A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad. -Theodore Roosevelt

Look up

I have a few guiding principles to my life I always adhere to. The first, and most important, is that each year of my life must surpass the last. I have succeeded in that goal every year so far, though the last four have been particularly exceptional.

It was 2007 when I stumbled into the office of the eminent geographer Denis Cosgrove at UCLA. To my surprise, he asked me to sit in his chair as he laid down on the couch. He then said, staring at the ceiling, ‘So tell me why you want to do a PhD…’ I waxed on at length about my frustrations as an archaeologist. ‘I don’t want to be in control of people’s pasts, I want to act historical facilitator rather that an interpreter.’ He looked at me, waiting for more. ‘You know, what I’ve been doing just feels inauthentic and I think cultural geography might be a better home discipline for me.’ He laid there for a bit before he told me, ‘It would be great to have you as a student here but you must know I have stomach cancer and may not live through your PhD if you were accepted into the programme. I think you should also apply to Royal Holloway, University of London where I used to be and sometimes still teach. Call Tim Cresswell.’ I did, and that’s how my story at Royal Holloway began. Cosgrove knew I was too twisted to do a PhD in puritan America.

A journey

At an end

It’s been four years now since I began that journey and a few days ago, it officially ended. I made the move from Mr Garrett to Dr Garrett in my Royal Holloway wizard robes and smurf hat. Although Denis died a few years earlier, just as he had predicted, I can’t help but think that he would have been proud to see me standing there with my parents sipping champagne while my project participants snuck into the ceremonies to infiltrate the campus steam tunnels in ties and dresses. My parents, to my delight, laughed at the whole affair. I guess they probably expected as much and I’m glad they were there for the pomp, circumstance and usual antics.

Gold

There are many people at Royal Holloway to thank for my time there. In particular, David Gilbert, Felix Driver and Alastair Pinkerton offered key advice during my PhD. Alice Christie kept me on track with pep talks every time I saw here that made sense of the world. Phil Crang took on the ‘fun job’ (as he calls it) of being my advisor, advising me to track down fresh articles and alerting me to exhibitions. He also had an eagle-eye for critical reading of my writing and an ability to cut right through my drifting prose to rip the heart out.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude Katherine Brickell not just for reading my work, inspiring me, keeping me on track, keeping me employed but for being my most trusted friend and collaborator. Most importantly, Tim Cresswell, as Denis well-knew, was the most well-suited supervisor I could have hoped for. As anyone who has done a PhD knows, your relationship with your supervisor is quiet special, it’s sort of like being adopted by another parent. Tim studied his PhD under Yi-Fu Tuan, who I suppose is a bit like my academic grandfather. From the 1960s when Tuan did his work, we have now moved from Space to Place to Place Hacking. We have bridged US and UK academia back and forth numerous times. We have also collectively inspired a lot of drama. It’s a great family to ride with. Almost as cool as the Garrett clan.

Back in the day, Tuan wrote that ‘human geography studies human relationships.’ It’s close to the mark but I respectfully suggest broadening that definition grandfather because good human geography also builds relationships. Ethnography is beautiful thing, you never know where it is going to go in the beginning and it can fracture in countless directions based on many different factors. I never could have expected that my time at RHUL would have led to the things it did.  What we have done in the past four years, the community we built, was something truly exceptional.

The LCC Old Guard

It was fitting then that the community we built with the support of Royal Holloway left something behind on graduation day to gel our legacy and make sure the university never forgets our four great years together. After considering our skill requirements, the perfect team stepped up for the job – Patch, Helen, Marc, Dan and Winch. Patch and I headed to ASDA for a king size black sheet and a bucket of emulsion and got painting. The next night, Dan and Marc rolled in at 2am and scaled the clock tower to strap on the banner. It lasted until 10:30am when I saw Olympics security personal trying to get it down with a long pole. They looked like they were enjoying themselves.

