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…
Adventure is not outside… it is within. -George Eliot
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” -Jack Kerouac
I have never been able to stay still for very long. For some reason in the west we are supposed to feel guilty about experiencing perpetual wanderlust. The underlying intimation is that human mobility is threatening to modern society. But it would be naive to assume that is purely a present-day tension. Looking back the the tramps of 1920s America, the Beats of the 1950s or indigenous communities to whom modern national borders are conceptually irrelevant (even if often practically unavoidable), being nomadic is clearly a common human desire suppressed by the suspicions of the sedentary.
For many people, experiencing movement, change, precarity, cultural encounter and exchange is vital to their wellbeing. I am one of those people. As are most geographers, anthropologists and explorers I have met. So when Dsankt from Sleepy City and Otter from Silent UK sent me a message asking if I was interested in spending a weekend in Barcelona living out of our backpacks and sneaking into the metro system, I couldn’t refuse. It proved to be a powerful collaboration. Within hours of arriving, we were running down the tracks dodging trains.
The journey to get to Bifurcació-Vilanova abandoned station required a dodgy climb past a number of security cameras. The station itself was massive, desolate and beautiful. But our greatest surprise was not to be found on the platforms. Deep in the station, we ran into a homeless encampment. The occupant had clearly died some time ago. His possessions, including loose change, were laid out on the side table as if he had just gone out to get snacks or smack and never returned. In all the places I have seen in my time exploring dereliction, nothing had prepared me for this – the place was thickly haunted. We challenged those ghosts, and our fears, by opening the treasure boxes there and discovered an ID. It made it more deeply terrifying to see the name and photo of the spectre.
Earlier whilst walking around the city, we had spied a cableway system supported by tall pylons near the port. We decided to see if we could sneak past the security guard and fences to get up top. It took us hours to scope the patrol and I fell asleep in a stairwell waiting, awoken by Otter shaking my shoulder saying ‘it’s time man’. When we finally ran low toward the tower and went for it, it was very late and very cold. But the views were worth every tribulation.
Put into practice
At the bottom of the pylon, the police drove by just as we were climbing around the chained-up door to the stairwell. We hid low and luckily they kept driving. I couldn’t help but wonder if someone has seen us up top and called them. In any case, they clearly sucked at their job. Later, we found an unlocked public bike, stole it, and did our best to break it doing skids across intersections and riding down stairs. After trying to sleep in a construction site only to be chased out by an intimidating dude wielding a sharp stick (and realising our stolen bike had been stolen by someone else while we were up there), we climbed the iron gate over somebody’s front door and passed out in a derelict patio garden as the sun was coming up.
We were awoken by another angry guy with a shovel at 7am later who spoke unintelligible Spanish. Luckily he also spoke French and Dsankt deduced it was time to leave or battle him and his scrubby friend. We wanted to finish up the rest of the metro stations on our list anyway so we headed out. We knew Correos and Gaudi seemed likely and window shopping whilst riding the metro revealed Banc and Travessera stations be either too small to be of interest or gone. With some work, we found a way into Correos (cheers Silent Motion!) and were rewarded with a beautiful crumbling platform and some old signage.
But not dead
Gaudi station ended up being the most beautiful of the set with lush marble floors and walls shockingly untouched by graffiti. If it wasn’t for the trains flying through every two minutes, you would think it was 1968, the day after the station closed. As we left, we turned the lights on, realised they would not turn off and ran like hell. Gaudi reminded me why I love exploring metro so much – big risk for big reward.
I never want to stop travelling. But more than that, I never want to stop travelling the way we do. There is nothing more exciting than living out of your backpack, sleeping in derelict rooftop gardens and construction sites, getting people to buy you free drinks for telling adventure stories covered in metro dust in a mall bar and making sandwiches on the beach from random supermarket deals. This isn’t about not having money, it’s about choosing to take a risk and seeing what happens. Sometimes the payoff for that risk is getting chased with a shovel, other times it’s getting right in close to the life of a stranger you never expected to meet (dead or not). What it always is is new and that’s why I need to travel. Experiences like these renew my hope in the world, seeing that one can still pack a camera, some maps and a sleeping bag and just roam. And if one day in the distant future taking this sort of trip is a thing of the past, I will always know that spirit didn’t die with us. We are the tramps and Beats of our age; we are urban explorers. Carry on adventuring until further notice people.
