Dear Beautiful B.B. Club Members,
I am a geographer (human geographer that is), and I am concerned about a particular non-beautiful development in my field. For the last decades, my beautiful colleagues have spent debunking and critically engaging with narratives of exploration. You know, the kind of ‘man penetrating the virgin wilderness’ kind of stuff or the hair-raising meta-narratives that are going on when particular landscapes are vocally over-aestheticised. Recently, there has been an influx of work that strikes me as uncomfortably celebratory of such naive and self-indulgent engagements with natural, but especially urban environments. I first thought that this approach could be interesting in the sense that it could alert to the human desire for this kind of aestheticisation and indulgence. Instead, however, it seems to revert to a rather infantile emulating of iconic narratives of exploration. The most disconcerting is that such ‘research’ is being more and more supported – both intellectually and through funding. As an anonymous beautiful colleague phrased it, these people are getting funding to ‘play hide and seek on an arts council grant’.
I am turning to you as beautiful architects, because I am aware that you have been suffering from this kind of non-beautiful ‘discourse’ with a comparable intensity. Especially having to deal with the overkill of fascination with what has been termed ‘ruin porn’, I imagine, must have caused considerable nausea to your Detroit-based selves. I am aware that there have been arguments that this kind of ‘urban exploration’ may be an expression of higher appreciation and care, which will eventually attract beautiful people who will truly love a decaying city and affect its regeneration. In this case, I have no objection to such practices. However, I often feel that much of this hyping of sensory experience is more about the self (or about preserving a particular aesthetic of decay?) than the beautiful city/environment/community, and I am concerned that these ‘explorers’ are lacking an awareness of this aspect and what effects it could have.
My first question to you is how to deal with this development.
Would it be helpful to stage alternative forms of urban exploration? Or disrupt particular urban exploration events with critical interventions? Or would such beautiful interventions enforce insensitive practices of urban exploration by creating an ‘enemy’ that drives the ‘urban explorers’ further underground, adding an extra-level of thrill from the ‘forbidden’?
My second question to you is: is there a potential to tap into the narratives of care and sensation that a lot of ‘urban explorers’ rehearse and create something beautiful from it?
I am looking forward to your beautiful thoughts…
Urban Exploration Party Pooper
Dear Beautiful Party Pooper,
Let me start off by stating that I empathize with your frustration. It is always disappointing to realize that those we trust to hold a critical perspective and superior common sense (for example those in charge of distributing funds that would, through specific research, benefit the greater good) are as subject to the lure of vapid trends as the average sinner. The critical question however isn’t “why are trendy proposals funded?” but rather “what are the forces that make a specific proposal trendy?” [And grant donors, it must be noted, are rarely guilty of rewarding projects that challenge dominant ideologies at their core.]
But that’s not a very beautiful topic to engage, and there is too much beauty in the world to focus on institutional shortcomings. Let me answer your questions.
The narratives of ‘care and sensation’ upheld by the ‘urban explorers’ you’re describing are intriguing: is there anything emotionally at stake when caring for material artifacts that are not currently being cared for by anyone else? Not really, and one can all too easily claim the undisputed role of carer, caring about inert matter—but not just any inert matter: highly symbolic inert matter, one that provides a high return on care investment. Only through the stories we tell ourselves are the spaces that this matter makes up associated with the semblance of human occupation, populations made generic through familiar accounts of economic crises, social or natural seisms, the vagaries of history. The way to both tap into these narratives of care and sensation AND to stage alternative forms of urban exploration, to answer both of your questions at once, is to play them out not towards unclaimed spaces, but towards spaces already claimed with love, albeit insufficient love, and more specifically towards the beautiful users of such spaces… For example in the case of Detroit, rather than showing interest in the urban ruins that are popping up on a daily basis, can we demonstrate care not only for the buildings destined to become the next frontline of fresh ruins, but also for those individuals who, through a scarcity of means, are still trying to resist capitulation to abandonment? Can we, as consumers of images, resist the perverse fascination with the spectacular sights of ruins, and yet, as urban explorers, invest energy in the less photogenic and thrill producing exploration of “ruins-to-be”, houses about to be foreclosed, schools struggling to stay open, theaters creatively battling lack of subsidies? In short, can we find interest in buildings that are still being cared for, and by extension in the non-fictionalized individuals most affected by the imminence of more ruins?
The suggestion here is that urban exploration might be reserved to human geographers. An ethical exploration should be measured by the end-sum of its effects: the gains should be on the side of the explored, rather than on that of the explorer. Ignoring the myth of a win-win scenario, an observer should at best contribute to the place observed, rather than benefit from it. This might necessitates abstaining from certain irresistible impulses, such as disseminating the recordings and representations of observed impressions through a certain constructed aesthetics proven popular. Be it through film, photographs, or any form of so-called ‘immersive visualizations’, the experience of such immediacy is often highly constructed to meet a well-known and existing demand. One can only hope that the temptation to meet such demand can be resisted, before the soul of the city is entirely stolen and sold.
But urban exploration hasn’t always been equated with the exploration of urban territories that are entirely devoid of human occupation. I’ll leave to Detroit’s own self-proclaimed ‘urban explorer’ William Bunge the last words on this question, directly transcribed from his report on the first years of the Detroit Geographical Expedition (The Society for Human Exploration, July 1969):
“The first prerequisite of any expedition is the high degree of group dedication to the cause, the purpose of the expedition. An expedition is no place for the career oriented. Those expeditions that have been motivated by glory seekers or national chauvinism, or any of the less noble aspects of the human nervous system have produced comparable results, such as “Which nation planted the flag first at the South Pole?” Who Cares? The expeditions with the broadest human commitment have been the most productive, or in cost accounting terms, have given back to the species the most return on the effort. […]
The purpose of the Expedition is to help the human species most directly. It is not a “nice” geography, or a status quo geography. It is a geography that tends to shock because it includes the full range of human experience on the earth’s surface; not just the recreation land, but the blighted land; not just the affluent, but the poor; not just the beautiful, but the ugly. In America, since most of the humans live in cities, it implies the exploration of these cities […].
Granted that unlike earlier expeditions, so many of which were exploitative, (indeed the word root of “expedition” is the same as that of “exploitation,”) human explorations are “contributive,” (resource contributing instead of resource taking) how does this affect the character of the exploration? Totally. Priorities are totally reversed. The world of geography is stood on its head. […] “What can I do to help?” This is a rough question. In a society where everyone, including geographers, has been conditioned to look out or they will be used, most people have succeeded in becoming quite useless in campus life. […]
The career route in geography has nothing whatsoever to do with being oriented toward productive geography and everything toward “playing the game” of personal career. […] Having conditioned himself into seeing his research as the symbol of his lack of integrity, to say nothing of his manhood, that is, having sold his thesis for his degree, [the geographer] simply continues this pattern the rest of his life. He publishes to keep from perishing. He sees tenure as the next “union card.” And eventually he sees retirement as the goal of his existence. Along the way, he seeks out and finds a society of similar time servers, who rather than discussing what is wrong with themselves, the nature of geographers, they lash out endlessly, during marathon coffee hours, about the dismal nature of geography. Every academic geographer reading this feels the sting of the truth of these words. Armchair geographers of the world arise, you have nothing to lose but your middle-aged flab. It is not too late.”