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

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

Liminal

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

Failed (Vogelsang, Berlin 2009)

And failing (The Strip, Las Vegas, 2010)

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

Privileged

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

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

Living in ruins, Soviet edition

Living in drain, American edition

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

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

Intersections

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

More than temporary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard knocks

Not shocked

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

Space

Invaders

Eschewing

Waders

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

Explored

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

Don't ask

For much

Just desire

And such

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

Braver

Or just lost

Challenged

Or just tossed?

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

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

Snapped

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

Be Monstrous. Explore Everything.

 


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Without contraries, there is no progression.
– William Blake

Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode.
The Coming Insurrection

Implosion

A lot of ink is spilled over urban exploration’s relationship to the past and I have previously written about how the anticipated transience of places, the act of bearing witness to their inevitable death, adds to our experience of exploring them in the present. These geographic imaginations of unrealized temporal iterations positively reinforce our notions of place in the world, giving us a sense of agency as we realise that in the midst of all of the endless death and decay, we live, even as we are reminded our time here is limited. This notion has guided historical attractions to ruination for centuries, stretching back to ancient Rome when Livy explored the Cloaca Maxima sewer. The nostalgic lust for derelict and crumbling spaces has never left us for as Alan Rapp writes ‘the metaphorical power of ruination is as relevant today as it was in an ostensibly more Romantic era’. Our love for things of the past, the nostalgia that Nietzsche found so crippling, is described by G.M. Trevelian who writes:

The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone…

The nature of Post

Ruins, like dreams, pull us, in one direction, toward our innermost yearnings and, in another, towards a life beyond the constraints of the real; the romantic accounts of ruin exploration in the last 2000 years abound. But clearly part of our attraction to derelict space also has a darker component of an imagined ruined future that has not been written about nearly as much, a Ballardian formulation of urban apocalypse.

Crumble

Recently, Paul Dobraszczyk wrote a wonderful paper in the journal City where he describes his trip the to exploded nuclear reactor at Chernobyl which ‘incorporated elements of both dark tourism and urban exploration’ as he searched for what Susan Sontag referred to confrontations with ‘inconceivable terror’. Just a few years previous, Tom Vanderbilt penned the book Survival City in which he explores the ruins of atomic America and in the new book Ruins of Modernity (my review in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space forthcoming), Jonathan Veitch tours the Nevada Atomic Test Site where he finds not the expected response of melancholy or nostalgia upon entering the ruins but Baudelaire’s Satanic laughter, a terror that is so visceral the only possible response humour, as if the emotions have been short-wired by the horror.

People as numbers

And so we come to the thesis. Part of the reason we enjoy exploring decaying architecture is rooted in an imagination of a post-apocalyptic future. These places are viscerally enticing in their wretchedness, in part, because imagining ourselves in a future where we populate them during imagined use-lives filled with heroism and adventure is so improbable that it forces one to meditate on the surreal nature of the past that had led us to this most improbable junction in time. Writing of Pripyat, one contributor to the new book Beauty in Decay which represents these sites with burning gothic intensity notes the Pripyat “continues to whisper of a ‘post-human’ earth which, in the end, may be the strongest fascination of them all.”

More than human?

In our explorations of the ruins of Eastern Europe this past summer, we all took guilty pleasure in witnessing the remains of the failed Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, reacting, at times, absurdly to it. The experience left us in a distinctly different state than ruin exploration in the United Kingdom, the reverence for actual state failure (rather than imagined post-capitalist or “site-specific” failure) making our explorations both more poignant and more guilt-ridden.

Our former 'enemies'

Invoked

By a history

Never witnessed

But felt

If, as Dylan Trigg writes in The Aesthetics of Decay, a derelict factory testifies to a failed past but also reminds us that the future may end in ruin, what does the ruin of a failed state say to us?

Get on, I guess

Henry James writes in Italian Hours that “to delight in the aspect of the sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows a note of perversity”. This perversity takes on a different form as you leave “home”, the nostalgia wears a dark mask of exotic fetishism that beckons the days of Empire even as we participate in the beginnings of the failure of capitalism and the nation state at home. Of course, these expeditions are markedly less decadent than those of ages past but even speaking English marks us as a potentially dark and exploitative party even as we seek to avoid being “tourists” by following Steve Pile’s advice that in order to get at some of the real (really operative) processes in city life, attention should be paid to those things that appear marginal, or discarded, or lost, or that have disappeared or are in the process of disappearance.

A rapidly depleting resource

A year ago, we took a trip out to the Mojave Desert in California for a friend’s bachelor party. Our intention was to explore the Calico Mines under the ghost town. Which we did, finding all sort of mysterious chambers, boxes of dynamite, uninvited spectres and endless subterranean playgrounds. But always in the back of our minds, there was a fantasy playing out of someday taking refuge here. Whether that was from drought, famine, nuclear attack or a zombie infestation was never articulated but we all knew it was implied. We were collecting derelict site locations as a post-apocalypse insurance policy. As Susan Buck-Morss wrote in The Dialectics of Seeing, throughout Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the image of the “ruin”, is emblematic not only of the transitoriness and fragility of capitalist culture, but also its destructiveness. Our imaginations were all bolstered by the thought we were seeing ghosts from a future yet to come.

Indeed, as Hell and Schönle write in Ruins of Modernity, ruin exploration can involve “reflections about history: about the nature of the event, the meaning of the past for the present, that nature of history itself as eternal cycle, progress, apocalypse, or murderous dialectic process.” These inevitable intersections took grip firmly as we were leaving the mines. On the way out, we were confronted by survivalists from a militia who had dug into the caves to create desert shelters and were patrolling their territory in a weaponised 4×4 buggy. The father was clearly ex-military, barking orders at his kid to “get on the gun, son” for a photo op. As they sped away, they yelled back at us that the government was collapsing and we would do best to prepare to defend some territory, a new tribalism, they insisted, was on its way.

Apocalypse

These post-apocalyptic imaginaries are evident all over popular culture, from films like Mad Max28 Days Later12 Monkeys or Blade Runner, in books like After London, The World Made by HandThe RoadThe Stand, or The Plague and even in video games like Bioshock and Silent Hill. In all of these depictions, though the future may be bleak and dytopic, there is some underlying euphoria behind the freedom that comes with being released from the state, social life and cultural expectation that has an obvious relationship to the off-the-grid spaces that urban explorers go into. I have to wonder though, as we run into more and more people living this way now (primarily squatters and unsanctioned parties) rather than imagining to live this way in some distant future, what it takes to drive one off the grid like the Dad and son I met in the desert.

Hiding place

For thousands

Of disaffected

It seems to me that the imaginations of these distopic futures become increasingly realistic as our faith in the state to take care of us is eroded; as we see the world collapsing around us politically, environmentally and socially. Now that may be obvious. What isn’t obvious, what no one wants to say, is that we like the idea to some extent. In some part of all of us, we want the society of the spectacle to implode, to see how we would fare in a world not regulated by health and safety, to see what we might achieve when confronted with the most basic challenges of finding food, water and shelter.

Contamination

I argue that the interest in post-apocalyptic futures in nothing less than an interest in trying to get back to what we have lost in late capitalism, a sense of place, a sense of community, a sense of self. And although urban exploration passes through places rather than staking them out in any permanent way, urban exploration as a movement is a vital bridge, a gateway, because it finally makes to move from the imagined to the physical. When we explore, we take a step off the grid. It is only one more step to stay off it.

Always almost on the brink

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