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.
The voyeurism isn’t just gawking at the old buildings; it’s gawking at the possibility and the danger of death.
– Kyle Chayka
Detroit’s reputation as a destination for encounters with epic industrial ruins, burned-out residential blocks, dead bodies frozen in ice and hard pipe-hitting thugs ready to elbow you in the face and abscond with your camera gear is internationally gelled in the urban exploration community. When Marc Explo and I started planning our trip to The D, we wanted all that action. But we were also interested in getting beyond stereotypical post-industrial tourism to see what Detroit could offer in terms of live infiltration. Surely, we figured, a city now saddled with a perpetual (and seemingly unshakable) image of crime and desolation wouldn’t mind if we preferred to climb some of their hot new construction projects and wade around in their massive new storm drains. So Marc flew from London, I flew from Las Vegas and we met in the middle of the United States to begin the 2011 Midwest Powerslide.
The queasy feeling in my stomach while I was on the plane to The D told me we were on the right track. I hadn’t seen Marc in 4 months, enraptured as I was by the ceaseless stream of verbiage and audio/visual fornications that were spilling out of my Vegas retreat, where I wrote the bulk of my PhD over the Spring. Truth be told, I was looking forward to seeing the bald Frenchman. As exploration partners, Marc and I seem to create something like a bilateral energy arc that spews sparks of tesla typhoons capable of disabling security cameras and shocking guards into limp-kneed awe. I couldn’t wait to tear the city up with him again and neither of us had ever been to Detroit (minus my failed Canadian road trip nightmare last December which I’ve burned from my memory – a renewed middle finger to the Ontario Provincial Police by the way). After three weeks of scouting in Google Earth for drains, construction projects and derelict industrial areas, unabashedly pillaging leads from the best US explorer blogs and taking a few wild guesses that had the possibility of ending badly, the map we were working off of was so littered with pins for our 4 day trip we could barely see it anymore.
Our first stop was a no-brainer. Michigan Central Station is one of the largest and most beautiful ruins in North America, an icon of Detroit, even in death, much like Battersea Power Station in London. As Leary writes, Michigan Central Station appears to be a potent symbol of decline and the inevitable cycles of capitalist booms and busts. As a result there is a continual stream of tourists idling their rental cars in front to stare up at the monolith through the barbed wire fence. We sped past them in our red Dodge Charger, parked the car and unceremoniously squeezed through a kicked out piece of plywood under a railway in the back. Sneaking through a network of decaying corridors, we made our way to the main building and started climbing. Up top, we got our first taste of the Detroit skyline, only hours after landing. We were immediately impressed. Later, while we were running around playing on the roof, we were slightly shocked when three other explorers clamoured out of the stairwell and greeted us, two from Paris and one from Melbourne. Later, we tried to entice them to squeeze under a fence into the old school building across the street where they found a body of a homeless man frozen in the ice last Winter but they gave it a miss and we went on without them. George, if you read this, I hope you three had an amazing trip!
Lacking any plans for sleeping (of course!), we decided Michigan Central Station was as good a place as any to kip and rolled out our sleeping bags in the main hall. In the morning, we were greeted by two swaggering kids wielding tall cans of cheap beer and 2x4s who had clearly been drinking until 7am. One of them, stumbling and dragging his weapon as we sat up in quickly our sleeping bags and prepared to tackle him, said he was really sorry to tell us that we didn’t look very homeless. We quickly gathered these kids were cool, just a bit hammered and scared – nevertheless we decided it was high time to pack up and start working on tracing our pins. So we bailed from central station and sped off into the suburbs.
I won’t lie, Detroit was shocking. I have a hard time imagining such an economically depressed city existing in the United States. However, everywhere we went, the people of The D were candid and kind, even in what might be considered the worst neighbourhoods, waving at us as we drove down their street and laughing at us when we explained our mission to hobo our way through the American Midwest for the whole summer. Although I’ll try to avoid celebrating the economic devastation the city has experienced, I have to say I felt the place was sizzling with creative energy that somewhere like Los Angeles could never dream of. Monstrous art projects, weird games, quirky cafes and spontaneous happenings were in abundance. At one point, we even randomly found a house covered in stuffed animals that I found out later was part of Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. That kind of shit is weird and wonderful, the world needs more of it and, well, I just can’t imagining it happening anywhere else in quite that way. I think that’s also the reason why urban exploration has taken off so much in Detroit. Yes, ruins are everywhere, but the city also has a really raw “if you want it, go for it” attitude that I find refreshing. Artistic liberation always seems to flourish where capitalism takes a fatal dive.
