Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.
- Goethe

Dear British Transport Police,

I hear that in a recent police interview, you produced 91 pages of Place Hacking you had apparently printed out from a high quality laserjet. Firstly, let me just say that I am delighted you used so much toner working toward a better understanding of how urban exploration functions as a critical spatial practice to unveil hidden parts of the city and activate little moments of urban orgasmic wonder in an age rendered increasingly banal by forces of securitisation (no offence intended). We always suspected that only you guys, and maybe some of the TFL track workers, could ever understand the depths of our tube and train fetish. Do you like to stand in tunnels and record clips like this too?

I knew it! So listen guys, just between fellow train pornographers, you arrested some of us on Easter. It was a clean bust, we got a little silly there for a few weeks running around on live lines and everything and you were pretty cool about it. But the thing is, you forced your way into my flat while I wasn’t there and you’ve been holding computers, cameras and hard drives in your offices under some sort of vague “terrorism” authority for 3 months now. I never gave you permission to come in my house and the whole thing, if I’m being frank with you, is beginning to reek of a civil rights violation. Now I’m not trying to be cheeky here but we all know that you understood within 10 minutes of talking to us that we’re just train geeks with expensive cameras. I mean Howard Stern even said we’re like Dungeons and Dragons ubernerds that took our adventures into real life. Which is pretty accurate.

Bigger

Nerds

So given all the cuts going through a wide swath of UK society at the moment, you will understand if I suggest that the funds diverted for this “investigation” are being rather ill-invested. You see, in contrast to, let’s say, Lambrini chav chicks screaming on trains which apparently happens every day, we cause far less trouble for BTP. I mean 98% of the time you didn’t even know we were in there. We were also very forthcoming when you caught us, we played fair. Tell me, have you learned anything new looking through our hard drives full of porn and pictures of trains and cranes? I didn’t think so. And in terms of the acts of “terror” you apparently think we are involved with, well the only terror we inspire is the kind that makes you think about your life and how you’ve wasted it working at a boring office job when you could have been running around in TFL tunnels with that warm, brakedust-laced air swishing around you, getting all in your teeth and jumping over the 3rd rail running from the worktrains at 3am, diving into the Japanese knotweed they never clear up. It’s not any more terrorful than, let’s say yarn bombing or throwing magnetic lights on buildings or skateboarding. Though I suppose you might consider those activities big “social scourges” as well eh?

Let bygones

Be bygones

Look, I am just going to lay it out here for you BTP. We make the city more fun. We do this because we love it, not because we want to make your life difficult. Honestly, it would be better for all parties involved if you just ignored it. We aren’t doing anyone harm. In fact, it could be argued that we actually make the city safer by exposing flaws in your transportation network that a bunch of kids with bulky tripods and backpacks can sneak into – no telling what someone who was really motivated could do. Tell you what, we promise that if we ever see a “terrorist” down there we’ll brain them with a tripod okay? In the end, we are, I am sure you realise at this point, basically model citizens: active, aware, careful, well-dressed and *ahem* well-educated – not to mention the fact we’ve been running citizen patrols in the tunnels we pay to maintain (and pay you to police) for 3 years now without ever asking for a dime!

And so, in the spirit of reconciliation, taking into account all I have outlined above (as well as my many publications on the topic you also undoubtedly printed off on that crisp laserjet and enjoyed with a nice scotch), I have prepared an invoice for the work we have done exposing your network’s security flaws. I will CC another copy to your office but would appreciate prompt payment on this, given you have everything we own and we need to buy some new ropes, harnesses and bolt croppers.

Anyway, I hope you guys are having a good summer. Mine is pretty boring, just writing about all the disused Tube stations we explored and stuff. Cool thing is though, at the end of it I get a PhD. Now that, my friends, is public money well invested! Please let me know if you have any questions.

Sincerely,

The Goblinmerchant

PS. You guys should try exploring everything, it’s awesome!

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For every prohibition you create you also create an underground.
- Jello Baifra (Dead Kennedys)

As urban explorers, we often confine our adventures to those places which are, by and large, empty. That is not to say that other people – drug users, graffiti artist, geocachers, squatters, film crews, security guards or troupes of children looking for imaginative play space – don’t also use what appear to be places largely absent from human presence, but that the places we often explore are not generally utilized as shelter or housing. When we do encounter people, we usually leave with an apology. Fuck that, I say bring on the meld.

