What if human beings just disappeared?

United Arts Theatre

Abandoned United Arts Theatre, Detroit, MI

While watching the History channel series called Life after People, I started thinking about the aesthetics of the apocalypse. The TV series looked at how the earth would look if human beings just disappeared, leaving everything behind just as it was the instant that we vanished and how long it would take nature to reclaim many of the objects and structures that humans had spent millennia cultivating. We saw a version of this in 23 Skidoo where the world had all the things that we created, but we, as human beings, were no longer in it. 23 Skidoo made the viewer feel as if the human race had just stepped out the moment before the film started. Everything was left exactly how it was, as if we had just been there caretaking for it a moment before. A more advanced version of this can be seen right now around the world, in places like the exclusion zones for nuclear accidents such as in Chernobyl, and Fukushima. In Detroit, once thriving areas have begun to crumble and decay in the aftermath of the mass exodus of people after the 1967 riots, and later when the bottom dropped out of the automotive industry.

Chernobyl Ferris Wheel Still Standing 26 years after the Disaster

Chernobyl Ferris Wheel Still Standing 26 years after the Disaster

It seems that people have a fascination with the idea of a world without us. Tours of both the Chernobyl exclusion zone and the abandoned buildings of Detroit have been marketed as “dead zone tours,” where people can sightsee what the world we created would look like without our intervention. Many of the pictures of these places depict buildings crumbling, vehicles left in the middle of the road, and nature growing up, around and over top of man-made objects. What is our fascination with the aesthetics of the apocalypse? Is it merely the creepiness factor where objects and structures that we once cared for and maintained are now being taken over by nature? In the age of technology, are we so disconnected from our physical organic environment that we see nature as an intrusive Other invading our curated spaces?

Abandoned Grocery Store inside Fukushima's Exclusion Zone

Abandoned Grocery Store inside Fukushima’s Exclusion Zone

New York Times writer Mark Binelli suggests that the aesthetics of Detroit’s 70,000 abandoned buildings might be just the thing that ends up saving the city on a cultural level. Binelli cites that the crumbling, ruined Detroit is becoming a mecca for visual artists and photographers fleeing the gentrification of places like New York. The suggestion is that places such as Detroit might be the perfect place for artists to “meditate on ruin” and reflect on “the transitory nature of man’s greatest achievements,” in a similar way to how European artists have when living around and visiting the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla or the Coliseum in Rome.  The fascination with “new world ruins” is something that Binelli considers to be both nostalgia for the past, and an overt preoccupation with the inevitability of future decay. Arguably the apocalyptic aesthetic is something that brings the viewer back to the cyclical nature of everything, even things that human beings created to last long past our own individual years.