The Thrill of Trespass

The urban explorer movement, also known as urbex and UE, emerged in the mid-1990s in Toronto around Jeff Chapman, code-named “Ninjalicious,” who is considered the “spiritual father” of urbex. Ninjalicious founded the zine and website Infiltration, which urges thousands of young people to “go places you’re not supposed to go.” His book Access All Areas: A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration was released in 2005, after his death. Ninjalicious coined the term “urban exploration” and spawned a global movement that he estimated included up to 350 urban explorer groups worldwide, which often specialize in particular kinds of sites such as abandoned buildings, buildings in use, catacombs, sewers and storm drains, and tunnels. The website and others like it illustrate ruin explorations and recount what urban explorers see and feel as they penetrate abandoned industrial sites, most of them professing to abide by the ethical dictum “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” advocated by Ninjalicious, which was originally the slogan of forest preservationists in the United States and Canada.2 Ninjalicious asserts that urban explorers have only respect for the sites they explore: “Genuine urban explorers never vandalize, steal or damage anything—we don’t even litter. We’re in it for the thrill of discovery and a few nice pictures, and probably have more respect for and appreciation of our cities’ hidden spaces than most of the people who think we’re naughty. We don’t harm the places we explore. We love the places we explore.”3 In this sense, urbex may be seen as a productive and educational form of play or leisure activity. The code of conduct that Ninjalicious insists upon is meant not only to preserve sites but also to differentiate the urban explorer from destructive trespassers.

Other urban explorers suggest that the hobby is more than just thrillseeking; they assert that it preserves history and memory through the photographs of abandoned buildings taken before they are demolished or repurposed. “Urban Exploration could be seen as a huge spontaneous Archiving Project,” claim the authors of the urbex photo book Beauty in Decay. “Before sites like Ninjalicious’ Infiltration, Urbexers were not a community at all but rather a few scattered individuals. Now, bearing in mind that the internet is basically a huge multi-user filing system, Urbex is effectively creating an enormous database of images documenting abandoned buildings and urban decay. Almost by accident, the adventure has become a historical conservation project.”4 Yet this form of documentation hardly conforms to any recognized standard of historical conservation. Rather, it is presented as “an experiential, subjective vision of what history is.”5 Since it is experiential and subjective, the actual location and history of the ruin sites do not seem to matter, and therefore the photographs in Beauty in Decay provide minimal information. Thumbnail images at the back of the book offer the photographer’s name and the location of the image by city or country or type of building (e.g., “France,” or “Asylum, UK”). In addition, they offer the type of camera used and the personal website and e-mail address of the photographer.

The focus of urbex is thus on individual experience and building the urbex community, and the sense of history pursued refers to an imagined personal connection to the past and its anonymous inhabitants.6 This subjective concept of history is articulated as “history unmediated, in its raw pure form” as experienced by the urban explorer: “This encounter between the living and the dead is the source of the stories that we tell to make sense of being alive, and to be that explorer at that moment is to be given back the power to tell those stories for yourself. We don’t want to be passive consumers of History with a capital H, neither spoon fed to us by the Discovery Channel or intellectual- ized beyond our reach in the lecture halls.”7 The target audience is disaffected youth, many with at least some college education. They are primarily male, as generally confirmed by the assertion that solving the thrilling puzzle of getting into a derelict building “requires balls, great hairy swinging balls.”8 As a dangerous and thrilling experience—thrilling because it’s dangerous—ruin exploration appeals primarily to white middle-class men, offering a landscape of collapsed boundaries and liberating forms of transgression that include not only trespass and discovery but also secret spaces for raves, sex, drugs, games, and other activities free from bourgeois convention, public surveillance, and normative regulations.

A key focus is on the gear, the type of cameras employed, the settings used for different lighting conditions, and the software through which the images are processed and posted online. The inclusion of personal websites and e-mail addresses emphasizes the creation of an online urbex community that shares the transgressive thrill of defying authority by going where they are “not supposed to go.” Urbex becomes a way of escaping from the drudgery of life by engaging in the illegal and the forbidden: “Your moment of peace, outside the everyday world and far from the thundering of life toward death, is only a NO ENTRY sign away,” and “UE is about doing the forbidden, the not- allowed and its forbidden nature is a key part of its attraction.”9 The pleasure of transgression is both explicitly stated and central to the appeal. Focusing on subjective experience, most urban explorers are unconcerned with when or why factories closed; instead, former sites of production become deindustrial playgrounds.10 The dehistoricized ruins of Beauty in Decay fetishize decay for its own sake and the pleasure it provides, not only in search of escape and adventure but as a way of coping with everyday life and, for many, creating a photographic practice.

