‘Staying up all night, wandering, plotting…’

Bradley L. Garrett, Explore Everything: Place Hacking the City

Verso, 228pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781781681299

reviewed by Andrew Blackman

At first glance, ‘place hacking’ may seem like just another form of escapist thrill-seeking. Sneak into a construction site, poke around inside Battersea Power Station, run along train tracks to discover abandoned Underground stations. Dodge the security guards and the alarms and the speeding trains, and take trophy photographs of yourself in places you’re not supposed to be.

In an age of heightened governmental security measures and increasing privatisation of public space, however, innocent exploration becomes a radical act. In Explore Everything: Place Hacking the City, anthropologist Bradley L. Garrett explores all the implications, tracing the modern roots of ‘place hacking’ back to Guy Debord and the Situationists in 1950s Paris, who believed in reclaiming the city and freeing people from the passive, consumption-driven roles allotted to them by the ‘Society of the Spectacle’.

The modern global city, he says, is ‘a place where sensory overload and increased securitisation have become the norm, where the only acceptable modes of behaviour are to work and spend money on pre-packaged “entertainment”. These restrictions are now so ubiquitous that they’re almost unnoticeable to the general population, but our adventures made them visible to us.’

An odd omission in the book’s charting of the movement’s history is psychogeography, which seems a natural ancestor of urban exploration. Perhaps it’s because psychogeographers tend to be conscious of the political content of their actions, whereas urban explorers usually deny overtly political motives and focus instead on the experience:

Explorers constantly insisted that the desire to do something simply because it could be done superseded any political or transgressive impulse.

There are echoes here of traditional explorers like George Mallory, who famously responded when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: ‘Because it’s there.’ Although the natural world now has few unexplored corners, the cities in which we live are full of spaces that are abandoned, private, secure or otherwise off-limits. Urban explorers enjoy an almost limitless supply of things that ‘are there’ for them to conquer.

It’s up to Garrett, then, to tease out the political implications, and he does this in a lively, engaging way. Often he delivers his points through detailed first-hand accounts of his experiences, as in this beautiful passage on the existential urge to leave a mark:

Finding an old bottle that is thickly layered with time’s dust, you can get close to it, zooming in on it with your camera lens and watching the light refract in different patterns as you shift your stance, seemingly revealing layer after layer of active life taking place. When you quietly sit down on the creaking floor, feeling like an out-of-place thing – the only thing not covered in dust – and listen to the pigeons coo above you, the eerie ceaseless scratch of a branch rubbing against a broken pane, then the desire to inscribe yourself into the place becomes unbearable. The existential tension stacks until it pops. Slowly you lick your finger and reach out, rubbing it down the side of the bottle.

As Garrett gets more deeply involved with his London crew of urban explorers, the lines between observer and participant become increasingly blurred, and are eventually erased altogether. There’s no pretence of scientific objectivity when he tells us:

It was the first time I’d ever felt that life was as it should be: every day was more exciting than the last, and I had never been so close to a group of friends.

He comes to find that he is increasingly living for his nocturnal explorations, the ‘normal’ world paling in comparison. The thrill of exploration becomes like a drug, and the crew develop strong bonds as they brave both physical danger and the risk of arrest together. It becomes clear that Garrett is not an aloof social scientist making notes on his research sample. He’s along for the ride, wherever it takes him.

And this, really, is where much of the interest lies. What could otherwise have been simply an episodic account of buildings scaled and tunnels conquered takes on, instead, a more novelistic trajectory. The crew is becoming increasingly addicted to the risk, pushing itself further and further to discover and breach new boundaries. Garrett writes increasingly of the attraction of ‘edgework’, a term coined by Hunter S. Thompson to describe the process of seeking new boundaries to push, a new edge to explore.

But the trouble with searching for the edge, as Thompson recognised, is that ‘the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.’ Garrett describes the feeling of ‘oneness’ with the world that comes from taking risks, a feeling he refers to as ‘the meld’.

The ultimate oneness, of course, comes in death, and some explorers do go over the edge. We hear about an explorer in Minneapolis drowned in floodwaters, another from Middlesbrough who fell five storeys from a Bangkok hotel, and someone close to Garrett’s team who fell to his death in the mountains of Switzerland. Events are speeding towards a conclusion that, we sense, will not be a happy one.

Conflict with the authorities is inevitable, and when it arrives, it sheds light on just how far the police will go to protect state or private property at the expense of the individual. Yet even as the police are seizing laptops and hard drives and confiscating passports and knocking down front doors with battering rams, there’s still a recognition of the pointlessness of the duty they’re performing. One of the policemen remarks to Garrett as he’s changing the tapes in the middle of questioning him on suspicion of criminal damage and burglary:

‘I have to say off the record, Bradley … I’m just doing my job here, but I would like to buy you a pint when this is all over. These photos are amazing … but we can’t have you telling everyone about going in the Tube after hours.’

Garrett’s close involvement with his crew, and the dangers they share, leads to something of an ‘us against the world’ mentality. In some passages, they look down on the rest of us both literally and metaphorically. ‘Tigger’ tells him as they sit on top of an abandoned tower block at 3 a.m. listening to the drunken laughter of pub-goers returning home, ‘If they only knew how good they could feel climbing this building they have probably never noticed before, they might never go to the pub again.’

In another section, urban explorers are described as ‘staying up all night, wandering, plotting, having significant conversations during spontaneous encounters’, all of which ‘stands in contrast to the importance of work and consumption’ in the city in general. In another, they explain how they never watch films or do ‘other “normal” stuff’ because their own lives are ‘far more exciting.’

There’s a binary opposition here, in which the urban explorers are living life authentically, while the rest of us just work, consume and go to the pub. As with all caricatures, there is some truth to it, but also a large measure of distortion. Many people are trying in their own ways to find an autonomous space to feel free within the restrictive, privatised context of the contemporary global city. Climbing buildings is one way, but it’s not the only way.

A few times, too, Garrett takes his analysis too far. In the drains of Las Vegas, for example, he meets people living in the drains and muses, ‘Maybe homelessness is preferable to the mental vacancy most people inhabit at work every day.’

Yes, maybe. But isn’t it more likely that they’re living in drains for economic rather than existential reasons? The brash capitalism of a city like Las Vegas creates winners and losers, and has little sympathy for the economic effluent sloshing around in the drains beneath the city. Garrett recognises all this, which makes it odd that he insists on the idea of homelessness as a choice. The search for authentic experiences and freedom from consumerism is a form of luxury, after all, which presupposes access to consumption opportunities in the first place. Some people don’t need to sneak into abandoned buildings to find the ‘edge’. They live on the edge every day, and might well be very happy to exchange it for the chance to be a mindless consumer.

These are only fleeting lapses, however. For most of the book, Garrett simply tells us the fascinating story of urban exploration in a lucid, compelling way. Whether or not you want to clamber around on the rain-slick girders of the Forth Rail Bridge in the early hours of a Saturday morning, the adventures and escapades in this book will make you at least think about taking a risk, being more playful, reliving the innocent explorations of childhood.

There is, after all, something very childish about urban exploration. That sounds derogatory, but I don’t mean it to be. Reading Explore Everything has reminded me that a childish attitude is not something to be left behind at a certain age and reminisced over while flicking through the family albums, but something to be carefully preserved and cherished – or, in my case, unearthed.
Andrew Blackman is a freelance writer living in Crete, and author of the novels A Virtual Love and On the Holloway Road. He blogs about writing and books at www.andrewblackman.net.