History is a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance of a thousand different hands. -Raphael Samuel

Art & Artefact

As many Place Hacking readers will know, I have been doing doctoral research on urban exploration for the past three years. With my PhD coming to a close soon, it seems like everything is coming full circle.

I am proud to announce the release of my new article in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Stuart Elden, the editor of the journal, has been very supportive of my work and has agreed to leave the article open access for one month so everyone outside the Ivory Tower can read it. And I hope you will. This article was two years in the making and attempts to address one of the most significant aspects of urban exploration – our engagements with history through the practice.

The Society and Space journal has donated a fair number of its pages this year to urban exploration. In June, they published a piece by Luke Bennett on ‘Bunkerology‘ which Professor Elden has also made open access for the next thirty days. I then wrote a response to Bennett’s paper and he replied. These debates are worth reading in the context of my new paper, as they tell very different stories, ostensibly about the same practice.

The last thing I will mention is that if you head back to my Hobohemia Video Triptych post from July, you will find the video footage from the excursions discussed in the Society and Space paper.

Legacy

On a final note, thank you again to everyone I have explored with in the past few years. This paper is of course in many ways co-authored with you all and would not have been possible without your enthusiasm, support and friendship. As always, I am honoured to be the scribe for the tribe.

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“It’s about the risk sometimes.”
– Winch

A matter of scale and distortion

Part I: The Sounding

Let’s get those photoreceptor cells warmed up and neurons bouncing people, it’s time for Place Hacking Chicago, where secret spatial knowledge leaks out like early-morning pillow drool through cracks in the urban security infrastructure.

Chicago was a slimy glimmer as Marc and I sped in, sleep deprived, stinky and tweaked out on our successes in Detroit. We had been hearing rumours of an extensive tunnel system modelled on London’s Mail Rail where some fiendish little schizophrenic called Dr. Chaos had hidden cyanide stolen from the University of Chicago back in the early aughts. Apparently it was accessible through manhole covers, gated up with steel doors that had pins we could pop out with a hammer and screwdriver. Next stop Home Depot we figured, we’re going underground.

But Chicago presented those tunnels as false idols to be chased and worshipped by neophyte place hackers looking for lone star epics to boost international credibility and couch surfing bonus cred. Marc and I read the runes and realised our destiny lay in the heavens of the Windy City. We first hit the Hilton Chicago where we were advised the doors to the elevator controls were poppable with a credit card. Within minutes of arriving downtown, we were up the fire escape and on the roof.

Simple tech

Warm up

But the Hilton’s rooftop, sexy as it was, left us unsatiated. We looked higher and noticed a thunderstorm of epic proportions coming to meet us downtown. It was prime time to climb the highest the midwest had to offer and grab hold of Chicago’s gods – big cumulonimbus death eaters ready to thunder down bolts of righteous over Lake Michigan.

The 40-story Ritz Carlton Residences had the Eye of Suaron on them, a bulbous 360-degree inverted black dome swivelling around and gaping at the piddly four-foot fence into the site. By the time we were standing in front of it, the rain was coming in from five sides, threatening to breach our bags and assault the fragile electronics in our cameras. I looked to Marc. He nodded. We ran across the street and gave the camera the finger as we ninja’d the scaffolding and ducked inside. The first set of stairs was easy to find but hominid specific ultrasonic vibrations on the third floor revealed a fat man in a bright vest reading Maxim at a desk facing the wrong way to actually perform the job he was being paid for. We left him to it and hit the crane to bypass third floor stair ‘security’. As soon as we swung onto the crane we got hammered by the gods of Lake Michigan again. Their wrath was significant at this point. The thunderstorm had intensified into a full-fledged sensory cacophony complete with blue forked lighting strikes jabbing in dangerous proximity as our shadowy figures scaled the steel cage toward the stars. A few floors up, past the stair barriers, we snuck back to the concrete steps and climbed. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever climbed 40 floors but the thing is that if you’re in reasonably good shape at 20 you’re fucked. After that, it’s just sheer adrenaline, fear and unquenchable anticipation that keeps the legs moving. Add to that the fact the we were eating primarily trail mix and woke up that morning (14 hours ago? 20?) on top of a port building in Detroit and you start to get an idea of what we are up against here. We chilled for a second.

