Security Breach: The London Mail Rail

Posted by Consolidation Crew on Sunday Apr 24, 2011 Under Celebration, Infiltration, Urban Exploration

Every sin is the result of a collaboration.
-Seneca

A Consolidation Crew post by Patch, “Gary”, Statler, Silent Motion, Scott, Winch, Ercle and Goblinmerchant

Holy Grail, photo by "Gary"

The exploration of the London Mail Rail last week was a (re)discovery of the highest order, the pinnacle of a year of heavy exploration for the London Consolidation Crew. Since 2008, myself, Statler, Site, Siologen, Winch, Otter, Snappel, Urban Fox, Silent Motion, Ercle, Scott, “Gary”, Gigi, Cogito, Marc Explo, Neb and Patch have moved through one London Underground station after anotherMark Lane, South Kentish Town, Lords, Swiss Cottage, Aldwych, Holborn, Brompton Road, Marlborough Road, Old King’s Cross, York Road, Down Street, City Road, the list goes on… Night after night, we have stood on the edges of the tracks waiting for the current to shut off on the third rail before we turned the Tube tunnels into our playgrounds of delicious disorder, negotiating the boundary between chaos and order in the nocturnal city. We have done so much work underground and research above that it’s likely at this point we understand the disused parts of the TFL tunnel system better than the workers – as Patch recently said, “if I’d filled my head with knowledge that’s actually useful rather than endless information about the Tube then maybe I’d have come up with an amazing idea or business model and become a millionaire by now.”

City Road infiltration, photo by Silent Motion

Aldwych bitch! photo by "Gary"

Thought you knew, photo by "Gary"

Riding the rails, photo by Silent Motion

Slowly since our humble beginnings as a crew, as our appetite for new experiences grew, the musings of Ninjalicious became increasingly poignant where he said in an interview with Dylan Trigg in 2005 that “I wouldn’t say what [urban explorers] are looking for is the beauty of decay so much as the beauty of authenticity, of which decay is a component.” The authenticity of the explore for us, increasingly, became as much about pushing boundaries as exploring locations; without the boundaries, explorations being nothing more than ruin porn. As the geographer Tim Cresswell writes, we may have to experience geographical transgression before we realize that a boundary even existed and once we realise where the boundaries actually lay (rather than where we are told they lay), we also realise how fluid and porous they are. As Marc Explo has said about our motivations, “I don’t think we are against the system, we’re just pointing out its limits. And as soon as the authorities realise we have, the boundaries evolve.”

Heightened security, photo by Silent Motion

Rewind six months. As part of our Tube onslaught, we become aware of a separate system of nine stations far below the city historically used by the Post Office to transport letters across London – the first track laid in May 1861 as an experimental 452 yard line. Supposedly, it was now all disused and could somehow be accessed, though we had no idea how. However, on Halloween night 2010, ravers took over a massive derelict Post Office building in the city and threw an illegal party of epic proportions. When pictures from the party emerged, we were astonished to find that a few of them looked to be of a tiny rail system somehow accessed from the building.

Silent Motion, Winch, Statler and myself were there a day later. Statler and Winch kept watch while Silent Motion and I snuck into the building. It was absolutely ravaged. After hours of exploration, we finally found what we thought might be a freshly bricked up wall into the mythical Mail Rail the partygoers had inadvertently found (I also found a great camouflage Animal jacket someone left behind that I’ve been wearing ever since). We went back to the car and discussed the possibility of chiselling the brick out. We decided that, given how soon it was after the party, the place was too hot to do that just now and we walked away, vowing to try again in a couple of months. When the MSP crew was out a few months later, we had another look but were again deterred by police wanting to know what we we doing hanging around the area.

I left London for Las Vegas in March of 2011 to go write my thesis, leaving my flat keys with Patch and “Gary” who then converted my flat into a squat for the crew; the Team B war room, the new London secret hideout for explorers from across the world, including the infamous Steve Duncan a few weeks ago. About a month after I was gone, drunk in my thesis document haze, I got a message from Statler that said “I think we found access again mate”. If there is one thing we have learned exploring the London Underground, it is to move fast once entry is found, we have to hit a place hard and document everything we can before the Glitch is sealed. A day later, the first pictures went up.

