Mission 1 – Walbrook

Surveyor 4 launch procedure and timings (NASA)

After my detour to the Mithraeum, I made my way NE to the possible source of the Walbrook. This is the former Holy Well, now Holywell Lane. It’s an unpromising and busy stretch of one way road. One one side is a monotonous and anonymous office building; opposite is a former multi-storey car park (“Meyer Bros Parking System”). It’s now the American Car Wash (Hand Wash & Vacuum).

There’s a neat mirroring of the American mission to claim the moon, and the name of this car wash.

Water gushes across the path, sudsy and oily from coiled hoses – rather than from any subterranean spring.

First car wash on the moon ©Mat Denney

At this point I start to record the digital traces of my journey. Firstly I’m recording the GPS waypoints of my journey (using Runkeeper), taking audio snapshots (when there’s something interesting to hear – water sounds, snatches of dialect, intriguing ambient audio etc). I’m also taking snapshots of the WiFi soup around me. I’m doing this in a fairly adhoc way: just looking for names to appear in my available access points list on my phone, then screenshot. It would be nice to find a better way to track them – to triangulate them to reveal an overlapping radius in 2D space. It feels at the moment as if I’m just glancing the edges of them as I move into their radii.

Nearby WiFi access point names ©Mat Denney

Like the underground rivers, these are just another way of mapping a space, but non-physically. I like how the names reveal a whole layer of narratives, and the ubiquitous Foxtons estate agents. There’s an emerging story here about the arbitrary value assigned to topology. The language of real estate that seeks to grant significance (and therefore greater perceived value) to one chunk of land/property over another. Where we might seek stories to give meaning to our environment, real estate seeks to mine even the most tiny and tenuous detail in order to associate stories with yet another bland, luxury build. Stories have value, and stories create value. A postcode – a string of numbers, an arbitrary unit of definition – could mean an extra nought on the price of an apartment.

Heritage into bullshit ©Mat Denney

Do the people that live in these blocks (if people actually live in them, and they’re not just glorified Monopoly pieces for overseas investors to leave fallow) really care that Shakespeare once had a theatre here? Why should our cultural heritage be left up to property developers? On the hoarding outside the construction site of the to-be-built The Stage (a new prestige development on Curtain Road) lists its performing arts space as a mere afterthought, last billing below the “boutique outlets”. We can read a message loud and clear about the importance of culture in this venture.

There were two theatres in this area in Shakespeare’s time: The Curtain and The Theatre.

The second listed item – “public realm” – is another curious bit of phrasing. Certainly something worth looking into as part of my investigations; pseudo public spaces, namely those that give the appearance of public space but are really policed and funded by private corporations. From the Guardian report of 2017: “public access to pseudo-public spaces remains at the discretion of landowners who are allowed to draw up their own rules for “acceptable behaviour” on their sites and alter them at will. They are not obliged to make these rules public.”

Again there’s a parallel thread here about control; control of the general population and control of water/natural forces. Bending movements of people and nature to fit within boundaries, around infrastructure.

Warning sign on an office building in Broadgate ©Mat Denney

I follow the route down Appold street. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. I’ve thought about experiencing this as a piece of performance – trying to see my surrounding anew as if I was a lunar explorer. Guided by the hidden river. One thought I had was to undertake the walk in a hired spacesuit costume…but that’s a little on the nose.

Another thought is to use the Wifi signals a form of digital dowsing. There are not enough rules in place yet to make the exercise truly algorithmic, and therefore more interesting. I feel that psychogeography needs rules, otherwise it’s just walking without aim.

