The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.

In association with

Silent UK
Sub Urban

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In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. -Hunter S. Thompson

Pod

I couldn’t believe we were back in Vegas. Being the neurotic adventure-seeking pendulums of desire that we are, we had oscillated between one extreme and another, passing through my beloved quiet desert from LA to Sin City, through blistering days and freezing nights under the stars, from my Mom’s home cooking to endless Del Taco – only to find that Emily Fish had already arrived from Mexico and been camping in McCarren Airport for at least 24 hours. She had constructed a little shanty town out of Indian shawls and suitcase remnants in the baggage claim area and fended off TSA security with honey in the ear and incense sticks. I walked in dripping sweat, stinking of whiskey and gunpowder. She looked me up and down and said, “well honey, I guess we had better go explore everything”. Damn right. We started with a gaudy carpet by the toilets in the Bellagio.

Subtle Clues

Vegas was in shambles. The Sahara casino had closed down. New construction had ceased. The only skyscraper with cranes on site when we arrived was Fountainebleau which Aurelie Curie assured me was secured tighter than Fort Knox. 1 of every 9 homes was in foreclosure due to non-payment of mortgages and unemployment was astronomical. Thinking back to my jaunt though the Las Vegas underworld just a few months back, it was clear nothing had changed since the last time I left poolside to go crawling around underground. The summer of 2011 in Sin City felt like the apocalypse. But as I had already found, Las Vegas history, the real Las Vegas history, makes fops and fools of even the most sincere explorers. The city’s story is riddled with blind alleys, dead ends, crazy twists, and outright fabrication; nothing should be taken at face value here, we had to get out on the strip and take score.

Alarmed drains

As much as I love the city, Vegas is one of those places that you really must assume you may never return to every time you leave, fragile as it is, so you’ve got to milk it. It made sense to start with the Sahara, a Vegas icon recently deceased after 59 years of pwning poor saps and breaking people’s hands with hammers in back rooms. We called up Aurelie and she gave us a hot tip – they were having a liquidation sale. The idea was to pose and buyers taking pictures of potential purchases for a client and walk through the front door, head for the lifts and see where you can get. Solid. Floor 24 please.

Spectacolypse

Angulated

There was a spooky sincerity to the liquidation of the Sahara, evident in the faces of employees and the place itself. The architecture was slumped over against a wall, baking in the heat clutching a bottle, shrugging to passerbys and laughing to itself while trashy families picked at its carcass and wondered to their partners wielding tall cans of Natural Ice whether they could put this on eBay, holding the item in question aloft in the glaring casino floorlights with a discerning eye. We bypassed the hordes and wandered backstage where Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, George Carlin & Bill Cosby had performed. Later I found out Aurelie had gone up in the flies the week before. You don’t know until you try.

Soundcloud

Marc Cooper writes that Vegas is purposefully constructed as a self-enclosed and isolated biosphere, sort of what a recreational colony built on the moon might be like. The Sahara in the summer of 2011 was the perfect example of this, a biosphere with holes in the glass, oxygen seeping out into the desert wind with a hissing sound, ready to explode at the flick of a match.

I don't tip

To imagine that for 59 years this place had never closed. Ever. Yet there we sat, alone in quiet buffets and silent rooftops, not even an air conditioner running. It was a spectacular privilege. Extrapolating what we saw in the Sahara, it’s clear this city would ruin like a a hot rod – in the sexiest way possible.

And then we saw it

From the roof of Sahara we could see our last and final target in Vegas – Fountainbleau. It was the only skyscraper in the city under construction, the only one with cranes on it and, as Aurelie had warned us, getting up there would likely require a distraction of immense proportions such as a catastrophic desert thunderstorm or nuclear bomb blast. However, we were determined that it must be done, despite the security patrols vigilantly rolling around on ATVs like circling sharks. There were at least three teams on the ground down there and they were better prepared than us, wielding binoculars and radios.

The final frontier

However, before we could tackle it, we encountered another opportunity altogether. Essentially, we were walking down Las Vegas Boulevard and saw that there was a new Walgreens under construction. The front gate was open and it was 2 in the afternoon, the street swarming with red-faced tourists. We figured we should give it a shot – the worst that would happen is that we would walk into a worker or security, feign drunkenness, apologise, head for the gate and run like hell when we hit the pavement. An archetypal tactic straight out of Access All Areas. As it turned out, though we were all sweating it, there appeared to be no one there. I guess they just took lunch and left the gate open. Cheers guys.

