“Shallow excavation, a response to Bunkerology” by Bradley L. Garrett
June 10, 2011 6 Comments
The following is a response by Bradley L. Garrett to a piece entitled ‘Bunkerology’ by Luke Bennett which appeared in the print journal. Luke’s paper is open access for a limited time. Bennett replies here. One of the aims of this blog is to provide a forum for further debates like this, debates that the limits of the printed journal format generally preclude. This dialogue was coordinated by co-editor Deborah Cowen.
Shallow excavation, a response to Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration
In volume 29 of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Luke Bennett posits a potentially fascinating formulation he calls “bunkerology”, in which he discuses budding interests in subterranean space in the United Kingdom. In the article, Bennett ties together disparate underground enthusiast groups under a broad banner of “urban exploration”, using a system of 1500 UK Cold War bunkers (Royal Ordinance Corps or ROC posts) as his case study grouping. However, as a researcher who has spent the past three years doing ethnographic work with the urban exploration community in the UK, I found the author’s fictional bunkerology construction a troublingly simplistic reification. Below are a few short comments in response to Bennett.
Bennett writes that this paper is based on an “ethnographic study” (p. 421) but it becomes clear from reading the article that the author never actually spoke to anyone involved in the practice of urban exploration he seeks to define; later pitching the effort as a “document-based ethnography” (p. 425). In this, Bennett follows a disconcerting recent methodological trend to suggest one is doing ethnography when that work is purely virtual (be it in an archive or at a computer). In Practicing Human Geography, Cloke et al. write that while ethnography may be methodologically eclectic, “…at its core, there must be as extended period of ‘participant observation’ research” (Cloke et al., 2004: 169; citing Jackson, 1985: 169, emphasis in original). As a result of relying solely on publically available Internet sources, Bennett’s study skates over the surface of a very large, diverse and multifaceted community, plucking exactly what is required for the creation of a “label invented…for analytical convenience” (p. 421). The result of that shallow excavation, combined with a few capacious extrapolations, culminates here as a rather gross miscategorisation of the urban exploration “community”, my primary objection.
In Bennett’s attempt to bridge the gap between different groups of bunker enthusiasts, he erroneously conflates urban explorers, the enthusiast group Subterranea Britannica (Sub Brit), the heritage industry (in an anecdote about a military historian discussing the Cabinet War Rooms) and “accounts found in this study… posted by persons… who may well have ‘manned’ these posts”. All of these groups, he claims, “appear to be searching for authenticity: to resurrect the mainstream ordering of the place” (Bennett, 2011: 431). While I cannot speak to the motivations of these last three groups with any authority, this description directly contradicts the stated motivations of urban explorers to locate and explore disordered, marginal, interstitial and infrastructural space through recreational trespass (Deyo and Leibowitz, 2003; Edensor, 2005; Garrett, 2010; Ninjalicious, 2005; Solis, 2007).
The crux of Bennett’s argument, that “the survey and veneration of place evident in these accounts may be a more significant motivation for urban exploration as practised than… transgressive incursions into space and place” (p. 421) may be true for the few dozen people he chose to “include” in this study, but it most certainly does not characterise urban exploration on a whole. In particular, by defining Sub Brit members as urban explorers, when those communities are often at odds, Bennett fulfils his own desire to politically behead urban exploration as a praxis that challenges dominant hegemonic spatial control through tactical urban infiltration, painting it as he wants it to appear: as a naïve representational practice tinged with nostalgic fetishism. Urban exploration certainly does, at times, display a public image of apolitical benignity, aligned with notions of “leaving no trace” that conform with contemporary eco-tourism practices in order to garner public support, but Bennett never attempts to unravel that smoke screen to see what lies behind it.
The author makes a valid and important point when he discusses the domineering role of photography in building community credibility – however, while he notes that urban exploration “can be seen as a phenomenological practice”, he completely ignores the role embodiment plays, writing that “to understand how urbex is practiced, one has to study… the process by which they make representational conventions about abandoned places” (p. 433). This flow of logic is completely backward. Online representations in the community say almost nothing about the content and experience of the embodied activity (the very practice he seeks to unravel). His analysis speaks only to the ways in which those experiences are harnessed into online institutions to perpetuate community acceptance and cohesion, where personal journeys are cashed in as a point-scoring exercises (Bennett’s phrase) that exists to facilitate advancement of the physical practice. Urban exploration is not about aesthetics of decay (Trigg, 2006), it’s about experiencing the world in the here and now.
