All posts in exploration

Bärenquell Brewery: Exploration


Baranquell Brewery

This series of photographs was produced as part of my exploration of the abandoned Bärenquell brewery in Schöneweide, Berlin. The photographs constitute more than a record of my adventure; image making is a motivation for and a means of engaging with a place, allowing a reassessment of the self and of the city through the exteriorisation of the encounter.

At the point of each photograph’s creation is an attempt to capture, establish and assert a personal history, all of which occurs during an embodied engagement with a pervasive decay seldom seen in the city, achieved through a deliberate incursion into liminal space. It is a space that, through its eminently visible entropy, gives an overwhelming sense of its history in the present to which my photographs seek to give a degree of permanence. My own narrative, transcribed into images, allows a vision of its past to be projected into the future.

Urban exploration of modern ruins entails a heightened degree of physical engagement with urban space; broken glass crunches underfoot, paint flakes at the slightest of touches, and rotten floorboards prompt a tentative step. Entry often requires climbing walls or squeezing through fences, the camera sometimes compromising ease of movement. Physical exertion combines with the trepidation of negotiating various dangers and the pleasure of transgression, of being where one should not be, of positioning oneself outside of normative behaviour.

Adrenalin already high, there is then the exhilaration of exploration, in the novelty of the previously unseen, in delight at discovering what you had hoped to find, and of course, in the unexpected. The encounter is edgework (1), reaffirming subjectivity and offering a renewed sense of self.

The camera, though sometimes a hindrance, becomes a digital prosthetic (2), a part of the body that determines what is sought out, where becomes a moment to pause, and which vantage points are chosen. It is an inextricable part of the reason for the body’s incursion and offers an extension to vision, both a reason for and a mode of seeing. Flusser observes that “photographers are inside their apparatus and bound up with it” (3) and in this instance, the organic eye sees with the lens in mind.

The inclusion of another body, that of my companion, is not entirely deliberate but nor is it accidental. Whilst my body and the camera might “merge into one indivisible function” (4) Frank’s presence is an added reminder of the corporeal intervention, emphasising the physicality of our embodied praxis.

2013_07_04_berlin_brewery_128_webHis inclusion is an aid to the process of exteriorisation – what Jean-Luc Nancy would regard as the result of being “’posed’ in exteriority” (5) – that occurs in producing the photographs; translating the encounter into images offers a means of metaphysical separation of the self from the experience, both at the point of the photograph’s creation and its later consideration (each of which informs the other).

It is what Barthes hints at when he describes seeing his portrait as a “cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity” (6). This layer of mediatisation allows the subject to the see the self from an alternate perspective, providing future anteriority: an opportunity to reflect upon and renew the encounter. In making and viewing the photographs, I see myself looking at Frank, and get a glimpse of how I myself am seen.

In one sense, Bärenquell is a monument to Berlin’s complex past. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the brewery struggled to compete with the sudden profusion of choice and the forces of capitalism. It is now a morgue to a failed enterprise. Characteristic of the touristic nature of urban exploration, it could be argued that these photographs do not engage with that history beyond its superficial study of decay as a visual spectacle.

However, urban exploration seeks out an alternative narrative of the city, one that is outside of the everyday experience of grand projects and utopian designs, of ever-taller, shiny buildings and evolving infrastructures. What it discovers in Bärenquell is not history but a multiplicity of histories, both real and imaginary – “portals to other worlds” (7).

It conjures stories of the people whose daily lives were contained by these walls, and finds evidence of nature reasserting itself where urbanisation once sought to keep it at bay, of the countless encounters and expressions as evidenced by the broken glass and layers of graffiti.

As opposed to history, it investigates the historicity of its socio-spatiality, embracing fragments that connect this site to the complexities of social, cultural biological and economic flows.

The reassessment of self and one’s urban identity is thus threefold: edgework allows the subject to seek out “new possibilities of being” (8), taking place in a location where the liminality offers “the potential for assuming new identities” (9). Secondly, this temporary immersion into a multiplicity of histories and possible futures sees urban explorers – with photography immanent in this practice – “pushing back the limits of doxa” (10), prompting a reappraisal of self and society, and how one shapes an understanding of the other.

Finally there is photography, an aesthetic means of inscribing the self onto the city and thus seeing oneself inscribed; a stylised motivation for and method of bringing together edgework and immersion in order to see the city and self anew.



My thanks to Frank Sauer for making this exploration happen and appearing in these images.

