At the heart of Indianapolis, Indiana’s Holliday Park sit the remnants of an artwork its designer hoped would be known as Constitution Mall. The remains are typically referred to simply as “the Ruins,” though, and in the heart of the city park they are a picturesque if unexpected backdrop: ambiguously evocative of a deteriorating heritage, the Greek columns, a reflecting pool, and a scatter of limestone statuary are today fenced-in and grown over with weeds. The centerpiece of the remains is an 1898 sculpture designed by Karl Bitter known as “the Races of Mankind” depicting three kneeling figures who represent “the Caucasian, Negro, and Mongolian races bearing mankind’s burden.”
The three sculptures were created at the end of the 19th century, but the installation itself was created in the 1960s and 1970s, a faux ruin rather than a genuine architectural shell. Park boosters’ interest in “renovating” the Ruins now signals that the piece has passed from an artwork evoking romantic ruination to a true ruin that somehow fails to capture an aesthetic ideal and has no self-evident consumable value. The discussion over how to rescue an artwork that was always intended to be a ruin illuminates the complicated intersection of aesthetics and ruination.
Bitter’s statues came to Indianapolis in 1958 after the St. Paul Building in New York City was torn down. Architect Francis Keally presided over a committee that reviewed proposals for re-using the statues: the city of Indianapolis, as well as New York University, Columbia, and Farleigh Dickenson submitted plans to re-use the sculptures. The New York Times’ Meyer Berger reported that “Indianapolis was awarded the figures by a committee because it plans to set them in the middle of a reflecting pool, a lofty setting identical to that envisioned by the sculptor.” The paper indicated that Indianapolis architect David V. Burns “has drawn tentative plans for the future installation.”
The crumbling artwork was always intended to be ruins. On November 20, 1958 the New York Times acknowledged that the sculpture would be “shipped to Indianapolis for use as a romantic ruin in Holliday Park.” Indianapolis artist Elmer Taflinger was tapped to design a display for Bitters’ migrated statuary, and Taflinger’s design gradually unfolded over two decades.
The local discussion over preservation of the Ruins has been reduced to a somewhat shallow discussion of Taflinger as a prototypical temperamental artist; his project has been described as a “folly” by one donor to the current renovation project, and the Indianapolis Star’s Will Higgins referred to it as “artistic vision run amok.” Taflinger did indeed chafe against city funding of the installation, and beginning in the 1960s he continuously collected new materials to add to the ever-unfolding work, including the 26 columns from the Sisters of Good Shepherd Convent, four female figure statues from the Marion County Courthouse, and a horse trough from Indianapolis’ Fountain Square (compare his designs in the Holliday Park history). The Ruins finally were dedicated in 1973, apparently in part to bring an end to Taflinger’s continual tinkering with the concept (though he continued to make changes to it afterward).
In 1994 a committee proposed to remove the Ruins entirely. In 1994, the Friends of Holliday Park suggested that removing the Ruins was consistent with their mission “to refocus on the environment. . . Current plans call for The Ruins to be dismantled, and the space they occupy will be a field or a pond. In the meantime, the statues will be incorporated in a grand entrance on Spring Mill Road.” The Indianapolis Star’s columnist Andrea Neal agreed that “by any reasonable standard, The Ruins and mall are neither coherent nor beautiful. They are a hodgepodge of trees, limestone slabs, pillars and a reflecting pool.” Neal took a shallow populist dig at the aesthetes defending the Ruins, arguing that “It would be a shame if art purists thwart the plans for a much needed nature center by insisting The Ruins not be touched.” Despite Neal’s protestations, the Ruins remained in place in the face of resistance to their dismantling.
Clearly some people never liked the Ruins as artwork. Emily Hinkel’s discussion of the Ruins’ origins notes that in 1963 a reporter called them a “meaningless exhibit, serving primarily as a potential death trap for youngsters.” The Indianapolis Star reported this year that “Alexander Holliday, the grandson of the man who gave the park to the city, once said the Ruins reminded him of ‘the bombing of Dresden’ and that his grandfather would have been appalled by them.” These rhetorical asides likely reflect some park boosters’ uneasiness with the Ruins as part of the park’s mission, which probably contributed to their benign neglect.
