Ever want to know why urban exploration, or urban archaeology, is such an intriguing, almost addicting activity for me and my friends? What compels us to enter vacant, forgotten, and possibly dangerous structures with a camera in hand? It’s not just to take a bunch of photos and brag about your badassness all day, even though that can be fun. Alan Rapp, a former senior editor at Chronicle Books, asked me and several other photographers that same question a while back. He was writing a thesis on urban archaeology photography in pursuit of an MFA at the School of Visual Arts. And just last week his final presentation, titled “The Shadow City: Urban Exploration and the Reclamation of Architectural Space” was posted online, and can be watched on Vimeo in its entirety.
I really thought Alan got to the bottom of why urban archaeology is such a compelling subject for both the viewer and the explorer. For starters, he quotes my good friend Jeremy Blakeslee, maybe the best industrial archaeology photographer around today. Jeremy says, “These places become like a drug for some reason. Places of this magnitude get you high. A combination of the history, the architecture, the light moving through, the smell of 100 years of motor oil from internal combustion engines flowing all over the floor like blood. And you’re just another layer in the history of this place.”
Wow. I knew Jeremy was pretty good at photography & design, but I never took him for a writer. Jeremy’s imagery may be beautiful, and it gives us a good idea of the feel of urban archaeology. But Alan looks further still. He remarks that because all architecture decays over time, ruined spaces hold more emotional weight than new buildings. For centuries, artists have found inspiration from ruined architecture, where every crack & layer of dust speaks about an environment’s history. This fascination of the decayed can be seen in countless 18th and 19th century paintings, some of which depicted fantasy visions of ruined modern cities.
He also hits upon something really key, at least for me. Alan says that urban explorers find a thrill in ruined or massive infrastructural spaces because the spaces “feel out of joint, not just due to their weird physical condition, but their position in time is uncertain. This seeming dislocation can alter the perception that time is not, as we would suppose, a one-way-road.” So urban archaeology can displace the explorer from time. It can give the impression that time is standing still, or that time has run wildly backward or forward. So urban archaeology is like time travel, in a way.
But there’s more. Alan asserts that, “[urban archaeology] serves a critical function as well: that people who do this express a dissatisfaction with the status quo… Whether the motivations are unconsciously romantic or consciously political, they express the same thing: that the regulations of property and social manners enforce a kind of spacial normalcy.” Breaking this normalcy, really, is a form of protest. Exploration protest. I have always kind of felt this protest bubbling under the surface of urban archaeology. For me, it is protesting the way history is so easily forgotten. It protests new sprawling developments, farther from the city, farther from our collective cultural heart. It protests the suburban trend of isolation versus community. It protests a lot of things, really.
Alan also wrote about the subject on his blog, CriticalTerrain… Alan’s blog is also worth browsing for those interested in art, architecture, space, photography… Great stuff.
Thanks Alan for a really intelligent and comprehensive analysis of urban archaeology. Your efforts are helping introduce urban archaeology as the legitimate and original practice it is, not the bold and reckless game some make it out to be.