(Part: 1) TROUBLE UP'T GREEN ECO-MILL: BRADFORD'S ECO-PETERLOO....
A GENERAL INTRODUCTION dealing with Authentic Wilding / Radical Building & ex King Mob / Lived-in Conservation & the paler substitutes of Neo-Psychogeographical cum Nature Aesthetes to Urban Explorers cum Urbexers, Incredible Edible, Icteric & Transgressions / Monbiot's Feral,The Idler...../ Critique of Street Farm / The Lost Possibilities of English Romanticism (thoughts on EP Thompson)...
Why Eco Peterloo? Back to Manchester 1819 and the massacre of the starving poor in St Peter's Field, meted out so quickly after the battle of Waterloo and only 35 miles from Bradford, Peterloo became a cataclysmic event of social injustice, which morphed into a theme, a gigantic nature metaphor for Shelley's, Ode to the West Wind. For us nearly 200 years later, the poem was to be turned upside down becoming the real thing minus metaphor as an eco massacre took place that dared not speak its name.......
Above: A spoof tableau hung over the railway bridge across the high street of Southend-on-Sea during the autumn of 2013. How it got through the official net and for what specific reason is beyond us. Obviously its contents are a watered down, lightweight anti-art plagiarism of urban critiques related to the RAP web without mentioning (typically) its origin. What it says is: Gormless / Ka-poor: terms used to describe the few unfortunate towns and cities in Great Britain that have not been culturally and financially regenerated by the construction of a gigantic public sculpture designed by Antony Gormley or Sir Anish Kapoor. Towns such as Gateshead and Middlesbrough which can boast a Gormley and Kapoor sculpture respectively have benefitted enormously in recent years; both reporting record breaking drops in crime rates as well as low unemployment figures. Not surprisingly, this has created a culture of envy amongst their neighbours. Public demonstrations and even rioting in the Gormless / Ka-poor towns of Darlington, Hartlepool and Stockton eventually led to these locations securing the promise of a forthcoming Kapoor sculpture of their own. However, fashionable recuperation doesn't just start and stop on the cliffs of Southend; official poster-like graffiti on a new estate approaching Kilburn High Road in west London has been influenced by Antonio Negri's notion of "multitudes".
This introduction is a direct appeal to the disappeared: to those who who've quit in despair the plethora of greenwash rackets in the hope of finding genuine encounter perhaps secreted somewhere in the growing ranks of the eco Diaspora.
The story we are about to tell is one of utter catastrophe for urbanism, nature and people. It is so shocking it simply cannot be acknowledged, let alone commented on by officialdom in all its guises, though particularly in its green guise in destroying what has to be a candidate for the finest arena of urban wildlife on a site of industrial dereliction in all of northern England. It's also a story of contemporary environmental aesthetics like in the tableau parodied above in Southend-on-Sea. This shameful triumph of neo liberal aesthetic ecology not only devastated nature (and us) but was also designed to send out a signal to anyone who might be minded to take the "do or die" matter of nature conservation into their own hands - desist or be ruthlessly crushed, our lives, and those of others deemed not to belong to the ruling elite of "high net worth individuals", mattering as little as the 1000s of butterflies, insects, mammals, birds, plants and trees that were pitilessly destroyed in the name of a 'conservation project' become a killing field.
Central to all this was the outright slaughter in West Yorkshire of a site of rich bio-diversity in Briggate, Shipley (a slightly more up market suburb of Bradford) and to a lesser extent on the banks of the Lower Aire Valley nearby. Basically this relates to the creation of a linear park to accompany Sustrans proposed six-lane wide cycle track through a former site of industrial dereliction and in the process destroying two acres of superlative bio-diversity; a mosaic of habitats within a micro-climate, especially buzzing with dense insect life......This destruction has taken place on top of a general steady disappearance of insects over decades, a process which has intensified over the last four years or so – and one that has become highly visible even though blanked in the nature media - so much so that the familiar buzz of the bluebottle is cause for nostalgia.
First and foremost WE SAY OUT LOUD we aren't criticising anybody putting down a simple cycle track through this amazing place. If only it had been that we would have been the first to applaud. Indeed initially we naively thought a Sustrans track was going to afford a much needed protection for the site's astounding and complex array of wildlife. HOW WRONG WE WERE. Rather than say much else about Briggate here –pointlessly repeating ourselves – we suggest you take a quick look at the other five webs related to this subject, Bradford's Eco-Peterloo. The Life and Death of Bill Posters, Bradford's Eco-Peterloo. Sustrans or Natural Born Killers? Bradford's Eco-Peterloo. Wild the Cities or Dead Nature Reserves? Bradford's Eco-Peterloo. Urban Unnatural Histories, Bradford's Eco-Peterloo. Briggate: Dial M for Murder (Photos) and while doing so, take a look at: London's Olympic Legacy: TOWN PLANNING FOR INSECTS
Above right 2013: A derelict rich nature site in Manningham. Above left 2014: Gutted!!
In 2011 a worldwide Occupy movement seemed to promise great things beginning with the Arab Spring and spreading throughout the world most promisingly in the United States. The response in the UK was relatively feeble though nonetheless a ruthless and paranoid government immediately responded with a Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act forbidding all forms of camping in Parliament Square in London. Though restricted to this so-called hallowed ground, it would seem city councils and related administrative bodies elsewhere have sort to liberally reinterpret this edict in their own backyards. In Bradford penniless immigrants and others creating homemade shelters hidden among groves of often rampant foliage in and among ample, fecund derelict ground (like in Briggate and the Manningham site above) were gotten rid of by simply destroying all vestiges of rich nature on these forgotten tracts of land; a slash and burn policy the likes of which we've probably never known.
And there has been personal costs for ourselves as well as our enemies, a karmic albatross that cries out for retribution having been hung around the neck of rank 'n' file greens, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner also "a green parable" about the senseless destruction of nature and the life changing, psychological consequences it eventually has upon a person. At least we have come away from this dreadful business with a clear conscience, but it is scant recompense for the terrible pain we feel, made worse by a growing awareness of just how endangered all wildlife is becoming, and that the day of the last butterfly is not that far off in today's anthropogenic "sixth extinction" and that was preventable - unlike the other five. Increasingly we, the public, are being asked during appeals for funds to help save wildlife, to imagine a world without snow leopards, and other mega fauna, a 'without' that also goes right down to the little things at the other end of the scale, Matt Shardlow in a recent issue of Buglife magazine declaring "insects are facing an extinction crises." He would also draw attention to how insects were adapting to artificial soils on brownfield sites, we also emphasising this extraordinary feature in our attempt to save the Briggate site - only to be sneered and jeered at by Bradford's ruritanian ecos mostly lodged in City Hall and who had the full backing of rank 'n' file 'greens'.
Scraping away at the various sites around Shipley station has been a humbling experience, bringing us face to face with our ignorance as we do battle, on a daily basis, with a recalcitrant post industrial landscape of sooty cloth soils that have been sown with rusting metal objects, razor edged shards of industrial porcelain, glass, bolts, flattened cans, bottles, strips of torn PVC sheeting and rotting wood laminates finished with plastic veneers that can be home to a colony of ants mad as hell at being disturbed ---- and we still have the welts to prove it! Incidentally, both the Briggate site and The Big Field next to Shipley stn are swarming with ants that appear to be quite at home on these post industrial, skeletal soils, a fact which, like so many other oddities on these sites, needs to be thoroughly examined. It seems to us a new term needs to be added to the evolutionary lexicon - that of "post industrial/urban evolution" which is occurring because of the increasing amount of wildlife that is being displaced from the countryside into the towns.
Attempting to second guess nature is also largely an act of hubris at the best of times but one that is now greatly aggravated by worsening climate instability. And it is also ironic to reflect how nature has increasingly tended to gravitate toward nature-impoverished urban wastelands, thus following the path first trodden by uprooted country folk from Tudor times onwards.
In early 2013 we put up 3 webs by the John Clare Collective recounting in often day-to-day detail alongside broad extensive general analysis of an extensive autonomous, practical communal wilding in a major urban area. We emphasise communal and autonomy to distinguish the experiment from recent wilding vogues encompassing neo-psychogeographers merely into passive mapping and recording to George Monbiot's grandiose feral proposals (though more about that later). The term wilding has therefore already become inexact even debased. Our experiment has taken place on the cusp of open civil war in the green / environmental movement generally; one between total revolutionary autonomy and is anti capitalist and the state and the other that is ruthlessly careerist even brutally pro-capitalist deploying the sub-language of sustainababble. Ours was a skirmish on a forgotten piece of land far away thrown to one side in a northern English city though in truth, this local skirmish was anything but local and was representative of the potential civil war now beginning to break out in the eco movement, both here and internationally, in response to a corporate capitalism that increasingly makes the green agenda its own, but only by turning it into an Amazon of greenwash.
The Leninists of New Left Review have recently included in their journal a thoughtful, probing article by Joachim Jachnow, What's become of the German Greens? which finally doesn't sufficiently emphasise the need for autonomous organisation that isn't just anti parliamentarian but anti all forms of sub Bolshevisation. It is accurate to say, the new remilitarized Germany of neo liberal shock therapy would never have arisen without the enthusiastic support of the Green party. Once in office, it reneged on its non negotiable pledge to close down nuclear power stations, ensuring they operated at full belt immediately following the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. The experience of power would also quickly corrupt them in other ways and the practice of stepping down MPs half way through their term of office was "guaranteed" to ensure maximum democracy. Though influenced by the Paris Commune and Spanish anarchism, the intent being to stamp out the curse of political institutionalisation at source, it was, in fact, very much a half-hearted concession to the full democracy of the revocable mandate as practised by the aforementioned ideal models. But it was to no avail the "Realos" winning out against the "Fundis" and nature and green issues completely losing out in the process. In came the technocrats and corporations, one green MP after another becoming a lobbyist for just about everything they were formerly opposed to, including the nuclear industry, big pharma, the car, tobacco, sweetie and fast food industry. The formerly rigorous equality where 50% of party members would be occupied by women has meant that just as many eco women as men have become corrupted by the power of corporate money. Now America's most reliable ally in the newborn Reichstag, the Green party has become the party of the greenback at a moment, packed full of uncertainty, when the dollar shows every sign of turning into funny money as the planetary debt mountain tops $300 trillion. The failure to even begin to radically critique political economy would also turn out to be the Greens' nemesis.
We have also benefitted from reading just three of an ever growing number of books dealing with the growing crises in the green movement, namely Heather Rogers, Green Gone Wrong (2010), Green Inc. by the American, Christine MacDonald,and Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs THE CLIMATE (2014) etc. In The Independent (21st May 2010) Johann Hari wrote a significant article along the same lines, entitled Polluted by Profit, wherein he lambasts the corporate funding of eco organisation and the practise of handing out awards for environmental stewardship to companies (Butterfly Conservation please note!) who would use them as "environmental insurance" to be wheeled out at the merest hint of criticism. (The World Wildlife Fund, for example, is a marketing partner with IKEA who was accused of using illegally logged timber, the WWF springing to its defence). A final word of warning: We must be careful as this 'crisis', this civil war is also in its infancy and it can hardly be said that the dissident authors and theorists mentioned above possess anything like a clear, autonomous perspective regarding an ecologically oriented social revolution. Despite elaborating a lot of excellent facts and cataloguing many instances of greenwash hogwash they are also often woefully retarded regarding anything like a totality of subversive praxis.
Typically the green groups defend their behaviour by saying they are improving, and changing, the behaviour of their corporate sponsors whereas it is they who are being changed, ending up defending the indefensible and becoming their most convincing ambassadors. But the rot does not stop there, and though Hari does say this relationship has become the norm among big green organisations, he avoids dealing with the way it has swept the board, bribery just the most obvious aspect of a development in which labels increasingly count for everything. We have gone out of our way to draw attention to Bradford ecos to all this stuff to show we are anything but barmpots though largely it's fallen on deaf ears. Latterly Naomi Klein in her recent book has added many important details relating to the appalling behaviour of "Big Green" while failing to mention the enormities of "Little Green" (for want of a better term). Sadly both are inextricably enmeshed producing a consensus that is increasingly difficult to penetrate. This timely expose is essentially about this consensus; a consensus which must be smashed apart.
And with the possibly unstoppable drift towards Proportional Representation in a disintegrating consensus that formerly was the backbone of the UK; the Green party will no doubt become as laughable as their sister German Green party. Inevitably, the broad thrust will be social democracy with a face lift allowing a certain amount of individual initiative from below, though not too much. In any case, they've already displayed enough ungreen colours in the wage cutting exercise they imposed on Brighton's refuse collectors never mind Shipley's greenwash ecocide and, no doubt, there are many other such incidents elsewhere which have never been given a public airing.
What we've just experienced is a dumper truck, machine aided Auschwitz-Birkenau-like destruction of various Nameless Wilding sites throughout West Yorkshire beginning in February 2013. Inevitably while enthusing genuine people, our enemies also got hold of what The John Clare Collective was up to. The reaction by local authority hired cyber-sleuths in the north of England, especially Bradford Council in West Yorks was SEEK OUT, KILL & DESTROY without naming or acknowledging what they were really up to! The vengeful assault was executed backstairs and then quickly covered up fronted by the familiar figure of the brutal smiler with the knife, the official ecos, those nature bureaucrats awed by the totalitarian diktats of the worst developmental agenda in history which they are cravenly on their knees to. For these cretins this Greenwash Auschwitz, this blitzkrieg as nature conservation never happened, airbrushed from history and to point out the process and the end result – as we are going to do here - is nothing more than an indication of our paranoid fantasies.
After pretending that nothing ever happened what does authority do in such circumstances? Well say if something did, it was just a mere trifle that only enfeebled minds like ours could possibly get het-up about. We are, after all, only a couple of paranoiac old gits who hallucinate facts and malevolently enjoy creating trouble for the great and the good who cannot possibly do anything wrong. Their benevolence is such they prefer to humour us with an occasional reply rather than go through the uncharitable business of getting us sectioned under the mental health act. With minor variations (usually to do with degrees of violence), this is standard in all authoritarian regimes. Stripped of all rationality, dissent is thus psychologised the better to discredit it.
We like to think our opposition to the greenwash holocaust in Shipley was by far the most coherent ever mounted, involving not just the pressing need to genuinely wild urban areas but how a false 'wilding' is being used to grandstand an end-of-art, art, this 'art', in reality, a funerary monument to the wildlife it has killed off and therefore worthy only of taking a sledgehammer to.
