The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.
In association with
The second episode of Crack the Surface, a documentary series about the global urban exploration community.
In association with
“Revolutionary movements to not spread by contamination but by resonance.” – The Invisible Committee
There is one primary reason why the London Consolidation Crew has been so successful. Group dynamics. When the urban exploration scene in London started heating up in the past few years, we went through some growing pains as a crew: people getting left behind, bad publicity, jealousy, bad luck that led to busts. But we came out the other side and the result is that we are now more efficient and cohesive than ever. The stuff we’re doing now looks different than our 2010/2011 tube onslaught, but it’s no less ambitious.
We get messages constantly from people wanting to get involved – I guess it’s obvious how much fun we’re having! We appreciate that – please continue commenting and emailing, it’s good encouragement to keep us out there climbing skyscrapers in subzero temperatures, sinking anchors into walls at 4am and hiding from Metro drivers in Paris while we run the tracks. But we don’t do these things simply to entertain you sitting in front of your computer screen at home. We want to inspire you to build your own group of explorers and start cracking the place you reside. You don’t need us, you just need a couple of solid mates and a bit of overflowing angst or desire. Easy.
Eventually you may want to hit some bigger targets. In regards to group dynamics of a growing crew, here’s a lesson we’ve learned. Urban exploration is often perceived as a relatively solitary activity, something that we accomplish on the back of research, scoping, surveillance and execution in small groups. But in reality, the urban exploration crews that get the most high profile locations done (Holy Grails) are the ones that operate not on an ethic of one-upmanship but as a group – the Cave Clan learned this a long time ago and QX, Dsankt and Sergeant Marshall proved it again when they demolished the Paris Métro a few years back as a loose infiltration collective. And while it’s true that the UK “scene” is, as Siologen says “all fucked up and weirdly political”, more fragmented than the current US Republican Party, our London crew is one of the tightest knit groups out there right now. Save one.
“Many such subterranean places are said to be found in Minnesota.”
– Fredrika Bremer
I woke up in a basement at Shotgun Mario’s house surrounded by a massive pile of drippy waders, clutching a glass that was recently full of John and Becca’s heavenly homebrew ale on tap in the next room. I scratched my head and a host of sand particles dislodged themselves and sprinkled into my glass, salting my sleeping bag. My eyes hurt. Witek was drooling on a pillow next to me dreaming of train engines and Marc Explo, as usual, was naked in his sleeping bag snoring like a baby. I stumble upstairs and Mario is on the phone, editing maps and listening to heaving dubstep simultaneously. He looks eager and I’m pretty sure, after being here for 24 hours or so, he doesn’t sleep at all. We all slowly made our way over to DarlinClem’s and her pad was full of even more explorers, including Moses Gates, whom I had wanted to meet for years. It was all happening – we had finally made it to Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP). It was a stupendous welcome party at DarlinClem’s the night before and now it was time to get busy – the crew had assured us they were going to put us to work before we arrived and Marc wanted to dig.
The reason MSP is our favorite sister crew, and arguably the world’s most famous UE collective, is not just because they party in sewers wearing spandex and swigging champagne. Nor is it just because they stage mass boat infiltrations in drains. It also isn’t just because they throw awesome illegal parties. It’s because they’re a huge, solid group of exceptional explorers that have accomplished an unimaginable amount in their city and love it as much as we love London. We have a lesson to learn from MSP where rinsing the city of locations didn’t stop them – it simply caused them to start thinking even more critically about what was possible, spinning off iterations of playful urban interaction through a relentless desire for more. They work through doldrums and always re-emerge into a new Golden Age. Just as we are doing now. That, I argue, is no coincidence.
