History is a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance of a thousand different hands. -Raphael Samuel

Art & Artefact

As many Place Hacking readers will know, I have been doing doctoral research on urban exploration for the past three years. With my PhD coming to a close soon, it seems like everything is coming full circle.

I am proud to announce the release of my new article in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Stuart Elden, the editor of the journal, has been very supportive of my work and has agreed to leave the article open access for one month so everyone outside the Ivory Tower can read it. And I hope you will. This article was two years in the making and attempts to address one of the most significant aspects of urban exploration – our engagements with history through the practice.

The Society and Space journal has donated a fair number of its pages this year to urban exploration. In June, they published a piece by Luke Bennett on ‘Bunkerology‘ which Professor Elden has also made open access for the next thirty days. I then wrote a response to Bennett’s paper and he replied. These debates are worth reading in the context of my new paper, as they tell very different stories, ostensibly about the same practice.

The last thing I will mention is that if you head back to my Hobohemia Video Triptych post from July, you will find the video footage from the excursions discussed in the Society and Space paper.

Legacy

On a final note, thank you again to everyone I have explored with in the past few years. This paper is of course in many ways co-authored with you all and would not have been possible without your enthusiasm, support and friendship. As always, I am honoured to be the scribe for the tribe.

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This film cost $31 million. With that kind of money I could have invaded some country.
- Clint Eastwood

Silent Motion and Statler on the road

Hobohemia was a series of three trips in 2009 and 2010 organised by The Winch into continental Europe. As an experiment in raw living and in an effort to experience something new, we began sleeping in the ruins we were exploring, eventually making it as far East as Poland on our final journey. I filmed each of the trips, work that was incredibly difficult given the conditions we were travelling under. The result is the Hobohemia Triptych, a series of 3 films that compose this ethnography in its rawest form. It is dirty, shaky, visceral footage that speaks to the excitement, exhaustion and eventual deliriousness that travelling in this way induces. I hope you find them inspirational.

On to new adventures. Explore everything!

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Without contraries, there is no progression.
– William Blake

Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode.
The Coming Insurrection

Implosion

A lot of ink is spilled over urban exploration’s relationship to the past and I have previously written about how the anticipated transience of places, the act of bearing witness to their inevitable death, adds to our experience of exploring them in the present. These geographic imaginations of unrealized temporal iterations positively reinforce our notions of place in the world, giving us a sense of agency as we realise that in the midst of all of the endless death and decay, we live, even as we are reminded our time here is limited. This notion has guided historical attractions to ruination for centuries, stretching back to ancient Rome when Livy explored the Cloaca Maxima sewer. The nostalgic lust for derelict and crumbling spaces has never left us for as Alan Rapp writes ‘the metaphorical power of ruination is as relevant today as it was in an ostensibly more Romantic era’. Our love for things of the past, the nostalgia that Nietzsche found so crippling, is described by G.M. Trevelian who writes:

The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone…

The nature of Post

Ruins, like dreams, pull us, in one direction, toward our innermost yearnings and, in another, towards a life beyond the constraints of the real; the romantic accounts of ruin exploration in the last 2000 years abound. But clearly part of our attraction to derelict space also has a darker component of an imagined ruined future that has not been written about nearly as much, a Ballardian formulation of urban apocalypse.

Crumble

Recently, Paul Dobraszczyk wrote a wonderful paper in the journal City where he describes his trip the to exploded nuclear reactor at Chernobyl which ‘incorporated elements of both dark tourism and urban exploration’ as he searched for what Susan Sontag referred to confrontations with ‘inconceivable terror’. Just a few years previous, Tom Vanderbilt penned the book Survival City in which he explores the ruins of atomic America and in the new book Ruins of Modernity (my review in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space forthcoming), Jonathan Veitch tours the Nevada Atomic Test Site where he finds not the expected response of melancholy or nostalgia upon entering the ruins but Baudelaire’s Satanic laughter, a terror that is so visceral the only possible response humour, as if the emotions have been short-wired by the horror.

People as numbers

And so we come to the thesis. Part of the reason we enjoy exploring decaying architecture is rooted in an imagination of a post-apocalyptic future. These places are viscerally enticing in their wretchedness, in part, because imagining ourselves in a future where we populate them during imagined use-lives filled with heroism and adventure is so improbable that it forces one to meditate on the surreal nature of the past that had led us to this most improbable junction in time. Writing of Pripyat, one contributor to the new book Beauty in Decay which represents these sites with burning gothic intensity notes the Pripyat “continues to whisper of a ‘post-human’ earth which, in the end, may be the strongest fascination of them all.”

