Amid the proliferation of blogs, website and forums dedicated to urbex which inspire claims that urban exploration is having its “cultural moment“, the activity itself is really nothing new. People have explored cities as long as they have existed, and today’s urban exploration ‘scene’ or ‘movement’ is simply one moment in a long tradition of poking around in cities.
In a timeline of urban exploration, published by the Zine ‘Infiltration’, the first date is November 1793 when Philibert Aspairt, the “first cataphile”, becomes lost while exploring the Parisian catacombs by candlelight. His body is found 11 years later. Whether or not Aspairt’s ventures into the Paris catacombs were the first of their kind, it is clear that city dwellers have long been fascinated by hidden and ‘off-limits’ spaces.
Perhaps urban explorers can be seen as a modern incarnation of the flâneur, a symbol of the urban experience in the early twentieth century. The flâneur employed playful constructive behaviours such as dérive and détournement which allowed them to fully experience and rethink urban space.
Those writing about urban exploration today (Garrett, 2012; Pinder, 2005) have traced the appropriation of the term ‘exploration’ back to the work of the Situationists International (SI) and the ‘urban expeditions’ of Bill Bunge in 1960s. Bunge’s radical work in Detroit and Toronto eventually lead to him being literally blacklisted within US Academia. Whilst academics today, Bradley Garrett being case in point, seem to be able to build a successful academic career off the back of urban exploration, in the 1960s the same activities put a stop to Bunge’s career. So what has changed?
Bunge’s expeditions were designed to be ‘contributive’ and ‘collaborative’. He wanted to ‘give back’ from academic geography and set up free university outreach programmes on cartography and urban planning for Detroit’s black residents. Bunge’s expeditions were about getting out into the city to understand and experience the views of those who live there. Urban exploration today tends to seek out places that are devoid of other human beings, it is an individualistic, even narcissistic pursuit which has little in common with Bunge’s concerns about the politics of urban social justice.
Of course not all urban explorers are simply after a ‘hero shot’, but the egotistical portraiture which adorns blogs, facebook pages and instagram accounts seems to hark back to portraits from the age of exploration. Bunge’s ironic usage of the label “expedition” in an attempt to subvert the exploration practices of the nineteenth century, is perhaps not quite so ironic in the case of urban exploration.
Garrett, B. (2012 ) “Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration.” Unpublished PhD thesis, Royal Holloway University of London
Pinder, D. (2005) Arts of urban exploration. Cultural Geographies 12(4):383–411