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Digital Drifting

The streets look how I remember them but everything has come to a standstill.
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Time itself has stopped.
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Crystallised.
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Space and time have always been inseparable, but here the whole network of streets has petrified. Space captured in a single moment of time, though on closer inspection it’s not a single moment, it’s a patchwork of distinct isolated moments, stitched into a continuum from noncontiguous shattered fragments.
Are these the moments the streets ceased to exist? The moment just before a great flash of blinding light sweeps away everything in its path. SERVER CRASH, POWER OUTAGE, TERRORIST ATTACK. I hover above this final moment. Looking down on the world as it was. From this scopic perspective I am a god but I cannot resist descending. I join the ghosts, I walk amongst them, stare for far too long at their blurred faces, look for signs of recognition, someone I know. What sort of world do I inhabit when the faces of its residents have been obscured, leached of detail? I spot a familiar outline riding a bicycle. Instant recognition but their deformed features make me feel uneasy. I travel down streets I will never actually visit in lumbering blurs of acceleration, anticipating the next scene to emerge from the slow blocky fog as the screen renders into focus. The streets are bathed in an eternal sunlight. I can feel its heat penetrating my screen, forcing a hallucinatory pink hue onto my peripheral vision. I look at buildings I will never enter, stare at people I will never speak to. Two People Talking Behind A Wall. A secret liaison documented for any jealous lover to track down. Who needs the NSA, FBI, MI5? I remember Robin Bale, a friend of mine, once recounting how he had shown his father Street View. He described how he spent an evening scrolling up and down Ashford high street, ‘we knew that my mum, who had only died a month ago, used to walk here every day to get the papers and fresh bread … So we were looking for that digital smear… we were looking for that ghost.’ . How many others have traversed the virtual streets looking for ghosts? Hoping for a last glimpse, the possibility of one last meeting, a final good bye. I contemplate the possibility of the emergence of a street view cult of remembrance. I look up into the sky. The sun is still shining, COPYWRITE GOOGLE.

 

Stolen Time

In recent months I have become what you could describe as a Cyberflâneur. Escaping the prison of my desk-bound workplace by indulging in daily digital drifts. My drifts take place not in the streets but in the distorted, glitchie and copywritten representation of urban life that is Google Street View. Unlike the flâneurs of 19th century Paris, I am neither a dandy nor a man of leisure. My drifts are an act of theft, of subversion and escape. I steal time back from a system that enslaves me to work for poverty wages in what has become one of the most expensive cities on Earth, London. Condemned to confining my body to the same two metre squared space day after day, repeating the same banal digital tasks. Repetitive data entry causes permanent strain in my right wrist and shoulder. My back is contorted, a continual source of discomfort. My mind is dull, a permanent haze of depression hangs thick throughout the office. This is not some personal affliction; it is a collective flattening of mood than can be sensed as you enter the four digit security code that grants access. While you may initially attempt to protect yourself from the melancholy, it seeps into your very being. This is the emergent affect that arises from an open plan design within which the openness and visibility is used as a form of discipline. Office workers have become adept at covering their mental wanderings. The shift from Facebook, online shopping or some other distraction to a work related screen can be achieved in a blink. My distraction, my escape, has become the digital drift.

Office Archipelago

red screen

Boredom. Eight and a half hours each day, forty two and a half hours each week. Over one hundred and seventy hours per month. God knows how many hours year after year I have sat on the same brown checked office chair with its incomprehensible collection of levers that, however you adjust them, never make it comfortable. Confined to the same two metre squared corner of a dull office with white walls, a grey short pile carpet with, by now, its own scuff marks pointing to the correct placement of the chair wheels. Open plan. Light blue, grey, and yellowed veneer. Each desk separated from the next by a pale blue screen, clusters of three desks form islands within the larger office archipelago. Eyes becoming sticky, have you ever noticed that you don’t blink as often when looking into a computer monitor? Carpal Tunnels resting on the grain of the yellowed veneer. A windup toy car, the best present from last year’s Christmas party cracker and a children’s felt tip drawing attempt to add some personality to this lifeless environment. This is an open plan office but any chance of relieving the boredom by chatting to workmates is quashed by the foul atmosphere created by the overbearing, micromanaging supervisor who patrols the office like a prison screw. We have been unionising, there’s talk of a collective grievance, but this all has to be kept quiet for now. No one has the confidence to be open yet and it looks like the union official could sell us out. They want individual cases rather than a collective approach. In the current climate of precarious work, no one in this office has the confidence to take an individual grievance.

