Explore everything: place-hacking

Bradley L Garrett asks what exploring hidden and forbidden spaces can teach us about ourselves

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Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

Over the past four years, I’ve been spending most of my time sneaking into places closed off to the public while the city sleeps. Tagging along with some of the most skilled urban explorers in the world, I’ve visited abandoned buildings and subterranean tunnel systems and climbed skyscrapers and bridges across eight countries. I even descended into the London sewer system. Cracking open a sewer lid releases a blast of hot gases and warm air in the cold of winter. Inside, the sewer lid clangs overhead, plunging you into darkness until a torch clicks on. Underground, the noise of urban traffic is attenuated to a dull hum, drowned out by the sounds of dripping chunks of caught-up toilet paper and opaque water flowing over glistening Victorian brick. For some reason, there’s a unique feeling of comfort, which is odd, given that you’re breaching urban security and if it were to rain suddenly you’re likely to die, swept away in a flood of soap and sewage.

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Legacy Tower, Chicago, Illinois. "We infiltrated Legacy Tower on a whim, just walked on a sunny summer day and took the lift right the the top. We stayed for sunset and it was one of the most beautiful I've ever seen." Photo courtesy of Bradley L Garrett

Some places are more difficult to get into than sewers. Last year, back home in California, we found out about a massive boneyard of hundreds of “retired” planes, beautifully preserved in the dry Mojave desert air, 100 miles from Los Angeles. But the boneyard is connected to an active military base, so we needed creative solutions for entry or would be more likely to end up in a United States military prison than a 747 jumbo jet. We arrived at 2am, and as we neared the gate security were doing their patrol. We saw the truck’s headlights and dove behind some knee-high sage bushes. After they passed, we ran fast, threw towels over a barbed-wire fence and clambered over. Inside, we ran for the first plane we could see, a massive British Airways 747. We popped the hatch behind the landing gear and climbed in. Inside, it was sticky and hot, and intact. 
The windows were blacked out but we sat at the controls anyway, wrenching back the flight stick. Outside there were planes of all sorts – Learjets, FedEx delivery planes, little short-flight hoppers and massive military cargo aircraft. 
It was like a vast playground and led to a long night of adventure. Experiences in these hidden spaces are sometimes terrifying, but always liberating. 
I’ve realised that they’re something that can’t be purchased – experiences like these have to be found and created.

We arrived at 2am, and as we neared the gate security were doing their patrol. We saw the truck’s headlights and dove behind some knee-high sage bushes. After they passed, we ran fast, threw towels over a barbed-wire fence and clambered over

The problem is that many of our relationships to places are coded for us these days, often through the assertion of a singular economic agenda. I want to undermine those narratives by creating unsanctioned, unexpected new relationships to places. Adventures like these, which reconfigure those associations, can be shocking, beautiful, confusing and bizarre, but ultimately bear a particularly rare authenticity in an increasingly Orwellian world in which our actions are channelled, regulated, surveilled and controlled. The spaces explorers find and share are recreated through a profoundly social process, seeded from a visceral right to define places on 
our own terms.

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Lightning strikes Lake Michigan in the background, seen from atop the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Chicago, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Bradley L Garrett

As a geographer, I think attentiveness to time and space is evident in everything urban explorers do, from the appreciation of derelict remains to the awareness of the fact that every adventure we undertake, be it an exploration of a nuclear bunker or spending the summer in a squat, 
is temporary. Photographing these places is an attempt to relay those fleeting moments, to create a visual mark of this time and place with reference to what came before, what will come after and how it is all connected through us.

Bradley L Garrett's book Explore Everything: Place-Hacking The City is published by Verso Books and is available now

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