Urban Exploration. Memorializing Sites of Non-Memory, Reviving Dead Places

In 1804, eleven years after his initial disappearance, the body of Philibert Aspairt, doorkeeper of the Val-de-Grâce Hospital, was found in the catacombs below Paris. Aspairt is hailed as a precursor of urban exploration (urbex for short), a practice that entails visiting abandoned and inaccessible sites, which are often closed off by “Entry Forbidden” signs. In light of the nature of the ill-fated doorkeeper’s resting place, we could reasonably take him as an early enthusiast of thanatourism. Aspairt was buried in the place where he was ultimately found, a fact that makes him both a subject and an object of this kind of tourism. While urban exploration and “dark tourism” share many common features, the concepts are by no means identical. At the roots of both modes of tourism lies a fascination with death, ephemerality, and dystopian landscapes. Yet while thanatourism seems preoccupied with events and the people tied to them as represented symbolically in the form of concrete sites, explorers are more invested in the materiality of these places and the aesthetics of ongoing decay. Mired in legacies often fraught, inglorious, or tragic, many historically-charged sites that draw in tourists already have a place in the historical canon and have been “validated” by official opinion.