“I am both caveman & starfaring mutant, con-man & free prince”

-Hakim Bey

Good morning

If you are reading this, it is likely you are doing so for one of three reasons. One is that you know me and feel obligated, which we will ignore for now. Two is that you are using this text as an inspiration to act. Kudos to you. Three is that you are scared, scared of breaking your chains, of shattering the illusions set before you and you are using my reflections on experience as escapism, living vicariously through my surrealist decadence. If this third category applies to you, then this posting, this call to action, is just what you’re looking for.

Wild Children

Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z.: The temporary autonomous zone, ontological anarchy, poetic terrorism initially sounds like a purely philosophical proposition, but the TAZ is actually suggested by Bey to only take form in “geographical odorous tactile tasty physical space” (Bey 1985, pp. xi) I wish to elaborate here on some of Bey’s ideas and relate them to what I see as one of the hidden political and philosophical potentials of urban exploration, lurking around in the shadows like a dirty pirate coming to rape your mind. Bey’s description of the place of action, the place of meaningful existence that resides in between analysis and experience jives really well with my current reality. The cracks between physical encounter and intellectual stimulation comprise Bey’s “surrealist archaeology” (xii) and I, indeed, am now a practicing surrealist archaeologist.

Surrealist Archaeologist

My life over the last year, and especially my time during our last pro hobo road trip to Europe, has definitively taught me one thing: spatial barriers are an illusion, far more psychological than physical. They can all be overcome, excavated, sapped and exploded. The remaining fiery remnants are similar to little chocolate candies, a delight for children and pregnant Venus figurines. Pro hobo teaches us what Bush already knew, authority is an illusion, threats of imminent terrorism and spiritual destruction are an illusion, fear is an illusion, society is an illusion. My experience has taught me that I am the only master of my destiny and I decide what happens next.

Prohobo in the margins

Sartre, who is rumoured to have written an average of 20 pages a day over the course of his life, has scribbled extensively on freedom. And this freedom, I claim, is what Bey wants us all to exert. I say exert rather than find because the only searching you need to do to find it is within yourself. Locate it in a derelict building in Belgium, find it in an abandoned soviet military base in Russia, find it tearing down a statue of Saddam Hussein, find it while cornering police and taking their weapons, find it in a newborn’s sparkling eyes, find it with your lover in a bathtub surrounded by candles, find it in Grandma’s attic, find it at scummy drum & bass warehouse parties, find it by making things out of felt. But for fucks sake, find it in experience. Get out of that pub, get away from this computer, turn off that goddamn television and then go do something stupid, pointless, reckless and beautiful. And don’t apologize for it. Refuse to explain yourself, refuse to give anyone your “details” when they ask why you are doing it.

We need to find the cross sections between analysis and experience yes, but that is for you to do, no one will do it for you. Mindless action is stupid, but so is mindless acceptance of explanation. Siddhartha walks the middle path.

Meaning container

Well, that's over

Bey lays it out for you my friends. “What happened was this: they lied to you, sold you ideas of good & evil, gave you distrust of your body… mesmerized you with inattention, bored you with civilization & all its usurious emotion” (3). Then, they used your placated boredom, your distrust, your fear and your ideas of good and evil to create a world in which they could contain you. They told you that it was possible only to live within their structure. Well, fuck them. If we live in democratic societies than we are the structure. If we were in danger of terrorism, I would have been caught when I started scaling buildings in the City of London or when I climbed into the drain system under Los Angeles.

On your city

In your city

I hardly think I am more intelligent than some well-trained terrorist operative with a will to die. And if that is indeed the case, only one solution remains, given the places I have been able to infiltrate. We are not attacked because the threat is overmagnified or, at worst, nonexistent.

I won’t let this turn into a political rant. To be honest I could care less what kind of bullshit our leaders are feeding us. What I care about is you and me, the people on the ground. Hey… WAKE UP! We are alive! We cannot be stopped from doing anything. If you choose to be stopped, it is not the governments fault, or your friends. It is not because you have no money or because your girlfriend cheated on you when you were 20. It is because you are a twat and you are buying into a narrative constructed by people who want to control you. It may be your state, your parents, or your church, the important thing is for you to recognize that they can only hold you down because you let them. Look to Iran for inspiration. “Smash the symbols of Empire in the name of nothing but the heart’s longing for grace” (12-13).

