I like to just gobble the stuff right out in the street and see what happens, take my chances, just stomp on my own accelerator. It’s like getting on a racing bike and all of a sudden you’re doing 120 miles per hour into a curve that has sand all over it and you think “Holy Jesus, here we go,” and you lay it over till the pegs hit the street and metal starts to spark. If you’re good enough, you can pull it out, but sometimes you end up in the emergency room with some bastard in a white suit sewing your scalp back on.
–Hunter S. Thompson, Playboy Magazine, 1974, discussing drug use as edgework
Edgework was a term first used by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to describe the necessity some people find in pushing boundaries to find fulfillment. The idea is to work as close to the “edge” as one can without getting cut (or at least not too deeply). For Thompson, this meant putting himself in perilous situations such as doing ethnographic research with the notorious Hell’s Angels Biker Gang, ingesting various intoxicants to the point of near overdose or taking drugs of unknown origin in unexpected combinations.
The term edgework was appropriated by the socialist Stephen Lyng as a blanket term for anyone who “actively seeks experiences that involve a high potential for personal injury or death.” In his 1996 article Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking (expanded in 2004 as an edited book), Lyng goes on to explain edgework as a negotiation between “life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, and sanity and insanity”.
It seems to me that most urban explorers not only feel the need to test those limits, but to push them. We find those opportunities in drain systems, where the obvious risk comes from flooding and drowning to abandoned buildings which have both short term (collapse) and long term (respiratory problems, cancer etc.) negative impacts on our bodies. Many urban explorers also frequent high places where falling is always a possibility. In these locations we are free to do our edgework, pushing these boundaries by hanging from cranes, balancing on edges of long drops, precariously tiptoeing over weak floors and scrambling under collapsing roofs.
In wider society, inevitably connected to the concept of “liability”, is the notion that these activities are trangressive. UrbEx, like street art, skateboarding and parkour, is a practice which reappropriates urban space for an unintended or unexpected use that may result in bodily harm and one of the common reactions to people choosing to take unnecessary risks is, of course, suspicion that these people are “out of place”. But as Christopher Stanley has written, “these subcultural events [could] assume the status of resistant practices not in terms of ideology but rather in terms of alternative narratives of dissensus representing possible moments of community.”
As Lyng rightly points out later in his article, “risk taking is necessary for the well-being of some people” as individuals work to “develop capacities for competent control over environmental objects” (see Klausner 1968) inspiring edgeworkers to sometimes speak of a feeling of “oneness” with the object or environment while undertaking these risks.
I know that the places where I feel most embedded in the “fabric” are places where I have taken risks. In those places, I have bonded not only with Lyng’s “object and environment” but also with my friends who shared in those risks.
The desires to explore for the sake of exploring, to take risks for the sake of the experience, with little thought to the “outcome”, is something that runs deep in us when we are children. Urban explorers are, in one sense, rediscovering and forging these feelings of unbridled play, of useless wandering, of trivial conversation and of spontaneous encounter, all of which lead to the creation of very thick bonds between fellow explorers who use play as a way “to de-emphasize the importance of work and consumption and their pervasive monetary components.”
These explorations bond people in an emotive embrace, tendrils of affect conjured by shared fear and excitement, experiences that have become increasingly hard to find in many modern city spaces which Guy Debord argues “eliminate geographical distance only to produce internal separation.”
Despite the ways edgework may be seen as trangressive, the empowering and inspiring process of undertaking edgework is exactly what is lacking from many people’s lives in global cities. Edgework may in this sense be seen healing rather than severing, a hot blade that melts. Physical human connections through shared experiences of peaked emotions build stronger bonds of community, and I am proud to belong to this tribe of urban bodhisattvas.