Urban Verticality

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Aug 14, 2010 Under Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Freedom, Psychogeography, Situationism, Urban Exploration

“To get back up to the shining world from there my guide and I went into that hidden tunnel, and following its path, we took no care to rest, but climbed: he first, then I – so far, through a round aperture I saw appear some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears, where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.” -Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV

Sloping

The blood bubble

It was a night to remember, wandering around in a team of 5 dressed as construction workers. Even at 2am, the yellow vest and hard hat that signifies us part of an invisible working class, rendering accessible the cavernous depths and dizzying heights of the city never ceases to amaze. I find it fascinating how many people in London ignore these hidden verticalities of the city – not just in a physical but in a social sense. People don’t touch spaces above and below because that is not where their class belongs. The middle class, true to its name, moves horizontally.

Tonight was a drift tonight tinged with a particularity lovely glow, plans of sewers flooded by rain landed us underground where trains sped by as we ran down the tunnel laughing. Our desires for a complete and situated urban verticality led us from low to high in search for adventure, insatiable in our lust to escape a capitalist suicide by instalment plan, spontaneously mapping sites of urban tenderness one after another.

Tender

That night, we once again forsook the pact the modernism asked us to make, seeing it as yet another impotent utopia, and found our own phantasms, cultivated during chemical visions in the sands of the Black Rock Desert, the swirling concrete flow  and smooth-waxed rails of skateboard parks, in the melted organic mental materialities of peyote festivals.

We weren’t really resisting anything because the resistance would eventually “turn to irony, irony to realism, realism to pragmatism, and pragmatism to solace in spectacular visions, consumerist monsters, development triumphs, and nostalgic dreams.” Perhaps, Vidler tells us, in his article Air War and Architecture, “such anxieties, brought once again to the surface, will stimulate new resistances, desperately needed right now – resistances that will not take the critical understanding of the past as mere pessimism or wrongful authority, but as salutary instruments against a globalising development frenzy that insists on burying history” (Viddler 2010 :39). All true, yet that as we rise and rise again to meet this city in all of its grandeur, in all of our might, these histories can’t be buried because we are building them one exploration at a time, a history of hidden dreams, of decay and of class and capital in all of its tropes and treats. And that is a geography of love.

Tropes

Treats

With love, ever-renewable

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You give a man his daily bread so that he can be creative and he just goes to sleep; victorious a conqueror grows soft, a magnanimous man turns miser as he gains in wealth.    -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Are we at the top of the ladder or at the bottom of a new ladder?    -Silent Motion

Saddle up for

On our recent ProHobo trip into Europe, lovingly (if in the end somewhat flippantly) referred to as 3.0: ProhoBohemia, we pulled back from the infrastructural infiltrations that have become our daily grind here in London and went looking for ruins again. Coming back to ruins was like returning to a pleasant dream.

Magical realism

In our hired car, which we intended to push 3300 miles into Poland, our most ambitious trip to date, we cut through the corner of France as we have twice before and headed into Belgium. After a brief climb up a notable public building in a major capital city, we crept into an old train yard to spend the night. As you do.

Industrial nights

We woke up early full of enthusiasm and over the next week, we moved through Europe like a storm with an efficiency built over the course of three trips to the continent over the past year. We knew the sites we wanted to hit, we knew how to avoid security where necessary, we knew what to pack and, more importantly, what not to. We had, in fact, taken being temporary nomadic vagabonds to a whole new level. During the trip, we read passages from Tim Cresswell’s book The Tramp in America where he discusses the work of homeless-turned-Chicago-School-sociologist Ben Anderson. As we came to the realization that we could all likely keep this nomadic lifestyle going for a very long time (if not forever) I couldn’t help but think that we were working the other way around – there was a real possibility, is a real possibility that we could in fact drop it all and live like this indefinitely.

Probo

Looking for

Pure living

But the further East we went, the heavier our bourgeois baggage became. As we crossed the border into Poland, the car was filled with excited cheers quickly followed by confused murmurs. While the landscape here offered what we have come to expect from Europe – endless ruins – we found ourselves confronted with a place in which the relationship to derelict space was entirely different.

Secular

Imaginaries

Remembered

Here ruins were spaces not of bounded exclusion but of potential utilization. After driving for hours through a forest hunting for a soviet base called Keszwca Lesla, we arrived at 10pm to find rows of buildings, clearly Soviet-built, surrounding an undecipherable war memorial that looked like our standard fare with the addition of satellite dishes hanging off the sides of buildings. It seemed the local population here had turned this place into a summer holiday encampment after the collapse of the USSR and the abandonment of the base. Gangs of teenagers roamed the streets late at night in track suits and mullets, running in and out of the derelict buildings and bunkers. Inhabited buildings looked derelict, folding them right into the fabric of a lived landscape. There were no fences or security to be found, no rules, boundaries or exclusionary practices in evidence. It should have been paradise for us. Except that things felt different here.

