by Ana Barrado. From The Atrocity Exhibition, by JG Ballard. Re/Search edition, 1990. p. 96.
This is post two of three in what we have come to call The Ruinpornomicon. Part one is here. But they’re only tangentially related, so don’t feel compelled to start there.
The topic of part two is:
What is the nature of the viewer’s enjoyment of ruin porn?
Just what is it about ruin porn that people like? Judging by how many times and ways I’ve had to approach it over the last few weeks, this is a question I was fated to serially underestimate.
I’ve decided not to bore you with an elaborate explanation of each of these approaches. (Don’t worry, I’ll find some other way to bore you.) They include introspection, looking at photographs, reading a statement or two, discussions with friends, relatives, and acquaintances, a small informal poll, re-reading JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, and guessing.
What I got from that are no conclusions as such, just…several untestable hypotheses, which might serve to provoke thought. That being the case, I’m just going to list them. Let me know in the comments if you think any of these rings particularly true (or false) for you, and please suggest enjoyments I have missed.
Bear in mind that I am interested (for purposes of this post) specifically in the question of the nature of the viewer’s enjoyment, or of the enjoyment the photographer intends the viewer to have, and possibly also in the nature of the photographer’s enjoyment. These are separate questions from the social value of the work, its historical importance, or its accuracy per se.
Intellectual. Intellectual enjoyment of ruin porn is about either deriving knowledge from the images or pairing them with prior knowledge — the knowledge in question being variously personal, historical, sociological, etc.
To know is to scratch the itch of (self-conscious) ignorance, and it brings an expanded sense of power over phenomena and/or ideas. It also puts one on the side of the wise, those “in the know.” We love to feel privileged in this way.
Of course, the presence of this intellectual enjoyment does not necessarily imply that the knowledge in question is of high quality. We all know fools and bigots who derive great pride and satisfaction from “knowing” what they believe to be important truths.
Aesthetic. Strong aesthetic responses to ruin porn indicate a heightened appreciation for beauty in conjunction with “decay” or “bleakness”, which also in some cases may be connected to an intellectual appreciation for the causes/processes of that decay. No one I discussed the question with mentioned an appreciation of the beauty of these images without simultaneously referring to the bleak or decaying context.
I imagine this heightening is a function of either pure emotional contrast, or of a kind of stoic appreciation based on the transience of things. But perhaps it is something more in the nature of a hopeful sign. Or maybe it is instead (or also) something more sinister, by which the viewer savors the connection to destructive processes as a vice — in other words, maybe the appreciation of decay becomes decadent, if you’ll excuse the wordplay.
Voyeuristic/Transgressive. There is an excitement tied to the taboo of trespassing, both in terms of vicariously enjoying someone else’s literal trespass, and in terms of enjoying the figurative trespass of seeing what one is not supposed to see or supposed to be allowed to see.
I think this is probably a real and substantial motivation for a lot of viewers who are seriously turned off by some of the photographs that are referred to as “ruin porn.” However, I think the photographs in question are those which overlap with photography that documents or suggests “urban exploration,” and not all ruin porn is of this type; a fair amount is made from street level in public spaces.
Political. Or, really, one could just go ahead and say anti-American. (Can one speak of schadenfreude at the national or cultural level?) I think this comes through more clearly with some work than with others. I think with Marchand and Meffre it is particularly strong. In describing their work, they draw a pretty straight line between Detroit, the car, and America, and they emphasize heavily the association of ruins and collapsing empires.
That association is real insofar as the idea or image of ruination is concerned, but is not necessarily true as a matter of historical fact or diagnostic procedure — which is why so many people reply to depictions like theirs by criticizing their inaccuracy. But again, the association between a “ruined” Detroit and a failing US empire do not have to be factual in order to provide a particular enjoyment — an enjoyment that savors the idea of a collapsing America.
Which of course is not to say that the American empire may not in fact be well and truly in decline — just to say that these photographs are operating not as documents of the fact of such a decline but as dramatizations or dioramas of the idea of one.
(It would perhaps be more charitable to identify this quality as belonging to the tradition of “memento mori,” only as applied to an empire instead of an emperor.)
Sexual. I did not at first consider the idea of taking the “porn” in “ruin porn” literally. It was only after I had made several joking references to JG Ballard in the course of various ruin porn discussions that it actually occurred to me to crack open my copy of the RE/Search edition of The Atrocity Exhibition and think about the sexualization of ruins and disasters.
It was only necessary to flip a few pages in — to the introduction by William S. Burroughs — to find a veritable gold mine of fascinating and disconcertingly relevant provocation:
The Atrocity Exhibition is a profound and disquieting book. The nonsexual roots of sexuality are explored with a surgeon’s precision. An auto crash can be more sexually stimulating than a pornographic picture. (Surveys indicate that wet dreams in many cases have no overt sexual content, whereas many dreams with an overt sexual content in many cases do not result in orgasm.)….
The line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down. Earthquakes can result from seismic upheavals within the human mind… The human body becomes landscape: “A hundred-foot-long panel that seemed to represent a section of sand dune…Looking at it more closely Doctor Nathan realized that it was an immensely magnified portion of the skin over the iliac crest…”….