We get messages constantly from people wanting to get involved – I guess it’s obvious how much fun we’re having! We appreciate that – please continue commenting and emailing, it’s good encouragement to keep us out there climbing skyscrapers in subzero temperatures, sinking anchors into walls at 4am and hiding from Metro drivers in Paris while we run the tracks. But we don’t do these things simply to entertain you sitting in front of your computer screen at home. We want to inspire you to build your own group of explorers and start cracking the place you reside. You don’t need us, you just need a couple of solid mates and a bit of overflowing angst or desire. Easy.
Eventually you may want to hit some bigger targets. In regards to group dynamics of a growing crew, here’s a lesson we’ve learned. Urban exploration is often perceived as a relatively solitary activity, something that we accomplish on the back of research, scoping, surveillance and execution in small groups. But in reality, the urban exploration crews that get the most high profile locations done (Holy Grails) are the ones that operate not on an ethic of one-upmanship but as a group – the Cave Clan learned this a long time ago and QX, Dsankt and Sergeant Marshall proved it again when they demolished the Paris Métro a few years back as a loose infiltration collective. And while it’s true that the UK “scene” is, as Siologen says “all fucked up and weirdly political”, more fragmented than the current US Republican Party, our London crew is one of the tightest knit groups out there right now. Save one.
I woke up in a basement at Shotgun Mario’s house surrounded by a massive pile of drippy waders, clutching a glass that was recently full of John and Becca’s heavenly homebrew ale on tap in the next room. I scratched my head and a host of sand particles dislodged themselves and sprinkled into my glass, salting my sleeping bag. My eyes hurt. Witek was drooling on a pillow next to me dreaming of train engines and Marc Explo, as usual, was naked in his sleeping bag snoring like a baby. I stumble upstairs and Mario is on the phone, editing maps and listening to heaving dubstep simultaneously. He looks eager and I’m pretty sure, after being here for 24 hours or so, he doesn’t sleep at all. We all slowly made our way over to DarlinClem’s and her pad was full of even more explorers, including Moses Gates, whom I had wanted to meet for years. It was all happening – we had finally made it to Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP). It was a stupendous welcome party at DarlinClem’s the night before and now it was time to get busy – the crew had assured us they were going to put us to work before we arrived and Marc wanted to dig.
Waiting for the drop
The reason MSP is our favorite sister crew, and arguably the world’s most famous UE collective, is not just because they party in sewers wearing spandex and swigging champagne. Nor is it just because they stage mass boat infiltrations in drains. It also isn’t just because they throw awesome illegal parties. It’s because they’re a huge, solid group of exceptional explorers that have accomplished an unimaginable amount in their city and love it as much as we love London. We have a lesson to learn from MSP where rinsing the city of locations didn’t stop them – it simply caused them to start thinking even more critically about what was possible, spinning off iterations of playful urban interaction through a relentless desire for more. They work through doldrums and always re-emerge into a new Golden Age. Just as we are doing now. That, I argue, is no coincidence.
Hotter than Cali
In short, the crew in MSP constantly rework the city through desire – a rather fluid proposition; desire is radically intransitive, not a thing in itself but that which enables us to desire. Both our crews are consumers and producers of that serotonin seepage, in the same way we might manufacture fear to increase adrenaline levels while exploring, in the same way I have helped manufacture the LCC, in the same way we take the bait to be the only one ever to drive a Mail Rail train. Urban exploration, while it may be viewed externally as a transgressive tactic, working to undermine closed systems, is also full of moments of comprehensive engagement with social life, triggering neural flashes where the husk of alienation is shed to reveal fruits of collective activity. The level of organisation, time and effort invested and sheer brilliance of group efforts and accomplishment (the fruit) in MSP is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Their consistent discoveries, especially in the fertile, porous, excavatable subterranean sandstone environment, reveal them to be the global rockstars of our little pastime.
Rewind to a revelation Winch came to last year when he told a herd of us in the Paris Sewers, “there are only two types of barriers we face – the physical, which we have little problem with now, and the social. Social barriers can be overcome too, we just have to hone our skill.” The kids in MSP are pros at this. In Chicago, when we set our sights on doing a live infiltration of the Legacy Tower, Shotgun Mario and Tony walked in with our group of 8 and pulled aside security with an errant question while we followed a resident to the lifts and made our way to the roof. Mario and Tony sacrificed their personal enjoyment for the benefit of the group. No one has gotten up there since. In our most successful infiltrations of the London Underground, we often had somebody “on top” to keep an eye our our access point, ferry ropes and distract civilians, both LutEx and Dicky have played that important part on major missions. This is an essential role in any successful infiltration crew.
