The value of trespass | Bradley Garrett | TEDxViennaSalonJan 14, 2022
Transcriber: Ellen Maloney Critic: Denise RQ The story I'm going to tell you tonight begins in 2008. It begins in London. Start at Battersea Power Station. Battersea Power Station was the central power station for London from the 1930s to the 1980s. I was standing there in 2008 with my friends, taking photos of the building, we were fascinated. If he's recognizable to you, you may have seen him on the cover of Pink Floyd's "Animals" album. It is an iconic building in London, a building that many of you will recognize if you pass through the city. The building has also been abandoned for over 20 years.
We were fascinated by the building and its history, but also frustrated that we couldn't see what was inside the building. We resolved our curiosity in the obvious way; we waited until two in the morning, jumped over the fences, slipped past the security guards, and had a look at each other. What we found inside was incredible. There were these impressive control rooms in perfect condition. I was terrified of what we were doing, but I also felt this incredible sense of wonder. Running, doing all the things you can't do in a museum. Spinning all the wheels, playing with the levers and dials.
It was fantastic. What followed after Battersea Power Station was five years of exploring abandoned places around the world, places that are hidden, places we are not allowed to go. Places that, for all intents and purposes, are off the map. As a geographer, I found this absolutely fascinating. I was fascinated with the notion of space and place, but I was also fascinated by how places become closed to access. And how and why people reappropriate these places. We've sneaked into abandoned hospitals, wandered through sewer systems, seen the threads of communication that connect us all, dangled our feet from skyscrapers, and traversed subway tunnels, hiding from drivers as they sped by.
Right now, many of you are thinking, "But Brad, aren't you
trespassing?" The answer, of course, is: "Yes, absolutely." We live in a world now, obsessed with health and safety. We live in a world now, obsessed with security. We live in a world where we are hemmed in by signs, security guards, and CCTV cameras. In the name of "security," we are denied the ability to make decisions for ourselves. In the name of "security", we are denied our most basic freedom, the freedom to explore the environment in which we live. London, where I live now, has almost half a million CCTV cameras.
That's one camera for every six people in the city. Most of these are privately run. More generally, in Europe, private security guards now outnumber the police by 25%. You'll be interested to know that a 2007 Freedom of Information Act request didn't show that there was any kind of proven link between these heightened security measures and safer cities, but what geographers found is that where we found heavily guarded spaces, we found lower rates of engagement with neighbors, fewer public gatherings, and of course less diversity. You can understand why, of course. When you see security structures like these, you start to think that something nefarious is going on.
You start to suspect your neighbors. Less obvious are heavily guarded and controlled spaces like these. This is the office of the mayor of London. All that land around the Mayor's Office, what should be our common sense public space, is owned by a private company called More London. It feels like you can do whatever you want in this space. But as soon as you get on, "More London" starts filming your every action and they have this advanced CCTV system where they click on your body and the cameras follow you as you move through the space. If you do certain activities there - filming, taking photos, congregating in groups of more than three, picnicking, loitering, protesting - although none of these are illegal, "More London" has the right to ask you to leave your land. .
If you don't, you can be charged with aggravated
trespassing. What we are experiencing right now is a sell-off of our public space. It will pass into private hands. Now "More London" claims to be in a public-private partnership with the city. However, last year, without public consultation, they sold their company to a Kuwaiti investment firm for £1.6bn in one of the biggest land deals in UK history. It occurred to me: "What interest does a Kuwaiti investment firm have in cultivating a sense of community here? A sense of place?" The answer is: "Absolutely none." Because it does not feed the final result.
The halls here are all patrolled by private security guards, who are almost indistinguishable from police officers. When this particular security guard heard my camera shutter click, he came to tell me that taking pictures of him was illegal. I said, "Well, no, it's not really. Besides, I didn't agree to being filmed on your land either." He said, "You have no rights here; this is a private space." It turns out that if you want to control people's behavior, the most effective way to do it is to make them believe that they are being watched all the time. People will control their own behavior if they believe they are being watched.
