first night in London


An interesting proposal from my wife the night before Rob and I get on the plane to visit her in London:

“Do you want to go and see a documentary about Bowie by the V&A? It’s being screened at a pop-up theatre in an abandoned train tunnel.”


And so not long after arriving on the platform under the vaulted steel and glass of Paddington Station, we are lead through the damp streets to a vague location outlined on a website on a cellphone. Having no real understanding of where exactly we are or what time it is, Rob and I follow our friends to what is loosely called the entrance. From the dark we are greeted by a friendly “You here for the film?” as we pass through iron service gates and look around with some confusion. The blurring begins; we are directed to gradually descend inward; a transition from the exterior that playfully tightens around us as we cross multiple thresholds: from dark to strategically-lit, damp to dry, street-level to subterranean, the sensory barrage of Shoreditch to the whitewashed resonance of the vaults. 

Our directed movement through subsequent rooms leads us to pick up wireless headphones, (Bermudian!) cocktails at the bar, some (sweet, very British) popcorn from an impressively stocked corner concession stand, and appropriately I can feel the colours employed in the lighting warm up. We climb steel stairs to the theatre entrance. We activate our headphones as instructed by a young girl standing in front of the raked theatre seating of a surprisingly large vaulted space. Wirelessly, we are listening along to the projected images of Bowie, his sketches, his costumes. A few minutes into the film I feel regular vibrations of a train on a track and when I remove my headphones, it’s much clearer. 

It’s right above us. The added layer of sound prompts differing levels of interest from the group.

I am carried in and out of varying sensory conditions as I pull my headphones on and off, open and close my eyes, get a bit buzzed, all while polishing off a sugary bag of popcorn I had initially complained about. I reverently keep my headphones on for ‘Starman’ and take them off during a monologue. The documentary isn’t as stellar as its subject, but I’m quite sure that’s not the whole point. The temporal nature of this meeting of the Underground Film Club allows the experiencer to discover this particular site however they please, knowing the group will find another venue and move along to create an entirely unique new adventure.

The Victorian Vaults, the site of this leg of the Club’s tour, are located underneath the late 19th century railway arches of the Waterloo station tracks. The labrynthine approach from the street and the simplicity of its internal forms make it an incredible venue for anything from parties, gallery space, to formal events. The combination of this container with the mobile Underground Film Club inside made me think about some of the opportunities that could be had in our Ottawa, a much younger city most definitely, but not without the drive for creative and temporary events.

As is the case in London, when remnant space from infrastructure is more common, it is also less sacred and policed. This lends these spaces to the projections of creative companies that strive in both providing and occupying these transformable spaces. With some significant corporate sponsorship, coverage in publications (a piece in Time Out seems to do great things for business), food, booze, and a creative crew to put it all together, this particular event was a success on so many levels.

How could we occupy the spaces under the bridge at Union Station or reimagine derelict connections to the Queensway? Maybe all the tunnelling in Ottawa will lend itself to something unplanned. Maybe there are some old doors we need to look behind.