Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Nov 5, 2011 Under Celebration, Civil Rights, Occupation, Spatial Politics

“What is at stake, then, is the practice of genuine democracy, of a return to the polis, the public space for the encounter and negotiation of disagreement, where those who have no place and are not counted or named, can acquire or, better still, appropriate voice…” -Erik Swyngedouw

Place hacking pledges solidarity with everyone across the globe staging occupations and interventions to force transparency from our corrupt global government, financial and regulatory systems.

Political protest takes many forms. Know that when the time comes, we have the keys, the evidence, the locations and the skills you may need for the next step. We look forward to your call. We are the 99%.

Explore everything. Occupy everything.

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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.


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.



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.


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.


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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Fiberglass and Tumble Weeds – Boron Federal Prison

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Wednesday Apr 7, 2010 Under Uncategorized

“You should create your own icons and way of life, because nostalgia isn’t glamorous…live your life now.”

-Marilyn Monroe

Alien dump

I grew up in Riverside, California, on the Western edge of the Mojave Desert. My interest in urban exploration came from my childhood here, full of frequent trips into the Mojave exploring old mining towns to break up my rather mundane suburban childhood. Coming back to visit this year, I knew that what I needed from this trip was to rediscover what it was that brought me down the UrbEx path. So I hit the desert for some old school federal trespass.

Because of that green UFO?

My friend Joel tipped me off to the existence of Boron Federal Prison Camp, a US Air Force site that was abandoned  in 2000. I rolled into Boron on an incredibly windy day, with light rain splashing in off and on (rare here I assure you!). I found all the gates open and amazingly drove right past a dozen derelict buildings, straight up to the old water tower.

Dusty Industry

It was only when I stood at the edge of the cliff at the water tower that I realized how extensive the site really was. There were at least 30 buildings here, some multi-storied, spread out over maybe 5 or 10 acres.

Rural Sprawl

As I looked out across the flat expanse of desert toward Barstow, the wind was whipping my hair in my face and I was constantly wiping water drops off of my lens. I decided to take shelter in the only thing higher than the water tower – the stucco church.

Monument to the gods of television.

Stencil worship

I stepped into the church and found myself in a silent room that had one wall painted and others covered in banal graffiti. As I stood there, I came to realize how much different this exploration felt than those I had been undertaking in Europe. It was so much lonelier. Part of this, of course, can be chalked up to the fact that I was indeed alone, but there was also a spatial dimension. It seems to me that perhaps because of the availability of space here in the desert, it is much easier to simply walk away from a place. And when that happens, an essence of loneliness particular to this dusty landscape seeps in. It is a loneliness, a sadness, so deep that even destruction of the place does nothing to erase it.

When I explore in more urban landscapes, the predominate emotion is fear-fuelled adrenaline. There is a sense of urgency that drives explores and has been one of the difficulties I have encountered in trying to get video footage of our explorations – we never really stop to take it in. We move fast, we pack multiple explores into a day. It’s like derelict architecture speed dating.

In contrast, this federal prison invited me to stop, to spend the day, to really take the time to let it scar me. It felt less like a conquest and more like an invitation to meditate on the possible pasts that led to it’s untimely death. The site encouraged more of an archaeological eye, little artefact mysteries to be uncovered around every corner. The fear of being caught here (which was very high, with possibly sever consequences) was so overwhelmingly overshadowed by the lonely introspection the place invoked that I simply sat down for some time to listen to the wind whipping power cables and slamming doors open and closed and forgot that a patrol might roll in at any moment.

I went on to explore the kitchens, mess hall, work corridors, carpentry shop, the fire station, basketball court and finally the “vehicular component factory”, whatever the fuck that means. It had been almost completely stripped out, every window broken, and despite the emptiness of the place, it continued to have a particular thickness to it. It was a place full of sad memories, left to rot our here 50 miles from the nearest city where the incarcerated inhabitants could do no harm.


The Mess Hall


The camp seemed to be connected with a company called Unicor – a name which I think has an oddly Orwellian feel to it. There was also an active air traffic control station on site covered with live cameras which was beginning to make me a little nervous 3 hours in.


Road to government vaugeness

I jumped into the truck to follow my gut instinct that it was time to leave, feeling rather satisfied with my day, when I noticed a side street I had not seen before. I drove down it, finding nowhere to park (a vehicle is a serious limitation to exploration I have realized – hiding a car in the desert is usually almost impossible) and walked into what turned out to be derelict inmate housing.

Reasonable traffic conditions

As I walked down row after row of empty cul-de-sacs lined with derelict tract homes, I was pulled right back into the sadness of the place. I walked through people’s homes and looked at their landscaped yards, taking notice of which domestic plants had escaped and were thriving without human intervention. In one, I found a constructed mini-bar and waited a while for a drink to be served. In another, a brick oven filled half the backyard. I imagined summer BBQs in 120 degree heat, families of inmates coming together for a few drinks and a chat about who-was-whose bitch that week.

Patio Party

I was struck anew by the imposing affectual qualities of the place and when I reached an abandoned playground. I stopped to play alone on the teeter-totter.

Does anyone remember playing here?

By the time I left the housing area, all numbed by the weirdness of my experience, my truck was blocked in by a stereotypically overambitious security guard wearing a fake federal badge. He told me I had been filmed and that he was supposed to call the FBI (I call bullshit on that one buddy) but I think he could sense that I had come here for different reasons than he might normally encounter. We ended up chatting about the history of the place and he sent me off with a stern warning, locking the gate behind me.  After a day of modern ruins, ghosts and self reflection, I drove off into the Mojave Desert in a familiar cloud of pink dust looking for the next adventure.

Not that I'm nostalgic or anything

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