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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Security Breach: The London Mail Rail

Posted by Consolidation Crew on Sunday Apr 24, 2011 Under Celebration, Infiltration, Urban Exploration

Every sin is the result of a collaboration.
-Seneca

A Consolidation Crew post by Patch, “Gary”, Statler, Silent Motion, Scott, Winch, Ercle and Goblinmerchant

Holy Grail, photo by "Gary"

The exploration of the London Mail Rail last week was a (re)discovery of the highest order, the pinnacle of a year of heavy exploration for the London Consolidation Crew. Since 2008, myself, Statler, Site, Siologen, Winch, Otter, Snappel, Urban Fox, Silent Motion, Ercle, Scott, “Gary”, Gigi, Cogito, Marc Explo, Neb and Patch have moved through one London Underground station after anotherMark Lane, South Kentish Town, Lords, Swiss Cottage, Aldwych, Holborn, Brompton Road, Marlborough Road, Old King’s Cross, York Road, Down Street, City Road, the list goes on… Night after night, we have stood on the edges of the tracks waiting for the current to shut off on the third rail before we turned the Tube tunnels into our playgrounds of delicious disorder, negotiating the boundary between chaos and order in the nocturnal city. We have done so much work underground and research above that it’s likely at this point we understand the disused parts of the TFL tunnel system better than the workers – as Patch recently said, “if I’d filled my head with knowledge that’s actually useful rather than endless information about the Tube then maybe I’d have come up with an amazing idea or business model and become a millionaire by now.”

City Road infiltration, photo by Silent Motion

Aldwych bitch! photo by "Gary"

Thought you knew, photo by "Gary"

Riding the rails, photo by Silent Motion

Slowly since our humble beginnings as a crew, as our appetite for new experiences grew, the musings of Ninjalicious became increasingly poignant where he said in an interview with Dylan Trigg in 2005 that “I wouldn’t say what [urban explorers] are looking for is the beauty of decay so much as the beauty of authenticity, of which decay is a component.” The authenticity of the explore for us, increasingly, became as much about pushing boundaries as exploring locations; without the boundaries, explorations being nothing more than ruin porn. As the geographer Tim Cresswell writes, we may have to experience geographical transgression before we realize that a boundary even existed and once we realise where the boundaries actually lay (rather than where we are told they lay), we also realise how fluid and porous they are. As Marc Explo has said about our motivations, “I don’t think we are against the system, we’re just pointing out its limits. And as soon as the authorities realise we have, the boundaries evolve.”

Heightened security, photo by Silent Motion

Rewind six months. As part of our Tube onslaught, we become aware of a separate system of nine stations far below the city historically used by the Post Office to transport letters across London – the first track laid in May 1861 as an experimental 452 yard line. Supposedly, it was now all disused and could somehow be accessed, though we had no idea how. However, on Halloween night 2010, ravers took over a massive derelict Post Office building in the city and threw an illegal party of epic proportions. When pictures from the party emerged, we were astonished to find that a few of them looked to be of a tiny rail system somehow accessed from the building.

Silent Motion, Winch, Statler and myself were there a day later. Statler and Winch kept watch while Silent Motion and I snuck into the building. It was absolutely ravaged. After hours of exploration, we finally found what we thought might be a freshly bricked up wall into the mythical Mail Rail the partygoers had inadvertently found (I also found a great camouflage Animal jacket someone left behind that I’ve been wearing ever since). We went back to the car and discussed the possibility of chiselling the brick out. We decided that, given how soon it was after the party, the place was too hot to do that just now and we walked away, vowing to try again in a couple of months. When the MSP crew was out a few months later, we had another look but were again deterred by police wanting to know what we we doing hanging around the area.

I left London for Las Vegas in March of 2011 to go write my thesis, leaving my flat keys with Patch and “Gary” who then converted my flat into a squat for the crew; the Team B war room, the new London secret hideout for explorers from across the world, including the infamous Steve Duncan a few weeks ago. About a month after I was gone, drunk in my thesis document haze, I got a message from Statler that said “I think we found access again mate”. If there is one thing we have learned exploring the London Underground, it is to move fast once entry is found, we have to hit a place hard and document everything we can before the Glitch is sealed. A day later, the first pictures went up.

