The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.
In association with
The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.
In association with
“Revolutionary movements to not spread by contamination but by resonance.” – The Invisible Committee
There is one primary reason why the London Consolidation Crew has been so successful. Group dynamics. When the urban exploration scene in London started heating up in the past few years, we went through some growing pains as a crew: people getting left behind, bad publicity, jealousy, bad luck that led to busts. But we came out the other side and the result is that we are now more efficient and cohesive than ever. The stuff we’re doing now looks different than our 2010/2011 tube onslaught, but it’s no less ambitious.
We get messages constantly from people wanting to get involved – I guess it’s obvious how much fun we’re having! We appreciate that – please continue commenting and emailing, it’s good encouragement to keep us out there climbing skyscrapers in subzero temperatures, sinking anchors into walls at 4am and hiding from Metro drivers in Paris while we run the tracks. But we don’t do these things simply to entertain you sitting in front of your computer screen at home. We want to inspire you to build your own group of explorers and start cracking the place you reside. You don’t need us, you just need a couple of solid mates and a bit of overflowing angst or desire. Easy.
Eventually you may want to hit some bigger targets. In regards to group dynamics of a growing crew, here’s a lesson we’ve learned. Urban exploration is often perceived as a relatively solitary activity, something that we accomplish on the back of research, scoping, surveillance and execution in small groups. But in reality, the urban exploration crews that get the most high profile locations done (Holy Grails) are the ones that operate not on an ethic of one-upmanship but as a group – the Cave Clan learned this a long time ago and QX, Dsankt and Sergeant Marshall proved it again when they demolished the Paris Métro a few years back as a loose infiltration collective. And while it’s true that the UK “scene” is, as Siologen says “all fucked up and weirdly political”, more fragmented than the current US Republican Party, our London crew is one of the tightest knit groups out there right now. Save one.
“Many such subterranean places are said to be found in Minnesota.”
– Fredrika Bremer
I woke up in a basement at Shotgun Mario’s house surrounded by a massive pile of drippy waders, clutching a glass that was recently full of John and Becca’s heavenly homebrew ale on tap in the next room. I scratched my head and a host of sand particles dislodged themselves and sprinkled into my glass, salting my sleeping bag. My eyes hurt. Witek was drooling on a pillow next to me dreaming of train engines and Marc Explo, as usual, was naked in his sleeping bag snoring like a baby. I stumble upstairs and Mario is on the phone, editing maps and listening to heaving dubstep simultaneously. He looks eager and I’m pretty sure, after being here for 24 hours or so, he doesn’t sleep at all. We all slowly made our way over to DarlinClem’s and her pad was full of even more explorers, including Moses Gates, whom I had wanted to meet for years. It was all happening – we had finally made it to Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP). It was a stupendous welcome party at DarlinClem’s the night before and now it was time to get busy – the crew had assured us they were going to put us to work before we arrived and Marc wanted to dig.
The reason MSP is our favorite sister crew, and arguably the world’s most famous UE collective, is not just because they party in sewers wearing spandex and swigging champagne. Nor is it just because they stage mass boat infiltrations in drains. It also isn’t just because they throw awesome illegal parties. It’s because they’re a huge, solid group of exceptional explorers that have accomplished an unimaginable amount in their city and love it as much as we love London. We have a lesson to learn from MSP where rinsing the city of locations didn’t stop them – it simply caused them to start thinking even more critically about what was possible, spinning off iterations of playful urban interaction through a relentless desire for more. They work through doldrums and always re-emerge into a new Golden Age. Just as we are doing now. That, I argue, is no coincidence.
In short, the crew in MSP constantly rework the city through desire – a rather fluid proposition; desire is radically intransitive, not a thing in itself but that which enables us to desire. Both our crews are consumers and producers of that serotonin seepage, in the same way we might manufacture fear to increase adrenaline levels while exploring, in the same way I have helped manufacture the LCC, in the same way we take the bait to be the only one ever to drive a Mail Rail train. Urban exploration, while it may be viewed externally as a transgressive tactic, working to undermine closed systems, is also full of moments of comprehensive engagement with social life, triggering neural flashes where the husk of alienation is shed to reveal fruits of collective activity. The level of organisation, time and effort invested and sheer brilliance of group efforts and accomplishment (the fruit) in MSP is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Their consistent discoveries, especially in the fertile, porous, excavatable subterranean sandstone environment, reveal them to be the global rockstars of our little pastime.
