Blog Archives

Negotiating Disaster and Apprehension: Representing Chernobyl

The one-time Palace of Culture lords over the remains of Pripyat (image courtesy Timm Suess).

Few disasters have more persistently tugged at our collective imagination than the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident.  In the subsequent quarter-century, a flood of statistical analysis has dissected the concrete effects of the accident on regional mortality, radiation levels, and the Ukranian and regional economies, and other scholars have assessed the quantifiable impacts on mental health.  Yet little of this scholarship has painted a particularly satisfying picture of what in many ways is a socially imagined disaster as well as a real, measurable catastrophe that cannot be completely rationalized through scientific analysis.  Mario Petrucci has argued that “the quantification of Chernobyl and its after-effects, crucial as it is, can never become our sole aim. Chernobyl stands to remind us that knowledge is as much qualitative as quantitative.”  The thousands of people neighboring Chernobyl and in the shadow of the vast radiation cloud are joined by countless more people well outside the Ukraine in their common apprehension of the specter of unseen radiation, a widespread wariness of a state or states that intentionally misrepresented the crisis, and a fascination with the psychological, bodily, and material effects of disaster.

The mountains of discarded gas masks at Chernobyl now seem ridiculously ironic (image courtesy murderdoll17).

In the wake of the disaster, a 30 kilometer “exclusion zone” was created around Chernobyl expelling all residents and leaving behind an abandonment space that often has been symbolically cast as a testament to the resilience of nature, the fatal flaws of the Soviet state, the fallibility of expert knowledge, and the aesthetics of loss, fear, and suffering.  Much of the exclusion zone is occupied by the former “nuclear city” of Pripyat, which was settled in 1970 to house Chernobyl laborers before its roughly 49,000 residents were removed in two days following the 1986 disaster.  The slowly eroding city has been a magnet for a variety of observers aspiring to make sense of the Chernobyl disaster, with some former residents hoping to turn it into a protected living museum revealing technological catastrophe; other artists document Pripyat aesthetically by assessing post-abandonment graffiti and even placing a mural of The Simpsons in the heart of the exclusion zone; some observers monitor nature’s rebound in the exclusion zone; Timm Suess’ wonderful page on Chernobyl includes sounds, videos, and many images; and many more chronicle their trips into the exclusion zone, which tours enter on a regular basis (though there are some moves to restrict such tours).  Today a wealth of photographers have descended on the abandoned city and remaining exclusion zone, capturing our fascination with the ruins of a disaster that has seized many peoples’ imaginations.

The Pripyat ferris wheel looms over the landscape of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (image courtesy hiroshiman)

Some imaginations of the Chernobyl exclusion zone paint it as a dead space populated by barren Soviet-era concrete structures.  For instance, Pripyat has appeared in the games S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, in which a variety of mutants and mercenaries aspire to kill players as they move through the post-apocalyptic landscape, and the visually memorable Pripyat ferris wheel occupies the game’s landscape (one tour company even offered S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tours of Pripyat and the exclusion zone).   Pripyat also appears in several versions of the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  Some artists take their visual cues from such post-apocalyptic video art conventions, which pose a bleak landscape of mutants and dystopian creatures—these creatures essentially represent radiation, which is an otherwise difficult entity to represent artistically and materially—and places them in confrontation with powerful human agents.

The Pripyat ferris wheel rusts in the background as flowers push through the surface (image courtesy ssmarta)

Much of this art from video games to photography aspires to imagine an effective human presence where it otherwise does not exist today.  Artists’ conceptualizations of the space illuminate the most powerful evocative dimensions of the abandoned landscape—mountains of gas masks, empty nursery cribs, Soviet ideological symbols, the empty Pripyat amusement park—to underscore the absence of people while lamenting the lost social life in an empty traumascape.  Artists sometimes risk inflating the scarred and barren exclusion zone left in the wake of the radiation cloud, but overdone depictions of the post-apocalyptic exclusion zone are simply aspiring to evoke the distinctive ruins of instant abandonment in the face of human and state failures.

The Hotel Polissya in Pripyat (image courtesy Timm Suess).

In reality, security around the zone is relatively lax, wildlife has thrived in what Mary Mycio describes as Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary (compare the Wired piece on wildlife in the exclusion zone); organized tours have been visiting the zone for at least a decade; and some squatters have moved into the area or are among the 3500 people living in Chernobyl working for the state managing the disaster site.  Nevertheless, Chernobyl and Pripyat are clearly declining in the absence of maintenance and under the persistent threat of thieves pilfering anything that can be sold.  Urban explorers often point to Chernobyl as one of the world’s most compelling sites, representing what Bradley Garrett refers to as a “post-human imaginary”; that is, the most alluring ruins are those that are intersections of history and a “post-human future imagination” that envisions a world without us.  Paul Dobraszczyk paints Chernobyl as an “umediated experience on the ruin of the city” where we can confront “inconceivable terror.”  The explorer UrbanX, for instance, has documented a series of visits into the exclusion zone with exceptional rigor.  These explorers’ forays into the exclusion zone reveal our somewhat dystopian anxieties about our contemporary loss of place.  Photographer Timm Suess argues that Chernobyl provides a “post-mortem” picture, echoing a common characterization of  abandonment photographers as chroniclers of architectural “death,” but Suess suggests that Chernobyl is distinctive in the nearly instant abandonment of the site and its quarter-century isolation.

image courtesy Pedro Moura Pinheiro

Signs in the Pripyat Palace of Culture (image courtesy Timm Suess).

All of these mediums aspire to represent Chernobyl artistically and express our anxieties, fascination, and curiosities with the disaster.  Mario Petrucci concludes that an artist’s perspective on Chernobyl tempers the scientifically driven bureaucratic efforts to manage the aftermath of the disaster.   He advocates an artistic imagination of the Chernobyl apprehension, anxiety, and suffering, suggesting that “In understanding Chernobyl, intellect can therefore only ever provide one tool. … I believe it a fundamental truth of our species that suffering – and a genuine empathy with suffering – serves to reorient us in a better direction.  Chernobyl is far more than a scientific mistake or a folly of Soviet zeitgeist; more, too, than yet another increment in our capacity to generate tragedy and environmental stress. On some plane – one that is more instinctive, and felt, than arcane – exists the chance to transform Chernobyl from wound to opportunity, to move from scientific progress measured scientifically to human progress whose values are rooted firmly in compassion.”

An abandoned nursery in Pripyat (image courtesy murderdoll17).

Our fascination with Chernobyl has complex roots, but much of it revolves around how we view the state and scientific authority and experience apprehension and anxiety.  Adriana Petryna weaves a compelling ethnographic case arguing that the models of “scientific knowability” that aspire to assess and politically manage the toll of Chernobyl simply fail to capture human suffering and apprehension.  Ulrich Beck made a similar case when he referred to Chernobyl as a moment of “anthropological shock” in its illumination of the divide between scientific knowledge and the human experience of suffering and risk.  In this shock, science fails to address the depth of our apprehension, and it evades our anxieties that even post-Soviet states will not always protect their own citizens.  Scientists have waded into the exclusion zone hoping to systematically document nature’s response to the disaster, but photographers may paint a more satisfying—if utterly emotional–image of floral and faunal rebound than tables of data analyses.

