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

Look up

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.

A journey

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.

Gold

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

First bite

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.

Step 1

Step 2

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!

A route

To glory

Requires delicacy

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.

Shizzle (photo by Harriet Hawkins)

Good luck with that Olympics thang by the way London, I’m sure it’s all going to be great fun.

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Adventure is not outside… it is within. -George Eliot

Superpowers

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.

Success

Failure

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

Spontaneity

And simultaneity

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.

Let’s roll

Rail envy

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.

Geography

Immortalised

In pixels

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.

Activate

Scionic

Metro Hack

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.

Currency

______________

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

Celebrating

The Club

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!

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Well, if it were easy kid, everybody would do it.”
–James Coughlin, The Town (2010)

Our claim

When I returned to London after a summer in the US filming Crack the Surface II, the rules of the game had changed. TfL had decided to take a hard line against the LCC following up arrests, house raids, equipment confiscation and cautions with an ASBO (Antisocial Behavior Order) against the Aldwych Four. Everyone could smell blood in the air. However, as I recently pointed out in an article for the Guardian, TfL took the wrong tack trying to take down the LCC by force. A community of people who don’t follow rules are hardly going to be deterred by creating additional rules, especially when they’re singled out for persecution over taking photographs while criminals robbing the country of billions walk free.

It’s true a few gave up the game after the busts, but other explorers took a harder line, choosing to go off the grid, stop posting photos, and push back. I of course came along for the renewed forays into the LU whenever I could. We still had one more abandoned station to explore before we had completed every one in the system and a core group of us were dedicated to getting it done. So we did. Ladies and gentleman, British Museum is complete and I’m proud to announce the LCC has accomplished what no one in history ever has – we infiltrated every abandoned station in the London Underground illegally.

The way in

and out

So why aren’t you seeing pictures of British Museum in this post? Well, because although I accompanied the crew on our final adventure into the network, I lost my nerve and never made the line change through Holborn. Despite missing the crown jewel of the system, it was one of the best nights of my life, having never experienced stakes that high. The adrenaline levels were almost debilitating, a near overdose of desire for twelve straight hours. And for that TfL, we thank you. Here are a few digital memory fragments from the night for you, a little reminder that the LCC are still here, rocking the city we love, even if you don’t see blog posts and photos flying around the way you used to. I do hope no one lost their job with the lack of material to rifle through, though I’m sure Bob Crow can find something else for them to do.

Breaking the seal

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKneXhGuZfU

It was a long walk that night. As Guerrilla Exploring writes on his blog, somewhere near Russell Square on the Piccadilly Line the lights came on, which is never good news. It turns out it had nothing to do with us in the end but I breezed regardless, all the way to Aldwych, taking a few shaky handheld photos before heading to the nearest portal out of the system like there were zombies after me. It was great.

The way

To victory

So TfL, for all the hassle, court battles and bad press you can rest assured that now we are finished. We retire from tube not because of you but despite you – we won. And to the next generation of explorers who will take it further than we did, godspeed adventurers, come find us in Cambodia sipping cocktails on the beach and tell us your tales of urban exploration.

Part of the game

2012

____________________________

In related news, my PhD is now complete and available to read on the new thesis page. This is the complete collection of stories from the rise of London’s most prolific urban exploration crew from 2008 to 2012. Enjoy! Always,

-The Docta

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The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.

In association with

Silent UK
Sub Urban

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In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. -Hunter S. Thompson

Pod

I couldn’t believe we were back in Vegas. Being the neurotic adventure-seeking pendulums of desire that we are, we had oscillated between one extreme and another, passing through my beloved quiet desert from LA to Sin City, through blistering days and freezing nights under the stars, from my Mom’s home cooking to endless Del Taco – only to find that Emily Fish had already arrived from Mexico and been camping in McCarren Airport for at least 24 hours. She had constructed a little shanty town out of Indian shawls and suitcase remnants in the baggage claim area and fended off TSA security with honey in the ear and incense sticks. I walked in dripping sweat, stinking of whiskey and gunpowder. She looked me up and down and said, “well honey, I guess we had better go explore everything”. Damn right. We started with a gaudy carpet by the toilets in the Bellagio.

