What "ruin porn" tells us about ruins – and porn

Image: Bryan Debus via Flickr.

Ah, porn. Few words come with as many pre-loaded connotations and assumptions – the promise of titillation, the thrill of taboo, the inherent air of seediness. Think poverty porn. Think food porn. Think good-old fashioned porn-porn.

So what are we to make of “ruin porn”, the work of photographers and artists who aim to communicate the romantic frisson – as they see it – of run-down buildings?

The term has cropped up with increasing regularity in the last few years. The ruins of Chernobyl, the Holocaust, Detroit’s urban decay, and even abandoned amusement parks have become havens for “ruin photographers”.

In his recent book The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (2015), US theorist Brian McHale claims that artist Robert Smithson’s work acts as a precursor to ruin porn. He argues that the photographic documentation of ruin

arguably begins with Smithson’s deadpan photographs of modern industrial wastelands in his conceptual-art project A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.

This, he argues, has since proliferated into “an abundant photographic record of urban decay and ruin in the wake of the deindustrialisation of North American ‘Rust Belt’ cities”. These ruins, he notes, are self-inflicted, rather than the result of warfare and international conflict, as with 9/11. The fascination with Detroit’s urban decay is the direct result of economic failure, specifically the downturn of the motor industry in the 1970s.


Its ruins have since been the subject of much obsession, including numerous articles, photographic essays and online galleries.

The allure of ruin remains prominent in tourism and popular culture, including abandoned amusement parks such as Sydney’s Magic Kingdom park, Germany’s Cold War-era Spreepark, and Japan’s Takakanonuma Greenland in the Fukushima district. Photographers who capture these sites have a name, “urban explorers”, and many keep diaries of their discoveries on social media platforms.

These images represent not only economic failure, but ideological failure, representing a break with modernised conceptions of cultural innocence and everyday enjoyment.

Germany’s Cold War-era Spreepark. Image: Marcus Goral, CC BY.

The term “ruin porn” has been met with great criticism for its exploitative nature and use in trivialising the causes of destruction and urban decay. In 2013, art critic Richard B. Woodward argued that:

Ruin Porn is a phrase so immature and gawky it isn’t sure how seriously to take itself. Like its linguistic relatives “animal porn,” “shoe porn,” “food porn,” “real estate porn,” and “fill-in-the-blank porn,” it’s a smirking neologism that may or may not aspire to be a social critique.

This celebration of ruin and destruction was evidenced in the 2014 exhibition Ruin Lust at London’s Tate Gallery, which featured art works from the seventeenth century to today, all of which engaged in imagery of ruin, war, or apocalypse.

There were photographs of decayed Nazi bunkers and artist JMW Turner’s sketches of decayed abbeys. The exhibition sought to chronicle society’s continued obsession with “the ruin” within the inevitable narrative of decay.

Gas masks in a classroom in Chernobyl. Image: Timm Suess, CC BY.

While giving the exhibition a good review, Jonathan Jones at the Guardian stated that the term “lust” was essentially misleading:

So many things vanish. Yet ruins remain in the landscape, reassuring the mind that death might not be the end. Is it “lust” to linger in those places? The joy this exhibition insists on may in reality be more of a sweet sorrow.

In the same vein, in 2013, Kate Abbey-Lambertz of the Huffington Post wrote:

Some have expressed frustration at the way decline is glamorized or exploited – it’s called ruin porn for a reason – rather than seen as part of the city’s larger ills. While some think iconic buildings should be preserved for their historical significance, others [see] them as eyesores, havens for crime or obstacles to the city’s renewal.

Image: Pietromassimo Pasqui.

Criticisms of ruin porn stem from the suggestion that these photographs are bereft of any sort of socio-economic context regarding their cause and aftermath, and are dismissive of the broader failures of modern economic life. Yet as Dora Apel writes in her recent book Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline:

Even if we take the term "ruin porn" at face value and see the objective of ruin imagery as the production of pleasure or arousal, to condemn the massive proliferation of ruin images on this basis leads to no new insight or knowledge. The more productive questions are how ruins images please, move, or arouse and what purpose this serves.

For Apel, part of the allure of these sites and the “deindustrial sublime” stems from the act of “tempering the anxiety of decline”. Jones, moreover, notes that our fascination is more to do with the concept of time.

"Ruin porn is a kind of time travel to the future within the present"

Indeed, ruin sites provide something of a realistic glimpse into post-apocalyptic life for humanity, and hence provoke our engagement with ruin while we are still alive. Toronto-based academic Tong Lam, in his 2013 book Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World, argues: “In a way, we are already post-apocalyptic.”

Ruins appear to confront society’s faith in anthropological endurance. Decaying buildings signify the inevitable process of history, to which we, too, will eventually succumb. Essentially, "ruin porn" is a kind of time travel to the future within the present.

As US academic Jason McGrath wrote in his 2014 paper Apocalypse, or, the Logic of Late Anthropocene Ruins:

The posthuman gaze at modernist ruins reminds us that, no matter how many new objects we produce, consume, and discard, those objects will in many cases far outlive us and the purposes to which we put them.

But the discrepancy between melancholic fascination with ruins and actual arousal ought to be made clear. Kate Brown, in her book Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (2015), shrewdly distinguishes between ruin porn and what she calls “rustalgia”.

Noting that there are those who find beauty in decay but also danger for those who inhabit it, she argues, in a similar manner to Jones:

Some will be fascinated from the outside, producing more ruin porn. Others will speak in mournful tones of what is lost, what I call rustalgia. As opposed to ruin porn, rustalgia can help show how sketchy is the longstanding faith in the necessity of perpetual economic growth.

For certain people, ruin remains a concept, not a reality. While ruin porn greatly trivialises the social and psychological implications of decay, it can be understood more broadly as something of an antidote to the bleak reality of inevitable, complete destruction – something more depressing than beautiful.The Conversation

Siobhan Lyons is a tutor in media and cultural studies at Macquarie University, Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.