“We enjoy thumbing our noses at petty bureaucrats and puerile legislators, and their half-baked attempts to stop us going to the places where we go… places they built with our tax money.”
Predator, Sydney Cave Clan

Drop in

Watching the US government scramble to patch up the PR damage being done through Julian Assange‘s leak of 250,000 private cables got me thinking more about the political implications of my notion of place hacking. The hacker ethos is clearly aligned to libertarian socialism, at times straddling the intersection between libertarianism on the right and anarchism on the left. This intersection was evident in the hails of praise for Julian Assange from both Anarchists and from Ron Paul, one of the leaders of the US Conservative Tea Party movement.

So when we recently explored a Ministry of Defense nuclear bunker, I could not help but make the connection between the militant existentialist ideology, shared by other groups such as graffiti writers who assert, as Tim Cresswell writes, that “everywhere is free space” and the Wikileaks ethos of populist-enforced democratic transparency which I assume Jim Hightower, the celebrated American liberal populist, must approve of. Both system hacking and urban exploration are about making the invisible visible and technology helps us to force transparency in both virtual and meat space. I created a podunk media flurry in Riverside California, my home town, last summer by sneaking into March Air Reserve Base with my brother Pip and photographing the remains of millions of dollars of government investment rotting in an abandoned military hospital while they planned to spend $80 million to build a new one one the same base during an economic meltdown. It therefore came as little surprise when we cracked this bunker and found equal waste in the UK. Which we of course, in both cases, we loved for the surreal playgrounds they create.

Planning

For transparency

Dsankt writes on Sleepy City that “whether you’re hacking transit systems or computer systems they’re all fissured, all possessing those little cracks just wide enough to wriggle your dirty little fingers into and force to sneak a peek into what lies beneath the shiny smoothed over façade most take for granted every single day”. I have suggested “place hacking” as a phrase which encapsulates the different types of explorations we undertake (urban exploration, infiltration, draining, buildering, unauthorised spelunking, urban adventuring, underground parties, etc.) as well as the more intangible themes of localization of heritage, political subversion, critical spatial practice and “alternative” community construction and identification. But I wasn’t the first. As early as the 1980s, the term “hacking” was applied first to physical space by the Technology Hackers Association at MIT who learnt to pick locks and infiltrated the steam tunnels underneath the university. Students began climbing rooftops on campus, conducting freshman on what is called The Orange Tour. Only later was the term appropriated by the computing community. As Löwgren writes, “the word ‘hack’ was used to refer to… practical jokes or stunts. Its meaning shifted to the technology needed to perform the prank, and later came to mean a clever technical solution in general”.

The 7th entry under the term “hacker” in the New Hacker’s Dictionary defines a hacker as “one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations”, importantly pointing out the physical foundations of the art.

Place

Hackers

We worked for hours into the night, checking the walls for hidden tunnels to gain access to the bunker and crawled out some hours later covered in mud, tumbling in front of two large security cameras. Figuring we had already been seen and praying that no one was watching them, we pushed forward, all scared witless but determined to know what was contained within. Alan Rapp writes in his MA thesis that the practice of urban exploration “provides a tart reminder that the areas that we have regular access to are not just quotidian, but also normative, if not repressive. The patterning that we can infer from the sanctioned environment is absent from the spaces that urban explorers go; they have been deprogrammed”. In the same way the “the techniques dérive and détournement offer the possibility to explore spaces in new ways, and to rearrange existing aesthetic elements into new forms of expression”, urban exploration fits geographer Alistair Bonnett’s description of offering “a new form of geographical investigation that can enable the revolutionary reappropriation of the landscape”.