Urban explorers are on a perpetual mission to recapture the thrill of childhood discovery. Beauty in Decay urges, “Think back to your childhood for a moment and it all begins to make sense. Do you remember the terrifying yet seductive draw of the archetypal haunted house? Every neighborhood and every childhood has one.”n Urbex evokes the thrill of ghosts in addition to the lure of nature, discovery, forbidden trespass, and escape from the mundane and depressing world. “And for most of us, leading lives of quiet desperation, the milestones of our lives pass by in a blur. Always we live with the feeling that life is elsewhere.”!2 Invoking Thoreau’s famous rejection of the values and practices of an industrial, commercial society, the authors of Beauty in Decay appeal to those who feel socially alienated with a melancholic nostalgia for an imagined idealized “elsewhere” located in the past.

Another urbex publication, Jinx Magazine, describes the difference between a trespasser and explorer in rather disturbing terms: “With Infiltration magazine, then, the urban explorer truly parted company with the mundane trespasser. Ninjalicious became an explorer when he faithfully published his observations and enriched posterity by them. The trespasser, by contrast, always consigned his story to silence; he, like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe.”!3 In addition to the racist analogy of the “base Indian,” the category of “mundane trespassers” possibly implies those who live in the vicinity of ruins, that is, the working-class sons and daughters of those who may have once toiled in the abandoned factories but who may not write blogs and create websites. In Corporate Wasteland, Steven High and David Lewis declare the explorer/trespasser dichotomy to be an invention meant “to distance middle class explorers from working class trespassers.”!4 They suggest that part of the lure for urban explorers is not so much the traveling of great physical distances but “great social distances” in which the industrial past seems to be a realm of primitive otherness separated from the more civilized postindustrial present; at its worst, the very notion of the modern “explorer” recalls a colonialist pretension imbued with the rhetoric of class and race/5

We might see the uncanny pleasure of ruin exploration and its representation as suggesting two simultaneous and seemingly opposed perspectives. On one hand, the contemplation of ruins provides a sense of superiority and comfort for having “survived the collapse of past dreams of the future,” as art critic Brian Dillon observes; on the other, urbex paradoxically produces a sense of being cast forward into “the future ruin of our own present.”!6 From both perspectives, the urban explorer is an intrepid survivor of collapse, both past and future. Ruin exploration is thus an exciting and pleasurable way of containing and controlling the anxiety of decline and the cultural pessimism it produces.

Urbexers explore abandoned auto plants, schools, libraries, hotels, theaters, and other building ruins in a search for extreme experience that defers or avoids historicity, instead seeking immersive sensual pleasure that is suspended in time and space or allows an unfolding of ambiguous time that moves backward and forward simultaneously. As Beauty in Decay urges, “Go find the nether places between the day and the night where the walls are thin and you can for a moment step outside of time.”17 This suspended sense of time and history creates a feeling of freedom from ordinary social constraints and anxieties, of having survived the trauma of past and future decay. Both senses of survival offer the temporal and mental distance necessary for the experience of ruination to be enjoyably aestheticized. One dwells in and on the ruins as a way of mastering the anxieties of survival itself, while the thousands of images posted online and published in books expand the shared experience of the deindustrial sublime.

Robert Smithson, an artist who toured Passaic, New Jersey, in 1967, also wrote about the ambiguous unfolding of time when regarding building construction along the banks of the Passaic River. Artificial craters and pipes seemed to create a “zero panorama” of “ruins in reverse, that is—all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. . . . Those holes in a sense are the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.”!8 Smithson gestures toward a failed set of futures that are already built into the system even as new corporate buildings take form. His observation also reminds us that buildings abandoned partway through the construction process—of which there are many since the 2008 financial crisis—are just as much ruins as buildings that have fallen into decay. Even the negative ruins of vacant lots make the effort to ward off ruination through incessant demolition self-defeating/9 Whether rising into ruination or demolished through neglect, these “monumental vacancies” suggest the exhaustion of both the future and the past in the present.

The urbex focus on exotic discovery approaches ruins as sites of unregulated space and sensual materiality that displace the rational and the ordered with the formless and disordered.20 In contrast to Georg Simmel’s notions of unity and symmetry, urbex images that convey a sense of the deindustrial sublime through beauty in decay no longer privilege the “higher” status of culture but the “lower” pull of nature in a climate of cultural pessimism that naturalizes decline and reifies the urban “explorer” as possessing a privileged gaze.

RomanyWG, Hoover Squadron, abandoned asylum, UK, from Beauty in Decay, 2010. Courtesy of the artist

FIG. 9 RomanyWG, Hoover Squadron, abandoned asylum, UK, from Beauty in Decay, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

These sensual spaces offer a kind of freedom from everyday life, although privileging aesthetic pleasure and transgressive experience over historical specificity comes at the price of historical understanding.

