You climb the fence and enter the doorway, the threshold. Amidst the vibrant emptiness of the grey archways and collapsing floorboards, you look for any stable meaning to hold on to yet find none, so instead look for it in your projections of the future and the past. ‘Who lived here, and how did they pass the time?’; ‘What will become of this place once a local authority takes over it, or worse, decides it is property to be sold for redevelopment?’. Yet as you reach closer, hear the echoes and smell the dust, you find that the structure in front of you is not a blank canvas for such images, but its own material space. The future and the past are here too, for every ruin, in its overgrowth, vandalisation and decay, is not just a moment in space but also a moment in time.
Why do I like to explore a city’s wrecks and ruins, what drive or resonance? It may be the desire to slow life down to the pace of dignified decay that ruins undergo. Each derelict doorway presents both a reflection of my own world and a portal to a new room. Whenever we seek things that resonate with us we are hoping that they will make concrete something beyond the analogy, uncovering a different reality that, while strange, will invite us in a new direction and knock us out of our inertia.
What is so striking about ruins and abandoned buildings is not the mystery of the half-open door and what secrets and stories may lie behind it, but precisely the opposite- that all that reality is right there at the surface. A reality of things as objects, with their own material concerns, embodying the temporal flow and causality of their own histories.
The search for and exploration of ruins has become widespread: whereas before it was curious individuals and groups from the UrbEx community who would display impressive Parkour skills to break into places in search of inspiration, now commercial tours and professional photographers have jumped on the bandwagon. The consequences of this practice, which has contributed to the popularity of formerly industrial cities like Detroit, and brought tourism to quite unexpected remote areas, have led to a more fundamental disagreement over the ethics and aesthetics of the activity.
There are those who critique-in a range of articles across Guernica Mag, The Calvert Journal and even The Huffington Post which refer to each other- what they call “ruin porn”, a pejorative term that bears some truth given the objectifying, exoticizing and obsessive character of much ruin photography. Their standpoint arises from a healthy scepticism of “post-ideological”, “end-of-history” narratives which imagine ideological struggle as something in the past, to be viewed from a distance. Among others, the points they raise are that “ruin porn” obscures the ongoing experiences of those people, often poor and marginalised, for whom suburban ruin is an everyday reality, and that uses present aesthetics to disavow past and alternative historical narratives. Perhaps the most reasonable is the fear of gentrification, which gives an area its moment in the spotlight and then leaves it an unaffordable, hollowed-out shell of its former self. Their critiques are largely aimed at the commercial aspect of “ruin porn”, carried out by photographers and tour guides, but they also view individual enthusiasts as naïve at best and infantile at worst, unaware of the true history and significance of the fading buildings they visit.
It’s difficult to take precise aim at a practice that appears to have been a pastime and inspiration which Hegel, Benjamin, Simmel, Schlegel and Deleuze, among others, dabbled in. Benjamin said of ruins- “allegories are, in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the realm of things”. To Simmel, ruins reveal the Ozymandias in every stage of human history- “nature has transformed the work of art into material for her own expression as she had previously served as material for art.” To quote Boym’s beautiful, more recent piece on this subject which ties together some such strands:
‘The contemporary ruin-gaze is the gaze reconciled to perspectivism, to conjectural history and spatial discontinuity. The contemporary ruin-gaze requires an acceptance of disharmony and of the contrapuntal relationship of human, historical, and natural temporality. Most importantly, present-day ruinophilia is not merely a neoromantic malaise and a reflection of our inner landscapes. Rediscovered, off-modern ruins are not only symptoms but also sites for a new exploration and production of meanings.’
The long and diverse history of ruinophilia makes it difficult to disagree with the closing assertion. This does not mean that criticism such as that of Leary writing in Guernica Mag have no place, but it does suggest that the commodification of ruins is not as easy nor simple as Leary believes.
I use the following analogy to show why the position of critics is misguided. The tensions within the ruin appreciation community parallel those of the street art and graffiti community. Incidentally, many ruins themselves, especially the ones I have visited, are covered with graffiti and street art, a fitting union. These were best exemplified by an instance when Lutz Henke, among others, painted over one of Berlin’s most iconic works of street art. Henke was one of the original artists, and thus had the right, as far as the quasi-legality of street art goes, to paint over the work, and he justified his actions as such. He also made the case that this particular piece had gone beyond its original purpose, serving as a permanent landmark defining Kreuzberg street culture, and inviting gentrification.
