If you’ve been following this blog for the past while, you’ll know that on most weekends for nearly two years now, I have been visiting the abandoned national schools scattered across the rural Irish landscape, taking photographs, and posting what I encounter online. I’ve already written notes which contextualise the socio-economic background to the environments I’ve been photographing (you can check these out here). The folk I meet along the way are generally curious about what I’m doing, and I guess the most frequently asked question I get is ‘Why?’.
It’s a very good question, and just about every time I’ve been asked, I’ve replied with a stock response, something along the lines of ‘I have no real explanation for why I began doing this; it began by accident’. This is true for the most part, but as time has gone on, I’ve begun to ask myself the same question, wondering if there is perhaps something more meaningful to it. And understandably so; I’ve just gone through my archive and there are about 170 school houses in there.
In a previous blog post I casually remarked (to myself really) that ‘I wouldn’t say that I’ve become obsessed with these abandoned buildings, but it recently occurred to me that in the past 12 months I’ve visited just over 100 tumbling down ruins of old schools, and that at the moment I feel compelled to stop and take a quick look around when I accidentally stumble across one. I guess this compulsion is part of being engaged in the project, part of caring about what you’re doing. Or, of course, perhaps it’s just an oddness. Regardless, the question is why do I have an interest in these ruins.
Contemporary ruins can provoke an unusual emotional response that is difficult define. A familiar environment that has fallen into decay can be both unsettling and intriguing, inspiring fascination and fear as a tangible reminder of the scale of your own lifetime. Kate Brown talks of the concept of ‘rustalgia’ in her book Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (2014). For her, while some people speak of their ‘lustful’ attraction to such sites, ‘others will speak in mournful tones of what is lost, what she calls rustalgia.’
Visiting and photographing abandoned buildings is sometimes referred to as Urbex, Urban Exploration, or ‘Ruin Porn’. The most visited themes of ‘Ruin Porn’ include concepts of catastrophe, the anthropocene, ruin-beauty, and sublime attraction of decaying architecture. But in the school houses I visit, it is the bizarre and sometimes false sense of nostalgia that is most striking; how my concept of time is warped as I am surrounded by familiar, man-made environment that is being quickly reclaimed by the earth. In a sense, I am not just exploring a physical landscape, but a cognitive landscape where my memory of these places as perennial is now clearly wrong.
Ruins appear to confront society’s faith in anthropological endurance. Decaying buildings signify the inevitable process of history, to which we all will eventually succumb. As Siobhan Lyons has eloquently put it in her ‘Debbie Does Decay’ discussion; Essentially, ‘ruin porn’ is a kind of time travel to the future within the present.
Memory is dynamic and fluid – a pulsing living thing. It can be continually stretched, coveted, erased and manipulated by the environment and circumstances from which it is recalled; taking on greater or lesser significance that is determined by the interpretation of those who recollect in the present. And nostalgia is even trickier still; a wistful desire in thought or in fact, for a former time in one’s, life. In Portuguese, the word Saudade represents this feeling; an emotional state of longing for an absent something -‘the love that remains’.
I do not feel this feeling, but I am keenly aware that outside of an individual’s family, or tragic and traumatic events in our youth, it could be argued that few things have greater impact on our development and personality, our understanding of the world around us, and our coping mechanisms to deal with and interpret that world as our experience of the classroom and schoolyard. With this in mind, consider how much of an impact these now rotting buildings may have had on the lives of many.
And maybe this is part of the answer to my original question of ‘Why?’. Perhaps I’m chasing nostalgia, chasing ghosts (be they my own or someone else’s) with a camera in an environment that is familiar yet strange.