Fail We May, Sail We Must

I’ve been listening to old sets by Andrew Weatherall all day, mostly from his long-running show on NTS, Music’s Not For Everyone. Like a million other people, I’m still shocked by news of his death.

Weatherall’s taste in music was idiosyncratic, in the best possible sense, animated by something much larger than—and outside—the music, as evidenced by his own introductions to his show. “Greetings, sisters and brothers,” Weatherall usually began. “Welcome to the temple of gnostic sonics.” From that moment on, the bass lines were heavy, the beats repetitive, the mood as high as his own cannabinoid proclivities.

He had at least two famous tattoos: “Fail We May,” one forearm said. “Sail We Must,” replied the other. And we must.

I never even met the guy, but—tired-looking, grey-haired, unbothered—Weatherall has left the world. Here are at least 140 hours’ worth of his sets, dating back to 2014.

The Deep

[Image: Binnewater Kilns, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

While I was over in New York State last fall, reporting both the “witch houses” piece for The New Yorker and the Middletown High School piece for The Guardian, I stopped off in the town of Rosendale, enticed there by several things I noticed on Google Maps.

[Image: The Rosendale Trestle, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

First was what turned out to be a satirical reference to something called the Geo Refrigeration Crevice, which, even on its own, sounded worth a side-trip. But, in the exact same area, there were also photos of an incredible-looking railway bridge converted to a hiking path that I wanted to walk across; there were these gorgeous, ruined kilns built into the hillside; and there were supposedly huge caves.

How on Earth could I drive past all that without stopping?

[Image: Caves everywhere! Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Being—perhaps to my Instagram followers’ frustration—an avid hiker, I spent far more time there than I should have, mostly looking down into jagged crevasses that extended past the roots of trees, carpeted in fallen leaves, often hidden beneath great, shipwrecked jumbles of boulders slick with the waters of temporary streams.

I crossed the bridge and was ready to hit the road again, when I saw another site of interest on the map. I decided to walk all the way down and around to something called the Widow Jane Mine.

Having visited many mines in my life, I was expecting something like a small arched hole in the side of a hill, probably guarded with a locked gate. Instead, hiking into the woods past some sort of private home/closed mining museum, the ground still damp from rain, I found myself stunned by the unexpected appearance of these huge, moaning, jaw-like holes blasted into the Earth.

[Image: An entrance to the Widow Jane Mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

I walked inside and immediately saw the space was huge: a massive artificial cavern extending far back into the hillside. Excuse my terribly lit iPhone photos here, but these images should give you at least a cursory sense of the mine’s scale.

[Image: Inside the Widow Jane Mine; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Several things gradually became clear as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.

One, I was totally alone in there and had no artificial illumination beyond my phone, whose light was useless. Two, a great deal of the mine was flooded, meaning that the true extent of its subterranean workings was impossible to gauge; I began fantasizing about returning someday with a canoe and seeing how far back it all really goes.

[Image: Flooding inside the Widow Jane Mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

Three, there were plastic lawn chairs everywhere. And they were facing the water.

While the actual explanation for this would later turn out to be both entirely sensible and somewhat anticlimactic—the mine, it turns out, is occasionally used as a performance venue for unusual concerts and events—it was impossible not to fall into a more Lovecraftian fantasy, of people coming here to sit together in the darkness, waiting patiently for something to emerge from the smooth black waters of a flooded mine, perhaps something they themselves have invited to the surface…

[Image: Lawn chairs facing the black waters of a flooded mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

In any case, at that point I couldn’t be stopped. While trying to figure where in the world I had left my rental car, I noticed something else in Google’s satellite view of the area—some sort of abandoned factory complex in the woods—so I headed out to find it.

On the way there, still totally alone and not hiking past a single other person, there was some sort of Blair Witch house set back in the trees, collapsing under vegetation and water damage, with black yawning windows and graffiti everywhere. I believe it is this structure in the satellite pic.

[Image: A creepy, ruined house in the woods, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

Onward I continued, walking till I made it, finally, to this sprawling cement plant facility of some sort just standing there in a clearing.

[Image: Cement world; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

I wandered into the silos, looking at other people’s graffiti…

[Image: “Born to Die”—it’s hard to argue with that, although when I texted this photo to a friend he thought it said “Born to Pie,” which I suppose is even better. Photo by BLDGBLOG.]

…before continuing on again to find my car.

Then, though, one more crazy thing popped up, sort of hidden behind those kilns in the opening photo of this post.