Our move

Then we heard them. Sirens. Everywhere. They converged on our location and the blood drained from Marc’s face. Without a blink, he cinched his pack straps and said ‘if I’m getting busted, I’m getting busted on top’ and resumed climbing. Cheeky. We hit the stairs with renewed vigour, every turn in the case cranking up the heat, the angst, the fervour. By the time we get the top, I’m locked in a perpetual dubstep stair wobble and my thighs feel like they’ve been skewered and stuck over a campfire until they involuntarily pulsate.

Nights that thunder

Dripping, panting and wrecked, we walk outside on floor 40 to a nightmare of epic proportions. The architecture is in the midst of supra-environmental contractions rolling in every two minutes, ready to electroporate holes in our cell membranes. The place is heaving and screaming as the gods of Lake Michigan hurl down forks of fury at this giant concrete and metal phallus we just climbed. I am, quiet seriously, terrified that the air ducts, which appear to be zip-tied to the scaffolding, are going to come down on us. And then I see it. Marc Explo is standing on an incomplete ledge being whipped by the rain, defying the gods of Chicago. And the rain stops. And the sirens stop. We look over the edge and there’s nobody there but methamphetamine-addled cab drivers, confused, jetlagged tourists and drunk dudes in loosened ties cruising the Magnificent Mile for violence. Turns out, the sirens probably had nothing to do with us. More false idols.

Godslayer

To this day I still swear Marc assassinated the gods of Chicago. Or maybe he just appeased them with his audacity, for they appeared to linger in wait, providing us with ample opportunity to take our photos in their image, replicating their relentless bombardment for the sake of the Powerslide. In that brief respite between aerial assaults we became the new gods of Chicago and we didn’t intend to take our responsibilities as false prophets lightly. We immediately ran back down 40 floors, bought a beer and popped a hatch in the middle of the one of the Chicago River bridges, toasting those who failed to attend this feckless roadtrip, and those who were on different ones, while the monsoon continued.

Bobble headed optimist

Tributary

The next day we found ourselves working harder than we should have to sneak into an abandoned Brach’s candy factory. The two events of note within that dirtheap of a building were (1) a guy living in a tent on the third floor of the Chewy Candies Caramels® assembly line (who had clearly located a superior ingress/egress route to us) and (2) the fact that the whole factory reeked of marshmallows, nuts and chocolate. If Place Hacking was scratch and sniff, I could have bottled and relayed the smell of derelict chocolate. Since we haven’t uncovered that particular technological wonder just yet, you will have to fly to Chicago and climb over that fence yourself. Sorry.

The bridge to Candyland

Aromaquest

We saw other places. Events transpired. Sometimes we catalysed them. In other moments we were the victims of dirty tricks and absurd bureaucratic mishaps. I got hurt again falling in a hole somewhere and reinjured my broken rib. Such is life on the road. Then I woke up on a sand dune in Gary, Indiana and Marc wasn’t with me. I found him later at Michael Jackson’s childhood home where he was hanging out with Michael’s cousin Ron (no joke).

Lost only on maps

_______________________

Part II: The Legacy

“We must act out of passion before we can feel it.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre

Fast forward a few weeks to Indianapolis where we gathered with the world’s great place hackers, blaggers, security subverters and professional infiltrators. After hearing of our successes in Chicago, Marc and I headed back downtown on our way to Minneapolis with Witek, Craig, Darlin Clem, Babushka, Otter and Adam. Everything is more fun with friends. Especially friends like these.

After nailing the Hilton one more time (in the middle of the day no less), Marc had this crazy idea to try and social engineer our way up the 72-story Legacy Tower by following in residents, acting like we were headed to a party. We all tried to hold our giggles as the residents in front of us swiped their keycard and we packed our crew into the lift with them. On the 72nd floor, the lock to the roof fell off. Must’ve been some lingering remnant of those false god superpowers.

