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Blog: The Right to the City: Urban Exploration

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As promised, I am coming back from Den Haag with a report on Todaysart, a media art festival that animated several cultural venues in town and also injected some life in other normally depressing locations (starting with the otherwise dull Spuiplein, whose ugly buildings this time enclosed a vibrant meta-city, with spectacular light installations and lots of pop-up architecture). I had the chance to enjoy interesting talks, inspiring shows and live performances, but art treats were not the main reason why I went to Den Haag.

Last week we expanded on the notion of the “Right to Know”, discussing the social need for culture and art. This time we’re stretching it in another direction, touching the typically-Situationist issue of the right to the city. Bridging Guy Debord’s legacy together with subcultures like skateboarding, graffiti, and parkour, the practice of urban exploration has been generating a growing worldwide community. Built on collective meetings in underground locations and on an enthusiastic and dedicated blogosphere, the phenomenon is spreading and developing its geography and vocabulary.

In this year’s edition of Todaysart, urban exploration was the subject of a Q&A with scholar, filmmaker, and urban explorer Bradley L. Garrett. A former Californian skater and now a PhD student in London, Garrett has recently been working on a series of short documentaries titled Crack the Surface, the first of which can be seen below. The movie follows a group of urban explorers in their expeditions, alternating images of dark tunnels and construction cranes with short interviews featuring some of Garrett’s fellow European explorers. After the screening, Garrett and a fellow explorer from SilentUK.com answered a few questions. Read a sparse summary of the Q&A below, mixed with some of my own considerations.

Compared to skate or graffiti videos, the images and the risks associated to them might not seem very hardcore, but Garrett argues that – by visiting and documenting uncharted or forbidden areas – urban exploration is more political. Even if they’re not sneaking out any secret files, explorers do get arrested and sometimes face consequences that vary depending on the country. In some places the authorities have been restricting the practice, in others the local exploring community has even been able to dig its own tunnels.

Whatever the intentions of those practicing it, urban exploration is more or less directly connected to social phenomena that affect cities on a global scale. First of all, it can be seen as a response to the surveillance society that we live in, proving the so-called security – that, especially after 9/11, has become a priority on all agendas – is actually an illusion. Also, the increasing abundance of abandoned or decaying spaces, due to the economic crisis, has put explorers in front of an embarrassing paradox: on one hand they have more places to visit, on the other they have to face the fact that, while they’re taking pictures of decaying buildings with an expensive camera, there are people that actually have to live there.

Social implications aside, urban exploration is mostly a way to establish a stronger connection to a city, meet interesting people in unusual places, and feel a rush of adrenaline. As Garrett and his fellow explorer made pretty clear at the talk, there is no harm done and the perks (adventures, photos, friends) outnumber the risks by far. To get a feel of what they do, the best it to take a peek at their websites (silentuk.com and placehacking.co.uk, to begin with) and then follow the links to the other explorers. You can also find a teaser for the next Crack the Surface movie, in case you haven’t been inspired to grab a flashlight and dive into the underground just yet.

Crack The Surface – Episode I from SilentUK on Vimeo.