Beautiful

Accident

Failed Security

That was the end of our time together as a group in Vegas. Emily went back to Washington, Witek to Ottawa and Otter to London. Marc Explo and I were left alone to pack up our stuff for a final leg of the trip before our summer was over. But we had one mission left to complete. Since it was unlikely I was coming back to Vegas, I felt compelled to do something grand to mark my time there, to push the bar higher, as our crew does, wherever we go. This desert has attracted all manner of dreamers, from millenarian cultists to visionary artists to advanced weapons scientists from the United States Air Force. They have all made their mark, they have all tested something or other on America’s proving ground. Like bleached bones these dreams lie in the desert sand, faded and chipped but intact; they have their own story to tell, as compelling as the accounts of written history or the stirring narratives of museums. So at 3am on Sunday before we flew out, Marc and I dodged the security patrols and alarms and climbed the 68 story Fountaineblue skyscraper. These photos are my parting gift to one one my favorite cities in the United States. With love.

We did it

It will never be done again

Lick it or click it. No really, click it. Click it.

Thank you to all my friends in Vegas including Matthew O’Brien, Joshua Ellis and Aurelie Curie. Thanks as well to Marcia and Jack Kulpa for allowing me to look after your beautiful house for the summer.

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place is a crossroads, a particular point of intersection of forces coming from many directions and distances. -Rebecca Solnit

Slice

Most people, I would venture to guess, tend to think of home as a place of comfort and rest, peace and solace. The Inland Empire of Southern California in the 1990s, where I grew up, did not hold these qualities for me. Perhaps that’s because home exhibits a certain plastic tendency that enables its boundaries to expand and shrink, which allows it to signify other geographical scales and although my family and friends were steadfast, I never saw SoCal, on a larger scale, as place I could call home. It was too pretentious, too materialistic, too filled with mischanneled testosterone. Riverside was a place in the midst of thriving, unsustainable gentrification on the road to inevitable economic collapse, a contested border zone caught between violent gang-fueled street warfare driven by teenagers like myself eager to claim identity in primaeval non-places and an increasingly Disneyfied social landscape which wasn’t necessarily conducive to rootedness and largely rejected our aggressive attempts at placemaking.

Homefront

When I turned sixteen and finally got a car (the hallmark of Southern California freedom), I absconded every chance I had. I usually ventured into the Mojave Desert, a landscape full of dry lake beds washed long ago to a surface as flat and inviting as a dance floor when dry. These are the places where the desert is most itself: stark, open, free, and invitation to wander, a laboratory of perception, scale, light, a place where loneliness has a luxurious flavor… The inhospitable Mojave Desert is, I think, primarily envisaged as a barrier to overcome between places, perhaps even the antithesis of home. For me, as for Rebecca Solnit and Harold Budd, two people I greatly admire, it was always more home than home was, a space I could always find room to carve a place for myself.

Delicate

However, Marc Explo, Otter, Witek and I had now emerged from the desert, stopping for our successful infiltration of The Boneyard on our way to the City of Angels. There was only one road back to L.A. – U.S. Interstate 15. Just a flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo. Then onto the Hollywood Freeway, and straight on into frantic oblivion. We rolled into the ghetto of Los Angeles late and failed to get into the Belmont Tunnel (it had been turned into a museum or apartments or an amusement park or something – it all looks the same) and then succeeded climbing on top of the Queen Mary before arriving at my parent’s house to take our first shower in a long while.

Queen Mary

We were looping around to my brother Pip’s house in Canyon Lake. When we arrived, he pulled out tequila, maps and firearms and gave us three hot tips before taking us on a drunken ride in his pimped-out 4×4 golf cart and sending us on our merry way. Tip one was that in the mountains near Big Bear, he knew a series of radio towers we could climb to get proper David Lynch-esque skyline shots of the Inland Empire. Tip two was that there was a water park in nearby Redlands called Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom that was apparently abandoned. Both sounded like great opportunities for me to try and apply my placehacker skills acquired in Europe to home – making place ours by learning it from the inside out – just as Pip and I had done a year back at the March Air Reserve Base Hospital.

