Zeppelin Archaeology

December 3, 2012 by

A couple of years ago, we began the Punk Archaeology project which will culminate in a day-long conference, performance and all-around happening in Fargo this February (see here). The revival of this collaborative (it would be punk sacrilege to call it “community”) helps me return to one of the issues raised in the project, namely the relationship between punk and house form. I had pondered on this before, see The House of the Rising SunThe Clashsquatting, Iggy Pop’s trailer home in Ypsilanti,. As Barack Obama honors Led Zeppelin in the 2012 Kennedy Center awards today, I am thinking about the contrast between two domestic utopias, between punk’s post-industrial arcadia of urban ruins and rock’s pre-industrial utopia of the idyllic countryside. During the 1970s, two antithetical bands, The Clash and Led Zeppelin congregated in radically different dwellings. Both were extreme expressions of belonging and both were off the grid — neither had electricity nor water. Joe Strummer began his musical career in 1974 by forming The 101ers, who took their name from 101 Walterton Road, London, where the band squatted. The row house was part of a bombed out World War II neighborhood that the government eventually demolished in 1975. The band then squatted at 36 N Luke Rd in a West Indian neighborhood, which explains punk’s Skaconnections. Through The Clash and other bands like them, punk was conceived inside the domestic ruins of 19th-century cities.

At the same time, Led Zeppelin retreated to the British countryside, inhabiting an 18th-century cottage in Wales. Bron-Yr-Aur, made famous by an instrumental track by the same name, belonged to Robert Plant’s family, who took used it as a vacation house in the 1950s. Although rooted in the American blues, Led Zeppelin taps into a medieval sense of organicity that is deeply seated in the foundations of the British psyche. This is clearly evident in the band’s fin-de-sieclelogotype. While Plant and Jimmy Page were writing Zeppelin III at Bron-Yr-Aur, Raymond Williams was historicizing the British myth of the country in a landmark of Marxist historiography, The Country and The City (1973). Williams argued that the British began idealizing the countryside at the very moment that they were destroying it (the enclosure movement, aristocrats turning to capitalist landlords, etc.) Unbeknownst to Williams, Plant and Page were in the process of transforming the myth of rural England into a powerful acoustic aura to be replicated in ordinary homes through high-fidelity record players. The Bron-Yr-Aur house (photo below) represents the specific architectural origins of this transformation. Zeppelin’s genius (which is why they are honored by the White House) is to invisibly translate these very stone walls into an aural structure that bears no resemblance to its vernacular origin. 

Punk Rock, Materiality, and Time

May 2, 2011 by

I spent part of the weekend doing three things: learning how to make pasta with my new pasta maker, listening to low-fi punk, and reading Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty (Penn 2008). I am not sure that I learned much applicable to this blog from making pasta (although it was delicious last night at dinner), but low-fi punk, a short Twitter exchange, and Davis’s book did bring together some ideas that I had been meaning for some time to post to our semi-dormant Punk Archaeology blog.

The low-fi sound that has become popular thanks in large part to bands like the White Stripes, the Black Keys, and other purveyors of so-called Punk Blues positions itself as an antidote to the austere, “over-produced” stylings of contemporary pop music.  (Recently, I’ve been hanging out with the album “GB City” by Bass Drum of Death, but I also listened to Soledad Brothers self titles solo album and their more polished 2006 offering The Hardest Rock. My original idea for a post was to compare the low-fi, thoroughly average sound of “GB City” to the produced sound of Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs”, but that seemed too easy). The sound harkens back to garage rock and rough live albums produced in make shift recording studies on 4 and 8 track recording machines.  Low-fi recordings replaced the spaceless character of the recording study with the gritty and flawed presence of the garage, the basement, or the warehouse. Echoing and distorted vocal tracks compete for space against raw guitars and abusive drums. The best low-fi captures something of a hastily-arranged live recording without actually being anywhere in particular. Low-fi comes from anyone’s basement, garage, or abandoned strip mall.  It embodies marginal (maybe even abandoned) spaces (it’s not surprising that Detroit has become a Mecca of low-fi sound) and pushes out music that speaks to haste, temporary accommodations, and immediacy without specificity.

