Guardian: The strange world of urban exploration
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Thu Oct 24 19:47:51 BST 2013
The strange world of urban exploration
Urban explorers scale skyscrapers, jump fences,
lift manhole covers and break the law. Robert
Macfarlane joins fearless urbexer Bradley Garrett
on a night-time jaunt, and discovers the thrills
of this illicit and dangerous pastime
The Guardian, Friday 20 September 2013 16.00 BST
Urban exploration: a guide for the uninitiated.
Urban exploration, urbex or UE is recreational
trespass in the built environment. Among the
requirements for participation are
claustrophilia, lack of vertigo, a taste for
decay, a fascination with infrastructure, a
readiness to jump fences and lift manhole covers,
and a familiarity with the laws of access in
whatever jurisdiction you're undertaking your
explorations. Archive and web skills are useful
too, for acquiring the schematics and blueprints
that will inspire and orient you. Among the sites
in your sights are disused factories and
hospitals, former military installations,
bunkers, bridges and storm-drain networks. You
should be content on the counterweight of a crane
400 feet above the street, or skanking along a
sewer 10 yards under the asphalt.
The cultural origins of urbex would include, to
my mind, Tarkovsky's Stalker, the fiction of JG
Ballard, old-school mountaineering and caving,
blasts of steampunk (there is a love of girders,
rivets and brickwork), console culture
(Bioshock), apocalypse dreams (from Planet of the
Apes to The Road), the Mission Impossible films
and (inevitably) Guy Debord and his situationist
dérive the randomly motivated walk designed to
disrupt habitual movement through the cityscape.
It's quite some gumbo. If urban explorers didn't
exist, China Miéville would have had to invent them.
The scene has its subscenes. Just as certain
climbers prefer granite to gritstone, and certain
cavers prefer wet systems to dry ones, the
explorers have their specialisms: the
bunkerologists, the asylum seekers, the
skywalkers, the builderers, the track-runners,
the drainers. Most people start out in ruins,
though: these tend to be the easiest sites to
access, and the aesthetic payoffs the pathos of
abandonment, the material residue of inscrutable
histories are rapid. Ruinistas dig "derp" (UE
slang for "derelict and ruined places"). Detroit
was the world mecca for derp, until it became a
city-sized version of Don DeLillo's "most
photographed barn in America", and it was
impossible to see it except through a haze of
ruin-porn imagery: HDR stills of dusty ballrooms
and atria, with artfully scattered detritus (detroitus) in the foreground.
Along from the ruinistas come the adventurers,
who are mostly out for the kicks. Photography is
important to the adventurers too, they specialise
in the "hero shot": the lone explorer seen from
behind on the rim of a building or bridge, or
heavily backlit (partly to preserve anonymity)
and framed in a storm-drain or archway. Such
images unmistakably have their origin in Caspar
David Friedrich's icon of Romanticism, Wanderer
Above the Sea of Fog (1818): the dark
frock-coated traveller atop his peak, with the
mists of unknowing spread out beneath him. Every
modern-day mountain summit shot owes a debt to
Friedrich's painting, and UE has absorbed and adapted the same image.
Then there are the self-styled "guerilla
preservationists", deep into heritage theory, and
genuinely committed to creating a coherent
photographic and textual record of buildings that
would otherwise crumble unnoticed until a
developer arrived to raze all trace of them.
Their archives are carefully curated on websites,
their identities disguised with pseudonyms and firebreaks.
Up at the avant-garde of urbex are the
infiltrators, the "real" explorers, who tend to
be more stimulated by systems and networks than
by single sites, and who cherish the challenge
involved in accessing super-secure locations.
Like climbers, infiltrators experience what Al
Alvarez called, in his classic essay on climbing,
"feeding the rat". The rat lives inside you, and
itfeeds on fear. The more you feed the rat, the
larger it grows, the greater its appetite and
therefore the more fear you must experience in
order to sate it. Infiltrators run tracks in the
brief gaps between trains, they take dinghies
down storm-drains, they lift-surf, and
occasionally they die in ways that may strike
you either as noble, or as liable for a Darwin
Award, depending on your attitude to urbex.
The culture of urbex is mostly but not
overwhelmingly male. Its politics are hard to
simplify: libertarian in the main, fringed here
and there with a Fight-Clubby anarchism, and in
certain people aimed at resisting the rise of
surveillance and the privatisation of urban
space. Like all subcultures, it thrives on
acronyms and slang. Security guards are "seccas".
"The Fresh" is sewage. Manhole covers are "lids",
and you "pop" them. Sleeping overnight in a site
is "going pro-hobo". Certain terms have been
imported from urban design: "Sloap" is Space Left
Over After Planning. "Toads" are Temporary,
Obsolete, Abandoned or Derelict Spaces.
