Monthly Archives: April 2013

Abandoned Faith: The Aesthetics of Religious Ruins

The ruins of this church are near Plzen, Czech Republic (image by author).

The ruins of this church are near Plzen, Czech Republic (image by author).

Perhaps the most compelling abandonment art evokes emotional absence, the literal loss of people if not whole ways of life that once inhabited the buildings, communities, and discrete places in ruin art.  Mental hospitals and schools, for instance, are routinely featured by photographers because they once housed emotionally intense experiences, be it the depths of mental illness and the despair of incarceration or the innocence of childhood and the hopefulness of education.  Those powerful but ephemeral feelings are in some ways heightened in hindsight by the decay of the buildings themselves, whose decaying shells help us see change and imagine what has been lost.  In many cases ruined spaces aesthetically evoke social “illnesses,” like the stigmatization of mental illness and the health care abuses implied in the shell of an asylum; the decline of industry underscored in an abandoned factory; or the changes in mass leisure and post-war suburbanization that led to the collapse of grand city theaters.

A 1960s postcard image of Holy Land USA's hillside sign (image courtesy wikimedia commons).

A 1960s postcard image of Holy Land USA’s hillside sign (image courtesy wikimedia commons).

Few abandonment sites paint more compelling if idiosyncratic emotional absences than Holy Land USA, a Waterbury, Connecticut religious park that closed in 1984.  Abandonment art routinely depicts amusement parks, whose ruins cast a captivating aesthetics of imaginative play and imply a certain innocence.  Yet Holy Land USA breaks from the conventional amusement park in both its subject matter and the materiality of the decaying park.  The park has been the focus of numerous abandonment artists and urban explorers drawn to the host of eroding Holy Land dioramas.  Amusement parks often figure in abandonment art since its meanings are rooted in pleasure even as their ruins tragically underscore the advance of nature.

The Holy Land USA sign in 2008 (image courtesy nick see).

The Holy Land USA sign in 2008 (image courtesy nick see).

Holy Land USA is also a compelling symbol of faith, and perhaps even more so in decline than it may have had at its height as a tourist attraction in the 1960s and 1970s.  Abandonment artists routinely examine churches, which symbolize something ostensibly timeless, capture the depth of hope invested in some spaces, and evoke both the consequence of faith and the decline of religion.  Like amusement parks littered with aesthetically novel and fascinating things, churches provide exceptionally powerful aesthetic spaces, especially in decline:  church spaces can be visually arresting, often-monumental shells through which light streams in captivating ways through now-absent congregations.  Just as amusement parks often reveal the shifts in mass-consumed leisure in the 21st century, churches document the 20th-century city, forlorn in many neighborhoods depopulated by choice and circumstance alike.  Abandonment art paints churches as symbols of the collapse of the urban core, and the ruin’s symbolism as a dead space shallowly intones the decline of religion itself.

A 1974 image of Holy Land USA visitors at the Good Samaritan Inn (image courtesy)

A 1974 image of Holy Land USA visitors at the Good Samaritan Inn (image courtesy cousin dave)

Holy Land USA was the inspiration of Waterbury lawyer John B. Greco, a devout Catholic who began construction of the park in 1956 with the ambition to “bring people closer to God.”  Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and various biblical stories were represented by unique, handmade figures and structures whose mixed scales, hand-crafted style, and decorative deities might be interpreted as both kitsch and craft.  The park was roughly akin to the sacri monti (i.e., sacred mountains) that dotted Italy during the late 15th and early 18th centuries.  Like Greco’s Holy Land, the sacri monti recreated the Holy Land for pilgrims unable to venture to the near East.  Greco and a team of volunteers made the park’s dioramas representing Biblical moments including Bethlehem, Daniel in the Lions’ den, and the hilltop of the Crucifixion, crafting the exhibits from whatever they had on hand.  In 2005 the Hartford Courant indicated that the distinctive Holy Land ruins “featured a non-working, doorless upright freezer housing a statue of Jesus with the Sacred Heart, and a Garden of Eden display consisting of naked mannequins — Adam and Eve — amid fake plants inside a mobile home.”

The remains of Herod's Palace (image courtesy CalAround).

The remains of Herod’s Palace (image courtesy CalAround).

