Broken Legs, Surveillance Cameras and Black Mold:
Safety & Security Off the Grid

The June 4th, 2013 installment of the Wanderlust School of Transgressive Placemkaing focused on staying physically safe and mostly out of trouble.
Speakers: Mark Krawczuk, Annetta Black and Myric Lehner (jump to bios)

11 Tips for ‘Transgressive Placemaking’

Want to build a speakeasy in a New York water tower, or bring a group of photographers into a long-abandoned Oakland train station?

The Wanderlust School for Transgressive Placemaking is hosting a series of discussions on how to create amazing experiences in places that are typically off-limits. (This Tuesday’s conversation is Go Directly to Jail: Trespassing and the Law at Acme Studios in Williamsburg.)

Here’s some advice from a conversation between Annetta Black of Atlas Obscura, Mark Krawczuk, co-organizer of the Lost Horizons Night Market, and Ida Benedetto and N.D. Austin of Wanderlust Projects.

Completely new to urban exploring? Check out Access All Areas: A User's Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration and Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society for an introduction.

1. Calculate your risk. How could someone get hurt? What penalties will you face if you get caught? Is it worth it?

Annetta Black has spent the past decade as part of Burning Man’s the Thunderdome crew. (Thunderdome is “a 44’ dome in which, every night for a week, we invite people to come, get strapped in and fight their best friend with padded bats.” You can see a video here. It’s a prime time Burning Man event, so it involves “thousands of drunk and high people, fireworks, flame cannons, thumping music from art cars -- all in a harsh desert environment prone to sudden, blinding dust storms.” The official motto: “Days since last injury: 0.”

Helping to run an inherently dangerous experience like Thunderdome has made Black an expert at managing risk. First, she said, “Access your risk honestly. What COULD possibly go wrong? Thinking about your worst case scenario allows you to walk back from that and think about how to avoid it and what to do if it does happen.”

If you’re not sure what the risks could be, “Don’t be afraid to ask someone else,” she said. “Experience is the single most valuable asset you can have when you are planning to do something unpredictable. If you don’t have the experience, the very first thing I would do - and often do - is reach out to someone who has done something similar and get their advice.”

Finally, make sure you understand the legal consequences and decide on your level of responsibility. For instance, Black said, “Is it feasible to pull permits and insurance? If you can afford to do so and it works for your event, by all means get them. They’re a pain, but not nearly as much of a pain as a really expensive injury or a lawsuit.”

Being honest about risk-assessment will mean that some experiences just aren’t feasible. “If the risks are too high: don’t do it. Go there yourself, or just with pre-vetted friends,” Black suggested. Or, she said, “Do it at Burning Man.”

It’s also smart to balance your risk, and not choose an illicit location for an event “that you know the law is probably going to care about,” Austin said. “If you’re going to do an LSD shroom convention, you should probably do it where people aren’t going to care.”

2. Creating a transgressive event requires huge amounts of planning and preparation.

The “gently controlled chaos” of Thunderdome relies on the work of 65 people—including EMTs standing by. “What people see is a show,” Black said. “What they don’t see is months of planning, prep and training.”

When Austin and Benedetto prepare for a trespass event, they visit the planned location again and again to make sure they understand all the aspects of the space and what goes on there.

Before they brought couples to a deserted honeymoon resort in Pennsylvania, “We went through all the rooms twice, and made sure the rooms we selected that we went into were completely secure, and there weren’t going to be any structural issues,” Benedetto said.

Each couple also had a “steward” who accompanied them through the whole experience—except, of course, during their time alone in a deserted honeymoon suite. (Even then, the stewards stayed within sight of each couple’s door.)

3. Managing risk means understanding the people involved.

As Austin pointed out, “It’s one thing to get into trouble and keep yourself safe, but it’s a totally different picture when you’re with a large group of people.”

A crucial part of risk-assessment is understanding the people involved—or, as Black put it, “separate risks from idiots.” You need to be able to look at a situation and say, “That guy, doing that stupid thing: probably fine. THAT lady - not ok.”

Black divides potential participants into a few categories: “Your people, party people, random strangers, and douchebags.”

“Avoid doing all of this work for douchebags,” she said. “They will mess everything up.”

At Burning Man, everyone involved knows what they’re getting into. Running Thunderdome in the Bay Area can be much more difficult, Black said, because some people who show up don’t understand what’s happening and haven’t bought into the experience. They think of themselves as audience members, rather than participants, “and that brings in whole other problems.”

“The best possible preparation is to make everyone feel like they are in this with you, rather than outsiders who expect to be entertained,” she said.