Subterranean departure, photo by Silent Motion

And sneakily, photo by Silent Motion

We're in! photo by Scott

Like win, photo by Statler

So let this begin! Photo by "Gary"

Framed in terms of increasingly vertical movement above and below “street level”, our explorations have become an extravagant passage of surreal encounter and discovery through the city in an attempt to discover and remake it in an image not mediated by corporate sponsors and bureaucrats but by bands of friends doing epic shit together. Similarly, in the 1960s, the Situationist International in Paris also sought to counter the contemplative and non-interventionist power of “the spectacle” by intervening in the city and experiencing its spaces directly as actors rather than spectators.  Part of this process of intervention, for us, required letting go of the social constraints that were binding even our exploration of the city. In effect, we had to become more criminal minded to get where we needed to be. We don’t apologize for that, that’s how we do it in the Proleague.

In this spot, photo by Statler

"Gary" hits the jackpot, photo by Patch

The sociologist Stephen Lyng writes that some criminal actions are experienced as almost magical events that involve distinctive ‘sensual dynamics’. These criminal pursuits often take on a transcendent appeal, offering the criminal an opportunity for a passionate, intensely authentic experience. Although urban exploration may be, as Siologen contends, a “victimless crime”, at some point we all have to admit that in order to obtain a Holy Grail, boundaries have to be pushed hard, if not necessarily broken, though the politic behind this is more subtle than assertive, more subversive than transgressive.

Level up, photo by Silent Motion

Filthy, photo by Statler

Little, photo by Lucida Grange

One, photo by "Gary"

The Consolidation Crew found a complete system of nine Mail Rail stations underneath London, full of small trains or “mini yorks” used to move mail around the city. Statler wrote later that “it’s unreal how this hadn’t been done before, I mean all the access info was online via sub-brit (Subterranea Britannica) and all it involved was a little bit of climbing!” It just went to prove that as much as urban exploration is about skill, it is also about luck and persistence.

Ninja skillz?

The crew made multiple trips into Mail Rail. “Gary” writes that himself, Otter, and Site made the journey from Paddington to Whitechapel. Including the journey back, they walked roughly 8 miles of tunnel. He continues,

The tunnels become tighter approaching the stations, meaning stooping was required at regular intervals throughout the trip. Towards the eastern end of the line, calcium stalactites were more abundant, hanging from the tunnel ceilings, and gleaming under the fluorescent light. This produced a very real feeling of adventure, like we were in an Indiana Jones movie, in some kind of mine or cave system with wooden carts and the smell of damp throughout. During this first of my two trips, the feeling of  surreal adventure was most prominent and the constant reminder that this incredible piece of infrastructure was indeed underneath the centre of London was a bizarre realisation. The stations themselves had an air of secrecy to them. Hearing the distant echoes from some of the live sorting offices above (particularly Rathbone) was exciting yet comforting (though others found it rather unsettling; it’s funny how different sounds/situations provoke different reactions when exploring) and emphasised the fact that we really had wiggled our dirty little fingers into one of the myths of subterranean London, peeling it back for all to see.

Otter on the rails, photo by "Gary"

Photographing grails, photo by Ercle

Inside the Mail Rail, Ercle writes that it was almost comical, “it felt like we were inside a model railway (with it bearing a striking resemblance to the full sized tube)”. Statler adds,

it was hot, sweaty, dank, wet…. it smelt like a mouldering hospital in parts and was pretty cramped in the tunnels. The stretch between Liverpool Street to Whitechapel was a real neck breaker in places and a long walk probably around 45 minutes. There were also a lot of calcium stalactites that would snap off in your face and hair it was obvious that people hadn’t been in the tunnels for a very long time. The same goes for the stretch between Bird street and Paddington which was also another long walk of small diameter tunnels.