Chernobyl reactor today (image courtesy jon|k).

In the most creative hands, such art should lead to genuine activism and not simply be a voyeuristic gaze on distant Eastern Europeans.  Krista Harper has argued that the Chernobyl disaster moved some Hungarians (which borders the Ukraine) to openly question scientific and state authority and fashion communities of shared anxiety that fueled environmental activism.  Phaedra Pezzullo argues that “toxic tours” to places like the Chernobyl exclusion zone are fueled by a commitment to social justice intended to foster concrete activism against environmental pollution catastrophes.  For most of us, the discussion about Chernobyl simply will not occur without photographers, artists, cinematographers, poets, and novelists willing to tackle Chernobyl as something more complicated than a nuclear accident, instead framing it as a discourse on deep-seated apprehensions of an apocalypse we fear we may create ourselves.

Image courtesy murderdoll17

Chernobyl Web Pages

25 Years of Satellite Images over Chernobyl

28 Days Later Chernobyl Thread: urban explorers’ discussion of the exclusion zone

Abandoned Kansai: exceptionally thorough Chernobyl trip with video

Chernobyl: Robert Polidori

Chernobyl 1984-2009: Then and Now

Chernobyl 1986: Tom Bossi, available as an iPad application

Chernobyl 20 Years On:  BBC page on the disaster

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: Firesuite Photography

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: The Time Chamber

Chernobyl Flickr Group

The Chernobyl Project: among other things, examines the STALKER games, some Chernobyl music, and some art projects

Chernobyl Zone: images of survivors and the contemporary landscape

Chernobyl: The Exclusion Zone: Gerd Ludwig Photography

Chernobyl Up Close: Igor Kostin’s images of Chernobyl taken immediately after the accident

Chernobyl: Within the Zone: Heidi Bradner Photography

Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation: Darren Nisbett Photography

Chornobyl Museum: Ukraine’s national museum of the nuclear accident

Eternal Tears: Chernobyl in Sand Animation

Flora of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: the ecosystem’s rebound in the exclusion zone

Heavy Water: A Film for Chernobyl: YouTube trailer

Into the Zone: My trip to Chernobyl and Pripyat

Lost City of Chernobyl

Many Faces of Decay: Timm Suess’ Chernobyl trip, among the finest photograph collections from the exclusion zone with thoughtful commentary as well

Our Pripyat: YouTube channel of Pripyat videos

Panoramio Chernobyl Exclusion zone pictures

Picnic in the Death Zone: a 2007 video visit to the exclusion zone

Pripyat: Web page by displaced residents aspiring to preserve Pripyat as a “museum city”

Pripyat: Atom’s Wake: Jan Smith Photography

Prypat and the 30K Zone:  David McMillan’s photographs of the exclusion zone

Project Pripyat: “poetic excavation of a modern Pompeii”

Pripyat/Chernobyl 2010

Remembering Chernobyl: stories and images on Pripyat and Chernobyl before the accident

Road Chernobyl-Pripyat Flicker group

The Toxic Camera: video from Jane and Louise Wilson’s film

Touring Chernobyl 25 Years Later

Touring Chernobyl in 2010

Visit Chernobyl and Pripyat

Wildlife Photos in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Lenin Square, Pripyat (Image courtesy Timm Suess)

Image Credits All images on the blog are Creative Commons-licensed.  No images have been modified by me.

Chernobyl reactor image courtesy jon|k

Chernobyl art image courtesy ~Sk1zzo

Ferris wheel image courtesy ssmarta

Gas Mask imagePripyat Nursery, and Bumper Car image courtesy murderdoll17

Palace of Culture image, Pripyat Palace of Culture signs image, Lenin Square image, Theatre audience image, and Hotel Polissya image courtesy Timm Suess

Pripyat sign image courtesy Pedro Moura Pinheiro 

STALKER ferris wheel image courtesy hiroshiman

Image courtesy ~Sk1zzo

References

Melanie Arndt (editor)

2012 Special Issue: Memories, Commemorations and Representations of ChernobylThe Anthropology of East Europe Review 30(1).

Ulrich Beck

1987 The anthropological shock: Chernobyl and the contours of the risk society.  Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32: 153-165. (subscription access)

Gabrielle Decamous

2011 Nuclear Activities and Modern Catastrophes: Art Faces the Radioactive WavesLeonardo 44(2):124-132.

Paul Dobraszczyk

2010 Petrified ruin: Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death of the cityCity 14(4):370-389. (subscription access)

Ian Fairlie and David Sumner

2006 The Other Report on Chernobyl (TORCH).  The European Greens Party.

Bradley Lannes Garrett

2012 Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration.  PhD Dissertation, University of London.

Krista M. Harper

2001 Chernobyl Stories and Anthropological Shock in HungaryAnthropological Quarterly 74(3): 114-123.

David R. Marples

1996 The Decade of Despair. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 22-32.

Mary Mycio

2005 Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl.  National Academies Press, Washington DC.

Adriana Petryna

2002 Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

2004 Biological Citizenship: The Science and Politics of Chernobyl-Exposed Populations.  Osiris 19:250-265. (subscription access)

Mario Petrucci

2006 “Three Hot Drops of Salmon Oil”: The Artist and the Self in the Aftermath of Chernobyl.  Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 31(3):254-260.

Phaedra Pezzullo

2007 Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Travel, Pollution, and Environmental Justice . University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Sarah D. Phillips and Sara Ostazewski

2012 An Illustrated Guide to the Post-Catastrophe FutureThe Anthropology of East Europe Review 30(1):127-140.

Stephens, Sharon

1995 The ‘‘Cultural Fallout’’ of Chernobyl Radiation in Norwegian Sami Regions: Implications for Children. In Children and the Politics of Culture, ed. Sharon Stephens.  Princeton University Press, Princeton University Press.

Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesternko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko (editors)

2009 Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the EnvironmentAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1181.

Andrea Zink

2012 Approaching the Void: Chernobyl’ in Text and ImageThe Anthropology of East Europe Review 30(1):100-112.

Theatre audience space (image courtesy Timm Suess)

Imagining the Beautiful Apocalypse

Nature overtakes the post-apocalyptic city (image courtesy Jonas DeRo).

We have always had a fascination with the end of times, prophesizing humanity’s impending fall at the hands of a vast range of threats ranging from capricious gods to natural disaster to Obama economics.  Some present-day prophets of doom pore over scripture and Mayan calendars calculating our divinely predicted end, and the current climate may seem uniquely catastrophic as a host of voices zealously assess the dangers posed by global warming, asteroids, thermonuclear war, an electromagnetic pulse, and comparable crises.  Popular culture has embraced our fascination with apocalypse, with a wave of apocalyptic movies and short films (and some feature films over the breadth of a century); numerous video games including Half Life, Left 4 Dead, and Fallen Earth; and reality shows featuring our neighbors preparing for the end.