Hand Job Under a Manchester Underpass

The first time I experienced Street View it registered as a shock. The type of shock that is rare for someone who has lived in a large city for a long time. Its arrival appeared with a generalised anxiety. It initially awoke collective fears about privacy. Newspaper articles debated questions as banal as; could it be used by criminals to plan robberies? Can the cameras see into my house? Will I be caught in an embarrassing act like the famous examples of the people photographed leaving a sex shop, vomiting in the street, being arrested or being given a hand job under a Manchester underpass?

I was instantly captivated by Street View and its hyper-real parallel universe. I hoped the privacy lobby wouldn’t turn Street View into a morally sanitised ideal representation of the streets. Street View would loose its seduction if the possibility of stumbling across the seedier sides of urban life were airbrushed away, the moral brigade finally getting to recreate the city as they would like it to be rather than how it is. Questions of morality and privacy seem to miss the fundamental essence of the shock. On experiencing Street View I intuitively recognised a more fundamental process coming into being. Street View represented the first real attempt of the digital to breach its own boundaries. Mapping a territory is well known to be a prelude to colonisation, but no colonial power ever documented a territory to the level Google has mapped the physical world. Google maps, GPS, and Street View combine to form an abstraction of the physical world. The would-be digital colonists of the physical have taken radical geography seriously. They have read de Certeau, and paid attention to mapping both the totalizing overview and the view from street level. Cartesian mapping is employed to enable social tagging.

Spectral Vision

Looking from the street you can see the small white flowers of the overgrown potato vine whose years of interlocking growth provide the garden with shelter from the constant flow of traffic. Curious as to how much you can see inside the house I zoom, directing the focus on the downstairs window. Then stop. A strange physical sensation passes through my body in advance of any interpretation of what I have registered. The feeling is equivalent to being startled, but somehow different, a strange coldness that passes through the body but contains the prickly heat of irrational fear. I can make out the faint figure of a person in the grainy and pixelated image of the window, but not any of the people I expected. This is my own home yet the figure appears as a pale elderly reflection in the glass. A thousand cheap horror movie tricks have conditioned my response to this type of image. I recover from the initial recoil and study the image closer. The underlying compression algorithm is exposed by the magnification. The integrity of the image is at the point of impressionistic disintegration into geometric abstraction. I’m sure that the occultist Helena Blavatsky would have appreciated the geometric revelation thinly disguised behind the naturalistic representation of the world. I become aware of familiarity within the weak outline of the figure. A sensation I associate more with touch than sight. My conscious mind lags my body in its recognition, too distracted by irrationalism. Both the bodily sensations of knowing and my conscious thoughts start to coalesce into recognition. Feelings form into images only to form a name at the end of the process. This is Jenny, my partner’s 91 year old mother. Someone I know well but who seldom visits our house. A rare visit, a fleeting moment, has been captured and stands as a spectral representative for all the moments of this house.

Indelible Psychic Grooves

It is strange how, given the possibilities of endless exploration of the world, my first tendency is to visit the places I am already integrally tied. I do not explore unpronounceable towns in far off countries; I first head for my own home, my workplace and the routes that my repetitive daily routines demand I travel. I virtually follow the indelible psychic grooves I have already inscribed into the concrete of the city. Why follow these paths in virtual space? Is it possible I desire to find evidence, proof of my own existence? Is it the urge to witness myself from the anterior as others do but is always denied me? Is it the nostalgic urge to invoke past memories, reactivating them through the recollection of place? I am always drawn first to the spaces I currently inhabit, then to the spaces of my past, back to childhood and my teenage haunts. Aitkin Road, Meadow View, the Sung Ying Chinese takeaway and Robin Rix’s shop, down Highthorne road to the train bridge which used to list all the scabs from the strike in thick white paint next to a hangman’s noose, then along Glasshouse Road to what is left of Kinhurst Colliery, over to Swinton Comprehensive School, the Patios Estate, down Goldensmithies Road, a visit to the infamous Denman Road and to the former site of Manvers Main, the pit where my granddad worked as a miner for most of his life and the sight of one of the ignition sparks of the 1984-85 miners strike.