But while the organization and politicisation of the practice may be novel, a question remains whether the practice itself actually is. Urban exploration, though it looks similar to the dérive, or surrealist parodies, has learned from the successes and failures of preceding critical spatial practices, leading to the creation of a network that is truly horizontally structured, without leadership and completely decentralized, while adopting an opaque public image of apolitical benignity, at times even presented as a type of heroic preservationism. Urban exploration, as a result of this decentralised power structure and well-groomed public image, is political in action but not in assertion, rooted in freedom of personal choice that comes across as what I see increasingly as libertarian in ideology aligned with the work of Wikileaks and individual anarchists. As Marc Explo recently told me on a trespass into the quarries of Paris, “I don’t need anyone to tell me that I am free. I prove that I am free everyday by going wherever I want. If I want to drink wine on top of Notre Dame, I do that, if I want to throw a party underground, I do that.” The impetus to do so becomes even stronger when we feel excluded from the government decision making process that we are paying for. And so, as Marc Explo asserts, where right are not given, they are simply taken.

Information

Not offered

As Bonnett again points out, we tend “…to assign creative spatial behaviour to performance artists and other specialists in provocation.” He writes that he feels these groups somehow owned “the subversive imagination” but on closer inspection sees that “ordinary urban behaviour fairly sizzles with errant activities…” Indeed, as spectacular as urban exploration and infiltration may seem, it’s simply an act of walking, climbing, inspecting and recording, activities which are far from spectacular and certainly do not hold the same glamour that is assigned to the consumption of the records produced by these activities. Organized transgressions against normative daily behaviour, what Oli Mould and I have termed urban subversions are in fact rarely riotous.

Creative resistance may take the form of refusing to move in places where you are expected to, such as in a flash mob event where large groups of coordinated participants freeze in unison in public spaces designed for movement or in rural areas designated private property where groups such as the Ramblers Association of Britain hold yearly ‘Forbidden Britain’ mass trespasses, a simple act of walking somewhere you are not supposed to. Some spatial incursions into places do not even take place physically, such as Trevor Paglen’s visual trespasses onto United States military property through the telephoto lens of a camera, or his more recent work photographing US spy satellites that supposedly do not exist. Like many other activities, urban exploration, while conceptually provocative, is almost dull in practice, with many participants refusing to even acknowledge deeper implications. “Gary” told after reading some of my writing that, “what you do Brad, it’s just words, this doesn’t have anything to do with anything”.  I can’t fault “Gary” for preferring action over words.

Words

Into action

Clearly, in an existential libertarianism framework where “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”, the desire to explore unseen space could be seen as a reaction to a growing existential angst in urban inhabitants. I see place hacking as a proportional response the the closure of the majority of urban space in combination with the blatant and frivolous waste of of tax money constructing structures like secret nuclear fallout bunkers designed to shelter only the corrupt government that created the potential of nuclear attack in the first place. And like Assange, I say hey, keep building that shit, keep wasting our money. In fact, keep trying to patrol and lock it up. We will be right behind you to liberate that space for absurdity and play. Your move.

Just words


This posting is dedicated to the kids who have been protesting to be heard and fighting the police in the streets of London this week. Apathetic generation indeed. Solidarity!

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“I am both caveman & starfaring mutant, con-man & free prince”

-Hakim Bey

Good morning

If you are reading this, it is likely you are doing so for one of three reasons. One is that you know me and feel obligated, which we will ignore for now. Two is that you are using this text as an inspiration to act. Kudos to you. Three is that you are scared, scared of breaking your chains, of shattering the illusions set before you and you are using my reflections on experience as escapism, living vicariously through my surrealist decadence. If this third category applies to you, then this posting, this call to action, is just what you’re looking for.

Wild Children

Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z.: The temporary autonomous zone, ontological anarchy, poetic terrorism initially sounds like a purely philosophical proposition, but the TAZ is actually suggested by Bey to only take form in “geographical odorous tactile tasty physical space” (Bey 1985, pp. xi) I wish to elaborate here on some of Bey’s ideas and relate them to what I see as one of the hidden political and philosophical potentials of urban exploration, lurking around in the shadows like a dirty pirate coming to rape your mind. Bey’s description of the place of action, the place of meaningful existence that resides in between analysis and experience jives really well with my current reality. The cracks between physical encounter and intellectual stimulation comprise Bey’s “surrealist archaeology” (xii) and I, indeed, am now a practicing surrealist archaeologist.

