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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