NEVER FORGET NEVER FORGIVE

My own most vivid memory of the 1984-85 miners strike is being fourteen and hanging around with a bunch of mates, the usual reprobates, outside Robin Rix’s corner shop, with its John Bull logo complete with Union Jack waistcoat emblazoned across the window. There were about ten or eleven of us varying in age from about 12 to 16, mainly boys, but with a few older girls. There was never much to do in Kilnhurst, so we would just hang about outside the shops hoping someone would come up with a Good Idea. Preferably that didn’t involve glue or Briwax. David’s older brother had just got taken to hospital with some sort of glue residue in his lungs. That night Alan, whose Dad was on strike, had been given some homemade Nunchucks for his birthday and this lifted the boredom. The yellow light emanating from the Shung Ying takeaway seemed to make a perfect exotic location with its red plastic lanterns and stylised oriental writing in yellow and gold. Every one was taking turns pretending to be Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. I was still waiting my turn when three police riot vans came at speed down the hill that leads past us and into the village, grills down and blue lights flashing. These were not local police, these were the MET and they did this sort of stuff just to intimidate the village, but tonight they came straight for us. Driving their vans up onto the pavement forming a semi-circle of blinding bright lights. Half the group legged it behind Robin Rix’s and down onto the railway banking to hide. I stayed, probably paralysed by fear, while Alan and some of the older kids started gobbing off.

PIG.

PIG.

PIG…SCUM.

The Police jumped out of their vans wearing helmets with visors covering their faces. It was the first time I had ever seen police look like this. They lined us up against the van, stole Alan’s Nunchucks and threatened us, ‘This village is now under a curfew. If we see any gatherings of more than six people after nine pm we are going to arrest them’. I have never found out if they actually had this power, I suspect they were lying, just another part of their psychological warfare against pit villages. Kilnhurst colliery was shutdown not long after the strike. The pit wheel is half buried in St Thomas’s church yard accompanied by a gravestone, but the epitaph most often recited in these villages is: NEVER FORGET NEVER FORGIVE.

Cinematic Return to the Point of Trauma

MineCraft - Manvers twin headgear

My first experiments with digital drifting were solitary, escapist, acts of revenge. Stealing back time I was begrudgingly in the process of selling. Recent digital drifts have become collective, a form of research for a future Communism. The solitary drift encourages flights of fantasy or the internal embellishment of personal memories, a pro active form of nostalgia that allows us to rewrite our own history in the manner that our present predicament would prefer. The collective drift is, as Guy Debord noted, more objective. It develops a dynamic of its own. Directions and points of interest emerge from the varied interests of the group. Aspects that would be missed in a solo drift are brought into relief.

As I drift the former Manvers Main complex, I’m situated in Hackney, Google Street View projected on a large screen. Friends drinking green bottles of Stella Artois and chatting, Robin Bale is rolling a cigarette, Laura Oldfield Ford is time travelling back to Denman Road circa 1993, Richard Barnbrook, the advocate of cybernetic communism, has brought his son Arty who is currently being indoctrinated into the cult of Minecraft, a cybernetic cresh has been established as deep rumbles from Alistair McClymont’s home made bass cabs provide a soundtrack of vibrating glass window panes. We are in search of the Manvers Main complex. A complex of mines, linked underground that played a key role in the start of the 1984-5 strike. It was in Manvers’s offices that George Hayes, the South Yorkshire NCB director informed NUM officials of the plan to close Cortonwood Colliery, triggering Yorkshire miners to walk out.

Manvers dominated the landscape. Its presence was insistent, with its huge spoil heaps fed by iron skips suspended from elevated cableways, fires burning in blackened coke ovens, overhead gantries and walkways, huge brick and steel buildings, railway sidings lined with full and empty coal trucks, its signature twin headgears that supported the hoists used to transport workers and materials in and out of the underground mine shafts. The weight and scale of the place dominated your vision but also stained the sky with a constant stream of noxious smoke from the towering chimneystacks.

