Living by Your Own Strength

Decay, abandonment and destruction all represent a lack of order that is normally present in society, which seems to suggest that in such an area other rules no longer apply either. Ownership is ambiguous or non-existent, leaving the space open for anyone to come and add or remove objects as they see fit. Such spaces have regained a state of wilderness, outside the scope of laws and conventional norms. These places represent a chance to begin again and are the symbols of possibility and creation outside the limits imposed by order. They are a blank canvas waiting to be painted upon.

While we spend large amounts of time and energy on attempts at imposing order on our everyday lives, living by the clock, arranging objects neatly, cleaning and sorting, we are nevertheless attracted to wilderness-type scenarios, as they grant us permission to do as we please without the usual restrictions. There is no one to dictate what we should do or how we should do it, and in a sense we take back our freedom when we decide to set the rules ourselves.

I believe it is a natural drive that we all possess, to create our own particular living space, to shape our environment as we see fit. Therefore, wilderness is a second chance in a world where everything seems presented to us in an already pre-cut, pre-defined shape, conforming not to our own desires, but to the specifics of the environment and the laws of its people.

Modern tools enable us to not only shape wilderness how we want, and at an alarming speed, but to exploit it and homogenise it, removing individuality, connection and higher purpose.

The following is an account of a project which took place during May and June 2015.

My new idea involves a combination of previous ideas concerned with the notion of domestication and techniques for ‘re-wilding’. Firstly the process begins with exploration, and the guiding philosophy that exploration is possible despite the fact that we appear to live in a world where there are few unknowns (art is exploration), and where our personal environments are places of familiarity. The idea is a challenge to our senses and to the notion of familiarity that arises when we stop experiencing our environment first hand, and instead draw upon memories and symbols [drawing on the right side of the brain]. We are forced to confront our biases and to overcome them through the process of seeing with fresh eyes and finding the extraordinary in the everyday.

The second part of the process comes into play when we are given a specific subject or scenario to look for, as once we focus on this theme a sort of confirmation bias will begin to work, making all instances of the chosen theme more apparent. With prolonged experience in searching and viewing in this way, the process will reinforce itself.

After the initial exploration stage, sites will be chosen on gut feeling. This is based on the assumption that human psychology is a function of millions of years of evolution, and that through instinct we choose safe places to stay without necessarily doing a conscious analysis. For the sake of this project this also assumes that the ‘wilder’ the site, the more suitable it will be for construction.

The next and the most involved step in the process will be to start a new life in the chosen site, using only found materials, gathered from near and far, fashioned with only the tools that can be found or made by hand, such as rocks for hammers and pieces of metal for knives. Each space will be uniquely created and be specific to each environment. The finished ‘piece’ will be left and cannot be dismantled for the materials to be used elsewhere. Photographs will document the before and after states, as well as the process. Other pockets of wilderness and potential sites can also be recorded.

Large cities lend themselves best to the regrowth and presence of wilderness islands, as the ongoing construction process, coupled with the act of abandonment mean that areas get lost in the shuffle and become forgotten for long periods of time, The sheer size of a city also means that there will be a higher occurrence of no-man’s lands, as the boundaries of ownership, responsibility and use become blurred. The spaces occupied and created by infrastructure also provide further opportunity for wilderness to return. Areas not covered by local maintenance for whatever reason are prime targets, even if they exists within larger areas that are under maintenance, like a corner of a park for example.

Construction itself seems to play a role in creating wilderness, perhaps through the upheaval created by moving large parts of land, introducing heavy machinery and other equipment as a form of organised chaos that only the constructors themselves understand. The unfinished nature of a building also seems to signify that the rules are still in a state of flux – nobody yet occupies the building and there is no clear owner, the people who are doing the building are simply working there. During the construction process there is a lot of land that has yet to be allocated a particular purpose, which will eventually become flowerbeds, lawns, car-parks and paths. These transitional places are a taste of wilderness in an urban or suburban context, where rule is yet to be established.

Bussy-Saint-Georges is and was one such place that inspired me to work on the human nature project. Now I can see more clearly why I felt what I did when visiting and interacting with that particular space.

In ‘The Shock Doctrine’ catastrophic and violent events are used to introduce new laws and ideas at times of extreme instability. In this way the turmoil of construction helps create an environment where new things can be built and put into place without seeming unnatural. Unacceptable becomes acceptable in wild areas where anarchy represents opportunity. It is as though if nature is left to do and grow as it pleases, then we are given permission to do likewise.

