26 December 2010



"...It took a while for me to realise that much of 'After the Fall' is about battlefields: just not the traditional war zones, rich with the screams of men and the smell of death, which have been recorded almost pathologically on screen and print. Instead, it directs its gaze to the ongoing environmental struggle taking place beyond the boundaries of our cities, where the urban zoning system begins to blur and unravel. I identify potential locations throughout the world using Google Maps and have become increasingly experienced at 'reading' the terrain from a bird's (or more accurately, a satellite's) perspective."

Photographs and text by Hin Chua, "After the Fall."

23 December 2010

Guest Blogging Elsewhere

Apparently at least one person over at "...And What Will Be Left of Them?" has reckoned me a worthy colleague and has asked me to come aboard as a contributor. In case you're unfamiliar, the blog is an recent enterprise by a number of writers and bloggers that I admire, and is devoted to scrutinizing the cultural and political shifts that were in the offing during the 1970s. File under: Cultural Studies. A few past highlights include Phil on Vietnam and anti-Unionism under Thatcher, Wayne on Marvin Gaye and the errant, unacknowledged parents of hip hop, and Carl discussing George Romero's oft-overlooked Martin.

I'm not sure, but I believe I might be (so far) the sole contributor who'll be chiming in with an American/non-U.K. perspective on such stuff. I don't intend to duplicate or recycle content here, so I'll probably just cross-link whenever I have anything over there that I think's of significant interest.

And it looks like some of the crew of contributors are starting a couple of companioning blogs, one similarly devoted to the 1980s and another to the 1990s. I've been asked to contribute to those, as well. Not sure what all I might be able to add on those topics, so we'll see.

22 December 2010

The Shape of Things What Were

Oddly enough, I recall stumbling on this film as a kid; it being shoved into some block of late-night programming to fill airtime, being run as a documentary or whatever. I remember watching just enough of it to be unnerved by the bit towards the beginning where you see the robot couple walking in the park, accompanied by a soundtrack of discordant electronic score.

What we have here is a promotional, merch-oriented film masquerading as a documentary. A faux doco, if you will; a precursor for your more contemporary infomercial. As it finally reveals, the product it's ultimately hawking is Alvin Toffler's 1970 "futurist" pop-sociology best-seller Future Shock. I can't make any claims for how prescient Toffler's book might've been, but -- in terms of market quantatives -- it certainly was timely. Society was changing rapidly, and there was a lot of residual dread and uncertainty in the air. After the mainstream success of Marshall McLuhan's books, a certain portion of the populace was looking to cultural theorists and explainers-in-residence who might be able to provide some sort of prognosis. Did a dystopic and "dehumanizing" future lie just around the corner? Future Shock's various chapter and section titles include: "The Throw-Away Society," "The Economics of Impermanence," "The Demise of Geography," "The New Ad-hocracy," "Training Children for Turnover," as well as the equally intriguing "Hippies, Incorporated," "Communes and Homosexual Daddies," "The Cyborgs Among Us," and "Subterranean Cities."

At the very least, in Future Shock Toffler recognized that the big post-Fordist shift was well underway, and that we were heading into a "post-industrial" economy -- whatever that might entail.1 He's also been given credit for introducing the concept of "information overload."2

But as far as the film is concerned -- it's a dazzling plethora of newfound "age of anxiety" cliches; pitching its topic in the most sensationalist fashion, targeting the insecurity and paranoid and post-modernity malaise of its audience. Sub-nanotrends inflated to the scale of broad paradigm shifts and upheavals, a good many moments of unintentionally hilarious pseudo-profunditude, and the grand sales pitch at the end. And, most importantly, there's Orson Welles gliding through the whole thing -- always in motion from one destination to another, cigar smoke and ill-fitting library music trailing in his wake, his mercenary presence lending the whole thing an air of ponderous weight and dignity, even though he was doing little more than picking up another easy paycheck to help fund his next project (which, I'm guessing, at this point in his career would be the brilliant F for Fake).

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1. What he didn't foresee, apparently, was the huge financial cratering that follow during the 1970s. All of which would send Toffler off to spend the next decade retooling his thesis.

2. This, it turns out, wasn't such a new or novel idea. For example: In his 1892 fin de siècle tome Degeneration, Max Nordau had complained that (then-)modern men were already suffering from fatigue and cogntiive depletion due to the overbombardment of information that arrived in the form of daily newspapers.

17 December 2010

Leaving the Twentieth Century, Redux

Giocomo Balla, Fallimento (Bankruptcy), 1902, detail

Over at Hyperallergic, Jorge Martin offers a speculative history of the origins of street art. From Joseph Kyselak in 19th century Vienna and hobo markings, to state-sponsored graffiti in fascist Italy and the Situationist-inspired slogans during the Paris riots of May 1968, it's part one of a series.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Because It's All About You. The birth of psychoanalysis and the Freudian id, public relations and modern marketing, self-actualization through consumerism, and the alliance between the individual pursuit of happiness and the politics of control. Courtesy of an FYI from the blog of architect Lebbeus Woods, there's Adam Curtis's 2002 documentary The Century of the Self, which re-aired this past month on the BBC. As with all of Curtis's films, its staggering in scope and impact. Four hours in duration, and available in four one-hour clips via Google video. And as with several of Curtis's other films, it's also available as a free download via archive.org.

