If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you’re heading. -Lao Tzu
What you are reading is, believe it or not, the 100th post on Place Hacking! I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported this blog and my research – it has been a wonderful (and traumatic) couple of years. To date, I have had half a million unique visits since November 2008 which, needless to say, is pretty shocking for a PhD research project blog. In all honesty, the attention hasn’t been completely positive, for myself or for my project participants, but we played the hand we were dealt to the best of our ability. If I could do it again, I probably would have played it differently. But hey, life is about learning from mistakes as much as your victories and we’ve had our share of both. It has been an honour and a privilege to tell the tale of the rise and fall of the London Consolidation Crew, and I look forward to seeing where new generations of urban explorers take us.
A lot of people have asked me, since graduation in February, whether I’m still exploring. The answer to that will be obvious to anyone who has read Place Hacking over the years – exploration is not something you do, it’s who you are. I chose to do my research on urban exploration because I was already an explorer, not because it was something I wanted to write about. So no, I will never stop exploring. The photo above is a case in point – I took that four hours after a job interview at the University of Edinburgh, climbing the Forth Rail Bridge solo until 4am and then camping out on a park bench, freezing, waiting for the first train to take me back to London. All expenses paid. Boss.
I ended up taking a job last month in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford and am now working on developing a new project on astral geographies that I hope many of you will continue to follow. I have debated whether to keep updating this site and decided, in the end, that Place Hacking deserves a noble death – a sword through the heart at it’s peak of glory. So this is it everyone, me signing off. Place Hacking will remain forever archived but there will not be any more posts. I will however continue to post at my new website, including any worthy urban exploration missions, so if you’re still interested, keep tabs on me there.
If you’ve still got the craving, Matthew Power has written an article about us for GQ Magazine that will drop in February. It will be a shocker so keep an eye out for that. I have also recently written for Domus Magazine, Photoworks Magazine, UE Magazine and The State and will continue to put things out in worthy places, including my book from Verso which will drop in the fall of 2013. And so with that, I bid you all adieu. I hope to see you out there in the wilds someday. Until then…
A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad. -Theodore Roosevelt
I have a few guiding principles to my life I always adhere to. The first, and most important, is that each year of my life must surpass the last. I have succeeded in that goal every year so far, though the last four have been particularly exceptional.
It was 2007 when I stumbled into the office of the eminent geographer Denis Cosgrove at UCLA. To my surprise, he asked me to sit in his chair as he laid down on the couch. He then said, staring at the ceiling, ‘So tell me why you want to do a PhD…’ I waxed on at length about my frustrations as an archaeologist. ‘I don’t want to be in control of people’s pasts, I want to act historical facilitator rather that an interpreter.’ He looked at me, waiting for more. ‘You know, what I’ve been doing just feels inauthentic and I think cultural geography might be a better home discipline for me.’ He laid there for a bit before he told me, ‘It would be great to have you as a student here but you must know I have stomach cancer and may not live through your PhD if you were accepted into the programme. I think you should also apply to Royal Holloway, University of London where I used to be and sometimes still teach. Call Tim Cresswell.’ I did, and that’s how my story at Royal Holloway began. Cosgrove knew I was too twisted to do a PhD in puritan America.
At an end
It’s been four years now since I began that journey and a few days ago, it officially ended. I made the move from Mr Garrett to Dr Garrett in my Royal Holloway wizard robes and smurf hat. Although Denis died a few years earlier, just as he had predicted, I can’t help but think that he would have been proud to see me standing there with my parents sipping champagne while my project participants snuck into the ceremonies to infiltrate the campus steam tunnels in ties and dresses. My parents, to my delight, laughed at the whole affair. I guess they probably expected as much and I’m glad they were there for the pomp, circumstance and usual antics.
There are many people at Royal Holloway to thank for my time there. In particular, David Gilbert, Felix Driver and Alastair Pinkerton offered key advice during my PhD. Alice Christie kept me on track with pep talks every time I saw here that made sense of the world. Phil Crang took on the ‘fun job’ (as he calls it) of being my advisor, advising me to track down fresh articles and alerting me to exhibitions. He also had an eagle-eye for critical reading of my writing and an ability to cut right through my drifting prose to rip the heart out.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude Katherine Brickell not just for reading my work, inspiring me, keeping me on track, keeping me employed but for being my most trusted friend and collaborator. Most importantly, Tim Cresswell, as Denis well-knew, was the most well-suited supervisor I could have hoped for. As anyone who has done a PhD knows, your relationship with your supervisor is quiet special, it’s sort of like being adopted by another parent. Tim studied his PhD under Yi-Fu Tuan, who I suppose is a bit like my academic grandfather. From the 1960s when Tuan did his work, we have now moved from Space to Place to Place Hacking. We have bridged US and UK academia back and forth numerous times. We have also collectively inspired a lot of drama. It’s a great family to ride with. Almost as cool as the Garrett clan.