Greco had traveled in the Near East and visited some of the spaces represented in his park, but the park borrowed from popular cultural symbolism and pure imagination alike.  The park’s hillside, for instance, was covered with an illuminated Holy Land USA sign like the Hollywood letters, and in 1997 a Boy Scout project restored the letters.  Yet other displays like Herod’s Palace had no stylistic reference to any classical architectural form and instead looked like a modest shed laid out on a putt-putt course. After Greco’s death the park was inherited by a Catholic religious order, falling into disrepair even as its idiosyncratic style attracted photographers and repelled style arbiters.  In 2002, for instance, the New York Times indicated that “the gray plaster Temple of Jerusalem, affectionately called `unhistorical and funky’ by one local religious scholar, now more closely resembles a prop from a Japanese monster movie.”  The Times described the park as “Catholic-oriented religious kitsch — much of it miniaturized and built with scrap machine parts.”  The Daily Show dispatched Stephen Colbert to the scene in 2002, examining the disagreements over the park’s preservation and the projection of kitsch onto faith.

The Holy Land hillside today (image courtesy CalAround).

The Holy Land hillside today (image courtesy CalAround).

Unlike kitsch, though, Holy Land USA certainly seems not to have been fabricated as intentionally garish excess; instead, it looms as heartfelt folk art whose symbolism seems melodramatic only because it was proselytizing, and appeals to the soul rarely are articulated with subtlety.  Pictures of Greco’s park now expose its hand-crafted essence of chicken wire figures, recycled plywood, machine parts, and paper mache now eroding into the Connecticut hillside. In 2008 the eroding 56-foot cross planted on the hilltop was replaced by a 50-foot steel cross, but the remainder of the park appears to be in relatively rapid decline.  The ruins of Holy Land USA depart from utterly commercial material shows of faith consumption (e.g., The Holy Land Experience), and in its decline Holy Land USA paints a compelling aesthetic of faith and folk art.  Like the most compelling ruins, it provides a visually arresting evocation of absence, in this case evoking the proselytizers and pilgrims who once trooped through the park.

Holy Land USA References

Statues still dot the remains of Holy Land USA (image courtesy CalAround).

Statues still dot the remains of Holy Land USA (image courtesy CalAround).

Deserted Religious Theme Park Izismile

Help Save Holy Land USA facebook

Holy Land Shaun O’Boyle

Holy Land 1956-1984

Holy Land USA agilitynut

Holy Land USA Amy O’Neill

Holy Land USA bdodge

Holy Land USA Bill Franson Photography

Holy Land USA Center for Land Use Interpretation

Holy Land USA Deserted Places blog

Holy Land USA Huffington Post

Holy Land USA I Think that I Would Die

Holy Land USA Institutional Green

Holy Land USA New England Journal for Aesthetic Research

Holy Land USA Roadside America

Holy Land USA Roadside America flickr page

Holy Land USA This is Connecticut

Holy Land, USA: From place of pilgrimage to creepy destination Washington Times

Holy Land USA Then and Now jenniferrt66 flick’r page

The Catholic Transcript Online 2008 Cross May Spark Revival of Holy Land USA.  The Catholic Transcript Online

Frances Chamberlain 2001 The View From/Waterbury; A Hilltop Landmark Undergoes a RevivalNew York Times 4 November.

Martin Kearns 1986 Man Who Built Waterbury’s Holy Land USA Dies.  The Hartford Courant 11 March:B1.

Ann Marie Somma 2005 At Holy Land USA, A Vision Crumbles: Waterbury’s Faded Monument Of Religious Kitsch Is Still ControversialHartford Courant 28 August.

Paul Zielbauer 2002 A Sight That Inspires Ambivalence; Ruins of a Religious Park Await Restorers or the BulldozerThe New York Times 12 November.


Good Samaritan Inn image courtesy Cousin Dave

Herod’s Palace image, Holyland hillside image,and Jesus statue image courtesy CalAround

Holy Land USA sign image courtesy Nick See

Commodifying Conception: The Material Culture of Sperm Banks

It has become cliché to acknowledge that nearly everything can be commodified: for instance, a legion of dating sites sell the chance to engineer a love connection; the most common of all substances—water—is bottled, sold, and branded with astounding popularity throughout the world; and insurance policies have long placed exchange values on limbs and lives alike.  We of course live in a global consumer society that values things—concrete objects, but also social relations, and even experiences and ethereal emotions–in economic terms.  Such exchange values do not determine material meaning, and we have not been captured in the vortex often referred to as “false consciousness,” but exchange value has an enormous influence on how we define a breadth of materiality.