Subtle Clues

Vegas was in shambles. The Sahara casino had closed down. New construction had ceased. The only skyscraper with cranes on site when we arrived was Fountainebleau which Aurelie Curie assured me was secured tighter than Fort Knox. 1 of every 9 homes was in foreclosure due to non-payment of mortgages and unemployment was astronomical. Thinking back to my jaunt though the Las Vegas underworld just a few months back, it was clear nothing had changed since the last time I left poolside to go crawling around underground. The summer of 2011 in Sin City felt like the apocalypse. But as I had already found, Las Vegas history, the real Las Vegas history, makes fops and fools of even the most sincere explorers. The city’s story is riddled with blind alleys, dead ends, crazy twists, and outright fabrication; nothing should be taken at face value here, we had to get out on the strip and take score.

Alarmed drains

As much as I love the city, Vegas is one of those places that you really must assume you may never return to every time you leave, fragile as it is, so you’ve got to milk it. It made sense to start with the Sahara, a Vegas icon recently deceased after 59 years of pwning poor saps and breaking people’s hands with hammers in back rooms. We called up Aurelie and she gave us a hot tip – they were having a liquidation sale. The idea was to pose and buyers taking pictures of potential purchases for a client and walk through the front door, head for the lifts and see where you can get. Solid. Floor 24 please.

Spectacolypse

Angulated

There was a spooky sincerity to the liquidation of the Sahara, evident in the faces of employees and the place itself. The architecture was slumped over against a wall, baking in the heat clutching a bottle, shrugging to passerbys and laughing to itself while trashy families picked at its carcass and wondered to their partners wielding tall cans of Natural Ice whether they could put this on eBay, holding the item in question aloft in the glaring casino floorlights with a discerning eye. We bypassed the hordes and wandered backstage where Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, George Carlin & Bill Cosby had performed. Later I found out Aurelie had gone up in the flies the week before. You don’t know until you try.

Soundcloud

Marc Cooper writes that Vegas is purposefully constructed as a self-enclosed and isolated biosphere, sort of what a recreational colony built on the moon might be like. The Sahara in the summer of 2011 was the perfect example of this, a biosphere with holes in the glass, oxygen seeping out into the desert wind with a hissing sound, ready to explode at the flick of a match.

I don't tip

To imagine that for 59 years this place had never closed. Ever. Yet there we sat, alone in quiet buffets and silent rooftops, not even an air conditioner running. It was a spectacular privilege. Extrapolating what we saw in the Sahara, it’s clear this city would ruin like a a hot rod – in the sexiest way possible.

And then we saw it

From the roof of Sahara we could see our last and final target in Vegas – Fountainbleau. It was the only skyscraper in the city under construction, the only one with cranes on it and, as Aurelie had warned us, getting up there would likely require a distraction of immense proportions such as a catastrophic desert thunderstorm or nuclear bomb blast. However, we were determined that it must be done, despite the security patrols vigilantly rolling around on ATVs like circling sharks. There were at least three teams on the ground down there and they were better prepared than us, wielding binoculars and radios.

The final frontier

However, before we could tackle it, we encountered another opportunity altogether. Essentially, we were walking down Las Vegas Boulevard and saw that there was a new Walgreens under construction. The front gate was open and it was 2 in the afternoon, the street swarming with red-faced tourists. We figured we should give it a shot – the worst that would happen is that we would walk into a worker or security, feign drunkenness, apologise, head for the gate and run like hell when we hit the pavement. An archetypal tactic straight out of Access All Areas. As it turned out, though we were all sweating it, there appeared to be no one there. I guess they just took lunch and left the gate open. Cheers guys.

Beautiful

Accident

Failed Security

That was the end of our time together as a group in Vegas. Emily went back to Washington, Witek to Ottawa and Otter to London. Marc Explo and I were left alone to pack up our stuff for a final leg of the trip before our summer was over. But we had one mission left to complete. Since it was unlikely I was coming back to Vegas, I felt compelled to do something grand to mark my time there, to push the bar higher, as our crew does, wherever we go. This desert has attracted all manner of dreamers, from millenarian cultists to visionary artists to advanced weapons scientists from the United States Air Force. They have all made their mark, they have all tested something or other on America’s proving ground. Like bleached bones these dreams lie in the desert sand, faded and chipped but intact; they have their own story to tell, as compelling as the accounts of written history or the stirring narratives of museums. So at 3am on Sunday before we flew out, Marc and I dodged the security patrols and alarms and climbed the 68 story Fountaineblue skyscraper. These photos are my parting gift to one one my favorite cities in the United States. With love.

We did it

It will never be done again

Lick it or click it. No really, click it. Click it.

Thank you to all my friends in Vegas including Matthew O’Brien, Joshua Ellis and Aurelie Curie. Thanks as well to Marcia and Jack Kulpa for allowing me to look after your beautiful house for the summer.

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