There was a door in the middle of the forest! With a surveillance camera!

[Image: Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

It turns out this door leads down into the massive document-storage caverns of Iron Mountain located nearby, a company whose subterranean archive fever was documented in The New Yorker several years ago (albeit referring to a slightly different location of the firm). I would guess that this is the approximate location of that door.

This was confirmed for me by a man sitting alone in a public works truck back at the Binnewater Kilns parking lot, near my rental car. He was smoking a cigar and listening to the radio with his window rolled down when I walked up to the side of his truck and said, “Hey, man, what’s that door in the woods?”

Geometries of Sovereignty

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº3, Area: 100 m², Border: square, 10m side, defined with rope tied to pickaxes around a square of crushed rye, Population: 1 inhabitant, Location: 41.298691º, -3.400101º, Start: July 30, 2015, 19:15, End: July 31, 2015, 11:38,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Minimal Republics is an interesting and wonderfully titled project by artist Rubén Martín de Lucas. As Sophie Wright explains in a feature for LensCulture, each “republic” follows the same set of basic instructions: “appropriate 100 square metres of space, outline a border, and inhabit it for no more than 24 hours. From parking lots to empty agricultural crops, anonymous segments of land are transformed by these actions into what the artist describes as ‘ephemeral micro-states.’”

These minimal republics are exactly that, in other words, just geometric forms marked in some fashion on the surface of the Earth, temporarily patrolled and inhabited by a lone individual, a series of micronations that then disappear from history.

(This also raises the question of what an archaeology of performance art might look like—whether projects such as this leave permanent historical traces in the landscape. Will the location of a Martín de Lucas republic ever be archaeologically discernible in the future? If so, will whatever once happened there make any spatial or political sense?)

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº2, Area: 100 m², Population: 1 inhabitant, Border: equilateral triangle, side 15.19 m made of wooden slats assembled, Location: 40.039637º, -5.1146942º, Start: July 23, 2015, 12:21, End: July 23, 2015, 21:48,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Minimal Republics falls somewhere between theatrical performance, video installation, landscape photography, and instructional art, suggesting a kind of pop-up sovereignty available to all, given sufficient fidelity to a set of artistic-political specifications.

Like a territorial algorithm or even like a magic spell, the project promises that, if only you can follow these three simple steps, remaining inside your sovereign sigil, new political worlds can be conjured into ephemeral life.

[Image: “Minimal Republic nº8, Area: 100 m2, Border: circle of 5.64 m radius of stacked stubble, Population: 1 inhabitant, Location: 41.4152292, -3.3632866, Start: September 8, 2017, 18:41, End: September 9, 2017, 18:40,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]

Of course, Wright is also quick to emphasize that the project’s sense of the absurd is very deliberate: “Searching for locations with little appeal or resources, these ‘minimal republics’ are unlikely spots for a new nation, amping up the nonsensical gesture of Martín de Lucas’ temporary occupation.”

There are many more examples from the project over at LensCulture, as well as a longer write-up.

(Related: “The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations: An Interview with Simon Sellars.”)

Void Shaft Electricity

[Image: An engraving of mining, from Diderot’s Encyclopedia.]

A Scottish firm called Gravitricity wants to turn abandoned mine shafts into gravity-driven, underground electrical batteries. Power could be generated and stored, the Guardian reported back in late 2019, “by hoisting and dropping 12,000-ton weights—half the weight of the Statue of Liberty—down disused mine shafts.”

By timing these drops with regional energy demand, Gravitricity’s repurposed mines could act as “breakthrough underground energy-storage systems,” a company spokesperson explains in a video hosted on their site.

“Gravitricity said its system effectively stores energy by using electric winches to hoist the weights to the top of the shaft when there is plenty of renewable energy available, then dropping the weights hundreds of meters down vertical shafts to generate electricity when needed,” the Guardian continues.

[Image: From the Gravitricity website.]

In Subterranea: The Magazine for Subterranea Britannica, where I initially read about this plan, some of the proposal’s inherent design limitations are made clear. “What would be required for the Gravitricity scheme,” SubBrit suggests, “would be very deep, wide, and perhaps brick-lined shafts clear of ladderways, air ducts, cables and the like. On what sort of surface the weights might land, time and time again, is another consideration.”

Of course, this suggests that such shafts could also be deliberately designed and excavated as purpose-built battery-voids stretching down hundreds—thousands—of meters into the Earth, a not-impossible architectural undertaking. Repurposed domestic wells, using smaller weights, could also potentially work for single-home electrical generation, etc. etc.

