Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.
Dear British Transport Police,
I hear that in a recent police interview, you produced 91 pages of Place Hacking you had apparently printed out from a high quality laserjet. Firstly, let me just say that I am delighted you used so much toner working toward a better understanding of how urban exploration functions as a critical spatial practice to unveil hidden parts of the city and activate little moments of urban orgasmic wonder in an age rendered increasingly banal by forces of securitisation (no offence intended). We always suspected that only you guys, and maybe some of the TFL track workers, could ever understand the depths of our tube and train fetish. Do you like to stand in tunnels and record clips like this too?
I knew it! So listen guys, just between fellow train pornographers, you arrested some of us on Easter. It was a clean bust, we got a little silly there for a few weeks running around on live lines and everything and you were pretty cool about it. But the thing is, you forced your way into my flat while I wasn’t there and you’ve been holding computers, cameras and hard drives in your offices under some sort of vague “terrorism” authority for 3 months now. I never gave you permission to come in my house and the whole thing, if I’m being frank with you, is beginning to reek of a civil rights violation. Now I’m not trying to be cheeky here but we all know that you understood within 10 minutes of talking to us that we’re just train geeks with expensive cameras. I mean Howard Stern even said we’re like Dungeons and Dragons ubernerds that took our adventures into real life. Which is pretty accurate.
So given all the cuts going through a wide swath of UK society at the moment, you will understand if I suggest that the funds diverted for this “investigation” are being rather ill-invested. You see, in contrast to, let’s say, Lambrini chav chicks screaming on trains which apparently happens every day, we cause far less trouble for BTP. I mean 98% of the time you didn’t even know we were in there. We were also very forthcoming when you caught us, we played fair. Tell me, have you learned anything new looking through our hard drives full of porn and pictures of trains and cranes? I didn’t think so. And in terms of the acts of “terror” you apparently think we are involved with, well the only terror we inspire is the kind that makes you think about your life and how you’ve wasted it working at a boring office job when you could have been running around in TFL tunnels with that warm, brakedust-laced air swishing around you, getting all in your teeth and jumping over the 3rd rail running from the worktrains at 3am, diving into the Japanese knotweed they never clear up. It’s not any more terrorful than, let’s say yarn bombing or throwing magnetic lights on buildings or skateboarding. Though I suppose you might consider those activities big “social scourges” as well eh?
Look, I am just going to lay it out here for you BTP. We make the city more fun. We do this because we love it, not because we want to make your life difficult. Honestly, it would be better for all parties involved if you just ignored it. We aren’t doing anyone harm. In fact, it could be argued that we actually make the city safer by exposing flaws in your transportation network that a bunch of kids with bulky tripods and backpacks can sneak into – no telling what someone who was really motivated could do. Tell you what, we promise that if we ever see a “terrorist” down there we’ll brain them with a tripod okay? In the end, we are, I am sure you realise at this point, basically model citizens: active, aware, careful, well-dressed and *ahem* well-educated – not to mention the fact we’ve been running citizen patrols in the tunnels we pay to maintain (and pay you to police) for 3 years now without ever asking for a dime!
And so, in the spirit of reconciliation, taking into account all I have outlined above (as well as my many publications on the topic you also undoubtedly printed off on that crisp laserjet and enjoyed with a nice scotch), I have prepared an invoice for the work we have done exposing your network’s security flaws. I will CC another copy to your office but would appreciate prompt payment on this, given you have everything we own and we need to buy some new ropes, harnesses and bolt croppers.
Anyway, I hope you guys are having a good summer. Mine is pretty boring, just writing about all the disused Tube stations we explored and stuff. Cool thing is though, at the end of it I get a PhD. Now that, my friends, is public money well invested! Please let me know if you have any questions.
PS. You guys should try exploring everything, it’s awesome!
I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.
Time is a rubbery thing
The last few months, I’ve been rather entrenched in writing my PhD. With 5 chapters now done and under review, things are well on their way. However, this time for reflection during my self-imposed exile here in the Mojave Desert has also been fruitful for other writing projects, including 2 book chapters, 5 journal articles and 3 web publications. This work has pulled my attention from Place Hacking for the moment. However, I thought it might be worth rounding up what’s gone down lately in this scattershot update.
