Urban exploration as deviant leisure

By Theo Kindynis (University of Greenwich)

Under London, an urban explorer is dwarfed by the massive Lee Tunnel “super sewer” construction, the deepest and largest tunnel ever built under the city. Photo: Theo Kindynis.

Under London, an urban explorer is dwarfed by the massive Lee Tunnel “super sewer” construction, the deepest and largest tunnel ever built under the city. Photo: Theo Kindynis.

Recreational trespass, or as it has become known in recent years, “urban exploration” (often abbreviated as UrbEx or UE) is the practice of illicitly gaining access to forbidden, forgotten or otherwise off-limits places, ‘simply for the joy of doing so’ and / or in order to document them photographically (Garrett, 2013: 21). Such places typically include: derelict industrial sites, closed hospitals or asylums, abandoned military installations, construction sites and cranes, sewer and storm drain networks, subterranean utility tunnels and rapid transit (metro) systems – the list goes on. In the past two decades, and particularly since the mid-2000s, an emergent global subculture has coalesced around this activity, facilitated by the Internet and online discussion forums such as 28 Days Later (taking its name from the 2002 British post-apocalyptic horror film). A small but growing research literature has accompanied the practice’s proliferation (see, for example, Bennett, 2011; Garrett, 2013; Mott and Roberts, 2014). During the past three years, I have conducted autoethnographic research into urban exploration, participating in over a hundred trespass events, and illicitly accessing sites including, but not limited to: many of London’s most notable highrise construction developments; under-construction Crossrail tunnels and stations; the under-construction Lee Tunnel “super sewer”; the under-redevelopment Battersea Power Station; the London Olympic Stadium, and other locations perhaps best not mentioned here. I’ll leave discussions of the ethics of illegal research for another blog post, but suffice to say that Jeff Ferrell and Craig Ancrum have both tackled the subject eloquently.

The motivations behind my own and others’ participation in recreational trespass are various and diverse: the curious desire to experience illicit sights, sound- and smellscapes for oneself; photographic interest; architectural and historical geekery; and one-upmanship, to name a few. Of particular relevance for criminologists however, edgework, “sneaky thrills” (Katz, 1988), and the physical and mental challenges involved in both circumventing physical security measures and evading and outwitting security guards and the police, are all central to the motivation for, and experience of, recreational trespass. Increasingly, recreational trespassers are turning their attention to “infiltrating” active or “live” construction and infrastructure sites, where the stakes – both physical and legal – are higher. Not only do high voltage third rails, overhead cables, unpredictable moving trains and machinery, and deep drops present the risk of serious injury or death; in the UK, trespass in live infrastructure sites – such as the non-public areas of the London Underground and rail network – is also a criminal offence.

Edgework: An urban explorer straddles a building maintenance unit on top of an unfinished luxury residential development in East London. Photo: Theo Kindynis.

Edgework: An urban explorer straddles a building maintenance unit on top of an unfinished luxury residential development in East London. Photo: Theo Kindynis.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the construction of urban exploration as an emergent crime threat is already well underway. An advisory circulated by the US government’s National Counterterrorism Center in November 2012 warned that photographs and video footage posted online by urban explorers ‘could be used by terrorists to remotely identify and surveil potential targets’. The document advises that any ‘suspicious UE activity should be reported to the nearest State and Major Area Fusion Center and to the local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force’. A presentation given the following year by Transport for London’s head of crime prevention, describes urban exploration as an emergent “threat”, likening images and accounts of trespass to ‘readymade ‘hostile reconnaissance’ documents’, and alluding to ‘links with domestic extremist groups’. SO15 – the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command – are also said to ‘consider UrbEx a genuine risk’.

Urban exploration as “resistance”

Cultural criminology in particular has long been criticised for its tendency to romanticise and politicise ex post facto ostensibly “subversive” practices (Matthews, 2010). Ferrell and Sanders have for instance suggested that, ‘criminal pleasures also incorporate forms of political resistance’, and that the activities of groups such as graffiti writers, shoplifters and motorcycle gangs constitute ‘a move against the spatial and cultural controls that limit their lives in contemporary urban environments’ (1995: 314). Time and again, ‘rather than being theorized, different examples of… youthful subcultural practices, and social movements are… simply lauded as forms or repertoires of resistance’ (Hayward and Schuilenburg, 2014: 23). As Hayward and Schuilenburg go on to note, gang membership, night clubbing and video-gaming have all at some point or other been positioned as vaguely “resistant”.

