“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” -Jack Kerouac

Spring Nights

I have never been able to stay still for very long. For some reason in the west we are supposed to feel guilty about experiencing perpetual wanderlust. The underlying intimation is that human mobility is threatening to modern society. But it would be naive to assume that is purely a present-day tension. Looking back the the tramps of 1920s America, the Beats of the 1950s or indigenous communities to whom modern national borders are conceptually irrelevant (even if often practically unavoidable), being nomadic is clearly a common human desire suppressed by the suspicions of the sedentary.

Mobility

For many people, experiencing movement, change, precarity, cultural encounter and exchange is vital to their wellbeing. I am one of those people. As are most geographers, anthropologists and explorers I have met. So when Dsankt from Sleepy City and Otter from Silent UK sent me a message asking if I was interested in spending a weekend in Barcelona living out of our backpacks and sneaking into the metro system, I couldn’t refuse. It proved to be a powerful collaboration. Within hours of arriving, we were running down the tracks dodging trains.

Wait

Seek

Shoot

The journey to get to Bifurcació-Vilanova abandoned station required a dodgy climb past a number of security cameras. The station itself was massive, desolate and beautiful. But our greatest surprise was not to be found on the platforms. Deep in the station, we ran into a homeless encampment. The occupant had clearly died some time ago. His possessions, including loose change, were laid out on the side table as if he had just gone out to get snacks or smack and never returned. In all the places I have seen in my time exploring dereliction, nothing had prepared me for this – the place was thickly haunted. We challenged those ghosts, and our fears, by opening the treasure boxes there and discovered an ID. It made it more deeply terrifying to see the name and photo of the spectre.

Human

Debris

Earlier whilst walking around the city, we had spied a cableway system supported by tall pylons near the port. We decided to see if we could sneak past the security guard and fences to get up top. It took us hours to scope the patrol and I fell asleep in a stairwell waiting, awoken by Otter shaking my shoulder saying ‘it’s time man’. When we finally ran low toward the tower and went for it, it was very late and very cold. But the views were worth every tribulation.

Stupid idea

Put into practice

Once again

At the bottom of the pylon, the police drove by just as we were climbing around the chained-up door to the stairwell. We hid low and luckily they kept driving. I couldn’t help but wonder if someone has seen us up top and called them. In any case, they clearly sucked at their job. Later, we found an unlocked public bike, stole it, and did our best to break it doing skids across intersections and riding down stairs. After trying to sleep in a construction site only to be chased out by an intimidating dude wielding a sharp stick (and realising our stolen bike had been stolen by someone else while we were up there), we climbed the iron gate over somebody’s front door and passed out in a derelict patio garden as the sun was coming up.

Liberated

Open space

We were awoken by another angry guy with a shovel at 7am later who spoke unintelligible Spanish. Luckily he also spoke French and Dsankt deduced it was time to leave or battle him and his scrubby friend. We wanted to finish up the rest of the metro stations on our list anyway so we headed out. We knew Correos and Gaudi seemed likely and window shopping whilst riding the metro revealed Banc and Travessera stations be either too small to be of interest or gone. With some work, we found a way into Correos (cheers Silent Motion!) and were rewarded with a beautiful crumbling platform and some old signage.

Old

But not dead

Gaudi station ended up being the most beautiful of the set with lush marble floors and walls shockingly untouched by graffiti. If it wasn’t for the trains flying through every two minutes, you would think it was 1968, the day after the station closed. As we left, we turned the lights on, realised they would not turn off and ran like hell. Gaudi reminded me why I love exploring metro so much – big risk for big reward.

Carry on

Explorers

I never want to stop travelling. But more than that, I never want to stop travelling the way we do. There is nothing more exciting than living out of your backpack, sleeping in derelict rooftop gardens and construction sites, getting people to buy you free drinks for telling adventure stories covered in metro dust in a mall bar and making sandwiches on the beach from random supermarket deals. This isn’t about not having money, it’s about choosing to take a risk and seeing what happens. Sometimes the payoff for that risk is getting chased with a shovel, other times it’s getting right in close to the life of a stranger you never expected to meet (dead or not). What it always is is new and that’s why I need to travel. Experiences like these renew my hope in the world, seeing that one can still pack a camera, some maps and a sleeping bag and just roam. And if one day in the distant future taking this sort of trip is a thing of the past, I will always know that spirit didn’t die with us. We are the tramps and Beats of our age; we are urban explorers. Carry on adventuring until further notice people.

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“Our waking existence… is a land which, at certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld – a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise.” -Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Wanderlust

Few places in the world are as enshrined in the pantheon of urban explorer mythology as the Carrières de Paris, often referred to more colloquially (though inaccurately) as the Paris Catacombs. Since 2008, we have spent dozens of hours underneath Paris, exploring the system and meeting those who map and build it. And despite that lively and active present day cataphile culture, it is clear from looking at the history of these spaces that we are all only a blip in the long history of subsurface Paris. Parisians are melded into the very fabric of the earth through these quarries.

Sightings

As early as the 13th Century, open air quarries, and later mines, were sunk into the Left Bank of Paris to feed architectural projects on the Right Bank. Eventually, as the city became pressured for space, people began building over the Left Bank. A voidspace was created which, since the 13th Century, has been continually lost and relocated, condemned and celebrated, backfilled and re-excavated. As Winch writes on his blog, exercising access to this voidspace is not a right or a privilege, it’s just something that can be done. And we do – again and again. These sunken tombs have a magnetic pull, despite, or maybe due to, the potential for visceral terror they harbour.

