Archive for December, 2012

The Huber Breaker Rocks –with ASTORIAN STIGMATA

“Standing at the edge where beauty meets decay

Re-born through death

Time fades away and leaves a memory

But that red sky rests so quite

Upon the ashes of innocence

And some things never really come alive

Until after they have died.”

–“The Beginning Of An End”  (ASTORIAN STIGMATA)

Huber Breaker Ruins:  The Art of Industrial DecayThe Huber Breaker in Ashley,  Pennsylvania, USA

Sometimes, engaging in urban exploration is like experiencing an alternative reality.   In these abandoned and often beloved structures, ghost-like representations of what “once was” collide head-on with their current state of decay and ruination, representing a dream-like status between existence and non-existence, somewhere in the middle of life and death.  

Naturally, a local band with a name based upon the concept of an alternative reality, combined with the imagery of open wounds, and the catch phrase “Stay Dead”, would conclude that one of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s most popular urban exploration sites would be the perfect setting for filming a music video or two!  

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But according to Astorian Stigmata founder and front man, Dennis Condusta, his hometown, which is referred to as the “Victorian Corner of Pennsylvania” on the band’s Facebook page, always stars in his videos.  “I’ve traveled extensively and it has really helped me notice that Wilkes-Barre is a truly unique place in many ways”, Dennis explains, “Most of them aren’t positive ways, but in the architectural sense, it really has a “decayed elegance” feel.  Like it was once a prospering place during the coal mine era and now it’s kinda run down, and somewhat dismal.  I noticed over the years that the message in my music was very similar to that.  I’ve always been drawn to the concept of once beautiful things fading away.  I know that they always can return.   It’s kind of a positive way to look at decay and things falling apart. And “Victorian Corner” is just a reference to a lot of the Victorian era architecture in the surrounding area of Wilkes-Barre. I’ve always been drawn to its class, and most of our records have Victorian era houses on the cover.”

While discussing the Astorian Stigmata video “Ballroom Dancing, Condusta said that their European fans often make comments about how much they love the look of the old historical stuff here in Pennsylvania.  “Most of those shots (in the video) were right in the downtown area, the apartments across from the River Front, and close up shots of the Sterling Hotel”, he stated, “And the European fans say things like “I’d love to visit Wilkes-Barre!” Ha-ha. I think it has a lot to do with the way it’s represented”, he explained, “We really romanticized the place in all our work.  And people from here never realize how truly unique and beautiful a lot of the things we have around here are, mostly things left over from the coal era.  If we become a bigger band it’s going to be a good thing for Wilkes-Barre tourism!  Ha-ha.  It always kinda bugged me how bands move away from their home to embrace the music scene other places or whatever, and that’s all fine.  But I see myself as an artist far before a musician who is trying to “make it” or anything like that.  So I do my best to represent the area I am from because it has played such a huge part in my artistic understanding of the world around me.”

Abandoned Hotel Sterling: The Harsh Light of DayThe Hotel Sterling ruins in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, USA

Condusta came up with the band name in 2003 while watching an HBO show called “Carnival”–specifically,  an episode titled “The Road to Astoria”, when he became intrigued by the idea of an alternative reality, but one  very similar to the one we know. That “alternative reality” notion  is the main reason I chose to write about Astorian Stigmata for my blog about urban exploration, because that is the very concept that urban explorers are trying to capture when they photograph the abandoned structures where people once lived, worked, played, worshipped, dreamed or suffered. 

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Condusta was drawn to the word Stigmata for its powerful look and strong pronunciation.  Which is a relevant choice, because the visual images portrayed in many of the band’s videos are both harsh and destructive.  Yet, in listening to the lyrics, you can’t miss the sentimental vibe—like a verbalized wish that life was less fragile and that people, places and things could be more permanent.  