One might be tempted to frame urban exploration – set against a backdrop of constricting urban social control, the erosion of public space, and the disembodied imperatives of late capitalism – in similar terms. Indeed, the idea that urban exploration is somehow an inherently transgressive or subversive practice – one that challenges authoritative representations of the city, and that is even capable of producing radical subjectivities – is already emerging as a dominant narrative within the research literature (see Garrett, 2013; Mould, 2015; cf. Bennett, 2011; Mott and Roberts, 2014). Front and centre of Bradley Garrett’s extensive writing on the subject – the most comprehensive suite of analyses of the practice to date – is the notion that urban exploration is ultimately about ‘taking back rights to the city from which we have been wrongfully restricted through subversions that erode security and threaten clean narratives about what we can and can’t do’ (2013: 24). Garrett goes so far as to suggest that urban exploration, through breaking social codes and drawing up ‘new social templates… from desire and the recognition and transcendence of fear’ is capable of rewriting ‘the underlying code for our entire mental operating system’ (2012: 172, 323).

Most recently, this analysis has been echoed by Oli Mould (2015), for whom recreational trespass is an instance of what he terms ‘urban subversion’. Urban exploration, for Mould, can be read as a means of undermining hegemonic urban control (2015: 114). Much like graffiti writers, for whom street furniture and blank walls are interpreted to have an alternative, unintended utility, Mould suggests that those ‘who infiltrate a building site or go into a sewer are eschewing the capitalistic functionality of those objects and realising an alternative function’ (2015: 128). In doing so, Mould suggests, recreational trespassers express a ‘desire to create a new way of thinking, new histories and alternative subjectivities’ (2015: 128). Such accounts are at times palpably eager to politicise urban exploration. In doing so, they run the risk of uncritically celebrating the practice’s apparent liberatory potential. Largely absent from these analyses, meanwhile, is any discussion of the potentially exclusionary nature of the (predominantly white, male, and able-bodied) practice, critical considerations of urban exploration photography, or the subculture’s commodification (see Bennett, 2011; Mott and Roberts, 2014).

Sneaky thrills: Creeping towards the mouth of a freshly bored Crossrail tunnel. Photo: anonymous participant.

Sneaky thrills: Creeping towards the mouth of a freshly bored Crossrail tunnel. Photo: anonymous participant.

Urban exploration as spectacle and commodity

I want to use the rest of this blog post to interrogate the photographic representation of urban exploration and to consider the practice’s ongoing commodification. It is my contention that the insights of ultra realist criminology can provide a useful corrective to the kind of romantic theoretical flights of fancy mentioned above, and that recreational trespass is perhaps best situated alongside other instances of deviant leisure.

It would appear that a tension is emerging between the embodied experience and spatial practice of urban exploration, and its photographic representation, as competing motivations and focuses of recreational trespass. In recent years, more spectacular and increasingly image-centric varieties of urban exploration such as “rooftopping” and “urban climbing” have developed in line with the proliferation of social media such as FlickR, Tumblr and Instagram. Significantly, within these subcultural offshoots, any architectural, historical or political interests or motivations are largely subordinated to the production and consumption of images. There is an ongoing shift discernible whereby the focus of both the practice itself and its representation has moved away from an emphasis on embodied experience and the forging of furtive yet intimate connections with the city, and instead towards an emphasis on showmanship and bravado, as well as competition for subcultural status and (individual) identity construction.

In an article on a new generation of “outlaw Instagrammers”, Adrian Chen (2014) describes how a new breed of social media-savvy trespassers, well versed in the pseudo-trangsressive visual language of consumer culture, ‘distinguish themselves from… mostly older, more cerebral’ urban explorers by competing to ‘capture the… cityscape from unexpected – often aerial – angles while garnering as many likes and follows as possible in the process’. Importantly, whereas conventional ‘[u]rban explorers take photos mainly to document that they’ve been there’, for this emergent offshoot of the practice, ‘the image is the whole point’ (Chen, 2014). As a result, this nascent visual subculture has developed it’s own brand of contrived urban eye-candy: an aesthetic that combines a problematic fetishisation of both urban decay and high-rise cityscapes; high-contrast, high-saturation digital “filter” presets popularised by the rise of iPhone photography; and meticulously staged captures featuring a range of visually attractive props, such as colourful smoke bombs, steel wool (used to create sparks for “light painting”) and even scantily clad models!

