The map is not the territory
By Andrew Stevens.
Bradley L. Garrett, Explore Everything: Place-hacking the City, Verso, 2013
“Your task, whether as a poet or novelist or scholar or union researcher or urban planner, is to integrate your own intelligence with the active intelligence around you to enhance articulation. You are not here to impose your signature on a set of materials, raw or cooked, human or inanimate. You are here to discover both their essential and detailed truth, and to then put both into action politically and personally.”
— Robin Blaser
“Then, to write an epic is to see the structure of one’s city or of one’s life as epic?”
— Kathy Acker
Urban exploration (or urbex, UE) is regarded by its more politically-versed adherents as the latest manifestation of the dérive, a debt to the Situationists paid throughout Bradley L. Garrett’s account of his four-year stint documenting and, at times, steering the fortunes of a London-based crew of soi-disant urban explorers. Rather than “the hacienda must be built”, we are instead given such thoughtful descriptive vignettes of life on the edge, sometimes quite literally, from the urbex scene as this: “We found the cab open and sat down inside it. ‘Gary’ pointing to a glowing green button on the control panel, said, ‘Watch this, I’m going to build the Shard!’ and pretended to press the button.”
A Californian skater turned academic, at times more Dangermouse than Debord, Garrett is now a post-doc researcher at Oxford and the book represents an editorialised version of his recent PhD studies, which seeks in part to understand not only the mores and culture of the UE milieu, but also its ethics, the mantra of “leave no trace” as rendering their motives as entirely respectful of property (rather than engage with Walter Benjamin’s decree to “live without traces” here, there is merely a re-reading of his speculation that ruins are a symbol of capitalism’s inevitable destruction). In itself there is nothing faintly novel about UE or that which it seeks to document through photography obtained by ‘beating the system’ (the system of surveillance and security guards that involves feats of circumvention to heighten the UE experience and way of life), we have long become accustomed to so-called ‘ruin porn’ as a cultural product and project following the coincidence of accessible digital photography and economic collapse. Garrett and his crew, it transpires, get many of their lucky breaks into previously inaccessible sites following tips from ravers who break and enter disused sites first for more hedonistic ‘edgework’ (as Garrett deploys Hunter S. Thompson’s term).
Of course, there has been considerable non-branded UE going back to what Garrett acknowledges as at least 1793 with the nocturnal journeying of “a Frenchman named Phillibert Aspairt” among the Paris catacombs, or that of investigative journalist Duncan Campbell writing for the New Statesman in 1980 on the underground citadel below Whitehall and its environs (I suppose my childhood clambering around disused inter-war municipal public baths not long after counts, not to mention explorations of derelict art deco factories in São Paulo more recently – it’s not so much ‘we’re all urbexers now’ as we always were). But the more self-aware declared activity does take on a more organised form in the way of support networks and internet forums, with dystopian sci-fi fanboy names like ’28 Days Later’ and ‘Oblivion State’ (Garrett prefers to invoke the railway bridge scene of Stand By Me in one of his accounts however). These internet forums are where Garrett’s book comes into its own in terms of his own brush with the fragile, precious egos verging on megalomania of the site administrators, who police not only the ethics of each below-ground adventure by Garrett and his circle, but also the hierarchical permission required to make judgement calls on which site to visit (he ends up ‘banned for life’ for his temerity to venture inside the preserved Cold War UK Central Government War Headquarters based in a Wiltshire quarry). This goes some way towards illustrating the immediate truth of UE – that by celebrating ‘beating the system’ so openly you are merely alerting the system to the activity and thus making it harder for others to enjoy less openly — sanctions have, so far, ranged from ASBOs to prosecutions for trespass and criminal damage, not least as citing Walter Benjamin in court would make for a weak legal defence.
