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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4 explorers, 5 Countries, 2000 miles, 16 abandoned sites, 5000 photographs, 3 hours of video footage, a pocket full of loose change to live on and a car full of $7000 worth of camera gear. It’s these last two bits that I find so amusing, these are the pieces of the puzzle that turn this from a hobo trip to a pro hobo trip I suppose. That and the radical mobility of our opt-in faux homelessness.

After our last trip to Europe, I wrote about urban camping. I felt like that long weekend away was a sort of like a wilderness retreat, a little escape from work and obligations to see something unstraited. Some people choose go to a pine forest for these retreats, we go to abandoned châteaus in Belgium. Seems fair enough.

But this trip was different right from the beginning. Part of it was due to the length of our expedition, part of it due to the dynamics of the crew. We had a crew of 4 – myself, Statler, Winch and Silent Motion, all up for it in a big way. We were long inspired by the perpetual homeless adventures of Dsankt at Sleepy City which seemed to pry open a new level of UrbEx or, at the least, open up new possibilities for adventurous play. So we struck out on a Sunday night from Reading, UK, across the channel on the P&O car ferry, through the sadness of Calais, France, just across the border into Belgium to Kosmos, a hotel with a weird Russian art-deco theme that had closed in 1996 where we planned to stay the night.

Transgressive Mobilities

What a shithole

Tourism?

Getting into it

Rated 1 Star on Travelocity

Strangely enough, given what a pile of crap this place was, it was really hard to get into. Finally, after making our way in, ferrying in bags of clothes, food, whiskey and 8 bottles of Chimay looted from a road side stop, we settled in for the night, with a gorgeous view of a random Belgian valley spread out before us, full P&O shot glasses of cheap drink and a horrible rattling noise from the winds assaulting some loose flap on the roof above us.

Not broken yet

Penthouse

Winch

Winch taking in the epicness of first night

Unstrap

The Goblinmerchant get naked

We ended up finally dragging tables and chairs from other rooms to board up the windows which were allowing massive gust of wind and rain into our sleeping quarters. Essentially, we started doing home repairs. That night, falling asleep to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II playing softly on my phone, I had dreams about the property owner showing up weeks later to find that somebody had actually repaired their building, boarded up windows, brought in and cleaned up couches, filled the bookshelves with tea lights. I imagined them being, at first, dismayed and confused and then… amused, a small smile cracking their stoically disappointed Belgian head.

The thing I started thinking was that our move from UrbEx into pro hoboness was actually a move that benefited property owners because, as Silent Motion put it, “our sleeping in the space builds a more intimate connection with it, we become a part of the fabric.” So going pro hobo, in my mind, even the documentation aspect that you are scrolling through right now, is about place hacking, about finding intimacy in a world full of sterile engagement.

This idea was made even more funny when the property owners showed up at 8am the next morning and started putting up more fencing on the site. Between us and them, the place was going to be completely remodelled soon. We waiting 30 minutes or so for them to leave and made our hasty escape.

Although I am tempted to write about all 16 sites we went to, I can’t. The reason for this is, quite simply, that I cannot relay the epic nature of the experience to you in a blog posting, try as I might. With every day that passed, the crew got more raw, more volatile, more energetic, in a weird, confused sort of way. It was a delirious panic that I think would have even made Dionysus proud. I was drunk for most of it, partly because I do better fieldwork after a few beers and partly because the experience was so raw that it had to be shielded, it was like trying to stare into the sun. Now I know why so many homeless people drink.

Staring at the sun

Hallway

The raw light of experience

Boundaries that existed in our little UK bubble began to break down. We did not speak the language, we did not meet a single person outside of the grocery stores and petrol stations we ravaged, washing our hair in their bathroom sinks and leaving piles of trash in their parking spaces, running under the turnstiles at the restrooms that demanded 50 cents. All that existed, all that mattered was the adventure and the bond between us which grew tighter with every sip of Jupiler in the back seat of Statler’s car, with every step walked over squishy mold/carpet. We could not think about what was happening because as Dostoevsky points out “one must love life before loving it’s meaning.” And this love was on fire. We began infiltrating live sites, barbecuing dinner in wheelbarrows, lighting dozens of candles in random rooms of Nazi extermination camps and free climbing timber into bell towers in crumbling buildings to photograph the holes in the roof veiled in cloudy continental morning mist.