Breaker, photo by Silent Motion

Breaker 1-2, photo by Statler

You're breaking up! Photo by Statler

Although accessing the system was no easy feat, like many place, once inside Ercle writes that “the threat of security felt a very long way off for all but one of the stations”, even whilst dodging CCTV cameras, highlighting the fact that once past the liminal zone of cameras, motions sensors and security guards, we are relatively free to do as we please in derelict infrastructural urban spaces. Scott describes how “unlike the usual stress of Tube exploration, we were all totally relaxed, free to chat and enjoy ourselves as it got later and later into the night. It was a luxurious experience and was reminiscent of the feeling of exploration when I first began; pure admiration of my surroundings.”

Admiration, photo by Silent Motion

Shock, photo by Ercle

For four days, the crew went back again and again, hitting the system hard right in front of the cameras, running longer down the lines to more stations, occasionally setting of alarms and then scurrying out of the system before anybody official arrived. Every night was a new bout of edgework, a dance with subterranean London where the mundane everyday world provides the boundaries and edges that are approached. And it is the very approach to the edge that provides a heightened state of excitement and adrenaline rush. The thrill is in being able to come as close as possible to the edge without detection… Finally on the 5th night, luck broke and Statler, Patch and Winch were approached by police and a Post Office employee on the street as they were exiting the system who told them they “had been watching them run around in here for days now on CCTV”.  Winch tells the story:

After enduring a tense period on the street waiting for a period of inactivity both within the large building, the three of us swiftly made our way to our access point at Paddington, pleased with ourselves for such a well executed entry having continually checked for unwanted attention and seeing nobody, we assumed we were safely in.

“Right lads, stay where you are. The police are on their way. You’re fucked”. Postman Pat was bellowing down the shaft at us. In a second we froze, before hastily dropping down ladders and finding a bolted door, a ladder that had previously assisted access to other parties now nowhere to be seen.

The door seemed impenetrable, nothing there to assist the 20ft climb. The frame being metal it flexed enough to squeeze a hand through and unbolt the door. We ran to the tunnels. Entering the pitch black we stopped for a second to take stock, aware that going down the wrong tunnels could take us away from our intended destination where we had a car parked.

We trod quickly and carefully through to our exit station with no time to hang around and take pictures, just an opportunity to exit through a door onto the street and away from the now screaming alarm (Which had been switched off on previous visits, but was now fully armed), away from the Mail Rail that would no doubt be crawling with police soon.

Back at the car, we packed our kit away and headed back to collect our other vehicle. A Police van flew past, sirens blazing, blue lights on. We breathed a sigh of relief. We could have been fucked. Postman Pat could have been right.

By our access point was 3 police cars. We collected the other car and departed, having arranged to meet Gary at a nearby station for some other activities in the area.

An hour or so later, the city was crawling. Police cars bolted up and down side streets, combing the area for those they’d assumedly seen on CCTV. We met with Otter and Siologen too, and congregated on a non-descript street to arrange ourselves.

Sirens blazed. A van buzzed down the street. The siren stopped. The van stopped. The questions started. Postman Pat and Mrs Goggins arrived. I’ve seen him on CCTV. And him. And him. Arrest them all, we’ve got all of them.

It was Siolo’s smooth talking to the police that ultimately saved us a night in the cells – by the end Postman Pat and Mrs Goggins were annoying the police more than we were and we were told to leave and not come back, having been searched.

Otter was the first to post the story of the Mail Rail infiltration on his blog. It hit a number of major news providers within hours and went viral, crashing the Silent UK website and the hosting provider’s server two days ago, causing cheers of utter delight from all of us in the background.

Cheers all around, photo by Scott

Accessing Mail Rail was, and is, something to be proud of, but it also led to dejection among the crew in the post-explore comedown. Otter wrote on Silent UK that in a way, its with a bit of sadness I write this, when your group has conquered the best location a city or country has to offer, those remaining will often seem tame by comparison. Many of the crew commented that “London was done now” and there was “nothing left” while Urbanity decreed on 28 Days Later the “end of exploration” (admittedly tongue-in-cheek), while Patch and Winch contended that “there will always be more to explore.”

Always, photo by Silent Motion

More to explore, photo by Silent Motion

As Speed, an explorer from another crew on wrote on 28 Days Later,

I think most people could see it coming… the whole scene in London is really on its toes right now. You have a large group of very capable [people] who are not afraid to take big risks and push into stuff people have previously only skimmed the surface of. It was only a year or so ago one of the main protagonists was telling me how he was moving to London and was going to ‘batter the tube’ and things to that effect. A year on and he’s done exactly what he said with success even an ‘optimist’ such as myself didn’t really see coming. That’s the sort of thing I’ve got a lot of respect for.