Liminal

In our explorations of the ruins of Eastern Europe between 2008 and 2010, myself, Winch, Statler, “Gary” and Silent Motion took guilty pleasure in locating and camping in the remains of the failed Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The experience left us in a distinctly different psychological state than ruin exploration in the United Kingdom. The reverence for actual state failure, rather than imagined post-capitalist social or site-specific industry failure, made our explorations both more poignant and more guilt-ridden. If, as Dylan Trigg writes in The Aesthetics of Decay, a derelict factory testifies to a failed past, what then does the ruin of a failed state say to us?

Failed (Vogelsang, Berlin 2009)

And failing (The Strip, Las Vegas, 2010)

As Dsankt once pointed out to me, there are very few people involved in urban exploration that are economically disadvantaged. Obviously, in order to be able to create the opportunity for these sorts of engagements with the city, one must be secure enough financially and with enough free time that putting in the necessary hours to research and explore sites can be accomplished. More importantly, one also,  as I pointed out above, has to view these spaces as primarily areas for play and creative practice rather than potential housing.

Privileged

As we found in our exploration of economically disadvantaged areas as far away as Poland, our relative affluence became readily apparent. At one point, we were all stunned to find someone living inside the Soviet Military base Vogelsang, dozens of miles in an East German forest. We all mused in the car driving away about whether that person had consciously chosen to live in that hacked up shell of a building in a peaceful forest next to the derelict nuclear launch pads outside Berlin or whether they were, perhaps, running from something. As we set up our temporary camp there the night before, we all discussed how we could just choose to stay as whoever that was did. Winch later wrote that “the fact we could sleep there, build fires and do whatever we liked turned it into an environment that was absolutely ours – the geography of isolation turned it from being a ruin into our ruin.” And isn’t the what place is all about? Did that tramp living there feel the same?

In 1923, Chicago sociologist Nels Anderson and anarchist Ben Reitman developed the general condition of vagrancy, divided into three main classes: bums, tramps and hobos. He writes, a tramp is a man who doesn’t work, who apparently doesn’t want to work, who lives without working and who is constantly travelling. A hobo is a non-skilled, non-employed laborer without money, looking for work. A bum is a man who hangs around a low class saloon and begs or earns a few pennies a day in order to obtain drink. It is an interesting notion that one can have different motivations for being homelessly mobile and where (if?) we exist on that scale, as temporary spatial hijackers. I will return to that later.

Living in ruins, Soviet edition

Living in drain, American edition

As I have found recently in my explorations of the Las Vegas storm drains, we don’t have to travel as far as Poland to see people living in derelict space and infrastructure. As David Runiman writes in the April 2011 issue of the London Review of Books, since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves. Las Vegas unemployment, meanwhile, breaking new records, has been marked at 15% one year ago, it now stands at 13.7%. However, as Joshua Ellis, the writer who runs Zen Archery pointed out to me over coffee last week, those numbers include only those who apply and are accepted for unemployment benefits. He reckons the reality of unemployment (not to mention underemployment) in this dusty city is closer to 25%. Still, amidst the glitz of the strip, constant televisual pundit banter about inevitable economic recovery (Osama is dead, the price of gold is skyrocketing!), not to mention flash weddings of vegan casino moguls, it is hard to argue that economic conditions aren’t “recovering”. Until you slip into Las Vegas drain.

As Matthew O’Brien, author of the book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas writes, the strip, of course, provided a stunning contrast to the storm drain. How could these two worlds so closely co-exist..? Then again, how could they not? In America, poverty always bows at the feet of corporate wealth. The question I find interesting here is whether these people have arrived, following Anderson’s definitions, by choice or circumstance. Matthew is one person who can answer that question.

Intersections

Matthew has spent a good part of the last 10 years exploring the Las Vegas drain system, systems that are not monitored. There are no rules. There are no heroes. And, oh yeah, they can fill a foot per minute with floodwater. Along with Ellis, they were the first to break what has become an international story about the living conditions of over 300 people residing in the drain system here.

