4 explorers, 5 Countries, 2000 miles, 16 abandoned sites, 5000 photographs, 3 hours of video footage, a pocket full of loose change to live on and a car full of $7000 worth of camera gear. It’s these last two bits that I find so amusing, these are the pieces of the puzzle that turn this from a hobo trip to a pro hobo trip I suppose. That and the radical mobility of our opt-in faux homelessness.
After our last trip to Europe, I wrote about urban camping. I felt like that long weekend away was a sort of like a wilderness retreat, a little escape from work and obligations to see something unstraited. Some people choose go to a pine forest for these retreats, we go to abandoned châteaus in Belgium. Seems fair enough.
But this trip was different right from the beginning. Part of it was due to the length of our expedition, part of it due to the dynamics of the crew. We had a crew of 4 – myself, Statler, Winch and Silent Motion, all up for it in a big way. We were long inspired by the perpetual homeless adventures of Dsankt at Sleepy City which seemed to pry open a new level of UrbEx or, at the least, open up new possibilities for adventurous play. So we struck out on a Sunday night from Reading, UK, across the channel on the P&O car ferry, through the sadness of Calais, France, just across the border into Belgium to Kosmos, a hotel with a weird Russian art-deco theme that had closed in 1996 where we planned to stay the night.
Strangely enough, given what a pile of crap this place was, it was really hard to get into. Finally, after making our way in, ferrying in bags of clothes, food, whiskey and 8 bottles of Chimay looted from a road side stop, we settled in for the night, with a gorgeous view of a random Belgian valley spread out before us, full P&O shot glasses of cheap drink and a horrible rattling noise from the winds assaulting some loose flap on the roof above us.
We ended up finally dragging tables and chairs from other rooms to board up the windows which were allowing massive gust of wind and rain into our sleeping quarters. Essentially, we started doing home repairs. That night, falling asleep to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II playing softly on my phone, I had dreams about the property owner showing up weeks later to find that somebody had actually repaired their building, boarded up windows, brought in and cleaned up couches, filled the bookshelves with tea lights. I imagined them being, at first, dismayed and confused and then… amused, a small smile cracking their stoically disappointed Belgian head.
The thing I started thinking was that our move from UrbEx into pro hoboness was actually a move that benefited property owners because, as Silent Motion put it, “our sleeping in the space builds a more intimate connection with it, we become a part of the fabric.” So going pro hobo, in my mind, even the documentation aspect that you are scrolling through right now, is about place hacking, about finding intimacy in a world full of sterile engagement.
This idea was made even more funny when the property owners showed up at 8am the next morning and started putting up more fencing on the site. Between us and them, the place was going to be completely remodelled soon. We waiting 30 minutes or so for them to leave and made our hasty escape.
Although I am tempted to write about all 16 sites we went to, I can’t. The reason for this is, quite simply, that I cannot relay the epic nature of the experience to you in a blog posting, try as I might. With every day that passed, the crew got more raw, more volatile, more energetic, in a weird, confused sort of way. It was a delirious panic that I think would have even made Dionysus proud. I was drunk for most of it, partly because I do better fieldwork after a few beers and partly because the experience was so raw that it had to be shielded, it was like trying to stare into the sun. Now I know why so many homeless people drink.
Boundaries that existed in our little UK bubble began to break down. We did not speak the language, we did not meet a single person outside of the grocery stores and petrol stations we ravaged, washing our hair in their bathroom sinks and leaving piles of trash in their parking spaces, running under the turnstiles at the restrooms that demanded 50 cents. All that existed, all that mattered was the adventure and the bond between us which grew tighter with every sip of Jupiler in the back seat of Statler’s car, with every step walked over squishy mold/carpet. We could not think about what was happening because as Dostoevsky points out “one must love life before loving it’s meaning.” And this love was on fire. We began infiltrating live sites, barbecuing dinner in wheelbarrows, lighting dozens of candles in random rooms of Nazi extermination camps and free climbing timber into bell towers in crumbling buildings to photograph the holes in the roof veiled in cloudy continental morning mist.
Winch was the primary conspirator of this little frozen-toed expedition. Always up for a challenge and a laugh, he had booked this absurd holiday in December, I think, to break our will. After all, only the broken can be admitted into the ranks of legend. After taking in a few leisure sites over the first few days, he hits us with the news – we are going after heavy industry. Now, given that I am about to give a paper on reanimating industrial spaces through urban exploration at the 2009 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Durham at the end of the month, I thought this is a grand idea. Until it actually started going down.
We walked up to Transfo, a power station in Belgium, to find it swarming with people. We waited until dusk. When we thought everybody had gone home, Silent Motion ninja’d his way in to the secure building past the motion sensing lights and infrared alarm system. We got in and snapped some pics for about 10 minutes before some worker ran up and started rattling the doors to the heavy equipment room. Whoops. Turns out they were not all gone, but Silent Motion clearly could give a shit and starting climbing the infrastructure of the building to get a landscape shot.
On our way to Germany, we stopped to infiltrate Kokerei Zollverein, again swarming with people including professional photographers and men in suits. I swore that this infiltration would end badly. The only bad outcome, in reality, was my nausea from being meters away from workers as we snook past them and hid in the shadows. All my photos from there are shaky save two:
After my moment of existential crisis, we made our way to an abandoned train yard Munster Gare, a glorious moment for me for some odd reason. Something about the intersections of transportation (mobility), dereliction (history, aesthetics) and remote location (opportunity for playfulness) made this my favorite site of the trip.
After that locomotive jizfest, we drove into Germany. I had not been since I was 19 years old when I pursued the country on a underage American-in-Europe beer run, and was dismayed to find that it was actually a really beautiful place. Mostly because the further East you go, the more derelict structures begin to dominate to landscape. I always thought of dereliction being about the failures of capitalism, but nowhere was abandonment more apparent that in East Germany, markers to the collapse of communism and the retreat of the Soviet Union. The group entered a fervor as we drove through the country side, everything began to look derelict. At one point I remember Silent Motion saying, “Hey there’s a building over there!” and Winch responding “Nice, does it has trees growing out of it?”
We had resigned ourselves to a week of squatting. It was safe to say, at this point, that we had all left our lives behind. I didn’t care about my research anymore, I just wanted to keep getting high on adrenaline. No one ever talked about their jobs, their families. We talked about girls, 4chan, about what country had the best beer (hint: it’s Belgium), about football. Even our Blackberries and iPhones served only to get us aerial photos and to update our facebook status so everyone knew how much more fun we were having than them being homeless, elite and stacked with fat kit. As we crept into East Germany, we were all broken.
I don’t mean that in a bad way. What had been broken was our expectations, our existential dilemmas, our need for unnecessary daily crisis. These things were overwhelmed by the experience of the present, by what was just around the horizon. I felt, for the first time on this project, like I had actually broken the research barrier. I was not studying UrbEx anymore, I was UrbEx. I sat in the back of the car, delirious and drunk, and saw Winch staring at his fingernails. He says “When you look at my fingernails what do you see?” I told him “Maybe the blood and sweat of old inhabitants.” He considered it and replied “I don’t want to clean them…” This was our arrival, the point at which we had committed to dreaming instead of sleeping. And with that, we moved into Berlin, into post-Soviet Territory. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.