The Politics of Urban Exploration

‘Young people everywhere have been allowed to choose between love and a garbage disposal unit. Everywhere they have chosen the garbage disposal unit.’ -Guy Debord

Will Self

A few months back, I was invited to the Barbican to discuss my book Explore Everything with Will Self (seen above playing out Wanderer Above the Sea of Rubbish). As you might expect, Will ran circles around me in the discussion. However, in process of doing so, he opened out some really interesting points of contention around the practice of urban exploration, revolving around two central notions. First, Will took issue with the idea that the revolutionary need be exceptional. He argued for exploration of the ‘everyday’ in convincing terms, eroding the worn binary between the ‘everyday’ and the ‘spectacular’. Secondly though, where many have questioned the political potency of urban exploration, Will suggested that every act is (of course) political and that the important question in regard to urban exploration, rather, was how effective its political force might be where it is un/under-articulated as a political praxis. It follows that if urban explorers don’t want their practice to be ‘political’, we might question why we working so hard to unpack the political implication of the practice. Also, if we accept their apparently apolitical stance, how then is urban exploration not just part of the spectacle it supposedly seeks to subvert? James Kingston should feel free to defend himself at this point.


Last week, Will invited me to guest lecture one of his psychogeography classes at Brunel. We decided to undertake a field trip to a local trash dump, sans permission. Students eagerly hopped the fence and started rummaging around in the human debris while Will and I pontificated on the politics of midden and off-limits urban space. Later, I recounted the day to Harriet Hawkins, who shares an interest with me on waste and exploration, and we wrote through some of these ideas, which we thought the Brunel students might appreciate.


The politics of urban exploration needs to be seen in the context of centuries of protest concerning rights to the city: political actions concerning who can go where, and how the control and ownership over space in the city is made transparent. It is however, more than a question of demanding access to spaces and experiences of urban life that might be restricted – and becoming increasingly so – it is a reclaiming of the possibilities for remaking the city, and ourselves through our (temporary) occupations of urban space. As David Harvey notes, ‘the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is… one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights’ (Harvey 2010: 315). As such, urban exploration sits alongside forms of protest wherein bodies occupy spaces as an embodied politic.

In the context of urban exploration, however, it is also important to understand how the politics works not only through the embodied practice but in how the photography of those ventures comes to have political force. Here again, we can situate the ‘outputs’ of urban exploration in the context of a rich historical and contemporary trajectory of politics and aesthetics. We might think, for example, of the Situationist International (a mid-twentieth century, continental based artistic and political avant-garde group), involved in the Paris protests of May 1968. The Situationists were a group who sought alternative experiences of urban spaces through ‘tactics’ such as walking against urban ‘flow’, playful engagement with ruined capitalist architecture and a re-tuning into the multi-sensuous nature of urban spaces. Their work was, in short, the mobilisation of aesthetic practices as a means to ‘take’ back agency in the face of the structuring forces of capitalism in the mid-twentieth city, to challenge ‘strategies’ of urban control, by finding spaces to occupy and experiences of the city that were other than that of the capitalist, visual-based urban spectacle.


Some of the spaces urban explorers are interested in raising awareness about are ‘informal’ heritage spaces. In London, the abandoned stations of the London Underground are key, as they are not just completely closed public access – Transport for London (TfL) even insists they own imagery created of the areas, activity attacking and discrediting the dissemination of public information about the existence of space itself. So in the same way that urban explorers work to raise public awareness about spaces like the Mail Rail, Battersea Power Station or the empty World War II bunkers under Clapham, explorers also want to assure that the public has access to information about these disused Tube stations. Making this information public, as has been proven time and time again, leads to the reconstitution of these spaces as heritage sitescommercial ventures and real estate investments. These may not be intended ‘outcomes’ of urban exploration but they are interesting in the context of the demonization of the practice by police and corporations like TfL.


In a contemporary UK context, we see prestigious artists, writers and other creative producers being funded by key national bodies (Arts Council) and major international institutions (Tate Gallery, Barbican) producing a range of creative outputs that echo these sentiments. As do the psychogeographies of Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller, all allies of the urban exploration ‘movement’ and, indeed, urban explorers themselves. The role of such creative practices in helping us to reclaim our cities has become a key concern for academics and activists around the world. This larger intellectual project here then is concerned about how the aesthetic performances and outputs of practices, whether this be urban exploration, artistic interventions, urban gardening or urban wanderings transposed into prose poetry, become the means to re-write the scripts of contemporary urbanism. It is this potentiality of a politics of creativity that urban exploration looks to perform and to critical engage. What is more, it does so through contemporary mass-media practices  – principally online representations – that often elude traditional authority structures. This is one of the reasons why urban explorers become targets for authorities – because they hold real power in the conversation about public perception of, again, control and ownership over urban space.

Speaking of ownership, the owner of this particular rubbish tip eventually emerged from a trailer and confronted one of the students in the class, inspiring a hasty rescue by Will and a retreat back to the river. Luckily, no students were lost in the production of this eventful encounter. When the property owner realised we, in his words, ‘were not pikeys’, he could care less what we were doing. Which prompted another important discussion about class and about how our range of political engagement is often dication to other people’s perception of who we are.


To understand the politics of urban exploration is not only to understand the general context out of which it arises, but also the specific contemporary, London based situation from which the UK variety of the practice emerges. With the increasing securitisation of the city, whether this concerns the general urban condition, or the specific contexts of the City of London, or more event-based contexts such as the 2012 Olympics of the Royal Wedding, our cities are becoming increasingly surveilled, our access increasing limited and our modes of inhabiting the city reduced. Urban exploration seeks not to incite people to mimic its own practices – the intent is less grandiose, as Will recognised. It is rather to celebrate spaces and experiences of the city that are increasingly hard to come by, to open out the space in which to re-imagine the city, and to remind people that there are imaginative possibilities still available to us in our daily occupations of cities.  To take back the ‘human right’ as Harvey asserts to the freedom to remake ourselves and our cities and that is at the core of urban exploration.

Trash Humpers


Harvey, David, 2010, Social Justice and the City, University of Georgia Press.

Dr Bradley Garrett

Postdoctoral Researcher

Tweets as @goblinmerchant

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