Rewind to a revelation Winch came to last year when he told a herd of us in the Paris Sewers, “there are only two types of barriers we face – the physical, which we have little problem with now, and the social. Social barriers can be overcome too, we just have to hone our skill.” The kids in MSP are pros at this. In Chicago, when we set our sights on doing a live infiltration of the Legacy Tower, Shotgun Mario and Tony walked in with our group of 8 and pulled aside security with an errant question while we followed a resident to the lifts and made our way to the roof. Mario and Tony sacrificed their personal enjoyment for the benefit of the group. No one has gotten up there since. In our most successful infiltrations of the London Underground, we often had somebody “on top” to keep an eye our our access point, ferry ropes and distract civilians, both LutEx and Dicky have played that important part on major missions. This is an essential role in any successful infiltration crew.
As Marc Explo suggested to me, place hacking is perfectly complimented by mind-hacking techniques by people such as Derren Brown (cheers to Katie Draper for introducing us to that sociopath). While we have subverted almost every type of physical barrier possible, we have largely failed to attempt to alter people’s perceptions of situations (the psychology hack). Which in many cases is easier, such as convincing hotel staff that you have lost your room key and need to get your stuff from the pool rather than sleeping on the roof and abseiling to the pool at 2am. So here was our second lesson learned from MSP – walk the shit and talk it, use all the tools at your disposal.
Time for me to assert my favorite trope! Urban exploration is a place hack. Both virtual hacking and place hacking are elective procedures of participation in otherwise closed objects (proprietary cyberspace or off-limits architecture). In the same way hackers wouldn’t use a DDoS attack to achieve every goal, we also have a range of tactics, both distal (visual representations, smoke screening, misinformation campaigns) and proximal (sneaking, social engineering, brute force) at our disposal to hack our way into and rewrite places so that they feed into our manufactured identities (undercutting imposed identities). The explorer, by stratigically applying a fuller range of tactics, multiplies stories of places to create myths, dreams and visions of a present moment of possibility available to those harbouring desires to make them manifest. Once those stories are rewritten, they can then be restacked to add weight, contributing toward the collective breaking point. If we consider hacking as a constant arms race between those with the knowledge and power to erect barriers and those with the equal power, knowledge and especially desire, to disarm them, it is a logical step to begin considering ways beyond sneakiness and brute force to disarm closed architecture. Take for instance the following photos. There is only one way to get them and it had nothing to do with being sneaking past security or brutalising a keycode panel. It was a Trojan horse attack, plain and simple.
Just as the hacker ethic cannot be simplistically reified, categorised or bounded, neither can explorers themselves. While I may point to an overarching impetus behind exploration as I see it, and bound explorers according to primary friendship groups or geographic location for analytical convenience, it is problematic to attempt to define a coordinated explorer ethos; individuals simply follow their desires, do their own edgework. But in a (loosely) coordinated group, individual desires can be channeled into the collective. Exemplar are the infamous Futtslutts Thelma and Towanda of MSP. These two don’t explore by anybody’s rules. They are, by and far, two of the most accomplished and daring explorers anywhere. Their courage incited Marc Explo and I to charge headlong into a tiny stoop filled with raw, black sewage like molasses, packed with cobwebs and little white subterranean spiders, fending them off with a stick and a bottle of Uncle Andre until the fumes almost took us down for good. It was a hot moment. But also, through their radically impractical assault on that poo den, another tunnel was crossed off the list. Individual desire fed into group accomplishment.
With larger groups also comes increasing specialisation. Where the Futtlslutts may form a frontline assault, Mario is behind the scenes drawing up plans, Tony is in a tie opening places easier than a ninja, Slim Jim is mapping every inch of the process with exacting detail and Clem is the glue holding it all together. It was inspiring watching the team go to work on a problem and it’s something we brought back with us from MSP. I think it has helped the LCC gel even more, taking us again back to my initial observations. Urban exploration is a team sport, straight up. If your team sucks, you’re not going to nab a Grail. And seriously folks, drop the politics, when you find someone out there in the world operating alone who brings something exceptional to the team, they deserve your respect and should be brought into the fold.
