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Scholarly Life

The Post-Industrial Gaze

Posted Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Exploring the aesthetics of urban decay, anthropologists embrace new tools

Abroad a few years ago on dissertation research, anthropology PhD student Cynthia Browne came across a bizarre wooden structure standing alone in an overgrown waste. It looked like a bridge, but a bridge that had been fractured and set at odd angles to itself. There were people gazing out of it, claiming they were waiting for a river that would soon run through the very spot. It may sound like an apocalyptic cult, but this particular cult was funded by government endowment, and its only prophecy was of municipal revitalization. Browne’s dissertation is on the deindustrialization of Germany’s Ruhr Valley, and the structure was one of several works of public art commissioned by the region in recent years. Once the vital heart of the preglobalization German economy, a few years ago the Ruhr was mainly famous for catastrophic pollution and high unemployment. Recently, though, it has restyled itself as a global exemplar of postindustrial innovation, and a centerpiece of the endeavor is the rehabilitation of the canalized and biologically dead Emscher river. “Warten auf den Fluss” (Waiting for the River) was built on ground over which the river used to flow, and to which it will be returned by 2020.

“You sit, basically. And you wait,” Browne explains. “There’s this sort of hope for the future, but it’s really uncertain and tenuous.”

In April, Browne and eleven others were awarded 2012–2013 Harvard Film Study Center Fellowships, which will support the production of independent cinematic projects on subjects as diverse as seasonal labor cycles and a young Tibetan’s first days of monastic life. Three of these projects, though, are united by the common theme of waiting for what follows industrial decline.

It’s a theme as relevant to recession-era America as to Germany, and Benny Shaffer’s project focuses on Braddock, Pennsylvania, whose municipal website declares “REINVENTION IS THE ONLY OPTION.” A formerly bustling steel town that has lost ninety percent of its peak population, Braddock became the object of national media attention when its charismatic mayor (John Fetterman, MPP ’99) began a campaign to remake the town through militantly artistic community organization. A native of the Pittsburgh suburbs himself, and now a media anthropology PhD student, Shaffer took notice, especially after a college friend moved with his wife and child to Braddock in search of cheap real estate. Shaffer is weighing two alternate approaches to his film: either an experimental meditation on the aesthetics of the town’s decay, or a documentation of his friend’s efforts to rehabilitate his new $4,000 home and join in the town’s revitalization.

The same tension between the allure of decay and hope for improvement animates the work of a third Harvard-FSC Fellow, media anthropology student Julia Yezbick, who will shoot her film in Detroit. “There’s this pressure on artists to come in and ‘save’ the dying city,” says Yezbick, who plans to examine how artists respond to this pressure while retaining creative independence. She resists the facile optimism of filmmakers cheering for the “new Detroit,” but is equally wary of what she calls “ruin pornographers” — fashionable photographers who exploit the city as a beautiful corpse. While living there last summer, Yezbick became especially interested in the work of Olayami Dabls, a sculptor who assembles elaborate scenes out of objects retrieved from city ruins. For her, Dabls’s work represents what is most interesting about Detroit: “the palpable energy of a city looking both forwards and backwards.”

Yezbick thinks it’s hardly a coincidence that she, Browne, and Shaffer are working on such similar projects. “This is a moment when the nation is looking to ruins. We’re wondering, is the whole country going to become Detroit?” For addressing the difficult questions of postindustrialism, all three agree that visual media are invaluable, and all say they chose the Anthropology Department at Harvard for its unique encouragement of innovative ethnographic methods. “These are subjects that are hard to do verbal justice to, and so haven’t been addressed in the anthropological literature,” Yezbick says. As Harvard-FSC Fellows, all three are working to change that, bringing new scholarly perspectives to places with deeply uncertain outlooks. As Browne recalls the experience of waiting for the river in the Ruhr, “You’re looking out on the future, but the viewpoint is thrown back on you. There’s a wonderful tension between the desire to forget and the desire to remember.”