On shiey, YouTubers, and illegal freedom

I don’t go outside a lot. Sometimes I don’t want to, sometimes I can’t. In the hours chronic illness keeps me flat in bed, I clamp my phone onto a cheap plastic mount so that I can watch hours of YouTube hands-free. Picture the kings and queens of Ancient Greece reclining while courtiers fed them massive grapes; picture me unable to lift my head off the pillow because of a massive orthostatic headache. My situation is not glamorous in the slightest except for the fact I’m on a friend’s family plan for YouTube Premium — a small detail but one that gives vital context when I discuss YouTube as a source of culture at home for this column, something I plan to do quite often. It’s the media I’ve spent most time with over the years, so thank god it comes ad-free. I don’t have the stomach for adverts nowadays. I value my time more than I used to and I don’t like people telling me what to do. That might be why I watch so much shiey.

In my grape-awaiting position under the phone clamp, YouTube feeds me the illegal adventures of shiey. If you’re not already one of his 2.57M subscribers, shiey is a balaclava-wearing, Go Pro-wielding European man who films himself in places he is not supposed to be and then posts the evidence online. He is a brazen, lean daredevil with videos such as Mission To Rare 1950s NATO Satellite Mountain Base, Found Unused Nuclear Bunker Filled with Equipment, Winter Journey Across Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Parts 1 through 5 — and yeah, I eat it up. The titles could be taglines on National Geographic documentaries but shiey has no film crew. He’s just a lad with a selfie stick and a sleeping bag. He seems like the kind of person who used to be really into parkour. The kind of person who has never subscribed to Netflix. I don’t know! But I do know Nat Geo could learn a thing or two from the casually sublime, sometimes unbelievable footage this stranger posts once a month.

I have watched shiey tuck himself inside a wagon full of iron ore while train-hopping across Serbia. He kept low whenever the train passed through stations, and when the coast was clear, he would stand with his arms outstretched, pretending to surf the tracks. I have clenched watching him sneak onto a building site at sunrise, slip past security guards who aren’t expecting anyone to break in — all because he wanted to climb onto the roof to get a better view of the town he was in, you know, to see which building he might want to summit next. He goes all over the place. I’ve seen him rowing a boat off the coast of Montenegro to set up camp on a rock in the middle of the Adriatic sea, and I’ve followed him to the outskirts of Venice, where he spent a night on an abandoned island that looked like something from a horror film. He climbed overgrown vines like an animal and walked through the shell of an old asylum like he was on an historical tour. With the phone screen centimetres from my tired eyes, I pretend I’m right there with him. I am a brazen, lean daredevil, and I have all the energy in the world.

It’s funny. With most of the YouTubers I’m subscribed to, I am under parasocial delusions that we could be best friends. That’s not the case here. I don’t watch shiey’s channel for relatability. I watch it for the world I get to access through him. Most of us live our whole lives in set routines: home, work, supermarket, repeat. We don’t see much of the world for that reason. But shiey lives laterally. His days are dedicated to discovery and risk. Sometimes there’s a plan, sometimes it’s a full on dérive. Sometimes his plan works out, sometimes he gets caught by a guard, or he runs out of water cycling through Bosnia and has to drink from dripping moss. He’s always okay in the end, and any stress gets overwritten by adrenaline or beautiful scenery. When he was having trouble finding the perfect train to surf, he ended up putting it off for a day, explaining to viewers, ‘We’re gonna try to ease our minds and satisfy our bodies in some different way, like the river or the rooftops. We’re going to try to enjoy the city.’ I wonder if this lifestyle brings him enough satisfaction that he is able to be resilient and calm in any situation. He wants to climb a crane, he climbs one, his desires are met, and thus his life has clarity. But that might be the parasocial talking.

In his videos, shiey calls the places he visits playgrounds. I like that a lot. I like that instead of abiding by the 9 to 5 lifestyle, I get to see an example of someone who foregrounds fun. A man who feels like the physical world is his for the taking, so he might as well see just how much he can get away with. That attitude can be dangerous and colonial in other contexts, but shiey is just pretty insistent on defying borders and that, I can respect. It doesn’t matter if those are geopolitical borders or the general rules of polite society, he ignores the cautious inner-voice that says you probably shouldn’t go into an abandoned hotel that doesn’t belong to you even if it’s empty and you’re not going to mess the place up, because you don’t have the keys! Yes, no one has the keys, but you should wait until someone does have some keys and then ask them if it’s okay and arrange a time… and so on. Some of shiey’s videos are titled with the words ‘illegal freedom’ and I wonder what he thinks about anarchism. The phrasing is a reminder that the hotels and satellites and train fares and national borders are human interventions placed on a planet that originally belonged to no one. Why not practice freedom of movement? It’s only fair. His movement is only illegal because of the organisation of contemporary society, with all its governments and corporations. The videos shiey puts out are a good argument for a different kind of world in which we step outside of routine, territory, and propriety, and take ownership of the world again.

He has an unusual influence on me compared to the mainstream influencer side of Travel YouTube. I feel jealous of the creators who appear to have endless money for beach holidays and boutique hotels, but I don’t ever get jealous of shiey. I just enjoy living vicariously through him. Anyway, he sleeps on the floor and eats tins of soup in the dark. But I love that. It’s worth saying that I don’t think he would have as much of an effect on me if he was staying in hotels and doing sponsored content — or if worst comes to worst, National Geographic tried to snap him up. YouTube’s relative freedom means shiey can upload without second-guessing the risk or the dirt or the discomfort he portrays. He shows me scenes I am probably most used to seeing in modern-day action movies, where half the image is computer generated, actors have been swapped for stunt doubles, and there’s a crash mat just off camera to catch them when they fall. I tense up watching shiey hanging off of rusty scaffolding, but it’s the genuine Buster Keaton-realism I appreciate. He might seem like a character in a stealth-genre video game at times, going out of bounds and bringing along sidekicks called things like Checkmate and Poison. But he doesn’t buff the adventure to make it more aesthetic for the sake of the Internet, where the prettiest people and places rise to the top. It’s hard to live outside of the norm and he admits that. It is a weird thing to want to write about when my own world has become so scaled down due to the new limits disability has placed on my body. But in the midst of twee vlogs made my rich people in their Architectural Digest homes, I appreciate the content creator who has gone to all this effort to remind me there is a world out there full of vast fields, not-so-ancient ruins, and incredible spaces that are wasting away behind thickets and barbed wire and various manifestations of the police. The idea that there are unexplored parts of the world used to motivate so many plots in popular media. We may have the whole place mapped out, but knowing and going are two very different things, and I have to wonder if that adventurous urge is no longer kindled in our bellies because capitalism doesn’t want us to abandon our jobs and run off into the sunset. Or crawl, if you’re slow like me.

Words by Gabrielle de la Puente of the White Pube