With the advent of digital music, low-fi has projected the materiality of its sound by producing vinyl LPs or even cassette tapes.  The sonic texture of the 8-track recorder in the basement or garage comes packaged in neatly anachronistic forms that insists upon a material presence even more physical than the music itself.  A friend of mine (on Twitter ironically enough!) suggested a track from an Oblivian’s album recently. When I asked whether she could share the track with me, she told me that she only had it on vinyl! So the grounding of low-fi music in a time and place moves from the practice of recording and to its materiality as a recorded product. Digital music, which can exist simultaneously in an infinite number of places resists any effort to impose physicality (and with music moving to “the cloud” in the very near future the location of music recordings will become all the more ambiguous).

The link between the physical sound of the low-fi recording and its circulation in physical media positions low-fi (and punk) to resist (in an ironic way, to be sure) the ephemeral character of so much “cultural” production today. From blogs and ebooks to musings in the indistinct space of social media, the viral distribution of music and video, and claims of a reimagined-ascetic minimalism, the space or even material nature of cultural production is collapsing in on itself.  In the future (bee-boop-boop-boop-beep), the diagnostic rims of Late Roman fine ware vessels will be stray bits of sound, text, or video clinging to the deteriorating disks of disused servers or discarded along with iPods and Kindles in modern middens.  Unlike the vinyl LP or even the (comparatively) primitive cassette tape, there is little on the iPod or Kindle that links it physically to the music or text stored on the device. Moreover, the use of these devices  do not cause the music or text to deteriorate.

So, I sat around this weekend, grading papers, making pasta, reading Kathleen Davis’ book, and listening to the space of low-fi sound spooling off a hard drive and running through my stereo. I could listen to it as much as I wanted and wherever I wanted.

Rock in Athens 85′

January 11, 2011 by

On July 26-27, 1985, the ancient stadium of Athens hosted an interesting happening organized by the newly formed General Secretariat of Youth (Γενική Γραμματεία Νέας Γενιάς) and the French Ministry of Culture. Rock in Athens 85′ was a two day New Wave rock festival, which was quite cutting edge for its time. Although major bands like the Rolling Stones had performed in the ancient stadium before (Apr. 17 1967), Rock in Athens was the first rock festival to ever take place in Greece. A New Wave festival at Kalimarmaro in 1985? How radical is that? But it makes little sense considering the lack of a following for New Wave in Greece at this time. A Heavy Metal festival would make sense, rising naturally from Greece’s Hard Rock tradition. I can’t be certain about my observations, since I wasn’t present, but as a committed follower of New Wave, I was struck by the shortage of punks in the summers that I would visit Greece. My cousins, who followed music closely, would confirm these observations. I was a New Wave Greek-American looking for a scene in Greece. Sure, there was the punk band Panx Romana from 1977, singing “You Greeks! you are worms, and the Acropolis doesn’t belong to you/Έλληνα είσαι σκουλίκι και η Ακρόπολη δε σου ανοίκει.” And there were also anarchists squatting in Athens (less institutionalized and violent as they are today). And there was the store REMEMBER 77, on Adrianou 77 in Plaka (founded 1978), where I bought my first Creepers in 1991.