Almost two decades after the first effort to raze the Ruins, discord over their aesthetic merits—and the appropriate aesthetics of Holliday Park itself—are again being discussed. The Indianapolis Star’s Will Higgins revisited much of the 1994 arguments when he suggested in June, 2013 that “Today, after decades of neglect, the Ruins are a dilapidated, weed-choked, fenced-off mess — they are genuine ruins. They’re about to get a thorough makeover that will bring them into the 21st century and render them more fun. The Ruins didn’t used to be much fun. You weren’t allowed to climb on them. All you could do was look at them.”
Ruins have normally been reserved for (or even defined by) just such aesthetic contemplation: that is, ruins provide a material testament to the folly of over-ambitious states, the inevitable ebbs-and-flows of economies, moments of ill-conceived style, or the inescapable march of nature. For many contemporary detractors, though, the Ruins apparently only evoke neglect; perhaps the absence of genuine historical depth (that is, they are not “real” ruins) prevents that erosion from being a source of nostalgia or introspection for some observers.
The new renovation plans squarely aim to convert the Ruins from apparently useless disrepair to a specific form of consumer utility. A community committee aspires to renovate the space, keeping the Bitter statues in a renovated space including “a shimmer fountain and other interactive water features, benches along a tree-lined promenade, rain gardens and a festival lawn.” In this sense the Ruins—as both artwork and genuine ruins—reflect boosters’ effort to turn the park into a consumable space. The park has always been a space in which urbanites might consume a particular experience of nature, and the 94-acre city park justifiably heralds itself as a natural oasis in the midst of the city’s northern suburbs: the park does indeed have a wonderful series of trails, a nature center, and an impressive playground along the White River.
The renovation of the Ruins—and the specific sort of consumable natural experience the park aspires to provide—is firmly linked to substantial financial support for the park. The land was deemed to the city by John and Evaline Holliday in 1916, when the space was a country estate neighbored by a select handful of luxurious homes. Most of the same homes remain alongside more recent suburbs, and in June 2013 Will Higgins acknowledged that the Ruins’ renovation “will cost millions, but that is not a problem for the Ruins. The nonprofit Friends of Holliday Park, a consortium of well-off Northsiders, many living in the lovely houses near the park, is privately raising $3.2 million.”
Perhaps park boosters can contemplate transformations to the Ruins because they are cast as an artwork without genuine patina (that is, what Paul Dobraszczyk refers to as a “positive form of decay” that for some observers evokes authenticity). The Ruins are not viewed as a “natural” erosion of something that was authentically part of the Holliday Park landscape; the Holliday home was not allowed to deteriorate into ruins and was instead razed, and most of the park’s landscape is immaculately managed in the invisible way most parks are constructed. The Ruins instead are viewed as having no function except as aesthetically pleasing things; unlike “real” ruins that evoke romanticism, nostalgia, and perhaps anxieties, the Ruins have now eroded in the eyes of detractors and lost any visual appeal they once had. Visual appeal alone may not be sufficient to preserve the Ruins in some form other than as a decoration to a bourgeois park; the Ruins now apparently require some concrete consumable utility as a wading pool besides the aesthetic musing they appear to now evoke.
1958 About New York: The Future of Heroic Statues of ’96 to Be Settled by Architecture Group Today. New York Times 7 November: 24.
R. Joseph Gelarden
1994 Famous “Ruins” in ruin, group says: Massive statuary display at Northside’s Holliday Park likely to be dismantled, moved. Indianapolis Star 17 November:D1.
2013 Redoing the Ruins. Indianapolis Star 8 June: A1.
1958 To Preserve Sculpture: Fitting Home Should Be Provided for Bitter Statues, It Is Felt. New York Times 25 June: 28.
1958 A City, 3 Colleges ask for Statues: Seek Stone Figures to Be Salvaged From St. Paul Building on Broadway. New York Times 8 November: 23.
