Although born in a prosperous realm, we did not believe that its boundaries should limit our knowledge.
-Montesquieu

Crushing boundaries

The tales of urban exploration behind the London Consolidation Crew take three forms. The first are the ubiquitous locations that we all know and love, sites like Battersea Power Station, which we blow out in public every time we sneak in, sometimes just hours later, laughing in front of our laptop screens at 4am as we plaster the photos on Flickr, daring the security to up their measures, chiding them to pick up their game. After a few weeks, we go back to these sites of serial trespass to see how security has done trying to stop us after we embarrassed them in public yet again. Inevitably, the security measures will have been changed (if not necessarily tightened) and we find (make?) new ways in. The cat and mouse game we play with the private security companies is part of the fun and we almost always win that game. I am pretty sure they enjoy it to, based on those smirks they have while calling the police on the rare occasions that they actually catch us.

We win

The second kind of location we explore can never be written about. An intimate nocturnal spatial blowout will end with a pow-wow where blood oaths are taken that “these pictures will never go public”. Although these are sometimes the most interesting sites, the consequences of revealing our presence there would likely have repercussions far more negative than positive. Marc Explo and I, walking though Clapham Common one rainy day a few months ago, had a talk about this type of adventure and he looked at me, completely stone-faced, and said “Brad, this is the only type of exploration I am interested in any more.” I couldn’t agree with Marc more, but I was concerned, given that these sites remain always “inside” the community, that our drive to undertake these explorations had become entirely selfish, narcissistic or even solipsistic. Was not the purpose of urban exploration to post, share and encourage the “dumb fuckin retards up top” (Siologen) to try something new? Wasn’t it always my contention that the purpose of urban exploration was to reconfigure geographical imaginations by visibly reconfiguring and crushing boundaries? If this remained the case, where do these sites fit into that story, given even the group’s ethnographer (that’s me folks!) will never write about them? I will return to this point – first, let me take a moment to outline our third type of infiltrated space story form.

Thirdspace

Rediscovered

The last type of site is what you are staring at here – the Down Street Disused Tube Station. These are sites we have done but not spoken of and let me assure you, the list is pretty long. We wait patiently for anyone with the gumption to complete them before posting them. The list of those with the courage to follow us into these spaces is contrastadly short. Sometimes (as in this case) we don’t discuss the fact that we found a way to wiggle in through the cracks for months, the challenge waving in the air for all to see. Sadly, few took up the challenge here and they should have – Down Street is truly something to rave about.

The 21st of May, 1932 was the last time a train stopped at here and in 1938 the station was converted into the subterranean headquarters Railway Executive Committee (REC), set up by the Ministry of Transport. Wikipedia says this was Churchill‘s war bunker – then again, Wikipedia says that about every subterranean space in London so… meh. Since that time though, we can say definitively that this station has been seen in person by very few people in London. We are now among them. For the full stories, you will of course want to see Silent UK and The Winch, your one-stop shops for all things epic on the London scene.

Old Timey

Wiggle room

It wasn’t long ago that Team B cut our teeth on Mark Lane. It was the first disused tube station that many of us had done, despite the fact that Siologen and others on Team A had already explored a number of areas in the network. I think it’s fair to say that some of us feared Mark Lane while others revelled in it. Those of us who lapped up the adrenaline rush and became tube infiltration junkies were, and are, quite openly obsessed and as Statler once said “when you become obsessed with pushing these boundaries, you move from urban exploration to infiltration… Then it’s hard to go back.” It was the London Underground, not the sewers, that made us an infiltration crew. When we did Lords and ran the tracks up to the connecting stations soon after Mark Lane, it became clear to those of us who began taking greater risks that not only were there greater rewards to be had but that there was a possibility of a holy grail at the end – the completion of the entirety of the disused parts of the system. We had moved from exploring “sites” to exploring complete infrastructural networks.

Veering toward completion

The creation of the Consolidation Crew, the sensational collapse of the London teams between 2010 and 2011, made the completion of the goal that much more realistic. I won’t say whether we completed all of the disused stations before I left London but I will say that they are all of the third kind of tales of urban exploration – tales that will one day be told. One day the world will know that the Consolidation Crew were the first to do what no urban explorer thought possible; we reconfigured all the boundaries of London Underground exploration. As Otter writes about our cracking of Down Street, once we decide something will be done these days, the unconquerable is conquered. And as Brickman so gracefully added last night, TFL would fill their pants if they came across what we get up to on any given night. I also like to think they would respect it immensely. Only they could understand the depths of our Tube and train fetish.

A slight addiction

The truth of the matter, whether we have or haven’t completed the entire system at this point, is that we know more about the London Tube network though illegal infiltration than most of the workers in the system. We probably know their working hours better than they do. As Patch recently told me “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.” I have been asked why, given how much epic shit we have been banging out, we haven’t published a photo book. The answer is simple – we are still too busy doing it!