What makes Rock in Athens 85′ peculiar is its sponsors. The festival was conceived by the Greek and French Ministries of Culture. It was a state event televised on national TV and hence totally different from festivals like Woodstock, Live Aid, Coachella, or the extremely successful Rockwave in Athens. Melina Merkouri, then Minister of Culture, was present. Priceless footage shows the grand Merkouri meeting the wild Nina Hagen (and her clean-cut mother) backstage. The General Secretariat of Youth was formed in 1982, soon after Georgios Papandreou’s Socialist government won elections and tried to liberalize cultural policy that had been dominated by the conservative right and its family-tradition-religion priorities. Quoting the current website, the Secretariat’s task was (and still is) “shaping, monitoring and coordinating the government policy for youth and its connection with society and social entities. In this way, Greece was harmonised with the european and international practice of high-level, self-sustained and integral government services aiming to public youth policies.” We must also remember that, only two weeks earlier in the summer of 1985, Live Aid took place in London and Philadelphia. But this was a private venture, organized for famine relief in Ethiopia by Bob Geldof. Live Aid was the first concert to be televised in a global scale through satellite. As the interview with Boy George reveals, Culture Club did have a fan base already in Greece. But it seems that there was not enough of a fan base for each of the bands to appear individually. The festival garnered each group’s small fan base into a guaranteed (and cheap) event. We must also consider that Rockin’ Athens 85′ was not exclusively targeted to Greeks. Hoards of vacationing European and American youth attended. After all, Greeks flee Athens for the countryside in July and August.

Whatever the motivations of the concert may have been, it seems to have taken a great risk. As a result it did begin shaping cultural attitudes at least in so far as New Wave’s popularity boomed. Nevertheless, the conflict between audience and performers, the awkwardness of the ancient stadium, the July heat are all evident in the videos. The performers included Culture Club, Depeche Mode, Stranglers, Nina Hagen, the Cure, Talk Talk, Telephone and a surprise guest star, the Clash (or at least the remnants of the Clash–Mick Jones and Nicky Headon had already left, and the Clash disbanded in 1986). According to eye-witness accounts, fights broke out between the police and fans outside the stadium. Italian tourists were somehow involved.

If anyone wants to watch the televised festival (ERT2), you can find it almost in its entirety (minus the Clash performance) on Youtube. Extremely interesting are the backstage interviews below. To see the Melina-Nina encounter, go to Part 3. In the spirit of Punk Archaeology, Youtube allows me to investigate an event that took place in the ancient Panathenaic stadium that was reconstructed for the first Olympics of 1896. The footage is source material for an ephemeral moment. The videos not only transport us to a different era of Greek cultural policy, but they offer evidence for an almost surreal confrontation between a primarily Anglo-American youth movement and a resisting Mediterranean. Just watch the accumulation of sweat on Boy George’s face as the night progresses. Although I haven’t studied the videos in great length, they also reveal tensions in a cultural dialogue. Note for example homosexual tensions between Boy George and the audience. I hope that the readers of this posting interested in the history of the Greek 1980s will offer closer reading and insights.

Interviews Part I

Interviews Part II

Interviews Part III

For those that want to watch the concert in its entirety, the following links will direct you to individual band performances:

July 26:
Telephone 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Culture Club 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

July 27:
The Stranglers 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
Talk Talk 15, 16, 17, 18
The Cure 18, 19, 20, 21

Sprawl

August 16, 2010 by

On Kostis’ urging, I have been listening to the new Arcade Fire album, the Suburbs. The album itself is a meditation of urban planning and its social impact, but I’ll leave this larger issue to Kostis.  What I want to focus on in particular is the notion of sprawl that comes through in the last couple of songs in the album.  As critics have noted, the idea of sprawl (as in, but not exclusively, urban sprawl) derives some of its meaning in punk circles from William Gibson’s fictitious topography of the post-apocalyptic east coast.  Gibson described an massive east coast settlement stretching from Boston to Atlanta partially housed in a series of dilapidated geodesic domes.  This forms a suitably bleak environment for his high-tech dystopian novels.  Arcade Fire’s understanding of the sprawl clearly has roots in their critique of urbanism in its many 20th and 21st century guises.  The sprawl consists of a bleak assortment of architectural (“dead shopping malls”, bright lights), social,(dead end jobs, threatening police), and perhaps environmental images (the black river).  All these images resonate with Gibson’s dystopian and apocalyptic vision of the near future world.

