Although born in a prosperous realm, we did not believe that its boundaries should limit our knowledge.
-Montesquieu

Crushing boundaries

The tales of urban exploration behind the London Consolidation Crew take three forms. The first are the ubiquitous locations that we all know and love, sites like Battersea Power Station, which we blow out in public every time we sneak in, sometimes just hours later, laughing in front of our laptop screens at 4am as we plaster the photos on Flickr, daring the security to up their measures, chiding them to pick up their game. After a few weeks, we go back to these sites of serial trespass to see how security has done trying to stop us after we embarrassed them in public yet again. Inevitably, the security measures will have been changed (if not necessarily tightened) and we find (make?) new ways in. The cat and mouse game we play with the private security companies is part of the fun and we almost always win that game. I am pretty sure they enjoy it to, based on those smirks they have while calling the police on the rare occasions that they actually catch us.

We win

The second kind of location we explore can never be written about. An intimate nocturnal spatial blowout will end with a pow-wow where blood oaths are taken that “these pictures will never go public”. Although these are sometimes the most interesting sites, the consequences of revealing our presence there would likely have repercussions far more negative than positive. Marc Explo and I, walking though Clapham Common one rainy day a few months ago, had a talk about this type of adventure and he looked at me, completely stone-faced, and said “Brad, this is the only type of exploration I am interested in any more.” I couldn’t agree with Marc more, but I was concerned, given that these sites remain always “inside” the community, that our drive to undertake these explorations had become entirely selfish, narcissistic or even solipsistic. Was not the purpose of urban exploration to post, share and encourage the “dumb fuckin retards up top” (Siologen) to try something new? Wasn’t it always my contention that the purpose of urban exploration was to reconfigure geographical imaginations by visibly reconfiguring and crushing boundaries? If this remained the case, where do these sites fit into that story, given even the group’s ethnographer (that’s me folks!) will never write about them? I will return to this point – first, let me take a moment to outline our third type of infiltrated space story form.

Thirdspace

Rediscovered

The last type of site is what you are staring at here – the Down Street Disused Tube Station. These are sites we have done but not spoken of and let me assure you, the list is pretty long. We wait patiently for anyone with the gumption to complete them before posting them. The list of those with the courage to follow us into these spaces is contrastadly short. Sometimes (as in this case) we don’t discuss the fact that we found a way to wiggle in through the cracks for months, the challenge waving in the air for all to see. Sadly, few took up the challenge here and they should have – Down Street is truly something to rave about.

The 21st of May, 1932 was the last time a train stopped at here and in 1938 the station was converted into the subterranean headquarters Railway Executive Committee (REC), set up by the Ministry of Transport. Wikipedia says this was Churchill‘s war bunker – then again, Wikipedia says that about every subterranean space in London so… meh. Since that time though, we can say definitively that this station has been seen in person by very few people in London. We are now among them. For the full stories, you will of course want to see Silent UK and The Winch, your one-stop shops for all things epic on the London scene.

Old Timey

Wiggle room

It wasn’t long ago that Team B cut our teeth on Mark Lane. It was the first disused tube station that many of us had done, despite the fact that Siologen and others on Team A had already explored a number of areas in the network. I think it’s fair to say that some of us feared Mark Lane while others revelled in it. Those of us who lapped up the adrenaline rush and became tube infiltration junkies were, and are, quite openly obsessed and as Statler once said “when you become obsessed with pushing these boundaries, you move from urban exploration to infiltration… Then it’s hard to go back.” It was the London Underground, not the sewers, that made us an infiltration crew. When we did Lords and ran the tracks up to the connecting stations soon after Mark Lane, it became clear to those of us who began taking greater risks that not only were there greater rewards to be had but that there was a possibility of a holy grail at the end – the completion of the entirety of the disused parts of the system. We had moved from exploring “sites” to exploring complete infrastructural networks.

