2010 in Retrospect

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Thursday Dec 30, 2010 Under Celebration, Geography, Urban Exploration

I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.
-Lou Reed

Exhausted

At the end of 2009, I found myself in Sweden, reflecting on a year of impossible explorations, culminating in our massive 7-day urban camping adventure across 4 European countries and dozens of derelict spaces all the way to East Germany. I never would have guessed that at the end of 2010 I would find myself sitting in Las Vegas reflecting on a year even more incredible than the last.

The numbers are in. During 2010 we explored 110 locations in 9 countries, ranging from derelict industrial sites to impossible heights; from vital infrastructure to dead shopping malls. Over the course of the year, as part of my PhD research, I have taken 11,000 photographs (yes, you read that right), shot 20 hours of video footage, published 35,000 words about our adventures in academic publications (many still in press) and wrote over 40,000 words on this blog.

That all said, Place Hacking wouldn’t be anything without the places themselves, so without further ado, I present my top 20 explorations of 2010.

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#20 – The EDF Tunnels, Paris, France

While the tunnels themselves are not that remarkable, entering through a manhole in the streets of central Paris most certainly is. On this occasion, we opened the heavy cover with a carabiner and piece of rope. Once inside, we couldn’t close it and yelled at a passer-by to shove the lid shut while we ran off into the tunnel. It clearly made his night.

More interesting though are the ways in which, in Paris, subterranean spaces connect to each other. At times in the city of lights it seems you can move more freely below ground than above. We spent an entire night underground after entering these utility tunnels, connecting the catacombs, quarries and a massive abandoned electricity substation, ending up on a rooftop in some strange spatial twist that I will never understand.

#19 – The Paris Catacombs (Carrières de Paris)

While we are on the topic of subterranean Paris, we made a number of trips into the catacombs this year. In 2009 we were detained by French police in a riot van after popping out of a manhole cover at 3am, which was fun, but 2010 was the year that I got to know about 4km of the rooms and galleries by memory and can now successfully navigate a majority of the system with pretty high success using maps.

At some point during our Kinky Paris trip, the following things may or may not have happened:

1. We stayed underground for 3 days living only by artificial light.
2. I feel asleep in a pile of human bones.
3. Marc Explo convinced us all we were  ghosts haunting the place after a debate between him and Silent Motion while they propped me up like a corpse on the wall, drunk on port.
4. We went to two massive underground parties (one in the underground cinema built by La Mexicaine de la Perforation).
5. We sent people out of the exit first to get arrested so we could run away while they were getting cuffed. Marc Explo also may or may not have also left people for dead in there.


#18 – New Court, London, United Kingdom

We found New Court while we were looking for something else entirely. Waking in the City of London, we saw a giant hole in a brick wall at ground level. We went through it, while a drunk man in a suit pointed and yelled “hey!” while falling against a wall, and then found this crane. Seriously, it was one of the best spontaneous finds of all time and remains one of my favourite explorations. This photo, with Tower Bridge beaming behind me, later got me some love from Web Urbanist which really kicked off motivation to get more cool stuff done this year.

#17 – Métro workshop, Paris, France

This year has also been a great year for exploration of the Paris Métro system. When Marc Explo told me we were going to explore some Métro on my last trip there, this was not what I was expecting. We jumped off a train and then tiptoed quietly down the tunnel, trying not to rattle the tiles on the narrow walkway. When we turned the corner and I saw this parked-up train with the lights on, my heart almost stopped.

The workshop made all sorts of strange noises as we slid underneath the train and up onto the platform, tugging on the doors in a futile attempt to get in. I kept having the distinct feeling someone was in there with us. It didn’t help that it was in the middle of the day. Marc Explo is mental.

#16 – Arterial GLC Cable Tunnel, London, United Kingdom

2010 was also the year we largely moved into being primarily an infiltration crew and while we wiggled into no less than 6 distinct cable runs housing London’s infrastructural networks, this one in particular is a real gem. It runs under a primary party artery and listening to the people running wild in the streets through the manhole covers, high-heels clacking down the corridors and fights breaking out above us in front of clubs, one can’t help but laugh. My favourite sound though is cars rolling over the lids down the street above with that distinctive negative gradual thumping reverberation. The cable runs are exciting for about 10 minutes visually, but they are sonic wonders.

#15 – Urban Camping, Everywhere

Okay this one is a bit of a cop-out since it’s not a specific location but we spent almost an entire month of this year sleeping in weird, random and derelict places. While the most harrowing was an active crack den in Luxemburg which we barricaded with old furniture and barbed wire, this random hill at an Autobahn Rasthof in East Germany was the most comfortable urban camping spot we have ever found.

Not only that, the looks on tourist’s faces when we woke up and dragged our sleeping kit back to the car and drove off  to the next ruin was priceless. Pretty sure a little girl in a car seat cried when we came at her in the car park, “Gary” dragging a sadly deflated stolen air mattress connected to a pump we found in a derelict pool with eyes full of wild hangover.

#14 – The Nuclear Racetrack, Southeastern England, United Kingdom

There are plenty of things you could be doing on a weekend evening. One option would be sneaking around in a quarry until you find access to an abandoned nuclear bunker where you source electric go-karts with the keys still in them and drive them around at high speeds. Seriously. We spent 12 hours in this subterranean playground and were having a grand time until I put photos of it on the interwebs and got a lifetime ban from the largest urban exploration forum in the United Kingdom. C’est la vie.

#13 – Rubix, Brixton, London, United Kingdom

2010 was also the year we started seriously exploring London’s amazing sewer system built by the legendary Joseph Bazalgette, following many years of epic exploration by drainers like Otter and Jon Doe. While we enjoyed exploring the River Fleet, The Tyburn and The Westborne sewers, I was especially fond of the Rubix junction in Brixton, in London’s South West Storm Drain system, not in the least because it is walking distance from my flat in Clapham. There is something about walking around in your own sewer that’s very satisfying.

Silent Motion shot this great footage of our exploration there. My excitement in the video is… um… evident.

#12 – Battersea Power Station, Wandsworth, London, United Kingdom

While Battersea Power Station has been a site of serial trespass for years, this year’s epic 7-person infiltration in the middle of an event setup on bonfire night past hordes of workers deserves special recognition. Watching the Battersea Park fireworks display from one of the chimneys was incredibly surreal, especially when Silent Motion told me “close your eyes and you can feel the chimneys collapsing a little every time a burst explodes.”

By the way, whoever tried to sneak in after us and got chased out – that was hilarious to watch from the chimneys, thanks!

#11 – Vogelsang Soviet Military Base, Berlin, Germany

This year marked our second visit to Vogelsang after a 10% completion in 2009. This Soviet base was built outside of Berlin in complete secrecy from the local population and housed 15,000 Soviet troops at it’s height. Declassified documents released in the 1990s revealed that this base had nuclear missiles stored there in 1958 aimed at London, Paris, and Brussells. We obviously took nude photos on the launch pads.

When we showed up at the base this year, it felt like coming home as we set up camp in the main building after hours driving and walking down logging roads on the massive necessary trek to get to it. Strangely, upon arrival we almost immediately ran into a party of geocachers and had an awkward stand-off until we realized they were as nerdy as us.

Other than that unlikely encounter, we had the base to ourselves and used the opportunity to throw a fat 4-man party in the admin building with a raging bonfire and spent all night taking long exposure night shots, inspired by Troy Paiva’s book Night Vision, which we were reading during the drive.

#10 – NATO Headquarters Bunker, a Paris Suburb, France

Sometime in the spring, we rolled into a quiet village in this Paris suburb at 2am and killed the headlights while we looked for a place to park the car where it wouldn’t be noticed. It was quiet enough to hear the gravel crunch under our feet as we ran up to a blast door and slipped down a dusty ventilation shaft. Inside – a massive quarry system converted into a NATO headquarters bunker full of decommissioned military equipment brought in by strange enthusiasts. The only thing more fun than taking photographs in these rigs? Playing destruction derby in them. Just kidding. Sort of.

#9 – Palais de Justice, Brussels, Belgium

The Brussels Palais de Justice was the largest building in the world when it was finished in 1883 and opened by King Leopold II. It’s rumoured that it’s construction was such an undertaking that the architect, Joseph Poelaert, died from exhaustion. So when we heard it was covered in scaffolding, well, we knew we were going to climb it. 2/3 of the way up the scaff, Statler quit and by the time I pulled myself onto the dome, I thought I was going to die.

I was so shattered, I couldn’t even enjoy it; we just left a jar of Vegemite on top and climbed down. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best way to begin a 2-week roadtrip given that we were all wrecked by 6am on the second day but hey, for these views…

#8 – March Joint Air Reserve Base, Moreno Valley, California

I came back to California for a conference in March and I got a call from my brother Pip – “so you like exploring stuff these days huh? I’ve got something we can explore.” Turns out, Pip wasn’t joking. After sneaking onto March Air Force base in Moreno Valley, California, a broken window gave us access to a 7-story building full of disused medical equipment, then being utilized as an urban warfare training ground for soldiers going to Iraq and Afghanistan. Utterly terrifying and totally fun, I am proud that a building from my home town has made it onto the top ten. Hopefully since the economy has all but collapsed, we will see more of this sort of thing. Just kidding.

On the way out, the sheriff was waiting outside. We were apparently a little reckless with our headtorches. Just as he hit us with his cruiser spotlight, four of us hid behind the only four pillars in sight. When he drove off to the backside of the building, we ran like hell. Seeing Pip go head-first into the grass just before he dove through the window of my truck as I sped off was priceless. Big props to the military police for not gunning us down with their assault rifles.

#7 – Saint Sulpice, Paris, France

We have climbed so many churches and cathedrals this year that I think we can nominate cathedral climbing as a new Olympic sport. St-Sulpice was the gem of the year. Marc Explo distracted a security guard with inane questions just before we shimmied up the hoarding to the scaffolding. When we finally got to the top, the Eiffel Tower glowing in the distance, we found a group of 5 university students in really nice clothes having a picnic on the roof. Only in Paris.

