“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?

The programme features myself, Rebecca Solnit, Anna Minton, Denis Wood and PD Smith and was produced by Eleanor McDowall.

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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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Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and nights. But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge. You would know in words that which you have always known in thought. You would touch with your fingers the naked body of your dreams.
The Prophet

Urban dreams

Part I

Desire was everywhere when we stepped of the plane at Charles de Gaulle. We nipped and yelped, scurrying into the city wearing rags and muddied bags, dragging tripods down the walls of Métro tunnels like Freddy Krueger. The thirst, after weeks of depraved scholarship, endless perverted workdays and inert meetings over coffee, had concretised into the force of a tsunami. The wave broke at times around tall objects, splitting and climbing for a moment before splashing down again in a liquid slump of ecstasy. At other junctions, it snaked into infrastructural gaps too small for bodies. We followed the water to find the glitches in the system, trying out various keys and tools for which the original intended purpose was never understood, lost artefacts from another time, rediscovered by our nomadic band of forgotten disciples. We bled and drank, crawling into our sleeping bags when we could smell the bread baking, the delicious olfactory beacon warning us the City of Light had switched on for the day.

Depraved

Everyday life is a life lived on the level of surging affects, impacts suffered or barely avoided. It takes everything we have. But it also spawns a series of little somethings dreamed up in the course of things. Exploited, those affects, glitches, errors in lines of code, paired to the desires to find them, become the preeminent domain of the urban explorer, the skateboarder, the street artist and all children while they are still conscious, before society rapes them into submission, huddled in the corner of an overcrowded classroom where they are forced to recite the national anthem over and over again.

Desire wasn’t purchased, nor did we try to sell it. At the same time, it was a profitable endeavour, an investment in the communication of the incommunicable, a necessary departure from direct economic production. Urbanity is codified by a set of rules which creates spirals of economic ‘prosperity’, where relentless velocity must be maintained to preserve the perpetual accumulation of wealth, resources and labour. The result is a system which reproduces itself in ceaseless iterations like a demonic fractal art project, even (or even especially) when those accumulations are superfluous or unnecessary, until it pops.

Juxtapositions

The result? An endless stacked stratigraphy of miscommunications, abortions and aberrations, interminable confusion about what could and should have been, sparkling smiles as the successful accumulation is directed into personal coffers, suicide from bridges where it does not. What sprawls all around us everyday, whether we are in London, Milan, Paris or Los Angeles is a capitalist monstrosity that regrows heads as you slice them off. Our only advantage against this unkillable and utterly beautiful beast is its immensity, for it is this very horrific attribute that allows us to run underneath unnoticed while it spews poison in the Siene.

Endlessly fractal

Part II

“Ah! Paris! What a beautiful city, don’t you think?”
“I don’t give a shit, what I wanted to do was ride the Métro.”
-Zazie dans le métro

Rails

At its best, capitalism encourages a kind of generalised schizophrenia, a shatteringly intense fracturing of subjectivity. On the other hand, to survive it has to contain these effects through oppressive fictions like the nuclear family and psychiatry, which attempt to ‘reterritorialise’ desire: to put it safely back inside the home and to keep it there. Night after night in Paris, on this trip and others, we took the secret desires from home and mind into streets and practice. While the Marxists sit in Starbucks with their coffees crying for the overthrow of the system and the anarchists fight each other in squats, condemning comrades as sexists and fascists, we create desire. We are coercive machines that produce breaks and mobilise flows, nude in sewers, hanging from cranes, in love with the endless accelerations of material layering that keep cracking open underneath the weight of 6,869,652,772 human bodies.

We are the result of inevitable urbanic schizophrenia. While the dragon spews its poison, wagged by its own tail, we urinate on its leg, chuckling as our playfulness conjoins deterritorialised resources and temporarily appropriates the surplus from their reterritorialised conjunctions in nice little packages of pixels to print and mount illegally in the New York Metro. To each moment, we cling with all our heart, knowing it is unique and irreplaceable – and yet we wouldn’t lift a finger to prevent it from being annihilated.

Insert human here

As Dsankt told me while we wobbled toward each other in some subterranean dungeon, until you get over that initial dereliction fetish and prepare to let all things come and go, you haven’t found it yet. So as each sparkling moment expands toward the implosion we all know is coming, we feed the system. And when the engorged stomach lining finally tears, we will climb inside it’s dead body like Luke Skywalker penetrating his gutted Ton-ton and become enlightened.