Subterranean departure, photo by Silent Motion

And sneakily, photo by Silent Motion

We're in! photo by Scott

Like win, photo by Statler

So let this begin! Photo by "Gary"

Framed in terms of increasingly vertical movement above and below “street level”, our explorations have become an extravagant passage of surreal encounter and discovery through the city in an attempt to discover and remake it in an image not mediated by corporate sponsors and bureaucrats but by bands of friends doing epic shit together. Similarly, in the 1960s, the Situationist International in Paris also sought to counter the contemplative and non-interventionist power of “the spectacle” by intervening in the city and experiencing its spaces directly as actors rather than spectators.  Part of this process of intervention, for us, required letting go of the social constraints that were binding even our exploration of the city. In effect, we had to become more criminal minded to get where we needed to be. We don’t apologize for that, that’s how we do it in the Proleague.

In this spot, photo by Statler

"Gary" hits the jackpot, photo by Patch

The sociologist Stephen Lyng writes that some criminal actions are experienced as almost magical events that involve distinctive ‘sensual dynamics’. These criminal pursuits often take on a transcendent appeal, offering the criminal an opportunity for a passionate, intensely authentic experience. Although urban exploration may be, as Siologen contends, a “victimless crime”, at some point we all have to admit that in order to obtain a Holy Grail, boundaries have to be pushed hard, if not necessarily broken, though the politic behind this is more subtle than assertive, more subversive than transgressive.

Level up, photo by Silent Motion

Filthy, photo by Statler

Little, photo by Lucida Grange

One, photo by "Gary"

The Consolidation Crew found a complete system of nine Mail Rail stations underneath London, full of small trains or “mini yorks” used to move mail around the city. Statler wrote later that “it’s unreal how this hadn’t been done before, I mean all the access info was online via sub-brit (Subterranea Britannica) and all it involved was a little bit of climbing!” It just went to prove that as much as urban exploration is about skill, it is also about luck and persistence.

Ninja skillz?

The crew made multiple trips into Mail Rail. “Gary” writes that himself, Otter, and Site made the journey from Paddington to Whitechapel. Including the journey back, they walked roughly 8 miles of tunnel. He continues,

The tunnels become tighter approaching the stations, meaning stooping was required at regular intervals throughout the trip. Towards the eastern end of the line, calcium stalactites were more abundant, hanging from the tunnel ceilings, and gleaming under the fluorescent light. This produced a very real feeling of adventure, like we were in an Indiana Jones movie, in some kind of mine or cave system with wooden carts and the smell of damp throughout. During this first of my two trips, the feeling of  surreal adventure was most prominent and the constant reminder that this incredible piece of infrastructure was indeed underneath the centre of London was a bizarre realisation. The stations themselves had an air of secrecy to them. Hearing the distant echoes from some of the live sorting offices above (particularly Rathbone) was exciting yet comforting (though others found it rather unsettling; it’s funny how different sounds/situations provoke different reactions when exploring) and emphasised the fact that we really had wiggled our dirty little fingers into one of the myths of subterranean London, peeling it back for all to see.

Otter on the rails, photo by "Gary"

Photographing grails, photo by Ercle

Inside the Mail Rail, Ercle writes that it was almost comical, “it felt like we were inside a model railway (with it bearing a striking resemblance to the full sized tube)”. Statler adds,

it was hot, sweaty, dank, wet…. it smelt like a mouldering hospital in parts and was pretty cramped in the tunnels. The stretch between Liverpool Street to Whitechapel was a real neck breaker in places and a long walk probably around 45 minutes. There were also a lot of calcium stalactites that would snap off in your face and hair it was obvious that people hadn’t been in the tunnels for a very long time. The same goes for the stretch between Bird street and Paddington which was also another long walk of small diameter tunnels.