Clearly

Something else

To be found

As we moved on from this site, we became more brazen, braving the sullen stares of thick-necked Polish men who could clearly throw us across a room to run in Soviet concrete blocks, shutters snapping. But what we captured in these places looked less like the western notions of the aesthetic sublime than we were accustomed to encountering and more like the war-ravaged Chechnyan ruins depicted in The 3 Rooms of Melancholia.

USSR

Afloat

No more

Site after site, I kept feeling that something was different here, something was missing here, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. It was something missing beyond a buoyant economy and door frames.

And then it hit me. It was nostalgia. As David Lowenthal writes, ‘nostalgia is memory with the pain removed.’ There wasn’t a hint of nostalgia to be found here. No one cared about stripping soviet blocks of all they were worth because they were still in pain here. It was probably, rather, a delicious catharsis to smash out those windows and excavate the rusting hunks of artillery from the ground.In the same way that we, in London, feel a need to write our own stories of places and to define our own boundaries for space, the Polish people who lived under communist control probably felt a need to assert their rights to newly reclaimed space by destroying the remnants of control that the Soviet Union has exerted over them for so many years. Like Scipio Africanis at the end of the 3rd Punic war, the only thing that would satisfy the pain of generations of struggle is to do everything possible to erase the memory of that pain, razing the buildings and sewing the Earth with salt.

The heritage manager in me is terrified by these ideas but the anthropologist and geographer in me tells me I have no right to dictate how others should interpret and interact with their places. We can’t know their memories; we can’t know their pain.

Pain

Lived

There a was a particular guilt that came with exploring Poland.  I think that guilt came from the clashing of different value systems in regards to derelict space. Perhaps it is an indication of a larger clash between capitalism and communism. Where east meets west, desire meets utility, nostalgia meets future promise and mobility meets placemaking. We all knew we brought the West with us and we all knew, deep down, that the social conditioning that resides in those templates can never be erased.

While we didn’t necessary find the ruins we were looking for in Poland, we did find a meeting point on that shifting frontier of Western values that is pushing its way inexorably East, met not with open arms but with suspicious stares. After what Poland has been through over the last 100 years, who can blame them?

Easterly

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Playing with Power

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Sunday Jul 11, 2010 Under Freedom, Psychogeography, Situationism, Urban Exploration

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

-Kahlil Gibran

We are not depressed; we’re on strike. For those who refuse to manage themselves, “depression” is not a state but a passage, a bowing out, a sidestep towards a political disaffiliation. From then on medication and the police are the only possible forms of conciliation. This is why the present society doesn’t hesitate to impose Ritalin on its over-active children, or to strap people into life-long dependence on pharmaceuticals, and why it claims to be able to detect “behavioural disorders” at age three. Because everywhere the hypothesis of the self is beginning to crack.

– The Invisible Committee

Prison

Exploration is the only medication my body subscribes to. My trembling fingertips reach for the sewer keys on my way out the door and my bowels twist in satisfaction. This addiction began as research, then I went native, then I lost my way. My love for ruins, my love for old stuff, slipped quietly into the present without even a little wink to let me know what was happening. A life spent looking for material traces of the past morphed into a series of events connected only by my churning belly that vaguely resembles art or a job in construction.

Please don’t expect me to say I found my way again because I didn’t. I was at Tate Britain the other day listening to Joseph Heathcott talk about digging through a photo archive. He said that as he dug, he became more and more confused, buried in images that he didn’t know how to contextualize. When he reached the bottom of the box of images, all he could see was himself.

We explore not to find places but to find meaning. Place hacking is only partly about architecture, history, dereliction or photography. It is about reminding ourselves what in life is worth experiencing. Our explorations embody a consistency between action and thought where what we dream becomes real. The addiction that comes along with that is the point at which your synapses start firing in new directions, making connections you didn’t know existed or that you lost somewhere along the way. It’s the point at which you realize you never want to work again, the instant at which you understand you never want to own a home, the moment when the revelation occurs that the terrorist threat is as non-existent now as it was in 1972 and 1023 and that most of the world, despite what the media would have you believe, is full of love and attachment, not hate and fear.

Thinking of you

I have lost my way. I hardly know the (a?) government exists. I have forgotten about commitments. I have widened my focus to the point that I can barely see anything not in front of me and yet eschew almost nothing, an optic of total stimulation. I spend all day with my friends. I am in love with every moment. I know my neighbourhood, my city, inside out. I just described childhood.

