With the number of ghost estates across the country estimated at over 900, Stephen Bourke talks to photographer Lisa Furness about her work documenting derelict buildings & squatting in Ireland, London & Spain.
The big criticism of Urban exploration and the like is that it’s ‘ruin fetishism’. How do you respond to that?
I see a lot of pictures that make empty buildings look dramatic and exciting. I see a lot of beauty in empty buildings, but I see a lot of sadness as well. For me they’re places that are full of memories – inside them there’s no sense of future inside them – there’s just looking back.
Your project is called ‘The Writing on the Wall’ – what’s it say?
The Guardian released a figure last week saying there were 11 million empty houses in Europe. And somehow rent seems to be going up, but no-one can afford anything any more, and there’s more and more people without any homes at all. The writing on the wall’s quite angry.
When I first started making my abandoned buildings pictures, it was the height of the shiny Tony Blair boom. Basically everything was packaged, and glossy and plastic, and shallow. I found the prevailing culture to be shallow. There seemed to be a real antipathy to looking behind the facade.
My abandoned buildings pictures originally came from a desire to peel back the curtains and go “Look! Here’s what’s underscoring everything. Here’s our completely derelict industry. We’re not making anything any more. Can we just stop kidding ourselves that any of this nonsense is important?”
You reckon Spain is the place that exemplifies that best?
Yeah, Spain’s had the same level of property catastrophe as Ireland, you know, but it’s scaled up a bit across the country. And at the same time, they have a much longer association with ideas of anarchism, and cooperativism; collectivism, and squatting. They’re used to having to come up with solutions.
And what’s the difference between Spanish people and Irish people?
Well, that’s an interesting one. Before I came over, I was really aware of the Irish diaspora. Everywhere I’ve been in Europe I’ve met Irish people. I’ve generally asked them “What’s the score, are there any squats going?” And generally the response I’ve got has been “No, there’s nothing going on – that’s why I left.”
After a couple of days I met a few people who are squatting in Dublin who are very passionate about it, and excited about the liberation of claiming unused spaces for something useful. I started to feel more hopeful about it.
Why did you come to Ireland?
I was just looking in January to see where I should go next, and the Irish government had just released a really useful map showing where all the partially developed buildings are. I’ve never ever had a resource like that. There’s plans to get rid of a lot of them, so I said I’d come and see them while I can.
I was in touch with a local Councillor up in Leitrim: John McCartin. He showed me a jaw-dropping number of ghost estates just covering the place. I was genuinely really angry, because the countryside is stunningly beautiful, with the mountains and the lakes, and it’s been vandalised with such thoughtless destruction. There’s big crimes and there’s little crimes. How can you do this and then just walk away, and get away with it when people who are using empty buildings get criminalised?
Is it important for you to capture the life living in spaces – even if it’s a messy life?
One of the things I really enjoy about photographing squats is that they’re buildings that really reflect the life inside them – the people who live in them express themselves very strongly in the space and on the walls, adapting it to themselves. There’s usually a very fluid population, so buildings are continually changing and evolving. I’ve spent much of my life photographing abandoned buildings, [so] it’s a really joyful experience to walk into a space and to know how empty it could feel, and to see it filled with vitality.
Squatting laws have changed in the UK, haven’t they?
That particular change came in at exactly the same time as the cap on housing benefits came in – that cap meant a lot of people who were dependent on housing benefits in London would no longer be able to afford their houses. And coincidentally a law came through at the same time saying it was illegal to squat residential properties.
At the same time, it’s not illegal – well, not criminal – to squat other kinds of properties. Non-residential properties are okay, so you get some very strange places people are living in. Restaurants, garden centres, schools, more restaurants, bars – any spaces they can find. It’s quite hard in London at the moment to be honest, the turnover rate is very very fast. Places open, they get evicted, they open, they get evicted, It’s quite rare to find a place that lasts any decent amount of time in London at the moment.
Do you reckon squatting gets unfair press?
One of the reasons I started this project was in response to some of the lies and the smear campaign that went on in advance of the squatting law changing. Like I said, there’s big crimes and little crimes, and sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference. It’s a Terry Pratchett quote.
The media magnifies anything negative that happens into “look, look, these people vandalised this space, and there was this drama, and this terrible thing happened.” And the gigantic crimes of buying up vast quantities of property, with no intention of doing anything but trying to turn a massive profit and leaving them empty for who knows how long, waiting for the market to make you more money, and just ignoring the fact that this is causing people to no longer be able to afford their homes. This is a bigger crime.
Lisa has just installed an exhibition of her photography in the Bear Pit in Stokescroft Bristol.