Grace

I suggest urban exploration as a method of subversion; a state of “delirious & obsessive play” (9) that you knew when you were young. I suggest regression and even retardation of our boundary knowledge as “our feral angels demand that we trespass, for they only manifest themselves on forbidden grounds” (22). Remember how it felt when you were young and all signs and people telling you what to do were merely suggestions? They still are. Embrace your inner child again, cultivate “antics that are sharp enough to slice moonlight” (8). You don’t need drugs or alcohol to experience unfettered joy, to launch yourself raving into the stars. Roll around in them and get burned, scream with joy when the beauty melts your eyelids to your face! You only need your body, your imagination and the willpower to seize those experiences which are available to you, regardless of what you are told is or is not possible.

Suggestion

Problem

Solution

This will to power may find you in danger, hanging from scaffolding on a building or, at worst, dead like our friends Downfallen or Ninjalicious. But that last moment will be found in bliss, because you finished your story on your own terms, with style, kicking in the door and stabbing innocents like Sir Lancelot of Monty Python in your own “particular idiom”.

_____________________________

The fact that I call urban exploration place hacking is significant on multiple levels. Firstly I imply, of course, that we can hack physical space just as computer hackers hack virtual space. But hacking also implies mobility and using mobility to define places is tricky business. We stop in places long enough to eat or take pictures. When going pro hobo, we dwell longer, staying to sleep, BBQ in wheelbarrows or play games. In these instances, our proficiency as place hackers becomes even more transparent as we reconfigure the physical space of encounter, leaving behind archaeological, tangible, physical remnants of our time there, little monuments to the fuck all. But we are always passing through. Turning to Bey again, he suggests that “the TAZ is an encampment of guerilla ontologists”, they “strike and run away” (100). We are on it Bey, and we are running like hell.

Zerowork

Tangible

The pro hobo tour is a sacred pilgrimage, an experience that Westerners rarely find outside of the cliché roadtrip. It is a massive dérive, a journey to the far horizons of possibility, “a spiritual exercise which combines the urban & nomadic energies…into a single trajectory” (81). As we push the journey further from London, further from our homeland, our comfort food and our safe zone, as we run out of money and continually get drunker on Chimey and experience, the sheer duration “inculcates [us with] a propensity to experience the marvellous; not always in its beneficial form perhaps, but hopefully always productive of insight – whether thru architecture, the erotic, adventure, drink & drugs, danger, inspiration, whatever – into the intensity of unmediated perception and experience” (81).

Sacred Pilgrimage

Inspiration

I now recognize that these mobile transgressions are the heart of what makes urban exploration effective as a mode of spatial resistance. To stay in one place is to create a target for the state, to invite martyrdom at the expense of losing reality hackers. Look to examples of cults, hippie encampments, squatters villages. They are all too easily scoped in, laser painted targets. As Sun Tzu might advise, moving targets are difficult to hit. Keep them guessing where we will go next, where we will post next, who will be there, what will happen. Catch us if you can.

This is not just physical mobility but ontological mobility. Even though subscribers to the urban explorer code of ethics seek to leave behind no traces of our passing, they are inevitable. A dropped glove, a forgotten film canister, a helmet fallen in a well. Even if we do move without a trace, the records taken away will change perception of the space, will encourage more TAZ creations, UrbEx infiltrations and spatial disturbances. Every photograph is a call to action.

Call to action

This action, let me now assure you, is no revolution. The point of place hacking (and this is where Bey and I may disagree) is not anarchy or revolution. The point, my friends, is insurrection to disrupt order for the distinct purposes of expressing our rights to freedom, our rights to the city and to instil fear in the suits writing policy documents in cubicles, taking frequent coffee breaks to dream about what freedom feels like out there in tasty space. Show them what it looks like, better yet, show them what it feels like. They will love you for it, even as they avert their eyes from your soiled clothing on the tube.

This post is not a call to tear down the government, that would be stupid. As Nietzsche has pointed out, the truly free spirited will not agitate for the rules to be dropped or even reformed, since it is only by breaking the rules that we realize our power. Anarchism exists in the world and those places are shitholes. What we want is to gently remind those who would question us that this is our world, these are our societies. We allow those suits to run them, and that is democracy.