Initially in response to the almost overnight, quick-fire destruction we fired off in the following months one angry letter and email after another to the various mainly greenwash arseholes we held responsible for this appalling calamity....... We can never forgive nor forget....... The backdrop to this destruction is though more general and based on the largest, most insane property / retailing ponzi scheme in history which careering on its way throughout the world is set to produce the most stunning financial crash in history, product of an epoch when the mechanisms of capitalist reproduction has reached a dead end as debt inexorably increases and the brutalised, insecure age of insubstantiality dawns, which either breaks down and / or break through into a more and more coherent revolutionary praxis realising ours (and others) utopian but practical necessities or else falls – horror of horrors - into the worst barbarism ever experienced bringing about that "common ruin of the contending classes" Marx was so grimly aware of. If you thought what happened in the financial crash of 2007-8 was bad enough you ain't seen nothing yet for we are now in the unenviable position where capitalism can literally do little else than continually repeat the terrifying impasse of endless bubbles on an ever increasing dose of steroids. Behind this trajectory lies a capitalist mode of production stretched to breaking point and literally well past its sell by date as the essential extraction of adequate surplus value becomes almost like a species rarity; one that can only survive as a substitute creature plugged into a life support machine of leveraged bubbles based on property, retailing, endless sport spectacles and (dare we say?) art. Hence the reason we have included summaries or précis of lines or paragraphs from the writings of Robert Kurz which ended up through the efforts of others as wall slogans (on Chinese-like dazebos arenas along the Leeds / Liverpool Canal) related to the Shipley (or Shitley) ecocide.
Plus a fundamental contradiction pushed into theatrical absurdity....
All the environmentally oriented groups and bodies responsible for ecocide in Briggate fundamentally accept the reality of dangerous man-made climate change yet in practice they contribute to runaway climate change, which in its way is an almost unbelievable conundrum that stretches the modern phenomena of social schizophrenia to the nth degree. This is because these greenwash ecos accept, or have been told to accede to an omnipotent developmental agenda - put in the euphemistically acceptable terms described as "working with" – which in practise wilfully puts two fingers up to climate change without saying so explicitly. It is an agenda that subconsciously is the quintessence of arrogance suggesting, nature must be punished for daring to switch into climate change mode, as if saying, "We will teach nature a lesson it will never forget". The outcome is a totalitarian agenda of bland park-like conformism increasingly replicated everywhere; a new world order that needs these pallid ecos as the all-important "reputational insurance" previously mentioned having been given eco health certificates, which they always submissively agree to. Hardly surprising no quid pro quo is offered to these pallid ecos who invariably are rail-roaded into accepting the impossible.
The frenzy of destruction unleashed on nature by Sustrans / Bradford Council around Shipley station in 2013 requires a combined psychological and social explanation. When analysing what happened, we must always bear in mind Bradford is nigh on a failed city, the furious drive to reverse the city's fortunes triggering off chiasmic pathogenic factors that only make matters much worse. Recoiling before the featureless, dead waste that is now Briggate and vainly trying to repress all memory of what was once there, knowing if we don't we will go mad, we are in fact recoiling before a scene of carnage left by a capitalism in extreme crisis, one that can only continue to bear deserts unto itself until there is nothing left but a universal desert. Briggate today is the exteriorization of mental illness. But what kind of mental illness? In fact the most extreme of all: schizophrenia. Time has been evacuated from the empty space of Briggate signifying a loss of becoming, leaving nothing but pure space on which hallucinations dance, the deadliest of all the belief that the destruction that took place was an act of conservation. This is not a singular phenomenon either but a collective psychosis spanning the entire, so-called, eco movement in Bradford, with not a voice raised against the destruction other than ours. This hallucinatory mode of being is not accompanied by sensory hallucinations but is rather "a morbid epistemology based on the prevalence of the indentificatory principle" (False Consciousness Gabel). The people who did this had to be right for they are professionals and have the qualifications to prove it, we nobodies in comparison. For it was all about hierarchies and at the top of the pyramid, like an occult power directing the action from a distance, the Con Dem coalition's Aire Valley Regeneration Plan. Mere amateur naturalists / building workers confronting this monolith of experts? The outcome was a foregone conclusion.
This crass identification with eco professionals frees them from doing any wrong, producing an identity of predicates as in dreams and in the misconceptions of schizophrenics. Predicates absorb the subject, the actual praxis of the people responsible for the destruction unrecognisable because of the blind obeisance to CVs and job descriptions. Words take on a biblical, artistic dimension ("and the word was with god, the creator of all things") the mere utterance of words like 'eco', 'ecology', 'sustainability', 'green', the naissance of the reality of things and everything happening as if on a stage and as unreal as events on a stage, the desolating emptiness that is now Briggate, both a work of art and a consummate flowering of nature. A virtual reality visualization takes over and what is patently not there in reality, is there in fantasy, now conceived to be real by virtue of an overpowering identification with, and total surrender of all individual cognition and autonomy, to power structures. In fact what we are describing is a classic case of false consciousness though a particularly deranged, extreme form of it (which we believe will become ever more common), and which is why we deemed terms borrowed from psychology to be more appropriate, "False consciousness [representing] a purer form of schizophrenia than clinical schizophrenia" (Gabel, False Consciousness).
It was on this expanding frontier of madness with knobs on, we dropped our bombshells of sanity. That they did have an impact is beyond doubt and we can only now speculate on the mental state of those responsible for, and ratifying, such an appalling, vile act. Though having next to no communication with any of them, we suspect, however, they are in a state of shock and their inner lives have been emptied out because of it, their habitual speech a form of catatonia which they no longer believe in but pay lip service to because it temporarily prevents them from going clinically mad. Now rudderless, we would like to think they now find it difficult to place one step in front of the other, reality become one dimensional and everything in their lives taking place before them as if on a screen. Inhabiting a weightless world, they are now paradoxically weighed down by the weight of things, the universe now a crushing void and squeezing all life out of them because they took the wrong course of action entirely. Worst of all, given half a chance they would do it all over again, convinced this time the outcome will be different. Condemned to repeat themselves, we can only hope they really are in Hades, their only possible escape from its clutches, a change in the way they live and a preparedness to go to the bottom of the pile, and which will also awaken their responses to nature's new niches in the landscapes of contempt. But this is just not gonna happen.
Our response to the destruction on the psychological plane was to become depressed - an altogether much more wholesome response than that taken by the hydraulic waving arms of paranoiac JCB's on Briggate, determined to vanquish a nature their schizoid green bosses in suits feared - lest it find a voice and demand an unrepressed life and the overthrow of capitalism. We craved oblivion and the relief that sleep provided, only to be then tormented by the memory of what Manley Hopkins described as "beauty been" in our dreams and hence afraid to go to sleep, these dreams in fact unremitting nightmares and we now fearful they will haunt us until the end of our days. The psychological toll has been enormous and of course we hate those responsible for bringing it on. However we have never for one moment doubted our particular loss was also humanity's in general, there being no shades of grey on show here and finding some relief in the salutary reflection that, by creating a situation, we have at least shown up official greens for the horror story they really are. Our towering anger now has the authority of experience, there being no substitute for that.
However if we have not been turned to stone by the process, our responses to nature have most definitely been deadened and we yearn to be restored to our earlier, intense appreciation of it, just as a depressed person craves a return to their former self, no matter how impoverished that self was. One of the most progressive aspects of depression is the visceral inability of sufferers to watch TV, neither of us, post Briggate, even able to watch nature programs on TV, whereas before we had done so, though always in a highly critical fashion. This markedly contrasts with the viewing habits of the nature schizos, their false consciousness of nature owing much to TV viewing habits and the plethora of nature programs, their power such that the fault lines between true and false becomes blurred. In opposition to real, irreversible historical time, filmic nature can be played back at any point on a digital time line, nature becoming devalued in the process and essentially a substitute nature tailored to meet the theatrical cravings of sub lives. These nature programs are today's equivalents, though far more ubiquitous, of the stuffed specimens on display in natural history museums. Essentially a fiction they are a death, just like the novel is, both resulting in a loss in the faculty of encounter. This theatricalization of nature is also wedded to a reverence for hierarchy and celebrity and is a deeply rooted 'political' phenomenon, insofar as it cannot remotely see beyond the existence of politics, the state and capitalism. Thus nature celebrities constantly proclaim to the media a jaded mantra that nature is in profusion, minus a few setbacks, when in reality, the exact opposite is happening and at terrifying speed.
Once, not that long ago, the utilities companies were rightfully regarded as hideous in their contempt for the natural environment, trashing every bit of bio-diversity they could get their hands on; vulgar, stoopid, appalling – you name it, they'd maim and fuck it up! But then there was a sea change. Many utility companies concerned with water, sewerage, gas, electricity, etc. finally learnt much needed lessons, often taking on board quite immaculate forms of eco sensitivity respecting their immediate environment covering pipe lines and what have you with really good wild flower mixes. It was a practice, which even extended occasionally to the road building companies! All brutality over and out then? Alas no, their previous appalling mantle has been handed over to the aestheticians especially the new generation of town and country planners in alliance with the giant building companies and the state who have become far more hideous barbarians than ever the down and dirty sewerage teams ever were. The aesthetes' crew tend to leave no stone unturned often killing almost every strange, wondrous, wild, living thing within a half-mile radius of a particular building / engineering project utterly hooked on parks and gardens concepts of lawns and primulas. But there is a catch: they - these ever so pure and wondrous designers - of course don't do the dirty deed, so it's the utility companies who cop it. They naturally – it stands to reason - they must carry the can for the aesthetes' fuck-ups! In Bradford's Briggate, Yorkshire Water got the blame for the rampant destruction, followed by KL Rouse, an excavating company.....
In these dire circumstances and in the classic sense of the term we "created a situation", one which still endlessly reverberates, Not strong enough to be a movement ours was / is the classic war of the flea, of hit and run guerrilla activity, instigated by the thoughts and actions of a few individuals. We didn't communicate face-to-face with our enemies dealing with them at arm's length through letters and emails. What was the point in any case as the irrevocable damage had already been done. Nonetheless, our letters / emails were never really replied to, our arguments and polemics largely ignored, or else we received curt exasperated replies crammed with falsehoods. It could be said why bother to even attempt any kind of communication with these putrid destroyers? Well, we used this as a tactic – one among others – to bring our superior grasp and intellects along with more substantial generalisations to intimidate the pin-brains of our adversaries taking them into arenas they didn't know existed. Ours was a strategy also to make these power freaks feel small and inadequate. Moreover, considering the general dumbing-down among "the people" at large what other forces could we muster? We realised we were effectively isolated apart from a vague, warm-hearted support from mainly council tenants from all over the world close by this amazing site; a site moreover which they regarded somewhat as their own personal crazy back garden and a garden they didn't want taken away by developers. We thus deployed weapons of criticism far removed from any polite journalese or cold, unimpassioned academic style. We aimed to hit home in a deadly way. It could even be said we directed a quasi-intellectual terror against the authorities and by the by we were delighted to hear we kept many a well-paid top bod awake at night unable to sleep because of our searing comments. Moreover, under pressure and the thieves fell out with each other though no whistleblower from within their ranks handed on to us any accurate juicy titbits.
We – yes it was we wot done it – we who deliberately chose over the last forty years to refuse any position, any advancement in this impossible, hierarchical, ultra-capitalised society, remaining socially part of the common / un-common / Jack Common people. (Revolt Against Plenty was in fact an ironical aside of Jack Common's and a comment on capitalism's emphasis on the appearance of plenty when in reality it is anything but).
But let's be precise about "Wilding". What does the activity really mean? It seems as if today every greenwash pretend eco under the sun is deploying the terminology meaning the description has become devalued. Every developmental agenda is now promoted through the inclusion of a few wilding adjectives and verbs pitifully thrown in among a plethora of meaningless jargon spouted by official, corrupted "ecos.
In contradistinction to all this, ours is the wilding of the embryonic new commons; it is an activity without profile and without hierarchy. An off-shoot of Occupy beginning with Vaneigem's old premise that "All space is now occupied by the enemy"; this is an arena of contestation interplaying with the creative and spontaneous interventions of other sentient human beings doing what they must, driven by authentic desires for a new world as all around us the planet descends into misery and barbarism propelled by a suicide capitalism in its death throes. Often these people are coming out of what has become something like a mass phenomenon – that of neo-psychogeography – interweaving in a disconnected way with immigrants desperate for some kind of shanty town land to pitch a tent on; the alternative misfits and the young precariously employed together with allotments, dumpster survival and a dysfunctional collective collaboration getting slowly but surely creatively out of hand.
Initially we were quite content to use and purloin Nameless Wildness from the first King Mob Echo magazine slightly amending the poetics underneath a 14th century illustration of a millenarian peasant. Then Wayne Spenser from Calderdale suggested Unitary Wilding might be a more accurate term. It's a description that made a lot of sense suggesting connectivity to everything else, a praxis subverting separations with total critique at its centre. Whatever, wilding – nameless or unitary - is redolent of nonconformist approaches to everyday life from Ranterism through Irregular Methodism to the obvious; the industry oriented wildcat strike, which especially exploded in such amazing patterns in these islands from the mid 1960s to the end of the 1970s. Amazing? Yes, of course they were, as they rolled on and on, intensifying, heading toward an unknown destination, only to stop short, hovering, unsure of what to do next, how essentially to create a fundamental breakthrough pointing the way towards burying this alienated hell forever. Moreover beyond the high falutin, on the simplest, mundane, practical level wildcats were also increasingly criminalised. At the time, we scribbled comments upon comments fascinated by this wildcat momentum; a momentum which culminated in the explosion of 1979-80 that became known as the Winter of Discontent. Some of our jottings on this spontaneous, chaotic insurrection were much later published in Nick Brandt's pamphlet, To Delightful Measures, Changed. More recently, one of us put together memories of wildcat strikes for Loren Goldner who presented this personal epistle to a conference of insurgent South Korean workers in 2006. It is on the RAP web as Long Lost Wildcat Strikes in the UK . As if to complement this connection, this unfinished anti-business agitation, we printed out stickers in 2013, one of which proclaimed, Unofficial Nature / Unofficial Strikes...Together bombarding Bradford with them!
As luck would have it, in a state of utter mortification over this brutal, bloody, unfeeling destruction of Bradford's unique nature we started work in September 2013 converting an abandoned late 19th century gothic revival church in London into flats for the homeless. Though that in itself is enough to condemn us in the eyes of Bradford's intensely reactionary bureaucratic class, we soon realised there was continuity between what we were doing in London and what we had tried to achieve in Bradford. We desired to make Shipley's sites of industrial dereliction into urban commons, our project in a gothic revival church quickly becoming part of this perspective, an example of lived-in conservation not just of a building but demonstrating a sensitivity to the meanest tree growing outside, the future tenants wanting to retain, (even magnify!), the shadow play of leaves on the interior stone walls. In Shipley we sought to commence the process of the democratisation of nature conservation, by encouraging absolute beginners to get involved. In the gothic church it was the democratisation of building, we giving tenants their head either doing the construction work or, lending a hand, as events dictated and managing to do our own, often necessary, 'add-ons' at the same time. Remarkably, it worked and at roughly £70 per week for a large room of one's devising, with gas, electricity and council tax thrown in; it undercuts the so-called social housing sector by a mile. And it is fulfilling in a way a traditionally authoritarian, state or PFI financed, social housing sector cannot match the future tenants already head over heels in love with their dream creation. This ex-church also pointing to on-the-spot tenant assembly-led public housing replete for the moment with peppercorn rents on the cusp of the abolition of rent moving through the first stages of general transition to a higher form of society having often to proceed clandestinely and with stealth; this entire drift indicative of the process towards none (or very little) new building indicating a process of adaptation and takeover; of buildings changing ad hoc on almost a daily basis and increasingly interplaying with unfettered nature.
