The modern city is undergoing constant mutation, each cycle offering up its own stratigraphic vernacular.
As the great public works projects of earlier ages that have served our cities fall into disrepair and, eventually, are knocked down or sink into material obscurity, they are increasingly replaced by private spaces, often funded by ‘outside’ investors who build not for people, community or nation but for profit. Construction projects, pitched in terms of ‘return on investment’, are only valued to the point at which they do not contribute to a bottom line. The majority lacking public access, these spaces are revealed as primarily economic rather than cultural zones. In a sense, the city has become striated with dividing lines, often invisible, that begin to segregate action and reaction according to specific spatial requirements. The ‘wrong’ actions in the ‘wrong’ places provoke terror alerts and institutional panic.
The restructuring of the Isle of Dogs and the City of London as global financial capitals is an indication of the narrow range of vision and spatial politics that we can expect from architecture built simply to facilitate the flow of funds. In these spaces, all things must continually move. People, goods and money are conflated into a network of urban financial circuitry. When people stop, linger, question or instigate kinks in production, private-security personnel quickly sweep in to interrogate the reason for the stoppage and, God willing, assure that the free market retains its freedom.
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It is worth taking the time to consider what may be lost when life is reduced to, essentially, a never-ending financial transaction. Slippery experiences, difficult to advertise or market, are sidelined. These experiences might include a sense of place, community or family. Perhaps risk, reward, embodied encounter, curiosity or creativity has no place in this system. Art crawls here to die, as advertising agencies pump it full of formaldehyde and botox in a desperate attempt to squeeze out a last buck before pitching it into the Thames to be flushed into the North Sea. However, humans, despite our attempts at mechanisation, are still animals. We are emotional, irrational, passionate beings who long for love and adventure. Where these emotions are suppressed, we may find that they re-emerge in unanticipated forms, at inappropriate times, in unexpected places. Enter the urban explorer.
Urban exploration is exploration of off-limits areas in the urban environment. We are all born explorers. It’s a primal instinct, when we are young, to spend time investigating the environment around us. This is how we learn about the world, tapping into new sensory experiences and trying new things. We learn as much from our failures as successes. But, as we grow older, social conditioning sets in—we are told what we should and shouldn’t be doing, we are made to fear failure, we are made to feel guilty for spending time in a way that is not economically productive. The striated city drives the narrative home by regulating our actions in an effigy of public space. We ourselves reinforce them socially and culturally, contrary to our primal desires. We censor ourselves and each other, embarrassed that something might happen that will divert our rhythm and make us ‘redundant’ in the ‘economy’. Urban explorers, like the Situationists of 1950s Paris, and the beats of 1950s America, ignore those admonishments or have chosen to rediscover those suppressed natural instincts; to roll with the flow of experience rather than conclusion. Our conjured rhythm creates its own economy that has little do to with financial systems. It’s a dangerous game that lands us in front of disapproving judges and angry BBC pundits who insist our next move is to pack gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament. It’s difficult not to pity people who have become so jaded that they think everything they don’t understand is a degenerate populist conspiracy.
Anthony Giddens notes that ‘if we mostly seem less fragile than we really are … it is because of long-term learning processes whereby potential threats are avoided or immobilized’. In other words, the contemporary neoliberal, privatised city suppresses embodied potential; it’s making us weaker, and easier to control. Stephen Graham cautions us that London (with every other British city to follow, as usual) is entering a new state of military urbanism. The police and military will become indistinguishable. Both will receive private funding. Drones will dominate the skyline, and electric fences the eyeline. CCTV cameras will recognise our faces, wirelessly pinging the data from the time-saving Oyster card in our pocket, triangulating our position with the convenient smartphone also in our pocket, a phone built by the same corporations that own our government, the same corporations that are building a new city we have no right to access. (But perhaps you want to buy a little slice for 25 squibs they politely ask?). Geofencing will assure emotional containment. Underpaid security guards who do not understand law but do understand how to beat someone ‘suspicious’ with a flashlight will ensure it. Whether or not these securitisation features make us any ‘safer’ is debatable. But the goal of this mobilisation is not simple bodily enforcement in space: it’s to instil an existential terror in us and them (insert preferred ‘them’ here), to push one clean, clear, plot found on every tube train: do not take any risks. Cheers for the concern guys, but we’ll take the plunge—no smartphone required.