A London Sperm Bank ad appeals to donors' levity (image courtesy ).

A London Sperm Bank ad appeals to donors’ levity (image courtesy Joe Hughes).

Contemporary parents are simply one market niche inundated with commodities that start parental consumption before conception itself (for instance, see the ultrasound picture frames or the ovulation predictor kits).  For those seeking more agency over that moment of conception a host of sperm banks hawk designer genetic material.  Buying and selling sperm is theoretically no different than peddling any good, be it a comic book or blood:  we exercise some amount of shoppers’ discretion to buy Silver Surfer or consume A-positive.  The blood is not trafficked in a purely laissez faire marketplace, but it has some genuine exchange value even if we cannot buy a liter at the local marketplace.

Sperm banks cannot be reduced simply to sites of commodification.  For many consumers, sperm banks are not social engineering and aesthetic vanity: instead, many couples or individuals cannot otherwise parent children because of infertility or because they are something other than the normative straight couple.  Nevertheless, much of the public discourse on sperm banks has revolved around the commodification of sperm and the ways this illuminates the complicated union of technological progress and consumer culture.

A contemporary consumer can peruse many sperm banks’ offerings online, and if we have the money we have enormous freedom to select the personal and genetic characteristics we hope to pass on to our children.  Exchange value attempts to sidestep ethics and reduce meaning to rational profit, but hawking sperm inevitably devolves into a thorny set of emotional and ethical questions over how we distinguish between “good” and “bad” sperm.  On the one hand, sperm shopping is an individual consumer decision theoretically no different than the attribute assessment any of us would exercise shopping for shoes or a car: that is, we exercise our personal tastes as we compare shoes in terms of function, style, and cost.  On the other hand, we do not really “shop” for our children’s genetic attributes from a grocery list or with the sense that we can control eye color, personality, intelligence, or appearance.  We somehow trust such things to faith, accept that they remain out of our control, and do not believe that power over this or any other medical procedure is (or should be) restricted by class.  Sperm banks, though, offer the chance to micro-manage genetic attributes for a price, which charitably might be termed “choice,” but it may more soberly be interpreted as reproducing latent xenophobia, cultural stereotypes, structural class and social inequalities, and deep-seated prejudices.

Most of the sperm samples provided by Fairfax Cryobank are in their “graduate” category and come from men who “are in the process of earning or have completed a post college graduate degree.”  The donor descriptions craft a predictable range of attractive personality profiles that stress their donors’ claims to “genius,” but the most distinctive dimension of the profiles may be their invocation of a variety of popular cultural caricatures.  Donor 4317, for example, has “a Masters degree in Astronautical Engineering” and he “values honesty and considers himself a very patient man. … A Clark Kent look-a-like, he is quite handsome with beautiful, soulful brown eyes and an enticing sweet smile.”  The “Clark Kent” characterization invokes a disguised super hero confident in his inner strength who may be both man and super-man; Donor 2790 has “been compared to the actor Josh Groban”; Donor 2781 “resembles a young, clean-cut Jim Carrey”; Donor 2792 “resembles a young Marlon Brando”; “He’s been told that he resembles Ben Affleck, though the lab staff thinks that Donor 2770 is the more handsome of the two. This donor is a real head-turner”; Donor 2782 “is definitely a staff favorite.  His dashing, James Bond-like looks certainly make him a ‘10’”; Donor 2774 “resembles a young Stephen Baldwin”; and “With his clean-cut looks, his eyeglasses, and his black hair parted on the side,” Donor 2777 (like Donor 4317) “looks like a modern-day Clark Kent.”

California Cryobank's Celebrity "look-a-likes" feature compares donors to celebrities.

California Cryobank’s Celebrity “look-a-likes” feature compares donors to celebrities.

Fairfax is not alone in their effort to link popular cultural symbols with their samples.  California Cryobank, for instance, offers a service that specifies the donors’ celebrity “look-alikes.”  The description for Donor 13476, for instance, is labeled “Lost in Conversation – Or in His Eyes” and likened (with Google image links) to “Ewan McGregor (young), [and] Joshua Jackson”; and Donor 13385—described as “The Man Behind the Mask” who “even built his own Iron Man costume”—is likened to “James Franco, [and] Orlando Bloom.”  The spoof sperm bank Fame Daddy even promised to deliver the sperm of celebrities from aristocrats to soccer players.  Yet European Sperm Bank USA explicitly resists celebrity look-alike-donors, arguing that their donors “are not a fantasy to be packaged and sold in California as celebrity clones. … We think that physical features are not the only important criteria to be considered in selecting a donor. Our team really gets to know a donor during the year that he is enrolled in our program. …These are the kind of fine men with proven character who you want to choose to make such an important genetic contribution to your family. You should not choose a donor because a marketing person thinks he can be packaged and sold as a celebrity look-a-like!”