We have built up a shell around ourselves to defend our bodies and minds from the barrage of victimisations they are subjected to. We are left staring stupidly at what it is we are being asked to do, wondering again and again “is this it?” Joshua Ferris, in his novel And Then We Came to the End sums it up in this tidy moment seen through the eyes of Carl, a copywriter for an ad agency: “Directly to his right, something curious was going on. Two men in tan uniforms were hosing down the alleyway – a small dead-end loading dock between our building and the one next to it. Carl watched them at their work. White water shot from their hoses. They moved the spray around the asphalt. The pressure looked mighty, for the men gripped their slender black guns, the kind seen at a manual car wash, with both hands. They lifted the guns up and sprayed the dumpster and the brick walls as well. They spot cleaned, they moved refuse around with the stream. For all inert purposes, they were cleaning an alleyway. An alleyway! Cleaning it! Carl was mesmerized….good god, was work so meaningless? Was life so meaningless?”

We have become desensitized to the everyday. We have become part of the spectacle, ignoring emotional engagement with the world because we are so alienated by it. We formulate emotional shells that lock out beauty as well as pain and stop us from taking action. We are left in a state of perpetual isolation, mouths open, ready to pour in pills to fix what we lost. We are left inert, flaccid, empty. As Raoul Vaneigem once said, “people who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.” Raoul’s thesis is outlined succinctly in the following diagram.

I suggest a different sort of medication to cure that corpse-filled mouth. Explore everything, shatter the shell and live free.

Dreamers

get vertical

Playfully

Move beyond your conceptions of exploration. Explore your mind, explore the dance floor, explore your broken family that your are ignoring while you read this drivel. Move into abandoned buildings, take locks off of doors, turn CCTV camera so they only see each other, light off fireworks randomly. Scream at people in the streets, talk to strangers, photograph police. Stop paying the state until they give something back other than the promise of a good pension if you join the military and avoid dying through war X. Take what’s in front of you and pour your heart into it. And if you have to quit your job to make that happen, then go. But do it in style – run out screaming into the sky to invoke your freedom. Even better, abseil out of your window and rappel to freedom.

Play is power. Freedom is power.

Photo by Marc Explo

We don't need 4th of July or 5th of November as an excuse to explode things in celebration (Marc Explo).

Our work ethic

__________

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Cavendish Crematorium

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Wednesday Jun 16, 2010 Under Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Psychogeography, Urban Exploration

The Silken Hotel wasn’t open yet. We were standing there at the hoarding, Silent Motion and I, with that jelly of a man in his yellow vest pointing his finger accusingly, shaking with rage in a kind of mild convulsion, the orbed camera behind him spinning around and zooming in on our faces, like an eyeball rolling back in a head, making the convulsion a complete yet disembodied visceral experience for this lamentably flabby being.

The sergeant arrived, blue lights painting the walls, tires screeching. He almost rolled out of his car “UrbEx huh? Yeah, we get your kind around here sometimes. Tell you what, see that boarded up building across the street there? Let’s see if you can get into that one!” We meekly accepted the challenge as they frantically tried to fix the zip ties on the Heras fencing we had snapped off in our aborted miniature vertical scramble.

Challenge Issued

Across the street, we found that this building, Cavendish House it was called, was boarded up exceptionally well, stone gargoyles on patrol in moody up-lighting, three stone Furies screaming insults at us as we hung from ledges over the road, tugging on widows.

Stoney stares

Furies

With a pop, a seal on one gave and Silent Motion swung it parallel to the floor. We dove through headfirst and when the window closed with a sharp bang, we were surrounded by silence. I crawled to the dirty pane on the other side of the room and peeked across the road. The sergeant was there, his belly still threatening to rip his utility vest in two. He was smiling, staring at the building and smiling. Creepy fuck.

Popped

Marauder

The exploration proceeded as we opened doors and windows for the next team of rogue adventurers, torches moving around like little bugs on walls looking for a hole to hide in. Silent motion found a generator running and hooked up to a small TV. He powered it up and we spent an hour watching an old Bollywood classic, a brief respite from the endless stairs. Room after room of blue and orange light comforted us behind the boarded up first floor. Unlikely to see, impossible to catch, invincibility ensued. Down or up? Up.

Dance music invoked

Creepy

The top of the first building (indeed we now realized there were three of these concrete monoliths, these plywooded Thatcherite government lumps of cement) had a roof that sat level with some office blocks. I peeked in the clean windows across, imaging the illicit affairs in office chairs that took place during our work hours, suits humping secretaries and capitalism. A blue church to our left looked like a plastic Disneyland air-filled jump house, replete with nostalgia for the abbey it was until Henry VIII seized it and ravaged it like a conquered Irish queen in the 16th Century.