Dare me to press it? Double dog dare me?

Now…

Go go something stupid and reckless; go create your own TAZ. And remember that “the architecture of suffocation and paralysis will be blown up only by our total celebration of everything” (42).

We win.

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4 explorers, 5 Countries, 2000 miles, 16 abandoned sites, 5000 photographs, 3 hours of video footage, a pocket full of loose change to live on and a car full of $7000 worth of camera gear. It’s these last two bits that I find so amusing, these are the pieces of the puzzle that turn this from a hobo trip to a pro hobo trip I suppose. That and the radical mobility of our opt-in faux homelessness.

After our last trip to Europe, I wrote about urban camping. I felt like that long weekend away was a sort of like a wilderness retreat, a little escape from work and obligations to see something unstraited. Some people choose go to a pine forest for these retreats, we go to abandoned châteaus in Belgium. Seems fair enough.

But this trip was different right from the beginning. Part of it was due to the length of our expedition, part of it due to the dynamics of the crew. We had a crew of 4 – myself, Statler, Winch and Silent Motion, all up for it in a big way. We were long inspired by the perpetual homeless adventures of Dsankt at Sleepy City which seemed to pry open a new level of UrbEx or, at the least, open up new possibilities for adventurous play. So we struck out on a Sunday night from Reading, UK, across the channel on the P&O car ferry, through the sadness of Calais, France, just across the border into Belgium to Kosmos, a hotel with a weird Russian art-deco theme that had closed in 1996 where we planned to stay the night.

Transgressive Mobilities

What a shithole

Tourism?

Getting into it

Rated 1 Star on Travelocity

Strangely enough, given what a pile of crap this place was, it was really hard to get into. Finally, after making our way in, ferrying in bags of clothes, food, whiskey and 8 bottles of Chimay looted from a road side stop, we settled in for the night, with a gorgeous view of a random Belgian valley spread out before us, full P&O shot glasses of cheap drink and a horrible rattling noise from the winds assaulting some loose flap on the roof above us.

Not broken yet

Penthouse

Winch

Winch taking in the epicness of first night

Unstrap

The Goblinmerchant get naked

We ended up finally dragging tables and chairs from other rooms to board up the windows which were allowing massive gust of wind and rain into our sleeping quarters. Essentially, we started doing home repairs. That night, falling asleep to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II playing softly on my phone, I had dreams about the property owner showing up weeks later to find that somebody had actually repaired their building, boarded up windows, brought in and cleaned up couches, filled the bookshelves with tea lights. I imagined them being, at first, dismayed and confused and then… amused, a small smile cracking their stoically disappointed Belgian head.

The thing I started thinking was that our move from UrbEx into pro hoboness was actually a move that benefited property owners because, as Silent Motion put it, “our sleeping in the space builds a more intimate connection with it, we become a part of the fabric.” So going pro hobo, in my mind, even the documentation aspect that you are scrolling through right now, is about place hacking, about finding intimacy in a world full of sterile engagement.

This idea was made even more funny when the property owners showed up at 8am the next morning and started putting up more fencing on the site. Between us and them, the place was going to be completely remodelled soon. We waiting 30 minutes or so for them to leave and made our hasty escape.

Although I am tempted to write about all 16 sites we went to, I can’t. The reason for this is, quite simply, that I cannot relay the epic nature of the experience to you in a blog posting, try as I might. With every day that passed, the crew got more raw, more volatile, more energetic, in a weird, confused sort of way. It was a delirious panic that I think would have even made Dionysus proud. I was drunk for most of it, partly because I do better fieldwork after a few beers and partly because the experience was so raw that it had to be shielded, it was like trying to stare into the sun. Now I know why so many homeless people drink.

