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The Elevated Eye: Drones and Gaze in Ruins

A host of photographers, community historians, and self-styled urban critics have produced a fascinating visualization of the architectural detritus of cities, industry, and various failings of modernity.  That flood of so-called “ruin porn” has unleashed a complex breadth of artistic creativity as well as anxieties about the social implications of gaze and how we see, photograph, and imagine architectural remains.  Much of the uneasiness with ruin photography laments the camera’s gaze as a selective and seemingly distorted representation of our visual and physical experience of an objective reality: that is, the implication is that a photographer frames landscapes in selective ways, and the realities confirmed by our eyes are somehow corrupted by digital filters, High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR), and camera lens filters that toy with color balance, light intensity, and nearly every dimension of a photographic image.  This somewhat awkwardly ignores our fascination with ruins and ruin images; it suggests that we should privilege how our eyes and bodies experience ruin landscapes; and it perhaps implies that the only “authentic” representations of ruins can come from residents and people who can somehow lay claim to ruined places’ narratives.

The visual and physical gaze on ruins is now being further complicated by the emergence of drone videos documenting ruin landscapes.  For instance, in 2014 British filmmaker Danny Cooke visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone to film the remains of the 1986 nuclear accident for a 60 Minutes report.  Chernobyl is one of the world’s most intensively photographed ruin sites, a uniquely captivating abandonment in which a whole community apparently dropped everything in place.  The site is used by various observers to evoke the resilience of nature, underscore humans’ consequential impact on public health and the environment, and illuminate a state’s enormous arrogance, so it is an enormously magnetic dark tourism site (nearly 10,000 people visit the exclusion zone each year, see a really interesting analysis of this tourism on The Bohemian Blog).

Cooke’s drone video provides a fascinating and unique visualization of the Chernobyl landscape that extends the typical human’s and camera’s eye.  The drone spins above and around the landscape’s volumes in a distinctive motion that reveal patterns inaccessible to the ground-based eye.  The video is as much of a selective representation as any still image, of course:  Cooke’s video features alluring lines of sight through features like the well-known Chernobyl ferris wheel, the camera lingers over resilient flowers, it stares down at the hulking Soviet structures and decaying communist symbols engulfed by greenery, and the video contrasts the swaying trees and wind-blown clouds to the rusted carcasses of the city.  When the edited video is paired with atmospheric music it weaves a visual narrative evoking loss, trauma, or serenity; those descriptions are perhaps frustrating for their utterly ambiguous description of the Chernobyl ruins experience, but the video is certainly magnetic and has received 9.3 million hits since November 24th.

Cooke’s Chernobyl video is simply one of many to visually re-imagine ruin landscapes as volumes seen from an animated eye.  For example, few ruins have been photographed more than Detroit’s Michigan Central Train Station, so it is not surprising that drones have captured video from alongside the massive 1913 Beaux Arts building.  A 2014 video of the train station rises along the face of the structure to its roof and then gradually descends, staring through the empty shell.  As the Shins play in the background, the drone rises outside the 18-story building to the roof’s height, providing a somewhat frustrating glimpse into the empty interior but remaining outside (compare this video of the station that rises above the station roof and ventures somewhat closer to the building, likewise underscoring the emptiness of the structure as the light shines through from the other side of the building).  The Packard automotive plant ranks alongside the train station as one of Detroit’s most photographed ruins, and it has likewise been the subject of a drone video (with Marvin Gay’s “What’s Going On?” in the background).  The Packard plant was once one of the world’s largest manufacturing premises, but it is spread across space rather than as a prominent high-rise ruin.  As the drone swoops overhead and peers down on the sprawling factory, the extent of the plant and its rubble destruction is clearer than it might at ground level alone.

