My haphazard introduction into the wonderful world of urban exploration began with one very rickety staircase. Glancing behind me, I managed to catch the last rays of daylight disappearing into the distance as I descended into an unfamiliar darkness. At first, my immersion into this eerie setting triggered panic. Threatening to engulf me was the kind of darkness, that as a city girl, I rarely get to experience. Lucky for me, I had up-and-coming urban exploration photographer, Controleman to show me the ropes.
Urban exploration, to a borrow a phrase from Toronto-based zine Infiltration, involves “going places you’re not supposed to go,” a kind of behind-the-scenes-tour of our cities that can include anything from abandoned factories, to train tunnels, to storm drains, or really any other aspect of a city’s structure that attracts the keen eye or the curious spirit. What makes urban exploration unique from plain old trespassing is the philosophy behind it. Urban exploration is not done with any malicious intent. Most urban explorers abide by a kind of code of ethics, including such tenets as not stealing, vandalizing, or otherwise altering the spaces they explore. As Controleman muses, “If you’re going to get caught…better with a camera than a crowbar.” Rather than being destructive, the goal is to gain an appreciation of the hidden spaces that surround us and to momentarily depart from the safe, sanitized attractions that represent the standard forms of entertainment in our society.
Urban exploration is no new phenomenon – as long as city infrastructure has existed there have been people exploring it. However, the hobby has seen a recent explosion over the last two decades. The growth of the Internet has allowed these groups and individuals to meet online and exchange everything from photographs to tips. One of the biggest forums, Urban Exploration Resource boasts over 26,000 members.
Prior to our meeting, I had become acquainted with Controleman’s stunning photography, which documents the underground (in same cases literally) world of Montreal. To my surprise, I found myself meeting someone my age, a student of photography at UQAM, by his own claim still only on the verge of his professional career. “If we keep it to the dictionary definition, I’d have to be paid [for urban exploration to be considered professional] so it’s still just for fun,” he explains.
Urban exploration as a hobby by definition relies on a certain level of secrecy in order to be sustainable. It is for this reason that explorers adopt fake names, and many shy away from the media spotlight or are even resentful toward it. Although not inherently harmful, many aspects of urban exploration are against the law, meaning that those who practice it place high value on anonymity. Publicity can make it harder for urban explorers to do what they love most – gain access to Montreal’s most off-limit spaces. Public attention could have the undesired effect of closing doors indefinitely. “More people are doing it, getting caught. It makes a difference,” Controleman admits. Urban exploration is about leaving spaces as you found them, preserving the experience for future explorers to experience what you have. Media attention presents an obstacle to this goal.
You can understand my surprise then, when within half an hour of meeting one of Montreal’s resident expert explorers, I was offered a tour of one of the city’s most frequented urban exploration spots, the abandoned O’Keefe brewery. Once inside, we maneuvered through the dark basement passageway, navigating using only the light of a small pocket flashlight, and eventually re-emerged into a day-lit space, one of the abandoned factory’s main rooms. My beginner’s nervousness largely subsided as we proceeded to move through an array of corridors, stairways, and other grand rooms. It was soon replaced with an unmistakable sense of awe. The experience was indescribably surreal. I couldn’t get over the fact that not so long before, the building had been teeming with life, and had now simply been left to rot. Apart from large pieces of equipment there were offices left more or less intact, an assortment of papers scattered on desk, just as they had been years ago before their abandonment.
I quickly came to understand the appeal that abandoned spaces held for photographers, but I asked myself, “is the reward worth the risk?” Clearly, urban exploration carries with it potential for danger. “Use your head. If you don’t feel safe, don’t do it. Always be cautious,” advises Controleman.
In the exploration of environments that in many cases are not intended for human activity, the reward of the experience is earned with a certain risk factor: abandoned buildings often have unsafe floors, entrapment hazards, and contain dangerous chemicals. Sure enough, during the O’Keefe venture, my makeshift tour guide pointed to a rather large pile of sponge-like material sitting in the middle of the room, “See that? That’s asbestos.” Oh, good.
Apart from debatably getting the black lung, I had to dodge a number of missing steps, broken glass, and other hazards. The level of danger would presumably increase with more challenging, less user-friendly exploration locations. Urban exploration is kind of akin to those choose-your-own adventure books that were around when we were kids – the type of experience you obtain is totally up to you. The adventure itself is an elaborate game of risk-and-reward.
There is a lesson for all city-dwellers to be taken from the principals of urban exploration. Far from being a series of dull, grid-like buildings, our urban environment presents all who possess curiosity for their surroundings – and a penchant for adventure – with an undiscovered world of possibility. All you need to do is take a closer look.