History is a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance of a thousand different hands. -Raphael Samuel

Art & Artefact

As many Place Hacking readers will know, I have been doing doctoral research on urban exploration for the past three years. With my PhD coming to a close soon, it seems like everything is coming full circle.

I am proud to announce the release of my new article in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Stuart Elden, the editor of the journal, has been very supportive of my work and has agreed to leave the article open access for one month so everyone outside the Ivory Tower can read it. And I hope you will. This article was two years in the making and attempts to address one of the most significant aspects of urban exploration – our engagements with history through the practice.

The Society and Space journal has donated a fair number of its pages this year to urban exploration. In June, they published a piece by Luke Bennett on ‘Bunkerology‘ which Professor Elden has also made open access for the next thirty days. I then wrote a response to Bennett’s paper and he replied. These debates are worth reading in the context of my new paper, as they tell very different stories, ostensibly about the same practice.

The last thing I will mention is that if you head back to my Hobohemia Video Triptych post from July, you will find the video footage from the excursions discussed in the Society and Space paper.


On a final note, thank you again to everyone I have explored with in the past few years. This paper is of course in many ways co-authored with you all and would not have been possible without your enthusiasm, support and friendship. As always, I am honoured to be the scribe for the tribe.

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I am pleased to announce a call for papers for the 2011 Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) annual meeting, 31st August to 2nd September 2011, London, England.

Moving Geographies: Film and Video as Research Method

Organised by
Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Bradley L. Garrett (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Jessica Jacobs (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Sponsored by
Developing Areas Research Group
Participatory Geographies Research Group
Social and Cultural Geography Research Group
Women and Geography Study Group

Geography’s relationship with film, like anthropology, began in earnest in the 1920s when J.B. Noel filmed the Royal Geographical Society-sponsored 1922 ascent of Everest – roughly the same time that anthropologist Robert Flaherty produced Nanook of the North in Canada. Yet while Flaherty’s study of Inuit culture spurred 80 years of anthropological film development into what we now know as the discipline of visual anthropology, the Everest footage was archived and geography instead turned its focus to cinematic analysis.

In recent years, however, partly helped by technological advances offering easier and more direct access to video and production software, geographers across the discipline are beginning to use audio-visual methods in greater numbers. Yet while it is claimed that the geographical analysis of film has ‘come of age’ (Aitken and Dixon 2006) the same cannot yet be said of geography’s theoretical engagement with their value as a research methodology.

This session is looking for contributions from geographers who use film and video as a research method in any capacity, and who are also beginning to critically theorise their contribution to this exciting field. We are interested in the use of video and film in any area of geography and for any reason, whether it is part of a participatory ethnography, a tool for data analysis or activism, or a reflexive exploration of new and creative methodologies. Abstracts that incorporate an interdisciplinary approach will also be welcomed.

Possible contributions to the session could include (but are not limited to):

*Relationships between text and film
*Audio-visual methods and data analysis/collection
*Activist and collaborative filmmaking
*Participatory filmmaking
*Ethnographies of place in film and video
*Psychogeographies and film and video
*Videographic publication
*Situating the geographical film

Selected papers are expected to include a screening of the audio-visual output (max 10 mins). We aim to accommodate longer pieces of work through an exhibitive screening (on a continuous loop) elsewhere at the RGS.

Please submit a title, abstract, and any links to your film/video work to me by January 15th 2011.

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Video and geography

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Tuesday Dec 7, 2010 Under Academia, Cultural Geography, Film, Visual Ethnography

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new article in the journal Progress in Human Geography on video and geography. Thank you to everyone who supported me in writing this article.

I would also like to announce that at next year’s Royal Geographical Society annual conference, I will be running a session with Dr. Katherine Brickell and Dr. Jessica Jacobs on this very topic. More details will be provided as they become available.

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“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.


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.



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.


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.


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!