1994 Contention over a park’s sculpture. Indianapolis Star 30 November 1994:A19.
The New York Times
1958 Old Broadway Statues Will Go to Indianapolis. New York Times 20 November: 21.
Constitution slab image from EC Garrison
Female statue image from WikiProject Public Art
Races of Mankind closeup image from Donna Cazadd
Races of Mankind on pedastals image from c.harnish
Renovation Plans image from Friends of Holliday Park
Ruins scene image from netmonkey
Last week’s American Anthropological Association conference perhaps once more confirmed that archaeology is a thoroughly public scholarship as the halls resounded with scholars theorizing activism and leading calls for revolution: increasingly more of us celebrate collaborative work with descendant communities, indigenous peoples, and social collectives beyond the walls of the academy. The embrace of civic engagement and public scholarship reaches well beyond anthropological archaeology circles, with a host of scholars and universities committed to reaching beyond narrowly defined “pure” scholarship.
There are many reasons to celebrate public scholarship, but academic culture profoundly influences what passes as scholarship at conferences, in employment, in peer review, and for promotion and tenure. The Society for American Archaeology conference in April 2014 will include a Blogging in Archaeology session that almost certainly will illuminate the political implications of public archaeology scholarship in the blogosphere and beyond. In the months leading up to the conference Doug’s Archaeology is hosting a “blogging carnival” that will include archaeology bloggers addressing the same questions each month (posts can be followed on Twitter at #BlogArch).
This month’s question is why do archaeologists blog? The host of bloggers that have responded to Doug’s question so far have provided thoughtful answers that I would echo on many counts, but the question also raises a bigger set of issues. First, why is public archaeological scholarship not always accommodated by conventional scholarly discourse? The easy answer in university settings revolves around academics’ traditionally cherished peer-reviewed scholarship, which blogs and digital public scholarship aspire to expand. Second, what defines the disciplinary boundaries of “archaeology” at all? Bloggers violate many of the conventional definitions of archaeology as the objective material analysis of antiquity, part of a broad expansion of archaeology in contemporary scholarship. Finally, how do universities in particular and archaeological employers in general (e.g., cultural resource management, cultural heritage industry) view blogs and public scholarship? Read the rest of this entry
This year even Apple appears poised to join the host of American retailers offering dramatic sales in the early morning or middle of the night on Black Friday. By Black Friday standards the Apple store sale prices are not especially dramatic, but a legion of consumers seem eager to find an iPad under the tree and will likely beat a path to some of the competitors who are promising dramatic deals on iPads.
It is now an expectation that Black Friday will be greeted with irrational crowds rioting for prosaic things, and by Saturday a host of videos will dot the internet documenting the most boorish behavior. Much of the media coverage seems to suggest that the consumer miscreants storming the housewares aisle are a horde quite unlike the bourgeois patiently awaiting iPads. For some observers, Black Friday reveals the distinctions in class consumer desire and obliquely disparages mass consumption as emotionally driven irrationality; at least implicitly, that storming of the Target doors is suggested to be quite unlike the material desire at high-end retailers and upscale spaces like the Apple store.
The mass consumption experience is followed closely by the media, which routinely psychologizes Black Friday as mob manipulation by clever marketers. This week, for instance, the Las Vegas Guardian Express hysterically argued that “it seems necessary to recognize that this much anticipated retail extravaganza can be as deadly as it is lucrative.” In 2011, a Huffington Post article likewise painted Black Friday shoppers as an emotionally frenzied mob, suggesting that “Add in the online-coupon phenomenon, which feeds the psychological hunger for finding impossible bargains, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.” The Las Vegas paper’s Daniel Worku blamed all this on clever marketers and manipulable consumers, arguing that “This atmosphere seems to be intentionally manufactured by the countless advertisements, blurbs, signs, billboards, and radio plugs, constantly seeding the suggestible public mind about how this years deals will be better than ever. The energy and frequency of this media frenzy, galvanizes the debt burdened public into spend-crazy, deal-hunting, sale-seeking, mob with zombi-like [sic] determination.” Read the rest of this entry
It seems like a uniquely rich moment for history: a host of gangsters, Vikings, and royals have stepped out of the past onto the small screen. These historical dramas freely pilfer from real personalities, documented material culture, and style drawn from the past, finessing historical details, amplifying threads of style, and fabricating an oddly persuasive picture of wholesale manufactured pasts. Heritage purists are perhaps always wary of history in the hands of Hollywood, and the most recent wave of serial dramas suggests that an aesthetically magnetic and decidedly non-critical vision of pastness has found a mass audience.