Recently there’s been a cinematic return to the point of trauma. Two recent films about the miners strike are currently in the cinema, Pride and Still the Enemy Within. Our collective imagination cannot move beyond the strike. We repetitively return to this frozen moment, a psychological fissure that compels us to return in search of a path to the future. But this path cannot be found through a return it must be formed through a REPEAT. Not a flaccid recreation, this remains a copy, further entrenching the trauma. A REPEAT enacts the intensities of the event in its present form, breaking the cycle of return forever.

SUPPORT THE ORGREAVE TRUTH AND JUSTICE CAMPAIGN.

The Street View landscape being projected is at odds with the cinematic imagination. I do not know this place! It could be anywhere and nowhere. I track down the original location of one of Manvers twin headgears. One of the original pit wheels is half buried in manicured grass. The site of the mine itself has been drowned, flooded and rebranded as Manvers lake. Street View has its limitations, our view is restricted to the roads, I switch to satellite view and look down on the whole area. A tonsil like jetty of grass stretches into the deflated kidney shaped lake with a path leading to what on first appearances looks like a crop circle. On finer magnification this turns out to be some form of regeneration land art, a monument to the Town of Wath. From the surveilling eye of the satellite we can trace scars in the landscape. A spectral map of former Manvers buildings made visible through disturbance in the vegetation. We are tracing the oblong scares on the earth, but our conversation is tracing alternative possibilities, alter histories and future routes. Manvers lake includes a RSPB reserve and was originally intended to be developed into a country park but has since been sold off for development by TCN UK and is now branded as the Waterfront Development, a 285 acre private redevelopment that includes a boat club, Golf Course and is currently advertising plots for leisure, retail, residential and a range of office and industrial units. Conservation exploited as a method of increasing land values for private developers.

Denman Road

Concrete blocks mark out its absence. Oblong spaces of decaying tarmac surrounded by low crumbling red brick walls, car parking spaces stolen from the surrounding scrub grass, derelict concrete stairs that no longer lead anywhere, large stone boulders placed along the road to stop fly tippers, these are the only reminders of the Denman Road Estate. A fitting legacy to the FUCKED generation who inhabited the now totally demolished flats that used to line Denman Road in the 1990’s. The pits that made up the Manvers Main complex; Manvers Main, Wath Main, Kilnhurst Colliery, were all closed in 1988 only three years after the strike. By the end of the 80’s the generations leaving school, my generation, had nothing, no prospect of a job, no hope and no future. Punk created an aesthetic around No Future we had no choice! Stuck in the middle of nowhere, with all the anger of the miners strike, hatred of the police, no workplace, no union organisation and no way out. The pressure cooker of long term unemployment and boredom, combined with drug and alcohol abuse, fused into an angry collectivist counter culture and Denman Road was one of its centres. There were parallels between Denman Road and the large squatted streets in London such as Ellingfort Road and London Lane and there were influences from the traveller scene. Thatcher had used the same tactics against the convoys at the Battle of the Beanfield as she had against the miners, but there were also differences. The Denman Road scene was fiercely working class, no one could afford a converted bus to live in and why squat when you could still get a council flat? The hippy pacifism of the peace convoys was rejected in favour of a brand of uncompromising CLASS WAR, which manifested itself both locally in campaigns against a proposed toxic waste dump and keeping the far right violently in check, and nationally in the Poll Tax Riot. The street had a constant stench of weed. Rumour had it that skunk was being grown under sodium lights by ex miners in the old mine shafts. Walking down the street you were accompanied by a soundtrack that would shift from flat to flat, moving from hardcore techno, acid house, to anarcho punk and dub.