What is especially distinctive now is that a broad public imagination of approaching downfall and contemporary ruination depicts it as an aesthetic and even beautiful fate.  A flood of graphic art depicts the ruins of our future strewn across a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape.  This aestheticized fate illuminates how we see contemporary post-industrialism, an anxiety over contemporary life that offers few explicit moral lessons.  When Charlton Heston collapsed at the feet of a crumbled Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes it was an expressly dystopian tale of racial apocalypse, but the future painted in most contemporary post-apocalyptic art is not a starkly dystopian moral lesson: it is instead a strangely attractive, curiously timeless, and even welcoming landscape of utter ruination.

Some post-apocalyptic scenes are amazingly orderly (image courtesy the flickerlees).

Post-apocalyptic art embraces our anxieties about contemporary material decline and deeper apprehensions of the social processes that fuel and in some minds are accelerating our decline, comforting us with an aestheticized future in gorgeous ruins.  Abandonment art depicting contemporary ruins (so-called “ruin porn”) and post-apocalyptic art imagining future downfall fundamentally explore transience and a common feeling of powerlessness (whether it is warranted or imagined).  Paul Virilio has argued that “This admission of powerlessness in the face of the surging up of unexpected and catastrophic events forces us to try to reverse the usual trend that exposes us to the accident in order to establish a new kind of museology or museography: one that would now entail exposing the accident, all accidents, from the most banal to the most tragic.”  In this vision of ruins and ruination, Virilio suggests we should examine the “progress that turns into catastrophe,” documenting the trajectories of apocalypse.  The most challenging post-apocalyptic art aspires to confront our anxieties about the future, and archaeology can trigger equally productive discussions about the future while assessing the material traces of the past and present.

Some images underscore the catastrophic dimensions of apocalypse (image courtesy Deadly Wanderer).

Post-apocalyptic art is an anticipation of ruins, and Will Viney argues that “the anticipation of ruins mark out the present as the condition of the future,” suggesting that the imagination of apocalypse and ruination expresses our anxieties about our own social and material impermanence.  He looks at ruins—historical remnants, contemporary abandonment, and future landscapes alike—as disruptions of conventional narrative temporality, arguing that “projected ruins represent a disrupted continuation of present events. … The ruin marks that sense of termination that has not quite come to its end. … Imagining the ruins of the future gives a means to envision a story that both locates a possible landscape and relates that landscape to present surroundings.”  An astounding volume of art foresees a non-apocalyptic extension of present-day life, but future ruins undermine seemingly conventional developmental paths, a maneuver that destabilizes our own preconceptions about a stable present.

The Eiffel Tower is among the great buildings that will outlast us, even if in imperfect form (image courtesy Deadly Wanderer).

Sarah Wanenchak argues that the central feature of post-apocalyptic art and contemporary “ruin porn” is their atemporality; that is, the ruins around us and in a hypothetical future are threads in a larger discourse that collapses facile distinctions between past, present, and future.  Where contemporary abandonment art evokes heritage and loss through reference to historical buildings and spaces we experience in the present, post-apocalyptic art wields the familiar materiality of our present and imagines its future ruination.  Seeing such ruination art as atemporal is a concept thieved from cyberpunk, where William Gibson suggests that we “inhabit a sort of endless digital Now.”  Much of the implications for this philosophical framework seem to revolve around resisting conventional linear historical narratives.  Bruce Sterling, for instance, refers to the contemporary world as a “network culture” and argues that digitization profoundly undermines authoritative linear narratives for the meanings of a coalescing past, present, and future.

A variety of megafauna appear to flourish after the apocalypse (image courtesy sgwols).

Contemporary abandonment art uses photographs to substitute for the physical experience of moving through a ruin, so its claim to authenticity is somewhat different than that for post-apocalyptic art.  Abandonment artists aspire to reveal “authentic” landscapes in natural decaying processes (which some artists argue is “beautiful”), and an image invokes a bodily, material experience of moving through a ruin in time and space, although it transforms it into a selective digital prompt.  The photograph in abandonment art makes a claim to historical authenticity (in the form of the building carcass) and embodied authenticity (in the implied form of the photographer’s corporeal self entering buildings).

The ruins of cities like Toronto are familiar in post-apocalyptic art (image courtesy Jonas DeRo).

Authenticity is an exceptionally ambiguous if not ideological concept, but in contemporary abandonment art there is a genuine material reality that images depict, a concrete decaying building or space, so it is “real” in a way that post-apocalyptic art is not.   In contrast, post-apocalyptic art stakes a claim to our imagination—and crafts its own authenticity in lieu of materiality–by representing the ruins of our familiar material world in the wake of catastrophe.

Our present-day world is a familiar feature in post-apocalyptic art, with famous structures and familiar spaces routinely looming as visual mechanisms that place us in the imagined ruins of ourselves.  For instance, Jonas De Ro’s series of imaginings of contemporary cities in ruins depict cities including Toronto, Dubai, and Singapore, all including material landmarks overtaken by collapse, decay, and nature.   A host of artists somewhat inelegantly divine the fall of state societies by focusing on the most famous buildings, with the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and Cristo Redentor among the recurring post-apocalyptic motifs surrounded in flames, ice, water, or vegetation.  Those buildings become clumsy metaphorical devices for our contemporary society if not us.

This post-apocalypse image is distinct for including commonplace things (image courtesy flickerees).

Other artists incorporate the most prosaic materiality but universal things, such as subways and cars.  Structures we know or spaces that are recognizable populate post-apocalyptic art as a mechanism to provide them a sort of plausible digital authenticity.  Unlike abandonment art that often depicts the most commonplace objects in the midst of ruins, post-apocalyptic images are most often landscapes focused on the grand sweeping spatial dimensions of apocalypse and not really on the detritus of commodities cast about that landscape.  In this sense, much of post-apocalyptic art might be interpreted as a post-consumer world that for at least some people is a desirable landscape.

Nature recovers from many apocalypses, like this one depicting Shanghai (image courtesy Jonas DeRo).

Artists use a wide range of mechanisms to render ruins and catastrophic futures “beautiful.”  Like contemporary abandonment artists, post-apocalyptic artists use light and high density color ranges to provide a visually striking representation, and post-apocalyptic artists are granted significant license to interpret the future (abandonment artists, in contrast, tend to take spaces as they are found).  Some post-apocalyptic art is of course a landscape of desolation, but others underscore the power and resilience of an aesthetically attractive nature.  Trees, vines, and megafauna reclaim a vast range of post-apocalyptic artworks, with greenery carpeting abandoned cities that are in many cases populated by a host of animals that have escaped the zoos.  This optimistic vision of environmental rebound soothes contemporary environmental anxieties by suggesting nature can overcome any of humanity’s insults, although those imaginations of ruin rarely identify the concrete mechanisms of ruination.  Some post-apocalyptic artists include hypersexualized women in their images (something seen in contemporary abandonment art as well), borrowing the stark and discomforting backdrop of apocalyptic ruination to contrast to a certain definition of beauty and sexual desirability.

This image includes the Statue of Liberty’s head, a subway car, and a tough woman (image courtesy communityvolunteer).