Breaker, photo by Silent Motion

Breaker 1-2, photo by Statler

You're breaking up! Photo by Statler

Although accessing the system was no easy feat, like many place, once inside Ercle writes that “the threat of security felt a very long way off for all but one of the stations”, even whilst dodging CCTV cameras, highlighting the fact that once past the liminal zone of cameras, motions sensors and security guards, we are relatively free to do as we please in derelict infrastructural urban spaces. Scott describes how “unlike the usual stress of Tube exploration, we were all totally relaxed, free to chat and enjoy ourselves as it got later and later into the night. It was a luxurious experience and was reminiscent of the feeling of exploration when I first began; pure admiration of my surroundings.”

Admiration, photo by Silent Motion

Shock, photo by Ercle

For four days, the crew went back again and again, hitting the system hard right in front of the cameras, running longer down the lines to more stations, occasionally setting of alarms and then scurrying out of the system before anybody official arrived. Every night was a new bout of edgework, a dance with subterranean London where the mundane everyday world provides the boundaries and edges that are approached. And it is the very approach to the edge that provides a heightened state of excitement and adrenaline rush. The thrill is in being able to come as close as possible to the edge without detection… Finally on the 5th night, luck broke and Statler, Patch and Winch were approached by police and a Post Office employee on the street as they were exiting the system who told them they “had been watching them run around in here for days now on CCTV”.  Winch tells the story:

After enduring a tense period on the street waiting for a period of inactivity both within the large building, the three of us swiftly made our way to our access point at Paddington, pleased with ourselves for such a well executed entry having continually checked for unwanted attention and seeing nobody, we assumed we were safely in.

“Right lads, stay where you are. The police are on their way. You’re fucked”. Postman Pat was bellowing down the shaft at us. In a second we froze, before hastily dropping down ladders and finding a bolted door, a ladder that had previously assisted access to other parties now nowhere to be seen.

The door seemed impenetrable, nothing there to assist the 20ft climb. The frame being metal it flexed enough to squeeze a hand through and unbolt the door. We ran to the tunnels. Entering the pitch black we stopped for a second to take stock, aware that going down the wrong tunnels could take us away from our intended destination where we had a car parked.

We trod quickly and carefully through to our exit station with no time to hang around and take pictures, just an opportunity to exit through a door onto the street and away from the now screaming alarm (Which had been switched off on previous visits, but was now fully armed), away from the Mail Rail that would no doubt be crawling with police soon.

Back at the car, we packed our kit away and headed back to collect our other vehicle. A Police van flew past, sirens blazing, blue lights on. We breathed a sigh of relief. We could have been fucked. Postman Pat could have been right.

By our access point was 3 police cars. We collected the other car and departed, having arranged to meet Gary at a nearby station for some other activities in the area.

An hour or so later, the city was crawling. Police cars bolted up and down side streets, combing the area for those they’d assumedly seen on CCTV. We met with Otter and Siologen too, and congregated on a non-descript street to arrange ourselves.

Sirens blazed. A van buzzed down the street. The siren stopped. The van stopped. The questions started. Postman Pat and Mrs Goggins arrived. I’ve seen him on CCTV. And him. And him. Arrest them all, we’ve got all of them.

It was Siolo’s smooth talking to the police that ultimately saved us a night in the cells – by the end Postman Pat and Mrs Goggins were annoying the police more than we were and we were told to leave and not come back, having been searched.

Otter was the first to post the story of the Mail Rail infiltration on his blog. It hit a number of major news providers within hours and went viral, crashing the Silent UK website and the hosting provider’s server two days ago, causing cheers of utter delight from all of us in the background.

Cheers all around, photo by Scott

Accessing Mail Rail was, and is, something to be proud of, but it also led to dejection among the crew in the post-explore comedown. Otter wrote on Silent UK that in a way, its with a bit of sadness I write this, when your group has conquered the best location a city or country has to offer, those remaining will often seem tame by comparison. Many of the crew commented that “London was done now” and there was “nothing left” while Urbanity decreed on 28 Days Later the “end of exploration” (admittedly tongue-in-cheek), while Patch and Winch contended that “there will always be more to explore.”

