Sewers are perhaps the most enigmatic of urban infrastructures. Most citizens of modern cities are aware of their existence, yet few could accurately describe their layout or appearance.
–Matthew Gandy

Clearly not accurate

Above me, the heavy round metal doors into this underworld shake with a pinging metallic scream that reverbs down these watery tunnels, slowly fading into a seemingly endless succession of dull thuds that migrate down the street above us, some racing black cab speeding a jilted lover home from the pub after the last trains have stopped running. This overworld scenario interests me far more interpreted from below the undercarraige of the cab, little bits of shit-sticky mud dislodging themselves  from the freshly-pried manhole cover edges, plopping onto my bald head. Cue a shuddering shake, aural spell broken.

Water races around my feet faster than the cab, pinning my waders in a strange plastic comfort to my legs, little bits of used toilet paper and raw sewage which we lovingly call “the fresh” blocked by my PVC barrier, pushing around me angrily in an effort to make it down this old river and into the Thames like salmon swimming not toward their spawning ground but the river Styx where the boat will sink halfway across and they will float lazily to the bottom, never to move again. As drainers, we learn to love the waste just as we learn to love the trash left behind in the streets of London at 4am on a Friday night. It is the detritus of passion passion for life that staves off our impending deaths, as Michael Dibdin writes in Cosi Fan Tutti:

This place reeks of mortality.
I thought it reeked of rancid oil and bad drains.
It comes to the same thing in the end.

At some point in London’s Victorian Age, the separation between “river” and “sewer” became blurred. Technically, I am standing in the River Westbourne which no one but sewer workers and daring drainers have seen for a hundred and fifty years. Despite the fact that no one has drank the water from this river since the 1400s, it remains a vital waterway of this city, a throbbing vein of live humanness, rushing underneath our unknowing feet as we run to work on the pavement above. Seeing it is a reminder that, as Gay Hawkins writes, “our rituals of cleansing and disposal are enfolded with this landscape, our personal secrets are implicated in the public secret of sanitation.” This misadventure into the bureau of public secrets is the newest in our chain of London infiltrations, our most recent attempts to make sure that this city is documented from every possible angle through experience, fear and love. Just as I wouldn’t wipe the ass of somebody else’s baby, only London’s sewers interest me.

We view the stigma of what is flushes on these journeys both literally and socially. Our preferred mode of access to these hidden waterways is hiding in plain sight and the classism of London society works in our favour, with both police and the public ignoring everyone dressed in high-vis and a hard hat, benign foreign workers who make their living in places where no “respectable” Londoner would ever step foot. Our team of 4 digs into their toolbelts of large screwdriver, t-shaped keys and crowbars to break the seals into underdiscovered territory, finding what the city forgot existed, our brazen crew seemingly as hidden as this river when we actually look like we work for a living.

Cracked

Pull this bird

The addiction to infiltration does not lay in the adrenaline rush of the experience. Infiltration creates unwieldy complications, difficult mental junctions and moments of crises that confuse, inspire and complicate our existence. My second identity as the underclass, the role that I play to gain access to urban secrets, is slowly becoming my primary identity. My clothing, my language, my social class, all now defined by my behaviour “on the job.” Leaving this tunnel late on this night (early the next morning?), we were greeted by “real” workers at a tube station who tossed slight nods our direction, eyeing us with confused interest, suspicion, respect and likely some revulsion given we were covered in underground wetness that smelled even worse than the rank pub toilet across the street.

We have been systematically exploring London’s subterranean features for the last few months, cracking every stormdrain, abandoned railway, cable tunnel and sewer we can find in the city – elements of this urban environment that Steven Smith, in his book Underground London, calls “London’s best kept secrets.” We know why. Not only are they some of the most beautiful and surreal places in the city, they are also the most foul.

Pour your heart out

The sewer is a place for alterier cartography, a place where no one may reside but where one can pass through, cameras capturing endless angles of the oldly new, remapping our mental conceptions of where the verticality of the city begins and ends. Our embodied experiences move like the stinking water, shifting from one chamber to the next, chalk marks on walls marking our way home, level after level of underground run-off continually sinking into what we imagine to be an endless succession of metal grates covered in dried up cakes of unknown substances, unidentifiable pieces of fabric and scraps of food. Matthew Gandy, in his article The Paris sewers and the rationalization of urban space contends that “by tracing the history of water in urban space, we can begin to develop a fuller understanding of changing relations between the body and urban form under the impetus of capitalist urbanization.” Pretty sure he wrote that line from the Paris sewers.

Alterier chamber

We trace these cultural lines and flows, finding here that nature and culture drift at the same rate in an interdependent foulness. London’s legendary sewer rats are in full effect tonight, running from us in a terrified scamper, climbing the round slippery walls of the tunnel in inexplicable ways and disappearing into holes we can’t even see into. I want to explore what they can see. At one point, some sort of nest is disturbed and they came at our lights, their little claws feet screeching all around us. Staying in the middle of the slimy sticky mud, shit and runoff where the rats won’t swim was clearly our best option.