We knocked out the sites on the outskirts of the city pretty rapidly, finding them satisfyingly sketchy and yet feeling increasingly guilty about our ‘targets’. We knew we wanted to see the remains of Detroit’s automotive empire, I mean, leaving the city without seeing it would have been a travesty, but every place we entered was either very clearly a crack den or homeless shelter, incredibly sombre, or filled with other people wielding cameras and spray cans. Everything was trashed. We took the pictures we wanted to get, saw the places we wanted to see, but I couldn’t help feeling that I just was not that interested in ruins any more. It was clear to me, as it has been for the past few months, that exploration is all about the adrenaline rush for me now, the history of places is an afterthought. It’s part of the inevitable fragmentation of being involved in this practice on a more-than-casual basis. Some of us become graffers, squatters or proper artists. Others settle down and quietly slip away. In any case, I don’t think any of us with any common sense or critical thinking skills can abide the hunger for derelict places and photography for more than a few years, it’s got to evolve into something.
However, later in the trip, we rolled into a suburb to relocate an abandoned church. Sneaking in through a back door ripped off the hinges, the place appeared to be trashed. My shoulders slumped until we walked up to the first floor and were greeted with this incredible sight. The Woodward Avenue Church brought the energy right back up.
We spent the night on top of an abandoned port building called Boblo overlooking the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. Earlier on in the day, in the middle of a pretty rough neighbourhood where we were trying to break into a Leer plant, I fell off a fence and sprained my hand, broke a rib and smacked my head pretty hard on the concrete. It was a stupid move that would haunt me for the next 5 weeks and damn near killed me sleeping on the rocky roof of Boblo Port that night.
On day three, Marc and I needed an adrenaline shot so we drove downtown and started scoping infiltration locations. One of the first places we had a look at was the Farwell Building and after a pint in the Detroit Beer Co. (we love you guys!). We decided to give it a crack in the middle of the day. The fire escape was a nightmare, some hellish rusty hunk of shit ripping itself out of the brick under it’s own weight. We ran down the alley and scurried up it, having no idea whether it would hold and, if it did, whether we would run into a swarm of crackheads inside once we wiggled through the broken window on the third floor.
Instead of crackheads, we were rewarded with a surreal central hall that seemed right on the verge of structural collapse. Checking out the adjoining corridors, I felt a wind blowing through a boarded up door and ripped off the plywood to reveal another fire escape, this one leading to the roof. Up top, when it started pouring rain unexpectedly, I stripped of my clothes and danced in the rain (hey, it had been three days without a shower at this point!). Figuring no one was watching during the shower, a stepped onto the ledge of the roof and stared down at the street. As I did, I saw a woman with a stroller look straight at me as she popped her umbrella. Pointing, she yelled, “Oh my god, that little white boy’s gonna jump!” Two minutes later we heard the sirens coming from every direction and scrambled down the building as the police blocked off the street, waiting for the jumper. As we were hanging off the fire escape, trying to get out of the building before they sent cops up to the roof, a police cruiser stopped at the end of the alley. Marc hissed “freeze!” and we hung, the rusty bolts of the fire escape slowly ripping out of the brick. I knew we were busted. And then, miraculously, the cruiser drove off. I still don’t know whether we were seen and dismissed or whether the cops seriously missed us hanging off that fire escape, but as I stood minutes later with Detroit’s finest staring up at the Farwell Building, waiting for my naked self to jump and listening to the cops laughing about “that twisted tweaker that called it in”, I knew I loved Detroit.
As it turned out, Paul McCartney was playing downtown that night so we had free reign in the city while the cops spent their time directing middle class white people into the stadium and reassuring them there were no Muslims there. We went nuts. At 2am we climbed on top of an Italian restaurant and squeezed though an open window to ascend Broderick Tower, the best view we got of Detroit. It was stunning and really gave us a sense of Detroit as a light, bright, vibrant, beautiful place, in contrast to all the archetypal dereliction we had been seeing.