The Denman Estate became notorious for its drugs and lawlessness, but this is not enough to explain its complete disappearance. In many ways Denman was just a prelude to the sacrificed estates that can be found all over England. What marked Denman out was cultural. A creative autodidactic culture existed here, kids who had been thrown out of school learned about politics through a practical DIY scavenger culture of making do and making it yourself. Denman was an autonomous zone and a signal of a nascent politics coming into being. Denman was the edge of civilization, the final strip of housing before you entered the post apocalyptic poisoned waste lands that Manvers had become. In its 90’s dereliction Manvers was an overpowering site, reports at the time suggested that the site was the largest area of contaminated and derelict land in Western Europe. The Denman Estate housed the children of this poisoned wasteland and in this marginal outpost traditional social structures were being reconfigured. A tribalism was emerging, one that refused hierarchical structures but had its key figures, organisers, musicians, working class intellectuals, gurus and dealers. It rejected consumerist festivals in favour of a cyclic calendar of annual sacred festivals and nomadic meeting points. It ridiculed religion whilst developing a materialist worship of the Psilocybin mushroom, harvested annually from much guarded sites. Time became cyclic. Progress meant nothing; you have to have a belief in a future to believe in progress. A cult of environmentalism was emerging and who could argue with those who had been suckled on the poisoned breath of Manvers Main’s billowing smoke stacks and abandoned to inherit their ruins. This was a savage community, but one with a strict morality. Testing on animals would be vehemently condemned, but dropping an acid tab in someone’s drink would be a laugh. Informal communication structures emerged. Direct action to shut down the BNP’s Welling bookshop was organised by leaving flyers for distribution with the main dealers, key nodes in the communitie’s network. I felt for a while that capitalism might be undermined by an intensification of the counter structures of this emergent underclass. In retrospect Denman Road represented the start of a wider shift in far left politics, a retreat from economics and a turn towards culture. Readers of continental philosophy cite the defeat of the May 68 movement as a point of rupture, the shift from modernism to post-modernism, but this rupture was uneven and spatial. It takes a long time to dismantle a Nation’s industrial base, the huge swathes of plant and machine that forged our landscape and the communities that had grown up alongside them could not easily be destroyed. It was only in the defeat of the Miner’s Strike that the rupture finally fractures the industrial north. And it was those living in the edgelands who most intuitively felt this seismic quake that shattered both space and time.

Manvers does not exist!

MANVERS - BROOKFIELD WAY

We hit upon a massive structure, the sheer size of it could rival Manvers Main in its heyday. An enormous expanse of grey corrugated metal rises into the sky forming an acute angle as perspective sends our eyes hurtling forward along the immaculately straight Brookfields Way. This is an impressive blank, a minimalist vista of grey vertical lines broken by a perfectly angular green strip of manicured privet bushes and grass. Equally spaced floodlights only occasionally break the riveted lines that form its walls. There is no indication of what this immense place houses, why it is here, what its function is. Manvers Main was incapable of maintaining the separation between inside and outside, with its constant frenetic activity refusing to be bound and hidden, men and machines transported into and out of the earth, skips of slag and waste drawn from below and exposed in man made mountains, train carriages shifting materials to and fro, and that constant smoke. Manvers exposed its inner operations in a flamboyant display of exuberance, but this structure hides secrets. There are no traces of the workers, not even a fag packet dropped on the way to work. No one walks this pristine pavement. The inner operations, of this anonymous structure, are hidden from inquisitive eyes. Its huge expanse of zero visual stimuli is strangely enjoyable when contrasted with the usual constant bombardment of spectacular images. We continue down the street, mouse clicks and blurred renderings, until we arrive at a high, yet open, black gate. Ahead we can see a car park and another identical corrugated grey structure, but we cannot proceed further. A large sign at the gates warns, ‘Private Road Authorised Vehicles Only’, another less significant sign contains the NEXT logo, this is the only clue provided to the purpose and operation of this vast secretive area with its full car park and two imposing buildings.

Heading back along Brookfields Way we pass another large corrugated structure, but this one is less shy. Mid blue and grey, running its full length are two stores of glass windows looking proudly out onto the street and shouldering a pair of oversized Maplin logos at each end. The drift continues, faceless corrugated structure after faceless corrugated structure. There is a uniformity that starts to render these imposing buildings invisible. A repetitive colour scheme of greys, light and mid blues desensitise you from scale. LOGISTICS. This is the camouflaged STUFF of the falsely imagined immaterial economy. The hidden back end of so much consumer noise; billboards, radio and TV advertising, website banners, online shopping and the spectacular glass dome of the Medowhall out of town shopping centre.

