Urban Exploration and the Gothesization of Reality

Posted by Stuart Lindsay on November 11, 2010 in Blog tagged with , , , , , ,
This article will be used as the basis of research in a paper I am proposing for the IGA conference in August next year.

As it explores the archives of history for its own economic and emotional ends, help the site of Gothic is almost always one retrofitted with or superimposed beneath an aesthetic sheen. The Gothic identity is never original, and the almost alchemistic additive which renders a site or scene Gothic is an exploration and haunting of space via camera obscura, the eye which is both the technological perspective of, and the projection onto the stage. Whether it be the framing and capturing of some picturesque or Romantic landscape in the eighteenth century Pyrenees, or merely some black eye shadow and lipstick, the Gothic is at least both performance and presentation, as subcultures with the objective of refashioning history in the present-day embrace both aesthetics and social intent as one and the same.

One such subculture, with its intent on cartographically and photographically preserving the decay and dilapidation of old buildings, and by extension, the period they represent, is Urban Exploration. More than just creating a technical double of the building and its intimate anatomy in partial ruin, Urban Explorers intend to preserve the emotions and memories these places evoke through a practice and process of technological memorialisation. Urban Exploration, or Urbex as it sometimes calls itself, shares elements of the Sci-Fi and Cyberpunk connotations common to many Gothic subcultures. In its own words, Urban Exploration is the often dangerous and illegal activity of stealthily infiltrating or ‘hacking’ a building from a planned point of access, in the manner of Case in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or the unnamed hacker from the videogame System Shock. Some Urban Explorers, especially those from Eastern Europe and in particular, from Russia, say their activity is influenced by the figure of the Stalker: the mythic alien artefact hunters from the Strugastky Brother’s novel Roadside Picnic, Andrei Tarkovsky’s semi-adaptation, Stalker, and the videogame series, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. While this descriptive anti-heroism that Urban Exploration self-consciously brands itself with may bring to mind a shared heritage of urban extreme sports that frequently labels Parkour, Urbex is a contemplative observation of the new, noisy present, from the privileged perspective of inside the quiet, old, past. The preservation of this decayed and forgotten environment which so clearly allows the explorer to seamlessly travel between the present and the period past, the living and the dead, reminds us of its non-aggressive code of conduct present in its motto: “take only photographs, leave only footprints”. So, in taking photographs amongst all the literary allusions to thievery and spying, what do Urban Explorers leave in the ruins they visit? What do they take back? And is this form of historical representation in any way Gothic?

The birth of the guerrilla preservationist?

The presence of the Urban Explorer in the picture themselves draws attention to their practice. In walking into the frame, the scene becomes a stage, and the seamless and uninterrupted preservation of history is breached as the outside world of modernity invades and sweeps aside the cobwebs of stopped time aside. With no real vandalism done to the building bar the breaking down of the fourth wall, it seems that the combination of people performance within dislocation of time and place, for emotional purposes, is profoundly Gothic.

Just as Ann Radcliffe’s heroines display the struggle to claim late-eighteenth century forms of virtuous womanhood against the wild landscapes of southern Italy, and Jonathan Harker’s middle class, Victorian sensibilities are brought to the fore as he explores Dracula’s castle, these photographed urban spaces, in all their decayed beauty and mystery, become stages for our thoroughly modern anxieties: our lack of knowledge about town planning and the history of our urban lives; the very appearance of this environment a sign of our absence and neglect, a sight both wonderful and horrible.

As a form of fashion too, these buildings serve as an extension of the human appearance, generating mood. Just as Gothic fashion is influenced by, and creates doubles of history: Romantic, Victorian, Shakespearean, so too can the architectural elements of urban decay affect the gear of the Urban Explorer to the point where they too become identifiable objects of fashion.

The gas mask as necessary protection, or marker of sub-cultural identity?

These architectural elements can not only determine the equipment or ornamentation worn by the Urban Explorer, but it can also constitute it, as elements of decay can be worn by the individual, or even with the help of some clever photography, can themselves double the human face or figure. This fashioning of bodies in buildings, and bodies of buildings, demonstrates that the art of editing the urban landscape can be put to use both in shaping our sense of emotional self, and revealing our forgotten relationship with our urban past. Does this editing of these buildings render them Gothic, a style that revels, almost fetishistically, in artificiality? And if so, is it this surface arrangement of the past by the forces of the present something that undermines the serious yet somehow contradictory agenda of Urban Exploration: the preservation and memorialisation of the past as told through its buildings, whilst simultaneously relying on their precarious decay to do so?

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