"What Branches Grow out of this Stony Rubbish": Urban Exploration from Antiquity to the Present

by lana lynne on February 22, 2012
Last night, I attended a lecture by Thaddeus Squire, one of the founders of the non-profit arts organization Hidden City Philadelphia, at the University of the Arts Design Lecture Series, "Visibly Invisible." Squire gave a brief overview of the romantic explorer with an eye toward modern-day urban exploration, and showed how that trajectory has informed the mission of Hidden City, which is, in its condensed form, to "(re)connect people to place, and place to city" by marrying 19th century Philly "ruins" with art installations.

From the Hidden City website, a photograph of the artist
installation at Founders Hall at Girard College

One of the overall themes of the lecture was the idea of exploring the past for the possibilities of the future, and Squire took us on a tour through history to trace this idea, starting in antiquity with Plato's Atlantis as a place where knowledge resided, up through the centuries to 18th century Italian artist Piranesi and his "prison fantasies," to the more well-known 19th and 20th century romantic explorers like Lewis and Clark, Joseph Rock, and Hiram Bingham. Today, Squire pointed out, we see the contemporary expressions of this long line of exploration in such pop culture icons as Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, and in the fine arts with "ruin porn" photography.

From my own suburban exploration of the abandoned
Pennhurst State School & Hospital (photo by K. Margitich)

Squire's discussion about ruin porn vis-a-vis Hidden City's mission felt a little like I was stepping into the story in medias res, but a few quick searches post-lecture gave me a clearer picture of how the two fit together. From a recent article in The Guardian, we can see how the attraction to abandoned and decaying buildings has a long artistic and literary tradition (take The Waste Land for example), but the appeal always seems to have a fatalistic aspect to it -- that no matter how grand the promises of the future, the present past reminds us of their inevitable failure. In contrast, Squire insisted on casting ruin porn in a more positive light to fertilize the future: "Not loss, not nostalgia, not past, but the possible future."

Although the past is not their primary focus, I can't help feeling that history has a place at the table of present and future. These ruins of modernity are themselves forcing a conversation about what events transpired there, whose lives crossed paths there, and how these stories are connected to the present.

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  1. Anonymous11:42 PM

    There is this question of what makes ruins so appealing. They beg us to consider what once was, something that we don't know of, and ponder if our lives can end up the same - in ruins.

    1. wow. This sounds a bit depressing. Isn't there something involved that also arouses the wonder in us? Something a bit more positive?

  2. This is awesome!


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