By Glen Southergill
I would like to begin by acknowledging a primordial figure which remains common in folk and other lores: the archetypal haunted houses. They tormented us—any or all of us—as children, and perhaps still fascinate us later in life as manifestations of those places that disturb our zones of comfort. Perhaps clutching the straps of our backpacks just a bit tighter, we ran by them on our way to our school bus stop. Or maybe we become tense as we watch Danny Torrance peddle around the hallways of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of The Shining. Something there requires attention, for some unknown reason.
With the allure of ghostly places in mind, we can enter Justin Graffa’s fascinating “The Art of Trespassing” more fully attenuated to the questions of motive that fall squarely at the core of his work. Why enter foreboding buildings, much less document them? Why would the related genre of media production, termed urban exploration, congeal as a pastime and/or artistic endeavor? Graffa investigates a fascination, or perhaps fetish, with forsaken places given new life with expanding personal multimedia capture and distribution capabilities. And in so doing, he demonstrates some of the unique properties digital narratives offer undergraduate writers.
We begin by seeing what may be termed camaraderie amongst young men. But as they jovially kick doors amongst excited whispers, Graffa’s composition darkens and invokes arguably deviant interests amongst some explorers. Perhaps voyeuristic intentions become sufficient attractors for some participants, the viewer may wonder. Such disquieting connections probably do not dissipate from the viewer’s mind as groups of urban explorers share stories or pictures online. As some participants gain notoriety, they by extension obtain a type of deeply problematic agency. The viewer at this time may see more of “the trespass” than “the art” in Graffa’s treatment of urban exploration.
In contrast, Graffa also recognizes potentially viable arguments in support of some urban exploration efforts. Ruins serve as living relics and reminders of shifting economic and social conditions, for instance in the case of Detroit’s population decline. Detroit reminds us that cities themselves as living ecologies symbiotically align decay or development with number (and affluence) of residents. The city lives insofar as the population thrives. Graffa notes that buildings embody their time and so understanding time’s passage in material forms could then lead to identifications, whether nostalgic or historic. Concurrently memory culture may intersect with urban exploration, and the art in question appeals not to senses of personal conquest but to communally beneficial interventions.
So then, what motivates urban exploration? Graffa memorably keeps the question open by concluding with a “maybe.” He shrewdly turns against singular metanarratives to explain the phenomenon, defensibility, or merits of urban exploration. In so doing, the rhetorical impetus for analysis falls more squarely on the content creators and viewers to become sophistic(ated) within the genre. I remain convinced that his case could not be made without cinematic and aural affordances and am again reminded of haunted houses. We never stop looking, even as we hurriedly walk away, and we never come up with a great answer to the “why” question. Thus, in the final analysis, Graffa delivers a haunting mystery (which cannot simply be ignored) as only a digital narrative would allow.