In short, the crew in MSP constantly rework the city through desire – a rather fluid proposition; desire is radically intransitive, not a thing in itself but that which enables us to desire. Both our crews are consumers and producers of that serotonin seepage, in the same way we might manufacture fear to increase adrenaline levels while exploring, in the same way I have helped manufacture the LCC, in the same way we take the bait to be the only one ever to drive a Mail Rail train. Urban exploration, while it may be viewed externally as a transgressive tactic, working to undermine closed systems, is also full of moments of comprehensive engagement with social life, triggering neural flashes where the husk of alienation is shed to reveal fruits of collective activity. The level of organisation, time and effort invested and sheer brilliance of group efforts and accomplishment (the fruit) in MSP is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Their consistent discoveries, especially in the fertile, porous, excavatable subterranean sandstone environment, reveal them to be the global rockstars of our little pastime.
Rewind to a revelation Winch came to last year when he told a herd of us in the Paris Sewers, “there are only two types of barriers we face – the physical, which we have little problem with now, and the social. Social barriers can be overcome too, we just have to hone our skill.” The kids in MSP are pros at this. In Chicago, when we set our sights on doing a live infiltration of the Legacy Tower, Shotgun Mario and Tony walked in with our group of 8 and pulled aside security with an errant question while we followed a resident to the lifts and made our way to the roof. Mario and Tony sacrificed their personal enjoyment for the benefit of the group. No one has gotten up there since. In our most successful infiltrations of the London Underground, we often had somebody “on top” to keep an eye our our access point, ferry ropes and distract civilians, both LutEx and Dicky have played that important part on major missions. This is an essential role in any successful infiltration crew.
As Marc Explo suggested to me, place hacking is perfectly complimented by mind-hacking techniques by people such as Derren Brown (cheers to Katie Draper for introducing us to that sociopath). While we have subverted almost every type of physical barrier possible, we have largely failed to attempt to alter people’s perceptions of situations (the psychology hack). Which in many cases is easier, such as convincing hotel staff that you have lost your room key and need to get your stuff from the pool rather than sleeping on the roof and abseiling to the pool at 2am. So here was our second lesson learned from MSP – walk the shit and talk it, use all the tools at your disposal.
Time for me to assert my favorite trope! Urban exploration is a place hack. Both virtual hacking and place hacking are elective procedures of participation in otherwise closed objects (proprietary cyberspace or off-limits architecture). In the same way hackers wouldn’t use a DDoS attack to achieve every goal, we also have a range of tactics, both distal (visual representations, smoke screening, misinformation campaigns) and proximal (sneaking, social engineering, brute force) at our disposal to hack our way into and rewrite places so that they feed into our manufactured identities (undercutting imposed identities). The explorer, by stratigically applying a fuller range of tactics, multiplies stories of places to create myths, dreams and visions of a present moment of possibility available to those harbouring desires to make them manifest. Once those stories are rewritten, they can then be restacked to add weight, contributing toward the collective breaking point. If we consider hacking as a constant arms race between those with the knowledge and power to erect barriers and those with the equal power, knowledge and especially desire, to disarm them, it is a logical step to begin considering ways beyond sneakiness and brute force to disarm closed architecture. Take for instance the following photos. There is only one way to get them and it had nothing to do with being sneaking past security or brutalising a keycode panel. It was a Trojan horse attack, plain and simple.
Just as the hacker ethic cannot be simplistically reified, categorised or bounded, neither can explorers themselves. While I may point to an overarching impetus behind exploration as I see it, and bound explorers according to primary friendship groups or geographic location for analytical convenience, it is problematic to attempt to define a coordinated explorer ethos; individuals simply follow their desires, do their own edgework. But in a (loosely) coordinated group, individual desires can be channeled into the collective. Exemplar are the infamous Futtslutts Thelma and Towanda of MSP. These two don’t explore by anybody’s rules. They are, by and far, two of the most accomplished and daring explorers anywhere. Their courage incited Marc Explo and I to charge headlong into a tiny stoop filled with raw, black sewage like molasses, packed with cobwebs and little white subterranean spiders, fending them off with a stick and a bottle of Uncle Andre until the fumes almost took us down for good. It was a hot moment. But also, through their radically impractical assault on that poo den, another tunnel was crossed off the list. Individual desire fed into group accomplishment.
