Julia Solis has made a livelihood of exploring what lurks beneath the surface of structures across America and around the world.
I can’t remember how I stumbled upon artist and urban explorer Julia Solis’s work. I think I was searching for Revs, the graffiti artist that inspired a generation of street artists in the early ’90s, who painted “long, feverish diary entries worthy of a Dostoyevsky character on dozens of walls hidden deep inside the [subway] tunnels.” What New Yorker hasn’t looked up from her book on the subway to see some cryptic message swimming in drowned blue light and wondered, Who crawled through rat nests and cesspools, risking their life to leave those words? Though Revs fiercely guards his anonymity and avoids publicity, Solis gives foremost thanks to him in the “Acknowledgments” section of her book, New York Underground: Anatomy of a City, which offers a historical tour of New York City’s enormous subterranean labyrinth—from the bowels of Grand Central Terminal, to the labyrinthine ruins of the Croton Aqueduct, to the gang tunnels under Chinatown. Solis seems a gatekeeper to a vast shadowy underworld of outlaw adventure, and I assumed she’d be as elusive as Revs. Surprisingly, she responded to my interview request with the same generous accessibility that characterizes the tone of New York Underground. Solis is also the author of Scrub Station, a collection of stories, and a co-founder of the urban archaeology art groups Dark Passage, Ars Subterranea, Inc. and Furnace Press, which focuses on city architecture with a view towards the obscure and neglected. More recently, she’s focused on photographing above-ground decaying structures—capturing the opulent decomposition of theaters, psychiatric hospitals, prisons, pools, and other ruined urban spaces around the world.
Brooke Shaffner Can you tell me a little about how you grew up, your coming of age story?
Julia Solis I spent my childhood in Germany, at a time when the culture was still digging itself out of the hellish impact of the Second World War. We often played games revolving around disasters, being hunted, and having to face the end of the world. We also organized elaborate and magical scavenger hunts and got very good at hiding ourselves from adults. I learned how to escape from what I’ve always considered an incomprehensible reality—physically, into desolate spaces, and mentally, into fiction and games, and often by seeking out the darkness that I felt was hiding behind real life and needed to be explored for my own enlightenment and survival. I always wrote stories, from very early on, and liked to invent games based on stories.
This is what I still do today with the events and games that we organize in abandoned places. Games are fascinating; they engage the imagination and a sense of wonder while working within fixed rules; you’re inside a controlled system but by playing, you open up all of these hatches to a fantasy world that can completely engulf you. When I began exploring abandoned places more actively, it was with a view to opening these same kinds of passageways into a world of wonder and games, and sometimes a touch of eeriness or Grand Guignol gore. The Dark Passage events have always been driven by this fantastical and story-based approach. It’s been a natural progression.
BS What do you mean by an incomprehensible reality?
JS The world that I live in, with its attendant horrors, whether it’s war, child abuse, animal torture, Rick Santorum, or movies with Jennifer Aniston. Our culture is completely absurd. The only way to answer that is with more absurdity.
BS Would you talk about the different attractions of subterranean versus above ground spaces?
JS The two types of abandoned spaces that I enjoy are in great contrast to each other. One consists of man-made subterranean structures, usually with practical and transportation functions such as tunnels, sewer systems and waterworks, and these are often very old and long-lasting constructions where you get a direct experience of a city’s history. They’re built solidly and can be hundreds of years old with relatively few visitors in-between, so that you could easily lose a sense of time and place. The journey itself becomes transcendental, as you keep following the same beam of light through endlessly empty corridors, listening to the same rhythm of your footsteps, until you’re entering a kind of meditative inner space.
There’s a buried fortification system in Poland, for example, which has been sealed up very well and consists of dozens of miles of tunnels, and when you do get down there it’s so dark, vast, cold and desolate, that you and your flashlight might as well be an astral body traveling through outer space. It becomes inconceivable that there could ever have been anyone else down there; it was always just you, walking forever through the darkness. So in these types of structures, the experience itself could take over; it becomes about the journey and your immediate relationship to the walls enclosing you.
Above-ground structures are very different. Suddenly there are the influences of weather and of botany. These buildings decay. The deterioration, in the best cases, is a fascinating and superbly beautiful decomposition that engages you on a much more poetic level. To me, history becomes secondary to whatever is currently unfolding in the abandoned structure. While you’re walking through a tunnel, you might be the narrative, the story-building element, but here, the building is. All of its components conspire to display an orgy of textures, colors and intermingling layers; you become drawn into a play acted out by moldy curtains, moss, piles of disintegrating paper; miniature landscapes are being formed out of man-made elements without any man-made contributions. All these little stories and dioramas are fascinating, as is the idea of spontaneous generation. Lately I’ve been drawn more to these kinds of spaces, especially in working on my new book on abandoned theaters.