Always, photo by Silent Motion

More to explore, photo by Silent Motion

As Speed, an explorer from another crew on wrote on 28 Days Later,

I think most people could see it coming… the whole scene in London is really on its toes right now. You have a large group of very capable [people] who are not afraid to take big risks and push into stuff people have previously only skimmed the surface of. It was only a year or so ago one of the main protagonists was telling me how he was moving to London and was going to ‘batter the tube’ and things to that effect. A year on and he’s done exactly what he said with success even an ‘optimist’ such as myself didn’t really see coming. That’s the sort of thing I’ve got a lot of respect for.

Focus gets you a long way.

The Mail Rail was the most significant achievement by far of the Consolidation Crew, the discovery, exploration and leak of what urban explorers call a Holy Grail – a site of utter historic impotence, unrivalled beauty and “authentic” discovery built on the back of skill, luck and research. It was the pinnacle of everything we had built up to together. Although I wasn’t there for the Mail Rail, I was honoured when the crew asked me to post the collected photos from the trip.

So long, photo by Patch

Mail Rail, photo by Scott

While urban exploration can be seen as an material investigation of informal spaces or liminal zones, it can also be viewed as a process that melds the zones of in-between into the fabric of the rest of the city by dulling the boundaries of can and can’t, seen and unseen, imagined and experienced, done and not done. The Consolidation Crew, in the last year and especially since the IDM last January, has accomplished more than I’ve ever thought possible and whatever the future of the UK urban Exploration scene may be, 2008-2011 will always be remembered as a Golden Age of London infiltration.

And with that…

Explore Everything, photo by Silent Motion

_____________________

A huge thanks to everyone in the Consolidation Crew for keep me in the loop while I hide away writing our stories. Shouts to Statler, Siologen, Urban Fox, Winch, Snappel, Silent Motion, Patch, Ercle, “Gary”, Otter and Scott for accomplishing what few thought possible.

 

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“We enjoy thumbing our noses at petty bureaucrats and puerile legislators, and their half-baked attempts to stop us going to the places where we go… places they built with our tax money.”
Predator, Sydney Cave Clan

Drop in

Watching the US government scramble to patch up the PR damage being done through Julian Assange‘s leak of 250,000 private cables got me thinking more about the political implications of my notion of place hacking. The hacker ethos is clearly aligned to libertarian socialism, at times straddling the intersection between libertarianism on the right and anarchism on the left. This intersection was evident in the hails of praise for Julian Assange from both Anarchists and from Ron Paul, one of the leaders of the US Conservative Tea Party movement.

So when we recently explored a Ministry of Defense nuclear bunker, I could not help but make the connection between the militant existentialist ideology, shared by other groups such as graffiti writers who assert, as Tim Cresswell writes, that “everywhere is free space” and the Wikileaks ethos of populist-enforced democratic transparency which I assume Jim Hightower, the celebrated American liberal populist, must approve of. Both system hacking and urban exploration are about making the invisible visible and technology helps us to force transparency in both virtual and meat space. I created a podunk media flurry in Riverside California, my home town, last summer by sneaking into March Air Reserve Base with my brother Pip and photographing the remains of millions of dollars of government investment rotting in an abandoned military hospital while they planned to spend $80 million to build a new one one the same base during an economic meltdown. It therefore came as little surprise when we cracked this bunker and found equal waste in the UK. Which we of course, in both cases, we loved for the surreal playgrounds they create.

