Chasing the Dragon

Scenes from New Years Eve in Beijing, January 23, 2012…



Image from Sophie Fiennes' documentary on Anslem Kiefer

“It’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, it’s wistful, it’s provocative. It’s about time, nature, mortality, disinvestment.” – Greco

Recently I came across an exploratory article on the voyeuristic art of “ruin porn.” In a somewhat humorous similarity of terms to riot porn, the ruin porn of today elicits the hedonistic drive, the aesthetic: both intellectual and sensuous, to hunt down derelict urban spaces, and rural husks, to explore the lost sides of development and decay, to find beauty in the cruelty of images. It can be an individualistic satori at the first sight and shudder release or an orgiastic experience for groups of urban explorers, chattering away to themselves about the good luck of the find. Exploring the abandoned, reclaimed, abandoned spaces, rich in texture-seen and superimposed by the metaphysics of Bachelard’s imagination, can present a number of fascinating distractions from the banalities of plastic commodified modernity. It can lead to pondering questions of permanence and beauty, as the planned beauty of great buildings falls to ruin a whole new subculture finds its truest beauty revealed.

In a January 6 Atlantic article Joann Greco examines “The Psychology of Ruin Porn” and the enthralling textures of Mathew Christopher‘s photographic autopsy of the American Dream. Greco writes:

“Pursuing and photographing the old is an addictive hobby. Dozens of blogs and online galleries share strategies for entry and showcase ever-bulging collections of moss-covered factory floors and lathe-exposed school buildings.

There’s no shortage of theories as to just why these images (in this case, a long-shuttered mental asylum) fascinate us. They “offer an escape from excessive order,” says Tim Edensor, a professor of geography at Manchester Metropolitan University who studies the appeal of urban ruins. “They’re marginal spaces filled with old and obscure objects. You can see and feel things that you can’t in the ordinary world.”

Len Albright, a 31-year-old Princeton post-doctoral student who’s tagged along with ruin explorers in Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, believes the experience is “more about the sense of ownership than anything else.”

He describes the derring-do involved in scaling urban ruins. “There’s this whole strategy for figuring out how to get in,” he says. “They start by hiding in the tree line at the edge of the property, checking for security guards. Then one of them dashes to the wall of the building. He starts looking for unlocked doors or busted out windows. There’s a lot of creeping and crawling, almost like a military operation.”

But for Matthew Christopher, the man who snapped the photograph described above, it was — at least in the beginning — more about curiosity. Only as he stood amid the eerily silent hallways and peeling ceilings of a similarly crumbling institution did he truly understand its role in the history of mental health. “When I visited the abandoned Philadelphia State Hospital, and then some of the others, I was able to connect the dots, to see the progress of treatment through the years,” Christopher says. “Architecture and the ethos of the times became linked for me.”

Image Source: Mathew Christopher's Abandoned America

Christopher’s work is well suited to elicit emotions and questions on time and nature, steel and earth, flesh and alloy. It draws the viewer into a texture rich world and, in much the same way as Anslem Kiefer, invites its audience to rethink the past and challenge accepted narratives of progress. Greco’s piece is a wonderful light into the tunnel of not only urban exploration and the photography of derelict spaces but an invitation to rethink physical space, urban meaning and the interstices of structure and significance.

Christopher’s work pulses with a kind of reanimated life, but I would also direct anyone interested in the visually stimulating urban reclaimation process toward the user generated forum at Derelict Places. This forum is for all those interested in the history and documentation of urban abandonment and decay, of dereliction from field to factory. It is a fantastic concept and one which brings a kind of prosumer, producing and consuming, legitimacy to the thesis underlying discussions of re-envisioning lost spaces as a new coming together of ideas and creation. It takes abandoned space and directs it into the visual collective consciousness of its viewers. By bringing lost segments of society, first hidden buildings, into focus a renovation in ideology on what it means to live together may too come into focus, a focus freed from the overzealous commodification of modern society-which brought many of these places first to life, only to let them die.

I took these final five pictures in Beijing in 2009.

