In a recent lecture on the work of Harun Farocki, Thomas Elsaesser proposed that in a time pervaded by performative approaches to social life, “we are all now insurance companies, risk-assessing a world of catastrophe and danger.” This statement connects Farocki's notion of operational images with Ulrich Beck's concept of a risk society, while also alluding to current states of precariousness and self-regulation, and a resurgent popular fascination with narratives and images of disaster. It is thus a catalyst for thinking about the space (and time) between risk and ruin, and how this aperture might be navigated using strategies of rehearsal and prefiguration.
The figure of the risk-assessor channels what Anthony Vidler identifies as “the repressed master discourse of the twentieth century: not the trauma of past loss, but the anticipatory fear of future loss.” In a risk society, this “anticipatory fear” is exacerbated by society's inability to either control or fully comprehend the destructive consequences generated by its internally manufactured risks (i.e., risks resulting from human decisions and technologies, as opposed to natural causes). These “unknowable” anthropogenic hazards are not contained by geographic or temporal boundaries; they reiterate global interconnectivity, while paving the way for “organized irresponsibility” (i.e. the denial of accountability) amongst political, corporate and social bodies at all levels. Inevitably, one is reminded of the 2002 U.S. Department of Defense press briefing in which Donald Rumsfeld responded to questioning about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq with his now infamous statement about known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
In a risk society, to what extent does increased insecurity and concern for safety trigger precautionary behavior—such as a desire for instruction and preparation, to counteract the realization that the only certainty is uncertainty? Fear begets violence, which begets fear. Do rehearsals, re-enactments, and contingency plans act as placebos, indoctrination, or minor reassurances in the face of an uncertain future? Certainly they have been hot currency in the art world in recent years, from Tom McCarthy's Remainder (2005) to Omer Fast's Nostalgia (2009). The trend is perhaps reaching its apex with Fast's forthcoming feature film adaptation of McCarthy's novel.
In a 2014 interview, Elsaesser discussed Farocki's fascination with images of “role-play, test-drives, drills and rehearsals of emergency situations” and other methods of “rehearsing (for) living” that have migrated from specialist industries “into everyday life, either in the name of self-improvement and optimization, or for the sake of risk aversion and security.” Farocki termed these “operational images”—images that instruct or initiate action. They are produced to participate in a process rather than for aesthetic value.
Installation view of Harun Farocki: Vision. Production. Oppression. at MUAC, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2014. Photo Mariana Rentería
Farocki makes visible the repetition required to create and calibrate operational images, from the construction of advertising spreads in Ein Bild (1983) and Stilleben (1997); to the instructional training films of Leben: BRD (1990) and Was ist los (1991); and the military video games of Serious Games I-IV (2009-10) and Parallel I-IV (2012-14). Over the course of decades, he documented a transition from instructional image/video to participatory game, reflecting technological advancements and “a new generation of users who want to click on images, not just look at them.” As the latter works show, operational images have long been intimately connected to warfare, military training, and now the rehabilitation of soldiers. Video game rehearsals act as virtual conditioning for the trauma of violent combat; video game re-enactments provide the subsequent therapy for post-traumatic stress disorders. Images prepare for physical risk, and treat psychological ruin.
Damage Caused by V2 Rocket Attacks in Britain, 1945. Ruined flats in Limehouse, East London, following the explosion of the last German V2 rocket to fall on London. Courtesy Imperial War Museum
Rehearsal and disaster are historically intertwined in the genre of “future ruins,” fantasies of imagined catastrophe and decay visited upon famous or familiar sites. This tradition became fashionable in the eighteenth century, immediately congealed into cliché, but never really dried out—just mutated from Hubert Robert's picturesque paintings of collapsed monuments, via Victorian allegories of anxiety over the end of empire, to modernist architecture cast as failed utopias, and now coffee-table books documenting the economic decline of Detroit through luxurious double-page spreads. Disaster sells; prophecy and profit have an on-again, off-again relationship. Nina Dubin has pointed out that the emergence of “the cult of ruins coincided with [that of] of modern market structures,” noting that “market forces appear to have catalysed an awareness of contingency,” “unpredictable returns,” “the vicissitudes of credit,” and—for the real-estate entrepreneur—the lucrative potential of urban catastrophe. Like the still life or vanitas, the “future ruin” fuses aesthetics, economics, and ethics in a visualization of property ravaged by the sins and delusions of its owners: the Dorian Gray effect.