Patch on the roller

For a good cause

So yeah, I said the magic word – Olympics. Boo! I guess it’s well known by now that some of us were in and out of the Olympic park as we pleased during construction. G4S’s major security fuckups are not new news, I assure you. Royal Holloway is an official Olympic venue, with armed police and G4S personnel patrolling the campus and Founders building on total lockdown at night. Marc and Dan rolled out this banner 3 days before the 2012 Olympics swung into high gear and campus security had good reason to be embarrassed, even as I’m sure they can enjoy a good college prank as much as the next person.  So here’s are the mission details…

Back in 2008, Marc Explo and Hydra cracked the steam tunnels underneath the campus with me – they run from the boiler house to underneath Founders. It was not long before we had gone down with other PhD students: Michael Anton, Ashley Dawkins and Amy Cutler.

Hot and tight

First bite

The year after, Mike and I went back in the tunnels with some new PhD students. Four years later, this is now a tradition for new geography students (and probably other departments – we can’t be the only one’s curious enough to look right?).  Soon after we started thinking about the roof and spires, which we could now access at night through the steam tunnels.

Step 1

Step 2

And now it’s cubed

The view from the roof was exceptional and all sort of new routes across Founder’s could be devised. Now that I am gone, I expect students to carry on exploring everything on campus. I would be highly disappointed if the next generation of students do not mark out some new routes. Then again, I have been pretty shocked at the apathetic response to the securitisation of our university campus by both staff and students over the last few months – anybody want to apply some critical thinking skills to that process? To those students who still have some courage, some climbing anchors would be very helpful in a few places. Get busy!

A route

To glory

Requires delicacy

So, now that the PhD is over, a transition is taking place. I am actually sitting on a plane at Heathrow, ready to take off to Cambodia right now. Katherine Brickell and I will be working on a month-long project about domestic violence law using participatory video. When I get home at the end of August, it’s back to exploring (in 3 countries) until October.

Then, on October 1st, I am delighted to announce I will begin a new job amongst the dreaming spires at the University of Oxford as a Researcher in Technological Natures. While at Oxford, I will turn my thesis into a book with Verso, teach some subversive modules and conjure up my next big idea. So, against all odds, it appears that 2012 will top 2011 and 2013 is looking very bright indeed. Thanks to everyone who has followed along the way. Carry on exploring everything, the plane is taking off. I’m out.

Shizzle (photo by Harriet Hawkins)

Good luck with that Olympics thang by the way London, I’m sure it’s all going to be great fun.

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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.”

Perched

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.

Tribe

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Nearly two years since the start of production, I am happy to announce that my video article Urban Explorers, Quests for Myth, Mystery and Meaning has just been released in the journal Geography Compass (Volume 4, Issue 10, pages 1448–1461, October 2010). Below is the video article followed by an annotated script and short piece written to support the film. I welcome any feedback you might have on either.

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The desire for alternative options starts with disappointment and anxiety.
–Alan Rapp

We live a free life. Very few people can say that.
–Marc Explo

Stretching

Following from Rapp, where does disappointment start? Why did we have expectations to that lead to anxiety to begin with? Are disappointment and anxiety internally or externally imposed conditions? Finally, what is the organic link between urban exploration and infiltration?

In the course of the following visual spectacle, I present two important case studies: an exploration of a derelict London Tube station paired with a live infiltration of a number of Paris Metro stations sprinkled with a sugar coated topping of French cathedral brachiation. The link between these seemingly disperate case studies in time-wastery, I will suggest, is desire.

Fragments

Of Time

Less interesting

Our desire to seek ruins is as obvious as the motivations behind the expeditions. We seek them to find pieces of what was, was is, what could have been. The failure of planning, execution and participation found in this empty station is comical and sad but not necessarily disappointing. We assure ourselves that the only thing that could make the situation more amusing would be if a train were suddenly to pass though, disrupting our notions of what we thought we barely understood. By the time we leave, we are pretty sure something happened. We can see it on our skin, taste it in our teeth, wash it out of our clothes but the experience remains so ephemeral that to speak about it is almost blasphemy. The satisfaction that comes with that feeling is almost as wonderful as the peals of laughter that ring out from our throats as we leap from the back of the speeding train into the dark tunnels, drunk on the screams of platform perambulators who are sure that we are the demons they heard about on the 10 o’clock news.