Dave Hickey writes about this difference between spectators and participants in “Romancing the Looky-Loos,” an essay about art and community.

4. How do you find people who will be participants? Let your event be a “poorly kept secret.”

Krawczuk puts it this way: “One thing that helps keep people cohesive and the vibe right is the "Poorly Kept Secret". When you tell someone about something secret, and to keep it under their hat, but it is okay to tell others that may fit a set of criteria, you have set up a poorly kept secret. In our modern society, there’s a lot of information. Almost anybody can get any information. Difficult-to-get information is really valuable. And curation of who gets that information is powerful. By giving people this power (as well as the knowledge that their good time is directly tied to treating this knowledge with respect), they regularly rise to the occasion of being responsible.”

5. People WILL do dumb things.

The goal, of course, is that your participants will be aware of their surroundings and keep themselves safe. But even well-meaning participants will inevitably do stupid things.

“People are not situationally aware. It’s amazing how many people will try to go up an obviously collapsing staircase,” Black said.

The solution? For an event at the abandoned 16th Street Station in Oakland, Black brought in five volunteers who focused on keeping people off collapsing staircases and other danger areas.

The “magic circle” of the experience can make guests feel much more comfortable in a space than they really should. And assigning them stewards to watch over them doesn’t fully solve the problem.

“Guests trust us so much that they forget the risk involved,” Benedetto said. The challenge: “How do we let themselves lose themselves enough that they are transported by the experience, but not too much, so that they remain situationatially aware?”

6. Even if you want your event or location to be a surprise, make sure participants are prepared for the environment.

“The risks are so much smaller when people know the risks they’re getting into,” Black said. “Make sure that people, if they don’t know the exact experience, know they need to be wearing boots or wearing at headlamp, or that it’s going to be cold, and they should pack layers.”

“People have to come in the right footwear,” Benedetto said. “They have to understand that they are indeed trespassing, that they are indeed breaking the law.”

For the Night Heron speakeasy, the pocket watches that secured guests admission had tiny instructions printed inside. This included instructions about wearing the right shoes, being willing to climb things, and two crucial words: “No bathrooms.”

6. When building your team, recruit backstage theater nerds, bouncers, and EMTs.

So you’re planning a trespass event. Who do you want at your side? Black has three suggestions: backstage theater nerds, because “They know that the show always has to go on, and they make do when something goes wrong;” bouncers, because they “know how to not escalate volatile situations;” and EMTs or other people with emergency medical training, “not so much for their specific experience, but for the depth of experience that comes from working in emotionally fraught situations and calmly vetting the situation and finding an answer.”

“You want people who are problem solvers and who can independently determine the best course of action,” she said.

When you’re recruiting volunteers, Austin said, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out “who can actually get stuff done and who’s just there for the joyride.”

One way to deal with that is a “sponsorship process,” in which any person who wants to join the team has to be sponsored by an existing member and prove his or her worth.

Another is to set initial tasks for volunteers that will winnow out people who aren’t serious—whether that’s showing up at a given location at five a.m., or asking someone to help carry a double base up eight flights of stairs, as Krawczuk suggested.

It’s also important to show your volunteers respect. Like you, they might be working for free. For the volunteer logistics meeting before Wanderlust’s first big event, Austin created an entire East Village trespass experience and underground performance with a cellist, dramatic lighting, and aerial silks. The event was never publicized: it was simply a way for Austin to show volunteers the kind of experience they would be helping to create.

7. Give people flexibility to be creative. Make “guidelines,” not “rules.”

“The problem with rules is that they are frozen,” Krawczuk said. “A guidelines leaves room to interpret.”

Building a great event means opening up a space for creative people to do what they do best—improvise. You don’t want your participants to act like a passive herd of sheep, Krawczuk said. Instead, think of creative people like cats. You can’t herd them. But bring them to a barn full of mice, and they’ll leap into action. By hosting an event, you’re creating an experience with certain challenges that people can tackle in their own way.

This is the how the Night Market works—by recruiting a bunch of creative people, and giving them a basic framework: create an experience you can share that fits in the back of a rented box truck. (For instance: a “Secret Noodle Truck.” ) Then bring all the box trucks together at a prearranged time and place.

“Working with The Madagascar Institute, I saw that the best projects for us weren't where there was one big idea that everyone was working towards,” he said. “What really worked was when there was one person who created a theme (for example, ZOO!) and made decisions around the theme (became the zoo keeper), and everyone else could fit into the framework. (Be a giraffe, or even a dinosaur.)”

Another inspiration for smart guidelines: artist Tom Sachs’ “Ten Bullets.”