Later, this crusty old hippie came up the scaffolding with his 6-year-old daughter and fired up a spliff as he introduced himself. Like I said, only in Paris.

#6 – The Sanitary(um) Hospital, London, United Kingdom

Hands down the most pristine derelict hospital I have ever been to. The hospital is also in the most unlikely location for a giant derelict building and it took Patch and Neb weeks of research and climbing around the place using benches and ropes to finally find an open window. Shouts to Patch for the dedicated research and legwork on this one – the payoff was grand!

#5 – Millennium Mills, East London, United Kingdom

I had been putting off Millennium Mills for years. I think a part of me wanted to save London’s last epic ruin for when I needed it most. When “Gary” called me and said “meet me on the Excel Centre bridge”, I knew the time had come. Mills exceeded all expectations, it’s clearly one of the most beautiful industrial ruins on planet earth today. As such, it’s been good to see a renewed interest from London explorers in the site lately. Might as well since the security guard is utterly useless!

Like all beautiful things, London authorities plan on fucking it up by turning it into a dreadful 5000-home development with an aquarium.

#4 – Croix Rouge Abandoned Métro Station, Paris, France

Croix rouge was as terrifying to get to as it is beautiful. Unbeknownst to me at the time I hit the shutter, this photographs would tour London as a 20×30″ print and end up on the brochure for the 2010 Royal Holloway, University of London Vertical Geographies Conference.

As usual, the best thing about Paris is when you crawl out of a metro tunnel onto a platform cackling, dressed in black and covered in tunnel dust and no one cares.

#3 – Lucky Charms, Stockwell, London

Otter, Yaz and I jumped into a sewer at Stockwell station and accidentally went upstream. I don’t know what we were doing but Yaz then says, “why don’t we just see what’s around the corner.” Ten minutes later, we were in one of the most beautiful drain junctions I have ever seen. Otter, in his style, spent 30 minutes setting up lights for this photo while Yaz and I danced in our waders to drum and bass.

I am incredibly humbled that Otter and Yaz invited me to name this drain. I christened thee “Lucky Charms”, the most wonderful drain we didn’t mean to find.

#2 – Pre-metro, Antwerp, Belgium

In the 1970s, Antwerp had a big plan to build 15 km of Metro tunnels with 22 stations. Then they remembered they were in Belgium and made sure not to complete it. Today, only 11 stations have been built and it’s never been used. But that is not the fun part.

The fun part is that the only way in to this beautiful beast of a system is via a 30 meter air vent with a straight drop. At the tail end of our road trip to Poland, we tied off the ropes and dropped into this gorgeous piece of almost-architecture while the rain pummelled us from up high.

Flipping the light switch at the bottom and watching the lights spark down 11 abandoned (under construction?) stations was one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed. Not being able to ascend out of the system due to exhaustion, torrential rain, and fear – even more awesome!

#1 – King’s Reach Tower, Southbank of the Thames, London

And finally, maybe surprisingly, at number one on my list this year is my new London favourite. The first time I stepped onto the roof of King’s Reach Tower, 111 metres over the Thames, I was floored by how spectacular the view was. It also has (had?) a working lift which seriously made this a night out that almost didn’t feel like exploring at all, just an evening with drinks and a beautiful view. When Otter released his Gigapixel panorama of London taken from here, I knew we had something incredible on our hands. It only got better when we threw an epic party on the 29th floor which brought explorers from 5 countries together for a fantastic gathering that ended in a drunken congratulatory speech from Siologen.

And so with that, I officially close the Place Hacking 2010 year of exploration. Hope to see you all out there next year!

________________

Thanks to Statler, “Gary”, Otter, Patch, Yaz, Neb, Claire-Elise, Gigi, LutEx, Hydra, Witek, Brickman, Cogito, Joel and Jesse Childers, Siologen, Snappel, User Scott, El Gringo, Pip and everyone else who I have been exploring with this year.

A special thanks to Winch for organizing all of our legendary ProHobo Road trips. I don’t know how you do it mate, but don’t stop. Marc Explo deserves the utmost respect for not only for his skills as an explorer but his in-action philosophising that always send me back to the drawing board. Silent Motion is the best place hacker the world has yet seen, you are an inspiration brother.

Further, I have had some great conversations and received encouragement on my PhD research from Dsankt, Urbanity, Simon Cornwell, Trevor Paglen, Adam Fish and the crew at Savage Minds, Alan Rapp, Julia Solis, Shane Perez and Steve Duncan. Cheers all. Thank you finally to Tim Cresswell for your unwavering support (and blind eye) during late night frantic calls and early morning coffee chugging sessions at the London Review Bookshop.

On a final note, 2011 already promises more than 2010 delivered so watch this space.

Oh, one more thing.