More than temporary

When I arrived in Las Vegas, I knew I would not be able to resist my explorer urge to see the drains for myself, but I also wanted to hear the stories from the only two who dared to venture into that system first, having no idea what to expect. What follows is a short interview with Matthew reflecting on the impact of the book and his future plans.

BLG: Given that it has been 5 years since the publication of Beneath the Neon, perhaps you could just give us an update on your work in the Las Vegas storm drains. Are more people living there since the economy tanked? How has the publication of the book affected both you and them?

MO: The main thing that has changed in the drains since Beneath the Neon was published in 2007 is that many of the people living in them have a chance to get out. In March 2009, I founded a community project called Shine a Light, a collaboration with local charity organization HELP of Southern Nevada. Basically, I escort their social workers into the drains and they offer assistance to the people we encounter. In two years of work, they’ve helped hundreds of people with stuff like getting ID and prescription glasses and they’ve actually housed maybe 80 or 90 people. It’s, by far, the best thing to come out of the book and my explorations of the tunnels.

Following on from that, if you could go through the whole experience again, would you change anything? For instance, you mentioned to me previously that you felt a bit reluctant about giving away detailed information on locations and using people’s real names.

There’s little I would change about Beneath the Neon and my experiences in the drains. I mean, there are minor things I would add to or take out of the book, since I feel like I’ve matured as a person and a writer, but it’s who I was and where I was at the time, and I’m cool with that.

In the book, I use only the first names of the people I interviewed and tried to be vague about the location of the tunnels, while giving the reader enough info to hold onto. There are times when I think I should’ve been more vague about the location of the drains, but, really, few people are seeking them out and venturing into them. And those who do—mostly urban explorers and bored teenagers—probably would’ve found the inlets and outlets without my assistance. If you’re determined to find the drains, there are ways to do it.

In the book, you make a few references to urban exploration but it’s obvious that your motivations for exploring the drain, as a journalist, were quite different from the perhaps more selfish motivations of urban explorers. Is there an urban exploration scene in Vegas? If so, do you feel like you are a part of it?

As far as I can tell, there isn’t much of an urban exploring scene in Las Vegas. The city isn’t really suited for it. There aren’t many bridges, abandoned buildings, train tunnels and old interesting ruins here. And the stuff like that that is here tends to be secure and hard to access. (Most property owners in Vegas take trespassing quite seriously.)

There are, however, a lot of stalled, half-built hotel-casino projects on and around the Strip. They would be interesting to explore, I think—viewing the skeletons and innards before they’re concealed by a glitzy facade.

But I’m probably not the man to do it. There’s too much risk (fines, injuries, etc.) and too little reward. Plus, I assume there are no people, besides asshole security guards, in these areas. Part of what made the drains interesting to me is that you could encounter graffiti artists, madmen, public-works employees, squatters and others, which added to the intrigue and context of the setting.

I am very interested in the politics behind Beneath the Neon. This is a hard city to live in, a place with very conservative values that offer little help to those in need. It seems obvious from your book that on some level, the authorities in Las Vegas were quiet happy to have their homeless problem “disappear” underground. Of course, you have now made it all public. Has there been much of a reaction to that from authorities and policy-makers?

There really hasn’t been much of a reaction from local authorities and politicians to the book and the media coverage of the tunnels, which is good and bad, I think. One of my biggest fears was that the police would sweep the people out of the tunnels after the book was published. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. But politicians and city and county employees, as far as I can tell, didn’t try to do anything to help the people, either. That’s part of the reason I founded Shine a Light.

If the Mob was still running the town, I’m sure I would’ve received a none-too-subtle message to drop the subject. But the corporate Mob just seems to ignore the subject entirely.

Finally, tell me about what you are up to now. Are you interested in exploring different types of subterranean spaces in the future such as the London sewers or Paris Catacombs (quarries)?

