The voyeurism isn’t just gawking at the old buildings; it’s gawking at the possibility and the danger of death.
- Kyle Chayka

Momento mori

Detroit’s reputation as a destination for encounters with epic industrial ruins, burned-out residential blocks, dead bodies frozen in ice and hard pipe-hitting thugs ready to elbow you in the face and abscond with your camera gear is internationally gelled in the urban exploration community. When Marc Explo and I started planning our trip to The D, we wanted all that action. But we were also interested in getting beyond stereotypical post-industrial tourism to see what Detroit could offer in terms of live infiltration. Surely, we figured, a city now saddled with a perpetual (and seemingly unshakable) image of crime and desolation wouldn’t mind if we preferred to climb some of their hot new construction projects and wade around in their massive new storm drains. So Marc flew from London, I flew from Las Vegas and we met in the middle of the United States to begin the 2011 Midwest Powerslide.

Powerslide

The queasy feeling in my stomach while I was on the plane to The D told me we were on the right track. I hadn’t seen Marc in 4 months, enraptured as I was by the ceaseless stream of verbiage and audio/visual fornications that were spilling out of my Vegas retreat, where I wrote the bulk of my PhD over the Spring. Truth be told, I was looking forward to seeing the bald Frenchman. As exploration partners, Marc and I seem to create something like a bilateral energy arc that spews sparks of tesla typhoons capable of disabling security cameras and shocking guards into limp-kneed awe. I couldn’t wait to tear the city up with him again and neither of us had ever been to Detroit (minus my failed Canadian road trip nightmare last December which I’ve burned from my memory – a renewed middle finger to the Ontario Provincial Police by the way). After three weeks of scouting in Google Earth for drains, construction projects and derelict industrial areas, unabashedly pillaging leads from the best US explorer blogs and taking a few wild guesses that had the possibility of ending badly, the map we were working off of was so littered with pins for our 4 day trip we could barely see it anymore.

Pin Porn

Our first stop was a no-brainer. Michigan Central Station is one of the largest and most beautiful ruins in North America, an icon of Detroit, even in death, much like Battersea Power Station in London. As Leary writes, Michigan Central Station appears to be a potent symbol of decline and the inevitable cycles of capitalist booms and busts. As a result there is a continual stream of tourists idling their rental cars in front to stare up at the monolith through the barbed wire fence. We sped past them in our red Dodge Charger, parked the car and unceremoniously squeezed through a kicked out piece of plywood under a railway in the back. Sneaking through a network of decaying corridors, we made our way to the main building and started climbing. Up top, we got our first taste of the Detroit skyline, only hours after landing. We were immediately impressed. Later, while we were running around playing on the roof, we were slightly shocked when three other explorers clamoured out of the stairwell and greeted us, two from Paris and one from Melbourne. Later, we tried to entice them to squeeze under a fence into the old school building across the street where they found a body of a homeless man frozen in the ice last Winter but they gave it a miss and we went on without them. George, if you read this, I hope you three had an amazing trip!

Stasis

Seared

Lacking any plans for sleeping (of course!), we decided Michigan Central Station was as good a place as any to kip and rolled out our sleeping bags in the main hall. In the morning, we were greeted by two swaggering kids wielding tall cans of cheap beer and 2x4s who had clearly been drinking until 7am. One of them, stumbling and dragging his weapon as we sat up in quickly our sleeping bags and prepared to tackle him, said he was really sorry to tell us that we didn’t look very homeless. We quickly gathered these kids were cool, just a bit hammered and scared – nevertheless we decided it was high time to pack up and start working on tracing our pins. So we bailed from central station and sped off into the suburbs.

Perspective

Activated

I won’t lie, Detroit was shocking. I have a hard time imagining such an economically depressed city existing in the United States. However, everywhere we went, the people of The D were candid and kind, even in what might be considered the worst neighbourhoods, waving at us as we drove down their street and laughing at us when we explained our mission to hobo our way through the American Midwest for the whole summer. Although I’ll try to avoid celebrating the economic devastation the city has experienced, I have to say I felt the place was sizzling with creative energy that somewhere like Los Angeles could never dream of. Monstrous art projects, weird games, quirky cafes and spontaneous happenings were in abundance. At one point, we even randomly found a house covered in stuffed animals that I found out later was part of Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. That kind of shit is weird and wonderful, the world needs more of it and, well, I just can’t imagining it happening anywhere else in quite that way. I think that’s also the reason why urban exploration has taken off so much in Detroit. Yes, ruins are everywhere, but the city also has a really raw “if you want it, go for it” attitude that I find refreshing. Artistic liberation always seems to flourish where capitalism takes a fatal dive.

