We are in an Image of the Subterranean Now:
Making New Memories of Underground Space

David Prescott-Steed

In his book on media semiotics, Jonathan Bignell outlines the various codes by which television viewers and audiences construct the meanings of television fictions. As Bignell says, “The selection and combination of images and sounds, so that connotations relay together into mythic meanings affecting our understanding of society and culture, often depend on the codes and conventions which organize them. It is the viewer’s knowledge of television codes which enables the pleasures, frustrations, boredom or fascination of television to occur, even though this knowledge of codes and conventions is often unconsciously possessed” (158). The broader field of contemporary media studies recognizes the television viewer, or any reader of cultural texts for that matter, as an active negotiator of semiotic meaning; the viewer’s intellectual, material and emotional dispositions and their resulting relation to broadcasted content play a direct role in the storytelling capacity of a single or episodic program. Bignell is aware that this aspect of negotiability remains in play, despite there always being, for the viewer, the “sense that someone or something is doing the storytelling or the observing for us, on our behalf, and therefore functioning as a narrator” (160). When watching a film or soap opera, for instance, the viewer is much more of a stakeholder than he or she might imagine. Although television fictions “lay out positions from which their stories make sense, positions which the viewer is invited to occupy in order to understand and enjoy television fiction,” these are ideological positions and they are read in view of, thus remain ever subject to, an audience member’s real-world experience of the socio-cultural spaces represented therein (161).

An awareness of the media consumer as an active stakeholder in the construction (the creation) of cultural meaning underpins the ‘mystory’—a creative research method innovated by tele-media and digital culture theorist Gregory Ulmer. Researching and writing a mystory, as Ulmer explains, entails “bringing into relation your experience with three levels of discourse—personal (autobiography), popular (community stories, oral history or popular culture), expert (disciplines of knowledge). In each case, use the punctum or sting of memory to locate items significant to you; once located, research the representations of the popular and expert items [pertaining to the community or discipline in which one becomes an expert/professional] in the archive or encyclopaedia (thus mixing living and artificial memories)” (Ulmer, Teletheory 209). Articulating a social constructivist ontology (society is built as opposed to naturally existing), the mystory gives structure to a person’s investigation into, and application of, his or her creative disposition or ‘invariant principle.’ The neuro-aesthetic position is that one's invariant principle, triggered by only a few key images encountered in childhood, goes on to underwrite that person's creative output across his or her lifetime. Ulmer's analogy is the needle on a compass that (moved by an invisible but nevertheless intellectually determinable force) always finds North. In this sense, and with Bignell in mind, we can see how the mystory may be taken as an opportunity for the kind of creative activity that enriches a person’s cognizance of their connection to (their stake in) the representations that circulate around them in a contemporary, technologically driven culture.

A key stage in formulating one's invariant principle, using this research method, is to think about what narrative has made an impression on the researcher. This could be a film or television program or other mediated entertainment experience that somehow packages the mythologies and wishes of one's culture. A later step in the mystory entails deciding whether the identified example will be qualitatively analyzed for its ontological, epistemological or ethical insight/value. The mystory is a creative research method and so, of course, might appeal most immediately to arts-related practitioners who take it up as a strategy for contributing to cultural conversations, that is, for speaking back to the constructed narratives of the life-worlds they inhabit. This said, the use-value of a mystory is not limited to individuals who self-identify as ‘artists.’ As Nicholas Mirzoeff writes, "There is no outside to culture," suggesting that we are all stakeholders in the representations that circulate of our cultures and of our late capitalist society (23).

The possible forms and functions of the mystory have been at the forefront of my mind over the past few months. This is mainly because, during this time, I have been quietly working away on my own mystory—one that has grown and grown far beyond anything I could have initially imagined. Although I do not wish to prematurely display the contents of this work-in-progress, here, I would like to share one of the tangential thoughts that has grown out from it along the way. It is no longer clear to me when or in which physical location this contiguous thought emerged from my prefrontal cortex, like a mushroom exploding from a spawn in a pasteurized substrate, and so I can offer only substitutional clarity by saying this: reflective of human physiognomy, I think better when I walk. The link between exercise and neurological activity is a long standing area of research interest. Recent research conducted at Stanford University has found that "[c]reative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter" (Wong). Three of the project's four studies focused on divergent thinking, which is pertinent here given that I enjoy walking in underground spaces, diverging off of the beaten tracks typically reserved for quotidian perambulation. Thus, in all probability, the notional tangent came to mind while I was wandering through some subterranean cavity, under torch light and against an acousmatic backdrop comprising trickling water and cars driving with thuds over road-side manhole covers.

