“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

________________________________

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:

 

Share/Bookmark
Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 comments

The voyeurism isn’t just gawking at the old buildings; it’s gawking at the possibility and the danger of death.
- Kyle Chayka

Momento mori

Detroit’s reputation as a destination for encounters with epic industrial ruins, burned-out residential blocks, dead bodies frozen in ice and hard pipe-hitting thugs ready to elbow you in the face and abscond with your camera gear is internationally gelled in the urban exploration community. When Marc Explo and I started planning our trip to The D, we wanted all that action. But we were also interested in getting beyond stereotypical post-industrial tourism to see what Detroit could offer in terms of live infiltration. Surely, we figured, a city now saddled with a perpetual (and seemingly unshakable) image of crime and desolation wouldn’t mind if we preferred to climb some of their hot new construction projects and wade around in their massive new storm drains. So Marc flew from London, I flew from Las Vegas and we met in the middle of the United States to begin the 2011 Midwest Powerslide.

Powerslide

The queasy feeling in my stomach while I was on the plane to The D told me we were on the right track. I hadn’t seen Marc in 4 months, enraptured as I was by the ceaseless stream of verbiage and audio/visual fornications that were spilling out of my Vegas retreat, where I wrote the bulk of my PhD over the Spring. Truth be told, I was looking forward to seeing the bald Frenchman. As exploration partners, Marc and I seem to create something like a bilateral energy arc that spews sparks of tesla typhoons capable of disabling security cameras and shocking guards into limp-kneed awe. I couldn’t wait to tear the city up with him again and neither of us had ever been to Detroit (minus my failed Canadian road trip nightmare last December which I’ve burned from my memory – a renewed middle finger to the Ontario Provincial Police by the way). After three weeks of scouting in Google Earth for drains, construction projects and derelict industrial areas, unabashedly pillaging leads from the best US explorer blogs and taking a few wild guesses that had the possibility of ending badly, the map we were working off of was so littered with pins for our 4 day trip we could barely see it anymore.

Pin Porn

Our first stop was a no-brainer. Michigan Central Station is one of the largest and most beautiful ruins in North America, an icon of Detroit, even in death, much like Battersea Power Station in London. As Leary writes, Michigan Central Station appears to be a potent symbol of decline and the inevitable cycles of capitalist booms and busts. As a result there is a continual stream of tourists idling their rental cars in front to stare up at the monolith through the barbed wire fence. We sped past them in our red Dodge Charger, parked the car and unceremoniously squeezed through a kicked out piece of plywood under a railway in the back. Sneaking through a network of decaying corridors, we made our way to the main building and started climbing. Up top, we got our first taste of the Detroit skyline, only hours after landing. We were immediately impressed. Later, while we were running around playing on the roof, we were slightly shocked when three other explorers clamoured out of the stairwell and greeted us, two from Paris and one from Melbourne. Later, we tried to entice them to squeeze under a fence into the old school building across the street where they found a body of a homeless man frozen in the ice last Winter but they gave it a miss and we went on without them. George, if you read this, I hope you three had an amazing trip!

Stasis

Seared

Lacking any plans for sleeping (of course!), we decided Michigan Central Station was as good a place as any to kip and rolled out our sleeping bags in the main hall. In the morning, we were greeted by two swaggering kids wielding tall cans of cheap beer and 2x4s who had clearly been drinking until 7am. One of them, stumbling and dragging his weapon as we sat up in quickly our sleeping bags and prepared to tackle him, said he was really sorry to tell us that we didn’t look very homeless. We quickly gathered these kids were cool, just a bit hammered and scared – nevertheless we decided it was high time to pack up and start working on tracing our pins. So we bailed from central station and sped off into the suburbs.

