Monday, 16 May 2011

Interview with 'dsankt': Paris Urban Explorer

POSTED IN:  ~ PeoplePalaversInterviewsMetro

Paris Urban Explorer

When asked 'What do you do?' in today's society, we are usually expected to answer with some sort of reassuring job title, along the lines of 'I'm a banker / English teacher / computer engineer...' We neatly efface our personalities and pigeonhole ourselves using one of society's convenient little labels by which we live our lives and earn our daily crust.

And these pre-defined categories do have a role to play. It's far easier to stike up a pleasant conversation with 'a banker' over a cocktail and hors-d'oeuvres than with someone who openly states they spend most of their waking hours trying to screw people like us out of as much of our hard-earned cash as possible.

You'd probably feel much more comfortable talking to me if I said 'I'm an artist' than if I said 'I go out dressed in black at 4 o'clock in the morning sporting a glue gun that looks uncannily like an AK-47 and deface disenfranchised walls of the city with subliminally subversive existential messages of hope or despair, depending on my mood and your interpretation'.

I didn't insult dsankt by asking him 'what he does', and in any case it was totally unnecessary: his images speak evocatively for him.

Another pleasant discovery, although not a particularly surprising one, is that his words are as eloquent as his pictures. Which is where I'll STFU and let you enjoy the interview with a decidedly singular character. 

What does dsankt do? Oh, nothing special - after all, he spends a lot of his time taking the Paris metro just like the rest of us. Well OK, not quite like the rest of us... welcome to his world.


The Interview

Paris If You Please: Does Paris please you?

dsankt: It's my favourite city and it pleases me in many ways. I love the density and the little streets which turn you around and shoot you off into a succession of alleyways, stairs and neighbourhoods. It's a great walking city and I recall whole weekends lost wandering the streets at all hours, stopping at every bakery to grab piles of snacks.

I love big cities because they create a spontaneous atmosphere. Without planning a thing you can walk out the door and find so much to do. The streets of Paris are great to explore, as is the stuff above and below them. The Metro, RER, catacombs, quarries, churches, monuments, there's so much on offer for those who want to gain a different perspective.

PIYP:  What's your favourite 'overground' place (or places) in the city, and why.

dsankt: I lived in a great little squat for a while with my girlfriend. There was no hot water but otherwise it was perfect. If I had EU citizenship and the cash I'd go back tomorrow, buy it and move right back in.

The second place is our little secret yet to be published but the third would have to be Le Pantheon. Paris can be an unwelcoming city at times but come a warm summer night it's a spot we'd always make friends and share a few drinks. Plus we threw ourselves off the top one night and rappelled down the front before a bunch of drunks. It was great.

PIYP:  When did you first get a desire to literally get into the innards of Paris (and why)?

dsankt: The oldest and largest 'organised' urban exploration group in Australia is called the Cave Clan who started in 1986. Sometime in the mid 2000's a few of the older members made a pilgrimage of sorts to Paris and explored Les Catacombs. They returned and retold their grand stories with inspiring enthusiasm. For many of us in the Cave Clan that planted the seed.

Once I finally escaped Australia for the distant shores of Europe it didn't take long before I found myself covered in dirt, drinking Absinthe and crawling over bones below Paris. Our escapades in the metro took a little longer to gain momentum but it was a natural progression for us, since we'd already explored metro in Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto, London and New York. Once I caught the metro bug and got that thick black dust under my fingernails and that distinct odour stuck in my nose I was addicted.

PIYP:  Can you sum up in figures the number of times you went down there, how many stations you've passed through, how far you've travelled (roughly)?

dsankt: We descended almost constantly, it's countless! The abandoned stations are to the metro what the boulevards are to the city. They're great to visit when you first arrive but once your ability to appreciate things beyond the biggest and brightest develops you delve into the alleyways and seek out the hidden places.

