“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Inspired by Italian writer Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities”, on the 40th anniversary of its publication, this BBC 3 Between the Ears explores the hidden, fantastical and surreal stories caught between the cracks of the modern city.
With contributions from writers, urban explorers and mapmakers we explore the imaginative possibilities held within cities, their secret folds. How does the layout of a city’s streets, underground passages and the glittering spires of its skyscrapers capture our desires, our fears and our memories?
From the ghosts contained in a cavernous lost property office deep underground to the view from the top of an abandoned warehouse – what impression does the structure of a city leave on its inhabitants?
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!
After gaining notoriety for scaling the Shard, now Europe’s tallest building, we now present a selection of alternative views from within the city’s structure. The results of our nocturnal urban adventures, these beautiful and unique perspectives showcase the many sights of their infiltrations, the curiosities of a complex and growing organism.
Please come along for the opening night on the 10th of May with free drinks from Jeremiah Weed! Chaos will surely follow. If you can’t make the opener then you still have a chance to catch us – we’ll be on display until the 27th.The Facebook page is located here.
“The sensual mysticism of entire vertical being.” -E.E. Cummings
As of December 2011, the Shard claimed the title of ‘tallest building in the European Union’, stretching 310 meters into the clouds from London Bridge. It has also been said that is it the most secure site in the city outside of the 2012 Olympic Park. I have never measured the building so I can’t testify to the validity of the first claim but I’m happy to respond to the second, as usual.
It was a crisp night outside London Bridge station. It was still but our breath curled in the 2am air. Marc Explo and I were standing on a temporary wooden walkway looking through a viewing window into the ground level construction yard of the largest skyscraper in Europe. “Gary” walked up behind us and, with a hand on each of our shoulders, also peered through. “One security guard looking after the Shard huh?” We chuckled. We waited for the guard to finish his current round and go into his hut. It took a few minutes of lingering before the walkway was clear of people – we grabbed onto the scaffolding pipes and swung off the bridge. Hanging on the freezing pipes, we pulled ourselves on top of the walkway and laid down out of view, waiting for a reaction in case anyone had seen or heard us. It didn’t seem so.
Staying low, we then descended the other side of the scaffolding, right behind the security hut where we could see the guard watching TV, not the cameras. Quickly, we scampered across the yard and found the central stair case, again pausing to see if there was any reaction from the yard, phones ringing or doors opening. It was silent.
First we took the stairs two at a time. All three of us were in pretty good shape and could do 25 or 30 floors like that. But by the 31st floor, I was sweating heavily. Knowing that the sweat would sting when we emerged onto the roof, I tried to pace myself and breathe. By floor 50, my calves burned horribly and I was having to stop every once and a while to let them pulse a bit and untighten.
At floor 70 the cement stairs turned into metal ones, indicating we were near the top. I was ecstatic. A final burst of enthusiasm took us from metal stairs to wooden ladders. We threw open one last hatch and found ourselves on top of the Shard at 76 stories.
As I climbed up on the counterweight of the crane, my breath caught. It was a combination of the icy wind and the sheer scale of the endeavor that shocked me. Marc was looking down at London Bridge station and whispered, “the train lines going into London Bridge look like the Thames, it’s all flow.” Slowly, I pulled myself to the end of the counter weight and peered over the edge. Indeed, we were so high, I couldn’t see anything moving at street level. No buses, no cars, just rows of lights and train lines that looked like converging river systems, a giant urban circuit board.
We found the cab of the crane open and slipped inside. “Gary” pointed to a green button on the control panel and said “watch this, I’m going to build the Shard!” pretending to press the button.
We only lasted about half an hour on top before our muscles were seizing up and we were actually yearning for the stair climb down. Which is always much easier than coming up.
Later, standing next to the Thames, staring up at the little red light blinking on top of the crane, it seemed unimaginable that I had my hands on it just hours earlier. Ever after, whenever I see the Shard from anywhere in the city, I can’t help but smile. Unlike when I was up there, shaking with fear taking this self-portrait. You’ve got two months to get yours before the tower tops out. Act before you think.
“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.