Critics of UE highlight the staunchly white, male and middle class demographic of what Garrett refers throughout as the ‘scene’. While Garrett’s own role as recent PhD researcher documenting it fits squarely in this bracket, the scene itself and the internet activity associated with it is without question bound entirely by one-upmanship and the fetishisation of photographic equipment (which join seamlessly in the ‘hero shot’ now associated with media reports of the groups’ activities e.g. masked solitary poses in sewer outfalls or on the ledge of tall buildings) and climbing kit, the book does little to dispel this. ‘Predator’ is a typical urbexer identity in the book, which tells you all you probably need to know to visualise the person involved. Though, again, in itself this doesn’t preclude less attention-seeking daily UE activity by people outside of this demographic, for all the obvious reasons.
For Garrett there is a distinct preference and purpose to badge the activity covered by the book as ‘place hacking’, which he defines in its broadest sense as: “urban exploration, infiltration, illegal parties, squatting, illicit art installations and generally accomplishing whatever the group had the desire to pursue regardless of social expectation or legal constraint.” While the book does a good job in depicting and analysing the group dynamic and support networks of the scene, critics (such as Stewart Home) have labelled the enterprise as entirely self-regarding and wilfully ignorant of others’ less media-friendly activity in this vein (e.g. London’s more pranksterish Space Hijackers). If anything, the continuum probably belongs more with London’s almost-forgotten 1990s counterculture emanating from, inter alia, the anti-Criminal Justice Bill campaigns, the road protests and the guerrilla street parties of Reclaim the Streets.
Garrett’s line as an ‘ethnographer’ seeking to not only immerse himself but live that which he is researching (he claims there is “no central leadership” within the UE community, but for all intents and purposes he has come to represent its sole public face) is at odds with the more conventional detached observer working as journalist seeking to document a movement. At one point, over a pint in South London, a friend counters that Garrett instigated the group and its culture for something to study, rather than the other way around, which he finds hard to deny (and doesn’t omit from the book). There’s probably some limited overlap with the work and method of Bill Buford in his earlier embedded examinations of 1980s football hooligan culture in Among The Thugs (1990). The UE groups themselves even share a similar organisational trait in their names with the increasingly defunct football firms, for instead the London Consolidation Crew and Team B (the much-venerated pioneers of modern UE, San Francisco’s Suicide Club, co-existed alongside Burnley FC’s Suicide Squad). At times the more alert reader could be forgiven for wondering if such groups, as with previous interventions by the British state to regulate citizens inclined to go off-piste, aren’t some kind of manufactured entity for the purposes of easy observation.
There are brief visits to Berlin, the off-limits parts of Chernobyl, the Las Vegas sewer system and the Paris catacombs, but this is for the vast and welcome part a London book. The UE aesthetic has largely been co-opted in whatever ‘gritty’ imagery some self-styled ‘edgy’ retailers seek to project and even the authorities are in on the act with plans to open up and sell off several of London’s ‘ghost’ tube stations on the back of burgeoning and cashable public interest in underground spaces: the book in itself was grist to the mill for the liberal broadsheets and style mags prior to publication, replete with copious photo spreads and gallery talks with Will Self. It’s now not particularly hard to view the disused Aldwych tube station or Holborn tram tunnel up close, provided you book well in advance. Garrett acknowledges the earlier work of the late ‘Ninjalicious’, whose Access All Areas (2005) was for all intents and purposes the first self-avowed UE scene text, rooted in the look and feel of Rockstar Games and the Grand Theft Auto franchise (later titles of which firmly feature urbex environments as backdrop to their fictional New York and Los Angeles). Tellingly, the UE chatrooms feature almost routine scorn and derision for fellow (largely middle-aged male) enthusiasts of subterranean infrastructure in groups such as ‘Subterranea Britannica’, on account of their desk-bound approach to this shared interest — Garrett himself is at pains to deny it is “a mere hobby undertaken by anoraks”.