The film here were shit

Dinner sorted

Dinner cooked over pieces of the gas chamber

Europro

Do they know we're in here?

Winch was the primary conspirator of this little frozen-toed expedition. Always up for a challenge and a laugh, he had booked this absurd holiday in December, I think, to break our will. After all, only the broken can be admitted into the ranks of legend. After taking in a few leisure sites over the first few days, he hits us with the news – we are going after heavy industry. Now, given that I am about to give a paper on reanimating industrial spaces through urban exploration at the 2009 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Durham at the end of the month, I thought this is a grand idea. Until it actually started going down.

We walked up to Transfo, a power station in Belgium, to find it swarming with people. We waited until dusk. When we thought everybody had gone home, Silent Motion ninja’d his way in to the secure building past the motion sensing lights and infrared alarm system. We got in and snapped some pics for about 10 minutes before some worker ran up and started rattling the doors to the heavy equipment room. Whoops. Turns out they were not all gone, but Silent Motion clearly could give a shit and starting climbing the infrastructure of the building to get a landscape shot.

Roll me

Raw Metal

Pushing it

Ghosts of industry

On our way to Germany, we stopped to infiltrate Kokerei Zollverein, again swarming with people including professional photographers and men in suits. I swore that this infiltration would end badly. The only bad outcome, in reality, was my nausea from being meters away from workers as we snook past them and hid in the shadows. All my photos from there are shaky save two:

Up top

Processing

Pause

Pulled

After my moment of existential crisis, we made our way to an abandoned train yard Munster Gare, a glorious moment for me for some odd reason. Something about the intersections of transportation (mobility), dereliction (history, aesthetics) and remote location (opportunity for playfulness) made this my favorite site of the trip.

Titanic

I'm the captain of this ship!

moving?

The passengers

Woody

No more goods

Broken

Unnecessary

After that locomotive jizfest, we drove into Germany. I had not been since I was 19 years old when I pursued the country on a underage American-in-Europe beer run, and was dismayed to find that it was actually a really beautiful place. Mostly because the further East you go, the more derelict structures begin to dominate to landscape. I always thought of dereliction being about the failures of capitalism, but nowhere was abandonment more apparent that in East Germany, markers to the collapse of communism and the retreat of the Soviet Union. The group entered a fervor as we drove through the country side, everything began to look derelict. At one point I remember Silent Motion saying, “Hey there’s a building over there!” and Winch responding “Nice, does it has trees growing out of it?”

We had resigned ourselves to a week of squatting. It was safe to say, at this point, that we had all left our lives behind. I didn’t care about my research anymore, I just wanted to keep getting high on adrenaline. No one ever talked about their jobs, their families. We talked about girls, 4chan, about what country had the best beer (hint: it’s Belgium), about football. Even our Blackberries and iPhones served only to get us aerial photos and to update our facebook status so everyone knew how much more fun we were having than them being homeless, elite and stacked with fat kit. As we crept into East Germany, we were all broken.

I don’t mean that in a bad way. What had been broken was our expectations, our existential dilemmas, our need for unnecessary daily crisis. These things were overwhelmed by the experience of the present, by what was just around the horizon. I felt, for the first time on this project, like I had actually broken the research barrier. I was not studying UrbEx anymore, I was UrbEx. I sat in the back of the car, delirious and drunk, and saw Winch staring at his fingernails. He says “When you look at my fingernails what do you see?” I told him “Maybe the blood and sweat of old inhabitants.” He considered it and replied “I don’t want to clean them…” This was our arrival, the point at which we had committed to dreaming instead of sleeping. And with that, we moved into Berlin, into post-Soviet Territory. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

Lucid

Never done

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Au Revoire to Marc: The Dragon of Clapham

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Nov 7, 2009 Under Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Psychogeography, Urban Exploration

So we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart still be as loving,
And the moon still be as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

—   Lord Byron

By the light of the moon, Marc and Hydra walked through the common, stopping every once and a while to blow something up. It was a quiet wintry night, a night for explorations of the soul before landscape, a post-phenomenological spectacle of Autumn ritual thought adornment. And then, the unthinkable happened. One explosion, set off by the Marc in a hysterical frenzy over his departure from the land of the mystics, shook the ground with a terrible rumble.