All of the sperm banks include identification of the donor’s “ethnic background” and “ancestry,” and the assessment of those characteristics invokes deeper prejudices than warm feelings for Ewan McGregor and Clark Kent.  Fairfax Cryobank’s Donor 4533, for example, is described as Caucasian, his ethnic background is German-Norwegian/Swedish-Norwegian, and he “has the quintessential attractive Nordic appearance. He is tall and lean, and keeps fit through regular exercise and athletic activity.  His handsome physical qualities are in keeping with his overall charming demeanor.”

Charlotte Kroløkke’s 2009 study examines how Cryos International positions its Scandinavian donors as “Vikings,” invoking a fascinating albeit stereotypical Viking heritage that gravitates toward a White Scandinavian ideal.  The Cryos donor code-named Busk is a Danish archaeology PhD who is described in a staff assessment as “a very tall and strong build guy with broad shoulders and with his blond hair and blue eyes, his physical experience resembles the classical Viking.  The Viking mentality, though, seems far gone and is replaced by an intellectual, reflected and sophisticated personality.” Cryos has tempered much of this transparent Viking rhetoric and embraces a multicultural and politically correct sperm shopping process; in various ways, every sperm bank accommodates its consumers’ prejudices by outlining physical, social, and cultural attributes that define a consumer’s idealized child attributes.  Genome Resources, for instance, displays a relatively typical banner graphic with an African-American man, White woman, and a baby that implicitly underscores the sperm bank’s political commitment to a breadth of families.  Fairfax Cryobank allows consumers to search donors using something it calls “FaceMatch,” a photographic similarity program that “uses the shape of facial features to find a resemblance between the photo you upload and the photos of our donors. FaceMatch uses shapes but not colors.”  Most of the sperm banks evade the latent prejudices in such consumption choices and instead frame them as a consumer’s desire for a donor with “similar” physical appearance to the parents themselves.

Donors routinely cite their philanthropic interests in helping families have children, but their donations clearly are driven in part by the financial incentives (image courtesy ).

Donors routinely cite their philanthropic interests in helping families have children, but their donations clearly are driven in part by the financial incentives (image courtesy baratunde).

Sperm banks labor to dodge the xenophobic dimensions of many consumers’ deep-seated prejudice for an “ideal” donor.  Sperm banks specify the most detailed physical attributes of donors—wavy hair, eye color, skin tone, height, shoe size–as aesthetics that we assess in much the same way we decide on shoe color.  Cynthia R. Daniels and Erin Heidt-Forsythe’s thorough and thoughtful 2012 analysis of sperm bank donors found that in 2006 80.4% of donors then identified to ethnicity were White (as compared to 66.4% of the US male population); only 3.5% of donors were Black, though they account for 12.2% of the male population.  Sixty-five percent of donors have a college degree (as compared to 26% of the male population); while 23.8% of American men are obese, only 5.1% of donors are similarly overweight; and donors were more than four times as likely as average men to be over six feet tall.

In 2011 Cryos International stopped accepting donations from redheads, with Cryos director Ole Schou arguing that “Our stock is about to explode. We have just too many on stock in relation to the demand for the time being.”  They simultaneously were not accepting more Scandinavian donors unless they had brown eyes, with Schou indicating that “What we need is brown-eyed Scandinavians/Caucasians and Mediterranean donors and other ethnicities and races. … The problem is that we are located in Scandinavia and ‘harvest’ donors here but we supply to more than 65 countries all over the whole world. They don’t always want Scandinavian donors out there.”  This is perhaps simply the logical result of “market demand,” and it could be argued that the same choices are part of all courtship, but the sperm banks provide a new level of control over such factors.

Many sperm banks spin compelling stories about their donors that the sperm banks frame as being just as important as mere aesthetics.  NW Cryobank, for instance, provides hand-written essays by donors in which content is perhaps not as important as the literal appearance of a donor’s hand-writing that somehow evokes their personality (e.g., see Donor 1263’s essay).   Cryos International includes childhood images of many of the donors, such as Abild posing in Superman pajamas (many more services do the same, often for an additional cost).  Cryos also offers interviews online, so for those who found Abild’s Superman jammies wonderful they can then hear his actual voice.  Such mechanisms tend to defuse the notion that sperm shopping is simply latent xenophobia or a design to produce a superhuman, and it clouds distinctions between genetic and non-genetic attributes.

