Acts Of The Apostles | Erskine College 1905-2012 | A Retrospective

Welcome to the complete video document of Gunner’s adventures with Urbex Central at Erskine College in Island Bay, Wellington, New Zealand, in the years after its closure in 2012.

Part One: Rage Against The Dying Of The Light [0:00]

Several years ago now, we visited Erskine College at night. We found our way into its pristine Gothic chapel, which was added to the college in 1929-30. It had at that time recently been operating as a wedding venue before being declared earthquake prone. We lit up the chapel once more, first with candlelight and then with halogen flood lights powered by a petrol generator. Over the course of the next three years we revisited the college and documented it as best we could, while the destruction from vandalism seemed to be advancing mercilessly towards the chapel. Today most of the college has been demolished to make way for a housing development, while the chapel remains, albeit emptied out and boarded up. We’re happy to bring you the chapel as we first found it.

Part Two: Ascension Day [5:59]

In the year following our first visit to Erskine College, tagging had visibly advanced to the choir loft at the back of the chapel. Hung high out of reach of taggers’ sharpies are the stations of the cross, the closest of which to us depict scenes where Jesus is “aided by Simon” and “stripped of his garments”. By this time Urbex Central had evolved into a highly active and — more importantly — a warm collective, as evident in moments of playful cooperation captured on video. Thankfully one of the organs was foot-powered.

Part Three: Walk Towards The Falling Water, I Will Meet You There [10:36]

In 2009, a poetic arts student wrote in chalk on top of a set of wooden shelves: “Walk towards the falling water / I will meet you there”. Construction began on Erskine College, a former Catholic girls’ school, in 1905, with a chapel added in 1929-30. In 1985 it ceased operating as a college, and in 1992 a trust was formed and given responsibility for its heritage protection. Between 1997 and 2009 it was tenanted by a tertiary art school. The chapel then reopened as a wedding venue until being declared earthquake prone in 2012.

Part Four: Acts of The Apostle [17:47]

Another year has passed, and once more the chapel is inviting exploration. We know the space well enough now to relax in the moment and capture details hitherto unseen. With explorers almost entirely absent from the frame, the gentle zooming in and out of the camera seems to capture an aspect of human experience deeper than adventure: our cyclical approaching and withdrawing from faith and/or artistry of many kinds as we navigate our lives.

Pastoral Arts

Elvis was the tender age of 19 when he recorded “That’s Alright Mama” in “a new, distinctive style” on the Sun label. Many of the arrivals at this commune founded in 1973 were of a similar age, seeking to live in a new, distinctive style under the sun. A painter’s easel stands overlooking the hillside on which the communal meeting house was built, and the nearby house still contains once-cherished paintings and art books.

Out of Bounds

Welcome to the complete document of our explore of this huge campus of four prison units abandoned in 2012 and currently being demolished.

Part One: “Out Of Bounds” [0:00] Prisons have existed on this site for nearly a century. During the Second World War, conscientious objectors were detained here. In the 1950s the site housed a prison farm which was further developed in the late 1970s. The scale of the site — thousands of hectares of commercial and native forests, farms, wetlands and a river — meant that a perimeter fence was impractical, deemed only ever suitable to house up to 600 inmates at a minimum to medium security level. From 1998 the prison began to suffer repetitional damage, with a seizure of almost $1 million worth of cannabis plants growing on site, a buckets-for-toilets scandal, two inmate drownings involving Māori cultural training, canoes and parachutes, and a guard convicted of supplying cannabis to a prisoner in return for a bribe. The closure of this unit – one of four we visited as the autumn sun was falling fast – was announced in 2012, and the land and its buildings have now been returned to their original owners. No signs of the commencement of demolition were then evident, and — gratifyingly — no signs of vandalism. A 360-degree panoramic mural painted around the walls of the dining hall conveys a sense of geographical placement among the majestic landscapes beyond the perimeter of confinement, tantalisingly out of reach.

