This is a bat walk with a difference, a search not just for hidden urban bats, but also data systems that govern and record change in the city. All are welcome!
Bats are common in London, but their presence often goes unnoticed by local people. They roost in attics, trees, between roof tiles, and forage for insects in parks, gardens and waterways. Like the city’s other inhabitants they are vulnerable to the churn of urban development – for bats, this could involve the demolition of buildings they roost in, changes to features they navigate by, or introduction of lighting that they might find deeply unpleasant. Bats are protected by law, and so the presence of bats can in turn affect urban development, though the protection offered is not always adequate.
Just as bats are hidden, the systems, decisions, and underlying forces that reshape our city are rare to see. These benefit some, leading to significant profits for developers and benefits for some communities, whereas for others they could mean the loss of their homes or amenities on which they depend. So as we search for bats, we’ll also start to investigate the systems and processes that affect all the city’s inhabitants, albeit in very different ways.
How will we do this? Together we will explore the local area using a combination of bat detectors and specially designed “datasniffers”. The bat detectors make audible the high frequency calls bats use to echolocate. The datasniffers make audible records from London planning databases, giving us hints of how the city has changed and how it is going to change. By exploring these two different, yet intertwined, phenomena, the hope is to spark conversation about how and why the area is changing, the effects on humans, bats and others, and how we might like things to be different.
About Nightsniffing Nightsniffing is a creative research project, by Cliff Hammett, that seeks to reimagine urban bat walking as a way to collectively investigate the systems that shape the London and other UK cities. The project combines methods from critical making, mobile sonic art and art/science in order to engage different publics with bats, digital systems and planning procedures in novel ways. It starts from the complex relations that bats have with cities and human society, including how bats’ interests figure in the UK planning system, how bats inhabit and use the built environment and the role of bats in community alliances against development. From there, it opens out onto to consider wider systems of urban decision making, considering how decisions are made and in whose interests. Engaging with the technologies and methods that make bats perceivable, Nightsniffing stages walks and events in London that allow different conversations to emerge regarding who and what are cities are for, and how we might wish for them to function differently.
Practicalities and Accessibility All are welcome. The walk is relatively short, but as it will have several stops it will last around an hour. Please wear warm clothing. In case of moderate or heavy rain, the event will be rescheduled. Let me know if you have any access needs, and I will adapt things accordingly. If you would like to come, but can’t due to e.g. caring commitments or being unable to afford transportation, please get in touch. I have a small fund available to cover costs, so I may be able to help.
Circumstances too complicated to explain lead to me waking on Easter Sunday alone in a Travelodge on the outskirts of Milton Keynes.
A minimalist single room with eggshell blue walls, an open hanging rail for clothes, a desk supporting a kettle with a collection of individually packaged teas and coffees, and a single bed positioned to face a 65” wall mounted flat screen TV.
The windows looked out onto a Motorway intersection leaving me with no illusion; I was nowhere, marooned, with a constant flow of vehicles passing, moving between places with the vindictive aim of emphasising my predicament. Even Easter Sunday hadn’t altered the relentless flow all heading elsewhere.
Recognising that I would not be able to continue my journey until the morning I switched on the TV. A fault with the hotel’s satellite receiver had rendered all the channels blank with the exception of one that was receiving a disrupted signal.
Competing images overlaid each other: sections disintegrating into psychedelic digital interference. The channel was undecipherable in any conventional sense, yet somehow compelling.
Broken fragments of religious iconography, a cross in the centre, a close up of burning candles, the outline of a figure in ceremonial robes, features morphing in a process of RGB fractal degeneration, geometric disturbances punctured organic forms and revealed a gathered congregation.
Fragmented Images obscured the reading of a coherent totality, yet the interference reconstituted pieces into alluring sequences, producing a new whole, possibly a new religion.
A jolly earcon, Popcorn I think, distracted my attention from the screen and towards my phone. Breaking news,
‘Pakistani Taliban faction Jamaat ul-Ahrar says Christians were target of bomb that killed 72 and injured 280 in a park thronged with families… The bomber blew himself up near an entrance to Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, close to a children’s play area. The sound of the explosion was heard several kilometres away and eyewitnesses said there were big crowds in the area because of the Easter holiday’.
Religion has re-immerged as a significant political force in the era of mass digital communications. Even factions of the British working class have not been immune, with football hooligans mobilised, imagining themselves as modern day crusaders, picking up the standard of St. George, declaring themselves Infidels, or invoking the Bible to put Britain first.