BS I was struck by how your description of exploring the Paris underground in National Geographic parallels a cathartic psychological journey: “We dropped into an uncomfortable passage, its ceiling so low that we had to crouch and waddle like ducks. It was colder than outside and smelled of damp earth. Behind me, the others slipped in the mud, laughing; everyone was cursing and giggling in the same breath. Soon we reached a larger gallery, where we could again stand upright, breathe, and make jokes.” Could you speak to what you said earlier about the exploration of darkness being connected to your own enlightenment and survival?
JS Well, these can be scary spaces. One thing that I’ve really loved about the Dark Passage events is getting people to confront fears and inhibitions, and the conviction that you can’t do something before you’ve even tried it. It could be as basic as getting someone who has never performed in public into a goofy outfit and having him barter a moldy bingo card for an artificial limb to progress in a game. Or it could be more threatening, like having a very claustrophobic person shimmy down a wall inside a water tunnel, stuffing them inside a body bag, which is zipped up by the already scary-looking Chris Hackett with the words, “This is the only time you’ll ever come out of one of these alive,” and being pulled underneath a gate into a cold stream of water to start a journey. It’s like a rebirth, especially for someone who didn’t scream and fight all the way through but just surrendered to the experience and now knows that they can survive this kind of thing.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard I can’t do that! during these events, and the next thing you know the person is walking along a subway track in a sparkly cocktail dress and high heels, making sure no debris flies in their cocktail as the train speeds by. The same goes for me, running from a security car behind two studly caver friends, who jauntily disappear over a tall fence, with me thinking, No way can I do this! and all of a sudden being on the other side, thinking, What the fuck was that?! Crawling around underground spaces is very liberating in many ways, and one of the important ones is knowing that you can come out alive on the other side.
BS In a NYFA Fellow interview, you say that, “Something reveals its essence most truthfully when it’s in a state of decay. It’s stripped of all pretenses and artifice. It’s raw and vulnerable and thus becomes accessible on a more intimate level.” It strikes me that the story of above-ground structures more readily reveals its essence on film, that the palimpsest of textures and colors lends itself to the art of photography, in which a still image evokes a larger narrative or history.
But I’m fascinated by the aspects of subterranean exploration that can’t be documented, this idea of the “experience itself . . . tak[ing] over”, the transcendental journey you described. It makes sense that in all that silence and darkness, the personal narrative would overtake the historical narrative. Could you speak about the tension between the experience itself, and the exposure or documentation of that experience? What motivates you to communicate an exploration to a larger audience, versus to maintain a more intimate experience, shared only with, say, Dark Passage members?
JS It’s not so much that I would censor certain things but that verbal and pictorial communication fails when it comes to the more revelatory experiences. I think the mystical can be conveyed in music and that’s about it. Not that these are like religious experiences, but they can take place in an interior space that’s difficult to translate to the outside. And not to get too abstract, but I think that when it comes to the more surreal moments that can happen during larger explorations, or during Dark Passage events, words are a much better medium than images. Words have mythological powers, whereas photos can be soul-sucking. I ask people not to take photos at Dark Passage events because ultimately their memories and the stories they’ll continue to tell will end up being much more magical and significant than what can be shown by a photo.
As far as communication to a larger audience goes, I’m happy when people enjoy the photos, but I don’t expect to reach far beyond that. You need a certain level of connection to be understood and I feel a pretty big chasm at times. There’s no way I can really communicate why it’s possible for me to stand knee-deep in rubble, sifting through moldy fabric and soggy paper, get totally delighted by a decayed book cover that looks like a fabulous aquatic plant, then go to a restaurant dripping mud and plaster and think that the chick in the fur coat with the silicone bulging from her cleavage is a total freak. Just last week I was coming out of a collapsed theater in Mississippi where I had to crawl along a beam over a steep drop only to find myself surrounded by KKK graffiti, dead pigeons and creeping mold. Then I stood on the street corner waiting for my friends, getting unpleasant stares by clean white people who—for all I know—might have authored the Kill niggers tags I was just looking at. Can I really bridge these kinds of gaps to convey the sensations of exploring secret spaces?
On the other hand, coming across people who get it totally rocks my world and I continue to put stuff out in any way I can. Finding the right medium to communicate is really part of the struggle and joy of these explorations.