Sperm banks routinely refer to their service to society (image courtesy mpieracci)

In 2007 The New York Times’ David Brooks lamented that sperm banks were simply bourgeois genetic engineering: “Shoppers can use these sites and select much better genetic material than would be possessed by someone they could realistically lure into bed.  And they can more efficiently engage in the national pastime — rigging our childrens’ lives so they’ll be turbocharged for success.”  Indeed, sperm banks provide a potentially uncomfortable measure of the embrace of reproductive technology and the marketplace, but his position risks ignoring that many families would not exist without sperm banks.  The thornier challenge is in the union of profiteering with assistive reproductive technologies like sperm donation and egg harvesting.

Rene Almeling

2007 Selling genes, selling gender: egg agencies, sperm banks, and the medical market in genetic material.  American Sociological Review 72(3): 319-340.  (subscription access)

2011 Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm.  University of California Press, Berkeley.

Cynthia R. Daniels and Erin Heidt-Forsythe

2012 Gendered Eugenics and the Problematic of Free Market Reproductive Technologies: Sperm and Egg Donation in the United StatesSigns 37(3):719-747. (subscription access)

Charlotte Kroløkke

2009 Click a Donor: Viking masculinity on the lineJournal of Consumer Culture 9(1):7-30.  (subscription access)

Valory Mitchell

1998 The birds, the bees… and the sperm banks: How lesbian mothers talk with their children about sex and reproduction.  American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 68(3): 400-409.  (subscription access)

Lisa Jean Moore

2002 Extracting Men from Semen: Masculinity in Scientific Representations of Sperm.  Social Text 20(4):91-119.  (subscription access)


London Sperm Bank ad image courtesy mpieracci

London Sperm Bank banking crisis ad courtesy Joe Hughes

Sperm Donors Needed ad image courtesy baratunde

Copyrighting the Dream: Selling Martin Luther King, Jr.

The King Memorial at night (image by author)

The King Memorial at night (image by author)

When it was unveiled in 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial on Washington D.C.’s National Mall was widely heralded as a fitting artistic, historical, and national recognition of America’s most prominent civil rights advocate.  Like every inch of memorials on the National Mall, the King monument was subjected to a rigorous review process.  Martin Luther King Jr. is a historical figure, but his history is fresh in our collective memory; King evokes some of the most fundamental inequalities in American life; and many Americans have invested profound sentiments in their visions of King that no monument could hope to accommodate.  Monuments aspire to represent symbols in timeless aesthetic form, so King’s representation in a single material form evoked significant discussion:  with King’s installation on the Tidal Basin he became the first Black American situated on the nation’s front porch, ostensibly making a statement about human rights and the color line for the remainder of time.

The most prominent protectors of King’s heritage have been his descendants, who have legal “rights of publicity” to King’s likeness and his words not construed as public performances.  MLK’s visage and voice now pitch the likes of McDonald’s, Mercedes-Benz, and Alcatel with the approval of and payment to his estate.  King’s most famous words, the “I Have a Dream” address delivered in 1963, have been legally defined as a performance delivered to a limited audience:  as such, it is copyrighted by the King Estate and EMI Publishing and available in complete form only when purchased as a DVD.

The King statue stands apart from the "mountain" behing it (image courtesy cooper.gary).

The King statue stands apart from the “mountain” behind it (image courtesy cooper.gary).

King has fallen into an ambiguous position between historical figure and commodified brand.  King’s estate is not necessarily guilty of hawking a world of Martin Luther King, Jr. knick knacks adorned with his image, but they have often zealously controlled his image and words in a way few other historical figures are guarded.  King’s estate aspires to manage his symbolism across a vast range of discourses ranging from hamburger ads to historical scholarship to physical and aesthetic representations of King.  In 1999, for instance, the King estate negotiated a tentative agreement with the Library of Congress to sell King’s papers for $20 million (and a $10 million tax deduction) that King’s son indicated was “substantially below market value.”  That deal fell apart, though, and in 2006 about 7000 of those items were going to be sold at auction before funds were raised to keep them in Atlanta at Morehouse College.