It occurred to me at this point, staring out over the city, that Detroit was in fact far from derelict and we had succeeded at breaking the mould. Ruination is, of course, a large component of the urban landscape now after years of corporate corruption, economic destitution and mass population exodus. However, the city remains full of life, events, cool people, great places to go out and a plethora of sites ripe for infiltration that are largely ignored by tight-jeaned camera-toting dereliction fetishists and local explorers unwilling to carve their own path.
Our final stop, in the suburbs on the way out of town, was a massive drain we found in Google Earth. Our friend Aurelie Curie kindly informed us it was called Red Run while we were en route. I loved Red Run and for reasons known only to himself, Marc despised it and refused to photograph it. Upon reflection, after 4 days in Detroit, sleeping in ruins and walking through endless derelict properties (16 in all) in our quest to find something else, we were both probably more than a little frustrated, despite the successes of the Farwell Building and Broderick Tower. Of course, we had also just knocked out 1 city with 5 more to go on the trip, so maybe Explo was just reserving his superpowers for the upcoming win in the Twin Cities. Stay tuned to find out.
Our trip to Detroit, for me, exceeded expectations. Of course, the most important aspect of place hacking is the exploration itself and no photograph can adequately identify the origins for Detroit’s contemporary ruination; all it can represent is the spectacular wreckage left behind in the present. Dan Austin, editor of the architecture information site Buildings of Detroit notes that artists and photographers from all over the world have contacted him to act as their guide to Detroit’s ruins, help for quick photo and art projects. He writes that these “parachuters” leave Detroit just as quickly as they arrived, contributing little but to the city’s image of decay. We did what we could to give Detroit a chance to show it’s true colours to us and eventually it did. It’s not a place I could live but I certainly left with a different image of the place than when I arrived. Even though our time there was relatively short, we folded ourselves into the city, exploiting weak points in the urban armour to get into, and then under, the skin. I will always contend this is the best way to actually get to know a place.
The rest of what we found in Detroit, the other stories behind the photos, are of course ours to keep. Perhaps you could pry them out of us over a beer. But if you want to know what The D is about bad enough, like Marc and I did, you will start pinning that map and make your move. Godspeed explorers!
The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.
For every prohibition you create you also create an underground.
– Jello Baifra (Dead Kennedys)
As urban explorers, we often confine our adventures to those places which are, by and large, empty. That is not to say that other people – drug users, graffiti artist, geocachers, squatters, film crews, security guards or troupes of children looking for imaginative play space – don’t also use what appear to be places largely absent from human presence, but that the places we often explore are not generally utilized as shelter or housing. When we do encounter people, we usually leave with an apology. Fuck that, I say bring on the meld.
In our explorations of the ruins of Eastern Europe between 2008 and 2010, myself, Winch, Statler, “Gary” and Silent Motion took guilty pleasure in locating and camping in the remains of the failed Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The experience left us in a distinctly different psychological state than ruin exploration in the United Kingdom. The reverence for actual state failure, rather than imagined post-capitalist social or site-specific industry failure, made our explorations both more poignant and more guilt-ridden. If, as Dylan Trigg writes in The Aesthetics of Decay, a derelict factory testifies to a failed past, what then does the ruin of a failed state say to us?
As Dsankt once pointed out to me, there are very few people involved in urban exploration that are economically disadvantaged. Obviously, in order to be able to create the opportunity for these sorts of engagements with the city, one must be secure enough financially and with enough free time that putting in the necessary hours to research and explore sites can be accomplished. More importantly, one also, as I pointed out above, has to view these spaces as primarily areas for play and creative practice rather than potential housing.
As we found in our exploration of economically disadvantaged areas as far away as Poland, our relative affluence became readily apparent. At one point, we were all stunned to find someone living inside the Soviet Military base Vogelsang, dozens of miles in an East German forest. We all mused in the car driving away about whether that person had consciously chosen to live in that hacked up shell of a building in a peaceful forest next to the derelict nuclear launch pads outside Berlin or whether they were, perhaps, running from something. As we set up our temporary camp there the night before, we all discussed how we could just choose to stay as whoever that was did. Winch later wrote that “the fact we could sleep there, build fires and do whatever we liked turned it into an environment that was absolutely ours – the geography of isolation turned it from being a ruin into our ruin.” And isn’t the what place is all about? Did that tramp living there feel the same?