The social building hack

No panic attack

We collectively decided to wait for sunset to see the city light up from 250 meters above the city streets. As night descended, eight of us perched on the ledge, my heart bloomed. It was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.

Spectacularity

A surety of

Elevated conciousness

The Great Legacy Tower Infiltration, our final mission in Chicago during the 2011 Midwest Powerslide, was a wonder. I left with the feeling that if I were ever to move back to the United States *gasp*, Chicago would be the place. When we walked out the lobby, security opened the door for us and told us to have a good night. Thus is the gift to those who don’t play by the rules.

_________________________________________

Cheers to my family for having us over in Elgin for BBQ, a much needed night’s sleep in a bed and, of course, pool time. A huge shoutout to Chicago for being such a bucket of win – that’s some city you’ve built there people.

_________________________________________

The spatial revolution is upon us; join us in making place open access again.

Explore Everything.

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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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2010 in Retrospect

Posted by Bradley L. Garrett on Thursday Dec 30, 2010 Under Celebration, Geography, Urban Exploration

I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.
-Lou Reed

Exhausted

At the end of 2009, I found myself in Sweden, reflecting on a year of impossible explorations, culminating in our massive 7-day urban camping adventure across 4 European countries and dozens of derelict spaces all the way to East Germany. I never would have guessed that at the end of 2010 I would find myself sitting in Las Vegas reflecting on a year even more incredible than the last.

The numbers are in. During 2010 we explored 110 locations in 9 countries, ranging from derelict industrial sites to impossible heights; from vital infrastructure to dead shopping malls. Over the course of the year, as part of my PhD research, I have taken 11,000 photographs (yes, you read that right), shot 20 hours of video footage, published 35,000 words about our adventures in academic publications (many still in press) and wrote over 40,000 words on this blog.

That all said, Place Hacking wouldn’t be anything without the places themselves, so without further ado, I present my top 20 explorations of 2010.

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#20 – The EDF Tunnels, Paris, France

While the tunnels themselves are not that remarkable, entering through a manhole in the streets of central Paris most certainly is. On this occasion, we opened the heavy cover with a carabiner and piece of rope. Once inside, we couldn’t close it and yelled at a passer-by to shove the lid shut while we ran off into the tunnel. It clearly made his night.

More interesting though are the ways in which, in Paris, subterranean spaces connect to each other. At times in the city of lights it seems you can move more freely below ground than above. We spent an entire night underground after entering these utility tunnels, connecting the catacombs, quarries and a massive abandoned electricity substation, ending up on a rooftop in some strange spatial twist that I will never understand.

#19 – The Paris Catacombs (Carrières de Paris)

While we are on the topic of subterranean Paris, we made a number of trips into the catacombs this year. In 2009 we were detained by French police in a riot van after popping out of a manhole cover at 3am, which was fun, but 2010 was the year that I got to know about 4km of the rooms and galleries by memory and can now successfully navigate a majority of the system with pretty high success using maps.

At some point during our Kinky Paris trip, the following things may or may not have happened:

1. We stayed underground for 3 days living only by artificial light.
2. I feel asleep in a pile of human bones.
3. Marc Explo convinced us all we were  ghosts haunting the place after a debate between him and Silent Motion while they propped me up like a corpse on the wall, drunk on port.
4. We went to two massive underground parties (one in the underground cinema built by La Mexicaine de la Perforation).
5. We sent people out of the exit first to get arrested so we could run away while they were getting cuffed. Marc Explo also may or may not have also left people for dead in there.


#18 – New Court, London, United Kingdom

We found New Court while we were looking for something else entirely. Waking in the City of London, we saw a giant hole in a brick wall at ground level. We went through it, while a drunk man in a suit pointed and yelled “hey!” while falling against a wall, and then found this crane. Seriously, it was one of the best spontaneous finds of all time and remains one of my favourite explorations. This photo, with Tower Bridge beaming behind me, later got me some love from Web Urbanist which really kicked off motivation to get more cool stuff done this year.

