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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/