Urban Outfitter

Talking with Julia Solis, creative preservationist of abandoned environments

What sets the New York-based organization Dark Passage apart from the myriad of other urban-exploration groups and websites is that it doesn't simply document abandoned environments. Creator Julia Solis transforms forgotten and decrepit hotels, hospitals, schools, and tunnels into renegade and artistic experiences.

Solis, author of New York Underground (Routledge) and a veteran explorer who nearly lost her life in a siphon deep below the city's surface, has instigated elaborate fugitive games in New York's subway tunnels. One such adventure drew on the legend of Mata Hari, whose teeth were stolen from her preserved head. Dark Passage sent legions of costumed scavengers on a clandestine hunt around surprisingly numerous World War I locations throughout Brooklyn, searching for the missing teeth.

In addition to darkpassage.com, a voyeuristic journey into underground and disappearing places, Solis launched the group Ars Subterranea, whose current projects include the film Abandoned Ruins and a collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History to commemorate Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins's lost dinosaur models and the doomed Paleozoic Museum in Central Park. Ars Subterranea's publishing house, Furnace Press, recently released Abandoned Tulsa, featuring photographs by a teenage explorer of the city; a new title, Anatomy of a Hospital, is forthcoming.

Dark Passage is part of the legacy of the now defunct San Francisco Suicide Club and Cacophony, both groups of fun-loving infiltrators whose carpe-diem philosophy led them to do things they might never get to do again. How did you get involved? I'm great friends with John Law, who was one of the main Suicide Club people. Cacophony has always been more about pranks, like going to Chuck E. Cheese to celebrate the birthday of a guy who had been almost severely blown up doing fireworks. We went in and he was totally bandaged and moving like this [mimes stiff, Frankenstein movements] and all the kids were terrified and screaming and we had this whole birthday party for him. It was great.

They let you stay? Yeah, what else where they going to do? That totally goofy element has always appealed to me—I try not to be too choreographed or controlled or too high-tech, to leave that playful element open. I know something's going well when people can't keep a straight face.

Ars Subterranea, the public arm of Dark Passage, is subtitled "The Society of Creative Preservation." What does that mean? It's not preservation of an actual building but a preservation of a memory, and that's the creative part. We try to create an experience with the building, so that you have a personal connection with the building. If you explore a place and actually work for that experience by coming up with a plot or a costume or by solving a riddle, it makes it personal; you will never forget that place. It's like climbing a bridge. Every time you cross that bridge you're going to think, I was up there once. Even if the site gets torn down, it will always stay with you.

You identify with the buildings you explore rather than the people who once inhabited them. Do you believe in ghosts? It's more like I believe every building has a personality and it's trying to communicate in some way. There's nothing New Agey or crazy about it; it's just that certain impressions are left behind and you can really get a sense of them when you're going through. When a hospital deteriorates, it becomes more pure; it becomes more stripped of everything that humans have put into it.

A friend once described New York City as coastline because it is forever changing and it seems infinite. You'd think New York would be an incredibly rich environment for your kind of exploration, that it would be impossible to ever exhaust it. Well, yes and no. It used to be that way. Look at Red Hook and IKEA moving in and all those structures getting destroyed. I think there's only one explorable hospital left in the city. That I won't name. I don't name names.

I think the most fascinating story on Dark Passage is one of those unnamed places; you call it the Hospital of Seven Teeth. When we first discovered the hospital we didn't realize what a great treasure that place was. A lot of the doors seemed to not have ever been opened and a lot of the tunnels were still musty, as if no one had passed through them for years. When I got home I researched it and found out about a murder, a patient there who'd gone out on a rendezvous on the campus with another mental patient. He killed her and chopped her up into little pieces and buried her on the grounds. She wasn't even reported missing for a while, but then another patient was found playing with seven of her teeth. From there they came to the killer, and the killer actually led them to the site.

 
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