The grass of the common began separating, the earth seizing and shaking like a new born baby addicted to crack; trees capsized into an emerging crevice that revealed a hidden underground storage facility, untouched for 42.75 years, filled with the records of the lost souls dragged down to Dante’s 7th circle of hell.

Unexpected

An exposed vein

Where does this go?

Something new

Boxed memories?

Records of the Lotus War

A decision was made to explore this emerging subterranean wonder. Hydra, designated lead explorer on this spontaneously scurrilous expedition, entered the metal-lined den with trepidation; there was evidence of habitation, or at least adaptive reuse. The mole people had been here, burrowing into the earth, connecting the tunnel with another inhabited by a perpetually sleeping dragon that shook the tunnel with his deep exhalations.

The mole people were encountered soon after, mining away at the sidewalls of the tunnel, inviting collapse, but also inquiry, undertaken carefully by Marc who spoke conversational Molish. LutEx, master and commander of the underground, resided there with his Queen it seemed. They join the expedition for the promise of chocolate éclairs. Earlier that night, he tells Marc later, he mined a Jewel, and Diamond from the depths. The Diamond, as she then became known, joined the expedition on the promise of existential freedom.

As they move through the tunnels, LutEx explains that there was indeed a sleeping Dragon at the end of the tunnel, and that the mole people has constructed a wall between them and the beast to keep it’s steaming slumbering sighs from singing their eyebrows. It turned out they were not trying to dig to the Dragon, but to avoid it while working their way through the 7th circle. As Hydra commented on the quality of the construction, suddenly, running steps are heard.

Hazard?

Experiental barrier

The Goblinmerchant, vendor of the mystical, last seen at the Pyestock Stargate, emerges from the depths at breakneck speed, smashing through the wall in a brave but foolish attempt to challenge the Dragon. Little did he know, the Dragon had a guard. The Goblimerchant is caught in a time-space compression web, cast by a magical troll hidden in a subterranean enclave, forcing him back into the 7th circle, restoring the barrier the mole people had constructed, a barrier, which, it seems, the Dragon allowed to exist.

For his transgressions, the group sees the Goblinmerchant subjected to endless torture, first by having his hair pulled from the follicles by a diabolical goblin-engineered torture machine, and then tied by his feet and hung from the roof of the bunker, on show until the end of time for other daring explorers, an example of the dangers of crossing the Great Dragon of Clapham.

Caught

Torture and Punish

Born and died

Sisyphustic dilemma

With the expedition now complete, with lessons learned, The Diamond is indeed given her freedom, teleported back to the surface by a goblin transporter restored by the mole people to beam in food supplies and port.

And beaming

Beamed

As for Hydra and Marc… Last was heard they had joined LutEx and his Queen in the underworld, digging into the 8th circle of hell.

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Rock-a-Hoola water Park, Mojave Desert, CA

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Friday May 1, 2009 Under Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Film, Urban Exploration

After two months of presenting, travelling and doing fieldwork in various locations, I have a 2-month long 3-in-1 report for the site. On March 26th, I presented a paper entitled Submerged Tribal Memory: the Case of the Winnemem Wintu at the 2009 American Association of Geographers conference. Despite some minor technical difficulties, the presentation went well. Check that off the list!

On the way back from Vegas, I stopped at the abandoned Rock-a Hoola Water park in the Mojave Desert smack dab in between Las Vegas and Los Angeles for a little bit of UE with sYnOnYx, a Las Vegas explorer. The park closed down in 2004 and is an eerie explore despite the recent removal of the slides form the park in recent years. Before the removal of the slides, the park was on an episode of MTV’s Rob and Big where they skate it:

With slightly less daring, I returned with my own photos:

So, with that little post, we are nowhere near up to date! I will play more catch up soon!

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