Getting to see Legacy, the new installation by musician and artist Nick Franglen, is an unusually cloak-and-dagger business. Potential appointments come and go until, on the Monday afternoon before the start of the Olympic Games, Franglen sends me a last-minute text. Can I come to a station in the capital’s Docklands [in east and southeast London] for 11pm? I’m advised to wear boots and dark clothing that I don’t mind being ripped.
The reason for all this subterfuge is the venue: a derelict, partially demolished factory that serves as a document to Docklands’ industrial past. It is dangerous and guarded at the best of times, let alone during the Olympic buildup.
Franglen first came here four years ago with some urban explorers, intrepid types who infiltrate parts of the city that are abandoned and off-limits. The phrase was coined in 1996 and the Internet has since enabled a worldwide network of urban explorers to swap stories, photographs and advice. In January, Franglen decided that the building would be the perfect venue for an idea that had germinated two months earlier, when he was asked to design a piece of sound art for the British Business Embassy, a networking initiative, and felt that he had caught a glimpse of “the beast behind the Olympics.”
“I’ve always liked the Olympics,” he says, “but when you’ve got [British Secretary of Culture, Media and Sport] Jeremy Hunt saying we’ve decided not to have an austerity Olympics, we mustn’t hold back, when we’re cutting the School Sports Initiative, that’s an interesting conundrum. Legacy is a ghastly word. Politicians talk about the legacy of the Games to east London and I think what they’re concerned about is what their legacy will be. Does east London benefit from all this regeneration or is it negative to have this completely alien infrastructure dropped into it and its heritage stripped out? I was trying to ask a question: ‘What sort of Olympics do we really want? Why does it have to be like this?’”
Franglen is a big, garrulous man, but clearly has a steely, obsessive streak. Born in north London, he is best-known as half of chill-out duo Lemon Jelly and producer of albums by John Cale and Badly Drawn Boy. In recent years, however, his projects have become more unorthodox. With his band Blacksand, he has played gigs in such unlikely venues as a mine, a submarine and Pyestock, the former Concorde test center in Hampshire, beloved of urban explorers. He has also played 24-hour solo theremin concerts beneath Manhattan Bridge and London Bridge.
However, Legacy is his most ambitious and taxing endeavor yet. He had initially hoped to conclude the installation by watching the opening ceremony fireworks from the building’s roof, but heard rumors that snipers would be stationed there during the Games.
“I don’t mind playing cat-and-mouse with security, but I don’t want to interfere with people doing a serious job,” he says.
Also, he adds, “I don’t want to be shot.”
It’s a warm, clear night. We rendezvous in the street and make our way through the outer layer of security. He can never be entirely sure he will get in.
“When I approach here my stomach’s churning,” he admits. “I’m white with fear.”
Up close, the building’s hulk looms vast and ghostly. Watching out for security patrols, we negotiate a series of fences and enter through a concealed opening. Inside, it is a disaster area. Several floors are gone. Those that remain are Swiss-cheesed with holes where machinery has been removed, covered by rotting boards too flimsy to support anybody’s weight. A powerful torch might attract attention so we proceed using only the dim light coming through the broken windows. I follow Franglen’s whispered advice: Keep close to this wall, mind that loose step, watch out for that 20-foot (6m) plunge.