‘A spindly shit coppice, with ghosts of plastic bags rustling in its branches.’ This week’s podcast, by artist Robin Bale, is an evocation of a windswept rubbish dump under the M11 motorway. It starts with the sounds of moving through undergrowth, traffic in the background. A twig snaps. Abstract and slow percussion fades in…….
A burnt boot…crushed cans…ashes…binbag, spilling its guts…burnt plastic…soles detached…from shoes…ashes…roof tiles…single rubber glove…over the mounded and overgrown rubble…sparks of new, blue off-licence bags leap out against the leaves…the green and the brown…and the traffic on the road beyond flickers between the trees.
[sound of traffic and birdsong fades. Percussion continues then fades]
I wish to talk about spaces. It could be that as soon as the first building was built and the city was founded, that there came into being a margin or corner – the angle of two walls, the space just down there, just past where the bins are. Only existing in relation to that building, only coming into existence with it, this site was where things were left, forgotten, hidden; with the understanding that they were left or forgotten there and should be left alone, although not far away. Almost in plain sight. Children, strangers and fugitives would go there and it would nearly be in sight and earshot of that first structure; just outside the window, just against the wall.
[percussion returns quietly]
I wish to tell you about such a place, that I have named the Bike Cemetery.
The Bike Cemetery is a mere crumb of land, a piece of what I suppose could be called urban waste ground, an increasingly rare commodity in the city now, especially one less than a mile from the site of the 2012 Olympics – that place of victorious national becoming.
[sound of traffic fades in]
It is demarcated – you might say cut adrift – by a busy main road and a slip road and overpass for the M11. A spindly shit coppice, with ghosts of plastic bags rustling in its branches. The sort of place you might find yourself first light on a Monday morning, in the piss-thin drizzle, wondering how you got there and knowing that you were meant to be somewhere else and thinking “not again”.
As far as I know it lacks a name, so I have called it the Bike Cemetery. When I first came across it early this century it was full of the stripped carcasses of bicycles that I assume were nicked somewhere nearby and cannibalised on the site.
[traffic and percussion, with bird song field recording from site]
I have called it an entrance to the underworld, at other times, the unacknowledged centre of the city or the centre of the state.
The Bike Cemetery also attracted a writer and bricoleur. The wall of the overpass was liberally graffitied. The texts, constructed from single words or short phrases, heavy on repetition and play, were not the usual – not political slogans, football chants, sexual slander or biblical quotations.
[percussion fades leaving field recording, traffic and bird song]
There were portmanteau words, a stuttering repetition of syllables, an obsessive chant running through its centre: Wolf Vanish.
This was interspersed with collaged printed matter, predominantly magazine images of animals, fashion photographs from the late 1980s, Monopoly money and food packaging; some porn, though not nearly as much as might be expected. Judging from the dates on the magazine pages the work was done sometime around 1991. [percussion returns] Due to the handwriting of the graffiti and the thematic consistency of the whole thing, and that the same paint was used to write and stick the images to the wall, I’d say that the entire wall was the work of one person. It has remained there for almost a quarter of a century, under different governments, different weathers.
[percussion and traffic]
After having been a fairly regular visitor to the site I have not returned there for around two years until yesterday, though it has been in my mind constantly.
[percussion fades. Field recording from Bike Cemetery of moving through undergrowth, sound of breaking twigs]
It has become an anchor for my imagination – a place to stand, as a counterweight to the increasingly sanitised city that is ever more rapidly swallowing the older one; where many actually still live.
[voice, field recording from Bike Cemetery]
Paths that are almost…not quite paths, of the sort that small children and animals use…just a slightly less dense space amongst the nettles and brambles. I can’t yet see the wall, but I’m heading towards it…
[back in studio]
And this is what I found; my discovery soundtracked by a serendipitous siren.
[field recording again. Passing police or ambulance siren in background]
…and the wall and the bricolage has almost entirely gone, underneath some quite Hackney Wick-style professional-looking graffiti that says “costume” in a sort of cursive Edwardian script. Just underneath the ‘c’ in costume there’s “wolf”…
[field recording crossfades into studio narration. Field recording continuing in background]
The avatars of the coming city – and citizen – stare from the hoardings that surround the proliferating building sites. They take the part of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, who exists outside of time, driven onwards by a storm in Eden and from that perspective, seeing history as a tidal wave of destruction.
[percussion fades in]
The figures on the hoardings represent a future as if it is simply inevitable; already visualised, photographed, laminated and mounted in public view.
[chanting of Bike Cemetery texts begins in the background, with percussion and traffic]
They are the heralds of the destruction that they look back upon as if it has already happened: the estates bulldozed, the tenants dispersed. But unlike the angel, as if they are the obvious heirs smugly coming into their inheritance. They take no heed of the storm in Eden.
[Bike Cemetery texts, multi-tracked with delay and traffic sound]
HOLY GOST SPIRIT SAINT
KIN TECTIVE WOLF
DANKINFUNMENTEL TRANSATLANTIC TRAVEL
KIN ELITE LIT
ARK ALKA TRASH WOLF WOLF
MIST SPIRIT FOG SPIRIT SMOG
LIT ELITE RATES GK RATS
CONVICTIONTON DISFIGMENT COMPENSATIONTON BANKRUPSEA
EARS HEAR THEARS
MAGTION TON ICE LIT SUN MILK
WOLF VANISH WOLF VANISH WOLF VANISH WOLF VANISH WOLF VANISH WOLF VANISH WOLF VANISH WOLF
HUNT BLITZ PRAY EVE SHEPHARD WARLORD
Photos: Robin Bale