Brian Dillon—the go-to expert on ruination and co-curator of Tate Britain's popular 2014 exhibition Ruin Lust—writes that one reason for the enduring fascination of ruins is their ability to conjure an “intermediate moment” in which past, present, and future collapse. This compression of time, along with accompanying notions of fragmentation and entropy, are hallmarks of the patron saints of ruin in the contemporary art world: Robert Smithson—who coined the much-loved phrase “ruins in reverse” in his landmark 1967 photo-essay A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey—and JG Ballard, whose dystopian science fiction novels have alternately drowned, burned, and crystallized the world, experimenting with humanity's creative capacity for self-destruction. A film adaptation of Ballard's 1975 book High Rise—about the violent fate of residents of a tower block, whose social dynamic disintegrates in tandem with their desecration of the building—is scheduled for release within months of Fast's Remainder. High Rise casts gentrification as an anti-civilizing force, in which progress and regress converge to rot structures from within.
Actual ruins are a rarity in London, surviving only through heritage listing and the whims of “urban regenerators.” Gentrification drives demolition and reconstruction at a cracking pace, often to the despair of existing residents. Narratives from contested zones are explored at the BFI next month in the short film programme "London as Battlefield," including screenings of John Smith's Blight (1996) and Concrete Heartland (2014) by Steven Ball and Rastko Novaković. In a consumer cycle predicated on planned obsolescence, structures are seldom allowed to reach ruin.
If there is no longer space or time for the ruin as real estate, will it expand into the virtual? Hito Steyerl's “poor image” is a digital ruin, degraded by constant circulation and the impact of numerous crops, filters, and compressions. Here, ruin is produced through excessive love—uncontrollable memetic contagion.
Thomas Hirschhorn, In-Between, Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2015. Courtesy Thomas Hirschhorn. Photo Mark Blower
For In-Between, his current exhibition at the South London Gallery, Thomas Hirschhorn has also produced ruin—or rather, the appearance of it—through excessive love. Hirschhorn is a self-professed fan, and his relationship to philosophy, literature, vernacular culture, products, materials, and aesthetics are thoroughly fan-like—that is, dominated by the importance of displaying the fan's love and dedication through creative acts. This love must be indiscriminate or it isn't real love. Hence, the artist's rejection of the qualitative and embrace of the quantitative, evident in his mantra of “Energy: Yes! Quality: No!”
In the exhibition's accompanying artist's statement, Hirschhorn sets out the terms of his self-imposed challenge: to give form to destruction, ruin, and disaster, “precarious and floating but dense and charged.” In-Between resembles the set of a B-grade, post-apocalyptic science fiction film—cheap materials built into ruin; the set limited in space, but evoking an extreme scale of destruction and mass havoc. In the tradition of the depiction of future ruins, nothing has fallen: everything is placed. Yet rather than cashing in on the traumatic transformation of a well-known monument, In-Between is a composite image, unspecific, with no clear referents from which to be estranged.
The installation dips and juts, receding across the gallery in successive tiers of stage scenery. This compartmentalization creates a series of dead ends, often the remains of cubicle or cell-like structures fitted with toilets—for a moment, the work appears to be a destroyed prison block. This would be logical: In-Between is presided over by a bed-sheet banner bearing a single line from Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, written during the Italian Marxist's near-decade of incarceration by Mussolini's Fascist regime. But what about the other furniture—desks, chairs, a broken IKEA bookcase? A tower block, then, mid-demolition—in reference to London's rabid housing bubble and aforementioned relentless gentrification. Yet there's also something of the ruined cathedral, the collapsed bunker, the Blitzed city street. The expanse of black fabric suspended above is both a starry night sky and a shrapnel-torn ceiling.