  1. Lyng, S., 2004. Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking, New York: Routledge.
  2. Garrett, B.L., 2011. Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration. Royal Holloway, University of London, p.208.
  3. Flusser, V., 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography, London: Reaktion, p.27.
  4. ibid., p.39.
  5. Nancy, J., 1991. The Inoperative Community, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Cited: Kaplan, L., 2001. Photography and the Exposure of Community. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities; Sharing Nan Goldin and Jean-Luc Nancy, 6(3), p.7.
  6. Barthes, R., 2000. Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, p.12.
  7. Garrett, p.327.
  8. Lyng, p.4.
  9. Shields, R., 2003. The Virtual, London, New York: Routledge, p.14.
  10. Bourdieu, P., 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh: Cambridge University Press, p.169.

Misinterpreting Architecture

Misinterpreting Architecture

Bobby at Trellick Tower

On Friday 20th December 2013, we walked from Latimer Road to Trellick Tower, seeking out climbs.

The city opens itself to the urban climber and our dérive was one that incorporated the vertical and transgressive, giving ourselves a heightened appreciation of the details of mundane walls and unremarkable urban furniture that typically go unnoticed, untouched and unexplored. Such engagement with the built environment involves employing a vision that is developed as a result of an embodied practice that cannot help but overflow into everyday experience.

Regardless of any intention to climb, the eye seeks out routes and paths; geometries and textures suddenly acquire meaning and potential.

A playful reimagination is achieved; imagined futures are enacted and recorded and the praxis produces a fresh set of features. For a brief moment, ledges become crimps, a protruding brick becomes a sidepull, a drainpipe becomes a layback.

Nadja reaching the roof

Photography offers a means of granting a provisional stability to these transitory forms, a visual permanence to the angles and surfaces. A quirky, niche, everday practice unfolds onto the city, and an everyday medium gives it an existence beyond its own temporality, emanating digitally through a network of likeminded individuals clutching similar devices.

As this method of seeing the city reaches into an individual’s every encounter with the urban, it seems appropriate to employ an apparatus that lends itself to the everyday: the mobile phone. The camera is not felt. Unlike some of our explorations, our journey that day was not one of performance with any conscious consideration of representation. Instead it was one of play and discovery, of ‘drifting purposefully’ (Sinclair, 2003, p.4).

Trellick Tower, by Erno Goldfinger

Trellick Tower, by Erno Goldfinger

En route we inevitably stumbled across landscapes and the flotsam and jetsam of the city: old mattresses with accusatory notes and spaces set aside for no discernible reason.

Emerging as a product of and subject to contemporary digital technologies, parkour and buildering are inherently social activities and a sense of connectivity contributes to a practitioner’s understanding of identity and positionality. Essentially, to go out and encounter the city through such praxes is, in many regards, as much about the image creation as it is about the physical engagement of running, jumping and climbing.


Parkour and buildering, as expressive, ludic, experimental and sometimes narcissistic urban social formations (Daskalaki & Mould 2013) create and recreate themselves through a constantly evolving network of imagery and interconnectivity, through virtual expressions and digital media. The instantaneity of mobile phone photography might be assumed to give its resultant imagery limited value, but the images’ transience and temporality are fundamental to their expression and these aspects contribute to a non-visual aesthetic.

The temporality of the medium seems to correspond with the temporality of the praxis.

Our parkour that day was an intermittent and transient engagement with the terrain, bringing vertical paths momentarily into existence before erasing their presence with our departure. When received, the images are comparatively brief visual experiences; they appear in Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds for only a short period before disappearing amongst the noise of other exchanges. But it is the brevity that also grants these images their reach: what an image might sacrifice in longevity is redeemed through its accessibility.

Parkour is a fundamentally embodied experience that encounters surfaces and fear, where physical preparation and maintenance combine with mental and emotional conditioning. It is a heightened appreciation of spaces that might otherwise go unnoticed or unseen, taking value in details and establishing an understanding of a passage of time that is not felt by anyone else. Bricks crumble. Cement gives up. Railings become loose. Paint flakes away. If we return, we might find that favourite routes have disappeared whilst others may have since emerged.

The apparent permanence of the built is seen instead as flux, as subtle, inevitable shifts, as entropy and regeneration which in turn present new opportunities for physical engagement.

The insertion of the body brings new meaning to the city, as a site for experimentation and serious play.




Bobby Gordon-Smith, Nadja Hahn, Farid Herrera.


Daskalaki, M. & Mould, O., 2013. Beyond Urban Subcultures: Urban Subversions as Rhizomatic Social Formations. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(1), pp.1–18. Available at: [Accessed January 12, 2014].