Focus gets you a long way.

The Mail Rail was the most significant achievement by far of the Consolidation Crew, the discovery, exploration and leak of what urban explorers call a Holy Grail – a site of utter historic impotence, unrivalled beauty and “authentic” discovery built on the back of skill, luck and research. It was the pinnacle of everything we had built up to together. Although I wasn’t there for the Mail Rail, I was honoured when the crew asked me to post the collected photos from the trip.

So long, photo by Patch

Mail Rail, photo by Scott

While urban exploration can be seen as an material investigation of informal spaces or liminal zones, it can also be viewed as a process that melds the zones of in-between into the fabric of the rest of the city by dulling the boundaries of can and can’t, seen and unseen, imagined and experienced, done and not done. The Consolidation Crew, in the last year and especially since the IDM last January, has accomplished more than I’ve ever thought possible and whatever the future of the UK urban Exploration scene may be, 2008-2011 will always be remembered as a Golden Age of London infiltration.

And with that…

Explore Everything, photo by Silent Motion

_____________________

A huge thanks to everyone in the Consolidation Crew for keep me in the loop while I hide away writing our stories. Shouts to Statler, Siologen, Urban Fox, Winch, Snappel, Silent Motion, Patch, Ercle, “Gary”, Otter and Scott for accomplishing what few thought possible.

 

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Sewers enjoy a special place in the pantheon of urban mythology.

-Matthew Gandy

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.

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Man is free at the instant he wants to be.
-Voltaire

Clear light of bliss

Silent Motion rolled up on the East London Greenway at about midnight. Sarah and Maria were with him and he was headed with a determined stride to an old flame. Architecturally speaking of course. The Abbey Mills Pumping Station, recently written about by our friend Paul Dobraszczyk on rag-picking history is indeed a Cathedral of Sewage.

The first empty Redstripe can spiked onto the security fence followed by another empty precariously placed on a ledge waiting for the next little gust of wind to send it spiralling into the River Lea clearly indicated that the Goblinmerchant and Brosa were already inside. But when Silent Motion and the girls rolled up, they found the dejected pair with the rogue Sophie dancing around a fifth of Famous Grouse playing tag with the demons of the night. The window was jammed.

Two hours of death-defying acrobatics followed. We all knew with Silent Motion there we weren’t walking away. The popping sound of the fire exit opening 40 minutes later was consequently rather satisfying, given how miserably cold we all were lying huddled around our empty Grouse bottle drawing straws to see who would be eaten first while we waited for the early-morning train from the Far East back to more respectable South London Boroughs.

Post-apocalyptic imaginaries were abandoned as we walked through the door.

In the presence

Of Bazalgette

Being in such close presence to Joseph Bazalgette, hero of London sewage, urban exploration and architectural aesthetics, was instantly sobering. Standing in the main hall, it become clear that Bazalgette was mad as a hatter when he built this absurd monstrosity of shit-pumpage. But as Jack Kerouac writes in On The Road,

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

We were all on the same team here. It was clear to everyone in attendance that Bazalgette was there too, raving and craving, clawing and lusting, climbing and laughing. We went into a wild Bacchian frenzy. It was movable feast of affectual affordances as twisted Victorian metal was transmuted into swing and ladders, balance beams and gaps to jump. We played limbo under their security gates, we crawled on all fours across half-submerged pipes and used the derelict phone system to call the security hut and tell them they lost the game.

We don't need

To ask for

Permission

_________________________

The truth is that Silent Motion and I needed some time to play. We had been fighting police in the streets, sat in sub-zero kettles, setting fire to the city to keep warm for a month straight as part of the student protests. It felt like life had quickly become so serious. Even urban exploration had taken an ominous turn after other explorers started crying about our A-team exploits. One detractor even labelled our crew “the London can openers” which I quite liked.