Many of these animated drone videos place ruins in idyllic natural settings, using the drone’s motion to inspect the ruin and then draw back and see it in a broader landscape.  For instance, a drone video of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company in Georgia’s Sweetwater Creek State Park flies through and around the shell of the mill, which opened in 1849 and was burnt to the ground by the Union Army on July 9, 1864.  The walls of the mill have decayed in place since it was leveled in 1864, and the drone moves through the mill walls and then pauses over a stream and a pristine forest that are quite unlike the landscape view over the Packard plant.  The Sheldon Church in Beaufort County South Carolina was likewise burnt by the Union Army on January 14, 1865, after having been destroyed once before by the British Army in 1779.  Like the New Manchester ruins, the South Carolina church remains today simply as walls surrounded by exceptionally well-manicured grounds and well-placed grave markers, providing an aesthetically alluring space through which the drone moves revealing the 18th century Greek Revival church’s ruined landscape (compare similar videos of ruins and landscape in New Smyrna Beach, Florida sugar mill ruins or Burt Castle in Ireland).

One of America’s largest public housing projects, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Homes, was often invoked to lament the failings of public housing, and in 2011 the last of the homes was razed.  The site that was once home to 15,000 peoples is today an open expanse whose fate remains to be resolved, but the empty field has been the subject of an interesting video drone that contrasts with the drones that move through a more complicated architectural space; instead of circling ruins and looking down on crumbling architectural remains, the Cabrini-Green drone simply hangs over a non-descript snow-covered field with a lone drone operator planted in its midst.  Like the massive towers at Cabrini Green, Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass was a similarly prominent series of six 14-story high-rises that were often stereotyped as the epitaph for state-supported housing.  While Brewster-Douglass was being dismantled in 2014, a drone circled the buildings as well as the demolition equipment peeling away their distinctive red brick shells.

Much of the appeal of drone videos of ruins is their movement around a ruin to yield a visual motion that is not possible for most eyes.  For instance, detroitdrone’s video of the Eastown Theatre moves around a massive structure now reduced to rubble and walls, ascending along its incomplete walls, spinning high above the ruin, and then panning out to the surrounding neighborhood.  Some drone videos focus on the aesthetics of rapid motion and imagine a rapidly moving eye.  The most impressive example of a drone moving through the skeleton of a ruin landscape may be BayAreaCrasher’s video of the American Flats cyanide plant in Nevada.  The drone rapidly and fearlessly moves through the plant’s remains and acrobatically darts in and out of doors, windows, and passageways covering the former plant’s landscape.

Þóra Pétursdóttir and Bjørnar Olsen defend ruin photography as a potentially “interactive and attentive way to approach things themselves,” and drone videos may amplify both that interactive and imaginative nature of ruin visuality.  Drone videos seem to confirm a widespread fascination with things and are yet another mechanism that expresses and imagines our engagement with material culture.  The specific fascination with ruins and their depiction in still images or drone videos is probably not radically different; both basically express a fascination with the breakdown of orderly upkeep of the social and material world, which yields a landscape quite unlike idealized architectural and social order.

These landscapes, our photographic and video visions, and our gaze on these visual imaginations still are rooted in particular contexts, with the downfall of industry, racist and classist inequalities, and the collapse of communism all among the factors shaping both the histories of these places and the ways we see and sense them.  In all these instances, though, our eyes are drawn however furtively to the repugnant, the failure, and the unjust, and ruins materialize all those anxieties.  Consequently, it is not especially surprising that we are fascinated by the inseparable visual and material experience of ruination.  Drone videos seem to be yet another mechanism we use to imagine ruins, just as oil painting, lithography, photography, color images, and digital cameras once provided new ways to imagine the pleasures, uneasiness, and emotion of our visual and sensory engagement with the material world.

 

References

Þóra Pétursdóttir and Bjørnar Olsen

2014 Imaging Modern Decay: The Aesthetics of Ruin Photography.  Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1(1):7-23.  (subscription access)

The Materiality of Virus: The Aesthetics of Ebola

Flu patients being treated at Camp Funston, Kansas during the 1918 epidemic   (image National Museum of Health and Medicine).

Flu patients being treated at Camp Funston, Kansas during the 1918 epidemic (image National Museum of Health and Medicine).

