The pursuit of cool is nothing new. The fashion, music, and entertainment industries all trade off our desire to be in on the latest trends. While brands use their agencies, cool hunters, and increasingly social media monitoring to keep up, the purveyors of cool do their best to stay one step ahead.
This is because what’s cool is often what’s underground. When something breaks into the glare of the mainstream, it’s time to move on.
A love of the underground is particularly true of urban explorers. As the name suggests, these are people who enjoy exploring restricted urban areas such as abandonments, tunnels, roofs and construction sites.
Although generally illegal, urban exploration (also known as ‘building infiltration’ or ‘place hacking’) is hardly new. From Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to Hergé’s Tintin, exploring is part of our culture and DNA. In recent years however, this hobby has been steadily growing in popularity across the globe. Fueled by the Internet, there are now numerous websites, Flickr groups, forums and a dedicated social network.
The unwritten rule of urban exploring is “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.” This is an admirable principle and the images taken by explorers are often stunning. But as I watched the first in a series of documentaries entitled ‘Crack The Surface’ I found a few things about this trend troubling.
For a start, the film itself feels a bit like watching Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop as it features characters that you’re never sure whether to take seriously.
An urban explorer from France compares the experience to that of being like a Super Hero in real life. Another interviewee says: “It’s not particularly dangerous…. Yeah, the authorities will always say it’s dangerous because essentially it is.” Undisturbed by the contradiction, he continues: “Common sense prevails usually…” “People aren’t going to pop a manhole and go down a sewer when there’s a horrendous thunderstorm outside.” But a couple of minutes later, he describes doing exactly this in Canada, nearly killing himself in the process.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the inherent risks involved that trouble me. Youth culture is often about transgressing boundaries and graffiti artists have been running around these spaces for years. My problem is with the types of people that appear to be attracted to this pursuit.
The French interviewee in ‘Crack The Surface’ explains that some of the explorers are people who “…have a lot of money and are bored because their money cannot purchase the experience of doing something exciting.”
He describes one of the explorers in Paris as “a CEO of a very big company.” He continues: “There’s also a lot of people that are middle class. There are lawyers, there are project managers as well as people working on constructions sites or being teachers.”
In a moment of self awareness, one urban explorer says: “If you’re poor enough to live in a situation that resembles an abandoned building, why the hell would you go and explore another abandoned building?”
This insight lies at the heart of my problem. Unlike the original graffiti artists who explored these forbidden spaces, it seems to me that many of today’s urban explorers are just bored middle-class males living out their boyhood fantasies.
Why does this matter? Well for once I find myself sympathizing with the poor security guards having to chase after all the lawyers, project managers and CEO’s that decide to escape their mundane corporate lives and explore the illicit urban landscape instead.
And what happens when big brands get involved? Consider Parkour (also known as Freerunning). This started out as a niche urban subcultural activity for the brave and foolhardy, but before long it was being featured in adverts, a James Bond movie, and corporate sponsored displays on the South Bank. Needless to say, it never really took off after that.
Recent years have seen an increase in outdoor experiential events such as 3D building mapping projections that have become ever more elaborate and dramatic. It’s not a great creative leap to move from projecting on the side of a building to doing so in a space underneath it.
All of this suggests that urban exploration could provide opportunities for brands seeking to increase their cool credentials. The Urban Tour by ASOS is a step in this direction. Some longstanding participants are already asking: “Has the Urban Exploring scene in the UK imploded?”
If the trend continues to creep towards the mainstream, I suspect things may really go down the drain.