Our process in London of increasingly trying to work social angles, as a group, was partially inspired by what we saw in MSP at the end of our summer of mayhem. Exploration is about doing exceptional things that challenge and provoke us day after day with a community of close friends; it’s not just the places or the process of exploration that makes this worth doing – it’s the friendships behind it. So in terms of the emails we keep getting, thanks again for those but we’d rather you make move from talking about what could or should be done, pitching possibilities and asking for help pulling your group together and creating those possibilities. We, like the crew in MSP, undertook the research to find out what had been lost to time and then went out and found it in the world – real work that took place with our hands, bodies and minds as a community we built together. As “Gary” once said to me “if you’re in, you’re in, you can’t fake this.” And for diving in head first we earned an invite to visit a crew older than us that we respected immensely. So what now? Well friends, a global community reformation is taking place in front of your eyes. So if you’re ready to give up faking it and start making it, join us.
Thank you to everyone in MSP who let us stay on your coaches and floors, fed us fine food and ales and for showing us the wonders of your city – it was spectacular! With the 2012 International Drain Meet coming up soon, I look forward to seeing many of you again.
By the way, you were always our favorite, just don’t tell the others.
This seems a fine time to mention that the London Consolidation Crew, in collaboration with the MSP Hard Hitters, are going to drop a massive media bomb tomorrow. Keep an eye Silent UK and Place Hacking and wait to feel the shrapnel spray into your retina.
Sewers are perhaps the most enigmatic of urban infrastructures. Most citizens of modern cities are aware of their existence, yet few could accurately describe their layout or appearance.
Above me, the heavy round metal doors into this underworld shake with a pinging metallic scream that reverbs down these watery tunnels, slowly fading into a seemingly endless succession of dull thuds that migrate down the street above us, some racing black cab speeding a jilted lover home from the pub after the last trains have stopped running. This overworld scenario interests me far more interpreted from below the undercarraige of the cab, little bits of shit-sticky mud dislodging themselves from the freshly-pried manhole cover edges, plopping onto my bald head. Cue a shuddering shake, aural spell broken.
Water races around my feet faster than the cab, pinning my waders in a strange plastic comfort to my legs, little bits of used toilet paper and raw sewage which we lovingly call “the fresh” blocked by my PVC barrier, pushing around me angrily in an effort to make it down this old river and into the Thames like salmon swimming not toward their spawning ground but the river Styx where the boat will sink halfway across and they will float lazily to the bottom, never to move again. As drainers, we learn to love the waste just as we learn to love the trash left behind in the streets of London at 4am on a Friday night. It is the detritus of passion passion for life that staves off our impending deaths, as Michael Dibdin writes in Cosi Fan Tutti:
This place reeks of mortality.
I thought it reeked of rancid oil and bad drains.
It comes to the same thing in the end.
At some point in London’s Victorian Age, the separation between “river” and “sewer” became blurred. Technically, I am standing in the River Westbourne which no one but sewer workers and daring drainers have seen for a hundred and fifty years. Despite the fact that no one has drank the water from this river since the 1400s, it remains a vital waterway of this city, a throbbing vein of live humanness, rushing underneath our unknowing feet as we run to work on the pavement above. Seeing it is a reminder that, as Gay Hawkins writes, “our rituals of cleansing and disposal are enfolded with this landscape, our personal secrets are implicated in the public secret of sanitation.” This misadventure into the bureau of public secrets is the newest in our chain of London infiltrations, our most recent attempts to make sure that this city is documented from every possible angle through experience, fear and love. Just as I wouldn’t wipe the ass of somebody else’s baby, only London’s sewers interest me.
We view the stigma of what is flushes on these journeys both literally and socially. Our preferred mode of access to these hidden waterways is hiding in plain sight and the classism of London society works in our favour, with both police and the public ignoring everyone dressed in high-vis and a hard hat, benign foreign workers who make their living in places where no “respectable” Londoner would ever step foot. Our team of 4 digs into their toolbelts of large screwdriver, t-shaped keys and crowbars to break the seals into underdiscovered territory, finding what the city forgot existed, our brazen crew seemingly as hidden as this river when we actually look like we work for a living.