First, I was invited to write an op-ed piece for the Domus architecture and design magazine on the fragmentation of urban exploration. Essentially the article is about how an unlikely mix of media attention and marketing exploitation threatens to polarize an otherwise apolitical practice. The article can be found here. Immediately after publication, Control from the LTV Squad in New York City posted a great response which has sparked renewed discussion about the social and political salience of urban exploration as a practice. That can be found here.
Finally, Otter at SilentUK has uploaded a trailer for the film “Crack the Surface” which myself and JD at sub-urban are co-producing with him. More exciting than tinfoil in the microwave.
All and all, it’s been a heavy few months for urban exploration but I am heartened by the new debates and discussions sparking everywhere about the practical and theoretical issues around the practice. As I wrote recently to Snappel, I think that it’s really vital those of us who are willing to engage with our practice on more than a superficial level do so and, as such, I am really encouraged by the thoughtful responses from both Control and Bennett.
Urban exploration is at a crossroads right now and it is up to us which path we take. As it should be clear from these publications, I for one am not content to allow herds of ruin fetishists, bitter armchair commentators or corporations define what history will see us as. Urban exploration seethes with potential as a critical spatial practice at a time when space is rapidly constricting under the control of pseudo-apocalyptic forces manufacturing fear and distraction daily to keep desire and dissent at bay. It is my hope that through these publications and exchanges, the potential for urban exploration to sap those illusions is slowly being unleashed.
It’s time fellow earthlings. Smash and grab it. Explore everything.
Rewind six months. As part of our Tube onslaught, we become aware of a separate system of nine stations far below the city historically used by the Post Office to transport letters across London – the first track laid in May 1861 as an experimental 452 yard line. Supposedly, it was now all disused and could somehow be accessed, though we had no idea how. However, on Halloween night 2010, ravers took over a massive derelict Post Office building in the city and threw an illegal party of epic proportions. When pictures from the party emerged, we were astonished to find that a few of them looked to be of a tiny rail system somehow accessed from the building.
Silent Motion, Winch, Statler and myself were there a day later. Statler and Winch kept watch while Silent Motion and I snuck into the building. It was absolutely ravaged. After hours of exploration, we finally found what we thought might be a freshly bricked up wall into the mythical Mail Rail the partygoers had inadvertently found (I also found a great camouflage Animal jacket someone left behind that I’ve been wearing ever since). We went back to the car and discussed the possibility of chiselling the brick out. We decided that, given how soon it was after the party, the place was too hot to do that just now and we walked away, vowing to try again in a couple of months. When the MSP crew was out a few months later, we had another look but were again deterred by police wanting to know what we we doing hanging around the area.
I left London for Las Vegas in March of 2011 to go write my thesis, leaving my flat keys with Patch and “Gary” who then converted my flat into a squat for the crew; the Team B war room, the new London secret hideout for explorers from across the world, including the infamous Steve Duncan a few weeks ago. About a month after I was gone, drunk in my thesis document haze, I got a message from Statler that said “I think we found access again mate”. If there is one thing we have learned exploring the London Underground, it is to move fast once entry is found, we have to hit a place hard and document everything we can before the Glitch is sealed. A day later, the first pictures went up.
Subterranean departure, photo by Silent Motion
And sneakily, photo by Silent Motion
We're in! photo by Scott
Like win, photo by Statler
So let this begin! Photo by "Gary"
Framed in terms of increasingly vertical movement above and below “street level”, our explorations have become an extravagant passage of surreal encounter and discovery through the city in an attempt to discover and remake it in an image not mediated by corporate sponsors and bureaucrats but by bands of friends doing epic shit together. Similarly, in the 1960s, the Situationist International in Paris also sought to counter the contemplative and non-interventionist power of “the spectacle” by intervening in the city and experiencing its spaces directly as actors rather than spectators. Part of this process of intervention, for us, required letting go of the social constraints that were binding even our exploration of the city. In effect, we had to become more criminal minded to get where we needed to be. We don’t apologize for that, that’s how we do it in the Proleague.
The Consolidation Crew found a complete system of nine Mail Rail stations underneath London, full of small trains or “mini yorks” used to move mail around the city. Statler wrote later that “it’s unreal how this hadn’t been done before, I mean all the access info was online via sub-brit (Subterranea Britannica) and all it involved was a little bit of climbing!” It just went to prove that as much as urban exploration is about skill, it is also about luck and persistence.