This has always been the dark secret of installing CCTV in every city; people will control their own behavior. The cameras don't even need to work. The piracy of places is the affirmation of bodily freedom through transgression. This is what we were doing during those five years. Governments, corporations, and even our fellow citizens erect myriad boundaries around us, circumscribing our behavior in particular ways. We rarely stop to think if those limits that are being raised are ethical, justified or even legal. By exploring this city and pushing these limits, we make those limits visible and also give ourselves the opportunity to recreate the city in our own image.
Very often the only way to slip this net into contemporary cities is to just do it. Because many times it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to obtain permission. This is my brother and me. We are about 15 years old, we have loaded a bicycle with a cooler and fins, and we are going on an adventure. I don't know where we're going. But this is what we do when we are young. This is how we make sense of the place, this is how we learn, this is how we discover, this is what we do. We explore the world.
As we get older, our behavior begins to change. We start to find barriers. We change the way we operate in the city. We think of this as a beneficial process, right? We are growing up, we are civilizing those infantile instincts. We are learning "civic duty". What we are also doing is, by erecting these barriers and training each other to stay within them, we are killing some forms of creativity. We are creating a homogeneous culture. Cities are meant to be places of diversity, cities are meant to be meeting places. These cities that are being implemented around the world are cities where it is discouraged to be together, to stay and to explore.
We should ask ourselves what kind of people start to form in these cities. Social scientists have suggested that the frustration many people feel at having their behavior regulated in this way is leading to increasing outbursts of violence. What I am going to argue here is that transgression can act as a kind of pressure release valve so that people feel, just for a moment, that they are in control of their actions. Just like they are able to do what they like, regardless of whether it is allowed or not. Let me introduce you to a term. It is "usufruct".
It is an old term, derived from Roman law. It basically gives us the ability to use other people's property or land, as long as that property is not damaged in any way. In an age obsessed with private property, this seems like an absurd idea. However, we understand this concept in terms of rural spaces, right? If we see a hill, and it's in a farmer's field, we might be willing to walk across that farmer's land to see the view from the top of the hill. Prosecuting someone for climbing the hill seems like an absurd idea. However, when I apply this concept to urban space, we suddenly find ourselves with a mental block. "That's someone else's building, you can't climb that building.
You can't see that view." The ability to encroach on rural land was not a commonsense right. The transfer, in England, for example, was illegal until 1664. It was not until then that it changed from being a criminal offense to a civil offense. However, many landowners still prevented people, walkers, and hikers from crossing their land to get to places. In 1933 the Ramblers Association rallied over 400 people for a mass invasion on the Moorland Plateau called the "Kinder Scout". Lord Roy Hattersley describes this as "The most successful direct action in British history". He eventually led to the 2000s, which gives us the ability to walk on what is essentially mapped land.
Let's stop and think about this for a minute. Private property laws that favored wealthy landowners prevented people from accessing certain spaces. People thought this was undemocratic, so they organized direct action to change those laws. Now we all benefit from those laws. We have a "right to roam". If I move this structure to an urban environment and I ask you again, if I want to go up to someone else's building to enjoy the view, to be alone in the city, to hang out with my friends, as long as nothing is damaged or disturbed, why is this not acceptable?
In fact, when we talk about public infrastructure, such as sewers, we could argue that we have even more right to access these spaces since they are built and maintained with taxpayer money. It seems to me that the sewers are the most common sense public land. I'm sure many of you aren't interested in getting into a sewer, and that's fine, but what I would ask is that you consider the direct action that urban explorers and hackers are taking by accessing these. Secret places. and hidden spaces, a form of direct action that is an acceptable and reasonable response to closing spaces in our cities.
Some of you may be thinking now, "I'm kind of interested." But you have excuses, right? "I have no one to go with", "I don't know, maybe there is nothing in Vienna to find", "I really don't have the tools". Just to shake things up a bit, I checked out of my hotel last night at midnight. I went to the Wienfluss and wandered. I was halfway there, and I was trying to get into the Third Man tour through a back door, and I found another door, and I opened this door, and I went in it, I got to the sewer, and I crawled through from a tunnel in the sewer, and then I found this hatch.