Dizzy spell

Place of fear

Quiet up here

The radio tower did indeed turn out to be a wonder. As a bonus, when we pulled up to it, there was a herd of local kids gearing up to climb it as well. We shared our beer with them and climbed the tower together. Afterwards, they went back to their Ford F-350 and started blasting country music and I was unhappily reminded of our current geographic location on earth. I left satisfied regardless, having never seen the IE from that scale. After the successful climb we were pumped to sneak into the abandoned water park. Which didn’t exactly go as planned.

Infiltration

When we arrived Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom, it was clear that the abandoned areas of the park had been quickly knocked down and the ground salted, all memory of that failure erased from history (go California!). What remained standing was very much active. However, it was two in the morning, we’d had a few beers up the tower and we were gearing up to head back into the desert, so we decided to run through the sprinklers and hop the fence anyway. Inside, we climbed the first waterslide where we could see the security guard off in the distance talking to a girl in a car. Easy. We climbed down the slides, which were surprisingly unslippery without water, and then grabbed some inner tubes off a big pile and floated around in the pools. Then we turned a corner and hit the jackpot – a snack booth with an open window. I slid through and found a fridge full of energy drinks, a nacho cheese dispenser and a Slurpee machine. Breakfast served. With a car full of fresh beverages, two new guns from Pip, and a few hot photos to tell the tale, we bailed from the Inland Empire again – I had hit my three-day tolerance threshold. Plus, Pip had a final mission for us – he suggested we hit some mines in the Calico Mountains on the way back to Vegas. So we found ourselves back in the Mojave again driving by torchlight into the hills somewhere near Yermo, California, set up camp and built a fire.

Shared

Inside the tunnels of an old mine where the extraction of silver from the earth had long ceased, we were soon 10 meters underneath the ground level, climbing deeper into the belly of the earth through long forgotten mine shafts. Outside is was blisteringly hot. Equipped with cameras, a multitude of light sources and an unquenchable thirst to find out what was left behind, we climbed as deep as we could go. The deepest levels of the mines eluded us on this trip but our time was running out and we were not yet done with Vegas. Like gill-breathers, we had to keep moving, stillness would surely mean death for us all in this heat. We popped off a few more rounds and smoked the tires onto I-15 again.

Temperature rise

Nosedive

Although I was again a tourist here, passing through this surly desert, we were, as intended, beyond conventional tourism in our Powerslide delirium. But we were also beyond urban exploration. Was it even urban anymore? We were on an adventure pilgrimage, a quasi-spiritual journey, a failing search for a solitudiness, personal, semi-spiritual relation to place where we kept running into plastic and Wal-Mart super stores. Our romantic gaze reinforced the mythology of the desert in the most predictable ways, finding the only place where the Western Frontier still exists as some horrible shattered and lonely revenant, even as we worked to stake our promised claim to the freedom of the American West. It was toxically intoxicating and caused spontaneous moments of frustrated Tourette-like outbursts from the crew.

Unlikely cowboys

Leftovers

In my quest to remake home turf utilising a social template I was more comfortable with, all I really succeeded in doing was creating a Frankensteinien iteration that no one understood, just like every post on this site. Although home is posited as relational – the ever-changing outcome of the ongoing and mediated interaction between self, others and place, I am not sure we ever found home on this trip – we remained the urban nomads we have become. Though we did succeed, perhaps, in layering up my relationship with my past in new ways and I always enjoy the process of overcomplicating things that are supposed to be simple like nostalgia. To wit, if we consider home as a set of intersecting and variable ideas and feelings, which are related to context, and which construct places, extend across spaces and scales, and connects places, then maybe I can justify the ways I have always thought of that stretch of I-15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles as an escape hatch, my personal pilgrimage trail of meditative space between two extreme forces of Western capital, violence and rampant resource consumption, the eye of the storm.

Long term

Occupation

For some, the I-15 trail is a right of passage, the road trip that marks the 21 year old transition into adulthood (with the associated benefits of inebriated gambling). To others, the trail itself is the journey to seek. In either case, it’s obvious that the myths of this place go deeper than the notion of  ‘a place between here and there’. We can explore the Mojave as a simultaneous destination and journey that speaks to different scales of home and to the fragile geopolitical climate of the now.

