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Interview with Bradley L Garrett & Stephen Walter

Stephen Walter (left) and Bradley L Garrett behind one of Stephen's works: 'Map of Liverpool' situated in the Bluecoat Hub.

Bradley Garrett is a writer, explorer, photographer and a researcher in Geography at the University of Oxford. His research interests revolve around heritage, place, urban life, ruins and waste, ethnography and participation, spatial politics, subversion and creative methods. Bradley’s new book 'Explore Everything: Place Hacking the City', was just released by Verso.

Stephen Walter’s works is an investigation into obsessive drawing, semiotics and the phenomenon of place. Each work is an intricate world in itself; a tangle of words and symbols that make up a complex of hidden meanings and wider contradictions. Through mainly drawing, photography and printmaking, his artworks explore the meaning of objects, the glory of maps, our place in the World both as individuals and societies and touch on the potential legacy that we bequeath to future generations.

Our exhibition ‘Soft Estate: Edward Chell’ is exploring the themes of familiar yet ignored spaces, where urban and rural merge and are left forgotten; the juxtaposition of wilderness and human agency. How do you feel about these places being ignored and forgotten?

Bradley: I think abandoned places are actually a really important part of the city, in a way that we don’t really recognise. If you think about Battersea Power Station –the kind of really iconic power that that building has which is almost a contrast to the Tate modern, which is a cultural hub. A derelict building, and edgeland has a particular kind of essence that you can’t create, you can’t manufacture – that’s why I find it so interesting.

Stephen: I’m someone who brings thoughts, prejudices, humour; my own intake into spaces anyway. So those spaces, for me, are really interesting because they allow me to practically imbue my own views. John Ruskin talked about pathetic fallacy, giving them human personas and emotions to objects and landscapes, and I think something in the ruinous and the edgelands have that aspect to them, where they are very much the opposite to Liverpool One – there’s no real space for any self-exploration outside of the choice of the commodities on offer - everything is so pre-ordained.

B: The thing about edgelands is that these are spaces that can be reappropriated and reinterpreted and I think that’s partially because they are not under strict regimes of control, but it’s also because there’s less surveillance - I don’t just mean “top-down” authoritarian surveillance but also the surveillance that takes place between us when we’re in a space like a shopping mall. If someone were to deploy a picnic in a shopping mall, people would be uncomfortable with that.

S: That’s what we used to do at Brent Cross Shopping Centre which is probably one of the original malls of the UK. Everyone either bought something from M&S or brought their own sandwiches and would actually sit around the fountain, but not now – since the revamp, you don’t get that space. The architecture has basically got into it;there are no longer these playing frames: this collection of half furniture-half dinosaur models that would encourage kids to climb around them and these kinds of communal spaces.Now it’s completely sanitized and of course there isn’t really a space other than being able to walk from one shop to the other.

B: With edgelands, we need to be careful not to bring these notions into other spaces; it’s important not to disrupt these spaces in whatever ways we can. It’s important not to fetishize the edgelands as some unique realm of opportunity. We can create a realm of opportunity anywhere;just some places are a bit more difficult to do so than others.

What is the most unusual, breathtaking abandoned place you have ever come across?

S: The thought of going to these places almost captures my imagination more than the act. Getting there is half the fun. On Germany’s Baltic coast on Rugen Island, there is a place called Prora where stands the abandoned monolith of a holiday resort. The five-story building is over a mile long, built by the Nazis as their solution for mass tourism for their own people. Apart from the museum that takes up a tiny section of the site, the bare concrete skeleton stands testament to the hubris that blighted their culture at the time. It’s a weird place – haunting, sobering and poignant.

B: I know! We should go tonight – it looks amazing! (laughs)
During the cold war, the UK government took over this old quarry that was in Wiltshire, and they turned it into an underground city – in this city they put everything that you would need to extensively reconstruct the UK government in the event of a nuclear attack. So there was room for all of the “important” government officials that would need to be skirted away but they also had a library with every book that you would need to reconstruct the government, they had a radio transmission facility, they had a water treatment facility, and it was never used of course because a nuclear attack never happened. So in 2010, we went into an adjacent quarry and found our way into the city eventually and... It was amazing. We opened the door to this underground city and it was filled with artefacts that had never been used – there was an entire room full of rotary telephones still wrapped in plastic with the Queen’s seal on every phone and there were hundreds of them. Opening the door to the library which was filled with maps and books and you’re picking up this book asking “What is essential about this book? Why is it necessary?” We spent an entire evening in there and that was pretty mind blowing, I have to say. I didn’t realise how significant the place was until I got home. And then I started researching around and thinking “That was amazing” and also kind of fascinating that it was constructed without public knowledge – no one knew their tax money was going to build this underground city.