It could be said that such a project is little more than an example of cheap city-living recuperation; a project well within the acceptable paradigms of a 'new' social democratic capitalism offered up for the future by the likes of Thomas Piketty. Maybe, but isn't it more likely that all future surplus value creation is mortgaged into paying off debt meaning no real economic recovery is possible and therefore to apply the term 'recuperation' in the context of basic social housing necessities has perhaps become meaningless?
Working for little above the minimum wage, our ad hoc, ever changing building gang, based on equal wages for all involved regardless of age or gender, gradually become obsessed making certain as far as possible that the project worked so that the place may perhaps become a beacon for other run down churches to be taken over throughout the country (plus say empty neo-gothic libraries that you get throughout northern England). Thus a huge stained glass window now lights the informal communal kitchen after taking down a double-layered Dutch bond wall. Moreover – bit by bit - throughout the rambling building, secret dens and hidey holes (high up in the towers, beneath lofty ceilings and deepest crypts) have been constructed for those secret tenants not paying rent and agreed upon by an informal general assembly. At other times the work was extremely dangerous vis-à-vis health and safety legislation and at times we were scared witless demolishing parts that, falling the wrong way, would have instantly killed.
Working on the church and obsessively mulling over what had happened in Bradford, we often thought of all the surpassingly beautiful, abandoned buildings in Bradford that could be converted at minimal cost and that could be properly sustainable (as against sustainababble buzz words) developing in harmony with nature and that need not be a destructive imposition upon it.(The future tenants of the transformed neo-gothic church raided the condemned Heygate estate in the nearby Elephant and Castle, bringing back a temperate forest of plants and saplings choking the corridors of the church - somewhat to our initial annoyance!).
In an odd way and in retrospect, there is some connection between our physical, hands-on, autonomous wilding interventions in Bradford and our physical, officially unplanned but intuitively sympathetically responsive artisanal cum briccolage building 'interventions' within a neo-gothic structure which also has something of a 19th century red brick factory walls feel (and appeal) at the back of the old structure. (Was this done on purpose originally?) In both cases, on a site of industrial dereliction where nature has acquired an extra-ordinary autonomous bio-diversity to this piece of London's urban dereliction we have (slightly but significantly) changed things in an unplanned, more-or-less spontaneous way acutely sensitive to the ambience of the given terrain and structure and taking lots of local people sympathetically along with us, so much so that they also felt encouraged to creatively intervene in their different ways.......
Of course, squatting would have been better and although squatting is virtually banned in UK plc, nonetheless putting the place right with toilets, shower facilities etc, would have been impossible if we – skilled 'artisanal' off-the-wall building workers – hadn't intervened. Now it is a lived-in church and not a piece of dead, museum-like conservation. And the tenants were all responsive as we've taught rudimentary building skills to gals and guys alike, many of them young radicals who this time will never get out of the shit economically, most likely remaining locked into "generation rent". In a way this experience points to the future essential democratisation of skills and done so in a helpful un-put-down way particularly as most of these tenants were on the dole and /or on zero hours service sector contracts. What we've recently experienced may also point to that hoped for welcome time – that revolutionary transition - when there's a mass occupation of big cities with the takeover of all the more or less empty, purposeless buildings, even those post modernist architectural / sculptural machine-like gigantic monuments which people will need to immediately adapt according to personal requirements and desires. Against the machinery of the ultra-aestheticized, modern, life-size legoland set-up where the building operative is nothing but a mathematical assembler devoid of all creative personal input, an old fashioned, somewhat artisanal approach will, out of immediate intimate human necessity, again come into its own........ That hoped for moment when there will no longer be any (false) need for much new building or yet more dead suburban subtopian estates.
We couldn't fault the radical, negative lifestyles of these tenants almost 'intuitive' co-operative behaviour in their egalitarian relations between all and each regardless of age, race and gender. Moreover, despite having locks on the doors of their ample, individual rooms, the tenants hardly ever lock them. True they borrow from each other – often without asking – but they never steal, and computers / wallets etc. are always left alone. This was a sheer delight to experience. All of this is admirable and far in advance of our own everyday lifestyle survival at their age. On the other hand at their age, our minds were much sharper, more clued-in, having read – to some degree – many of the essential books it is still necessary to digest from the great critiques of art, literature, architecture and science to Freud, Marx and Bakunin and other profound anarchists to the enlightened analysis of the anti-Bolshevikh communists.
Then came the day when a young tenant said, "I think you lot know about King Mob" even though we only referred to each other on first name terms keeping our Critical,Hidden History of King Mob hidden as this wasn't a student audience / lecturer situation. And what was the point anyway as we were more concerned with the practical situation to hand, developing friendships in the spirit of a liberated, conversational "craic" which flows so unimpeded on building sites creating bonds which sometime last for life. And the great age gap was gradually disappearing.......Suddenly the ambience became more 'theoretical' as enlightened confessionals collectively spilled out between all of us. Then we learnt a lot about what many of the young tenants had been up to recounting often-glorious recent escapades from direct assaults on notable, contemporary fascists to joining Plane Stupid, etc. We said (among many other things) for all its difficulties we had quickly become fascinated with this transforming dead church and couldn't help but think about Ivan Chetcheglov – the 1950s Parisian psychogeographer - who in condemning Le Corbusier's "architecture of suicide" proclaimed the maxim: "To live in one's own cathedral" though these tenants knew nothing about the original psychogeographers. Ever since other tenants have been asking us "oldies" about this, that and the other in our past, asking us out for drinks, even throwing a party thanking us for our building efforts! All at times rather embarrassing as increasingly we were listened to......
But as for Bradford we knew there was no chance we would be listened to and that the city has turned its back on even mildly progressive thought, the barely believable disaster that is Briggate, living proof of this assertion - if any were needed. We are still pondering how come Bradford is such a totalitarian monolith with not even a chink of light penetrating its almost Soviet style gloom and capacity for sticking with, and even perversely amplifying, its mistakes in a fashion that would have done Stalin proud.
The New Commons and the dead end of Wilding aesthetics
As our praxis was / is part of the project of "the new commons" that must begin and end with the liquidation of what the Encyclopaedia of Nuisances (Encyclopaedia of Poisonous Phenomena) in France described some time ago as "the capitalist mode of destruction" ours is also the real, communal wilding and not the now fashionable term that can mean anything that is only mildly different to the dominant horticulture. Our wilding implies the transcendence of money; exploitation and the law of value and a general praxis quite unlike a bogus wilding terminology ranging from the blatant apologists of a more or less official urbanism to wilding aesthetics, (e.g. see Bradford's Eco-Peterloo. Urban Unnatural Histories ).
In the last few years as the situationist critique - suitably emasculated - came to enter something like centre stage its early psychogeographical phase became massively popularised having experienced something of a paradigm shift away from those former lived-in, freer but poorer, areas of the city which in the meantime had largely succumbed to gentrification. One of the fallouts from this coming mainly from a large coterie of fluffy artistic leftovers (though still regarding themselves as artists and writers, etc) was to search out 'lost' areas more or less abandoned by commoditisation and capitalism in general. These terrain vagues, these landscapes of contempt, these arenas (often) of industrial dereliction, were rightly seen as somehow remarkable as the ethos of "the new sublime" came into focus (c/f our webThe London Olympics and Mass Market Neo-Psychogeography . However none of this 'new' research unlike the original psychogeographical project centred largely in the Paris of the 1950s / early 1960s, had clear social revolutionary implications which were to be developed in insurrectionary ways and leading up to the explosion of May '68 in France. Rather they were there to be captured in quietist ways for the art gallery and the growing market of museums without walls.
Nonetheless, knowing our philistine adversaries in Bradford knew nothing of this, and after the Briggate site was destroyed we set out to intimidate them throwing the following at them in a letter dated February 2013, even though the argument doesn't quite have that necessary cutting edge that the highest level of critique demands: "The half-wit decision makers on Bradford Council have no idea just how backward and out of sync they are with the times in other respects. An 'edgeland', like the Briggate site formerly was, is now perceived by a high profile new generation of pychogeographers as something amazing in itself. But as crassness is the rule in Bradford Council, this 'new perception' will come as news to them, even though it goes back to increasingly well-known experiments carried out mainly in Paris during the 1950s. There is a side to it that is the precursor of gentrification and therefore an economic asset, industrial detritus becoming a storehouse of value. We only have to mention high profile individuals like Iain Sinclair, Laura Oldfield Ford, Alex Dimitriou, Jonathan Meades, even Will Self, - and not forgetting our influence on the Cambridge prof' Robert Macfarlane and his made for TV poetic surveys of the fascinating post industrial topography and the wildlife it hosts on 'neglected' parts of Canvey Island at the mouth of the Thames. He called it a "port hole onto another world." Precisely. And that is just what the Briggate site used to be".
We shrewdly introduced the term psychogeography just to throw these knobheads even more off balance, betting that, in all likelihood, not one of them had ever heard it mentioned before, though we knew full well psychogeography wasn't what it used to be in its glory days having had undergone a corrosive process of involution and nigh on sixty years later, had become a conservative, chiefly literary movement belying its anti-art, revolutionary origins and very much in love with special artistic grants sometimes worth a million quid. It says much about the darkly reactionary nature of our times that even psychogeography, in its unthreatening literary, picturesque guise was, still too much for the philistines of Sustrans and Bradford Council. Moreover, 'edgelands' have also proved a means of giving content back to literature as it always has the drop on landscape design, the avant-garde random psychogeography preferable to the ordered bucolic Sustrans when it comes to the conservation of wild life. Nonetheless, they share one thing in common: their opposition to taking over, to occupation, to revolutionary upheaval.
In one email sent to the official cretins we drew attention to the battle then presently being waged in 2013 to save the Nightingales of Lodge Hill in Kent (a MOD site) from a £1bn housing development. The campaign had become a cause celebre and attracted big names like the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, and the naturalist Richard Mabey, who in April 2013, held an evening of nightingale stories, studies and recordings. Lodge Hill is scrubland habitat and therefore vernal and identifiable. How could Briggate, the discarded mattress and dumped trolley basket arsehole of the world, ever hope to compete with it? And yet it is more meaningful precisely because of that, and shows that when push comes to shove, celebrities are reluctant to even pay lip service to the need to conserve brownfield sites. Just for the jollies we informed Mabey about what was happening in Briggate knowing (rightly) he would not reply to our entreaties, this born again country gent, who is anxious to distance himself from even the pussy footing, aesthetic, psychogeographical consequences of his Unofficial Countryside published in 1973, probably sensing there was a dangerously radical undertow lurking beneath what was, after all, not really a hard hitting cry for help. (In a Newsnight TV broadcast in February 2012 devoted to "Edgelands", Mabey would describe psychogeography as "babble", adding "when you scrutinize them, nothing sensible comes out". The Lettristes, the Situationists? What his unqualified condemnation does show is just how limited his understanding of the term is, and that he is fearful his early appreciation of the natural wonders of brownfield sites that were well in advance of the time, had implications way beyond the new page he had turned in natural history and that we had acted upon those implications. And that is how we have come to find ourselves in the cold in heartbreak hotel, way out in front of everyone else.........)
Almost concomitant with the total destruction of the neo-industrial gorge in Bradford's Briggate in early 2013 played out to the dead duck schemes of 1950s parks and gardens of rose trees and primulas, in October, across the Pennines in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, "a daylong symposium, organised by Buddleia with support from In Certain Places, examined the significance of edgelands and other 'wild' urban spaces, as sites for "artistic inquiry, intervention and social interaction".........Coined by the environmentalist, Marion Shoard, 'edgelands' describes areas of semi-urban, semi-rural land, characterised by "rubbish tips and warehouses, derelict industrial plants ... against a background of unkempt wasteland, frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic"..... "Traditionally overlooked and uncelebrated, this type of terrain is increasingly becoming the source of artistic inspiration. Drawing on Buddleia's recent work in North Manchester, Desire Lines examined the ecological, social and cultural value of edgelands and urban wilds, and the motivations and methods of artists who work within them. Artist and writer Joanne Lee introduced the theme by discussing her research into artistic engagement with contemporary urban 'terrain vagues'; and Nottingham-based artist Rebecca Beinart, discussed her involvement in the international Wasteland Twinning project, and her own engagement with the 'urban wilds". (This blurb was forwarded to us by Wayne Spencer in Calderdale under the headline "Groan". And GROAN we did. This wasn't at all what we meant by Wilding Intervention....
We had come across all of this before and the big protagonist is the seemingly out-in-the- woods-and-fields sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy. His artefacts have for decades been an anticipation of the increased selling of nature, its valorization, a nature that is destined to increase in value as it becomes the biggest con of all and the ultimate check out of the human species......
Way back on the 15th of September, 2007, the New Scientist imbibing the neo liberal climate – ironically on the eve of its biggest ever economic crises so far - said that traditionalapproaches to nature were doomed to failure. Now it was necessary to deploy market forces to safeguard ecosystems meaning conservationists had to work with local government, industry and the financial markets to set up incentives encouraging measures for the protection of eco systems and the vital services they provide. The idea behind all this guff meant it had become necessary to put a monetary value on the services that healthy eco systems provide for human populations. Therefore ecosystem service schemes are now being implemented around the world like the Natural Capital Project (involving Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wild Life Fund). The Natural Capital team has put together a model called Invest which takes data collected by governments and uses it to calculate the economic effect of various conservation actions. A system of tradeable credits would mean conservation crews would also be able to buy or sell their credits. Inevitably this emphasis produced a reaction; a Stanford graduate student concluding "we must act quickly to redirect much of the effort now being devoted to the commodification of nature back toward instilling a love for nature in more people." Peter Kareiva lead scientist with The Nature Conservancy at the same time also said, "Commodification is a bad word. It's about adding value" - whatever that means - because essentially these official eco dissidents were quickly to be given short shrift. Moreover whilst true, a huge factor in all of this was simply suppressed: that the essential instrument in promoting the hoped for ultra commodification of nature was to be through aesthetic display, ironically supplying an even more lethal inflection to the old 1960s situationist slogan, "Culture, ugh, the one commodity that sells all the others."
In misery, two years later in 2009 shuffling about east London we had the singular misfortune to visit an exhibition in London's Barbican Art Gallery, entitled Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet which resulted in us wondering whether to wreck this ridiculous installation of upside down trees and what have you, all self-importantly put together by an equally ridiculous slew of artists unable to go beyond – well over 40 years later – from the Icteric perspective we had espoused around 1966. A little later clearing up old newspapers we came across a Guardian "Society" pullout dated the 10th of January 2007. In it there was a piece entitled Down to a fine art? that details how a group of eco artists in England and America were simultaneously exploring "the geopolitical relationships of land use planning, focussing on how land is owned and controlled and how public access to places is restricted".