Planning

For transparency

Dsankt writes on Sleepy City that “whether you’re hacking transit systems or computer systems they’re all fissured, all possessing those little cracks just wide enough to wriggle your dirty little fingers into and force to sneak a peek into what lies beneath the shiny smoothed over façade most take for granted every single day”. I have suggested “place hacking” as a phrase which encapsulates the different types of explorations we undertake (urban exploration, infiltration, draining, buildering, unauthorised spelunking, urban adventuring, underground parties, etc.) as well as the more intangible themes of localization of heritage, political subversion, critical spatial practice and “alternative” community construction and identification. But I wasn’t the first. As early as the 1980s, the term “hacking” was applied first to physical space by the Technology Hackers Association at MIT who learnt to pick locks and infiltrated the steam tunnels underneath the university. Students began climbing rooftops on campus, conducting freshman on what is called The Orange Tour. Only later was the term appropriated by the computing community. As Löwgren writes, “the word ‘hack’ was used to refer to… practical jokes or stunts. Its meaning shifted to the technology needed to perform the prank, and later came to mean a clever technical solution in general”.

The 7th entry under the term “hacker” in the New Hacker’s Dictionary defines a hacker as “one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations”, importantly pointing out the physical foundations of the art.

Place

Hackers

We worked for hours into the night, checking the walls for hidden tunnels to gain access to the bunker and crawled out some hours later covered in mud, tumbling in front of two large security cameras. Figuring we had already been seen and praying that no one was watching them, we pushed forward, all scared witless but determined to know what was contained within. Alan Rapp writes in his MA thesis that the practice of urban exploration “provides a tart reminder that the areas that we have regular access to are not just quotidian, but also normative, if not repressive. The patterning that we can infer from the sanctioned environment is absent from the spaces that urban explorers go; they have been deprogrammed”. In the same way the “the techniques dérive and détournement offer the possibility to explore spaces in new ways, and to rearrange existing aesthetic elements into new forms of expression”, urban exploration fits geographer Alistair Bonnett’s description of offering “a new form of geographical investigation that can enable the revolutionary reappropriation of the landscape”.

But while the organization and politicisation of the practice may be novel, a question remains whether the practice itself actually is. Urban exploration, though it looks similar to the dérive, or surrealist parodies, has learned from the successes and failures of preceding critical spatial practices, leading to the creation of a network that is truly horizontally structured, without leadership and completely decentralized, while adopting an opaque public image of apolitical benignity, at times even presented as a type of heroic preservationism. Urban exploration, as a result of this decentralised power structure and well-groomed public image, is political in action but not in assertion, rooted in freedom of personal choice that comes across as what I see increasingly as libertarian in ideology aligned with the work of Wikileaks and individual anarchists. As Marc Explo recently told me on a trespass into the quarries of Paris, “I don’t need anyone to tell me that I am free. I prove that I am free everyday by going wherever I want. If I want to drink wine on top of Notre Dame, I do that, if I want to throw a party underground, I do that.” The impetus to do so becomes even stronger when we feel excluded from the government decision making process that we are paying for. And so, as Marc Explo asserts, where right are not given, they are simply taken.

Information

Not offered

As Bonnett again points out, we tend “…to assign creative spatial behaviour to performance artists and other specialists in provocation.” He writes that he feels these groups somehow owned “the subversive imagination” but on closer inspection sees that “ordinary urban behaviour fairly sizzles with errant activities…” Indeed, as spectacular as urban exploration and infiltration may seem, it’s simply an act of walking, climbing, inspecting and recording, activities which are far from spectacular and certainly do not hold the same glamour that is assigned to the consumption of the records produced by these activities. Organized transgressions against normative daily behaviour, what Oli Mould and I have termed urban subversions are in fact rarely riotous.

Creative resistance may take the form of refusing to move in places where you are expected to, such as in a flash mob event where large groups of coordinated participants freeze in unison in public spaces designed for movement or in rural areas designated private property where groups such as the Ramblers Association of Britain hold yearly ‘Forbidden Britain’ mass trespasses, a simple act of walking somewhere you are not supposed to. Some spatial incursions into places do not even take place physically, such as Trevor Paglen’s visual trespasses onto United States military property through the telephoto lens of a camera, or his more recent work photographing US spy satellites that supposedly do not exist. Like many other activities, urban exploration, while conceptually provocative, is almost dull in practice, with many participants refusing to even acknowledge deeper implications. “Gary” told after reading some of my writing that, “what you do Brad, it’s just words, this doesn’t have anything to do with anything”.  I can’t fault “Gary” for preferring action over words.

