Tensions of Authenticity in Illegal and Organised Urban Exploration
‘Urban exploration’ originally refers to practices of individuals or groups while visiting and investigating abandoned, often industrial sites. Most of these locations are not officially open to the public, so that these visits are usually illegal. The thrill of trespassing and the fact that visitors face artefacts in what is considered their ‘authentic state of decay’ rather than after their ‘artificial restoration’ act as crucial incentives for urban exploration. In this sense, urban exploration is originally a practice where the infringement of ownership is part of the authenticity of the experience.
Recently, I got interesting in digital media use in heritage practices. When looking into museums’ efforts to trigger the interest of neglected target groups when it comes to regional/local, particularly industrial heritage, I started wondering how one might be able to draw on existing (sub-cultural) practices in order to re-gain public interest in sites and objects.
Living in the Dutch region of Limburg, which is awaiting a cultural Year of the Mines 2015, I was thinking that practices of urban exploration could be relevant for cultural participation and heritage relations in Limburg. The idea for this post came up when I first read about “Hazard Collieres” after moving to Maastricht. Having lived in Germany before, I had been exploring industrial sites mainly over there, so I was looking for similar places around Limburg. What I found was this (beautiful) abandoned neo-gothic coal mine in Cheratte. The mine is mentioned in several online forums and websites where urban explorers discuss their trips. It is described as beautiful experience and fascinating location. For example, these are some comments as they were made on forbiddenplaces.com:
- “Once you enter you are gonna be amazed by the rich cultural heritage and terrific industrial relics of this site. I highly recommend it”
- “Inside the location, it was just fantastic”
- “Gorgeous… I recently photographed some abandoned buildings as well. but none of them compare to THIS ONE”
At the same time, one can easily find literature that discusses severe challenges in audience development and cultural participation in Limburg. Since Limburg’s demographic structure is rather diverse, cultural institutions face several challenges in their efforts to spark interest for the region’s mining heritage. This quote illustrates those challenges quite nicely:
“The question of ‘whose heritage’ we are trying to conserve is particularly relevant in Limburg. A large proportion of the regional population have no emotional or personal links with the history of the coal mines and are not in the least interested in the conservation of mining artefacts, the black waste- land or the polluted scenery”
At a first glance, we might just derive from this quote that there is hardly any public interest in the region’s mining history. I was somehow puzzled by this quote, since it seemed to contradict the interest which I had experienced in online-communities talking about Hazard Collieres. Also, when visiting Cheratte I met people who had just been to the mines and were very excited about the visual pleasure and general experience of their visit.
So, I kept thinking that the quote hints at more than mere public dis-interest in mining heritage. Instead, it might actually point out a lack of interest in conservation.
My hypothesis is that people, and particularly younger age groups, are actually interested in regional industrial and even mining heritage, but they explore this interest on their own terms. Initial interviews and online observations show that there is a fascination with industrial sites, however these are not necessarily expressed in institutionalised context. Urban exploration is an example for cultural participation and heritage practices which detach themselves from predefined experiences as they are for example provided by cultural institutions. It expressed desires for alternative aesthetics, non-designed spaces and individualistic, autonomous practices. Hence, I started questioning what it actually is that drives people’s fascination about industrial heritage and urban ruins – and what could cultural institutions learn from this?
As mentioned before, I have been personally interested in urban exploration, and during the last years encountered many discussions about its commercialisation. Its popularisation is critically seen since it made the explorations less feasible and subjectively less special.
Indeed, the (still relatively limited) commercial potential of urban exploration has been discovered in several locations. For example, there are the ‘Spreepark’ which is a closed amusement park and the former U.S. listening station on the Teufelsberg in Berlin. Both venues offer, or rather used to offer, guided tours which lead people through decaying buildings, past machines or fairgrounds, and crumbling walls covered with graffiti. Such a tour costs between 10-15€ per person and they are often fully booked. In the Spreepark, tours are not possible anymore since the municipality of Berlin has bought the site in April 2014.
For now, I will focus on illegal and organised urban exploration in the Spreepark in Berlin. I will discuss tensions that arose between actors related to the tours and independent urban explorers. I want to use this case study as an initial investigation that may support an understanding of the reasons why people are also interested in the coal mine in Cheratte and how cultural institutions could draw on this fascination. In particular, I want to address the question what possibilities and pitfalls cultural institutions should keep in mind when they try to involve interests as they are expressed in urban exploration. I will therefore discuss the following research questions:
- How do urban explorers conceptualise their practices, with particular regards to what they consider authentic urban exploration?
- How does that relate to the commercial efforts regarding urban exploration sites?
- What can we derive from those motives and tensions in urban exploration for heritage practices and strategies by public cultural institutions?
As a basis for this post and my previous presentation, I analysed social media content which shows reactions of urban explorers discussing the effects of guided tours and the popularization of urban exploration sites. I have also conducted informal interviews with urban explorers on site, and talked to tour guides and visitors at the Spreepark (as well as the Teufelsberg).
