Profound Moments

The past three weeks have been marked by a few very important moments.

Beginning over a month ago, I have been challenging myself to draw a parti (defined here) of as many of my classmates designs – and ideas – as possible. Without going into too much detail, this has really trained my mind to reduce things to their ‘big idea’. It kind of goes like, “okay, so it’s really like this [insert drawing here].

So I’ve started having these moments where I’m reading something, usually for a long time, and then an illustration is provided that very clearly explains everything with a few simple lines. Take this for instance: I’m reading a book, and the idea of Euclidian geometry comes up. I’m not aware what it means, and so I do some research and find this blog entitled “Non-Euclidean Geometry, or Even Cthulhu Has an Angle“.

So I’m reading, and reading, and reading, and then I see this diagram:

As simple as that, it’s very clear what it means.

Now I’m not saying that this is a great example. I’m not even saying that this type of learning works for everyone.

However, as someone with an undergraduate in Anthropology and Folklore, I’m trained to write and understand writing. So for me, these past weeks have really opened my eyes to the discipline of architecture.

The moment you realize that a single drawing can literally represent 1000 words. A profound moment in architecture school indeed!

Stay Creative,
– Matt

Exploring Obscure Places – Part 1 of 5

This is the first in a series of five on Urban Exploring. In this I detail my introduction and context.

Introduction

Exploring a restricted, forgotten or condemned space is a peculiar hobby. While there is substantial material returned on

A fellow Urban Explorer taking photographs (Pete).

A fellow Urban Explorer taking photographs (Pete).

the Internet with the query ‘urban exploring’, it remains informal. Scholarly research and writing is nearly non-existent; there are only a handful of anthropological studies, largely constructed by insiders.

The intent of an explorer can vary, but there are some general categories. There are those who explore out of nostalgia (attempting to re-live the space as it may have been); those who break boundaries and explore outside what society deems as acceptable space; and on an entirely non-philosophical level, there are those who like the thrill (‘place hacking’). Before I began conducting interviews, I thought long and hard about how to address each issue and document some of the formalities and informalities of this strange sub-culture.

Context

I must first confess that I too have been interested in exploring for many years, the last three of which have been represented though photographs I take. I have never really known what to think of this sub-culture myself, and have been searching for a reason to explore these ideas in greater depth.

I chose transgression as a title because of its polysemic qualities. In the simplest form, it addresses that urban explorers are sometimes in fact physically breaking the law. On another level, it explains that explorers break social boundaries and limits, transgressing them. Finally, in documenting these explorations, the result is often shocking to the senses: ‘transgressive art’.

That’s all for today. Stay tuned!

Best,

– Matt

Exploring Obscure Places – Part 2 of 5

The second in a series of five on Urban Exploring. In this I explore aesthetics and spatiality.

Aesthetics and Spatiality

The concept of aesthetics is extraordinarily complex, highly debated and entirely relative. It would be ridiculous to try and tackle a topic so huge in a paper so short, but I do feel that it needs addressing before I actually get into in investigation.

In the case of most urban explorers, the definition of ‘beauty’ clearly draws outside the lines of the social norm. To understand the discourse of beauty in decay, it is import to understand that aesthetics are highly subjective. When we look at a building, a seemingly endless number of factors need to be taken into account. Location and perspective are obviously important, but we must also take into account our own experiences, age, where and when we grew up, and so on. The relationship someone shares with a building is not only physical, but also relative in terms of personal experience. Henry Glassie represents this well in Vernacular Architecture:

“All architects are born into architectural environments that condition their notions of beauty and bodily comfort and social propriety. Before they have been burdened with knowledge about architecture, their eyes have seen, their fingers have touched, their minds have inquired into the wholeness of their scenes. They have begun collecting scraps of experience without regard to the segregation of facts by logical class. Released from the hug of pleasure and nurture, they have toddled into space, learning to dwell, to feel at home. Those first acts of occupation deposit a core connection in the memory” (2000, 17).

St. John's Adventist Academy - Click for Larger View

St. John's Adventist Academy - Click for Larger View

The idea of space, called spatiality, is complex to explain but intuitive as an experience. Leland Roth suggests, “the reality of architecture lay not in the solid elements that seem to make it, but rather the reality of a room was to be found in the space enclosed by the roof and walls, not in the roof and walls themselves” (1993, 45). With this, he continues to break down space into numerous categories: physical space, perceptual space, conceptual space and behavioural space. For an urban explorer, the most important is “behavioural space, or the space we can actually move through and use” (Roth 1993, 45).

Behavioural space can further be broken down. In it, we can examine positive and negative space, directional and non-directional space, and public versus private space. In a normal building, we usually pass through negative space (a lobby, porch, etc) and tend to dwell in positive space. Once inside, we can be free to move around (non-directional space), or “in the Gothic cathedral the emphatic axis directs movement towards the single focus – the altar” [directional space] (Roth 1993, 51). Urban exploring meshes all of these ideas instead of suggesting strict dichotomies like Roth suggests.