So we began with the stations but progressed to seeking out the raccord tunnels, the nooks and crannies, the reappropriated stations, the out of service tracks, the vent chambers, the storage yards for the 1930's Sprague trains etc. Similarly it's a progression from timid steps to confidently dodging trains mid-service brought on by walking miles and miles over so many nights.

PIYP:  What's the most impressive thing you found down there?

dsankt: I'm no foamer by any measure but I love the trains and the vintage Sprague units were pretty much the jewel. It took us a while to find them but once we did it was worth all the nights of searching. It's like an old platform game, you go out searching and unlock secret rooms, acquire new tools and learn how it all works, progressing slightly further each time.

PIYP:  Is there really a large subculture of serious 'urban explorers' as rumours would have it, or just a handful of bored guys and gals looking to escape their tedious lives for a while?

dsankt: To answer this question it's important to draw some vague distinctions around the term 'urban explorers', particularly in Paris where the term is somewhat problematic. I'd construct an ASCII Venn diagram if I had the time but essentially there are thousands of people who enter the catacombs every year, of which a small number I'd call cataphiles and likely self-identify as cataphiles, not urban explorers. They're the guys and gals who not only party down there, but they dig, they make art, they have projects down there. They're the ones with the A0 printed map on their bedroom wall.

Now, some of these cataphiles overlap into the broader term "Urban Explorers" which in my views means they also explore bunkers, power tunnels, quarries, churches, monuments, abandoned buildings and rapid transit systems etc.

An even smaller slice of these people venture into the metro/rer. I know less than a dozen people who explore the metro in Paris but then you've got to consider people like the graffiti writers as well who've been going down there for decades. How many in total I can't say because I never met any of them and never saw anyone else in the tunnels. Just us, security and their enormous dogs.

PIYP:  What have been your scariest moments in the tunnels? Have you ever been chased / attacked / injured / caught?

dsankt: All of the above. We always thought of it as casting the dice, throwing them bones. No matter how you play it's a numbers game when you enter into that kind of hostile environment and eventually you’re going to lose by varying degrees.

Over time we touched the 3rd while grounded, got chased by workers, narrowly avoided being turned to puppychow by the trains, caught by security, almost arrested by the cops, fined, got into fights with people while playing around between the carriages.

There are lots of moments when you pass a kind of 'save point' and commit to something and it's all fear and adrenaline and excitement. It's scary, but that's the point and why we're not sitting at home on the couch watching x-factor.

PIYP: How technically proficient do you have to be to do what you do?

dsankt: Explorers come in all flavours and the personal abilities determine the limits. If you can climb then a new set of possibilities open up, if you learn some caving style single rope technique different opportunities appear, if you're quick witted and know some social engineering, if you learn to pick locks etc etc. The technical skills help but they're hardly prerequisites. It’s founded in curiosity more than any technical skills.

PIYP:  Your photos are stunning. Is cool photos at the end of it one of
your main motivators?

dsankt: Definitely not. The photography has always been ancillary to the adventures and I expect it always will be. For me it's the act of doing which holds the value, the photos are a way to make that lasting.

I rarely look back through my old stuff but when I do I'm always glad I took the photos, helps the old grey matter ya know. If I ever have the misfortune of kids I can prove to them I'm not making this stuff up in some dementia fuelled state when their grandfather is going on about being balls deep in sewage and dodging metros. Further they really help to explain the attraction, particularly in the case of wading through the sewers.

PIYP:  You offer a superb quote on your site:
"The best advice I can give on hopping freights was given to me by a
hobo in Missoula.
"What do you know about hopping trains?" I asked.
"Git on 'em and go" he said.
"Which ones?" I asked.
"The ones that move."
The words thundered like the voice of God."
What is it you like about that?

dsankt: It's taken from a book titled Evasion and sums up the attitude I have towards exploring but also life. In essence it says just damn well get involved already and stop pussyfooting around the edges. Throw yourself head-long into the deep-end.

Life is a great teacher and providing you don't die or cripple yourself in the process I think you generally come out ahead by doing and failing.