Street art was never intended as the creation of landmarks or permanent decoration; its true character is as transient works that are painted over as new trends arrive and people need a new aesthetic to reflect their condition. Since nobody else would do it, Henke painted over the work himself. This was not a popular move. He was booed from below by a group of people, presumably composed of both tourists and residents. Yet it was an intervention intended to maintain the flow of culture at an important juncture, for in Berlin, creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin, just as they are in the case of ruins.
There are two camps here: those who agreed with Henke, and those who would have joined the disapproving crowd. The disapproving crowd are those to whom street artists who “sell out” appeal to- those who would sooner buy Banksy prints than visit the forsaken neighbourhoods he occasionally decorates, those tour guides who speak nostalgically about the “golden age” of street art and so on. They have become too attached to the symbolic character of street art, that which gives the location an air of mystery and culture by signifying a deeper history.
The photographers and tour guides who attempt to create a story, a product, out of the experience of ruins fall precisely into this trap of fetishization, of objectification. In other words, the historicizing gaze and the objectifying gaze are here identical. Of course, one cannot entirely disavow this group of people from the “ruinophile” community. The risk of gentrification will always be a factor when the middle class decides that it finds the culture of poorer or derelict areas an object of enjoyment, but this is an enjoyment that begins not the moment one enters a ruin, or even photographs it, but when one seeks something what is hidden behind the half-open door of appearance.
Yet the critics of “ruin porn” buy into this same premise by failing to recognise any gaze other than the former. John Patrick Leary, writing in Guernica Mag:
‘So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city….
…This is the meta-irony of these often ironic pictures: Though they trade on the peculiarity of Detroit as living ruin, these are pictures of historical oblivion. The decontextualized aesthetics of ruin make them pictures of nothing and no place in particular.’
As if urban exploration could possibly get a proper understanding of the experiences of the people who inhabit cities, as if there is such a thing as the “real transformation” with “real” people and the big picture. As Boym mentions in the above paragraph, ruins are sites of discontinuity and disharmony, and as such, allow us to detach ourselves from discourses that hold back transformation, such as those that equate productivity or “disruption” with transformation, or consumption with experience, and those that use the word “real” as a qualifier. This becomes evident once one accepts ruins on their material premise, as vibrant emptiness. Neither does this mean that all ruins, are part of some undifferentiated, decontextualized whole, but rather that they present context not as content but as place (and time).
Elsewhere, this concern for context takes on a structural dimension. From another piece, this time by Jamie Rann in Calvert Journal–
‘Once again, therefore, Russia and eastern Europe serves as an imaginary space in which western nations can play out their own crises of identity, without having to confront them directly. In this case, the legacy of militarised imperialism and its decline can be explored at a safe distance by pinning a hammer and a sickle to its cracked marble carcase.’
Ruins undoubtedly point to a story of the collapse of grand historical narratives, industrial projects, and social visions. This is a big part of the reason why people are drawn to them. Yet, upon entering, they show us in their materiality what is in ideology more real than ideology itself. They should not be treated as imaginary spaces which still bear traces of scenes from bygone eras, but rather as the bare materials which lay beneath such ideological structures. And as structures of concrete, metal, wood and biomatter, they live beyond their previous symbolic arrangements, ready to transform into something new. What time does to the cracked marble carcase, perhaps the hammer and sickle could never do.
Of course, to appreciate this immanent dimension of ruins, one must make a choice to commit to one’s immediate experience of them, to choose immanence over transcendence. This choice distinguishes even between different types of photography, none of which can be completely disavowed. And, indeed, reducing the whole discussion to this often individual choice can itself obscure the underlying processes that brought the ruinophile to where she is, and brought civilisation to where it is now. But one must not forget the significance of this choice, and what is at stake.
Benjamin has pointed to the phenomenon of the “aestheticization of politics” which came to underpin ideologies, especially fascist ideologies, within their particular social contexts. It operates by taking material objects and turning them into propaganda, images that suggest there is something essential behind the curtain, that there can be found the values that give nationalist slogans their content, that signify what “we” have and “they” don’t.
Ruins invite us to dwell on the place itself, the reality of the appearance, and thus serve as a counterpoint both to fascism, which reaches at the content behind the curtain, and post-modern capitalism, which presents various, conflicting visions and interpretations of what could lie behind the curtain. This is an important moment in our own discontinuous processes of transformation. This is something that should be recognised by photographers, tour guides, and critics alike. If every great building eventually comes to accept the transience and materiality that constitute its most fundamental reality, then so can we.