Bradley L Garret - Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City (4 stars)

Bradley L Garret - Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City

A heady, inspirational rush through the 'urban explorer' movement

(Verso)

The cover of Explore Everything depicts author Bradley Garrett as a hooded figure, stood atop the Forth Rail Bridge at night, silhouetted by glow of South Queensferry. The book is underpinned by a restless curiosity to find deeper ways to understand and explore off-limits, forgotten and neglected spaces in the urban landscape. This search for an embodied experience of the city led Garrett to London’s urban exploring community, and on a wet, winter’s night, across the 2,500-metre span of the Rail Bridge, a journey partly completed on all fours across narrow beams, the inky black Forth far below.

For Garrett, these acts of urban wayfaring, exploration and trespass are inherently political: plotting new cartographies through cities increasingly bound by private space. By drawing new and rediscovered lines through the city – through the forgotten, derelict, half-built and boarded up spaces of the urban landscape – Garrett and his ‘crew’, the London Consolidation Crew, look to unshackle themselves from the city streets, all watched over by omnipresent machines of surveillance. By probing weaknesses in the fabric of the city – manhole covers, unlocked doors, gaps in security guard patrols – they find beautiful, bizarre and unregulated new spaces: ‘ghost’ tube and metro stations in London and Paris, subterranean drains in Las Vegas inhabited by the city’s poorest people, and palatial theatres in Detroit, left to ruin.

Garrett’s time with the London Consolidation Crew provided the research for his recently completed PhD, an ethnographic study of urban exploration culture. This grounded research method caused deep rifts in the ‘urbex’ community, and media furore when photographs from atop The Shard in London surfaced in early 2012. Growing out of this PhD, Explore Everything makes frequent reference to academic theorists on the city – Walter Benjamin, Henry Lefebvre, Guy Debord – all presented in an admirably accessible way.

The social networks of the urban exploration communities are fascinating, as rival crews race to ‘crack’ off-limits sites (the disused British Museum tube station in London hangs like an uncracked kernel throughout). New words and phrases become quickly familiar: ‘derp’ for ‘derelict and ruined places’; ‘sloap’ for ‘space left over after planning’; ‘hero shot’ as the trope for silhouetted explorers to pose for photographs – often taken in hyper-real HDR – as ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’-esq conquerors of the urban landscape.

Many of the urban explorers encountered are archivists of the city: sharing and discussing plans and photographs of cracked sites to internet forums. In this way, Garrett sees many in the urbex community as the archaeologists and advocates of alternative visions of city heritage ignored by, or inaccessible to, most people. Written at a heady pace punctuated by periods of thoughtful reflection, Explore Everything inspires new ways of seeing the city.

Place-hacking the City

Urban adventurer Bradley L Garrett, author of Explore Everything, talks about reclaiming the city through making transgression of space. In conversation with Ed Hollis.

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