Explore Everything

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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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The opportunity to forge a personal, exclusive, and self-defined relationship with the city comes first in rejecting implicit assumptions and explicit regulations about sanctioned space. –Alan Rapp

Team takeover

Dr. Anja Kanngieser completed her PhD, Performative Encounters, Transformative Worlds: Creative Experiments as Radical Politics, Germany 2000-2006 at the University of Melbourne in 2009. I met Anja at the ESRC funded Experimenting with Geography workshop organized by Michael Gallagher and Jonathan Prior at the University of Edinburgh where we spoke about creativity, politics and rights to the city. Her ideas (and key reading lists) about the politics of space and the relationship between urban exploration and squatting have seeped their way into my work over the past year, inspiring me to invite her do a short interview for Place Hacking.

Probe

Anja, in addition to her current research projects, is also a collaborator with Dissident Island Radio, the shows of which are podcast live from London every first and third Friday of the month at 9pm and can be found at www.dissidentisland.org. The audio responses in answer to some of the following questions come from a recent conversation between Anja and Leila in response to my request for an interview. Leila, like Anja, collaborates with Dissident Island and is well versed in matters of squatting and political spaces.

Around

BLG: Anja, your work on political movements has seemed to centre on the idea of capitalism as crisis. Urban exploration, in its most basic form, seeks to explore the remains of failed capital projects, leading some explorers to celebrate the financial crisis as it ‘opens’ spaces to alternative (i.e. non-commercial) uses. Do you see the current financial crisis as an opportunity in any way?

AK: Firstly, I’m not sure I would describe the current state of capitalism as crisis, I think that using a discourse of crisis suggests a very event-based ontology, that is to say it doesn’t really address the everyday processual and structural elements of capitalism that mark out capitalism itself as a system contingent on dysfunction and reproduction. To say that now capitalism is in crisis is to infer that before it was somehow functional and can be functional again. What I like about the idea of dysfunctionality is that it allows for the view that there are chances to intervene. At the same time we should be aware of the ambivalences in that these interventions – they can also be appropriated and absorbed into this dysfunctionality.  I think that these chances have always existed and will always exist. And more so I think that people can be quite good at taking opportunities, when they feel that they can or feel that they must.

This is also why I think to speak of capitalism as failed is misleading. If we acknowledge that capitalism is contingent on breaks and discordances, if we acknowledge these ambivalences that both close and open conditions for new possibilities at the same time, we can see how even abandoned buildings can serve the purposes of capital. Just because they are empty does not mean they are without value to venture capitalists. I think we need to see how capital extracts value from things we might think are derelict or destitute. It’s true that the current financial crisis has meant in some senses a crisis in the property speculation market, which means that at the moment there are vacant properties. This is, of course, something that urban explorers can take advantage of. But it’s also imperative to recognise that even before the crisis there were empty buildings, and that there were buildings that housed non-commercial initiatives. If we are aware how capitalism compels affects, how it generates desires and fears, anxieties about scarcity and ideologies of risk and accumulation, then we can see that whatever ‘stage’ capitalism may be in we can find sites for making alternatives. We shouldn’t wait for a cry that capitalism is dead.

Inspection

To speak of the crisis as opportunity is also to speak of the detritus that opportunism is predicated upon. It is to speak about the process by which a building is made empty, in the US for instance the houses foreclosed by the banks [1]. In each case somebody left that space, possibly not by their own volition. In each space there are echoes and resonances of what has come before, and these need to be realised every time we enter these unoccupied homes. The crisis can both antagonise and paralyse action. Maybe it’s a matter of differentiating between opportunity and opportunism, and thinking about how we can utilise the spaces we re-inhabit to create new communities of care with some kind of ethico-political consciousness around what is happening. Finding a way to build links with people local to those empty places, and beginning conversations and relations with them to engender new common geographies. In this way we can open spaces for different ways of being.

Anja and Leila on capitalism

Sleepover

BLG: One of the things you advocate for is squatting in abandoned structures. I have taken a few trips around Europe with my project participants where we have slept in ruins and a number of urban explorers are now considering squatting as a viable option. Do you think that urban exploration, or squatting, could be an avenue toward a different relationship with the city?

Anja and Leila on squatting

Suspicious

BLG: Most urban explorers subscribe to a code of ethics that includes finding creative ways into buildings so as not to break into them, avoiding any possibility of prosecution (not to mention bad press). Do you see this as a crafty way of working around the law or a failure to confront laws we never agreed to in the first instance?

Anja and Leila on the urban exploration code of ethics

AK: Firstly, I’m not sure I entirely understand a code of ethics like this in the sense that it functions as a law (unwritten perhaps but a law or instruction nonetheless) dictating how people should behave, much in the same way that state governance does. I understand what function such a code may serve in terms of subverting or skating around the edges of the law, but I don’t entirely understand why one would wish to ascribe to a law that is symptomatic of a system that urban explorers seem to be trying to provoke or wrest themselves from. Maybe I have misunderstood what urban explorers are seeking but at any rate a desire to freely engage with space, to enter places that are closed to the public, to cross fences and borders despite explicit instructions not to, to go down into subterranean features and into forbidden territories, is a desire for self-determination and a desire to live without an imposed authority. It’s a desire for radical forms of play and fun, for excitement. What seems to delineate urban exploration from squatting in urban exploration discourse is this strangely complicit/subversive relationship to the law. But squatting is not illegal. Oftentimes squatters don’t even need to break into buildings, as Leila points out in the audio response, spaces are left open. So I’m not sure why a code of ethics like this is seen as a way that urban explorers are differentiated from squatters in terms of good or bad press.

