Excuse Us While We Kiss The Sky
By day they work as computer programmers and stock boys and academics. But at night they are known as urban explorers. The Brooklyn Bridge, London’s Shard, Notre Dame—each structure is an expedition waiting to happen. Each sewer, each scaffold, each off-limits site is a puzzle to solve. No wonder the cops are after them. Matthew Power embeds with the space invaders and sees a world—above- and belowground—that the rest of us never knew existed.
… But it was his doctoral research itself that was perhaps most punk rock. His dissertation in human geography, which he had defended the previous year, was entitled “Place Hacking.” The title came from his argument that physical space is coded just like the operating system of a computer network, and it could be hacked—explored, infiltrated, re-coded—in precisely the same ways. He conducted a deep ethnographic study of a small crew of self-described “urban explorers” who over several years had infiltrated an astonishing array of off-limits sites above and below London and across Europe: abandoned Tube stations, uncompleted skyscrapers, World War II bomb shelters, derelict submarines, and half-built Olympic stadiums. They had commandeered (and accidentally derailed) an underground train of the now defunct Mail Rail, which once delivered the Royal Mail along a 23-mile circuit beneath London. They had pried open the blast doors of the Burlington bunker, a disused 35-acre subterranean Cold War-era complex that was to house the British government in the event of nuclear Armageddon. The London crew’s objective, as much as any of them could agree on one, was to rediscover, reappropriate, and reimagine the urban landscape in what is perhaps the most highly surveilled and tightly controlled city on earth.
The catch-all term for these space-invading activities is “Urbex,” and in recent years it has grown as a global movement, from Melbourne to Minneapolis to Minsk. The Urbex ethos was, in theory, low-impact: no vandalism, no theft, take only photographs; as one practitioner put it, “a victimless crime.” Urbex is staunchly anticommercial (Converse was widely mocked in the scene when it released an urban-exploration-themed sneaker), and yet has an undercurrent of self-promotion, with many explorers selling their photographs to the media or publicizing them on blogs and web forums. Despite some initial skepticism about the legitimacy of the topic by his university advisers, Urbex proved to be a rich avenue of inquiry for Garrett—far better than his initial plan to study modern-day Druids. But in the course of his research Garrett had gone native in a big way, acting both as a scientific observer of a fractious subculture and an active participant in their explorations. And he made no excuses for that. “The whole definition of ethnography is that it’s participation,” he told me. “You go out and you interact with people, and you live with them, and you understand their lives.”
One of the risks of going native, of course, is becoming the public face of the movement you are documenting. Earlier in the year, Garrett’s face was splashed across the British tabloid media as a de facto Urbex spokesman when his crew (whom he also refers to as his “project participants” and “research subjects,” depending on the context) released an astonishing series of photos taken high atop the unfinished superstructure of London’s 1,016-foot Shard, the second-tallest building in Europe. People were amazed to see shots of black-masked explorers standing casually atop construction cranes, the city glittering below as if viewed from an airplane.