Perhaps the freshest wrinkle in the historical serial celebrates a completely contrived heritage that is all about style and makes no claim to substance. NBC’s Dracula, for instance, cuts its characters and premise from the rich literary and cinematic heritage of Dracula narratives. NBC’s version of the Count captures a familiar thread of the new histories in its focus on an impossibly stylish and beautiful Dracula (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), with the network TV carnality only implied (as opposed to his unabashedly carnal Showtime version of King Henry VIII). Fox has likewise seized on a literary character in Sleepy Hollow, which also has a beautiful man in stylish garb portraying a time-traveling Ichabod Crane. Like Dracula, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow refers to various real historical figures and events as well as historical literary subjects like the headless horseman. Read the rest of this entry
Few archaeological artifacts are better known than the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, which are commonly referred to as the Elgin Marbles. Lord Elgin removed the sculptures from the Parthenon and Acropolis between 1801 and 1812, and they were spirited away to London for sale to the British Museum in 1816. They remain in the British Museum today in the Duveen Gallery, which was specially constructed to showcase the Parthenon marbles.
A flood of people stream through the gallery each day to see the sculptures, and many if not most of those visitors know the basic histories, mythological narratives, and perhaps even individual designs of the marbles. The incessant stream of photographers capturing the statuary is not especially unique in contemporary museums, especially those displaying the treasures found in the British Museum. Yet the frenzy of picture-taking in the Duveen Gallery suggests that many museum artifacts are latent camera images and not material things with which we physically interact. Read the rest of this entry
No compliment on the online review site Yelp is as highly esteemed as being dubbed “authentic,” and that authenticity is routinely linked to restaurants’ material spaces. An Oakland reviewer believed herself transported to another place, concluding that “i looked around the restaurant and noticed how well the place is decorated…felt like i was back in thailand (ive never been, but i felt like i was there maybe?).” Yelp reviewers fancy they are unlocking a hidden consumer geography: In the class and ethnic niches of neighborhoods outside bourgeois comfort, yelpers discover dishes, spaces, and new experiences. However, the search for an authentic burrito or an urban “dive” may tell us more about yelpers than it reveals about foodways.
Yelpers stake their claims to authority by capturing dimensions of authenticity that often include material descriptions of space. A Mexican grill review waxed rhapsodic that “The meticulously painted walls and ceiling, accompanied by fountains and trellis, will make even the least-cultured of individuals feel as if they’ve just stepped into an authentic Yucatecan [sic] bodega.” Many Yelpers echo that an appropriately appointed ethnic restaurant sweeps the guest to that distant place: in one Moroccan restaurant in Indianapolis, for instance, “When one steps into the restaurant, he would almost feel as if he had been magically transported to the streets of Casa Blanca [sic].” A review for a Mexican restaurant in Indianapolis pinned its authenticity on its materialization of the Mexican immigration experience, indicating that “The decor is authentic: homesick people putting things on the walls that remind them of home.” A review of a German bakery in Indianapolis pointed to the store’s décor, indicating that “The lunch fare is a 3 star since its fairly simple. However, what makes it a 4 star is its authenticity as well as the numerous knick knacks and [sic] hoarder would love to have.”
Yelp is simply one of many web sites that allow users to assess consumer goods and services in the internet public square. Meredith Kuehn’s 2011 dissertation argues that sites like Yelp “capitalize on the productivity of users who create discourses through and about local consumption by voluntarily rating and reviewing local businesses and services.” Kuehn argues that Yelpers aspire to be citizen-consumers seizing power over consumer symbolism and returning it to the users themselves. However, Kuehn is wary of the limits of such empowerment: she is critical of the literal “architectures of participation” that Yelp pages provide; she is circumspect about how Yelp and similar sites focus on “the local” in ways that elide global consumer structures; and she warns that Yelps’ focus on “lifestyle politics” risks reducing citizenship to shopping. Read the rest of this entry
A host of observers argue that cycling is saddled by a “culture of fear”: apparently terrified by warnings about the dangers of cycling, many people fear biking, and even disciplined riders seem compelled to wear bright clothing, confine themselves to bike lanes, and wear safety gear, such as helmets. Many of these commentators decry a “nanny state’s” construction of cycling as a “dangerous” activity that breeds fear to hawk commodities that will make us impervious to all possible threats.