Wilderness and order can both be seen as contexts, with the presence of one in the context of the other as being a conflict, or more symbolically they appear as Yin and Yang.

If broken window theory is correct, then vandalism, destruction and decay all play a role in establishing a new context. Setting an example or creating a habit helps create the habitat.


23.05.15 – Day 1

I have found a suitable area for my first ‘installation’, located on an embankment and surrounded by roads, where the entry point is a steep hill accessed by a relatively quiet road. There are numerous bushes and trees on the hill providing cover, which will grow more as summer progresses, and which I intend to reinforce with further branches. In any case the camp should be very well hidden from view, and only the extremely curious would venture into its territory. I want to keep the most exposed part of the entrance point as wild as possible, so I am considering taking a longer route around so as not to leave any noticeable tracks which may draw attention. This may not always be possible when transporting large or heavy objects to the location, but all efforts will be made to leave the exterior as undisturbed as possible.

I am considering finding a halfway house where I can store items before finally moving them in the evening when I am less likely to be seen. This applies mostly to large items that will form the foundations of the camp. The site already contains a lot of dead leaves and branches which can be used for construction, covering my tracks and further isolating the camp from view.

24.05.15 – Day 2

Today’s main objective is to document the area from various angles in its current state. On my travels yesterday I already found a number of items which will come in handy, so I will collect them later on – a pair of gloves for gardening and a door knob with a screw which may be able to function as a multi-purpose tool. I also found a large fallen log which could provide support for a structure, and a number of rocks for decoration. I also found some wild strawberries and mint for decoration or consumption.

The first item which will be indispensable is a bag or sack that’s strong enough to carry at least 10 kilos. A supermarket bag is preferable as they are very durable and people often throw these out.

I am already beginning to think of places that will be suitable to look for materials, such as supermarkets and industrial areas, as well as recycling points, and of course roadsides. I will also try to find out when the rubbish is collected so that I can hunt down lots of new items the night before they are collected. A trolley might be a good idea for transport, or it might be too conspicuous. In any case I have seen one in the forest about 45-50 minutes walk from camp.

So far, the wanted list is as follows:

bottles with lids (water for mud building)
Plastic sheets
After photographing, I realised that it would take too long to return my bag before beginning work, so I stayed at camp and began the initial clearing process. There were lots of dead leaves and branches that I used to form a sort of fence so that I could stand up in the main area without being seen from the road below. Later on I went to look at it from the outside and it blends in very well. I also cleared a pathway through the undergrowth, and made the entrance as far away as possible, while also covering certain openings to the outside. The floor is covered with ivy which I removed in the main area and have used as string.

27.05.15 – Day 3

I didn’t have a chance to return until today and began by collecting together some bamboo from next to the river which I lashed together with ivy. From the bridge I spotted a roadworks sign in the river which I removed to use as a tabletop or seat. The metal legs are also useful and could be used to dig. I recovered the gloves I had found previously and took some more wood from the same area. After dropping it off I returned to take a piece of bamboo I spotted, as well as a plastic sheet and two tires I had already seen.

I made a fake covering for the entrance so it is less obvious. This needs to be made bigger and thicker though,

I used some of the bamboo and branches to make a frame for the roof, so now the camp has much more of a definite shape to it. I also began digging some steps into the hill on the path from the entrance so that I am less likely to slip while carrying materials. I abandoned work prematurely as some men stopped on the road next to me to lay cones due to an accident or planned roadworks perhaps. I moved some of the items out of sight just in case.

I have been thinking about what sort of things I could make for the camp out of cardboard and plastic bottles, both for decoration and for structure. I’m still not sure about making mud walls with cardboard for the frame. I also thought I could make some sort of papier maché using old paper, perhaps posters, water and dirt. In any case it’s clear that I need to spend more time on hunting materials now that the basic groundwork is done. I still need bags for carrying, and something like a bucket to hold water and mix things in.

