Art in Urban Exploration

Urban Explorer Hobart

Urban Explorer Hobart

Some people are discovering a new hobby, one that is slowly being revealed through recent media attention, and it is called urban exploration. Some readers may already know about this pastime through such shows as Discovery Channel’s Urban Explorers or other media sources that cover it from different angles, including the hip and horrific potentials for such expeditions. Urban exploration is like hiking or spelunking, except it focuses on the man-made world of industrialized environments. Explorers get into abandoned ruins, underground passages, or rarely traversed areas of cities in order to experience the raw, man-made environment which is often in a state of decay, neglect or exclusion from mainstream society. This kind of exploration opens up a vast amount of possibility for historical documentation and of course for artistic expression. Responsible urban explorers are careful not to trespass on private property where they are not welcome, but there is still a rush of adrenaline in wandering through a city’s ruins that cannot be denied. Explorers also need to be extremely careful with physical safety in decrepit environments as they uncover the underbelly of our societal structures, then reveal it, primarily through photographs.

The motto of most urban explorers is, “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.” This phrase is a common philosophy of modern hikers in the natural world, but the urban explorer adopts it for his or her own ethical platform as well. Controversy about public safety is of course high and that’s part of what makes urban exploration alluring for some. Art has always pushed the boundaries of what is culturally acceptable and this undertaking is no different. Those artists who explore an urban landscape are primarily photographers. They capture the emotional thrill of ‘infiltration,’ a word that is synonymous with the processes of urban exploration. The feeling of anticipation, the slight chill of fear in the unknown, the process of uncovering these areas under and around cities is what brings the art of the photography equally to life.

Haikyo in an abandoned dormitory in central Nagasaki.

Example of Haikyo (an abandoned
dormitory in central Nagasaki.)
Photo by Japan Resor (CC BY-SA)

According to Wikipedia, some photographers who specialize in documenting urban ruins are Seph Lawless, Julia Solis, Andrew L. Moore, Brandon P. Davis, and John Mooney. But this hobby is not just American, Canadian or European. The Japanese also have a term for it called haikyo. The word means ‘abandoned place’ but recently has come to include the idea of urban exploration as a process. Even popular works by Hayao Miyazaki, such as his movie Spirited Away, show the prevalence in popular culture of abandoned theme parks as places of adventure and danger. The wabi-sabi element to the natural process of decay over years that an unused, urban setting undergoes certainly aligns with certain Japanese artistic aesthetics. Decay can be seen as beautiful.

This trend is just one modern development in the long, historical scene of art and while it may be new and budding in popularity, it still calls back to enduring values that make for good art. It’s not just that urban exploration is controversial but that the images have something to say to anyone who views them. In a world of hyper-industrialization, where pockets of time are left both forgotten and hidden behind a metropolitan curtain, we can ‘infiltrate’ and get a glimpse behind the curtain of our past; we can consider what that past means and what it means to watch it still in decay.

A quick Google search of ‘urban exploration’ will turn up several images of sights from around the world. But one particular blog caught our attention recently, if only a catalog of the best images from 2012, and that is here at 500px. If this article has sparked an interest in urban exploration, we recommend you read up on the subject at Wikipedia and inform yourself of any potential laws or prohibitions in your area as to the practice. This is an emerging form of art that exhilarates both in the undertaking and in the viewing afterward.