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Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City Hardcover – October 8, 2013
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*Starred Review* “Dr. Garrett?” asked the British police officer who boarded the plane as soon as it landed at Heathrow. The American-expat Oxford researcher was about to be arrested for his trespassing exploits. He meant no harm. Quite the opposite. Garrett and his fellow urban explorers celebrate forgotten places and protest limits on access. In this unique and electrifying travelogue, Garrett, a scholar with a background in anthropology and archeology, thoughtfully explicates their dangerous, exhilarating, and illegal explorations. We picture hackers as loners slouched anemically in the sickly light of a computer screen, but Garrett and his fellow travelers are as fit, agile, and fearless as ninja. Sharing an ethos with street artists, their mission 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.” Garrett recounts death-defying adventures in the UK, Europe, and the U.S. and shares his astonishingly dramatic photographs. Not only do place-hackers explore and document such urban ruins as abandoned factories, hospitals, and power stations; they also breach security systems to stand on the roofs of skyscrapers and tramp through sewer and subway systems. Each journey involves deep research, high risk, and profound intent. And wherever they go, they leave a sticker that reads, “Explore everything.” --Donna Seaman
A GUARDIAN BOOK OF THE YEAR
“Urban exploration is... a way of renegotiating reality, transforming the moment, turning the city into a video game. Except that, in this game, you only have one life.”—Evening Standard
"A unique and electrifying travelogue … Garrett and his fellow travelers are as fit, agile and fearless as ninja."—Booklist, Starred Review
“For Garrett, physical exploration is merely the outward manifestation of a deeper philosophical inquiry. The theoretical DNA of much of his work traces back to the concept of 'psychogeography.'"—GQ
“An absorbing read … Recommended for travel and modern history readers."—Library Journal
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At a high level, the book describes the author's experience as an ethnographer doing research on the urban exploration (UE) community as well as being its very active participant. The narrative is a combination of Garrett's various adventures and deep reflections on the general philosophy of UE.
From his adventures I found these the most interesting:
1.Descriptions of social dynamics and politics of various UE groups that compete and cooperate with each other
2.Exploration of the abandoned and disused London Tube stations
3.Adventure in discovery and investigation of the London Mail Rail system
4.Garrett's time spent with UE group in Minnesota, helping chart various underground tunnels underneath the Twin Cities
While Garrett's various UE adventures are certainly interesting in it of themselves, I think the key strength of the book lays in his healthy dose of reflection, introspection, and philosophizing that is intertwined into every exploit. Here, he deeply delves into numerous issues:
1.UE ethics - what does it mean to leave no trace behind? how forceful to be when entering a place? how to approach abandoned and derelict places when they are used by the indigent and the homeless for shelter
2.The ethos of UE - the difference between a controlled "museum like" interaction with history and present environment vs. a non-scripted, open ended, and non-linear approach of UE. The freedom to be able to take personal risks without being smothered by an overly safety conscious society. Being able to truly connect and build a relationship with one's city of residence through the exploration of all the spaces and environments that it has to offer.
3.The problems of publicizing one's UE exploits - on the one hand wanting to share the fascinating pictures of the unknown and the forgotten places with the world, on the other hand drawing the attention of the authorities to the whole UE community and making it more difficult for other explorers to access these sites
4.Describing the culture of UE to the lay audience without homogenizing a very diverse set of individuals, and becoming an unwanted spokesperson for the entire community
Since I am not an urban explorer, my sense prior to reading this book was that UE was akin to self directed, amateur archeology. Something that is driven by trying to reconstruct the past lives and interacting with the histories of the abandoned and derelict places in an unconstrained fashion. While that may be partially true for some urban explorers, this book really expanded this view for me. It showed, that for a lot of the people in the UE community, it's really about, as the title implies, the challenge of conquering the environment and solving puzzles in an urban setting. This could be figuring out how to gain entry into a specific place, charting a map of some underground tunnel/subway system, capturing all the elements of a particular system, or just simply beating out another group of people to some unexplored site. Given their drive to discover & chart, push boundaries, and seek novelty, it seems that modern day urban explorers are people in the same mold of Victorian era explorers such as Henry Stanley and David Livingstone.
While I ultimately give it 5 stars, the book has a few gaps in my opinion. Since Garrett's life as an urban explorer served as the foundation of his PhD thesis in ethnography, I was surprised that he doesn't comment more about this dynamic. I understand that this book is largely about UE itself, but it would have been really interesting to learn more about what his academic colleagues and his advisors thought about the way he was conducting this research.
While he does touch on this towards the end of the book, I would have also liked to see a little more commentary about blurring the line between one's own lifestyle and academic research. Given Garrett's affinity for UE lifestyle, it seems that this is something he would have been involved in regardless of his academic career. It just so happened that he was able to parlay his personal interest into furthering his academic career. Also, while the ambiguity between participant and observer in ethnography is a common occurrence, it seems that in Garrett's case, given his intense involvement into the UE cultural scene, he almost fully created his own experiences to document and explore. He is certainly very well aware of these issues and does touch on them in some way, but I just wish it was explored a little bit more.
So, to summarize, this is a very thoughtful and involved look at urban exploration. In addition to some really interesting stories and anecdotes about specific adventures, I think the biggest value of this book is really in its reflective and engaging examination of the UE culture, ethos, and it's place in the modern society. I would certainly recommend this book to any curious reader.
What amused me was their indignation at the fact that they were getting busted ahead of the Olympics.