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Detroit Ruin Porn and the Fetish for Decay

Andrew Moore, “Cooper School, Detroit” (2008-2009) (image from andrewlmoore.com)

Hearing “Detroit” today brings to mind some ideas specific to the post-2000s: a city emptied by the flight of business, money and population, the crisis faced by American car makers during the economic crisis, a bunch of grand buildings built while times were flush and now as empty and silent as a modern Stonehenge. The last idea, the connection of Detroit with its failing, crumbling architecture, has now become such a dominant visual path for artists depicting the city that an entire genre has arisen: Detroit ruin porn. The voyeuristic pleasure of ruined grandiosity is nothing new though; we have only to look to depictions of earlier ruins to see the same fetish for decay.

In a Studio 360 segment, Jennifer Guerra explores why artists create ruin porn and how Detroit citizens are reacting to it. In an interesting conversation, Guerra talks to Dan Austin, editor of the architecture information site Buildings of Detroit. Austin notes that artists and photographers from all over the world have contacted him to act as their guide to Detroit’s ruins, help for quick photo and art projects. These “parachuters” leave Detroit just as quickly as they arrived, contributing little but to the city’s image of decay. Ruin has become Detroit’s brand: what the city is known for is its slow death, like Rome in collapse. It’s not surprising, then, when Austin compares Michigan Central train station (“champion of architectural ruin porn” in Detroit) to the Roman Coliseum.

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, image from “The Ruins of Detroit” (2005- ) (image from thestapleton.com)

Photographer Andrew Moore notes that there’s “something about mortality” in the choice to depict ruins. Far before Moore’s own photos of tree-enveloped Depression-era houses and decrepit skyscrapers, art has had a long relationship with this idea of mortality and the obsession with documenting fallen remains. The idea of momento mori jumps to mind when thinking about Detroit’s ruin porn; literally translated as “Remember you will die,” the genre uses a symbolic language of dead things, skulls, skeletons, wilted flowers, to communicate the inevitability of death and the importance of living a just life.

Architectural momento mori exist as well in ruin porn from centuries ago. Think we came up with anything new, shooting cavernous disused spaces? These photographers would do well to catch up on their Piranesi, an 18th century architect and printmaker whose etchings of the ruins of Rome are staggeringly epic, baroquely detailed and tragically decayed, a clear forerunner to the visual language of the Detroit photographers. Think back on photographs of the Angkor temples in Cambodia, remains of what was once the largest city on Earth, or depictions of the Egyptian pyramids. These buildings and spaces are now dead, existing only as monuments to what once was and as prophecies foretelling every civilization’s eventual collapse. Nothing is forever, just check out Shelley.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “The Arch of Trajan” (18th century) (image from wikipedia.org)

In the apex of our era of high-flying capitalism, Detroit ruin porn functions as just such a momento mori, a call to remember that the same fate as Motor City could befall all of our great cities, all of our unstable accomplishments. I think Detroit ruin porn is so popular, and such a well-traveled visual avenue, in part because we want to be reminded that it could all fail. The voyeurism isn’t just gawking at the old buildings; it’s gawking at the possibility and the danger of death.

There’s still hope beyond the whole imminent death thing, though. In an anti-ruin porn photo project called Can’t Forget the Motor City, Romain Blanquart and Brian Widdis are documenting the living side of Detroit. Their photos show loving families, sunlit spaces and active communities. They avoid entirely the old visual language of momento mori and instead show a human scale portrait of a vibrant city.

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