History is a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance of a thousand different hands. -Raphael Samuel

Art & Artefact

As many Place Hacking readers will know, I have been doing doctoral research on urban exploration for the past three years. With my PhD coming to a close soon, it seems like everything is coming full circle.

I am proud to announce the release of my new article in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Stuart Elden, the editor of the journal, has been very supportive of my work and has agreed to leave the article open access for one month so everyone outside the Ivory Tower can read it. And I hope you will. This article was two years in the making and attempts to address one of the most significant aspects of urban exploration – our engagements with history through the practice.

The Society and Space journal has donated a fair number of its pages this year to urban exploration. In June, they published a piece by Luke Bennett on ‘Bunkerology‘ which Professor Elden has also made open access for the next thirty days. I then wrote a response to Bennett’s paper and he replied. These debates are worth reading in the context of my new paper, as they tell very different stories, ostensibly about the same practice.

The last thing I will mention is that if you head back to my Hobohemia Video Triptych post from July, you will find the video footage from the excursions discussed in the Society and Space paper.

Legacy

On a final note, thank you again to everyone I have explored with in the past few years. This paper is of course in many ways co-authored with you all and would not have been possible without your enthusiasm, support and friendship. As always, I am honoured to be the scribe for the tribe.

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“Our waking existence… is a land which, at certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld – a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise.” -Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Wanderlust

Few places in the world are as enshrined in the pantheon of urban explorer mythology as the Carrières de Paris, often referred to more colloquially (though inaccurately) as the Paris Catacombs. Since 2008, we have spent dozens of hours underneath Paris, exploring the system and meeting those who map and build it. And despite that lively and active present day cataphile culture, it is clear from looking at the history of these spaces that we are all only a blip in the long history of subsurface Paris. Parisians are melded into the very fabric of the earth through these quarries.

Sightings

As early as the 13th Century, open air quarries, and later mines, were sunk into the Left Bank of Paris to feed architectural projects on the Right Bank. Eventually, as the city became pressured for space, people began building over the Left Bank. A voidspace was created which, since the 13th Century, has been continually lost and relocated, condemned and celebrated, backfilled and re-excavated. As Winch writes on his blog, exercising access to this voidspace is not a right or a privilege, it’s just something that can be done. And we do – again and again. These sunken tombs have a magnetic pull, despite, or maybe due to, the potential for visceral terror they harbour.

Taking the privilege

While in the quarries, we find ourselves in a negative space, a spatial gap that exists because earth matter has been excavated to build something else entirely. In architecture and urban planning this is sometimes referred to as space left over after planning or SLOAP.  Geographers and urban planners find that those modern negative spaces are used for various urban subversions, like skateboarding and street art, being largely ignored and disused space; but we rarely imagine SLOAP being as vast as the urban underground in Paris. As Marc Explo told me while we were wandering the 180 miles of subterranean galleries and chambers “if you want to know how big the quarries are, just look at all the buildings made of limestone in Paris. Then you understand the immensity of what we’re in.”

Expanse

In 1774, a hundred feet of the Rue d’Enfer collapsed, revealing the voidspace underneath. When King Louis XVI asked engineers to report on the implosion, he was told that much of Paris could collapse; it was built over fragile quarries that stretched for miles. This triggered an epic ongoing urban stabilisation project that spawned many of the shafts, rooms, mines and galleries that we now temporarily occupy. But the rich history of these spaces had just begun by this point. Into the 19th century, the caverns and tunnels were mined for building stone and by the end of that period, they would contain the skeletal remains of eleven million Parisians exhumed from graves where they impeded development – the quarries were transformed into a massive Necropolis.

This system have harboured criminals, French revolutionaries and Nazis, they have been used to grow mushrooms and store wine and, increasingly, give Parisians an unmonitored space to throw parties and get high in our age of the ever-present watchers. Today the tunnels are roamed by a different clandestine group, a loose and leaderless community whose members sometimes spend days and nights below the city. This is our urban playground, a timeless organic underworld of caves, water, bone and soil.

