Urban exploration is the increasingly popular practice of trespassing on limited access urban spaces and exploring them for the exploration's own sake. The practice often involves documenting the foray and displaying the documentation in some public manner, akin to a trophy display. This can be further subdivided into a variety of explorations of abandoned or public sites, as well as trespassing on "active" sites, or buildings still in use, which is known as "infiltration."
The abovementioned site is called "Infiltration," thereby declaring it a site for trespasses on buildings in use. The site's "ethics" rubrik contains this essay called No Disclaimer, in which the author explains why you should "do this at home" and feel free to trespass ... as long as you aren't actively harming anything.
(Note: my emphases):
I don't think there is anything wrong with urban exploration, at least not the type described here and on 95 percent of the other sites on the Internet, and I can't pretend I do. Genuine urban explorers never vandalize, steal or damage anything — we don't even litter. We're in it for the thrill of discovery and a few nice pictures, and probably have more respect for and appreciation of our cities' hidden spaces than most of the people who think we're naughty.
... While it's true that some aspects of the hobby happen to be illegal, it's important not to confuse the words "illegal" and "immoral". Laws against trespassing are like laws against being out after curfew: people get into trouble not for actually doing anything harmful, but simply because the powers that be are worried that they might.
... I find it sad that most people go through life oblivious to the countless — free — wonders around them. ... Urban explorers strive to actually earn their experiences, by making discoveries that allow them to get in on the secret workings of cities and structures, and to appreciate fantastic, obscure spaces that might otherwise go completely neglected.
When you step away from the TV and think about it, humans are naturally curious creatures. We can't help but want to see the world around us; we're designed to explore and to play, and these instincts haven't disappeared just because most of us now live in large cities.
First, my caveat: I am a person whose gender, race, physical appearance, and a number of other unusual characteristics and circumstances, when they become apparent, nearly always confound, confuse and bewilder "normal" people. As a result, when people see me and/or encounter those aspects of me which are confounding to them, they lose their manners and freely invade my personal space: both the physical space that is culturally mine, and the psychological privacy that in our culture is mine to patrol.
What I'm saying is: I acknowledge that I'm hypersensitive to invasions of privacy.
That said, I do think that issues of privacy are not merely issues of property, labor, and who owns society on a left wing/right wing level. These are also issues that speak directly to racial, class-based, gender-based, and first world/third world privilege flow. This disclaimerlessness, this non-disclaim, is actually a claim. It's a claim on a privilege that most people simply don't have.
What I'm saying is: invasion of privacy is a white, middle+ class, male, first world privilege.
(Yeah, I'm throwing out all the hot button words. If you can't stand the heat, getcher head out of the oven.)
This disclaimer basically states that private space should be made public to those who "earn" it. "Earning" the freedom of the space, however, is not a process of applying to the owners of the space for access or contributing to the purposes of the space by working in or on it. It is, rather, a process of stealth invasion in which "nothing" is harmed, no visible trace of the invasion is left, and the invader doesn't get caught. Basically, access to the space is "earned" by simply deciding that one wants access to the space and then taking it.
Why is this a problem? Well, apply this principle to private real estate: say ... your apartment. If some urban explorer saw something interesting about your apartment building and had to break into your apartment to see it, would it be a problem then?
Take it even farther and apply it to someone's person ... make it a man's person. If there was something about your body or appearance that fascinated an urban explorer, something about your shirt or the way you did your hair that would "allow them to get in on the secret workings of cities and structures, and to appreciate fantastic, obscure spaces that might otherwise go completely neglected," then would it be okay for them to touch your hair or put a hand inside your shirt without your permission to explore that space?
How about if they could do it without getting caught?
Yes, yes, I know, we're not talking about individual residences or people here. We're talking about corporativized spaces. And I'm not the sort of person who mourns when a corporation's legal rights appear to be abrogated. But neither am I the one to assume that simply because we're talking about a corporate body---a business or for-profit concern---it is automatically evil and has lost all moral rights. Many or even most of the urban spaces so invaded are owned by companies or corporative concerns, and are used commercially and/or industrially. This does not mean that the privacy invaded is nonexistent or morally suspect.
And I am not knee-jerk about authority the way this "Infiltrator" is. Automatically assuming that authority exists to be flouted is juvenile, and not in a good way. There are culture jammers (like the Billboard Liberation Front) and pranksters (like the Biotic Baking Brigade) and secret space uncoverers (like Trevor Paglen, about whom more later), who do silly, or dangerous, or illegal things, who flout authority specifically to aid a democratic society in limiting the abuses and extent of that authority.