The article goes on to point out how one of them a Spanish woman, Lara Almariegui, then living in England, had focussed on empty lot's and city demolition sites. "Empty lots [she says] are spaces of freedom and possibility. They are the only places not designed by architects but still filled with the idea of possibility". Evidently she also engaged with city authorities to obtain permits to open wastelands to the public and in one instance managed to get the land protected. Something of the same was happening in The Land project in America. One of its members, Amy Balkin of This is the Public Domain had, according to the Guardian reporter, attempted "to create a piece of common land in Kern County, California, owned by the public in perpetuity. The impossibility of doing this illumined the constraints of property law in the US and led her to transfer intellectual property rights to the land to enable its public use as an art work, rather than a piece of real estate."
More recently (2009) Lara Almariegui did what could have been the basis for an interesting pamphlet entitled, A Guide to the Wastelands of the Lea Valley and subtitled, 12 empty spaces await the London Olympics. Some of the photos are breathtaking and bear an uncanny resemblance to some of ours taken prior to the Briggate carnage in Bradford. However what this pamphlet crucially lacks is any acquaintance with the wild life of the Lea Valley. Some of the sites Lara photographed would make way for the Olympic's soulless "wild flower meadow", essentially a substitute nature for passive consumers taking a breather from the nearby Westfield shopping mall .................It was left to a few neo-psychogeographers like Iain Sinclair to conduct guided tours around the derelict marvels of the Lea Valley, the heaps of abandoned tyres, etc. Though appreciative of the valley's industrial ruins and detritus, Sinclair's knowledge of nature was not that much better than Ms Almariegui. As for the latter she's now going from strength to strength from one Biennale to another as just another bullshit installation idiot.....
Though this neo-psychogeography is scarcely cutting edge stuff, Bradford's bureaucratic class could have benefited from reading or knowing about such developments and which may well have prevented the destruction in Shipley had it taken the lessons on board. However to make an obvious criticism like this will go straight over the heads of Bradford's bureaucratic class who have long made a virtue of philistinism. Strength through ignorance is their credo and if that fails then, as we know to our cost, there is always the heel and the boot, though more about this elsewhere.
The myth of Incredible Edible
Much has been made recently about Incredible Edible in Calderdale, West Yorkshire with its seeming food for free perspective overlapping with new landscaping and therefore possible candidate for yet another new wilding mystique. It is in reality anything but and its chief spokesperson, Pam Warhurst has become the veritable pinnacle of greenwash awarded one putty medal after another. Recently a Bradford-based scheme has won a prestigious European cultural heritage accolade via the South Pennines Watershed Landscape Project which has been awarded a Laureate in the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra awards 2013. Pam Warhurst, [who else] and chairman of Pennine Prospects, said: "We are delighted to have got this far. "To be named as a Europa Nostra Laureate is fantastic and great recognition for all the hard work of the project team, at Pennine Prospects and across the partnership, and of all the volunteers who make the South Pennines Watershed Landscape Project what it is."
Or as Wayne Spencer in Calderdale put it in an email in the summer of 2013: "Re: Incredible Edible, I noticed recently that they have started selling produce locally. They also have paid staff and apprentices, it seems. Just another quasi-charitable business....... Of course, for any resident of Todmorden, the phrase "guerrilla gardening" brings to mind Incredible Edible. I had the misfortunate of sitting near a couple of leading lights of Incredible Edible in a cafe recently. Pam Warhurst (who I see is also involved with the Pennine Prospects project lauded by the European Union) did most of the talking. In public, she puts on a bluff Northern air. Behind the scenes, however, she uses that hideous, gnarled jargon much beloved by modern managers. I only wish I had jotted down a couple of prize specimens of the absurdities she trotted out. It was all about grants and PR. This is hardly surprising. Incredible Edible is a largely spectacular project, one that exists almost entirely at the level of appearance. It has generated a huge amount of publicity, most of which duly reports that it is making Todmorden increasingly self-sufficient in food. The reality is very different. I do not know a single person who has eaten even one mouthful of food produced by Incredible Edible, and I never seen a single Incredible Edible person working on public land (they do work in a fenced nursery near the Rochdale Canal in Walsden but their public plantings (which they quite rightly refer to as "propaganda" seem largely staged for the media). Beneath Incredible Edible's self-serving fog of misrepresentation, the local market in fruit and vegetables remains completely dominated by supermarkets (Morrisons in particular). The proportion of food provided by Incredible Edible is wholly indistinguishable from zero."
Urban Explorers (UE) and / or Urbexers...with asides on Bradley Garrett, well on his way to becoming a new niche mainstream superstar....
You may well ask but what does urban exploring have to do with neo-psychogeography Incredible Edible or Wilding in general? Truth to tell it's more an ambience than anything else though there are concrete overlaps with neo-psychogeography's 'new sublime' and Transgression's academic theorists (see later) plus insights into a levelling, general wilding based on the likes of environmental historian William Cronon, approvingly quoted by Garrett: "Wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere; in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies."
The urbexers mission revolves around a call to transgression and adventure in a world where we are increasingly "prisoners of a flattened universe", one where desire and lust for life is systemically thwarted on every level by a 24/7mobile phone, second life, media blitz which so far has successfully distracted us from the growing might of a surveillance economy of watchers, watching watched. This lethal trajectory is backed up by a Health and Safety Executive gone bonkers demanding a fearful, blind submission to chop logic; a situation UE attempts to subvert by exposing the systems' leaky underbelly as these gallant bands of interlopers duck the 'seccas (security guards)' time and again. Essentially, at its best UE is about wrong footing power largely based in and through the vertical city going stratospheric as against the more horizontal enclaves we, the people, live in. Rightly Garrett says, "Increasingly the vertical is about security from the insecurities of street level" and the place where popular responses explode; a city where "today, citizens are treated with greater suspicion than ever before."... [UE is against the dead end, "scripted narratives" of conservation and preservation set in the aspic of a do not touch gallery aesthetic with price tag attached]. "Urban exploration appreciates history in different ways and does not offer the promise of preservation." Thus UE's participants intervene somewhat against this dominant status quo that is the "neo-liberal city, a mausoleum of sites to be seen rather than places to be touched"; the city as artefact....
Britain is one of the most policed societies in the world with more CCTV cameras than in the rest of Europe combined and is in many ways far more authoritarian and violent than the United States which, according to Garrett is, "just hidden behind a veneer of British reserve and a general willingness to accept the status quo."
Because UE's act differently to most passive walkers (like the neo-psychogeographers?) they can also act as inspiring detonators once others spontaneously cathect with their 'strange' behaviour, pulling onlookers out of familiar daily routines. "In these situations [says Garrett] explorers go beyond asserting, 'I did this' by intentionally implying, "You could also choose to do this.... Political implications emerge in the resistance of the apathy most people exhibit daily." But then (as we well know) people (the 'straights' as we used to call them) also start looking at you in a suspicious way and the UE's often experience this understandable paranoia.
At its most basic UE is the most interesting of a plethora of extreme sports outdoing the likes of parkour, skateboarding, base jumping, tags & pieces, etc. In response to growing urban totalitarianism they place–hack everything out there from sewers, ruins, abandoned mental asylums, underground railways, old MOD property, to skyscrapers and meaningless gigantic sculptures. Rightly they find another ambience, one that is proscribed. Thus, for example, UE's found the haunting quality of abandoned mental asylums compulsive..... "The explorers act as keepers of extraordinary affects in a world rendered increasingly mundane" (Garrett).
UE is about provoking authority, activity as against passive consumption, anti the passive watching of endless TV placed among a plethora of domesticated commodities that you don't really need nor get much pleasure from, often having paid an arm and a leg for. Urbexings life-enhancing surge is about time, passionately experienced time; transient but remarkable, intense moments you won't ever live again, outside the ken of consumed time, moments that are anti-money and its pursuits. And their nametags stand for a life raw and pulsating: Vanishing Days, Guts, Bacchus, Brickman, Downfallen, Uselesspsychic, etc. These people are far from stupid. Garrett and others of his ilk see their lineage in an artistically rebellious past through the likes of Walt Whitman, Dickens, Baudelaire and Benjamin together with more general movements from Dadaism, Surrealism up to the Situationists. He also mentions in passing, Hitler's architect's Albert Speer last book, Theory of Ruin Value, plus a smart rejoinder from Nietzche, "every past is worth condemning" In truth however, this acknowledgement of subversive history doesn't imply the path towards a more coherent supercession because like the neo-psychogeographers they have far more in common with lightweight avant-garde neo-cultural figures such as the cineaste Tarkovsky and the novelist JG Ballard.
Having said that, UE is almost subversive – in the best sense of the term – though stopping short again on that essential truly transgressive precipice where so many connections, insights and socially subversive praxis can begin to take shape which indeed its more clued–in exponents vaguely see, though beyond lies a much more difficult, less 'epic' terrain, which isn't so easy to hack into. UE's leading light in the UK, Brad Garrett again says, "It is at the same time a subversive response to the imperatives of late capitalism that encourages spectatorship over participation."
For sure fine as far as it goes but what is late capitalism? This categorization was regularly deployed in the late 1960s, so does this mean we are still in this 'late' phase? Or was it just a handy catch phrase to throw around in the era of state monopoly capitalism before the ideology of neo-liberalism shoved it aside? Which in turn morphed into global state financial capitalism predicated more than ever, on an aestheticised surface of smoke and mirrors (requiring an updated theory of the spectacle) as the mechanisms of surplus value extraction in capitalist reproduction have become more and more tenuous and the state more manipulatively managerial and subtly police obsessed than in its entire history. UE is against the "security entertainment complex" that is "a mixture of control through surveillance and distraction through entertainment". (Garrett)
UE's big take-off is inextricably connected to the financial collapse of 2007-8 as building projects ground to a halt, "broken-toothed building sites and decaying ruins empty and open".... "Explorers' eyes lit up all around the globe". Here there's an overlap with psychogeographical mapping as many ubexers got involved after having initially walked through and investigated many "landscapes of contempt" finding them richer and more fascinating than any laid out new shopping mall or vanity project.
An imaginative sense of something like immanent apocalypse, stemming basically from the financial collapse, spurred urbexers to great daring feeling as if they were pushing through a surface of bright lights and security guards revealing precipices, not just from the top of skyscrapers but something amounting to the metaphorical abyss previously mentioned. But what then? Urbexers haven't even begun to raise the problems – the necessities – of a transitional society rapidly moving beyond the paradigms of capital, involving major questions like the disappearance of money, never mind thoughtful insights on how all vanity monuments, vast malls and supermarkets, buried tunnels, etc. can be redirected in the process of sloughing off the monetary economy. Garrett comments: "As people become more curious about what a post capitalist world would look like, urban explorers can supply imaginative descriptions." But can they? Transition is also about the immediate transformation of ruins, not playing around with often admittedly stunning photos, depictions that in the USA (with Detroit especially) in mind have aptly been described as "ruin porn." Transition is essentially about quick and hopefully durable displacement. This means stepping outside the urbexers trajectory, which for a young man like Garrett, has so far amounted to also taking squatting on board plus attempting to sympathetically deal with the 2011 urban riots in the UK seeing in them a subversion of "the authoritarian constriction of the city" versus "directly transgressive" street riots.
Trying to break out of a limited praxis into something more rounded takes time and some Urbexers have gotten into helping the homeless which they regularly stumble across in abandoned train tunnels, etc. like in New York's subways or old storm drains in America's far west. "Dusk was another dawn for those of us whose work depended on darkness......more real than real life." (Garrett). Nonetheless, stark, humdrum immediate reality impinges on dusk to dawn ubexer activities as uneasy relationships overlap with the very real marginals who also often inhabit landscapes of contempt. An initial wariness - were they going to mug you for your expensive camera? – giving way to a social workery like pity followed by more profound insights as some UE's realized that many of these misfits wanted to live in tunnels as against the even more alienating demands of "walking the line" until dropping dead of stifling conformity. It hit as something like a revelation that a lot of these people had something quite stunning to tell you simply because they are released from "cultural, social expectation"; perhaps having encountered something similar to Andre Breton's "cry of the mind turning back on itself" as some UE's see in the experimental necessities of marginals a search for a lost, sympathetic environment and community compounded by what we've also collectively lost within our individual psyche's and impoverished personal relationships. As Garrett says, "We live in a time when fewer people than ever feel a sense of place."
It would seem, the UE's are very competitive with each other but not necessarily in that bad a way as they live off the highs of each other's achievements inspiring others to more audacious place hacking. However with UE, explorations are immediately reified (and they do deploy the word) or spectacularised as art objects thus adding to the aura of the neo-liberal city, above all a cold, reified aesthetic / artistic ambience shorn of creatively human experience where genuine encounter is increasingly on the long list of the forbidden. It could even be said, isn't the brilliant, telling photograph the be all and end all of their experimentation? There is much posing with endless photographs of tunnels revealed by stage lighting with the explorer as silhouette to be then sold on to art galleries for a tidy sum. Thus a pared-down activism becomes part of the art market added to with the addition of the curator's sales pitch, the essential lynch pin in all this; all en-route to becoming professional photographers ending up say as paparazzi? Even Garrett sees such activism as not much more than "art for arts sake" if it doesn't more concretely move out over connecting with more and more genuine people – not into UE – collectively and dialectically transforming each and everyone in the process. After all, the bottom line is that urbexing is for physically fit young men and women; after the age of 30 and it's about time to quit.
Sadly, it must be said - and after all that's be said respectfully here about the milieu - most UE's don't seem to have much of a perspective beyond mild subversion, little beyond the acceptable perspectives of extreme sports. Some do break through and it's been noted that London place hackers were / are perhaps the most 'political' of all, (political in the sense they were inclined towards anti-capitalist perspectives). Even Garrett (in a jaundiced comedown?) perceptively says UE "is much more a celebration than a condemnation of capital and spectacle. It's an anti-spectacle that runs alongside the main act, wearing a double helix" and some developers in America (hardly surprising) approved of place hacking reckoning it could be good for avant-garde property sales promo. Smart thinking!
The London Consolidation Crew (playing on the old abbreviation LCC which once stood for London County Council) prospered in the gap / sink hole before intensifying alienation in the great nothingness out there began to trap more than a few of their participants in a lifestyle of general conformity, i.e. getting a professional job, university studies, family life, academic careerism, etc. In many ways Garrettt's two books, one graced by the sub Bolshevikh, Verso publishers, Explore Everything. Place-Hacking the city and the other, Subterranean London: Cracking the Capital are his first and last combined; a funereal obituary to a past, passionate life now abandoned having joined the ranks of the professorial racket. Thus a suitably lobotomized radical enters the hallowed portals of the economically secure life styles of the Self's and Macfarlane's who ardently welcome him into their fold whilst Garrett still hears the cries of "sellout" from former buddies ringing in his ears, or more subtly, the comments of those condemning him for "codifying the practice of urban exploration which could lead up to its commodification."