Surveilled ©Mat Denney
We are here. Codes to locate ©Mat Denney

An update on the WiFi soup at this point of the route reveals the following:

  • AireAmigos
  • BAMM
  • BAMM Guest
  • Creature London
  • Creature London Guest
  • CSLOR077
  • Defected
  • Defected Guest
  • Depop
  • Depop Guest
  • DIRECT-JpM288x Series
  • Girgentic
  • Raw
  • Sonitus-Systems-1011668
  • TP-LINK_2.4GHz_2E8AA7
  • Virgin Media
  • VM2403945
  • Other…

Naming…the way we define a pocket of space, radio space in this instance. In branding we call it “placemaking” and setting up our wireless router gives us dominion over our own bubble of space. There are anecdotes of residents naming their networks “STEAL SOMEONE ELSE’S BROADBAND”, but nothing that creative here. It’s corporate or it’s the garbled IT-speak that expresses itself in a knot of letters, numbers and underscores.

The road follows the underlying river southwards. Even though it’s buried beneath me, it exerts an influence on successive urban planning like a magnetic field.

Water finding its way to the surface ©Mat Denney

Every now and then I notice these theodolite targets – this one made by Site Engineering Surveys Ltd (“Our Business Is About Measurement”). A survey before my survey…

Disappointedly, I later discover that Worship Street (where I now stand) isn’t connected to an underground bull-slaughtering cult, but is most likely a corruption of Worsop, and named for an Elizabethan merchant tailor John Worsop.

The Broad Family, Basalt stone 1991. Xavier Corberó (1935 – 2017 Spain). Appold Street. The neo-neolithic age. Kubrick’s astronauts found their monolith in Tycho, I found mine in Shoreditch.
Celestial bodies in EC2

I followed the route down through Broadgate Circus, the terraced steps reminiscent of the amphitheatre at Pompeii. What will be left of this place, and will future sightseers enjoy a reconstructed “Broadgate Experience” replete with excavated artefacts – acrylic nails, McFlurry cups, fidget spinners and sushi soy sauce dispensers in the shape of a tiny plastic fish?

At this point I’ve lost the route of the Walbrook. If I had any dowsing ability, then at this point I’ve severed connection to the underground river. It may have long submerged beneath the street, but its course would have influenced the shape of the streets and city around it, time like the layers of palimpsest onion skin, echoing forward through time, the street names and awkward changes of direction a topological Chinese whisper.

The map I’ve made is confusing and vague (note to self, make better, more detailed map for next time), and I realise that I’m now trying to guide myself by intuition and getting disorientated. I head south towards London Wall and Old Broad Street, through the crowds at Liverpool Street.

Broadgate Circus. At the centre of the Labyrinth. ©Mat Denney

My battery is getting perilously low. Soon I’ll have no way of recording my digital spoor trail, or even touching in on Oyster to get home. From my notes I see that the Walbrook meets a tributary from Aldgate end of Middlesex Street – and Blomfield Street, where it receives a second tributary that originates under the Barbican centre and runs across Finsbury Circus. I can see that is south of where I am and so I head Thames-ward.

All Hallows-on-the-Wall. The Walbrook crosses London Wall west of here. ©Mat Denney
Latitude: 51° 31’ 2.43” N. Longitude: 0° 5’ 11.36” W. Image Direction: 210.098˚

Walking west along London Wall, passing the bottom of Finsbury Circus, I photographed this structure. I only know this from looking at the latlong EXIF data. I have no other notes and have no recollection of taking it (I wonder if there’s another project here about false memory and the automatic nature of taking photos but not “seeing”?)

At first I think that it’s one of those obelisks the Victorians were obsessed with, but on second glance it appears to be the central column of a new build. Are such structures the sites of future mythical imagination, as sites such as Avebury are now – its alterity providing a finger hold for mythical retconning. It’s certainly imposing, and its bland vertical faces offering no human-scale clues as to how it could be interacted with. The sentinel cranes around it are like antenna, not broadcasting radio waves, but an idea of prosperity, progress. Interestingly, the word crane comes from its resemblance to the bird, a species with a rich mythology. It was said by Pliny the Elder that one crane would stand guard with a stone in its mouth while the others slept, so if it fell asleep the stone would fall and wake it. I often hold my breath whilst walking under the swing of a crane, anxious that the heavy concrete counterweight might fall from its jib to the pavement beneath. The very first cranes were the shadoof (Arabic, شادوف) a device for lifting water from one river to another.