Dennis explained that “most of my lyrics are about dualities.  Which is also why we use black and white stripes so consistently in our logo and branding—they represent the ups and downs of life, and that they are both equal, and both present at all times.”    Many of their song lyrics are quite philosophical, touching upon concepts such as being “re-born through death”, as in the lyrics of the one video filmed at the Huber Breaker.  “It refers to an existential death and coming back to life as a better person, but only after your old sense of self has died”, Dennis stated.  Fans consider the band’s catch phrase, “Stay Dead” and their entire “death” theme, as a metaphor for the kind of self-fulfillment that leads to happiness by remaining true to yourself.

In fact, staying true to themselves is even embraced by Astorian Stigmata in their business model, because they literally do everything themselves.  Dennis explains that being an “indie” band allows you to do things, your way, all the time, when you want. We’re pretty specific about what we are trying to say and do.”  According to Dennis, “I’ve always loved design/photography/hand printing t-shirts/video/editing/music recording/writing and production–even the hard work like hand making every CD. Our guitar player, DJ, is the same way. He  enjoys it all and we work well together as a team. We don’t call ourselves a “punk” band, but we carry that flag and ethic as hard as anyone.  Not because we want to, but because no one is gonna do anything for us.  We’ve been offered record deals and things, but we’re not dumb dudes in a band. We understand how business works, and how things happen, and that 90% of the industry side of music is there to fool you into making them money.”  

Condusta further explains that as an artist, his focus isn’t the same as that of a corporate business entity, only interested in creating mainstream conceptual “art” that is made popular for the purpose of selling it quickly, “We make lasting art. Songs we wrote 5 years ago have as much relevance now as they did then, and will still be relevant 20 years from now.”

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Dennis Condusta became interested in playing guitar at a young age, because his older brother also played.  As luck would have it, he won a guitar when he was 16, at a BMX riding contest.  He was influenced by the music of Modest Mouse (“Dramamine”) and Taking Back Sunday (“A New American Classic”) plus a strong desire to create his own music.   “I have no interest in learning cover songs.  I just knew I had a feeling inside me and I wanted to learn to get it out as fast as possible”, he said.  Dennis also states that his most important influences are his brother and his friends. 

Condusta, a life-long resident of this region, known for its working-class sensibilities, which are often hallmarked by the suppression of individualism, did note that this area sometimes has a lack of respect for a broad variety artistic expression.   Still, he credits this area for helping him to form his artistic vision, and openly accepts the responsibility and challenges required to act as the ambassador of his own vision, “I do not see that as their fault for misunderstanding me, I see it as my own fault for not doing a good enough job at being understood.  I am not afraid to dress strange or to wear two different shoes, it reminds me not to take life too seriously. You’d probably be surprised at how little people notice/care about how crazy someone looks if you do it confidently.  It’s when you feel uncomfortable or out-of-place that people can sense it, then they insult you.”

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Much of our local history is dark and reflective of the oppression of the human spirit, because for a long period of our recent history, the area was monopolized by an industry that told people daily that they did not matter.  In fact, the mules that worked in the anthracite coal mines were insured, while the humans laboring there were not!  Local workers had to resign themselves to the fact that they were being exploited, just for the opportunity to earn a paycheck.  “That coal miner mentality is still engrained in the people from this area. I think it plays an enormous role in the art I create, so I respect it very much and choose to embrace it”, Dennis said, “There is a dark cloud of oppression that just sits over this valley, although it’s not strong enough to keep me down in any sense.  I find it comforting– in a totally sick and twisted kinda way. Ha-ha”

One of the prominent remnants of the coal mining era, the Huber Breaker ruins, has a starring role in two of Astorian Stigmata’s videos. (For those of you outside of Northeastern Pennsylvania, a coal breaker is literally a place where the coal that was brought up from the mines was broken into smaller pieces using machinery.) This location is popular with urban explorers because they love to photograph the machinery and vanishing points that are contained within the decaying walls of this now obsolete industrial complex.  I asked Dennis to explain the inspiration behind using this location for these videos.  “It’s one of a kind”, he said, “And it’s in rather good shape for how old it is.  That place has a feeling and a beauty to it I’ve never felt anywhere else.  It’s special in that sense and it’s really inspiring in many ways. It’s hard to explain.”