16 December 2010

Sounding Off

Sez woebot about this year's Turner:

"Just a bit of restraint required here because The Turner Prize Winner is always, unfortunately, the object of unbridled hatred. However one’s got to say that, in the main, the art world’s grasp of Sound as Art is light-years behind the sophistication of its manifestation at the cutting-edge of music. I mean, this lady’s ideas are OK, but truthfully they’re kind of old hat, and what’s more implicit in a huge swathe of music. One precedent that immediately springs to mind is Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening Band, which actually did this very same thing AND made it sound beautiful rather than pedestrian. Her voice, yikes. If I was being unkind I would suggest that the Turner Prize should stick to what they do best and leave this kind of thing to the pros to judge."

From the first sentence, I find myself in agreement. Yes, the winner of the Turner on any given year is going to be the object of incredulity and animus, regarded as nothing more than an example for the committee's esoteric and mandarin sensibilities. But this one strikes me as a belated, tokenistic bone-toss to sound art (or "ephemeral art" is general) by/for people who little knowledge of or experience with the same. Someone's a bit out of their league. As one of the YouTube commenters remarked: "'Justin Bieber played 800% slower'is miles better than this."

So does this make Philipsz's piece the Turner's equiv of Mark Zuckerberg? Dunno. But as far as such stuff goes, this seems to have been the hands-down favorite of this past year...

Of course, the artist here isn't British; so it's neither here nor there as far as the Turner's concerned. But at the very least, I think it demonstrates it proves that it's possible for something can have a lot of traction in the sound art community yet still have popular appeal.

13 December 2010

Always Negate

From "Advertisements for Architecture," Bernard Tschumi, 1976-1977.

06 December 2010

À rebours

Now this takes me back.

04 December 2010

Failures of Modernism

Speed, gravity, materiality, formalism, and high-volume traffic at the ACME® customer service center....

In other words, what the Coyote's fall spells out, beyond a nicely crystallized and over-literal 'rupturing of the picture plane', is the way in which such an instance -- a painting, a political moment -- may be structurally determined, and as such, deserves to be constant across time, yet which nevertheless is informed by the actions of those who watch those who have gone before, and in trying to repeat, to do the same thing, to assume that the breaking of the rules that have just occurred have therefore reset the rules, such that if one body passes into the painting, so too all others which follow.

That just because you broke with perspective, one can have perspective no longer. That the exceptional and inconstant happen only once per ruling order, and only in order to solidify the next order according to which things add up and paintings are either looked at or run into.

Brilliant. Easily the riff of the week...if not month. (Bonus points for the use of the Asger Jorn piece.)

02 December 2010

Brush Fires in the Social Landscape

Rimbaud in New York, 1977-1979

Untitled (Falling Buffalo), 1989

Fever, 1989

Untitled (Christ), 1988

Over two decades after his art was used by the American right wing to all but kill the National Endowment for the Arts, and 18 years after the artist's own death from HIV, the art of David Wojnarowicz once again serves as a political football in the Culture Wars.


All that time you felt you were only running in place, then you discover that the pavement is now moving under your feet and that you're actually moving backward.

The Anatomy and Architecture of Desire, 1986

28 November 2010

Season of the Witch? - Some Notes on the New Black

An intriguing assertion via this review of the recent offerings from Salem:

Salem’s music -- a hazy, loping, lo-fi electro—fits that rudderless Rust Belt existence as guilelessly and artlessly as a glassy stare. I can’t say it's good per se, but it speaks to me. And probably others—there are many of our breed, born under Reagan into a world where our destinies have already been mortgaged. Not 'no future' in the cool Johnny Rotten rallying cry sense, but 'no future' in that withdrawn, hopeless, Gummo type of way. Not sexy or cool. Not even sad. But maybe a little scary.

And returning to that same theme later in the review...

[...] Salem delivers the starkness of what neoliberalism has left us—drugs and death. Instead of nostalgia, whether painful or idealized, you’ve got numbed verses like 'It’s hard to remember / What we did last November.' There's not even any sex: Salem’s music is too slow for the club and too weird for the bedroom. As Holland says, 'Sex has nothing to do with making music,' and anyway, the antidepressants have robbed him of his libido.

Seems that someone might be broad-brushing a bit, or hanging a too-heavy coat on a weak peg. Not sure, won't call it. But still, it poses an interesting query about a particular tendency that's emerged of late, a mirrors a comment that Philip Sherburne made in his own recent post (cited earlier) on "witch house" (ugh) and the "new doom"...

I don't think it's any surprise that an unironic post-punk/goth aesthetic has taken root so widely; western culture is suffused with anxiety and self-doubt right now. We're no longer worried about the Big One blowing us all to bits; now it's economic landmines, suicide bombers, hurricanes, cyberwar, downsizing, you name it. Do you know anyone who feels truly optimistic?