The addiction to infiltration does not lay in the adrenaline rush of the experience. Infiltration creates unwieldy complications, difficult mental junctions and moments of crises that confuse, inspire and complicate our existence. My second identity as the underclass, the role that I play to gain access to urban secrets, is slowly becoming my primary identity. My clothing, my language, my social class, all now defined by my behaviour “on the job.” Leaving this tunnel late on this night (early the next morning?), we were greeted by “real” workers at a tube station who tossed slight nods our direction, eyeing us with confused interest, suspicion, respect and likely some revulsion given we were covered in underground wetness that smelled even worse than the rank pub toilet across the street.
We have been systematically exploring London’s subterranean features for the last few months, cracking every stormdrain, abandoned railway, cable tunnel and sewer we can find in the city – elements of this urban environment that Steven Smith, in his book Underground London, calls “London’s best kept secrets.” We know why. Not only are they some of the most beautiful and surreal places in the city, they are also the most foul.
The sewer is a place for alterier cartography, a place where no one may reside but where one can pass through, cameras capturing endless angles of the oldly new, remapping our mental conceptions of where the verticality of the city begins and ends. Our embodied experiences move like the stinking water, shifting from one chamber to the next, chalk marks on walls marking our way home, level after level of underground run-off continually sinking into what we imagine to be an endless succession of metal grates covered in dried up cakes of unknown substances, unidentifiable pieces of fabric and scraps of food. Matthew Gandy, in his article The Paris sewers and the rationalization of urban space contends that “by tracing the history of water in urban space, we can begin to develop a fuller understanding of changing relations between the body and urban form under the impetus of capitalist urbanization.” Pretty sure he wrote that line from the Paris sewers.
We trace these cultural lines and flows, finding here that nature and culture drift at the same rate in an interdependent foulness. London’s legendary sewer rats are in full effect tonight, running from us in a terrified scamper, climbing the round slippery walls of the tunnel in inexplicable ways and disappearing into holes we can’t even see into. I want to explore what they can see. At one point, some sort of nest is disturbed and they came at our lights, their little claws feet screeching all around us. Staying in the middle of the slimy sticky mud, shit and runoff where the rats won’t swim was clearly our best option.
We spent 4 hours sliding around these chambers, building up our immune system with aching stomachs upon exit and mouth sores to come. As we emerged I felt, as I often have, that tonight was another attempt to document my own disappearance in the course of making the city reappear in alternative iterations. As I sink deeper into my PhD, I sink deeper in this city, still so in love that there isn’t even room for another human being. I can only hope that either I or the thesis emerges at the end of this torrid love affair, unsure I will survive the potential breakup. Until then.
Own the night.
Cherish these secrets.
Wield this power.
Love this life.
This author’s endeavour should be to make the Past, the sense of all the dead Londons that have gone to the producing this child of all the ages, like a constant ground-bass beneath the higher notes of the Present.
-Ford Madox Ford, The Soul of London
“They rolled down the Champs de Lise in these armored vehicles. They were dressed in black, carrying tripods and camera gear, saying the would explore every inch of the city. It was terrifying.” – Constant Conscious, Baker
“One of them said he had been under the Musee du Louvre bowling with skulls and I was like ‘what the fuck is happening here?’” – Achille Chevalier, Town Watchman
Marc called us from Paris where he remains in exile after murdering that poor Gurkha security guard at Pyestock. The Parisian populace was getting downright menacing he said, throwing instead of blowing kisses at President Sarkozy. The wet smooches were slapping him in the face with soppy smacks, knocking him down on every street corner, leaving him sapped of mojo. And a flaccid emperor can’t run this city, as Napoleon III learned 300 years ago, despite his glorious mustache.
Turns out, Marc had been rummaging around (as he does) the other week and had located a fleet of abandoned military vehicles, perfect for quelling French proletariat rebellions. He imagined us piloting them down the wide toward the city centre, just as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann built it to be used, setting all right once again.
Under the cover of darkness, we crept in, leaving behind two operatives to secure the vegetable supplies in a adjacent quarry. I hopped into a small Humvee and ordered the doors battered down. Can’t believe they left the keys in this puppy.
We rolled into central Paris in our new acquisitions bumping Del The Funkee Homosapien and drinking blue Chimay, throwing baguettes at hopeless romantics, police and cataphiles alike in a transparent attempt to capture hearts and minds. Implementing an age old audacious tactical maneuver passed down through the Statler family for 40 generations, we climbed every tall building in the city to survey the scene.
