I’ve decided to eschew any biblical similes and instead say that as Neuromancer created Cyberpunk, so did Infiltration create Urban Exploration. The Toronto-based zine’s creator, Jeff “Ninjalicious” Chapman, used Infiltration to weave together several different fabrics into the tapestry of Urban Exploration. Infiltration (subtitled: “the zine about going places you’re not supposed to go”) shared advice and stories in its decade-long run, before the central UE internet forums took over. Before his untimely death in 2005, Ninjalicious worked hastily to finish a book, Access All Areas, which completed Infiltration’s work of systematizing Urban Exploration. Infiltration came to a total of 25 issues (which are available, along with the book, on the Infiltration website). I will split the print run into five installments to trace the growth and expansion of the ‘zine.
Infiltration goes far beyond the common UE focus on abandoned buildings. In fact, most of the content is about what Ninjalicious (sometimes “Ninj”) terms “interior tourism,” or entering the parts of the built environment not intended for use by the public. In the first issue, from November of 1996, Chapman states his goals clearly: he will publish information on his hobby of interior tourism/urban exploration regarding his home city of Toronto, and hopes that this will encourage others to get involved and to send him information from their own explorations across Canada and elsewhere. Already at this point a member of his local zine community (and with an educational and professional background in magazine publishing), his first issue is a mapped and diagrammed floor-by-floor study of opportunities for explorers in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. A country and two decades removed from this setting, the specifics of the issue are less interesting to the modern reader, though still enjoyable due to Ninj’s wry and engaging writing style. The issue is instead more noteworthy for the UE groundwork it lays; an explorer is advised on how to dress to fit in and told not to take anything that will be missed. Sidebars are labeled “Stuff You Shouldn’t Eat and Drink” and “Stuff You Shouldn’t Take,” maintaining a mockery of plausible deniability. The only contribution from an author other than Ninj is a reflection on the reflectiveness of corporate office towers, and the resulting “social engineering,” identified as being written by Eburac. The back cover promises topics for future issues (“scheduled infiltrations”), and solicitations of stories and pictures.
Based on the newly added (and permanent) “letters” section at the beginning of the second issue, the first installment of Infiltration was well-received. One letter is a total miss, and thinks the first issue tried too hard to draw attention to the author’s sneakiness, and that future issues would benefit from more “captivating” stories instead of just observation. Ninjalicious responded to this letter, saying that he only wants to “encourage people to take a peek for themselves.” However, most letter writers, using silly pseudonyms or first names only, understood the point of Infiltration immediately. They wrote in with brief stories and with anticipation of future issues.
This second issue explores another Toronto institution, St. Michael’s Hospital. Ninj’s opening essay (the inside cover of every issue) notes that his exploration of the hospital began when he was a patient there, back when he could wander unmolested. Again, the specifics of exploration opportunities in mid-‘90s St. Michael’s Hospital are not so relevant to the modern reader as Ninjalicious himself. He takes time to indicate his preference for older buildings, and disdain for renovations and modernizations. He finds modern buildings to be bland, boring, and devoid of the nooks and crannies that make older buildings interesting places to explore. In addition to the Hospital, there is an essay by another author, the oft-recurring Pablo, friend of Ninj, who brings up abandoned buildings for the first time in the form of his old hometown’s factory in “Deserted n Deseronto.” Otherwise, the issue discusses different no-trespassing signs and plausible/”plausible” excuses available if one is caught beyond them. Ninjalicious, discussing “Authorized Personnel Only” signs, provides a story of his own briefly-held status as authorized personnel to grant blanket access to his readers.
The third issue shifts from the practice to theory. It is about beating security, whether human or electronic. It contains an interview with a security guard, formerly working at the Hudson Bay Centre, a large mega-complex in Toronto. The letters within are from others within the ‘zine community (Ninjalicious dutifully plugs their publications) and contains updates on the Royal York Hotel, discussed in the first issue.
The main point that is conveyed about security, at least the security in this quaint pre-9/11 era, is how often it is based around bluffing. The security guard, unarmed, mostly deals with problem employees or evicting the occasional squatter or panhandler. Alarms are mostly fake, or they simply indicate the general vicinity of an issue. The subsequent essay, “We’re Looking Out For You,” discusses the different types of security cameras, many of which are based on a panopticon idea instead of on actual practical recording of surveillance (yes, Orwell is referenced). In a poignant note from another era, Ninj says that “the 1990s will most likely be the last decade in which it feels unusual to be watched by a surveillance camera while indoors.” He was likely right. Cameras on the outside of buildings are also described as “the latest development in the ongoing evolutionary process by which institutions shall become organisms.” Ninjalicious is often at his best in essays like this, combining practical advice with social observations and philosophizing. Especially useful (at least when exploring specific sites) are notes of paths that are devoid of warning signs, to use for pleading ignorance when captured. The issue even has a centerfold of sorts, a section of pictures of rarely-glimpsed locations in the Hudson Bay Centre.