With larger groups also comes increasing specialisation. Where the Futtlslutts may form a frontline assault, Mario is behind the scenes drawing up plans, Tony is in a tie opening places easier than a ninja, Slim Jim is mapping every inch of the process with exacting detail and Clem is the glue holding it all together. It was inspiring watching the team go to work on a problem and it’s something we brought back with us from MSP. I think it has helped the LCC gel even more, taking us again back to my initial observations. Urban exploration is a team sport, straight up. If your team sucks, you’re not going to nab a Grail. And seriously folks, drop the politics, when you find someone out there in the world operating alone who brings something exceptional to the team, they deserve your respect and should be brought into the fold.
Our process in London of increasingly trying to work social angles, as a group, was partially inspired by what we saw in MSP at the end of our summer of mayhem. Exploration is about doing exceptional things that challenge and provoke us day after day with a community of close friends; it’s not just the places or the process of exploration that makes this worth doing – it’s the friendships behind it. So in terms of the emails we keep getting, thanks again for those but we’d rather you make move from talking about what could or should be done, pitching possibilities and asking for help pulling your group together and creating those possibilities. We, like the crew in MSP, undertook the research to find out what had been lost to time and then went out and found it in the world – real work that took place with our hands, bodies and minds as a community we built together. As “Gary” once said to me “if you’re in, you’re in, you can’t fake this.” And for diving in head first we earned an invite to visit a crew older than us that we respected immensely. So what now? Well friends, a global community reformation is taking place in front of your eyes. So if you’re ready to give up faking it and start making it, join us.
Thank you to everyone in MSP who let us stay on your coaches and floors, fed us fine food and ales and for showing us the wonders of your city – it was spectacular! With the 2012 International Drain Meet coming up soon, I look forward to seeing many of you again.
By the way, you were always our favorite, just don’t tell the others.
This seems a fine time to mention that the London Consolidation Crew, in collaboration with the MSP Hard Hitters, are going to drop a massive media bomb tomorrow. Keep an eye Silent UK and Place Hacking and wait to feel the shrapnel spray into your retina.
“It’s about the risk sometimes.”
Part I: The Sounding
Let’s get those photoreceptor cells warmed up and neurons bouncing people, it’s time for Place Hacking Chicago, where secret spatial knowledge leaks out like early-morning pillow drool through cracks in the urban security infrastructure.
Chicago was a slimy glimmer as Marc and I sped in, sleep deprived, stinky and tweaked out on our successes in Detroit. We had been hearing rumours of an extensive tunnel system modelled on London’s Mail Rail where some fiendish little schizophrenic called Dr. Chaos had hidden cyanide stolen from the University of Chicago back in the early aughts. Apparently it was accessible through manhole covers, gated up with steel doors that had pins we could pop out with a hammer and screwdriver. Next stop Home Depot we figured, we’re going underground.
But Chicago presented those tunnels as false idols to be chased and worshipped by neophyte place hackers looking for lone star epics to boost international credibility and couch surfing bonus cred. Marc and I read the runes and realised our destiny lay in the heavens of the Windy City. We first hit the Hilton Chicago where we were advised the doors to the elevator controls were poppable with a credit card. Within minutes of arriving downtown, we were up the fire escape and on the roof.
But the Hilton’s rooftop, sexy as it was, left us unsatiated. We looked higher and noticed a thunderstorm of epic proportions coming to meet us downtown. It was prime time to climb the highest the midwest had to offer and grab hold of Chicago’s gods – big cumulonimbus death eaters ready to thunder down bolts of righteous over Lake Michigan.