Perspective

Activated

I won’t lie, Detroit was shocking. I have a hard time imagining such an economically depressed city existing in the United States. However, everywhere we went, the people of The D were candid and kind, even in what might be considered the worst neighbourhoods, waving at us as we drove down their street and laughing at us when we explained our mission to hobo our way through the American Midwest for the whole summer. Although I’ll try to avoid celebrating the economic devastation the city has experienced, I have to say I felt the place was sizzling with creative energy that somewhere like Los Angeles could never dream of. Monstrous art projects, weird games, quirky cafes and spontaneous happenings were in abundance. At one point, we even randomly found a house covered in stuffed animals that I found out later was part of Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. That kind of shit is weird and wonderful, the world needs more of it and, well, I just can’t imagining it happening anywhere else in quite that way. I think that’s also the reason why urban exploration has taken off so much in Detroit. Yes, ruins are everywhere, but the city also has a really raw “if you want it, go for it” attitude that I find refreshing. Artistic liberation always seems to flourish where capitalism takes a fatal dive.

Toxic

We knocked out the sites on the outskirts of the city pretty rapidly, finding them satisfyingly sketchy and yet feeling increasingly guilty about our ‘targets’. We knew we wanted to see the remains of Detroit’s automotive empire, I mean, leaving the city without seeing it would have been a travesty, but every place we entered was either very clearly a crack den or homeless shelter, incredibly sombre, or filled with other people wielding cameras and spray cans. Everything was trashed. We took the pictures we wanted to get, saw the places we wanted to see, but I couldn’t help feeling that I just was not that interested in ruins any more. It was clear to me, as it has been for the past few months, that exploration is all about the adrenaline rush for me now, the history of places is an afterthought. It’s part of the inevitable fragmentation of being involved in this practice on a more-than-casual basis. Some of us become graffers, squatters or proper artists. Others settle down and quietly slip away. In any case, I don’t think any of us with any common sense or critical thinking skills can abide the hunger for derelict places and photography for more than a few years, it’s got to evolve into something.

Bones of industry

Shells and husks

What's left

Bereft

Of lust

However, later in the trip, we rolled into a suburb to relocate an abandoned church. Sneaking in through a back door ripped off the hinges, the place appeared to be trashed. My shoulders slumped until we walked up to the first floor and were greeted with this incredible sight. The Woodward Avenue Church brought the energy right back up.

Sacred space

Relocated

We spent the night on top of an abandoned port building called Boblo overlooking the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. Earlier on in the day, in the middle of a pretty rough neighbourhood where we were trying to break into a Leer plant, I fell off a fence and sprained my hand, broke a rib and smacked my head pretty hard on the concrete. It was a stupid move that would haunt me for the next 5 weeks and damn near killed me sleeping on the rocky roof of Boblo Port that night.

Just add water

Wishbone

Passed out

On day three, Marc and I needed an adrenaline shot so we drove downtown and started scoping infiltration locations. One of the first places we had a look at was the Farwell Building and after a pint in the Detroit Beer Co. (we love you guys!). We decided to give it a crack in the middle of the day. The fire escape was a nightmare, some hellish rusty hunk of shit ripping itself out of the brick under it’s own weight. We ran down the alley and scurried up it, having no idea whether it would hold and, if it did, whether we would run into a swarm of crackheads inside once we wiggled through the broken window on the third floor.

Surreal

Instead of crackheads, we were rewarded with a surreal central hall that seemed right on the verge of structural collapse. Checking out the adjoining corridors, I felt a wind blowing through a boarded up door and ripped off the plywood to reveal another fire escape, this one leading to the roof. Up top, when it started pouring rain unexpectedly, I stripped of my clothes and danced in the rain (hey, it had been three days without a shower at this point!). Figuring no one was watching during the shower, a stepped onto the ledge of the roof and stared down at the street. As I did, I saw a woman with a stroller look straight at me as she popped her umbrella. Pointing, she yelled, “Oh my god, that little white boy’s gonna jump!” Two minutes later we heard the sirens coming from every direction and scrambled down the building as the police blocked off the street, waiting for the jumper. As we were hanging off the fire escape, trying to get out of the building before they sent cops up to the roof, a police cruiser stopped at the end of the alley. Marc hissed “freeze!” and we hung, the rusty bolts of the fire escape slowly ripping out of the brick. I knew we were busted. And then, miraculously, the cruiser drove off. I still don’t know whether we were seen and dismissed or whether the cops seriously missed us hanging off that fire escape, but as I stood minutes later with Detroit’s finest staring up at the Farwell Building, waiting for my naked self to jump and listening to the cops laughing about “that twisted tweaker that called it in”, I knew I loved Detroit.