Starting from a media studies and sociological perspective, seems to be particularly fruitful in this case since a main feature of urban exploration is that the practices of “doing” and “showing” are closely interconnected. While urban exploration is done in the field and on site, it is also represented and discussed on social media. There are various examples, notably ones are special interest forums on websites such as forbiddenplaces or abandonedberlin. But people also simply share this kind of content on social media such as Facebook or Flickr. You can see here the aforementioned thread on the mine in Cheratte, a collection of Facebook pictures of an abandoned veterinary lab in Brussels, and a report on getting into the Spreepark.
As I have mentioned initially and as the headline of abandoned Berlin “If it’s verboten it’s got to be fun” indicates, the illegality of urban exploration is crucial to many users. Dodge and Kitching (2006) – who also called the practice “space hacking” – determined four main motives for urban exploration which they drew from field studies, interviews of explorers on 20 different field sites in Europe, and analysis of online content:
- Desire to explore and document space
- Thrill of trespassing and gaining access to forbidden spaces
- Desire for authentic spaces
- Alternative aesthetics and aesthetical experience of spaces
I will particularly focus on the last three points. Point 2 (the thrill of trespassing) and point 4 (alternative aesthetics) refer to users’ desire for self-determination and individualism. The notion of authenticity is interesting in this context since it is obviously highly subjective: it implicitly assumes that the lack of preserving interference adds value to the spatial experience.
Such motives stand in contrast to approaches in historic conservation. However, seeing the recent tendencies of commercialisation, one is left wondering about the possibilities, but also the implications of incorporating the appeal and experience-oriented aspects of urban exploration in order to instruct heritage approaches.
Spreepark: Case Study
The ‘Spreepark’ is a former amusement park in Berlin which has been closed in 2002. What you see here is the website maintained by the security company who organised the tours. As mentioned before, since the park has been bought by the municipality of Berlin in April 2014, tours through the park are meanwhile not possible anymore. When conducting research for this paper, I was still able to participate in one of those tours.
Before starting the tour, you had to book a place online. Once you were there, you received badges identifying you as legal visitor (Figure 2). As the tour guide told me as well as the whole group, it happened regularly that legal visitors and tours bump into each other. The tour guide consistently referred to all ‘urban explorers’ as “burglars”: “Einbrecher” in German – no matter if they actually tried to take away things. (That was apparently common briefly after the park has been closed).
The tour was quite informative with regards to the park’s history – which is too complex to be told here. Likewise, it was quite biased since the tour guide represents it as the fight between the park owner Ms Pia Witte and the bureaucracy in Berlin. To give you the brief version: the park was closed and filed for bankruptcy in 2002, but the former owner and the city of Berlin since then negotiate various issues in court. Meanwhile, Pia Witte had to stay the owner, but she could not afford the running expenses which is why she made an arrangement with the security company PRIMOTEC Security. The company took care of all costs, but also received all income produced by the park. Part of that came from the aforementioned tours. However, meanwhile the park has been sold to the city of Berlin. Tours were run by Christopher Flade, a former staff member of the park.
Many of the tour participants brought semi-professional cameras and were highly engaged in taking pictures (Figure 3). The tour guide repeatedly commented on that ironically, for instance by saying: “Look a rotten leaf, you should take a picture of that” or mentioning that “Nobody has taken such a picture before”. He was also making fun of bands or artists who used the park as background or sites for projects. The tendency to break into the park was also an important part of the tour. He repeatedly referred to security guard experiences that had to save people out of the ferryswheel or scare them out of the park. The urban explorers were described and framed as destructive force. At the same time, the tour guide showed a keen interest to present the park history (on which he has also written a book) while most of his comments indicated scepticism towards people’s interest in ‘aesthetics of decay’.
The same security company, who organised and cashed in the guided tours, also ensured that no trespassers were allowed in the park. I have spoken to people who were illegally in the park who actually described the fact that there is such strict security on site as crucial challenge and part of the appeal to make it into the park nevertheless. They assessed the tours as commercial compromise which undermines their desire for autonomy and influences the authenticity of the ‘real experience’. The tours were seen as artificial replacement which also jeopardizes the illegal urban exploration. Paradoxically, the security checks were likewise seen as part of the challenge. These insights are merely based on informal interviews with 9 people that had just explored the park.
However, similar indications to these informal interviews can also be found in social media reports and forum discussions: For example, on abandoned Berlin, we can find a thread that involves a discussion of a tour in Spreepark vs. an urban exploration of the park.
The original poster “Irish Berliner” left this comment after an anonymous user pointed out the tours:
Yeah, if it’s not tours or festivals or concerts it’s something else. They’ll be selling t-shirts next. “I survived Spreepark.” Unfortunately it’s just another example of people trying to make a quick buck once they realised there were bucks to be made. It’s the same at Teufelsberg, Grabowsee etc. So ist Berlin seit Mauerfall. Once they realise people have an interest in these places they want to make money out of them. (They overlook the fact that they’re interesting because they’re abandoned.) It takes all the fun out of trespassing, but by all means go do a tour if that’s what you’re into.
