Ruins, Industry, and the City

I have two chapters left to write in my book project (and a conclusion or epilogue or some such thing). One of the chapters will be a case study on my work in the Bakken oil patch that will be a pendant to the chapter on the Atari excavations which appears as chapter 1. This should be a relatively easy chapter to write and will start with a section on the archaeology of extractive industries.

The other chapter will be a bit more ambitious. It will survey recent work on the archaeology of contemporary ruins, industry, and the city and ideally – if I can pull this off – bring together some of the threads begun in the first part of the book. For example, the chapter will invariably consider how attitudes toward modern ruins have come to interrogate their relationship to waste, to capitalism and consumer culture, and between the natural and man-made world. With any luck, this chapter will dovetail with the last chapter on the Bakken and extractive industries. I’m still a little nervous because this reorganization makes a departure from my proposal which I have otherwise followed slavishly. My hope is that I can give myself more space to deal with the archaeology of cities and industrial ruins which are a far richer field than I may have initially anticipated.

This chapter will also allow me to indulge my penchant for cultural history when I parallel our growing fascination with industrial and urban ruins (perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the emergence of so-called “ruin porn” and the urban exploration movement) and archaeological of the contemporary industrial and urban world. 

The following is a very, very rough draft that presents some of my current ideas.

Since the 1980s, if not before, industrial ruins have fueled the popular imagination. The dystopian backdrop of Blade Runner (1982), RobCop (1987), and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), as just a few examples, were set against the post-industrial ruins of Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Philadelphia. The use of power stations, abandoned factories, and urban decay as the setting for the future leveraged obsolete industrial spaces in the contemporary world as the backdrop for gritty critiques of technology’s anticipated failures. The popularity of these settings echoed the rise in “industrial” rock music that literally drew inspiration the sounds of late-20th century machines and the acoustics of empty and abandoned industrial spaces. Bands like Joy Division, Chrome, and, perhaps most famously, Nine Inch Nails connected punk rock’s urban despair to the grinding sonics of increasingly abandoned factories in cities such as Manchester and Cleveland.       In this way, films and music have popularized an aesthetic cultivated in the science fiction of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick in the 1960s and 1970s which looked toward the future with skepticism. 

In the early 21st century, decaying industrial landscapes continued to attract sustained attention. The emergence of “ruin porn” style photography to emphasize the failure of modernity by featuring the ruined hulks of modern structures ranging from factories to schools, translations, and neighborhoods. The interplay between the abundant light, shadow, sharp edges, and angular features and the presence of trash, discarded objects, rust, decay, and seemingly disorderly nature embodies many of the tensions that exist between our persistent optimism in science, economic growth, and modern ideologies of progress and our growing awareness of the failures of capitalism, the uneven price of progress, and ecological and environmental disaster. These associations likewise made abandoned buildings appealing backdrops for artists exhibitions, theater, and music performances that sought to complicate arguments for rigid boundaries between work and play, science and art, capitalism and gifts, and the past and the future. The transgressive character of these industrial ruins proved irresistible to urban explorers who found ways to infiltrate abandoned buildings who transferred the longstanding temptation for places of unstructured play from natural environments of woods, fields, and streams to the industrial ruins. As Tim Edensor (2005) brought to the fore in his book on Industrial Ruins, modern industrial ruins fueled the imagination by stripping away the structures designed to channel human behavior into predictable, formal, and productive outcomes. Of course, they have also been commodified again as ruin porn attracted well-heeled voyeurs in the practice of “toxic tourism” (Pezzullo 2007).         

The potential of industrial ruins as unstructured places for imagination, play, and transgression, found formal expression in projects like Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park in Seattle (1972; Whitehouse 2018) or, more recently, Latz + Partern’s Landschaftspark is in Duisburg-Meiderich in the industrialized Ruhr Valley of Germany (1991; Edensor 2005; DeSilvey 2017) established municipal parks in and around abandoned industrial ruins. These parks used industrial ruins as historical monuments, aesthetically interesting structures, and opportunities to emphasize the re-naturing of industrial landscapes. Caitlyn DeSilvey’s attention to the Landschaftspark emphasized that the industrial ruins were not static, but always undergoing change and paralleled the ongoing decay of the park with the similar processes at play at the Orford Ness military installation. Over time, the decay of these former industrial and military structures made a convivial home to significant plant and wildlife species. The blurring the line between the human and the natural environment finds echoes in Jeff VanderMeer’s fictional Southern Reach trilogy (2014) which combines an abandoned coastal town and light house with run away nature in an apocalyptic landscape. Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the end of the World (2015) found in the matsutake mushroom evidence for life in the ruins of industrial forestlands. 

The prominence of ruins at the center of contemporary critique should not imply industrial landscapes are always welcome by their communities. The city of Detroit, for example, has increasingly challenged views of its urban landscape as decaying, abandoned, and forlorn. The desire to rehabilitate, demolish, and rehabilitate the sites of urban ruins continue longstanding efforts to make urban spaces economically and social productive by defining them in readily understandable ways. Archaeologists of the contemporary world have often found themselves in the vanguard of those interested in documenting abandoned and decaying places before they are destroyed. For example Krysta Ryzewski has worked with a diverse contingent of scholars and community members to document and save buildings associated with Motown in downtown Detroit. Larry Zimmerman unsuccessfully encouraged the Minnesota State Historical Society to preserve and display graffiti found in the Washburn flour mill prior to its reconstruction as the Mill City
Museum in Minneapolis (Zimmerman 2014).


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