Scattershot

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Jun 11, 2011 Under Academia, Cultural Geography, Ethnography, Film, Geography, Spatial Politics, Urban Exploration

I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.
-Thomas Carlyle

Time is a rubbery thing

The last few months, I’ve been rather entrenched in writing my PhD. With 5 chapters now done and under review, things are well on their way. However, this time for reflection during my self-imposed exile here in the Mojave Desert has also been fruitful for other writing projects, including 2 book chapters, 5 journal articles and 3 web publications. This work has pulled my attention from Place Hacking for the moment. However, I thought it might be worth rounding up what’s gone down lately in this scattershot update.

First, I was invited to write an op-ed piece for the Domus architecture and design magazine on the fragmentation of urban exploration. Essentially the article is about how an unlikely mix of media attention and marketing exploitation threatens to polarize an otherwise apolitical practice. The article can be found here. Immediately after publication, Control from the LTV Squad in New York City posted a great response which has sparked renewed discussion about the social and political salience of urban exploration as a practice. That can be found here.

In a more academic context, a few weeks ago Luke Bennett published an article in Environment & Planning D: Society and Space entitled Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration. Stuart Elden and Deborah Cowen were kind enough to allow me to respond to the article on the Society and Space blog. That response can be found here. Bennett then replies in an excellent post which is here.

Finally, Otter at SilentUK has uploaded a trailer for the film “Crack the Surface” which myself and JD at sub-urban are co-producing with him. More exciting than tinfoil in the microwave.

All and all, it’s been a heavy few months for urban exploration but I am heartened by the new debates and discussions sparking everywhere about the practical and theoretical issues around the practice. As I wrote recently to Snappel, I think that it’s really vital those of us who are willing to engage with our practice on more than a superficial level do so and, as such, I am really encouraged by the thoughtful responses from both Control and Bennett.

Urban exploration is at a crossroads right now and it is up to us which path we take. As it should be clear from these publications, I for one am not content to allow herds of ruin fetishists, bitter armchair commentators or corporations define what history will see us as. Urban exploration seethes with potential as a critical spatial practice at a time when space is rapidly constricting under the control of pseudo-apocalyptic forces manufacturing fear and distraction daily to keep desire and dissent at bay. It is my hope that through these publications and exchanges, the potential for urban exploration to sap those illusions is slowly being unleashed.

It’s time fellow earthlings. Smash and grab it. Explore everything.

With love from Sin City, USA

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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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“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others”
-Pericles

Departure

When I started Place Hacking two years ago, I conceived of it as a place to get ideas out, a place to dry run new thoughts, a repository for all the weird shit in my head. Over time though, it’s taken on a new form, a life of it’s own to a degree. As I scroll though the photos of our various adventures, I realise that Place Hacking has become one of the story threads of a community that we didn’t really know was forming. I am implicated everywhere; as an ethnography, I don’t know how I could have dug any deeper or threaded myself any tighter.

Hand crafted

The community we have built in London, especially in the past year, is unprecedented. Our move from ruin exploration to urban camping trips to infrastructure to elicit parties and urban adventuring led to a mend between “teams” in the London community to the point that we almost can’t even tell what the “teams” are anymore. We all go out together now, night after night, cracking new tube, locating new drain junctions, sharing ideas, refining techniques and getting more stuff done more quickly than ever in the history of London exploration. Our hosting of the IDM this year, spurred by Otter, and the organisation of multiple events that have connected us to the larger international community really indicates to me that London exploration has come of age. Let it be written that it wasn’t always so!

Written and rewritten

To an extent, we have also begun to redefine what urban exploration is to the wider UK scene. This began, I think, with the move into infrastructure, to infiltration, but also with our desire for desire, the point at which we decided that enjoying what we were doing was more important than whose toes we stepped on or which ‘codes’ we subscribed to.

Urban exploration as a practice requires a bit of a leap to decide to turn a wild idea into action. But it takes another brave leap to take responsibility over aspirations for more depth in the practice. At some point, we decide that not only would we go into places, we would also do what we like while in them, whether that meant throwing a party, sleeping in them or changing the locks and seizing disused space as our urban playgrounds. In all honesty, what we put on the internet to showcase London’s potential is probably half of what we have accomplished. I will let your mind wander about what kind of fun may have taken place but rest assured it’s been nothing short of a beautiful rampage.