Violent street armies gather in Dover to defend Christian values by closing the borders. Islam is at the forefront of the hatred, but speeches bring to the fore older antagonisms; Irish Catholics. Chants of No Surrender. A swastika daubed in blood.
The images continue to reconstitute themselves, a constant stream of becoming punctured sporadically by stuttering metallic tourettes audio outbursts.
Nostalgia is a dangerous condition when drifting alone through a territory once loved. Ghosts rise up and swirl from every step. The years of evoking and fathoming the memory can blind the vision; the present is haunted by past possibilities. Though maybe it’s in these failed possibilities and fetishised pasts that we can find alter-futures, other possibilities, alternative paths and new visions. I drift Hackney knowing my weakness, my overcharges longing for the secret freedoms this place once offered me. Yet Hackney seems a perfect place to start a drift in search of the digitally expanded city. It is in Hackney’s derelict warehouses, once temporary autonomous spaces sprayed with day-glow paint, that the media start ups eventually occupied. The 90’s squat parties, artist communities and radical politics Hackney once embodied, sowed the seeds of its own destruction. The beneficiaries of psychogeographical knowledge are the estate agents. They understand more than the radical urbanist the value of an edgy radical artistic ambience. Maybe future psychogeographers will refuse to publish their books and put their energies into the construction of a negative ambience. One that turns a territory into a hostile zone for middle England yuppies who like to disguise their privileged heritage behind a hipster beard and moustache. ‘HIPSTER, YOU FOOL NO-ONE’. Creative industries, digital Shoreditch, silicon roundabout. You are the direct decedents of the suited YUPPIES that supported Margaret Thatcher. Liberal political views find it easy to align themselves with the liberal economics that exclude all but the most wealthy.
Town Hall Square
There has always been something quiet desolate about Hackney’s Town Hall Square. A sad desperation permeates the air. It has now been nearly 20 years since our first experiments. Discovering cracks in the homogenising urges of the globalised city, cracks from which autonomous spaces could emerge and take form. Not forms laid out in advance with a 0.1 fine line pen and a ruler, or on the screen of an Apple Mac running the latest CAD program, and not the forms of spontaneous order resulting from the free unfettered reign of the market.
TREACLE PEOPLE, STICKY LIKE US. A squatted social centre whose boundaries refused to remain fixed. Bleeding, draping onto the pavement, making advances, threatening to breach Mare Street and disrupt its rational flow of traffic. Maybe if the fluro swirls radiating out from this building had reached the road they would have rushed at speed throughout the whole system like a narcotic entering a vein. WEST; Whitechapel Road, Aldgate roundabout, off into the city towards the West End. EAST; A11, A12, the Eastway, M11 link road, eventually the A406 North Circular, enclosing and surrounding the whole city. A spreading wave disrupting the dominance of the privatised motor vehicle. TREACLE PEOPLE, STICKY LIKE US! I never did understand the reference to a failed 90’s ITV children’s programme, though I have a strong intuition that I may yet discover a new vein of treacle somewhere in this abandoned mine.
DRY MOUTH, hairs standing on the back of my neck, heart palpitating, panic setting in. FLASH BACK. This was the vulnerability. The weakness I was most worried about. Slippage into romanticised psychotropic nostalgia. I squint and try to locate this former building but its location eludes me. Was it the newly sandblasted former Salvation Army building with its stone laid in 1910 by the Mayor of Hackney T.E. Young Esq B.A.F.R.A.S. that now houses Hackney Councils Human Resources and Organisational Development offices? Or has the whole building vanished? Eradicated from the collective memory. Rebuilt as the Baxter’s Court Whetherspoons. One of the few pubs in the area that still has a working class and black clientele. I decide that it must have been where the spoons now stands.
The stories of Hackneys total gentrification are over-rated. On this the radical left and the Labour dominated council collude. Buildings like the Hackney Picture House act as a distraction. Your eyes are guided to the colour washed lettering, red, violet, blue, you watch like a voyeur the affluent clientele eating and drinking through the large windows, but if you can extract your gaze from this inviting spectacle the square has not rid itself of the abject. The Hackney Gazette features a full page image of a young bearded white man with the headline, ‘the face of Hackney’. This is the face they want you to see. The true face of gentrified Hackney remains poor and black, but less visible than ever before. Where are the late night shebeens and the pubs with pool tables blaring out the latest Jamaican dancehall tunes? Only the extreme acts of being public, like the 2011 riots, have the ferocity to puncture the mediatised facade Hackney has constructed.
