If you’re the kind of person who actually relishes having to use the outside loo round your gran’s, visiting the cellar to sort out the fusebox or hanging off the Shanghai Tower, you could be a potential urbexer.  Or you might be a bad sort we’d like to lock away. No-one’s really decided yet, and that’s probably one of the most exciting things about this emergent cross between art form, sport and being a ghost.

Urban exploration is exploring abandoned, forbidden or extraordinary spaces for fun, and offers the kind of slightly illicit feels you might experience the first time you grinded a rail, sprayed a tag on a wall or chipped a games console. Like them, urbex is tinged with naughtiness, despite its ‘take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints’ tenet. But it’s also a fair bit more mysterious than some of the pursuits it’s compared to. This is a sport based on the aesthetic of ruin porn video game epic The Last of Us and the emotions of Tarkovsky’s Stalker – an idea of abandoned buildings as environmental prompts to access the more watery bits of your head. And when I met ethnographic urbexer and author of Explore Everything: Place Hacking The City, Bradley Garrett following his talk at Off The Shelf Festival of Words, we waded through this, ectoplasmic ghosts, reappropriating space and more. Can we borrow your galoshes?

There’s a quote you use in your book from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “But what a strange geography lesson I was given!” Travel writer Robert McFarlane references J.G. Ballard and Tarkovsky’s film Stalker in his piece on you…
[hushed] Stalker’s amazing.

…and I was intrigued by these fictional references to a real world phenomenon. How much is urbex influenced by fiction?
The thing with fiction is there’s a never-ending grasping as you’re trying to reach towards fulfilling the idea of the myth. I think when you’re going into the sewers you can treat it just as a physical space, and think you’re going to appreciate the architecture and the engineering that’s gone into that space. But equally we’re chasing [London sewer network engineer, Joseph] Bazalgette’s ghost. We expect to encounter the man because it’s his blood running through the sewers. He poured his whole life into this space and now everyone’s forgotten him. He’s become this ghost floating around.

The ‘take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints’ tenet seems to describe your activity as a kind of haunting, but relocated to the kind of environments you wouldn’t normally associate with ghosts.
When you go into a place you know no-one has been in for a long time, find a door with a padlock on it and behind that a storeroom that’s been abandoned since 1946, it very much feels as if something is escaping from that. But what you’re encountering is your expectation of what you’re going to find in that place. So you’re confronting yourself in a way you don’t really have an opportunity to do in everyday life.

One thing photography does is it gives you a reason to hang out. When there’s a group of three or four of you, the same thing that compels you to keep moving in everyday life starts to compel you to keep moving in that space too. The camera’s useful because it allows you to hang out in the room for a couple of minutes, to just stand in the room. It gives you an excuse to be present.

You spoke about how urbex roots you in reality earlier. But one of the things that got me into urbex was the opportunity to go around abandoned, overgrown places which feel as if they could exist in Stalker or a J. G. Ballard novel. So it’s almost the opposite. It’s interesting how something like urban exploration can both provide an anchor to reality while also setting you adrift…
What’s great also though is that because there are no guides and no interpreters, you don’t actually know what you’re encountering. So it’s this process of self discovery, but also it’s a process of untangling a jumble of materiality and history that is utterly confusing. Every once in a while you do have this amazing moment where you literally open a cabinet and there’s a key. And you realise this key goes to something in the building you’re stood in. Then you’re like, ‘Forget the camera. For the next eight hours we’re gonna figure out what this key does.’ And the moment when it opens something, even if it goes to nothing – it feels like an amazing discovery.

In the same way skateparks normalise skating, will we wind up with urbex parks around our cities?
The danger we encounter – and I was a skateboarder for seven years and owned a skateboard shop in California – is that the authorities only have to look the other way till the skate park is built. Once it’s there they have justification for shutting down anything outside its confines. The danger is we start to take these experiences we’re all seeking – whether its graffiti or skateboarding or parkour, urban exploration or whatever – and say that these things can happen inside this box. The point isn’t to learn tricks. The point is to reappropriate space in your image, to turn space into something that for you is personal. It’s about creating a sense of space. And what we’re encountering now in cities all over the world is a complete inability to make a sense of place.

As Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” Essentially, what’s going to happen if enough of us ignore the ‘No Trespassing’ signs is they will have no force anymore.

But isn’t there a problem with this in that it’s normalising your behaviour? Because part of the appeal is its strangeness. When you crouch down, terrified someone’s coming, your senses are all working furiously because there’s defence mechanisms going on.
Well, all that happens is that the line gets moved. What happens in France is the police don’t care that you’re going in a manhole so people build an underground cinema. They take a jackhammer to a wall and pull electricity from the metro system.

The danger though is the danger of co-option. Skateboarding has become big business. It’s been turned into just another arm of corporate capitalism.

I imagine you live in eternal fear of seeing urbex appear in an ad for chewing gum.
It’s already happening. There’s been a Converse shoe ad come out where they’re going in a manhole in Paris. Palladium boots have done quite a few things. Red Bull have done a few things. It’s happening right now, and my book’s not helping. The real challenge for artists today is never suppression of art – it’s the extreme flexibility of global capitalism, which will absorb any attempt to strike out in a creative direction. That’s the real danger we’re experiencing.

But blaming the system is stupid and pointless. What we have to do is, if it gets co-opted, we switch it up. We have to be the ones who are flexible, who will keep pushing those walls for glitches. They can keep patching all they want. They can make a new game to distract you. You have to carry on, regardless of the circumstances.

bradleygarrett.com
@tiemachine

Extended audio version of this interview:

Rob Barker