This topic came up a couple of years ago, back when it was clear that the economy had cratered and that an extended stretch of socio-economic shittiness lay in store. What sort of effect will this have in terms of shaping tastes in the entertainment realm -- will music reflect or articulate the bleaker aspects of our post-crash culture? And I recall one pop-culture pundit replying that the opposite was more likely to be the case; that if it went anything like the way it had gone in previous grim and recessional times, then we'll all swimming in a deluge of bouncy, fluffy, escapist fare. Meaning: More Mylie for everyone.

Somehow, all of this feels pretty familiar to me. Flashback to the 1980s, the years of Reaganomics, and the pair of recessions that bookended the decade. Yeah sure, as far as middlebrow stuff went, there was the MOR plaintiveness of Springsteen's Nebraska and the pre-Columbine adolescent suburban malaise of River's Edge. But by and large, it was a time when much of the heartland’s cultural landscape was awash with the waist-down, party-on prerogatives of hair metal & whatnot. But then, you also had the likes of Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, etcetera who came along and re-engaged metal's earlier and long-lapsed "downer rock" sensibility. By doing so, this latter crop of artists met with a formidable degree of popularity, much to the surprise of a good many pop merchants. And I recall that they also provided cause for concern among certain watchfulparties, who worried that the music’s dark and apocalyptic lyrical content and the audience it had landed might be indicative of – y’know -- something.1

For me thew thing is that I'm hard pressed to think of any time in the past 30 years or so that there wasn't some variety of this sort of thing going on somewhere in the music scene -- a dark or goth or doom impulse manifesting itself in some form or another.2 At some times, it’s lurking much further on the margins, goes largely unacknowledged, and (providing you’re inclined to seek it out) you have to try a little harder to find it. And at other times, a generation of young musicians turn on or tap into this tradition, and end up creating something that either speaks to a shared, broader sensibility or that merely scratches some collective itch by offering a zag from the dominant aesthetic or style of the day.3 I'm not entirely sure that the former is what's going on with the whole supposed "new doom" thing; but if it is, then the current situation certainly warrant that sort of an articulation, and it'd certainly make things more interesting.

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1. Naturally, I can think of other examples where some musical trend was either said to be a response or was definitely a response to societal or economic pressures. But in the general area of anything loosely consider "dance music," such attitudinal and stylistic are usually attributed to little more than the influence of this or that fashionable drug.

2. For some, this is a really obvious observation, I know. But it's surprising how much of it would be news to most people. And I believe I've already touched on this topic once before.

3. Meaning that Salem might be little more than kids from the suburbs who really liked Justice, but also happened to dig downtempo beats and screw’d hip-hop.

Never Happen Here

Delightfully brilliant, really. About the only thing that's missing is: "Upon arrest each of the demonstrators gave the name 'Luther Blissett' to the authorities."

Jedermann sein eigner fussball

Ubuweb recently added the Helmut Hurst documentary Deutschland Dada to its archive. Released in 1969, the film captured a number of the movement's primary participants before they shuffled off this mortal coil; including Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Ricther, Hannah Höch, and Raoul Hausmann. Viewable here.


Heh. Nice one.

26 November 2010

Black is the New Black

Nothing all that terribly new about the new sound, rather just a new gen picking up on a tendency that fell by the wayside some time back. (And I'm hoping that terrible moniker doesn't catch on.)

A partial survey, with some recent highlights as well as some selected precursors from not too many years ago...

:: here ::


Linkage = time sensitive. expired

And R.I.P. Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson, whose early contributions to the 'nuum in question were immeasurable.

24 November 2010

Myths of the Near Future

I wasn’t aware that it was time for another edition of the Chicago Manual, already. The Believer co-founder/contributor Ed Park, who reviews the thing by way of a Ballardian exercise of treating reference material as if it were a narrative. Though I believe the actual pay-off is (for once) in the comments.

Speaking of J.G. Ballard, the following quite from the author turned up in an article this past weekend in the Guardian:

"We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel."

It appeared in a post in which Guardian contributor Damien Walter was arguing for the continued relevance of science fiction as a contemporary literary genre. He writes:

Looking at the television screen, and the surrounding mediasphere, it seems difficult to deny that much of what might once have been real has been displaced by fiction. Fictional conflicts stand at the heart of dramas that help us ignore the truth. [...]

For the last few centuries the realist novel has done little more than find ever more obsessive ways to reflect back at us the comforting fictions we accept as reality, making the contemporary literary novelist merely a second idiot, retelling the tale the first idiot already told. Realist fiction's unquestioning acceptance of modern life makes it difficult for the contemporary literary novel to find anything resembling the truth when it tackles issues of poverty, race, gender, politics, society or philosophy. The easy cop-out of post-modernist relativism beckons.