Urbex images often have a distorted, hyperdigital look, produced by the HDR digital postproduction technique that takes several shots of the same scene and blends them together with the best information from each shot. In Beauty in Decay, RomanyWG’s Hoover Squadron, taken at an abandoned asylum somewhere in the United Kingdom, provides an example in which HDR gives the cleaning machines a kind of animate and even menacing quality (figure 9).21 The authors note that these HDR photographs are controversial because they take on the artificial look and theatrical feel of video game images. Other urbex photos are dramatically staged, featuring objects that have been introduced by the photographer, or live figures in deliberately mysterious postures, sometimes wearing commedia dell ‘arte masks or gas masks, as in Martino Zegwaard’s The Lost Philosopher, of a wandering figure who seems traumatized by dreams of gas attacks (figure 10). This staging and technical manipulation suggests that the fictive and fantasized mood and atmosphere produced in the urbex photograph is at least as important as documenting the space itself. A niche genre has developed among female artists who photograph themselves nude in industrial settings, such as Kristine Diven, who moved to Detroit from Brooklyn in 2010 and who poses naked in abandoned buildings, or New York-based Miru Kim, who makes photographs and videos

64 • Beautiful Terrible Ruins

Martino Zegwaard, The Lost Philosopher, hospital, Germany, from Beauty in Decay, 2010. Courtesy of the artist (

FIG. 10 Martino Zegwaard, The Lost Philosopher, hospital, Germany, from Beauty in Decay, 2010. Courtesy of the artist (

of herself nude amid the ruins of the catacombs beneath Paris, abandoned buildings in Istanbul, or industrial ruins in New York City.22

Many video game designers are also inspired by ruins, creating games such as Silent Hill, which is set in an abandoned town in the mountains. The role- player creeps around derelict schools, shops, and industrial buildings while fending off knife-wielding zombie babies. After first-person shooter video games, such role-playing games, or RPGs, are the second-most-popular category in video games. The top-rated games and most popular RPGs all contain an extensive use of ruins. The Elder Scrolls games Oblivion and Fallout 3, for example, which have sold over 16.6 million copies worldwide, demonstrate the wide range of fictive ruins employed. Oblivion is set in fantastical classical-style ruins with vaguely medieval architecture while Fallout3 is set in the imagined future ruins of Washington, D.C., and the area surrounding the nation’s capital after it has been devastated by nuclear war.23 Such fantasized scenarios extend the ruin imaginary into fresh media spheres and encourage the participation of a new generation in exploring the projected sensual spaces of ruination while aesthetically mediating the anxiety of decline.

More than two centuries ago, Giovanni Battista Piranesi produced imagined ruins in his invented prison etchings, the Carceri. As Andreas Huyssen observes, Piranesi’s etchings create uncanny spaces that seem to grow out of the earth and defy Euclidian rules of geometry; they bend light, confuse spatial arrangements, and contain architectural features such as staircases, passages, and hallways that seem to lead in all directions yet lack spatial logic or closure; they produce a sense of darkness even as they open into infinity, refusing to give the viewer a fixed perspective or safe distance from which to contemplate these terrifying spaces (figure n)^4 Such illogical and sinister space is

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Drawbridge, plate VII from Carceri d’lnvenzione. 1745. Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution / Art Resource, NY

FIG. 11 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Drawbridge, plate VII from Carceri d’lnvenzione. 1745. Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution / Art Resource, NY.

the opposite of Simmel’s romantic reconciliation of spirit and nature. Instead the aura of these ruins is threatening and oppressive as space and time remain indefinable. Produced in the eighteenth century, in contrast to Enlightenment optimism, “Piranesi’s prisons and ruins,” writes Huyssen, “can be read as allegories of a modernity whose utopia of freedom and progress and of linear time and geometric space they not only question but cancel out.”25 Although Piranesi thoroughly explored the classical architecture of Roman ruins, an architecture that dominated the era of the Enlightenment, his was a ruin imaginary that also focused on the terror of ruins, asserting a critical consciousness in regard to the modernist present that, Huyssen suggests, accompanied the Enlightenment from its inception.

The debates about ruins and ruin imagery among contemporary urban explorers and historians focus broadly either on the ontological value of ruins or on their cultural and historical significance. Urban explorers defend ruins as having intrinsic value, the exploration and contemplation of which constitutes significant personal experience that produces valuable knowledge. Ruins, they assert, should therefore be left alone. The other side, represented by High and Lewis, regards the fetishizing of ruins as indulging corporate waste and squandered resources while obscuring ruined lives. They feel that the emphasis on personal experience and the knowledge it produces ignores or undermines an understanding of the larger social and political implications of ruination. The emphasis on individualism itself may be regarded as a typical aspect of capitalism.

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