That's not what's happening here. In this "urban exploration" world, the politics serves the pranks of the individual (and that just barely), not the reverse. This is about an extended, urban tantrum against authority, a long thumb of the nose at Daddy, for saying "no."
This particular invader ("infiltrator" as he puts it) trespasses on both abandoned and "live" sites, including hotels, hospitals, and office spaces. I have no problem with abandoned sites; if you wanna risk a fall---or more likely, tetanus---I'll be happy to watch you Darwin Award yourself out of the gene pool. But live sites, especially offices, hospitals, and hotels, are off limits for a reason.
I mean Jesus, what kind of asshole sneaks around a building where sick and hurt people go to be healed, for the sake of flouting authority? Access to hospitals is restricted because: 1) they can't have extra people underfoot when rushing around trying to save lives; 2) there are communicable diseases floating around, asshole; 3) people are trying to sleep; 4) sick and hurt people don't want strangers around with no business there looking at them and their things and their families and they have a right to their privacy; 5) there's tons of expensive, fragile equipment lying around that even the most "respectful" invader could accidentally damage; 6) there are tons of coveted drugs lying around that they have to protect from less innocuous invaders; 7) there are people in the hospital (often) who have been deliberately injured by someone else and have to be protected from further injury; 8) there are tons of sensitive medical records around that a whole variety of assholes might try to access and take advantage of and patients have a right to privacy; 9) etc.
Basically, there are a lot of reasons hospitals have to defend themselves, as a corporate body, from invasions by strangers who have no real business there. Invasions by urban explorers simply endanger hospital security and property, and increase the traffic that must be monitored, thereby increasing the danger of more harmful invasions.
Similar thing with hotels and offices. They are places where people, respectively, sleep and work. To make a crude point about it, they are places where women sleep and work, and where they expect to be safe doing so. (This is not to deny that men expect to be safe in hotels and offices as well.) These spaces must be patrolled and kept secure so that the people who use them can be (and not just feel) secure. Again, "innocuous" but pointless invasions endanger security and increase the traffic that must be monitored.
In addition, there's a severe racial and class advantage being taken here. In "Infiltrator's" description of how to sneak into hotel pools, he (I assume for obvious reasons that he's a he) speaks directly about how to handle hotel employees:
Hotel employees are a lot like bears: though they'll certainly attack you if you act scared or run from them, under normal circumstances they would really prefer to avoid a confrontation altogether. They know all too well that any sort of conflict with a hotel guest could result in serious punishment, so they're as scared of you as you are of them. ... Don't let hotel employees get away with weakly implying suspicion — force them to directly accuse you, and thereby risk their jobs, if they really want a confrontation.
Once inside a recreation area, if any attendants seem to be gazing your way, head straight up to them and ask where you should get changed, where you can find the towels, or some similarly direct question. This conveys confidence, and also obviates the need for the attendant to ask if they can help you or to inquire whether or not you are a guest of the hotel.
To protect his juvenile invasion, this "infiltrator" basically threatens hotel employees with job-threatening confrontations if they should challenge his right to be there. What he doesn't say is that:
- his carefree invasion doesn't just risk legal repercussions to himself, but also serious economic repercussions to the hotel employees. If he gets caught the hotel may or may not press charges, but the employee who failed to stop him from coming in risks not just being fired, but getting no recommendation for further employment, or possibly being blackballed. Needless to say, the hotel employees who are "like bears," are mostly working class and often, or mostly, people of color and/or immigrants. The better educated and usually more white employees displayed at the front desks and concierge desks are generally avoided by invaders. Naturally, the employees whose jobs he is risking weren't asked beforehand for their consent to being put at risk.
- he is taking advantage not merely of the employee's disinclination to confront what might be a customer, but also of the class and often racial differences between himself and the employee. Presumably by "social engineering" the "infiltrator" means that he can at least pass for, if he isn't already, a white middle or upper-middle class hotel guest. Just by making a fuss, someone who looks the part can get the benefit of the doubt while the lower class, lower race hotel employee, wearing the uniform of a server, automatically takes the blame.
It's ironic that this invader uses the language of egalitarianism to take advantage of his class and probably racial status. His fun is had at the expense of those of lower socioeconomic status; and his fun is enabled by his ability to appear to be of a higher socioeconomic status. Can you find a more succinct definition of privilege?
In addition to this is a set of assumptions that shout privilege, if not truth or thoughtfulness.
