A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad. -Theodore Roosevelt

Look up

I have a few guiding principles to my life I always adhere to. The first, and most important, is that each year of my life must surpass the last. I have succeeded in that goal every year so far, though the last four have been particularly exceptional.

It was 2007 when I stumbled into the office of the eminent geographer Denis Cosgrove at UCLA. To my surprise, he asked me to sit in his chair as he laid down on the couch. He then said, staring at the ceiling, ‘So tell me why you want to do a PhD…’ I waxed on at length about my frustrations as an archaeologist. ‘I don’t want to be in control of people’s pasts, I want to act historical facilitator rather that an interpreter.’ He looked at me, waiting for more. ‘You know, what I’ve been doing just feels inauthentic and I think cultural geography might be a better home discipline for me.’ He laid there for a bit before he told me, ‘It would be great to have you as a student here but you must know I have stomach cancer and may not live through your PhD if you were accepted into the programme. I think you should also apply to Royal Holloway, University of London where I used to be and sometimes still teach. Call Tim Cresswell.’ I did, and that’s how my story at Royal Holloway began. Cosgrove knew I was too twisted to do a PhD in puritan America.

A journey

At an end

It’s been four years now since I began that journey and a few days ago, it officially ended. I made the move from Mr Garrett to Dr Garrett in my Royal Holloway wizard robes and smurf hat. Although Denis died a few years earlier, just as he had predicted, I can’t help but think that he would have been proud to see me standing there with my parents sipping champagne while my project participants snuck into the ceremonies to infiltrate the campus steam tunnels in ties and dresses. My parents, to my delight, laughed at the whole affair. I guess they probably expected as much and I’m glad they were there for the pomp, circumstance and usual antics.


There are many people at Royal Holloway to thank for my time there. In particular, David Gilbert, Felix Driver and Alastair Pinkerton offered key advice during my PhD. Alice Christie kept me on track with pep talks every time I saw here that made sense of the world. Phil Crang took on the ‘fun job’ (as he calls it) of being my advisor, advising me to track down fresh articles and alerting me to exhibitions. He also had an eagle-eye for critical reading of my writing and an ability to cut right through my drifting prose to rip the heart out.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude Katherine Brickell not just for reading my work, inspiring me, keeping me on track, keeping me employed but for being my most trusted friend and collaborator. Most importantly, Tim Cresswell, as Denis well-knew, was the most well-suited supervisor I could have hoped for. As anyone who has done a PhD knows, your relationship with your supervisor is quiet special, it’s sort of like being adopted by another parent. Tim studied his PhD under Yi-Fu Tuan, who I suppose is a bit like my academic grandfather. From the 1960s when Tuan did his work, we have now moved from Space to Place to Place Hacking. We have bridged US and UK academia back and forth numerous times. We have also collectively inspired a lot of drama. It’s a great family to ride with. Almost as cool as the Garrett clan.

Back in the day, Tuan wrote that ‘human geography studies human relationships.’ It’s close to the mark but I respectfully suggest broadening that definition grandfather because good human geography also builds relationships. Ethnography is beautiful thing, you never know where it is going to go in the beginning and it can fracture in countless directions based on many different factors. I never could have expected that my time at RHUL would have led to the things it did.  What we have done in the past four years, the community we built, was something truly exceptional.

The LCC Old Guard

It was fitting then that the community we built with the support of Royal Holloway left something behind on graduation day to gel our legacy and make sure the university never forgets our four great years together. After considering our skill requirements, the perfect team stepped up for the job – Patch, Helen, Marc, Dan and Winch. Patch and I headed to ASDA for a king size black sheet and a bucket of emulsion and got painting. The next night, Dan and Marc rolled in at 2am and scaled the clock tower to strap on the banner. It lasted until 10:30am when I saw Olympics security personal trying to get it down with a long pole. They looked like they were enjoying themselves.

Patch on the roller

For a good cause

So yeah, I said the magic word – Olympics. Boo! I guess it’s well known by now that some of us were in and out of the Olympic park as we pleased during construction. G4S’s major security fuckups are not new news, I assure you. Royal Holloway is an official Olympic venue, with armed police and G4S personnel patrolling the campus and Founders building on total lockdown at night. Marc and Dan rolled out this banner 3 days before the 2012 Olympics swung into high gear and campus security had good reason to be embarrassed, even as I’m sure they can enjoy a good college prank as much as the next person.  So here’s are the mission details…

Back in 2008, Marc Explo and Hydra cracked the steam tunnels underneath the campus with me – they run from the boiler house to underneath Founders. It was not long before we had gone down with other PhD students: Michael Anton, Ashley Dawkins and Amy Cutler.

Hot and tight

First bite

The year after, Mike and I went back in the tunnels with some new PhD students. Four years later, this is now a tradition for new geography students (and probably other departments – we can’t be the only one’s curious enough to look right?).  Soon after we started thinking about the roof and spires, which we could now access at night through the steam tunnels.