In terms of Riverside, well, I readily admit cowardice to my childhood associates. I ran from the Inland Empire and every time I go back, just like this trip, I fail to connect with it in a meaningful way and return to my crew in London. However, I can’t help but think that if I return enough times, trying to carve out a place for myself in my home turf in whatever ways I am able, one day I might be able to return. In the meantime, we headed back to Vegas for one final blowout before Otter and Witek flew back to their respective countries. See you back on the strip.

Photo by Katie Draper

Explore what’s left. Make what’s not.

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Scattershot

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Jun 11, 2011 Under Academia, Cultural Geography, Ethnography, Film, Geography, Spatial Politics, Urban Exploration

I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.
-Thomas Carlyle

Time is a rubbery thing

The last few months, I’ve been rather entrenched in writing my PhD. With 5 chapters now done and under review, things are well on their way. However, this time for reflection during my self-imposed exile here in the Mojave Desert has also been fruitful for other writing projects, including 2 book chapters, 5 journal articles and 3 web publications. This work has pulled my attention from Place Hacking for the moment. However, I thought it might be worth rounding up what’s gone down lately in this scattershot update.

First, I was invited to write an op-ed piece for the Domus architecture and design magazine on the fragmentation of urban exploration. Essentially the article is about how an unlikely mix of media attention and marketing exploitation threatens to polarize an otherwise apolitical practice. The article can be found here. Immediately after publication, Control from the LTV Squad in New York City posted a great response which has sparked renewed discussion about the social and political salience of urban exploration as a practice. That can be found here.

In a more academic context, a few weeks ago Luke Bennett published an article in Environment & Planning D: Society and Space entitled Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration. Stuart Elden and Deborah Cowen were kind enough to allow me to respond to the article on the Society and Space blog. That response can be found here. Bennett then replies in an excellent post which is here.

Finally, Otter at SilentUK has uploaded a trailer for the film “Crack the Surface” which myself and JD at sub-urban are co-producing with him. More exciting than tinfoil in the microwave.

All and all, it’s been a heavy few months for urban exploration but I am heartened by the new debates and discussions sparking everywhere about the practical and theoretical issues around the practice. As I wrote recently to Snappel, I think that it’s really vital those of us who are willing to engage with our practice on more than a superficial level do so and, as such, I am really encouraged by the thoughtful responses from both Control and Bennett.

Urban exploration is at a crossroads right now and it is up to us which path we take. As it should be clear from these publications, I for one am not content to allow herds of ruin fetishists, bitter armchair commentators or corporations define what history will see us as. Urban exploration seethes with potential as a critical spatial practice at a time when space is rapidly constricting under the control of pseudo-apocalyptic forces manufacturing fear and distraction daily to keep desire and dissent at bay. It is my hope that through these publications and exchanges, the potential for urban exploration to sap those illusions is slowly being unleashed.

It’s time fellow earthlings. Smash and grab it. Explore everything.

With love from Sin City, USA

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For every prohibition you create you also create an underground.
- Jello Baifra (Dead Kennedys)

As urban explorers, we often confine our adventures to those places which are, by and large, empty. That is not to say that other people – drug users, graffiti artist, geocachers, squatters, film crews, security guards or troupes of children looking for imaginative play space – don’t also use what appear to be places largely absent from human presence, but that the places we often explore are not generally utilized as shelter or housing. When we do encounter people, we usually leave with an apology. Fuck that, I say bring on the meld.

Liminal

In our explorations of the ruins of Eastern Europe between 2008 and 2010, myself, Winch, Statler, “Gary” and Silent Motion took guilty pleasure in locating and camping in the remains of the failed Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The experience left us in a distinctly different psychological state than ruin exploration in the United Kingdom. The reverence for actual state failure, rather than imagined post-capitalist social or site-specific industry failure, made our explorations both more poignant and more guilt-ridden. If, as Dylan Trigg writes in The Aesthetics of Decay, a derelict factory testifies to a failed past, what then does the ruin of a failed state say to us?

Failed (Vogelsang, Berlin 2009)

And failing (The Strip, Las Vegas, 2010)

As Dsankt once pointed out to me, there are very few people involved in urban exploration that are economically disadvantaged. Obviously, in order to be able to create the opportunity for these sorts of engagements with the city, one must be secure enough financially and with enough free time that putting in the necessary hours to research and explore sites can be accomplished. More importantly, one also,  as I pointed out above, has to view these spaces as primarily areas for play and creative practice rather than potential housing.