I recently published another book, which I’m excited about. It’s titled My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas. It’s a collection of creative-nonfiction stories set in off-the-beaten-path Vegas and it includes the original storm-drain stories Josh Ellis and I co-wrote for Las Vegas CityLife. Also, I checked into one of the seedier weekly motels in town (and that’s saying a lot!), stayed a week and wrote a diary about my experiences. I wrote a personal story about living in a historic, past-its-prime apartment complex in the shadow the Strip. Stuff like that.

I am interested in exploring subterranean spaces in other cities, but not necessarily writing about them. I’m a bit of a Vegas specialist, so writing about the drains here made sense. However, I’m probably not as qualified to write extensively about the Shanghai Tunnels of Portland, the catacombs of Rome or the quarries of Paris. They’d just be fun places to visit, as a way to balance out the more touristy stuff. I don’t totally geek out or get off on exploring underground spaces. I’ve just developed an interest in them and urban exploring through my experiences in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas.

Hard knocks

Not shocked

After conducting this interview with Matthew, I showed him a photograph I had taken of a drain next to a notable landmark, a photo which, in our parlance “exposed access details”. He asked me not to publish it. I was heartbroken, given I though the photo had turned out beautifully, but had to defer on the side of Matthew’s sympathy as one who knew intimately about the conditions of living here, rather than my ego as a photographer of the largely unseen and unpopulated. I mean, if I was living in there and some asshole posted the photo of my front door on Place Hacking, I would be pissed. Just kidding, I’d go steal more drinks and wait for the party to erupt.

Space

Invaders

Eschewing

Waders

A larger question here for the urban exploration community lingers; it has always been the elephant in the room. At what point do our exploration cease to be an adventure in creative practice and boundary subversion and begin to impact those less fortunate than us in a negative way? Is urban exploration, in fact, a victimless crime when we disturb people while exploring? And maybe more importantly – at what point might we begin, as Matthew has, to move past urban exploration to begin working for the rights of those less fortunate than us, to use our media influence to actually improve the lives of others? Do we actually care about that, or just about ticking our list of explored locations?

Explored

On the other hand, these people are living in public space (as much as taxpayer funded infrastructure is public space) and most of the people I met so far in drains here could give a shit whether I was walking around in there, they just wanted to know if they could bum a smoke or hit me up for a dollar. Given that our crew has now started squatting space in London, are we really all that different? And if we are bridging the gap between urban explorers and hobos, tramps and bums, following Anderson, what are we? Does that dreaded monstrosity the prohobo – the hobo that chooses to be homeless yet retains the ability to photograph, blog and scam the internet for money as well as picking pockets and robbing Liddle for fixtures to BBQ vegetables looted from the skip actually exist? Is this Donna Haraway’s cyborg, neither nature nor culture, human nor computer,  neither employed nor homeless? Are we becoming as liminal as the spaces we increasingly reside in? Are we finally getting close to the meld? I hope so, cause I can’t wait to pop.

Don't ask

For much

Just desire

And such

In fact, as Matthew spun the stories of encounter in his book, one after another, it became obvious that with a few rare exceptions, most of the people in the drains were there by choice. They had chosen to stop contributing to the system, chosen to gamble their lives away, chosen meth or heroin over family and stability and chosen the freedom and danger of living off the grid, scamming tourists and casinos by silver mining (hunting machines for left over credits). They choose to get high till the day cools off and then crawl out of the drains, all sloppy and hungover, delighted to go dick around in this Mad Max plasticland for another night. In short, many people have chosen this life in Las Vegas Undercity. That is not to say that we shouldn’t offer a helping hand where it’s needed, and bless Matthew for also doing so, but it is to say that maybe pity is wrongly placed here. As Harold, one of the drain dwellers that Matthew encounters says, quite proudly we dwell in the subterranean world, man. We dwell in the subterranean world. Harold goes on to tell Matthew that it was an economic choice, and he is saving mad cash living in the drains. Maybe Harold knows something we don’t, maybe he is braver than us. Maybe homelessness is preferable to the mental vacancy you inhabit at work everyday. The Situationists thought that where material poverty had been eradicated, the biggest threat to life was boredom. Maybe Harold already figured that out and just decided to subvert that whole nightmare before he got there.

Braver

Or just lost

Challenged

Or just tossed?