An abandoned space instead functions on a continuum, up for debate if it is public or private. It can also be directional or non-directional depending on the level of decay. For instance, the loss of dividing walls and furniture can be disorientating. It can change how an explorer moves about the space, and shift its interpretation. The same goes for the debate of public versus private space: explorers often compare the level of difficulty involved in ‘getting in to a building’ to its legality.

Lastly, it is important to explore perspective. Most urban explorers choose to document with photography, and this can range from rudimentary snapshots to photography as an art. While the result can be moody, scary, sad, happy, inspiring and interesting, it is important to note its compression into a two dimensional object. Hazel Conway and Rowan Roenisch explain, “no photograph, film or video can reproduce the sense of form, space, light and shade, solidity and weight that is gained

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next part!

– Matt

Exploring Obscure Places – Part 3 of 5

The Informants

Pete Löfstedt was the only informant of a potential six I was actually able to get a consented formal interview from. This was highly disappointing as I wanted to represent a balanced demographic. I spent countless days begging and pleading with others to consent and participate over the course of this term, but to no avail. The most disappointing informant of all was the one and only female I had lined up to speak with. I spent hours and hours communicating with her setting up interviews that she would fail to attend. This does effectively crush my idea of studying gender with first hand sources.

In order to get a balanced result, I decided to use two short films (both in bibliography). Between Pete and the videos, I fill in the gaps and expand with both a book entitled Access All Areas: A Users Guide to the Art of Urban Exploring and a bricolage of my own personal knowledge. The data is broken down into categories for clarity.

It was interesting interviewing Pete because he had his own interpretations and had not researched in depth about the subject. In fact, until the actual point of interview Pete had not thought about his experiences from an academic perspective. With this, his answers were very organic. I started by asking Pete to define urban exploring in two different ways to start the conversation, and then get straight into the full interview.

Pete underground exploring a pitch black drain hole (lit by flash). Click for larger.

Pete underground exploring a pitch black drain hole (lit by flash). Click for larger.

I. Defining Urban Exploring

In the past, urban exploring material was transmitted through informal culture to other explorers. Perhaps the largest breakthrough in exploring research, while not considered academic in the traditional sense, was a book published by a life-long explorer Jeff Chapman.  Jeff was extremely active in the exploring world, and was especially focused on rights and procedures of an explorer. Unfortunately he died months after his book was published in December 2004, and it was re-released as an official publication in 2005. Chapman often went by the (now) massively popular alias ‘Ninjalicious’, and his book reflects this. In conducting any form of exploration, this is the handbook and manual, so it was appropriate to use this in my study.

Chapman was clever and articulated his thoughts quite well, and he often talks of the “social engineering” aspect of exploring (Chapman 2005, 29). With this, it seemed only fair to include his definition of urban exploring,

“[An] interior tourism that allows the curious-minded to discover a world of behind-the-scenes sights like forgotten subbasements, engine rooms, rooftops, abandoned mineshafts, secret tunnels, abandoned factories and other places not designed for public usage. Urban exploration is a thrilling, mind-expanding hobby that encourages our natural instincts to explore and play in our own environment” (Chapman 2005, 5).

This answer is less organic and animated than Pete’s, however. While it holds great value, it lacks the spontaneity involved in urban exploring. Pete takes my question quite literal when I ask him to define the subject, and addresses the issues of illegality head on, “I would say that it’s like breaking and entering, but with rules. And… it’s just going into places where you wouldn’t ordinarily see or even particularly think of. Places you wouldn’t, or most people wouldn’t really want to be …just to see it before it’s gone. Or, just to see the way things have degraded since they fell out of use” (2010).

Next, I asked Pete to define it again, but this time to an outsider (I used his grandmother as an example). His response, “Probably would just avoid explaining it… I think I would present it a little differently… going to a place to document it” (2010). After some fumbling with words, Pete finally settled on, “you’re basically preserving something through documentation and kind of going in there and doing the dirty work yourself so other people can see” (2010).

II. Preparing and Equipping

Pete explained his attire and methodology hinged on the location he was planning on visiting. “If you are going out somewhere in the countryside you probably don’t need to do it at nighttime because there is no security of any type… you don’t have anything to hide from. Depending on how far you are going, I mean yeah you make it a day-trip. If it’s someplace you can stay for a day without getting in any trouble… and you are not going to run out of things to look at. I would say in the daytime you don’t even have to worry how you are dressed as much because you just look like a casual walker, or hiker, or something like that. But at night, you kinda gotta change your attire a little… you are going to want to throw in a little more black. When you are downtown and there is a lot of people around you would definitely want to do it at night, and, like, the later the better” (2010).