Black and White zebra print wheelie shopping bag, NHS walking stick with large hard rubber stopper lay prone on the marble memorial bench dedicated to the memory of Robert Levy. A 16 year old teenager, stabbed intervening to help a younger boy caught up in a gang conflict. A seated man must be in his 60’s, brown and mauve dog print baseball cap and black sunshades. A gravely laugh reveals a good nature and bad teeth as his companion arrives. A middle aged black woman with a lumbering gait. Checked jacket, black leather flat cap with braids extending from the back, black tracksuit bottoms with a white stripe meet a pair of brown leather sandals. These two occupy the space more fully than anyone else in the square. They take ownership of the space around them in a way the occupants of the large wooden tables, visible through the windows of the Hackney Picture House, could never do. The wealthy rent their small patch of table for the price of an expensive meal or a drink and understand without any explicit rules that their occupation is temporary. This couple occupy with such conviction that it would take an intervention from the police to evict them. They are here for the day.
The Hackney Picture House has had its own turf war in the process of gentrification. At the southern end of the building is a grand semi circular ‘balcony’ with neoclassical columns sheltering a set of semi circular stone steps, which lead up to the, now defunct, grand entrance of the former Hackney Library. The balcony is ornately decorated with a large stone plaque displaying an image of St Augustine’s Tower draped on either side by stone garlands of flowers and fruit. As rents rise people are displaced. This decorative entrance provided temporary shelter for a growing number of homeless people. Mattresses arrived and a small community took residence under the protective stone coat of arms. The stench and filth of human existence did not fit the image Hackney council was fostering. This wasn’t the fashion quarter, Broadway market, Dalston circus, Shoreditch. But here was a fissure in the gentrification narrative in plain view of the Town Hall and it needed to be erased. Vanished, swept away, steam cleaned, and boarded up. Battleship grey boards now deny access … Defensive architecture at its most crass.
Its now 13 years since the last stand. The intoxicated and ill conceived occupation of the town hall on the last night of the Samuel Pepys. The Samuel Pepys had been the central hub of Hackneys alternative scene. The hang out of political radicals, squatters, artists, junkies and lowlife. It functioned as an information point between different networks. The Samuel Pepys was to a whole sub-culture what Facebook has become for everyone, but without the relentless data mining, advertising and surveillance. Though it is now clear that there was surveillance in the form of the undercover police officers embedded in the activist movement. I think I once saw Mark Cassidy in there. Here you would find out when the next illegal warehouse party was happening, where to find cheap or free accommodation, listen to Hackney’s local bands and get handed flyers for the next anti-criminal Justice Bill demo or Reclaim the Streets event. I liked it out the back, up on the roof. This was Basque territory. The roof would have a permanent haze of pungent dope smoke and a mixture of Spanish and Basque voices. I was told that most of this crew were here dodging Spanish National Service and others were on the run from the Spanish authorities for their political support for the Basque National Liberation Movement. I never found out if this was true. However throughout the 90’s there was a strong link between Hackney’s alternative sub cultures and those of Bilbao, Barcelona, and Kreuzberg in Berlin. The Samuel Pepys was to the borough of Hackney what the cockroach nest was to the Baxter’s Court Wetherspoon’s kitchen. It was clear to those in the Town Hall that any attempt at regeneration would have to involve eradicating this source of resistance. The fatal blow came from an unexpected direction, the National lottery and Sir Alan Sugar in the form of a £17 million project to refurbishment Hackney Empire. The Samuel Pepys is currently an under-used popup cafe.
A freight train moves steady but persistently over the illuminated blue railway bridge that crosses the northern decline of Mare Street. The weight of the cargo can be felt even from this distance as the seemingly never ending procession of container trucks cross the bridge. MAERSK, COSCO, P&O/Nedlloyd, MAERSK, MAERSK, HAMBURG SUD, EVERGREEN LINE, HAPAG-LLOYD, P&O/Nedlloyd, MAERSK, COSCO, HAMBURG SUD, MAERSK SEALAND. The frequency of these freight trains has recently been increasing.