The crew made multiple trips into Mail Rail. “Gary” writes that himself, Otter, and Site made the journey from Paddington to Whitechapel. Including the journey back, they walked roughly 8 miles of tunnel. He continues,
The tunnels become tighter approaching the stations, meaning stooping was required at regular intervals throughout the trip. Towards the eastern end of the line, calcium stalactites were more abundant, hanging from the tunnel ceilings, and gleaming under the fluorescent light. This produced a very real feeling of adventure, like we were in an Indiana Jones movie, in some kind of mine or cave system with wooden carts and the smell of damp throughout. During this first of my two trips, the feeling of surreal adventure was most prominent and the constant reminder that this incredible piece of infrastructure was indeed underneath the centre of London was a bizarre realisation. The stations themselves had an air of secrecy to them. Hearing the distant echoes from some of the live sorting offices above (particularly Rathbone) was exciting yet comforting (though others found it rather unsettling; it’s funny how different sounds/situations provoke different reactions when exploring) and emphasised the fact that we really had wiggled our dirty little fingers into one of the myths of subterranean London, peeling it back for all to see.
Otter on the rails, photo by "Gary"
Photographing grails, photo by Ercle
Inside the Mail Rail, Ercle writes that it was almost comical, “it felt like we were inside a model railway (with it bearing a striking resemblance to the full sized tube)”. Statler adds,
it was hot, sweaty, dank, wet…. it smelt like a mouldering hospital in parts and was pretty cramped in the tunnels. The stretch between Liverpool Street to Whitechapel was a real neck breaker in places and a long walk probably around 45 minutes. There were also a lot of calcium stalactites that would snap off in your face and hair it was obvious that people hadn’t been in the tunnels for a very long time. The same goes for the stretch between Bird street and Paddington which was also another long walk of small diameter tunnels.
Breaker, photo by Silent Motion
Breaker 1-2, photo by Statler
You're breaking up! Photo by Statler
Although accessing the system was no easy feat, like many place, once inside Ercle writes that “the threat of security felt a very long way off for all but one of the stations”, even whilst dodging CCTV cameras, highlighting the fact that once past the liminal zone of cameras, motions sensors and security guards, we are relatively free to do as we please in derelict infrastructural urban spaces. Scott describes how “unlike the usual stress of Tube exploration, we were all totally relaxed, free to chat and enjoy ourselves as it got later and later into the night. It was a luxurious experience and was reminiscent of the feeling of exploration when I first began; pure admiration of my surroundings.”
After enduring a tense period on the street waiting for a period of inactivity both within the large building, the three of us swiftly made our way to our access point at Paddington, pleased with ourselves for such a well executed entry having continually checked for unwanted attention and seeing nobody, we assumed we were safely in.
“Right lads, stay where you are. The police are on their way. You’re fucked”. Postman Pat was bellowing down the shaft at us. In a second we froze, before hastily dropping down ladders and finding a bolted door, a ladder that had previously assisted access to other parties now nowhere to be seen.
The door seemed impenetrable, nothing there to assist the 20ft climb. The frame being metal it flexed enough to squeeze a hand through and unbolt the door. We ran to the tunnels. Entering the pitch black we stopped for a second to take stock, aware that going down the wrong tunnels could take us away from our intended destination where we had a car parked.
We trod quickly and carefully through to our exit station with no time to hang around and take pictures, just an opportunity to exit through a door onto the street and away from the now screaming alarm (Which had been switched off on previous visits, but was now fully armed), away from the Mail Rail that would no doubt be crawling with police soon.
Back at the car, we packed our kit away and headed back to collect our other vehicle. A Police van flew past, sirens blazing, blue lights on. We breathed a sigh of relief. We could have been fucked. Postman Pat could have been right.
By our access point was 3 police cars. We collected the other car and departed, having arranged to meet Gary at a nearby station for some other activities in the area.
An hour or so later, the city was crawling. Police cars bolted up and down side streets, combing the area for those they’d assumedly seen on CCTV. We met with Otter and Siologen too, and congregated on a non-descript street to arrange ourselves.
Sirens blazed. A van buzzed down the street. The siren stopped. The van stopped. The questions started. Postman Pat and Mrs Goggins arrived. I’ve seen him on CCTV. And him. And him. Arrest them all, we’ve got all of them.