Back in the day, Tuan wrote that ‘human geography studies human relationships.’ It’s close to the mark but I respectfully suggest broadening that definition grandfather because good human geography also builds relationships. Ethnography is beautiful thing, you never know where it is going to go in the beginning and it can fracture in countless directions based on many different factors. I never could have expected that my time at RHUL would have led to the things it did. What we have done in the past four years, the community we built, was something truly exceptional.
The LCC Old Guard
It was fitting then that the community we built with the support of Royal Holloway left something behind on graduation day to gel our legacy and make sure the university never forgets our four great years together. After considering our skill requirements, the perfect team stepped up for the job – Patch, Helen, Marc, Dan and Winch. Patch and I headed to ASDA for a king size black sheet and a bucket of emulsion and got painting. The next night, Dan and Marc rolled in at 2am and scaled the clock tower to strap on the banner. It lasted until 10:30am when I saw Olympics security personal trying to get it down with a long pole. They looked like they were enjoying themselves.
Patch on the roller
For a good cause
So yeah, I said the magic word – Olympics. Boo! I guess it’s well known by now that some of us were in and out of the Olympic park as we pleased during construction. G4S’s major security fuckups are not new news, I assure you. Royal Holloway is an official Olympic venue, with armed police and G4S personnel patrolling the campus and Founders building on total lockdown at night. Marc and Dan rolled out this banner 3 days before the 2012 Olympics swung into high gear and campus security had good reason to be embarrassed, even as I’m sure they can enjoy a good college prank as much as the next person. So here’s are the mission details…
Back in 2008, Marc Explo and Hydra cracked the steam tunnels underneath the campus with me – they run from the boiler house to underneath Founders. It was not long before we had gone down with other PhD students: Michael Anton, Ashley Dawkins and Amy Cutler.
Hot and tight
The year after, Mike and I went back in the tunnels with some new PhD students. Four years later, this is now a tradition for new geography students (and probably other departments – we can’t be the only one’s curious enough to look right?). Soon after we started thinking about the roof and spires, which we could now access at night through the steam tunnels.
And now it’s cubed
The view from the roof was exceptional and all sort of new routes across Founder’s could be devised. Now that I am gone, I expect students to carry on exploring everything on campus. I would be highly disappointed if the next generation of students do not mark out some new routes. Then again, I have been pretty shocked at the apathetic response to the securitisation of our university campus by both staff and students over the last few months – anybody want to apply some critical thinking skills to that process? To those students who still have some courage, some climbing anchors would be very helpful in a few places. Get busy!
So, now that the PhD is over, a transition is taking place. I am actually sitting on a plane at Heathrow, ready to take off to Cambodia right now. Katherine Brickell and I will be working on a month-long project about domestic violence law using participatory video. When I get home at the end of August, it’s back to exploring (in 3 countries) until October.
Then, on October 1st, I am delighted to announce I will begin a new job amongst the dreaming spires at the University of Oxford as a Researcher in Technological Natures. While at Oxford, I will turn my thesis into a book with Verso, teach some subversive modules and conjure up my next big idea. So, against all odds, it appears that 2012 will top 2011 and 2013 is looking very bright indeed. Thanks to everyone who has followed along the way. Carry on exploring everything, the plane is taking off. I’m out.
“A sense of the past, at any given point of time, is quite as much a matter of history as what happened in it.” -Raphael Samuel
As this historic and influential city readies itself to host the Olympic Games, The London Chronicles by Francesca Panetta takes you on an audio journey through the life of the city to find its many voices and sounds. Chapter four, which Winch and myself feature in, reflects the theme of memory.
London Calling was presented and produced by Francesca Panetta. Sound design was by Nick Ryan, script advice from Tom Chivers and field recordings from London Sound Survey. Producers for the BBC were Pandita Lorenz, Paul Coletti and Pearse Lynch. The editor was Fiona Crack. Pour a scotch, take the plunge.