The 40-story Ritz Carlton Residences had the Eye of Suaron on them, a bulbous 360-degree inverted black dome swivelling around and gaping at the piddly four-foot fence into the site. By the time we were standing in front of it, the rain was coming in from five sides, threatening to breach our bags and assault the fragile electronics in our cameras. I looked to Marc. He nodded. We ran across the street and gave the camera the finger as we ninja’d the scaffolding and ducked inside. The first set of stairs was easy to find but hominid specific ultrasonic vibrations on the third floor revealed a fat man in a bright vest reading Maxim at a desk facing the wrong way to actually perform the job he was being paid for. We left him to it and hit the crane to bypass third floor stair ‘security’. As soon as we swung onto the crane we got hammered by the gods of Lake Michigan again. Their wrath was significant at this point. The thunderstorm had intensified into a full-fledged sensory cacophony complete with blue forked lighting strikes jabbing in dangerous proximity as our shadowy figures scaled the steel cage toward the stars. A few floors up, past the stair barriers, we snuck back to the concrete steps and climbed. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever climbed 40 floors but the thing is that if you’re in reasonably good shape at 20 you’re fucked. After that, it’s just sheer adrenaline, fear and unquenchable anticipation that keeps the legs moving. Add to that the fact the we were eating primarily trail mix and woke up that morning (14 hours ago? 20?) on top of a port building in Detroit and you start to get an idea of what we are up against here. We chilled for a second.
Then we heard them. Sirens. Everywhere. They converged on our location and the blood drained from Marc’s face. Without a blink, he cinched his pack straps and said ‘if I’m getting busted, I’m getting busted on top’ and resumed climbing. Cheeky. We hit the stairs with renewed vigour, every turn in the case cranking up the heat, the angst, the fervour. By the time we get the top, I’m locked in a perpetual dubstep stair wobble and my thighs feel like they’ve been skewered and stuck over a campfire until they involuntarily pulsate.
Dripping, panting and wrecked, we walk outside on floor 40 to a nightmare of epic proportions. The architecture is in the midst of supra-environmental contractions rolling in every two minutes, ready to electroporate holes in our cell membranes. The place is heaving and screaming as the gods of Lake Michigan hurl down forks of fury at this giant concrete and metal phallus we just climbed. I am, quiet seriously, terrified that the air ducts, which appear to be zip-tied to the scaffolding, are going to come down on us. And then I see it. Marc Explo is standing on an incomplete ledge being whipped by the rain, defying the gods of Chicago. And the rain stops. And the sirens stop. We look over the edge and there’s nobody there but methamphetamine-addled cab drivers, confused, jetlagged tourists and drunk dudes in loosened ties cruising the Magnificent Mile for violence. Turns out, the sirens probably had nothing to do with us. More false idols.
To this day I still swear Marc assassinated the gods of Chicago. Or maybe he just appeased them with his audacity, for they appeared to linger in wait, providing us with ample opportunity to take our photos in their image, replicating their relentless bombardment for the sake of the Powerslide. In that brief respite between aerial assaults we became the new gods of Chicago and we didn’t intend to take our responsibilities as false prophets lightly. We immediately ran back down 40 floors, bought a beer and popped a hatch in the middle of the one of the Chicago River bridges, toasting those who failed to attend this feckless roadtrip, and those who were on different ones, while the monsoon continued.
The next day we found ourselves working harder than we should have to sneak into an abandoned Brach’s candy factory. The two events of note within that dirtheap of a building were (1) a guy living in a tent on the third floor of the Chewy Candies Caramels® assembly line (who had clearly located a superior ingress/egress route to us) and (2) the fact that the whole factory reeked of marshmallows, nuts and chocolate. If Place Hacking was scratch and sniff, I could have bottled and relayed the smell of derelict chocolate. Since we haven’t uncovered that particular technological wonder just yet, you will have to fly to Chicago and climb over that fence yourself. Sorry.
We saw other places. Events transpired. Sometimes we catalysed them. In other moments we were the victims of dirty tricks and absurd bureaucratic mishaps. I got hurt again falling in a hole somewhere and reinjured my broken rib. Such is life on the road. Then I woke up on a sand dune in Gary, Indiana and Marc wasn’t with me. I found him later at Michael Jackson’s childhood home where he was hanging out with Michael’s cousin Ron (no joke).
