Ghosts of Modernity
Is URBEXING providing a community or vandalising history?
Steven Taylor started exploring his urban environment as a teenager. Inspired by the teenage mutant ninja turtles, he wondered what was down a tunnel he saw on the bus to school so he went out with his dolphin torch and gumboots, to explore. This was the 90’s before social media. Now a couple of decades on, social media has changed urban exploration making it a more vibrant and communal experience but on the flipside, it opens the door to vandalism and potential destruction of these abandoned places.
From abandoned buildings, apartment blocks, hospitals, cranes, residential houses, buildings under construction, rooftops, drains and tunnels, urban explorers take to these unoccupied spaces out of boredom, to experience and preserve history in a photograph, or are drawn to the unknown, the ghosts of modernity that these spaces evoke.
Taylor started exploring alone; his first experience found a secret entrance to a race course.
As he got older he heard about Cave Clan and realised there were other people who liked to do the same thing. Cave clan started in 1986 in Melbourne and predominantly explore drains and caves, but what was once a very local group has grown in size with a group in Sydney and Taylor says if he wanted to find someone in the Ukraine or Canada to explore with he could and in fact this led to him being arrested in the Paris catacombs.
With social media, there is shared knowledge and you can explore with like minded individuals. There are organised explorations and each year they celebrate with an event called "The Clannies" with a big party giving genuine accolades and appreciation as well as some tongue-in-cheek awards like the “crash out” award for someone who fell asleep in the most precarious situation or "the biggest coward" award, both of which he has won over the years.
This event brings people from interstate and even internationally at the end of the drain season in Autumn in Melbourne and over the October long weekend in Sydney.
The golden rule of Cave Clan is “when it rains, no drains”. And for a long time they could say that no one had ever died exploring. That was until in a horrible irony, a firefighter, doing a trainnig exercise in the rain to see if he could rescue someone, died.
Other rules recommend exploring with someone, never alone, and not removing a manhole when you don’t know what is above it.
“Johnno” is 18 and has been exploring since he was around 13. He started exploring with his younger brother and they often did it with their parents. If they were on a trip, they might see something and then pull over as a family and explore. He found it thrilling being interested in abandoned buildings and the feelings they evoked.
But he says there are rules for explorers that are particular to these spaces.
“Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints”
The artistic side of this activity is a big part of the appeal to people from all walks of life. Both Steven and Johnno explore for visual appeal and take photographs which they share on social media. This exhibitive outlet has led to more exposure of urban exploration. The images have an eerie feeling, almost post-apocalyptic sense, as if someone just up and left mid-sentence.
But there are always dangers present in exploring. “Johnno” was exploring a gasworks in Bathurst and his mum broke her leg jumping the two metre high fence. She had to be rescued by the fire brigade and taken to hospital. She doesn’t explore anymore. Being really interested in the urban part of exploring “Johnno” was in Egypt with his grandmother and brother and he scaled the second tallest building and was confronted by Interpol.
A big danger of exploring is being found out by security or police and the illegality can pose a risk when trying to escape trouble. This is when accidents can happen.
Slippn an artist and explorer fell six floors and broke her back spending six months in recovery. She was drawn to the activity by the evocative images on Instagram, John Baily wrote in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald. She no longer explores.
Social media has led to growing interest in the activity through the shared photos, but there is a downside.
There is shared knowledge but “Johnno” says that within the greater urbex community there is a very strict rule of no vandalising and breaking things. You must not alter anything, it’s about appreciating the space which is left behind.
And then with rooftopping and buildings under construction he says there is a term called “dicking a spot” which means revealing a location and this is a big no-no as once revealed it opens the door to other sub-groups inclined to destroy the locations with graffiti or vandalism.
Now, with the rise of tiktok younger and younger people are inspired to explore more dangerous sites without knowing these rules that keep the individual, as well as the location, safe.
James Klinker is the father of a 13 year old girl who expressed interest in exploring a particular abandoned warehouse outlet in their neighbourhood of Campbelltown which closed in 2013 after two years and has remained vacant since.
He says Tiktok is opening the doors to these buildings but the kids who are posting the locations don’t have the knowledge of the rules and those exploring are unable to read the dangers.
Being in the construction business, he is very aware of the risks inherent in some of these buildings. In this particular building, there are empty elevator shafts and an open mezzanine area five floors up with no rails. If his daughter or one of her friends fall, there is no coming back and the post-traumatic stress for those who witness it is unthinkable. A slip or a scare or even security turning up could make you do something accidental and irreversible. He did some silly things as a teenager and knows that the dangers are real.
Klinker likes exploring for the history of places and has taken his daughter to some of those historically significant locations like Callan Park and the Quarantine station at Manly. These sites are available to the public and at the Quarantine station you can also spend the night.
As they looked around he would point out the dangers, highlighting the structural integrity and other concerns like asbestos, so that she might make educated errors.
These places are like a time capsule to our past full of stories. He introduced her to urbexing, but always with safety in mind.
Raymond Radford says "You know, we have this whole idea that this space should be occupied by something and when you look at an empty space, like a house that's just been abandoned that still has all the furniture, and it looks like people have just gotten up and left you think, well, where have they gone? And you start filling in these gaps”. He describes these as the ghosts of modernity, like a memory of something in space.
Radford started exploring when he was about 13 in the Southern Highlands before he even knew it was a thing and found himself drawn to buildings around the area. He suggests that we, as humans, need to always have something in space, otherwise, it just doesn't make sense. It's the way our brains are wired and if there's nothing there, then we fill the space with story to make sense of it.
There is a sense that space affects you emotionally as it holds something of the past within its walls. This is called psychogeography. Radford explains the origin of the term as credited to a French philosopher, Guy Debord, in the 1950s. An anarchist, a socialist and an artist afraid hypercapitalism was ruining the world created a group called the Situationist Internationale who were getting together and doing this thing called Dérive, which is drifting through cities and feeling them objectively.
This is linked to urbexing as a search for liberation from the personal and societal and allowing the urban to influence our emotions. As we move through space we create a kind of alternative map rewriting the story and meaning into locations.
As you explore these abandoned places you start to feel that everything is going to be okay. As the buildings crumble and plants start to grow through the cracks there is a juxtaposition of mortality and modernity and a reassurance that the world will continue regardless and so we feel safe. Radford says “So that's, that's what I always took from it, so, I love it. Because you know, the whole myth of modernity is that, nothing should ever crumble”.
While urbexing is not new, social media is explosing the activity and along with it a community, and with the right knowledge it can be a transformative experience, as well as a legal, informative and creative one.