In 1923, Chicago sociologist Nels Anderson and anarchist Ben Reitman developed the general condition of vagrancy, divided into three main classes: bums, tramps and hobos. He writes, a tramp is a man who doesn’t work, who apparently doesn’t want to work, who lives without working and who is constantly travelling. A hobo is a non-skilled, non-employed laborer without money, looking for work. A bum is a man who hangs around a low class saloon and begs or earns a few pennies a day in order to obtain drink. It is an interesting notion that one can have different motivations for being homelessly mobile and where (if?) we exist on that scale, as temporary spatial hijackers. I will return to that later.
As I have found recently in my explorations of the Las Vegas storm drains, we don’t have to travel as far as Poland to see people living in derelict space and infrastructure. As David Runiman writes in the April 2011 issue of the London Review of Books, since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves. Las Vegas unemployment, meanwhile, breaking new records, has been marked at 15% one year ago, it now stands at 13.7%. However, as Joshua Ellis, the writer who runs Zen Archery pointed out to me over coffee last week, those numbers include only those who apply and are accepted for unemployment benefits. He reckons the reality of unemployment (not to mention underemployment) in this dusty city is closer to 25%. Still, amidst the glitz of the strip, constant televisual pundit banter about inevitable economic recovery (Osama is dead, the price of gold is skyrocketing!), not to mention flash weddings of vegan casino moguls, it is hard to argue that economic conditions aren’t “recovering”. Until you slip into Las Vegas drain.
As Matthew O’Brien, author of the book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas writes, the strip, of course, provided a stunning contrast to the storm drain. How could these two worlds so closely co-exist..? Then again, how could they not? In America, poverty always bows at the feet of corporate wealth. The question I find interesting here is whether these people have arrived, following Anderson’s definitions, by choice or circumstance. Matthew is one person who can answer that question.
Matthew has spent a good part of the last 10 years exploring the Las Vegas drain system, systems that are not monitored. There are no rules. There are no heroes. And, oh yeah, they can fill a foot per minute with floodwater. Along with Ellis, they were the first to break what has become an international story about the living conditions of over 300 people residing in the drain system here.
When I arrived in Las Vegas, I knew I would not be able to resist my explorer urge to see the drains for myself, but I also wanted to hear the stories from the only two who dared to venture into that system first, having no idea what to expect. What follows is a short interview with Matthew reflecting on the impact of the book and his future plans.
BLG: Given that it has been 5 years since the publication of Beneath the Neon, perhaps you could just give us an update on your work in the Las Vegas storm drains. Are more people living there since the economy tanked? How has the publication of the book affected both you and them?
MO: The main thing that has changed in the drains since Beneath the Neon was published in 2007 is that many of the people living in them have a chance to get out. In March 2009, I founded a community project called Shine a Light, a collaboration with local charity organization HELP of Southern Nevada. Basically, I escort their social workers into the drains and they offer assistance to the people we encounter. In two years of work, they’ve helped hundreds of people with stuff like getting ID and prescription glasses and they’ve actually housed maybe 80 or 90 people. It’s, by far, the best thing to come out of the book and my explorations of the tunnels.
Following on from that, if you could go through the whole experience again, would you change anything? For instance, you mentioned to me previously that you felt a bit reluctant about giving away detailed information on locations and using people’s real names.
There’s little I would change about Beneath the Neon and my experiences in the drains. I mean, there are minor things I would add to or take out of the book, since I feel like I’ve matured as a person and a writer, but it’s who I was and where I was at the time, and I’m cool with that.
In the book, I use only the first names of the people I interviewed and tried to be vague about the location of the tunnels, while giving the reader enough info to hold onto. There are times when I think I should’ve been more vague about the location of the drains, but, really, few people are seeking them out and venturing into them. And those who do—mostly urban explorers and bored teenagers—probably would’ve found the inlets and outlets without my assistance. If you’re determined to find the drains, there are ways to do it.
In the book, you make a few references to urban exploration but it’s obvious that your motivations for exploring the drain, as a journalist, were quite different from the perhaps more selfish motivations of urban explorers. Is there an urban exploration scene in Vegas? If so, do you feel like you are a part of it?