Just then, Silent Motion cried out, pointing to the horizon, an almost inarticulable gasp pouring out of the side of his mouth. In the distance there was what appeared to be a rift opening in the sky.
With a stroke of luck, LutEx arrived, fresh off the Eurostar, answering our Craigslist ad for reinforcements. Right then and there, he pulled out this horrendous map of some underground city where he claimed previous failed revolutionaries had gone into hiding. Clearly drunk at this point, we decided he was the man to follow.
The dejected revolutionaries crawled into the underground maze through a manhole at rush hour, dragging the bodies of their dead comrades, pussing fang marks and all, hopes and dreams tied up in little canvas sacks, squirming and wiggling, screaming for acknowledgment.]
Lest our hopes get the best of us, we left them in the bags and trampled them while we danced to our failures, praying that Zuul had been lenient with the people after her extraterrestrial takeover. And that’s how Marc’s dream of a new Parisian republic died, in a bout of inebriated dirty dancing, headtorches waving in little battery powered gestures, light painting the the walls of the cave we all knew we would never be able to leave.
This post is dedicated to that little Swedish boy that died exploring in Stockholm last week. I celebrate you for not sitting inside playing video games like your friends kid.
So we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart still be as loving,
And the moon still be as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
— Lord Byron
By the light of the moon, Marc and Hydra walked through the common, stopping every once and a while to blow something up. It was a quiet wintry night, a night for explorations of the soul before landscape, a post-phenomenological spectacle of Autumn ritual thought adornment. And then, the unthinkable happened. One explosion, set off by the Marc in a hysterical frenzy over his departure from the land of the mystics, shook the ground with a terrible rumble.
The grass of the common began separating, the earth seizing and shaking like a new born baby addicted to crack; trees capsized into an emerging crevice that revealed a hidden underground storage facility, untouched for 42.75 years, filled with the records of the lost souls dragged down to Dante’s 7th circle of hell.
A decision was made to explore this emerging subterranean wonder. Hydra, designated lead explorer on this spontaneously scurrilous expedition, entered the metal-lined den with trepidation; there was evidence of habitation, or at least adaptive reuse. The mole people had been here, burrowing into the earth, connecting the tunnel with another inhabited by a perpetually sleeping dragon that shook the tunnel with his deep exhalations.
The mole people were encountered soon after, mining away at the sidewalls of the tunnel, inviting collapse, but also inquiry, undertaken carefully by Marc who spoke conversational Molish. LutEx, master and commander of the underground, resided there with his Queen it seemed. They join the expedition for the promise of chocolate éclairs. Earlier that night, he tells Marc later, he mined a Jewel, and Diamond from the depths. The Diamond, as she then became known, joined the expedition on the promise of existential freedom.
As they move through the tunnels, LutEx explains that there was indeed a sleeping Dragon at the end of the tunnel, and that the mole people has constructed a wall between them and the beast to keep it’s steaming slumbering sighs from singing their eyebrows. It turned out they were not trying to dig to the Dragon, but to avoid it while working their way through the 7th circle. As Hydra commented on the quality of the construction, suddenly, running steps are heard.
The Goblinmerchant, vendor of the mystical, last seen at the Pyestock Stargate, emerges from the depths at breakneck speed, smashing through the wall in a brave but foolish attempt to challenge the Dragon. Little did he know, the Dragon had a guard. The Goblimerchant is caught in a time-space compression web, cast by a magical troll hidden in a subterranean enclave, forcing him back into the 7th circle, restoring the barrier the mole people had constructed, a barrier, which, it seems, the Dragon allowed to exist.
For his transgressions, the group sees the Goblinmerchant subjected to endless torture, first by having his hair pulled from the follicles by a diabolical goblin-engineered torture machine, and then tied by his feet and hung from the roof of the bunker, on show until the end of time for other daring explorers, an example of the dangers of crossing the Great Dragon of Clapham.
With the expedition now complete, with lessons learned, The Diamond is indeed given her freedom, teleported back to the surface by a goblin transporter restored by the mole people to beam in food supplies and port.
As for Hydra and Marc… Last was heard they had joined LutEx and his Queen in the underworld, digging into the 8th circle of hell.