It was Siolo’s smooth talking to the police that ultimately saved us a night in the cells – by the end Postman Pat and Mrs Goggins were annoying the police more than we were and we were told to leave and not come back, having been searched.
Otter was the first to post the story of the Mail Rail infiltration on his blog. It hit a number of major news providers within hours and went viral, crashing the Silent UK website and the hosting provider’s server two days ago, causing cheers of utter delight from all of us in the background.
I think most people could see it coming… the whole scene in London is really on its toes right now. You have a large group of very capable [people] who are not afraid to take big risks and push into stuff people have previously only skimmed the surface of. It was only a year or so ago one of the main protagonists was telling me how he was moving to London and was going to ‘batter the tube’ and things to that effect. A year on and he’s done exactly what he said with success even an ‘optimist’ such as myself didn’t really see coming. That’s the sort of thing I’ve got a lot of respect for.
Focus gets you a long way.
The Mail Rail was the most significant achievement by far of the Consolidation Crew, the discovery, exploration and leak of what urban explorers call a Holy Grail – a site of utter historic impotence, unrivalled beauty and “authentic” discovery built on the back of skill, luck and research. It was the pinnacle of everything we had built up to together. Although I wasn’t there for the Mail Rail, I was honoured when the crew asked me to post the collected photos from the trip.
So long, photo by Patch
Mail Rail, photo by Scott
While urban exploration can be seen as an material investigation of informal spaces or liminal zones, it can also be viewed as a process that melds the zones of in-between into the fabric of the rest of the city by dulling the boundaries of can and can’t, seen and unseen, imagined and experienced, done and not done. The Consolidation Crew, in the last year and especially since the IDM last January, has accomplished more than I’ve ever thought possible and whatever the future of the UK urban Exploration scene may be, 2008-2011 will always be remembered as a Golden Age of London infiltration.
And with that…
Explore Everything, photo by Silent Motion
A huge thanks to everyone in the Consolidation Crew for keep me in the loop while I hide away writing our stories. Shouts to Statler, Siologen, Urban Fox, Winch, Snappel, Silent Motion, Patch, Ercle, “Gary”, Otter and Scott for accomplishing what few thought possible.
Although born in a prosperous realm, we did not believe that its boundaries should limit our knowledge.
The tales of urban exploration behind the London Consolidation Crew take three forms. The first are the ubiquitous locations that we all know and love, sites like Battersea Power Station, which we blow out in public every time we sneak in, sometimes just hours later, laughing in front of our laptop screens at 4am as we plaster the photos on Flickr, daring the security to up their measures, chiding them to pick up their game. After a few weeks, we go back to these sites of serial trespass to see how security has done trying to stop us after we embarrassed them in public yet again. Inevitably, the security measures will have been changed (if not necessarily tightened) and we find (make?) new ways in. The cat and mouse game we play with the private security companies is part of the fun and we almost always win that game. I am pretty sure they enjoy it to, based on those smirks they have while calling the police on the rare occasions that they actually catch us.
The second kind of location we explore can never be written about. An intimate nocturnal spatial blowout will end with a pow-wow where blood oaths are taken that “these pictures will never go public”. Although these are sometimes the most interesting sites, the consequences of revealing our presence there would likely have repercussions far more negative than positive. Marc Explo and I, walking though Clapham Common one rainy day a few months ago, had a talk about this type of adventure and he looked at me, completely stone-faced, and said “Brad, this is the only type of exploration I am interested in any more.” I couldn’t agree with Marc more, but I was concerned, given that these sites remain always “inside” the community, that our drive to undertake these explorations had become entirely selfish, narcissistic or even solipsistic. Was not the purpose of urban exploration to post, share and encourage the “dumb fuckin retards up top” (Siologen) to try something new? Wasn’t it always my contention that the purpose of urban exploration was to reconfigure geographical imaginations by visibly reconfiguring and crushing boundaries? If this remained the case, where do these sites fit into that story, given even the group’s ethnographer (that’s me folks!) will never write about them? I will return to this point – first, let me take a moment to outline our third type of infiltrated space story form.
The last type of site is what you are staring at here – the Down Street Disused Tube Station. These are sites we have done but not spoken of and let me assure you, the list is pretty long. We wait patiently for anyone with the gumption to complete them before posting them. The list of those with the courage to follow us into these spaces is contrastadly short. Sometimes (as in this case) we don’t discuss the fact that we found a way to wiggle in through the cracks for months, the challenge waving in the air for all to see. Sadly, few took up the challenge here and they should have – Down Street is truly something to rave about.