As far as I can tell, there isn’t much of an urban exploring scene in Las Vegas. The city isn’t really suited for it. There aren’t many bridges, abandoned buildings, train tunnels and old interesting ruins here. And the stuff like that that is here tends to be secure and hard to access. (Most property owners in Vegas take trespassing quite seriously.)
There are, however, a lot of stalled, half-built hotel-casino projects on and around the Strip. They would be interesting to explore, I think—viewing the skeletons and innards before they’re concealed by a glitzy facade.
But I’m probably not the man to do it. There’s too much risk (fines, injuries, etc.) and too little reward. Plus, I assume there are no people, besides asshole security guards, in these areas. Part of what made the drains interesting to me is that you could encounter graffiti artists, madmen, public-works employees, squatters and others, which added to the intrigue and context of the setting.
I am very interested in the politics behind Beneath the Neon. This is a hard city to live in, a place with very conservative values that offer little help to those in need. It seems obvious from your book that on some level, the authorities in Las Vegas were quiet happy to have their homeless problem “disappear” underground. Of course, you have now made it all public. Has there been much of a reaction to that from authorities and policy-makers?
There really hasn’t been much of a reaction from local authorities and politicians to the book and the media coverage of the tunnels, which is good and bad, I think. One of my biggest fears was that the police would sweep the people out of the tunnels after the book was published. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. But politicians and city and county employees, as far as I can tell, didn’t try to do anything to help the people, either. That’s part of the reason I founded Shine a Light.
If the Mob was still running the town, I’m sure I would’ve received a none-too-subtle message to drop the subject. But the corporate Mob just seems to ignore the subject entirely.
Finally, tell me about what you are up to now. Are you interested in exploring different types of subterranean spaces in the future such as the London sewers or Paris Catacombs (quarries)?
I recently published another book, which I’m excited about. It’s titled My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas. It’s a collection of creative-nonfiction stories set in off-the-beaten-path Vegas and it includes the original storm-drain stories Josh Ellis and I co-wrote for Las Vegas CityLife. Also, I checked into one of the seedier weekly motels in town (and that’s saying a lot!), stayed a week and wrote a diary about my experiences. I wrote a personal story about living in a historic, past-its-prime apartment complex in the shadow the Strip. Stuff like that.
I am interested in exploring subterranean spaces in other cities, but not necessarily writing about them. I’m a bit of a Vegas specialist, so writing about the drains here made sense. However, I’m probably not as qualified to write extensively about the Shanghai Tunnels of Portland, the catacombs of Rome or the quarries of Paris. They’d just be fun places to visit, as a way to balance out the more touristy stuff. I don’t totally geek out or get off on exploring underground spaces. I’ve just developed an interest in them and urban exploring through my experiences in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas.
After conducting this interview with Matthew, I showed him a photograph I had taken of a drain next to a notable landmark, a photo which, in our parlance “exposed access details”. He asked me not to publish it. I was heartbroken, given I though the photo had turned out beautifully, but had to defer on the side of Matthew’s sympathy as one who knew intimately about the conditions of living here, rather than my ego as a photographer of the largely unseen and unpopulated. I mean, if I was living in there and some asshole posted the photo of my front door on Place Hacking, I would be pissed. Just kidding, I’d go steal more drinks and wait for the party to erupt.
A larger question here for the urban exploration community lingers; it has always been the elephant in the room. At what point do our exploration cease to be an adventure in creative practice and boundary subversion and begin to impact those less fortunate than us in a negative way? Is urban exploration, in fact, a victimless crime when we disturb people while exploring? And maybe more importantly – at what point might we begin, as Matthew has, to move past urban exploration to begin working for the rights of those less fortunate than us, to use our media influence to actually improve the lives of others? Do we actually care about that, or just about ticking our list of explored locations?
On the other hand, these people are living in public space (as much as taxpayer funded infrastructure is public space) and most of the people I met so far in drains here could give a shit whether I was walking around in there, they just wanted to know if they could bum a smoke or hit me up for a dollar. Given that our crew has now started squatting space in London, are we really all that different? And if we are bridging the gap between urban explorers and hobos, tramps and bums, following Anderson, what are we? Does that dreaded monstrosity the prohobo – the hobo that chooses to be homeless yet retains the ability to photograph, blog and scam the internet for money as well as picking pockets and robbing Liddle for fixtures to BBQ vegetables looted from the skip actually exist? Is this Donna Haraway’s cyborg, neither nature nor culture, human nor computer, neither employed nor homeless? Are we becoming as liminal as the spaces we increasingly reside in? Are we finally getting close to the meld? I hope so, cause I can’t wait to pop.