Perhaps the other side of this issue is a question of why people don’t live in ruins and infrastructure in London and Paris. Perhaps it’s a fundamental difference in economic distribution, social programs or access to charity. Or maybe it’s just a matter of pride or social conformity. In any case, the Las Vegas Undercity, the only feature of Las Vegas that may interest the intrepid urban explorer, is also, consequently, the true face of a city built on nothing but wealth and decadence and doesn’t look a thing like anyplace else. I suppose, in that light, maybe everybody should see the Vegas drains, maybe then they would understand the true cost of this wonderland. I am pretty sure this is a good indication of what happens when we hack the system into an open source OS: here’s your free market fuckers.

As anyone who knows me will testify, I have always had a deep love for Las Vegas, and particularly for the Mojave Desert. But my recent experiences here, seeing the Las Vegas Undercity, has made me want to leave and never return. Nowhere in the United States is the chasm between rich and poor deeper or more upsetting, nowhere is the barbarity of American free market capitalism more evident. But you know, this is just what’s happening out there, in the real world, in real time. If you want to see if it for yourself, or even move yourself in, that’s your call I guess. When Las Vegas is just another Old West ghost town –boom and then bust! – these reinforced concrete boxes will be buried beneath the desert. They’re our preservation areas. Our art galleries. Our time capsules. They’re also our homeless shelters. As for myself, I am going to take the lessons learned here back to London, that’s when this scene is going to get really raw. What an age in which we dwell. Now let’s drill down into the meld.

Snapped

Thanks to Katie Draper and Erika Sigvardsdotter for exploring drains here with me and Joshua Ellis and Matthew O’Brien for making me feel at home in a city full of drugs and scary clowns.

Be Monstrous. Explore Everything.

 


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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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“The city is made and made over into the simulacrum of the body, and the body, in its turn, is transformed, “citified”, urbanized…”
-Elizabeth Grosz, Bodies-Cities

Riding the stream

It’s not often that our explorations are more connected to people than places. However, on a recent trip into the Paris sewer system, we were chasing the ghost of the Parisian eccentric and urban photographer Félix Nadar. For urban explorers in London and Paris, the period between 1850 and 1870, when Nadar was doing his work, is a crucial one. During that time, both of the drain networks were built to the rough configuration in which they remain. This period was pwned by urban planners and engineers like Bazalgette and Haussmann; it was a time of radical urban reconfiguration. Nadar was fascinated by the changes and spent a great deal of time photographing the Paris catacombs and sewers (and taking aerial and erotic photos, but that’s another story), leading many urban explorers to think of Nadar, and his contemporary John Hollingshead in London, as the first drainers. The name Félix Nadar was even a pseudonym – clearly Nadar was part of our crew!

The story of four of us chasing down Nadar’s subterranean haunts last month has already been told by Otter at Silent UK – my particular interest in the man is our affinity with him as an individual interested in the intersections between the city and the body. What I mean to say is: Hollingshead, Nadar and the drainers of the world are cyborgs.

Cyborg drainer

The radical infrastructural urban transformations between 1850 and 1870 were largely due to a massive population spike that led to a Cholera epidemic. Due to long-perceived associations of subterranean space as unhealthy, unclean and evil, citizens held a multitude of beliefs that will engender an obsession with fissures, interstices and imperfect joinings [for] these are the sites of contact through which mephitic exhalations filter out.

Mephetic exhalation

These imperfect joinings, when cracked open, were seen as analogous to a flesh wound, the broken skin now ripe for bidirectional infection, the urban body as host, the city’s innards a ripe contamination zone. John Hollingshead, whilst traversing London’s sewer system in 1861, noted that a piece of ordinary rust or of moist red brick is soon pictured as a trace of blood. The contemporary Canadian urban explorer Michael Cook is also obsessed with these pulsing interstitial nodes, though unlike the Victorians, he sees these cracks as opportunities. Cook writes on his site Vanishing Point that the built environment of the city has always been incomplete, by omission and necessity, and will remain so. Despite the visions of futurists, the work of our planners and cement-layers thankfully remains a fractured and discontinuous whole, an urban field riven with internal margins, pockmarked by decay, underlaid with secret waterways. Stepping outside our prearranged traffic patterns and established destinations, we find a city laced with liminality… We find a thousand vanishing points, each unique, each alive…