That last dismissive bit about "post-modernism" is a little too pat, begs for boocoo qualification. Still, I found it intriguing; especially in light of the nascent hubbub about "reality hunger." Right right, we know already: The death of the novel, the obsolescence of same in any "Great American…" context, the oh-so-quaint conceit of thinking that such a thing is even still possible in this pluralistically-minded day & age, and the continued quest for relevant and inclusive narratives in an age of advanced cultural fragmentation and diffusion. All sorts of questions and debates spring up around the notions that Walter insists are imperative and still viable in contempo lit.

But: An "unquestioning acceptance of modern life"? Well, sure…if the wheel was an extension of the foot, just as (some certain cyber-gaga sorts once proclaimed) the internet is an extension of our own synapses or whatever, how can any of the nuances and minutiae of said modern life be encompassed by something so conventional and retrograde as a novel? As if writers of the recent gen haven't grappled with exactly this conundrum. The genre/not-genre of "Hysterical Realism" comes to mind. More specifically, David Foster Wallace’s honkingly hefty and ambitious Infinite Jest, what with all its myriad endnotes, its byzantine and obsessive-compulsive navigations of product descriptions and the chemical ingredients of psychotropic drugs, and a future involving Subsidized Time and absurdist geo-political alliances that includes border disputes carried out with catapulted garbage, and etc. etc.

And along with the idea of Hysterical Realism comes critic James Wood’s reputed gripe, his dismissal that it amounts to nothing more than an abortive literary mode that "knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being." Huh. Funny, considering that just a few years before Wood’s verdict, the following passing observation turned up somewhere in Wallace’s Infinite Jest:

"Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he's devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It's hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency."

Admittedly, there's a lot of irony in that last sentence; but perhaps not nearly so much irony as exists between Wood's remark and Wallace's offhand observation.

Only connect, as the maxim had it. Right. But how to do so or retain the ability to do so in contemporary Western society; amid the proliferation of new objects, of new pathologies and addictions, of endless distractions and displacements? Ultimately, that’s what Wallace aimed to address with Infinite Jest. And by his efforts, he managed to create a work that was not only profoundly sad, but was also at turns deeply, viscerally hilarious.

Which is one bothersome thing (among many) about Walter’s comments above. Naive and sweepingly over-simplistic, they beg the questions: Whose science fiction? Whose post-modernism? Whose version of "truth"? Relativism, like irony, often serves as a method of distantiation. Yet both, when properly employed or engaged, provide a potent means of critique against "a world ruled by fictions of every kind." Working through to work beyond. Hasn’t that been the enterprise of the whole literary impulse from the beginning?

15 November 2010


Selected works by Josh Azzarella and Pavel Maria Smejkal.

[ Via 2point8. ]

On Location

From a recent bit at Salon in which author Jonathan Lethem offers a walk-through of John Carpenter's 1988 cult movie They Live. Somewhere between his discussion of the fake graffiti title sequence and the absurdly long fist-fight scene, Lethem explores the film's physical setting:

"'Every film is a documentary of its actors,' declared Godard. The same is true of cities, according to Thom Andersen's 'Los Angeles Plays Itself,' an essay-film on the subject of Hollywood's inadvertent enshrinement of Southern California settings as backdrops. 'They Live' shows up in Andersen's documentary as a typical example of how the city idles in the background, candidly disclosing itself to whatever eye may care to notice. Carpenter's film neither declares its Los Angeles setting as a subject nor troubles itself to conceal it. ...

The most distinctive location in the film isn't architectural, per se: the blasted rise on which the homeless compound Justiceville has assembled itself, and from which it will shortly be cleansed by an army of bulldozers and riot police. I asked Thom Andersen for more on this location's history: a marginal zone west of the Harbor Freeway, it had in fact been cleared by speculative developers in the late seventies and early eighties precisely to make way for more of the luxury towers contemplated by Nada and Frank as they gaze across the freeway in the distance. So, 'They Live's' urban-renewal subtext embeds a bit of real urban history, knowingly or not. According to Andersen, the planned towers never exactly showed up. When the area filled in, it was with cookie-cutter, middle-class condominiums."

If memory serves, at some point in his book Dead Cities, Mike Davis cited They Live as (he felt) a rare example of unvarnished urban vérité; going so far as to extend the film's underlying anti-yuppie subtext into an allegory that was more pointedly about gentrification. Davis viewed the fictional inner-city L.A. location of Justiceville and its inhabitants as a holdout against encroaching municipal urban renewal programs and greedy real estate developers. Interesting arguement, that; but perhaps overly generous in second guessing Carpenter's narrative intent, since we’re talking about the same director who had helped pioneer the non-genre of "urban exploitation" films with his prior efforts Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York.

* * * * *

Carpenter’s Escape from New York was released in 1981, which just happened to be the same year that the (admittedly lower-profile) film Wolfen hit the screen. Over at Cartographies of the Absolute, Jeff Kinkle focuses on the way the city of New York operates as a setting in the latter of the two films:

"The New York of Wolfen feels eerily depopulated. Not just the South Bronx, which is depicted as a complete wasteland, but the city as a whole, which feels like a dead city. There are no shots of crowds, street life, or loud traffic that are staples of most New York films: the only location that could be said to be bustling in the film is the morgue. You have the inevitable skyline shots, but they are always silent and still. The city is more of a rubble-strewn desert than an asphalt jungle."