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I asked Dennis if he thought that exposing non-history buffs or individuals unfamiliar with our local history, to our historic locations in a non-traditional artistic context is a good way to inspire an interest in the subject matter.  “Yes, I do”, he responded, “Our target audience has never been local.  We’ve always strived to appeal to a worldly audience.  Most local people think the Huber is played out, ‘cause they’ve seen it so many times, but there’s a person sitting in Norway right now watching that video thinking that’s the coolest place they’ve ever seen.”  

And believe me, he’s not kidding!  One of my personal, most interesting experiences with the Huber Breaker includes running into a group of students from Germany, taking pictures of the Breaker, as one of their stops on an “Urban Exploration” tour of the industrial ruins along the east coast of the United States!

I asked Condusta, a descendent of coal miners himself–both of his great grandfathers were employed by this industry–if he had any thoughts about using a place where men, and even little boys, were oppressed and exploited to express himself artistically.  He said, “Yes, I always think of that.  And sadly the world still works that way.  I always kinda wished people knew the background on the industry and of that place ‘cause it would add a whole new dimension to the message I’m trying to send.”  Although Dennis maintains that the videos and pictures are primarily for aesthetic purposes, and produced for a world-wide audience who does not see such places as they go about their daily lives.     “While I understand and respect the history personally”, Dennis explains, “I don’t expect someone in Spain to think of that.”

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Of the two Astorian Stigmata videos filmed at the Huber Breaker, “The Beginning Of An End” is the most artistic in nature, and therefore open to individual interpretation.  I thought it would be interesting to analyze the video/lyrics within the context of the historical setting with Condusta. 

The start of this video features a guy in a camouflage suit collecting water samples from this industrial site in a post apocalyptic world.   I found it somewhat poetic that in the beginning of the video you hear “stay safe”, because the irony is that for the men who worked at that dangerous site, in such a high-risk industry, that’s what they, and their loved ones, were thinking every day.  Dennis found that interpretation interesting, but said that it wasn’t quite what he was thinking while creating that scene for the video.   The video also features a vampire, which I interpreted as a representation of the coal company literally feeding off of the coal miners to turn a profit for themselves, while their employees often lived in impoverished conditions.

The song lyrics contain the phrase “where beauty meets decay”.  I asked Condusta if he thought there was something tragically beautiful about this specific abandoned industrial site.  “Yes, most certainly”, he said, “It’s symbolic of what was once flourishing, busy and a source of life and jobs for an entire city. And now it’s pushed aside and forgotten. That’s the central theme of my artistic being.”

I asked Dennis why he chose to end the video with the sound of a laughing child.  “That was just to provide and exaggerate the feeling of unease that I was attempting to convey”, he explained.

The video “Strange Nights (Live From The End Of The World), was also filmed on location at the Huber Breaker.  I asked Condusta if there was something about the location that promoted an “end of the world” feeling.  “Yes”, he responded, “It reminds me of what the world would look, and feel like if it were to suddenly end. I found a worker’s time card in the breaker dated from 1962.  It’s just interesting to think about how so much of that place seems like the workers just walked out at the end of the shift, and didn’t come back. It doesn’t feel like it ever planned to close–it has a feeling of unrest.”

In conclusion, I asked Dennis if there was anything that he wanted people to know about himself or Astorian Stigmata.  “Myself personally?  I’m not a terribly interesting person”, was his response, “I put my life into art and I ask for nothing in return. I don’t do this for money/fame or reputation. I was just born with a soul that needs to express itself, and I hope somewhere along the way someone else gets some enjoyment from the work I do.”

You can find more information about Astorian Stigmata by visiting their official website  and  Facebook page .   

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Maximilian Aladar was born on May 28th 2005.  He is the creation of Dennis Condusta who was in need of someone to play the drums for his band, because at that time, he was playing all of the instruments himself on the recordings.  Dennis made Max that very night, never finishing his legs or giving him a mouth.  This way, Max could not talk back (using words) or run away.  Today, Max serves as the guide for Astorian Stigmata.  He is the puppet master who is a puppet…..

