Archive for the Urban Exploration Category

Research to continue my abandoned buildings photography and video practice

Posted in My practice, Urban Exploration on August 29, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

The possibility to explore abandoned buildings in the UK is limited, because security is tighter than in Ireland. It is especially diffcult to get into them for a woman artist working on her own, and planning to spend a few hours inside (It is slightly easier for a small group of individuals to have a quick visit with just the aim of snapping a few photographs, though still a complicated expedition!). The more easily available buildings are mostly stripped down and void of artefacts, which make them visually repetitive quickly. The most visually interesting buildings are tighly locked down (the reason their interiors are in better condition in the first place!)

I have however identified an old orphanage (Silverlands Actor’s Orphanage in Surrey) whose ornamented décor would make a good fit to use in a composite video with my footage from Woodlawn House, a few asylums to continue the ‘Disciplinary Instutitions’ project, and a few abandoned cinemas that would be part of a new project. Abandoned cinemas and theatres would form a promising new project, both because of my interest in cinematic lighting and theatrical framing of my subjects in my lens-based work (as opposed to a straightforward documentary style), and because the Theatre Trust has an excellent database that helps find promising places.

I have applied for permission to shoot at the orphanage and two cinemas (the Astoria and Hippodrome both in Brighton), but the negotiations are slow and the success rate low. Unlike Ireland, there is no easily accessible directory of ‘protected structures’ in the UK, therefore there is no official organisation to systematically use as a first point of contact when trying to get in touch with the owners. The way I went about it was to contact the art services and also the planning services of the city or district council of the area where the building of interest is. If I know the exact street address of the building, I also browse recent planning applications that can be read on the website of the relevant local authority. If a planing application has been filed for the building (which is often the case for derelict buildings), it displays the name and contact details of the owner and/or the architect applying for renovation, whom can then be contacted directly.

Woodlawn House short video

Posted in My practice, Urban Exploration, Video with tags , , on August 28, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

I’ve edited a very short video (1 min 30 sec) from footage shot at Woodlawn House, co. Galway, Ireland. It is an abandoned mansion with striking interior decoration such as grand staircase, mirrors and ornate ceilings, although it has been emptied of everything else for renovation. Its heavily ornamented décor reminded me of the hotel from Last Year in Marienbad, if it had been abandoned, and I tried to replicate the long tracking shots from the film.

I have an old harmonium and wanted to find a musician to improvise on it (I’m a total beginner and just occasionally have fun with it) to get the type of disjointed organ music from the Marienbad soundtrack, but I did not find anyone suitable, so I had to use some ambient music from Edge Effect who makes all my soundtrack instead. I chose a piece with a loose and fluid structure to try and replicate the feeling of ambiguous space with the music coming from no discernible direction characteristic of the Marienbad soundtrack.

I had about 30 min of footage and could only manage to make a 1 min 30 video out of it, the rest was either too similar or not very interesting visually. My ‘Ghost House’ and ‘Disciplinary Institutions’ videos (5min and 6min 50 respectively) are both composite from footage shot at various places. I would like to find more places similar to Woodlawn, abandoned places with a posh, ornamented decor, but rather clean and empty, where I could shoot more footage to make a longer composite videos, but such places are difficult to find.

Disciplinary Institutions video (new, improved 2011 edit)

Posted in Disciplinary Institutions, Moving image techniques, My practice, Urban Exploration, Video with tags , , , , , , on May 30, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

I also made a new version of ‘Disciplinary Institutions’, using footage shot in 2009 already used in the 2010 edit, and new, previously unused footage shot in 2010.

This piece is rather dry, similar to the work of the Wilson sisters, whereas I believe Ghost House is closer to what my work would look like should I move into a more narrative direction. By keeping a steady rhythm and directional continuity in long corridor tracking shots that get darker and darker as the video progress, I aimed to convey the feeling of powerlessness and crushing fate experienced by the inmates.

In this video too, I applied my theoretical readings and paid great attention to steady rhythm, avoiding jerky images and precise pacing by carefully selecting shot lengths. I decided on purpose to leave the 2 last shots on for longer necessary, in order to play with the audience nerves. The previous to last shot is especially unnerving because it’s a steady frame showing a book that says ‘Ecclesiastical law’: nothing happens in it visually yet the words say it all, and the audience have to bear it and suffer it, just like the inmates had to bear their imprisonment. The last shot of the moving shadow of a ‘caged’ plant swaying in the wind is the exact opposite: aesthetically pleasing (though gloomy) but conceptually simple. It is aimed at lulling the audience into calm thinking, so that, maybe, they can start integrating what they might have learnt while watching the video about themselves, their fears, their idea of freedom.