Like a surrealist joke, a gnome dangles from a swing tied to the ‘Disabled Badge Holders Only’ sign marking the edge of the pavement and the entrance to Wayman Court. This feels like a coded sign, like those shoes you see dangling from telephone wires in Glasgow, but somehow with a wry and somewhat psychotic sense of humour. There is pathos in this dangling figure and it creates conflicting emotions within me. It instantly makes me want to laugh, yet the sort of laughter that is tinged with a deep and heavy sorrow.
Burroughs once wrote, “I don’t spot junk neighbourhoods by the way they look, but by the feel, somewhat the same process by which a dowser locates hidden water. I am walking along and suddenly the junk in my cells moves and twitches like the dowsers wand: ‘Junk here!’”
I know the Wayman Court estate well. I have lived here a long time and have a neighbourly relationship with many of its residences. It is a small estate. One 17 story tall block which stands like a counterweight for a line of Oak trees that radiate in a carefully planted row across London Fields. Adjacent to the tall block are two low-rise blocks of maisonettes forming an L shape that encloses a carefully manicured central garden. Many of the elderly residents of this estate are the original residents who first took up residence when the estate was opened in 1959. The estate is well ordered and maintained by a residents committee straight out of JG Ballard’s imagination. A strict hierarchy exists, maintaining the ultimate power of the committee chairperson, Di , an elderly but powerful women always flanked by her vicious husband Alf. This is a ruthless dictatorship that ensures a beautifully ordered, clean, well maintained estate. Everyone knows who to contact if there is a problem and everyone knows the consequences of disagreeing with her.
As I enter the estate I am taken by an unidentified feeling of unease. There is a strange ambience perceptible. My nervous system is on high alert and my mind is drawn to that quote by Burroughs. There is nothing tangible, just a feeling, a mixture of threat and excitement. As I walk past the tower block a group of shifty characters are huddled behind the wall, waiting, with perspiring desperation. A row kicks off. A guy in a dirty denim jacket and a baseball cap holding a can of Tenants Super yells at a women sitting on a concrete step wearing clothes two sizes too small for her emaciated body. The voices are Eastern European, probably Polish or Lithuanian. I walk further into the estate and see two of the local residents, standing defiantly, eyeing up the Junkies. This is an unusual alliance. Elizabeth with her bright red died hair and Shell holding the leads of a pair of pit bull terriers. Elizabeth is what you would describe as a Cockney, must be going on 70, always immaculately turned out, hair flaming red in a 60’s film star style, still likes to get down to Bethnal Green for a drink on a Friday night, heart of gold, looks after the estates’ elderly residents, decks out her balcony in Union Jack bunting for any national occasion, Royal wedding, Jubilee or World Cup and is always the first to know when anything is happening on the estate. Shell is the tough matriarch of one of the maisonettes and Di, the chairperson of the residents committee, has repeatedly tried to obtain an ASBO to stop her kids sitting in the communal gardens drinking and smoking weed. Her front door is still boarded up after her estranged husband attempted to smash it through after been released from prison for bottling a bloke in a drunken argument. As I approach Elizabeth says, ‘The Junkies are back’, Shell joins in with a tirade about the polish couple leaving needles in the den. The den been a circular structure of trees and flowers in the centre of the communal garden, under which the younger estate kids use as a den and Shells dogs like to entertain themselves by chasing each other around and through. Whilst we stand there the dealer turns up, a tattooed hipster on a white folding bike with the arrogance of a public school boy. I don’t let on that I’ve seen him before and know he lives on one of the canal boats at the bottom of Broadway market. He looks straight through his hostile audience and caries on his trade. Less than a minute and he’s off again. ‘Why don’t you lot just fuck off back to where you came from and stop leaving your shit all over the place. We know what you’re up to, you junky pieces of shit!”, a shrill voice yells from behind us. We all turn our heads to see Courtney, Shell’s 19 year old daughter, standing at the door wearing a pink velour tracksuit. Her boyfriend, an Irish traveller with gingery blond hair, cut into a strict side parting, is stood beside her with an amused, slightly stoned look on his face. The junkies make a quick exit. I assume to find somewhere les hostile to shoot up their shit. This is spatial politics at both its most complex and base.