As Marc Explo suggested to me, place hacking is perfectly complimented by mind-hacking techniques by people such as Derren Brown (cheers to Katie Draper for introducing us to that sociopath). While we have subverted almost every type of physical barrier possible, we have largely failed to attempt to alter people’s perceptions of situations (the psychology hack). Which in many cases is easier, such as convincing hotel staff that you have lost your room key and need to get your stuff from the pool rather than sleeping on the roof and abseiling to the pool at 2am. So here was our second lesson learned from MSP – walk the shit and talk it, use all the tools at your disposal.
Time for me to assert my favorite trope! Urban exploration is a place hack. Both virtual hacking and place hacking are elective procedures of participation in otherwise closed objects (proprietary cyberspace or off-limits architecture). In the same way hackers wouldn’t use a DDoS attack to achieve every goal, we also have a range of tactics, both distal (visual representations, smoke screening, misinformation campaigns) and proximal (sneaking, social engineering, brute force) at our disposal to hack our way into and rewrite places so that they feed into our manufactured identities (undercutting imposed identities). The explorer, by stratigically applying a fuller range of tactics, multiplies stories of places to create myths, dreams and visions of a present moment of possibility available to those harbouring desires to make them manifest. Once those stories are rewritten, they can then be restacked to add weight, contributing toward the collective breaking point. If we consider hacking as a constant arms race between those with the knowledge and power to erect barriers and those with the equal power, knowledge and especially desire, to disarm them, it is a logical step to begin considering ways beyond sneakiness and brute force to disarm closed architecture. Take for instance the following photos. There is only one way to get them and it had nothing to do with being sneaking past security or brutalising a keycode panel. It was a Trojan horse attack, plain and simple.
Just as the hacker ethic cannot be simplistically reified, categorised or bounded, neither can explorers themselves. While I may point to an overarching impetus behind exploration as I see it, and bound explorers according to primary friendship groups or geographic location for analytical convenience, it is problematic to attempt to define a coordinated explorer ethos; individuals simply follow their desires, do their own edgework. But in a (loosely) coordinated group, individual desires can be channeled into the collective. Exemplar are the infamous Futtslutts Thelma and Towanda of MSP. These two don’t explore by anybody’s rules. They are, by and far, two of the most accomplished and daring explorers anywhere. Their courage incited Marc Explo and I to charge headlong into a tiny stoop filled with raw, black sewage like molasses, packed with cobwebs and little white subterranean spiders, fending them off with a stick and a bottle of Uncle Andre until the fumes almost took us down for good. It was a hot moment. But also, through their radically impractical assault on that poo den, another tunnel was crossed off the list. Individual desire fed into group accomplishment.
Never give up
Tony is in
With larger groups also comes increasing specialisation. Where the Futtlslutts may form a frontline assault, Mario is behind the scenes drawing up plans, Tony is in a tie opening places easier than a ninja, Slim Jim is mapping every inch of the process with exacting detail and Clem is the glue holding it all together. It was inspiring watching the team go to work on a problem and it’s something we brought back with us from MSP. I think it has helped the LCC gel even more, taking us again back to my initial observations. Urban exploration is a team sport, straight up. If your team sucks, you’re not going to nab a Grail. And seriously folks, drop the politics, when you find someone out there in the world operating alone who brings something exceptional to the team, they deserve your respect and should be brought into the fold.
Our process in London of increasingly trying to work social angles, as a group, was partially inspired by what we saw in MSP at the end of our summer of mayhem. Exploration is about doing exceptional things that challenge and provoke us day after day with a community of close friends; it’s not just the places or the process of exploration that makes this worth doing – it’s the friendships behind it. So in terms of the emails we keep getting, thanks again for those but we’d rather you make move from talking about what could or should be done, pitching possibilities and asking for help pulling your group together and creating those possibilities. We, like the crew in MSP, undertook the research to find out what had been lost to time and then went out and found it in the world – real work that took place with our hands, bodies and minds as a community we built together. As “Gary” once said to me “if you’re in, you’re in, you can’t fake this.” And for diving in head first we earned an invite to visit a crew older than us that we respected immensely. So what now? Well friends, a global community reformation is taking place in front of your eyes. So if you’re ready to give up faking it and start making it, join us.
Thank you to everyone in MSP who let us stay on your coaches and floors, fed us fine food and ales and for showing us the wonders of your city – it was spectacular! With the 2012 International Drain Meet coming up soon, I look forward to seeing many of you again.
By the way, you were always our favorite, just don’t tell the others.
This seems a fine time to mention that the London Consolidation Crew, in collaboration with the MSP Hard Hitters, are going to drop a massive media bomb tomorrow. Keep an eye Silent UK and Place Hacking and wait to feel the shrapnel spray into your retina.
In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. -Hunter S. Thompson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.