In fact from quite early on, Garrett's writings were supported and funded by the geography dept at Royal Holloway, University of London. Now finally achieving PhD status plus academic "researcher" status, Garrett surely must feel guilty residing in the community of durable safety nets having passed on through to the other side, whilst former place hacking rebels continue to suffer the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" when not sinking into terminal, agonized oblivion. Even worse - though certainly more understandable - this conformity, this sell out, was in response to increasing harassment, something imposed by intensifying state repression – post Occupy - as police continue to silently and without media profile (which could mean worrying questions raised in some liberally minded quarters) crack down on all forms of genuine experiment. Occupy must never be allowed to happen again........ And haven't we all through our lives felt the heat too which is in many ways (even in ripe old age) as intense as ever with harassment continuing unabated. For certain no Self or Macfarlane will sing our praises in fulsome introductions simply because we've always refused for decades in our daily lives to accept compromise and recuperation. And in the eyes of 'the system' that is quite the most evil thing of all..... What the UE's have to learn to their cost is that you must constantly disappear, and in the process, acquire the nose that is able to sniff out the moment, when required, of strategic vanishing, only to return, hopefully becoming ever more formidable.
Exposure of hacking activities on UE websites has resulted in police busts and sites on the ground in consequence have been sealed against further trespass. In this our experience has overlapped with theirs except our forbidden eco researches often meant every living creature within in its circumference was exterminated by a powerful array of insecticides, and one which proved to be a far more deadly – and an unbelievable heavy response even in terms of official greenwash. At times you wonder if the UE's had chanced upon or read some of our Wilding involvement accounts. Garrett somewhere points out that today exploration of the "traditional wilderness" (we guess Amazonia, the deserts etc) is viewed as noble, while "exploration of the urban is seen as threatening." Too true, but it's even more so if you then actively intervene in any small way; in fact it becomes criminal transgression even when bringing out - lending a helping hand - to the often fecund and amazing nature residing there. We engage in eco-edgework in edgelands and the authorities become so incensed they must kill outright replacing the terrain vague with safe banality.
As for West Yorkshire, Urban Explorers over the last 3 years or so have now gravitated to our childhood wonderland of Healey Mills (ex) Marshalling Yards, now an even more inspired, ever-morphing site of industrial dereliction which we've oft commented upon and made films about. The place is now jam-packed with tags and pieces and most tags and pieces today are sadly nothing more than banal decoration (little more than externalised body tattoos) minus meaningful content, so there's nothing here that amounts to the enlightened communication of real subversive graffiti.
Below: Two at dusk atmospheric though arty urbexer photos of Healey Mills and a day time view (photographed by ourselves) of the overgrown railway tracks
Back to Briggate and Destruction as Aesthetics
In our very first, very angry letter to Sustrans after the unbelievable destruction at Briggate, in February 2013 which in the space of a couple of days spearheaded by dumper trucks and earth moving machinery destroyed an absolutely remarkable industrially-fed wildlife site that had taken possibly 200 years or more to mature as it was also near the headwater of the infamous Bradford Canal which so fascinated John Ruskin, we suddenly realized these people were vampire-like aestheticians. Their architect Mcquillan had a plan for a linear park at this juncture in the "Great Northern Trail" (Sustrans terminology) as trees packed with rare species from butterflies to flocks of song birds were mercilessly cut down and a huge ancient boiler which served as a bat roost was unceremoniously tossed aside as he realized his stock-in-trade bucolic vision of ye olde Englande. Later David Hall (local Sustrans boss) said this was merely "forward planning" but that was only said to cover his arse as truth to tell they (along with Bradford Council) had ignored all planning and bio-diversity protocol and procedure. We will now quote a few choice sentences and paragraphs from the aforementioned letter to give you some idea what were the precise on-the-ground facts regarding this aestheticisation....
"There is not the lightest feeling for the genius loci of the place [Briggate]. This would have been at once apparent to the philosophers of the picturesque in the late 18th century, namely Uvedale Price and Gilpin. Instead of imposing their will on the environment in the manner of Capability Brown, they sought to bring out the particular, quirky, features of a place; their temporally 'unorthodox' aesthetic also a timid, largely implied, resistance to the stultifying effects of enclosure on landscape, Brown's sweeping, empty vistas the aristocratic domestication of a 'nature' based on the expulsion of the peasantry from the land. These aristocratic 'improvers' both of 'nature' and the productivity of the land allowed for ornamental flocks of sheep etc but little else beside and, brought up to date, the similarities with the 'enclosing' of the Briggate site are obvious. However what Uvedale Price and Gilpin never mention is the deleterious effect enclosure was having on nature. It took a John Clare to bring this out. Sadly we seem as far as ever from effecting some kind of modern synthesis on these unofficial 'urban commons' left by decades of de-industrialization. Meanwhile, once seized by today's 'improvers', horrible 'nature' monstrosities are born".
"If John Ruskin were to come back what would he have made of all this? The Bradford Canal obsessed him and how many times have we unknowingly followed in his footsteps, the canal's dark, evil magic invading his soul. In fact this area below Briggate is the last extant remnant of what has to be the most infamous canal in history, its notoriety largely due to Ruskin's passages of matchless prose describing how its inky waters reeked of hell. The canal's past still clings spectre-like to the place and how wondrous that it should, over time, become a place of peerless bio diversity. Once more, thank you very much Bradford Council for destroying this order of succession that makes a thing of beauty out of the irremediable!"
Nor are we are the only ones to note this aestheticisation of nature, which is unfolding everywhere. Jonathan Meades, hardly an anti artist despite the title of his most well-known book is Museums without Walls, has said: "...the English landscape is increasingly infected with the artificial perfection of Georgian parkland whose purpose was to delight the eye: cows and sheep were theatrical props. This suave naturalism, supplied by Capability Brown to noble Whigs, has been democratised. The English sticks have been subjected to a makeover, a wash and brush up."................ "The idyll has moved from aspiration to actuality. When villages were inhabited by the sons and daughters of the soil the land was a factory without a roof. Now that they are commuters' dormitories the land is an amenity whose looks are everything. England's countryside is today more literally picturesque than it ever was, more conventionally picturesque, more institutionally picturesque.
"The National Trust and English Heritage are merely the most prominent agencies involved in turning back the clock to an age which only ever really existed in the brain of Constable and Cotman, Gainsborough and Girtin"
"As well as rushing headlong into a fictive past, the English landscape is increasingly managed. That's to say it is subject to countless prohibitions. Do not light fires. Do not park. Do not feed the ponies. Do not drive at more than 40mph. Do not, do not, do not. To which the only response can be: ignore, ignore, ignore. Tidiness is no virtue."
Icteric, Steven Graham & Transgressions
In our tirades against the arseholes that destroyed Briggate we had occasion to mention Icteric, as not far away in Harrogate at the time, Charlotte Raven was praising the "living sculpture" of some of the horticularised 'wilding' pieces on display in the ritzy Victorian town for the West Yorks rich. Of course we had coined the term and we let our protagonists know, well aware the dumb fucks we pointed this out to would not have a clue as to what we were talking about. So let's enlighten them yet again, but perhaps they can't read?? The influence of Icteric in the mid to late 1960s remained potent enough in Newcastle (especially Icteric during its later, wilder, more profound days), despite the onset of conservative reaction. As the art dept in Newcastle University succumbed to mind-numbing conservatism, on a respectable intellectual level the shadow of radicalism was squeezed back into a tolerated though official university agenda revealing itself well over 15 years later in the university's geography dept via a lecturer's magazine called Transgressions (reflecting the punk art gallery of the same name in the late 1970s / early 1980s?) Transgressions was perhaps the first building blocks of the fad that has since become neo-psychogeography, and (as previously mentioned) emasculated expression of cutting edge psychogeography first experimented with in the Paris of the 1950s petering out ten years later.Transgressions initially engaged in somewhat cardboard cut out eviscerated derives through Newcastle as well as doing interviews with Tom Vague and profiling articles by Angry Brigade notable, John Barker. Prof' Bonnet from the Geography Dept was initially the guy with the biggest neo-psychogeography profile but wasn't to remain so for long.
Then another twist; in Newcastle, Transgressions influence crossed over to the Dept of Architecture where our eldest brother once held a reactionary, forlorn sway. A couple of decades later Steven Graham took over as Professor of Cities and Society. A liberal, lightweight neo-psychogeographer he has since mapped-out the covert militarisation of many of the world's major cities specifically highlighting East London during 2012, the year of the dreadful Olympics centred in Stratford. He has had books published which have since been translated into many languages, in between doing daring things like writing for New Left Review. Wow! And shades of things to come re Sustrans and ecology, the guy is also significantly into cycling and birding, though it's rather like the yuppie variety lambasted in the Encyclopaedia de Nuisances, The Despotism of Speed (C/F Revolt Against Plenty web) Mark Dorrian, another neo-psychogeographer is Prof' of Architectural Research at Newcastle where he wrote a situationist influenced paper, "Expect anything, Fear nothing" and is head of global research unit in the architectural dept. On a more general level, the Situationist influence in Newcastle is bigger than in any other provisional city and whether we like it or not, we started the ball rolling there....
We wrote on the horror story of the London Olympics as The Monstrous Bastards and as such, posted these efforts on the RAP web -The London Olympics and Mass Market Neo-Psychogeography . It's highly likely that Steven Graham knows of our existence but abides by the rules of generalised omerta refusing to acknowledge such miscreants who are clearly beyond the pale. Nonetheless there occurred a revealing incident indicating that the guy could no longer hold-in all that academic dissimulation locked up inside his head and body – and perhaps was influenced by our more radical life styles or even by the Monstrous Bastards. For once he expressed himself directly walking out on an August bank holiday night in 2012, stoned and drunk with a screwdriver to scratch comments on a host of parked cars in a middle class Newcastle neighbourhood. It was a revealing, Mallarme-like moment as his recuperative role was cast aside. Yes, it was a commendable act though not sufficiently thought through. However, it quickly became obvious Prof' Graham wasn't used to walking on the wild side with the everyday need for pragmatic camouflage paramount as canny caution was thrown to the wind never thinking late night passers-by would shop him to the filth. Sadly his slogans on the rows of obnoxious parked cars that he rightly vandalised weren't really up to his scratches and there was to be no enlightened slogans against consumerism in general, etc. Instead we got "very silly" "really wrong" "arbitrary" dug into the pristine paint job of car carapaces. Certainly not bad but really something more provocative and memorable was needed. A few days later the guy was arrested and later in court, grovelling and apologetic, was presented with a big fine plus massive compensation for damages incurred.
Within a year a suitably chastened Steven Graham had returned to his role as a clever official dissimulator and recently has been instrumental in producing a couple of films outlining in a more general way the growing police colonisation of urban space especially in capital cities deploying, where possible, nature decoys like thick, leafy, evergreen shrubs to hide surveillance equipment. Immediately the first few film images imprinted themselves on the memory as inherited from classic psychogeography especially that of Constant Nieuwenhuys though under-pinned with a more conciliatory, even perhaps, right wing agenda. Thus, the city is no longer a space where freedom loving individuals conglomerate but the arena for cutting edge psychological control of human behaviour where the misfit can be digitally recognised and non-conformist body language decoded and then remorselessly followed. This is the essence of the modern wired, cyberspace city. This is all indisputable and well put together, but Graham's summing up at the conclusion of these films is mealy-mouthed and you are never sure as to what is being said. Is he for or against this newly equipped psychological policing as he maps out the fear of future total cyber-terrorism which could mean certain starvation for much of the population within days as all utilities are fatally taken out seeing we inhabit such a faked, insubstantial world? Is he welcoming to some degree total control instead of Constant's bohemian, artistic freedom with its more complex nuances and difficulties like genial psychopaths and nutters, now to be monitored through digital, facial profiling and a big brother scenario far in advance of Orwell's dire but simplistic prognosis. Graham did these films in collaboration with other academics such as Situaif (the pedigree is obvious) from London's Goldsmith's College of Art, under the auspices of Matthew Fuller and Martin Feuz. Or does this guy want us to start growing food on our doorsteps care of another huge, world war two like, Dig for Victory campaign with London as a vast allotment just in case a worst case scenario engulfs us. Or on the other hand, perhaps optimistically Steven Graham envisages this re-agriculturalisation will tied us over revolutionary transition? The problem is, Graham speaks with forked tongue so we don't really know.....
Al Weiwei and Icteric
In the aftermath of the Briggate disaster, forced to research the history of Sustrans, the thought dawned on us that Sustrans had taken up something, albeit probably unknowingly, from the fallout of the Icteric experiment especially through employing ex adherents we knew (and fell out with) in the north of England, end of art 'artists' into sculpture-in-nature, etc. People like Mike Lyons who helped 'create' the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Park (near Barnsley). Recently, a scribbler named Judith Legrove who is writing a book on Lyons recently emailed asking if she could use an Icteric cover for her forthcoming book on Lyons. (She was so formal and ridiculous we just laughed despairingly as she didn't even have the foggiest notion of our anti-copyright position never mind anything else like down with sculpture!) More to the point, interestingly in researching all of this, we discovered an explicit overlap between Icteric and Ai Weiwei (aka Way Way Off-It) in China, the connection now promoted by the Chinese Cultural Board (or some such body) that even heaps praises on Icteric!! As mentioned previously, Harrogate today plays with avant-garde concepts such as 'living sculpture" (a term we invented back in 1967 and - aren't we surprised - so has Ai Weiwei in China gone in for a similar appropriation without mentioning sources). Weiwei though sticks to the installation angle, whilst Harrogate is a little more advanced in creating wild, pollinator friendly areas in the heart of the town, Bradford, by the by, clinging limpet-like to outdated, downright embarrassing, 1950s-type horticultural displays which repel the pollinators we as a species are dependent upon.
Above in colour: An eco-sculptural memory of Rothwell pit near Leeds. Above right in black and white: Isn't it rather like the Icteric colliery installation in Newcastle in 1966? Certainly, there's more than enough of an ambient connection.......
In this particular avenue of research we were ably assisted yet again by Wayne Spencer from Calderdale who had the following general comments to make: "I also watched recently the documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Weiwei is both a free speech activist in China and a leading international conceptual artist with an expensive home and a warehouse in which paid assistants carry out the vulgar business of actually creating the works attributed to him. There is some interest in seeing how these two aspects of the man interact. His activism is spectacular. In the main, he creates small, mildly provocative incidents. In themselves, these have no direct, material consequences for the social organization of power. Instead, they are represented to his army of admirers and the overseas mass media through social media. Presumably that distant murmuring of the powerful and the passive that we call "public opinion" is supposed to persuade the regime to change itself. At all points, he himself is a celebrity; he stands at the centre. Even when he is not creating little dramas in which he is the main actor and his audience merely cheers his successes and boos his adversaries, it is he who provides the ideas or brings people together for projects. As with his art, he thinks and enjoys the fame, while his subordinates and admirers do what he suggests. The old distinctions between thought and action, theorist and activist, persist. Outside of China, his practice is devoid of critique. He happily provides museums, magazines, and their consumers with one piece of vapid nonsense after another."