Ellingfort Road and London Lane in the 90’s. A brightly painted metal flower reaches out towards the sky from one of the gardens of this row of condemned Victorian terraced houses. Corrugated iron curtains hide rotting wood sash windows. The road is littered with vans in various states of rust and roadworthiness. A 60’s bus is parked under the railway arches at the end of the street. Multi-coloured fabric stretched across its windows and wood smoke drifting from a chimney cut roughly through its roof. You can enter the front door of one house and hours later find yourself on the third floor of a house halfway down the street from where you entered. Holes cut between buildings at various levels. This is a labyrinthine warren. Each room has a different ambience, but a constant pulsating, paranoid, trance inducing bass forms the dull background to the whole street. This is where many of the anarcho’s who hang around the Pepys live and where many of the after parties take place.
The collective occupants of Ellingfort Road and London Lane have proven themselves adaptable and have aged with their streets. By the end of the 90’s, sensing the end, as the council starting to wield its regeneration scrubbing brush, the occupants of Ellingfort Road and London Lane brokered a deal with the local authority to have their houses refurbished under a £2.5 million programme, transferring the ownership of the properties from the council to a housing association and guaranteeing cheap rents for the former squatters.
Walking down Ellingfort Road today it is quiet. There is the occasional pulsed sub-bass rumble of a train passing over the railway arches at the far end of the street. The vans and busses have gone, but traces of the alternative community are still present. In the refurbishment, the houses were converted into flats and ginnels created connecting the street to flights of metal stairs that run along the back wall of the houses providing access to the flats. The ginnels are gated with elaborate sun design metal work. Old habits die hard, old furniture and potentially useful finds are hoarded at various spots along the street. A set of small children’s clothes, toys and books are carefully laid out along a wall with a small hand written note, ‘Please Take’. The refurbished paintwork, now over ten years old is starting to look a little shabby. It gives the street a warmth not experienced on many of the other streets in this area.
The road surface is covered with a tarmac containing a large aggregate that emphasises a lone rectangular smooth black patch, the length of a car and a half, marking number 18 Ellingfort road. An angular warehouse with heavy metal security shutters, adjoining the Chinese cultural centre and facing the refurbished terraced houses. WARNING: Premises protected by Key security. Black scorch marks on broken granite curb stones mark the only traces of the night, in 2011, that Hackney’s myth of hermetic gentrification was shattered in a festive celebration of looting and burning. A red Mazda MX5 sports car burnt with a ferocious heat on this spot as rows of hooded and masked rioters barricaded the street with burning wheelie bins, holding the police from entering the road, whilst number 18, then a Carhartt clothing warehouse, was looted.
‘Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance’. The Situationists wrote in their 1965, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy’, as a response to the Watt’s riots. A Word document Find and Replace of this text, substituting the word ‘Watts’ for ‘Hackney’, still provides the best analysis of the 2011 riots.
I leave Ellingfort Road under the train bridge, emerging at a lockup for those large transparent blue bottles that sit upturned on water coolers in city offices. Deep blue fortified fences, topped with circular loops of razor wire, surround the compound. A high white painted wall, marking the boundary between this compound and the next, is adorned with bright blue graffiti, neat and expertly sprayed lettering spell out ACAB.
Between Saturday 6th and Thursday 11 August 2011, thousands of people rioted in several London boroughs and in cities and towns across England. The resulting chaos generated looting, arson, and mass deployment of police. Despite increasing reinforcements, the forces of order were unable to regain control of the streets. Stores were massively plundered and many were burned. Some of the fiercest rioting was experienced in the London Borough of Hackney. These events have been called the “BlackBerry riots” because of the centrality of mobile devices and social media in there organisation.
“This was not a race riot. It was a class riot.”
The Hackney rebellion was a rebellion against the commodity, against the world of the commodity in which worker-consumers are hierarchically subordinated to commodity standards. Like the young delinquents of all the advanced countries, but more radically because they are part of a class without a future, they take modern capitalist propaganda, its publicity of abundance, literally. They want to possess now all the objects shown and abstractly accessible, because they want to use them. In this way they are challenging their exchange-value, the commodity reality which molds them and marshals them to its own ends, and which has preselected everything. Through theft and gift they rediscover a use that immediately refutes the oppressive rationality of the commodity, revealing its relations and even its production to be arbitrary and unnecessary. The looting of Hackney was the most direct realisation of the distorted principle: “To each according to their false needs” — needs determined and produced by the economic system which the very act of looting rejects. But once the vaunted abundance is taken at face value and directly seized, instead of being eternally pursued in the rat-race of alienated labor and increasing unmet social needs, real desires begin to be expressed in festive celebration, in playful self-assertion, in the potlatch of destruction. People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities. They stop submitting to the arbitrary forms that distortedly reflect their real needs. The flames of Hackney consummated the system of consumption. The theft of large refrigerators by people with no electricity, or with their electricity cut off, is the best image of the lie of affluence transformed into a truth in play. Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and alteration, whatever particular form it may take. Only when it is paid for with money is it respected as an admirable fetish, as a symbol of status within the world of survival.
Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It instantly undermines the commodity as such, and it also exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialised detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed violence. What is a policeman? He is the active servant of the commodity, the man in complete submission to the commodity, whose job is to ensure that a given product of human labor remains a commodity, with the magical property of having to be paid for, instead of becoming a mere refrigerator or TV — a passive, inanimate object, subject to anyone who comes along to make use of it. In rejecting the humiliation of being subject to police, they are at the same time rejecting the humiliation of being subject to commodities.
A revolt against the spectacle — even if limited to a single district such as Hackney — calls everything into question because it is a human protest against a dehumanised life, a protest of real individuals against their separation from a community that could fulfil their true human and social nature and transcend the spectacle.
Sandstone paving slabs thread with a seam of rust on wet days give the impression the street is literally paved with gold. These must be the most expensive paving stones in the borough.
Broadway Market. Pages of printing ink have been expended on this tiny strip of road, psychogeographers, journalists, travel writers, travel writing psychogeographical Journalists. I could spend pages writing about the transformation of this street, about the battle to save Tony’s Café, it’s occupation and reopening, the construction of a Reclaim the Streets scaffolding pyramid on the roof as a final barricade. I could write about the eviction of Spirit, the last Afro-Caribbean food store in this area, but all this has already been historicised. I could write about the less known aspects of the street, the drive by shooting at the Broadway BBQ kebab shop, or the hostility of the locals in the pre gentrified Cat and Mutton pub with its UVF graffiti in the toilets. But what actually interests me is the street now. The post-hipster, less fashionable Broadway Market, inhabited by Hackney’s second generation media workers. This has been the epicentre of Hackney’s gentrification and looking through the cafe windows I can see huddles of fashionably dressed, late twenties early thirties, mainly males, working on laptops. Transient desk space and free WIFI for the latest kickstarter company, all for the price of an Americana. Crowd sourced capitalism with a social conscience. This is my first real trace of the digitally expanded city.
La Bouche a delicatessen and café midway down the street exemplifies the mixture of socialising, networking and entrepreneurialship espoused by the denizens of Broadway Market. Faces looking out through street fronted windows, large bowls of salad on show, a long central table hosts small groups having meetings, leaning endlessly over laptops. Glowing Apple Mac logos illuminate the table, large white mugs containing lattes with elaborate leaf patterns jostling with the anodized aluminium laptops. This street is a mirage within a desert of poverty and 60’s social housing. Stepping back from La Bouche there is a punctum in the dizzying spectacle. The meeting point of Broadway market and Benjamin Close marks the border between two worlds. Looking at La Bouche from this angle the old world charm of the Victorian, faux Parisian, frontage is dwarfed by Welshpool house, a 17 storeyed 1960’s tower block. The bench style seating lining the outside of the café is mirrored by the public benches on Benjamin Close, currently occupied by a group of teenage boys, mixed black and white, but all wearing dark winter coats with their hoods high over their heads. Here two groups collide in a conspiracy of mutual indifference. Neither group acknowledges the existence of the other. Two alternate existences share the same space. The boundaries are understood by everyone but never acknowledged.
Fucking. FUCKING NOISES!
I don’t know. I don’t fucking know.
Do you know. DO YOU FUCKING KNOW.
Cos I don’t know.
Fucking. FUCKING noises!
If care in the community means anything, other than a budgetary cost cutting exercise, its exemplified by the community of outcasts who gather at the benches at the end of the cycle path that leads through London Fields to Broadway Market. A mixed and wretched community, black and white and varied in age. A tall thick set masculine white woman with cropped short greying hair and a hard face, wearing grey jogging bottoms and hoodie, sits with her arms raised like the outstretched wings of some large bird, elbows resting in the cuffs of a pair of NHS crutches. An ageing and overweight black man wearing an oversized blue raincoat with the hood covering his head and resting on the rim of a pair of large angular black wraparound sunglasses, face contorted as though he is concealing a segment of orange. A White man, probably in his forties, though it’s difficult to tell, drugs, alcohol, lack of food, and I suspect time on the streets have prematurely aged him. Hair shaven leaving long tails of unkempt and natty hair at the back, a crushed green plastic bottle of White Ace held between dermatitis inflamed hands.