The post-apocalyptic landscape is an oblique critique of an alienating social world in which people often feel disempowered.  The select few humans who populate most post-apocalyptic art are apparently strong and invested with genuine agency:  numerous artworks of post-apocalyptic worlds show a single figure (or a nuclear family) standing with their back to us staring out at the post-apocalyptic world with us, absurdly envisioning new possibilities and perhaps even suspecting that the removal of structural limitations will make us happier.

For archaeologists the implications of post-apocalyptic art may revolve around its creative capacity to imagine the future.  That is, as Rodney Harrison and Shannon Dawdy each have argued, archaeologists rarely look into the future, instead committed to a conventional modernist narrative that examines the relationship between the past into the present and ends at our own feet.  Harrison argues that archaeologists examining the contemporary world have developed a problematic framework that reduces materiality to “ruins” because the discipline is focused on detritus, the past, and distance.  Harrison suggests tinkering with the temporality of ruination, focusing on its dynamism and seeing ruins as an incomplete present with implications on the future that archaeologists can and should examine.  Dawdy has likewise advocated a research agenda that resists linear evolutionary narratives and does not reduce materiality to progress or ruin.

Chicago sits unattended by humans in this post-apocalyptic future (image courtesy Aerodynamited).

It might be possible to use archaeology to creatively rethink our unexamined historical trajectories into the future by drawing on our mastery of the history of things and contemporary materiality alike.  Bruce Sterling hints at the archaeological implications of atemporality, which he muses “escapes the literary traps of history.  Just history that could not be written about.  History about people who were not the winners, history about people who had no literatures. … we can trace it through archeology. … The way we learn about our things, through non-literary sources such as garbage, pollen counts, environmental damage, even corpses.”  Sterling is suggesting that things are especially powerful mechanisms to weave narratives evoking past, present, and future and countering dominant narratives and predominant notions of linear temporality.  Evan Calder Williams argues that “the cunning of an era, then, is the dreaming of its own grave. Not its gravediggers. The dream image, that standstill halting of utopia and the dialectical image: what is it if not the graveyard?”  He proposes a scholarship “I call salvagepunk: the post-apocalyptic vision of akaputt world, strewn with both the dream residues and the real junk of the world that was, and shot through with the hard work of salvaging, repurposing, détourning, scrapping.”  As complex theory this is all quite elegant, but as everyday method it risks providing a complicated philosophical framework with few genuine implications.  Yet archaeology and art alike may have their greatest power when they simply trigger discussions about the paths we may take in the future, trajectories that do not simply assume a particular sort of progress.  This will involve some creativity in how we imagine our futures, but post-apocalyptic art reveals that many people are using materiality to imagine such futures.

A lone figure surveys the post apocalyptic landscape (image courtesy Jonas DeRo).

Shannon Lee Dawdy

2009 Millennial Archaeology: Locating the Discipline in the Age of InsecurityArchaeological Dialogues 16(2):131-142. (subscription access)

Rodney Harrison

2011 Surface assemblages: Towards an archaeology in and of the present. Archaeological Dialogues 18:141-161.

Steve Redhead

2011 Archaeology of the Post-Future. Unpublished paper, academia.edu.

Paul Virilio

2007 The Original Accident.  Polity Press, Malden, MA.

Evan Calder Williams

2011 Combined and Uneven Apocalypse.  Zero Books

Light reclaims the post-apocalyptic city (image courtesy DearJune)

Abandoned Richard Allenby-Pratt

Apocalypse Art

Giacoma Costa Post Natural Apocalypse

Midnight Artwork

Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction (Paul Brians)

Surviving the Apocalypse

Silent World

Graphics

Apocalypse (elephant) image courtesy sgwols.

Apocalypse (woman) image courtesy CommunityVolunteer

Apocalypse (city) image courtesy DearJune

Chicago Ruins image courtesy dynamited.

City of Fallen Angels image and the Euphony of the Apocalypse image courtesy the flickerlees

Oh shi… image and The End image courtesy Deadly Wanderer

Urban jungle image, Shanghai image, Forsaken image, and Toronto ruins image courtesy Jonas DeRo

Metaphors for Abandonment: Exploring Urban Ruins

The prosaic humanity of an abandoned manor (image courtesy howzey)

An astounding number of web pages document abandoned materiality, encompassing a broad range of architectural spaces including asylums, bowling alleys, industrial sites, Cold War sites, and roadside motels as well as smaller things like pianos and even scale models of abandonment.  This ruination lust is not simply the province of a small handful of visual artists, hipsters colonizing Detroit, or recalcitrant trespassers; instead, it invokes something that reaches far deeper socially, has international dimensions, extends well into the past, and reflects a deep-seated fascination with—if not apprehension of—abandonment.  The question is what explains our apparently sudden collective fascination with abandonment, ruination, and decay.  The answers are exceptionally complex and highly individual, but there seem to be some recurrent metaphors in these discourses.

An abandoned roof felt factory in Tampere Finland (image courtesy Tiia Monto)

For “urban explorers” (a term that might loosely include artists, photographers, archaeologists, and curious folks alike), such journeys seek out “abandoned, unseen, and off-limits” spaces that imagine ruination in a wide range of artistic, emotional, scholarly, and political forms.  Many of these urban explorers and artists see themselves as visual historians, documenting the architectural and community heritage reflected in abandoned spaces.  For instance, Jonathan Haeber’s urban exploration blog Bearings explains that “I’m just an eye.  I’m just a camera. … An urban explorer is just a documentarian. …  We only appreciate the creations that are overlooked. … It is what remains that is the democratic equivalent of a revolution.”

This is a politically circumspect expression of the explorer as a visual chronicler who records the prosaic material dimensions of abandoned material heritage.  It focuses on the power of aesthetically documenting abandonment, often to fortify a general appreciation for the breadth of heritage but not always in especially articulate ways.  Urban Ghosts: Forgotten Places and Urban Curiosities, for example, argues that its mission through such images is to underscore that “History is all around us, on every street corner.  Almost every place has a story to tell, but so much goes unnoticed, or simply pales into insignificance alongside heavy-hitting giants like the pyramids.”

The abandoned Spreepark near Berlin (image courtesy Norbert Lov).

The thorough Guerilla Historian page argues that urban exploration can produce a historical narrative that is complicated by the physical and aesthetic depiction of ruination, arguing that “Staring into the unfamiliar past, artificial environments and composites of micro-histories is a way to construct a depth perception for our own timeline.”  This focus on the experience of exploring ruined materiality is not at all novel, but the Guerilla Historian envisions this producing a historical narrative focused on people’s story-telling.  Such a people’s history of ruination is based on grassroots commitment to the details of everyday heritage that some observers believe is outside conventional academic history.  Guerilla Historian suggests that “If his­tory is writ­ten only by the win­ners, we are all losers.  I come from a place where his­tory is some­thing you can walk on and climb on, some­thing to be found and felt. Come with me.  Our past has been relegated to weighty dusty bookshelves in this culture, treated as dead weight that holds modernity, innovation and progress itself back—I disagree. Our past is always obscured behind the veil of contemporary interpretation, and this work represents mine: a world where the past is freed from rotting pages and can teach us who we are.”  Some urban explorers share a comparable vision of their historiography as a foil to mainstream narratives; this risks over-stating the conservatism of academic historians, but it does capture that much of everyday materiality is absolutely irrelevant to mainstream historians, and urban explorers (including most historical archaeologists) celebrate the everyday world even as they acknowledge the profoundly complicated histories of loss in America.