As it turned out, Paul McCartney was playing downtown that night so we had free reign in the city while the cops spent their time directing middle class white people into the stadium and reassuring them there were no Muslims there. We went nuts. At 2am we climbed on top of an Italian restaurant and squeezed though an open window to ascend Broderick Tower, the best view we got of Detroit. It was stunning and really gave us a sense of Detroit as a light, bright, vibrant, beautiful place, in contrast to all the archetypal dereliction we had been seeing.

Veg rock

For the love

It occurred to me at this point, staring out over the city, that Detroit was in fact far from derelict and we had succeeded at breaking the mould. Ruination is, of course, a large component of the urban landscape now after years of corporate corruption, economic destitution and mass population exodus. However, the city remains full of life, events, cool people, great places to go out and a plethora of sites ripe for infiltration that are largely ignored by tight-jeaned camera-toting dereliction fetishists and local explorers unwilling to carve their own path.

Our final stop, in the suburbs on the way out of town, was a massive drain we found in Google Earth. Our friend Aurelie Curie kindly informed us it was called Red Run while we were en route. I loved Red Run and for reasons known only to himself, Marc despised it and refused to photograph it. Upon reflection, after 4 days in Detroit, sleeping in ruins and walking through endless derelict properties (16 in all) in our quest to find something else, we were both probably more than a little frustrated, despite the successes of the Farwell Building and Broderick Tower. Of course, we had also just knocked out 1 city with 5 more to go on the trip, so maybe Explo was just reserving his superpowers for the upcoming win in the Twin Cities. Stay tuned to find out.

Legends

On to Chicago

Our trip to Detroit, for me, exceeded expectations. Of course, the most important aspect of place hacking is the exploration itself and no photograph can adequately identify the origins for Detroit’s contemporary ruination; all it can represent is the spectacular wreckage left behind in the present. Dan Austin, editor of the architecture information site Buildings of Detroit notes that artists and photographers from all over the world have contacted him to act as their guide to Detroit’s ruins, help for quick photo and art projects. He writes that these “parachuters” leave Detroit just as quickly as they arrived, contributing little but to the city’s image of decay. We did what we could to give Detroit a chance to show it’s true colours to us and eventually it did. It’s not a place I could live but I certainly left with a different image of the place than when I arrived. Even though our time there was relatively short, we folded ourselves into the city, exploiting weak points in the urban armour to get into, and then under, the skin. I will always contend this is the best way to actually get to know a place.

The rest of what we found in Detroit, the other stories behind the photos, are of course ours to keep. Perhaps you could pry them out of us over a beer. But if you want to know what The D is about bad enough, like Marc and I did, you will start pinning that map and make your move. Godspeed explorers!

_____________________

The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.
- Epicurus

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 comments

There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.
-Raoul Duke

Intentions

I arrived in Syracuse, NY and escaped as planned in my newly-acquired ’88 Dodge, speeding into the Canadian winter wonderland with every intention of sucking the life out of every moment that I encountered. Dressed in black, masked up, layering my thin California skin against the wrath of Persephone, I had every intention of doing what we do best – turning an idea, absurd, slippery and unmanageable, into resolute action with a resultant outcome of epicness. I know the formula. However, expressed in this way the “idea” is only an ideal problem, which in reality takes on an unsettling and radical complexity. The problem was, perhaps, in the way I had become accustomed to how our band operated; firstly in our interdependency and then in our relative immunity. Crossing the border into Canada, I screamed through like a drunk whirlwind, smoke from a California sage bundle pouring through the windows, blasting leftover dubstep which had fermented in a Tupperware container with the lid taped down so it wouldn’t spill, jumping around in the passenger seat, totally unaware that I was radically out of place. The topographical fractilisation finally evidenced itself when I pulled into Niagara Falls to stare at a tailrace now inaccessible. I have clearly underestimated the impact that seeing the Belly of the Beast sewn shut would have on my explorer constitution. Soberly drinking a very well made whiskey sour, I took a photo of Niagara falls with the other tourists and drove off to park in some farmers crop where I slept in the car, shivering and bored.