29.05.15 – Day 4

I found my first bag on the way to the climbing wall and retrieved it on the way back. I then went on a little hunt for materials and found a second identical bag and some 2-litre bottles. I then went on a bigger hunt, carrying the items I had found earlier, not sure of what I was looking for, but something substantial for the main structure still. In the woods I found and old fence and removed a few metres of wire and wove it into a circle. I then found a number of wooden posts, each a few inches in diameter, and perhaps 150cm long. Initially I had decided to take just 4 – corresponding to the corners of the shelter, but then settled on taking all 6, as it wouldn’t make much difference seeing as the bundle was already quite heavy. I lashed them together with a broken belt I had found on the way there. In the same area of trees I found a razor and a big piece of carpet which may eventually form the roof, along with the plastic I recovered. I folded the carpet up and was able to fit it into one of the bags, and then hung it on the end of the posts. This was the biggest find so far, and also the most difficult to carry as the area was about an hour from camp, but with the heavy load it was much longer. Fortunately it was in the evening though, and on the way I stopped to fill the plastic bottles, adding a further 8 kilos to the load. Near the entrance someone had thrown some old clothes which made me wary of entering. 3 pairs of jeans, clean and in good condition. I was surprised to see the cones on the road still, which means roadworks, perhaps just repainting the lines. Still cautious.

03.06.15 – Day 5

I returned to the camp with the intention of focussing on construction, but on the way I found a motorcycle helmet washed up in a bush by the river. I retrieved it with the aid of my tripod and gave it a wash to remove some of the mud. It was very hot today, and so the helmet dried off mostly during the journey.

I began work by fixing further pieces of bamboo to support the roof and then chose to begin with the sheet of plastic. I also broke off a long, dead branch to replace one side of the roof struts because the piece I had placed there temporarily was not long enough. I spent an hour just putting up and attaching the plastic using ivy threaded through its holes. I then stopped to take photos of the site in its new state before continuing to raise the roof. I decided to use the carpet to cover the inner part of the camp, and used more bamboo to support its heavier weight. I also put the razor I had found to use after I had broken it free from its plastic shell. It was very flimsy which was disappointing, but still very sharp, only not suitable for cutting much more than thin materials. I made thin slits in the edges of the carpet with it in order to attach it to the bamboo frame.

Once the roof was up the camp had a much more permanent feel to it, more settled and less unsure. I had noticed that the roadworks had been completed which allowed me to work in relative peace. After the roof I wasn’t sure what to do with the posts I had found last time, but decided to use them to form a bench, along with the metal I had collected in the beginning. I dug 2 holes to sink the legs in, but it took me about half an hour to get them both about 10cm deep. I used the other piece of metal itself to dig its own hole, which was much easier compared to using a stick and my hands. For now the bench is standing, but needs to be reinforced. I’m thinking of packing one of the tires full of dirt and placing it in front as a sort of foot stool. I began un-braiding some rope in order to use individual strands as string.

This project was cut short when I moved away to a different town, but it nevertheless provided me with valuable experiences and insights. Firstly, I noticed that I quickly adapted to the way of thinking and working that was required. That is, I began to see opportunities all around me for recovering and making use of whatever happened to be around. [link to resourcefulness] I also surprised myself with my ability to improvise and actually construct things, having no real education or experience in things like woodwork, which I assume would give someone the confidence to take on the task of fabricating a home of sorts from nothing but found materials.

I also noticed how necessity can be a strong motivating factor, and that working on such a project for the sake of fun or for the sake of art, ups the difficulty, because underneath it all we realise that we can just quit any time we want, which isn’t the case when survival is at stake. Wanting to deepen the experience further, I thought that next time I would have to invest much more of myself, by taking things further, with the goal of actually living in my newly created home day in and day out. This would also make it much more practical for building purposes, as I wouldn’t have to travel back and fourth between the camp site and my real home.

After everything you might still wonder what the point of all of this is or was, and to answer simply the point was to experience life from a new perspective, to change myself and to feel myself changed through experience. The title of this project comes from an article of the same name on the website Less Wrong –

From the fire-starting tools that you built yourself, to the village candleseller, and then from the candleseller to the electric light that runs on strange mathematical principles and is powered by a distant generator… we are surrounded by things outside ourselves and strengths outside our understanding; we need them to stay alive, or we buy them because it’s easier that way.

Paris shacks

When I first moved to France my romantic vision of an elegant Paris was met with the reality of hundreds of homeless people living in Quechua tents, and many shanty towns spread across the capital, littering the borders of the the ring road. (Porte de bagnolet?) I was shocked that not only were people living in such conditions in a western European country, but also that I had never heard of the situation until I experienced it for myself up close. One day while exploring the the riverside and the network of paths along the Seine I came across a couple of men living in shacks hidden between the overlapping roads in a patch of out of the way vegetation. They seemed as surprised to see me as I did them, and this first encounter seems to have unconsciously been the catalyst for this project and similar ideas.