These benches create a permanent space of sociality for those with drink, drugs and mental health problems. It is a space that enables the isolation of the flat, bedsit or hostel to be overcome. A meeting point to drink, get wasted and forget. Temporary self medication from the permanent cycle of return that traps the mind, crippling it, refusing to allow it to move on from some unspeakable trauma. The dark thoughts that keep you awake at night fuelling self-loathing. The voices. ‘FUCKING NOISES’, I overheard a young black man yelling to himself. Whilst there are tensions here, sudden eruptions of violent shouting, the occasional fight, you also witness tenderness, a caring for each other, even splitting cash to buy more booze.
Hoardings have been erected behind the benches. Toilets are being constructed to service the masses that come every Saturday to shop in Broadway Market’s boutiques, restaurants, and wine bars. The plywood boards have been treated with a translucent green varnish that emphasises the grain. Hovering above today’s bench dwellers, is an oblong block of opaque green paint carefully rolled to mask the still visible graffiti, ACAB. I stand and stare. There is an obvious comic reference here to Mark Rothko’s abstract expressionism. On these large boards it does produce the kind of melancholy Rothko’s paintings can inspire. But as I contemplate this accidental work, I locate the melancholy not in the abstract but in metaphor. This acronym ACAB has punctured my drift at various locations. ACAB – All Coppers Are Bastards. An antipolice slogan used by working class hooligans and football Ultras from both the far left and far right. It is a sign of working class resistance and rebellion. Contemplating the oblong of green paint, with the graffiti lettering visible only when the light hits it at a certain angle, I start to think about disappearance. I had read the stories of Hackneys gentrification. But what I have witnessed on this walk is deep entrenched poverty and desperation. The artists, squatters and anarchists have either left, moving gradually further east, or managed to do a deal like the community from Ellingfort road and London Lane; The incumbent wealthy parade Boadway market, flamboyantly sitting outside bars and restaurants, drinking expensive wines and cocktails. The alcoholics, junkies and teenage gangs have a parallel flamboyance, gathering at public benches or in huddles on estates waiting for dealers; but the shops, cafes and pubs that serviced the working class community have all gone. The means by which Hackney’s working class can be public have been erased, like the lettering in this piece of graffiti, but the community itself remains for now.
Leaving the benches, the green hoardings and the stale smell of piss that hangs in the air over this corner, I head into London Fields and the newly planted Wild Flower Meadow. I walk along one of the mud paths that form a small network through the wild flowers. The flowers are in bloom casting an array of colour. Corncockles, poppies, Japanese anemones, oxeye daisys and a mix of wild grasses, gently sway in the wind. Insects are in abundance. A wild eyed but serious man in his early 20s with an incredibly tall body, that seams to bend far too much as he walks, stops to talk to me. ‘Ey! Av you noticed there’s no bees? …But there’s loads of wasps… These flowers are been pollinated by WASPS! ..Nature is cleaver like that. Upset the balance and it finds another way’. I nod politely in agreement contemplating the disappearance of the bees. Over the summer there has been local campaigns against the use of the weedkiller glyphosate on the meadow. I feel a heavy bleakness sink within my body. Hackneys middleclass are passionate about the environment but don’t give a fuck about the economic poison currently eradicating working class people from the borough. Glyphosate cleanses the ground of undesirable flora, making space for newly planted wild flowers to bloom on this faux meadow. London is in the centre of an economic centrifugal force violently spewing the working class, immigrants and the poor out of the inner zones and into the periphery. The free market deteritorialises space uprooting and ordering territories in a reflection of its own inner dynamics. The enemy here is an invisible force active in the city. Only the symptoms are visible, the new high rise penthouses under development on the sites of recently cleared social housing, surrounded by hoardings displaying images of the future residents of the cleansed inner zone, the excessive growth of estate agents and new coffee shops and of course the hipsters with their beards and 5 pound a bowl of breakfast cereal desperately trying to mimic the already dead lives of those future residents displayed on the hoardings. Caps on housing benefit, the on going destruction of social housing and the slackening of requirement for new developments to contributions to building affordable housing are weakening any economic counter forces, but some pockets of resistance have being gathering, raising demands of No Poor Doors! No to Social Segregation!Reclaim Hackney! STOP CLASS CLEANSING!