Toxic

We knocked out the sites on the outskirts of the city pretty rapidly, finding them satisfyingly sketchy and yet feeling increasingly guilty about our ‘targets’. We knew we wanted to see the remains of Detroit’s automotive empire, I mean, leaving the city without seeing it would have been a travesty, but every place we entered was either very clearly a crack den or homeless shelter, incredibly sombre, or filled with other people wielding cameras and spray cans. Everything was trashed. We took the pictures we wanted to get, saw the places we wanted to see, but I couldn’t help feeling that I just was not that interested in ruins any more. It was clear to me, as it has been for the past few months, that exploration is all about the adrenaline rush for me now, the history of places is an afterthought. It’s part of the inevitable fragmentation of being involved in this practice on a more-than-casual basis. Some of us become graffers, squatters or proper artists. Others settle down and quietly slip away. In any case, I don’t think any of us with any common sense or critical thinking skills can abide the hunger for derelict places and photography for more than a few years, it’s got to evolve into something.

Bones of industry

Shells and husks

What's left

Bereft

Of lust

However, later in the trip, we rolled into a suburb to relocate an abandoned church. Sneaking in through a back door ripped off the hinges, the place appeared to be trashed. My shoulders slumped until we walked up to the first floor and were greeted with this incredible sight. The Woodward Avenue Church brought the energy right back up.

Sacred space

Relocated

We spent the night on top of an abandoned port building called Boblo overlooking the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. Earlier on in the day, in the middle of a pretty rough neighbourhood where we were trying to break into a Leer plant, I fell off a fence and sprained my hand, broke a rib and smacked my head pretty hard on the concrete. It was a stupid move that would haunt me for the next 5 weeks and damn near killed me sleeping on the rocky roof of Boblo Port that night.

Just add water

Wishbone

Passed out

On day three, Marc and I needed an adrenaline shot so we drove downtown and started scoping infiltration locations. One of the first places we had a look at was the Farwell Building and after a pint in the Detroit Beer Co. (we love you guys!). We decided to give it a crack in the middle of the day. The fire escape was a nightmare, some hellish rusty hunk of shit ripping itself out of the brick under it’s own weight. We ran down the alley and scurried up it, having no idea whether it would hold and, if it did, whether we would run into a swarm of crackheads inside once we wiggled through the broken window on the third floor.

Surreal

Instead of crackheads, we were rewarded with a surreal central hall that seemed right on the verge of structural collapse. Checking out the adjoining corridors, I felt a wind blowing through a boarded up door and ripped off the plywood to reveal another fire escape, this one leading to the roof. Up top, when it started pouring rain unexpectedly, I stripped of my clothes and danced in the rain (hey, it had been three days without a shower at this point!). Figuring no one was watching during the shower, a stepped onto the ledge of the roof and stared down at the street. As I did, I saw a woman with a stroller look straight at me as she popped her umbrella. Pointing, she yelled, “Oh my god, that little white boy’s gonna jump!” Two minutes later we heard the sirens coming from every direction and scrambled down the building as the police blocked off the street, waiting for the jumper. As we were hanging off the fire escape, trying to get out of the building before they sent cops up to the roof, a police cruiser stopped at the end of the alley. Marc hissed “freeze!” and we hung, the rusty bolts of the fire escape slowly ripping out of the brick. I knew we were busted. And then, miraculously, the cruiser drove off. I still don’t know whether we were seen and dismissed or whether the cops seriously missed us hanging off that fire escape, but as I stood minutes later with Detroit’s finest staring up at the Farwell Building, waiting for my naked self to jump and listening to the cops laughing about “that twisted tweaker that called it in”, I knew I loved Detroit.

As it turned out, Paul McCartney was playing downtown that night so we had free reign in the city while the cops spent their time directing middle class white people into the stadium and reassuring them there were no Muslims there. We went nuts. At 2am we climbed on top of an Italian restaurant and squeezed though an open window to ascend Broderick Tower, the best view we got of Detroit. It was stunning and really gave us a sense of Detroit as a light, bright, vibrant, beautiful place, in contrast to all the archetypal dereliction we had been seeing.