Step 1

Step 2

And now it’s cubed

The view from the roof was exceptional and all sort of new routes across Founder’s could be devised. Now that I am gone, I expect students to carry on exploring everything on campus. I would be highly disappointed if the next generation of students do not mark out some new routes. Then again, I have been pretty shocked at the apathetic response to the securitisation of our university campus by both staff and students over the last few months – anybody want to apply some critical thinking skills to that process? To those students who still have some courage, some climbing anchors would be very helpful in a few places. Get busy!

A route

To glory

Requires delicacy

So, now that the PhD is over, a transition is taking place. I am actually sitting on a plane at Heathrow, ready to take off to Cambodia right now. Katherine Brickell and I will be working on a month-long project about domestic violence law using participatory video. When I get home at the end of August, it’s back to exploring (in 3 countries) until October.

Then, on October 1st, I am delighted to announce I will begin a new job amongst the dreaming spires at the University of Oxford as a Researcher in Technological Natures. While at Oxford, I will turn my thesis into a book with Verso, teach some subversive modules and conjure up my next big idea. So, against all odds, it appears that 2012 will top 2011 and 2013 is looking very bright indeed. Thanks to everyone who has followed along the way. Carry on exploring everything, the plane is taking off. I’m out.

Shizzle (photo by Harriet Hawkins)

Good luck with that Olympics thang by the way London, I’m sure it’s all going to be great fun.

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Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Saturday Nov 27, 2010 Under Academia, Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Film, Heritage, Ruins, Spatial Politics, Urban Exploration

I spent a week in Istanbul, Turkey earlier this month, taking some necessary downtime after a heavy few months of publication submissions. The city was beautiful and I left feeling rejuvenated and ready to work on a new project. Which of course I did. My plane touched down back in London November 20th at 9pm and by November 21st at 6am I was on a train to Scotland.


I arrived in Dundee to meet with Michael Gallagher, Jonathan Prior, Brian Rosa, Tom Croll-Knight, Jennifer Rich, Jackie Calderwood, Amanda Repo Taiwo Thompson and Jessica Jacobs to take part in a workshop called working creatively with sound and image organised by Michael and Jonathan from the University of Edinburgh.

At the workshop, we were given a free hand to produce whatever we felt drawn to and I ended up organically gravitating to Brian and Jonathan who I have worked with previously on smaller projects. We decided in the end to attempt to produce a small film in the 3 days we had to work. We envisaged the film being roughy based around the Jute industry which thrived in Dundee at one time but has been long dead, now surviving as urban memory as part of the flagging tourist industry here. We went into the city armed with video cameras and audio recorders to try and locate connections between the historic industrial Jute city, the port that was essential to the transportation of the Jute and the changes that are taking place within the city that both build on and and overwrite that rich maritime heritage. In the end, the film also became as much about process as discovery as we found that the story we sought was buried in the urban palimpsest.

Methodologically, we were interested in making a film that broke from traditional documentary form, a piece led by sound (collected by Jonathan and Michael) rather than visuals (collected by Brian and myself) only taken from our time in “the field”. We were particularly careful to avoid narration or a film score, leaving the viewer with, we hope, a strong sense of a particular place at a particular time.

Given that the film is built around the audio, it is best watched with headphones on. Hope you enjoy it!

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Millenium Mills

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Monday Nov 15, 2010 Under Academia, Archaeology, Cultural Geography, Freedom, Poetry, Ruins, Spatial Politics

With Ruins
Li-Young Lee

Choose a quiet place, a ruin,
a house no more a house,
under whose stone archway I stood
one day to duck the rain.

The roofless floor, vertical
studs, eight wood columns
supporting nothing,
two staircases careening to nowhere,
all make it seem

a sketch, notes to a house, a three-
dimensional grid negotiating
absences, an idea
receding into indefinite rain,

or else that idea
emerging, skeletal
against the hammered sky, a
human thing, scoured seen clean
through from here to an iron heaven.

A place where things
were said and done,
there you can remember
what you need to remember.
Melancholy is useful. Bring yours.

There are no neighbors to wonder
who you are,
what you might me doing
walking there,
stopping now and then

to touch a crumbling brick
or stand in a doorway
framed by the day.
No one has to know you
thing of another doorway

that framed the rain or news of war
depending on which way you faced.
You think of sea-roads and earth-roads
you traveled once, and always
in the same direction: away.

You think
of a woman, a favorite
dress, your old father’s breasts
the last time you saw him, his breath,
brief, the leaf

you’ve torn from a vine and which you hold now
to your cheek like a train ticket
or a piece of cloth, a little hand or a blade -
it all depends
on the course of your memory.

It’s a place
for those who own no place
to correspond to ruins in the soul.
It’s mine.
It’s all yours.


For Toby Butler

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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.”


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.


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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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