Sexual arousal results from the repetition and impact of image…This book stirs sexual depths untouched by the hardest-core illustrated porn. “What will follow is the psychopathology of sex relationships so lunar and abstract that people will become mere extensions of the geometries of situations. This will allow the exploration without any trace of guilt of every aspect of sexual pyschopathology.” (Emphasis mine)
Ruin porn is nothing if it is not “repetition and impact.” I do not think I could say with a straight face that it “stirs sexual depths,” the way The Atrocity Exhibition does, but at the same time, I am not sure I can say with certainty that it does not.
Some of the characteristic “ruin porn” photographs of Detroit are intensely, disconcertingly biological in nature. In those scenes, the structures sometimes seem like like weathered buildings and more like diseased bodies, assuming postures of physical distress. And sometimes the intensity of the ruin pornographer’s camera does touch upon something which is at least adjacent to sex and death in the viewer’s psyche…looking at these photographs is something like looking at stills from an architecture snuff film.
Perhaps more relevant than the sexual content, however, is Burroughs’s line, “people will become mere extensions of the geometries of situations.” This is a prediction that I would argue is much more true of ruin porn photography than it is of Ballard’s book.
Apocalyptic Aspirational. That ruin porn has an apocalyptic quality is obvious upon casual observation. However, it took me quite a while to be clued in on the form(s) of enjoyment implied by that apocalyptic quality.
It actually happened in two ways — first through Ballard, second through one of my discussions with a flickr contact. In the case of Ballard, it has to do with the motivations of a protagonist of The Atrocity Exhibition:
Dr. Austin may disagree, but it seems to me that his intention is to start World War III, though not, of course, in the usual sense of the term. The blitzkriegs will be fought out on the spinal battlefields, in terms of the postures we assume, of our traumas mimetized in the angle of a wall or balcony.
I think “our traumas mimetized in the angle of a wall or balcony” would be an awfully good summary of ruin porn…and I that think that the lovingly framed images of “ruined” Detroit would fit in well with the mimetic blitzkriegs to which Ballard refers. (It is important to understand that Ballard’s story is talking about an apocalypse that is made of images; he is not talking about images of an apocalypse. The characters are engaged in a kind of struggle that plays out through the creation, combination, and installation of images; ruin porn’s unreal aspect demonstrates the same tendency — the photographers are not simply depicting Detroit; they are building out of images the idea of a ruined Detroit.)
My flickr contact approached (what I think is) the same drive from a more straightforward angle: He identified the apocalyptic quality of ruin porn as “aspirational.” “Aspirational” is one of those interesting words that often crops up in certain commercial contexts like fashion and real estate, and which is often paired with words like “lifestyle.” Aspirational enjoyments are tied to optimistic reverie — our daydreams of who we want to be and how we want to live.
In this context, identifying an aspirational quality in ruin porn basically means we dream of inhabiting a post-apocalyptic landscape; we want the world to end. If that seems crazy, stop and think for a moment about how many people you know who have lovingly cultivated zombie plans. Such things are often more than just amusing intellectual exercises; they are a kind of fantasizing with a level of self-indulgence and safely unrealizable desire that we would normally only associate with the sorts of sexual fantasy that are directed at unattainable targets. (Such as film actresses).
Surrogate. I considered placing this under “political,” or calling it “psychological,” but I think surrogacy specifically is the relevant aspect. It is not really an enjoyment per se — but I do think it belongs to this list of enjoyments, if only as a sort of cross-reference.
What I am thinking of is this passage in Szarkowski’s Mirror’s and Windows:
More recently, photography’s failure to explain large public issues as become increasingly clear. No photographs from the vietnam war—neither Donald McCullin’s stomach-wrenching documents of atrocity and horror nor the late Larry Burrows’s superb and disturbingly conventional battle scenes—begin to serve either as explication or symbol for that enormity. For most Americans the meaning of the Vietnam War was not political, or military, or even ethical, but psychological. It brought to us a sudden, unambiguous knowledge of our moral frailty and failure. The photographs that best memorialize the shock of that new knowledge were perhaps made halfway around the world, by Diane Arbus…. (p. 13)
This is one of those astonishing statements that Szarkowksi had a habit of dropping in the middle of a discussion before then moving on without a backward glance. I mention it here because I wonder if part of the reason why ruin porn is so frustrating to understand, explain, define, etc. is that part of its appeal has to do with meeting a need that might not be decipherable from the objective contents of the photographs.
I can’t say what that other need might be; I lack both the hindsight and the insight which Szarkowski employed while writing about the Vietnam era in Mirrors and Windows. I can only point out the possibility.
I’ve tried to think of possibilities to suggest, but I do not find any that are plausible which are not really just extension of the enjoyments I discussed above — for example, a self-reflective variation on the “American empire” theme, a way for us to “memorialize” a different kind of frailty and failure, having nothing to do with morality and everything to do with our economic vulnerability — not just insofar as we are economically vulnerable, but also in the surreal, alien, inhuman quality the economy has taken on for us. (Contrast photographic depictions of current economic crises with those of the Great Depression, especially as regards their ability to actually record or at least imply something about causes and effects.)
But that’s really just riffing on Szarkowski’s observation about Vietnam. I also considered that perhaps ruin porn fills a need people feel to make more real to themselves the kind of destruction we have been raining down on cities on other continents — which can, in some cases, look not so different from the “ruins of Detroit.” But are we that masochistic, or that conscientious…?
And again, neither of these would really qualify as enjoyments. At least, not in the sense in which we commonly use the term. But each of them (or something of equal or greater obscurity) might qualify as a need for which we seek satisfaction…