Secondly, to me the idea that by not breaking into something you are preserving a kind of legal and spatial sanctity or integrity is also curious. I don’t know how deeply the idea of authentic spaces is ingrained in praxes of urban exploration, but from the moment you step over the threshold something is disturbed. This already assumes that the space itself is in a vacuum, that it hasn’t changed since it was last inhabited. The effects of degradation and wear, the kinds of ecologies that empty spaces breed means that a space is always in the process of changing. The re-intervention of humans into this space contributes to this, necessarily. At the same time I can see the romance and nostalgia in entering a space with the idea that you can come and go without leaving a trace, to document your adventure and then leave. Just as much as I can see how one might justify that if you don’t actively break in somewhere, it’s by inference not breaking the law. Maybe it could be less about seeing it dialectically and more about playing in the grey zones. Seeing the lines of desire and imagination, what they are for, and why they are there, as well as the processes of action they give rise to, rather than using the vocabularies of the state or of authenticity.

Anja and Leila – beyond UrbEx?

Getting out

BLG: Much of your research has used the framework of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. What do you think that duo can teach us in terms of urban exploration as a critical spatial practice?

AK: For me the work of Deleuze and Guattari is most interesting for their attention to desire as a constitutive force. I find them useful for thinking about how we are in the process of becoming subjects, how we relate to, produce and are produced by, ourselves, others, and the systems and institutions we are constellated within. Especially in terms of capitalism, heteronormativity, class, race and gender. With Guattari especially we find a lot to do with transversality, that is to say a multidirectional movement between institutions, bodies, organisations, state-craft etc over many levels. Where this is relevant for urban exploration is to see how desires and transversality can affect space and vice versa – how our relations to space are influenced by complex entanglements that are political, economic, social and cultural in nature. Rather than seeing space as inert and a-political this means we have to see space as processual and dynamic.

Getting up

What also resonates with me is their take on failure, and how failure is never only a shutting down but an opening up to something else. Guattari talks about this with respect to Sartre, and how in the experimental leaps that Sartre takes there is a thrilling beauty even when he falls flat. Perhaps precisely because he takes those risks, and does miss. This conception of experimentation and failure is something quite important to any kind of exploration, when there is a high element of process, what I mean to say with that is when the process of undertaking the action is in many ways just as or more significant that the final outcomes.

Cameo

BLG: Finally, building on the work we began together at the Experimenting with Geography workshop and your work with experiments in sound and radio, how do you think that the spaces that urban explorers frequent could be experienced in different ways using different audio techniques?

AK: There has been some amazing sound work done on abandoned places and sites, especially within areas like acoustic ecology, which invest a great deal of energy and technologies into field recording. For me Louise K. Wilson’s recordings of the centrifuge at the secret military testing site Orford Ness in Suffolk stand out as really evoking a sense of place in a quite affective way. I very much appreciate the translation of space and atmosphere into sound when it articulates those echoes and reverberations of what was once there, but has now passed. Such audio translations can be utterly compelling in a way that I often find visuals aren’t. They can also speak to the politics of spaces and can express both subjective and meta critiques and affirmations of a particular place and its history, without reliance on linguistic and ideological discourses.

What I’ve found intriguing for awhile is EVP, Electronic Voice Phenomenon, where people put recording devices into empty places to capture sounds of the deceased. They then interpret the sounds they record into speech, slowing down, speeding up, distorting the acoustics to find the words the ‘voices’ shape. EVP arose from a belief that the spirits of the dead are attracted to electrical devices and can communicate via telephones and radio frequencies. Most of the time this was the result of crossed wires or AM transmissions but nonetheless I like the imaginaries it gave rise to. It reminds me of the Philip. K. Dick book in which people can be caught in a state between life and death, in stasis housed in coffins, talking to their loved ones through a telephone-like apparatus, and as they expire over time their voice grows less and less audible at the other end of the line. I like the peculiar understanding or lack of understanding of ephemera like radio waves that gives you a sense of mystery and fascination with natural phenomena that are in many ways quite archaic. There are still people constantly developing specialised devices said to be able to catch these voices, so it shows the intensity with which some people engage with EVP. So this could be another way to experience histories, memories and imaginaries of ruins and derelict sites.

Dr. Anja Kanngieser run the blog Transversal Geographies.

Real

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Ride of the vagueries (conquest of Paris)

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Mar 6, 2010 Under Cultural Geography, Uncategorized, Urban Exploration

“They rolled down the Champs de Lise in these armored vehicles. They were dressed in black, carrying tripods and camera gear, saying the would explore every inch of the city. It was terrifying.” – Constant Conscious, Baker

“One of them said he had been under the Musee du Louvre bowling with skulls and I was like ‘what the fuck is happening here?’” – Achille Chevalier, Town Watchman

War games

Leave no one alive

Marc called us from Paris where he remains in exile after murdering that poor Gurkha security guard at Pyestock. The Parisian populace was getting downright menacing he said, throwing instead of blowing kisses at President Sarkozy. The wet smooches were slapping him in the face with soppy smacks, knocking him down on every street corner, leaving him sapped of mojo. And a flaccid emperor can’t run this city, as Napoleon III learned 300 years ago, despite his glorious mustache.