Their underworld

Our tombs

The contemporary relationship between explorers and the catas is thought to stretch back to 1793 when a Frenchman named Philibert Aspairt journeyed by candlelight into the abandoned quarry system to find a “lost” wine cellar. His body was found eleven years later and a monument erected to his memory, which still stands to this day. In Ninjaicious’ Infiltration Zine Issue 9, back in 1998, the urban explorer Murray Battle tells tales of multi-day sub-urban rambling, nipple-crunching tunnel crawls and and port sipping in La Plage. Not much has changed since then. As National Geographic wrote in their recent article, entering the quarries has been illegal since 1955, so cataphiles tend to be young people fleeing the surface world and its rules – freedom reigns underground, even anarchy. One of the cataphiles the authors run into down there is a guy called Yopi who says “many people come down here to party, some people to paint. Some people to destroy or to create or to explore. We do what we want here. We don’t have rules.” Our time in the catas costs us nothing but the battering on our bodies and psychological stability – an increasingly rare direct feed into the nervous system and hypothalamus – and contributes nothing to society except to add the the surreal project in whatever ways we desire. Money is of no use here, imagination is the currency.

Tarry

Of course, the phenomenological primacy of accessing the void cannot be ignored. After entering the Paris catacombs last year, on our Kinky Paris trip, our expectations of what to expect, think and feel began to melt with every sip of port, dripping off of us with the sweat and blood and caked quarry mud. It seemed all we could do was act, except in those moments when we were so shocked by some sight, smell or crushing feeling we were rendered temporarily inert. We would sometimes run into other sub-urban dwellers down there, cataphiles who spend the majority of their lives below the City of Light. We also encountered groups of people hunched over single file with bobbing headlights and plastic cups full of beer, and we would nod hello as we passed, acknowledging our shared experience in this space of unregulated sensory madness. It seemed to go on endlessly, and we achieved a state of supreme disillusionment or exceptional clarity (the meld). When we left and had to reconform to social expectations the come down hit hard.

Come down

Every time I am in the catas, I can’t help but think I am headed to the last party at Zion, just before the machines drill through to inevitably annihilate the remaining humans and their wonderful little dystopia. The catas feel like a post-capitalist future where everyone took the red pill and woke up. And yet, an 1877 engraving by Charles Barbant also relays this sense that we need not go to Herculaneum or Pompeii to find buried cities, for they occur beneath our own feet. Whether those spaces are a terror or a utopia, or indeed both simultaneously, perhaps can only be known subjectively to each distinct voidspace entrant. These experiences, like so many we seek as the intrepid explorers of this age, often verge on incommunicability (perhaps contributing to my reliance on multimedia in attempts to relay these stories – see below).

Subterranean utopia

So where do these thoughts fit into the hack? Well my friends, the quarries of Paris are perhaps the best Western example of a place where humanity has become intricately interwoven into the informal subterranean urban matrix. Paris culture would suffer a grave setback with loss of access to these spaces (not that such a thing could ever happen, they are far too vast). A co-addictive symbiotic relationship has been built over nine centuries where the populace continually hacked the closed system open again and again, leading to a consistent stratigraphic memorialisation of rediscovery and renewal that is now layered so thick with history and culture you can almost eat it (I tried). The catacombs are proof that just as virtual social systems can be maintained by the multitude, so can physical space. Enter the void.

Occupied

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Want to see more? Have a look at the video footage from my first trip to the Carrières de Paris:

Then read about it in my just-released article in ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies:

 

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The first episode of Crack the Surface, a series of documentaries on the culture of urban exploration.

Produced in association with

Silent UK
Sub Urban

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This film cost $31 million. With that kind of money I could have invaded some country.
- Clint Eastwood

Silent Motion and Statler on the road

Hobohemia was a series of three trips in 2009 and 2010 organised by The Winch into continental Europe. As an experiment in raw living and in an effort to experience something new, we began sleeping in the ruins we were exploring, eventually making it as far East as Poland on our final journey. I filmed each of the trips, work that was incredibly difficult given the conditions we were travelling under. The result is the Hobohemia Triptych, a series of 3 films that compose this ethnography in its rawest form. It is dirty, shaky, visceral footage that speaks to the excitement, exhaustion and eventual deliriousness that travelling in this way induces. I hope you find them inspirational.