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Inspired by Italian writer Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities”, on the 40th anniversary of its publication, this BBC 3 Between the Ears explores the hidden, fantastical and surreal stories caught between the cracks of the modern city.
With contributions from writers, urban explorers and mapmakers we explore the imaginative possibilities held within cities, their secret folds. How does the layout of a city’s streets, underground passages and the glittering spires of its skyscrapers capture our desires, our fears and our memories?
From the ghosts contained in a cavernous lost property office deep underground to the view from the top of an abandoned warehouse – what impression does the structure of a city leave on its inhabitants?
Adventure is not outside… it is within. -George Eliot
Over the past few months, I have had dozens of people ask me why we explore. The more interesting question, to me, is not why we explore but why everyone else stopped exploring. Exploration is not a process of learning something new as much as a process of rediscovering what you lost. As the polar explorer Erling Kagge has pointed out, we are all born explorers. Our first acts as new beings in the world are acts of discovery. We try risky things, we overextend our imaginations, we venture out, we are often pushed back. We learn through failures as much as successes.
Often when people ask this question, there is a glimmer of desire in their eye. However tired I may be of answering it, it’s an avenue for people hold out their hand to what’s been lost and that causes me to strive to pay attention because the question behind the question is, I think, “where did you find it and can I find it too?” Of course you can, it’s like eating or fucking, it’s right there on the cusp of desire.
A few months ago, The Murkalator, Jess and Patch rang me just before our annual International Drain Meet to ask if I wanted to head out to Europe for some premischief. I packed the camera and jumped in the car, riding the cusp of desire right into some dirty European metro. Horizons receded like rainbows.
Headed toward discovery
What I love about exploring with these three is that we always leave with a suitably rough plan. A lot of what we encounter and embrace is spontaneous discovery and that, to me, is the heart of exploration, pushing our edge. The world offers us endless opportunities for discovery. We have been conditioned to overlook them in our need for efficiency and productivity. Even this blog is a product of that. But this blog is not exploration and the photos you see here are only visual triggers. Finding the exploration you desire necessitates closing your browser, packing a bag and heading into the world. You must plunge into action and cut new edges at your personal desire lines.
The older we get, the more we’re conditioned to think that taking risks are foolish, that failure is not an option, that we should be embarrassed to try something we’re not skilled at. This is nonsense, just as trying to define exploration is nonsense. We explore polar extremes, the everyday, new oceanic depths, outer space, hidden cities, the intangible. Exploration is more than an isolated event, it’s a mindset. Widening our optics drives home a potential for urban exploration to go beyond a selfish pursuit for the self-obsessed to become a cognitive trigger that rewires us for creative worldly engagement all over again. It’s time for us to smash the unnecessary social conditioning that has been drilled into us. It’s time for us to once again embrace mistakes, failure and desire. It’s time to embrace carnal lust for discovery. It’s time for us to rediscover the imaginations and freedoms of childhood. If the only route to the past is through thinking, than the only route to the present is being. Live what you have because this is all we’ve got.
Kagge, in his book Philosophy for Polar Explorers, writes “if you say it’s impossible and I say it’s possible, we’re probably both right.” That’s probably why he picked up the phone and called Steve Duncan in the first place, he saw that Steve had no notion of impossibility. Kagge understands full well that this is the cutting edge of exploration, right under the feet of every urban inhabitant. The present is yours to grab if you ignore the detractions and start cutting.
Adventure is our existential currency as explorers, without it, we will die of boredom. If you feel that your life is lacking depth, if you feel this audio/visual feast is directionally boring into your soul like a subterranean tunneling machine, that you too are an adventurer and you belong to this club.
By the time we headed to the drain meet, we had run countless miles of track, been squirted by breast milk at an Amsterdam sex show, ripped skin from our bodies tripping in dark urban corners and dodged more than one train after smoking spliffs. We were pulsating with life and that is the only ticket you need to this party, as Keïteï will tell you. When we arrived in Antwerp, there were 70 or 80 explorers from all over the world waiting for us. We were welcomed home from our adventures, as always, by the world’s finest, who relayed their own tales of urban exploration on the way to the meet. The party commenced.
On the move
Next year’s location will not be revealed until it’s over but if you think you have got what it takes to join the adventurers club, you can find us at the edge of desire, wherever that may be.
This post is dedicated to Patch. Happy birthday brother and may the adventure continue!