The mysterious secrecy has a purpose, this blank concealment is important, here the goods hidden inside these oversized warehouses remain just STUFF, mountains of STUFF, that hasn’t yet been applied with the magic that will render them into admirable fetishes ready for consumption. There’s a danger. In this gap between production and consumption these large storages of goods can be seen for what they are. Simply STUFF. And questions may be asked as to why all this STUFF cannot just be taken and used.

Street View respects private property and drifting this territory exposes this as its blind spot. The distinction between public roads and private roads produces sudden unexpected invisible boundaries. We are repeatedly stranded at the entrance to a set of roads leading to buildings and structures we cannot reach. In map view we can see row after row of uniformly straight roads, each accessed via spokes radiating from a collection of central roundabouts, but our access to these zones are permanently barred. Sometimes there are visible boundaries, gates or barriers, but mostly just a simple road sign is all that is required to abruptly stop us in our tracks. This restricts our investigation of these sites but in doing so exposes the scale of privatisation of this former nationalised and publicly owned landscape.

White clad with an overhanging arched roof and two banks of green tinted windows separated by a central column, this building stands out against its neighbours. This is one of the few buildings within the restricted zones that we can still clearly see from the street. A tall mast rises above it like a watchtower. Banks of communication equipment, circular dishes and long oblong white masts are clustered together by a triangular scaffold and suspended in the sky. The security is overt. CCTV cameras stand guard on raised poles at the entrance. A high mesh fence toped with razor wire surrounds the site. Some form of double security system is used at the entrance and a yellow sign warns, YOU ARE ON CCTV. Cameras are visibly mounted on each corner of the building and these are reinforced by heavy duty round horn public address speakers. This building suffers from paranoia, but, unlike the secretive NEXT building, the workers here are visible. A bus shelter like structure has been provided at the rear of the building and it is rammed with smoking workers, litter collecting at the foot of the security fence behind them. As I zoom a strange glitch occurs. In a single movement we time shift. A white blossom tree, previously barely noticeable, suddenly expands to obscure our view, sensing our presence the blossom is summoned into action to cloak the shelter with at least twelve months extra growth. Resting above the buildings central column is a corporate logo. Two overlapping squares, one yellow, one blue, intersect to create a third smaller green square, an angular representation of set theory. The logo is accompanied by the letters tsc in some variation of the Times New Roman font. Tsc operates call centre services for corporate clients such as BT, Vodafone, sky, EE and Sainsbury’s. Tsc is owned by Webhelp and boasts that is has moved beyond the call centre and also offers internet based services such as social media monitoring and analysis. Tsc is one of a number of call centres, including Ventura and T-Mobile, who have set up operations at Manvers.

Another grey and mid blue corrugated structure, two stores of glass windows run its full length, identical to the Maplin building, except for a cheap printed vinyl sign, Garnett Dickinson Publishing. Parked at its entrance is a converted trailer. Glossy black paintwork with gold lettering that reads, ‘Lenny’s Hot Jacket Potatoes and Pasta’ and is accompanied by a gold cartoon of a potato with arms and legs wearing a chef’s hat. A serving window has been cut into the front and we can see a selection of bright sauce bottles on the counter. A man wearing a blue catering hat and tabard, probably Lenny, is leaning into a white van parked next to the trailer. There is something significant about Lenny’s trailer. It stands out in this carefully ordered landscape. He has found a temporary gap in this development. A small space of land awaiting development and he has occupied it with the only accessible place to buy a hot drink and something to eat we have witnessed on the drift. He is an opportunist, parasiting this territory, but this trailer adds some warmth to the cold anonymous greys and blues that surround him. We are also finding gaps, ways to occupy the cold, static images presented by Street View. We have no ability to alter these images, no opportunity to change or intervene in them, but we occupy these images with stories, memories, speculative theories and discussions. Spaces we have only viewed on Street View become locations we know, significant sites have emerged, inaccessible zones have become mysterious, vanished estates remembered and steps taken to move beyond the cinematic desire to return to the point of trauma.

MANVERS DOES NOT EXIST