Spot the can opener

Our participation in particular types of exploration, our participation in the riots that most explorers chose to ignore while they sad at home madly bashing their keyboards in frustration, our participation in whatever the fuck gets us pumped up is a reminder, however sad, that as Winch has said before, there is no UrbEx community, there are just friends who enjoy hanging out with each other. Some are braver than others. Some explore for the glory, some for the fun. Some walk in the track of others. Some blaze new trails. Some try to make things a little more fun. As Statler says, there are no rules to UrbEx, there’s just where your morals fit and as Sartre once wrote about the philosophy teacher Mathieu, “he could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he thought them into being.”

We needed this night to remind ourselves that this is what we are capable of. Elegance was reaped by bringing along a visitor to London for the weekend to experience a night out that wouldn’t be soon forgotten. We fed on that initial wonder that comes with realizing that yeah, you can just do this.

Let's

Just do this

Being free doesn’t require consent and we don’t need to ask permission to explore, not from the government, other explorers or your mum. No matter how much frustration we brew, how serious our work gets or how intense our lives may become, we are reminded through urban exploration that all it really takes to feel free again is the initiative to walk away from it all and rewrite the rules for a night. Disclaimer? There is none.

Space, despite all allusions and illusions to the contrary, is free.

Beautiful all around

__________________________

The photo of Abbey Mills in 1868 was jacked from Rag Picking History.

The photo of Silent Motion the can opener was kindly provided by Nicholas Adams at Guerilla Photography.

The Red Stripes and Famous Grouse were provided, on discount, by Emron from Pakistan at my corner shop who still wants me to make a documentary about his quest to abandon the family business to become a pilot.

The word were kindly provided by my brain, via my fingers during some sort of synaptic process that still eludes me.

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“We enjoy thumbing our noses at petty bureaucrats and puerile legislators, and their half-baked attempts to stop us going to the places where we go… places they built with our tax money.”
-Predator, Sydney Cave Clan

Drop in

Watching the US government scramble to patch up the PR damage being done through Julian Assange‘s leak of 250,000 private cables got me thinking more about the political implications of my notion of place hacking. The hacker ethos is clearly aligned to libertarian socialism, at times straddling the intersection between libertarianism on the right and anarchism on the left. This intersection was evident in the hails of praise for Julian Assange from both Anarchists and from Ron Paul, one of the leaders of the US Conservative Tea Party movement.

So when we recently explored a Ministry of Defense nuclear bunker, I could not help but make the connection between the militant existentialist ideology, shared by other groups such as graffiti writers who assert, as Tim Cresswell writes, that “everywhere is free space” and the Wikileaks ethos of populist-enforced democratic transparency which I assume Jim Hightower, the celebrated American liberal populist, must approve of. Both system hacking and urban exploration are about making the invisible visible and technology helps us to force transparency in both virtual and meat space. I created a podunk media flurry in Riverside California, my home town, last summer by sneaking into March Air Reserve Base with my brother Pip and photographing the remains of millions of dollars of government investment rotting in an abandoned military hospital while they planned to spend $80 million to build a new one one the same base during an economic meltdown. It therefore came as little surprise when we cracked this bunker and found equal waste in the UK. Which we of course, in both cases, we loved for the surreal playgrounds they create.

Planning

For transparency

Dsankt writes on Sleepy City that “whether you’re hacking transit systems or computer systems they’re all fissured, all possessing those little cracks just wide enough to wriggle your dirty little fingers into and force to sneak a peek into what lies beneath the shiny smoothed over façade most take for granted every single day”. I have suggested “place hacking” as a phrase which encapsulates the different types of explorations we undertake (urban exploration, infiltration, draining, buildering, unauthorised spelunking, urban adventuring, underground parties, etc.) as well as the more intangible themes of localization of heritage, political subversion, critical spatial practice and “alternative” community construction and identification. But I wasn’t the first. As early as the 1980s, the term “hacking” was applied first to physical space by the Technology Hackers Association at MIT who learnt to pick locks and infiltrated the steam tunnels underneath the university. Students began climbing rooftops on campus, conducting freshman on what is called The Orange Tour. Only later was the term appropriated by the computing community. As Löwgren writes, “the word ‘hack’ was used to refer to… practical jokes or stunts. Its meaning shifted to the technology needed to perform the prank, and later came to mean a clever technical solution in general”.