Adapted from a novel by Whitley Streiber, directed by Michael Wadleigh and starring Albert Finney (while he was in something of a career slump), the premise of Wolfen hinged on a scenario that explicitly involved real estate development and gentrification in the blighted South Bronx.1, 2 Kinkle, among other things, discusses the film's failures and “idiocy” in terms its intended "political" subtext; as well as its place in the general trend towards urban exploitation films in the 1970s and early 1980s:

"There are a myriad of films that came out in the seventies and eighties that depicted, documented, exploited, and/or contributed to this dystopian image of a section of one of the world's greatest cities reduced to rubble, not through aerial bombardment but so-called 'benign neglect' and 'planned shrinkage'… Most of these [films] say little about what created the situations, usually implying that urban decline is a natural process and that the resulting depravity is the inevitable result of packing people together (especially non-white people)."

And elsewhere:

"An argument can of course be made that these films are in fact best classified as exploitation films, and they were both the result of and contributed to the (racialized) fear of the American inner-city. What's remarkable is how hopeless the situation seemed to be and how the era’s imagination saw total urban collapse as being just around the corner."

Anyone who was around and somewhat culturally attuned to films and television in the 1970s, or who's seen The Warriors or Fort Apache: The Bronx, mostly likely knows what Kinkle is referring to. In terms of setting, it was a common theme. It was as if there was a shared phobia about the fate of American urban centers at the time, as well as the unquestioned assumption that major cities were at the Hobbesian forefront of societal deterioration.

Declining industry and unemployment, shrinking tax bases, "white flight," etcetera — the downward spiral of problems that peaked in many major American cities as the country's post-war productivity and affluence began to wane. And I've often wondered if it wasn't a similar sentiment of "inevitable" urban decline that lurked behind the famed "Ford to City: Drop Dead" scenario of 1975. For me, it sometimes seemed like there was an undercurrent of schadenfreude to it all — as if, in what amounts to an inversion of the chain of causation, the middle classes were looking for vindication for having fled the cities throughout the 1950s and 1960s.3 Not much of anyone could get a grasp on the various socio-economic reasons for why the cities were in such a state at the time, there was just a view among held by part of the population that perhaps big urban centers had outlived their function.4

But the sociological pendulum often swings both ways, and in the past two decades this trend has completely reversed itself, with people piling into NYC and Chicago and a number of other cities in increasing numbers. If the city serves as any sort of apocalyptic or depopulated wasteland in recent cinema, it’s usually been the sort that involves an alien invasion, some sort of disaster or another, or zombies. The whole "asphalt jungle" meme probably seems pretty trite and quaint to audiences who came of age in the late 1980s or during the years during or after Giuliani's "Disneyfication" of New York.

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Asides & digressions:

1. As to Wolfen's muddled and confused political themes, some of the details included in this bit about the film and its making provide a likely explanation as to why this was the case.

2. I'll admit that I haven't seen this film since shortly after its original theatrical release. So my own recollection of the film is pretty hazy.

3. It is, of course, a common scenario when people look for information to validate their own fears or prejudices, and this was always the case with the urbanophobic attitude of the era in question. This, I suspect, had much to do with people’s willingness to believe the distorted tale of the Kitty Genovese slaying back in 1964. Chalk it up to "popular delusions" or whatever, but they don't call them "urban myths" for nothing. We watched something similar happen recently with New Orleans, with the reports of the alleged chaos that erupted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — reports that were later proven to be unfounded. Some people's tendency to seek out and believe the worst being what it is, it wasn’t any huge shock to hear these reports circulating in the press and public sphere outside of New Orleans. Likewise for all the gusty "Thomas Hobbes was totally on the money" think-pieces that turned up in a few right-leaning magazines shortly after the levees broke. But when the city’s own mayor proved all-too-ready to accept these rumors as fact, perpetuating untruths as he blubbered hysterically into the media microphones outside his hotel room, one has to wonder.

And as far as the "outlived their function" verdict is concerned, it should be noted that there were a number of architects and urban planners crowing to the same effect at the time. (As some still are. ) In retrospect, it all comes across as a sort of chorus of triumphalisms of the suburbanite middle class.

4. In the cinematic context, this makes for an interesting contrast to the visual devil-in-the-details sense of suburban dread that permeates many scenes in Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995).