Glitch

Each epoch not only dreams the next, but also, in dreaming, strives toward the moment of waking. It bears its end in itself and unfolds it with ruse. In the convulsions of the commodity economy we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled. Now that it’s all over and I am back here stewing in my own filth writing this PhD thesis in a nostalgic dispassionate embrace, only one thing is certain: the spiral will start churning again; the unstoppable desire to take our love to the streets will build, little seeds of speculation will begin to sprout, phone calls will be made. And we will go again to slide into urbanity’s womb and fertilise unfathomable nightmares born from the passion of those tiny glimpses we are all so apt to ignore. We will play, in this form and others, in imaginative permutations of superhumanity that don’t yet exist, again and again, until we are dead.

When it's over

_______________________________

A thousand blessings to Marc Explo, our tireless host. Thank you also to Winch and Otter for your brotherly companionship all weekend and to Olivier, Kat, Dsankt and Mrs. Dsankt for the wonderful dinner and champagne, delightful conversation and company as we climbed through sewage to get to a bridge.

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Millenium Mills

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Monday Nov 15, 2010 Under Academia, Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Freedom, Poetry, Ruins, Spatial Politics

With Ruins
Li-Young Lee

Choose a quiet place, a ruin,
a house no more a house,
under whose stone archway I stood
one day to duck the rain.

The roofless floor, vertical
studs, eight wood columns
supporting nothing,
two staircases careening to nowhere,
all make it seem

a sketch, notes to a house, a three-
dimensional grid negotiating
absences, an idea
receding into indefinite rain,

or else that idea
emerging, skeletal
against the hammered sky, a
human thing, scoured seen clean
through from here to an iron heaven.

A place where things
were said and done,
there you can remember
what you need to remember.
Melancholy is useful. Bring yours.

There are no neighbors to wonder
who you are,
what you might me doing
walking there,
stopping now and then

to touch a crumbling brick
or stand in a doorway
framed by the day.
No one has to know you
thing of another doorway

that framed the rain or news of war
depending on which way you faced.
You think of sea-roads and earth-roads
you traveled once, and always
in the same direction: away.

You think
of a woman, a favorite
dress, your old father’s breasts
the last time you saw him, his breath,
brief, the leaf

you’ve torn from a vine and which you hold now
to your cheek like a train ticket
or a piece of cloth, a little hand or a blade -
it all depends
on the course of your memory.

It’s a place
for those who own no place
to correspond to ruins in the soul.
It’s mine.
It’s all yours.

___________________

For Toby Butler

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The Aesthetics of Decay

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Tuesday Nov 2, 2010 Under Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Film, Poetry, Urban Exploration

Not mute

Some places are afforded more time than others. Time to celebrate a vivacious existence, an existence full of dinner parties, lonely nights in front of the telly, broken-hearted phone calls and pre-dawn stumbles home after drinks with friends. Walking down this anonymous street, you might have passed right by this place, unaware that beyond these inside this crumbling shell, memories reside in empty corridors and small artefacts left behind, memories that don’t have much time left to ferment, wrecking balls swinging in.

Unexpected

Reward

Some places are afforded more time than others. Time to sit empty, festering, mouldering and decaying, falling into a state of perceived isolation. But, if you were to be brave enough to walk through these doors, you would find that the stories of this forgotten place still pulse with sad life. Green shoots break through cement floors, committing atrocities against human ingenuity. Rust eats away at handrails in violent invisible chemical reactions. Children’s toys, once cherished, left in a heap, small cries emanating from their plastic lips. Coat hangers sit empty, the ghostly bodies that required their presence still lurking in these dankly lit corridors. Love affairs that once took place here continue, unsolicited, uninvited, their solicitous sensuality now bathed in a coat of plaster dust knocked loose by rapid departures.

Evidence

To wit

Some places are afforded more time than others. Time to put nervous sweaty flesh on lipstick-stained mugs that look like they smell of morning cigarettes, to try on shoes embedded with the flat-arched imprint of a size 9.5, to sniff a container of seasoning for food long overgrown with furry moulds. Small altar offerings of blank CDs and cassette tapes to gods left behind testify to corporeal engagement with the materiality of this place, to lives lived, altars to human transience. This little Pompeii, now reduced to dust, preserved only on film and in memory, is a tourist attraction for the iniquitous and the inimitably curious.

Unsatiated

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