I just finished Bradley Garrett’s book “Explore Everything—Place Hacking the City.” Written partly as a straightforward account of his time spent “urban hacking” with extreme explorers, and partly in what I like to call “ivory tower speak” (he is a researcher at Oxford), the book is a very interesting look at the psychogeography of exploring areas of cities not usually visited by citizens. Garrett and the explorers start with predictable dereliction visits (abandoned buildings and the like) and ultimately advance to things like cracking security on construction sites, metros and even military areas, alienating themselves from other urban explorers in the process and bringing themselves to the attention of the “authorities”. The book ends with Mr Garrett being dragged off a plane flight in Britain and being detained, jailed and questioned. It’s a fascinating look at a subculture that seems to thrive on adrenaline and the ever pressing of boundaries.
The book is heavy on the ivory tower terms and one of the more fascinating moments comes near the end when Garrett is talking to an explorer, telling him how happy he, Garrett, was about having access to this culture and its experiences. The explorer retorted that Garrett himself had actually created this “culture” so that he could have something to write about. A very pointed encapsulation of the “anthropologist’s dilemma”. But not entirely accurate—there does seem to exist a culture amongst these extreme explorers. They have their own terminologies, heroes and legendary exploits and they share/compare their experiences across a variety of internet forums, and did so before Garrett came along. Still, you can see how Garrett’s involvement could viewed as a gentrification of sorts of a sub-cultural terrain.
Garrett doesn’t seem to try to tackle the possibility of a spiritual angle to extreme urban exploring, though he does mention the term “edgework” (coined first apparently by Hunter S Thompson). My feeling is that under the frankly macho posturing of the scene, there are probably some individuals who derive a spiritual benefit from these actions—extreme urban exploring smacks of a “Neverwhere” sort of hero’s journey.
20 some odd years ago, before widespread use of the internet and things like Facebook and Twitter, I had a brush with extreme exploring. A group of aquaintances came by and asked if I wanted to go to a “cool place”. It was down by the river, near a bridge. They brought candles. Turned out to be a large overflow sewer, where runoff is directed into the river. We lit the candles and walked back, farther and farther. It seemed to take forever and I kept thinking that any moment a rush of water was going to come down the concrete tube and drown us. Finally we reached a square chamber, what my friends (many of whom were musicians) referred to as an “echo chamber”. We circled around it, singing and making noise. The experience is fresh in my memory over these many years and I do not need photos or Facebook to bring it back or to validate it. At the time I did not realize it fully, but looking back now I see it as an offering to the gods of the underworld. One that was, on my part at least, spontaneous, and the more powerful for it being so. This is where the world of extreme urban exploring and my own world of spirituality through liminal spaces intersects—a use of place that is outside its usual mundane function, a use that creates a portal of sorts to a different dimension, and an alternate reality. Whether a person is coming at it from the angle expressed in Garrett’s “Explore Everything”, or from a more spiritual position, it is a practice that can certainly be life-changing.