07 November 2010

06 November 2010

Little Disasters

"During the months that followed, Vaughan and I spent many hours driving along the express highways on the northern perimeter of the airport. On the calm summer evenings these fast boulevards became a zone of nightmare collisions. Listening to the police broadcasts on Vaughan's radio, we moved from one accident to the next. Often we stopped under arc-lights that flared over the sites of major collisions, watching while firemen and police engineers worked with acetylene torches and lifting tackle to free unconscious wives trapped beside their dead husbands, or waited as a passing doctor fumbled with a dying man pinned below an inverted truck. Sometimes Vaughan was pulled back by the other spectators, and fought for his camera with the ambulance attendants. Above all, Vaughan waited for head-on collisions with the concrete pillars of the motorway overpasses, the melancholy conjunction formed by a crashed vehicle abandoned on the grass verge and the serene motion sculpture of the concrete."
-- J. G. Ballard, Crash
"I've met a lot of cops recently. They take pictures of everything, only it's almost impossible to get copies of them."
-- Andy Warhol

photos: Arnold Odermatt

02 November 2010

Nothing to See Here

photo: Timothy Fadek / Polaris

Some thoughts on the topic I touched upon earlier, in relation to Julien Temple’s “Requiem for Detroit?” documentary, since it very much intersects with recurring subjects that I’ve been thinking and routinely blogging about, lately.

Yes, the decrepitude of Detroit has become something of a minor pop-culture cliché in recent years. It's even been labeled a “hipster meme” for the way its ongoing appeal in certain quarters, and for how it's lately a recurrent subject for numerous professional photographers, books, and news programs. As the website The District & the D recently noted, there were 4,300 photos of the abandoned Packard plant in Detroit as of this time last year, versus the 6,900 pictures of the similarly abandoned Michigan Central Station. So, what’s with the recent fascination with ruins in general — either those of Detroit or of other American cities?

As the publication of Stanley Greenberg’s Invisible New York and Julia Solis’s New York Underground earlier in the prior decade suggests, much of this has paralleled and overlapped with the emergent popularity of urban exploration and recreational psychogeographics within the past ten years or so. True, these activities only have a limited and relatively small number of adherents; so that doesn’t account for the broader allure and public fascination with the state of Detroit, and the overall trend of what some have lately labeled “ruin porn.”

Ironic thing about the BBC doco: About the same time that Temple was putting it together, VICE magazine ran an article about Detroit's recent claim to notoriety, about how the city had become a magnet for photographers and journalist looking to profile the city's archetypal examples of Advanced Urban Decline. In the article, contributor Thomas Morton addressed the selectivity of photojournalist’s forays into Detroit — citing the way certain photographers would often scope out the most desolate sites and the city, making sure that any evidence that contradicted a narrative of Overwhelming Blight and Decrepitude stayed outside the frame. As the caption for one of the article’s illustrations bluntly put it: “[Photo of the author] climbing a hillock for a better view of the grassy wastes surrounding Jane Cooper Elementary School. If you move the camera just a few inches to the left you’ll get a bustling, well-maintained food-packaging plant in frame, so be careful to crop that shit out.”

Soon thereafter, Morton appeared on WNYC's On The Media, but the discussion boiled down to the following pedestrian conclusions...

OTM: Do you have any thoughts as to what compels us as humans to be so fascinated with this kind of documentary photography? Is it rubbernecking, like as if you were passing the scene of a car crash?

MORTON: A little bit. I think people just like a good ruin. I mean, setting aside like any kind of like deep philosophical implications of it, it’s just people like a good smashed-up thing. I know I do.

Right, it's hardly breaking news that Detroit has problems. But all questions of journalistic ethics and media distortions and exploitative practices aside, the implication here is that it’s little more than a case of pandering to baser appetites; with the photographers and publishers in question merely supplying the goods to meet a particular demand. Because, hey, “people just love a good ruin.”

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Hubert Robert, "The Finding of the Laocoön," 1773

Casper David Friedrich, "The Abbey at Oakwood," 1810

Victor Hugo, "Ruines du Grosnez," 1854

Looking at a "good ruin" isn't an entirely new trend. Back in the in 18th century at the dawn of the Modern age, the spectacle of ruins constituted a subcategory all its own in the genre of landscape painting. Initially, this was a manifestation of the Neoclassicist sensibility that evolved from the Baroque movement, a means by which artists expressed their admiration for the artistic and architectural foundations established by earlier civilizations. This Neoclassicist aesthetic also overlapped with the Enlightenment, and dovetailed snuggly with the latter's positivist affinity for rationality and timeless Plutonic idea(l)s.

Images of ruins were still a frequent subject for artists in the decades that followed. But by the turn of the nineteenth century, they had evolved into multifold ciphers in the hands of Romanticist painters like Caspar David Friedrich and his contemporaries. When framed within a larger cosmology, ruins served as a sort of vanitas — not only a meditation on mortality, death, decay, and the transience of human existence, but also a fatalistic reminder that the greatest of human endeavors must ultimately succumb to the elemental forces of nature and to entropy.

In this respect, the spectacle of ruins in Romanticist painting operated as an ironic negation of the original Neoclassicist impulse; exemplifying the movement's embrace of subjectivity, passion, the deformed and the fragmentary and the deformed as a reactive strategy against the rationalism of the Enlightenment.1 These ideas would later be adopted by the English Romantics and the Symbolists of the nineteenth century as they pushed against the tide of Utilitarianism, against the social, economic and cultural upheaval wrought by the Industrial Age.