Words

Into action

Clearly, in an existential libertarianism framework where “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”, the desire to explore unseen space could be seen as a reaction to a growing existential angst in urban inhabitants. I see place hacking as a proportional response the the closure of the majority of urban space in combination with the blatant and frivolous waste of of tax money constructing structures like secret nuclear fallout bunkers designed to shelter only the corrupt government that created the potential of nuclear attack in the first place. And like Assange, I say hey, keep building that shit, keep wasting our money. In fact, keep trying to patrol and lock it up. We will be right behind you to liberate that space for absurdity and play. Your move.

Just words


This posting is dedicated to the kids who have been protesting to be heard and fighting the police in the streets of London this week. Apathetic generation indeed. Solidarity!

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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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Psychogeography

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Monday Oct 19, 2009 Under Anthropology, Cultural Geography, Film, Psychogeography, Urban Exploration

I was recently contacted by Emma James, a researcher at Newcastle University studying the recent re-emergence of psychogeography. The following is a short interview I did with her.

SI graffiti in Amsterdam

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Emma James: How / where did you first hear about the concept ‘psychogeography’?

Bradley L. Garrett – The first time I heard the term psychogeography was on the cover of a book by Merlin Coverley in the London Review Bookshop, I think I read half of it standing in the store! It was a good introduction and branched me into the work of academics working with the concept like David Pinder and Alastair Bonnett, then deeper into the Lettrist Movement, Raoul Vaneigem, Guy Debord and ‘work’ of the Situationist International (SI).

E.J. – In various articles I have read, people have observed that there has been a recent re-emergence of psychogeography in the last decade.  From your research have you found this to be true?

B.L.G. – I absolutely see a renewed interest in psychogeography. There are numerous clubs on the internet devoted to the practice and the mass-market work of Ian Sinclair and Patrick Keiller in particular really make me feel like psychogeography has ‘gone mainstream’. A quick youtube search of the term reveals that many people are using psychogeographic techniques to navigate city space in new and interesting ways all the time, such as walking the city using algorithms, applying random models to a (supposedly) fixed template, replacing one arbitrary motivation (I am walking to work) with another one (I am walking 4 streets North, 2 streets East and 1 street North until I can’t walk anymore).

E.J. – ‘Who’ do you understand to be modern practicing psychogeographers (e.g. artists, geographers, everyday civilians’ etc)?

B.L.G. – I see geographers are the preeminent drivers behind the modern psychogeographic movement, primarily because their inspiration has come from reading the work of the situationists who pioneered the concept, the problem is that a lot of them write about it without ever practising it, which I see as a failing. But there popular writers such as Ian Sinclair and Will Self who are quite aware of the lineage and practice the techniques also produce work is much more widely read, so they might be considered the primary ‘practitioners’. But, of course, we also find a lot of artists, counter-cartographers and people on the street using these techniques, even if they are not (wholly) aware of the theory behind the practice.

The other thing I find interesting is that this ‘new’ psychogeographic movement appears to be centred primarily in Britain (and especially London), which implies to me that it may be reactionary – perhaps due to the increase in government control and surveillance that has taken place over the last 10 years, making people feel a greater need to defy order, even in small ways such as walking across a piece of grass signposted not to or speaking through a bullhorn for a day. The time and space in which this resurgence is taking place sure feels a lot to me (from my readings) like the governmental regulations and reactions that led to the founding of the SI, and ultimately to the French Wildcat revolts of 1968.

So I would say that although psychogeographers tend to invoke small actions, it would behove both academics and governments to pay attention, as these small resistances may be an indication of a larger social consciousness of boredom, restlessness or downright anger. People using psychogeographic practices are just one of the groups who dare to push back a little sooner than others.

E.J. – I understand that you are studying ‘urban explorers’.  How would you view them in relation to psychogeography (e.g. as a branch of psychogeographers?  Or just another term to use for practicing psychogeographers?)