Little things

Pink

The millennium eye approached us on the other side, that little monument we all love and love to say we hate. “Ride on that thing? Never!” Its millennium glow bounced off of the Thames, offering no apologies for its slow creep our direction. We did handstands, climbed radio antennae, pulled ourselves around in monkeyed feats of post-adolescent strength. We lost track of time. We didn’t care. Damn the horror of the night buses, we’ll ride ‘em!

The Furies descent

Eye

The lustful runs across the roof deteriorated eventually into a pink sky, and we knew that the time for morning coffee and a long walk to Elephant and Castle would soon be upon us. Time to go down. And down. And down. The building suddenly became distinctly subterranean.

Nuances of texture

It was wet here. It stunk like old dog, soaked in a summer-time sprinkler and shaking all over the children who uniquely appreciated the horrible musky shower, full of love. The empty corridors offered room for thought and made my stomach tense up, knot and twist, crying foul at the late (early?) hour. One turn revealed a large room with a safe, a thick door with twisty dials and an unsettling echo. We spun the lock, robbing the history from the place.

Sort of safe

The watery passage continued until we could stand it no longer, blistering feet soaking in the liquid filth. We went for the ProEx shot to cap off the night, twisted and intoxicated, drunk on our own success at pissing on every wall in this building. Lighting was essential, we decided, draining camera batteries and making film strips roll back on themselves in our multiple attempts to get it right.

Pr0 Shadows

Suddenly, the sharp slap of metal on tarmac stopped us cold. Voices. A quick retreat. How could it be, this UrbEx fortress infiltrated? The retreat continued into a side room where we sat, a gentle humming behind us. Suddenly, Silent Motion sprung up, hitting the hum with his torch and there is was – a meat grinder, working with no electricity to speak of, begging for fodder. I screamed a little, quickly covering my mouth to stifle the alarm, pride on the floor. The voices were closer now, finally clear enough to make out the distinct sound of someone saying “they’re over here.” I knew that voice.

Ground

We fled down the hallway once more, trying to keep the drips and splashes from reverberating, a considering how long the water ripples that announced our direction of departure would continue their hideous radial momentum. The smells of the place began to change as we moved. It smelled… like burning. When we found out why, it was already too late. The swollen bellied sergeant and the jelly-man sidekick were on either side of us, laughing as we both stared in horror at the door to what looked to be a huge furnace.

Burned

“Welcome to Cavendish Crematorium!” The sergeant yelled, spit streaming from his plump pink lips. “The last stop for nosy UrbExers!” Next to me, Silent Motion sighed, staring into the murky water.

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Secret Histories of Infiltration

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Thursday Jan 14, 2010 Under Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Uncategorized, Urban Exploration

Sometimes it's an accident

When I began exploring here in London over a year ago, I was never quite sure how secretive I needed to be about what I was getting up to. But in the interest of academic transparency, I decided to be less cautious that I might have otherwise been. I felt an obligation, being here on a generous scholarship, to put my work “out there” to be crossed-checked, criticized and appreciated. It did not go unnoticed; a couple of people challenged my decisions to openly discuss certain exploits.

To tell you the truth, now that I know these places well, I think there was never much harm done in being open about my nocturnal wanderings. But some things change. Not because writing about the places I have been is going to get them locked down, not even because they are super-secret or ultra-sensitive. The real reason is, I think, a philosophical one.

Sometimes it's not

At some point in the last few months, I started doing infiltrations. It wasn’t really intentional; I just lost sight of the line between UrbEx and infiltration.

To be honest, I am not that interested in infiltration. Being an ex-archaeologist, I get really excited about the histories of sites and love seeing them falling apart and decay. Many infiltrations take place on construction sites and I spent a good chunk of my life working in these sorts of places. I therefore don’t find a lot of magic in them – too close to my own history I suppose, though I often make the argument that they are too close to the mundane existences of those who work there, hence my indifference.

So why are we interested in these places? They might be considered the polar opposite of the derelict building, going up instead of down, though they are both in a transitional state. They are also both, in a sense, “hidden”, off the grid and not to be seen. But I think our fascination with these places lies, as with most things, in the experiential fascination and secret personal histories to be found there.

So okay, yeah I am coming out of the closet and admitting that I have done some infiltrations that I have not shared, neither here nor on facebook. I can’t share them, either because I was recorded there on CCTV at some point during the explore, or somebody I know might have a connection to these places, or… I don’t know… that’s somebody’s job site. It would be like publishing pictures of your desk after hours when you weren’t there and I sat in your chair and went through your drawers. It’s just a little too personal. Maybe this is why we like it, because in these places we touch living histories, not dead or forgotten ones.

I wonder how many other explorers have secret histories of infiltration, how many sketchy night wanders were not photographed, caught in the memory of someone a little too nervous to ever talk about it? How much of urban exploration consists of secret histories of infiltration?

Either way, I'm still in love

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