The Elevated Eye: Drones and Gaze in Ruins
A host of photographers, community historians, and self-styled urban critics have produced a fascinating visualization of the architectural detritus of cities, industry, and various failings of modernity. That flood of so-called “ruin porn” has unleashed a complex breadth of artistic creativity as well as anxieties about the social implications of gaze and how we see, photograph, and imagine architectural remains. Much of the uneasiness with ruin photography laments the camera’s gaze as a selective and seemingly distorted representation of our visual and physical experience of an objective reality: that is, the implication is that a photographer frames landscapes in selective ways, and the realities confirmed by our eyes are somehow corrupted by digital filters, High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR), and camera lens filters that toy with color balance, light intensity, and nearly every dimension of a photographic image. This somewhat awkwardly ignores our fascination with ruins and ruin images; it suggests that we should privilege how our eyes and bodies experience ruin landscapes; and it perhaps implies that the only “authentic” representations of ruins can come from residents and people who can somehow lay claim to ruined places’ narratives.
The visual and physical gaze on ruins is now being further complicated by the emergence of drone videos documenting ruin landscapes. For instance, in 2014 British filmmaker Danny Cooke visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone to film the remains of the 1986 nuclear accident for a 60 Minutes report. Chernobyl is one of the world’s most intensively photographed ruin sites, a uniquely captivating abandonment in which a whole community apparently dropped everything in place. The site is used by various observers to evoke the resilience of nature, underscore humans’ consequential impact on public health and the environment, and illuminate a state’s enormous arrogance, so it is an enormously magnetic dark tourism site (nearly 10,000 people visit the exclusion zone each year, see a really interesting analysis of this tourism on The Bohemian Blog).
Cooke’s drone video provides a fascinating and unique visualization of the Chernobyl landscape that extends the typical human’s and camera’s eye. The drone spins above and around the landscape’s volumes in a distinctive motion that reveal patterns inaccessible to the ground-based eye. The video is as much of a selective representation as any still image, of course: Cooke’s video features alluring lines of sight through features like the well-known Chernobyl ferris wheel, the camera lingers over resilient flowers, it stares down at the hulking Soviet structures and decaying communist symbols engulfed by greenery, and the video contrasts the swaying trees and wind-blown clouds to the rusted carcasses of the city. When the edited video is paired with atmospheric music it weaves a visual narrative evoking loss, trauma, or serenity; those descriptions are perhaps frustrating for their utterly ambiguous description of the Chernobyl ruins experience, but the video is certainly magnetic and has received 9.3 million hits since November 24th.
Cooke’s Chernobyl video is simply one of many to visually re-imagine ruin landscapes as volumes seen from an animated eye. For example, few ruins have been photographed more than Detroit’s Michigan Central Train Station, so it is not surprising that drones have captured video from alongside the massive 1913 Beaux Arts building. A 2014 video of the train station rises along the face of the structure to its roof and then gradually descends, staring through the empty shell. As the Shins play in the background, the drone rises outside the 18-story building to the roof’s height, providing a somewhat frustrating glimpse into the empty interior but remaining outside (compare this video of the station that rises above the station roof and ventures somewhat closer to the building, likewise underscoring the emptiness of the structure as the light shines through from the other side of the building). The Packard automotive plant ranks alongside the train station as one of Detroit’s most photographed ruins, and it has likewise been the subject of a drone video (with Marvin Gay’s “What’s Going On?” in the background). The Packard plant was once one of the world’s largest manufacturing premises, but it is spread across space rather than as a prominent high-rise ruin. As the drone swoops overhead and peers down on the sprawling factory, the extent of the plant and its rubble destruction is clearer than it might at ground level alone.
Many of these animated drone videos place ruins in idyllic natural settings, using the drone’s motion to inspect the ruin and then draw back and see it in a broader landscape. For instance, a drone video of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company in Georgia’s Sweetwater Creek State Park flies through and around the shell of the mill, which opened in 1849 and was burnt to the ground by the Union Army on July 9, 1864. The walls of the mill have decayed in place since it was leveled in 1864, and the drone moves through the mill walls and then pauses over a stream and a pristine forest that are quite unlike the landscape view over the Packard plant. The Sheldon Church in Beaufort County South Carolina was likewise burnt by the Union Army on January 14, 1865, after having been destroyed once before by the British Army in 1779. Like the New Manchester ruins, the South Carolina church remains today simply as walls surrounded by exceptionally well-manicured grounds and well-placed grave markers, providing an aesthetically alluring space through which the drone moves revealing the 18th century Greek Revival church’s ruined landscape (compare similar videos of ruins and landscape in New Smyrna Beach, Florida sugar mill ruins or Burt Castle in Ireland).
One of America’s largest public housing projects, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Homes, was often invoked to lament the failings of public housing, and in 2011 the last of the homes was razed. The site that was once home to 15,000 peoples is today an open expanse whose fate remains to be resolved, but the empty field has been the subject of an interesting video drone that contrasts with the drones that move through a more complicated architectural space; instead of circling ruins and looking down on crumbling architectural remains, the Cabrini-Green drone simply hangs over a non-descript snow-covered field with a lone drone operator planted in its midst. Like the massive towers at Cabrini Green, Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass was a similarly prominent series of six 14-story high-rises that were often stereotyped as the epitaph for state-supported housing. While Brewster-Douglass was being dismantled in 2014, a drone circled the buildings as well as the demolition equipment peeling away their distinctive red brick shells.
Much of the appeal of drone videos of ruins is their movement around a ruin to yield a visual motion that is not possible for most eyes. For instance, detroitdrone’s video of the Eastown Theatre moves around a massive structure now reduced to rubble and walls, ascending along its incomplete walls, spinning high above the ruin, and then panning out to the surrounding neighborhood. Some drone videos focus on the aesthetics of rapid motion and imagine a rapidly moving eye. The most impressive example of a drone moving through the skeleton of a ruin landscape may be BayAreaCrasher’s video of the American Flats cyanide plant in Nevada. The drone rapidly and fearlessly moves through the plant’s remains and acrobatically darts in and out of doors, windows, and passageways covering the former plant’s landscape.
Þóra Pétursdóttir and Bjørnar Olsen defend ruin photography as a potentially “interactive and attentive way to approach things themselves,” and drone videos may amplify both that interactive and imaginative nature of ruin visuality. Drone videos seem to confirm a widespread fascination with things and are yet another mechanism that expresses and imagines our engagement with material culture. The specific fascination with ruins and their depiction in still images or drone videos is probably not radically different; both basically express a fascination with the breakdown of orderly upkeep of the social and material world, which yields a landscape quite unlike idealized architectural and social order.
These landscapes, our photographic and video visions, and our gaze on these visual imaginations still are rooted in particular contexts, with the downfall of industry, racist and classist inequalities, and the collapse of communism all among the factors shaping both the histories of these places and the ways we see and sense them. In all these instances, though, our eyes are drawn however furtively to the repugnant, the failure, and the unjust, and ruins materialize all those anxieties. Consequently, it is not especially surprising that we are fascinated by the inseparable visual and material experience of ruination. Drone videos seem to be yet another mechanism we use to imagine ruins, just as oil painting, lithography, photography, color images, and digital cameras once provided new ways to imagine the pleasures, uneasiness, and emotion of our visual and sensory engagement with the material world.
Þóra Pétursdóttir and Bjørnar Olsen
2014 Imaging Modern Decay: The Aesthetics of Ruin Photography. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1(1):7-23. (subscription access)