We spent 4 hours sliding around these chambers, building up our immune system with aching stomachs upon exit and mouth sores to come. As we emerged I felt, as I often have, that tonight was another attempt to document my own disappearance in the course of making the city reappear in alternative iterations. As I sink deeper into my PhD, I sink deeper in this city, still so in love that there isn’t even room for another human being. I can only hope that either I or the thesis emerges at the end of this torrid love affair, unsure I will survive the potential breakup. Until then.

Own the night.
Cherish these secrets.
Wield this power.
Love this life.

Explored

Beneath your pub crawl

More playful than righteous

________________________________________

This author’s endeavour should be to make the Past, the sense of all the dead Londons that have gone to the producing this child of all the ages, like a constant ground-bass beneath the higher notes of the Present.

-Ford Madox Ford, The Soul of London

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Summer exhibition during the London Festival of Architecture

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Friday Apr 2, 2010 Under Urban Exploration

I am proud to announce that Oliver Dawkins of Urban Orienteer has invited me to contribute an exhibition to the Transparency and the City: Public Spaces or Forgotten Places? showing at the Alan Baxter gallery in Farringdon as part of their program of events for the London Festival of Architecture 2010.

Behind the scene

For the event, I have asked 7 explorers who have worked with me diligently on my PhD project to come along and show two pieces. Our exhibit, which we are calling Urban Exploration: Behind The Scene, will include work by myself, John Dodd, Laura Brown, Marc Explo, Alistair Sean William Costello, Chris Reinstadtler, Arron Fulker and Danny Pack.

Here is a blurb I wrote for the exhibit:

The exhibit will consist of a video installation and 14 photographs depicting infiltrated urban infrastructure, derelict places and artistic play in decaying buildings. The exhibit seeks to break apart city spectacle into the realm of the embodied by exposing the wiring behind urban façade, questioning our suppositions about the role of disused and underused urban space. The installation will showcase video footage and photographs from seemingly inaccessible places that will confront assumptions about what is and isn’t possible in the city and disrupt notions that urban life is necessarily utilitarian or impossibly overcontrolled.

Urban exploration is a modern movement which challenges boundaries to locate unconventional spaces for adventurous encounter where sensual tactile sensations and heightened bodily chemical reactions dwell. What is left behind from our transgressive mobilities are just traces, ghostly whispers in playful shadows. These intangible geographical imaginations will coalesce for just moments, long enough to haunt the London Festival of Architecture, and then blend back into the night.

The exhibition will run from Monday 21st of June to Friday 2nd of July. Following a private view on the opening evening viewings are to be arranged by appointment. Full details of all the contributors involved can be found on the Urban Orienteer blog. Hope to see you all there!

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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!

_____________________________________________________

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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Au Revoire to Marc: The Dragon of Clapham

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Nov 7, 2009 Under Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Psychogeography, Urban Exploration

So we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart still be as loving,
And the moon still be as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

—   Lord Byron

By the light of the moon, Marc and Hydra walked through the common, stopping every once and a while to blow something up. It was a quiet wintry night, a night for explorations of the soul before landscape, a post-phenomenological spectacle of Autumn ritual thought adornment. And then, the unthinkable happened. One explosion, set off by the Marc in a hysterical frenzy over his departure from the land of the mystics, shook the ground with a terrible rumble.

The grass of the common began separating, the earth seizing and shaking like a new born baby addicted to crack; trees capsized into an emerging crevice that revealed a hidden underground storage facility, untouched for 42.75 years, filled with the records of the lost souls dragged down to Dante’s 7th circle of hell.

Unexpected

An exposed vein

Where does this go?

Something new

Boxed memories?

Records of the Lotus War

A decision was made to explore this emerging subterranean wonder. Hydra, designated lead explorer on this spontaneously scurrilous expedition, entered the metal-lined den with trepidation; there was evidence of habitation, or at least adaptive reuse. The mole people had been here, burrowing into the earth, connecting the tunnel with another inhabited by a perpetually sleeping dragon that shook the tunnel with his deep exhalations.

The mole people were encountered soon after, mining away at the sidewalls of the tunnel, inviting collapse, but also inquiry, undertaken carefully by Marc who spoke conversational Molish. LutEx, master and commander of the underground, resided there with his Queen it seemed. They join the expedition for the promise of chocolate éclairs. Earlier that night, he tells Marc later, he mined a Jewel, and Diamond from the depths. The Diamond, as she then became known, joined the expedition on the promise of existential freedom.

As they move through the tunnels, LutEx explains that there was indeed a sleeping Dragon at the end of the tunnel, and that the mole people has constructed a wall between them and the beast to keep it’s steaming slumbering sighs from singing their eyebrows. It turned out they were not trying to dig to the Dragon, but to avoid it while working their way through the 7th circle. As Hydra commented on the quality of the construction, suddenly, running steps are heard.