Fissure

It occurred to me in a frostbitten hallucination that the photos I took were not flatly captured do to any technical limitation but because of the lack of required investment in either meaningful human exchange at the moment of shutter release nor interesting endeavour toward the moment of acquisition. A determination as to which of these factors was leading to my disillusionment became a primary goal for the trip.

But the fear set in with the realization that the expectant fracturilisation had begun to make it’s move from spatial to psychological.  Mental processes began to take unrecognisable forms which, at times, could only be understood in moments of lucid dreaming or utopic drug visions. My PhD thesis began acting as a gravitational tractor beam, pulling me back to the mother ship as I continued to struggle toward the liberating slavery where my work could be completed in an appropriately manly fashion. This seemingly productive internal feedback loop taking me to ‘work’ however, in this context, led me to a constant sensual disenfranchisement that I had forgotten in London. The pinnacle came in Chatham, Ontario, where the car broke down and I was yanked from it by a thick-necked Canadian with a machine gun who told me I ‘had a mouth on me’. He seized the vehicle, called me in a ‘transient’, and left me standing in sub-zero temperatures with my roly suitcase. It was fucking cold.

Disillusioned

I left the burning, green fluid-spurting car with the police and escaped Canada on a boarder-hopping shuttle full of old people without event. I caught a plane from Detroit. My line of flight to Minnesota was not to be realised and I called Darlinclem from the airport, impossibly bitter. Sweet as ever, she agreed to reschedule our Subterranean Twin City rampage for the summer.

Upon arriving in Las Vegas, the suggested endpoint for my roadtrip that barely happened, it occurred to me that the required to remedy for the situation was some old school Place Hacking. A quick personal database query revealed an aircraft boneyard halfway to LA and I hit the road. Arrival revealed incomprehensible dereliction, dozens of square miles of dead planes, military housing, cinemas, shopping malls and a giant hospital now used for urban military training. All required sneaking around inside the defunct George Air Force Base, now the Southern California Logistics Airport. It felt a lot like an abandoned Soviet military base in Poland. Except for the tumbleweeds and sand. And paintball remnants. Well that and there weren’t statues of Lenin everywhere. I guess they weren’t really that similar.

Warning signs

Not that sneaky

Places

Not that freaky

I was relying on known variables here trying to rip space into time with my subtle knife, creating temporal amalgamations and fresh spatiotemporalexperiential concoctions with salt and lime. My own past was here somewhere, past the Canadian ice sheets and industrial ruins of Detroit, here in a desert full of tumbleweeds, sagebrush, jackrabbits, adobe and agave. This past had to retain it’s juvenile viscerality, that recognition that it’s articulation historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. But the danger coalesced limply. Rather than London riot police attacking me with batons, I found overweight security guards easily converted though commiseration with their existential misery. I kept praying for military police to show up so Silent Motion would descend from a rooftop to take one in the eye with a ninja star while Patch kicked another through a wall with his famous swift boot. Everyone I encountered was so apathetic, they didn’t even care what my mission was, why I was wearing a giant cowboy hat covered in bodhi seeds or for what reason I was photographing their derelict hospital. The contrast between the furiousness of their illusions of control and the lacklustre enforcement of the stated boundaries was nothing short of disheartening. Freedom without boundaries is pointless.

I'm doing this

For no reason

Despite my misgivings, the moments of encounter between the present and the past, experienced through physically exploring abandoned architecture, uncovered that old embodied practice that mirrors the role of the archaeologist assaying surface material without deep excavation to analyse the character a place, as expected. It’s just that I undertook my surface survey of affectation by making connections more topologically than topographically these days. I successfully temporarily inhabited those sites of material history and constructed assemblages of emotional and memorial attachments that melded pluritemporal geographic, historical and experiential imagination, perhaps one day subject to nostalgic romanticism and that was sort of satisfying. But they remained, in my mind, the product of a life left behind, each composition an infantile regression. As such, I revisited those sites of old from my research, a babe suckling a solipsistic personal history missing all my favourite characters.