A similar development can be observed in the rise of evermore spectacular forms of urban climbing. From around 2012 onwards, this offshoot of urban exploration gained international attention following the publication online of a series of viral videos produced by climbers such as Russian duo Vadim Makhorov and Vitaliy Raskalov (AKA “On The Roofs”), pseudonymous Ukrainian climber Mustang Wanted and self-proclaimed British “professional adventurer” James Kingston. Such representations typically depicted the protagonists (and they are very much protagonists, taking centre-stage and casting themselves as fearless adventurer-heroes) scaling an under-construction skyscraper or construction crane before inevitably dangling their legs, or even singlehandedly hanging their entire body, without any safety equipment, from some concrete or steel precipice. Consider, for instance, a video by On The Roofs, in which Makhorov and Raskalov ascend the Shanghai Tower – at the time the tallest construction site in the world – before eventually high-fiving each other whilst balancing on top of a crane arm. As of September 2015, this video has amassed over 42 million views on YouTube. In recent months and years, the buildings scaled have gotten taller, the stunts performed more dangerous and the production values slicker, as both urban climbers and rooftoppers have gained more and more media attention and reached ever wider, global audiences

Worth noting here is the extent to such imagery is aligned with dominant modes of spectacular visuality and, relatedly, mediated forms of identity construction. Returning to Chen’s (2014) article, he writes that for the “outlaw Instagrammers”, ‘photography is more performance — or competition — than visual art’. Here I wish to take Chen’s suggestion seriously and propose that the performative project of (individualised) identity construction and intense competition for (subcultural) status are now primary motivations driving the practice of urban exploration towards increasingly spectacular manifestations such as rooftopping and “extreme” urban climbing. One need look no further than the popular rooftopping Instagram hashtag #createyourhype – where the slang “hype” denotes the marketing strategies typically employed by streetwear companies to generate a “buzz” around their products – to see the extent to which emergent variants of recreational trespass have unhesitatingly aligned themselves with a hegemonic culture of spectacular consumption. Viewed against the late capitalist cultural-ideological backdrop of competitive individualism, lifestyle desire and consumer “sensation-gathering” – in which risk-taking, excitement and transgressive “adventure” are valued – the extent to which such practices can be said to constitute any form of “resistance” becomes highly questionable.

Counter-spectacle or just the same old spectacle? Results for the search term “rooftopping” on the website of the Daily Mail.

Counter-spectacle or just the same old spectacle? Results for the search term “rooftopping” on the website of the Daily Mail.

The increasingly conformative character of urban exploration imagery is brought into particularly stark relief when one considers both its co-option by the mass media and, most recently, its appropriation by corporate marketeers. Despite the efforts made by Garrett and others in various publications to connect recreational trespass to issues such as constricting urban security and the privatisation of public space, in the overwhelming majority of media coverage, urban exploration has been positioned within a superficial narrative of masculine “daredevilry”, spectacle and shock value. As images of urban exploration are continuously positioned within a hackneyed one-dimensional narrative of “adventure” and thrill-seeking, any “resistant” potential of recreational trespass is contained, constrained, compartmentalised and co-opted. On the website of the Daily Mail, pictures and videos of urban exploration are framed by links to other “news items”: “Twitter users hit out at Jay Z and Beyonce”; “How to take the perfect selfie every time, by Kim Kardashian”. For Garrett, urban exploration produces an ‘an anti-spectacle’, that runs alongside the “main act” of spectacular late capitalism, ‘weaving a breathtaking double helix’ (2012: 241). Yet once this apparent “anti-spectacle” is viewed in the context of the Mail Online website, the question must be posed: at what point does this double helix collapse in on itself?

Appropriating the aesthetics of urban exploration. Nike 2014 ACG advertising campaign.

Appropriating the aesthetics of urban exploration. Nike 2014 ACG advertising campaign.

Last year, I suggested that it was likely not long ‘until the visual language of urban exploration is hijacked by advertising gurus, emblazoned on billboards, its subversive potential reduced to the exhortation to buy: ‘Nike – Explore Everything’’. Right on cue, Nike soon after launched their ACG (“All Conditions Gear”) Autumn/Winter 2014 advertising campaign. The campaign blatantly appropriates the high-contrast, super-saturated cityscape photography of rooftopping and urban climbing, complete with a hooded figure poised dramatically on a roof edge. Nike’s campaign is unlikely the first and by no means the last effort to cash in on the latest edgy urban marketing opportunity. Moreover, the emergent commodification of urban exploration is not by any means a unidirectional top-down process, foisted by corporate behemoths onto a subculture that desires to remain “underground”. Visitors to urban free climber James Kingston’s website are invited to buy a range of posters depicting Kingston balancing precariously in a variety of places and even t-shirts featuring his own personal “JK” logo. Meanwhile visitors to popular UE forum 28 Days Later are directed to UrbanExploring.co.uk – a “one stop shop” for recreational trespassers which stocks a range of torches, boots, respirator masks and energy bars! In light of these developments, claims that urban exploration imagery issues any sort of ‘challenge to those who would seek to disembody, sanitise and commodify our personal experiences’ appear unconvincing to say the least (ibid: 165).