Tashe

Turns out, Marc had been rummaging around (as he does) the other week and had located a fleet of abandoned military vehicles, perfect for quelling French proletariat rebellions. He imagined us piloting them down the wide toward the city centre, just as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann built it to be used, setting all right once again.

Under the cover of darkness, we crept in, leaving behind two operatives to secure the vegetable supplies in a adjacent quarry. I hopped into a small Humvee and ordered the doors battered down. Can’t believe they left the keys in this puppy.

Charge!

We rolled into central Paris in our new acquisitions bumping Del The Funkee Homosapien and drinking blue Chimay, throwing baguettes at hopeless romantics, police and cataphiles alike in a transparent attempt to capture hearts and minds. Implementing an age old audacious tactical maneuver passed down through the Statler family for 40 generations, we climbed every tall building in the city to survey the scene.

Seizure

Just then, Silent Motion cried out, pointing to the horizon, an almost inarticulable gasp pouring out of the side of his mouth. In the distance there was what appeared to be a rift opening in the sky.

Holy smokes!

We took decisive action, speeding over the the rift only to find that it was a reincarnation of Zuul, back from Ghostbusters I to invade Paris the same night as us. Damnation!

This party's over!

With a stroke of luck, LutEx arrived, fresh off the Eurostar, answering our Craigslist ad for reinforcements. Right then and there, he pulled out this horrendous map of some underground city where he claimed previous failed revolutionaries had gone into hiding. Clearly drunk at this point, we decided he was the man to follow.

And then the revolution died

The dejected revolutionaries crawled into the underground maze through a manhole at rush hour, dragging the bodies of their dead comrades, pussing fang marks and all, hopes and dreams tied up in little canvas sacks, squirming and wiggling, screaming for acknowledgment.

Shouldn't have crossed the Rubicon

]

Lest our hopes get the best of us, we left them in the bags and trampled them while we danced to our failures, praying that Zuul had been lenient with the people after her extraterrestrial takeover. And that’s how Marc’s dream of a new Parisian republic died, in a bout of inebriated dirty dancing, headtorches waving in little battery powered gestures, light painting the the walls of the cave we all knew we would never be able to leave.

Here's to failure!

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This post is dedicated to that little Swedish boy that died exploring in Stockholm last week. I celebrate you for not sitting inside playing video games like your friends kid.

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I am a proponent of the idea that everything we do as academics should be public. Therefore, this post is both the text and video from my PhD research proposal defense on urban exploration. As with all research, it is a work in progress and I hope to refine it over the next 2 years!

I hope you enjoy it, please feel free to email me or comment on the blog with any comments, questions or hate letters.

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Heritage Infiltration: Quests to Find Myth, Mystery and Meaning through Urban Exploration

Bradley L. Garrett

Introduction to Topic
The term urban exploration conjures up a multifaceted set of interlaced images and ideas. I expect that each person reading this will have a slightly different idea of what exactly those words mean. Perhaps they even makes you cringe But for one group, individuals who call themselves urban explorers, UrbExers or simply UErs, the phrase is unabashedly precise. Urban exploration is an “interior tourism that allows the curious-minded to discover a world of behind-the-scenes sights” (Ninjalicious 2005).  In my own words, I might describe the urban exploration “scene” as a transnational enthusiasm focused on exploring and recording liminal zones and derelict places, rooted in an interest for the past and a passion for the photography of the forgotten.

I will spend the next three years getting to know urban explorers, embedding myself in their practice and hopefully becoming an UrbExer myself. Although I must admit that despite the seductiveness of my participant’s definition of their practice, I have misgivings about calling myself, or them, urban explorers. My reasons for this are rooted in the academic geographical imagination.

Firstly, what is “urban”? Can we still use the term when an exploration of built structures or human remnants takes place in a rural environment? Do we need to bound and separate the urban and the rural? Secondly, what narratives does the term “exploration” conjure up? We are all aware of the cultural baggage the terms carries: visions of colonial expeditions, invasions, subjugated populations, disease and occupation (Johnston 2000). It is language of conquest.

Because of these misgivings, I suggested a new term for what it is I have come to do every weekend. I began to call it heritage infiltration. It seemed to me that this term encapsulated the rogue adventure into humanity’s largely forgotten past that we were undertaking, while avoiding the negative associations I saw with the term urban exploration. When I suggested the new nomenclature to the urban explorers who I was working with, they hated it. In fact, they reprimanded me for suggesting that I knew better than them what it was they were doing. Consider it a lesson learned in doing ethnography: project participants are always the experts, and the researcher never has a right to make expert claims about the regulation, bounding or designation of identity markers.

In the end, I decided to use both terms (hence the title), one to describe my participant’s vision of what it is they do and one to describe my personal characterization of the experience.

