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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You give a man his daily bread so that he can be creative and he just goes to sleep; victorious a conqueror grows soft, a magnanimous man turns miser as he gains in wealth.    -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Are we at the top of the ladder or at the bottom of a new ladder?    -Silent Motion

Saddle up for

On our recent ProHobo trip into Europe, lovingly (if in the end somewhat flippantly) referred to as 3.0: ProhoBohemia, we pulled back from the infrastructural infiltrations that have become our daily grind here in London and went looking for ruins again. Coming back to ruins was like returning to a pleasant dream.

Magical realism

In our hired car, which we intended to push 3300 miles into Poland, our most ambitious trip to date, we cut through the corner of France as we have twice before and headed into Belgium. After a brief climb up a notable public building in a major capital city, we crept into an old train yard to spend the night. As you do.

Industrial nights

We woke up early full of enthusiasm and over the next week, we moved through Europe like a storm with an efficiency built over the course of three trips to the continent over the past year. We knew the sites we wanted to hit, we knew how to avoid security where necessary, we knew what to pack and, more importantly, what not to. We had, in fact, taken being temporary nomadic vagabonds to a whole new level. During the trip, we read passages from Tim Cresswell’s book The Tramp in America where he discusses the work of homeless-turned-Chicago-School-sociologist Ben Anderson. As we came to the realization that we could all likely keep this nomadic lifestyle going for a very long time (if not forever) I couldn’t help but think that we were working the other way around – there was a real possibility, is a real possibility that we could in fact drop it all and live like this indefinitely.

Probo

Looking for

Pure living

But the further East we went, the heavier our bourgeois baggage became. As we crossed the border into Poland, the car was filled with excited cheers quickly followed by confused murmurs. While the landscape here offered what we have come to expect from Europe – endless ruins – we found ourselves confronted with a place in which the relationship to derelict space was entirely different.

Secular

Imaginaries

Remembered

Here ruins were spaces not of bounded exclusion but of potential utilization. After driving for hours through a forest hunting for a soviet base called Keszwca Lesla, we arrived at 10pm to find rows of buildings, clearly Soviet-built, surrounding an undecipherable war memorial that looked like our standard fare with the addition of satellite dishes hanging off the sides of buildings. It seemed the local population here had turned this place into a summer holiday encampment after the collapse of the USSR and the abandonment of the base. Gangs of teenagers roamed the streets late at night in track suits and mullets, running in and out of the derelict buildings and bunkers. Inhabited buildings looked derelict, folding them right into the fabric of a lived landscape. There were no fences or security to be found, no rules, boundaries or exclusionary practices in evidence. It should have been paradise for us. Except that things felt different here.

Clearly

Something else

To be found

As we moved on from this site, we became more brazen, braving the sullen stares of thick-necked Polish men who could clearly throw us across a room to run in Soviet concrete blocks, shutters snapping. But what we captured in these places looked less like the western notions of the aesthetic sublime than we were accustomed to encountering and more like the war-ravaged Chechnyan ruins depicted in The 3 Rooms of Melancholia.

USSR

Afloat

No more

Site after site, I kept feeling that something was different here, something was missing here, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. It was something missing beyond a buoyant economy and door frames.

And then it hit me. It was nostalgia. As David Lowenthal writes, ‘nostalgia is memory with the pain removed.’ There wasn’t a hint of nostalgia to be found here. No one cared about stripping soviet blocks of all they were worth because they were still in pain here. It was probably, rather, a delicious catharsis to smash out those windows and excavate the rusting hunks of artillery from the ground.In the same way that we, in London, feel a need to write our own stories of places and to define our own boundaries for space, the Polish people who lived under communist control probably felt a need to assert their rights to newly reclaimed space by destroying the remnants of control that the Soviet Union has exerted over them for so many years. Like Scipio Africanis at the end of the 3rd Punic war, the only thing that would satisfy the pain of generations of struggle is to do everything possible to erase the memory of that pain, razing the buildings and sewing the Earth with salt.

The heritage manager in me is terrified by these ideas but the anthropologist and geographer in me tells me I have no right to dictate how others should interpret and interact with their places. We can’t know their memories; we can’t know their pain.

Pain

Lived

There a was a particular guilt that came with exploring Poland.  I think that guilt came from the clashing of different value systems in regards to derelict space. Perhaps it is an indication of a larger clash between capitalism and communism. Where east meets west, desire meets utility, nostalgia meets future promise and mobility meets placemaking. We all knew we brought the West with us and we all knew, deep down, that the social conditioning that resides in those templates can never be erased.

While we didn’t necessary find the ruins we were looking for in Poland, we did find a meeting point on that shifting frontier of Western values that is pushing its way inexorably East, met not with open arms but with suspicious stares. After what Poland has been through over the last 100 years, who can blame them?

Easterly

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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.
–Matthew Gandy

Clearly not accurate

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.

Cracked

Pull this bird

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.

Pour your heart out

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.

Alterier chamber

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.

Explored

Beneath your pub crawl

More playful than righteous

________________________________________

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

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Ride of the vagueries (conquest of Paris)

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Mar 6, 2010 Under Cultural Geography, Uncategorized, Urban Exploration

“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

War games

Leave no one alive

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.

Tashe

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.

Charge!

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.

Seizure

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.

Holy smokes!

We took decisive action, speeding over the the rift only to find that it was a reincarnation of Zuul, back from Ghostbusters I to invade Paris the same night as us. Damnation!

This party's over!

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.

And then the revolution died

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.

Shouldn't have crossed the Rubicon

]

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.

Here's to failure!

_____________________________________________________

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.

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