It’s 2 a.m., and Bradley Garrett is in the middle of the Mojave Desert outside an aircraft graveyard at an old military base. As he and three friends are figuring out how to scale the huge fence, headlights approach, and they duck behind tiny desert sage bushes to hide in what Garrett calls a “Scooby Doo moment.” Finally, after the guard passes, and after avoiding a second guard inside, the group gleefully climbs around old 747s until the dawn breaks.
It’s just one out of hundreds of nights Garrett has spent exploring over the last five years as part of his PhD work at Oxford University. Stunning photos from those nights are part of Garrett’s new book, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City.
After growing up with a love of exploration, Garrett pursued archaeology as a career, but found it frustrating. He didn’t like playing the role of "someone who had a kind of authority over other people’s heritage,” he says, and so he started pursuing a project in alternative archaeology. That led him to his first trip with urban explorers, and after he tried it once, he decided to make it the focus of his work.
Why do urban explorers explore? For many, it’s about the adrenaline rush and a sense of freedom, Garrett says. “A lot of these people perhaps would have gotten involved with rock climbing or caving or scuba diving, but they didn't have the money. When you live in an urban environment, it is a really liberating feeling to pack your backpack with your camera kit, walk out the door, and an hour later you're wandering around through a sewer or climbing up a skyscraper.”
For others, he says, there’s some political motivation. “For some people I ran into it was a mild form of protest against increasing surveillance and control over the city and the sort of commodification of everything that goes on in the urban environment,” Garrett said. “They were going out and refusing to pay for adventures, but also kind of subverting all the security which puts across this narrative that it's impossible to do the sort of things that we were doing.”
Others practice a sort of rogue archaeology, documenting sites that official historic preservation organizations are ignoring, and visiting them again and again to photograph the process of decay. Still others use urban exploration as a way to get away from the chaos of the city. “Sometimes we'd sneak into a skyscraper and get to the top and we would find someone sitting up there alone playing guitar,” Garrett said. “I think socially and individually, or even existentially, urban exploration is a really important practice for a lot of people so they can carve out a place for themselves in the city.”
Garrett says that after spending five years exploring, the way he see the world has completely changed. “Whatever city I go to now is pockmarked with opportunity now: there's a drainpipe I could climb, this fence would be easy to get over…” Garrett explains. “It also changes your notion of what’s possible. We’re given a very scripted narrative of what’s possible and what’s not. I think it’s especially apparent in London, where you’ve got 500,000 CCTV cameras monitoring your every movement as you walk through the city.”
The cameras, it turns out, are rarely monitored and mostly used as an archive in case a crime is committed, so it’s possible to blatantly trespass in front of them. Even as technology continues to develop, Garrett says people will find ways to avoid it. “There's a guy at the University of Kingston, who, I'm not joking, is named Dr. James Orwell, and he's creating these new surveillance systems which actually track your body movements,” Garrett says. When the machines detect “suspicious” movements, it triggers monitoring.
If the tech is added to the streets, Garrett says explorers will adapt: “They can develop whatever technologies they want. People will continue to explore.”