The twin aural tropes of ‘mind the gap’ and ‘please stand behind the yellow line’ are a hand on the collar of the knowledgeable, willing urban explorer and the provocateur. We think the safety net does more harm than good. As William Gurstelle suggests, ‘done artfully and wisely, living dangerously engages our intellect, advances society and … makes us happier’. Short-term loss of safety, allowing room for people to undertake life-affirming risks on their own terms, cultivates the creative city that the Olympic Delivery Authority wishes it could have purchased. Instead, we received stuffed toys of one-eyed police officers with water cannons as a consolation prize, and the laser-complemented eye of Sauron mounted on the Shard daring us to climb it—so we did.
While the tendrils of the machine-slick global economy continue to finger third-world countries in a thinly veiled effort at resource and labour extraction necessary to keep the black heart beating, we find ourselves, as artists not playing the game by the ‘right’ rules, embroiled in a threat narrative. According to our dear leaders, our clean, sanitised, flow-facilitating façade is under attack from groups of nefarious, sweating ‘foreigners’ who may just be ‘terrorists’. Peeling back the veil ourselves, two things become readily apparent. First, the weak points in the urban security we find and exploit are not being accessed by anyone else except other artists. Whether this means they lack our sneaky skills or that they don’t exist is irrelevant—in either case the threats are not manifesting as promised. Second, it is becoming increasingly obvious that our shaky financial system built on hookers, champagne, egregious bonuses and inaccessible glass urban erections is a smoke screen that lacks content. As soon as you pull its trousers down, the whole thing goes limp.
Thankfully, urban explorers, along with graffiti writers, parkour enthusiasts, frustrated mobs of unionists, hackers, Special Brew connoisseurs, artists, buskers and squatters, are busy building an alternative circuitry as fertile as a Venus goddess. We are resplicing self and place, invoking an uninvited meld of citizen bodies into the urban body—whether through a headless throbbing mass penetrating a politicised tower block or through small teams of subversionists slipping into gaps and cracks to glide through the arteries of the city, photographing the ghosts in the machine. We are creating new vibrant urbanisms, the likes of which may never have existed, had we remained behind the yellow line. The creative city always resides at the edge defined by those honing it.
Urban exploration is a place-making exercise, a way of inscribing the city with our own memories and experiences, ones that aren’t controlled by authority figures or profit margins but by our all-to-human desires. We are building relationships to places that reflect who we are as people, that reflect that inner, admittedly childish, desire to play with our friends and try stuff, to be creative and to build naturally tribal relationships forged through extraordinary experiences that subscribe to no nation state or particular political imperative. The results of those games are often pointless—but they can also lead to beautiful formulations that are made rather than purchased, and there is nothing more valuable than that in today’s city. Urban exploration adds an authenticity to modern life many people find lacking. We relay these experiences to you through non-violent shocktastic photographic supernovas. We want you to throw your powder in too.
We have a right to explore public infrastructure. Anything funded or maintained by tax money belongs to us, and we should be able to use it as we like as long as we don’t permanently damage it or cause harm to the citizen body. Extending that to corporate private property, infiltrating any place that noticeably (read ‘permanently’) affects us as a community or society is logical. Skyscrapers are the obvious example here—they are built many times with government subsidies or on subsidised land, and we, as citizens, must negotiate their presence, we have no choice. We are not included in the consultation process about what is built by private corporations ostensibly working in our interest, in our cities. So what urban explorers do, by photographing closed, private spaces and sharing those photos online, makes those spaces more public. We add a bit of transparency to the urban make-up. We chisel urban striation into smooth space, if only temporarily.
This exhibition is built from desire. We don’t want you to buy anything. We don’t want you to attend if it bores you. We won’t flood your inbox telling you to promote it in your hip social media networks. But for those of you ready to take the plunge, for those of you ready to embrace supressed desire, we invite you to step in and step over. We invite you to question our motives and strategies. And, if you so wish, we invite you to become an urban explorer. Enjoy!
Published in Photoworks Issue 19, 2012
Commissioned by Photoworks