#17 – Métro workshop, Paris, France

This year has also been a great year for exploration of the Paris Métro system. When Marc Explo told me we were going to explore some Métro on my last trip there, this was not what I was expecting. We jumped off a train and then tiptoed quietly down the tunnel, trying not to rattle the tiles on the narrow walkway. When we turned the corner and I saw this parked-up train with the lights on, my heart almost stopped.

The workshop made all sorts of strange noises as we slid underneath the train and up onto the platform, tugging on the doors in a futile attempt to get in. I kept having the distinct feeling someone was in there with us. It didn’t help that it was in the middle of the day. Marc Explo is mental.

#16 – Arterial GLC Cable Tunnel, London, United Kingdom

2010 was also the year we largely moved into being primarily an infiltration crew and while we wiggled into no less than 6 distinct cable runs housing London’s infrastructural networks, this one in particular is a real gem. It runs under a primary party artery and listening to the people running wild in the streets through the manhole covers, high-heels clacking down the corridors and fights breaking out above us in front of clubs, one can’t help but laugh. My favourite sound though is cars rolling over the lids down the street above with that distinctive negative gradual thumping reverberation. The cable runs are exciting for about 10 minutes visually, but they are sonic wonders.

#15 – Urban Camping, Everywhere

Okay this one is a bit of a cop-out since it’s not a specific location but we spent almost an entire month of this year sleeping in weird, random and derelict places. While the most harrowing was an active crack den in Luxemburg which we barricaded with old furniture and barbed wire, this random hill at an Autobahn Rasthof in East Germany was the most comfortable urban camping spot we have ever found.

Not only that, the looks on tourist’s faces when we woke up and dragged our sleeping kit back to the car and drove off  to the next ruin was priceless. Pretty sure a little girl in a car seat cried when we came at her in the car park, “Gary” dragging a sadly deflated stolen air mattress connected to a pump we found in a derelict pool with eyes full of wild hangover.

#14 – The Nuclear Racetrack, Southeastern England, United Kingdom

There are plenty of things you could be doing on a weekend evening. One option would be sneaking around in a quarry until you find access to an abandoned nuclear bunker where you source electric go-karts with the keys still in them and drive them around at high speeds. Seriously. We spent 12 hours in this subterranean playground and were having a grand time until I put photos of it on the interwebs and got a lifetime ban from the largest urban exploration forum in the United Kingdom. C’est la vie.

#13 – Rubix, Brixton, London, United Kingdom

2010 was also the year we started seriously exploring London’s amazing sewer system built by the legendary Joseph Bazalgette, following many years of epic exploration by drainers like Otter and Jon Doe. While we enjoyed exploring the River Fleet, The Tyburn and The Westborne sewers, I was especially fond of the Rubix junction in Brixton, in London’s South West Storm Drain system, not in the least because it is walking distance from my flat in Clapham. There is something about walking around in your own sewer that’s very satisfying.

Silent Motion shot this great footage of our exploration there. My excitement in the video is… um… evident.

#12 – Battersea Power Station, Wandsworth, London, United Kingdom

While Battersea Power Station has been a site of serial trespass for years, this year’s epic 7-person infiltration in the middle of an event setup on bonfire night past hordes of workers deserves special recognition. Watching the Battersea Park fireworks display from one of the chimneys was incredibly surreal, especially when Silent Motion told me “close your eyes and you can feel the chimneys collapsing a little every time a burst explodes.”

By the way, whoever tried to sneak in after us and got chased out – that was hilarious to watch from the chimneys, thanks!

#11 – Vogelsang Soviet Military Base, Berlin, Germany

This year marked our second visit to Vogelsang after a 10% completion in 2009. This Soviet base was built outside of Berlin in complete secrecy from the local population and housed 15,000 Soviet troops at it’s height. Declassified documents released in the 1990s revealed that this base had nuclear missiles stored there in 1958 aimed at London, Paris, and Brussells. We obviously took nude photos on the launch pads.

When we showed up at the base this year, it felt like coming home as we set up camp in the main building after hours driving and walking down logging roads on the massive necessary trek to get to it. Strangely, upon arrival we almost immediately ran into a party of geocachers and had an awkward stand-off until we realized they were as nerdy as us.

Other than that unlikely encounter, we had the base to ourselves and used the opportunity to throw a fat 4-man party in the admin building with a raging bonfire and spent all night taking long exposure night shots, inspired by Troy Paiva’s book Night Vision, which we were reading during the drive.

#10 – NATO Headquarters Bunker, a Paris Suburb, France

Sometime in the spring, we rolled into a quiet village in this Paris suburb at 2am and killed the headlights while we looked for a place to park the car where it wouldn’t be noticed. It was quiet enough to hear the gravel crunch under our feet as we ran up to a blast door and slipped down a dusty ventilation shaft. Inside – a massive quarry system converted into a NATO headquarters bunker full of decommissioned military equipment brought in by strange enthusiasts. The only thing more fun than taking photographs in these rigs? Playing destruction derby in them. Just kidding. Sort of.

#9 – Palais de Justice, Brussels, Belgium

The Brussels Palais de Justice was the largest building in the world when it was finished in 1883 and opened by King Leopold II. It’s rumoured that it’s construction was such an undertaking that the architect, Joseph Poelaert, died from exhaustion. So when we heard it was covered in scaffolding, well, we knew we were going to climb it. 2/3 of the way up the scaff, Statler quit and by the time I pulled myself onto the dome, I thought I was going to die.

I was so shattered, I couldn’t even enjoy it; we just left a jar of Vegemite on top and climbed down. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best way to begin a 2-week roadtrip given that we were all wrecked by 6am on the second day but hey, for these views…

#8 – March Joint Air Reserve Base, Moreno Valley, California

I came back to California for a conference in March and I got a call from my brother Pip – “so you like exploring stuff these days huh? I’ve got something we can explore.” Turns out, Pip wasn’t joking. After sneaking onto March Air Force base in Moreno Valley, California, a broken window gave us access to a 7-story building full of disused medical equipment, then being utilized as an urban warfare training ground for soldiers going to Iraq and Afghanistan. Utterly terrifying and totally fun, I am proud that a building from my home town has made it onto the top ten. Hopefully since the economy has all but collapsed, we will see more of this sort of thing. Just kidding.

On the way out, the sheriff was waiting outside. We were apparently a little reckless with our headtorches. Just as he hit us with his cruiser spotlight, four of us hid behind the only four pillars in sight. When he drove off to the backside of the building, we ran like hell. Seeing Pip go head-first into the grass just before he dove through the window of my truck as I sped off was priceless. Big props to the military police for not gunning us down with their assault rifles.

#7 – Saint Sulpice, Paris, France

We have climbed so many churches and cathedrals this year that I think we can nominate cathedral climbing as a new Olympic sport. St-Sulpice was the gem of the year. Marc Explo distracted a security guard with inane questions just before we shimmied up the hoarding to the scaffolding. When we finally got to the top, the Eiffel Tower glowing in the distance, we found a group of 5 university students in really nice clothes having a picnic on the roof. Only in Paris.

Later, this crusty old hippie came up the scaffolding with his 6-year-old daughter and fired up a spliff as he introduced himself. Like I said, only in Paris.

#6 – The Sanitary(um) Hospital, London, United Kingdom

Hands down the most pristine derelict hospital I have ever been to. The hospital is also in the most unlikely location for a giant derelict building and it took Patch and Neb weeks of research and climbing around the place using benches and ropes to finally find an open window. Shouts to Patch for the dedicated research and legwork on this one – the payoff was grand!

#5 – Millennium Mills, East London, United Kingdom

I had been putting off Millennium Mills for years. I think a part of me wanted to save London’s last epic ruin for when I needed it most. When “Gary” called me and said “meet me on the Excel Centre bridge”, I knew the time had come. Mills exceeded all expectations, it’s clearly one of the most beautiful industrial ruins on planet earth today. As such, it’s been good to see a renewed interest from London explorers in the site lately. Might as well since the security guard is utterly useless!