One technical problem to be sorted later is that the words ‘Ecclesiastical law’ are not very clear because the white pages of the book are a little overexposed. This is due to shooting in abandoned buildings with nothing but a small camera and in a completely improvised manner, since neither the local authorities nor the Catholic Church are willing to have the Magdalene Laundries advertised, and access to them therefore has to be ‘taken’. I hope to sort this in post production. I have not done it yet because I’m about to get the Adobe professional software, which should make a more precise job of it than MoviePlus which I currently use.

Ghost House video (new, improved 2011 edit)

Posted in Ghost House, Moving image techniques, My practice, Urban Exploration, Video with tags , , on May 30, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

I have made a new version of ‘Ghost House’, using footage shot in 2009 already used in the 2010 edit, and new, previously unused footage shot in 2010.

I needed to make a 5 minutes version for a submission that required a 5 minute film and found it a worthy exercise. The limited running time forced me to very carefully consider the appropriate length to get the most efficient effect from every single shot. I realised that in the previous version, I sometimes tended to let static shots run for as long as they were beautiful to watch. I realised that in trying to use as much of my footage as I could, I ended up diminishing the efficiency of the shot because, however beautiful the static shot, the audience was getting bored with it before it disappeared from screen. I saw that I could get more striking results by being more ruthless in my cutting, by keeping shots to the minimum length required to get affected by their atmosphere, but short enough not to get bored with it, even if it meant discarding well shot footage. I also took the difficult decision to discard beautiful shots because they did not quite suit the mood of the piece, whereas last year, I always tried to edit in everything pretty.

Reading all those reference cinematography and editing books, and writing down the tutorial helped me realise the paramount importance of coherent mood and precise rhythm. It’s more important to have a piece where the mood is coherent and not disturbed by elements that don’t quite fit, and a rhythm very precisely designed to lull the viewer into the desired reaction that to try and use as much of my good footage as I can just to prove I can shoot good images. Reading those reference books also made me more aware of how easily a viewer may be ‘jerked out’ of the world of the film by bad editing transition or jerky shots. It’s not about aesthetics, it’s about maintaining the illusion.

I feel my technique improved by following those abstract concepts, but ironically, I ended up breaking several textbook rules on purpose. You are supposed to start and end each sequence on a static shot, but I found out I got better results by ending and starting most moving shots on movements, but making sure that there is a continuity in the speed of fluidity of the movement in the 2 thematically different shots each side of the cut. Part of this is due that if I zoom in or out with the camera fixed on a tripod, there is often a slight jerk when I press the zoom button. It’s very slight but noticeable because the camera does not otherwise move. Ironically, it was more natural to start and end slightly jerky hand held shots on a freeze frame, because the slight sway was present all through the sequence and therefore not shocking. The other reason In think this particular rule was not appropriate is that it is designed for traditional narrative cinema where the camera is fixed and the actors move within the frame. Whereas I film static building and the movement comes solely from the camera move. Therefore what matters is to keep the movement of the camera fluid and regular, to give the impression it is travelling through the house without interruption. It’s as though the camera is the only character, the unseen narrator’s eye, and what must be preserved is the coherency of its point of view. Therefore, I aimed to keep a very fluid rhythm all through the piece, to give a sense of geographical continuity even though the video was shot at three different houses, to give the impression that a ghost was moving through the house, no longer limited by laws of physics and Euclidean geometry, and that we were seeing the world through its eyes.

It reminded me of a comment in The Technics of Film Editing by Reisz & Millar about Alain Resnais using moving camera shots in Last Year in Marienbad for the sheer sensual pleasure they procure. And indeed, in Marienbad, the camera moves a lot through the endless corridors while the actors in them are frozen like statues, almost becoming part of the décor, as immobile as the discarded objects of my ghost houses. I think the words ‘sheer sensual pleasure’ struck me, because I had never considered my relation to the moving image medium that way, yet I realised it was very true.

By the way, thank you WordPress for finally allowing to embed youtube videos!! 🙂

Robert Polidori: photographing interiors as ‘metaphors for states of being’

Posted in Artists that inspire me, Photography, Photography: subjective documentary, Urban Exploration with tags , , , , , on January 21, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

Via 2010 MA graduate Esmeralda Munoz Torrero, I was introduced to the concept of ‘late photography’ as coined by David Campany in his book ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of “Late Photography”’ (2003). ‘Late photography’ record the consequences of events after they have happened, their aftermath.

Of particular interest to me was the work of Canadian photographer Robert Polidori who photographed houses devastated by flood waters in his series ‘New Orleans after the flood’.He also took photographs of the abandoned buildings in the no man’s land around Chernobyl/Pripyat, the Chateau de Versailles under renovation and grand buildings of La Havana left to slowly decay.