Methods
So, the cat is out of the bag. I said I was doing ethnography, a term thrown around rather loosely in geography circles. Coming from anthropology, I realize the boldness of this claim. I know that building an ethnography is a deep process; maybe too deep for me to realize in three years. Ethnography, by a traditional definition, will include observation of people’s daily lives for an extended period of time (Hammersley and Atkinson 1995). Visual ethnographer Sarah Pink defines ethnography as “an approach to experiencing, interpreting and representing culture” (Pink 2007: 18). It is Pink’s definition, with the acknowledgment of personal experience in fieldwork that I find most appealing.

The experience of the researcher is often missing from ethnographic accounts, and I believe that the narration of my visceral, bodily experience as a heritage infiltrator is an important story to tell. I have realized early on that these explorations are about inscribing corporeal existence into place while absorbing enough memories, experiences, lead paint, asbestos and scars to take also the places with you.

Finding Hidden Community
It took me 8 months (beginning before I started the PhD!) to get an urban explorer to invite me on an explore here in London. The reason for this is that the urban exploration community is full of sneaks, shades, specters and rats. In fact, after offering my services as a “videographer” on an UrbEx forum board called 28 Days Later  shortly after arriving in London, I was accused of being a federal agent infiltrating the network to collect evidence for prosecution. The realization of the difficulty of gaining access to project participants has led me to use a variation of snowball sampling or respondent-driven sampling (Salganik and Heckathorn 2004). Basically, by meeting one person and building trust, I can ask them to introduce me to someone else. Using the mythological law of 7 degrees of separation, this should lead me to everyone eventually (though maybe not within 3 years)! The technique has worked well so far; after my first explore on Jan 15th 2009, the two Kent explorers I went out with called friends in London to give me the “green light”, leading to the 16 person (and ever-growing) research group I now have! This process was greatly assisted by virtual social networking sites such as facebook and internet forum boards.

Virtual Networks ←→ Physical Encounter
Online networks are quickly becoming very important for cultural research. In my case, I have chosen a community who has had their own web-based networks long before facebook, myspace or even friendster. A quick search of “Urban Exploration UK” in google brings up dozens of sites, all associated with different cliques, some quite hostile to each other. On the forums, identities are fiercely guarded. The reason for this is that law enforcement and private security firms patrol the web spaces looking for information about member identities and access points into sites. As a result, the biggest “noob” (newcomer) offences in the forums include:

1.    Not blurring out faces in a pictoral forum posting
2.    Using someone’s real name
3.    Revealing how you gained access to a site (especially when this leads to the access point then being sealed!)

Aliases and costumes have become increasingly important in recent years, I am told, with the proliferation of CCTV and the general air of suspicion regarding urban explorer’s motives, to the point that even on an explore, people will not reveal their real names. Interestingly, off of the forum boards, I have built a group of friends on facebook who, of course, have revealed to me their real names. All of our profiles are set to only be viewable by “friends”, and we frequently post pictures of explores with our faces shown, with the assumption that these posts are “internal”. In some cases, explorers will ask me not to “tag” them to keep visibility to a minimum.

As you may have guessed, being an urban explorer, at least a part of this community, requires some degree of technical prowess, a fair dose of paranoia and, I might add, a nice still camera and some skill with it if you want to build recognition on forum boards. I knew at the beginning of this project that I did not have the technical skills with a still camera to gain access to this group. I did however have videographic experience, which prompted me to begin using video to build my ethnographic stories. Ironically, I have found that video does some really fantastic things in the field and my role as a videographer is seen as anomalous but increasingly desired as I produce youtube videos that can be embedded into forum postings, one of my gifts that I give back to participants.

From Virtual Geographies to Visual Geographies

Again, claiming to be making an ethnographic film is a bold claim, but as Sarah Pink points out, “a video is ‘ethnographic’ when its viewer(s) judge that it represents information of ethnographic interest” (Pink 2007: 79). Ethnographic interviews are perhaps the most useful area for video collection and production. The reason for this is that video allows project participants to speak for themselves. Photographs, as Hastrup (1992: 10) argues, are a thin description, capturing form but not meaning. Hastrup goes on to argue that in order for the photograph to become a piece of ethnographic thick description, it must be contextualized by text, an argument also made recently by Gillian Rose (2001). Video, on the other hand, is capable of capturing experience (both yours and your participants), and does so in a way that I believe is respectful and accurate in terms of ethnographic storytelling. I hope to use both “in the field” interviews and more focused formal interviews once a sufficient level of trust has been built to request these.

By the end of my research, I expect to not only have written a thesis, but to have also produced a feature length ethnographic film, a film that my participants have expressed much more interest in than the written component.

Some Parameters
In an effort to increase participant control over the project, my parameters have been defined largely by my research groups. Basically, to be part of this project participants are expected to:

1.    Define themselves as an urban explorer and consider urban exploration an important part of their life.
2.    Actively post on an online community of like-minded individuals or at least have an avatar on the forums.
3.    Following this, participants must subscribe to the urban explorer community code of ethics.
4.    Agree to be filmed, and agree to have me use that film for my research (on whatever terms they choose i.e. face-blurring, anonymity, audio-only etc.).
5.    Agree to having their alias used to describe their practice in the film and in any writing.