Sinclair, I., 2003. Lights Out for the Territory, London: Penguin.

The Boat



Next month sees the release of Explore Everything; Place-Hacking The City, a book on urban exploration by my friend, occasional cohort and star/villain of the urbex underworld Bradley Garrett. It seemed like a good excuse to dig out a couple of my previously  unpublished adventures from the last couple of years. First up, the Mostyn Funship.


In October 2009, Johnny ‘Sticky’ Budden was living in deepest North Wales in preparation for his epic sponsored run. On his travels he had spotted what seemed to be a derelict ship parked up on the coast somewhere between Rhyll and Chester. A little investigation led us to identifying it as the Duke of Lancaster, aka the Mostyn Funship. One autumn afternoon, an eight hour drive from London landed me somewhere near Morfa Nefyn, drinking a quick beer with Johnny and crashing on his floor. At 5am the next morning we drove an hour up the coast to Mostyn and tried to figure out how to get on board.

Johnny thought it would be quite straight forward. I assumed otherwise and packed some climbing gear. After a good half hour of walking around the ship we realised that the only means of getting on board would be for one of us to climb up 15 metres of anchor chain. I taught Johnny how to lead belay, fitted him with an improvised chest harness and waited for a few dog walkers to disappear. With a large sling looped over the chain to allow me to rest, the first half of the climb was easy. The second half was a battle with anti climb paint. And then I had to get on top of the chain and fight my way through a few layers of razor wire. Something of an ordeal.

After we left the boat, I had to reclimb the anchor chain to retrieve some gear, giving Johnny a chance to grab a photo.

I rigged a rope for Johhny to climb up at the back of the boat, belaying him up. What followed was an unforgettable 7 hours of exploration and unexpected delights from the 1980s: cafes, restaurants, arcade machines, pool tables and more. A large car deck was locked but upon fumbling our way through the pitch black lower decks, we found an emergency chute that allowed us to climb up and into this open space in the middle of the ship. We found a huge stash of goods left over from the mid-90s when the ship was used as a large market.

The ship looks a little different today as it has been taken over by graffiti artists but it retains an aura of beauty and implausibility. Its future seems to remain uncertain but if you’re ever passing through that part of the country, it’s well worth a visit.

Dark Corners



At one end of the incredible Llanberis Pass, a mountain has disappeared. In its place lie immense piles of slate and a handful of enormous holes.

After nearly two centuries of of digging, slate quarrying at Dinorwic came to a halt in 1969. For every ton of slate that the Welsh unearthed, up to 30 tons went to waste, stacked so high that it became unstable and eventually made the quarries unworkable.


What remains of the quarry dominates the landscape, offering adventure to those willing to clamber the fence and explore the huts, ladders and tunnels.


Climbers have established numerous routes amongst the many sheer faces, the special properties of slate offering a unique climbing experience. Any rain turns the surfaces to glass and a showery day in April gave me opportunity to wander with my iPhone whilst waiting for routes to dry.

Click the four arrows below to go full screen.

IMG_5317 unedited.jpg

Sticky Snow



In the last ten years, I think Johnny ‘Sticky Fingers’ Budden has appeared in more of my photographs than any other traceur. Looking back I realise that I’ve been on a fair few adventures with him – running across the rooftops of shopping malls in Nottingham, being paid by a giant Russian multinational to jump around the capital of Nicaragua, exploring a derelict ocean liner, trekking around Paris in the rain to shoot for the cover of a magazine. Of all the people to hook up with and do random things, he’s got to be one of my favourites.

2013_stickysnow_his_01Since completing his epic 1,000 miles of parkour, Johnny has been living in Paris which has made our adventures a little harder to come by. The guy regularly works a 70-80 hour week so even getting a reply to an email can be a struggle. When I spotted Eurostar’s January sale, I didn’t hesitate; I bought the tickets and told Johnny when I’d be arriving, hoping he would reply with his address so I at least had a door to knock on and floor to sleep on.

2013_stickysnow_mine_01When I arrived he was in the middle of pitching for an advertising job worth several million euros so I wasn’t even sure if he was going to be able to find time to hang out. There were vague plans for climbing in Fontainebleau or tracking down some old military hospitals in Normandy but both of these ideas had problems; there was a couple of inches of snow on the ground which would make climbing tricky; and we hadn’t done enough research to know where to go for our Normandy explorations. Jokingly I suggested that we try walking the 60km to Fontainebleau, buying a tent and a sleeping bag en route. Somehow Johnny thought this was a great idea. On Saturday morning we set off.