Privileged

As we found in our exploration of economically disadvantaged areas as far away as Poland, our relative affluence became readily apparent. At one point, we were all stunned to find someone living inside the Soviet Military base Vogelsang, dozens of miles in an East German forest. We all mused in the car driving away about whether that person had consciously chosen to live in that hacked up shell of a building in a peaceful forest next to the derelict nuclear launch pads outside Berlin or whether they were, perhaps, running from something. As we set up our temporary camp there the night before, we all discussed how we could just choose to stay as whoever that was did. Winch later wrote that “the fact we could sleep there, build fires and do whatever we liked turned it into an environment that was absolutely ours – the geography of isolation turned it from being a ruin into our ruin.” And isn’t the what place is all about? Did that tramp living there feel the same?

In 1923, Chicago sociologist Nels Anderson and anarchist Ben Reitman developed the general condition of vagrancy, divided into three main classes: bums, tramps and hobos. He writes, a tramp is a man who doesn’t work, who apparently doesn’t want to work, who lives without working and who is constantly travelling. A hobo is a non-skilled, non-employed laborer without money, looking for work. A bum is a man who hangs around a low class saloon and begs or earns a few pennies a day in order to obtain drink. It is an interesting notion that one can have different motivations for being homelessly mobile and where (if?) we exist on that scale, as temporary spatial hijackers. I will return to that later.

Living in ruins, Soviet edition

Living in drain, American edition

As I have found recently in my explorations of the Las Vegas storm drains, we don’t have to travel as far as Poland to see people living in derelict space and infrastructure. As David Runiman writes in the April 2011 issue of the London Review of Books, since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves. Las Vegas unemployment, meanwhile, breaking new records, has been marked at 15% one year ago, it now stands at 13.7%. However, as Joshua Ellis, the writer who runs Zen Archery pointed out to me over coffee last week, those numbers include only those who apply and are accepted for unemployment benefits. He reckons the reality of unemployment (not to mention underemployment) in this dusty city is closer to 25%. Still, amidst the glitz of the strip, constant televisual pundit banter about inevitable economic recovery (Osama is dead, the price of gold is skyrocketing!), not to mention flash weddings of vegan casino moguls, it is hard to argue that economic conditions aren’t “recovering”. Until you slip into Las Vegas drain.

As Matthew O’Brien, author of the book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas writes, the strip, of course, provided a stunning contrast to the storm drain. How could these two worlds so closely co-exist..? Then again, how could they not? In America, poverty always bows at the feet of corporate wealth. The question I find interesting here is whether these people have arrived, following Anderson’s definitions, by choice or circumstance. Matthew is one person who can answer that question.

Intersections

Matthew has spent a good part of the last 10 years exploring the Las Vegas drain system, systems that are not monitored. There are no rules. There are no heroes. And, oh yeah, they can fill a foot per minute with floodwater. Along with Ellis, they were the first to break what has become an international story about the living conditions of over 300 people residing in the drain system here.

More than temporary

When I arrived in Las Vegas, I knew I would not be able to resist my explorer urge to see the drains for myself, but I also wanted to hear the stories from the only two who dared to venture into that system first, having no idea what to expect. What follows is a short interview with Matthew reflecting on the impact of the book and his future plans.

BLG: Given that it has been 5 years since the publication of Beneath the Neon, perhaps you could just give us an update on your work in the Las Vegas storm drains. Are more people living there since the economy tanked? How has the publication of the book affected both you and them?

MO: The main thing that has changed in the drains since Beneath the Neon was published in 2007 is that many of the people living in them have a chance to get out. In March 2009, I founded a community project called Shine a Light, a collaboration with local charity organization HELP of Southern Nevada. Basically, I escort their social workers into the drains and they offer assistance to the people we encounter. In two years of work, they’ve helped hundreds of people with stuff like getting ID and prescription glasses and they’ve actually housed maybe 80 or 90 people. It’s, by far, the best thing to come out of the book and my explorations of the tunnels.

Following on from that, if you could go through the whole experience again, would you change anything? For instance, you mentioned to me previously that you felt a bit reluctant about giving away detailed information on locations and using people’s real names.