I opened this hatch and went down, and I was inside the U-Bahn. (Laughter) I've only been here 48 hours. (Laughter) (Applause) I wish we could end on a good note here, but I'll also give you a note of caution. In the last five years, I've sneaked into about 300 places around the world. Some of those places I sneaked into were abandoned tube stations in London, very similar to what I did last night. Totally benign, he opened a hatch, crawled down, took a photo. In 2012, I was flying back to London and my plane stopped on the Heathrow runway. The police got on the plane and arrested me.
While I was in custody, they brought a battering ram to my doorstep and confiscated all my property. They confiscated my phones, my cameras, my computers, my hard drives, all my research material. The police were frustrated with the fact that we were exposing these hidden spaces, that we were sharing information about spaces that were not ours. They eventually charged me and 11 other people with conspiracy to commit criminal mischief. Which is a "thought crime". There was no evidence that we actually did anything criminal; they have to charge us according to intent. It seemed that, just like in that private space outside City Hall, the frustration Transport for London felt was that they imagined a possible future threat that they couldn't articulate.
They felt that somehow our photos were going to manifest that future threat. So by stopping us from taking photos, physically taking them away from us, taking our camera equipment, and dragging us through the court system, they could prevent that future threat from manifesting itself, potentially. Then I started doing some research and it turns out that if I go to the website of Transport for London, the public-private partnership that owns the tube, I can pay £600 an hour to photograph that same disused station, as long as I have £5 million. of pounds in liability insurance. Which leads me to wonder, or conclude, that perhaps photographing a private space is okay,as long as we are willing to pay for the privilege.
Or perhaps we can conclude that people with money are not an imagined future threat. Perhaps we can even conclude that national security has a price. You're going to think I'm totally paranoid at this point; I am going to show you another document to prove that I am. This document was produced by the US National Counterterrorism Center and cites my website and the websites of a couple of other urban scouts. It suggests that we are helping terrorists by taking pictures of hidden places. I have to wonder if I had paid to take pictures of the same places, would I still be helping terrorists?
I soon realized that the problem was not necessarily exploring these places, or even taking the pictures. I was doing what I'm doing right now, sharing information, which they found threatening. These corporations treated me, a hidden space photographer, the same way they would treat a hacker. My property was taken from me and my passport was also taken from me. They stuck me in the UnitedUnited for two years, limiting my mobility so I couldn't move to explore places. This is a family story, right? We know other hackers from virtual spaces, more than hackers from physical spaces, who have had their documents confiscated so they can no longer travel.
In this sense, perhaps I could suggest that it is no longer easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Perhaps both are equally difficult in the current city. I think that information should be shared. I think transparency is important in a democracy. I want to know what is being built in my city, by whom, with what funds and for what purposes. I think those are entirely reasonable expectations, as is the expectation that people explore their environments, regardless of the environments in which they live. When we explore these spaces, when we ignore those "No Trespassing" signs like I did last night, we re-create the space in our own image and, in a sense, make the impossible possible.
Remember back in 2008, we were looking at these chimneys at Battersea Power Station and we were frustrated that we couldn't get close to them? After I was arrested and after my passport was confiscated and I was dragged through the courts, we went back last year and installed ropes on those chimneys, climbed to the top, and I stood on the edge of the Chimney. It was absolutely incredible to see London. It occurred to me that there is some courage in continuing to transgress, no matter what the consequences, because it opens up the discussion about these limits that are being circumscribed around us, and whether, in fact, those limits are ethical, justified or not. even legal.
I'm not going to ask you to become an urban explorer. It's not something most people want to do. I would ask you to think about those boundaries that are being drawn around your existence and the way in which you are changing your behavior. I would like to ask you to think about pushing those boundaries in any small way you are willing to do, and to think about whether those boundaries are ethical, legal, or justified. I'd like you to think a little bit about whether intrusion might be an essential component of democracy. Thanks. (Applause)
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