Breaking and Entering: Three urban explorers discuss their craft
By Jonathan Sherman-Presser, for TOPIC MAGAZINE
Who doesn’t secretly harbor the urge to go places that we are told are strictly off-limits? Whether for the thrill of exploration, the rush of going somewhere forbidden, or simple curiosity, we all long to get behind the doors that read “Authorized Personnel Only.” Topic’s Jonathan Sherman-Presser recently spoke with three individuals: Julia Solis, Bryan Papciak and Ninjalicious-who dare to ignore the “Do Not Enter” signs to practice what they call “urban exploration” - their unique form of breaking and entering.
TOPIC: As urban explorers, you are each from a different area and share your work in a different way: Julia, through games, scavenger hunts, and your book; Ninj, through Infiltration, your web ‘zine; and Bryan, through the film, American Ruins, which you co-directed with Jeff Sias. Does the chance to share your discoveries motivate you to explore more?
Julia: I tend to seek out abandoned spaces in the service of some project I'm working on. Explorers, as I understand it, investigate little-known areas mainly to gain scientific, historic or other kinds of knowledge. My motives are a bit different in that, with a few exceptions, I'm not trying to gain an understanding of the real world as much as find a way to clamber out of it-trying to assemble stories out of weird and striking elements in our environment, preferably from spaces that are isolated and decayed and thus more susceptible to imaginary transgressions. And when I go into a new abandoned building, I think, "What can spring to life here?"
Ninj: When asked to define urban exploration for people, I'm careful to say that it is the exploration and documentation of off-limits and neglected places. I don't know if people who just wander through abandoned buildings or tunnels and do nothing to capture the experience merit the title “Explorer.”
Bryan: Sharing discoveries seems to be an essential element of any art form - often in intent, and always in presentation. I'm much more interested in what the process itself reveals about a place, in inviting participation in an impression. An abandoned space is a mystery, and, as in religion, I think a mystery is better celebrated than solved. The implied story, the echo, the characters that might have been, the stories that lurk not so much in truth - but the ones that are glimpsed in the shadows or are barely visible under layers of dust. Once you shine a light or blow off the dust things often become less interesting.
TOPIC: Is there a more primal draw to exploration?
Ninj: I think on a typical trip I'm hunting for an amazing experience more than an amazing story. There are dozens of factors that attract me to urban exploration, and certainly the thrill of getting away with something is one of them. It's a huge rush to sneak around in back corridors, hiding from occasional passing employees and maybe even having to run for it once in a while. But the off-limits thing isn't totally necessary for me. Sometimes I'll just talk my way into somewhere interesting, like a closed observation deck or the bell tower of a cathedral, and I find exploring the place just as thrilling. I think it's the sense of earning a special experience for myself that's important to me, whether I earn that through audacity, creativity, determination or some other means.
Bryan: The off-limits factor is definitely an appeal for three reasons. One, it's fun to get away with stuff. Two, come on, you can't pretend it's not a rush. And three, "approved" vantage points reveal very little. The beaten path, the front door, the proscenium - these are intended and consciously arranged pictures. The back door, the roof hatch, the tunnel-places necessary for function, but not for public view-offer the real glimpse into inner workings.
Julia: I agree. The idea of earning a special experience through an off-limits adventure is appealing. The main drawback of entering a place with permission is that you're accountable to someone and that means not only having to participate in that person's or institution's perception of the place, but also losing some of the freedom to make your own discoveries. Wherever you go normally, you have to deal with social and territorial boundaries. In a city like New York, your movements are constantly watched, repressed, denied. Not only on a physical level, but you also generally try not to make an ass of yourself by digging through garbage or sliding down stairs or wearing your shirt backwards. But when you're in an off-limits area, you're free to open any door and peek into any closet and maybe dress up in what you find.
TOPIC: Have any of you ever gotten in any serious trouble while exploring off-limits areas?
Ninj: Assuming you mean the cops-and-security-guards kind of trouble, I wouldn't say I've ever gotten into any serious trouble while exploring. When I was in my teens, one day the police had to come to my house and explain to me in front of my parents that I couldn't just go around entering other people's houses, something I've been good about since then. I've received a trespassing ticket for draining, when I happened to come out of the wrong manhole at the wrong time. The most infuriating to me, however, have been the various bans I've received. I've been banned for one to two years from some buildings I really like. I know if I'm caught back there they would delight in punishing me as much as legally possible. So I actually obey the ban.
Bryan: There have been a lot of close encounters - plenty of ducking, hiding or diving out of the way while security or police made rounds. Jeff Sias & I were caught once while exploring and location-scouting an abandoned amusement park. We weren't terribly smart or cautious about that one. We entered a building that had a very clear "Alarmed" sticker on a door, and thought that it was merely old and irrelevant. It wasn't. However, the situations where we were not noticed are the most interesting: building a bridge of chairs to cross a flooded tunnel (underneath an active police checkpoint), or 30 people in medieval costumes sneaking out of an abandoned asylum at 4 am, past a very nearby police car.
Julia: Or that time we had 85 people in wheelchairs playing Capture the Flag in the secret crypt beneath central police headquarters-without a single flashlight. That was a rockin' good time.
Bryan: I should also add that eluding law enforcement, while certainly exciting, is not the point. In fact, I'm kind of glad they are there - if they weren't, interesting places would be overrun with tourists. More often than not, the presence of security contributes to the overall absurdity (and oddity) of our styles of breaking and entering. For instance, medieval costumes are cool. Medieval costumes in an abandoned asylum very, very near police cars are even cooler. Police add garnish to a story, kind of like parsley.
TOPIC: There seems to be a tension between wanting to explore private/undiscovered spaces and wanting to share those experiences with others. Would you still be interested in doing the work that you do if the places you were visiting became open to the public? Has that happened to any of your favorite sites?
Ninj: I would really miss both the thrill of discovery and the feel of getting away with something, and I'd be annoyed by the addition of velvet ropes and a gift shop, but I'd still love the space and I'd probably even be happy that more other people were able to enjoy it. During an annual event here in Toronto called Doors Open, various architecturally interesting buildings open their doors to the general public. I always go and have a pretty good time-the event often presents good opportunities for off-limits exploration, too. But I really enjoy it on the streetcar ride home afterwards, when people around me are talking about how great Toronto's older architecture is, and how the architects of today could really learn something from their forebears and so on. Even if they don't get the exploration part, at least they get the love -of-authenticity part.
Bryan: It is indeed a tricky balance. There are so many things to share when it comes to abandoned and derelict structures: the excitement of exploration, the adventure of breaking and entering, the textures, the architecture, the beauty of nature reclaiming humanity's attempts. So far, the only ways I've found to share are visual (photographic), visceral (cinematic), aural (sound recording) or anecdotal. A brave few have taken up the offer to explore places, but most are content with a vicarious experience. However, so many amazing places are being pulverized by vandals. I prefer to see a place left alone - except for those who vow to respect it, even while trespassing. A complicated code of conduct, but nevertheless one that preserves an intriguing place in image and memory.
- Jonathan Sherman-Presser is a freelance nomad, rambling from town to town, hustling on street corners, trading a few words for a few bucks.
- Julia Solis is the founder of the urban exploration groups Dark Passage and Ars Subterranea: The Society for Creative Preservation, through which she stages scavenger hunts and exhibitions in forgotten spaces, and is the author of New York Underground, a history of subterranean New York.
- Ninjalicious was an urban explorer based out of Toronto, and ran infiltration.org, a zine devoted to urban exploration. He has since passed away.
Ninj's Book: "Access All Areas"