Staring at the sun

Hallway

The raw light of experience

Boundaries that existed in our little UK bubble began to break down. We did not speak the language, we did not meet a single person outside of the grocery stores and petrol stations we ravaged, washing our hair in their bathroom sinks and leaving piles of trash in their parking spaces, running under the turnstiles at the restrooms that demanded 50 cents. All that existed, all that mattered was the adventure and the bond between us which grew tighter with every sip of Jupiler in the back seat of Statler’s car, with every step walked over squishy mold/carpet. We could not think about what was happening because as Dostoevsky points out “one must love life before loving it’s meaning.” And this love was on fire. We began infiltrating live sites, barbecuing dinner in wheelbarrows, lighting dozens of candles in random rooms of Nazi extermination camps and free climbing timber into bell towers in crumbling buildings to photograph the holes in the roof veiled in cloudy continental morning mist.

The film here were shit

Dinner sorted

Dinner cooked over pieces of the gas chamber

Europro

Do they know we're in here?

Winch was the primary conspirator of this little frozen-toed expedition. Always up for a challenge and a laugh, he had booked this absurd holiday in December, I think, to break our will. After all, only the broken can be admitted into the ranks of legend. After taking in a few leisure sites over the first few days, he hits us with the news – we are going after heavy industry. Now, given that I am about to give a paper on reanimating industrial spaces through urban exploration at the 2009 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Durham at the end of the month, I thought this is a grand idea. Until it actually started going down.

We walked up to Transfo, a power station in Belgium, to find it swarming with people. We waited until dusk. When we thought everybody had gone home, Silent Motion ninja’d his way in to the secure building past the motion sensing lights and infrared alarm system. We got in and snapped some pics for about 10 minutes before some worker ran up and started rattling the doors to the heavy equipment room. Whoops. Turns out they were not all gone, but Silent Motion clearly could give a shit and starting climbing the infrastructure of the building to get a landscape shot.

Roll me

Raw Metal

Pushing it

Ghosts of industry

On our way to Germany, we stopped to infiltrate Kokerei Zollverein, again swarming with people including professional photographers and men in suits. I swore that this infiltration would end badly. The only bad outcome, in reality, was my nausea from being meters away from workers as we snook past them and hid in the shadows. All my photos from there are shaky save two:

Up top

Processing

Pause

Pulled

After my moment of existential crisis, we made our way to an abandoned train yard Munster Gare, a glorious moment for me for some odd reason. Something about the intersections of transportation (mobility), dereliction (history, aesthetics) and remote location (opportunity for playfulness) made this my favorite site of the trip.

Titanic

I'm the captain of this ship!

moving?

The passengers

Woody

No more goods

Broken

Unnecessary

After that locomotive jizfest, we drove into Germany. I had not been since I was 19 years old when I pursued the country on a underage American-in-Europe beer run, and was dismayed to find that it was actually a really beautiful place. Mostly because the further East you go, the more derelict structures begin to dominate to landscape. I always thought of dereliction being about the failures of capitalism, but nowhere was abandonment more apparent that in East Germany, markers to the collapse of communism and the retreat of the Soviet Union. The group entered a fervor as we drove through the country side, everything began to look derelict. At one point I remember Silent Motion saying, “Hey there’s a building over there!” and Winch responding “Nice, does it has trees growing out of it?”

We had resigned ourselves to a week of squatting. It was safe to say, at this point, that we had all left our lives behind. I didn’t care about my research anymore, I just wanted to keep getting high on adrenaline. No one ever talked about their jobs, their families. We talked about girls, 4chan, about what country had the best beer (hint: it’s Belgium), about football. Even our Blackberries and iPhones served only to get us aerial photos and to update our facebook status so everyone knew how much more fun we were having than them being homeless, elite and stacked with fat kit. As we crept into East Germany, we were all broken.

I don’t mean that in a bad way. What had been broken was our expectations, our existential dilemmas, our need for unnecessary daily crisis. These things were overwhelmed by the experience of the present, by what was just around the horizon. I felt, for the first time on this project, like I had actually broken the research barrier. I was not studying UrbEx anymore, I was UrbEx. I sat in the back of the car, delirious and drunk, and saw Winch staring at his fingernails. He says “When you look at my fingernails what do you see?” I told him “Maybe the blood and sweat of old inhabitants.” He considered it and replied “I don’t want to clean them…” This was our arrival, the point at which we had committed to dreaming instead of sleeping. And with that, we moved into Berlin, into post-Soviet Territory. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

Lucid

Never done

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