There’s little I would change about Beneath the Neon and my experiences in the drains. I mean, there are minor things I would add to or take out of the book, since I feel like I’ve matured as a person and a writer, but it’s who I was and where I was at the time, and I’m cool with that.

In the book, I use only the first names of the people I interviewed and tried to be vague about the location of the tunnels, while giving the reader enough info to hold onto. There are times when I think I should’ve been more vague about the location of the drains, but, really, few people are seeking them out and venturing into them. And those who do—mostly urban explorers and bored teenagers—probably would’ve found the inlets and outlets without my assistance. If you’re determined to find the drains, there are ways to do it.

In the book, you make a few references to urban exploration but it’s obvious that your motivations for exploring the drain, as a journalist, were quite different from the perhaps more selfish motivations of urban explorers. Is there an urban exploration scene in Vegas? If so, do you feel like you are a part of it?

As far as I can tell, there isn’t much of an urban exploring scene in Las Vegas. The city isn’t really suited for it. There aren’t many bridges, abandoned buildings, train tunnels and old interesting ruins here. And the stuff like that that is here tends to be secure and hard to access. (Most property owners in Vegas take trespassing quite seriously.)

There are, however, a lot of stalled, half-built hotel-casino projects on and around the Strip. They would be interesting to explore, I think—viewing the skeletons and innards before they’re concealed by a glitzy facade.

But I’m probably not the man to do it. There’s too much risk (fines, injuries, etc.) and too little reward. Plus, I assume there are no people, besides asshole security guards, in these areas. Part of what made the drains interesting to me is that you could encounter graffiti artists, madmen, public-works employees, squatters and others, which added to the intrigue and context of the setting.

I am very interested in the politics behind Beneath the Neon. This is a hard city to live in, a place with very conservative values that offer little help to those in need. It seems obvious from your book that on some level, the authorities in Las Vegas were quiet happy to have their homeless problem “disappear” underground. Of course, you have now made it all public. Has there been much of a reaction to that from authorities and policy-makers?

There really hasn’t been much of a reaction from local authorities and politicians to the book and the media coverage of the tunnels, which is good and bad, I think. One of my biggest fears was that the police would sweep the people out of the tunnels after the book was published. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. But politicians and city and county employees, as far as I can tell, didn’t try to do anything to help the people, either. That’s part of the reason I founded Shine a Light.

If the Mob was still running the town, I’m sure I would’ve received a none-too-subtle message to drop the subject. But the corporate Mob just seems to ignore the subject entirely.

Finally, tell me about what you are up to now. Are you interested in exploring different types of subterranean spaces in the future such as the London sewers or Paris Catacombs (quarries)?

I recently published another book, which I’m excited about. It’s titled My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas. It’s a collection of creative-nonfiction stories set in off-the-beaten-path Vegas and it includes the original storm-drain stories Josh Ellis and I co-wrote for Las Vegas CityLife. Also, I checked into one of the seedier weekly motels in town (and that’s saying a lot!), stayed a week and wrote a diary about my experiences. I wrote a personal story about living in a historic, past-its-prime apartment complex in the shadow the Strip. Stuff like that.

I am interested in exploring subterranean spaces in other cities, but not necessarily writing about them. I’m a bit of a Vegas specialist, so writing about the drains here made sense. However, I’m probably not as qualified to write extensively about the Shanghai Tunnels of Portland, the catacombs of Rome or the quarries of Paris. They’d just be fun places to visit, as a way to balance out the more touristy stuff. I don’t totally geek out or get off on exploring underground spaces. I’ve just developed an interest in them and urban exploring through my experiences in the underground flood channels of Las Vegas.

Hard knocks

Not shocked

After conducting this interview with Matthew, I showed him a photograph I had taken of a drain next to a notable landmark, a photo which, in our parlance “exposed access details”. He asked me not to publish it. I was heartbroken, given I though the photo had turned out beautifully, but had to defer on the side of Matthew’s sympathy as one who knew intimately about the conditions of living here, rather than my ego as a photographer of the largely unseen and unpopulated. I mean, if I was living in there and some asshole posted the photo of my front door on Place Hacking, I would be pissed. Just kidding, I’d go steal more drinks and wait for the party to erupt.

