“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
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.
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.
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.
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.