Thursday, April 3, 2008

Lost in History vol. 56: Armchair Exploration

Urban Exploration – that is, the art of adventuring inside of abandoned, derelict and forgotten spaces – is a super cool, only-for-the-gung-ho type of human activity that breaks boundaries, proves its subversion in and of itself, and is a perfect antidote to the over-commodified lifestyles so many of us are chained to. UE is the type of exciting hobby that everyone wants to get involved in, but hardly anyone follows through on, because it’s preposterously illegal, and in today’s Secure Homeland, it can easily get you incarcerated for a long, long time.

Last night, Anthology Film Archives hosted a one-night-only screening, Report From Ghost City, in which The Disembodied Theater Corporation, hand in hand with Ars Subterranea, presented a few short films and multimedia presentations on the subject.

The first was a PowerPoint-styleslide lecture about some friends adventuring atop of the High Line freight rail in Chelsea, narrated by Ross Lipman and featuring the pre-recorded screechy abstract noise compositions of Laura Steenberge. Following the story of youthful indiscretion, we ventured to abandoned insane asylums, where we followed the half-invented, half-autobiographical storylines of mental patients, displayed in graphically altered photographs so as to mimic a graphic novel, page by page. The miscreants of Ars Subterranea starred, in storylines by Julia Solis and Tom Kirsch, the couple that run A.S. Following three short stories in this vein, we had an extended adventure through an abandoned hospital complex, titled Met State, by Brian Papciak, the filmmaker who documented the A.S. trips.

The High Line production, No Way Out But Onward, was an unfortunate dud. What could and should have been a B&E101 lesson was instead a dead boring narrative, illustrated by lukewarm amateurish photography and narrated in mellifluous tones and impossibly clichéd metaphors about finding oneself and choosing paths whilst avoiding a beat cop above the High Line. It was trite and overwrought and infuriatingly long. The three Ars Subterranea psych ward photo-sets were all very pretty and fun to watch, if a bit gothy. Reports from the Sanitarium had an engaging storyline buried within the greater (unfinished) plot; Funeral Play felt like an intricately unfolding set of dead Russian nesting dolls; Irma, excerpts from a postmortem diary

Without a doubt, the most professional production out the evening was Brian Papciak’s Met Life. It’s a smaller, self-sustained piece of an ongoing documentary titled American Ruins, and the cinematography, the space and sounds, the stop-motion animation of wheelchairs raising each other down an abandoned Hospital ward, the time-lapse photography — all of it was masterful and majestic. One felt the creep of desiccation and atrophy while simply sitting in those plush East Village theater seats in the East Village. This is why enjoying UE in the confines of a movie theater is infinitely preferable to tromping through the insane asylums themselves. Unless that kind of thing turns you on. In which case, I have some new friends to introduce you to.

(originally published on 3/25/08 on

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