Veg rock

For the love

It occurred to me at this point, staring out over the city, that Detroit was in fact far from derelict and we had succeeded at breaking the mould. Ruination is, of course, a large component of the urban landscape now after years of corporate corruption, economic destitution and mass population exodus. However, the city remains full of life, events, cool people, great places to go out and a plethora of sites ripe for infiltration that are largely ignored by tight-jeaned camera-toting dereliction fetishists and local explorers unwilling to carve their own path.

Our final stop, in the suburbs on the way out of town, was a massive drain we found in Google Earth. Our friend Aurelie Curie kindly informed us it was called Red Run while we were en route. I loved Red Run and for reasons known only to himself, Marc despised it and refused to photograph it. Upon reflection, after 4 days in Detroit, sleeping in ruins and walking through endless derelict properties (16 in all) in our quest to find something else, we were both probably more than a little frustrated, despite the successes of the Farwell Building and Broderick Tower. Of course, we had also just knocked out 1 city with 5 more to go on the trip, so maybe Explo was just reserving his superpowers for the upcoming win in the Twin Cities. Stay tuned to find out.

Legends

On to Chicago

Our trip to Detroit, for me, exceeded expectations. Of course, the most important aspect of place hacking is the exploration itself and no photograph can adequately identify the origins for Detroit’s contemporary ruination; all it can represent is the spectacular wreckage left behind in the present. Dan Austin, editor of the architecture information site Buildings of Detroit notes that artists and photographers from all over the world have contacted him to act as their guide to Detroit’s ruins, help for quick photo and art projects. He writes that these “parachuters” leave Detroit just as quickly as they arrived, contributing little but to the city’s image of decay. We did what we could to give Detroit a chance to show it’s true colours to us and eventually it did. It’s not a place I could live but I certainly left with a different image of the place than when I arrived. Even though our time there was relatively short, we folded ourselves into the city, exploiting weak points in the urban armour to get into, and then under, the skin. I will always contend this is the best way to actually get to know a place.

The rest of what we found in Detroit, the other stories behind the photos, are of course ours to keep. Perhaps you could pry them out of us over a beer. But if you want to know what The D is about bad enough, like Marc and I did, you will start pinning that map and make your move. Godspeed explorers!

_____________________

The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.
- Epicurus

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“The city is made and made over into the simulacrum of the body, and the body, in its turn, is transformed, “citified”, urbanized…”
-Elizabeth Grosz, Bodies-Cities

Riding the stream

It’s not often that our explorations are more connected to people than places. However, on a recent trip into the Paris sewer system, we were chasing the ghost of the Parisian eccentric and urban photographer Félix Nadar. For urban explorers in London and Paris, the period between 1850 and 1870, when Nadar was doing his work, is a crucial one. During that time, both of the drain networks were built to the rough configuration in which they remain. This period was pwned by urban planners and engineers like Bazalgette and Haussmann; it was a time of radical urban reconfiguration. Nadar was fascinated by the changes and spent a great deal of time photographing the Paris catacombs and sewers (and taking aerial and erotic photos, but that’s another story), leading many urban explorers to think of Nadar, and his contemporary John Hollingshead in London, as the first drainers. The name Félix Nadar was even a pseudonym – clearly Nadar was part of our crew!

The story of four of us chasing down Nadar’s subterranean haunts last month has already been told by Otter at Silent UK – my particular interest in the man is our affinity with him as an individual interested in the intersections between the city and the body. What I mean to say is: Hollingshead, Nadar and the drainers of the world are cyborgs.

Cyborg drainer

The radical infrastructural urban transformations between 1850 and 1870 were largely due to a massive population spike that led to a Cholera epidemic. Due to long-perceived associations of subterranean space as unhealthy, unclean and evil, citizens held a multitude of beliefs that will engender an obsession with fissures, interstices and imperfect joinings [for] these are the sites of contact through which mephitic exhalations filter out.

