Unhome: Vadding the Man-made Unknown

A while back at BLDGBLOG: ‘Drains of Canada – An Interview with Michael Cook’ – fits well with my troglodyte bit (also John Eden’s sewering in Bow E3), and reminds me to do a tribute that I began but never posted two years ago.

. . .

“…a triad of paranoia, sleep deprivation and heavy medication combined to give me visions of an exoskeletal birdman staring through my window from across the hospital courtyard, which led me to fantasize at length about the rest of the hospital…

“Rendered completely uninhibited by morphine and completely curious by my own imagination, I began making excursions all around the hospital in nothing but my bathrobe and slippers, frequently in the middle of the night when almost all the lights were off… I was amazed to find I could get into engine rooms, food service areas and even out onto the roof. Once or twice I found myself trapped in an area which I couldn’t leave without going through an ‘Emergency Exit Only’ door, and it was then that I learned that such doors aren’t usually alarmed… Other times I scared myself out of my skull, as when I realized I was in the middle of the operating room floor while operations were underway, or when I stumbled upon the morgue while exlploring C Wing’s basement late one night.

“… The hospital is one of those glorious buildings which is continually built up, decade by decade, though hardly anything is ever torn down… One by one the single small buildings swallowed all the other buildings around it and amalgamated them all together.”

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These opiated excursions into the ‘ancient and chaotic’ guts of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital by the anonymous Ninjalicious initiated a decade’s worth of exploration and a photocopied diary of clandestine travel called Infiltration. ‘The zine about going places you’re not supposed to go’ ran cover stories like Houses of the Holy, Saskatchewan Sanitarium, Storm Drains, Buildering, Toronto General Hospital, Infiltration at Sea!, and Military Leftovers. No. 18, ‘What Hath We Wrought,’ had the zine owning up to its influence within a growing and increasingly scrutinized urban exploration ‘scene.’ Infiltration used to advertise in the back of 2600 mag (‘REAL WORLD HACKING: Interested in rooftops, steam tunnel, and the like? …’), with which it shared some philosophical affinities. In fact, hacking and urban exploration have a linked history that runs back to groups of programmer/gamers and tunnel explorers – they called it Vadding – at MIT in the early 1970s.

Infiltration was also the only zine that I followed religiously over its lifespan, picking it up at record shops, better bookstores and anarchist book fares. It tapped into my graf-derived obsession with subterranean TAZs, the man-made unknown and mythillogical infrastructure. (I also grew up in a city dotted with abandoned grain elevators, railway trestles and other decaying industrial leftovers that begged to be explored.) Ninj wrote with a charming directness, maintaining a strict ethic of traceless entry and passage, while also delighting in feats of ‘social engineering’ and the unfiltered awe of discovery. He had an eye for Frankenstructure – buildings built, bisected, walled off, rebuilt, sectioned, forgotten, built around, through, over-top of – within which epochs blurred and spatial relationships became confused (even in the minds of their daily occupants). More often than not, on those occasions when the explorers were apprehended, their captors seemed surprisingly oblivious to the mysteries of the spaces they used every day. More disappointingly though, some, when confronted by the organic irrationality of the man-made unknown, were actively put-off by the private lives of their buildings and this becoming-autonomy of sections of the urban infrastructure – a case of the unheimlich (unhome » the uncanny) in the most literal sense. ‘But… why would you do that?’ they would ask the explorers, incredulous. Surely, these had to be thieves, vandals, vagrants, terrorists. Luckily, Ninj was good at appealing to his captors kindness and egos.

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The only similar thing I’ve found in print is a London zine called Smoke: A London Peculiar which is nice but comes off precious in comparison. There was also the 2005 documentary Echoes of Forgotten Places which is visually stunning, but lapses into strained eulogizing for decrepit buildings’ past glories and our fading ‘heritage.’ (‘The forgotten places speak to us. If we choose to listen… we will honour our dead’ etc etc. cue post-rock sublimity) It also, disappointingly, spends all of its time above-ground. At the time of its release, Rick McGrath wrote:

“this documentary could have been a lot more, well, psychological, rather than just tree-hugger logical, and the point of the exercise – to explore some very compelling spaces – would not have been usurped by Robert and Leesa’s often-cornball script, which over-romanticizes both the empty buildings and the long-gone workers who once used the place. They come close to exploring their own psychopathology – certainly they admit to a desire since childhood to explore abandoned places, and they do it today to experience a sense of wonder — but then they lose it by going all rational and self-conscious, rather than losing themselves in their imagination and perhaps revealing these spaces as ciphers of alienation, as landscapes of transition, as metaphors not of death, but of time and entropy. And having some fun.”

Ninj didn’t go for this melancholic wallowing. For him, stuck in St. Michael’s, trying to evade death – and later, tunneling and buildering his way through Toronto’s core – urban exploration seemed to have everything to do with life, the living qualities of these spaces, and a melding of imagination with the concrete. The last issue of Infiltration – ‘Military Leftovers’ – came in 2005, a short while before Ninj’s untimely death. Thankfully, his long-time partner Liz has kept the project afloat, maintaining the website, keeping back issues in print, and ensuring that his book Access All Areas: A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration was posthumously published.

Find everything at Infiltration.org

2 Responses to “Unhome: Vadding the Man-made Unknown”

  1. Rob Says:

    odd anecdote

    im at The Business Depot making copies of an OCAP poster (i forget for which event), and i look over at the machine next to me, and i see this guy making a load of copies of Infiltration

    so i said, hey wow, are you the guy who puts that out?

    he said, Yeah, that’s me…i gotta mail these out tomorrow

    so i said, that’s an awesome zine, man…i know so many people who dig it

    and he said thanks, but he couldnt believe how many people were into it, that he had to mail copies to people all over the world

    we went about doing our thing

    maybe a month or two later a buddy told me that Ninjalicious was dead, that he had died of cancer…i didnt even remember that was his name at first…i couldnt believe it…a few months earlier, he had looked so strong and healthy…a young man, maybe 30, but youthful

    glad i got to tell him how cool his project was, anway

  2. Rick McGrath Says:

    Thanx for the link to my review of Echoes, but you unfortunately got the address wrong… it should be: http://www.rickmcgrath.com/echoes.html

    I’ve lived in Toronto since 1989 and I never knew you guys existed… great stuff!