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 secondary goal on this project was to hold an exhibit at Royal Holloway during the Creative Campus Initiative garden party in 2010. The exhibit was a huge success and soon after we were contacted by the British Library asking if they could host our film on the Sports and Society page. Then, incredibly, we were contacted by The Archaeology Channel, asking if they could play it during their video news. The number of hits on the video quickly exceeded all expectations (relative to most academic work).
I think everyone on the team, at this point late in 2010, was stunned that the project had taken on such a life of it’s own. We were even more shocked when David Gilbert, the Head of Department at Royal Holloway (who initially alerted us to the competition), asked us if he could contribute departmental funds to help develop the research project into a school module with a lesson plan and DVDs. These were eventually sent out to 500 schools across the UK. Then, in one final chapter, we were invited to author an article about the project for the International Journal of Heritage Studies be be included in a special issue about the 2012 olympics which we have been working on for over a year now (yeah I know, academia is slow!). So, with all that said, I am proud to announce the release of London’s Olympic Waterscape: Capturing Transition by Michael Anton, myself, Alison Hess, Ellie Miles and terri moreau.
I wanted to relay the whole story of this project for two reasons. First, I want to encourage budding researchers to write proposals for projects like this when the opportunity arises. Yes, they are a pain and yes, you don’t really have the time, but often these things can spin off into all sorts of wonderful directions you can’t imagine. You also often get to meet a lot of great people who can teach you unexpected things and may one day become collaborators on other projects. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I want to continue to relay to the wider geography community the power of new media. The way this project took off was a result of our combined use of photography, video and text, mashed up in different ways, some of which we didn’t plan or intend. The end result can be a project imbued with far more gravitas than an article alone.
I would just like to end this post with a thank you to Alison Hess, Ellie Miles, Michael Anton and terri moreau for their wonderful collaboration (and friendship!) throughout this process. This was the most fun I’ve ever had working on a research project. I’d also like to thank Amy Cutler and Elisabeth Guthrie for their valuable contributions and Iain Sinclair, Toby Butler, Rob McCarthy, Nick Bateman, Nathalie Cohen, Alex Werner and William Raban for agreeing to be interviewed for the film. Thanks as well to David Gilbert, Tim Cresswell and Phil Crang at Royal Holloway for the support and, of course, to the London Creative Campus Initiative for the funding the work.
…place is a crossroads, a particular point of intersection of forces coming from many directions and distances. -Rebecca Solnit
Most people, I would venture to guess, tend to think of home as a place of comfort and rest, peace and solace. The Inland Empire of Southern California in the 1990s, where I grew up, did not hold these qualities for me. Perhaps that’s because home exhibits a certain plastic tendency that enables its boundaries to expand and shrink, which allows it to signify other geographical scales and although my family and friends were steadfast, I never saw SoCal, on a larger scale, as place I could call home. It was too pretentious, too materialistic, too filled with mischanneled testosterone. Riverside was a place in the midst of thriving, unsustainable gentrification on the road to inevitable economic collapse, a contested border zone caught between violent gang-fueled street warfare driven by teenagers like myself eager to claim identity in primaeval non-places and an increasingly Disneyfied social landscape which wasn’t necessarily conducive to rootedness and largely rejected our aggressive attempts at placemaking.
We were looping around to my brother Pip’s house in Canyon Lake. When we arrived, he pulled out tequila, maps and firearms and gave us three hot tips before taking us on a drunken ride in his pimped-out 4×4 golf cart and sending us on our merry way. Tip one was that in the mountains near Big Bear, he knew a series of radio towers we could climb to get proper David Lynch-esque skyline shots of the Inland Empire. Tip two was that there was a water park in nearby Redlands called Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom that was apparently abandoned. Both sounded like great opportunities for me to try and apply my placehacker skills acquired in Europe to home – making place ours by learning it from the inside out – just as Pip and I had done a year back at the March Air Reserve Base Hospital.
Place of fear
Quiet up here
The radio tower did indeed turn out to be a wonder. As a bonus, when we pulled up to it, there was a herd of local kids gearing up to climb it as well. We shared our beer with them and climbed the tower together. Afterwards, they went back to their Ford F-350 and started blasting country music and I was unhappily reminded of our current geographic location on earth. I left satisfied regardless, having never seen the IE from that scale. After the successful climb we were pumped to sneak into the abandoned water park. Which didn’t exactly go as planned.
When we arrived Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom, it was clear that the abandoned areas of the park had been quickly knocked down and the ground salted, all memory of that failure erased from history (go California!). What remained standing was very much active. However, it was two in the morning, we’d had a few beers up the tower and we were gearing up to head back into the desert, so we decided to run through the sprinklers and hop the fence anyway. Inside, we climbed the first waterslide where we could see the security guard off in the distance talking to a girl in a car. Easy. We climbed down the slides, which were surprisingly unslippery without water, and then grabbed some inner tubes off a big pile and floated around in the pools. Then we turned a corner and hit the jackpot – a snack booth with an open window. I slid through and found a fridge full of energy drinks, a nacho cheese dispenser and a Slurpee machine. Breakfast served. With a car full of fresh beverages, two new guns from Pip, and a few hot photos to tell the tale, we bailed from the Inland Empire again – I had hit my three-day tolerance threshold. Plus, Pip had a final mission for us – he suggested we hit some mines in the Calico Mountains on the way back to Vegas. So we found ourselves back in the Mojave again driving by torchlight into the hills somewhere near Yermo, California, set up camp and built a fire.
Inside the tunnels of an old mine where the extraction of silver from the earth had long ceased, we were soon 10 meters underneath the ground level, climbing deeper into the belly of the earth through long forgotten mine shafts. Outside is was blisteringly hot. Equipped with cameras, a multitude of light sources and an unquenchable thirst to find out what was left behind, we climbed as deep as we could go. The deepest levels of the mines eluded us on this trip but our time was running out and we were not yet done with Vegas. Like gill-breathers, we had to keep moving, stillness would surely mean death for us all in this heat. We popped off a few more rounds and smoked the tires onto I-15 again.
Although I was again a tourist here, passing through this surly desert, we were, as intended, beyond conventional tourism in our Powerslide delirium. But we were also beyond urban exploration. Was it even urban anymore? We were on an adventure pilgrimage, a quasi-spiritual journey, a failing search for a solitudiness, personal, semi-spiritual relation to place where we kept running into plastic and Wal-Mart super stores. Our romantic gaze reinforced the mythology of the desert in the most predictable ways, finding the only place where the Western Frontier still exists as some horrible shattered and lonely revenant, even as we worked to stake our promised claim to the freedom of the American West. It was toxically intoxicating and caused spontaneous moments of frustrated Tourette-like outbursts from the crew.
For some, the I-15 trail is a right of passage, the road trip that marks the 21 year old transition into adulthood (with the associated benefits of inebriated gambling). To others, the trail itself is the journey to seek. In either case, it’s obvious that the myths of this place go deeper than the notion of ‘a place between here and there’. We can explore the Mojave as a simultaneous destination and journey that speaks to different scales of home and to the fragile geopolitical climate of the now.
In terms of Riverside, well, I readily admit cowardice to my childhood associates. I ran from the Inland Empire and every time I go back, just like this trip, I fail to connect with it in a meaningful way and return to my crew in London. However, I can’t help but think that if I return enough times, trying to carve out a place for myself in my home turf in whatever ways I am able, one day I might be able to return. In the meantime, we headed back to Vegas for one final blowout before Otter and Witek flew back to their respective countries. See you back on the strip.