Child’s chair and walking stick in an abandoned asylum boiler room (image courtesy World of Good)

Many of these projects focus on how the photographic representation of abandonment is utterly dependent on the bodily experience of a creative, curious, and sympathetic eye moving through ruined landscapes.  Matthew Christopher’s Abandoned America page has thoroughly chronicled urban abandonment, and his assessment of abandonment hinges on the physical experience of moving through these ruined landscapes, which he refers to as the “visceral experience of entering a parallel universe.”  In an Atlantic Cities article on “ruin porn,” Christopher acknowledged that “It was a case of that old cliché, ‘a picture speaks a thousand words.’ … When I’d try to talk about the presences that seem to linger in these places, people would look at me like I should be in an asylum myself. When I showed them pictures — they’d suddenly get it.”  Many if not most urban explorers believe that a visual record of a place is uniquely documented by a photographer who thinks creatively and embraces prosaic ruination, taking pictures in ways that our sight may not otherwise have seen and stressing what Travis Parno calls “the potency of the imagination.”  Beauty in Decay, for instance, aspires to “walk in the eerie footsteps of long departed souls through haunted houses turned to dust and industrial complexes surrendered to nature,” arguing that “to understand the siren song of these places requires a certainly more poetic mindset than one might be used to occupying.  Think back to your childhood for a moment and it all begins to make sense. … At the very point we cross the border from childhood into adolescence we cross real physical borders too. It’s the moment in our lives when we test the boundaries.”

Nike missile silo SF-91L in Belvedere California (image courtesy www78)

For some of these explorers, this is more than an exercise in taking good pictures or breaking into buildings.  The Beauty in Decay project acknowledges that with “a digital SLR camera and High Dynamic Range software it has become very much easier to take awesome photographs,” yet they do not reduce it simply to an aesthetic exploration; instead, they argue that “photography appears to be the symptom and not the disease.”  Rather than reduce urban abandonment to voyeuristic curiosity or shallow artistic vision, the Beauty in Decay project suggests that explorers “in the comfortable and over-protected ‘first world’ are living in an enforced and extended state of childhood.  They have remembered that they are capable of having unmediated experiences of reality and they welcome the fear that may (or may not) come with those experiences.  The fear itself is the gateway to go through. It’s the gateway that leads for many to ‘wonderland’. This is the world through the looking glass that in some dark corner of every soul, we are all looking for.”  This frames urban exploration as the pursuit of meaningful experiences in an over-built world that provides a false security; it is in the ruins of that very world that we encounter ourselves and our society and plumb the depths of our most unsettled sentiments about ourselves and modernity.

The abandoned Cocoa Palms Resort on Kauai, Hawaii (image courtesy peptic_ulcer)

Many urban explorers characterize ruin as “beauty,” a romantic nostalgia with deep historical roots.  For urban explorer Jonathan Haeber, for instance, the ruined landscape provides “beauty and ephemerality,” securing its aesthetic appeal from its very ruination and the decay inevitable in all materiality’s return to nature.   The implication of this notion of beauty is that the seeds of decay are in all materiality and technology, and we acknowledge this transience through our own willingness to see that ruination all about us.  One somewhat overwrought description of the Beauty in Decay project rhapsodized that urban explorers “collectively put forth a ground cry against a modern culture that embraces the new, polished, uniform, and mundane.  Urban explorers find the beauty—layers of graffiti by years worth of writers, multi-hued peeling paint, antique objects, someone’s initials left in the dust on a broken stained glass window—and physical manifestations of memory that abandoned, impermanent urban spaces can hold.”  This views decay as traces of memory, a somewhat romantic notion of the ruin as a pleasing fantasy whose materiality haunts the present but does not invoke the future.

An abandoned building in Cork, Ireland (image courtesy slinky2000)

The most distinctive definition of the relationship between beauty and ruin is a rapidly emerging school of photographic art that uses abandoned ruins as the stark backdrop for fashion images or nudes (for a relatively SFW example, see Beauty in Decay compiler Romanywg’s facebook page).  For instance, visual artist Miru Kim’s “Naked Spleen” series depicts her nude in a variety of urban ruins, explaining that “Experiencing feelings of alienation and anxiety in the city–a city that has increasingly become more surveilled and commodified–I began to understand how many artists and authors suffered from severe bouts of depression, inertia, and isolation, which the term spleen embodies. One of the ways I escaped such feelings was to visit desolate and hidden places in the city. … Exploring industrial ruins and structures made me look at the city as one living organism. I started to feel not only the skin of the city, but also to penetrate the inner layers of its intestines and veins, which swarm with miniscule life forms. These spaces—abandoned subway stations, tunnels, sewers, catacombs, factories, hospitals, and shipyards—form the subconscious of the city, where collective memories and dreams reside. … As I momentarily inhabit these deserted sites, they are transformed from strange to familiar, from harsh to calm, from dangerous to ludic.”  This actually invokes a common urban explorers’ desire for an unmediated experience, it simply inflates the sensory dimensions of that experience and produces more jarring images by juxtaposing a nude with ruination.  Others have used urban ruins as a very different sort of backdrop: For instance, the Gakuranman site’s guide to urban exploring includes the story that one urban explorer “tells us that she has also bumped into crews shooting adult photography and video on more than one occasion, which was quite embarrassing for both parties.”

Runwell Hospital in Essex (UK), a mental hospital opened in 1937 that closed in 2010 (image courtesy howzey)

Matthew Christopher has a sober explanation for the meanings of his images of abandonment.  He somewhat counter-intuitively (if rhetorically) argues that his images have no intended moral or political lessons, arguing that each picture of an abandoned place “filters a fraction of another microcosm of loss.  This place was many things to the many people who knew it: a source of income, memories of good times with family and friends, maybe even an inspiration or an ideal. Those things are gone now. Here is the corpse left behind, which we can parade around for our entertainment, and wax philosophical.”

The specific reasons for focusing our gaze on those “corpses” reveal the complicated sociopolitics of ruination.  Brian Dillon argues that late-18th century Romanticism turned the mutilated remains of classical artworks or the fragments of buildings to a “randomly chosen instant,” celebrating decay and the ruined fragment but resisting a unified narrative.  This perspective would seem well-suited to many urban explorers fascinated by material details and idiosyncratic experiences in abandoned spaces, and their fascination with preserving the moment is reflected in the recurrently invoked “code of honour” to “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” That code aspires to freeze the moment of abandonment, merging the abandoned ruin with nature and leaving it to “natural” decaying processes.

