Over the past few years a swathe of what has come to be known as “ruin porn” has swept the internet. Perhaps in an uncanny updating of Albert Speer’s dark fantasies of “ruin value”, photographs of Detroit’s abandoned factories and theatres, Chernobyl’s crumbling tenements and “urbex” photos of ruined asylums and hotels are gleefully traded on Facebook and Reddit and have amassed immense cultural currency.
This contemporary interest in ruins scales from numerous blogs and sub-Reddits to the vaulted heights of major art institutions, with the Tate gallery’s 2013 “Ruin Lust” exhibition. But of course – as the Tate’s exhibition charted – this fascination has its roots in much older traditions. The ruin was employed for theological purposes in the paintings of the Renaissance, and for didactic and allegorical purposes in the Romantic paintings of the 18th century. For hundreds of years ruins have been both quotidian elements of the daily lives of many, especially in Europe, while they have also operated as rich sources of historical meaning within various modes of artistic expression.
What can be done with the ruin today? Can we put the observations of key theorists of the ruin, such as Walter Benjamin, to new purposes? And from our ancient, colonial and industrial ruins can we pull some hope, some imagination or possibility for the future that sees the ruin differently than as an emblem of a glorious or inglorious past? This issue of Transformations reflects on the ruin and ruination, its past and its future.
The Excess and Potential of the Movie Theatre Ruin: The Midnight Star
Abandoned and derelict movie theatres are some of the most striking of contemporary ruins. Movie theatres of the interwar ‘picture palace’ era were designed to create an atmosphere of leisure, fantasy and escapism, qualities which continue to inform understandings of these places in ruins. Movie theatre ruins have a heightened quality of excess, both in terms of their original atmosphere of fantasy, and their obsolescence as ruins. Theatre ruins are vital entities, sites of temporal flux and multiple, intersecting narratives provoking strong affective responses. This narrative potential is investigated using the Midnight Star theatre in suburban Sydney as a case study. Drawing on the theatre’s material presence and media traces, this article explores the narrative and critical power of the theatre ruin in the contemporary urban landscape.
> Keywords: ruins; cinema; memory; temporality; derelict architecture
Ruin, Rubble, and the Necropolitics of History
Luigi Fiorillo’s Album Souvenir d’Alexandrie: Ruines 1882 documented the bombardment and looting of Alexandria, Egypt on July 11-13, 1882. The album is preoccupied with the architectural, rather than the human face of devastation: buildings were ruined rather than lives. Its images bring in focus the destruction caused to the modern buildings by the fires of the Arab looters and blur out the death toll the British invasion has had on the residents of the city. While the album focused predominantly on the wrecked buildings, it also included images of dead Egyptians. In a photograph titled Les batteries de Ras-el-Tin démantelées we see the bodies of three dead Egyptian men – one of these bodies has been intentionally blurred out during the photographic development process. Depictions of human death complicate the idea of ruin. Building upon the articulation of rubble by Walter Benjamin and the concept of necropolitcs as theorized by Achille Mbembe, I posit here that visual representations of human death toll resist the articulation of destruction as ruin and speak to its conceptual presence as rubble. It is through an articulation of the ruin as rubble that historiography can begin to illuminate significance and severity of political violence.
> Keywords: ruins; rubble; photography; Egypt; Fiorillo
Light and the Aesthetics of Abandonment: HDR Imaging and the Illumination of Ruins
The online circulation of photographs of abandoned places has been considerably influential on the contemporary visual culture of ruins. At the hands of online content-editors and users, images of ruins have become the subject of listicles, click-bait posts, image aggregators, and image hosting sites (sites such as, Buzzfeed, Imgur, and Distractify). Considering the high volume and frequency in the circulation of images of ruins as components of visual lists of the top abandoned places, this paper contemplates the relationship between the ruinous and the abandoned. When Svetlana Boym asserts, “ruins give us a shock of vanishing materiality” (Boym 58), we must consider that this shock is most commonly conveyed through images. In the case of contemporary images, this sense of “shock” is often visually achieved through distorting the tonal range of photographs of decay and abandonment. Images that are tone mapped to display a high dynamic range of luminosity (commonly, “HDR photographs”) appear surreal – a disturbed reality distinct from that which we encounter day-to-day. The paper considers how light, in the manipulated tonal range of the photograph, problematises the ruin’s signification of meaning.
> Keywords: ruins; abandoned places; photography; HDR; light
The Internet as Ruin: Nostalgia for the Early World Wide Web in Contemporary Art
The Internet appears as a romantic ruin in the new media installations of several international contemporary artists. Engaged in a quasi-archaeological excavation of the early history of the medium, these artists today manifest the desire to recover the transformative possibilities offered by the network in its heydays. This paper looks at the romantic discourse surrounding artistic and social practices. What to make of artists and activists’ desire to retrieve obsolescent software (e.g. early gif animation) and hardware (e.g. early personal computers) and to elevate them as ruins? Does the nostalgia at work in the practices of contemporary artists today problematically gloss over the past — in other words: is it another instance of the persistence of the myth of ‘technological determinism’, so heavily criticized by Raymond Williams? Or can we found a critical and positively utopian element in the nostalgic impulse at work in contemporary artistic and activist practices?
