucky, as those on inaugural pilgrimage were, you might be joined along the way by Saxon pilgrims from the Poor Cnights [sic] of St Chad re-enactment group (“They fitted in brilliantly and answered everyone’s questions about their get-up,” according to the walkers).  This is now on my list of things to do when the rain stops. The project cost £86,000 so those high-tech interpretation panels must be worth seeing.

There’s an exhibition on in London at the moment which sounds as if it’s doing its best to recreate the ancient future – or perhaps the futuristic ancient.  Almost Lost: London’s Buildings Loved and Loathed shows an alternative London in the form of digital reconstructions of proposed and rejected developments. You can see how Covent Garden would have looked if the sweeping 1968 demolition plans for the area had gone ahead, the result of a 1950s scheme for “a giant conservatory supporting tower blocks over Soho” and what Westminster might offer tourists if 1960s proposals to wipe out the Edwardian and Victorian buildings around Parliament Square had gone ahead.

Other digital animations show London developing over the years, with buildings and streets disappearing and others being constructed as you watch.

Of course there’s an agenda – it’s produced for English Heritage who are keen to demonstrate how awful the capital would look if conservationists hadn’t rushed in to save its historic buildings. The publicity for the exhibition vaunts its use of “the latest digital technology” including “Augmented Reality” on iPads and something called Pigeon-Sim, which allows you to take “an interactive flight through a 3D photorealistic model of the city”, getting a bird’s-eye view of all the historic buildings that have been saved for future generations.

So, what do we take from this? History = good; high-tech history = even better? Then again, who needs actual historic buildings and pilgrimages if we can fly through their reconstructions like a bird and see the layers of the past peeling away beneath us – not to mention all the futures that might have been? Did someone mention simulacra? Worth going on either or both of these outings to rub up against the contradictions and see if there’s something to learn, I reckon.

Almost Lost is at Wellington Arch until 2 Feb. You can walk the Two Saints Way at any time (weather permitting); some suggestions for planning an itinerary are here.

Debbie Kent

sites we like

UK Urban Exploration

UK Urban Exploration documents urban decay in the UK with love and at some risk. The site has the following disclaimer:

The places you will see in the pictures we have taken are dangerous and should not be entered under any circumstances, UkUrbEx takes no responsibility for any harm you may come to if you decide to enter.

– But the atmosphere is more of melancholy beauty than macho daring.

UK Urban Exploration belongs to a group based in Birmingham but it roams all over the UK. However,  the coverage of West Midlands sites such as the Longbridge tunnels or the Central TV studios is particularly fascinating.

Image from The Hoarders House, Droitwich at ukurbex.co.uk

Surveying the territory: part one

One of the inspirations for The Demolition Project was a 1946 story by Jorge Luis Borges called On Exactitude in Science. I thought writing something about it would be a good way to introduce the project, but then I re-read the story and rolled it around my brain for a while, and I’ve realised it’s far more complex and slippery than I first thought…

One of the inspirations for The Demolition Project was a 1946 story by Jorge Luis Borges called On Exactitude in Science (English version here; Spanish original here).

I thought writing something about the story, or about Borges in general, would be a good way to introduce the project, which is a continuing exploration of maps and the city and people’s imaginative relationships with them. But then I re-read the story and rolled it around my brain for a while, and I’ve realised it’s far more complex and slippery than I first thought. Maybe The Demolition Project is too; hopefully we’ll find out more about that in the year ahead.

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The story – I’m going to call it On Exactitude for short – tells of an empire with a sophisticated college of cartographers. These cartographers make increasingly large and detailed maps of the empire’s territory, until they finally make a map that is as big as the empire itself and covers the whole of it. Later generations find the map too awkward to use and let it decay until there are only a few tattered bits and pieces left in remote places. The brief tale is presented as a fragment of an old history book, thus avoiding the need for a tidy ending (or a neat opening), but it nevertheless has a sense of completeness.