I was first drawn to his visual style, with very vivid yet slightly faded colours, with a kind of ‘technicolor’ feel to them, not the type of strong colours you get in commercial photography. His pictures are both very sharp and detailed, yet they contained ambiguous shadows. This is exactly the type of visual feel I try to achieve myself, a feel I describe as cinematic. Indeed, Polidori works exclusively with natural light and long exposures, the way I do. He says that ‘the grammar of [his] pictorialism comes from pre-Renaissance and Renaissance perspective’. As a joke, Polidori compares his use of long exposure to spirit photography because he too aims to ‘reveal an inner truth’.

In an interview with artinfo, Polidori explains how the visual style of his images, including their high level of details, is crafted to emotionally involve the viewer:

‘ When images are soft, they just remain evocative, or in your imagination. You get a mood, and it remains on the emotional level. The viewer has to put more of him or herself into it. When there is more detail, it’s like that old expression: There’s no fiction stranger than reality. Reality will compose the most extreme paradoxes and contradictions and adjacencies, which can’t be understood.
So detail gives you more mental work to do. There are more things to look at, which suggest more and more questions. All that mood is still there anyway, so it’s like the double-punch effect. It’s a question of keeping the mind occupied while the emotions are being silently manipulated on the back burner.’

I absolutely loved this concept of camouflaging emotional manipulation aimed at the viewer behind an apparently straightforward, documentary style, making it all the more efficient that it is surreptitious.

Polidori also explains his interest in photographing interiors:

‘I’m interested in interiors, and I have been for a long time, simply because they’re indices of individuals’ personal values. They tell you a lot about the individual. Like I’ve said before, to me interiors are both metaphors and catalysts for states of being. You can take a portrait of somebody, and you might have a feeling looking at their face, but you know less things about them by looking at their face than you do when you look at the way that they compose their own interior space. What interests me are their values.’ He compares his work to that of ‘collecting evidence, like a detective looking to solve a case’.

That’s exactly how I feel about my Ghost House series: what fascinates me is trying to put back together the lives of their former inhabitants, gues who they were based on the belongings they left behind.

In an interview with Bombsite Polidori explains that he first became interested in rooms after reading a book about the Pythagorean School, where students would memorize empty rooms as a mnemonic aid to memorize events: rooms were turned into ‘a locus for memory’. Polidori himself views rooms as ‘ metaphors for states of being’.

He is particularly interested in derelict buildings because they hold more memories: ‘the rooms that are devastated by time are the ones that have the most traces. The brand-new, fabricated rooms only have graphic qualities. They don’t really have any soul to them.’

What interested him in his photographs of Versailles under restoration was the concept of ‘historical revisionism’: ‘when you choose to restore a certain room as it was in a certain period, the period you choose is based on your contemporary worldview. Each point of view of the present has its harmonics in the past.’ The Palace told as much about France of the Mitterrand years as it did about the times when it was built. He explains ‘what we are looking at in these museum restorations is the society’s superego, what a society thinks of itself, and how it thinks it should be seen by itself’.

He then widens the concept to relate it to the rest of his work: ‘this is what individuals do to a room. Again this same theme. It’s the exteriorization of the soul life or of personal values. What we have affixed on these walls is the superego, in the Jungian sense.’

I found this idea that a room reflects the philosophical values of its inhabitants fascinating. I think this is a similar concern that draws me to the religious imagery found in the Ghost Houses, what they say about the world-view of their former inhabitants. In the context of the Magdalene laundries, this religious imagery takes a darker undertone, when one contrasts the message of Jesus with the arbitrary imprisonment of innocent girls. Here indeed, we find society’s Superego, the values it claims to follow, clashing with the actual actions.

In an interview where he defends his New Orleans series, Polidori states in conclusion ‘it is an unforgiving fact that we are all born and die alone in this world. I consider it as the definition of the human condition.’

All in all, I think Robert Polidori is the photographer I feel closest to among all the artists I discovered in my research, both on the visual and philosophical levels.

Link to Photo Gallery:


Velours Frappé, Salles Du XVIIème, Versailles 1985. All images courtesy of the artist.

Marat De David, RDC, Aile Du Midi, Versailles 1985.