The kind of dystopian social critiques of the future are almost always rooted in a kind of utopian view of the past (and has obvious links with genres like the jeremiad).  In fact, they rely on a recognizable past remaining hidden in plain sight to make it clear to the reader that their own present has become just another layer of detritus.  Gibson – like Sonic Youth and to some extent Arcade Fire – liken the Sprawl to the failings of capitalism to produce a sustainable, responsible prosperity. The chorus from the Sonic Youth anthem chants: “Come on down to the store, you can buy some more and more and more.”  The verses paint the same kind of dystopia as Arcade Fire’s with cheap clothing, depressing shotgun houses, and rusted machines along a river. 

Scenes of polluted nature, urbanism, and faded modernity, is pretty standard fair for both science fiction and music, and the same ideas inform our archaeological imagination as well.  As I’ve mentioned earlier, romantic views of the natural landscape appeal to me even though I know that these views are as profoundly unhistorical as utopians imaginings of a primordial, edenic nature.  Human activities have had a fundamental influence on almost every aspect of the Eastern Mediterranean places where I work.  As an archaeologist, I already understand that there is no escaping from the sprawl and our own present is, in fact, a past dystopian future.

Like the works of Gibson and the music of Sonic Youth and Arcade Fire the crass consumerism of late capitalism is held up to be at least tacitly responsible for decline.  The focus falls (predictably and particularly) on the relationship between individuals (and their behavior) and objects.  In fact, the physical character of objects take on an archaeological character as they become vehicles for both present identities and history.  This is archaeological thought: while punk’s characters take in the sprawling ruins of shopping malls and rusted machines that stretch outward from centers of human settlement, archaeologists lovingly document the tell-tale haloes of ceramic material encircle ancient sites.  In fact, many scholars argue that the practice of spreading manure created these ceramic haloes. Within the settlement, residents discarded bits of broken pottery on piles of household (both human and animal)waste.  The practice of studying the remains of human activity in the countryside by documenting these worn fragments of discarded goods reminds us of a profoundly dystopian image: communities literally consuming their own waste.

So, as both archaeology and our punk friends scrutinize materiality as an indicators of culture.  They invite us to contemplate the remains of the past as both a cautionary tale for the ephemeral nature of the material accomplishments that we hold dear, while at the same time validate our ability to understand the past (and the present) through bits of meaning embedded in those same good and practices.  The failures of culture manifest themselves in the discarded objects, buildings, and goods scattered about, and these same practices construct a body of material that we can study and reproduce the past. 

The presence of nature amidst these man-made ruins and the parallel between the ruins of capitalism (dead shopping malls) and natural features (rise like mountains beyond mountains) reminds us that all of our surroundings are cultural, and, at that point, dystopian landscapes become familiar.  We not only live in the sprawl, but we have always lived in the sprawl.

More Punk and Nostalgia

August 2, 2010 by

Kostis Kourelis brought to my attention a recent New York Times article on an exhibit of Victorian era stereoscopic photographs called “A Village Lost and Found”.  What made this exhibit interesting to punk archaeology fans, was that former Queen guitarist Brian May curated the exhibit and co-wrote the accompanying book.  The New York Times review of the exhibition both feigns surprise that a rock ‘n’ roller like May would be interested in such quaint, esoteric artifacts as hand-colored stereoscopic images and, at the same time, acknowledged the deep nostalgic vein in British society (and its music).  In doing so, the NYT’s author makes reference to one of my favorite albums which lurks around the margins of punk rock, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.

The double album, released in 1968, consists of series of tracks celebrating traditional village life in England.  Topics range from the Village green to picture books, trains, farms, and typical village characters (Johnny Thunder and the deviously rocking Wicked Annabella).  The nostalgic element captured, however ironically, in the Kink’s album continues in punk music.  As I have noted before, punk always had an affection for the pop music of the earlier generation, even though punk rockers from the Germs to the Ramones and the Heartbreakers typically sped up the hooks and contorted the lyrics that gave pop music its wide-spread appeal.  One of my personal favorites is the Germ’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round”.  At the same time punk rockers like Jonathan Richman (especially in his early Modern Lovers tracks like Old World, which is bracketed later in the first Modern Lovers’ album with the track Modern World) produced music with the same whimsical nostalgia as the Kink’s Village Green:

I see the ’50’s apartment house
It’s bleak in the 1970’s sun
But I still love the ’50’s
And I still love the old world
I wanna keep my place in this old world
Keep my place in the arcane knowledge
And I still love the ’50’s and I still love the old world

As I have argued before the archaeological character of these songs is not in their perfect reproduction of the past, but in the preservation of the past through critique.  For example, the Kink’s celebration of the Village Green evokes the nostalgia for the earlier times that shot through modernizing British society. In fact, as Matthew Johnson has described in his Ideas of Landscape, such nostalgia for  an earlier period influenced how archaeologist have studied the landscape and regarded material and buildings from the modern period.  Romantic notions of the earlier, rural world, celebrated its simplicity, inherent virtues (especially of Britishness and, as we have witnessed recently the “real” America of the small town), and purity, and expected some degree of continuity to be visible in the society and culture of contemporary denizens of the countryside and the small town.

Punk tried to make a mess of these idyllic critiques by taking the staid nostalgia and melding it with what to many appeared to be the most fleeting, contemporary, and critical musical genres. In some ways, this finds a parallel between those of us committed to sophisticated and critical approaches to archaeology of the countryside, but still enamored with the illusory, anti-modern character of the countryside.  I can admit to loving to explore the lonely hilltops in Greece, to document isolated ruins, and to embracing the contrast between the bustle of the village or city and the peaceful “isolation” of rural Greece.  I often will pause and listen just to the wind and revel in the absence of the motorbikes or trucks while at the same time scrutinizing the read-out on a state-of-the-art GPS unit or looking at a map showing an aerial photographs and analyzed via sophisticated computer software.  As much as my analyses call into question the notion that the Greek countryside was isolated, I still use view of olive covered hills in my publications and presentations to evoke the exotic character of an archaeological past.  The contrast between my reliance on modern technology to document the past and the romantic image of the rural Greece produces a productive conflict.  My appreciation of the beauty and isolation of the Greek countryside drew inspiration from traditional romantic views of rural life while, at the same time, my approach to field work and conclusions challenges those very same views.  A Punk Archaeology approach embraces these same ironies drawing heavily on traditional of thought while at the same time challenging them.

For more musings on Punk Archaeology be sure to check out our blog here.

Punk and Spolia

July 29, 2010 by

Over the last week or so, I’ve been listening again to the Detroit Cobras and thinking about some of our first conversations on Punk Archaeology.  The Cobras specialize in what they have called “revved up soul”.  They make this wonderful noise by covering (mostly) lost classics of the MoTown era over the  driving rhythms of punk and the fuzzy, distorted lo-fi sound of the punk blues movement.  Rachel Nagy’s voice succeeds at being both smooth and abrasive at the same time.  Some critics have called their sound “Garage Soul”.

Their first album, Mink, Rat or Rabbit covered songs by 1950s and early 1960s bands like The Marvelettes, The Shirelles, Irma Thomas, The “5” Royales, and The Shangri-Las.  Later albums continue this tradition.  (They’re first two albums – Mink, Rat or Rabbit and Life, Love and Learning – are, to my ear, their best.  (Notice the absence of the “Oxford comma” in both titles.)

The point of mentioning this somewhat obscure band is to consider the relationship between punk and spolia.  Spolia is a technical archaeological term for the re-use older fragments of architecture in new construction. It is typically associated with Late Antiquity and was initially regarded by critics steeped in the Classical Tradition as indicative of the lose of technical skills and economic impoverished conditions at the end of Antiquity.  Other saw the use of spolia as a conscious decision on the part of Late Antique builders and, at worst, reflective of a taste for a discordant, disorganized, and, ultimately, decadent aesthetic.

Of course hip-hop music withstood similar criticisms as they cut up and sampled R&B classics to form  rhythmic backdrop for their poetry.  Such reuse of earlier material was unoriginal and indicative of a kind of creative bankruptcy among “today’s generation”.  Punk took their lead from pop music which they sped up and made more up-tempo, raucous and chaotic.  The Cobras occupy a third space recently developed by bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys where punk, R&B, and blues infused with the DIY, lo-fy sound of the garage (which represents a more austere and suburban version of the venerable lo-fy Juke Joint).