Cook’s writing hints at the possibility that the structure of the city doesn’t just “seem” alive, it is alive. If architecture and the built environment is a reflection of what we know, then it comes as no surprise that we have constructed our buildings, our cities, as corporal simulacra. At times, these similarities are rendered in front of even the casual observer. For instance, in J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, Mrs. Steele referred to the high-rise as if it were some kind of huge animate presence, brooding over them… There was something in this feeling — the elevators pumping up and down the long shafts resembled pistons in the chamber of a heart. The residents moving along the corridors were the cells in a network of arteries, the lights in their apartments the neurons of a brain. Mrs. Steele saw from the street in a fleeting glimpse that which is impossible to ignore once you enter urban infrastructure.

Descending into Cook’s ‘vanishing points’, we enter the city’s bloodstream and begin to witness our effects on the urban metabolism, melding body with machine. Mr. Hollingshead, our Victorian London drainer, had such an encounter while venturing into a drain under a house he once owned on the West End. He wrote that he felt as is the power had been granted me of opening a trap-door in my chest, to look upon the long-hidden machinery of my mysterious body. The connection between his own body and the drain that contained the contents of his body is no fortuitous correlation.

Bodily contents

Now, (stick with me here!) if cybernetics is, as Norbert Weiner declared, the revision of information through the exchange of information and the moments of encounter between our bodies and the urban infrastructure alter either physical structure or mental conceptions where “…the body (as a cultural product) transforms, reinscribes the urban landscape according to its changing (demographic, economic, and psychological) needs, extending the limits of the city, the sub-urban, then Matthew Gandy is right to assert that the emphasis of the cyborg on the material interface between the body and the city is perhaps most strikingly manifested in the physical infrastructure that links the human body to vast technological networks.

Older than us, but of us

Victor Hugo also wrote about Paris with the passion of one who had been it it’s bowels, leading him to declare that Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime. Victor Hugo, like us, like Nadar, like Hollingshead was an inner space nanobot, a cyborg surfing the fresh.

Surfing the fresh

Sewers contain a steady stream of biological packets, full of data connecting nodes, throbbing veins, arterial chambers. The data bloodstream, like light-driven information packets, connect cyborgs, hybrid creature[s], composed of organism and machine. Beyond the designation of the cyborganism, it’s defining characteristic being a propensity to slip the net of a world structured by boundaries and enclosures to a world dominated, at every scale, by connections, networks, and flows, is a possibility for transplantation, a symbiotic bilateral exchange of potentiality. Here, the boundaries between the organic and the inorganic, blurred by cybernetic and bio-technologies, seem less sharp; the body, itself invaded and re-shaped by technology, invades and permeates the space outside, even as this space takes on dimensions that themselves confuse the inner and the outer, visually, mentally and physically where “thought-as-imagination’ departs from the actual, dips into the fractal abyss, then actualizes something new. What is it that is new here you ask? Well nothing more than an animation of the inanimate, a tangible hauntology, an acknowledgement that building forms spring out of historical contingencies – but, given enough time, they may create their own form of subjectivity. Drains are material manifestations of our dreams (including nightmares) but also regulators of our physical potentiality and protectors of the realm in glistening armour.

Draining subjectivity

Before the accusations of theoretical posturing ensue, let us reinforce the role of embodiment here, (under)grounding the theory. Bookmarked in each photo we snap are moments of not just conceptual but actual encounters that take place between urban bodies and urban infrastructures, leading to the designation of urban infrastructure as urban body. The result of those bodily encounters is the construction of those webs, flows, and exchanges that create communities, ideas and cyborganisms. The actual hand-wrought work of constructing and deconstructing that fabric reveals a physicality conjoined with virtuality that is anarchic [in it’s] non-identical proliferation, where the everyday urban inhabitant embeds personal investment into the infrastructural networks, inscribing places through place hacking. The city is a reflection then not only of the physical body but of the sprawl and limitations of human consciousness and ability, potential now augmented by the machines we have created. Urban infrastructure, although restricted by capital investment and spatial constraints, is also constrained and fortified by a human imagination of the deepest chaotic order, it’s operation and moments of rupture as fragmented as urbanity itself. If only we could imagine alien body infrastructure concocted under the influence of Burroughs’ Mugwump juice, then the monstrous resultant fragmentation might finally lead to the schizophrenia we need to proceed.