Part II: The Legacy
“We must act out of passion before we can feel it.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
Fast forward a few weeks to Indianapolis where we gathered with the world’s great place hackers, blaggers, security subverters and professional infiltrators. After hearing of our successes in Chicago, Marc and I headed back downtown on our way to Minneapolis with Witek, Craig, Darlin Clem, Babushka, Otter and Adam. Everything is more fun with friends. Especially friends like these.
After nailing the Hilton one more time (in the middle of the day no less), Marc had this crazy idea to try and social engineer our way up the 72-story Legacy Tower by following in residents, acting like we were headed to a party. We all tried to hold our giggles as the residents in front of us swiped their keycard and we packed our crew into the lift with them. On the 72nd floor, the lock to the roof fell off. Must’ve been some lingering remnant of those false god superpowers.
We collectively decided to wait for sunset to see the city light up from 250 meters above the city streets. As night descended, eight of us perched on the ledge, my heart bloomed. It was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.
The Great Legacy Tower Infiltration, our final mission in Chicago during the 2011 Midwest Powerslide, was a wonder. I left with the feeling that if I were ever to move back to the United States *gasp*, Chicago would be the place. When we walked out the lobby, security opened the door for us and told us to have a good night. Thus is the gift to those who don’t play by the rules.
Cheers to my family for having us over in Elgin for BBQ, a much needed night’s sleep in a bed and, of course, pool time. A huge shoutout to Chicago for being such a bucket of win – that’s some city you’ve built there people.
The spatial revolution is upon us; join us in making place open access again.
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others”
When I started Place Hacking two years ago, I conceived of it as a place to get ideas out, a place to dry run new thoughts, a repository for all the weird shit in my head. Over time though, it’s taken on a new form, a life of it’s own to a degree. As I scroll though the photos of our various adventures, I realise that Place Hacking has become one of the story threads of a community that we didn’t really know was forming. I am implicated everywhere; as an ethnography, I don’t know how I could have dug any deeper or threaded myself any tighter.
The community we have built in London, especially in the past year, is unprecedented. Our move from ruin exploration to urban camping trips to infrastructure to elicit parties and urban adventuring led to a mend between “teams” in the London community to the point that we almost can’t even tell what the “teams” are anymore. We all go out together now, night after night, cracking new tube, locating new drain junctions, sharing ideas, refining techniques and getting more stuff done more quickly than ever in the history of London exploration. Our hosting of the IDM this year, spurred by Otter, and the organisation of multiple events that have connected us to the larger international community really indicates to me that London exploration has come of age. Let it be written that it wasn’t always so!
To an extent, we have also begun to redefine what urban exploration is to the wider UK scene. This began, I think, with the move into infrastructure, to infiltration, but also with our desire for desire, the point at which we decided that enjoying what we were doing was more important than whose toes we stepped on or which ‘codes’ we subscribed to.
Urban exploration as a practice requires a bit of a leap to decide to turn a wild idea into action. But it takes another brave leap to take responsibility over aspirations for more depth in the practice. At some point, we decide that not only would we go into places, we would also do what we like while in them, whether that meant throwing a party, sleeping in them or changing the locks and seizing disused space as our urban playgrounds. In all honesty, what we put on the internet to showcase London’s potential is probably half of what we have accomplished. I will let your mind wander about what kind of fun may have taken place but rest assured it’s been nothing short of a beautiful rampage.