Still rotting

Despite it all

The only thing, as always, that remained of interest was those impossible-to-ignore topographic characteristics, those moments when I felt London was in the desert in me and that my crew could feel the Mojave through our tingling warder bond. These are the singular incorporeal constellations which belong to natural and human history, and at the same time escape them by a thousand lines of flight. I arrived in the desert where I will write our stories and found that here the radio crackles and hums with talk of evacuation zones and potassium iodide. I’m sitting here picking at my fingernails and refreshing news pages over and over to the faint scent of burning plastic and I’m in Fukushima. It is heavenly in it’s apocalyptic serenity, useless it is ineffectual attempt at human connectivity, terrible in it’s aftermath.

Lines of flight

In the end, it is the decentralization of disruptive energy created by my need to tug my thread into the desert that is causing the angst behind it all. I need it. I know that. At the same time, the media connectivity feeding me streams of information from the home I left, knowing that I am here to produce a theoretical contribution that neither I, or anyone I have come to respect by now cares much about also lingers. But more than that, it is the realisation that the dream of freedom I was taught as a child is a sham. The United States is not the land of the free, it is the land of the subjugated, the apathetic and the weak while the fight rages on in Europe and North Africa for the future world we will inhabit. My throat is dry while the deserts of the Middle East run red with the blood of a desire the population in this derelict desert has forgotten is theirs to take. And so I write.

Feels like this

______________________

Explode Everything

 

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 comments

Man is free at the instant he wants to be.
-Voltaire

Clear light of bliss

Silent Motion rolled up on the East London Greenway at about midnight. Sarah and Maria were with him and he was headed with a determined stride to an old flame. Architecturally speaking of course. The Abbey Mills Pumping Station, recently written about by our friend Paul Dobraszczyk on rag-picking history is indeed a Cathedral of Sewage.

The first empty Redstripe can spiked onto the security fence followed by another empty precariously placed on a ledge waiting for the next little gust of wind to send it spiralling into the River Lea clearly indicated that the Goblinmerchant and Brosa were already inside. But when Silent Motion and the girls rolled up, they found the dejected pair with the rogue Sophie dancing around a fifth of Famous Grouse playing tag with the demons of the night. The window was jammed.

Two hours of death-defying acrobatics followed. We all knew with Silent Motion there we weren’t walking away. The popping sound of the fire exit opening 40 minutes later was consequently rather satisfying, given how miserably cold we all were lying huddled around our empty Grouse bottle drawing straws to see who would be eaten first while we waited for the early-morning train from the Far East back to more respectable South London Boroughs.

Post-apocalyptic imaginaries were abandoned as we walked through the door.

In the presence

Of Bazalgette

Being in such close presence to Joseph Bazalgette, hero of London sewage, urban exploration and architectural aesthetics, was instantly sobering. Standing in the main hall, it become clear that Bazalgette was mad as a hatter when he built this absurd monstrosity of shit-pumpage. But as Jack Kerouac writes in On The Road,

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

We were all on the same team here. It was clear to everyone in attendance that Bazalgette was there too, raving and craving, clawing and lusting, climbing and laughing. We went into a wild Bacchian frenzy. It was movable feast of affectual affordances as twisted Victorian metal was transmuted into swing and ladders, balance beams and gaps to jump. We played limbo under their security gates, we crawled on all fours across half-submerged pipes and used the derelict phone system to call the security hut and tell them they lost the game.

We don't need

To ask for

Permission

_________________________

The truth is that Silent Motion and I needed some time to play. We had been fighting police in the streets, sat in sub-zero kettles, setting fire to the city to keep warm for a month straight as part of the student protests. It felt like life had quickly become so serious. Even urban exploration had taken an ominous turn after other explorers started crying about our A-team exploits. One detractor even labelled our crew “the London can openers” which I quite liked.

Spot the can opener

Our participation in particular types of exploration, our participation in the riots that most explorers chose to ignore while they sad at home madly bashing their keyboards in frustration, our participation in whatever the fuck gets us pumped up is a reminder, however sad, that as Winch has said before, there is no UrbEx community, there are just friends who enjoy hanging out with each other. Some are braver than others. Some explore for the glory, some for the fun. Some walk in the track of others. Some blaze new trails. Some try to make things a little more fun. As Statler says, there are no rules to UrbEx, there’s just where your morals fit and as Sartre once wrote about the philosophy teacher Mathieu, “he could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he thought them into being.”