Mark Lane happened and

It got raw

Now before this post gets too descriptive and forgets it’s on Place Hacking, let me build on our relationship with the Tube through infiltration of it’s porous boundaries by making an important connection to the work of my mentor Tim Cresswell who writes that although being ‘out of place’ is logically secondary to ‘in place’, it may come first existentially. That is to say, we may have to experience geographical transgression before we realize that a boundary even existed. And, as Statler pointed out above, once we cross those boundaries, they are very difficult not to cross at every opportunity because those boundary crossings create a personal investment in places, even we are only passing through.

Although we might be tempted to make connections to transgressive mobilites like those undertaken by the American Beats, urban exploration, as well as being transgressively empowering, also creates a city full of people invested in the places they reside (that’s us!). Urban explorers know and love cities inside and out because in many cases they learn cities inside then out. One of the divergences then from the idea of boundary transgression is the notion that rather than directly resisting, urban explorers are investing through subversion, even if those moments of investment are indebted to the modern legacy of transgression, by their (at times) complete disregard to what is socially expected or acceptable. The libertarian impetus behind much of this edgework is not to be mistaken for nihilism. Again, Marc Explo makes the point when he says “I believe we are an apolitical movement. I would not like to associate for instance with a group who protests against the waste of empty space in prime locations. I don’t think we are against the system, we’re just pointing out its limits. And as soon as the authorities realise we do the boundaries evolve and that keeps it fresh.”

Boundaries!

In these situations we go beyond asserting “I did this” by intentionally implying “you could also choose to do this” and the political implications of this intentionality lie not just in the transgressive action itself, but in the resistance of the status of passive citizens. And passivity, in this context, goes beyond abiding to cultural, societal and spatial boundaries, it also applies to the complete abolition of them. Anarchism is just as lazy as conformity. The real work, work that reveals prizes worth obtaining, exists at the boundaries of infiltration which are ever-morphing, like a Brazilian Favela.

The transition into infiltration from ruin exploration is an organic progression. Those early explorations revealed a façade of urban spectacle that we came to see as an impotent utopia of pretentions and complicities. Urban exploration is nothing less than a rejection of our enforced pact with capital in the process of questing for sites of urban tenderness, flippantly exploiting those capital investments. In these spatial reintepretations, bonds, desires and the need to find deeper communal meaning in life take precedence over the ability to create profit or to produce something. What we produce, in each of these three types of mythmaking processes, are the tales of urban exploration – some to be blown out, some to be carefully doled out at appropriate moments defined by the community, others never to be written, only spoken.

So getting back to my earlier point, as the ethnographer for the group, I am, perhaps somewhat ironically, being taught the importance of the creation of oral histories that can only be transmitted as such – histories and myths made to be shared in person. Some stories are still too rich for social media. If you ever want to hear those stories, you know where to find me – I am the one in the corner of the pub, covered in Tube dust, writing the tales of urban exploration in a caffeinated haze. Pull me from the bubble, buy me a pint, and ask to hear the stories behind the scene. These will always be the ones most worth hearing.

Until then, go forth and adventure. Be fearless. Ignore limitations. Explore everything.

Permission Taken. Cheers Kids.

 

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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

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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!

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Nearly two years since the start of production, I am happy to announce that my video article Urban Explorers, Quests for Myth, Mystery and Meaning has just been released in the journal Geography Compass (Volume 4, Issue 10, pages 1448–1461, October 2010). Below is the video article followed by an annotated script and short piece written to support the film. I welcome any feedback you might have on either.

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The desire for alternative options starts with disappointment and anxiety.
–Alan Rapp

We live a free life. Very few people can say that.
–Marc Explo

Stretching

Following from Rapp, where does disappointment start? Why did we have expectations to that lead to anxiety to begin with? Are disappointment and anxiety internally or externally imposed conditions? Finally, what is the organic link between urban exploration and infiltration?

In the course of the following visual spectacle, I present two important case studies: an exploration of a derelict London Tube station paired with a live infiltration of a number of Paris Metro stations sprinkled with a sugar coated topping of French cathedral brachiation. The link between these seemingly disperate case studies in time-wastery, I will suggest, is desire.

Fragments

Of Time

Less interesting

Our desire to seek ruins is as obvious as the motivations behind the expeditions. We seek them to find pieces of what was, was is, what could have been. The failure of planning, execution and participation found in this empty station is comical and sad but not necessarily disappointing. We assure ourselves that the only thing that could make the situation more amusing would be if a train were suddenly to pass though, disrupting our notions of what we thought we barely understood. By the time we leave, we are pretty sure something happened. We can see it on our skin, taste it in our teeth, wash it out of our clothes but the experience remains so ephemeral that to speak about it is almost blasphemy. The satisfaction that comes with that feeling is almost as wonderful as the peals of laughter that ring out from our throats as we leap from the back of the speeding train into the dark tunnels, drunk on the screams of platform perambulators who are sure that we are the demons they heard about on the 10 o’clock news.

The multiplication of the third rail

The eminent anthropologist Marc Augé is disappointed with our play space. Throughout his entire book on ‘non-places’, poor Augé is a victim of one postmodern monstrosity after another, striking out at remnants of what remains with a panicked grab, decrying the end of history, implying that there is no place for us in a world of machines, of mobility, of ‘urban concentrations, movements of population, and the multiplication of what we call “non-places”, in opposition to the sociological notion of place…”. But as Alastair Bonnett writes, this ‘sociological’ notion of place is was a false consciousness imposed by bureaucratic minds ‘colonized by the language of academia’ be begin with.

