Diving Into the Beach Beneath the Streets

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Bradley Garrett has posed a radicalization of the (already radical) practice of ‘urban exploration’ – the opening up and diving into the places of the city that are normally excluded from the terrain of our everyday life. For Garrett, urban exploration can be reconceptualized as “place hacking.” This term seems very apt for this current socio-technical juncture, for it is under the transformative powers of contemporary information technologies (and more important, the organizations of power they find themselves bound up within) that the cityscape itself has begun to change. We’re witnessing a profound shift towards both ‘freer,’ dynamic and flexible methods of living and being in the urban, yet these same advances are intertwined in an electronic system of modelizations and modulations that amount to an immanent logic of control. Thus, when Garrett talks of “place hacking,” he’s addressed the fact that cities themselves are coded and overcoded, designed by engineers, mathematicians, architects, bureaucrats, and legal protocols that govern the way the space is to be used.

At the limit of theoretical good taste, his exploratory urbanism drops us into the passageways growing deep beneath the city of Paris, and likens its network formations teaming with biological life, pointing a way to not only an exploratory urbanism but an urbanism linked to a schizoid state of becoming:

…if cybernetics is, as Norbert Weiner declared, the revision of information through the exchange of information and the moments of encounter between our bodies and the urban infrastructure alter either physical structure or mental conceptions where “…the body (as a cultural product) transforms, reinscribes the urban landscape according to its changing (demographic, economic, and psychological) needs, extending the limits of the city, the sub-urban, then Matthew Gandy is right to assert that the emphasis of the cyborg on the material interface between the body and the city is perhaps most strikingly manifested in the physical infrastructure that links the human body to vast technological networks….

Sewers contain a steady stream of biological packets, full of data connecting nodes, throbbing veins, arterial chambers. The data bloodstream, like light-driven information packets, connect cyborgs, hybrid creature[s], composed of organism and machine. Beyond the designation of the cyborganism, it’s defining characteristic being a propensity to slip the net of a world structured by boundaries and enclosures to a world dominated, at every scale, by connections, networks, and flows, is a possibility for transplantation, a symbiotic bilateral exchange of potentiality. Here, the boundaries between the organic and the inorganic, blurred by cybernetic and bio-technologies, seem less sharp; the body, itself invaded and re-shaped by technology, invades and permeates the space outside, even as this space takes on dimensions that themselves confuse the inner and the outer, visually, mentally and physically where “thought-as-imagination’ departs from the actual, dips into the fractal abyss, then actualizes something new. What is it that is new here you ask? Well nothing more than an animation of the inanimate, a tangible hauntology, an acknowledgement that building forms spring out of historical contingencies – but, given enough time, they may create their own form of subjectivity. Drains are material manifestations of our dreams (including nightmares) but also regulators of our physical potentiality and protectors of the realm in glistening armour.

Before the accusations of theoretical posturing ensue, let us reinforce the role of embodiment here, (under)grounding the theory. Bookmarked in each photo we snap are moments of not just conceptual but actual encounters that take place between urban bodies and urban infrastructures, leading to the designation of urban infrastructure as urban body. The result of those bodily encounters is the construction of those webs, flows, and exchanges that create communities, ideas and cyborganisms. The actual hand-wrought work of constructing and deconstructing that fabric reveals a physicality conjoined with virtuality that is anarchic [in it’s] non-identical proliferation, where the everyday urban inhabitant embeds personal investment into the infrastructural networks, inscribing places through place hacking. The city is a reflection then not only of the physical body but of the sprawl and limitations of human consciousness and ability, potential now augmented by the machines we have created. Urban infrastructure, although restricted by capital investment and spatial constraints, is also constrained and fortified by a human imagination of the deepest chaotic order, it’s operation and moments of rupture as fragmented as urbanity itself. If only we could imagine alien body infrastructure concocted under the influence of Burroughs’ Mugwump juice, then the monstrous resultant fragmentation might finally lead to the schizophrenia we need to proceed.

Elizabeth Grosz argued, in 1996, that computers would change the way the city was structured as we built infrastructural systems not modelled upon machinery but upon virtual systems. However, were not both mechanical functions (compare the piston and valves of the heart) and cybernetic circuitry (the CPU as brain) both modelled on the body? Does not the evolution of those artificial bodies influence our biological bodies (for instance, consider the effect of indoor plumbing on the body)? Does the beautiful conjunction of those bodies and spaces, industrial machines as appendages, computer hardware as corporal augmentation, not create new hybrid bodies which will influence the infrastructure of cities? Will those imperfect joinings that the Victorians feared infect and augment through their mephetic exhalation as promised? If Grosz is right, then the body’s limbs and organs will become interchangeable parts with the computer and with the technologicalization of production.

The Paris catacombs are perhaps the best Western example of the meld to be expected – a place where humanity has become intricately interwoven into the subterranean infrastructural fabric. Paris culture would undoubtedly suffer with loss of access to those spaces, a co-addictive symbiotic relationship has been built there. The KTAs are proof that just as virtual social systems can be maintained by the multitude, so can physical space. The symbioses is even more profound in places like India where infrastructural space is living space, in Poland where we saw people moving into military ruins or in Cambodia where people are living in graves. Despite arguments of deterritorialisation, the visual, aural, sensual representations created on explorations and residencies in those spaces creates a new emotional cache which can be tapped into for myth-making practices, practical application such as sabotage and, increasingly, simple imaginative stimuli that reterritorialise those spaces with a potential that feeds not only physical constructions but imaginations. As a result, the virtual and physical aspects of urban exploration are inseparable as one network depends on the other. Urban exploration, despite it’s weavings into the mythologies of the sublime,is not an escape from nor a transcendence of the physical, but a challenge to the very boundaries of substance dualisms.

The rest of Garrett’s essay can be read here.

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