Taking the privilege

While in the quarries, we find ourselves in a negative space, a spatial gap that exists because earth matter has been excavated to build something else entirely. In architecture and urban planning this is sometimes referred to as space left over after planning or SLOAP.  Geographers and urban planners find that those modern negative spaces are used for various urban subversions, like skateboarding and street art, being largely ignored and disused space; but we rarely imagine SLOAP being as vast as the urban underground in Paris. As Marc Explo told me while we were wandering the 180 miles of subterranean galleries and chambers “if you want to know how big the quarries are, just look at all the buildings made of limestone in Paris. Then you understand the immensity of what we’re in.”

Expanse

In 1774, a hundred feet of the Rue d’Enfer collapsed, revealing the voidspace underneath. When King Louis XVI asked engineers to report on the implosion, he was told that much of Paris could collapse; it was built over fragile quarries that stretched for miles. This triggered an epic ongoing urban stabilisation project that spawned many of the shafts, rooms, mines and galleries that we now temporarily occupy. But the rich history of these spaces had just begun by this point. Into the 19th century, the caverns and tunnels were mined for building stone and by the end of that period, they would contain the skeletal remains of eleven million Parisians exhumed from graves where they impeded development – the quarries were transformed into a massive Necropolis.

This system have harboured criminals, French revolutionaries and Nazis, they have been used to grow mushrooms and store wine and, increasingly, give Parisians an unmonitored space to throw parties and get high in our age of the ever-present watchers. Today the tunnels are roamed by a different clandestine group, a loose and leaderless community whose members sometimes spend days and nights below the city. This is our urban playground, a timeless organic underworld of caves, water, bone and soil.

Their underworld

Our tombs

The contemporary relationship between explorers and the catas is thought to stretch back to 1793 when a Frenchman named Philibert Aspairt journeyed by candlelight into the abandoned quarry system to find a “lost” wine cellar. His body was found eleven years later and a monument erected to his memory, which still stands to this day. In Ninjaicious’ Infiltration Zine Issue 9, back in 1998, the urban explorer Murray Battle tells tales of multi-day sub-urban rambling, nipple-crunching tunnel crawls and and port sipping in La Plage. Not much has changed since then. As National Geographic wrote in their recent article, entering the quarries has been illegal since 1955, so cataphiles tend to be young people fleeing the surface world and its rules – freedom reigns underground, even anarchy. One of the cataphiles the authors run into down there is a guy called Yopi who says “many people come down here to party, some people to paint. Some people to destroy or to create or to explore. We do what we want here. We don’t have rules.” Our time in the catas costs us nothing but the battering on our bodies and psychological stability – an increasingly rare direct feed into the nervous system and hypothalamus – and contributes nothing to society except to add the the surreal project in whatever ways we desire. Money is of no use here, imagination is the currency.

Tarry

Of course, the phenomenological primacy of accessing the void cannot be ignored. After entering the Paris catacombs last year, on our Kinky Paris trip, our expectations of what to expect, think and feel began to melt with every sip of port, dripping off of us with the sweat and blood and caked quarry mud. It seemed all we could do was act, except in those moments when we were so shocked by some sight, smell or crushing feeling we were rendered temporarily inert. We would sometimes run into other sub-urban dwellers down there, cataphiles who spend the majority of their lives below the City of Light. We also encountered groups of people hunched over single file with bobbing headlights and plastic cups full of beer, and we would nod hello as we passed, acknowledging our shared experience in this space of unregulated sensory madness. It seemed to go on endlessly, and we achieved a state of supreme disillusionment or exceptional clarity (the meld). When we left and had to reconform to social expectations the come down hit hard.

Come down

Every time I am in the catas, I can’t help but think I am headed to the last party at Zion, just before the machines drill through to inevitably annihilate the remaining humans and their wonderful little dystopia. The catas feel like a post-capitalist future where everyone took the red pill and woke up. And yet, an 1877 engraving by Charles Barbant also relays this sense that we need not go to Herculaneum or Pompeii to find buried cities, for they occur beneath our own feet. Whether those spaces are a terror or a utopia, or indeed both simultaneously, perhaps can only be known subjectively to each distinct voidspace entrant. These experiences, like so many we seek as the intrepid explorers of this age, often verge on incommunicability (perhaps contributing to my reliance on multimedia in attempts to relay these stories – see below).

Subterranean utopia

So where do these thoughts fit into the hack? Well my friends, the quarries of Paris are perhaps the best Western example of a place where humanity has become intricately interwoven into the informal subterranean urban matrix. Paris culture would suffer a grave setback with loss of access to these spaces (not that such a thing could ever happen, they are far too vast). A co-addictive symbiotic relationship has been built over nine centuries where the populace continually hacked the closed system open again and again, leading to a consistent stratigraphic memorialisation of rediscovery and renewal that is now layered so thick with history and culture you can almost eat it (I tried). The catacombs are proof that just as virtual social systems can be maintained by the multitude, so can physical space. Enter the void.

Occupied

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Want to see more? Have a look at the video footage from my first trip to the Carrières de Paris:

Then read about it in my just-released article in ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies:

 

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