Just over a week ago, on Friday 13th November at 20:20 (GMT), I and my co-organisers and co-contributors were wrapping-up an event in the Northern Heating Chambers beneath University of London’s Senate House. We were ushering the remaining members of the audience towards a fire-exit that had been re-purposed as the event’s main access point, stacking chairs, taking a few last photographs and discussing where to go for celebratory food and drinks. We were blissfully unaware of the events that were unfolding in Paris during those very same moments.
Some of the Audience Members at the The Senate House Revealed Talking Underground Event
The event under Senate House acted as a provocation to consider the potential benefits of widening urban exploration’s appeal and shifting the practice’s focus from ‘exploring everything’ to ‘everybody exploring’. In this blog post I don’t want to outline the back-story to, or contextualise, the Senate House Revealed project – this is already dealt with amply on the project’s own blog. Nor do I want to review the discussions we had that night – I have already asked members of the audience to offer their own reviews, and these will be available on the School of Advanced Studies’ Talking Humanities blog in good time. Instead I want to offer a few reflections on what the Parisian attacks might mean for the future of urban exploration in Europe and specifically in the French capital.
I have agonized about writing this blog because at times like these I generally prefer not to jump to conclusions about events that are still so raw. This is why this post leaves reflection on the attack’s victims and the sensitive and multiple issues of mourning, and thoughts on the their western media coverage and comparison with other recent atrocities across the world, amidst many additional pressing subjects, to others. Like many people I have friends who either live in Paris or have strong connections to the city and I hope that they have not been directly affected and express my absolute condolence to all, regardless of whether I know them, who sadly have been. The thoughts I share below are neither groundbreaking nor potentially even innovative but they have been going around my head for the last few days and so I’ve decided to take a moment and briefly write them down here.
In London, perhaps more than any other European city, urban exploration has become overtly associated with the fear of terrorism and in particular the authorities’ concern that the July 7th 2005 attacks may be repeated. On that day, around ten and a half years ago, the population of the British capital and the city’s critical and symbolic infrastructure, the London Underground, were targeted, resulting in the loss, in the first instance, of 52 lives.When I think of the these attacks within the broader context of the so-called ‘war on terror’ I often find myself dwelling on the opening words of a documentary that celebrated the centenary of London’s transport system – “the Underground is to London what the Skyscraper is to New York” – a historic comparison that I now read as uncannily prefiguring a list of some of terrorism’s most recent emblematic targets – a list to which we must now sadly add the equally symbolic cafés of Paris.
The connections made by the British authorities between urban exploration and potential security and terrorism risks were consolidated in April 2011 when four members of an urban exploration group h were arrested at Russell Square station whilst trying to access the disused British Museum station. Their activities, occurred during a city-wide increase in security ahead of the imminent royal wedding and the more distant 2012 summer Olympics. That plus the fact that they were caught at one of the stations targeted by the 7th July 2005 attackers meant their arrest was widely reported as having triggered a terror alert. Since then the association seems to have stuck and now urban explorers are among the groups that support the ‘I am a photographer not a terrorist’ campaign – a response to their specific re-framing as a threat to national security but also the broader privatization of public space and the resultant erosion of photographers’ rights.
In other European cities these associations seem not to be as strong. One example is Berlin, but Paris is another, and the French capital was, in fact, mentioned on a number of times, in various registers, during our subterranean discussions. Perhaps most telling of these mentions, however, and something that has stuck in my mind since hearing of the attacks, was Bradley Garrett’s alliterative likening of the Parisian authorities’ pursuit of the ‘Cataphiles’, a group of urban explorers who access the city’s disused mines and catacombs, as a ‘cat and mouse game’. The video below, made in 2013, also uses this analogy and shows how the Parisian authorities take the offense seriously enough to have their own dedicated troglodyte police, the ‘Cataflics’ but at the same time treat the exercise with a degree of humor and only fine those caught underground €60 – a meager punishment when compared to the Anti-Social Behavior Orders dished out to those caught beneath Russell Square in London in April 2011.
As Walter Benjamin noted in Convolute C of his unfinished Arcades Project since the Middle Ages the underbelly of Paris, has “time and again been reentered and traversed”. But will the recent attacks encourage the French authorities to now approach the Cataphiles as something more threatening than just a benign group personifying the first pillar of the country’s national motto? I certainly hope not but the extension of a state of emergency in the country has already seen the suspension of the right to mass protest in public space during the crucial COP21 talks which will start on 30th November – a decision that international environmental NGOs have decided to ‘regretfully respect’. Given the tangible grip of fear being felt across not just France but the whole of Europe at the moment, it is hard to imagine that the activities of urban explorers in Paris will go unaffected.The above video concludes that the spread of access information on the Internet means that Cataphilic tours are “not about to stop” but it is questionable if this will remain the case given heightened security. Potentially more likely, is the scenario whereby the spread of this information online will actually lead to greater official restrictions and legal punishment of these activities, even the same information continues to reinforce the activity’s popularity, and despite the reality that Paris’ under-city is probably, as Benjamin again states, “less hazardous than the Paris of the upper world”.
But with the mainstream media playing its predictable scaremongering role how can events like urban exploration expect to continue unaffected and how are Europeans more generally supposed to avoid the fear of terrorism, to go about their lives unchanged ? This is especially difficult when we are subjected to the continual creep of a military vocabulary into everyday life by being told by some media outlets that we should regularly check our locations for emergency exits and so-called ‘hard cover’. The evanescence of this fear has led me to retrospectively excavate the subconscious anxieties I had ahead of the Senate House Revealed project. I can now distinctly recall walking to work on the morning of Friday 13th November listing possible ‘worse case’ scenarios in the hope of preemptively avoiding them and ensuring the event’s overall success. Low on my list where things like a lack of drinking water for the panelists, in the middle were concerns about panelist cancellations and attendance figures, higher still were potential health and safety risks. And then for a brief moment I imagined the possibility of something far worse before mentally shrugging my shoulders and darting into a shop to buy some water. I hope that we are never forced to allow these anxieties and fears to have practical consequences for our everyday routines not just for the benefit of practices like urban exploration but for life in general.