From a different angle

And so, with a bitter taste in my mouth I announce that I left London. In fact, right now, as I type this, I am sitting on a plane. Two hours ago, I checked in a bag full of high vis, waders, camera gear, torches, tripods, hard drives, a sleeping bag and a Neil Stephenson novel – everything I need to survive really. I’m on a mission to return to LA and Sin City, the sands from which I emerged so long ago, to sit quietly and write our stories. I have chosen to give up my cherished role as an agitator to become a scribe for our tribe. It has to be done – the myths and legends of this age can’t go unrecorded. I am determined, above all else, to make sure that whoever comes after us knows that in a world rendered increasingly mundane, we refused to let adventure die.

Slipping

My decision to leave the city has broken my heart more than I could have ever imagined. London, for me, will always be the place where the world was cracked open; where I realized the core was full of scorching, beautiful light; London will always be the place where it became impossible to ignore the potential in everything.

Potentially exciting

This potential was unleashed one last time in what had to be the most bizarre and wonderful subterranean party in South London history, put together by Winch, to see me off. The crew snuck into a space 30 meters under the city dragging a massive sound system hooked up to a car battery, lights and cases of Belgian beer picked up on Winch’s last trip to the Continent. I walked into a surprise party of epic proportions populated by all the usual suspects and a few fresh faces. We played Bunker Frisbee, undertook bolt climbing practice upside down on the walls, spayed each other with champagne, made ridiculous gushing speeches, ran through the tunnels screaming, we puked, we danced. It was bliss.

Bunker Party (photo by Gigi)

Determined to keep the mood going, when this planes lands in Syracuse, NY, I will get into my friend Erika Sigvardsdotter’s 1988 Dodge that she left behind after she returned to Sweden and drive across the United States toward the Wild West via Canada, sleeping in ruins along the way. My first major stop will be Detroit, the heart of US industrial urban exploration where I will search, alone and with no knowledge of the city, for glitches and ruptures to exploit. After that, I will head to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul (MSP), to go underground with Shotgun Mario, Darlingclem and the infamous MSP heavy hitters.

Too ambitious?

I will miss London. More importantly though, I will miss my friends. When I began exploring with the Can Openers, I expected to learn more about the city. I also hoped to become a better filmmaker and photographer (which I have, though I’ve got a long way to go still!). What I didn’t expect was to reach a to find some sort of divine wisdom in that dank, wet, cold city. In London, through our explorations, I finally found the desire to be a part of a community where I have always felt like the geek standing on the side in every other group. It has been such a blessing to find more geeks like me who were not content with virtual adventure and who strive to make the impossible possible.

Unvirtual

In the end, I found a community full of practitioners who aren’t afraid to try something new. I have found a community who, when I see their name pop up on my iPhone, make my heartbeat accelerate because I know when I pick it up, something daring will ensue. I have found a community of people that I respect on the deepest level for their audacity, bravery, courage and passion.

I have never felt bonds so strong – we have entrusted our lives to each other so many times that we have become nothing short of a band of raiders. I often used to imagine us as the Band of the Hawk from Berserk or a World of Warcraft raiding guild until I realised at some point that I couldn’t even sit through movies or play video games anymore because our lives were more fun than what was one the screen. We killed my desire for media through embodied experience – what a revolution that is in this age!

Out there it's

Better than a video game

This community has pushed me, time and time again, to put down the pen and to pick up the passion. What they were teaching me the whole time, I now think, was to learn to live in the present. Surprise. After years of roaming the world looking for magical wisdom hidden is some drippy Australian rain forest, practicing yoga and meditation on Hawaii beaches, and chillin out with Native Americans in Nothern California, it took a bunch of urbanites with cameras to show me that every moment in life must be lived with the upmost respect, care and appreciation. It took a group of what I thought in the beginning to be alternative historians to show me that there is nothing glamorous about nostalgia and that we own the future, come what may! The only thing that really matters is what we do with each of these sacred moments.

Picked through

Although I am going away to try and make good on the investment this community has made in me, I can never repay them for all they have done – it was the essence of life itself offered to me, a drink from a chalice that made us all immortal. From Canada to Detroit to MSP to Sin City, I feel like I now travel with an awareness that will never fail me, London watching my every move with a wry smirk. So while Place Hacking may morph into something else over the next few months while I write up, I know it must and I am not afraid – because everything changes.

Keep it in mind

Long live London! Long live curiosity! Explore everything!

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