Yet many observers approach abandonment as an exposition of the “ruins of modernity,” casting ruination scholarship as fascination with the “corpse” of a history we believed to be resistant to transience if not permanent.  This is a perspective that risks romanticizing stability, even if at least obliquely reflecting a simultaneous discomfort with modernity’s lust for “progress.”  In 1911 Georg Simmel argued  that ruination is inevitable, and he suggested that ruins emphasize the folly of political and cultural permanence.  Julia King’s fascinating study Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past has examined how contemporary historic sites have constructed “ruins” to frame historical interpretations on otherwise blank landscapes.  Her assessment of such manufactured ruins in Southern Maryland dissects the inelegant ideology of aestheticized historical ruins that borrow from 19th-century romanticization of ruins, seeking a permanence that inelegantly effaces the landscape of racism in places like Southern Maryland.  Such permanence is what Albert Speer aspired to ensure for the Third Reich in his “theory of ruin value”, which described architecture designed to decay gracefully and aesthetically.  In his 1970 memoirs, Speer indicated that during a construction project the

Speer’s Nuremberg complex has indeed been gradually overcome by nature in its present form as a memorial and a speedway (image courtesy Adam Jones, Ph.D. Global Archives).

“Nuremberg streetcar depot had to be removed. I passed by its remains after it had been blown up. The iron reinforcements protruded from concrete debris and had already begun to rust. One could easily visualize their further decay. This dreary sight led me to some thoughts which I later propounded to Hitler under the pretentious heading of `A Theory of Ruin Value.’  The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that `bridge of tradition’ to future generations which Hitler was calling for.  It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past.  By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.”

Despite this pronouncement coming from a Nazi, Speer voiced a common aspiration for architecture to provide a state a historical, ideological, and material presence long after its fall.  Naomi Stead cleverly argues that Speer’s caricature of the ahistorical ruin was a reaction against the relics around him that were obviously part of his social moment and testaments to its failures.  The distinction between most contemporary ruins and Speer’s idealized relics is that most of the abandoned factories, theaters, and asylums in our midst have a historical patina but are nevertheless clearly of a moment we recognize as “ours.”  Speer instead aimed to produce ruins that belied their age and merged with nature, casting these buildings as timelessly historical.

A Netherlands potato flour factory abandoned in 1964 (image courtesy Harm Rhebergen)

Matthew Christopher persistently uses the metaphor of “death” to describe his images of abandonment, arguing that “At its core, the photography of ruins is fundamentally about death. … the very basis for the entire genre is that the photographs are of abandoned–or dead–spaces.  … the key element is that what they once were created for is no longer.  Much in the same way, a host of chemical and biological processes continue in a corpse but it is still no longer considered living.”  This assessment of ruination art, exploration, and abandonment discourse focuses on the corpse of modernity retaken by nature, a gaze that can be reduced to romantic nostalgia (ironically, a central feature of modernist gaze), or it can view the ruin as an active entity that has a genuine politics revived by an aesthetic gaze.

This “death” underlies Christopher’s political argument that his images document not simply an abstract notion of abandonment and decay; instead,

“Each one represents failure.  On a micro level, this is evidenced in the building itself and the failure of the owners to fund/maintain whatever it was established for.  On a macro level, it often applies to the community’s inability to support the business, and to an even greater extent can be indicative of lost industries and economic collapse on the county and state level. I would argue that the culmination of these failures shows a trend even greater (and more ominous), that of an overall social decline leading to the fall of an entire empire.”

Abandoned seaside resort in Tianjin Tanggu (China) (image courtesy 请叫我面团)

This sober if not dystopian perspective views images as “a eulogy for the lost ways of life they represent, a statement of their emotional, spiritual, and metaphoric relevance to our everyday lives, and a sense of the visceral experience of entering a parallel universe of silence, rust, and peeling paint.”  These profoundly consequential tales of abandonment are counter-intuitively told with exceptionally prosaic spaces, but many artists of ruination and post-apocalyptism routinely depict the world’s most famous landmarks, with appearances from  Big Ben, Red Square, Cristo Redentor, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Pentagon, Harrods, and of course the Statue of Liberty.  This casts ruination into the future and places us clearly within a material and historical landscape constantly in processes of decay and ruination.

Christopher invests his politics into his images but is counter-intuitively reluctant to assume the political meanings of the pictures.  Instead, he argues that “As is often the case, I have the question–not just an idle curiosity, but a big gaping hole where meaning is supposed to be–but not the answer. …  Why does the husk of the building photographed matter? Why does the moment this image captured matter? Why does it matter that you’re looking at it now and reading this?”  For Christopher those are open questions posed by images, and it remains for us to turn them into political and policy statements that address built preservation and illuminate the structural conditions that produce contemporary abandonment.

Brian Dillon

2005 Fragments from a History of a RuinCabinet 20.

2010 Decline and Fall: Tracing the History of Ruins in ArtFrieze 130.

Greco, Joann

2012 The Psychology of Ruin Porn. Altantic Cities.

Julia A. King

2012 Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past: The View from Southern Maryland.  University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.  (partial reading version on google books)

Naomi Stead

2003 The Value of Ruins: Allegories of Destruction in Benjamin and Speer.  Form/Work: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Built Environment 6:51-64.  Available online at Naomi Stead’s wordpress site.

Urban Ruins web pages

There are an astounding number of web pages documenting abandoned structures, ruins, and the aesthetics of urban exploring.  Try starting with this list of pages.

 

28 Days Later

Abandoned America

Abandoned Kansai

Abandoned Places

Abandoned Places flick’r group

Abandoned Porn tumblr

Abditus

Bearings

Beautiful Decay flick’r group

Center for Land Use Interpretation

Conserving the Twentieth Century

Contamination Zone

Dark Passage

Dark Places

Day of the Dead

Dead Malls

Dystopia Photography

Explorations of Beauty and Decay

Forbidden Places

Friched.net

Frits Vrielink

Gakuranman

Guerilla Historian

Harald Finster

Haikyo: Urban Exploration in Japan

Howzey UrbEx flick’r page

Infiltration

Jeremy Blakeslee

Lost in Time

Michael Alan Goldberg

Michael John Grist

Lost America

 

 

 

Lost Indiana

Lost Place-Switzerland

Marcel Woudstra flick’r page

Mr. Monster flick’r page

New England Ruins

Opacity

Reactor4be

Reddit.com/AbandonedPorn

Rick Harris

Romantic Ruins

Ruin Porn tumblr

Ruins of the 20th Century

Russia Abandoned

Sending 4 Help

Shaun O’Boyle

Silent UK

Sleepy City

Subterranea Brittanica

Sub-Urban: Main Drainage of the Metropolis

UK Urban Exploration

Under Montreal

UrbEx Art

UrbExonline.de

UrbEx UK

Urban Dirty

Urban Explora

Urban Exploration Magazine

Urban Explorers flick’r group

Whatever’s Left

 

Image credits

Abandoned manor image courtesy howzey flick’r group Abandoned Manor

Runwell Hospital image courtesy howzey flick’r group Runwell Mental Hospital

Nuremberg image courtesy Adams Jones Ph.D. Global Archives Nuremberg flick’r set

Potato factory image courtesy Harm Rhebergen flick’r page

Tampere factory image courtesy Tiia Monto in wikimedia commons

Spreepark image courtesy Norbert Lov flick’r group Spreepark

Nike missile silo image courtesy www78

Cocoa Palms resort image courtesy peptic_ulcer

Cork building image courtesy slinky2000

child’s chair in asylum image courtesy World of Good

Chinese seaside resort image courtesy 请叫我面团!