The epicenter of this music has been Detroit (or the Rust Belt more broadly) where the punk of the MC Five and the blues Son House and John L. Hooker intersect.  The music here has tremendous symbolic significance, as Detroit has become emblematic of the decline of “traditional America” and images of the ruinous conditions of the factories have become images of the decline of America’s fortunes as a manufacturing power.  The photographs are archaeological in their attention to detail and the need to accommodate history.

The music of the Detroit Cobras provide a counterpoint to the haunting, archaeological photographs of abandoned Detroit.  Fragments of the city’s earlier days come through in their music, but rather than critique the declining fortunes of America’s industrial heartland, the music calls forth the continued vitality of those days in much the same way that spolia maintained a conscious connection with earlier architecture.

The archaeological impulse in of punk rock of the Detroit Cobras reveals a kind of native archaeology of the American city which draws backwards on its unique history to produce critical memory.  Such work is the work of archaeologists both of the past and the present who sought to communicate something meaningful from the fragments of the past that remained visible in their present.  The spolia preserved in the music of the Detroit Cobras presents a musical museum in much the same way that the fragments of the past in produce meaning in the context of a physical museum today or in the context of monumental architecture in Late Antiquity.

Punk Archaeology, Squatting and Abandonment

February 22, 2010 by

I spent part of the weekend exploring Thurston Moore‘s and Abby Bank’s evocative book, Punk House. The book largely features Abby Bank’s photographs of punk houses across the U.S. Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth fame, provides a short introduction where he talks about the punk house phenomenon, the practice of squatting associated with the most radical expression of the punk lifestyle, and the aesthetic of the punk interpretation of the DIY approach to home decoration. All of these practices speak to the radical politics behind punk rock as a movement. The rejection (or total disregard for) private property made squatting an appealing alternative to ownership, and the collective house represented a more domesticated (and less risky) alternative.

Squatting, Archaeology, and Abandonment
Squatting is essentially an archaeological phenomenon; archaeologists are squatters who occupy and savor the abandoned corners of a society. While archaeology tends to be a form of high impact squatting which often leads to the destruction, punk squatting represents a whole series of ephemeral practices that can go almost undetected by subsequent visitors to the space. Like archaeology itself, the practice squatting challenge any simple view of abandonment and in turn challenges the notion of ownership, possession, and use that are vital in some way to our understanding of function within an archaeological context. So while archaeologists are squatters, like punks, the practice of squatting undermines basic assumptions that allow archaeology to function. Archaeologists, like squatters, put spaces in the margins of the mainstream world into use.

Recent attention to the practice of abandonment both within the archaeological record and in the American cities wracked by the recent economic downturn has tended to view the spaces of abandonment as tragic expressions of the ultimate futility of human efforts to transform the landscape or the false optimism of progress. Abandoned monumental architecture – especially hospitals, prisons, factories, churches, or public works – provided evidence for the cynicism of the punk world view as well as the backdrop for their ability live without these amenities.

Archaeological evidence for so-called squatters in the period of history that I study, Late Antiquity, almost beg such ideological questions. Were the Late Antique squatters in the monumental architecture of the earlier, Classical, era proto-punks who recognized and celebrated the futility of their predecessors? Should we view their re-use of abandoned spaces as critique?

At the same time the modern archaeologist as squatter likewise searches for fragments of the past – something useful among the neglected corners of society – in a utopian and ideological quest to produce a singular, uninterrupted world.

Formation Process and Provisional Discard
Bank’s photographs capture the layered, weathered, look of group houses that both support the impecunious lifestyles of their punk residents as well as the chaotic, multi-generation application of DIY practices. The rooms that Bank’s photographed were filled with objects out of context – junk – deployed to support lifestyles at the margins of capitalism. The houses stand as living testimony to the value quintessential archaeological practice of provisional discard. The pattern of occupation produces a stratigraphic space as each resident adds a layer of interpretation to what went before.