I spent 5 years at university to get two pieces of paper which say I know jack-shit about life but could recite facts and perform a very limited set of tasks on demand. There's so much in life which is learned simply by doing. The quote sums that up perfectly.

PIYP:  In the section on your site titled 'Who are you?' you offer us a whole range of intriguing possibilities, from our neighbour to the office girl; from a city slicker to a construction site worker, and end by saying 'Who I am is unimportant, you'd do better to ask yourself who you are.'

I guess you're not suggesting we should all start hitting the tunnels, but you are making a pretty strong social comment. Is there still room to walk a different path in today's society?

dsankt: I'm just a guy looking for adventure in all the wrong places, everything beyond that is irrelevant really. For the record though since I've had people speculate that I'm a trust fund kid just kicking around the globe on daddy's expense account, I'll say that's absolutely not the case. Sure I've slept in deluxe Vegas suites but I'm more likely to be found in Norwegian McDonalds drinking cheap beer from a Mc'Ds cup after spending the night in -20 and sleeping in an abandoned metro station.

The tunnel in your question is literal for me, but really it's a metaphor representing whatever dreams people have. The paths available to us are as numerous as our imagination, curiosity and fear let us see.

People are great at convincing themselves of what they can't do, for instance I constantly get comments from friends "I wish I could travel like you do" and it's such a depressing defeatist attitude. We tie ourselves down then complain about the ties, scared of letting go and casting ourselves out into the oceans of opportunity.

As for encouraging people to get into the tunnels well, if that's their point of interest I'm not going to argue against it. I'm a big believer in personal freedom but equally in personal accountability. Get involved but don't complain when things go badly.

PIYP:  What are you planning on conquering next?

dsankt: My inability to sail. Sure I could run off a list of things like Moscow's Metro 2, the Eiffel Tower, an underground Neutrino detector in Japan but they're just places, minor destinations. I want a journey: get a boat and take off across the ocean and just see what happens; or pack a single backpack and take off on foot towards Japan from Western Europe. It's about adventure, not a single place. Probably seems like I'm avoiding the question and partly I am... there are plans in the lab and they’ll come out when they’re ready.

PIYP:  And finally, what's your philosophy on life, if you have one?

dsankt: At the core of it I don't believe in god, in fate or in destiny. When I die I expect my body to rot in the ground and be eaten by the worms. So I live my life as if this end is both inevitable and ultimate.

Excuses and self delusion lead nowhere, in the end we're accountable only to ourselves for the lives we lead. Old and grey sitting in a wheelchair, pissing into a bag it will be I who suffers for the things I was too scared to do, the risks I was not bold enough to take.

To this end I aim to squeeze everything I can out of life before it's too late and not let fear control the things I do. Overcoming fear, stepping way out of the comfort zone and attempting to push my boundaries are ideals I hold high. Fortune favours the bold, but it also takes the right curious mindset to even consider the what-if before one can be bold enough to seize these opportunities. It's not just about jumping from a platform and running down the tunnel because we've all different fears and different goals, it's about pushing to be better, to learn, to experience, to understand.

With this in mind I choose to live a simple life and pursue experiences above material possessions. I've a few material vices but the money I earn mostly goes into travel. I live cheap, I always have. Do you need another TV, do you need a big truck, do you really need expensive brand label clothes to impress people? So get out and have adventures, throw caution to the wind and hitchhike, roadtrip, climb, sail, ride freight trains, explore the world and everything it contains. I'm just overcoming my fears, getting on with it and finding the ones that move.

'Don't sweat the small things'.



Links to the Paris-based articles these photos came from on dsankt's Sleepy City site (there are plenty of others):


Note: Many thanks to dsankt for taking the time and effort to give me one of my best ever interviews here on Paris If You Please.

Thanks especially for the use of the superb photos - click any of them to go to the excellent Sleepy City, website, which charts dsankt's various offbeat adventures around the world.

© 2011 Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free - Suggestions, questions, requests and offers always welcome!
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