2013_stickysnow_mine_04We took the Metro out to the southern outskirts of central Paris and bought a tent. And a sleeping bag for Johnny. And a roll mat, And a gas stove. And a map. And a compass. God bless Decathlon. We were hardly equipped for walking; we were both carrying hold-alls, I had my DSLR and Johnny was wearing trainers. We had an idea that the trek would take about 13-14 hours but this was not taking account of time spent navigating and trudging through 6 inches of snow. I had a vague understanding of a route that took us through the Forest of Senart and across a wide stretch of farmed countryside before reaching Bois-le-Roi on the northern outskirts of the forests of Fontainebleau. On we marched.

After the monotony of the major roads, entering the Forest of Senart felt quite peaceful. There were a handful of other walkers that passed by but we did half hour stints where we didn’t see another person. Despite feeling that we were maintaining a good pace, the snow, the badly-fitted packs and the navigation was slowing us down. After emerging from the forest into farmland it became apparent that our chances of reaching Fontainebleau, finding somewhere to camp and pitching a tent before midnight were looking slim. This was made worse by painful inflammation in my knee, probably a result of walking through snow and having spindly legs, a hold-all on my back and my camera rucksack on my front.

We took a very late lunch in a nearby village and grabbed some supplies. There was a train station a short walk from us and in two stops we would be at Bois-le-Roi. It was dark when we boarded and darker when we got off. The Fontainebleau Forest lay before us and it was a forty minute hike to some rocks where I was hopeful of finding some flat ground and a strong sense of isolation. It was a short, steep ascent to get amongst the boulders and finding a spot in the dark was tough. In addition, Johnny somehow hadn’t brought a torch, we’d not used our brand new tent before and it had been snowing pretty consistently since leaving the train. All part of the fun.

For £25, the tent did an amazing job. We heated our tin of beans, drank whiskey and chatted endlessly, high on the exhilaration of doing something so random and the sense of being far away from everyone else, albeit with phones and bank cards in our pockets. It just goes to show, you don’t need to go far to get a small sense of adventure. This one was right on Johnny’s doorstep.

2013_stickysnow_mine_10The following morning, breakfast was instant coffee and a sandwich, sharing some crumbs with a very brave robin. We walked back to the train station with the idea of boarding a train all the way back to Paris and spending a relaxed day in Johnny’s apartment. However, a fine cocktail of paracetamol and ibuprofen was doing its job on my knee and we felt like doing some more walking. We had only seen the snow-laden forests by night and it seemed a shame to head back so early. Instead we weaved a 14km route through the trees, often improvising our route depending on how long it was taking and what looked the most interesting. Flâneurs of the forest.

Warm and damp on our train back to Paris, we dozed and hoped that our next mini-adventure wasn’t too far away.

The One Thousand



Chalk. Bananas. Superglue. Protein powder. Finger tape. Flapjacks. Music. Nail clippers. iPhone. Lucozade. Guns. Resolve?

On Saturday 11th December, a small number of hardened athletes from Parkour Generations gathered at a gymnasium in south east London to find out if something was possible: one thousand muscle ups. Each.

Staying for only the first 8 hours and completing a mere 300 muscle ups, I can’t pretend that I had much more than a brief a taste of what the guys went through that day, but what I experienced certainly had a distinct and lasting flavour. Blane talks of the dark places visited by those who took part. My recollection of the day is a little broken, and so are these words. If you take them and magnify them tenfold, it will perhaps give some indication of what happened.


“Do we start together and finish together?” asked Stephane as we gathered for a quick chat before our start. I think he was only half joking; whatever encouragement we could give each other, this was going to be a very lonely journey. The mood was light but, in the minutes before we got underway, we each went very quiet as we contemplated the task before us. Like the others, my smile disappeared and my eyes glazed as I turned to have a conversation with the only person who could get me through this: myself.

And we began. Each of us had different approaches; some had trained hard in preparation whilst others rested and as we got underway, every rhythm was unique. Methods varied; some counted up, others down. Some kept pen and paper tallies, others tapped their iPhones. Some movements were dynamic, others were grinding from the outset. Each of us had our fight.

I started with 2 muscle ups every 2 minutes, a countdown on my phone ringing a bell to make sure I was sticking to a rhythm. I mixed protein shake with Lucozade. Not the tastiest, but easily digested amongst the flapjacks and fruit. Despite our gradual progress, the task did not seem to become any less daunting and whilst on the surface the mood remained positive, my sense of what was happening was becoming slightly disjointed.