Mephetic exhalation

These imperfect joinings, when cracked open, were seen as analogous to a flesh wound, the broken skin now ripe for bidirectional infection, the urban body as host, the city’s innards a ripe contamination zone. John Hollingshead, whilst traversing London’s sewer system in 1861, noted that a piece of ordinary rust or of moist red brick is soon pictured as a trace of blood. The contemporary Canadian urban explorer Michael Cook is also obsessed with these pulsing interstitial nodes, though unlike the Victorians, he sees these cracks as opportunities. Cook writes on his site Vanishing Point that the built environment of the city has always been incomplete, by omission and necessity, and will remain so. Despite the visions of futurists, the work of our planners and cement-layers thankfully remains a fractured and discontinuous whole, an urban field riven with internal margins, pockmarked by decay, underlaid with secret waterways. Stepping outside our prearranged traffic patterns and established destinations, we find a city laced with liminality… We find a thousand vanishing points, each unique, each alive…

Cook’s writing hints at the possibility that the structure of the city doesn’t just “seem” alive, it is alive. If architecture and the built environment is a reflection of what we know, then it comes as no surprise that we have constructed our buildings, our cities, as corporal simulacra. At times, these similarities are rendered in front of even the casual observer. For instance, in J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, Mrs. Steele referred to the high-rise as if it were some kind of huge animate presence, brooding over them… There was something in this feeling — the elevators pumping up and down the long shafts resembled pistons in the chamber of a heart. The residents moving along the corridors were the cells in a network of arteries, the lights in their apartments the neurons of a brain. Mrs. Steele saw from the street in a fleeting glimpse that which is impossible to ignore once you enter urban infrastructure.

Descending into Cook’s ‘vanishing points’, we enter the city’s bloodstream and begin to witness our effects on the urban metabolism, melding body with machine. Mr. Hollingshead, our Victorian London drainer, had such an encounter while venturing into a drain under a house he once owned on the West End. He wrote that he felt as is the power had been granted me of opening a trap-door in my chest, to look upon the long-hidden machinery of my mysterious body. The connection between his own body and the drain that contained the contents of his body is no fortuitous correlation.

Bodily contents

Now, (stick with me here!) if cybernetics is, as Norbert Weiner declared, the revision of information through the exchange of information and the moments of encounter between our bodies and the urban infrastructure alter either physical structure or mental conceptions where “…the body (as a cultural product) transforms, reinscribes the urban landscape according to its changing (demographic, economic, and psychological) needs, extending the limits of the city, the sub-urban, then Matthew Gandy is right to assert that the emphasis of the cyborg on the material interface between the body and the city is perhaps most strikingly manifested in the physical infrastructure that links the human body to vast technological networks.

Older than us, but of us

Victor Hugo also wrote about Paris with the passion of one who had been it it’s bowels, leading him to declare that Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime. Victor Hugo, like us, like Nadar, like Hollingshead was an inner space nanobot, a cyborg surfing the fresh.

Surfing the fresh

Sewers contain a steady stream of biological packets, full of data connecting nodes, throbbing veins, arterial chambers. The data bloodstream, like light-driven information packets, connect cyborgs, hybrid creature[s], composed of organism and machine. Beyond the designation of the cyborganism, it’s defining characteristic being a propensity to slip the net of a world structured by boundaries and enclosures to a world dominated, at every scale, by connections, networks, and flows, is a possibility for transplantation, a symbiotic bilateral exchange of potentiality. Here, the boundaries between the organic and the inorganic, blurred by cybernetic and bio-technologies, seem less sharp; the body, itself invaded and re-shaped by technology, invades and permeates the space outside, even as this space takes on dimensions that themselves confuse the inner and the outer, visually, mentally and physically where “thought-as-imagination’ departs from the actual, dips into the fractal abyss, then actualizes something new. What is it that is new here you ask? Well nothing more than an animation of the inanimate, a tangible hauntology, an acknowledgement that building forms spring out of historical contingencies – but, given enough time, they may create their own form of subjectivity. Drains are material manifestations of our dreams (including nightmares) but also regulators of our physical potentiality and protectors of the realm in glistening armour.