Hazard?

Experiental barrier

The Goblinmerchant, vendor of the mystical, last seen at the Pyestock Stargate, emerges from the depths at breakneck speed, smashing through the wall in a brave but foolish attempt to challenge the Dragon. Little did he know, the Dragon had a guard. The Goblimerchant is caught in a time-space compression web, cast by a magical troll hidden in a subterranean enclave, forcing him back into the 7th circle, restoring the barrier the mole people had constructed, a barrier, which, it seems, the Dragon allowed to exist.

For his transgressions, the group sees the Goblinmerchant subjected to endless torture, first by having his hair pulled from the follicles by a diabolical goblin-engineered torture machine, and then tied by his feet and hung from the roof of the bunker, on show until the end of time for other daring explorers, an example of the dangers of crossing the Great Dragon of Clapham.

Caught

Torture and Punish

Born and died

Sisyphustic dilemma

With the expedition now complete, with lessons learned, The Diamond is indeed given her freedom, teleported back to the surface by a goblin transporter restored by the mole people to beam in food supplies and port.

And beaming

Beamed

As for Hydra and Marc… Last was heard they had joined LutEx and his Queen in the underworld, digging into the 8th circle of hell.

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Is this a game?

Anthropologists have recently been writing about World of Warcraft, Second Life and other Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Games (MMORPGs). Since many of these games have millions of players, with their own economies, cultures etc., it has been suggested that people within virtual worlds have developed their own culture. As an avid World of Warcraft player, I heartily agree. But I also love playing games in real life, and, in a sense, this is what UrbEx is all about.

Yesterday Marc took me to a site which felt very much life a game, a surreal landscape of industrial waste, technological failure and a ninja Ghurka security guard. We explored it, very carefully, and all went well, but when I got home, I re-dreamed the explore, making it the game I knew it was.

I call the result a Real Life Role Playing Game or RLRPG.

In a small forest, in a quiet neighbourhood, there are trails snaking their way through the tress. Different paths straddle the border between the forest and fields, inhabited by Mums with prams on this lazy Sunday, and by pairs of flatmates and friends, jogging, trying to sweat out remnants of last night’s snakebite extravaganza with girls in too-short-skirts. On one of these trails, in a black hooded cloak, walks Marc of the Cata Clan, Lvl 80 Elite Explorer, back again to conquer Pyestock for bonus explorer points before returning to his subterranean home in the Paris Catacombs.

Marc moves to the perimeter of his target, taking note of the Ghurka guard walking along side him, without looking in his direction, noticing that the Ghurka is following his movements. And eyes. He has been spotted. Marc breaks into a run, trees passing by like cars on a busy highway. With a quick glance to the side, he notices the guard is keeping pace. An elite guard. Merde.

Rookinella was right to be scared and stay home today, this guard cannot be defeated with felt or plastic pirate swords. With two glancing kicks off of the leaf cover, Marc is running up a willow tree, rebounding over the 4 meter triple barbed wire fence, his cloak hood flapping in the wind, distracting the Ghurka just long enough to pull the small blade from his leg holster. The Ghurka is cut down before he can get to his weapon, his mouth held from behind to muffle the screams of agony as he bleeds out.

Moving in

Marc shoulders the guard (god he’s heavy for such a little man!) and sneaks stealthily into the entry point, the Stargate chapel, where his next surprise awaits. He stuffs the guard under the mesh catwalk and walks over to a large circular disk on one end of the room. With a deep breath, he grabs the edge of the Stargate and pulls it open to unleash the Goblinmerchant, a daemon; a vendor of all things fantastic and mystical.

But what’s this? The Goblinmerchant smells humans. Turning his comrade, he can see that Marc has heard them long before now. A group of 4, fumbling their way through. No wonder, with security gone now. The perimeter is being breached. If they make their way to the Stargate, all hell could break loose.

They run off, low to the ground, weighted down by field equipment and supplies pulled from the Stargate, supplied for documentation of the Cata Clan invasion. Through the dangling Cat 5 cables, past the air tunnel control room, up the rusty ladder. Four fellow explorers lie in ambush and a battle almost ensues until we realize they also hold a key to the Stargate.

The documentation begins, one room after another, small items and large machines from humanities forgotten industrial past, a legacy of materiality replaced by computer models and office jobs in Slough.

Controlling the minds of workers?

An exploded reactor, lucky we were there to prevent radiation leakage!

Mail delivery system

Heard the seashore in these

Tunnels or cables? Was I in those?

Flying over the site with a temporary upgrade

Don't look down

Dirty row, collected for XP

Goblinmerchant calls control to tell them the mission has been accomplished. He is awarded 3 mana potions and 5000XP points.

Phone home

Documentation complete, Marc enters the energy capacitor, a small proton particle subfield generator, and Goblinmerchant flips the switch, firing him back to Subterranean Paris.

Impossible

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