Lightning strike. Photograph: Bradley Garrett
Urban exploration is international, with groups
around the world, but it is too various in its
motives and methods to constitute anything like a
community. A code of honour is broadly adhered
to: no criminal damage, no sueing anyone if
anything bad happens to you. In the white
sandstone under Minneapolis, digging teams work
in shifts to open routes into sealed caves. In
Toronto an explorer has bolted a pitch and
abseiled into the vast tailrace pipe under the
Niagara Falls. This year, Russian explorers are
on fire, taking the practice to places Dubai,
Hong Kong it's never been before.
Urbex is not for everyone. Let me put that
differently: urbex is hardly for anyone.
Participation is high in profile but small in
number (perhaps 20,000 globally), and the thrills
are niche. Not for urbexers the sturm und drang
of mountains or the arid elegance of desert
exploration. Their epiphanies are mucky, their
metaphysics mephitic. The short-term risks are
grim: drowning in sewage, falling from girders,
gralloched by razor-wire, skewered on
scaffolding. Longer-term dangers include
respiratory problems from exposure to dusts and
gases. I know, I know: why would you? Who would?
It is a hugely strange scene, and occasional
claustrophiliac with an intermittent taste for
decay that I am I find myself rather gripped by it.
I met Bradley Garrett at London Bridge early one
afternoon. He said he had a great story for me, and he did.
"The bridge is hollow," he said, tapping his foot
on a utility hatch two-thirds of the way along.
"There's a control room at the north end; if you
get into that, you can cross the Thames inside
the bridge. Come I'll show you."
We took the stairs by the north end. Partway
down, Garrett hopped over the stair-rail and
began edging along a narrow skirt of masonry that
stuck out from the bridge's side, 10 feet above a
Sloap of concrete, ventilation hatches and
aerials. He had his hands flat against the
vertical brickwork, and perhaps half a foot's purchase on the skirt.
"Are you happy coming out along this with me?"
I wasn't. It had been raining, the masonry skirt
was wet and angled, and I needed to be able to
pick my children up from school without crutches.
"No matter," said Garrett, and hopped back over
the rail. "We'll see it another way." We followed
the steps until we were under the bridge. There
was a steel door, secured with a hunky padlock.
Garrett pulled a ring of keys out of his pocket,
chose one, had the lock off in about a second,
ushered me inside, and closed the door with a soft clang behind us.
"That's some bunch of keys you have there," I
said. I flicked on a headtorch. We were in a
control room. Zinc venting, ducts and
technicoloured wiring lashed with cable ties. Two
wall-mounted dashboards with switches and dials.
"So if you follow this ducting south out of
here, then you're inside London Bridge," Garrett
said. "Keep going all the way over the river, and
you reach a much bigger control room at the south
end. Hit the exit bar on the emergency door there
from the inside, and you can let in who you want.
When we made a film about UE a few years ago,
called Crack the Surface, that's where we held
the premiere. We had 86 people, a generator, a
screen, a projector, and a lot of beer. It was a great party!"
We slipped out and Garrett locked up. Two men in
suits gave us puzzled looks but didn't break stride.
Victorian drain, south London. Photograph: Bradley Garrett
From London Bridge, Garrett took me on a
haphazard walk through the City. He had climbed
pretty much every major building we passed. He
and other explorers have topped out the Shard
four times, the Cheesegrater twice, the Lloyd's
Building once ("many CCTV cameras, no response")
and the Walkie Talkie building multiple times.
The Gherkin went up before Garrett arrived in
London, to his enduring regret. On the whole, he
prefers mid-level structures to skyscrapers:
"Something like the Shard has no relationship to
the city. From its summit, you look down and
London resembles a giant circuit-board. It all
seems chilly and lifeless from up there."
Certainly, Garrett perceives the city like no one
else I know. Seen through his eyes, it is newly
porous, full of "vanishing points", "imperfect
joinings" and portals service hatches,
padlocked doorways that you wouldn't usually
notice. The usual constraints on urban motion,
whether enforced by physical barriers or legal
convention, don't restrict him. The city's
accessible space extends far down into the earth
(sewers, bunkers, tunnels) and far up into the
air (skyscrapers, cranes), with the street level
only serving as a median altitude.
We stopped at the foot of the Walkie Talkie
building, aka 20 Fenchurch Street. "Look at
that," Garrett said. "There's a big wheelie bin
pushed right up under the scaffolding. If you
were staying over tonight, we'd come back here
later on. Up on the bin, on to the scaffolding,
drop down, and we'd be into the site. From there
it's just a case of getting across no man's land,
and into the stairwells and the inner core. Then
we pelt up 34 flights of stairs to the summit."