The extra-mystoriographical thought related to mass media representations of underground space, such as those of which I am actively inquisitive. My interest stems from the experience of living in a city that relies heavily on a complex network of dedicated storm water drains for its ongoing viability. Melbourne is built on a solidified plateau of basalt lava; large drains are required for the redirection of rainfall that would otherwise flood our built environment and make day-to-day life untenable in the wetter months. Admittedly, this interest is more aesthetic than technical; I am an artist and not a civil engineer, unlike my father. It is from this perspective that I have noticed a remarkable disjuncture between the mythic meanings of the subterranean that dominate contemporary entertainment media and what can be seen in a first-hand encounter with the hidden spaces under our feet.

Most people do not gain first-hand contact with that which exists beneath their feet (that upon which their daily lives rely). We are surface dwellers, fluent in the images broadcast onto the surfaces of our screens. Only in recent years have the stock of urban exploration websites, independent documentaries and photography books begun to bring the underground to the surface, augmenting widespread, common-sense notions of subterranean space and abandoned industrial spaces that have been almost exclusively shaped by television and cinematic fictions, including the sewer scenes of Larry Cohen's film It's Alive (1974/2008), Lewis Teague's Alligator (1980), Jean-Pierre Jeunet's post-apocalyptic film Delicatessen (1991), Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992) and Tom Hooper's Les Misérables (2012). The half-shelled heroes of the animated television series and film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are probably the most recognizable exceptions to the predominating point of view that drains are ideal locations for horrible things, but even they (within the narrative) are grossly misunderstood. Non-fiction accounts are far fewer in number; the urban exploration web-series Crack the Surface (2011) and Moses Gates' book Hidden Cities: My Journey into the Secret World of Urban Exploration (2013) are notable examples of a genre with considerable mileage ahead.

“We are in an image now," says Ulmer ("The Chora Collaborations" n.p.). For the purpose of this discussion, I would like to modify his phrase to read instead: "we are in an image of the subterranean now.” Just as there is no outside to culture (neither cognitively nor materially for those life-narratives unfold inside the suburbs of modernity), for many people, encounters with sub-suburbia remain limited to mythical depictions. This is not to say that television fictions should be providing viewers with anything else; viewers we are free to enjoy imaginative, make-believe representations of the material world and can value narratives that make no claims to justified true belief. Nevertheless, because there is a reasonable limit to what worldly insight television fictions can, will, or intend to communicate, there is a point at which it is incumbent upon the viewer to extend his or her self and articulate cultural agency beyond what is immediately given. One way to do so is to engage in a mystory project, part of which might entail going out into the world and verifying personal positions in relation to the media products consumed.

As an urban explorer, my first hand experience of underground spaces in urban settings is at odds with the meanings ascribed to drains in the cinematographic contexts such as those I have mentioned and which, prior to my active interest in urbex, were nevertheless determinant in my aesthetic understanding of the built environment. I grew up believing that the subterranean was a place of terror, of psychological and physical suffering, of transgression at best and of evil at worst (though I now appreciate that these are vague and negotiable terms). I thought that the spaces beyond the fences of everyday life were inherently and inevitably anti-social, hence their sequestration. Contact with underground space, therefore, amounts to a 'sequestered experience,' defined by British sociologist Anthony Giddens as "the separation of day-today life from contact with experiences which raise potentially disturbing existential question—particularly experiences to do with sickness, madness, criminality, sexuality and death" (244). Underground spaces are important contexts of critical cultural contemplation, perhaps precisely because of their invented notoriety.