The 7th entry under the term “hacker” in the New Hacker’s Dictionary defines a hacker as “one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations”, importantly pointing out the physical foundations of the art.

Place

Hackers

We worked for hours into the night, checking the walls for hidden tunnels to gain access to the bunker and crawled out some hours later covered in mud, tumbling in front of two large security cameras. Figuring we had already been seen and praying that no one was watching them, we pushed forward, all scared witless but determined to know what was contained within. Alan Rapp writes in his MA thesis that the practice of urban exploration “provides a tart reminder that the areas that we have regular access to are not just quotidian, but also normative, if not repressive. The patterning that we can infer from the sanctioned environment is absent from the spaces that urban explorers go; they have been deprogrammed”. In the same way the “the techniques dérive and détournement offer the possibility to explore spaces in new ways, and to rearrange existing aesthetic elements into new forms of expression”, urban exploration fits geographer Alistair Bonnett’s description of offering “a new form of geographical investigation that can enable the revolutionary reappropriation of the landscape”.

But while the organization and politicisation of the practice may be novel, a question remains whether the practice itself actually is. Urban exploration, though it looks similar to the dérive, or surrealist parodies, has learned from the successes and failures of preceding critical spatial practices, leading to the creation of a network that is truly horizontally structured, without leadership and completely decentralized, while adopting an opaque public image of apolitical benignity, at times even presented as a type of heroic preservationism. Urban exploration, as a result of this decentralised power structure and well-groomed public image, is political in action but not in assertion, rooted in freedom of personal choice that comes across as what I see increasingly as libertarian in ideology aligned with the work of Wikileaks and individual anarchists. As Marc Explo recently told me on a trespass into the quarries of Paris, “I don’t need anyone to tell me that I am free. I prove that I am free everyday by going wherever I want. If I want to drink wine on top of Notre Dame, I do that, if I want to throw a party underground, I do that.” The impetus to do so becomes even stronger when we feel excluded from the government decision making process that we are paying for. And so, as Marc Explo asserts, where right are not given, they are simply taken.

Information

Not offered

As Bonnett again points out, we tend “…to assign creative spatial behaviour to performance artists and other specialists in provocation.” He writes that he feels these groups somehow owned “the subversive imagination” but on closer inspection sees that “ordinary urban behaviour fairly sizzles with errant activities…” Indeed, as spectacular as urban exploration and infiltration may seem, it’s simply an act of walking, climbing, inspecting and recording, activities which are far from spectacular and certainly do not hold the same glamour that is assigned to the consumption of the records produced by these activities. Organized transgressions against normative daily behaviour, what Oli Mould and I have termed urban subversions are in fact rarely riotous.

Creative resistance may take the form of refusing to move in places where you are expected to, such as in a flash mob event where large groups of coordinated participants freeze in unison in public spaces designed for movement or in rural areas designated private property where groups such as the Ramblers Association of Britain hold yearly ‘Forbidden Britain’ mass trespasses, a simple act of walking somewhere you are not supposed to. Some spatial incursions into places do not even take place physically, such as Trevor Paglen’s visual trespasses onto United States military property through the telephoto lens of a camera, or his more recent work photographing US spy satellites that supposedly do not exist. Like many other activities, urban exploration, while conceptually provocative, is almost dull in practice, with many participants refusing to even acknowledge deeper implications. “Gary” told after reading some of my writing that, “what you do Brad, it’s just words, this doesn’t have anything to do with anything”.  I can’t fault “Gary” for preferring action over words.

Words

Into action

Clearly, in an existential libertarianism framework where “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”, the desire to explore unseen space could be seen as a reaction to a growing existential angst in urban inhabitants. I see place hacking as a proportional response the the closure of the majority of urban space in combination with the blatant and frivolous waste of of tax money constructing structures like secret nuclear fallout bunkers designed to shelter only the corrupt government that created the potential of nuclear attack in the first place. And like Assange, I say hey, keep building that shit, keep wasting our money. In fact, keep trying to patrol and lock it up. We will be right behind you to liberate that space for absurdity and play. Your move.