Surrealist Archaeologist

My life over the last year, and especially my time during our last pro hobo road trip to Europe, has definitively taught me one thing: spatial barriers are an illusion, far more psychological than physical. They can all be overcome, excavated, sapped and exploded. The remaining fiery remnants are similar to little chocolate candies, a delight for children and pregnant Venus figurines. Pro hobo teaches us what Bush already knew, authority is an illusion, threats of imminent terrorism and spiritual destruction are an illusion, fear is an illusion, society is an illusion. My experience has taught me that I am the only master of my destiny and I decide what happens next.

Prohobo in the margins

Sartre, who is rumoured to have written an average of 20 pages a day over the course of his life, has scribbled extensively on freedom. And this freedom, I claim, is what Bey wants us all to exert. I say exert rather than find because the only searching you need to do to find it is within yourself. Locate it in a derelict building in Belgium, find it in an abandoned soviet military base in Russia, find it tearing down a statue of Saddam Hussein, find it while cornering police and taking their weapons, find it in a newborn’s sparkling eyes, find it with your lover in a bathtub surrounded by candles, find it in Grandma’s attic, find it at scummy drum & bass warehouse parties, find it by making things out of felt. But for fucks sake, find it in experience. Get out of that pub, get away from this computer, turn off that goddamn television and then go do something stupid, pointless, reckless and beautiful. And don’t apologize for it. Refuse to explain yourself, refuse to give anyone your “details” when they ask why you are doing it.

We need to find the cross sections between analysis and experience yes, but that is for you to do, no one will do it for you. Mindless action is stupid, but so is mindless acceptance of explanation. Siddhartha walks the middle path.

Meaning container

Well, that's over

Bey lays it out for you my friends. “What happened was this: they lied to you, sold you ideas of good & evil, gave you distrust of your body… mesmerized you with inattention, bored you with civilization & all its usurious emotion” (3). Then, they used your placated boredom, your distrust, your fear and your ideas of good and evil to create a world in which they could contain you. They told you that it was possible only to live within their structure. Well, fuck them. If we live in democratic societies than we are the structure. If we were in danger of terrorism, I would have been caught when I started scaling buildings in the City of London or when I climbed into the drain system under Los Angeles.

On your city

In your city

I hardly think I am more intelligent than some well-trained terrorist operative with a will to die. And if that is indeed the case, only one solution remains, given the places I have been able to infiltrate. We are not attacked because the threat is overmagnified or, at worst, nonexistent.

I won’t let this turn into a political rant. To be honest I could care less what kind of bullshit our leaders are feeding us. What I care about is you and me, the people on the ground. Hey… WAKE UP! We are alive! We cannot be stopped from doing anything. If you choose to be stopped, it is not the governments fault, or your friends. It is not because you have no money or because your girlfriend cheated on you when you were 20. It is because you are a twat and you are buying into a narrative constructed by people who want to control you. It may be your state, your parents, or your church, the important thing is for you to recognize that they can only hold you down because you let them. Look to Iran for inspiration. “Smash the symbols of Empire in the name of nothing but the heart’s longing for grace” (12-13).

Grace

I suggest urban exploration as a method of subversion; a state of “delirious & obsessive play” (9) that you knew when you were young. I suggest regression and even retardation of our boundary knowledge as “our feral angels demand that we trespass, for they only manifest themselves on forbidden grounds” (22). Remember how it felt when you were young and all signs and people telling you what to do were merely suggestions? They still are. Embrace your inner child again, cultivate “antics that are sharp enough to slice moonlight” (8). You don’t need drugs or alcohol to experience unfettered joy, to launch yourself raving into the stars. Roll around in them and get burned, scream with joy when the beauty melts your eyelids to your face! You only need your body, your imagination and the willpower to seize those experiences which are available to you, regardless of what you are told is or is not possible.