These houses take what archaeologists have sometimes seen as an almost subconscious or deeply structured processes of discard into a performative critique of society. Short term habitation practices, in turn, transform a series of practical choices into the chaotic pastiche of lived stratigraphy.

Music
The link between these houses and punk music is clear. As we have observed before, punk music is a nostalgic, utopian, critique that seeks a more profound authority than punks observe from the world around them. The punk houses, the temporary residence of squatters, and the archaeology of a stratified, provisional existence, forms a physical counterpoint to the archaeological overtones in punk music.

Ruins: Feedback

February 11, 2010 by

The last couple of postings on punk archaeology have produced some wonderful comments on Facebook that I cannot resist from sharing. Thanks to my supportive friends. You make blogging a satisfying endeavor (one always wonder if anyone is reading out there).

STEPHENNIE MULDER

“Kostis, hard to put into words the emotions this evoked for me, especially since I spent my teenage years running around with a bunch of kids who (thought they were) punk and hanging out in ruins too. Since I grew up in Salt Lake, they were not these nineteenth-century East Coast Gothic-tinged ruins, but, still. I often wonder if the same deep melancholy I got in those spaces, the heavy and intoxicating sense of past lives, ordinary and mundane, their loves, deaths, celebrations and Thursday night dinners, was somehow related to my interest in archaeology. Ruins have the ability to conjure a certain type of melancholy that is like nothing else in human experience, I think. Did you know mourning over ruins is a major theme in Arabic poetry? One of my favorites:

At the way stations
stay. Grieve over the ruins.
Ask the meadow grounds,
now desolate, this question.

Where are those we loved,
where have their dark-white camels gone?

-Ibn Arabi

Thanks for this, and I spent a long time looking at the photographs you linked to, as well.”

Stephennie is a friend from UPenn Art History. She is professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas, Austin and specializes in Syria. We’ve recently reconnected thanks to the power of Facebook.

OMUR HARMANSAH

Pogue Harrison on the sight of ruins:

“One could say that, in its world-forming capacity, architecture transforms geological time into human time, which is another way of saying it turns matter into meaning. That is why the sight of ruins is such a reflexive and in some cases an unsettling experience. Ruins in an advanced state of ruination represent, or better they literally embody, the dissolution of meaning into matter. By revealing what human building ultimately is up against -natural or geological time- ruins have a way of recalling us to the very ground of our human worlds, namely the earth, whose foundations are so solid and so reliable that they presumably will outlast any edifices that we build on them.” Robert Pogue Harrison, The dominion of the dead 2003: p. 3.

Omur is an old friend from UPenn. He is a specialist in the architecture of the ancient Near East and professor of archaeology at Brown University. Among his many specializations, Omur is especially active in archaeological theory. See, his Theoretical Archaeology Group here.

RYAN SANDER

“Hey Kostis. Are you familiar with Jeff Brouws work? As a photographer he follows the in the New Topographic lineage looking toward the landscape as cultural product/artifact. http://www.jeffbrouws.com/series/main_discarded.html

Ryan is an MFA student in photography at the University of North Dakota. His work explore the nature of place/space through artistic and liturgical lenses. Ryan discusses his work and process on a great blog, Axis of Access. Last summer, Ryan was the artist-in-residence at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project in Cyprus. His work in Cyprus is currently exhibited in Topos/Chora: Photographs of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project at the Empire Arts Center, Grand Forks. It was an honor to be invited to write an interpretive essay for Ryan’s exhibition. I’ve never met Ryan in person, but the blogosphere has brought us together.