It wasn’t long ago that Team B cut our teeth on Mark Lane. It was the first disused tube station that many of us had done, despite the fact that Siologen and others on Team A had already explored a number of areas in the network. I think it’s fair to say that some of us feared Mark Lane while others revelled in it. Those of us who lapped up the adrenaline rush and became tube infiltration junkies were, and are, quite openly obsessed and as Statler once said “when you become obsessed with pushing these boundaries, you move from urban exploration to infiltration… Then it’s hard to go back.” It was the London Underground, not the sewers, that made us an infiltration crew. When we did Lords and ran the tracks up to the connecting stations soon after Mark Lane, it became clear to those of us who began taking greater risks that not only were there greater rewards to be had but that there was a possibility of a holy grail at the end – the completion of the entirety of the disused parts of the system. We had moved from exploring “sites” to exploring complete infrastructural networks.
Veering toward completion
The creation of the Consolidation Crew, the sensational collapse of the London teams between 2010 and 2011, made the completion of the goal that much more realistic. I won’t say whether we completed all of the disused stations before I left London but I will say that they are all of the third kind of tales of urban exploration – tales that will one day be told. One day the world will know that the Consolidation Crew were the first to do what no urban explorer thought possible; we reconfigured all the boundaries of London Underground exploration. As Otter writes about our cracking of Down Street, once we decide something will be done these days, the unconquerable is conquered. And as Brickman so gracefully added last night, TFL would fill their pants if they came across what we get up to on any given night. I also like to think they would respect it immensely. Only they could understand the depths of our Tube and train fetish.
A slight addiction
The truth of the matter, whether we have or haven’t completed the entire system at this point, is that we know more about the London Tube network though illegal infiltration than most of the workers in the system. We probably know their working hours better than they do. As Patch recently told me “if I’d filled my head with knowledge that’s actually useful rather than endless information about the Tube then maybe I’d have come up with an amazing idea or business model and become a millionaire by now.” I have been asked why, given how much epic shit we have been banging out, we haven’t published a photo book. The answer is simple – we are still too busy doing it!
Although we might be tempted to make connections to transgressive mobilites like those undertaken by the American Beats, urban exploration, as well as being transgressively empowering, also creates a city full of people invested in the places they reside (that’s us!). Urban explorers know and love cities inside and out because in many cases they learn cities inside then out. One of the divergences then from the idea of boundary transgression is the notion that rather than directly resisting, urban explorers are investing through subversion, even if those moments of investment are indebted to the modern legacy of transgression, by their (at times) complete disregard to what is socially expected or acceptable. The libertarian impetus behind much of this edgework is not to be mistaken for nihilism. Again, Marc Explo makes the point when he says “I believe we are an apolitical movement. I would not like to associate for instance with a group who protests against the waste of empty space in prime locations. I don’t think we are against the system, we’re just pointing out its limits. And as soon as the authorities realise we do the boundaries evolve and that keeps it fresh.”
The transition into infiltration from ruin exploration is an organic progression. Those early explorations revealed a façade of urban spectacle that we came to see as an impotent utopia of pretentions and complicities. Urban exploration is nothing less than a rejection of our enforced pact with capital in the process of questing for sites of urban tenderness, flippantly exploiting those capital investments. In these spatial reintepretations, bonds, desires and the need to find deeper communal meaning in life take precedence over the ability to create profit or to produce something. What we produce, in each of these three types of mythmaking processes, are the tales of urban exploration – some to be blown out, some to be carefully doled out at appropriate moments defined by the community, others never to be written, only spoken.
So getting back to my earlier point, as the ethnographer for the group, I am, perhaps somewhat ironically, being taught the importance of the creation of oral histories that can only be transmitted as such – histories and myths made to be shared in person. Some stories are still too rich for social media. If you ever want to hear those stories, you know where to find me – I am the one in the corner of the pub, covered in Tube dust, writing the tales of urban exploration in a caffeinated haze. Pull me from the bubble, buy me a pint, and ask to hear the stories behind the scene. These will always be the ones most worth hearing.
Until then, go forth and adventure. Be fearless. Ignore limitations. Explore everything.