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I like to just gobble the stuff right out in the street and see what happens, take my chances, just stomp on my own accelerator. It’s like getting on a racing bike and all of a sudden you’re doing 120 miles per hour into a curve that has sand all over it and you think “Holy Jesus, here we go,” and you lay it over till the pegs hit the street and metal starts to spark. If you’re good enough, you can pull it out, but sometimes you end up in the emergency room with some bastard in a white suit sewing your scalp back on.

–Hunter S. Thompson, Playboy Magazine, 1974, discussing drug use as edgework

Keep looking

Edgework was a term first used by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to describe the necessity some people find in pushing boundaries to find fulfillment. The idea is to work as close to the “edge” as one can without getting cut (or at least not too deeply). For Thompson, this meant putting himself in perilous situations such as doing ethnographic research with the notorious Hell’s Angels Biker Gang, ingesting various intoxicants to the point of near overdose or taking drugs of unknown origin in unexpected combinations.

The term edgework was appropriated by the socialist Stephen Lyng as a blanket term for anyone who “actively seeks experiences that involve a high potential for personal injury or death.” In his 1996 article Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking (expanded in 2004 as an edited book), Lyng goes on to explain edgework as a negotiation between “life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, and sanity and insanity”.

Relatively conscious (photo by Otter, Yaz and Goblinmerchant)

It seems to me that most urban explorers not only feel the need to test those limits, but to push them. We find those opportunities in drain systems, where the obvious risk comes from flooding and drowning to abandoned buildings which have both short term (collapse) and long term (respiratory problems, cancer etc.) negative impacts on our bodies. Many urban explorers also frequent high places where falling is always a possibility. In these locations we are free to do our edgework, pushing these boundaries by hanging from cranes, balancing on edges of long drops, precariously tiptoeing over weak floors and scrambling under collapsing roofs.

Edging (image courtesy of nocturn.es)

In wider society, inevitably connected to the concept of “liability”, is the notion that these activities are trangressive. UrbEx, like street art, skateboarding and parkour, is a practice which reappropriates urban space for an unintended or unexpected use that may result in bodily harm and one of the common reactions to people choosing to take unnecessary risks is, of course, suspicion that these people are “out of place”. But as Christopher Stanley has written, “these subcultural events [could] assume the status of resistant practices not in terms of ideology but rather in terms of alternative narratives of dissensus representing possible moments of community.”

Sinking feeling

As Lyng rightly points out later in his article, “risk taking is necessary for the well-being of some people” as individuals work to “develop capacities for competent control over environmental objects” (see Klausner 1968) inspiring edgeworkers to sometimes speak of a feeling of “oneness” with the object or environment while undertaking these risks.

I know that the places where I feel most embedded in the “fabric” are places where I have taken risks. In those places, I have bonded not only with Lyng’s “object and environment” but also with my friends who shared in those risks.

Alternative cathedral use, Paris (image courtesy of Marc Explo)

The desires to explore for the sake of exploring, to take risks for the sake of the experience, with little thought to the “outcome”, is something that runs deep in us when we are children. Urban explorers are, in one sense, rediscovering and forging these feelings of unbridled play, of useless wandering, of trivial conversation and of spontaneous encounter, all of which lead to the creation of very thick bonds between fellow explorers who use play as a way “to de-emphasize the importance of work and consumption and their pervasive monetary components.”

These explorations bond people in an emotive embrace, tendrils of affect conjured by shared fear and excitement, experiences that have become increasingly hard to find in many modern city spaces which Guy Debord argues “eliminate geographical distance only to produce internal separation.”


Despite the ways edgework may be seen as trangressive, the empowering and inspiring process of undertaking edgework is exactly what is lacking from many people’s lives in global cities. Edgework may in this sense be seen  healing rather than severing, a hot blade that melts. Physical human connections through shared experiences of peaked emotions build stronger bonds of community, and I am proud to belong to this tribe of urban bodhisattvas.


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