In 1918 over 500 million people were infected by the influenza virus, and its lethality–between 20 and 100 million people died—reaches well beyond AIDS, the Plague, and even the Great War itself.  It is not difficult to comprehend the terror induced by viral disease: we live in a historical moment in which some infectious disease can be rapidly spread aboard airlines and cruise ships; the media and a host of online outlets fan anxieties about epidemic diseases; and popular culture delivers warnings about apocalypse, zombies, and doomsday preparations.  In contrast to the European battlefield in 1918, it was enormously difficult to imagine the material form and aesthetics of a virus that moved invisibly and left as its material wake broken and dead bodies.  Viruses are terrifying because they are so hard to imagine as concrete things, so we spend much of our energy imagining how we can perceive and protect ourselves against an unseen specter. Read the rest of this entry

Beautiful Absence: The Aesthetics of Dark Heritage

Lidice today

Lidice today

The former Czech village of Lidice is today a peaceful countryside, a neatly cropped rolling field punctuated by a postcard-cute babbling brook and a scatter of trees.  The massive lawn rolls over some nearly imperceptible depressions and a couple of neatly landscaped foundations, but only a few benches and sidewalks disrupt the bucolic landscape.  Nestled in a modest rural setting seemingly far from nearby Prague, the space is a quiet and even peaceful place of reflection that is far-removed from its quite unpleasant heritage.

Like many dark heritage sites, the horrific narrative of mass murders and the complete razing of Lidice in 1942 contrast with an aesthetically pleasant contemporary space.  Lidice perhaps magnifies the role of imagination because it has exceptionally sparse material remains in the midst of a pleasant countryside; nevertheless,the imaginative experience of comprehending inexpressible barbarism in the midst of settled contemporary landscapes is common to many dark heritage sites.  Lidice illuminates the ways contemporary landscape aesthetics and material absences profoundly shape dark heritage experiences. Read the rest of this entry

Kitsch and the Consumer Imagination: Shopping at Jungle Jim’s

The SS Minnow and its Lucky Charms band stand vigil over the vegetables.

The SS Minnow and its Lucky Charms band stand vigil over the vegetables.

Few grocery stores can rise above the status of a non-place, instead sinking into a grocery landscape of interchangeable aisles with the same stale decoration and identical products distinguished by a few pennies price difference.  Even fewer have secured the status of “destination,” a grocery we would travel to for an experience igniting our imagination.  An exception to the prosaic grocery is Cincinnati’s Jungle Jim’s International Market, an enormous grocery to which a host of committed foodies and run-of-the-mill shoppers flock for distinctive goods and staged shopping entertainment.  Jungle Jim’s is distinguished by its astounding 200,000 square-foot scale, a sprawling series of buildings containing a rich array of more than 150,000 international specialty foods.  The mere size of Jungle Jim’s alone, though, does not capture its fascinating kitsch aesthetic—a monorail, fountains with jungle animals, and a host of popular cultural symbols are scattered throughout the store.  The store’s astounding selection of hard-to-find goods and mysterious products certainly is key to the grocery’s growth since 1971.  Nevertheless, the store’s aesthetic turns shopping at Jungle Jim’s into a fascinating material and stylistic experience that is key to the grocery’s magnetism.  While that grocery trip might be reduced to a captivating leisure or the pursuit of an obscure chili, the Jungle Jim’s shopping experience provides a compelling lens on the distinctive social desires of its legion of foodie shoppers. Read the rest of this entry

Ashes Underfoot: Human Remains and Public Memorialization

The 2011 launch of the Goddard flight carrying cremated remains into space (image from Celestis).

The 2011 launch of the Goddard flight carrying cremated remains into space (image from Celestis).

The remains of CJ Twomey have blazed an enormously rich path to eternal rest since his death in 2010.  Over 800 packets of CJ’s cremated remains have been scattered in an astounding range of places including baseball diamonds (e.g., Camden Yards and Fenway Park), historic sites (e.g., Notre Dame, Ground Zero, the Colosseum), tourist destinations (e.g., the Vegas Strip, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Central Park), sporting event sites (e.g., the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Tour de France climb Alpe d’Huez), and theme parks (e.g., Disney World, Disneyland Paris).  Next week some of CJ’s ashes will be sent into space aboard a rocket launched by a Houston firm that specializes in the delivery of human remains into earth orbit.  As his ashes now travel to space, CJ joins Timothy Leary, James Doohan, L. Gordon Cooper, and Gene Rodenberry, who also were placed to rest in orbit or returned to earth after suborbital flight (lunar deposits are expected to be available in the next two years, and all the burial options for humans are now available for pets as well).

