You’ve probably seen Instagram photos like it: a man in a dark hoodie stands on the edge of a building, his fashionable flyknits only inches from a plummeting drop onto the saturated night lights of a major city.
If this sounds familiar, then you know about the Urbex (Urban Exploration) Instagram, which has exploded in recent years. As Adrian Chen describes in a 2014 piece for New York Magazine:
They can be spotted by the distinctive humpback of their padded photographers’ backpacks and colorful lightweight Nikes, equally effective at gripping rusty ladder rungs and looking cool in a photograph hanging over the city from the edge of a skyscraper’s roof, as if all of Manhattan were just an ottoman. For them, photography is more performance—or competition—than visual art.
When urban exploration hit social media, all hell broke loose. Many mark its rise from a series of videos by Russian duo On the Roofs. This sweaty-palm, can’t-look/can’t-look-away video shows two masked figures breaking into a construction site to climb the in-progress Shanghai tower. Theo Kindynis, a PhD candidate at the University of Greenwich who has studied the media depiction of urbex, typifies the video in a 2015 article:
Such representations typically depicted the protagonists (and they are very much protagonists, taking center-stage and casting themselves as fearless adventurer-heroes) scaling an under-construction skyscraper or construction crane before inevitably dangling their legs, or even singlehandedly hanging their entire body, without any safety equipment, from some concrete or steel precipice.
It’s no surprise that these “rooftopping” posts go viral. But not all explorations of cities’ forbidden regions looks like this. For years, explorers have crawled through dark catacombs, sewers, train tunnels, and many other less-photogenic places. The experience is not so much about claiming an amazing photo, as seeing something few others get to see. Bradley Garrett, a professor of geography at the University of Southhampton, and author of the book Explore Everything: Place Hacking the City, describes the motivations of a sewer explorer in a forthcoming research paper:
As the explorer Bacchus explained to me, “I want to understand where the water goes when I flush my toilet; I want to see Bazalgette’s bricks in action.” In the River Tyburn, I stood underneath Buckingham Palace with a team of drainers, the faecal flow pinning our fishing waders to our legs. Bacchus, turning to the other drainers on the expedition said, “Boys and girls, you may never have tea with the Queen of England but you can now say you’ve stood in her shit.”
Certainly, sewers are less popular on Instagram, and less favorable to potential sponsorship deals. Many rooftoppers are sponsored or are otherwise professional, note both Garrett and Kindynis. On the Roofs did an ad for Canon; Humza Deas, the subject of Chen’s interview, is sponsored by a sock company; and UK explorer James Kingston sells his own apparel, featuring pictures of himself on top of buildings. I asked Garrett how social media, rooftopping, and branding feed on each other. He said:
The posting of photos (usually on blogs) used to be mostly about telling stories, attempting to relay the viscerality of exploration, making political statements about the “out-of-bounds” city and demonstrating trained technical skills with a camera (often film). What is being produced for Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat is mostly about capturing an aesthetic that that almost has no spatial context. Of course, this slots right into neoliberal corporate ideologies because they can appropriate the aesthetic without having to also relay to socio-political milieu of the image.
Certainly this seems predictable, if one considers exploration more akin to an extreme sport than an intellectual pursuit. But the real mind-numbing factor is how all of these photographs fall prey to cookie-cutter Instagrammization. Not unlike the “ruinporn” urbex spin-off, popular back in the height of the 2008-2009 recession, rooftopping all looks the same as it approaches aesthetic ideals. Shoes, dangling off of a thing, over a city. A person in a hoodie, on a bridge. It looks cool, but the faux cool of equivalence, not unlike the brands for which these Instagram celebrities now produce. What makes any of this different or meaningful from any other extreme contrast, high-saturation imagery of urbanism? Instagram rooftopping has taken something as exciting as trespassing and made it as mundane as a latte on a reclaimed wood espresso bar.
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