Draining subjectivity

Before the accusations of theoretical posturing ensue, let us reinforce the role of embodiment here, (under)grounding the theory. Bookmarked in each photo we snap are moments of not just conceptual but actual encounters that take place between urban bodies and urban infrastructures, leading to the designation of urban infrastructure as urban body. The result of those bodily encounters is the construction of those webs, flows, and exchanges that create communities, ideas and cyborganisms. The actual hand-wrought work of constructing and deconstructing that fabric reveals a physicality conjoined with virtuality that is anarchic [in it’s] non-identical proliferation, where the everyday urban inhabitant embeds personal investment into the infrastructural networks, inscribing places through place hacking. The city is a reflection then not only of the physical body but of the sprawl and limitations of human consciousness and ability, potential now augmented by the machines we have created. Urban infrastructure, although restricted by capital investment and spatial constraints, is also constrained and fortified by a human imagination of the deepest chaotic order, it’s operation and moments of rupture as fragmented as urbanity itself. If only we could imagine alien body infrastructure concocted under the influence of Burroughs’ Mugwump juice, then the monstrous resultant fragmentation might finally lead to the schizophrenia we need to proceed.

Elizabeth Grosz argued, in 1996, that computers would change the way the city was structured as we built infrastructural systems not modelled upon machinery but upon virtual systems. However, were not both mechanical functions (compare the piston and valves of the heart) and cybernetic circuitry (the CPU as brain) both modelled on the body? Does not the evolution of those artificial bodies influence our biological bodies (for instance, consider the effect of indoor plumbing on the body)? Does the beautiful conjunction of those bodies and spaces, industrial machines as appendages, computer hardware as corporal augmentation, not create new hybrid bodies which will influence the infrastructure of cities? Will those imperfect joinings that the Victorians feared infect and augment through their mephetic exhalation as promised? If Grosz is right, then the body’s limbs and organs will become interchangeable parts with the computer and with the technologicalization of production.

Bloodstream nanobots

The Paris catacombs are perhaps the best Western example of the meld to be expected – a place where humanity has become intricately interwoven into the subterranean infrastructural fabric. Paris culture would undoubtedly suffer with loss of access to those spaces, a co-addictive symbiotic relationship has been built there. The KTAs are proof that just as virtual social systems can be maintained by the multitude, so can physical space. The symbioses is even more profound in places like India where infrastructural space is living space, in Poland where we saw people moving into military ruins or in Cambodia where people are living in graves. Despite arguments of  deterritorialisation, the visual, aural, sensual representations created on explorations and residencies in those spaces creates a new emotional cache which can be tapped into for myth-making practices, practical application such as sabotage and, increasingly, simple imaginative stimuli that reterritorialise those spaces with a potential that feeds not only physical constructions but imaginations. As a result, the virtual and physical aspects of urban exploration are inseparable as one network depends on the other. Urban exploration, despite it’s weavings into the mythologies of the sublime, is not an escape from nor a transcendence of the physical, but a challenge to the very boundaries of substance dualisms.

Investment

The city is more like a sponge than a solid mass of paved streets and architecture, more like a body than a machine. There are sinkholes; the surface is porous. The conductive material urban fabric facilitates an emotional flow, the bloodstream becoming a conduit for sublime affectual registers in immeasurable doses. Overdose always being a possibility, we teeter on the brink, doing our edgework. We leave horribly hung over and come back again and again, our tolerance for exposure to the pain of the cyborg meld growing each time, our possibility for transcendence growing with each descent.

But what of the opposite exchange on the symbiosis? Returning to our colleague Félix Nadar – how did his photographs influence the function, form and representations of that Parisian bloodstream? How do the technological accelerations that allow myself, Winch, Otter, Marc Explo and countless other explorers to recreate Nadar’s work and spin replicative experiential simulacra, in distinct imbricating temporal iterations, begin to mutate those systems? We know it to be true and this is where the accusations of urban exploration being primarily a spectator sport fall flat. Urban exploration can never be purely representational or apolitical. Our work, just like those drainers of 150 years ago, create open systems where they once were closed. Urban explorers reveal the framework and recode the urban landscape daily. Drainers reveal not only the cracks and gaps that exist through the representations they produce but expand those cracks and gaps through repeated exploitation and exploration. Urban exploration and draining realises potentials for cyborgian conceptions of the city to emphasize the continuing political salience of the public realm. Predator’s call for public access to public works is a call for open source urban coding. Where the environment is written in closed code, we’ll hack it until it’s open source again.

Where do we go from here? If we think of urban infrastructure as a tangible network of cybernetic organs, we must then assume the evolution of the information city to be, increasingly, a body without organs, a cloud-computing bot. Inevitably then, if form follows function, human bodies will shed organs just as the city inevitably will. Instead of injecting ourselves into the bloodstream, we will collapse the veins, and our synthetic dreams, rather than our synthetic physicalities, will become the new sites of exploration. We must prepare to kill our darlings.

