||[Feb. 2nd, 2018|11:09 am]
Transitioning into liminal space
A couple paragraphs I wrote elsewhere in response to a discussion of politics (and a lengthy expansion of those thoughts):
"I'm frustrated with myself that it's so hard for me to try to rationally engage with people who are right-leaning politically. Understanding and respecting alternate systems of understanding, recognizing their internal validity and engaging them in ways that make sense not to 'me' but to 'them' is the very core of my undergraduate degree.
Hurtful language and petty attacks are counter-productive, but oftentimes these days, it's all I'm capable of. So I stay largely out of the discussion. I feel like I'm failing at politics."
My therapist asked what it was that kicked my legs out from under me in Syracuse. There were a few things that reinforced each other. One is that I have lost the belief that I have a chance of having an effect on society; of making it better. Because of that, so many things I was fascinated by because they were important to me as part of understanding how to do that are just depressing. Rather than being motivated to thoroughly understand systemic inequalities in urban geography, they just make me want to cry. Geographers and anthropologists and others have been talking about ways to make things better for decades, but the ears of the dominant paradigm are deaf to them.
The ruined buildings and blighted urban landscapes that, as objects of fascination for me, led me to photography and school and art and anthropology and geography, are also symptoms of that dominant paradigm's disregard. They are still history and the passage of time made manifest; that was what I hoped to convey in my photography. But their meaning as the chewed-up and spat-out leavings of a seemingly inescapable and deeply discriminatory system overshadows their other meanings.
Artistically, I'm still fascinated with the thought of how a space is made and unmade. When does a space become a place? When does it unbecome? When is a room no longer a room, as its doors and windows and ceilings and walls slowly rot away? I'm drawn to that kind of liminality in ways I can't explain. But that making and unmaking does not occur in a vacuum; it is part of the making and unmaking of communities, and livelihoods.
Divorced from that context, it is apt to call images of Detroit's burned out houses or Gary's empty church 'ruin porn.' It's an empty aesthetic that provides a thrill disconnected from the reality of the subject's life. "I love Brutalist architecture!" I excitedly commented in an online discussion. "You don't have to live and work in it," one person responded. In Detroit, a woman approached me to ask why I was photographing a crumbling stone house with a sagging roof. "It has a kind of beauty," I said, somewhat self-consciously. "Ain't nothin' beautiful here," was her sharp response.
The more I've thought about those exchanges, the more photography of ruins feels like a kind of exploitation; converting someone else's miserable day-to-day existence into some pretty pictures to show to other people to evoke some sense of authenticity and wonder. "I was there! I saw this myself and I am sharing it with you!" What does my brief passage through the place really teach me about its nature and its place in the lives of people for whom is is part of their everyday world? How much less does my self-conscious abstraction of that experience into a few photos show someone who looks at my photos? It's hard to think of a more inauthentic way to experience a place.
It's not documentary work with some redeeming intent to communicate what these places are like. That's been done, and claiming that's my intent without doing the very real and extensive work necessary to contextualize what I'm producing is a poor excuse. If anything, it has the opposite effect, abstracting real, living places into mysterious empty landscapes of decay and ruin that contribute to unfounded apprehension of cities, the very places I feel are the best way for vast numbers of people to live on Earth.
I...think I've lost my thread. I was writing about geography and ineffectiveness.
The study of urban geography makes clear that, just as these ruined landscapes are a result of the destruction part of the engine of creative destruction that powers the economic redistribution system of post-Fordist capitalism, their reconstruction is a result of the creative part of that same engine. When buildings are created or revitalized, when infrastructure like highways and rail transit are constructed, it doesn't matter who the metaphorical architects of such plans claim will benefit from them; the real winners are those who have the means to invest in their creation and the real losers are those who do not have the means to avoid the consequences of significant and irreversible change to their landscape. Everything I read in my urban social justice class (with the possible exception of that damned inscrutable book by Henri LeFebvre that I wanted to pitch into Onondaga Lake) pointed to that conclusion. Some of the best minds in geography and progressive academia can't figure this shit out; what can I do?
I don't want to feel so ineffective and helpless. But I do.
I also don't want to see random pictures of dying places anymore. I don't want to produce more of them myself. If I produce more urban photography, I want to make images of living systems. Working infrastructure that shows how deeply interconnected we all are. How many ways we all work with and for each other. How we all cooperate, consciously or unconsciously to create these beautiful, ridiculously complex, heart-achingly imperfect yet deeply optimistic engines of assault against entropy called cities. (Is that even what cities are anymore, or is it just a side-effect?)
But I don't know how to do that either.
In the meantime, right now, I'm conducting my own tiny fight against entropy as I work to repair my VTVM. For now, as I slowly work out where to go from here, that will do.