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Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City, by Bradley Garrett, Verso, RRP£20/$29.95, 288 pages
There was a time when skateboarding was seen as a menace. Mostly the preserve of what seemed to be lank-haired slackers, it was attacked for being noisy, antisocial, destructive to urban buildings. These days, as shown by the £1m recently offered by London’s Southbank Centre to establish a new site for skaters displaced from the undercroft they adopted as their playground 35 years ago, much has changed: skateboarding is a multibillion-dollar industry, heralded for its creativity and exuberance, celebrated by architects.
Will the same happen to urban exploration? It’s an activity that involves gaining access to notable buildings, historic catacombs, abandoned subway stations, deserted asylums and sundry other places out of bounds to the public. It has flourished for many decades but appears to have become particularly popular over the past 20 years, a period when many cities internationally have sold off public space, ramped up surveillance and attempted to prettify themselves.
Bradley Garrett, an American geographer at the University of Oxford and a devotee of urban exploration, views such developments with horror. To him they represent creeping homogenisation, the rule of the rich. Between 2008 and 2012, in the course of ethnography that he calls “edgework”, he hung out with two gangs named London Team B and the London Consolidation Crew whose members climbed the Shard, wandered around the ruins of Chernobyl, and nearly come a cropper trying to get to a Soviet submarine moored on the Thames.
Urban exploration isn’t for dilettantes. Though Garrett is amused by the number of times apparently secure and heavily guarded buildings prove to be penetrable, he makes clear the very real dangers faced by would-be conquistadors of nocturnal topography: they can get hit by oncoming trains, fall from cranes or drown when sudden rainstorms flood the drains they’re exploring. One pal of his spends 48 hours stuck in a lift, and Garrett recalls hairy situations where he staggered around with a broken rib or tried to avoid being arrested by pouring beer over himself and pretending to be homeless.
Most of the explorers, like other urban outlaws such as graffiti artists or free runners, are men. They’re almost always white and most of them are middle class, too: you need time and money to be able to research and break into sites. Garrett’s associates are driven by different, often contradictory desires that range from egotistical one-upmanship, to wanting to delve into the city’s occluded topographies, to witnessing sites that allow them to apprehend, in Garrett’s words, “a Ballardian formulation of urban apocalypse where the remains of our everyday existence become the archaeology of the future”.
Garrett isn’t a natural writer and he moves awkwardly between reportage, pro-urban exploration polemic and critical theory (invoking elements of psychogeography, situationism and science fiction). He uses the term “meld” to describe the way, drawing on heightened senses of touch and smell, he and his crew friends try “to articulate a feeling of ‘oneness’ with the world while undertaking risks”.
At times he portrays his peers as existentialists in pursuit of authenticity; at others they emerge as testosterone-driven alpha males jockeying for subcultural kudos and, in the book’s many photos, self-congratulatory posers who resemble modern-day versions of 19th-century imperialists lording it over sites they’ve mastered.
And yet it’s hard not to admire these explorers. Or Garrett himself, who says he wrote part of the book on a laptop while sitting in a crane overlooking Aldgate East. All are brave, inventive and – like Philippe Petit, who tightrope-walked between Manhattan’s Twin Towers in 1974 – inspire awe. But I suspect Garrett overstates their political importance: the stolen epiphanies they attain seem trivial compared to the protracted battles for city resources waged by squatters and allotment holders. One tells the author: “I don’t think we are against the system, we’re just pointing out its limits.” That seems more mild-mannered than insurrectionary.
Sukhdev Sandhu is an associate professor of English Literature at New York University