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.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.