So here’s to a new generation of proposals for how to perfect such a scheme, proposals that should be awarded bonus points if the resulting gigantic underground cylinders might also function as seismic invisibility cloaks (or “huge arrays of precisely drilled holes and trenches in the ground”).

The Spatial Politics of Geofencing

[Image: From Code of Conscience.]

Another project I meant to write about ages ago is Code of Conscience, developed by AKQA. It is “an open source software update that restricts the use of heavy-duty vehicles in protected land areas,” or what they call “a cyber shield around natural reserves.”

The basic idea is to install geofencing limits on heavy construction and logging equipment, based on “data from the United Nations’ World Database on Protected Areas, constantly updated by NGOs, governments and local communities. Using vehicle on-board GPS, the code detects when a protected area has been breached. When a machine enters a protected area, the system automatically restricts its use.”

There’s a bit more to read about the project over at AKQA, including the group’s strategy for getting the software out to global construction firms, from John Deere to Caterpillar, but one of the most interesting points of conversation for me here is simply the very idea of geofencing used as a political solution for problems that seem to exceed the capabilities of legislation. And, of course, how geofencing could be used to develop positive new tools for landscape conservation—as we see here—or much darker, nefarious techniques for political domination in the near-future.

You can easily imagine, for example, a dystopian scenario in which geofenced medical prostheses cease to operate when they cross an invisible GPS boundary into an unserviced region—perhaps as a way to protect the host company from the illegal installation of black-market, security-compromised firmware updates, but with immediate and perhaps fatal health effects on the user. Or, say, regions of a metropolis—perhaps near centers of governance or military installations—where civilian vehicles or unregistered photographic equipment of a particular resolution can no longer physically function.

Just as easily, you could imagine something like the spatial opposite of Code of Conscience, where, for example, future GPS-tagged hunting rifles only work when they are located inside permitted wilderness areas. The instant you step outside the field or forest, your gun goes dead.

In any case, you could no doubt write an entire book of short stories that consist only and entirely of such scenarios—the geofenced future of legal probation and house-arrest, for example, or dating apps that only work inside particular rooms or buildings. But one of of the most interesting things about Code of Conscience is simply how it attempts to imagine geofencing as a positive political tool, a new technique for landscape and cultural preservation both, and how the project thus joins a larger, ongoing conversation today about political geography seen through a new, technical lens.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The Electromagnetic Fortification of the Suburbs and Geofencing and Investigatory Watersheds.)

Tactical Geography

[Image: A map of the Battle of Villmanstrand (1741), via George III’s Collection of Military Maps, assembled by Yolande Hodson.)

A vast collection of old military maps has been made available online through the UK’s Royal Collection Trust, taken from the collection of King George III, thanks to the exhaustive work of Yolande Hodson. While the troop positions and tactical maneuvers they document are fascinating, the maps are also a spatial survey of building types, terrains, and urban plans, including star forts, walled villages, protected natural landscape features, from bays to river valleys, and other strategic environments.

As the blog Ian Visits explains, “Maps were an important part of George’s early life and education, and he built up a huge collection of more than 55,000 topographical, maritime and military prints, drawings, maps and charts. Upon the King’s death, his son, George IV, gave his father’s collections of topographical views and maritime charts to the British Museum (now in the British Library), but retained the military plans due to their strategic value and his own keen interest in the tactics of warfare.” The new website apparently documents a mere 3,000 of those documents.

The whole thing is searchable by conflict, which means that you can look specifically for maps related to, say, the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-59, including the Siege of Cremona (1648)—seen below—or, say, the Russo-Swedish War of 1741-43, which included the Battle of Villmanstrand (1741), the image that opens this post.

[Image: A map of the Siege of Cremona (1648), via George III’s Collection of Military Maps, assembled by Yolande Hodson.)

Perhaps even better, however, you can also click on maps by region, from North America to India to, of course, all over Europe and the Caribbean. This includes, among the thousands of examples, an incredible map from the American Revolution depicting New York City in all of its topographic glory.

[Image: Long Island, New York and Staten Island (1776), via George III’s Collection of Military Maps, assembled by Yolande Hodson.)

Indeed, as Ian Visits notes, “Highlights of the collection include two-metre-wide maps of the American War of Independence. These vast maps were probably hung on purpose-made mahogany stands in Buckingham House, enabling the King to follow the steady erosion of his hold on the American colonies.”