Like all beautiful things, London authorities plan on fucking it up by turning it into a dreadful 5000-home development with an aquarium.

#4 – Croix Rouge Abandoned Métro Station, Paris, France

Croix rouge was as terrifying to get to as it is beautiful. Unbeknownst to me at the time I hit the shutter, this photographs would tour London as a 20×30″ print and end up on the brochure for the 2010 Royal Holloway, University of London Vertical Geographies Conference.

As usual, the best thing about Paris is when you crawl out of a metro tunnel onto a platform cackling, dressed in black and covered in tunnel dust and no one cares.

#3 – Lucky Charms, Stockwell, London

Otter, Yaz and I jumped into a sewer at Stockwell station and accidentally went upstream. I don’t know what we were doing but Yaz then says, “why don’t we just see what’s around the corner.” Ten minutes later, we were in one of the most beautiful drain junctions I have ever seen. Otter, in his style, spent 30 minutes setting up lights for this photo while Yaz and I danced in our waders to drum and bass.

I am incredibly humbled that Otter and Yaz invited me to name this drain. I christened thee “Lucky Charms”, the most wonderful drain we didn’t mean to find.

#2 – Pre-metro, Antwerp, Belgium

In the 1970s, Antwerp had a big plan to build 15 km of Metro tunnels with 22 stations. Then they remembered they were in Belgium and made sure not to complete it. Today, only 11 stations have been built and it’s never been used. But that is not the fun part.

The fun part is that the only way in to this beautiful beast of a system is via a 30 meter air vent with a straight drop. At the tail end of our road trip to Poland, we tied off the ropes and dropped into this gorgeous piece of almost-architecture while the rain pummelled us from up high.

Flipping the light switch at the bottom and watching the lights spark down 11 abandoned (under construction?) stations was one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed. Not being able to ascend out of the system due to exhaustion, torrential rain, and fear – even more awesome!

#1 – King’s Reach Tower, Southbank of the Thames, London

And finally, maybe surprisingly, at number one on my list this year is my new London favourite. The first time I stepped onto the roof of King’s Reach Tower, 111 metres over the Thames, I was floored by how spectacular the view was. It also has (had?) a working lift which seriously made this a night out that almost didn’t feel like exploring at all, just an evening with drinks and a beautiful view. When Otter released his Gigapixel panorama of London taken from here, I knew we had something incredible on our hands. It only got better when we threw an epic party on the 29th floor which brought explorers from 5 countries together for a fantastic gathering that ended in a drunken congratulatory speech from Siologen.

And so with that, I officially close the Place Hacking 2010 year of exploration. Hope to see you all out there next year!

________________

Thanks to Statler, “Gary”, Otter, Patch, Yaz, Neb, Claire-Elise, Gigi, LutEx, Hydra, Witek, Brickman, Cogito, Joel and Jesse Childers, Siologen, Snappel, User Scott, El Gringo, Pip and everyone else who I have been exploring with this year.

A special thanks to Winch for organizing all of our legendary ProHobo Road trips. I don’t know how you do it mate, but don’t stop. Marc Explo deserves the utmost respect for not only for his skills as an explorer but his in-action philosophising that always send me back to the drawing board. Silent Motion is the best place hacker the world has yet seen, you are an inspiration brother.

Further, I have had some great conversations and received encouragement on my PhD research from Dsankt, Urbanity, Simon Cornwell, Trevor Paglen, Adam Fish and the crew at Savage Minds, Alan Rapp, Julia Solis, Shane Perez and Steve Duncan. Cheers all. Thank you finally to Tim Cresswell for your unwavering support (and blind eye) during late night frantic calls and early morning coffee chugging sessions at the London Review Bookshop.

On a final note, 2011 already promises more than 2010 delivered so watch this space.

Oh, one more thing.

Explore Everything

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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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