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.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.