In our dark gym, time moved strangely. The usual markers of a day’s passing were absent: daylight and meals did not exist and the clock on the wall did not seem to make any sense. My stopwatch was marking the passing hours, each batch of ten prompting me to scribble down some record of my progress, but time’s progress felt warped and surreal. Minute by minute was counted, and whilst each muscle up became a fight, hours passed in the blink of an eye.

At one point, Naomi, there to lend moral support through smiles and cups of tea (a godsend), asked if I wanted anything from the shops. It took me a few moments to answer, my brain struggling to comprehend that, outside this cold, badly lit room, there was a world experiencing a normal Saturday in December. My world was my chosen section of scaffold, my iPhone’s countdown timer, the failing skin on the palm of each hand, and the knowledge that in less than a minute’s time I had to get back on the bar and hope that the next muscle up would be better than the one before.

Naomi came back with chocolate. I remember her leaving. I remember her returning. I have no idea how long she was gone for.

After one of my reps I remember dropping back to the floor and kneeling over my scrap of paper. I stared with confusion, trying to figure out whether I was trying to add a vertical stroke next to a block of three, or a horizontal stroke through a block of four.

Between every muscle up I asked myself what I could do, when I should rest, how much I needed to hold in reserve, and how hard I could push myself. The answers were far from clear. And even if an answer was close, it was too late; it was time to do another muscle up and then ask myself the same awkward questions all over again.

Looking back, I realise now that the isolation of our gymnasium combined with a need to remain so finely tuned in to what my body was telling me – constantly assessing its feedback, repeatedly focusing on the precision of my technique – created a strange detachment from reality. It was focus, a method of coping and making sure I had the means of doing what needed to be done. It was like the zone that your mind enters when preparing for something big, but less distinct and drawn out over many hours.

Because of commitments back in the real world, I had to finish early. I had pushed myself to reach 300 before leaving and perhaps if I had seen out the night, I could have reached 400, perhaps even 500. Maybe I was lucky to have escaped before my spirit was broken or my elbows destroyed, but a part of me was disappointed at losing this opportunity to find out where my limits lay. The others were committed in a way that I was not. Next time, perhaps.

I learnt a lot from my experience, about what it means to challenge myself and how hard I can push myself. I know now that what I have called “The One Thousand” was not about one thousand. There is no magical number, and there is no magical technique, rhythm or method. There is just the continual question of whether you can do one more.

Empty Elephant


The housing estates at Elephant and Castle have been a favourite training location for London’s traceurs for several years. During its early stages, Parkour in the UK was often focused in city centres, both in training and in media representation. In my experience, it’s not that Parkour ever left the housing estates but perhaps got temporarily distracted by the shiny city, before realising that the best terrain is residential, not commercial. Better obstacles, less private property, fewer police, no security guards, and many more playgrounds.

Residential housing has often been experimental, and mistakes were made during the 60s and 70s as cities expanded rapidly and populations grew, becoming increasingly dense. What was once regarded as visionary is, a few decades later, regarded as an unpractical eyesore that compounds society’s ills. Many were hastily constructed – some even collapsed – and it’s ith hindsight that the disadvantages of these Le Corbusier-inspired housing projects are fully understood.

A bit of Googling will teach you that the Aylesbury and Heygate estates at Elephant and Castle are due for demolition, and have been since 2004. A huge regeneration project has been dogged by seemingly endless delays and has created something quite surreal: near emptiness.

There are a handful of enormous blocks, each up to eleven storeys in height, each with a mere handful of occupants. For the most part, residents have been relocated (more than a thousand), but this is inevitably a problematic process; some have no desire to move, some refuse the suitability of their new homes, some claim to have been harassed and intimidated by the team attempting to rehouse them.

Being virtually empty, there is no self-policing through the vigilance of its own residents. As a result, patrols are sent around in an attempt to keep gangs, drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless at bay. A team of litter pickers visit daily, collecting the rubbish left behind by the random collection of visitors and the occasional resident dumping unwanted, bulky belongings as they move elsewhere.

Metal panels cover every empty flat, and the floors that are completely empty are sealed off with more metal fencing, keeping squatters out. (London is a haven for squatters due to some strange quirks in English law.) Each piece of metal is welded into place to prevent it from being unbolted and stolen. The expense must be phenomenal.

For parkour practitioners wishing to train there, it’s quite peaceful, if a little strange. A few remaining residents can be found passing by and for them, Parkour is a familiar sight, to the point that local children create miniature versions of the movements amongst the walkways.

This gallery of images is selected from what I took during a morning spent wandering around the estate.