CJ’s global and spatial scattering is perhaps distinguished by the scale of memorialization; a legion of people touched by his story have shepherded his remains to numerous resting places.  Nevertheless, one survey conservatively suggests that about 135,000 survivors scatter the ashes of their families and friends each year (another says one-third of cremated remains are scattered), and many of those remains are left in public spaces ranging from stadiums to theme parks.  Eternal rest now routinely reaches outside a stereotypical peaceful cemetery as the scripted funeral gradually disappears.  Cremation scattering extends memorialization to an increasingly rich range of symbolically meaningful public places, transforming burial rituals and memorial landscapes alike in a bereavement process that survivors control long after death.

Human cremated remains typically account for about 3.5% of body mass, which is normally between four and six pounds of coarse calcium phosphate dust.  Modest quantities of the ash will become part of surrounding soils and wash away within a few days under most conditions, and they pose no health hazards.  Nevertheless, many people seem reluctant to reconcile the literal presence of human remains in even trace form with public space, and we seem unwilling to concede that the Fenway Park warning track and Pirates of the Caribbean are memorial landscapes. Read the rest of this entry

Consuming Dark Histories in Santa Claus Village

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus’ office and workshop sit along the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland, and from his arctic headquarters Santa spends the year checking his list and entertaining visitors to Santa Claus Village.  Nestled in the Lapland woods, the village’s highlight is perhaps Santa Claus’ office, where Saint Nick and his elves hold forth for reviews of children’s behavior and photographs.  The Village’s attractions also include a post office, reindeer, a husky park, snowmobile trails, and shopping ranging from jewelry to log houses.  Not far away sits Santa Park, an underground labyrinth of caves including an elf school, gingerbread bakery, ice bar, and an Angry Birds Activity Area; for good measure, Santa’s “hidden command center” Joulukka sits in the heart of the forest in the same area.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Finnish holiday attractions as shallow consumer experiences, and a variety of scholars and ideologues routinely scorn places like Santa Claus Village and Disney World or reduce them to yet another post-modern self-delusion.  Much of contemporary tourism may be a search for pure diversionary pleasure in such places that embrace spectacle, celebrate patently inauthentic narratives, and offer unadulterated joy. In the midst of the Santa attractions’ imagination of the Yuletide, though, a quite concrete and even dark history exists in an especially fascinating relationship with the theatrical Christmas narrative woven in Santa Claus Village. Read the rest of this entry

Concealing the Unmentionable: Sight, Sense and the Public Restroom

The labyrinth entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The “labyrinth” entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The cinder-block walls and windowless offices of IUPUI’s Cavanaugh Hall have aged rather gracelessly over more than four decades.  The utterly functional brutal modernist building will inevitably meet the wrecking ball someday, but in the meantime administrators extend the decaying structure’s life with a host of makeshift changes.  The most recent renovations have come to a series of women’s restrooms (men’s apparently will undergo similar changes soon), which are now appointed with new tile, another set of toilets, and a slightly different floor plan.  None of those changes has prompted more fevered discussion than the installation of a labyrinth entrance; that is, the new bathrooms have no doors.  The labyrinth design is intended to minimize germ transmission and make restrooms more secure spaces, and nothing is literally visible from the adjoining public hallway; nevertheless, the absence of doors and the sonic amplification provided by the tile have unleashed a host of anxieties that illuminate the unmentionable, underscore the divisions between public and private spaces, and highlight the limits of functional restroom design.

