Archive for February, 2010

Punk Archaeology, Squatting and Abandonment

Monday, February 22nd, 2010 by Bill Caraher

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.

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Ruins: Feedback

Thursday, February 11th, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

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

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

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

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

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)

Hospital Ruins: Rebecca Solnit

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 by Kostis Kourelis

Rebecca Solnit helped me articulate some threads of Punk Archaeology in her essay “Abandon,” in A Field Guide of Getting Lost (New York, 2005, pp. 87-109). Solnit describes her own discovery of punk at the age of 15, “Punk rock had burst into my life with the force of revelation, though I cannot now call the revelation much more than a tempo and an insurrectionary intensity that matched the explosive pressure in my psyche.” Solnit’s revelation was more than a musical discovery, it was a shift in incorporating the city within the realms of the natural wilderness. Punk directed Solnit and thousands of other youngsters in the 1980s to connect the surrounding post-industrial decay and the inner self. After all, isn’t that one of culture’s primarily roles, to negotiate between exterior and interior worlds? In the 1990s, selected neighborhoods went into choreopraphed reinventions. New York got Dinseyfied and hipsters became just marketing demographic. Attention shifted from archaeological realism (a desire to see things as they are and adjust aesthetics accordingly) to historicist melancholy (a desire to relive earlier generations’ angst through self-fashioning). Such developments make the 1980s seem like a distinct cultural period, where punk and archaeology united.

Reading through Patti Smith’s memoir made me re-read Solnit’s essay (read tomorrow’s posting). There is one particular detail that unites the two experiences, namely the incorporation of hospital ruins into a search for meaning. Solnit begins her essay with an adventure that, in retrospect, seems like a classic punk pursuit, searching for abandoned buildings and seeking to incorporate them into aesthetic life through photography, music and film.

“The most beautiful thing in the abandoned hospital was the peeling paint. The place had been painted again and again in pastels, and in the years of its abandonment these layers flaked into lozenges and curled scrolls, a different color on each side. The flakes clung to the walls like papery bark and piled up like fallen leaves. I remember walking down one long corridor illuminated only by light from distant doorways. There the paint dangled from ceiling and walls in huge wafers, and my passing stirred the air enough that some came drifting down down in my wake. The movie we made there was was too grainy to show such delicate details, but I remember one passage in it where I was coming down such a corridor and the shafts of light behind me were so strong on either side of my neck that my head seemed at times to detach from my body and hover above it. I had become its haunting wraith.

“That was when I was twenty, half my life ago, and a boy my age made the most politely democratic proposition I ever received: would I like to make a move with him in the ruined hospital near my San Francisco home? I would, we did, and we spent the next six years together in amazing tranquility and stayed close for a few years thereafter… It was the early 1980s, and looking back I can see that it was a sort of golden age of ruins.

“Coming of age in the heyday of punk, it was clear we were living at the end of something–of modernism, of the American dream, of the industrial economy, of a certain kind of urbanism. The evidence was all around us in the ruins of cities. The Bronx was block after block, mile after mile of ruin, as were even some Manhattan neighborhoods, housing projects across the country were in a state of collapse, many of the shipping piers that had been key to San Francisco’s and New York’s economies were abandoned, as was San Francisco’s big Southern Pacific rail yard and its two most visible breweries. Vacant lots like missing teeth gave a rough grin to the streets we haunted. Ruin was everywhere, for cities had been abandoned by the rich, by politics, by a vision of the future. Urban ruins were the emblematic place for this era, the places that gave punk part of its aesthetic, and like most aesthetics this one contained an ethic, a worldview with a mandate on how to act, how to live.” (pp. 87-88)

The image at the top is a photo by Camilo Jose Vergara, who will be the subject of a post later this week. The photo, “Henry Horner Homes, 2051 W. Lake St., Chicago, 1995” was featured in Vergara’s recent Slate article, “American Ruins: Nature is Taking back These Buildings,” (Jan. 15, 2010).