We needed this night to remind ourselves that this is what we are capable of. Elegance was reaped by bringing along a visitor to London for the weekend to experience a night out that wouldn’t be soon forgotten. We fed on that initial wonder that comes with realizing that yeah, you can just do this.

Let's

Just do this

Being free doesn’t require consent and we don’t need to ask permission to explore, not from the government, other explorers or your mum. No matter how much frustration we brew, how serious our work gets or how intense our lives may become, we are reminded through urban exploration that all it really takes to feel free again is the initiative to walk away from it all and rewrite the rules for a night. Disclaimer? There is none.

Space, despite all allusions and illusions to the contrary, is free.

Beautiful all around

__________________________

The photo of Abbey Mills in 1868 was jacked from Rag Picking History.

The photo of Silent Motion the can opener was kindly provided by Nicholas Adams at Guerilla Photography.

The Red Stripes and Famous Grouse were provided, on discount, by Emron from Pakistan at my corner shop who still wants me to make a documentary about his quest to abandon the family business to become a pilot.

The word were kindly provided by my brain, via my fingers during some sort of synaptic process that still eludes me.

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 comments

“We enjoy thumbing our noses at petty bureaucrats and puerile legislators, and their half-baked attempts to stop us going to the places where we go… places they built with our tax money.”
-Predator, Sydney Cave Clan

Drop in

Watching the US government scramble to patch up the PR damage being done through Julian Assange‘s leak of 250,000 private cables got me thinking more about the political implications of my notion of place hacking. The hacker ethos is clearly aligned to libertarian socialism, at times straddling the intersection between libertarianism on the right and anarchism on the left. This intersection was evident in the hails of praise for Julian Assange from both Anarchists and from Ron Paul, one of the leaders of the US Conservative Tea Party movement.

So when we recently explored a Ministry of Defense nuclear bunker, I could not help but make the connection between the militant existentialist ideology, shared by other groups such as graffiti writers who assert, as Tim Cresswell writes, that “everywhere is free space” and the Wikileaks ethos of populist-enforced democratic transparency which I assume Jim Hightower, the celebrated American liberal populist, must approve of. Both system hacking and urban exploration are about making the invisible visible and technology helps us to force transparency in both virtual and meat space. I created a podunk media flurry in Riverside California, my home town, last summer by sneaking into March Air Reserve Base with my brother Pip and photographing the remains of millions of dollars of government investment rotting in an abandoned military hospital while they planned to spend $80 million to build a new one one the same base during an economic meltdown. It therefore came as little surprise when we cracked this bunker and found equal waste in the UK. Which we of course, in both cases, we loved for the surreal playgrounds they create.

Planning

For transparency

Dsankt writes on Sleepy City that “whether you’re hacking transit systems or computer systems they’re all fissured, all possessing those little cracks just wide enough to wriggle your dirty little fingers into and force to sneak a peek into what lies beneath the shiny smoothed over façade most take for granted every single day”. I have suggested “place hacking” as a phrase which encapsulates the different types of explorations we undertake (urban exploration, infiltration, draining, buildering, unauthorised spelunking, urban adventuring, underground parties, etc.) as well as the more intangible themes of localization of heritage, political subversion, critical spatial practice and “alternative” community construction and identification. But I wasn’t the first. As early as the 1980s, the term “hacking” was applied first to physical space by the Technology Hackers Association at MIT who learnt to pick locks and infiltrated the steam tunnels underneath the university. Students began climbing rooftops on campus, conducting freshman on what is called The Orange Tour. Only later was the term appropriated by the computing community. As Löwgren writes, “the word ‘hack’ was used to refer to… practical jokes or stunts. Its meaning shifted to the technology needed to perform the prank, and later came to mean a clever technical solution in general”.

The 7th entry under the term “hacker” in the New Hacker’s Dictionary defines a hacker as “one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations”, importantly pointing out the physical foundations of the art.