In fact, as Matthew spun the stories of encounter in his book, one after another, it became obvious that with a few rare exceptions, most of the people in the drains were there by choice. They had chosen to stop contributing to the system, chosen to gamble their lives away, chosen meth or heroin over family and stability and chosen the freedom and danger of living off the grid, scamming tourists and casinos by silver mining (hunting machines for left over credits). They choose to get high till the day cools off and then crawl out of the drains, all sloppy and hungover, delighted to go dick around in this Mad Max plasticland for another night. In short, many people have chosen this life in Las Vegas Undercity. That is not to say that we shouldn’t offer a helping hand where it’s needed, and bless Matthew for also doing so, but it is to say that maybe pity is wrongly placed here. As Harold, one of the drain dwellers that Matthew encounters says, quite proudly we dwell in the subterranean world, man. We dwell in the subterranean world. Harold goes on to tell Matthew that it was an economic choice, and he is saving mad cash living in the drains. Maybe Harold knows something we don’t, maybe he is braver than us. Maybe homelessness is preferable to the mental vacancy you inhabit at work everyday. The Situationists thought that where material poverty had been eradicated, the biggest threat to life was boredom. Maybe Harold already figured that out and just decided to subvert that whole nightmare before he got there.
Perhaps the other side of this issue is a question of why people don’t live in ruins and infrastructure in London and Paris. Perhaps it’s a fundamental difference in economic distribution, social programs or access to charity. Or maybe it’s just a matter of pride or social conformity. In any case, the Las Vegas Undercity, the only feature of Las Vegas that may interest the intrepid urban explorer, is also, consequently, the true face of a city built on nothing but wealth and decadence and doesn’t look a thing like anyplace else. I suppose, in that light, maybe everybody should see the Vegas drains, maybe then they would understand the true cost of this wonderland. I am pretty sure this is a good indication of what happens when we hack the system into an open source OS: here’s your free market fuckers.
As anyone who knows me will testify, I have always had a deep love for Las Vegas, and particularly for the Mojave Desert. But my recent experiences here, seeing the Las Vegas Undercity, has made me want to leave and never return. Nowhere in the United States is the chasm between rich and poor deeper or more upsetting, nowhere is the barbarity of American free market capitalism more evident. But you know, this is just what’s happening out there, in the real world, in real time. If you want to see if it for yourself, or even move yourself in, that’s your call I guess. When Las Vegas is just another Old West ghost town –boom and then bust! – these reinforced concrete boxes will be buried beneath the desert. They’re our preservation areas. Our art galleries. Our time capsules. They’re also our homeless shelters. As for myself, I am going to take the lessons learned here back to London, that’s when this scene is going to get really raw. What an age in which we dwell. Now let’s drill down into the meld.
Thanks to Katie Draper and Erika Sigvardsdotter for exploring drains here with me and Joshua Ellis and Matthew O’Brien for making me feel at home in a city full of drugs and scary clowns.
Be Monstrous. Explore Everything.
Sewers enjoy a special place in the pantheon of urban mythology.
Photo by Otter at Silent UK
The first big event of 2011 already went down. Literally. This year’s International Drain Meet (IDM) was hosted by London, organized by Otter at Silent UK. It was the largest meeting of the international draining community in London’s history with over 50 people from 6 countries in a large overflow chamber under Knightsbridge. We had drainers from the UK, Sweden, Italy, France, USA and Australia, including the UE Kingz, Brescia Underground and the Cave Clan. We also had a heavy contingent of the massively fun Manchester drainer contingent.
We also seem to have finally melded the two top London crews at this meet through Siologen’s powers of healing oration (see below). By the end of the night, Jon Doe, the King of UK draining, conjured himself out of thin air in the middle of the party to the delight of everyone in attendance. It was, by all accounts, one of the best gatherings in London urban explorer history. A full write up can be found on Winch’s blog.
Otter was kind enough to ask me to film the event since he was busy organizing all night. Here is my contribution – it is best viewed on full screen with the volume turned up loud enough to assault your neighbours.
As always, explore everything.