BS After 9/11, when exploring New York became more difficult, you began exploring tunnels and military relics in Poland, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna. The book on abandoned theaters depicts stages in the US and Europe. You’ve also produced American Ruins, a film that depicts America’s forgotten factories, derelict railroads, overgrown amusement parks, ghost towns, missile silos and mental hospitals. You’ve talked about the different experiences of history offered by subterranean versus above ground structures. What about American versus European structures?
JS Actually, I’m not the film producer of American Ruins; I’m just the locations producer. I’m also a very close friend and collaborator with one of the directors. Speaking of communication, this film has had trouble finding funding in America due to its avant-garde and artistic treatment of ruins, which is a much more profound and European approach than what is seen in mainstream culture here. In Europe, ruins are generally respected as sites of historic, aesthetic or religious significance, where there is a deep association with an artistic tradition that allows the visitor to put them into a meaningful personal context. In America, they’re considered eyesores. Weirdly, a crumbling Victorian structure is considered visually offensive, while the completely hideous housing development that takes its place is seen as culturally acceptable. There are also ruins that are tolerated from a distance, such as Bannerman’s Island or the Renwick Hospital on Roosevelt Island, but you’re not allowed to experience them up close. The American Ruins film is a really exquisite interpretation of abandoned buildings as portals rather than rubble and goes beyond anything I’ve seen done on ruins in film to date.
BS What’s your next subterranean adventure?
JS Right now I’m more interested in decay and decomposition, the breakdown of structures and the windows into other realms offered between the collapsing support beams. But I’m heading back to the Paris underground soon and might have a chance to go to Israel, which would be spectacular.
BS Can you describe some of the events you’ve organized through Dark Passage and Ars Subterranea? What have been the difficulties of pulling these events off, and how has having a collective enabled you to realize them?
JS These events range from very intricate, story-based games with several teams inside abandoned structures, to just very simple dinner parties in interesting forgotten locations. They always involve an interaction with a space that the participants wouldn’t normally get to see. We just did a really crazy game at an abandoned resort based on the Phantom of the Opera that was partly slapstick, partly a David Lynch-style nightmare. You can see the invitation to it here.
My co-conspirators on these Dark Passage events are amazing, incredibly creative and funny, and when everyone comes together to work on a game like this it really sets something extraordinary in motion. On this last event, we had about forty people on the crew. Everyone has a unique set of resources and skills, so it’s possible to do something fairly elaborate with nice outfits and fun props. Everyone knows how to work inside and around decrepit structures, how to be discreet and respectful of the space and yet be inspired and enchanted by it. We also work together on Madagascar Institute events and other projects; the collaborations are ongoing.
BS Can you tell me about your earliest memory of urban or subterranean exploration? Were you always a fearless explorer, or did you work up to being fearless? Has there been an exploration or project that’s really pushed your boundaries, psychological or physical? Have there been any near-death experiences?
JS There isn’t any pivotal event that I’d call a first exploration. I was very much driven by books, by Tom Sawyer getting lost in a cave and H.P. Lovecraft’s characters facing abominations in enormous ancient crypts. I wanted to see those massive underground statues with crocodile heads and the abandoned icy labyrinths on the mountains of madness. But I’ve never been fearless. Being fearless just means you have no imagination. It’s always about taking a step into the darkness and not knowing what you’ll encounter, but being willing to face it; that’s what drives the exploration. The only thing that can really push your boundaries is you, and you’re doing that by venturing into the unknown.
BS The long-running Atlantic Tunnel Tour has been shut down. A kid vaguely connected to the Underbelly Project was going to take me into the tunnels but never came through. How would a neophyte like me go about seeing an abandoned tunnel? Is Ars Subterranea still organizing public events, and if so, how would one get involved?
JS There are abandoned tunnels all over the place; you just have to do some research. The Atlantic Avenue tunnel is unique, of course, and very thrilling because it’s underneath a busy Brooklyn street and most people walking around on top of it have no idea it’s there. But there are other great forgotten rail tunnels in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and they’re just as exciting because they’re out in the wild and sometimes a bit dangerous. It’s much more of an old-fashioned adventure. Ars Subterranea will continue doing events on occasion, but lately we’ve been focusing on publishing books through our press, Furnace Press. They’re books dealing with all aspects of urban ruins, including artistic interpretations. We have a couple of projects in the works right now that will be released in 2012.
Brooke Shaffner grew up on the Texas-Mexico border and is working on a novel, Borderlands, that shifts between that landscape and the landscape of New York. Brooke’s first book, Between That Body and This One, is represented by Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.; an excerpt has been published in The Hudson Review. She teaches writing at Rutgers University, is the founder and director of Between the Lines, and lives in Brooklyn.