The collection is spectacular. The Siege of Memel (1757). The Siege of Olmütz (1758). A view of Gotha (1567). The Siege of Prague (1757). I could go on and on. The Plan of Pilau (1757). The Siege of Bangalore (1791)…

Check out the guide to the online catalog, then dive in.

(Vaguely related: Feral Cities, Indirect Streets, and Soft Fortification.)

Class Action

[Image: Still from the end of Garbage, Gangsters and Greed.]

I have a long new feature up at The Guardian this weekend that tells the story of an English teacher at Middletown High School, in upstate New York, named Fred Isseks. In the early 1990s, Isseks was given the task of instructing teenage students at the school in how to use a bunch of new video cameras the school had acquired.

To the school’s surprise—and to some administrators’ long-term political frustration—Isseks’s students quickly formed an investigative journalism unit, taking on local politicians and the New York Mafia, and producing a feature-length documentary about the illegal dumping of toxic waste in local landfills.

The resulting film, called Garbage, Gangsters and Greed, made it as far as the Clinton White House, helped turn public opinion against the landfills, leading to their closure, and helped to reinvigorate official New York State hearings, run by Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey, on the subject of organized crime families and the illegal hauling of toxic waste.

The story of the students is pretty incredible—involving death threats, threats of arrest, trespassing onto contaminated land, and more—and I was thrilled to be able to meet or speak with several of them, even to tour the old high school with Fred Isseks in tow. It is not an exaggeration to say that Isseks’s class changed the direction of those students’ lives, as many now work in environmental law or film and television. (One former student, Rachel Raimist, even has a media center named after her at the University of Minnesota.)

The whole thing really pivots on Isseks’s belief that teenagers need to be given projects of true meaning and significance, not simply assigned more tests to take. Indeed, Isseks himself later went on—while still teaching at the high school but after a final cut of the landfill documentary had been completed—to earn a Ph.D. at the European Graduate School, studying under Wolfgang Schirmacher.

His thesis would later be published under the name Media Courage: Impossible Pedagogy in an Artificial Community, and it includes a chapter that, as I describe it in the Guardian piece, advocates for “the philosophical potential of the American high school system. [Isseks’s] belief that teenagers need to be given work with genuine meaning and consequence in the world would shape his entire teaching career and, in the process, change his students’ lives.”

Of course, the rabbit hole of Mob connections to toxic waste in the United States is bottomless, and the true consequences of illegal disposal—particularly, the long-term medical and environmental effects—are yet to be fully accounted for.

I will undoubtedly come back to this topic, but, for now, check out the Guardian piece online (or in this weekend’s print edition), watch the students’ film in its entirety over at YouTube, and click through to Fred Isseks’s blog, where I first read about all of this. His long post putting the landfills into a deeper historical and geological context is superb.

(A brief note from the small-world files: my awareness of Fred Isseks came entirely through a friendly tip from my friend, Ed Keller, who had read an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG called “Terrestrial Warfare, Drowned Lands.” The “Drowned Lands” are not only the area of New York State where Ed Keller lives, but are the same region where the toxic landfills explored by Isseks and his students are all located. I owe a huge thanks to Ed for the heads up!)

Geoarchitecture

[Image: “Dolmen du Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

I’ve been enjoying looking at these photos of ancient dolmens in the French countryside, taken by Eugène Trutat, after reading about them as part of a forthcoming exhibition here in L.A. called Rude Forms Among Us.

[Image: “Dolmen de Cap del Pouech,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

“Over a span of several decades, the 19th-century photographer Eugène Trutat documented the Dolmen de Vaour,” the show’s curator, architect Anna Neimark, writes. “Three stones form the perimeter of a nearly rectangular interior; they are called orthostates. One orthostate is long, presenting a sort-of wall, while the other two are chunky and can be read as truncated columns. All three are set in from the perimeter, allowing a rather peculiar capstone to appear to float above them.”

Geology rearranged becomes architecture; the built environment is just the surface of the Earth, spatially amplified.

[Image: “Dolmen de Brillant, Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

There is an opening reception and event with Neimark tomorrow night—Friday, January 31, at 7pm—for those of you near Los Angeles.

A Process Rather Like Launching A Ship

[Image: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

I should have posted this a million years ago, but there was an interesting story last month in the Washington Post about a Canadian island being shut off from the national grid, leaving anyone there who has yet to leave almost literally stranded in the dark.