It's still sublime isn't it?

It is time. Explore everything. Blow the veins.

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Man is free at the instant he wants to be.
-Voltaire

Clear light of bliss

Silent Motion rolled up on the East London Greenway at about midnight. Sarah and Maria were with him and he was headed with a determined stride to an old flame. Architecturally speaking of course. The Abbey Mills Pumping Station, recently written about by our friend Paul Dobraszczyk on rag-picking history is indeed a Cathedral of Sewage.

The first empty Redstripe can spiked onto the security fence followed by another empty precariously placed on a ledge waiting for the next little gust of wind to send it spiralling into the River Lea clearly indicated that the Goblinmerchant and Brosa were already inside. But when Silent Motion and the girls rolled up, they found the dejected pair with the rogue Sophie dancing around a fifth of Famous Grouse playing tag with the demons of the night. The window was jammed.

Two hours of death-defying acrobatics followed. We all knew with Silent Motion there we weren’t walking away. The popping sound of the fire exit opening 40 minutes later was consequently rather satisfying, given how miserably cold we all were lying huddled around our empty Grouse bottle drawing straws to see who would be eaten first while we waited for the early-morning train from the Far East back to more respectable South London Boroughs.

Post-apocalyptic imaginaries were abandoned as we walked through the door.

In the presence

Of Bazalgette

Being in such close presence to Joseph Bazalgette, hero of London sewage, urban exploration and architectural aesthetics, was instantly sobering. Standing in the main hall, it become clear that Bazalgette was mad as a hatter when he built this absurd monstrosity of shit-pumpage. But as Jack Kerouac writes in On The Road,

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

We were all on the same team here. It was clear to everyone in attendance that Bazalgette was there too, raving and craving, clawing and lusting, climbing and laughing. We went into a wild Bacchian frenzy. It was movable feast of affectual affordances as twisted Victorian metal was transmuted into swing and ladders, balance beams and gaps to jump. We played limbo under their security gates, we crawled on all fours across half-submerged pipes and used the derelict phone system to call the security hut and tell them they lost the game.

We don't need

To ask for

Permission

_________________________

The truth is that Silent Motion and I needed some time to play. We had been fighting police in the streets, sat in sub-zero kettles, setting fire to the city to keep warm for a month straight as part of the student protests. It felt like life had quickly become so serious. Even urban exploration had taken an ominous turn after other explorers started crying about our A-team exploits. One detractor even labelled our crew “the London can openers” which I quite liked.

Spot the can opener

Our participation in particular types of exploration, our participation in the riots that most explorers chose to ignore while they sad at home madly bashing their keyboards in frustration, our participation in whatever the fuck gets us pumped up is a reminder, however sad, that as Winch has said before, there is no UrbEx community, there are just friends who enjoy hanging out with each other. Some are braver than others. Some explore for the glory, some for the fun. Some walk in the track of others. Some blaze new trails. Some try to make things a little more fun. As Statler says, there are no rules to UrbEx, there’s just where your morals fit and as Sartre once wrote about the philosophy teacher Mathieu, “he could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he thought them into being.”

We needed this night to remind ourselves that this is what we are capable of. Elegance was reaped by bringing along a visitor to London for the weekend to experience a night out that wouldn’t be soon forgotten. We fed on that initial wonder that comes with realizing that yeah, you can just do this.

Let's

Just do this

Being free doesn’t require consent and we don’t need to ask permission to explore, not from the government, other explorers or your mum. No matter how much frustration we brew, how serious our work gets or how intense our lives may become, we are reminded through urban exploration that all it really takes to feel free again is the initiative to walk away from it all and rewrite the rules for a night. Disclaimer? There is none.

Space, despite all allusions and illusions to the contrary, is free.

Beautiful all around

__________________________

The photo of Abbey Mills in 1868 was jacked from Rag Picking History.

The photo of Silent Motion the can opener was kindly provided by Nicholas Adams at Guerilla Photography.

The Red Stripes and Famous Grouse were provided, on discount, by Emron from Pakistan at my corner shop who still wants me to make a documentary about his quest to abandon the family business to become a pilot.

The word were kindly provided by my brain, via my fingers during some sort of synaptic process that still eludes me.

