This week (July 10 – 16, 2016) I’m joining a panel discussion with friends Phreddy Wischusen and Heidi Jugenitz on a panel Disuccion about Detroit’s Ruin Porn. Heidi and myself decided to share our takes on the concept for you all, as read below.
MOCAD EVENT: CONVERSATION
Ruin Porn Chinwag (noun\chin-wag\: a friendly conversation)
Thursday, July 14, 2016, 8pm
Admission: Free ($5 suggested donation)
Love it or hate it photography of Detroit’s modern ruins has shaped the public’s perception of the city. Is ruin porn a guilty pleasure, a form of exploitation, important historical documentation, clever marketing ploy, or sincere tribute to the ephemeral beauty of decay?
Join us for an evening of polite debate, drinks, snacks and chitchat inside Cafe 78 at MOCAD. Host Phreddy Wischusen, a comedian, musician and multi-time winner of Detroit’s Moth StorySLAM, and his gang of wits and scholars will help us exorcise our feelings about ruin porn during this fun, informative, and participatory conversation.
Ruin Porn maybe in Europe but not in the 313
By Khary Frazier
As a Black person, and life-long Detroit resident my understanding of the world is heavily influenced by race and process. This relates to the concept, term, and idea of ‘Ruin Porn.’
I first heard the term used in a discussion 4 years ago. I was sharing ideas about my soon to be released album ‘If Detroit were Heaven,’ and conceptually how I saw photography being coupled with the music to provide a better understanding of the album’s premise. As the art student from Center for Creative Studies I was talking with used the term he prefaced it with a negative connotation about Detroit. I listened. His opinion at the time, was that Detroit is becoming a trendy marketing vehicle because of it’s perceived abandonment. His argument was that a contingency of people use the barren image of Detroit as a way to market the city as an empty canvas to do, try, or build anything. The argument he provided was correct in presentation, but missed the context for understanding.
I think through conversation. Everyone who’s met me knows I can easily talk for hours (to gather a better understanding). The understanding I generally seek is context. As a child I gravitated to Hip-hop because it provided many young Black men (I identified with) a platform to offer insight and perspective. My interest and appreciation has led me to develop the skill and talent to create/ perform Hip-hop music too.
As Tupac Shakur stated in ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby’ … in reference to RUIN PORN, “let me tell you how is affects the whole community.”
I live and own the home I was raised in as a child. My neighborhood doesn’t have a name. The nameless neighborhoods throughout the 140 plus square miles of Detroit are full of transient renters, abandoned unkempt dilapidated properties, and low income families. This generalization is used often from people who live outside these neighborhoods to describe who lives inside these neighborhoods. Inside these neighborhoods are people. People who start, carry, or carry on the legacies of their families.
Across the street from my home are two houses that have not been occupied in over a decade. The structure of both homes remain intact as exterior components have been stripped or weathered away. Guests to my home see these houses, and often shake their head in disgust with comments like ‘this is what makes Detroit so sad,’ or ‘the city not developing these neighborhoods cause Black people live here.’ I look at the houses every day I collect mail, and think, that’s Ms. Teresa & Ms. McCaughey’s house.
Ms. Teresa and Ms. McCaughey were like many of the first non-Jewish families to move into my neighborhood shortly after the 1967 Rebellion (Uprising or Riot if you prefer). My neighborhood was anchored by elders like Ms. Brown (my maternal Grandmother Motherdear), Ms. Deemer, Grandma Cook, Mr. Male, Mrs. Craft and many others. Ms. Deemer was a retired plant worker and numbers lady. She provided loans to many of the families on my block as a child. She lived to be well into her 100’s. Williard Scott missed her dedication, but our block never did. At the height of community unrest in the early 90’s as gangs, drugs, drive-bys, and the prevalence of drug addiction rose. These elders were unthreatened, protected, honored, and respected. Courtesy newspapers, lawn service, snow removal, and meals were delivered home to home from one family to another. Christmas gifts between neighbors and neighboring families with children were often shared as well.
I apply my revisionist history, with what I see, to view standing structures in my neighborhood. It’s not only a space, it’s where people live/d.
I believe the value of Detroit is in it’s people. I grew up surrounded by families of people who came to Detroit seeking opportunity. Born in 1982 I had the privilege of living in a neighborhood full of elders who recently retired from decades of service. In retirement they finally were provided an opportunity to appreciate the homes they purchased in the 60’s. Lawns full of seasonal flowers, gardens filled with foods (before urban gardening was a trend), and porches modeled similar to the comforts they once attributed to their Southern homes.
As a child visiting the South with my elders was boring. These trips were cherished and dear for them. I now realize that’s because of their revisionist attachment to their childhood home/s. So with pride I understand that my home resides in a neighborhood that was filled with proud Black matriarchs and patriarchs. People who proudly completed mortgages and appreciated their community as a portion of their Southern roots. Also I understand that my home is ‘rustic,’ as my friend described to her Spellman sisters.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as value is found in the reverence for which one finds in a possession. I don’t see Detroit as a place for Ruin Porn because I understand the value of the spaces to the people who have lived here, do live here, and will live here.
Ruins Photography and the Diminution of Human Pain
By Heidi Jugenitz
“Ruin porn” – photography that takes the decline of the built environment as its subject – is booming in Detroit. Its representations of empty, windowless, decaying buildings juxtaposed with open fields are striking in their “otherness:” they show barrenness where we expect life, reversion to nature where we expect industry. I will focus my critique on the politicsof ruin porn: that is, what does ruin porn communicate about whose rights and interests matter – and to what extent – in today’s Detroit?
To explore this question, I will consider two essential preconditions for the existence of ruin porn. The first, an external condition, is the presence of a noticeable concentration of dilapidated physical structures, or ruins, within a defined space.Ruin porn mobilizes these structures as signifiers of decline – economic, social, political – that stand in stark contrast to the Euro-American ideal of human progress. But when we dig deeper into the history of Detroit and other American cities, it becomes clear that this form of progress – material wealth and mobility – has never been experienced in a monolithic way. The opportunity to “stake a claim” to land, to build or purchase a home in a neighborhood of one’s choosing, has always been mediated by race, whether overtly (as in the case of mortgage redlining, segregated public housing and white race riots) or covertly (through realtor “steering” of clients to like-race neighborhoods and predatory lending practices). These and other policies and practices, enacted over time and physical space, have created an indelible pattern of human pain (physical harm, eviction, displacement, marginalization) especially – though not exclusively – for people of color. Detroit ruin porn could not exist if not for this pattern of human pain.
A second condition for the existence of ruin porn is the diminution of human pain. A central feature of ruins photography, showcased in the coffee table book Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, is the omission of human bodies from the camera frame. By focusing on non-human signifiers (dilapidated structures) and relegating humans to a position outside of the frame, ruin porn invites the viewer to dwell on a representation of decline that is alienated from the human experience. While humanity is implied (who built the structures? who used to inhabit them? who is responsible for their demise?), it is not engaged directly. This omission allows for – even encourages – the minimization of human pain and the obfuscation of the historical causes of that pain, including deeply entrenched patterns of racism and discrimination. It also feeds into one of the most prevalent – and fraudulent – narratives about Detroit: that the city is the sum of its buildings, and by investing in blight removal and physical developments we can “re[blank]” Detroit.
If a city is the sum of its people, Detroit never died. But by silencing human life and fixating on decaying physical structures, ruins photography serves to reinforce – rather than interrupt – the stereotype of Detroit as a “dead” city. It diminishes both the fact of human pain and the significance of that pain as a testament to our failure (past and present) to create spaces where every person has the right and the opportunity to thrive.