Max 1

   

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Into the Belly of the Beast: Exploring The Mines That Fed The Industrial Revolution

Disclaimer:

I feel the need to have one of those “Beavis and Butt-head are not role models. They’re not even human, they’re cartoons.  Some of the things they do could cause a person to get hurt, expelled, arrested… possibly deported.  To put it another way, don’t try this at home” warnings at the beginning of this post.  

While Ed Mountjoy is NOT a cartoon character (although some may disagree), what he does is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, and you should just resign yourself to enjoying his adventures from the safety of your computer/smartphone screen.  But since urban explorers tend to view “No Trespassing” signs as invitations to enter, I won’t bother coming up with a disclaimer of my own….I’ll just stand by what Mike Judge said, just insert Ed Mountjoy and abandoned anthracite mines for yourselves!  😉 

Ed First

Many Social Media users in Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) recognize Ed Mountjoy as the face of The Forgotten Coal Industry of NEPA’S Facebook page.  But Ed’s following is quickly spreading beyond the “coal region” of Pennsylvania, and into the realm of the world-wide network of urban exploration.  And understandably so, since within the “explorer” hierarchy, those who explore the territory below the earth’s surface definitely carry more prestige than those of us who remain steadfastly with our feet planted above the ground. 

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While there are coal deposits scattered about the world, the coal from Northeastern Pennsylvania  is special  because it is anthracite coal, which is more pure, harder, and of higher carbon content than any  other type of coal on the entire planet.  In the Western Hemisphere, 95 percent of the anthracite coal supply is located within the 500 square mile region of Pennsylvania that is the topic of Ed’s “Forgotten Coal Industry” Facebook page. 

The story of anthracite coal mining in NEPA is complex.  It’s about pioneering industry and the entrepreneurial spirit, as well as the darker side of greed, suffering, and human exploitation. During the coal era in NEPA, the elite Coal Barons (coal company owners, a.k.a. The 1%) built magnificent Victorian mansions, as their immigrant workers often lived in overcrowded, company-owned “patch towns”, while actually having to pay their employer for the supplies necessary to do their high-risk  jobs that resulted in earning less than what we would call a “living wage” today.

 The coal mines of Luzerne County have been abandoned for decades now, but Ed Mountjoy is on a mission to document and share whatever remains he can find that relate to our local coal mining history before these remnants are gone forever—especially those places or structures that are hidden away from us as we go about our daily modern lives full of urban sprawl. 

While many urban explorers have documented popular local coal-related locations such as the Huber Breaker and Concrete City, Ed ventures into an area of local exploration that you never really hear about—the actual anthracite mines themselves.  Since exploration is ultimately about documenting the remains and ruins of the places that touched the lives of the people who once lived, worked, worshiped, or played at these locations, Ed is honoring the men who worked in these coal mines by reminding us all about the physical reality of their confined work-space. 

A Slope Leading To A Flooded Mine

A Slope Leading To A Flooded Mine

One truth remains the same today as it did for the men who toiled daily underground decades ago in NEPA–anyone entering a coal mine faces many dangers such as underground floods, roof falls, a mine collapse, fire, and countless other methods of serious injury or death.  A coal mine is not a glamorous place to be at all. The men working underground found themselves in an environment that was dirty, dangerous and most likely damp.  Standing up straight is almost impossible because mine tunnel ceilings are too low.  The air that you breathe in a coal mine is stale & dusty.  The miners actually had to use pieces of lumber to prop up the roof in the area that they were working in, as an attempt to avoid being trapped or crushed by huge rocks.  This knowledge gives anthracite mine explorers an adrenaline rush when something seems out of the ordinary during a mission.

“During a recent exploration, we thought we were hearing part of the mine collapsing, but it turned out to be some rocks sliding down an incline we just went up. That scared us but we were relieved to know it wasn’t the mine collapsing”, explained Ed.

Ed began seriously exploring abandoned anthracite mines at the end of 2010.  He had explored the remains of two collieries (for those of you outside of the NEPA region, a colliery is a coal mine and the buildings associated with it) as well as other abandoned buildings as far back as 2006, so he was already interested in abandonments.   “ I was informed about two mines and originally was just going to find them and get exterior photos of the openings into them”,  he explained, “ After several attempts looking for them, we, a friend and I, found them and saw they were low mine openings, meaning you have to crawl to get inside. We decided to enter them and the interest just sparked from there after seeing what we had inside of those two low mines.”