“Things to take with you, I’d say, maybe a crowbar [laughter], I don’t know it depends – only for gentle nudging, not for actual forceful breaking. …I like gloves because there is a lot of, you know, rusted metal around in these places and just things you do not want to touch. …If you are going into a building that’s been abandoned for a long time there is a lot stuff inside of it that’s probably got some nasty smells going on so you’re going to want to have, probably, a mask of some type – just to keep you from getting asbestos poisoning or lung damage from mould, or whatever the hell else happens to be in there” (Pete 2010).

Inside a typical abandoned home. Click for larger.

Inside a typical abandoned home. Click for larger.

III. The Exploration

Being an explorer myself, I tried to find a way to distance myself from the interview and this research. I decided to not ask the question of how an exploration unfolds, but instead asked what makes for a ‘good’ exploration. Pete responded,something that’s not too hard to get into, and something that’s got like, a lot of floors that are not full of holes, maybe – something that’s got like a lot of old artefacts. [A] snapshot of in time kind of thing, where there is, you know, everything that people were using every day and it’s just suddenly abandoned for some reason. I like places that look like everybody just got up and left, immediately, and didn’t really take anything with them” (2010).

Next I asked Pete about active buildings versus abandonments. “I’m not very daring with the active buildings… I don’t really like altercations with security personnel and especially not the police. …I find abandonments more interesting, just because people leave like little pieces of their lives behind and you can kinda have a peek in and try and figure like out what someone was like, or… what they were doing when they left got up and left” (Pete 2010).

Exploring Obscure Places – Part 4 of 5

    IV. Why Explore?

There was never a point when I asked Pete the question of ‘why’ he participated in urban exploring. Instead, he answered the question himself when I asked him about documenting his explorations. Pete trails into asking his own questions and answering them: “…Whenever I tell someone I’m going off to one of these places they are always like, well are you gunna go, what are you doing there? …Why do you want to go to some old burnout building where you gottta wear a mask and gloves and everything’s grimy and dirty and you come back smelling like bonfire. …You kinda gotta show these people what it is that appeals to you about doing it… and to raise and awareness, just, create an understanding of – I don’t know if you can even create that understanding but – to give people an idea of what you went into these places for” (2010).

Pete also talked a little of his childhood and how he had a large property he liked to explore. He also mentioned that it was forested, and so this way he could imagine things. With this in mind, the next question I had was if he felt the ‘exploring fever’ stuck with you for life or not. He responded, “I think you either want to do it, or you don’t. Some people are just like content sitting in their house and playing video games, or like watching t.v. or something, but… I personally get extremely bored if I’m not constantly seeing something new to me. Any time I go exploring, I feel like it gives my – it just like fuels my brain [and] it’s like fuel for ideas, or something, to just be having this new, constant, I dunno, input. I guess that stems from when I was a little kid” (2010).

What was interesting about this section of questioning was Pete learning and discovering himself, questioning his identity, and choosing to make and answer his own questions.

A particularly ransacked home. Looters attacked a few weeks prior.

A particularly ransacked home. Looters attacked a few weeks prior.

V. Ethics, Values and Illegalities

“The broader urban exploration community has wisely adopted the Sierra Club’s motto of “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” (Chapman 2005, 20). During my interview with Pete he did cite these lines, but it was not until I actually asked him for a code of ethics he prescribed to. “The central kind of theme I have always been explained is the ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints, break only silence’ – kind of cheesy slogan. …Look, I don’t want to break anything and I don’t want to, like, remove anything as temping as it is sometimes [laughter]. …You want people, anyone else, to be able to see the same thing you did… you try and leave the environment as undisturbed as you can” (Pete 2010).

What about damage to the building, graffiti, and leaving and taking objects was my next question. “I don’t like that… I mean, I don’t know. Sometimes maybe that’s what adds to the character of a place that you’re exploring. Like, you know, you go into some building and there will be like – it’s all dark and kinda scary and there is like weird graffiti on the walls and stuff… I don’t create that but I find it interesting. That’s not part of the process for me. I just want to go in and look at stuff; I don’t want to damage it further.

After documenting a trip, many explorers share their photos; some are careful to divulge any information at all, while others broadcast publicly. I was curious how Pete felt about this, especially since he sometimes uses geo-tagging, which is an Internet GPS system giving exact locations.  “It’s interesting for people to have to have access to this information, but yeah, it could in the end cause a lot of issues for people who want to go into these places and just like, look around instead of going somewhere and everything has been, you know, swiped from the place….” (Pete 2010).