The multiplication of the third rail

The eminent anthropologist Marc Augé is disappointed with our play space. Throughout his entire book on ‘non-places’, poor Augé is a victim of one postmodern monstrosity after another, striking out at remnants of what remains with a panicked grab, decrying the end of history, implying that there is no place for us in a world of machines, of mobility, of ‘urban concentrations, movements of population, and the multiplication of what we call “non-places”, in opposition to the sociological notion of place…”. But as Alastair Bonnett writes, this ‘sociological’ notion of place is was a false consciousness imposed by bureaucratic minds ‘colonized by the language of academia’ be begin with.

Your illusion

I contend that place is what you make it and the responsibility to make space viable, vibrant and interesting, the responsibility to create places of desire is only limited by our individual and collective capacities for love and the level of our energies devoted to giving a shit. As Sartre has taught us, since we all share in the same situation, we must embrace our awesome freedoms, deliberately rejecting any (false) promise of authoritative moral determination. Freedom is not given, it is obtained. I hear Marc Explo teaches a seminar on the rooftops of Paris with beer in hand on this very topic.

7.5%

My comments are not intended to be solely derogatory. I am not suggesting that a vision of life which is guided by another person’s ideals is inauthentic. Indeed we are all, to some degree or another, remixing, reusing, embracing, contesting and disputing all that has come before. Individuals that I quote, in speech and text, have quoted others before me, a lineage stretching back as far as communicative origins. This continuum of thought and energy should be celebrated with toasts to the heavens for the graces of wisdom. We have inherited more knowledge, more beauty, more potential, than any human beings who have come before. To suggest that that knowledge and the possibilities that cause fragmentation of self awareness are disappointing is in itself disappointing. Join the party Augé, I have a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau waiting. Make no mistake, it will be messy, it will be confusing, it will be the ruin and the construction site, Battersea Power Station and Heathrow Terminal 5. It will be the informal state of constant becoming but ‘to embrace the chaos is not to slide toward entropy but to emerge into an energy like the stars’.

Forming

Spontanous combustion

While we can all clearly see that within a capitalist system, the invitation to co-produce place often has a price or that the output of that production is expected to become commodified, we may choose to operate outside of that system. Maybe that operation requires giving up watching East Enders tonight. Maybe it requires operating at a loss. Maybe it means writing a shitty Ph.D. because you were in a sewer instead of resting up for the next wrestling match with Microsoft Word. Fuck it, people begin participating in informal modes of cultural production because they want human bonds and community to take precedence over outcome. People want becoming over being. People want the freedom of the present! ‘On the other hand, anyone trapped in the anemic and atomized everyday routine of our residential deserts might doubt that such determination could be found out there anymore. Reconnecting with such gestures, buried under years of normalized life, is the only practical means of not sinking down with the world, while we dream of an age that is equal to our passions.

Marinetti

As the Invisible Committee reminds us, the primary component of that freedom is not just enthusiasm but passion. And the passion for joy, for bonding, for shared experience and community goes beyond the specifics of the practice (read: UrbEx). The one thing ALL explorers of space share is a passion for life, ‘an exuberant and playful negation of the alienation and exclusion provoked through axiomatic consumeristic machinations.’ And here, we begin to see the contemporary critique of traditional notions of exploration in the rejection of the idea that only some can be involved or that a passion for adventure can only be satiated through grand international expeditions. Urban exploration teaches us that those stories, those adventures, are found in our backyards also – if you choose to chase them.