Space

Invaders

Eschewing

Waders

A larger question here for the urban exploration community lingers; it has always been the elephant in the room. At what point do our exploration cease to be an adventure in creative practice and boundary subversion and begin to impact those less fortunate than us in a negative way? Is urban exploration, in fact, a victimless crime when we disturb people while exploring? And maybe more importantly – at what point might we begin, as Matthew has, to move past urban exploration to begin working for the rights of those less fortunate than us, to use our media influence to actually improve the lives of others? Do we actually care about that, or just about ticking our list of explored locations?

Explored

On the other hand, these people are living in public space (as much as taxpayer funded infrastructure is public space) and most of the people I met so far in drains here could give a shit whether I was walking around in there, they just wanted to know if they could bum a smoke or hit me up for a dollar. Given that our crew has now started squatting space in London, are we really all that different? And if we are bridging the gap between urban explorers and hobos, tramps and bums, following Anderson, what are we? Does that dreaded monstrosity the prohobo – the hobo that chooses to be homeless yet retains the ability to photograph, blog and scam the internet for money as well as picking pockets and robbing Liddle for fixtures to BBQ vegetables looted from the skip actually exist? Is this Donna Haraway’s cyborg, neither nature nor culture, human nor computer,  neither employed nor homeless? Are we becoming as liminal as the spaces we increasingly reside in? Are we finally getting close to the meld? I hope so, cause I can’t wait to pop.

Don't ask

For much

Just desire

And such

In fact, as Matthew spun the stories of encounter in his book, one after another, it became obvious that with a few rare exceptions, most of the people in the drains were there by choice. They had chosen to stop contributing to the system, chosen to gamble their lives away, chosen meth or heroin over family and stability and chosen the freedom and danger of living off the grid, scamming tourists and casinos by silver mining (hunting machines for left over credits). They choose to get high till the day cools off and then crawl out of the drains, all sloppy and hungover, delighted to go dick around in this Mad Max plasticland for another night. In short, many people have chosen this life in Las Vegas Undercity. That is not to say that we shouldn’t offer a helping hand where it’s needed, and bless Matthew for also doing so, but it is to say that maybe pity is wrongly placed here. As Harold, one of the drain dwellers that Matthew encounters says, quite proudly we dwell in the subterranean world, man. We dwell in the subterranean world. Harold goes on to tell Matthew that it was an economic choice, and he is saving mad cash living in the drains. Maybe Harold knows something we don’t, maybe he is braver than us. Maybe homelessness is preferable to the mental vacancy you inhabit at work everyday. The Situationists thought that where material poverty had been eradicated, the biggest threat to life was boredom. Maybe Harold already figured that out and just decided to subvert that whole nightmare before he got there.

Braver

Or just lost

Challenged

Or just tossed?

Perhaps the other side of this issue is a question of why people don’t live in ruins and infrastructure in London and Paris. Perhaps it’s a fundamental difference in economic distribution, social programs or access to charity. Or maybe it’s just a matter of pride or social conformity. In any case, the Las Vegas Undercity, the only feature of Las Vegas that may interest the intrepid urban explorer, is also, consequently, the true face of a city built on nothing but wealth and decadence and doesn’t look a thing like anyplace else. I suppose, in that light, maybe everybody should see the Vegas drains, maybe then they would understand the true cost of this wonderland. I am pretty sure this is a good indication of what happens when we hack the system into an open source OS: here’s your free market fuckers.

As anyone who knows me will testify, I have always had a deep love for Las Vegas, and particularly for the Mojave Desert. But my recent experiences here, seeing the Las Vegas Undercity, has made me want to leave and never return. Nowhere in the United States is the chasm between rich and poor deeper or more upsetting, nowhere is the barbarity of American free market capitalism more evident. But you know, this is just what’s happening out there, in the real world, in real time. If you want to see if it for yourself, or even move yourself in, that’s your call I guess. When Las Vegas is just another Old West ghost town –boom and then bust! – these reinforced concrete boxes will be buried beneath the desert. They’re our preservation areas. Our art galleries. Our time capsules. They’re also our homeless shelters. As for myself, I am going to take the lessons learned here back to London, that’s when this scene is going to get really raw. What an age in which we dwell. Now let’s drill down into the meld.

Snapped

Thanks to Katie Draper and Erika Sigvardsdotter for exploring drains here with me and Joshua Ellis and Matthew O’Brien for making me feel at home in a city full of drugs and scary clowns.

Be Monstrous. Explore Everything.

 


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