A further and perhaps the most flagrant and bizarre instance thus far of such sanitisation and commodification is an advert produced by On The Roofs, for camera manufacturer Canon (for whom the duo are now “brand ambassadors”). In the advert, the climbers pretend to sneak into the world’s tallest hotel, the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai – even going so far as to stage hiding from security staff – before ascending a rooftop antenna mast, “[a]rmed with the Canon EOS 60D & EOS 5D Mark II, these City Climbers capture amazing footage and stills”. (At the end of the video, whilst the pair photograph each other hanging from an antenna mast against the backdrop of the Dubai cityscape, the Canon logo is superimposed onto the scene). Ironically, this pretence of transgression is revealed for the charade it is by Canon’s defensive disclaimer that:

In this climb we used trained professionals and safety equipment with the permission of the owners of the property, please do not attempt to copy or recreate anything from the climb.

Resistance or hyper-conformity?

Clearly, recreational trespass and other “urban interventions” in and of themselves do little to challenge the status quo of late capitalist urbanism. Rather ironically, if unsurprisingly, the proliferation and popular awareness of urban exploration has contributed to a tightening of the very spatial controls that recreational trespassers seek to subvert. For instance, people sneaking onto construction sites merely for the sake of doing so is now something that security contractors actively seek to prevent through heightened security measures. Furthermore, there is little that is inherently “transgressive” about recreational trespassers’ thrill-seeking. In fact, within our current cultural conjuncture, such practices might well be more accurately conceived of as hyper-conformist (see Moxon, 2011; Raymen and Smith, 2015). As Thomas Raymen notes in his blog post, creative, imaginative, and risk-taking practices such as parkour and urban exploration possess and exhibit precisely the kind of:

values and characteristics which are valued by the intense neoliberal individualistic and entrepreneurial ethic; evidenced by the rise of speculative risk-taking on the stock and housing markets, the promotion of excitement and hedonism in leisure, and the rise of the adventure and edgework industries.

Thus, the pursuit of excitement through “transgression” is now actively cultivated by consumer culture (Fenwick and Hayward, 2000: 39-40). Steve Hall and colleagues explain that consumerism:

has learnt how to create a dynamic by actively cultivating… cultural processes that create preferred forms of micro-subversion, which in turn can be harnessed to its dynamic economic drive. It is thus… appropriate to say that what passes for subversion is parasitic on capitalism, but perhaps much more appropriate to say that they are symbiotic. (2008: 152-3)

Within this context, criminal and deviant forms of edgework represent nothing more than ‘a particular type of consumer choice. Transgression becomes a leisure activity alongside shopping, going to the cinema and organised sports’ (Fenwick and Hayward, 2000: 39). Furthermore, the desire for transgression ‘can easily be recruited into the insatiable desire for new commodities and commodified experiences’ (Hall et al., 2008: 156). Within a carnivalesque culture of consumption that celebrates a plurality of so-called “lifestyles”, ostensibly “deviant” practices such as skateboarding, graffiti-writing, urban exploration and even shoplifting constitute potential ‘new territories to be colonised’ by marketing and advertising organisations (Daskalaki and Mould, 2013: 13).

It is interesting that Garrett considers the commodification of urban exploration imagery by marketeers and pop-cultural speculators such as Nike to be ‘perverse’ (2012: 315). It seems to me that this “appropriation” of urban exploration may in fact be rather less contradictory than one might otherwise suspect. Perhaps, as Mark Fisher suggests, it is not that recreational trespass and its imagery – having previously possessed a genuinely subversive potential – are now being assimilated by the spectacle, but rather that the desires and aspirations that have driven urban exploration from the outset (thrill-seeking, sensation-gathering, cultivating an edgy “transgressive” persona) are themselves precorporated: pre-emptively formatted and shaped by a late capitalist culture of consumption (Fisher, 2009: 15).