More than human?

In our explorations of the ruins of Eastern Europe this past summer, we all took guilty pleasure in witnessing the remains of the failed Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, reacting, at times, absurdly to it. The experience left us in a distinctly different state than ruin exploration in the United Kingdom, the reverence for actual state failure (rather than imagined post-capitalist or “site-specific” failure) making our explorations both more poignant and more guilt-ridden.

Our former 'enemies'

Invoked

By a history

Never witnessed

But felt

If, as Dylan Trigg writes in The Aesthetics of Decay, a derelict factory testifies to a failed past but also reminds us that the future may end in ruin, what does the ruin of a failed state say to us?

Get on, I guess

Henry James writes in Italian Hours that “to delight in the aspect of the sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows a note of perversity”. This perversity takes on a different form as you leave “home”, the nostalgia wears a dark mask of exotic fetishism that beckons the days of Empire even as we participate in the beginnings of the failure of capitalism and the nation state at home. Of course, these expeditions are markedly less decadent than those of ages past but even speaking English marks us as a potentially dark and exploitative party even as we seek to avoid being “tourists” by following Steve Pile’s advice that in order to get at some of the real (really operative) processes in city life, attention should be paid to those things that appear marginal, or discarded, or lost, or that have disappeared or are in the process of disappearance.

A rapidly depleting resource

A year ago, we took a trip out to the Mojave Desert in California for a friend’s bachelor party. Our intention was to explore the Calico Mines under the ghost town. Which we did, finding all sort of mysterious chambers, boxes of dynamite, uninvited spectres and endless subterranean playgrounds. But always in the back of our minds, there was a fantasy playing out of someday taking refuge here. Whether that was from drought, famine, nuclear attack or a zombie infestation was never articulated but we all knew it was implied. We were collecting derelict site locations as a post-apocalypse insurance policy. As Susan Buck-Morss wrote in The Dialectics of Seeing, throughout Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the image of the “ruin”, is emblematic not only of the transitoriness and fragility of capitalist culture, but also its destructiveness. Our imaginations were all bolstered by the thought we were seeing ghosts from a future yet to come.

Indeed, as Hell and Schönle write in Ruins of Modernity, ruin exploration can involve “reflections about history: about the nature of the event, the meaning of the past for the present, that nature of history itself as eternal cycle, progress, apocalypse, or murderous dialectic process.” These inevitable intersections took grip firmly as we were leaving the mines. On the way out, we were confronted by survivalists from a militia who had dug into the caves to create desert shelters and were patrolling their territory in a weaponised 4×4 buggy. The father was clearly ex-military, barking orders at his kid to “get on the gun, son” for a photo op. As they sped away, they yelled back at us that the government was collapsing and we would do best to prepare to defend some territory, a new tribalism, they insisted, was on its way.

Apocalypse

These post-apocalyptic imaginaries are evident all over popular culture, from films like Mad Max28 Days Later12 Monkeys or Blade Runner, in books like After London, The World Made by HandThe RoadThe Stand, or The Plague and even in video games like Bioshock and Silent Hill. In all of these depictions, though the future may be bleak and dytopic, there is some underlying euphoria behind the freedom that comes with being released from the state, social life and cultural expectation that has an obvious relationship to the off-the-grid spaces that urban explorers go into. I have to wonder though, as we run into more and more people living this way now (primarily squatters and unsanctioned parties) rather than imagining to live this way in some distant future, what it takes to drive one off the grid like the Dad and son I met in the desert.

Hiding place

For thousands

Of disaffected

It seems to me that the imaginations of these distopic futures become increasingly realistic as our faith in the state to take care of us is eroded; as we see the world collapsing around us politically, environmentally and socially. Now that may be obvious. What isn’t obvious, what no one wants to say, is that we like the idea to some extent. In some part of all of us, we want the society of the spectacle to implode, to see how we would fare in a world not regulated by health and safety, to see what we might achieve when confronted with the most basic challenges of finding food, water and shelter.

Contamination

I argue that the interest in post-apocalyptic futures in nothing less than an interest in trying to get back to what we have lost in late capitalism, a sense of place, a sense of community, a sense of self. And although urban exploration passes through places rather than staking them out in any permanent way, urban exploration as a movement is a vital bridge, a gateway, because it finally makes to move from the imagined to the physical. When we explore, we take a step off the grid. It is only one more step to stay off it.

Always almost on the brink

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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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