Arnold Böcklin, "Castle in Ruins at Twilight," 1847

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photo: Timothy Fadek / Polaris

Returning to contemporary times, and to the connection between modern ruins and urban exploration...

As far as the "deep philosophical implications" that VICE contributor Thomas Morton alluded to earlier, philosopher Dylan Trigg interviewed Infiltration founder Ninjalicious on the practice of urban exploration back in the earlier part of the previous decade. Their exchange yielded a variety of incisive observations on the topic at hand…

DT: The majority of buildings or sites you explore are either derelict or 'barred'. For the most part this entails a negative presence. What implications does this have, if any? Or is the active site structurally the same as the inactive one?

N: I love beautiful buildings, so I hate to see them fall apart, but there is no denying that the whole tragic process of decay is breathtaking to behold. There's a powerful sense of entropy, particularly when you see nature struggling to reclaim an artificial area as its turf. Nature's efforts always look pitiful at first — a mushroom or two vs. a gigantic 20-story brick train station — but you know that eventually nature will win.

DT: Indeed, and no doubt this conjunction between the artificial and the organic invokes a sense of the uncanny. For me, the presence of decay creates a distortion in time. Even when nature is vehemently reclaiming the artificial as its own, there seems to be a collapse in any kind of linear notion of time. You mention that decay is a 'tragic process' and I wonder if this has anything to do with mutability and a sense of loss?

N: Absolutely. While many aspects of life are probably much better today than they were in the past, cities and buildings have really gone downhill, at least here in North America. No one takes the time or effort to make really inspiring edifices anymore, and it makes me sad to see so many of the buildings that could serve as positive role models for modern architects just sitting unappreciated and occasionally vandalized until they eventually collapse.

Later in the same interview, the topic shifts to the topography of specific cites:

N: ... Standing at the top of Michigan Central Station [in Detroit] looking at the Renaissance Center you really can't help but ask yourself what on earth happened. I think I'd be willing to give up my private galleries of decay for the good of civic architecture and the future of the city. Besides that, I don't know if my desire to explore buildings like the MCS would be dampened if they were somehow put back into use. It would depend how the sensitively the renovations were conducted and what the new use was, I suppose. Obviously it would be a crime against humanity if it were to become a casino, but I wouldn't be against it being turned into public offices or a hotel or something like that, provided they didn't destroy its character in the process.

DT: Yes, this always the delicate thing — conversion, restoration, or decline. The balance between being either overly nostalgic or dismissive of the past. Since 9/11 there is perhaps a greater propensity to look ahead, to be stoic when confronted with both human tragedy and architectural ruin. Do you think that derelict sites are in some way seen as symbols of regression or failure, and as such dismissed on account of their pernicious overtones? To put it another way, most people who are unfamiliar with Urban Exploration might regard it as a kind of negative aesthetic. Do you agree?

N: I think that's how it has been, traditionally, but I think this is changing, probably just because people who live in towns made entirely of sloppy junk buildings can't help but notice the amount of beauty and character that these old abandoned buildings still exude, even beneath all the dirt and decay. Here in Toronto, an abandoned Victorian-era brewery complex was recently reopened as a ‘distillery district’ full of bars, restaurants and museums, and it's becoming pretty popular, in spite of still seeming just a little gloomy, in a Jack-the-Ripper's London kind of way. If this spot wakes a few hundred people up to the fact that most of the places they live and work are phony and awful, and makes them hold architects and city planners to higher standards, then I think losing one of my old exploration playgrounds will have been totally worthwhile.

Above, Ninjalicious touches on one explanation for the appeal of modern urban ruins. It’s a sensibility that’ has emerged in the past couple of decades, especially among younger designers and creative types. That being a deep and genuine they-don’t-make-‘em-like-that-anymore admiration for certain types of artistic (or in this case, architectural) style, design, and craftsmanship from the not-too-distant past; the sort that began to disappear from the cultural landscape during the 1960s.

Of course, something else in the U.S. went into gradual decline about the time: manufacturing and industrial productivity, as a whole. And of course it was this latter process that left a lot of "Rust Belt" and U.S. port cities in the lurch. Later in the interview, the discussion expands to situate the topic of urban ruins within this larger socio-economic context...

DT: I myself find it hard to conceive of Urban Exploration emerging in a time in history which isn't attuned to a sense of decline. And indeed the pleasure we take in urban ruins seems to suggest a kind of voyeuristic glimpse into decline, not only architecturally but culturally too.

N: I think the main cultural trends that have caused the idea of urban exploration to resonate with a lot of people are the increasing absence of public spaces and the increasing absence of real places. I suppose some people might view the way our cities have evolved over the last few decades as progress, but I think the vast majority would agree that cities have gone downhill, and that the people who live in them are worse off because of it.