The Politics and Archaeology of “Ruin Porn”

An enormous number of artists, urbanites, and even archaeologists have begun to focus their attention on the aesthetics and materiality of ruin in a discourse commonly dubbed as “ruin porn.”  The pornography metaphor invokes the focus on a purely self-centered gaze and seeing urban and industrial ruination for sensationalistic if not purely emotional and instinctive reasons.  Some commentators are unnerved by the implication that the mostly visual documentation of ruination simultaneously shares with pornography the un-expressible and purely self-centered satisfaction of voyeuristic viewing.  Yet artist Matthew Christopher thoughtfully defends his photographic “autopsy of the American Dream” as a “sort of modern archaeology,” making a truly persuasive case for the political might of documenting urban devastation with images and archaeological analysis alike.

Perhaps no building has appeared in “ruin porn” more often than Detroit’s Michigan Central Station. Completed in 1913, the Beaux-Arts landmark stopped receiving trains in 1988. (Image courtesy Chad and Steph)

The story of urban America is undeniably one of dramatic post-war decline that could truly be likened to social and material apocalypse in some communities, and in many ways similar tales can be told of many industrial and urban landscapes throughout the world.   Many of the chroniclers of American material devastation are criticized as hipster photographers accused of simply engaging their fascination with urban decline as they reclaim cities, a point made thoughtfully and fairly by John Patrick Leary’s brilliant analysis of “ruin porn” in Detroit.  Detroit has perhaps witnessed more of this discourse than any other American city.  Sometimes Detroit is taken as a lamentation on the fate of American (if not global) cities; Andrew Moore’s photographs of Detroit might be circumspectly placed in this category, with one observer seeming to applaud that “Without straying into politics, [his book Detroit Disassembled is] an eloquent plea for new national policies aimed at helping places like Detroit and Cleveland survive and become more competitive,” though Moore is one of the rare artists who includes people in his images.  For others Detroit is a visual challenge to Americans’ historical amnesia about the stability of auto industry and broader corporate capital; sometimes this risks lapsing into a shallow commentary on the tolls of auto industry mismanagement and union greed (a point made by Mitt Romney in a 2008 op-ed sensationally titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” that he subsequently has revisited), but it is difficult to capture the mechanics of abandonment and the human tolls in a photograph alone.

Interior of the Michigan Central Station (photo copyright: Jeremy Blakeslee)

Critics often argue that ruin photographs are inevitably fetishized depictions of complex social processes that hazard effacing those processes, and the High Dynamic Range photography that is often used in “ruin porn” does indeed aestheticize and drench the most bland spaces in color.  Yet the dilemma of rejecting such images as fetishized is that any photograph is a selective representation of reality that cannot hope to capture concrete experience.  Pornography does at least visually own up to its desires; in contrast, urban renewal commonly aspires to efface all material and aesthetic remnants of heritage and conceal the ideological interests that produced the contemporary urban landscape.

Urban abandonment is of course a historical process that happens over time and is driven by concrete material and social processes, but photographs of ruins belie much of that temporal depth and those processes of change.  Camilo Jose Vergara has photographically documented American cities since the 1970s with the goal of visualizing change over time, which variously involves abandonment, rebirth, and social transformation alike, and Vergara does not restrict his gaze simply to impoverished contexts in inner cities.  His collections in places as disparate as Richmond, California, Harlem, and Camden, New Jersey have a historical depth that is nearly non-existent in other ruination photography.  But apologists are reluctant to concede the historical depth of these material processes and sometimes seem sensitive that “bad press” will hinder their favored forms of growth and revival.  Other projects like Can’t Forget the Motor City simply hope to temper the picture of a complex place like Detroit otherwise painted in “soulless images.”

Much of “ruin porn” illustrates the decline of once-stylish cities like Detroit (courtesy calamity_hane)

The class and racial dimensions of this discourse run quietly and somewhat uncomfortably beneath the surface, and those social dimensions may distinguish “ruin porn” from the numerous people who have been fascinated with ruins over several centuries.  Many assessments of gentrification in places like Detroit capture an uneasiness that the city is being “revitalized” by a mostly White educated “creative class” (to use Richard Florida’s well-known term) or “millenials.”  Salon circumspectly characterized Detroit and similarly declining Rust Belt cities as ideal landing points for otherwise disaffected and marginalized 20- and 30-somethings in a movement sometimes referred to as “Rust Belt chic.”  In July, 2011 the New York Times reported optimistically about the stream of young entrepreneurs, artists, and associated hipsters who have flowed into Detroit peopling abandoned neighborhoods with trendy business districts, urban farms, and an arts community.  Good News reported that much of this newly established community is sensitive to its privileges, committed to serving the whole community, and not consciously driven to displace former residents or set up new divides (compare the Guernica piece “Food among the Ruins” on urban farming in Detroit).  Nevertheless, many of these businesses and social networks remain divided across race and class lines, and some locals are never going to be baristas, art aficionados, or part of the IT workforce.

This Gary, Indiana church sits in the heart of the Midwestern “Rust Belt.” (courtesy Paul J.S.)

At least obliquely the porn metaphor suggests the covert excitement of viewing ruins from the privileged standpoint of the bourgeois, and in this respect it borrows from a long-established tradition of slum tourism by White bourgeois that swept Europe and America in the late 19th century.  In 1899, for instance, Scottish traveler William Archer’s America To-Day concluded that New York’s “slums have a Southern air about them, a variety of contour and colour—in some aspects one might almost say a gaiety. … For one thing, the ubiquitous balconies and fire escapes serve of themselves to break the monotony of line, and lend, as it were, a peculiar texture to the scene; to say nothing of the opportunities they afford for the display of multifarious shreds and patches of colour.  Then the houses themselves are often brightly, not to say loudly, painted; so that in the clear, sparkling atmosphere characteristic of New York, the most squalid slum puts on a many-coloured Southern aspect.”  This reduction of impoverishment to an aesthetic was its own pornographic gaze, but for some contemporary critics it shares with “ruin porn” the very removal of living people from the description of cities whose impoverishment and abandonment are driven by a complex amalgam of classist, racist, and corporate self-interests.

Archer’s contemporaries included many activists intent on changing everyday life for impoverished people, and they did create consequential change using tools that were not radically distinct from the contemporary documentors of abandonment.  Jacob Riis’ landmark 1890 study How The Other Half Lives was a photographic survey of New York tenements that aspired to use jarring images to motivate reform, and numerous other social science studies (all admittedly with their own class and racist baggage) used images to emotionally move the state and citizens of privilege into action.   There is something powerful about an image of a contemporary ruin that compels many observers to question how monumental buildings and vast swaths of cities were systematically and intentionally abandoned, but to reduce it simply to “landscape photography” is at best naïve and at worst socially reprehensible.  Matthew Christopher has been among the most prolific and reflective of the abandonment photographers, and he likens abandoned buildings to spaces of death in which the collective heritage of myriad people—those who worked in a factory, attended a school, were baptized in a church—are effaced.

