I like to just gobble the stuff right out in the street and see what happens, take my chances, just stomp on my own accelerator. It’s like getting on a racing bike and all of a sudden you’re doing 120 miles per hour into a curve that has sand all over it and you think “Holy Jesus, here we go,” and you lay it over till the pegs hit the street and metal starts to spark. If you’re good enough, you can pull it out, but sometimes you end up in the emergency room with some bastard in a white suit sewing your scalp back on.

–Hunter S. Thompson, Playboy Magazine, 1974, discussing drug use as edgework

Keep looking

Edgework was a term first used by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to describe the necessity some people find in pushing boundaries to find fulfillment. The idea is to work as close to the “edge” as one can without getting cut (or at least not too deeply). For Thompson, this meant putting himself in perilous situations such as doing ethnographic research with the notorious Hell’s Angels Biker Gang, ingesting various intoxicants to the point of near overdose or taking drugs of unknown origin in unexpected combinations.

The term edgework was appropriated by the socialist Stephen Lyng as a blanket term for anyone who “actively seeks experiences that involve a high potential for personal injury or death.” In his 1996 article Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking (expanded in 2004 as an edited book), Lyng goes on to explain edgework as a negotiation between “life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, and sanity and insanity”.

Relatively conscious (photo by Otter, Yaz and Goblinmerchant)

It seems to me that most urban explorers not only feel the need to test those limits, but to push them. We find those opportunities in drain systems, where the obvious risk comes from flooding and drowning to abandoned buildings which have both short term (collapse) and long term (respiratory problems, cancer etc.) negative impacts on our bodies. Many urban explorers also frequent high places where falling is always a possibility. In these locations we are free to do our edgework, pushing these boundaries by hanging from cranes, balancing on edges of long drops, precariously tiptoeing over weak floors and scrambling under collapsing roofs.

Edging (image courtesy of nocturn.es)

In wider society, inevitably connected to the concept of “liability”, is the notion that these activities are trangressive. UrbEx, like street art, skateboarding and parkour, is a practice which reappropriates urban space for an unintended or unexpected use that may result in bodily harm and one of the common reactions to people choosing to take unnecessary risks is, of course, suspicion that these people are “out of place”. But as Christopher Stanley has written, “these subcultural events [could] assume the status of resistant practices not in terms of ideology but rather in terms of alternative narratives of dissensus representing possible moments of community.”

Sinking feeling

As Lyng rightly points out later in his article, “risk taking is necessary for the well-being of some people” as individuals work to “develop capacities for competent control over environmental objects” (see Klausner 1968) inspiring edgeworkers to sometimes speak of a feeling of “oneness” with the object or environment while undertaking these risks.

I know that the places where I feel most embedded in the “fabric” are places where I have taken risks. In those places, I have bonded not only with Lyng’s “object and environment” but also with my friends who shared in those risks.

Alternative cathedral use, Paris (image courtesy of Marc Explo)

The desires to explore for the sake of exploring, to take risks for the sake of the experience, with little thought to the “outcome”, is something that runs deep in us when we are children. Urban explorers are, in one sense, rediscovering and forging these feelings of unbridled play, of useless wandering, of trivial conversation and of spontaneous encounter, all of which lead to the creation of very thick bonds between fellow explorers who use play as a way “to de-emphasize the importance of work and consumption and their pervasive monetary components.”

These explorations bond people in an emotive embrace, tendrils of affect conjured by shared fear and excitement, experiences that have become increasingly hard to find in many modern city spaces which Guy Debord argues “eliminate geographical distance only to produce internal separation.”

Perched

Despite the ways edgework may be seen as trangressive, the empowering and inspiring process of undertaking edgework is exactly what is lacking from many people’s lives in global cities. Edgework may in this sense be seen  healing rather than severing, a hot blade that melts. Physical human connections through shared experiences of peaked emotions build stronger bonds of community, and I am proud to belong to this tribe of urban bodhisattvas.

Tribe

Share/Bookmark
Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 comments

I am a law only for my kind, I am no law for all.
-Nietzsche

Urban explorers are notorious for taking themselves too seriously, with our posed people shots and braggadocio over daring feats. I am probably more guilty of this than most. To be fair, that mentality is usually a reaction to “authorities” and the media treating the practice with little levity. When we do encounter authorities, we all know that getting them involved by showing them photos and talking about why what we are doing is harmless, and, in a best case scenario, getting them to laugh about it, is our best defence. Despite our appearance of machismo, most explorers are always game for a good laugh.

That is why I love the UE Kingz. You can’t watch this video and not crack a smile, despite the fact that they talk about taking bolt cutters to locks and tag up a drain in the video, blatantly breaching the UE “code of ethics”. And despite the antics depicted, the primary message of the video – the power of choice is, I think, an important one. While social and cultural constraints do exist, it is largely up to us to make life what we want it to be and the UE Kingz encourage us to take responsibility for that decison.  See, I told you I take this to seriously!

Cheers to the UE Kingz for bringing UrbEx a bit of festivity – we can all learn from them. Now get out there and go mad with a bolt cutter!

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on UE Kingz

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

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 comments