The fact that he thinks that he "probably [has] more respect for and appreciation of our cities' hidden spaces than most of the people who think we're naughty" assumes that the people who think he's naughty don't explore urban areas in less invasive ways, and don't think about cities' hidden spaces. In fact we do; in fact, this is almost the definition of an urban dweller: someone who seeks out and lives in spaces hidden by a city's surfaces. This is why urban cultures are so layered and fraught with subcultures. Just because there are hidden subcultures one doesn't have to break the law to access doesn't mean that these are less worth exploring.
His assumption that he and his compadres are more appreciative and that "most people go through life oblivious to the countless — free — wonders around them," is insulting and thoughtless and, frankly, a white, educated, middle+ class thing. How does he know that nobody but he and his friends is enjoying the wonders of city life around them? How does he know that the housepainter on 15th St. isn't pausing, two stories off the ground, on Tuesday, transfixed by the way the construction site on Guerrero is making a strange double echo out of a Fifty Cent record blasted briefly out of a car?
How does he know that the corner storekeeper doesn't see sparkles of glass embedded in the sidewalk outside his store at dusk, and think for a moment about how when the housing project was torn down, the concrete and glass of it was ground up into a pile of sand which was then carted off to be turned back into cement to be used for the new development; and then wonders if some of that debris made it into his sidewalk?
How does he know that the kids playing ball after school around traffic don't enjoy the way the ball "pocks" differently against different surfaces; or that a cleaning lady, on her way from one house to the next, doesn't see a hummingbird and stop for five minutes, watching it, wondering where it's finding sweet enough nectar to keep it fed; or that the neighborhood dogwalker watches the dogs rooting around in the imported soil at the base of a tree and thinks about how far down, and how many underground levels lie between her and the real ground?
How does he know what people are or are not thinking, enjoying, appreciating, noticing, exploring? It is the distinguishing characteristic of his (and my) socioeconomic class that we are those who keep record of these speculations, enjoyments, and explorations ... not that we are the only ones who have them.
And while I agree that "it's important not to confuse the words 'illegal' and 'immoral'," more often than not, laws are enacted not to apply a moral principle, but to protect persons and property from very specific harms. Laws against trespassing are not at all "like laws against being out after curfew," especially if you consider that the author of this thoughtless piece of drivel was probably only thinking about North American urban curfews directed against teens and not, say, the curfews imposed by military regimes under martial law, or the curfews imposed to counteract a rioting population. Those curfews are literally repressive measures taken to repress the kinds of violent and surreptitious (if just) actions that rebels and insurgents tend to take under cover of darkness.
And his assertion that "people get into trouble not for actually doing anything harmful, but simply because the powers that be are worried that they might" assumes that invading someone's private space isn't, in itself, harmful. I rather think it is. It is less so when you are talking about a business space as opposed to a residential space; a more public private space as opposed to an absolutely private space. Nevertheless, any restricted access space offers its inhabitants a certain amount and type of privacy which is violated when that space is invaded. It doesn't matter what the invader does.
Ask anyone whose house has been broken into what they mind more: the sense of being violated or the objects that were stolen. They will all say the sense of violation. They were violated and they weren't even present at the time. Only someone who is privileged with large amounts of inviolable space can possibly miss this connection.
People who live cheek-by-jowl with others understand the delicate nature of privacy. People who have little personal space, or whose presence in a country is always contested, or whose bodies and labor aren't necessarily considered theirs to do with as they please, understand how small and liminal personal space and privacy can be. The more invasive the privileged are, the smaller their plots of real estate become, and the more important it becomes to protect these from invasion and violation.
These private spaces are a far cry from the public commercial and industrial spaces being invaded here. But one essential thing does connect them and that is the thoughtless privilege with which urban explorers assume they have the right to invade at will. That "humans are naturally curious creatures" is true, but were we really "designed to explore and to play"? Isn't it really that the more wealth and education and free time your class affords you, the longer you can remain in the playfulness of infancy? Isn't it really simply that you have too much leisure time on your hands and you choose to spend that time sticking it to the man in a selfish manner, rather than, you know, resting up from work or spending quality time with the family you aren't ready to have yet?
If these overgrown children want to play silly buggers, I'm not going to waste any effort trying to stop them. But let's be clear: the whole enterprise is a disgusting display of decadence, yes, decadence, as in decay, as in decay of respect for others, decay of critical faculties, decay of the understanding of worthwhile endeavor. Exploring your city? Great. Understanding its underlying structures? Doubleplusgreat. Invading spaces other people are using just for the hell of it? You're an asshole.