The purple hoardings around the site carried
creepy corporate feel-good mottos: "Rise To The
Top Faster", "The Building With More Up Top" and
"The View Belongs To Everyone". "Except the view
doesn't belong to everyone," said Garrett. "It
costs £25 per person to go up the Shard. This'll
be the same. The least they could do is make it
free. But they don't so we take it for free."
Garrett (urbexer, academic geographer, blogger)
is an extremely interesting man. He is also
generous, unpredictable a lot of fun to be
around. I think he might be among the few
genuinely fearless people of my acquaintance.
Things inconvenience him (security guards,
flesh-wounds, court cases), but as far as I can
tell, nothing much scares him. He has
thick-rimmed black glasses, a goatee and
moustache, and chin-length dark brown hair that
gets banded back into a ponytail when action
beckons. His speech mixes West Coast dude-isms
with the gnarlier syntax of culturaltheory.
Garrett grew up in California. In 2001, aged 19,
he co-founded a skateboard shop in the city of
Riverside. He sold out to his partner two years
later, and used the money to study maritime
archaeology in Australia, then to start a
"cultural resource management firm" in Hawaii. In
search of some "seriously empty space", he moved
back to northern California and began work for
the US Bureau of Land Management, specialising in
the archaeological heritage of Native American
groups. He felt uneasy at the politics involved
and decided to become an academic geographer
instead. He ended up in Britain with a
studentship at Royal Holloway to study three
marginal groups: neo-druids, mudlarkers and
urbexers. The druids and the mudlarkers fell away
(for the good, I feel) and UE became Garrett's exclusive ethnographic focus.
His research method was extreme and immersive. He
spent four years embedded with a group of
London-based explorers "the scribe of the
tribe" as they enjoyed what he now describes as
a "golden age" of UE. He took part in "more than
300 trespass events in eight countries with over
100 explorers". Among the results of his research
were a doctorate from the University of London; a
gallery of remarkable photographs; arrest by
British Transport Police (BTP); the
battering-down of his front door and confiscation
of his computers, phone and passport; a court
battle; a post-doc at Oxford; and now the book of
his PhD, published as Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City.
The book's style is volatile and its stories are
extraordinary. It narrates "the rise and fall of
the London Consolidation Crew (LCC), the UK's
most notorious place-hackers", and Garrett's
years with them. It might be imagined as a gonzo
road trip rewritten by a committee comprising
Margaret Mead, Edward Abbey and Dizzee Rascal. I
wouldn't be surprised if film rights have already
been optioned. The narrative of the book follows
Garrett from noob (uninitiated) explorer to
cutting-edge infiltrator though he is careful
throughout never to style himself as either
champion or leader. Intercut with the helter
skelter storytelling is heavy duty analysis of,
among other subjects, the politics of UE, the
affective role of photography and video, and the
phenomenology of urban flow. Studding the text
are dozens of Garrett's startling photographs.
This combination of anecdote, image and exegesis
gives the book a distinctive triple-tone that will not be to everyone's taste.
Saint-Sulpice church, VIe arrondissement, Paris, France.
After a dramatic prologue describing his
detention by BTP (hauled from a plane at Heathrow
while up in first class Gordon Brown fumed at
the delay), Garrett examines the emergence of
urbex in the late-1970s, and details his own
early forays into the scene. He earns the trust
of the explorers who will become his key
companions only ever identified by aliases
("Gary", "Patch", "Winch", "Marc Explo"), with
whom he learns the ropes and ticks off the London
classics: Battersea Power Station, Millennium Mills.
Many adventures follow. Rumours are investigated.
Tip-offs are pursued. Garrett and a female
explorer called "Rouge" hear about a derelict
Soviet submarine floating in the Thames near
Rochester: a U475 Black Widow. They buy a kid's
dinghy and paddle out after dark to the
submarine. The dinghy nearly sinks, they're
almost swept away by the current, then once
aboard Rouge is almost knocked out by the sealing
wheel of a falling hatch. When they do get off
the sub it's low tide, and they have to mud-wade to safety.
One weekend, "Moses" proposes traversing the
Forth Road Bridge from north to south: "The plan
was mental and everyone loved it." They drive to
North Queensferry, find an open hatch in one of
the pylons, and climb an internal ladder to the
upper girders. This was, as Garrett puts it,
"serious edgework", especially when it begins to
rain. "Start crawling really fast right fucking
now!", yells one of the crew. Inexplicably, they all make it across.