If a storm water drain is integral to the lives we lead, if it quite literally supports our professional roles, our emotional relationships, our artistic pursuits and our performances of selfhood, it seems fair to recognise the humble storm water drain as an ever present (albeit out-of-sight) ingredient of our cultural identities. In as much as it crosses the divide between sociology and architecture, this is a 'psychogeographical' matter; it denotes an investigation into how the built environment impacts on our thoughts, feelings and behavior (on our ontological, epistemological , aesthetic and ethical self-concepts). "How do different places make us feel and behave? The term psychogeography was invented by the Marxist theorist Guy Debord in 1955 in order to explore this. Inspired by the French nineteenth century poet and writer Charles Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur—an urban wanderer—Debord suggested playful and inventive ways of navigating the urban environment in order to examine its architecture and spaces" (Tate Gallery).

From a psychogeographical perspective, therefore, we may see how our mass-media orators of the underground might have unexpected access into an audience's broader-image understanding of urban space that, in turn, feeds into individual and/or shared notions of urban identity. Here, for the majority of the population whose experience of the subterranean is mediated, we find a kind of psychogeography-by-proxy, wherein a viewer's internalized thoughts, feelings and actions pertaining to the urban underground are informed by ideological (mediated, constructed, depersonalized, unidirectional) representations of the built environment rather than by way of tactile, material encounters (non-mediated, constructed, personal, directional, sensorial).

Unlike the representations of love or wealth or education or of the vacation experience, that can typically be 'checked for accuracy' (like good research)by the viewer (that can be checked for their ideological bias), without free access to the subterranean, when it comes to infrastructural and what might or might not 'lurk beneath,' the pursuit such verification carries legal and logistical barriers. When and where you, the reader, notice anomalies between the real and the unreal, there is a question to be asked with regard what part of ourselves is vulnerable to misguidance or, with regard which part are we denied agency? I am concerned that mythic meanings of drains promote false memories of underground space that have a flow-on effect on self-identity in urban settings by prohibiting access to infrastructural spaces that, in addition to their technical significance, are nevertheless valid areas of aesthetic, cultural reflection. In this sense, they are also physical spaces in which existential questions may be asked such as: in this built environment, and in view of what is logistically required to sustain my life, who am I? What does it mean to exist under these historically and globally anomalous material circumstances? What can I see within this tunnel or cavity that tells me something (as architecture often does) about my society's fundamental relationship to nature? I have at times, while perambulating through underground space, also wondered whether I am out of my mind; granted, this line of inquiry is considerably less useful than these others.  

How may this disparity be addressed? 'Show, don't tell,' is a piece of advice oft-given by professionals to writers of fiction, and we are dealing with fictions here. In science also, in the pursuit of empirical knowledge, experimentation and verification through observation are vital. My decision, in order to foster an aesthetic grounded in a material reality therefore, has been to 1) offer details pertaining to a selection of films featuring representations of subterranean urban space that point to their mythic meaning, and 2) move to critique these ideological constructions by weaving, through the texts, a selection of photographs of underground space that I have taken and that, in turn, function as empirical data upon which my qualitative understanding is presently founded. As aforementioned, it is appropriate to recognize the audience member of television fiction as an active participant in the making of cultural meaning. I shall observe this widely recognized viewer-model in this particular presentation, albeit perhaps more literally than expected, by refraining from elucidating or explicating the photos; the power of the name of an image to impact on how it is visually read, adding to its ideological encoding, means that I have refrained even from giving them captions. It will remain an activity for the reader to see, for him or herself, the disparities that exist between mass-media representations of late modern, urban subterranean spaces and their real-world appearance.

That's a Nice Drain

In order to see the full capacity of a movie to invoke drain-fear in its audience, we need go no further than Lewis Teague's Alligator (1980). As the story goes, a teenage girl buys a baby alligator in Florida as a vacation souvenir only for her father to flush it down the toilet after their return home. The alligator ends up in the sewers and, thanks to over a decade of feeding on laboratory animal carcasses contaminated with illegal, experimental growth hormones, grows into a 36 foot (11 meter), 2000 pound (900 kg) beast before up-sizing his diet to human flesh, including police officers and sewer workers. The narrative descends into a media frenzy of industry conspiracies and floating body parts, which made for such a popular film that it is now considered a classic of the horror genre.