Rhizomes and lines of flight

Perhaps this is an unnecessarily pessimistic conclusion to draw. I do not wish to divest urban exploration of what I see as its genuine potential as a more explicitly progressive and political undertaking. There is value in urban exploration’s ability to cultivate an intimate, imaginative and critical awareness of urban infrastructures, the city’s ongoing physical reconfiguration, and the “right to the city”. I believe that recreational trespass can help foster a more active and participatory urban citizenship; that it has potential beyond corporate-sponsored selfie-stick narcissism or an “edgy” photo op for that latest Nike product.

Instructive here is Daskalaki and Mould’s (2013) conceptualisation of “alternative” urban activities as rhizomes; a concept popularised by Deleuze and Guattari, that describes multiple, fluid, interconnected, open-ended and ambivalent formations. In Daskalaki and Mould’s terminology, urban exploration is now being ‘subculturalized’: the practice has become formalised and ossified. What this means in lay terms is that it is now possible to ‘talk of ‘urbex’ as a ‘thing’’ (Mould, 2015: 114). Importantly, this crystallisation of a formerly nebulous and emergent practice ‘into a coherent and self-regulated activity makes [it] more amenable to profiteering’ (Daskalaki and Mould, 2013: 5). As soon as a practice becomes fixed, definable and intelligible – once it ‘can be labelled and formalized’ – ‘it can be utilized for profit’ (ibid).

However, this process of formalisation and commodification is merely illustrative of one outcome amongst many, as this particular rhizomatic social formation continues to fracture, sprawl and mutate. Even as the more spectacular offshoots of the urban exploration rhizome are commodified, other aspects retain their potential for experimentation, and remain ‘in flux, unpredictable, and capable of inspiring creative forms of engagement’ (ibid: 13). For Deleuze and Guattari, there is always a “line of flight”: a line of escape from any fixed and stable order or identity; of metamorphosis, hybridity, and of transformation. Whether and how recreational trespass will manage to “escape” or exceed the boundaries of its fixed identity as “urban exploration”, to evade further appropriation and commodification, and to form new and hitherto-unseen connections, remains to be seen.

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Bennett, L. (2011) ‘Bunkerology – A case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29(3): 421–34.

Chen, A. (2014) Meet the Outlaw Instagrammers of New York City. 17 August, New York Magazine. Available at: http://www.nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/08/outlaw-instragrammers-of-new-york-city.html (Accessed 12 September 2015).

Daskalaki, M. and Mould, O. (2013) ‘Beyond urban subcultures: Urban subversions as rhizomatic social formation’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(1): 1 – 18.

Fenwick, J. and Hayward, K. (2000) Youth crime, excitement and consumer culture. In: Pickford, J. (ed.) Youth Justice: Theory and Practice. London: Cavendish, pp. 31 – 50.

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism. Winchester: Zero Books.

Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. Cullompton: Willan.

Hayward, K. and Schuilenburg, M. (2014) ‘To resist = to create? Some thoughts on the concept of resistance in cultural criminology’, Tijdschrift over Cultuur & Criminaliteit (4)1: 22 – 36.

Garrett, B. L. (2012) Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Garrett, B. L. (2013) Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. London: Verso.

Katz, J. (1988) The Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions of Doing Evil. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Matthews, R. A. (2010) ‘The construction of ‘So What?’ criminology: A realist analysis’, Crime, Law and Social Change 54(2): 125 – 140.

Mott, C. and Roberts, S. M. (2014) ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: Urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography’, Antipode 46(1): 229 – 245.

Mould, O. (2015) Urban Subversion and the Creative City. London: Routledge.

Moxon, D. (2011) ‘Consumer culture and the 2011 ‘riots’’, Sociological Research Online 16(4)19. Available at: http://www.socresonline.org.uk/16/4/19.html (Accessed 12 September 2015).

Raymen, T. and Smith, O. (2015) ‘What’s deviance got to do with it? Black Friday sales, violence and hyper-conformity’, British Journal of Criminology. [Online first] June 3, doi:10.1093/bjc/azv051


5 thoughts on “Urban exploration as deviant leisure

  1. Reblogged this on lukebennett13 and commented:
    Oooh, this is good! A very thoughtful essay on the ironies of urbex’s ‘double-helix’ relationship with commodified leisure culture. Too many great quotes to pick from, so this one will do: “the performative project of (individualised) identity construction and intense competition for (subcultural) status are now primary motivations driving the practice of urban exploration towards increasingly spectacular manifestations.” Well worth the read…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Urban exploration as deviant leisure | Urban speeches

  3. Pingback: Senate House Revealed – Talking Underground | Samuel Merrill

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