The team head out across Europe, sleeping in
derelict motels, scoping out site after site,
getting "sleep-deprived, stinky and buzzing".
Garrett hits America, climbing a Chicago
skyscraper in a storm and gaining astonishing
images of a city "bathed in black cloud and blue
with lightning strikes crawling down from
the clouds into Lake Michigan". In one
jaw-dropping episode in the Mojave desert, he
penetrates a "boneyard" of decommissioned
aeroplanes, climbing over barbed wire, and then
hiding in the landing gear of 747s and military
cargo-carriers while security patrols pass by.
"It was," notes Garrett drily, "a vast playground
and a long night." In the sewers of Minneapolis,
he and Marc Explo "charge headlong into a tiny
stoop filled with raw black sewage like molasses,
a den of faeces packed with cobwebs and little
white subterranean spiders, which we fended off
with nothing more than a stick and a bottle of
André champagne until the fumes almost took us
down" (I re-emphasise: urbex is not for everyone).
After two years, Garrett's group merged its
efforts with another team to form the London
Consolidation Crew, which soon became known for
its audacity and ambition. The intensity of their
activity increased ("dusk was another dawn"), and
the rats inside them grew: "Our thirst for the
adrenaline rush of getting away with things
became insatiable." The crew settled on a "holy
grail": to reach all the "ghost stations" of the
London Underground, and complete "a photographic
survey of the disused parts of the LU".
Consulting "pre-war Tube maps" and "new worker
track maps" they confirm 14 stations as "ghosts":
"the crown jewel of the system was Aldwych
most difficult was going to be the British
Museum". Stepping on to the tracks instantly
raised the stakes. Trespass is not a criminal
offence in the UK unless you prevent someone from
going about their normal business. This is not
the case on railways, however, where bylaws
permit criminal prosecution (with a six-month statute of limitation).
Garrett's attempts to reach the ghost stations
form the most controversial episodes of the book.
These actions led eventually to his arrest and
the forced dispersal of the LCC (bail conditions
currently prevent them from communicating). His
trial is ongoing. Transport for London,
apparently fearing copycatism, have recently
threatened his publisher, Verso Books, with legal
action over the publication of "illegally
obtained information" in Explore Everything.
As will be obvious, urbex is not without its
critics. Detractors style it variously as naive,
fetishistic, self-heroising and, well, criminal.
Its brand of subvertionist play can easily
resemble Scooby-Doo-ish japery (don't get stuck
in the vent-shaft, Shaggy!) or wilful
trouble-making. And there is rich possibility for
insensitivity to those people who are compelled
to live their lives in a context of dereliction:
the thousands of homeless who inhabit the
storm-drain network beneath Las Vegas, for instance.
Garrett is familiar with these lines of attack
and as a good ethnographer must gives them
due consideration in his book. Much depends on
the motives you ascribe to UE, but the explorers
themselves are mostly poor at self-analysis,
preferring to fall back on T-shirt catchphrases:
"Live on the edge", or "Do epic shit" (an
imperative that can be read two ways).
Garrett acknowledges the difficulty of
generalising a motive for urbex (or, as he puts
it, "reifying a co-ordinated explorer ethos"),
but he personally celebrates it as a form of
activism, which "recodes people's normalised
relationships to city space", and creates
temporary "regions of misrule". Or as Foucault
in a militant mood might have said they aim "to
disrupt dominant hegemonic spatial control
through tactical urban infiltration". His book
ends with a manifesto-climax that readers will
find either rousing or riling: "Wherever doors
are closed, we will find a way through. Wherever
history is buried, we will uncover it. Wherever
architecture is exclusionary, we will liberate it."
Perhaps. It's still unclear to me exactly how
urbex will roll back privatisation or resist
surveillance culture. It may even do the opposite
(more cameras, more "seccas"). Successful access
campaigns have tended to be large-scale movements
rather than lone wolves, the most famous instance
being the Kinder Scout Trespass of 1932, though I
suppose a counter-example might be the
fascinating optical trespasses of the
contemporary American photographer, Trevor
Paglen, whose ultra-long-lens cameras peer into
the black-ops sites and classified landscapes of
the American security complex, making visible
what the state keenly wishes to keep unseen.
Late that night, I met Garrett again at
Blackfriars Bridge, at low tide. Two of his
friends joined us: Scott and Alex. Our plan was
to lift a manhole cover and drop into the
Victorian sewer tunnels through which flows the
Fleet, one of London's "lost rivers". Garrett
wanted to show me the Fleet Chamber, a vast
Bazalgettian structure near the outfall into the
Thames. We had waders and headtorches ready to
go. Garrett was mildly concerned about flow
levels in the Fleet, due to the day's rain.