While the story is fiction, its setting is true. The film features real tunnels that run off the Los Angeles River, which is basically a concrete lined flood control channel. The tunnels that lead into it vary in diameters from 18 inches to 20 feet. It's not quite Dante's hell but hellish all the same and, to this end, morally specific. Alligators are an ideal animal to use because they already trigger a fear response in many people. Yet, while Alligator is classified as a 'natural horror film,' it is not nature but culture that is rendered responsible. Given that the reptiles mutations were caused by the by-products of careless science, it is really an industrial horror film; Infrastructure is the stage upon which we see the demonization of infrastructure through its association with the broader picture of the risks of industrial progress. So far as the film is concerned, the subterranean is where a dark truth of our daily lives ferments and waits to consume us, like a reimagining of the vagina-dentata and anti-cathedral found in The Hours of Catherine of Cleves illuminated manuscript miniature for the prayer "Office of the Dead" (Wieck).

If a fictional animal were ever to emerge from the combined systems of drains that service both storm water and sewerage waste, perhaps it would not be human flesh that it craved but rather a nice hot pizza topped with peanut butter or chocolate sprinkles or some other unique and weird concoction. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been a much loved part of popular culture's association with the nether regions of our built environment since first ninja-jumping onto our television screens in 1984. For over 30 years, the four anthropomorphic turtles—Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo—have been fighting crime and upholding the peace in New York under the guidance of their rat-sensei and Ninjutsu-master, Splinter. The crime fighting activities of the Ninja Turtles sets them apart from a vast majority of TV and film productions in which one or more characters is associated in some way with the urban drain system.

Far more typical in its representation of drains is Larry Cohen's film called It's Alive from 1974, and its 2008 remake, about an evil baby includes scenes shot in drains beneath central Los Angeles. There are many more films that feature drain-sewer shots, chases through tunnels (even if studio sets are sometimes substituted for the real thing), but we could not go past the opening titles for Batman Returns (1992). Having been dropped off of a bridge in a basinet by its wealthy parents during the film's prologue, we follow a newborn child as it journeys along the submerged floor of an enormous, subterranean space. Round concrete piping and red brick tunnels frame the orphan's descent into the bowels of a labyrinthine underworld, floating past side-pipes and water reflections that shift eerily on the walls and ceiling of the infrastructural architecture. In this sense, the drain provides a visual metaphor for existential instability—the bereft's new habitat promises none of the protection, identity and guidance such as we would expect a parent to provide. The titles end as the basinet reaches what appears to be a stone or concrete ledge and is met my a waddle of penguins. We have been told the story, by this time, of the first crucial minutes in the life of who would become the infamous Penguin; subterranean urban space is presented as an appropriate place to start a diabolical personality—one that is anti-social and criminal, as opposed to culturally engaged and interested in sharing creative insight.

Approaching this topic at parallax, let's consider a documentary view of a different kind of drain, one that we are all likely to encounter on a daily basis and, therefore, which hits home some of the values (however singular in their expression) that are associated with this part of our shared cultural experience. I have chosen the following example because of what it suggests about the psychological state of someone who has a special interest in drains. While not a definitive model for all drain interests, it nevertheless reinforces the drain as a locus of transgressive, abnormal human behavior, wherein the domestic functions as a metonym for the greater infrastructural network to which it is ultimately connected.

In an episode of the Discovery Channel's documentary My Strange Addiction (S02 Ep.2, 2011), a 28 year old Seattle resident named Evan talks about his addiction to pulling hair out of shower drains. An anxiety response that has developed since the death of his father, the college student's addiction sees him poking away at shower drains approximately 3 times a week. Although he is particularly interested in long brown, slimy hair, Evan doesn't limit his hair hunting to his own private bathroom. In the year leading up to the filming of this documentary, Evan had pulled hair from over 100 shower drains and most of these weren't his; Evan's preference is for pulling hair out of shower drains located in homes that he's not been to before. In a very short space of time after Evan has met the owner of a house, maybe through work or through social connections, he will have made some estimations as to what type of hair could be in their shower drains as well as how much there could be. If Evan gets the opportunity to go in the house, maybe he'll also work his way to the bathroom, where he'll proceed to the next level of his addiction. This entails rummaging around the owner's bathroom looking for things that will function as makeshift tools and be useful in getting the job done, such as tweezers or toothbrushes. Once Evan's collected some tools, he'll squat down next to the drain and start poking around inside in a kind of treasure hunt for long lost keratinous filaments. Unfortunately, as Evan searches, his anxiety levels increase, dropping again only once has found a clump of hair and pulled it out for inspection. Only a few seconds later observing the texture, color and density of the mucky lump, he starts to feel disgusted and throws the hair in the bin. After all that anticipation and effort, all that Evan's left with, he says, is a feeling of regret.