Camden: Whitman, Smith, Vergara

February 10, 2010 by

Walt Whitman spent the end of his life in Camden, N.J., not far from where Patti Smith spent her childhood. While growing up at Germantown, Philadelphia and then Deptford, N.J., Smith would visit the Whitman Hotel in Camden and imagine that her poet hero once inhabited the spaces. Whitman’s trajectory of American poetry extends to William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, both from Paterson, N.J.; interestingly enough, Williams was Ginsberg’s pediatrician and wrote the introduction to “Howl.” From Ginsberg, the trajectory continues to Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, an inheritance that neither musician undervalue. The celebration of the every-day, even if it smells of sweat and dirt, is central to Whitman’s Amerian tradition. This is what architect Louis Sullivan called the “physiology” rather than the “physiognomy” of American life. Sullivan, who coined the “form follows function” equation was himself not a reductivist; his functionalism was “physiological” not technocratic. If American life has been suffering economic ailments, its physiology is evident not in the great skyscrapers of the spirit but in its ruins of its post-industrial cities.

Patti Smith is not alone to bring us back to Whitman’s Camden. Camilo José Vergara, the Chilean-New Yorker photographer has devoted his career in documenting America’s fallen urban condition. His American Ruins (1999) was a landmark publication, appearing at the same time that a California school of sociologists (Edward Soja and Mike Davis) turned Marxism’s attention from the superstructure to the base, from a functionalist view of the city to a consideration of space. Vergara’s photographs have appeared in numerous publications and exhibitions since then. But I would like to highlight one particular project, Invincible Cities, where Vergara turns his attention directly onto Camden. Vergara has been producing what he hopes will culminate into “A Visual Encyclopedia of the American Ghetto.” Invincible Cities offers Camden as a case study. An interactive database allows the viewer to navigate through Vergara’s photographs across space and time.

Vergara has been photographing the American ghetto since the 1970s. His perseverance matches Jacob Riis, while his methodology combines the sociologist’s lens with the documentary rigor of Bernd and Hilla Becker. Invincible Cities takes Vergara one step further. I suspect that Patti Smith would find Vergara’s lens a little too literal. Walt Whitman might protest the slickness of the digital colors (he would prefer the texture of male sweat). Even if sensibilities differ, Camden needs revisiting and Vergara has let us perform the very kind of scholarly voyeurism that could lead into action if not the transformation of our civic psyche.

Hospital Ruins: Patti Smith

February 9, 2010 by

Rebecca Solnit‘s ruined hospital experience reverberates in Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, which, last week climbed to the 7th spot in the New York Times nonfiction best seller list. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were regular visitors to Coney Island at a time when the side shows were still surviving. They saw Snake Princess Wago and a flea circus at Hubert’s on 42nd St., which closed in 1965. They also visited a small museum with body parts and human embryos in jars. Robert Mapplethorpe became obsessed by the idea and sought to find some of his own specimen. The search lead them to a ruined hospital. The experience seems straight out of a magic realist novel. Patti Smith writes,

“He [Robert Mapplethorpe] asked around where he might find something of that sort, and a friend told him about the ruins of the Old City Hospital on Welfare (later Roosevelt) Island [picture left]. On a Sunday we traveled there with our friends from Pratt. There were two points on the island that we visited. The first was a sprawling nineteenth-century building that had the aura of a madhouse; it was the Smallpox Hospital, the first place in America to receive victims of contagion. Separated only by barbed wire and broken glass, we imagined dying of leprosy and the plague.

“The other ruins were that left of the Old City Hospital, with its forbidding institutional architecture, finally to be demolished in 1994. When we entered it, we were struck by the silence and an odd medicinal smell. We went from room to room and saw shelves of medical specimens in their glass jars. Many were broken, vandalized by visiting rodents. Robert combed each room until he found what he was looking for, an embryo swimming in formaldehyde within a womb of glass.” (p. 68)

On the walk back to their home, “… just as we turned the corner to Hall Street, the glass jar slipped inexplicably from his hands and shattered on the sidewalk, just steps from our door. I saw his face. He was so deflated that neither of us could say anything. The purloined jar had sat on the shelf for decades, undisturbed. It was almost as if he had taken its life. ‘Go upstairs,’ he said. ‘I’ll clean it up.’ We never mentioned it again. There was something about that jar. The shards of heavy glass seemed to foreshadow the deepening of our days; we didn’t speak of it but each of us seemed inflicted with a vague internal restlessness.” (p. 69)


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