[Image: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

“On Dec. 31, the government will cut off all services to the community,” we read, “including electricity, snow removal and ferry service. Residents may keep their homes but will have to use them off-grid.”

One couple, interviewed by the paper, has chosen to stay. They have “spent more than $38,000 on solar panels, generators and other items so they can live off-grid. They’ve stockpiled goods and completed first-aid training.”

A Canadian Gothic remake of The Shining comes to mind. In fact, potential fictional storylines about winter caretakers on remote islands—whether they be science fiction or horror, about international espionage or even a medical thriller—are seemingly infinite.

[Image: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

As the article also explains, resettlement programs such as this—where the Canadian government pays for residents to move away from particularly remote, difficult-to-service areas—have “a long and controversial history in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

When the former British dominion joined Canada in 1949, Premier Joey Smallwood struggled to provide services to the 1,200 outposts that dotted the coast. In 1954, he started the first of several centralization programs that gave cash to households from villages with “no great future” to move to government-selected “growth centers.” From 1954 to 1975, roughly 28,000 people from nearly 300 remote outposts were uprooted and resettled, many of them dragging or floating their houses to their new communities.

It’s this last line—“many of them dragging or floating their houses to their new communities”—that leads to the images you see here, screen-grabs taken from a 1961 film called Moving House. “Here,” the narrator says, “moving house means just that… a process rather like launching a ship.”

[Images: From Moving House, via the Washington Post.]

The full film is embedded over at the Washington Post.

Secret Telephone Buildings

“In harmony with its residential location,” we read in a paper called “Radio Relay and Other Special Buildings,” originally published in the Spring 1950 issue of Bell Telephone Magazine, “this building serves nevertheless as a voice-frequency repeater and coaxial main station.” An empty suburban house, inhabited only by machines and spectral voices.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Transformer Houses.)

Norwegian Dream Tunnels

Almost exactly five years ago, I was in the Norwegian town of Tromsø to speak at a conference called “Future North,” part of the annual Arctic Frontiers event.

One of the most interesting parts of my visit—and I do not say this to downplay the conference, but to indicate my enthusiasm for infrastructure—was this odd bit of traffic design: to get back and forth from Tromsø to its local airport by car, you have to pass through a sprawling underground tunnel network, complete with at least one subterranean roundabout carved into the roots of the mountain, a journey that, for someone newly arrived and jet-lagged like myself, seemed surreally endless (it probably took three minutes).

At the end of the journey, though, it gets stranger: you pop out of the ground floor of an otherwise nondescript building and turn directly onto a normal, open-air town road, passing through an opening that looks like an entrance to an underground parking garage.

These images, taken from Google Street View, show that building from the Tromsø side, peering into the mountain depths within. (Here is the tunnel entrance on Google Maps.)

While we’re on the subject of Norwegian tunnels, however, it would be a mistake not to mention the Lærdal Tunnel, allegedly “the longest road tunnel in the world.”

The tunnel is so long that, to address potential adverse effects on human neurology, it includes artificial caverns lit to invoke the Homeric glow of dawn.

[Image: The Lærdal Tunnel, photo by Patrick Reijnders, via Wikipedia.]

From Wikipedia:

The design of the tunnel takes into consideration the mental strain on drivers, so the tunnel is divided into four sections, separated by three large mountain caves at 6-kilometre (3.7 mi) intervals. While the main tunnel has white lights, the caves have blue lighting with yellow lights at the fringes to give an impression of sunrise. The caves are meant to break the routine, providing a refreshing view and allowing drivers to take a short rest. The caverns are also used as turnaround points and for break areas to help lift claustrophobia during a 20-minute drive through the tunnel. In the tunnel, there is a sign on every kilometer indicating how many kilometers have already been covered, and also how many kilometers there are still to go. To keep drivers from being inattentive or falling asleep, each lane is supplied with a loud rumble strip towards the centre.

As another site mentions, “Since 1990, research has been carried out to study driver behavior in long road tunnels.” Of course, one wonders how extreme this research has gotten, perhaps suggesting a new story by Nick Arvin or J.G. Ballard. (The construction of the tunnel is also fascinating, involving lasers, GPS satellites, and computer-controlled drilling platforms.)

Tunnels that mimic sunrise, built to accommodate human neurology using artificial stars as reference points, emerging from the ground-floors of buildings in coastal towns.

Dream tunnels, perhaps just one floor beneath by your apartment, leading deep into the mountains beyond.

(If you just can’t get enough Norwegian road tunnels, check out Kiln, previously on BLDGBLOG.)