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“We enjoy thumbing our noses at petty bureaucrats and puerile legislators, and their half-baked attempts to stop us going to the places where we go… places they built with our tax money.”
-Predator, Sydney Cave Clan

Drop in

Watching the US government scramble to patch up the PR damage being done through Julian Assange‘s leak of 250,000 private cables got me thinking more about the political implications of my notion of place hacking. The hacker ethos is clearly aligned to libertarian socialism, at times straddling the intersection between libertarianism on the right and anarchism on the left. This intersection was evident in the hails of praise for Julian Assange from both Anarchists and from Ron Paul, one of the leaders of the US Conservative Tea Party movement.

So when we recently explored a Ministry of Defense nuclear bunker, I could not help but make the connection between the militant existentialist ideology, shared by other groups such as graffiti writers who assert, as Tim Cresswell writes, that “everywhere is free space” and the Wikileaks ethos of populist-enforced democratic transparency which I assume Jim Hightower, the celebrated American liberal populist, must approve of. Both system hacking and urban exploration are about making the invisible visible and technology helps us to force transparency in both virtual and meat space. I created a podunk media flurry in Riverside California, my home town, last summer by sneaking into March Air Reserve Base with my brother Pip and photographing the remains of millions of dollars of government investment rotting in an abandoned military hospital while they planned to spend $80 million to build a new one one the same base during an economic meltdown. It therefore came as little surprise when we cracked this bunker and found equal waste in the UK. Which we of course, in both cases, we loved for the surreal playgrounds they create.

Planning

For transparency

Dsankt writes on Sleepy City that “whether you’re hacking transit systems or computer systems they’re all fissured, all possessing those little cracks just wide enough to wriggle your dirty little fingers into and force to sneak a peek into what lies beneath the shiny smoothed over façade most take for granted every single day”. I have suggested “place hacking” as a phrase which encapsulates the different types of explorations we undertake (urban exploration, infiltration, draining, buildering, unauthorised spelunking, urban adventuring, underground parties, etc.) as well as the more intangible themes of localization of heritage, political subversion, critical spatial practice and “alternative” community construction and identification. But I wasn’t the first. As early as the 1980s, the term “hacking” was applied first to physical space by the Technology Hackers Association at MIT who learnt to pick locks and infiltrated the steam tunnels underneath the university. Students began climbing rooftops on campus, conducting freshman on what is called The Orange Tour. Only later was the term appropriated by the computing community. As Löwgren writes, “the word ‘hack’ was used to refer to… practical jokes or stunts. Its meaning shifted to the technology needed to perform the prank, and later came to mean a clever technical solution in general”.

The 7th entry under the term “hacker” in the New Hacker’s Dictionary defines a hacker as “one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations”, importantly pointing out the physical foundations of the art.

Place

Hackers

We worked for hours into the night, checking the walls for hidden tunnels to gain access to the bunker and crawled out some hours later covered in mud, tumbling in front of two large security cameras. Figuring we had already been seen and praying that no one was watching them, we pushed forward, all scared witless but determined to know what was contained within. Alan Rapp writes in his MA thesis that the practice of urban exploration “provides a tart reminder that the areas that we have regular access to are not just quotidian, but also normative, if not repressive. The patterning that we can infer from the sanctioned environment is absent from the spaces that urban explorers go; they have been deprogrammed”. In the same way the “the techniques dérive and détournement offer the possibility to explore spaces in new ways, and to rearrange existing aesthetic elements into new forms of expression”, urban exploration fits geographer Alistair Bonnett’s description of offering “a new form of geographical investigation that can enable the revolutionary reappropriation of the landscape”.

But while the organization and politicisation of the practice may be novel, a question remains whether the practice itself actually is. Urban exploration, though it looks similar to the dérive, or surrealist parodies, has learned from the successes and failures of preceding critical spatial practices, leading to the creation of a network that is truly horizontally structured, without leadership and completely decentralized, while adopting an opaque public image of apolitical benignity, at times even presented as a type of heroic preservationism. Urban exploration, as a result of this decentralised power structure and well-groomed public image, is political in action but not in assertion, rooted in freedom of personal choice that comes across as what I see increasingly as libertarian in ideology aligned with the work of Wikileaks and individual anarchists. As Marc Explo recently told me on a trespass into the quarries of Paris, “I don’t need anyone to tell me that I am free. I prove that I am free everyday by going wherever I want. If I want to drink wine on top of Notre Dame, I do that, if I want to throw a party underground, I do that.” The impetus to do so becomes even stronger when we feel excluded from the government decision making process that we are paying for. And so, as Marc Explo asserts, where right are not given, they are simply taken.