A Final Comment

Although the reader will by now have been quite capable of formulating his or her own conclusions on the information provided, recognizing that independent research will provide the most meaningful of outcomes, I would like to add one more comment regarding mystoriography; it provides something of a narrative arc to the investigative headspace from which this presentation emerged.

If it doesn't ultimately matter which mass-media memory a person chooses to use in his or her mystory, I wonder, what if a person chooses an image of the underground and hasn't, since the seeding of that memory (however much his or her fallible human memory has embellished and distorted it over time), come to participate in the urbex community? What differences might result in the invariant principle, to which a mystoriographical narrative points, between one based on fictional accounts of underground space and details such as those shared in the photos above? I realize that this question could be asked of many of the mass-media examples that might feature in a mystory and am not trying to push it forth as a special case, more important than representations of the deep sea or outer space or of natural, near impenetrable landscapes. Rather, it seems at least as pressing because of the material proximity of our infrastructure to our culturally constructed lives and selves. It seems at least as pressing for the way that myths are inscribed into urban spaces beyond commodious verification.

I have no doubt that this line of thinking will continue to germinate; scope exists to further consider the implications for how we might frame memory—as a prompt for investigation (as a beginning and opening) rather than as a closed-circuit rendering of what has already gone (an end, the limit). This said, the substrate in which this notion of subterranean space grows is clear enough to me; infrastructure is an integral part of the surface, and thus of our surface dwelling activities, that deserves our intellectual and aesthetic attention. As Nietzsche once wrote: "And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you" (102). Nietzsche was not referring to industrial infrastructure but to the psychological and ontological machinations of Being as 'grund' where 'grund' has no other foundation (Heidegger, qtd. in Cristin 47). Nevertheless, the extensive darkness and aesthetics of storm water drains, along with other such underground spaces, find them speaking well to this metaphor; drains are the material voids that ground our industrial lives. Just like Nietzsche's self-reflective abyss, paying attention to these sites unseen is an opportunity to think further about who we are as products of particular cultural and material conditions, and to do so in a way that enriches our negotiations of the value-laden media imagery we consume.

Works Consulted

Bignell, Jonathan. Media Semiotics: An Introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. Print.

Cristin, Renato. Heidegger and Leibniz: Reason and the Path. Trans. Gerald Parks. Contributions to Phenomenology. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998. Print.

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991. Print.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. An Introduction to Visual Culture. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. 1973. Trans. Hollingdale, R. J. London: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.

Tate Gallery. "Psychogeography".  London, 2016. Online Resources. Accessed 8 January 2017. Web. <http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/p/psychogeography#introduction>.

Ulmer, Gregory. "The Chora Collaborations." Rhizomes 18 (Winter 2008). Web. <http://rhizomes.net/issue18/ulmer/index.html>.

Ulmer, Gregory. Teletheory. New York: Atropos Press, 2004. Print.

Wieck, Roger. "Office of the Dead".  The Hours of Catherine of Cleves.  The Morgan Library and Museum. 10 January 2017. Web. <http://www.themorgan.org/collection/hours-of-catherine-of-cleves/75>.

Wong, May. "Stanford Study Finds Walking Improves Creativity."  Stanford News, 24 April 2014. Accessed 10 January 2017. Web. <http://news.stanford.edu/2014/04/24/walking-vs-sitting-042414/>.


David Prescott-Steed is a sound artist, writer and urban explorer based in Melbourne. The author of The Psychogeography of Urban Architecture, he is currently an Academic Fellow at the Academy of Design, Australia, where he teaches visual culture studies and art history to undergraduate design-arts students from a range of industry-led areas including graphic design, advertising, and photo-media. Recent publications may be found at The Journal for Artistic Research (JAR), The Atrium: A Journal of Academic Voices, and the previous issue of Textshop Experiments.