Thomas Hirschhorn, In-Between, Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2015. Courtesy Thomas Hirschhorn. Photo Mark Blower
The conflation of dead ends—“blocked passages”—and toilets again recalls John Smith's Blight, with its recurring motif of the toilet nested in the rubble of a partially demolished house. Waste is both a theme and a strategy for Hirschhorn, who desires to use “wastefulness as a tool or a weapon” by giving “too much” of his time and energy; by overproducing; by expending huge volumes of materials in his displays of enthusiasm; and by writing fervent artist's statements that provide too much information. Our treatment of waste reveals how we cope with the inevitable. To return to Beck: modernity's promise was to overcome natural disaster and mass wreckage with “more modernization and more progress... [but] in the age of risk the threats we are confronted with [are caused by] 'modernization' and 'progress' itself.” Globally, our response to mounting piles (and pits) of toxic, non-degradable waste is to create yet more waste. The writing's on the bed-sheet: “Destruction is difficult; indeed, it is as difficult as creation.”
Engaging the culture of uncertainty on its own terms, Hirschhorn short-circuits the relationship between progress and waste, success and failure, value and irrelevance, function and uselessness, urgency and stasis. Heavy things are made of light materials; new materials are made to look second-hand; the creative product masquerades as the aftermath of destruction. There are piles of carefully shaped cardboard rubble, painted matt grey or black, but no actual dirt or dust; all materials are manufactured—have undergone decades of complex engineering to look and be functional, reliable, simple. Brown packing tape, cardboard, cloth, Styrofoam, ducting hose, wires, toilets—materials that facilitate transit, wrapping, and disguise. Means to an end, used to construct an effigy of The End.
Hubert Roberts, Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins, 1796
To aestheticize risk and ruin is truly an ambivalent gesture: it inevitably underestimates human suffering and trivializes horror. Gramsci was scathing on the subject: the authentic destroyer-creator is compelled by historical necessity, while the “self-proclaimed destroyer” attacks the material instead of the message, thus only effecting “unsuccessful abortions.” Yet Hirschhorn courts this ambivalence as a necessity for operating “in-between” destruction and creation. As Svetlana Boym writes, “a tour of ruins leads you into a labyrinth of ambivalent language—no longer, not yet, nevertheless, albeit—that plays tricks with causality.” Hirschhorn's guiding principle is intermediacy. Rather than attempting solidarity with the precariat, the artist's desire is to act out “the values of the precarious—uncertainty, instability, and self-authorization” through “hazardous, contradictory and hidden encounters,” and thus “to be awakened... to be attentive” to “the fragility of life.”
Painted ruins are discrete zones, regardless of the illusions wrought by crumbling edges and mist-veiled depth of field. Hirschhorn avoids external vantage points, hierarchies, and clear sight-lines. The physical distance required for traditional ruin-gazing is denied; rather, the (special) effect is of being surrounded by destruction, wandering through wreckage, minding one's head, hands and feet. In this hall of grand disaster, I find myself automatically risk-assessing perils so mild they are almost absurd: trip hazards; swooping cables of tape and card; unexpected contact with other life forms surveying the wasteland. The gap between my situation, and the experience of real ruin by others elsewhere in the world, suddenly feels embarrassingly wide.
 Thomas Elsaesser, 'Simulation and the Labour of Invisibility: Harun Farocki's Life Manuals' presented at the symposium Life Remade: The Politics and Aesthetics of Animation, Simulation and Rendering, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, London, 5-6 June 2015.
 A quick internet search locates illustrated titles such as Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins, The Ruins of Detroit, and Detroit Disassembled, all published in 2010—the same time that Jan Kempenaers' Spomenik sparked off a wave of photographic surveys of abandoned Soviet Modernism.
(Image at the top: John Smith, film still from Blight, 1996. Courtesy John Smith)