The photo imagery within the book, as befits the level of derring-do required for scaling buildings, becomes one of an unreal ‘skyline’ London of The Apprentice opening credits, the ‘Gherkin’ and the Shard. Many of the sites visited and documented are situated inside the City of London (by dint of its on-going skyscraper construction, despite the economy) which allows for a handy narrative of geographically-defined surveillance statism in the form of the ‘ring of steel’ erected by the City Corporation after the early 1990s IRA bombing campaigns targeting prominent City buildings. The impending royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge places the police and transit authorities on high alert as the group seek more notches on their online bedposts below the streets of London amid the tube network, as specialist squads go about their business sealing up manhole covers against would-be terrorists. The LCC often spend the book seemingly dodging an array of other three-letter acronyms, such as the BTP (British Transport Police) and TFL (Transport for London). Many of his associates tell him that a desire to appropriate power for themselves underpins much of the thrill. The authorities themselves come off worse however, a prank to wrap a scarf around Anthony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ results in a £168 “scarf removal fee” invoice from Gateshead Council, while Garrett’s much-needed ‘Julian Assange moment’ is provided when he is hauled off a plane at Heathrow and brought in for questioning (he remarks of an earlier security breach into a secure data facility that Assange would be “pleased to know this was happening: his ethos for transparency so closely aligned to ours.”) Sensing this, Garrett notes as a heavy caveat: “Of course, I am not the first researcher to have a brush with the law,”
There is a resistance against ‘nostalgia’ present in the book, seeking “a personal sense of the past, one that has been steeped in the present”. But outside of the defunct military installations gifted by the end of the Cold War, there is also perhaps a revanchist motivation to much of UE, the targeting of disused public sector assets coupled with the belief that if urban explorers didn’t explore and document the existence of ‘mothballed’ hidden infrastructure (the quirky Mail Rail system under central London, for instance) then they would somehow slip from common memory. In fact, much of the terrain covered evokes interest in, as we have seen in contemporary attempts at ‘psychogeography’ (chortle), pre-selection towards gentrification of hitherto ‘derelict’ sites. The Royal Docks’ Millennium Mills, a particular favourite of entry-level urbexers (and myself), is now fenced-off awaiting transformation as a £1.5bn retail-led housing development, the harder Battersea Power Station a complex of luxury condominiums developed by a Far Eastern consortium for the foreign investor market. Garrett also seems to thrive on the approval of those that other urbexers set out to ‘beat’, for instance the City worker who has never pondered the view from the top of the Shard despite having seen it built from scratch (he can pay £25 for the privilege now) or the detective assigned to bring the LCC to heel who wants a pint once the court case is over (media reports suggest at least one serving police officer as a member of the UE community — I can’t help but notice here that North Face is also the brand of choice for many urbexers and off-duty plod alike.) The detective then adds as a rejoinder that Garrett still needs to be punished for breaching what Baudrillard termed (for graffiti artists) the “territorial order” (albeit in the Met vernacular.)
Garrett is not a natural writer, neither in terms of his craft or indeed the book’s basic editing (e.g. ‘council’ for ‘counsel’) and as a text it is entirely uneven, an assemblage of what would pass for chatroom banter (perhaps it is), Wikipedia (not WikiLeaks) entries on the Bazalgette sewer system and more serious theory. Outside of the adventurism, he is also prone to the odd episode of solipsistic teenaged philosophising below the streets when considering the plight of those who actually live there out of necessity rather than choice: “Maybe homelessness is preferable to the mental vacancy most people inhabit at work every day.”
Explore Everything, by its title alone, often comes across as an attempt to isolate UE alongside the likes of parkour as an urbanised pastime coupled with the nineties ‘Pepsi Max ad’ style thrill-seeking of skydiving, off-limits to all but the risk-taking physically able. There is also more than an element of completionism for completionism’s sake, a numbers game. Perhaps, but Garrett’s anecdotalism is no less readable for it and he pulls back enough times from this unfortunate tic to consider the edgework as “entering the metropolitan metabolism”, in a way that sets him apart from the ‘masculinist’ din of UE chatrooms. As he contends in one exchange, “Rather than asking permission to be involved in the city… we just find our own paths to citizenship”.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is Cities Editor of 3:AM and lives in London, where he works as a researcher.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 26th, 2013.