Escher’s labyrinth ©Mat Denney
Michael Ayrton (1921 – 1975, London). Minotaur. Bronze 1973

I make it as far as the remains of St Alphege Cripplegate by London Wall, the bricks and stones of which are an efflorescence of the old city. I pass a new build with a confusing mash of levels, stairs and reflecting pools and waiting at the centre, appropriately, is a Minotaur. I don’t make it out of the underground maze of the Walbrook with my phone alive. As I shoot the bull, my phone finally gives up the ghost; the minotaur has won.

GPS track of my route in Runkeeper, showing the point where I stopped tracking (marked with an orange pin)
A visually cleaner representation of my route, rendered out as an SVG file

Returning to the original idea of urban discovery as parallel space travel, I later research some of the failed missions prior to the successful moon surveys. NASA’s Surveyor 4 lunar lander (referenced in the diagram at the top of this post) is a good analogy. It was launched in July 1967 as a scout mission (much like mine) to determine the suitability of Sinus Medii (Middle Bay) as a landing site for Apollo 11. However, contact was lost 2.5 minutes before projected touchdown, possibly due to an exploding retrorocket (rather than a dead phone battery).

Surveyor 6 casting 18-meter long shadow with Sun just 8° above the horizon. Surveyor 6 Landed 10 November 1967 in Sinus Medii. This image was taken by NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Surveyor lander. NASA

Luckily I was able to retrieve the GPS/KML data in order to trace my route (and possibly do something interesting with in Processing).

Luckily though, I was next to the Museum of London, which had an exhibition about the growth of the city through the ages, guided along by the Thames. I also pressed my sketchbook into service as a recording device whilst continuing the route (with a hazy recollection of where I was going, as my projected route was foolishly only on my phone).

Tracing my route from London Wall to Bartholomew Lane and past St Margaret Lothbury ©Mat Denney

Part sketch of St Margaret Lothbury’s spire and route down Princes’ Street towards Bank. ©Mat Denney
Architectural detail ©Mat Denney
Looking upwards at Tivoli Corner. There’s a hole cut out of the ceiling here, with two CCTV cameras pointing down – giving the sense of being in the panopticon.

According to my less than clear notes, I made my way past Bank to Cannon Street, whilst looking out for the London Stone. This is another sentinel stone about we know very little, but around which have formed various myths, ascribed magical properties and rituals. One of these is an annual inspection by the Worshipful Company of Masons and the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers, during which a representative of each visits and verifies the existence of the stone and report back to the Mayor.

I took this rubbing of the wall next to the stone’s display window (possibly a braille description). Which also looks like a punch card. More ideas for turning tactile rubbings into generative sound? ©Mat Denney
“Walbrook 1”, Mat Denney, 2019. Plate photolithograph in 2 colours

To mark the first mission, I created this photolithograph of Holywell Lane with the hand car wash, fiducial markers and car wash worker/astronaut in protective clothing.

Further experiments & thoughts

  • Am I to follow a predetermined route, or is it a performance with rules to follow? Like digital dowsing?
  • Am I “in character”
  • Do I need to be there in person? Can it be a remote survey?
  • What does the relationship between natural forces (the river) and the man made infrastructure around it say about control of nature?
  • Is there a parallel story about the control of population?
  • Other ways to represent the route could include taking pollution samples/swabs from the area (walls, path, hand rails, air pollution); taking sound recordings/noise readings; LIDAR, DEM etc; magnetic readings, piezo pickups.
  • Create a device or app to auto sample the surroundings without user intervention – like a slit scan or logging device.
  • Need to be better equipped next time: portable chargers, better maps, sound recorder, sustenance.