Part Two: “Man With Short Arms” [6:30] Perhaps some kind of neuroscience was at play in this choice of images — SpongeBob SquarePants meets the lost city of Atlantis — for a mural painted along the back corridor of the isolation cells of this unit. Presumably intended to calm disruptive prisoners, and engage painterly ones, further intriguing murals adorn the cold cell walls: a man pruning the limb of a tree so anatomically uniform that he might just as likely be an electrician working on wires strung from a lamp post; a Māori wahine wearing a pounamu and a kākahu feather cloak — barefoot on a pedestal — turning her face to the light; a man surveying his upcoming twisting traverse into a landscape crowned by an active volcano, with only a briefcase to sustain him; and the man with short arms — seemingly ill-equipped to utilise the key to freedom that lies beside his truncated frame with its enormous feet.

Part Three: “Traces of Time” [11:49] From the window of #55, an informed eye studies the moody skies above the central courtyard. Glenn’s 1972 Christmas present — The World Encyclopedia of the Film — languishes in #11, its front cover torn off but not yet discarded. #18 plays host to a brown-crayoned face, mouth agape as if inviting the throwing of ping pong balls at a fairground amusement. Nearby a grey-bearded pig farmer and an athletic woman carrying groceries seem to be missing an opportunity to converse at the fence line. Monied wanderlust is palpable in #16, where a shrine to cars, boats and exotic getaways gleams under fluorescent light. Outside Sunday church services advertise the promise of personal transformation via belief in a higher power, while inside #37 another route to growth is being chosen. The number of 5 — denoting maximum difficulty — is written into every column associated with expressing affection towards anyone from an intimate partner to a shop assistant.

Part Four: “But They Can Die” [16:30] The pigs of George Orwell’s Animal Farm proclaimed, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Pigs are similarly the object of resentment in under-the-mattress graffiti in Cell #26 of this former prison. The poem begins burnt into the wood: Pigs CAN’T FLY and continues in blue pen: BUT THEY CAN DIE NEXT FINE DAY BLOW A Pig away IF YOU KILL A Pig a day it WILL Keep the doctor away Nowhere more clearly did we find articulated the smouldering frustration of incarceration, channeled into the kind of blind hatred that negates any opportunity for insight. Elsewhere was a mixture of light and shade. In the kitchen the relative gentleness of a rainbow framing the extractor fan was juxtaposed with murals depicting fearsome hyper-masculine muscularity. No such diverting decor was provided for prisoners in solitary confinement, who were required to surrender their tobacco products and were issued with fresh water, a chamber pot, one mattress, one pillow, one pillow slip, one sheet, and blankets or duvet “in accordance with climactic conditions”. How some of them obtained implements sharp and sturdy enough to partially chisel their gang names and insignia into the stone walls and into the paint of their cell bars and doors is anyone’s guess. Puzzling at what we had experienced, and all the more aware of our own freedom of movement and expression, we walked for ninety minutes back down the road through pine forests to where we’d parked our car.

I’ll Send You A Postcard

A comparison between Budludzha monument in Bulgaria as pictured in 1970’s publications and its abandoned state in 2015. The Getty Foundation’s investment of $185,000 in July 2019 to support the creation of a conservation and management plan for the monument hopes to reverse its sharp decline.

Reverberations of Socialism

In 1961, architect Georgi Stoilov submitted a design inspired by the Roman Pantheon and 1950s sci-fi films for a monument to commemorate the founding of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers Party. The party was established by Dimitâr Blagoev’s group at a gathering at Buzludzha Peak 70 years earlier. Construction began a decade later. Within two decades it had again become symbolic – of the decline of the Soviet Union and Bulgaria’s unwillingness to memorialise its political past. The Getty Foundation’s investment of $185,000 in July 2019 to support the creation of a conservation and management plan for the monument hopes to reverse its sharp decline. The circular form of the Buzludzha monument appealed to Stoilov “as it seemed to symbolize infinity, and thus echoed the popular communist theme of building an eternal future and eternal glory.” [https://buzludzha-monument.com] It also seems to speak of a more inclusive, egalitarian politics. Wild acoustics were an unexpected discovery in this exploration shot in 2015.

My Teacher’s Left

In 1987, the teachers at this now-abandoned Bulgarian school were likely told to destroy all artefacts relating to the Soviet era. Instead, they stowed images of Lenin, the communist flag and other left-leaning iconography in the basement and in the attic. One teacher was committed enough to keep anti-Fascist partisan artwork in the classroom, featuring scenes of the educating of children in secret, the supplying of food and water to resistance units hiding in the woods, partisans and their supporters being apprehended by the military and by their fellow villagers, and the brutal interrogations that swiftly followed.