Anticlockwise from right, Bradley L. Garrett, Marc Explo, Silent Motion, Winch and Statler somewhere above Paris
As the authors of Invisible Frontier tell us, “In the diamond clarity of fear we find the difference between speculations and experience, between philosophy and science. It’s the difference between reading about the George Washington Bridge and climbing it” (Deyo and Leibowitz 2003: 211). What Bennett also chooses to ignore, aside from the foundational spatial politics of urban exploration and infiltration, are the ways in which the practice can empower a sense of engaged community acitivism by de-fetishising the hidden material infrastructure of the city (Gandy, 2004; Kaika and Swyngedouw, 2000) through a range of tactics, both proximal (embodied experience) and distal (forced bureaucratic representational transparency). Michael Cook, perhaps Canada’s most well-known explorer, writes on his website,
I think that there is immense social value to be gleaned from revealing and rediscovering infrastructure and other places that we’ve been made and induced to ignore… our cities are more productive, more democratic, more sustainable, and more secure when we are collectively aware of and understand the infrastructure that serves us, whether in our buildings, on our streets, or under our feet.
This sort of description is difficult to square against Bennett’s idea that urban exploration “embarks on a spiraling and inevitably fruitless quest for novelty” (Bennett, 2011: 431; quoting Gilloch, 1997: 172) and looks a lot more like the enlightened urbanism encouraged by scholars in recent years (Gandy, 2004; Gandy, 2005; Graham and Marvin, 2001; Graham and Thrift, 2007; Kaika and Swyngedouw, 2000).
By the end of the article, Bennett admits that while “this study only directly examined a small subtheme of the urban exploration universe” he feels justified in “extrapolating this characterisation of the practice to other areas of urbex”. In the case of the web forum 28 Days Later, Bennett’s primary “site” of study, there over 10,000 registered members (Davenport, 2011), of which he sampled a small subsection on a particular thread. Members of 28 Days Later are a further subdivision of a much larger UK community who explore a range of abandoned structures well beyond ROC posts, but who also infiltrate construction sites, water, utility and transportation networks regularly. When we also take into account that these activities in Britain are part of a larger global movement where Nestor (2007) reports that the most popular global urban exploration forum in the world, the Urban Exploration Resource (UER), has 18,000 registered users, Bennett’s tidy description of the “urbex scene” is exposed as a funky caricature sketched out with a clear agenda in mind.
Bennett’s notion of bunkerology is a fascinating concept that taps important recent research about urban exploration, vertical cites, alternative historical imaginations and the politics of place hacking. There is certainly a great article to be written about a growing public fascination with revealing the subterranean world; unfortunately this isn’t it. Given the torrent of literature emerging from multiple fields in regard to this fast growing spatial practice, I suggest we need to tread much more carefully when defining social movements that make important efforts toward greater spatial freedom in an age when those freedoms are rapidly eroding; trivialising those struggles for the sake of academic analytical convenience is unjust.
Bradley L. Garrett, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London
Bennett L, 2011, “Bunkerology—a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29 421-434
Cloke P, Cook I, Crang P, Goodwin M, Painter J, Philo C, 2004 Practising human geography (Sage, London)
Davenport J, 2011, “Terror alert at 7/7 Tube station blamed on four urban explorers” Evening Standard, 3rd May
Deyo L B, Leibowitz D, 2003 Invisible frontier: exploring the tunnels, ruins, and rooftops of hidden New York (Three Rivers Press, New York)
Edensor T, 2005 Industrial ruins: space, aesthetics, and materiality (Berg Publishers, Oxford, United Kingdom)
Gandy M, 2004, “Rethinking urban metabolism: water, space and the modern city” City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action 8 363-379
Gandy M, 2005, “Cyborg urbanization: complexity and monstrosity in the contemporary city ” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29 26–49
Garrett B L, 2010, “Urban explorers: quests for myth, mystery and meaning” Geography Compass 4
Gilloch G, 1997 Myths and metropolis – Walter Benjamin and the city (Polity Press, Canada)
Graham S, Marvin S, 2001 Splintering urbanism: networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition (Routledge, London)
Graham S, Thrift N, 2007, “Out of order: understanding repair and maintenance” Theory, Culture & Society 24 1-25
Jackson P, 1985, “Urban ethnography” Progress in Human Geography 9 157-176
Kaika M, Swyngedouw E, 2000, “Fetishizing the modern city: the phantasmagoria of urban technological
networks” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24 120-138
Nestor J, 2007, “The art of urban exploration” The San Fransisco Gate 19th August 2007
Ninjalicious, 2005 Access all areas: a user’s guide to the art of urban exploration (Infilpress, Canada)
Solis J, 2007 New York underground: the anatomy of a city (Routledge, New York)
Trigg D, 2006 The aesthetics of decay: nothingness, nostaligia and the absence of reason (Peter Lang, New York)