Just words


This posting is dedicated to the kids who have been protesting to be heard and fighting the police in the streets of London this week. Apathetic generation indeed. Solidarity!

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I like to just gobble the stuff right out in the street and see what happens, take my chances, just stomp on my own accelerator. It’s like getting on a racing bike and all of a sudden you’re doing 120 miles per hour into a curve that has sand all over it and you think “Holy Jesus, here we go,” and you lay it over till the pegs hit the street and metal starts to spark. If you’re good enough, you can pull it out, but sometimes you end up in the emergency room with some bastard in a white suit sewing your scalp back on.

–Hunter S. Thompson, Playboy Magazine, 1974, discussing drug use as edgework

Keep looking

Edgework was a term first used by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to describe the necessity some people find in pushing boundaries to find fulfillment. The idea is to work as close to the “edge” as one can without getting cut (or at least not too deeply). For Thompson, this meant putting himself in perilous situations such as doing ethnographic research with the notorious Hell’s Angels Biker Gang, ingesting various intoxicants to the point of near overdose or taking drugs of unknown origin in unexpected combinations.

The term edgework was appropriated by the socialist Stephen Lyng as a blanket term for anyone who “actively seeks experiences that involve a high potential for personal injury or death.” In his 1996 article Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking (expanded in 2004 as an edited book), Lyng goes on to explain edgework as a negotiation between “life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, and sanity and insanity”.

Relatively conscious (photo by Otter, Yaz and Goblinmerchant)

It seems to me that most urban explorers not only feel the need to test those limits, but to push them. We find those opportunities in drain systems, where the obvious risk comes from flooding and drowning to abandoned buildings which have both short term (collapse) and long term (respiratory problems, cancer etc.) negative impacts on our bodies. Many urban explorers also frequent high places where falling is always a possibility. In these locations we are free to do our edgework, pushing these boundaries by hanging from cranes, balancing on edges of long drops, precariously tiptoeing over weak floors and scrambling under collapsing roofs.

Edging (image courtesy of nocturn.es)

In wider society, inevitably connected to the concept of “liability”, is the notion that these activities are trangressive. UrbEx, like street art, skateboarding and parkour, is a practice which reappropriates urban space for an unintended or unexpected use that may result in bodily harm and one of the common reactions to people choosing to take unnecessary risks is, of course, suspicion that these people are “out of place”. But as Christopher Stanley has written, “these subcultural events [could] assume the status of resistant practices not in terms of ideology but rather in terms of alternative narratives of dissensus representing possible moments of community.”

Sinking feeling

As Lyng rightly points out later in his article, “risk taking is necessary for the well-being of some people” as individuals work to “develop capacities for competent control over environmental objects” (see Klausner 1968) inspiring edgeworkers to sometimes speak of a feeling of “oneness” with the object or environment while undertaking these risks.

I know that the places where I feel most embedded in the “fabric” are places where I have taken risks. In those places, I have bonded not only with Lyng’s “object and environment” but also with my friends who shared in those risks.

Alternative cathedral use, Paris (image courtesy of Marc Explo)

The desires to explore for the sake of exploring, to take risks for the sake of the experience, with little thought to the “outcome”, is something that runs deep in us when we are children. Urban explorers are, in one sense, rediscovering and forging these feelings of unbridled play, of useless wandering, of trivial conversation and of spontaneous encounter, all of which lead to the creation of very thick bonds between fellow explorers who use play as a way “to de-emphasize the importance of work and consumption and their pervasive monetary components.”

These explorations bond people in an emotive embrace, tendrils of affect conjured by shared fear and excitement, experiences that have become increasingly hard to find in many modern city spaces which Guy Debord argues “eliminate geographical distance only to produce internal separation.”

Perched

Despite the ways edgework may be seen as trangressive, the empowering and inspiring process of undertaking edgework is exactly what is lacking from many people’s lives in global cities. Edgework may in this sense be seen  healing rather than severing, a hot blade that melts. Physical human connections through shared experiences of peaked emotions build stronger bonds of community, and I am proud to belong to this tribe of urban bodhisattvas.

Tribe

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