The definitive study of the washroom is perhaps still architect Alexander Kira’s 1966 masterpiece The Bathroom.  Based on extensive research between 1958 and 1966, Kira ambitiously approached the bathroom as an architectural, functional, ergonomic, and social space.  Kira pilloried architects’ sloppy bathroom designs and the century of architectural planning that viewed bathrooms as mere afterthoughts.  Kira instead ethnographically delved into the “bathroom experience” as a design issue with concrete social and psychological dimensions that needed to be placed at the heart of spatial planning.  Among other things, Kira systematically dissected such hither-to unexamined issues as the physics of urine trajectories, the space between urinals, the physiology of seated positioning, the cleaning ineffectiveness of toilet paper (a passage not for those apprehensive of cooties), and the anxieties created by the acoustics of elimination. Read the rest of this entry

Air Guitar as Global Diplomacy

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard (2012) and Markus "Black Raven" Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard (2012) and Markus “Black Raven” Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

There may be no more audacious pursuit of global justice than the Air Guitar World Championship’s aspiration to “promote world peace.  According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.”  It is perhaps difficult to conceive of a host of global diplomats exaggerating the fluid moves of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, yet last week a legion of the faithful gathered in Oulu, Finland for the 19th annual Air Guitar World Championship’s unique performance of self-aware camp, bold sincerity, naïve optimism, and playful theatre.  Air guitar is quite possibly among the most democratic if not egalitarian of all expressive arts.  Even the clumsiest person is capable of reproducing the familiar motions of guitar players, and it harbors an interesting politics of community that may not yield world peace, but it is a fascinating and idealistic starting point.

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

It is tempting to reduce air guitar to shallow imitation of authentic musical performance, but air guitar is not really mimicking as much as it is its own performance.  Air guitar playing makes sense to audiences because it invokes physical and musical referents that nearly all of us know.  In some ways, this is much like Elvis performance artists, who are not “impersonators” as much as they interpret threads of popular musical consciousness.  Where Elvis performance artists do sing, air guitar may be distinguished by its celebration of the pleasure so many of us take in music we cannot hope to play and the optimistic democracy of air guitar.  The compelling fundamental attraction of air guitar is that it appears so simple and accessible to all of us with the faintest musical sentiments and a suppressed desire to strut about with Angus Young’s theatrical lack of self-consciousness. Read the rest of this entry

The Ruins of Music

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

Music has a rather ephemeral materiality rendered in tangible things like CDs, cassettes, records, and perhaps even digital playlists, but its more compelling archaeological dimension is probably the historical landscapes of clubs and music districts that dot nearly every community.  Local grassroots music tends to be relatively dynamic, but live music holds a tenacious if ever-transforming grip on the landscape: most communities can point to a distinctive soundscape of clubs, impromptu spaces, and places from churches to schools where music was the heart of local experience.

Music has had a profoundly consequential hold on youth culture for most of the last century, but many places’ local musical heritages are in ruins or razed.  The musical landscape is exceptionally dynamic: a parade of fringe styles continually step forward in nearly every place, articulating a host of local, generational, and social experiences.  Most musical circles seek some modestly satisfying measure of relevance, creative community, and profitability, and some express broad if not universal anxieties and sentiments while others are simply more ephemeral sounds. Read the rest of this entry

Failed Ambition: Ruins, Gaze, and Public Housing

IMG_6226Much of our fascination with ruins—and perhaps some of our uneasiness—revolves around their stark testimony to failure, and perhaps no ruins aesthetically underscore the collapse of modernity more clearly than public housing.  Public housing was born from a distinctive marriage of modernist optimism and racist and classist ideologies aspiring to remake the American city (and with many global parallels).  Last week Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project went under the wrecking ball, another in a series of 20th-century housing projectsPruitt-Igoe, Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes—that are routinely stereotyped as the epitaph for modernity’s over-reaching ambition, xenophobic nostalgia, or the misplaced optimism of state-supported housing.  Regardless of their legacy, the ruins and razing of public housing raise interesting questions about gaze and how we see and imagine particular sorts of ruins.

IMG_6239Ruins fascinate us because they energize our imaginations, providing material evidence of lost experiences while simultaneously underscoring the passing of that heritage.  Those lost experiences assume meaning through an idiosyncratic mix of popular iconography, mass discourses, and personal spatial and material experiences that shape how we perceive places like Detroit (what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies”).  Every ruin fuels a distinctive corner of our imagination and tells a distinct sort of story, and the narrative of public housing ruination is distinguished in modest but critical ways from the tales woven about industrial decline, dead malls, or eroding post-Soviet landscapes. Read the rest of this entry

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