On Feral, Wilding, Climate Change and George Monbiot
Perhaps the most well known critical ecologist in these islands is George Monbiot. We mean 'critical' in the sense he attacks the well-known cop out ecos like Mark Lynas – the turncoat who joined the ranks of Green Inc., after publishing the penetrating and prescient Six Degrees. Despite Monbiot now supporting advanced nuclear power installations through expediency because he knows full well we are on the brink of unstoppable climate change he nonetheless continually turns out a series of interesting journalistic articles that can have real edge, although unfortunately journalism per-see is his downfall as he stops short of proposing any kind of socially autonomous praxis though always hinting at the need for such a praxis. Today a tone of desperation increasingly is a deep undertow of much of what Monbiot writes as he looks around him seeing sell-outs everywhere and the situation daily getting worse. Instead of observing nature in all its fullness he knows this experience is now denied to everybody feeling intensely the encroaching horror of "the green desert" of industrialised horticulture and monocultures based on one anti-eco stimulating growth drug after another, except these drugs are regarded as ecologically sustainable by the greenwash powers that be. Rightly he notes there's more wild life in a brownfield site in Birmingham than is what is traditionally regarded as a 'nature' site and it's this realisation, which overlaps, with our perspectives. A big part of our intention here is to translocate the best of Monbiot's recent insights putting them into an anti capitalist, communal, much more autonomous perspective though knowing full well we'd never see eye to eye with him because we live on an almost completely different plain...
After so many years researching and writing on the environment, George Monbiot in his recent thought provoking, increasingly very influential book Feral finally admits, "I was ecologically bored."... "I have sought to rewild my own life" yet remains cautious. "So young a word, yet so many meanings" noting by the time rewilding entered the dictionary in 2011, it was already hotly contested. When it was first formulated, it meant releasing captive animals into the wild but soon the definition expanded to describe the reintroduction of animal and plant species to habitats from which they had been excised. "The rewilding of natural ecosystems that fascinated me is not an attempt to restore them to any prior state, but to permit ecological processes to resume".... adding perceptively, "In countries such as my own, the conservation movement, while well intentioned, has sought to freeze living systems in time. It seeks to manage nature as if tending a garden."
Rewilding for Monbiot (as with ourselves and others like us) is about "resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own nature - it let's nature decide." Moreover "The way [nature] evolves cannot be predicted, which is one of the reasons why this project enthrals. While conservation often looks to the past, rewilding of this kind looks to the future - my hope is that it makes magnificent wildlife accessible to everyone. It should happen only with the consent and enthusiasm of those who work the land. It should never be used as an instrument of expropriation and dispossession - forced rewildings that have taken place around the world.
There are two definitions of rewilding that interest me. The second is the rewilding of human life - the rewilding that I envisage has nothing to do with shedding civilization. We can I believe enjoy the benefits of advanced technology while also enjoying, if we choose, a life richer in adventure and surprise. Rewilding is not about abandoning civilization but about enhancing it. It is to "Love not man the less, but nature more". (Byron: Childe Harold) What Monbiot really wants is the reintroduction of human beings into nature with the outcome of creating "a fiercer less predictable eco system." And yes, we'd go along with most of the above quote.
But then alas, we begin to part company. Aware we are now in a conservation prison, Monbiot begins with a quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins "Oh, for the weeds and the wilderness yet" and a beautiful line that resonated with us altogether differently calling to mind the inviting virgin lands of industrial dereliction where no one had ever trod, where rust transformed the familiar products of the workshop of the world into an assemblage of the nameless awaiting to be reborn into a new world, where great glacial moraines of shattered concrete would flow down spoil heaps thinly covered in red fescue, trefoil and willow herb where from a considerable distance it was possible to pick out the sausage shapes of the elephant hawk caterpillar. Where there were butterflies and moths galore and many a postindustrial glade humming with bees and hoverflies. No other experience would come close to matching its enchantment - the subtitle of Monbiot's Feral is "Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of wilding". The difference is our wilding perspectives involve the abolition of the State / Tate [gallery] nexus plus capitalism per se.
Monbiot is right when he says the idealized landscape for many wildlife groups is the one that prevailed 100 years ago. They are defending the land from the intrusions of nature. Nature reserves are treated like botanic gardens: their habitats are herbaceous borders of favoured species weeded and tended to prevent the wilds from encroaching. In reality they should be called culture reserves. All too true, then Monbiot crosses into nameless wilding territory - and the wilding we love. "I believe that pockets of wild land - small in some places large in others - should be accessible to everyone: no one should have to travel far to seek refuge from the ordered world" meaning we have a need for landscapes, or, if you like self-willed land along with self-willed people.
The drive toward monoculture creates dewilding of both places and people enhancing ecological boredom, narrowing the scope of our own life, limiting the range of our engagement with nature. Even by European standards, the UK has a peculiar fear of nature and its conservationists a peculiar fear of letting it go. Monbiot correctly surmises, "I find the double standards hard to explain. I wonder whether our campaigns against deforestation elsewhere are a way of not seeing what has happened in our own country."
For Monbiot, conservationists sometimes resemble gamekeepers: they regard some of our native species as good and worthy of preservation, others as bad and in need of control though unlike gamekeepers, they don't use the word "vermin" to describe our native wild life, instead they say "unwanted invasive species" seeking to suppress nature, to prevent successional processes from occurring, to keep eco systems in a state of arrested development. Nothing is allowed to change; nature must do as it is told. These so-called conservationists have retained an Old Testament view of the natural world: it must be disciplined and trained; for fear that its wild instincts might otherwise surface.
Then Monbiot turns to the landscape of the Cambrian Hills. "Some people claim to love this landscape, I find it dismal, dismaying". On moving to Wales to explore these great expanses "my wonder and excitement soon gave way to disappointment then despair. "The near absence of human life found, was matched by a near absence of wildlife. The fragmented ecosystems in the city from which I had come were richer in life, richer in structure, richer in interest....whenever I venture into the Cambrian desert I almost lose the will to live. It looks like a land in perpetual winter." Such personal trauma interestingly paralleled our own though coming from an entirely different angle of pit spoil heaps and industrial dereliction in general, and the more we ventured on them, the more childhood returned with a delightful vengeance as we wearied of the scenic Yorkshire uplands finally seeing in a landscape of contempt like detritus strewn Briggate a more ecologically profound experience than ever a denuded and banal Ilkley Moor could inspire.
Monbiot more than those individuals and movements previously mentioned, embraces 'wilding' though he envisages and desires a form of extravagant fantastical re-wilding in what he calls in his book Feral, "the sheep-wrecked", shorn mountainous uplands. He wants to bring the old tree cover back not only to absorb the increased rain fall massively reducing the impact of flooding but also to repopulate these forests with wolves, hippos and rhinos etc, recreating a terrain not too dissimilar to what these northern uplands were like two million years ago when man first evolved and indeed in the 19th century, 100,000 year old hippo bones along with the bones of the straight tusked elephant were found beneath Trafalgar Square. For Monbiot, a sheep monomania has taken over, a monomania of homogeneity, and "the greatly increased flocks [of sheep] in just 60 years have completed the transformation [of landscape] into something resembling a bowling green with contours." If not that, there's the endless procreation of flatland for the flatlanders, of featureless green deserts bordered with beds of primulas and pansies and that guarantees there is more variety and life to be found in plasticised consumption or the pitiful gadgetry of software apps. Elsewhere Monbiot has rightly scathingly described the present day suburban lifestyle as based on a new three "Rrs": Recreation / Renovation / Resorts. And in Feral the ever present fear behind the suburban mask is backed up by one of Jimmy Ballad's better poetic insights: "The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world."
Beyond these specific instances, Monbiot is bored and wants to experience the thrill of a rejuvenated life. Don't we all but would introducing exotic species in a refurbished wilderness achieve this, surviving as we do in an alienated society mediated through images? Isn't it a matter of breaking the spectacle and the mediatique first through a thorough going clued-in, profound social uprising? Elsewhere, (The Guardian July 5th 2014) Monbiot has noted the desperate psychological condition of those who live the negative in our present day excuse for a life. And what happens if like ourselves we are utterly incapable of performing to the gallery, prone to anxiety and possessed with social phobia both of which reflect a fear of other people who are "perceived as both evaluators and competitors and the only roles for society that market fundamentalism admits." Depression and loneliness plague us having had a lot to do with a veritable onslaught of abuse against our ideas and actions from pre-teens through Icteric and King Mob to the present day, though, without self pity, we also know - out there - it is becoming a near majority syndrome. Thus for the life of us we cannot even promote our ideas or give a lecture as this is the very essence of the aestheticised performance principle we hate so much.
Regarding the so-called countryside, for Monbiot the worst culprit in this denuding process is the European Agricultural Code, which seeks to avoid "the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land". Farmers must stop wildplants from returning and they do not have to do anything to qualify for a subsidy other than keep wildlife from returning. More draconian, any pasture containing more than 50 trees per hectare disqualifies a farmer from receiving a subsidy payment. The effect of these rules has been to promote the frenzied clearance of habitat meaning the system could scarcely have been better designed to ensure that farmers seek out the remaining corners of land where wildlife still resides and destroy them. This results in a powerful compulsion to tidy up the land with the last remnants of hedges and copses being ripped up; a situation whereby a functioning eco system is replaced with a tidy one. Since 2003 decline in farmland birds has accelerated and farming is cited as a reason for the decline of wildlife in Wales in 92% of cases.
Behind this too (never mind the massive increase insecticides which makes Silent Spring child's play in comparison to our ultra toxic age) lies Monbiot's hatred of the big landowners and again, he is right on this score noting that Britain has one of the highest concentrations of land ownership in the world and though a small minority they dominate rural policy and little can be done without their agreement, the hunting / shooting / fishing lobby remaining as strong as ever. Inevitably there is the big gap here between Monbiot and us: council land is our bête noire in the way it is hideously managed.
More specifically Monbiot rightly rails against the Scottish landowners who have been called by Labour MP, Ian Davison, "the greediest benefit claimants in the country" having reaped well over a £billion in farm subsidies and wind turbine levies whilst paying no taxes. Post the publication of Feral within the landowners' ranks, a super-rich Danish fashion magnate, Anders Holch Povlsen, is set to acquire a string of neighbouring Highland estates to create ironically something like the realisation of Monbiot's vision of a vast uninterrupted wilderness.More interestingly, after the success of the failure of the late 2014 Scottish 'independence' referendum, Scottish students into crowdsourcing are attempting a takeover of a local baronial estate enabling immigrants to have something like a permanent base they can call home. Whilst this in diverse ways proves that Feral is becoming a very, very influential book, its fatal weakness is it doesn't encapsulate a real critique of political economy, meaning this form of wilding becomes merely another aspect of capitalism and one diametrically opposed to the communal wilding which must be essential to the unfolding of the illusive transition (that 'What After Then') of a real transcending social revolution.
Arid reductionism, banalisation, health and safety-ism, what Semprun called "progress in domestication" must be stopped though for Monbiot this necessary transformation can only be brought to realisation through a vast bureaucratic 'liberated' leftist state, among which there will probably be some top / down structured eco army beavering away until all the spaces of "the green desert" are filled up with a new wilderness (and no doubt voted into existence through a Parliament cleansed of corporate lobbying). Therefore vast tracts of land will be returned to their pre-historic state carved out (perhaps) by the most modern of earth moving machinery guided by something like an enlightened sub-Bolshevik state. However, this operation will not be a collective act of the people but will possibly be undertaken by eco-conscious, Cuban-style, Che Guevara-like brigades perhaps prefigured by 'activist' groups such as Rewilding Europe (presently working in the southern Carpathians) who might one-day morph into something similar? Such an intervention is fortunately step-by-step well nuanced. These humanoid brigades initially facilitate the wilding process; a process which from then on is handed over to the newly introduced big herbivores who naturally and harmoniously then proceed to keep the landscape varied meaning all kinds of complex, disparate wildlife can gloriously flourish guided only by organic, amoral, free will. Great, but then what do we make of the following from Monbiot: "Rewilding Europe is seeking to demonstrate that restoring ecological processes makes more money for local people than was generated by the industries that formerly used the land."
And there's the rub. Though Monbiot desires a renewed passionate life it is still a life conceived within the paradigms of capitalism. Indeed in a previous book Heat he pointedly refused to deploy the dread word capitalism worried it could put wavering Tories, etc. off the liberating eco scent and he remains stuck in the same groove throughout Feral. In reality, whether Monbiot knows it or not, his is a vista of endless capitalism, albeit a very benign version. In this perspective, Monbiot considers that most human endeavours, unless checked by public dissent, evolve into monocultures. Money seeks out a region's comparative advantage - the field in which it competes most successfully - and promotes it to the exclusion of all else. So whenever this process is loosed, every landscape or seascape performs just one function meaning money is eternal though the very idea of dissent suggests it isn't.
Whether we like it or not, George does see the future through moneyed but sensitive eco lenses like the Star Tree Market Place in Argyll, Scotland, a web based forum to foster business to business, business to community and community to business interactions. Thus Star Tree deals in MPT (Multi-Purpose Trees) and NWFP (Non Wood Forest Products). This seems to us the commodification of country pursuits like gathering nuts, picking berries, foraging for mushrooms and making a proper business out of them - an SME – (Small to Medium Enterprise) in Star Trees business oriented anagrammatic phraseology). Further prime examples of business-speak is to be found all over its web pages like, "Aims to provide better understanding, knowledge, guidance and tools to support stakeholders in optimising the management of multi-purpose trees and developing innovative approaches to increasing the marketability of NWFP for a more competitive rural economy" and "potential for markets for NWFP - including the role of public and private actors in supporting the innovative processes for new products and services based on consumers behaviour and patterns". Thus Monbiot sees a need to "Establish solid strategic partnerships working on NWFP in Europe to ensure and speed up the transfer of research and innovations into the market". With some kind of satisfaction Monbiot emphases that ecological regeneration of the region could also be the foundation of its economic regeneration noting that the colonisation of the Isle of Mull has brought £5 million a year to its local economy and supports 110 full time jobs and a study commissioned by the Scottish government calculated wildlife tourism is already worth £276m a year.
All we can say is sorry George but you do need to read the depths and profundity of the real critiques of political economy from the best of Marx, through Rosa Luxembourg to Kurz, etc and not rely on banalised interpretations through the blinkered eyes of social democrats (like the glamourised Thomas Piketty) to possibly sundry Bolshevikhs and their hair-brained successors. However we suspect George is no reader of New Left Review so his knowledge of past leftisms is probably pitiful even though in one article he wrote, Engels is quoted "If you throw nature out of the window it will come in through the back door" (quoted perhaps from The Dialectics of Nature?) and in Feral there's a passing glance in the direction of the Italian Bolshevikh, Gramsci only for George to then describe him merely as a philosopher as he translocates the latter's notion of hegemony; "We suffer from agricultural hegemony; what is deemed good for the farmer or landowner is good for us."