Elizabeth Grosz argued, in 1996, that computers would change the way the city was structured as we built infrastructural systems not modelled upon machinery but upon virtual systems. However, were not both mechanical functions (compare the piston and valves of the heart) and cybernetic circuitry (the CPU as brain) both modelled on the body? Does not the evolution of those artificial bodies influence our biological bodies (for instance, consider the effect of indoor plumbing on the body)? Does the beautiful conjunction of those bodies and spaces, industrial machines as appendages, computer hardware as corporal augmentation, not create new hybrid bodies which will influence the infrastructure of cities? Will those imperfect joinings that the Victorians feared infect and augment through their mephetic exhalation as promised? If Grosz is right, then the body’s limbs and organs will become interchangeable parts with the computer and with the technologicalization of production.

Bloodstream nanobots

The Paris catacombs are perhaps the best Western example of the meld to be expected – a place where humanity has become intricately interwoven into the subterranean infrastructural fabric. Paris culture would undoubtedly suffer with loss of access to those spaces, a co-addictive symbiotic relationship has been built there. The KTAs are proof that just as virtual social systems can be maintained by the multitude, so can physical space. The symbioses is even more profound in places like India where infrastructural space is living space, in Poland where we saw people moving into military ruins or in Cambodia where people are living in graves. Despite arguments of  deterritorialisation, the visual, aural, sensual representations created on explorations and residencies in those spaces creates a new emotional cache which can be tapped into for myth-making practices, practical application such as sabotage and, increasingly, simple imaginative stimuli that reterritorialise those spaces with a potential that feeds not only physical constructions but imaginations. As a result, the virtual and physical aspects of urban exploration are inseparable as one network depends on the other. Urban exploration, despite it’s weavings into the mythologies of the sublime, is not an escape from nor a transcendence of the physical, but a challenge to the very boundaries of substance dualisms.

Investment

The city is more like a sponge than a solid mass of paved streets and architecture, more like a body than a machine. There are sinkholes; the surface is porous. The conductive material urban fabric facilitates an emotional flow, the bloodstream becoming a conduit for sublime affectual registers in immeasurable doses. Overdose always being a possibility, we teeter on the brink, doing our edgework. We leave horribly hung over and come back again and again, our tolerance for exposure to the pain of the cyborg meld growing each time, our possibility for transcendence growing with each descent.

But what of the opposite exchange on the symbiosis? Returning to our colleague Félix Nadar – how did his photographs influence the function, form and representations of that Parisian bloodstream? How do the technological accelerations that allow myself, Winch, Otter, Marc Explo and countless other explorers to recreate Nadar’s work and spin replicative experiential simulacra, in distinct imbricating temporal iterations, begin to mutate those systems? We know it to be true and this is where the accusations of urban exploration being primarily a spectator sport fall flat. Urban exploration can never be purely representational or apolitical. Our work, just like those drainers of 150 years ago, create open systems where they once were closed. Urban explorers reveal the framework and recode the urban landscape daily. Drainers reveal not only the cracks and gaps that exist through the representations they produce but expand those cracks and gaps through repeated exploitation and exploration. Urban exploration and draining realises potentials for cyborgian conceptions of the city to emphasize the continuing political salience of the public realm. Predator’s call for public access to public works is a call for open source urban coding. Where the environment is written in closed code, we’ll hack it until it’s open source again.

Where do we go from here? If we think of urban infrastructure as a tangible network of cybernetic organs, we must then assume the evolution of the information city to be, increasingly, a body without organs, a cloud-computing bot. Inevitably then, if form follows function, human bodies will shed organs just as the city inevitably will. Instead of injecting ourselves into the bloodstream, we will collapse the veins, and our synthetic dreams, rather than our synthetic physicalities, will become the new sites of exploration. We must prepare to kill our darlings.

It's still sublime isn't it?

It is time. Explore everything. Blow the veins.

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