Intro to ‘Ruinology’

I created this blog as a place to discuss various aspects of my research, and plan for it to focus mostly on representations of/discussions about urban blight, decay, and modern ruin in mass media and academic scholarship. Some scholars refer to the study of recent ruins as ‘ruinology’ (pretty cool-sounding), which encompasses research by sociologists, urban anthropologists and geographers, archaeologists, historians, and urban planners. I also curate the ‘Ruinology’ topic, which features recent stories about modern ruin organized by location and type of site/structure.

I research blight removal and management in postindustrial communities, focusing on the ways in which people think about and experience vacancy in order to better understand the decisions they make about the built environment around them. In addition to conducting ethnographic interviews and surveys and participating in various organizations and activities related to blight and processes of urban decay, I analyze mass media narratives about urban decline, deindustrialization, abandonment, and ruin (featured in stories like “The 33 Most Beautiful Abandoned Places in the World” from BuzzFeed and “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline”) to understand how certain stories about/perspectives on abandonment and urban decline circulate. For some examples of the kinds of narratives I’m talking about, see John Patrick Leary’s well-known essay “Detroitism,” wherein he separates media representation of the city into three categories: the Metonym (with ‘Detroit’ representing urban decline in the US, synonymous with the failure of capitalism), the Detroit Lament (mourning the city’s glory days, preoccupied with loss and the documentation of that loss), and the Detroit Utopia (a backlash against the Lament that focuses on defending the city’s possibilities and future directions).

You’ll also see posts here about urban exploration (a.k.a. urbex) and ‘ruin porn,’ or ruin photography, which I think of as urban decay narratives in action. The controversial genre of ruin photography focuses on the decay of the built environment. Though it’s been strongly (and often fairly) criticized for objectifying urban decay and focusing on its aesthetics without providing any historical background or social context for the images produced (i.e. without questioning how those ruins came to be and how they affect the lives of those who live with and around them), many ruin photographers are also activists who use their work to bring awareness to certain issues, such as the dismantling of public mental health care system and facilities seen in Christopher Payne’s workMatthew Christopher and Andrew Moore are two more “ruin photographers” who recognize and discuss the political aspects and implications of their work. It’s a complex genre and one that tends to get people talking, which is why I like it.

Urban exploration focuses on the exploration and documentation of off-limits urban spaces. Scholars like geographer Bradley Garrett are researching how urban exploration challenges normative beliefs about how we use and move through urban space (which is increasingly structured and monitored/policed by the state). Urbex is often represented as a way of reasserting individual control over one’s experience of the urban environment (and over urban space itself). It is sometimes described as being the opposite of a traditional museum, where your access to/experience of material culture and the built environment is mediated not through curated exhibits and institutional interpretation, but through your own experiences, motivations, and interpretations as you move through a place. Though I’m primarily interested in how urban explorers engage with the past, the built environment, and ideas about the ‘ownership’ of architectural/cultural heritage, these issues are tied to/part of the broader politics of urban space that Garrett’s research addresses.

That about covers the scope of this blog. In my next post, I’ll be discussing an upcoming presentation I’m giving on ‘museum selfies,’ ruin porn, and digital engagements with heritage. In the meantime, If you come across something you think might interest me, feel free to send it on over!

*The photo above is of an abandoned house in Vučje, southern Serbia, taken by Kaeleigh Herstad (2014).

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