"We'll get in there and have a look. If it's
running too high, we'll just turn around and come out."
"I need to make the half-midnight train from
King's Cross," I said. "We'll get you there,"
replied Garrett. "In fact, if you want we'll walk
you north up the tunnels, and pop you out of a
manhole just by the station." I liked the thought
of taking the tube rather than the Tube back to
King's Cross. But I pitied whoever sat next to me on the way home.
Garrett and I had already tried and failed to get
under London earlier in the day. We'd accessed
the network of steam-tunnels that runs beneath
the Barbican, pushing through a door in an
underground parking lot, but had been seen almost
immediately and left at speed (Garrett jangling
his magic keys coolly, me sweating through my
scalp with nerves). And our Fleet Chamber
adventure was also to be frustrated: dozens of
workmen in hi-vis jackets were swarming around
the Fleet manholes, putting in a late-night maintenance shift on the tunnels.
"Fuck! I have a positive relationship with Thames
Water," Garrett said. "We've told them where
dozens of leaks are. But it's not good enough to
share the Fleet with their workers. Plan B it is, then."
Plan B was a huge 19th-century subterranean
reservoir, buried under a north London park and
now drained of its water. Garrett knew of its
existence but had never been there; Alex had
scoped it out once. He declared its awesomeness as a space.
We caught the Tube north. The other three
reminisced about a big urbex meet in Antwerp. "It
was mad! People were running everywhere," said
Scott. "The sewers were full. The train tunnels
were hopping." "I fell into a hole and gashed my
leg to the bone," said Garrett. He rolled up his
trouser leg to show me the scar. It was long,
wide and shiny. "But I was totally twisted on
dope, and didn't notice. We got out and went to a
bar for something to eat and drink. I started
feeling dizzy, and realised my boot was full of blood."
In the park, in the dark, we got kitted up in
silence. There was a bank to climb up, and some
fencing to roll under. Alex and Garrett located
the lid, and used two drain keys to pop it and
pull it away with a screech. One by one we
climbed down a utility ladder into an
antechamber, from which a rickety staircase led
into the belly of the reservoir proper. We
descended the staircase, headtorch beams probing
the blackness, whistling and hooting at what we saw.
It was indeed an awesome space, possessing the
extreme functional elegance of major Victorian
infrastructure, and as beautiful in its way as
the Roman cisterns at Micenum and Constantinople.
A cast-iron overspill sluice curved down near the
entrance, its cup perhaps 12 feet in
circumference. Dozens of brick archways extended
in series away from us, with the runnels between
them holding wide rungs of still water. The
iterated forms of the arches and the reflections
of the water created the illusion of infinite regress.
We walked the reservoir end to end and side to
side, our voices and the splashes of our passage
echoing. Above us in the shadows hung the vaults
of the ceiling itself, hundreds of thousands of
yellow-brown bricks. Fine white silt clouded in
the water at our footfalls. At the far end we sat
down, took stock, smoked. Garrett set some music
going; a drum and bass track called "Stresstest".
That seemed right. Then he and the others set up a photograph.
"All noobs need a hero shot. You be the model,
Rob." They backlit the arches with LED panels,
and set my headtorch to red-beam.
We got out just before midnight. There were
scattered clouds, underlit pink and orange by the
city's glow, with stars visible between them.
Three men moved through the trees to our east,
scanning the grass with golden torch beams, looking for something.
"Macfarlane Hero Shot.jpg" came through by email
early the next morning from Garrett. I was in
thigh-waders rather than trousers, and a hoodie
rather than a frock-coat, but the homage was
unmistakable. There it was: Caspar David
Friedrich Redux Traveller Below A Sea of Bricks (2013).
Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on
Foot is out from Penguin. Explore Everything:
Place-Hacking the City by Bradley L Garrett is published by Verso next month.
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: not available
Size: 213 bytes
Desc: not available
-------------- next part --------------
+44 (0)7786 952037
Twitter: @TonyGosling http://twitter.com/tonygosling
uk-911-truth+subscribe at googlegroups.com
"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."
"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which
alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung
Fear not therefore: for there is nothing covered that shall not be
revealed; and nothing hid that shall not be made known. What I tell
you in darkness, that speak ye in the light and what ye hear in the
ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. Matthew 10:26-27
Die Pride and Envie; Flesh, take the poor's advice.
Covetousnesse be gon: Come, Truth and Love arise.
Patience take the Crown; throw Anger out of dores:
Cast out Hypocrisie and Lust, which follows whores:
Then England sit in rest; Thy sorrows will have end;
Thy Sons will live in peace, and each will be a friend.
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
More information about the Diggers350