There is an undeniably fascinating aesthetic to abandoned amusement park images like this one from Spreepark in Berlin (courtesy CxOxS)

The aesthetics and politics of ruination are different in different sorts of spaces, including churches, Cold War missile ranges, industrial spaces, shopping malls, and fallout shelters.  For instance, many ruin artists flock to amusement parks, which evoke past innocence and provide all sorts of compelling aesthetic devices like decaying rides, fiberglass figures or animatronic John Waynes overtaken by nature.  Examples include Michael John Grist’s fascinating photo-logue of abandoned Japanese parks, many with American themes; Catherine Hyland’s series on the never-completed Wonderland amusement park in Chenzhuang Village, China (which also includes a video of the park); Buzzfeed’s photographs of the Wichita park Joyland; Environmental Graffiti’s pictures of Michael Jackson’s Neverland; or WebUrbanist’s photo survey of six abandoned parks.  On the other hand, Buzzfeed’s tour of the Six Flags New Orleans park abandoned after Hurricane Katrina (which also has a few YouTube videos) is potentially a somewhat more complicated picture of abandonment that could very cleverly be linked to an ambitious narrative.  After Katrina rendered nearly the whole of the park a loss in 2005, Six Flags wanted to abandon its 75-year lease, and New Orleans sued the park for $3 million in 2009 and ordered them to vacate the lease.  In March, 2012 plans were announced to turn the site in an upscale outlet mall, though these remain unresolved as the admittedly aesthetically haunting park continues to rot in place.  Beyond those compelling aesthetics, Six Flags New Orleans could be interpreted as an abandonment narrative involving the forces of nature, poor planning (drainage pumps failed in the storm, and the park was long one of the least profitable of all the Six Flags parks), and a corporation forsaking its own legal responsibilities (though Six Flags filed for bankruptcy and made a cash payment to New Orleans).

The interior of the Buzludzha Monument today (courtesy MK13Y)

Overtly political spaces present their own issues of abandonment. For instance, the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria is an astounding concrete monument placed atop a mountain in 1981 to honor communism, but the fall of communism left the monument to decay.  The site is inevitably politicized by allowing it to ruin, which compels us to ask how the absence of preservation or intentional effacement of it constitutes a different sort of abandonment, but the truly compelling aesthetics of an ideologically inelegant modernist monument allowed to be re-taken by nature make analysis of the site and preservation strategy challenging.

Buzludzha viewed from the base of the mountain (courtesy Pavel Tcholakov)

These are completely archaeological questions, of course, but there are not all that many scholars focusing on the confluence of contemporary materiality, abandonment, and aesthetics.  The most interesting archaeological project examining these issues is Ruin Memories.  Ruin Memories examines “a ruined landscape of derelict factories, closed shopping malls, overgrown bunkers and redundant mining towns; a ghostly world of decaying modern debris normally left out of academic concerns and conventional histories,” with case studies drawn from northern Europe, Russia, Equatorial Guinea, and the US.  Their scholarship plumbs precisely what is framed as “waste” in contemporary society in discourses like heritage that value certain sorts of preservation yet place other materiality in a class of “waste.” The ruins of modernity in cities like Detroit are problematic symbols that risk illuminating the failures of modernity and replacing the pristine and aesthetic historical monument with neglected, vandalized, and unsightly ruins.   We certainly go to museums to view the material remnants of other cultures and moments without the charge of engaging in a pornographic gaze, so it is interesting that the most prosaic and familiar material decay around us becomes social and politically charged when we view it and begin to think about it.  The scholars in the Ruin Memories project focus on sites whose materiality is what Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal refers to as “too recent, conflicting and repulsive” to be part of collective memory.  Many of these ruins remain largely outside our conscious apprehension in a state they refer to in a study of a Russian mining town as “inconspicuous familiarity” despite being the fabric of our everyday material experience, so much of their research complicates what scholars take as meaningful materiality and probes how archaeology expresses the fundamentally inexpressible meanings of material things.  Much of their work assertively borrows from photography and uses aesthetic representation of things and ruins to expand archaeologists’ normative narratives about things that tend to lapse into description and particularism and skirt the complicated meanings of materiality.

The aesthetic ruins of modernity in Taiwan (courtesy netman)

There is tremendous archaeological potential to develop reflective narratives about modernity that weave the decaying ruins of contemporary cities or industrial sites to a complex range of social, political, racist, and class factors that would illuminate how archaeologists, states, and communities value spaces, heritage, and things.  It is not all that likely that contract archaeology firms will soon be retained to produce such scholarship, and its equally unlikely that local governments will begin to see old buildings as something other than preservation problems or shallowly defined blight, but the work has the potential to provide interesting illumination of how we value our collective heritage and place.  We should obey our own fascination with and curiosity in these old spaces—the decayed amusement parks, ruined factories, asylums overtaken by nature—and accept that there is something far more consequential in that curiosity than simply compelling aesthetics.  If “ruin porn” helps us see those spaces in new ways, then photography, narratives, and material analysis might collectively provide us an exceptionally powerful way to interpret such places and dissect the concrete social and material forces that create abandonment and ruination.

References and links

There are quite a few “Ruin Porn” boards on Pinterest and tons of pinterest images tagged “Ruin Porn”.  Also see the AbandonedPorn reddit for numerous images.  If you really hate “ruin porn” and want to defend Detroit’s honor, Love it to Death apparel actually has a pretty clever t-shirt for you.

Elin Andreassen, Hein B. Bjerck, and Bjørnar Olsen (2010) Persistent Memories: Pyramiden – A Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic Tapir Academic Press

William Archer (1899) America To-Day, Observations and Reflections. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

John Patrick Leary (2011) “Detroitism” January 15 Guernica: A Magazine of Art and Politics may be the single most prescient analysis of “ruin porn”

Matthew Christopher (2012) Abandoned America is one of the most expansive and thoughtful blogs by an artist linked to “ruin porn,” however much he dislikes the term

Chris Mottalini (2012) After You Left, They Took it Apart (Demolished Paul Rudolph Homes) is a compelling preservation and artistic study of a series of Paul Rudolph modernist homes in abandonment that were ultimately razed.

Jacob A. Riis (1890) How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York.  Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Image references (all images Creative Commons License non-commercial and unmodified)

Jeremy Blakeslee image Michigan Central Station http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jblakesleemichigancentral.jpg See his web page for a host of abandonment images reaching well beyond ruined urban cores alone.

Calamity_hane image Detroit home http://www.flickr.com/photos/calamity_hane/5225733822/sizes/o/in/photostream/

Chad and Steph image Michigan Central Station http://www.flickr.com/photos/chadlewis/6083710267/

CxOxS image Berlin amusement park http://www.flickr.com/photos/cxoxs/1075209699/

M31KY image Buzludzha Monument http://www.flickr.com/photos/m1k3y/5186925202/sizes/o/in/photostream/

Netman image Taiwan beachfront http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmx/2475997226/sizes/z/in/photostream/

Paul J.S. image Gary, Indiana http://www.flickr.com/photos/61066736@N00/6516003439/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Pavel Tchlokaov image Buzludzha http://www.flickr.com/photos/pavel/5264178925/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 12,303 other followers