The Chicago Reader has a feature article on something I have blogged about repeatedly, namely, infiltration of abandoned structures to take photographs and video(s) in the interest of documenting modern ruins and establishing an aesthetic I called “post-industrial chic.” The Reader article provides new nomenclature for this behavior and sensibility: urban exploration, or urbex for short. The article cites Detroit, Chicago, and Gary (IN) as urbex hubs, but my previous surfing around the Internet revealed plenty of other sites, including those on other continents, though perhaps none so concentrated as the American rust belt. The idea is proliferating, perhaps even faster than abandonment of structures built to house our more enterprising endeavors, with Facebook pages, Meet.Up groups, and an already defunct zine/blog/book complex called Infiltration, which is/was devoted to penetrating places where one is not supposed to be. It would be suitably ironic if Infiltration had itself been abandoned, but instead, its founder and chief instigator passed away.

It’s impossible to know what may be going on inside of the minds of those who are, by turns, documentarians, aesthetes and artists, thrill-seekers, and voyeurs. Have they pieced together the puzzle yet, using their travels to observe that so many of these crumbling structures represent the ephemeral and illusory might of our economic and technical achievements, often and unexpectedly from the Depression Era with its art deco ornamentation? Is there really beauty to be found in squalor?

Answers to those questions are not altogether apparent from urbex sources. Whereas artistic statements are de rigeur in galleries and artist’s websites, urbex purveyors tend to be uncharacteristically silent about their drive to document. There are frequent paeans to the faded, former glory of the abandoned sites, but what resonates is the suggestion of human activity and optimism no longer enjoyed but held over in the broken fibers of the structures rather than a recognition that, by not even being worth the bother of tearing down, these ruins are close reminders of our own uselessness in old age, impermanence, and mortality.

To those more doom-aware, if I can be so presumptuous, another deeper significance flows from late-modern ruins: our self-defeat. The Pyrrhic victory of human success (in demographic terms) over the rest of creation has lasted long enough to spans entire lifetimes, which has been enjoyed innocently by those born at the propitious historical moment (if, indeed, they managed to survive various 20th-century genocides and wars). But for those of us born only a little later, we are already witness to the few decayed bits (thus far) of the far more expansive human-built world we will leave behind.

This fate was explored by the History Channel film Life After People, which omits the obvious reasons for our disappearance but simply leaps ahead in time to contemplate how the natural world reacts to our absence. The film, as it turns out, became the pilot for a series that appears to have run for two seasons, largely on its own recycled bits. Invented imagery of this eventuality is echoed in all manner of cinematic demolition derbies, with New York City and the White House among the most iconic locations to undergo ritual destruction for our, um, what? Enjoyment?

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