In recent years, there has been a rather curious phenomenon on the internet of self-professed urban explorers sinking into the very large (or very small) depths of the decaying and forgotten urban wastelands of the Western World. With camera or go-pro in hand, they cover a wide variety of areas, often risking personal health and legal consequences to capture more material, go further into long-abandoned or seemingly untouched areas, and fuel the obsession of gazing into diverse sites from the past. The “Urbex” movement as it is known, can take on a variety of forms; by simply going on YouTube or google and finding a few of these explorers, it becomes apparent that there is something more that is going on here. This genre of internet content is not simply an evanescent fad or a phenomenon easily exposed to the machinations of cynical meme culture. Therefore, I will venture to give a few thoughts on this growing trend, and its possible connections to the various issues surrounding modernity itself.
What is apparent from the onset is the uncanny novelty of urban exploration. Some choose to traverse the largest of abandoned facilities and leave viewers awestruck at the scale of vast waste and ill-repair these places represent. The massive resources and infrastructure left out in the world to rot and wither away. Then there is the unique brand of explorers who take you on a more intimate journey, often focusing on smaller locations and abandoned residences, zooming in and highlighting smaller objects, personal items, and giving a voyeuristic description of the possible role these trinkets have played in the lives of the long-forgotten owners; The fascination with Urbex on the surface is the mysterious nature of these hidden spaces, trying to piece together an experience of the past that is present in a state of decay.
Through the decay, we come to realize our connection to the micro-processes of the globalized economy and uniquely late-capitalist monoculture that (as Georges Bataille notes in his magnum opus The Accursed Share) relies on the outpouring of waste and excess, the losing of commodities, the massive orgies of consumption and production that liquidates the very principles of free-market classical liberalism. A large portion of the more industrial side of Urbex explores the very parts of the economy that expels resources at a devastating pace, reeking havoc on the structure of a civilization that was once only reserved for the scales and integers of war.2 the urban industrial parks once produced waste, but now in the global “information economy” those factories and industrial parks themselves are laid to waste, ripe for the sense of adventure and trepidation these sojourners of the cities and suburbs seek on every crawl. However, we must look to culture, to our perceptions of things in our modern age to find the reason why Urbex is such an addictive and intriguing genre of online content.
One of the most stunning examples of Urbex crossing over into the realm of our cultural perceptions is the video by the top Urbex YouTuber Dan Bell, specifically his portrait of the Owings mills mall in Maryland.2 Dan Bell is well known for what he calls “the dead mall series” where he travels across middle America and profiles abandoned malls. Bell in this video edits footage He took from when Owings mills was still open in its “dead” state, and splices it with oddly silent black and white footage of the building in the process of demolition. It is a way of juxtaposing images in a somber manner, exposing the result of 20th and earth 21st-century cultural decadence: erosion and wasted potentiality. There is a haunting beauty in urban decay, as these urban explorers document. They are the bearers of social, political and industrial epitaphs, haunting reminders of the distant as well as the not so distant past. Places once teeming with activity now rendered useless and abandoned.
The mall culture of the 70s, 80s, and 90s symbolized youth in placidity and apathy, aimlessly wandering, searching for things to do, creating social cliques and trends to ward off the boredom. In fact, the mall was explicitly created to serve the needs of a new consumer based society, as the architect Victor Gruen envisioned for the Hudson company. The mall is a completely controlled space, perfectly planned and aligned to attract maximum amounts of customers with maximum convenience. The founding fathers of the mall model also envisioned that it would serve as the capstone of post-war liberal cosmopolitanism, everyone would bask in the glory of the mall, with its near-soviet bloc efficiency.
The first mall tycoons wanted their monstrous creations to be the center of whole communities, creating suburbia and its cosmopolitan ideology.3 Gruen was forced to scrap his original ostentatious design for the mall with one that had efficiency and utilitarian service as its primary goal due to the limited amount of buildings being constructed during the Korean war. It made sense for diverse shops and services to be centralized in one location (or as a lot of 20th century Marxist writers proposed, hyper-capitalism achieved the same centralizing goals as communism, but with greater efficiency due to things like competition). The mall was what Foucault called a “Heterotopia”: not a dystopia or a utopia, but a present situation, a space with multiple channels and openings where all members of various social classes and positions congregate or meet up at random. They are often on the outskirts of towns or cities, graveyards are the other primary example of this phenomenon.4
The mall could not solve one persistent problem, however, that being other people, a problem the internet quickly solved. Our society encourages social isolation at every turn, so it is only natural we migrate to depersonalized and faceless methods of buying and selling. With malls there was always the risk we might run into someone, the everyday horror of a hyper-decadent and detached existence, where meaningful interaction is filtered through a vast layer of digital simulacra.
