Entangled bodies: urban exploration, matter and meaning making
November 28, 2013 4 Comments
“Entanglement as a term aims to allow a materialism but
embedded within the social, the historical, the contingent.”
Hodder (2012: 96)
What does it mean to be embodied? That seems to be the contested territory standing between Garrett & Hawkins (2013) and Mott & Roberts (2013a & b) in their recent Antipode exchange. Garrett & Hawkins table a body/environment ‘entanglement’ (Hodder 2012) as the object of a new era of research into urban exploration. Mott & Roberts (2013b) counter that the main thrust of their critique of existing scholarship remains unaddressed: namely where is the appreciation of embodied difference amongst those who do – and those who don’t do – urban exploration?
Mott & Roberts’ approach is broadly concerned with the social: how can this practice be culturally situated? How can it be understood in terms of identity politics? Who is dominating this practice, and whose voices and presence is absent? In what senses (and for whom) can urban exploration be said to be liberatory? For them embodiment is a question of human identity, hinged around physical and social difference. And there’s is a call for mobilisation of a greater sense of critique of urban exploration as a predominantly white, male, young, over-educated and professional class pastime.
Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins (whilst seemingly acknowledging the ‘masculinist’ nature of at least some urban exploration culture), avow (via considering the work of a female artist – Miru Kim – working in an urban exploration type terrain) urban exploration as a new way of reading and researching body/environment relations by looking at the embodiment of the human participant within the built environment structures that they explore.
Each then, figures embodiment differently. For Mott and Roberts bodies are carriers of human identity and difference: vectors of identity bio-politics. Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins focus upon the experience and meshing of flesh in the world. Given their different theoretical starting points it is not surprising that agreement is not reached in their exchange.
Each ‘side’ do however appear to be helpfully raising questions under-explored in scholarship to date on this topic. Yes (aligning with Garrett & Hawkins), it would be too easy ‘just’ to examine urban exploration as a gendered practice, a frat-ish rite of passage. There is more to be said about what it is like to pit oneself against the hazardous-to-human arrangements of high, deep and otherwise inhospitable terrain in the built environment, and Garrett is prodigiously advancing this project. However the ‘what it’s like to be there?’ dimension must not become the sole focus, for there is much more that needs investigating (and critiquing) alongside developing deeper understanding of edgework and of the human/matter meld: in particular, the politics, ethics and impacts of urban exploration, and this brings me to a wider issue.
It takes more than urban explorers for urban exploration to exist. To date the focus has been upon the explorers, and often the treatment has been reverential in tone: the explorer as somehow pushing boundaries and thereby contributing in some – never quite articulated way – towards socio-spatial justice. But is exploration done ‘on behalf’ of anyone other than the explorers? What is achieved, and at what cost? The ‘downside’ is never probed, nor the limits of desirable infiltration ever fathomed. Just because it is possible to climb the latest skyscraper in London, is it right to do so? Who is affected by urban exploration and what are their rights? So far, the voices of non-participants (those who choose not to be urban explorers), of property owners and infrastructure managers, of security and rescue services, and of other types of incursionist – have all been absent.
Urban exploration may take place in buildings that are (or seem to be) empty, but they are not places that have become meaningless, and most are not actually abandoned. Many others (non explorers) have desires, and anxieties about, and relationships with these places – and the matter to be encountered within them – the night watchmen, the site operators, the insurers, the regulatory authorities all need to be heard if we are to understand ‘urban exploration’, for it is not just a pastime that exists in isolation from the world – it is precisely its embodied (in the sense of being-in-the world and amidst matter and other people) aspect that raises these questions. Recreational trespass has consequences, it is an interaction not just with matter, but also with other human bodies and socio-technical systems. There is a human/matter ecology within the targeted buildings and infrastructure.
And urban exploration is a part of that ecology – but it is not the only actant that mobilises it. Those who perceive urban exploration as ‘done to them’ rarely draw neat distinctions between the motivations (and/or backgrounds) of the incursionists whom they encounter the traces of after a weekend of ‘infiltration’ in their premises. The modus operandi of urban explorers – viewed from the perspective of the site owner – is little different from that of the squatter, the arsonist or the metal thief or other scavenger. To understand urban exploration we would need to understand not just how individually or collectively urban explorers define themselves, but also how others (non urban explorers) make sense of recreational trespass and react to it. Intersubjectivity is not just played out between urban explorers, it also happens between others about urban exploration. There is discourse, there is representation, there is power, there is law: all in play around this issue. And all of that swirl of discursive stuff is intimately entwined with bodies and the hazards (and/or purposiveness) of matter.
To interview site owners about urban exploration – as I have done on occasion over recent years – is to encounter bewildered adults struggling to find a way to make sense of recreational trespass, of its implications for them and of rules of thumb by which they may distinguish one type of incursion from another. These bodies matter too: these are human beings facing anxieties as a consequence of site incursion, perhaps occasionally seeing fatalities and having to ‘pick up the pieces’ (in all senses). They also ‘matter’ in the sense used by Karen Barad (2007) : these bodies are just as involved as the explorers in sense making and prediction about human/matter interaction brought about through urban exploration: classically in the realm of risk assessments, and their narration of possible human/matter fateful contact. And, yes – to agree with Mott and Roberts here – owners and other reactors to urban exploration will frame their response decisions around bodily difference. Plainly, in the post 9/11 western world Moslem urban explorers are likely to be treated with greater suspicion or alarm than WASP ones – our bodies carry identity, and are interpreted by others on account of those manifest (and socially foregrounded) features of difference. Thus it is clearly (socially) more dangerous for some to do urban exploration than others.
Let me be clear, the above is not intended as an attack upon urban exploration. As my previous contributions to recent work in this area have hopefully shown, I have considerable respect for the investigatory endeavours of the urban explorers whom I have come across. I have also suggested to site owners in a variety of projects (for the British Mountaineering Council and other pro-access organisations) that site owners need to become more relaxed about adventurous recreational use of their properties.
But, if the talk is now of opening up new avenues of study in this area, I would like to endorse Garrett & Hawkins’ call for greater attention to human/matter relations, and also Moss & Roberts’ call for greater social critique. But, I would suggest that achieving both might actually require a much broader view of the field of study to emerge, one in which:
First, urban exploration is truly engaged with as a ‘spectrum’ (as per Craggs et al, 2013), putting the athletic boundary-pushing dimension into place alongside more ‘down to earth’ – and more inclusive – variants (and whether psychogeography, architectural enthusiasm or urban ‘sightseeing’) in which difference matters less; and
Secondly, one in which exploratory urban engagements of whatever hue are understood as a complex entanglement of many materialities, policies, peoples, priorities and politics, a mesh in which the urban explorer becomes but one actant amongst many.
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University.
Craggs, R., Geoghegan, H. & Neate, H. (2013). ‘Architectural enthusiasm: visiting buildings with the Twentieth Century Society’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31: 879-896.
Garrett, B. & Hawkins, H. (2013) ‘And now for something completely different…Thinking through explorer subject-bodies: a response to Mott and Roberts’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/
Hodder, I. (2012) Entangled: an archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. London: Wiley.
Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013a). ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: Urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography.’ Antipode doi: 10.1111/anti.12033: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/
Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013b). ‘Difference really does matter: a reply to Garrett and Hawkins’ Antipode November 2013: via http://antipodefoundation.org/2013/11/18/critical-dialogue-urban-exploration-subject-bodies-and-the-politics-of-difference/
Naked City Spleen by Miru Kim at http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/naked-city-spleen-by-miru-kim-1 (where there are more images from her Naked City sequence and her video presentation about her project).