On Exactitude itself is just a paragraph long – barely longer than this summary – and it feels a little like a fable or parable, and also like a shaggy-dog story, without really falling under any of these definitions. The central idea wasn’t original at the time – fifty years earlier, Lewis Carroll included a map the same size as a country in his novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. But in Borges’ version there is no enfolding narrative: this paradoxical map and its useless perfection is the heart of the tale. Importantly, though, it’s framed by the contrivance that it is a fragment of a long-forgotten history, echoing the fragments of long-forgotten map with which the story ends. And the title is also part of the frame (a frame around a frame?), telling us that it’s not a quirky fiction but has a larger message about the real world. Which is probably as reliable as any other assertion made by the author.

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The image in the story does not just take to extremes the difficulties experienced by anyone who’s grappled with a large roadmap in a small car; it pushes far, far beyond that, over the border of the everyday world into the realm of the absurd. It lacks things that many readers expect in a story – detail, character, plot development, psychological realism. But its sparseness appeals to those who like playing with ideas. A few quick clicks through Wikipedia will let you freefall from On Exactitude to some big ideas in philosophy: Alfred Korzybski’s phrase, “the map is not the territory” (ie our models of reality are not the same as reality); Bonini’s paradox (the more complete the model of a complex system is, the harder it is to understand) and Baudrillard’s idea of simulacra (it’s reality that has fallen into disuse and we are actually living in the map – a copy of something that doesn’t exist).

With its image of an empire-sized map, On Exactitude conveys just enough information to tease out the reader’s imagination, goading us to make our own assumptions, draw our own connections and fill in the gaps with memory and speculation. In contrast, the map described holds too much information: the cartographers draw up ever-larger maps in order to include more and more detail – or at least that’s what the title suggests. When they include as much information as the territory itself the giant map becomes useless to travellers, town planners, invaders, or most of the other people who need maps, who would effectively have to walk around an area as big as the underlying territory to find out what they need to know. And the more closely you scrutinise the image, the more delicate and fragmented it appears.

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Alisa and myself tried to make and use a 1:1 scale map in a piece we made with Nauen Park and Li Yeun Jing called Invisible Territory. For part of this work, Alisa photographed the pavement of a small walled garden and printed out the entire pavement at 1cm:1cm in a series of photos; I then had to put them together again on site, matching each photo to the piece of pavement it showed (the pictures here are from that piece). Passers-by asked me what on earth I was doing and some of them understood straight away that it was an impossible task, as the environment had already changed since the pictures were taken only a week earlier – at this level of detail, leaves, rain, footprints etc had altered the landscape. Plus the photos were blowing away, getting wet and being trodden on.

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This made me think properly about the (im)possibility of a physical map existing in the world of On Exactitude. There’s little to indicate how this map covers the empire – nothing to suggest, for example, that it is carried on supports or suspended from ropes above the ground. There’s nothing to tell you what it’s made of, except that the map falls to pieces through neglect, implying that it is not infinitely durable – although by the end, animals and beggars use the remnants for shelter, so it can’t be all that fragile either. Our photographs showed only the surface of the ground up to a level of a few centimetres – how would a 2D map show objects above the surface, such as trees and buildings? Does the map cover rooftops, and if so does it leave out sheer vertical surfaces like walls? Does it curve along with contours of hills and valleys? What happens to the map in the area of lakes and rivers? And if it’s permanently in place as a sort of carpet across the empire, what do farmers do with crops and grazing animals? I started imagining the map was made of a sort of porous paper that grass could grow through…

This level of ridiculously literal questioning makes the absurdity of Borges’ story even sharper, and all these questions and more are hiding within its bare bones. Like the Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. Could a map like the one described in On Exactitude be a map at all – and does it help us think about what a map is? At what size does a map stop being a map?

Photographs: Debbie Kent/Alisa Oleva except b/w photo, François Correia

Part two follows soon, in which some of this might start to make sense