9. Don’t forget the basics: bring a first aid kit, and have some first aid training.

Myric Lehner, who does safety and security for Wanderlust Project events, had some tips for safety supplies and preparation.

The absolute basics for your exploring kit, he said, are gloves, a pocket knife or leatherman, and a dust mask. (“This is very serious,” he said. “Asbestos is no good.”)

He recommends carrying a med kit with bandages and splints. Pre-made kits, from REI, or EMStend to be “pretty compact and rugged. Some of them are even waterproof.” Adventure medical kits can run from $15 to $190, he said. He recommends adding extra band aids to your kit, as well as rubber gloves (since you won’t be able to wash your hands if someone needs medical attention in an abandoned place.) You might also want to personalize the kit in other ways, such as adding moleskin for blisters or contact lens solution.

If you don’t have someone on your team who’s an EMT, it might be a good idea to get some basic medical training, whether from the Red Cross, from an EMT course (you can locate approved courses on the New York Department of Health website or a similar site in your state), or from wilderness first aid training, offered by NOLS and others.

10. It’s not about the money.

Wanderlust Projects is building a model that focuses on giving experiences as a gift. (You can read Benedetto’s notes on gift-giving here.). That means, Benedetto said, “We never charge,” not just because of the risk people are taking in trespassing, but because “we want to put people into a situation we’re they’re receiving.”

Wanderlust survives on small grants from groups like the Awesome Foundation, as well as donations from people who have attended past events and want to donate towards a future event, Benedetto said. “The rest of the costs we just eat.”

At the Lost Horizons Night Market, “Everyone is encouraged to ask for donations and everyone is encourage to give something. That something could be hand shake, a few dollars, a bag of fireworks…it’s creating culture and culture’s worth investing in,” Krawczuk.

“I feel like you can look at life where everyone has two kinds of bank accounts: one denominated in dollars, one denominated in dinners…What I put into cultural events, I get back in dollars.”

Even Atlas Obscura, which usually does ask participants to buy tickets, will sometimes do free events, and pay out of pocket for publicity and organization “because it’s worth it to us for the opportunity for our extended community,” Black said.

11. Trespassing is patriotic. Trespassing is a gift.

There are many people “who might not want to climb a fence or try a locked door” on their own, Black said. One of the great joys of hosting transgressive events is seeing the looks on their faces when they’re brought into a place they would never encounter on their own.

“If you have an ability to share these things, that is something you should share with the world,” Black said.

Allowing people to see the faded glamour of Oakland’s 16th Street Station was a political act as well as an adventure. That first-person experience inside a beautiful, run-down place could have an impact when voters are asked whether to approve spending public money on renovating historic places, she said. Because participants were encouraged to take photographs, the experience within the building could also be shared with many more people than could actually attend.

You might even call trespassing “patriotic” Krawczuk said. “It’s very American to take risks. It’s very American to be the cowboy and to do these things…I’m sure someone could argue both sides of the debate. Is doing this a patriotic act?”

About the Speakers:

Mark Krawczuk considers himself an introvert and risk-averse in general. Which has not stopped him from getting hundreds of people to gather in desolate corners of the city for the Lost Horizon Night Market, getting teams to line Broadway in the Upper West Side for his event Waiting For The Man, setting up a restaurant in his Lost Horizon Noodle Truck or executing his Tactical Brunch kits at Maker Faire, working on a crew making jet engine powered merry-go-rounds at the Madagscar Institue, setting up the Agnostic Science Reading Room at Burning Man, or serving 9 course meals in abandoned buildings. And those are the ones he can admit to.

Annetta Black is a San Francisco-based writer, explorer, and trouble maker. Being part of running the Burning Man Thunderdome has fine-tuned her risk tolerance and her art of gently controlling chaos in an an unpredictable, off-grid environment. As head of the Obscura Society, Atlas Obscura's real-world exploration branch, she oversees expeditions into unusual places around the world - from glow worm tunnels to lost cities, nuclear power plants to private libraries - juggling the logistics and relationship management required to procure "unusual access" to normally off-limits sites. As a result, places like Alcatraz's underground citadel and hidden tunnels, Stanford Hospital's pneumatic dispatch system, and an abandoned historic train station in Oakland have opened their doors to the Society.

Myric Lehner has paddled rivers in Canada, scaled mountains in Wyoming, and climbed trees in Seattle. Most recently he was shepherding middle and high schoolers through Maine's North Woods. He likes taking people to interesting places while keeping injuries to a minimum. Since moving to New York he has done security and logistics for Wanderlust Projects and helped build and run the Night Heron speakeasy.