The fourth issue is both a return to form and a sign that the burgeoning UE community had begun to build around Infiltration. The issue is dedicated to “tunnel running,” the practice of exploring steam tunnels, especially those part of university campuses. This issue features the most participation to date with letters; an interview with Ben Hines, webmaster for the College Steam Tunnel website and alt.college.tunnels EBB; and another essay about tunneling by Rhiannon Ashlin. The topic was well-chosen to drum up interest: there seem to be many students and former students who have explored the tunnel systems of a traditional university campus (a common infrastructural need for heating systems).
Ninjalicious’ article is the return to form, with the literal ins and outs of a specific exploration site, in this case the tunnels of York University (again assisted by Pablo). The interview with Hines is another manifestation of the budding field that Ninj is creating entwining with existing internet communities (this is also the first issue to advertise for the ‘zine’s website, infiltration.org).
Two unexpected topics that arise in association with tunnel running: Dungeons & Dragons and sex. Ninjalicious notes the associations of college tunnels with sex, whether it comes from the “collective memory” of caveman days or simply from the convenience an illicit location provides for college students. Ashlin’s essay, “Pulsating Dark Labrynth,” continues this connection. It contrasts a prim and repressed Christian university with the opportunity its tunnels provide for transgression (such as linking male and female dorms) and for escapism and the enactment of fantasy. Dungeons and Dragons is raised here, as well as by Ninj in the interview, and by the letter writers. Ben Hines thinks that the connection between tunnel running and D&D is exaggerated, and that students don’t often gather to play games in tunnels. York University’s tunnels are graffitied by explorers with fantasy-based names. Left unstated is what may be the origin of this connection between steam tunnels and D&D, the 80s film “Mazes and Monsters.” This cult classic involves live action role-playing in college steam tunnels that was part of the (itself exaggerated) D&D/Satanism moral panic of that decade (though some would say that the film actually offers a positive portrayal of the pastime).
The ‘zine’s fifth issue ramps up to subway tunnels, the “most-significant, best-known, and most-feared set of tunnels in the land.” Ninjalicious viewed subway tunnels as “an underground Everest,” as dangerous as they were rewarding. The entire issue, both from Ninj’s blow-by-blow of the Toronto subway system and from other stories written in, is a portrait of the city as it existed before 9/11, with spotty security and (relatively) easy access.
The tunnel guide starts with Toronto’s Light Rail Transit, a semi-subterranean streetcar that is “non-dangerous practice” for subway tunnel explorers. Moving to actual subways, the differences between square tunnels (constructed and filled in above) and tube tunnels (bored through rock) are discussed from an architectural and practical traveling standpoint. Tunnels of all types are repeatedly, in this issue and the previous, compared to caves, and the explorers thereof to spelunkers. Having ditched the “Stuff You Shouldn’t Eat” sidebars for the past couple of issues, instead information is given on how to dress, and what to bring. The option of dressing oneself as a maintenance worker is presented, though the inherent legal risk is too great for most. Tunnels are filthy, so moist towelettes are a must.
For those urban explorers more drawn to the abandoned, the final essay by Cygnals is about stations in Toronto that are no longer in use, one of which was only partially constructed. These are often used as movie sets, and the residue of this can be seen by anyone accessing these stations.
The first few issues of Infiltration evince a strong start, a zine that rapidly found its footing and provoked a strong and positive response from the community. Chapman’s background in magazine work is clearly put to good use; the sidebars, centerfolds, and professional page layout all complement the engaging writing to make a very professional amateur magazine. Starting with the second issue, there were always relevant letters to print; and although the content is still heavily focused on Toronto as Ninjalicious’ home town, information came in almost immediately from other Canadian cities and (I shall note parochially) from the United States, with UCLA and UCSD’s steam tunnels. For a zine written by a man in a field that some might consider to be stereotypically masculine, Infiltration does have a consistent presence of female voices through correspondence and contributions throughout most of these early issues. Infiltration clearly filled a niche at the time, helped along by distribution among Chapman’s zine-based and proto-UE networks.
It would be easy for a zine addressing this subject matter to be oppressively ideological, with a dreary libertarian or anarchist attitude. Instead, Ninjalicious maintains a tone of impish anti-corporatism, seeming to appreciate (without stating explicitly) that those trying to keep him out of their playground did in fact build that playground in the first place. The quotes that open each issue are often citations of the specific legal statute prohibiting whatever activities are to be described within, a nod to the seriousness of these light-hearted activities.
Infiltration brought together in a common forum the practitioners of many activities that would come under the heading of Urban Exploration. The first issues, though provincial in scope, exude a great amount of potential for expansion, and the subsequent print run of the zine (exponentially higher than the print run of many other UE zines) would live up to the promise made by a simple tourist guide to the off-limit sections of a hotel.