B.L.G. – In my discussions with urban explorers, most would not want to be labelled as psychogeographers, though there are some clear similarities in their practices; both are instances of what I might call mobilities of transgression or, maybe more specifically, place hacking. Both psychogeographers and urban explorers seek to redefine and/or experience space and place on their own terms, regardless of pre-existing rules, social templates or cultural norms.

E.J. – As part of my dissertation question, I am interested in people’s motivations behind practicing psychogeography.  According to various writers there are a few different ideas, e.g. political motivations/an interest to connect with the past/as a sort of rebellion against modern consumerism e.t.c.  From your research and interaction with urban explorers, what have you found their motivations behind practicing it to be?

B.L.G. – I think that most people would find that they have a range of motivations behind anything they do that requires some effort, there is rarely just one driving force behind action, especially when that action is activistic, dangerous or trangressive. There is an investment/reward ratio at work where you think to yourself “okay, yes, I could climb that crane and get some photographs, but is the experience, or the photograph I bring home, worth the possibility of arrest?”

Most urban explorers would I think contend that they are interested in the historic background these places, though one person did tell me that they “could give a shit about the history, I just like to explore.” I have heard the suggestion that urban exploration is about bearing witness to the failure of capitalism, especially in seeing sites such as industrial ruins folding back into the landscape after their abandonment. I don’t think this is true at all. To be honest, most urban explorers are in these places to get photographs that most people do not have; to see something that no one else has seen. So it is both the experience and the production/acquisition (which is of course part of the capitalist system they are supposedly subverting) that becomes the motivation.

I would say that people who define themselves as psychogeographers are much more likely to have political motivations than people who define themselves as urban explorers, though the practices are intertwined.

E.J. – As a geographer, I have noticed that there is very little writing on psychogeography within the discipline, though I have come across a few lecturers who have tried to introduce it within the course.  Would you say that there is a valid place for psychogeography within the discipline of geography, and should it perhaps be promoted/expanded?

B.L.G. – I think that geography has a lot to learn from psychogeography, both in terms of its historical roots and trajectory and in terms of modern practice. It certainly seems like there is some resistance to the concept, great publications like Alistair Bonnett’s journal Transgressions came and went, snuffed out, I think by academia’s inability to challenge theory with practice, or maybe more fairly, academia’s inability to ground theory in practice. A similar stigma exists against participatory geographies, I think, for the same reason – essentially many academics are afraid of becoming activists, afraid of getting their hands dirty, afraid of testing an armchair theories, afraid of failure. I believe, as I think many psychogeographers would, that we should celebrate failure. We would like to think that academia is a haven for free thinking, but the Ivory Tower also has its social and cultural models.

E.J. – What is your opinion on the argument that psychogeography could be applied as a new way of re-writing and representing the city (e.g. the idea of psychogeography maps alongside ‘mainstream’ mapping)?

B.L.G. – I think that this is a wonderful idea, the thing is that psychogeography, and psychogeographers, tend to not want to be boxed in. This poses difficulties when, for instance, writing grant proposals for projects. If you were to suggest to a funding body that you were going to spend a year following the ‘densest’ flows of people off of the London Tube to try and psychogeographically map nodes of interest at different times of day in the city (as I have done for fun!) you would find this funding body likely feeling that the research has no ‘research question’ or ‘direction’. The fact of the matter is that it does have a direction, it’s just that you have taken that power of direction out of the hands of the ‘elite’ academic and put it into the hands of the anonymous city dweller. I think that there is something profound in that. That is where, I would argue, the real solid tendrils of politic challenge come from in psychogeography, not from the esoteric writing style or wandering corporeal experiences, but from having the openness to resist being the one who defines what those experiences should be.

Just as psychogeographers work to subvert political, social and cultural templates, they also, I think, would be reluctant to create those templates, making playing the dual role of being both an academic and a practising psychogeographer a rare one.  Would we benefit from melding those illusory dichotomous positions? Absolutely.

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