On to new adventures. Explore everything!

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Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.
- Goethe

Dear British Transport Police,

I hear that in a recent police interview, you produced 91 pages of Place Hacking you had apparently printed out from a high quality laserjet. Firstly, let me just say that I am delighted you used so much toner working toward a better understanding of how urban exploration functions as a critical spatial practice to unveil hidden parts of the city and activate little moments of urban orgasmic wonder in an age rendered increasingly banal by forces of securitisation (no offence intended). We always suspected that only you guys, and maybe some of the TFL track workers, could ever understand the depths of our tube and train fetish. Do you like to stand in tunnels and record clips like this too?

I knew it! So listen guys, just between fellow train pornographers, you arrested some of us on Easter. It was a clean bust, we got a little silly there for a few weeks running around on live lines and everything and you were pretty cool about it. But the thing is, you forced your way into my flat while I wasn’t there and you’ve been holding computers, cameras and hard drives in your offices under some sort of vague “terrorism” authority for 3 months now. I never gave you permission to come in my house and the whole thing, if I’m being frank with you, is beginning to reek of a civil rights violation. Now I’m not trying to be cheeky here but we all know that you understood within 10 minutes of talking to us that we’re just train geeks with expensive cameras. I mean Howard Stern even said we’re like Dungeons and Dragons ubernerds that took our adventures into real life. Which is pretty accurate.

Bigger

Nerds

So given all the cuts going through a wide swath of UK society at the moment, you will understand if I suggest that the funds diverted for this “investigation” are being rather ill-invested. You see, in contrast to, let’s say, Lambrini chav chicks screaming on trains which apparently happens every day, we cause far less trouble for BTP. I mean 98% of the time you didn’t even know we were in there. We were also very forthcoming when you caught us, we played fair. Tell me, have you learned anything new looking through our hard drives full of porn and pictures of trains and cranes? I didn’t think so. And in terms of the acts of “terror” you apparently think we are involved with, well the only terror we inspire is the kind that makes you think about your life and how you’ve wasted it working at a boring office job when you could have been running around in TFL tunnels with that warm, brakedust-laced air swishing around you, getting all in your teeth and jumping over the 3rd rail running from the worktrains at 3am, diving into the Japanese knotweed they never clear up. It’s not any more terrorful than, let’s say yarn bombing or throwing magnetic lights on buildings or skateboarding. Though I suppose you might consider those activities big “social scourges” as well eh?

Let bygones

Be bygones

Look, I am just going to lay it out here for you BTP. We make the city more fun. We do this because we love it, not because we want to make your life difficult. Honestly, it would be better for all parties involved if you just ignored it. We aren’t doing anyone harm. In fact, it could be argued that we actually make the city safer by exposing flaws in your transportation network that a bunch of kids with bulky tripods and backpacks can sneak into – no telling what someone who was really motivated could do. Tell you what, we promise that if we ever see a “terrorist” down there we’ll brain them with a tripod okay? In the end, we are, I am sure you realise at this point, basically model citizens: active, aware, careful, well-dressed and *ahem* well-educated – not to mention the fact we’ve been running citizen patrols in the tunnels we pay to maintain (and pay you to police) for 3 years now without ever asking for a dime!

And so, in the spirit of reconciliation, taking into account all I have outlined above (as well as my many publications on the topic you also undoubtedly printed off on that crisp laserjet and enjoyed with a nice scotch), I have prepared an invoice for the work we have done exposing your network’s security flaws. I will CC another copy to your office but would appreciate prompt payment on this, given you have everything we own and we need to buy some new ropes, harnesses and bolt croppers.

Anyway, I hope you guys are having a good summer. Mine is pretty boring, just writing about all the disused Tube stations we explored and stuff. Cool thing is though, at the end of it I get a PhD. Now that, my friends, is public money well invested! Please let me know if you have any questions.

Sincerely,

The Goblinmerchant

PS. You guys should try exploring everything, it’s awesome!

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