Architecture on Film: Dark Days / Substrait

Mon 31 Jan 2011 6.30pm

New York's (literal) underground scene. An award winning document of a subterranean community in the tunnels beneath New York City from a filmmaker who spent two years underground with his subjects and collaborators. Plus, artist Gordon Matta-Clark's parallel 1974 sketchbook of NYC's sewers, crypts and tunnels.

Dark Days

In the infamous railway tunnels beneath Midtown Manhattan documentary filmmaker Marc Singer lived with a settlement of New York's homeless community for two years. Inhabiting this subterranean shanty town, home to around 100 inhabitants and stretching over three miles, the film balances the struggles with the innovation of a self-sufficient community - tapping electricity from the mains, building homes, and even laying carpeting, with some residents staying for as long as 25 years. Preferring the semi-permanence and relative autonomy of the subterranean tunnel town to an itinerant life above ground, the lives of this (literally) underground community are unflinchingly and sensitively documented, in startling black and white chiaroscuro.

A highly dignified document of a vanished community, and the domestication of infrastructure. The film achieved unprecedented access to its subjects through the filmmakers' devotion to living and working amongst the tunnel's dwellers, who in turn became his grips, lighting crew, film-loaders and collaborators.

Winner of the Audience, Cinematography and Freedom of Expression awards at the Sundance Film Festival. With music from DJ Shadow.

'Unforgettable' - The New York Times.
'One of the greatest documentary films of all time' - Hannah McGill, Artistic Director, Edinburgh International Film Festival

USA 2000, Dir. Marc Singer, 94min

Substrait (Underground Dailies)

Seminal New York artist and self-termed 'anarchitect' Matta-Clark explores New York City's underground arteries, in a rough and ready document of geology and infrastructure, and an illuminating sketchbook of the architect-turned-artist's urban curiosity. Exploring train-tracks, sewers, crypts and more, the artist delves into the metropolis' subterranean spaces, accompanied by its vicars, tunnellers and rats.

USA, 1976, Dir. Gordon Matta-Clark, 30min

Programme Notes by James Attlee

Author. Attlee is co-author with Lisa Le Feuvre of, Gordon Matta-Clark: The Space Between. His forthcoming book Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight will be published by Hamish Hamilton in Spring 2011.

If we think of a city as an organism – a brain, say – then the underground is its unconscious; suppressed and ignored for the most part, a realm outside architecture and haunted by spectres, yet one on which we all depend. The two filmmakers whose work is shown tonight have both brought back dispatches from subterranean New York, a territory of which there is no reliable map; (the last comprehensive chart was published in 1865 by a civil engineer and veteran of the Mexican war, General Egbert Ludo Vicus Viele, and is still referenced by planners today). Honeycombed with wells and watercourses, 438 miles of subway tunnels, 6,000 miles of sewers and a cobweb of utility cables and steam-pipes, it is a maze to which no one person holds the key.

Marc Singer, an Englishman living in the city during the 1990s, fell into conversation with a homeless man in his neighbourhood who spoke of a place underground in the railway tunnels where it was possible to live in safety and even build your own house. Fascinated, Singer began to explore, eventually coming across a small community settled in a disused Amtrak tunnel, which he befriended. Not content with swapping stories around the campfire Singer took up residence in the tunnel himself. It was one of his new friends that said one night “Somebody ought to make a film about this”. So that is what Singer, who had never even held a camera before, decided to do, and the tunnel-dwellers acted as his crew, tapping into power-lines for light and building a camera dolly that would run along a rail track. Without preamble and with a remarkable level of trust, they tell of the events that have catapulted them from normal life into this netherworld: crack cocaine, lost children, jail sentences, parental abuse. Despite everything they build themselves shelters of various degrees of sophistication, without the help of architects or city-planners, and the camera reveals them to be house-proud. Shot on film in grainy black and white, with a soundtrack by DJ Shadow, this compelling documentary ends on a note of redemptive hope.

The journey made by Gordon Matta-Clark in the late 1970s into the underground also begins with an encounter in the streets. Local kids lead him and his tiny crew to the entrance to Croton Old Aqueduct, a nineteenth century, brick-lined tunnel. This is his portal to the underworld, where the film shifts from colour to black and white. Almost immediately they encounter a spectral figure, an illusion created by lights projecting shadows onto the mist. In the next sequence the camera enters a tunnel beneath Grand Central Station to the sound of Matta-Clark on the phone requesting permission from the authorities to do so, and being categorically refused it. He is in search of tunnel-dwellers, but finds them as elusive as the alligators rumoured to live in the sewers, or official approval for his project. Instead he is astonished to discover the size of the empty space beneath the streets, above which high-rise buildings float suspended. “The truth is, underneath all that verticalism lies a horizontal body of tunnels”, a veteran tunnel-worker informs him. New York, he explains, is “much the same as a man lying on his back, with his veins and arteries and vital fluids,” while the men who build the tunnels, often deaf from drilling through hard rock and using explosives, are “people unto themselves”. In the crypts of the Cathedral of St John the Divine, the Canon tells him of the existence of the ‘phantasm’ of a worker killed during the construction of the cathedral, a residue of “the stark horror of a man just about to fall to his death” that has marked the place.

Matta-Clark trained as an architect before starting to work as an artist, and remained fascinated throughout his career by those spaces between, beneath and above buildings, that were outside the architectural plan. Exploring and exposing the world that lies beneath the streets, complete with ghosts, rats and mythical beasts, he debunks modernism’s pristine façade, meanwhile giving a voice, like Marc Singer, to the underground’s seldom-heard inhabitants.

Download programme notes here