Tim Edensor - British Industrial Ruins

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Ruins can be considered to be stages which coerce our bodies into particular kinds of performance. In contrast to the often seamless movement we experience in the desensualised contemporary metropolis, where smells, noises and textures are regulated in accordance with ideas about urban order and dominant aesthetic conventions, in ruins, our senses are jolted and our composure is disrupted by unfamiliar and powerful sensations. It is difficult to maintain a straight path, fixed on the objective ahead, for ruins arrest our gaze and offer a rich diversity of aromas, sounds, tactilities and sights. Walking amongst the debris of industrial ruins stimulates a bodily awareness that is often denied by our highly regulated domestic and urban lives.

Footsteps and other sounds echo once the regular fixtures have been removed. Opened roofs and windows allow drips and eddies of winds to resound around buildings. Desolate pieces of machinery clank and doors creak, and the rustling of unseen animals, and the flurries and coos of the ubiquitous pigeons suffuse the soundscape, while noise from outside is muffled and sounds far away. This low-key atmosphere conjures up another that is no longer present: the whistling, shouts, talk and laughter, the singing, the whirr of machinery and the babble of the radio.

Smells also pervade scenes of dereliction. The sharp tang of unguents and oils and other nameless fluids, adhesives and lubricants assault the nose. The musty odour of crumbling masonry, rotting paper and wood, peeling wallpaper and limitless dust permeates the dank interiors but can be mixed with the new aromas of plants that colonise ruins. We also experience an alternative awareness of tactility as glass and mortar crunches underfoot, plaster and bricks crumble to the touch, and dampness creeps through all permeable substances. The materiality of objects becomes foregrounded as appearances become deceptive.

Ruins are thus sensual spaces, where the body may become released from its usual self control. This extends to the kinds of movements we make. There can rarely be any straightforward linear progression but instead, the ordered space of the factory is converted into a sequence of passages, a labyrinth that enables us to wander according to whim, veering off into chambers and corridors. Moreover, strange vistas are opened up in vast, uninhabited interiors, an odd sensation given the more enclosed spaces within which we usually operate. The discarded fixtures and furnishings provide props around which we move, and processes of decay create special conditions which must be negotiated. For instance, in one empty factory, the wooden floor of a huge first storey expanse had buckled and warped to create an extensive series of waves with each crest some two feet off the floor.

Ruins are stages in a another very real sense. The theatricality of industrial ruins, their dramatic qualities as spaces for potential spectacular action, together with their metaphoric value as sites connoting danger, social collapse and deviance, has meant that they have been widely used by the movie industry. As film and TV sets, ruins have been spectacularised and aestheticised by the action which takes place within them. Many contemporary films and TV series focus on landscapes of industrial ruination, which seem to be full of Dr Whos, Robocops, replicants, Stalkers, outlaws, visionaries, techno-geniuses, cyber-punks and spectacular gangs. Deviants dwell within their darkness and police enter them to apprehend villains on the run from the law. The dystopian visions, expressed in films and programmes such as Enemy of the State, Darkman, My Own Private Idaho, The Last of England, The Bill, Terminator 2 and Demolition Man, amongst many others, show that fears of apocalypse and social decadence are expressed and staged in industrial ruins.

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site designed by the Design & Print Unit at Staffordshire University, for Tim Edensor, hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University
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created 8/10/2002