Hush’s Chris Bruntlett, for instance, captures the contorted logic (and unsubstantiated science) that helmets increase the danger to cyclists: “the mistaken sense of invincibility provided by safety gear drastically changes the dynamic between road users, and not in the favour of the cyclist. Armoured cyclists have been statistically documented to indulge in ‘overcompensation’, taking additional risks, riding quicker and more recklessly than they otherwise would. Similarly, in a scientifically proven phenomenon known as the Mary Poppins effect, motorists also conduct themselves differently around cyclists dressed in protective equipment, leaving less space when passing, and travelling notably faster around them.”
The most persistent volleys against helmets have come from Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Andersen, who has been lobbying against helmets for most of a decade. Colville-Andersen’s Cycle Chic blog champions stylish urban bike culture; he argues that “Copenhageners have demystified the bicycle and use it without any form of bicycle ‘gear,’” a dig at cycling style dominated by lycra, skin-tight jerseys, and helmets. Cycle Chic comes armed with its own pretentious manifesto including the directive that “I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of ‘cycle wear.’” Sociologist Dave Horton sounds much the same tone about cycling fear, but he acknowledges that anxiety about cycling is an emotional apprehension of accidents as well as the uncertainties of being a rider in public space. He laments that cycling anxieties are symptomatic of a broader “culture of fear,” with the apprehensions fostered by helmet laws typical of our deep-seated dread of everyday social life.
Colville-Andersen secured international media coverage this year with his shallow ethnographic analysis that “it’s an interesting cultural question as to why, in Anglo Saxon countries, there’s this almost pornographic obsession with safety, whereas in France and Spain they don’t promote helmets.” For Colville-Andersen, the confidence in helmets is misplaced faith fueled by “fanatic safety nannies” and overwrought emotion. In 2008, Colville-Andersen’s Copenhagenize exhausted the metaphorical link between faith and helmet rhetoric when he suggested that “people insist on sticking to their beliefs that they are wearing a polystyrene, all-powerful halo that wards off all traffic evils and will ensure a long, healthy life.” He theatrically refuses to cycle in Australia in protest of compulsory helmet laws, arguing that “Australia is held up as the example of how helmet laws destroy urban cycling.” Colville-Andersen’s desire to cycle without the imposition of an intrusive state perhaps strikes a populist sentiment allowing him to unleash his long locks and wear trendy clothes, but his assessment of the social and material conditions of cycling in America at least is fundamentally flawed.
My hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana has a bike-friendly mayor whose office has led a push for bike lanes throughout the city, and those lanes and bike trails provide a modest foothold for cycling in the state’s capital city. Bike lanes are routinely considered confusing to motorists, and after construction of Indianapolis bike lanes in 2011, one local TV station reported that “The bicyclists, at least the ones we talked to today, know the rules. The problem is everyone else on the road beside them.”
These bike lanes are routinely the targets of local critique. Indianapolis cyclist Paul Ogden assessed the city’s bike lanes in October and concluded that “too many bicyclists entering bike lanes think they’re riding in a magical place where they no longer have to worry about the dangers of riding a bike in traffic. . . Now confined to a little strip of pavement along side of the road, the bicyclist is actually more likely to be hit at, and certainly so at intersections.” In July he attacked “bike boxes,” sounding the same mantra that “bike lanes and bike boxes often cause bicyclists fall into the false sense of security that a line on the pavement will protect them from a collision with a several thousand pound vehicle.” Read the rest of this entry
Abandonment art is routinely lamented for its literal and metaphorical focus on aesthetic surfaces; that is, abandonment art risks reducing the weathered, damaged, and derelict exteriors of abandoned buildings to an ahistorical style that fails to illuminate processes of ruination. Some critiques of ruin art are guilty of their own romantic desire to paint transparently uplifting or “authentic” pictures of a place; in many instances, they somewhat xenophobically resist a host of “outsiders” spilling into eroding urban cores; and some critics of “ruin porn” hazard ignoring the genuine structural decline of much of urban America. Nevertheless, a shallow gaze on abandoned landscapes may indeed hazard trivializing complicated historical decline by fixating on the visual dimensions of ruin.
