Probing cities’ forgotten spaces

Former U adjunct professor’s latest film tracks urban exploration

by Don M. Burrows

Melody Gilbert has followed code-named prospectors through abandoned mental institutions, deserted government properties and vacated trade schools. After probing the world’s urban landscapes, she brought back footage for the rest of us.

The University journalism professor turned documentary filmmaker unveils excerpts of her latest project, “Urban Explorers,” at a fundraising party Saturday. The film traces the growing number of those who interact with forsaken spaces – the buildings of yesteryear that have succumbed to dereliction.

“You just feel the people in those buildings,” Gilbert said. “The story is about the people who were in those buildings. These people (the explorers) pay attention to that, they document that.”

“Urban Explorers” is just one of the unique topics Gilbert has tackled since devoting herself fulltime to documentary work. Her 2003 film “Whole” examined those obsessed with becoming an amputee, even though they were physically healthy. This year, she released “A Life Without Pain,” which documented people whose medical conditions keep them from feeling pain.

As a journalist, these films might have required Gilbert to present a host of distracting information, from drudging medical information to admonitions from law enforcement lest anyone be inspired by trespassing explorers.

“(As a journalist) I was basically required to show and talk about both sides of any story,” Gilbert explains. “And for me, as much as I love journalism, there were times when I felt like I wanted to show one side of the story.”

In contrast, documentary work has been freeing.

“That’s been a wonderful transition for me,” she said. “To not have to think about that all the time and basically just let the people in the story just tell the story themselves.”

That approach has allowed Gilbert access to a story that promises to be compelling.

After attending an Urban Explorers conference in Glasgow, Scotland, with 25 said municipal pioneers, Gilbert was put in contact with explorers from around the world.

The group investigated an abandoned mental institution, where Gilbert found suitcases with names of the afflicted and the items they took with them.

At a trade school in Chicago, there were still lockers filled with uniforms and textbooks, left behind by a generation disenchanted in its promise.

“You just think, ‘What happened to these people? Did they become that or didn’t they?'” Gilbert said. “And how there’s no need anymore for trade schools – or how there’s less of a need for trade schools – it’s sort of a reflection of our whole society.”

Gilbert said stereotypes about Urban Explorers – who give themselves pseudonyms like “Max Action” or “Heartless” to keep their work and interaction anonymous – might be wrong.

“Their theory is, you go places, you leave nothing behind but footprints,” she said.

And their motivations might surprise some, too. As students of history, many are fascinated with exploring spaces of the recent past – spaces that a society once interacted with, but has chosen, for whatever reason, to discard.

Gilbert shared a quote from one explorer to that regard.

“‘I try to remember that I do this because I firmly believe that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and not solely for the rush of being someplace I’m not supposed to be,'” the prospector said. “‘The past is all around us and in it we can find knowledge, strength and guidance, if we just know where to look.’ “