Information

Not offered

As Bonnett again points out, we tend “…to assign creative spatial behaviour to performance artists and other specialists in provocation.” He writes that he feels these groups somehow owned “the subversive imagination” but on closer inspection sees that “ordinary urban behaviour fairly sizzles with errant activities…” Indeed, as spectacular as urban exploration and infiltration may seem, it’s simply an act of walking, climbing, inspecting and recording, activities which are far from spectacular and certainly do not hold the same glamour that is assigned to the consumption of the records produced by these activities. Organized transgressions against normative daily behaviour, what Oli Mould and I have termed urban subversions are in fact rarely riotous.

Creative resistance may take the form of refusing to move in places where you are expected to, such as in a flash mob event where large groups of coordinated participants freeze in unison in public spaces designed for movement or in rural areas designated private property where groups such as the Ramblers Association of Britain hold yearly ‘Forbidden Britain’ mass trespasses, a simple act of walking somewhere you are not supposed to. Some spatial incursions into places do not even take place physically, such as Trevor Paglen’s visual trespasses onto United States military property through the telephoto lens of a camera, or his more recent work photographing US spy satellites that supposedly do not exist. Like many other activities, urban exploration, while conceptually provocative, is almost dull in practice, with many participants refusing to even acknowledge deeper implications. “Gary” told after reading some of my writing that, “what you do Brad, it’s just words, this doesn’t have anything to do with anything”.  I can’t fault “Gary” for preferring action over words.

Words

Into action

Clearly, in an existential libertarianism framework where “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”, the desire to explore unseen space could be seen as a reaction to a growing existential angst in urban inhabitants. I see place hacking as a proportional response the the closure of the majority of urban space in combination with the blatant and frivolous waste of of tax money constructing structures like secret nuclear fallout bunkers designed to shelter only the corrupt government that created the potential of nuclear attack in the first place. And like Assange, I say hey, keep building that shit, keep wasting our money. In fact, keep trying to patrol and lock it up. We will be right behind you to liberate that space for absurdity and play. Your move.

Just words


This posting is dedicated to the kids who have been protesting to be heard and fighting the police in the streets of London this week. Apathetic generation indeed. Solidarity!

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Jute

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Nov 27, 2010 Under Academia, Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Film, Heritage, Ruins, Spatial Politics, Urban Exploration

I spent a week in Istanbul, Turkey earlier this month, taking some necessary downtime after a heavy few months of publication submissions. The city was beautiful and I left feeling rejuvenated and ready to work on a new project. Which of course I did. My plane touched down back in London November 20th at 9pm and by November 21st at 6am I was on a train to Scotland.

Istanbul

I arrived in Dundee to meet with Michael Gallagher, Jonathan Prior, Brian Rosa, Tom Croll-Knight, Jennifer Rich, Jackie Calderwood, Amanda Repo Taiwo Thompson and Jessica Jacobs to take part in a workshop called working creatively with sound and image organised by Michael and Jonathan from the University of Edinburgh.

At the workshop, we were given a free hand to produce whatever we felt drawn to and I ended up organically gravitating to Brian and Jonathan who I have worked with previously on smaller projects. We decided in the end to attempt to produce a small film in the 3 days we had to work. We envisaged the film being roughy based around the Jute industry which thrived in Dundee at one time but has been long dead, now surviving as urban memory as part of the flagging tourist industry here. We went into the city armed with video cameras and audio recorders to try and locate connections between the historic industrial Jute city, the port that was essential to the transportation of the Jute and the changes that are taking place within the city that both build on and and overwrite that rich maritime heritage. In the end, the film also became as much about process as discovery as we found that the story we sought was buried in the urban palimpsest.

Methodologically, we were interested in making a film that broke from traditional documentary form, a piece led by sound (collected by Jonathan and Michael) rather than visuals (collected by Brian and myself) only taken from our time in “the field”. We were particularly careful to avoid narration or a film score, leaving the viewer with, we hope, a strong sense of a particular place at a particular time.

Given that the film is built around the audio, it is best watched with headphones on. Hope you enjoy it!

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