Ruins may well have assumed their elevated contemporary prominence because of the digital documentation of abandonment: the likes of flick’r and tumbl’r are awash with ruin images; instagram-armed camera phones document a decaying planet; and artsy urban transplants have led a digital dissection of the ruins in their midst. Images of decline can quite productively evoke waste, loss, and transition and fuel interventions against structural processes of ruination; the challenge simply is to avoid romanticized notions of an aesthetic decline disconnected from deep-seated inequalities.
An archaeological approach to ruination ideally sifts through layers of ruination and visually and materially interprets processes of creation, growth, decline, and ruin. Some artists may be borrowing much the same method to creatively rethink ruins. Polish artist Ewa Fornal, for instant, might be circumspectly characterized as an abandonment artist. Fernal, who lives and works in Ireland, toys with the distinction between aesthetic surfaces and the historical depth of ruination. Many photographers work with the visual representation of abandonment, but Fornal is among a handful of artists who work with the material detritus of ruins (e.g., the 2010 Modern Ruin exhibit in Dallas). Read the rest of this entry
The unveiling of spectacular archaeological finds has now become a somewhat formulaic media event, and the recovery of early hominids nearly always includes some artistic imaginations of the skeleton. Last week Science published a study on the fifth early hominid skull excavated from the medieval town of Dmanisi in Georgia since 2000. Nearly all of the articles were graced by fascinating if predictable visuals of the finds: photographs in situ, scans of skulls, video imaginations of the hominids, and reconstructions of the long-lost ancestors. The Dmanisi press coverage is simply one of myriad popular narratives that illuminate how popular visual representations shape archaeological narratives—both for better and worse.
The 1.8 million year old skeletal remains from Dmanisi are among the earliest hominids outside Africa (excavations at Dmanisi were reported in 2002 and 2007), so they have significant implications on hominid evolutionary narratives. Nevertheless, the popular Dmanisi story may be told as much by evocative images as it is being told by conventional archaeological discourse. We probably could say much the same thing of nearly any other archaeological tale reaching popular discussion, so there is nothing unique about the Dmanisi coverage. Nevertheless, it compels us to think carefully about media storylines and visual imaginings of the distant past. Read the rest of this entry
This week an anonymous bidder secured one of the most fascinating relics, a material thing evoking the distinctive power of a venerated figure: Walter White’s cotton briefs. The Breaking Bad anti-hero is a dark, vengeful character with whom we uncomfortably sympathize, so it might seem somewhat surprising that his underwear and many more series items are in demand. Yet Walter White is compelling because for many people his tale brazenly questions universal morals. In the desperate face of impending death, Walter White lives in a world in which good and bad ideals become clumsy and unsettling abstractions. Many of us are fascinated by the resolve of an individual acting with their own sense of honor and morality, even if his choices are often problematic if not evil.
Walter White’s narrative has spawned a far-reaching fandom that inevitably reaches into the material world. Few things in Breaking Bad could be more iconic—or more personal—than Walter White’s cotton briefs. As part of an auction of Breaking Bad items, 109 people bid for the underwear that eventually sold for $9900. Much of the press on the auction was reduced to shallow curiosity over the attraction of Walt’s ill-fitting underwear or the cost of Hank’s rose quartz and Jesse’s DEA mug. Strangely enough, nearly no press expressed any surprise that underwear and television series props would be so expensive and desirable.
Few observers have really questioned why fandoms seek such prosaic things linked to fictional performances. The prosaic tighty whiteys are a relic of sorts, a material thing associated with a venerated figure. The most powerful of all relics are those things associated with the body of a saint, such as literal human remains or an item of clothing touched by the figure. Those things are invested with the symbolic power of the venerated figure who once held them, focusing secular narratives as well as triggering deeper philosophical reflections raised by the lives of saints. Read the rest of this entry