The above interview was conducted while Trigg was doing background research for his book The Aesthetics of Decay. Trigg’s book wasn't about urban exploration per se; but rather an academic philosophical inquiry into the role of urban ruins in contemporary cultural memory. (Or, as the author describes it, "a phenomenological analysis of the built environment" made possible since "the supposed antithesis of progress — decline — is the means by which a critique of [the idea of] progress is possible.") I've been curious about the book, but haven’t read it in full since copies are difficult to come by. But from what I gather, Trigg touches upon a number of things that have crossed my mind concerning the topic of ruins.

Central to all of this is matter of decline and how it is embodied or evidenced by contemporary ruins. Naturally, this sense of decline is linked to feelings of anxiety, apprehension, and uncertainty. Belonging to the recent past, urban ruins evoke a stalled or aborted momentum — a ruptured narrative that speaks of an alternate present or future that was to be, but isn't.2 In this respect, the spectacle of urban ruins lends itself to a "hauntological" experience in the way they instill an ambivalent form of nostalgia. And the crux of this ambivalence, it could be said, stems from a sense of dread. Still more specifically, one might describe this state of dread as akin to what Georges Bataille identified in his writings on abjection.

The abject, in Bataille’s formulation, is that which is of a dominant system or order, yet is also outside of it by way of expulsion of degeneration — that which cannot be reified or assimilated; and what thereby, through the persistence of its existence, disrupts or undermines the totalizing grand narrative of said order.3, 4 In encountering the abject, Bataille asserted, person or subject commonly experiences an unsettling sensation; a mixture of feelings that includes both attraction and a sense of repulsion.5 Broadly speaking, this idea isn’t a far cry from the impression of "agreeable horror" that the Romantics claimed accompanies an encounter with "the Sublime."

There have been numerous references to "the post-industrial sublime" in recent discussions of urban sprawl, urbex, and modern ruins; so much so that the phrase has almost become an inherent cliché.6 As such, the term suggests that a practice aestheticizing of ruins might currently be in the offing. This presents a curious scenario: Are we party to a process in which that which can’t be reified or re-assimilated by the sacrificial economies of the existing social order are instead being "brought back into the fold" by a set of marginal or subaltern practices and predilections? Perhaps. At the least, I suppose one could say it makes for a new form of aesthetic scavenging, if not for an intriguing new type of urban reclamation.7

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Endnotes / Asides:

1. Schopenhauer had complained of the Platonist aesthetics of the era: “That the Idea comes to us more easily from the work of art than directly from nature and from reality, arises solely from the fact that the artist, who knew only the Idea and not reality, clearly repeated in his work only the Idea, separating it out from reality, and omitting all disturbing contingencies.” On the imperatives of these "contingencies," Victor Hugo would argue a few years later in favor of the use of the grotesque — the deformed and ugly, the anomalous and incongruent, the absurd, the visceral, etc. — as a necessary element in art of the modern age.

2. This of course brings the matter of economics into the equation. In the book's introduction, Trigg cites Walter Benjamin's writings on the abandoned arcades of Paris, which Benjamin had identified as an architectural embodiment of surplus commodity in the processes of capitalist production. In the instance of the ruins of Detroit, however, the presence of contemporary urban dereliction represent not so much surplus commodity, but implies — by way of their disuse and massive scale — a much larger and more ominous fate lurking on the economic margins.

3. For the unfamiliar: Bataille’s formation of the abject occurred in the context of his own association with Surrealism, and thus operated as theoretical extension of Surrealist strategies for scrambling the rational and aesthetic hierarchies of “bourgeois” society.

4. Or as Trigg states in his introduction, in relation to Benjamin: “Whereas the capitalist logic classifies things in terms of their productive value, thereby rendering entire industries obsolete not long after they began, the logic of the ruin contests this assumption. In dereliction, the ruin attests to the inherently tenuous foundations of the logic of capitalism: what was once built to testify to a singular and eternal present becomes the symbol and proof of its mutability.” {Emphasis added}

5. In recent years, the notion of the abject has been more often associated with Julia Kristeva, who (much later) had extrapolated her own theories of abjection from those put forth by Bataille. As Rosalyn Krauss has taken pains to distinguish, Kristeva gave the concept an exclusively psychoanalytic spin that was rooted in the corporeal and in thematic tropes and metaphors concerning bodily functions; whereas Bataille’s initial application of the idea was primarily social(if not socio-economical) in its orientation.

As an additional aside: How about the proliferation of secular apocalypses in recent years? Seems like it's been yet another cultural trend that's paralleled those of the topics at hand. So I suppose one could potentially extend Kristeva’s metaphor of abjection and excreta in the context of discussing ruins — perhaps extending it in such a way that it links the scatological with the eschatological. Or has someone already done that already? [Haha.]

6. For instance: Even Trigg has used the phrase on rare occasion, and Anthony Gormley uses it as well in the piece I cited in a recent post.

7. Curiously enough, it seems that Trigg anticipated this possibility. At one point he warns against “abstracting [ruins] from their context. Such a beautification of the ruin succumbs to a wholly romantic perspective. Instead of opening the space in which rational progress is contested, the static identification of ruins, through rendering them novelties, implicates a detachment whereby the ruin’s powers are diluted.”

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