It was only leaving this territory of ghosts, memories, and bitter class clearances, that the digitally expanded city revealed itself, if only partially, within in a coincidental alignment of moments. Heavy vibrations amplified through the riveted panels of an iron bridge, a heady exaggerated perspective of tracks and electricity cables raced towards their vanishing points, a yellow brick post war tenement block topped with transmitters and a collection of satellite dishes pointing to the sky and a man wearing an embroidered white dashiki shirt and trousers with a kufi cap, probably a recent arrival from West African judging from his gestures, tended pink flowers on the balcony below. I tried to take a photograph but the metadata reveals more than the blurred and ill composed image.
I was passing the centre of the bridge that connects platform 1 and 2 of Hackney Central overground station when my attention was grabbed by the heavy low rumbling that reverberated through my feet and deep into my body. The Iron railings had been covered with painted grey chipboard blocking my vision and forcing me to rise up onto my toes to look over the high sides of the bridge. I watched the slow movement of yet another freight train passing below. Containers with strange names and a very particular pallet of colours that have become familiar by the frequency and repetition of their passage through this area heading north from Tilbury docks or London Gateway;
Tilbury to Birmingham, Bristol, Coatbridge, Felixstowe, Leeds, Liverpool or Manchester.
London Gateway to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Coatbridge with an ad-hoc service to Bristol.
The African guy was cleaning his already spotless balcony with sharp whip like movements of a white cloth that seemed to amplify the weight of transmitters only metres above his head and emphasise the oversaturation of his pink flowers which struck me as anachronistically out of place in October. A sudden bright spark illuminated the bridge and burnt a temporarily blind spot onto my retina as the connecting strips of the pantograph arm momentarily disconnected and reconnected the Freightliner engine to the suspended power line. The ionised air and the visceral presence of the usually invisible electricity made me recall a passage from Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects in which he meditates on the relationship between a traction engine and its varied geographic environments;
‘The traction engine doesn’t simply transform electrical energy to mechanical energy; it applies electrical energy to a geographically varied world, translating it technically in response to the profile of the railway track, the varying resistance of the wind, and to the resistance provided by snow which the engine pushes ahead and shoves aside. The traction engine causes a reaction in the line that powers it, a reaction that is a translation of geographical and meteorological structure of the world’.
The freight train continued to rumble below my feet as I contemplated the invisible electrical mapping produced by the train within its connected power line, not just of the physical environment but also rendering social and economic flows. The added weight of commuters at certain times of the day moving in one direction then the other or the alterations in the power line between commuter trains and freight. Either the electrical substation or the train itself must be engineered to counter the effects of these cartographic fluctuations, but if the system could be hacked at that key point a form of rhythm analytics could be extracted revealing the invisible geographies produced in the power lines through the socio-economic and environmental rhythms of the train network.
The endless freight continued to flow below me. The physical length of these trains is impressive but can induce an overwhelming sense of monotony. My mind started to contemplate wider invisible geographies. The African man had disappeared indoors but I’m pretty sure that my mobile phone was secretly communication with the mast that is sited above his flat. My limited knowledge of the mobile phone network informs me that these masts constantly broadcast their system identification code and mobile phones are set to listen and check in, even when they are not in use.
I had a moment of epiphany. The digitally expanded city that I was searching for and had failed to locate is, just like the relationship between the train and its power cable, in part invisible. It is not accessible through the normal human sensors, only disclosing its presence through its absence. Those moments of low signal or lack of wifi connection. As I walk Hackney I have been enmeshed in an invisible geography of machine to machine communication, I have been creating invisible disturbances in a whole host of systems, casting data shadows, a personal trail of involuntary meta-data has accompanied my walk as my phone broadcasts and receives its secret messages, revealing my presences in an unseen cellular network and creating fluctuations within the electro magnetic fields that I pass through. My phone has communicated with satellites in order to log the location and altitude of my photograph and layered wifi zones have been mapped and charted, routers contacted and interrogated. It now becomes clear that the digital devices and interactions that form the tangible aspect of the digitally expanded city atop a vast invisible infrastructure. Where the Industrial revolution had transformed space through the construction of impressive physical structures the digital revolution overlays space with an invisible geography.