New Orleans: After the Flood

Robert Polidori, “2732 Orleans Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana, September 2005”

Robert Polidori, “5000 Cartier Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana, September 2005”

“Industrial Canal breach, Reynes Street, New Orleans, September 2005”

“2520 Deslondes, New Orleans, March 2006”

“1923 Lamanche Street, New Orleans, March 2006”

“5417 Marigny Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 2006”


Calle Cardenas 27, Cantro Habana, Havana (2002)

Sala Alejo Carpentier, Gran Teatro de la Habana, Habana Vieja, Havana (2000)

Chernobyl and Pripyat

Unit 4 Control Room (June 6-9, 2001)

Classroom in Kindergarten #7, “Golden Key.” Pripyat. (June 6-9, 2001)

Operating Room in Hospital #126, Pripyat. (June 6-9, 2001)

Cafeteria in School #5, Pripyat. (June 6-9, 2001)

Waiting room in hospital #126, Pripyat. (June 6-9, 2001)

Hallway in School #5, Pripyat. (June 6-9, 2001)

‘Flâneur’ vs. ‘Dérive’

Posted in Critical theory, Psychogeography, Surrealism, Urban Exploration with tags , , , , , on January 21, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

The ‘Flâneur’ (approximatively equivalent to ‘roamer’, ‘wanderer’) was invented by Baudelaire and was a key figure in late 19th century and early 20th century decadent literary movement. It is a gentleman who strolls the city in order to experience it, as a detached, gently cynical observer. The flâneur is a passive figure, he observes the dynamics of the city from a disengaged point of view. Baudelaire called the flâneur ‘a botanist of the sidewalk’.

The Surrealists reused the concept, putting a greater emphasis on the role of random chances in the activity of ‘flânerie’. The Surrealist version of the flâneur was to devise experiments involving randomness and chances in order to experience the city without being blinded by mundanity. For example, follow beautiful female strangers across the city, or visit a city while guiding oneself using the map of another city. The ultimate Surrealist goal was to reach a higher level of truth by attaining the point where ‘reality’ and ‘surreality’ converge. By playing with random occurrences while strolling the city, the surrealist flâneur expected to gain a higher awareness of the city, beyong immediate reality. Therefore, the Surrealist flâneur is already a more active explorer than its decadent ancestor.

In ‘Theory of the Derive’, Guy Debord defines the concept of the ‘Dérive’ which he explicitly defines as opposed to ‘different from the classic notions of journey or stroll’. The ‘dérive [literally: “drifting”]’ is ‘a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’ that ‘involves playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects’. The participants of a Dérive must ‘let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.’ A Dérive implies the ‘domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities’. This phrasing has connotations of the scientific explorer, almost of the military strategist. Indeed, Debord compares the mindset of the Dérive to those of the ‘ecological science’, and the act of ‘Dérive’ is a tool in the Situationists’ revolutionary project.

Debord explicitly takes position against letting chance take a too important role in a Dérive, because ‘the action of chance is naturally conservative and in a new setting tends to reduce everything to habit or to an alternation between a limited number of variants. Progress means breaking through fields where chance holds sway by creating new conditions more favourable to our purposes.’

Ruskin’s concept of Illth

Posted in Parallel theory, Urban Exploration with tags , on January 21, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

I found an art/research blog Urban Qliphoth And The English Aghora that is concerned with exploring buildings such as ‘Psychiatric hospitals, military establishments, nuclear facilities, borstals… places of violent intent, institutions replete with memories of psychic illth. The term illth comes from Ruskin and has been employed by Robert Anton Wilson to describe “all the changes in the environment that are detrimental to humanity and/or to life itself. Weaponry, then, should be classed as illth, not wealth.” In other words buildings in which a vast amount of capital that has been invested in the pursuit of destruction and the retention of the diseased.’

I contacted the artist/researcher and talked to them about my Disciplinary Institutions project, as I thought there were convergences.

I was especially intererested in the concept of illth and researched it further.

In Ruskin’s words:

‘Wealth, therefore, is “The possession of the valuable by the valiant”; and in considering it as a power existing in a nation, the two elements, the value of the thing, and the valour of its possessor, must be estimated together. Whence it appears that many of the persons commonly considered wealthy, are in reality no more wealthy than the locks of their own strong boxes are, they being inherently and eternally incapable of wealth; and operating for the nation, in an economical point of view, either as pools of dead water, and eddies in a stream (which, so long as the stream flows, are useless, or serve only to drown people, but may become of importance in a state of stagnation should the stream dry); or else, as dams in a river, of which the ultimate service depends not on the dam, but the miller; or else, as mere accidental stays and impediments, acting not as wealth, but (for we ought to have a correspondent term) as “illth”, causing various devastation and trouble around them in all directions; or lastly, act not at all, but are merely animated conditions of delay, (no use being possible of anything they have until they are dead,) in which last condition they are nevertheless often useful as delays, and “impedimenta” ‘ (Unto this Last, 1860)

It seems the concept of illth for Ruskin is purely economic, a way of determinating whether economical productivity is correlated with social benefits or not. If economical productivity results in social benefits, then it is ‘wealth’. If on on the contrary, economical productivity creates social regression, then it is ‘illth’.