These malls and decaying urban industrial palaces, in their death, serve as another kind of heterotopic ground for the growing underclasses of the west. Whole cities like Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago, Baltimore, etc. have become bifurcated between the struggling and barely functioning parts in the center, and the increasingly lawless, drug-addled and crumbling outskirts. Of course, the economist may go on about the post-labour economy, off-shoring, de-industrialization, etc. While Leftist academics and sociologists may wax poetic on the tragedy of “white flight" and the oppressive hegemony of "institutional racism."
One may be more inclined to agree with the economic argument, but what both the number-crunching economists and the Leftist academics seem to miss is the deeper cultural significance of having a society in which entire sections of a given cityscape have become architectural black holes. The reason why these sites exist are complex, from bad economic management, corporate greed, shameless rent-seeking, and yes, the marginalization and purposeful forgetting of huge segments of the population.
But regardless of the causes, the fact remains that aesthetic of urban decay is more and more making up the geographic and human landscape of Weimerica. We are alienated from our past, so we lock these places away and try to forget them. Thus, we are left with these monuments to broken suburban dreams.
I like many, grew up in an industrial town in the Niagara region, which survived only long enough to be turned into Ontario’s retirement home after the last smoke stacks and paper mill machines went silent. I know plenty of former factory workers, often middle to lower class men, stripped of their pensions, divorced, waiting for nothing while their kids get college degrees that will only add to the collective nothingness of 21st-century Western Civilization. No amount of government legislation or make-work can cure a globalized world that has largely forgotten about the people who slogged through to make things work in the first place. These are the working and underclass Morlocks Mark Steyn pictures in his book “After America” who toil away, while the urbanite Eloi they work to prop up economically are relatively sheltered from the machinations of 90s-style globalization. The fate of the underclass is to shoot up heroin in the dilapidated refuse of their former factory spaces whilst the multi-cultural “educated” urbanite Eloi are largely in hipster-yuppie lines of work (service industries, advertising, PR, media you name it). They have all the government art grants and trust funds to temporarily shelter themselves from the adverse effects of the very “we are world citizens” ideology they thought would “unite everyone” under the same banner of cosmopolitan utopianism.
So why is it a phenomenology of Urbex? Simply because Urbex is an aesthetic that brings us closer to not just our perceptions of the past, but also of our cultural understanding in the face of an epoch marked by acceleration and at the same time, decay. Most Urban explorers simply do it for the fun of it, while the minority of the more artistically inclined do it for the pleasure of obtaining pictures of juxtaposed elements in a state of disarray. All of them, however, are engaged in an artistic phenomenological project of sorts, documenting and giving an eye to the forgotten spaces of society. Sometimes this comes with a social message as well. Take for instance the hotspots of Urbex being centered around institutions, namely mental institutions closed during or after the Reagan years. Explorers such as “The Proper People” and “Exploring with Josh” visit abandoned hospitals, mental asylums and children’s institutions, places with legacies of government waste, horrific abuse and neglect, and countless stories of humanity on the edge. Such places as Willow Brook State School in New York, and Forest Haven in DC to name a few. Institutions that are just outside of public view that served as literal dumping grounds for the degenerated and superfluous, where the sentiment of “out of sight, out of mind” contributed to the social climate of these cities.
The economy is predicated on waste and the expulsion of said waste, so when it comes to the human waste, why not cart them off into hidden spaces for convenience sake? This, was unfortunately, the thinking of many city planners and technocrats.5 Our intrepid urban explorers take up the task of plunging into places we have left behind, creating a new aesthetic cinematic relationship with the past, with the former urbanization and current de-urbanization. Pushing further and further into closed off areas, they unleash the power of art to narrate a time-period, a zeitgeist. In a way, Urbex is the perfect art medium of our time, for we cling on to a long forgotten past and lament our previous feeling of Amor-fati. Urbex is visual found-art, creating cinematic and pictorial assemblages of decay, and thus speaking to our need of recapturing what we have lost, even if it is only in a deflated and defeatist form. The hum of the factories and the churn of industry may never come back, we may never see another mall filled to the brim with social interaction, all these things may be motifs frozen in time. That is why we need Urbex, to shine a light upon a part of our society we may otherwise wish not to see.
Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share, Volume 1: Consumption. (New York: Zone books, 1991): 25-26. ↩
Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. “Who Invented The Shopping Mall?”. Today I Found Out. Com. Nov 9, 2015. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/11/who-invented-the-shopping-mall/ ↩
See Foucault, Michel. The Order Of Things. (New York, London, Paris: Vintage Books, 1994). ↩
A good explanation of what happened in Forest Haven with Urbex pictures can be found here: http://www.lovethesepics.com/2014/05/abandoned-asylum-horrors-of-forest-haven-44-pics/ ↩