Your illusion

I contend that place is what you make it and the responsibility to make space viable, vibrant and interesting, the responsibility to create places of desire is only limited by our individual and collective capacities for love and the level of our energies devoted to giving a shit. As Sartre has taught us, since we all share in the same situation, we must embrace our awesome freedoms, deliberately rejecting any (false) promise of authoritative moral determination. Freedom is not given, it is obtained. I hear Marc Explo teaches a seminar on the rooftops of Paris with beer in hand on this very topic.

7.5%

My comments are not intended to be solely derogatory. I am not suggesting that a vision of life which is guided by another person’s ideals is inauthentic. Indeed we are all, to some degree or another, remixing, reusing, embracing, contesting and disputing all that has come before. Individuals that I quote, in speech and text, have quoted others before me, a lineage stretching back as far as communicative origins. This continuum of thought and energy should be celebrated with toasts to the heavens for the graces of wisdom. We have inherited more knowledge, more beauty, more potential, than any human beings who have come before. To suggest that that knowledge and the possibilities that cause fragmentation of self awareness are disappointing is in itself disappointing. Join the party Augé, I have a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau waiting. Make no mistake, it will be messy, it will be confusing, it will be the ruin and the construction site, Battersea Power Station and Heathrow Terminal 5. It will be the informal state of constant becoming but ‘to embrace the chaos is not to slide toward entropy but to emerge into an energy like the stars’.

Forming

Spontanous combustion

While we can all clearly see that within a capitalist system, the invitation to co-produce place often has a price or that the output of that production is expected to become commodified, we may choose to operate outside of that system. Maybe that operation requires giving up watching East Enders tonight. Maybe it requires operating at a loss. Maybe it means writing a shitty Ph.D. because you were in a sewer instead of resting up for the next wrestling match with Microsoft Word. Fuck it, people begin participating in informal modes of cultural production because they want human bonds and community to take precedence over outcome. People want becoming over being. People want the freedom of the present! ‘On the other hand, anyone trapped in the anemic and atomized everyday routine of our residential deserts might doubt that such determination could be found out there anymore. Reconnecting with such gestures, buried under years of normalized life, is the only practical means of not sinking down with the world, while we dream of an age that is equal to our passions.

Marinetti

As the Invisible Committee reminds us, the primary component of that freedom is not just enthusiasm but passion. And the passion for joy, for bonding, for shared experience and community goes beyond the specifics of the practice (read: UrbEx). The one thing ALL explorers of space share is a passion for life, ‘an exuberant and playful negation of the alienation and exclusion provoked through axiomatic consumeristic machinations.’ And here, we begin to see the contemporary critique of traditional notions of exploration in the rejection of the idea that only some can be involved or that a passion for adventure can only be satiated through grand international expeditions. Urban exploration teaches us that those stories, those adventures, are found in our backyards also – if you choose to chase them.

The Rabbit Hole

Follows no cardinals

If this sounds polemic, that’s because it is. I am tired of disappointment, resentment and critique being the only accepted modes of critical academic engagement. We do what we do because we love it. It produces nothing. It hurts no one. It endangers our lives. That is our choice and no one else’s. And in expectation of the showering critique, the next person who tells me that my happiness is subject to an economic audit can keep chewing on that corpse because my fingers are in my ears.

There's no such thing as ghosts!

Barthes writes that pleasure is continually disappointed, reduced and defeated, in favour of strong, noble values: Truth, Death, Progress, Struggle, etc. It seems that our society refuses (and ends up ignoring) bliss to such a point that it can produce only epistemologies of the law. Well if that’s the case then fuck the law. I never consented to it’s construction in the first place and I am pretty sure that democracy isn’t supposed to resemble a Mafia extortion scheme. But don’t take that as a threat, it is rather a populist invitation to playfully reinterpret what the state holds so sacred, it’s an invitation to critically and playfully engage with the humiliating notions of ‘morality’ and ‘progress’ that dehumanize, commodify and deterritorialize our places of occupation to create what Guy Debord called “an impotent utopia of pretensions and complicities.” We intend to end the humiliation of a sham democracy by resituating ‘strategic sites of power beyond the depersonalized representation of an impotent democracy and back into the multitude.’ Following Laurie Weeks’ Theory of Total Humiliation: “we don’t erect monolithic reified barriers against the humiliation; rather we welcome it, embrace it; then everyone wants to fuck us, for mysterious reasons.”

Fuck us

So that we come full circle here, what does an exploration of a derelict London Tube station paired wimh a live infiltration of a number of Paris Metro stations and some rogue climbing of outdated religious architecture have in common? The answer is desire. We desire, and take, opportunities to ‘slip into a paradoxical position between the “real “and “not-real” in that it incorporates “real” words, gestures, hopes and intentions, that are framed as “unreal” through playful context.’

_________________________

We play out of desire

Desire sprouts love

Love is like oxygen

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