Suggestion

Problem

Solution

This will to power may find you in danger, hanging from scaffolding on a building or, at worst, dead like our friends Downfallen or Ninjalicious. But that last moment will be found in bliss, because you finished your story on your own terms, with style, kicking in the door and stabbing innocents like Sir Lancelot of Monty Python in your own “particular idiom”.

_____________________________

The fact that I call urban exploration place hacking is significant on multiple levels. Firstly I imply, of course, that we can hack physical space just as computer hackers hack virtual space. But hacking also implies mobility and using mobility to define places is tricky business. We stop in places long enough to eat or take pictures. When going pro hobo, we dwell longer, staying to sleep, BBQ in wheelbarrows or play games. In these instances, our proficiency as place hackers becomes even more transparent as we reconfigure the physical space of encounter, leaving behind archaeological, tangible, physical remnants of our time there, little monuments to the fuck all. But we are always passing through. Turning to Bey again, he suggests that “the TAZ is an encampment of guerilla ontologists”, they “strike and run away” (100). We are on it Bey, and we are running like hell.

Zerowork

Tangible

The pro hobo tour is a sacred pilgrimage, an experience that Westerners rarely find outside of the cliché roadtrip. It is a massive dérive, a journey to the far horizons of possibility, “a spiritual exercise which combines the urban & nomadic energies…into a single trajectory” (81). As we push the journey further from London, further from our homeland, our comfort food and our safe zone, as we run out of money and continually get drunker on Chimey and experience, the sheer duration “inculcates [us with] a propensity to experience the marvellous; not always in its beneficial form perhaps, but hopefully always productive of insight – whether thru architecture, the erotic, adventure, drink & drugs, danger, inspiration, whatever – into the intensity of unmediated perception and experience” (81).

Sacred Pilgrimage

Inspiration

I now recognize that these mobile transgressions are the heart of what makes urban exploration effective as a mode of spatial resistance. To stay in one place is to create a target for the state, to invite martyrdom at the expense of losing reality hackers. Look to examples of cults, hippie encampments, squatters villages. They are all too easily scoped in, laser painted targets. As Sun Tzu might advise, moving targets are difficult to hit. Keep them guessing where we will go next, where we will post next, who will be there, what will happen. Catch us if you can.

This is not just physical mobility but ontological mobility. Even though subscribers to the urban explorer code of ethics seek to leave behind no traces of our passing, they are inevitable. A dropped glove, a forgotten film canister, a helmet fallen in a well. Even if we do move without a trace, the records taken away will change perception of the space, will encourage more TAZ creations, UrbEx infiltrations and spatial disturbances. Every photograph is a call to action.

Call to action

This action, let me now assure you, is no revolution. The point of place hacking (and this is where Bey and I may disagree) is not anarchy or revolution. The point, my friends, is insurrection to disrupt order for the distinct purposes of expressing our rights to freedom, our rights to the city and to instil fear in the suits writing policy documents in cubicles, taking frequent coffee breaks to dream about what freedom feels like out there in tasty space. Show them what it looks like, better yet, show them what it feels like. They will love you for it, even as they avert their eyes from your soiled clothing on the tube.

This post is not a call to tear down the government, that would be stupid. As Nietzsche has pointed out, the truly free spirited will not agitate for the rules to be dropped or even reformed, since it is only by breaking the rules that we realize our power. Anarchism exists in the world and those places are shitholes. What we want is to gently remind those who would question us that this is our world, these are our societies. We allow those suits to run them, and that is democracy.

Dare me to press it? Double dog dare me?

Now…

Go go something stupid and reckless; go create your own TAZ. And remember that “the architecture of suffocation and paralysis will be blown up only by our total celebration of everything” (42).

We win.

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