Hopefully by now we've sketched some reasonably accurate description of how Monbiot's wilding distinguishes itself from a fully inclusive communal wilding for everybody who may wish to join in largely among urban spaces, a concept spreading into all other kinds of activity, as against the statist initiatives which Monbiot embraces? No wonder those with a free form anarchistically oriented perspective simply cannot gel with any of this, so it's hardly surprising Ian Bone has called him, "George Moonbat" and Bone's other comments when listening to a Monbiot lecture aren't bad as far as they go.... Also, significantly George Monbiot makes no mention of ground breaking pre revolutionary experiments like the contestations of Rene Riesel and the early Confederacion Paysanne (and not what it became) in France or the revolutionary theories around Jaime Semprun and the Encylopeadie de Nuisances. These are serious flaws. Monbiot's perspective is in fact something like a new social democracy, which wants to see the democratisation of the public school (and not its abolition) along with a more equal waged society and not with the supercession of value and the abolition of the wages system.
Monbiot in The Guardian, 30th July 2014, is now firmly of the opinion the major political parties are nothing more that defenders of the super-rich, desiring little or no wealth redistribution, only then to lamentably say the following: "But there is another party, which seems to have discovered the fire and passion that moved labour so long ago: the Greens." Yet, all the 'Greens' propose is merely an update of yesteryear's failed Second International programme such as living wages, renationalisation of railways, maximum pay ratios with no executive receiving more than ten times the salary of the lowest paid workers, plus embracing a Thomas Piketty style wealth tax, etc. None of this remotely hits the central core of the capitalist mode of production, the core valorisation / devalorisation nexus. Moreover, in this 6 page web Eco Peterloo expose, our dealings (or rather non-dealings) with the Green party have been richly highlighted so there's no point in reiterating them here.
Critics of Feral like Steven Poole (a fellow Guardian Review writer) sees in Monbiot's arguments a leaning towards a nature aesthetes fascism; a lebensraum of 'natural' flora and fauna (anti immigration / anti foreigner against invaders like "Panzers and U-boats". Furthermore, Poole dislikes what he sees as a modern day obsession with a return to nature, which is now everywhere, what the French call nostalgie de la boue - "nostalgia for the mud."
However, Monbiot is no fascist but somebody who wants an enlightened, paternalistic management of the commoners on the 'new' commons though one which largely denies them their own intervention and creative contribution. Indeed he criticises the attraction to large predators often associated with misanthropy, racism and the far rights noting that the Nazi Reichsmarschall Goring seized the Bialowieza Urwald as his private property, (an area that had been preserved through the centuries) clearing the forests of people, the Hitlerian government conservation department setting out to create a vast national park which was "close to being as undisturbed ecosystem as any remaining in Europe." The zoologist Konrad Lorenz (then a Nazi party member) wanted to rewild human nature by stripping people of what he considered to be the genetic legacy of civilisation. Those selected for breeding would form not just a master race but also a master species of instinctive wild beings, which would rule the ecosystem. Monbiot unashamedly described Nietzsche as celebrating instinctive behaviour whose disruption has led to social breakdown a lack of patriotic enthusiasm and eventual human extinction. Needless to say, this is a lamentable parody of Nietzsche's thought, Monbiot unable to get to grips with Nietzsche's seminal, profound critique of art, nor his equally seminal and profound analysis of the rise of European nihilism, concepts the Situationist, Raoul Vaneigem in the 1960s superbly developed within the paradigms of contemporary revolutionary praxis.
Monbiot then goes on to condemn the process of enclosure not only by the Nazi's but also by the British Colonial Office whereby Masai tribes' people were hospitalised by the Kenya Wildlife Service in their attempt to clear the land of human beings. Even more horrible the famous wildlife TV star Joy Adamson's exhibited psychopathic traits demanding of the colonial authorities that she be given 30,000 acres of land belonging to native people so that her pets could use it. And today Richard Leakey the director decreed the setting aside of land for the purpose of wildlife conservation, so as "to support the tourist industry, is a strategic issue."
Poole also sees Monbiot in the tradition of the "Back to the Land" movements which in the 1930s in Britain briefly tended to be fascistically inclined and in this no doubt he could include popular figures like Henry Williamson and his talisman-like Tarka the Otter well loved by many a post second world school kid with dreams far removed from any Fourth Reich. However, in the 1930s there were also a sizable number of misguided people who wanted to see an end to unemployment relief and for claimants to be put to work on the land as temporary slaves under the heel of a Gauleiter overlord. It's equally obvious that George Monbiot is far removed from anything like this, his increasing desperation based on the realisation that with the cataclysmically quick nature of climate-wise we are running out of time and something very drastic must be speedily undertaken, otherwise the human race has more or less had it which means he occasionally has a tendency to embrace the whacky amongst much well thought out environmental science. Within that perspective he joins other siren voices among fellow professional intellectuals like Danny Dorling (e.g. The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive it / All that is Solid: the great housing disaster) and Stephen Emmott (Population 10 Billion).
Dorling an academic urbanist from Sheffield University (now Prof' of Human Geography - i.e. recuperated psychogeography - at Oxford) rightly cannot see the point of that ever present panacea, loved by Tory and Labour alike, of endlessly building thousands upon thousands of new homes. Rather, Dorling would like to see all empty buildings, whether old or new, re-occupied, advocating in tandem, a kind of early 1930's JM Keynes form of birth control inherited from Malthus. Hardly surprising, what with his knowledge of the pointless housing waiting list in Sheffield (the largest in the UK) with all its huge potential supply of empty but condemned council properties which could be immediately reused, Dorling is something of a Bolshevised Marxist never making mention of the failures of Leninism and when mentioning Mao makes no comments on his prodigious failings like the state induced famine of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, etc, etc. Though Dorling is for the legalisation of squatting, he overlooks just how easy it is to convert abandoned factory units, etc. into habitable space and that the type of person who formerly would have squatted such properties were well on the way to becoming the new type of free form, ad hoc, passionately felt, female / male builder of the future. We have long recognised, and tapped into this potential, aware that brownfield sites and abandoned factories along, for instance, Canal Road in Bradford were being occupied prior to the 2013 crackdown and that the illegal inhabitants posed no threat to the buildings nor the nature that was beginning to garland them, this natural wilding providing a near impenetrable screen the eye of authority found difficult to penetrate. Now both people and nature have been evicted from these premises of infinite promise in the vain hope some latter day Donald Trump will come along and convert them into luxury condos.
A lived-in conservation of old, not so old and new-ish buildings more than ever must be predicated on a definitive break from the era of modernism and post-modernism i.e. the stereotypical 'new' house and garden with a view / nuclear family / consumer oriented unit which both neo conservatism and dead duck labourism are still obsessed by. Essentially it implies a new, liberated lifestyle centered on a communal, egalitarian way of living, anti aesthetic and anti commercial, more an assembly led collectivity. A lifestyle that supersedes the prominence of the visual engaging all the senses based more around Lautreamont's intoned maxim of "as beautiful as".....stretched to an infinity of variations.
As for Stephen Emmott in his book Population 10 Billion possessed with a lucid, scientific grasp of climate change science finally and alarmingly embraces a survivalist nightmare. He accurately says, "Right now, every leaf on every tree on earth is experiencing a level of CO2 that the planet has not experienced for millions of years". Scared of the mounting risk of famine he reckons that "entire global ecosystems are not only capable of suffering a catastrophic tipping point, but are already approaching such a transition". We therefore have only two ways of dealing with this: "the first is technologising our way out of it. The second is radical behaviour change." Geo-engineering schemes are highly risky and could backfire but he sees little hope for that essential factor in this equation, essential behaviour change. "We need to consume less...And yet, every decade, global consumption continues to increase relentlessly".... "We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don't think we will. I think we're fucked."
Methane is now pluming – a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2 – have been observed rising from previously frozen areas of the Arctic Shelf. This process could go on for centuries with a terrifying land grab by rich corporations buying arable land around the world, which means the Arctic would become a terrain of inter-imperialist competition leading to war. But Emmott thinks barbarism can hardly be avoided and we must protect ourselves by getting guns to our children no doubt followed by a war of one against all; of competing armed communities! HOLY MACKERAL! The obvious escapes such Emmott's desperate perspective, as the real hope for a levelling and declining population growth resides around support for women's empowerment with control over fertility.
These are therefore reminders of the dangerous world we are increasingly entering, as if, dear reader you need to be reminded!
In reality the dominant 'Back to the Land' movement in the UK has been anything but fascistic, rather it tends to be too well meaning, a wishy-washy liberalism lacking real and necessary hard edged critique. Moreover the hippy experience in the late 1960s and afterwards has continually shaped its future and King Mob had relations with the West Country commune anarcho individuals around HAPT and Sid Rawle of the Diggers could often been seen on the streets of an alternative, pre-gentrified Notting Hill in London. We were always on friendly, nodding terms with each other. It's no surprise therefore that one of their latter-day offspring, the Vaneigem quoting Idler has its centre nearby on Westbourne Grove. Their praiseworthy anti work perspective however stops well short of a sound, thorough going revolutionary critique of work falling back so often on social democratic measures, as in a recent rather dull article for the Independent newspaper by its 'leader' Tom Hodgkinson listing 8 hour day / four days a week working measures enacted by a variety of progressive state legislative acts over the last 100 years or so, acts which never amounted to all that much. You won't though get far with the Idler if you think the paper might discuss the increasing insubstantial character of surplus value creation, hi-tech and automation – and a critique that points to a real exit from the nightmare of disintegrating capitalism. Without saying too much here perhaps it's best to merely show a typical poster from the Idler Academy in London, which we obviously go along with to some degree fitting in to sufficiently with enough of an authentic wilding perspective, but oh, so much else is missing.........
1972-3: Street Farm or "Ecology appreciation....help restore your natural harmony by spending time up a tree"... "Cows Arise" for "spring is here and the time is right for planting in the streets"........
(Above: the book cover. Stephen E Hunt. Bristol Radical History Group. www.tangentbooks.co.uk . The book has the distinguished merit of absolutely NO reviews in The Guardian, The Times, New Statesman and all the rest of the high profile cultural garbage)
Street Farm (SF) was based on the excellent concept that via an open-ended revolutionary urbanism a profusion of organic growth would take over from concrete, steel and brick structures plus that vista of permanent purgatory - yet to be born - of a shorn, manicured, endless malling where all hopes of rich biodiversity are forever stifled; a terrain which has appropriately been called "hostile architecture." For SF "The land belongs to the communities of the biosphere, and NOT individuals of the human race." Anarchism was at the core of these beliefs instigated by a latter day evolution, especially the eco-anarchism of Murray Bookchin's Institute of Social Ecology though taking into its orbit, Durutti's prescient comment during the Spanish revolution of 1936-9 which, ironically could have come from the mouth of a contemporary neo-psychogeographer: "We are not in the least afraid of ruins.... [...] We carry a new world in our hearts," though this wasn't via some sales pitch of an art gallery display but an on-the-ground, full blown practical insurrectionary reality. SF even skirted with a certain belief in anarchist trade unionism, (which we by then in the early 1970s had consigned to history along with the rest of TU bunkum) supported the British miners and even had one bona fide anarchist farm worker within its tiny ranks. The boring anarchist illustrator, Clifford Harper was also a friend of Street Farm in the Kentish Town squatter community and he later distilled some of their ideas in dull and pedestrian plans for a utopian rural community of 2000 people; an anarchist yawn which comrades in late 1970s Leeds called "a boy scout camp" or "William Morris going belly-up".......
On the other hand two of SF's main protagonists, Haggart and Caine paraphrased and developed some of Murray B's ideas very well indeed succinctly summarising his central thesis: "A liberatory technology is a technology that will change the existing situation, alternative technology is one that will make that existing situation more tolerable." All this suggesting the total recuperation of ecological initiatives increasingly put most clearly and angrily by Bookchin himself as he grew older fed up to the back teeth with greenwash. In 1991 he said: "Attempts to 'green' capitalism to make it 'ecological' are doomed by the very nature of the system of endless growth."
If SF's core beliefs were anarchist inclined its presentation had more to do with fall outs from situationist experiments. Street Farm was about direct action not only as protest but more essentially, on how to run – and change - our daily lives. For instance, under the guise of the Oxford St Action Committee, they blockaded Oxford St, London in 1971 confronting traffic blight with suggestions for free public transport as well as indicating more visionary hopes. They enacted a free flowing extension of King Mob's old slogan that Cars are Dead, as SF participants' donned masks – not scarecrow masks – but scarecars masks! Street Farmer desired a top to bottom transformation of urban space as against that endless flight to a stultifying suburbia or rural drop out-ism in the countryside usually south west England or mid Wales. Basically they foresaw that the overcoming of the dualism between countryside and city begins in the revolutionary transformation of the city. In a Threatening Letter to ALL Architects (1973?), SF declaimed "our land has had FARMING confiscated from it...and an industry called AGRICULTURE imposed on it."
They quickly attracted attention especially through their living and experimental 'first' eco house in Eltham, south London which was covered by press and TV even though these official commentaries inevitably slyly rubbished SF's core anarchist persuasions. The eco-house was more or less a spontaneous construction DIY built over a period of time in Eltham (ironically in south London's suburban, liminal edgelands) in the early 1970s and was consciously put in the admittedly imposed context of a continually transforming workers' council which was elaborated within the pages of SF 2 and duly proclaimed in big graffiti on the ever changing structure. The self-build inhabitants of both sexes theorised what their form of workers' council could possibly be – and all very open-ended. "The council is not finite, has no constitution, no legality, no quorum, no structure, it is not lasting, it is not the end of revolution, but where the revolution starts." For certain this was no ordinary, dull concept of a form of self-management of alienated production which even in the apocalyptic year of 1968, the American, Theodore Roszak in The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition perceptively points to when commenting on the May 1968 uprising in France: "Surely the touchstone of the matter would be: how ready are the workers to disband whole sections of the industrial apparatus where this proves necessary to achieve ends other than efficient productivity and high consumption? How willing are they to set aside technocratic priorities in favour of a new simplicity of life, a decelerating social pace, a vital leisure? These are questions which enthusiasts for workers' control might do well to ponder. Suppose the French workers had taken over the economy, an objective which seems to have lost its general appeal in the wake of the new wage agreements the de Gaulle government has granted. Would the Renault workers have been willing to consider closing the industry down on the grounds that cars and traffic are now more the blight than the convenience of our lives?" Roszak stresses an important point and for sure that was the majority view of 'the workers' though it's a view that ignores a sizable minority of manual workers who had a far more ambivalent response to the commodities they were making, some despising them outright. At times this was expressed in glorious vandalism like when workers openly and collectively in Italian automobile factories during 1969 smashed up thousands of cars they were turning out on production lines; and in a not too dissimilar manner, some years later, in the British miners' strike of 1984-5 young miners, having the time of their lives, played on the reversal of militant trade union slogans replacing "Coal not Dole" with "Dole not Coal".
