Why don’t I? Urban exploration and mental barriers to participation

“part of the critique levelled at urban exploration actually comes from a space of non-participation, we are looking at the images, we are judging and very often condemning an entire community based on the representations that we find on the Internet or the books”(Bradley L. Garrett, Senate House, 13 November 2015).

There was a moment during the Senate House Revealed: Talking Underground event when the audience was asked ‘how many of you consider yourselves urban explorers?’ Around five people put their hands up. It was suggested that we can all be urban explorers and a connection was drawn to tourists navigating their way through unfamiliar cities. I tramp London’s streets with a curiosity for the urban environment, but my hand stayed down: to call myself an urban explorer I need to transgress or at the very least regularly visit places that are empty and unusual.

As a child, I lived in rural Northamptonshire. A gang of us explored abandoned cottages, snuck through hedges into neighbours’ gardens and once broke into a disused abattoir – where we were caught (‘get out of here, I know your parents’). I lost my nerve after that. I am no longer confident that I will ‘get away with it’ and I perceive a more heightened risk now that I am an adult and legally responsible for my actions. I am unconfident about performing transgressive urban exploration.

Office

I am curious about the entry points into urban exploration, the biographies of introduction – how did you get involved? Conventional ‘adventure’ experiences can be bought online, but somehow I doubt that there is a Groupon voucher for the urbex gateway experience for the uninitiated or an urbex field school (“book here for soft forays, all fully insured”). Without the opportunity to take part in a ‘gateway experience’ I sense an expectation that I should just go it alone. I live in a small town with negligible abandonment that is surrounded by military camps. I regularly hear explosions in the woods near my house. I pass a boarded up office building when I walk into town. I could walk around the back and see if there is a way in. But I know what a 1990s office interior looks like. So I line up excuses – military, guns, boring office spaces. The truth is that the burden to participate is on me (rather than the practice being exclusionary). The truth is that I choose not to walk around the back of the boarded up offices. To see what is there (‘Stay on the road. Keep off the moors. Beware the moon lads’).

Note
Originally published on the Senate House Revealed and Talking Humanities blogs, January 26 2016, with thanks to Sam Merrill

 

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