A similar, somehow emotional reaction was triggered when another used mentioned that the tours were “more relaxing”:
Anonymous • August 27, 2012 at 8:20 AM
Hello, i visited the park last week, i saw no guard, but i only spended 10 minutes in the park. Think i will sign up for a guided tour very soon, only 15 Euros and you will feel relaxed.
With all due respect, if you want to relax, go to one of Berlin’s many fine museums or a coffee shop. But you were in Spreepark already and didn’t see a guard, so what’s the problem?! The excitement of being caught just adds to the fun – or so I thought anyway – maybe I’m weird. But seriously, ONLY €15 for a tour?! And what’s the fucking point? If you’re paying into an amusement park, I think the least you should expect is an amusement park with rides and attractions still running. All you’d be paying for here is the privilege of looking at a pile of old abandoned shit that they weren’t bothered charging for until too many people started hopping the fence and they saw an opportunity to make money from them. Of course, you can pay your money if you want – if you want to relax – but it will be a completely different experience. In fact, I’d say you’ll be missing the ultimate Spreepark experience and the whole point of going in. It is possible to go there without getting caught. You could go very early in the morning for example, when no security are there, or you could just run – as I did – when a security guy suddenly shouts at you. I ruined my jeans in the fence, but THAT’S a Spreepark experience and a far better story to recount later on than you’ll get on any tour. (In my humble opinion.)
These kind of conflicts emerge in various ways and they usually arose more recently when the opportunity for legal urban exploration in tours came up. So, what people are discussing here is very much influenced by diverging concepts of authenticity and contrastive ideas on what defines urban exploration as practice. Those users who are in favour of the tours are tendentially more interested in the aesthetic experience (mentioned by Dodge and Kitchin as point 1) and documentation of space. Those users who criticise the tours are very concerned about losing agency, self-determination and autonomy. The thrill of trespassing is taken away from them. Hence, they perceive the experience as less authentic.
Authenticity in this context is not an aesthetical category, but is regulated by the illegal context and the self-determination of the users. For heritage practices and approaches suggested by cultural institutions this means that in order to address certain audiences, we don’t only need to look at aesthetic features, but at the spaces and framework of visits.
Needless to say: cultural institutions cannot do that by integrating illegal elements. One lesson to be drawn from these contexts is however that public cultural institutions need to distance themselves explicitly from commercially oriented contexts. It was particularly the aim to “cash out abandoned sites”, as one urban explorer in Berlin framed it, which was critically rejected.
Moreover, they need to refrain from creating copies of the original experience. Seeing the interest in urban exploration which comes along with people’s concerns that these practices are being popularised commercialised and hence inhibited, cultural institutions should rather provide spaces to reflect on those spaces, practices and tensions themselves. Social media provide rich possibilities to gather material and address possible interest groups. Instead of aiming at, for example, exhibitions which simulate urban exploration, one should exhibit reflective, user-driven reports and documentations of urban exploration. User generated content and a topical focus on the very issues and problems indicated before are possible options in order to address such issues. Naturally of course, they are no automatic formula and I am aware that my presentation rather hints at friction points than proposing final solutions.
When talking about authenticity it seems, at least with regards to urban exploration, the spatial and legal context actually defines the understanding of authenticity rather than aesthetical elements. It is not only about “Exhibiting decay” as aesthetical experience, but more about the associations with the figure of an independent, autonomous explorer which does not follow predefined paths. When thinking about authentic heritage approaches, we therefore face the challenge that a) commercial elements and b) predefined experiences may inhibit users’ interest. Cultural institutions then do not only face the crucial challenge that conservation and preservation are contradicted by aesthetics of decay as found in urban exploration. Moreover, they need to consider possibilities to offer spaces and tools which allow for an engagement with heritage artefacts and sites which is not perceived as pre-defined and part of a commercialisation process. Last but not least, they also face the challenge that the practices which they then present are illegal and more importantly sometimes dangerous.
To conclude, I hope that this posts gives you some insights into dynamics that occur when (former) sub-cultural practices are re-appropriated in regulated contexts, comparable to museums. Apart from legal issues and conservational challenges, tensions resulting from a certain resistance to mainstreaming and commercialisation of sub-cultural practices should be taken into account. Therefore, instead of attempting a re-appropriation of urban exploration for heritage approaches, one should think about possibilities to involve and reflect on the practice and the described conflicts themselves.
I had the pleasure of presenting an earlier version of this post at the conference “Whose culture is it? On cultures of authenticity and ownership in art and cultural heritage” (Maastricht University). Even though the topic is not directly related to the research focus of this weblog, I hope you enjoyed this site-trip into heritage studies, with a hint of social media analysis.