S: Also,The Teufelsberg’ – the Devil’s Mountain in Berlin. It was the old spying point for West Berlin with in the sea of communism.I thought that was fascinating; again so poignant as a historical place about our modern history and now a site for re-discovery and a playground for the inquisitive.

Have you discovered anywhere interesting in Liverpool today or on your journey?

S: Yes, the Stanley Tobacco Factory-it’s incredible. It’s one of the greatest buildings in the world.

B: I read that the Battersea PowerStation is the largest brick building in Europe. But there’s something about the Tobacco factory that’s far more imposing when you’re standing under it; looking at this vast expanse and then paying attention to the difference in scale between the tiny bricks that are composing the entire building.

S: The facade is so huge that actually the details of each window and room are really small. It’s a bit like looking at the Houses of Parliament and the Palace of Westminster – there’s a Trompe-l'œilquality to it because it’s actually not that large and the detail is small. Bit of a metaphor for Britain…


What can we learn from these places?

B: It’s more of a question about your path.  What we discover about ourselves when we start thinking about what is embedded in these spaces, but for me it’s about going and exploring hidden space or closed space. It’s as much of a personal discovery as a discovery of that space – you find out things about yourself when you’re not operating within the same regimes of the controlling surveillance that I mentioned earlier. You feel a sense of exhilaration, a sense of freedom that you can run around and do what you like.So whenever I come home from explorations, I do always think about what it taught me about myself, being in unregulated space.

S: From the fire rises the phoenix – we will always find something out about ourselves. It’s the old romantic trope as well that in some way a dead building makes you think about its life after. You don’t see it as a building working for what is happening inside it anymore; it becomes an object of contemplation and one’s own ideas about life. They’re a blank space – you see nature taking over again, suddenly you can do what you like there, much more than what you did when it was pre-ordained as a working building. Look at Detroit, if you’re into guerrilla farming and gardening it’s all the rage there now. And so as one life ends, another begins.

B: But the thing that ruins and soft estates often reveal to us is the actual level that we are controlling the environment we are in all the time, the level of maintenance that it takes to keep things in check. So when you are in a ruin the past, present and future become much more visible because you’re thinking about what used to be here and things are sometimes mixed up to consider the future of the space, and there is something about that that opens up imaginative space that I think is quite fascinating. The thing that is so great about Stephen’s maps is that they are conjuring up memories, and histories, and myths that are all intermingled and all fighting for space but you can’t ignore any of them, and so, it seems to me that the maps are opening up that imaginative space.

As urban and rural spaces are gradually merging as one, the countryside is slowly depleting. What do you hope future generations will learn from us and the way we live now?

S: In the Western world, in Europe, no wilderness is left and also sheep and cows pretty much eat any type of rich surface – the natural history of the surface of our wild places is basically nibbled away by meat that we end up eating anyway.

B: (jokes)So let’s concrete everything! Let’s pour asphalt all over it!

S: So let’s not eat so much meat and let’s realise that wildernesses now are ones of history and time – that is the terror incognito. The more and more we understand the past and the future, the better we will live in the present. And maps and epithets and information are pinpointing certain things in society that will hopefully go towards that.

B: I really appreciate rural space, I really enjoy going to it. Being an urban dweller is new for me actually; I never lived in a city until I moved to London. I grew up in Los Angeles but that’s not a real city. The thing that I found in the city that really blew me away was the denseness of everything, the denseness of ideas, and imagination, and encounters. And one of the great things about these kinds of spaces that become edgelands is that you get that kind of denseness but then it all gets jumbled in a way, and it’s quite sort of enticing, and you get to pick through the pieces and try to construct your own narrative – that’s really valuable and fun.  The countryside is beautiful but perhaps over-appreciated because of romantic ideals in a way that ruins, urban space and urban encounters do not have.

S: I think what’s important for the future is that we finally, as a general society, manage to merge our physical desires and our instinct to be physically pioneering with the ability to compromise within the ecology that we all share. The age of us being heroes without consequence is over.


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