So there is a complex interweaving here, one depending also on developing momentums elsewhere willy-nilly influencing each other's limited perspectives, a momentum also morphing in the process as critique is either notched-up or gradually lost sight of. If anything, Street Farm's form of 'workers council' was about the transcendence of alienated production or, as one of its best protagonists, Graham Caine put it, apropos the ever extending eco house's often spontaneous add-ons, as "a deliberate attempt to opt out of the concept of developing yet more 'super-technology to save the world." It was put together by people leaving behind the role of architect, and initially pretty naff at skilled, manual trades, slowly but surely becoming truly brilliant on the alien, ungainly tools required to accomplish an unusual and passionate autonomous quest among individuals liberating themselves from a professional strait jacket. They deliciously discovered how to begin the process of re-directing buildings, "repurposing buildings" - an excellent phrase – to "unperceivable ends" (Graham Caine), further commenting: "In pursuing this [eco-house] project I gave up my architectural qualification in the greater belief I could and should be pursuing the betterment of the planet." Yet it was many years later that (to take one example) Caine became a full time craftsperson with the Bristol Gnomes Workers' Co-op oriented around creating a fairy land in enchanted woods - admittedly somewhat Disney-like – though in far-better context, bringing together his predilection for the Gothic mixed with Gaudi's Guell Park, etc. in Barcelona together with hopefully opening up the possibilities of a more total transformation of everyday life. But did it work out like this in practise or had the terrifying epoch of neo-liberalism wiped out everything in its path as ding bat environments quickly became acceptable whimsical decoration? Or perhaps something such as George Clarke's Amazing Spaces of cheaply put together, quirky buildings - often of high technical standards - that offer little in terms of detonating subversion beyond a mildly interesting media event. Certainly we could see in SF's trajectory enough overlap with our Bradford field eco experiments on sites of industrial dereliction and, more specifically, with our transformation of a gothic church into an arena of imaginative social housing in London, which is why we've included SF in a kind of wilding perspective.
It is also true that SF were naive in analysing the amazing flexibility a cynical capitalism possesses in hi-jacking all quasi autonomous perceptive contributions turning them into their very opposite. By the early 1970s we were long in the tooth on this score and have remained so (with one or two exceptions we are not proud of). Most of SF never really got over their roles as architects though the best of them got damned close and two or three – to their eternal credit - really did break on through to the other side. Nevertheless, early salvos were terrific: "Architex –the pigs with drawing boards" further suggesting that "Architects become office demolition men."
Inevitably, official recuperation was there from the word go and a lot of SF's innovative use of materials including bricolage, salvage, dumpster survival, plus found – or cheap – odds and ends (immediately re-termed as the "peoples' technology") was immediately taken up by hip, commercial outfits which, decades later became the virus for all the infected clean, sleek, dying and dead eco estates of today's urban horror story. In some respects, though this naivety was really sad as SF prepared the way for aspects of respectable conservationism and a seemingly 'enlightened' anti-car city planning that has proved to be so insipidly lamentable since the 1980s onwards.
SF unbeknown to themselves was pushing at a deceptive open door and only the utter half wits of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) were consistently opposed to their experiments. More traditional type anarchists like urbanist Colin Ward, ten times quicker off the mark, took up their ideas in his Do-it-Yourself, New Town of 1976, as previously he purloined or pro-moed King Mob slogans in his 1974 book Vandalism. However, we must never forget that Ward had none of the integrity and autonomous praxis which was the essence of SF at its best, dutifully attaching his career to the Town and Country Planning Association as an education officer before becoming Prof' of Housing and Social Policy at the London School of Economics.
It wasn't only that the initial inspiring eco-house experimenters were merely recuperated; they were also ripped-off blind by endless predators only to be remembered as the first well-meaning, earnest ship of fools to provide an eco, green face to the changing face of an architecture that was then able to carry on in its old imperious ways becoming ever direr. For sure the Eltham eco-house rotunda covered by dumpster plastic sheeting looks like an initial mini version of the domes over the execrable, recently constructed, eco-tourist trap of the Eden Project in Cornwall. By now though almost everything subversive has become professionalised and specialised as greenwash reins supreme having suppressed the real eco component of full blown social revolution, itself vanquished by persistent silence and omerta. And now that real serious and catastrophic climate change is kicking-in we now have obnoxious, high salaried figures referred to as "sustainability experts" to deal with the crises. Who're you kidding?
Worse still, in response, town planners initially thrown by urban experimentation were having none of the general SF trajectory and gradually cut dead experiments that could subvert and disrupt the city along with SF's cry that "there are ways you can take bits of the city back". The Eltham eco house was closed down having only ever secured temporary planning permission and dumb fuck semi-suburbanite neighbours even helped in the demolition (interestingly on almost the very spot racists killed Steven Lawrence a few years later).... as subsequently SF's urban farm in Thamesmead was to get the boot "because [as Graham Caine rightly noted] we were anarchists basically". From then on only bogus public eco self-build was to be allowed, and even in the heart of alternative Bristol around the turn of the century, the Ashley Vale Action Group, which Caine initially got involved in before walking away in fury, was a con. Autonomous self-build was merely for surface appearances hiding a public /private partnership ambience of sub-lets after clearing the site of 'eyesores' e.g. old lived-in vehicles like caravans, buses and trucks etc!
Moreover, Street Farmer weren't critical of the other arts like music, literature, cinema, painting and sculpture focussing almost exclusively on the worst culprit of them all, the dire impositions of contemporary architecture. The huge Kentish Town squat in London in the early 1970s was an extending arts lab as this place – along with others – became birthplaces of the 'new' art (punk / street art etc) and SF somewhat based in these fascinating melting pots - that tended to transcend boundaries - couldn't adequately theorise the further disintegration of the arts through morphing alternatives which, slowly but surely, merely updated a Mask of Janus status quo. Obviously SF influenced the formation of an interesting community gardening project involving local families and pensioners called the Fun Art Farm; a name that unfortunately sends out the wrong signals. They cultivated somewhat the 'underground press' at a time when we and friends were becoming daily more critical noting the transition from counter culture to culture counter as real revolutionary hopes evaporated everywhere throughout the world. Even more surprisingly, SF was able to get their polemics published in official journals such as The Architectural Association Quarterly and Architectural Design. Around the same time we didn't stand a hope in hell of getting our stuff published through similar avenues ....AND KNEW IT! True we didn't make contact with SF at the time though our friend, Nik Holliman did – on his way to becoming a profound plumber from an architectural cum planning background. Instead, we were on friendly terms with their fellow traveller compatriots, ARSE (Architects for a Really Socialist Environment) and found conversations with individuals in the group, stimulating.
More gullible still, SF played up to the dominant media of cinema and TV which was hardly surprising as most of their presentation was done via a travelling charabanc of happenings and rock music - more like a Fluxus art performance than Situationist subversion - meaning the BBC, Sunday Observer and a youthful, culture-bug Melvyn Bragg could latch on to staged events like this. Obviously interesting stuff and details came though such a rather woolly melange, even right up to Caine's 1998, Travel's with my Chainsaw though the general context meant the subversive edge was necessarily blunted.
Finally, the bottom line here is to be found outside the spatial paradigms of architecture and urbanism in general. We live in an age where all real, earth-shattering critique is rendered invisible, where there's no recognition that the extraction of surplus value is becoming ever more elusive making the whole pack of cards more and more prone to a series of financial crashes becoming ever more difficult to surmount as intractable difficulties beset capitalist accumulation presaging its ultimate downfall. No wonder, Bradford Council / Sustrans in their infinite wisdom jet hosed slogans paraphrasing Robert Kurz, and even Thoreau went the same way........
The Final Enclosure: the enclosure of the mind
The essential crux at stake here once all falsities and cover-ups are cast aside – and they are legion – is the fundamentally explosive notion of what nature really means especially in England and which continually reverberates through profound insurrection from the Peasants Revolt of 1381 through to the English Revolution of 1640-5 and its long aftermath, even playing its part in the open-ended profundities of possibly the richest Romanticism of all in Europe from the late 18th /early 19th centuries. Essentially, it's a revolt embedded in something like a collective, historical subconscious; a psyche endlessly suppressed, only to return with revived, wayward cutting edges from the 1970s onwards. Essentially nature is so suppressed in the UK because there's such a general fear not only of its insurrectionary heritage but also of its amoral depths and power. Interestingly, Mike Peters participant of the Here & Now collective in Leeds in the 1990s would in casual conservation in the pub, keep returning to the subject though, as far as we know, never putting pen to paper on the subject. Obviously Mike's drift was founded on the long shadow cast by Gerrard Winstanley's Diggers on St George's Hill in Surrey though implying a lot more taking into account interpretations of Romanticism. More than that there was an immediate practical backdrop as some of the Here & Now collective particularly Steve Bushell, one of the main protagonists's, was heavily into allotments on the rich alluvial soils on the banks of the River Aire. Indeed together, we vaguely drew up plans to protect this amazingly fertile ground (and with an ingenuity that was to again show its face in the recent Shipley calamity) once development plans were mooted.
We've emphasised the epithet 'explosive' here though the bitter fact is, Romanticism never exploded here, as it should have done. The historian Peter Linebaugh, that somewhat worshipful disciple of EP Thompson, mentions that his maitre did in fact want to write an in-depth overview of this overlap (or rather lack of it) between leading Romantics and the early makers of the English working class, i.e. those in transit from the experience of the unfettered commons threatened by predatory enclosure to the brutalised drudgery of industrial wage slavery. If this conjuncture had melded and borne succulent fruit it would have had a similar resonance as the Enlightenment had had on the sans culottes, etc, in France and with again extra explosive consequences as we all well know. In retrospect we cannot but speculate that Thompson had at the back of his mind the on-the-street, combative example of late 1960s King Mob (though Thompson the academic would never have dared speak its name) with its conscious attempt to meld together English romanticism within a much wider situationist perspective of total social revolution encompassing the overthrow and realisation of art.
To be sure the commons – and not its often mundane existence some 200 years previously - also meant a nascent free America and for revolutionaries like Tom Paine his experience on this matter was widened more by the Native Americans like Chief Last Night than say peasant locals like John Clare's (admittedly residing a little later) in Paine's native Norfolk when not banged-up in a loony bin. Romanticism in England has in this respect at best become more a slow burning fuse that never really ignited finding expression and knowledge decades later among say the Chartists (Bradford's Great Horton Chartists read a lot of early Robert Southey, etc) after its living impetus had petered out. However the living pulse of a drifting, impassioned imagination keeps reviving the more the veils of its literary recuperation are torn asunder. More importantly what has been passed down to us as 'romantic literature' is beside the point. The vital kernel that is English Romanticism always looked well beyond the "ball and chain of art" (Breton) ever impatient to break through literary / artistic form ever wishing to transform the imagination, the very essence of their pulsating beings becoming a whirlwind, autonomous force of sheer inspired thought, spontaneous communication and action. An ambience whereby, the human being adapting say, Keats' "negative capability" could play at being a tree and/or blade of grass and the worker metamorphose into a skylark to fall back to earth as a child replete with a renewed impassioned life – a renewed force of nature – an erotic "oceanic feeling" spreading throughout humanity, from barricade to barricade...Remembering in the process - fifty years later in Paris during the Commune - Rimbaud said the future human being will be filled with animals meaning something more than pig liver transplants.
To bring back the utopian promise of the commons again becomes the cry and it's this emphasis that underlines these texts propounded by The John Clare Collective and The Monstrous Bastards. This time though the hope inherent in a new communing is based on the on-going collapse of capitalism that "sound of innumerable asset bubbles popping across the uneven geographical landscape of an otherwise listless capital accumulation" (David Harvey) whereby production – foreshadowed in hi-tech - has become increasingly immaterial giving way to currency futures, credit default swaps and CDO's making up the 'new' universe of planet ponzi's grim fetishised world of fantasy. The language of advertisers' world play is essential to this presentation abundant only in the deployment of creative and greenwash epithets though essentially bereft of all truly green or creative initiatives.
In response to the worldwide Occupy movement of 2011, there's now in place a 'new enclosure' affecting every move you and we make, one that colonises our very beings. It's not only the "landscapes of contempt" which must be enclosed; more essentially, the mind must now be enclosed like never before in history. You must only look one way and in one direction only – and the paradigm you will be enforced to follow can only be based on private property and retailing - that of looking at commodities on either the Internet or superstore window in preparation for the only act that can be allowed; the act of buying and selling. You will be strictly forbidden to see and feel anything else. On a more general level, it is essential you must morph into an android; a programmed robot obeying each and every audio-visual command endlessly thrown at us in our daily lives. In consequence, all nature must now be destroyed unless it obeys the diktats of an ultra-commodified developmental programme. The lawless, arrogant Shipley destruction, which is in reality now going on everywhere, is to be all our futures if we don't fight back.........
At the time we thought Briggate was something of a one off only to find well over a year later that it was part of a general pattern increasingly practised by official eco bureaucrats increasingly in hock to the developmental agenda having lost all contact with a liberating, egalitarian rank 'n' file democracy. Clear felling is now spreading throughout much environmental intervention as the above photos of a recently denuded Banstead Downs in Surrey, during 2014 testifies ostensibly in response to the almost total wipe out of the Small Blue butterfly by weather weirding. It's as if it is an exasperated response to the mammoth failure of conservation in general whereby a crazed tabula rasa has become all the rage in the vain hope a new nature will arise phoenix like from the ashes without ever questioning suicide capitalism in general. Gone are the days of sensitive, hands on, piecemeal experiment and hoped for improvement as a rigid, top down command structure becomes an unquestioning absolute. Gone too is the recognition that only the all weathers, minutely observant field naturalist possesses the real knowledge about a particular site, arrogantly pushed aside by nature bureaucrats having hired some cut price professional landscaping outfit, blundering insensitively from one disaster to the next, as over and above details what marks these increasingly dreadful times is an almost 50% cut in maintenance money scheduled for nature conservation The result is just as artists have destroyed the notion of creativity, so eco officialdom has destroyed the notion of conservation.
While putting the finishing touches to these texts we came across a fairy-like, child-like encampment cum abode in the carr woodland of a "landscape of contempt" near enough to Leeds city centre on land owned by Network Rail. A lovely ex-army techie aged 70 has made this place his home; a real materialised fantasy in contrast to capitalism's destructive increasingly immaterial, fetishised world of fantasy. So all's equal then? Well no, because this innocent, decent techie has been told to get out by men and women in hi-viz jackets who will if necessary resort to arm's length thuggish measures. The company, DB Schenker Rail has called in its enforcers who coming out with all the programmed crap about health and safety along with all the rest of the bollocks are, none the less uneasy. Interestingly these enforcers told us they mustn't look at forbidden websites – in this instance the place-hacking photos urban explorers have made of their discoveries especially the former Healey Mills Marshalling Yards. Hardly surprisingly in a situation where work has unfortunately largely become the province of jobsworths, they agreed to do as they were told.
Above: The Child-like abode of Alan the techie
In the early to mid 1990s, just before the dawn of CCTV, the Here & Now Collective (ironically in Leeds) produced a series of official looking roundel stickers that pointed towards the coming Dark Age where all aspects of everyday life and behaviour will be monitored and policed. It was prescient stuff and some individuals in the Here & Now Collective spent a few days observing how people in Leeds in public spaces such as squares and amenity parks reacted to these stickers. They were noted alright – occasionally with consternation – whilst the majority blandly accepted them. Sadly no survey results were ever written up.