When asked how he finds mines to explore, Ed responded, “Well, I normally do research about what mines were in opperation around a particular area before exploring.  Sometimes, we’ll just run across a mine and, after exploring, will do research afterwards on what mines they may have been and what companies owned them during their years of operation. As for preparing to explore one of these mines, we’ll examine the conditions of the opening before entering; making sure the ceiling isn’t in horrible condition.”

Props Holding Up Mine Ceiling

Props Holding Up Mine Ceiling

As far as equipment goes, Ed approaches mine exploration on the lighter side by just carrying a flashlight, camera, tripod, and a drink.  He is also sure to take someone else with him. “I NEVER explore any place alone”, he stated, “I always have at least one other willing friend who comes with me. You never know what can happen when exploring any abandoned place, and mines are no exception.”

I wanted to know if he ever got lost while engaging in his underground exploration adventures.   Ed’s response was that he has never been lost, not even while exploring the largest mining system that he has been in, “I have a rather good sense of direction and can retrace my steps back, plus some of the mines still have arrows painted on the walls and ceilings pointing to the exit from back when they were mined”.  

I was curious to know what Ed considered to be the most difficult aspect of this type of exploration.  “Finding any mines that haven’t been sealed closed, and seeing if they are safe enough to enter, if they are still open.  Most of the mines that were in operation have been sealed off, whether they were blasted shut, filled or grated off.   Even many of the ones that were left open, either due to being forgotten about or just haven’t been attended to yet, have since collapsed on their own”, was his response.  He further added, “It’s more dangerous than an above ground structure. The deeper you go, there is more of a chance that something can happen and less of a chance you’ll be found, unlike a building where if you get hurt, chances are you can get a cell signal and call for help. Mines and other underground places tend to have no cell service, so it’s best to tell another the location of where you’re going, in case something does happen”.

A Steep Pitch Mine

A Steep Pitch Mine

While describing what it is like to spend time in these abandoned underground work spaces today, Ed thoughtfully explained that it’s quite peaceful, “Its dead quiet in the old mines. The most you may hear, besides yourself and whoever is with you, may be a few bats, which I have seen hanging from the ceilings, and water dripping from the cracks in the ceiling. The quietness adds to the thought of knowing that at one point, there were men down there digging those tunnels, setting up those props and loading coal into the mine carts to go to the surface to be processed at the breaker, which, during those times, the mines would have been anything but quiet.”

I asked Ed what he was hoping to accomplish by exploring these abandoned anthracite mines.  “To show others an aspect of our history that is overlooked today. Most know about the coal mining history, and others may have explored some of the places that are still standing, such as the Huber Colliery, but not many get to see the very mines where the coal was brought out of to be processed at these breakers.  My photos are a way to document and preserve the history of a once prosperous industry”, was his response.

What really leaves an impression on Ed about these underground spaces where men had to work every day is “how low some of these mines were, and knowing that there were men who actually dug those low mine tunnels out to get to that coal. Just try to imagine crawling around in a tunnel no more than four feet tall trying to dig further into it, trying to reach as much of the coal as you can without the solid rock above you crashing down on top of you. That’s what it must have been like for those miners.  What would probably surprise most people is how low some of these mines are and the fact that men were actually down there, crawling around, grabbing the coal from those low mines to earn a paycheck.”

A Prop Holding Up A Low Mine

A Prop Holding Up A Low Mine

You can follow Ed Mountjoy and all of his coal mining exploration endeavors on Facebook at The Forgotten Coal Industry of NEPA

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 “Because it’s their time. Their time!  Up there!

Down here, it’s our time. It’s our time down here!”

–The Goonies

I encourage anyone interested in learning more about

abandoned mine underground research to visit :

The Official Website of Abandoned Mine Research, Inc.

and please note this warning about abandoned mine exploration:

Stay Out….Stay Alive!

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Cheri Sundra © 2012
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