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Put on Your Wellies and Don’t Look Down

 

“But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, — when fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds.” — Henry David Thoreau

Explore_Everything_CMYK_300dpiLater this year I am planning a visit to a part of India whose local name, Farrakiya, is derived from the Urdu word for “separate.” Obscured from Mughal surveyors by a palisade of dense forests, swampland, and the violent Kosi river, the region now known as Khagaria was simply written off as impenetrable when the Emperor Akbar’s mapmakers set the region’s geography to paper five centuries ago. Farrakiya/Khagaria was just one of an uncountable number of officially empty quarters that then covered the earth.

Today, it can seem that every inch of the world labors under at least one or another all-seeing eye, 24/7 and 365. Google Earth Priuses catch men urinating on their neighbors’ lawns. Geostationary satellites measure the density of glaciers and the flow of underground streams. Khagaria’s still a rough place but, when the river behaves, a dozen trains stop there each day. If everything is known, then what’s left to explore, and why?

Bradley Garrett sets out to answer both those questions in “Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City.” Embedding himself in the London Consolidation Crew, an urban exploration collective, Garrett trespasses landscapes both iconic and hidden in cities across the United States and Europe. His sometimes-enigmatic photos of power stations, air bases, sewers, and subway tunnels are testimony to the permeability of most physical fences, and to the strength of the mental ones that keep the rest of us from exploring our immediate worlds.

This brand of trespass isn’t for the faint of heart: “Explore Everything” opens with Garrett being detained at a British airport by police who want him to inform on the London Consolidation Crew. As is usually the case, those who reveal failures of security must face the wrath of those responsible for those same penetrable systems. There are 1.85 million security cameras in Britain, one for every 32 people, but somehow a small band of inquisitive explorers made it to the top of the Shard skyscraper, London’s tallest, and inside the Machine Age gorgeousness of the Battersea Power Station. In the end, police did take down the London Consolidation Crew, but not before they visited and documented each of the London Underground’s 14 disused “ghost” subway stations.

Not everyone acts on the urge to explore, but surely everyone has it. Whether it’s a skyscraper guarded by a single sleeping watchman, an old windbent barn, or an abandoned factory, our over-watched world is still full of unexamined delights. Did you know there’s a mothballed Soviet submarine moored somewhere on the Thames River? Garrett learned of it and got inside. (He and his companion nearly were swept away in the process, and one of them was injured by a falling hatch.)

Garrett says the mission of these place-hackers is to “exploit fractures in the architecture of the city in an effort to find deeper meaning in the spaces we pass through every day.” That’s the academic in him talking (the academic talks a lot). Bear with the professor. Translated, that statement would read, “We find and explore the dangerous and the cool.”

Explore Everything: Place‑Hacking the City by Bradley L Garrett is published by Verso.