VI. Identity and Aliases

One of the most common means of communication for urban explorers to connect and share their findings is the Internet. Given this, combined with the possible illegal actions of the hobby, most explorers take an alias or identity. For instance, Pete often posts under the name ‘ffresh’ on the Internet. I asked him where this came from and to explain it a little. “I have all these nicknames on the internet that are just like evolutions, like, permutations of things that I used when I was a little kid to identify myself. …I don’t know, I think that for me it’s just mostly because it’s a name that I can use on the Internet that I know for some reason is never taken on any website” (Pete 2010).

Some of the problems with an alias then, are the issues of credibility. It seems that explorers are usually happy with just their alter ego names, wanting to give back to the community or content with self-fulfillment. Pete was rather clear, “I don’t really care, cause I’m never – like, I don’t see myself ever getting famous from it. …As long as my friends and the people I’m showing it to know it was me” (Pete 2010). Clearly for Pete, he is not concerned with attaining fame or gaining status in the urban exploring world.

 

The outside of a local Rubber Factory. Now abandoned.
The outside of a local Rubber Factory. Now abandoned.

That’s all for now!
Best,

– Matt

Exploring Obscure Places – Part 5 of 5 (and references)

Urban Exploring, Sub-culture and the Internet

The most peculiar aspect of Urban Exploring is that it has existed for some time, but only emerged as ‘something’ with the invention of the Internet. Interestingly enough, the Internet did not function as the main interest of this group of people, but merely a tool which everyone discovered each other. With the explosion of the Internet, there was also the explosion of many terminologies as to what this sub-culture could be called (refer to Venn-diagram in appendix page 20).

As I stated in my introduction, studies in Urban Exploring are far and few. Given this, I was forced to be resourceful and draw upon related academic works. It quickly became visible that easy parallels to graffiti sub-culture could be drawn. Much like exploring, identity was a central theme. With exploring, identity was something intangible, but in graffiti culture it is physical and tangible. In order to draw direct ties, a little more stretching was needed: I decided to use urban exploring photographs as something tangible to compare to ‘tagging’ (a graffiti mural).

 

Abandoned building with two perpendicular wings. Bell Island, Newfoundland.

Abandoned building with two perpendicular wings. Bell Island, Newfoundland.

Both of these groups function as subcultures, highly fuelled and members seek to attain higher statuses within their peer group. “There’s no financial gain, I suppose getting the respect of total strangers is payment enough really” (Macdonald 2001, 65). On top of this, they frequently inter-mingle: graffiti present in abandoned locations for example. In present day, sharing graffiti has now also reached the Internet and photographing that too can be equally challenging as a ruin. Both include issues of light, space, and mood, and feature rebellion as one of the main components of its members.

Conclusion

Urban Exploring is just a hobby [at the end of the day]. It is strange, and it is most certainly not for everyone. However, it is immensely interesting, and a goldmine of potential research. While I did my best to put forth as much as I could with a time constraint and as much information as available, there could be so much more.

If I had more time, I could examine the pursuit of identity, presentation of self, gender and gender roles, the body in terms of exploring, and more. But I didn’t, and I had to target something in order to meet my timeline. Within the context of this paper, I do feel I represented the sub-culture correctly and provided a springboard for future investigations. In this urban industrialized world it is most important we break away from accepting our surrounding and assess them closer and in more depth. We do not need to be afraid to physically explore the past, because in turn we can discover ourselves along the way.

 

Abandoned House in Ferryland, Newfoundland. Click for Larger.

Abandoned House in Ferryland, Newfoundland. Click for Larger.

References

Chapman , Jeff ‘Ninjalicious’. 2005. Access All Areas: A Users Guide to the Art of Urban Exploring. Toronto : Infilpress.

Conway, Hazel and Rowan Roenisch. 2005. Understanding: An Introduction to Architecture and Architectural History. New York: Routledge.

Löfstedt, Pete. 2010. Interview by Matt Reynolds. November 9th. Digital recording for Newfoundland Folklore. St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.

Macdonald, Nancy. 2001. The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity and Identity in London and New York. New York: Palgrave.

Roth, Leland M. 1993. Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning. New York, NY: Icon Editions.

Bibliography

Bennett, Andy and Keith Kahn-Harris. 2004. After Subculture: Critical Studies in Contemporary Youth Culture. New York: Palgrave.

Garrett, Bradley. L. 2010. “Urban Explorers: Quests for Myth, Mystery and Meaning”. Geography Compass. 4, no. 10: 1448-1461. [accessed Nov 16, 2010].

Garrett, Bradley L. 2009. “Urban Explorers: Quests for Myth, Mystery and Meaning”. Geography Compass Journal. Video article. http://www.vimeo.com/5366045 [accessed Nov 12, 2010].

Gilbert, Melody. 2007. Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness. DVD. Frozen Feet Films.

Trigg, Dylan. 2006. The Aesthetics of Decay. New York: Peter Land Publishing Inc.

Zevi, Bruno. 1974. Architecture As Space: How to Look at Architecture. New York: Horizon Press.