And so, with a bitter taste in my mouth I announce that I left London. In fact, right now, as I type this, I am sitting on a plane. Two hours ago, I checked in a bag full of high vis, waders, camera gear, torches, tripods, hard drives, a sleeping bag and a Neil Stephenson novel – everything I need to survive really. I’m on a mission to return to LA and Sin City, the sands from which I emerged so long ago, to sit quietly and write our stories. I have chosen to give up my cherished role as an agitator to become a scribe for our tribe. It has to be done – the myths and legends of this age can’t go unrecorded. I am determined, above all else, to make sure that whoever comes after us knows that in a world rendered increasingly mundane, we refused to let adventure die.
My decision to leave the city has broken my heart more than I could have ever imagined. London, for me, will always be the place where the world was cracked open; where I realized the core was full of scorching, beautiful light; London will always be the place where it became impossible to ignore the potential in everything.
This potential was unleashed one last time in what had to be the most bizarre and wonderful subterranean party in South London history, put together by Winch, to see me off. The crew snuck into a space 30 meters under the city dragging a massive sound system hooked up to a car battery, lights and cases of Belgian beer picked up on Winch’s last trip to the Continent. I walked into a surprise party of epic proportions populated by all the usual suspects and a few fresh faces. We played Bunker Frisbee, undertook bolt climbing practice upside down on the walls, spayed each other with champagne, made ridiculous gushing speeches, ran through the tunnels screaming, we puked, we danced. It was bliss.
Determined to keep the mood going, when this planes lands in Syracuse, NY, I will get into my friend Erika Sigvardsdotter’s 1988 Dodge that she left behind after she returned to Sweden and drive across the United States toward the Wild West via Canada, sleeping in ruins along the way. My first major stop will be Detroit, the heart of US industrial urban exploration where I will search, alone and with no knowledge of the city, for glitches and ruptures to exploit. After that, I will head to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul (MSP), to go underground with Shotgun Mario, Darlingclem and the infamous MSP heavy hitters.
I will miss London. More importantly though, I will miss my friends. When I began exploring with the Can Openers, I expected to learn more about the city. I also hoped to become a better filmmaker and photographer (which I have, though I’ve got a long way to go still!). What I didn’t expect was to reach a to find some sort of divine wisdom in that dank, wet, cold city. In London, through our explorations, I finally found the desire to be a part of a community where I have always felt like the geek standing on the side in every other group. It has been such a blessing to find more geeks like me who were not content with virtual adventure and who strive to make the impossible possible.
In the end, I found a community full of practitioners who aren’t afraid to try something new. I have found a community who, when I see their name pop up on my iPhone, make my heartbeat accelerate because I know when I pick it up, something daring will ensue. I have found a community of people that I respect on the deepest level for their audacity, bravery, courage and passion.
I have never felt bonds so strong – we have entrusted our lives to each other so many times that we have become nothing short of a band of raiders. I often used to imagine us as the Band of the Hawk from Berserk or a World of Warcraft raiding guild until I realised at some point that I couldn’t even sit through movies or play video games anymore because our lives were more fun than what was one the screen. We killed my desire for media through embodied experience – what a revolution that is in this age!
This community has pushed me, time and time again, to put down the pen and to pick up the passion. What they were teaching me the whole time, I now think, was to learn to live in the present. Surprise. After years of roaming the world looking for magical wisdom hidden is some drippy Australian rain forest, practicing yoga and meditation on Hawaii beaches, and chillin out with Native Americans in Nothern California, it took a bunch of urbanites with cameras to show me that every moment in life must be lived with the upmost respect, care and appreciation. It took a group of what I thought in the beginning to be alternative historians to show me that there is nothing glamorous about nostalgia and that we own the future, come what may! The only thing that really matters is what we do with each of these sacred moments.
Although I am going away to try and make good on the investment this community has made in me, I can never repay them for all they have done – it was the essence of life itself offered to me, a drink from a chalice that made us all immortal. From Canada to Detroit to MSP to Sin City, I feel like I now travel with an awareness that will never fail me, London watching my every move with a wry smirk. So while Place Hacking may morph into something else over the next few months while I write up, I know it must and I am not afraid – because everything changes.
Long live London! Long live curiosity! Explore everything!