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Things are Broke. Can Ruin Porn Help?

27 December 2011 2 Comments

Living in the Rust Belt one becomes accustomed to what many find shocking. Example: in a period of a few weeks I saw the façade of an abandoned brick building fall out of itself on fire and into the street. Firemen and neighbors gathered around to look. Nobody was surprised really. It was more communal than anything.

Courtesy of kjrichter44130

Then not a few weeks later I went for a jog and came upon a skeleton of twisted metal that had its insides sunken in. It was quiet. The smell was of a cooled burning.

Courtesy of Peggy Turbett, Plain Dealer

Such scenes of destruction are prevalent in the post-industrial setting. Not only that, the commonness of vacancy, disassembly, and decay can be damn near Mad Max-ian. Don’t believe me? Spend a day in Detroit. Chunks of the city feel like the real-life version of the fictional setting in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. An excerpt:

On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind. A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned. Farther along were billboards advertising motels. Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered.

Depressing, eh?

I don’t think so. Detroit to me is a special place. In fact I don’t feel the modern ruins littering the Rust Belt landscape are a negative. Rather, I feel cities like Cleveland and Detroit that have physically borne the brunt of a broken system are also home to something else: a possibility tied the ubiquity of so many vacant and crumbled things.

After all, “every act of creation is first an act of destruction”.  Picasso said that. Picasso could have painted Detroit the way it is. In Guernica, he kind of did.

Come to think of it, destruction and decay get a bad rap in America, as humanity is more used to brokenness than we give ourselves credit for.  For instance, cities have died and shrank since the onset of civilization. The life of a city is not immune to life.  Yet here it’s like leprosy, as it goes against the grain of the American psyche. That psyche of growth, expanse, and construction. Yet too a psyche of white flight–of fear and denial and the need for sprawl and sterility.  In this way the American building pattern can be charted through the path of our escape.

Yet that is not how evolutions occur: by building a new form of an old system on fresh ground somewhere else. Instead, being broken is the key to transformation. Which means the future of America is about re-imagining the geographies of its past. Said author Anton Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Courtesy of Clifford Oto

Yet its not that easy to perceive value in ruin. The difficulty is visceral. Existential. Physical decay is a reminder of personal mortality. And folks don’t like to think about that. So demise becomes what happens to somebody else. Or to the inner city, a region even. Hence, the Rust Belt is pitied. We are fucked here. We are cities with tubes and prosthetics in an arena where Manhattan and Silicon Valley dunk on everything.

And the maddening thing about it is that many in the Rust Belt seemed to have taken the bait. That self-flagellating common in these parts—it can be toxic. But what we really need to be doing is winking at each other in self-confidence.

Why?

Because that America of Times Square and Texas growth is an illusion that is barely keeping itself from falling apart. Whereas the Rust Belt has been able to stare at the pieces of a broken paradigm for some time now.

So is the future really here? I think so. So does Alex Krieger, chairman of the department of urban planning and design at Harvard. From a Forbes article:

The notion of a walled city, a contained city — that’s an 18th-century idea [Krieger said].” And where will the new ideas for the 21st century emerge? From older, decaying cities, Krieger believes, such as New Orleans, St. Louis, Cleveland, Newark, and especially Detroit — cities that have become, at least in part, “kind of empty containers.”

***

The question becomes, then: what can invoke a perceptual change not only in the Rust Belt but in the American psyche? A change from the avoidance of failure to the need for it–from the hate of ruins to the possibility inherent in it?

Enter Ruin Porn. Let me explain.

Ruin Porn—or the artistic movement centered on photographing the scenes of post-industrial decay— has been called a lot by many. It has been referred to as condescending to Rust Belters. It has been called a necessary evil. It has been called masturbating-the-eye art.  I call it a breath of fresh air, or more exactly: a tool for a change in perception.

The beauty in ruin. Courtesy of Rust Belt native and photographer Sean Posey.

Now how exactly does Ruin Porn do this?

Put simply, it has “outed” ruin.  It did this through the simple act of caring to look.  Before that ruins in America really were a pornographic experience: a scene from the underbelly, of and for the poor, the scrags. It was a private affair dirtied through the interaction between the filth of the aesthetic and the guilt of the observer for having to live with it.  But by outing and framing it—not to mention capturing the inherent beauty in broken things—Ruin Porn exposed the  failure and decay, thus clearing the secrecy, the shame, and leaving perceptual room to see less emptiness and more space.

In short, the lie behind the motive to say “there is nothing to see here” becomes the truth behind the courage to look. And through that, we feel our past in the ruins which allows an enlightened mindset of where it is we want to go.

To that end Ruin Porn has the ability to be the tip of a powerful perceptual movement that allows America to change the way it has confronted its structural failures in the past (i), but if all we see is emptiness then the subsequent escapism will simply lead to more hollowing out.  Yet by framing ruin, what we may find is that what we once called dirty we can now call clean.

–Richey Piiparinen

(i) In  many ways Ruin Porn has permeated the American psyche in expansive ways. It is being made into watches, but it remains to be seen whether it will help cure self-destructive models of urbanism.

Below photos are courtesy of Youngstown native Sean Posey. You can find his impressive body of work here.