The Rabbit Hole

Follows no cardinals

If this sounds polemic, that’s because it is. I am tired of disappointment, resentment and critique being the only accepted modes of critical academic engagement. We do what we do because we love it. It produces nothing. It hurts no one. It endangers our lives. That is our choice and no one else’s. And in expectation of the showering critique, the next person who tells me that my happiness is subject to an economic audit can keep chewing on that corpse because my fingers are in my ears.

There's no such thing as ghosts!

Barthes writes that pleasure is continually disappointed, reduced and defeated, in favour of strong, noble values: Truth, Death, Progress, Struggle, etc. It seems that our society refuses (and ends up ignoring) bliss to such a point that it can produce only epistemologies of the law. Well if that’s the case then fuck the law. I never consented to it’s construction in the first place and I am pretty sure that democracy isn’t supposed to resemble a Mafia extortion scheme. But don’t take that as a threat, it is rather a populist invitation to playfully reinterpret what the state holds so sacred, it’s an invitation to critically and playfully engage with the humiliating notions of ‘morality’ and ‘progress’ that dehumanize, commodify and deterritorialize our places of occupation to create what Guy Debord called “an impotent utopia of pretensions and complicities.” We intend to end the humiliation of a sham democracy by resituating ‘strategic sites of power beyond the depersonalized representation of an impotent democracy and back into the multitude.’ Following Laurie Weeks’ Theory of Total Humiliation: “we don’t erect monolithic reified barriers against the humiliation; rather we welcome it, embrace it; then everyone wants to fuck us, for mysterious reasons.”

Fuck us

So that we come full circle here, what does an exploration of a derelict London Tube station paired wimh a live infiltration of a number of Paris Metro stations and some rogue climbing of outdated religious architecture have in common? The answer is desire. We desire, and take, opportunities to ‘slip into a paradoxical position between the “real “and “not-real” in that it incorporates “real” words, gestures, hopes and intentions, that are framed as “unreal” through playful context.’

_________________________

We play out of desire

Desire sprouts love

Love is like oxygen

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Pure

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Aug 28, 2010 Under Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Freedom, Infrastructure, Psychogeography, Situationism, Urban Exploration

The expanding subterranean metropolitan world consumes a growing portion of urban capital to be engineered and sunk deep into the earth. It links city dwellers into giant lattices and webs of flow which curiously are rarely studied and usually taken for granted. – Graham 2000

Vision

3am. Antwerp. Pissing down rain. Lovingly cared for yet hopelessly abandoned, the Antwerp metro never came to be. Halfway down the 30 meter drop into the network, my hands burning down the slick rope, stomach twisted in knots, fear welled up in my throat with my held breath, I already know that I am in love. It’s that feeling that you have known each other for ages, finishing each other’s sentences, laughing until we cry about the absurdity of it all. That’s the moment that I knew you and I were destined for this encounter.

Lemon

Drop

The love affair with places begins as a tumultuous panicked grab, pinned against the wall in a desperate attempt to hold on to something we both know is sacred. The problem with smooth, clean glass, polished metal and concrete that there is nothing to hold on to, fingernails scratching in a desperate attempt to make a mark.

Here I find chunks of concrete delicately separated by little tendrils of green vines which grab at my legs as I repel down the wall, terrified that the rope hanging over the edge above is fraying against the sharp concrete edge of the drop zone. But she wouldn’t let that happen to me, she is already too curious to let this pass.

When I my feet touch the ground again, wet and smiling, I look to either side and realise that we have entered a new world, a world all our own. That is how I begin this love affair, with a tacit acknowledgement that neither I, or this beautiful unfinished beauty, will ever tell anyone about this love affair.

Conjunction

Junction

And yet those pictures in the scrapbook of our memories are just too much. All those photos of us laughing and playing together, falling in love for the first time. It was all so new, so pure. Not only do I need to experience that again, I need to share it. I need to scream out loud to the world that someday, somewhere, I found something sacred. So listen up planet earth: she was modern and stoic, sleek and brutal but knew sadness and tribulation just like us. I love her dearly and fear, above all else, that this was a one night stand.

Looking

For Love

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