Shared Spaces and Thinking Streets

As I prepare to change continents again, to resettle in a new environment, I am too itinerant for thorough introspection and retelling tales of wandering; however, one thing that has been growing more salient in my observations and thoughts is the awareness and concern over disparate urban landscapes. The questions linger as to what layout, what urban design functions best in what setting, in what cultural proclivity, grown out of what historical traditions, superstitions, symbolic integrations of living, breathing nature and planned, constructed steel and glass? To follow Edward Soja’s notions of spatial justice, the morality of urban spaces, layout and interactions requires us to begin pondering the ethics of our material surroundings.

This has been made more apparent since I returned to Seattle. Without a car I am at the mercy of public transportation, at 2.25USD for two hours of bus travel, the two, three hours between home and work that many must commit, round trips upwards of 4 hours a day, deprive time for creative and individual pursuits, take time away from families or time away from healthy eating, etc. Battling the cars that won’t stop, even in the rain, for pedestrians to cross or cyclists to peddle on their way, there is a certain sour taste to such arrangements in Seattle, indeed in most of this country, around the urban planning, use and integration of public space that has just not been so apparent in other places. These issues of public space require both a moral and material solution.

Recently I stumbled, in much the way in which I have stumbled into cafes, restaurants and alleys, into a wonderful little broadcast (link at bottom) by the BBC on Shared Spaces. The BBC’s Angela Saini begins…

“The streets beneath our feet are getting smart. Pavements are melting into the roads and traffic lights are disappearing. Inspired by the work of scientists and engineers in Holland and Japan, this is a revolution in urban design. Part of it is a movement known as ‘Shared Space’, which promises to dramatically change the way cities look and how we experience them.”

What are Shared Spaces? The Project for Public Spaces explains:

“Shared Space is more a way of thinking than it is a design concept.   It is most readily recognized as a street space where all traffic control devices such as signals and stop signs, all markings such as crosswalks, and all signing have been removed.  Curbing is removed to blur the lines between sidewalks and motorized travel way.  The philosophy is that absence of all of those features forces all users of the space — from pedestrians to drivers — to negotiate passage through the space via eye contact and person to person negotiation.

This is all premised on the idea that traditional streets allocate distinct spaces to the different modes, and in doing so create a false sense of security to each user leading them to behave as if they have no responsibility to look out for other users in “their” space.  This obviously works best for operators of motor vehicles, who are sitting within the protection of a ton and a half of steel.”

Shared Spaces evolve from the avant garde ideas of Dutch urban engineer Hans Monderman‘s observations that many traffic signs: ‘beware of cow,’ carry not the signification of their text but the deeper signification of ‘the driver is an idiot.’ It may well be the case that when the roads are plastered with warning signs and cars and pedestrians observe only flashing lights and immutable signs they lose track of one another and pay less attention to the phenomenon at hand than the mirror warnings that plague their visual field. Remove the barriers to engagement with one another, return a personal trust and responsibility to the road and urban space user, encourages the theory behind Shared Spaces and Living, Thinking Streets.

“Today, Monderman’s vision can be experienced throughout his Dutch province of Friesland, no where more so than in Drachten, an unassuming town that until recently was famous only for being the home of the Dutch electronics giant Philips. As Angela discovers for herself, Drachten’s shared space schemes (and those of its near neighbours) now attracts a regular pilgrimage of engineers and planners, from all parts of the world, eager to experience this new urban vision.”

As a theory for more than just better traffic engineering and urban design the ethics behind Shared Spaces has resonant social implications. It leads to questions on the nature of the self and community, surely whether implemented in a deeply liberal individualist or moral communitarian setting the project would be met with different results. What does it tell us about economic situations, private car ownership to public transportation, to bicycles etc.? Urban sprawl complicates matters as much do ideological prejudices that foster fear or hatred of the Other. It returns to Soja’s Spatial Justice and encourages the planner and space user alike to take stock of moral and community standing. Or, as the Project for Public Places notes, Shared Space is not a transportation concept, it is a political concept. It is social and scientific and we must think more about how places are created and maintained.

For further thought provocation the BBC has more at THINKING STREETS.