image by Forsaken Fotos
image by Forsaken Fotos

Although it was about two years ago that I wrote the post that sparked my own interest in ruined and abandoned spaces, it’s something to which, you might have noticed, I periodically return.

Back in April I wrote a couple of posts that followed up and expanded on some of the ideas I had been toying with since then. Among other things, which interests me most these days about abandoned and ruined spaces is how we can understand these processes affecting the digital as well as the physical. In the latter linked post I posed some questions that I thought provided some useful goals for future thinking and writing; I still haven’t answered those questions to my satisfaction, but I do have one more than I want to add, and it’s a big one. It’s big enough that I’m a little embarrassed that it took this long to occur to me.

So let’s step back for a sec.

One of the major criticisms of ruin photography – especially photography that focuses on the ruin of urban areas – is that it captures and decontextualizes visual fragments of complex social history and presents them as an aesthetic for the privileged to enjoy: the “porn” in “ruin porn”. This social history is a tangle of race and class – among many other things – and when we look at the ruins of inner city Detroit, we’re looking at the results of viciously racist development and real estate practices, and the utter breakdown (or the natural result) of contemporary capitalism.

But many of the people looking at these things don’t have to see that. We’re visual tourists. We – people like me – don’t live there. We have our pictures and then we go back to our lives.

Aside from making a note of this problem toward the end of my original piece, I mostly left it alone. I recognized it as important, but it didn’t capture my interest so much as the questions of representation and temporality/atemporality that I was tackling, and since then I haven’t gone back to it at all, in part because it struck me as a conversation to which I didn’t have much to add.

But a few days ago, thanks to a link from my husband, I ended up at a page featuring a horrifying – and, yes, eerily beautiful – series of photographs of Forest Haven, a now-ruined “training school” in Laurel, Maryland (quite close to where I live) that was built to house people with various physical and cognitive disabilities. What happened there is what happened almost everywhere – and what still happens all the time – to institutions like it: it became a dumping ground for people no one cared about, who often had no advocates and frequently no way to protect themselves against abuse. Literally hundreds of people died there, of neglect and worse, before it was finally closed in 1991.

I should say that one of the things I appreciated about the photos was that the person who compiled them accompanied them with tremendous amounts of context. Rather than looking at them as mere aesthetic, I was able to view them as a historical record. These were people’s lives, and the loss of them. They were real.

Forest Haven is abandoned, though it was in ruin long before the last patient was removed. But that site led me to another, also local in focus, a short photo essay on New York Avenue Northeast in DC. What it recognized – and again, I appreciate it endlessly – is that these ruined spaces are not necessarily abandoned. And the reasons for that are intensely political.

When we look at ruined places, abandoned places, we’re always looking at politics, and the kinds of politics depend on a number of different variables. A place that is ruined but not abandoned implies some very disturbing things. A place that is completely abandoned but somehow not ruined suggests the unexpected. Time isn’t the only thing that twists back on itself.

In my last post on abandonment and ruin, I was dealing with digital ruin rather than physical. Among other things, I noted:

We need clear differentiations between abandonment and ruin. Abandonment – given how certain kinds of abandoned digital space can work – does not necessarily imply ruin but simply that no one is doing anything to it anymore. Abandoned digital space can be in a state of ruin but is not always. Whereas abandoned physical spaces are pretty much in a state of ruin by definition, unless they are extremely recently abandoned. However, physical spaces in a state of ruin are not always abandoned…Physical spaces are also ruined via a process that can take years, whereas the ruin of digital space can be nearly instantaneous. So we’re dealing with much greater complexity – and therefore much greater diversity of experience of a space-time – than simple ruin and abandonment.

So here’s my question: If the ruin and/or abandonment of physical space has inherent political significance, how can we use politics to approach abandoned and/or ruined digital space? Can we learn anything about the political processes at work in the construction of communal digital space, of individual sites, of fan sites, corporate sites, MMORPGS, social media, and their corresponding destruction and disuse? If we can assume that politics plays a role here in some respect, what can politics – and in particular social power – tell us?

And yes, I think we can assume that. If our lives are augmented by digital technology, if our selves – as many of the authors here have argued repeatedly – are the result of complex interactions between all these different digital parts of us, then politics must be at work here. Digital spaces are sites for resistance, for collective action, for identity play, for creation; often, for marginalized people, they represent a kind of freedom and community that was previously unattainable. And the code – as many of us have also noted – is never neutral.

If we need to understand the processes by these spaces come into being through a political lens, it stands to reason that we would need to understand their destruction – functionally or structurally – in the same way.

I should be clear: I’m not arguing that these processes are the same in digital space as in physical space. As usual, I also want to be clear about the fact that I’m very uncomfortable with sharp distinctions being drawn between these kinds of “space” at all. I’m simply arguing that they’re worth paying attention to.

How to make conceptual use of this, I don’t yet know. Sorry. In the meantime – as before – I think there’s a tremendous amount of work still to be done.


Sarah occupies political space on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry