Place Hacking as Curiosity, Play and the Desire to Connect

While Bradley L. Garrett may be an anthropologist by training, he prefers to call himself an “urban explorer” or better yet, a “place hacker.”  He recently came into public view after secretly climbing to the top of the Shard, the tallest building in Europe (1,061 feet/309.7 meters), in London.  He evaded security systems and at 2 am climbed to the top of the building, still under construction, earning a spectacular view over the twinkling London nightscape.

The night's adventure garnered wide media exposure for what is legally known as an act of trespassing. Garrett doesn’t consider this mere adventurism, although he concedes it is a thrill.  Rather, he sees himself as a thinking-man’s explorer of the meaning of urban ruins – derelict industrial sites, closed hospitals, abandoned military installations, sewer and drain networks, foreclosed estates, mines, and ruins of all sorts.  Garrett considers it ethnographic research into the physical detritus of modernity – and a statement about the scarcity of public spaces in cities for discovery, camaraderie and fun. 

As a video about place hacking notes, it’s all about the “psychogeography of place.”  It's about the desire to transcend the contrived, commercially constructed facade of the city to reach a rawer, more authentic sense of urban life.  And it’s about creating a community of fellow adventurers who share in discovering and investigating secret or derelict spaces.  Aficionados call such spaces T.O.A.D.S., “temporary, obsolete, abandoned or derelict spaces.” 

Garrett’s website, Place Hacking (tagline “Explore Everything”), does a good job of laying our his philosophy as a recreational anthropologist.  Besides recounting Garrett’s adventure in climbing the Shard in bracing detail, the site features a variety of scholarly articles about his obsession with exploring the “ruins of modernity” (the title of an anthology of essays reviewed by Garrett). 

Software hackers thrive on an intense sense of curiosity and adventure.  So do street artists such as Shepherd Fairey and Banksy, who constitute a loose community of urban renegades motivated by their artistic passions (and ego?).  Place hackers are clearly cousins of these anti-authoritarian urban subcultures.  They are driven by inquisitiveness and a sense of play.  They are fascinated by the past and its marks on the present, and by the fragility of human presence.  They have a libertarian streak.  In explaining place hacking, Garrett writes: 

The argument that I want to put forward here is that urban explorers, in the hacking tradition, hack or exploit fractures in physical architecture and social expectations in an effort to find deeper meanings and different readings in places even as they prefer process over results.  This practice, rather than being strictly oppositional, is actually quite celebratory; it is a method of affecting desire through unencumbered play that creates a meld between body and city, representation and practice, explorers and place and, of course, between fellow trespassers.

Garrett is an anthropologist whose master’s thesis, “History Submerged:  A History of Modernity,” explored “intentionally induced inundation in historical contexts and the creation of underwater archaeologies.”  He explained that he wanted to “make explicit the concept that many of these places hold deep value to living people and mean more than simply lost ‘data’ from the perspective of an archaeologist or cultural resource manager.”

It appears that Garrett just got his PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London – again, by writing about place hacking.  He has written numerous journal articles with titles like “Urban Explorers:  Quest for Myth, Mystery and Meaning,” and “Assaying History:  Creating Temporal Junctions Through Urban Exploration”  (Note to Garrett:  in the interest of user freedoms, you may want to publish your writings under Creative Commons licenses and free them from clunky, proprietary interfaces that don’t easily enable downloads.)

While critics may see a night raid on the Shard as a straight-up act of illegal exhibitionism, I think place hacking is also, or more importantly, a fascinating commentary on our relationship to urban spaces.  It is a symbolic – and real – attempt to pull back the veil and see behind the public face that The Authorities have erected and vigilantly monitor.  It is an attempt to glimpse a human presence that only the privileged might experience, or the dead have experienced, as intuited by the abandoned mess left behind.  

I was impressed by the epigram for one of Garrett's essays:  “The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone....’” 

That’s historian George Macaulay Trevelyan, from his autobiography.  What’s refreshing about place hacking is its sincere desire to connect with traces of human presence in the wreckage of modern life (and to go where few other people have gone).  This is not a political agenda per se (although it may have political implications) so much as it is a simple expression of individual human curiosity, original discovery and social connection in an urban culture that does not provide many physical spaces for such basic human needs.  Seen from this perspective, place hacking takes on dimensions of the heroic.