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Detroit in memoriam: urban imaginaries and the spectre of demolished by neglect in performative photo-installations

Aelbrecht, Wes ORCID: 2022. Detroit in memoriam: urban imaginaries and the spectre of demolished by neglect in performative photo-installations. Cultural Geographies 10.1177/14744740221102905

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Much has been written in recent years about ruins and photography and especially so in the context of Detroit’s declining urban landscape. Numerous books present us with beautiful ruined buildings and landscapes; and further explanations why we might be drawn to images of decay. While some claim that ruin imagery triggers a form of resistance to the forces of capitalism; others stand critical to the beautification of ruins by arguing that such imagery removes viewers from any reflection on what causes ruins. Detroit’s new saviour Dan Gilbert is one of those ruin detractors who blames Detroit’s image as the poster child of ruin photography for all failed investments. This paper focusses on these image battles in the construction of a city’s place identity and argues for an understanding of ruin photographs as performance. Instead of offering a trace of an object once in front of the camera, I investigate how a collection of forgotten photo-installations curated by Detroit’s Urban Center for Photography gesture performatively to the ongoing event demolished by neglect whereby buildings are intentionally left to rot for profitable real estate development. Strategies of advertisement campaigns, it will be shown, are appropriated to make such live gestures. Investigating the doing aspect or force of ruin photographs contributes to cultural geography’s recent concerns around the potential ‘force of representations: their capacities to affect and effect’ and as such moves away from one of the central tasks of cultural geography, namely its focus on what representations mean. The spectre of Detroit’s image battle ultimately should provide us with questions about the construction of a city’s identity through visual documents and enable us to question the mechanism of neoliberal urban planning and governance.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Published Online
Status: In Press
Schools: Architecture
Additional Information: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (
Publisher: SAGE Publications
ISSN: 1474-4740
Funders: This research was funded by an AHRC Studentship Award, a Fulbright fellowship at Columbia University and the Bartlett School of Architecture Research Fund. For the images I received funding from the Welsh School of Architecture Research Grant Funding
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 29 June 2022
Date of Acceptance: 28 April 2022
Last Modified: 26 Oct 2022 12:10

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