> Keywords: Post-Internet Art; Utopia; Technological Determinism; Nostalgia; Obsolescence
Toward a Rust Belt Poetics: Ruins and Everyday Life in Visual Art from the Deindustrialised U.S. Midwest
This article examines a variety of visual art emerging from and about the American Rust Belt. Through an analysis of photography collections and gallery installations, it is argued that artistic projects interpret the ruins of the Rust Belt in competing ways, and much of this contestation occurs through a discourse about everyday life. A distinction is developed between a poetics developed from the ruins of space and the ruins in place. Ultimately, what’s at stake in these visual poetics of the Rust Belt is a claim on the region’s future, claims that are often invested with hope.
> Keywords: Rust Belt; everyday life; urban ruins
Rephotography and the Ruin of the Event
Rephotography is the practice of retracing the location depicted in an old photograph and taking a new image from the exact same perspective. The two photographs are then combined within the same photographic frame. Originally used in scientific surveys, rephotography is now a widely popular trend, featuring a variety of technologies. In this article I employ the idea of the ruin to conceptualise rephotography’s potential to expose the temporality of space and the spatiality of time. First, I relate Walter Benjamin’s theory of the ruin to his notion of photography and introduce the notion of the photograph as a ruin of the event that it captures. Subsequently, with reference to Mark Klett’s pioneering work I explore how rephotography spatialises this past event and transforms corresponding details of the physical environment into ruins. Finally, I examine rephotography’s performative and affective dimensions through two popular blogs, Dear Photograph and Link to the Past, that feature different techniques of layering images.
> Keywords: allegory; nostalgia; photography; rephotography; ruin
Apocalyptic Commons: Derek Jarman’s The Last of England
This article investigates the critical interplay between utopian collectivity and post-industrial ruins as “apocalyptic commons” in Derek Jarman’s film The Last of England. This film’s Thatcher-era critique reveals global capitalism’s repressed yet intensified settler-colonial dimensions, portraying abandoned manufacturing sites intercut with nonlinear evocation of Britain’s imperial past. I argue that this film’s post-apocalyptic ruins perform an allegorical critique of settler colonialism by linking economic histories of imperialism and the “closing of the commons” to the neoliberal present. In this film, Jarman extends the utopian promise of the commons toward an equally radical potential inhering in the dystopian commons. These dystopian commons work to reopen a futurity, staging the alleged aftermath of historic crisis as already present-tense. Jarman’s apocalyptic commons reflect unsolved legacies of neoliberal capital, liberal imperialism, early modern financialization, and post-Fordism. The Last of England navigates a global landscape where property-relations are liquefied, engendering ad hoc assemblages of survival. Centered in ruins of metropolitan industry, Jarman’s film widens the imagination of global annihilation –nuclear, epidemic, neoimperial – while raising specters of earlier, colonial annihilations. In The Last of England, pyrrhic potentials bind together a collectivity of aftermath within a dystopian commons uncannily recognizable as the horizon of the neoliberal present-day.
> Keywords: Derek Jarman; The Last of England; neoliberalism; commons; apocalyptic
William M. Taylor
Assembling Ruin: Rubble Photography of the 1908 Messina Earthquake
Photographs of the 1906 San Francisco and 1908 Messina earthquakes can be understood in terms of changing media and modes of reportage. Collections of the disaster photographs have supported the emerging science of seismology, social criticism and forms of popular entertainment. Images of facade-shorn buildings and collapsed houses reproduced and assembled for period newspapers, scientific reports, illustrated journal issues and tourist postcards, ostensibly revealed events as they had happened in real time to audiences worldwide. Circulation of the images allowed them to be received as an accurate and harrowing record for public comment, disaster relief and reconstruction planning. However, behind the illusion of objectivity lies a domain of unknown, possibly unknowable but suspected facts concerning the nature of earthquakes and about the relative exposure of cities, races and more or less civilized nations to likely devastation.
Forming a subset of disaster photography, rubble photography (Trümmerfotografie) is a genre commonly composed of images depicting bombed and burned-out cities like Dresden and Cologne. It is cited when theorizing the contribution of such images to the politics of collective memory connected to Germany’s reconstruction and eventual reunification after the Second World War. This paper proposes to extend the genealogy of the genre to include photographs of the San Francisco and Messina earthquake. It pays particular attention to images of the latter disaster, all the while emphasizing the genre’s contribution to shaping urban imaginaries.
> Keywords: Disaster; Rubble photography; Messina Earthquake (1908); San Francisco Earthquake (1906); Urban imaginary
Ruin, Allegory, Melancholy. On the Critical Aesthetics of W.G. Sebald”s The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn
While ruins have been a popular object for nostalgic yearnings of a better past, they also harbour an ambivalent potential for moral and historical critique. This article unpacks the variety of meanings ruins embody in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. I do so in three steps. First, I demonstrate how his sensory appreciation of buildings and objects is closely entwined with two moral-historical critiques that were formulated most poignantly by authors of the Frankfurt School: the dialectics of progress and regress, and the remembrance of the repressed. Second, I describe in more detail the style figures through which Sebald puts these critical aesthetics to practice: Walter Benjamin’s notions of the storyteller and allegory. Third, I critically reflect upon the melancholy effect these critiques and style figures produce, and the possibilities they provide for both dialogical critique and contemplative resignation.
> Keywords: W.G. Sebald; Walter Benjamin; ruins; allegory; aesthetics.