Finally, in terms of location, I am following participant leads, where they take me is where I study. At the present time, it looks as if this study may involve 5 countries and dozens (if not hundreds) of locations.

Other Aspects of the Study

There are a wide range of themes connected to the topic of urban exploration that I have not touched on here including, but not limited to, ghosts and hauntings, gender roles, urban adventure (extreme sports in derelict places), policing and authority resistance, childhood play, homelessness and squatting, emotional adventure, adrenaline addiction, political and cultural nostalgia, localized mapping, dystopian fantasy, alternative archaeologies, building hacking and heritage hijacking. All of this can and should be unpacked through experience and interviews.

Why is This Worth Researching?
Urban exploration is an international movement, a shared global culture that defies language barriers, national borders, and conceptions of private ownership over space. It is a form of activism, an art, a hobby, a sport, an addiction and, to many, a way of life. Urban exploration is a way to resist the smooth spaces of the city and to seize heritage in a very personal way.

I believe that there are also deep roots in urban exploration, roots that tendril into themes about life in the city, desires for emotional freedom, the need for unmediated expression, associations with childhood memory and historic materiality, and desires for physical human connection and bonds through shared experiences of peaked emotions (Cahill and McGaugh 1998). These are issues explored by phenomenology, psychogeography, ontology and cognitive archaeology. I believe that tracing the roots of urban exploration will reveal a philosophical rabbit hole that does not end at the smooth pavement of everyday life.

It is also a topic which has been little discussed. In the course of my first few months of research, I have found two films on the topic (Faninatto 2005; Gilbert 2007), a few television shows (Duncan 2004; Wildman 2007; Zuiker, et al. 2006), a handful of popular books (Deyo and Leibowitz 2003; Ninjalicious 2005; Talling 2008; Toth 1993; Vanderbilt 2002), a single academic text (Edensor 2005), two M.A. dissertations (Lipman 2004; McRae 2008), a few journal articles (Genosko 2009; Pinder 2005) and a very large stack of zines (locally printed fanzines). Actually, the most coverage I have seen of urban exploration is in popular magazines and newspapers, where the press is almost assuredly negative. Obviously, this ever-growing and increasingly popular pastime is ripe for infiltration.

References
Cahill, L. and J. McGaugh
1998    Mechanisms of Emotional Arousal and Lasting Declarative Memory Trends Neurosci 21 (7):1-6.

Deyo, L. B. and D. Leibowitz
2003    Invisible Frontier : Exploring the Tunnels, Ruins, and Rooftops of Hidden New York. 1st ed. Three Rivers Press, New York.

Duncan, S.
2004    Urban Explorers. Hoggard Productions, United States of America.

Edensor, T.
2005    Industrial Ruins : Spaces, Aesthetics, and Materiality. Berg Publishers, Oxford, U.K.

Faninatto, R.
2005    Echoes of Forgotten Places. Scribble Media.

Genosko, G.
2009    Illness as Metonym: Writing Urban Exploration in Infiltration. Space and Culture 12(1):63-75.

Gilbert, M.
2007    Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness. Channel Z Films, United States of America.

Hammersley, M. and P. Atkinson
1995    Ethnography: Principles and Practice. 2nd ed. Routledge, London.

Hastrup, K.
1992    Anthropological Visions: Some Notes on Visual and Textual Authority. In Film as Ethnography, edited by P. I. Crawford and D. Turton. Manchester University Press in association with the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, Manchester.

Johnston, R. J.
2000    The Dictionary of Human Geography. 4th ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK

Lipman, C.
2004    Tresspassing in the Ruins: Urban Exploration at the CRX, Royal Holloway, University of London.

McRae, J. D.
2008    Play City Life: Henri Lefebvre, Urban Exploration and Re-Imagined Possibilities for Urban Life M.A., Queen’s University.

Ninjalicious
2005    Access All Areas: A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration. Infilpress, Canada.

Pinder, D.
2005    Arts of Urban Exploration. Cultural Geographies 12(4):383-411.

Pink, S.
2007    Doing Visual Ethnography : Images, Media and Representation in Research. Manchester University Press in association with the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, New York.

Rose, G.
2001    Visual Methodologies : An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.

Salganik, M. J. and D. D. Heckathorn
2004    Sampling and Estimation in Hidden Populations Using Respondant-Driven Sampling  Sociological Methodology 34:1-48.

Talling, P.
2008    Derelict London. Random House Books, London.

Toth, J.
1993    The Mole People : Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City. Chicago Review Press, Chicago, Ill.

Vanderbilt, T.
2002    Survival City : Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America. 1st ed. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, N.Y.

Wildman, D.
2007    Cities of the Underworld. The History Channel, United States of America.

Zuiker, A. E., C. Mendelsohn and A. Donahue
2006    Free Fall (Season 4, Episode 20). In CSI: Miami. CBS Paramount Television, United States of America.[

[vimeo vimeo.com/4665841]

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