Veering toward completion

The creation of the Consolidation Crew, the sensational collapse of the London teams between 2010 and 2011, made the completion of the goal that much more realistic. I won’t say whether we completed all of the disused stations before I left London but I will say that they are all of the third kind of tales of urban exploration – tales that will one day be told. One day the world will know that the Consolidation Crew were the first to do what no urban explorer thought possible; we reconfigured all the boundaries of London Underground exploration. As Otter writes about our cracking of Down Street, once we decide something will be done these days, the unconquerable is conquered. And as Brickman so gracefully added last night, TFL would fill their pants if they came across what we get up to on any given night. I also like to think they would respect it immensely. Only they could understand the depths of our Tube and train fetish.

A slight addiction

The truth of the matter, whether we have or haven’t completed the entire system at this point, is that we know more about the London Tube network though illegal infiltration than most of the workers in the system. We probably know their working hours better than they do. As Patch recently told me “if I’d filled my head with knowledge that’s actually useful rather than endless information about the Tube then maybe I’d have come up with an amazing idea or business model and become a millionaire by now.” I have been asked why, given how much epic shit we have been banging out, we haven’t published a photo book. The answer is simple – we are still too busy doing it!

Mark Lane happened and

It got raw

Now before this post gets too descriptive and forgets it’s on Place Hacking, let me build on our relationship with the Tube through infiltration of it’s porous boundaries by making an important connection to the work of my mentor Tim Cresswell who writes that although being ‘out of place’ is logically secondary to ‘in place’, it may come first existentially. That is to say, we may have to experience geographical transgression before we realize that a boundary even existed. And, as Statler pointed out above, once we cross those boundaries, they are very difficult not to cross at every opportunity because those boundary crossings create a personal investment in places, even we are only passing through.

Although we might be tempted to make connections to transgressive mobilites like those undertaken by the American Beats, urban exploration, as well as being transgressively empowering, also creates a city full of people invested in the places they reside (that’s us!). Urban explorers know and love cities inside and out because in many cases they learn cities inside then out. One of the divergences then from the idea of boundary transgression is the notion that rather than directly resisting, urban explorers are investing through subversion, even if those moments of investment are indebted to the modern legacy of transgression, by their (at times) complete disregard to what is socially expected or acceptable. The libertarian impetus behind much of this edgework is not to be mistaken for nihilism. Again, Marc Explo makes the point when he says “I believe we are an apolitical movement. I would not like to associate for instance with a group who protests against the waste of empty space in prime locations. I don’t think we are against the system, we’re just pointing out its limits. And as soon as the authorities realise we do the boundaries evolve and that keeps it fresh.”

Boundaries!

In these situations we go beyond asserting “I did this” by intentionally implying “you could also choose to do this” and the political implications of this intentionality lie not just in the transgressive action itself, but in the resistance of the status of passive citizens. And passivity, in this context, goes beyond abiding to cultural, societal and spatial boundaries, it also applies to the complete abolition of them. Anarchism is just as lazy as conformity. The real work, work that reveals prizes worth obtaining, exists at the boundaries of infiltration which are ever-morphing, like a Brazilian Favela.

The transition into infiltration from ruin exploration is an organic progression. Those early explorations revealed a façade of urban spectacle that we came to see as an impotent utopia of pretentions and complicities. Urban exploration is nothing less than a rejection of our enforced pact with capital in the process of questing for sites of urban tenderness, flippantly exploiting those capital investments. In these spatial reintepretations, bonds, desires and the need to find deeper communal meaning in life take precedence over the ability to create profit or to produce something. What we produce, in each of these three types of mythmaking processes, are the tales of urban exploration – some to be blown out, some to be carefully doled out at appropriate moments defined by the community, others never to be written, only spoken.

So getting back to my earlier point, as the ethnographer for the group, I am, perhaps somewhat ironically, being taught the importance of the creation of oral histories that can only be transmitted as such – histories and myths made to be shared in person. Some stories are still too rich for social media. If you ever want to hear those stories, you know where to find me – I am the one in the corner of the pub, covered in Tube dust, writing the tales of urban exploration in a caffeinated haze. Pull me from the bubble, buy me a pint, and ask to hear the stories behind the scene. These will always be the ones most worth hearing.

Until then, go forth and adventure. Be fearless. Ignore limitations. Explore everything.

Permission Taken. Cheers Kids.

 

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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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