Place

Hackers

We worked for hours into the night, checking the walls for hidden tunnels to gain access to the bunker and crawled out some hours later covered in mud, tumbling in front of two large security cameras. Figuring we had already been seen and praying that no one was watching them, we pushed forward, all scared witless but determined to know what was contained within. Alan Rapp writes in his MA thesis that the practice of urban exploration “provides a tart reminder that the areas that we have regular access to are not just quotidian, but also normative, if not repressive. The patterning that we can infer from the sanctioned environment is absent from the spaces that urban explorers go; they have been deprogrammed”. In the same way the “the techniques dérive and détournement offer the possibility to explore spaces in new ways, and to rearrange existing aesthetic elements into new forms of expression”, urban exploration fits geographer Alistair Bonnett’s description of offering “a new form of geographical investigation that can enable the revolutionary reappropriation of the landscape”.

But while the organization and politicisation of the practice may be novel, a question remains whether the practice itself actually is. Urban exploration, though it looks similar to the dérive, or surrealist parodies, has learned from the successes and failures of preceding critical spatial practices, leading to the creation of a network that is truly horizontally structured, without leadership and completely decentralized, while adopting an opaque public image of apolitical benignity, at times even presented as a type of heroic preservationism. Urban exploration, as a result of this decentralised power structure and well-groomed public image, is political in action but not in assertion, rooted in freedom of personal choice that comes across as what I see increasingly as libertarian in ideology aligned with the work of Wikileaks and individual anarchists. As Marc Explo recently told me on a trespass into the quarries of Paris, “I don’t need anyone to tell me that I am free. I prove that I am free everyday by going wherever I want. If I want to drink wine on top of Notre Dame, I do that, if I want to throw a party underground, I do that.” The impetus to do so becomes even stronger when we feel excluded from the government decision making process that we are paying for. And so, as Marc Explo asserts, where right are not given, they are simply taken.

Information

Not offered

As Bonnett again points out, we tend “…to assign creative spatial behaviour to performance artists and other specialists in provocation.” He writes that he feels these groups somehow owned “the subversive imagination” but on closer inspection sees that “ordinary urban behaviour fairly sizzles with errant activities…” Indeed, as spectacular as urban exploration and infiltration may seem, it’s simply an act of walking, climbing, inspecting and recording, activities which are far from spectacular and certainly do not hold the same glamour that is assigned to the consumption of the records produced by these activities. Organized transgressions against normative daily behaviour, what Oli Mould and I have termed urban subversions are in fact rarely riotous.

Creative resistance may take the form of refusing to move in places where you are expected to, such as in a flash mob event where large groups of coordinated participants freeze in unison in public spaces designed for movement or in rural areas designated private property where groups such as the Ramblers Association of Britain hold yearly ‘Forbidden Britain’ mass trespasses, a simple act of walking somewhere you are not supposed to. Some spatial incursions into places do not even take place physically, such as Trevor Paglen’s visual trespasses onto United States military property through the telephoto lens of a camera, or his more recent work photographing US spy satellites that supposedly do not exist. Like many other activities, urban exploration, while conceptually provocative, is almost dull in practice, with many participants refusing to even acknowledge deeper implications. “Gary” told after reading some of my writing that, “what you do Brad, it’s just words, this doesn’t have anything to do with anything”.  I can’t fault “Gary” for preferring action over words.

Words

Into action

Clearly, in an existential libertarianism framework where “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”, the desire to explore unseen space could be seen as a reaction to a growing existential angst in urban inhabitants. I see place hacking as a proportional response the the closure of the majority of urban space in combination with the blatant and frivolous waste of of tax money constructing structures like secret nuclear fallout bunkers designed to shelter only the corrupt government that created the potential of nuclear attack in the first place. And like Assange, I say hey, keep building that shit, keep wasting our money. In fact, keep trying to patrol and lock it up. We will be right behind you to liberate that space for absurdity and play. Your move.

Just words


This posting is dedicated to the kids who have been protesting to be heard and fighting the police in the streets of London this week. Apathetic generation indeed. Solidarity!

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 30 comments