The world as we know it will cease to exist. One day, between a Facebook scroll and a coffee break, a part of your memories will disappear from Earth. It may be the antique building you used to see when visiting your grandma. Your big, dreamy eyes looking at all the odd decorations with both fear and fascination in your heart. It could be the tiny old library where you used to study as a teen, torn down in favour of a more modern and functional facility. It could even be the club where you met your best friend. The world goes on when our hearts stay still in many different places in time, at the same time. When things change, when lovers get lost and when years go by, places are the only real thing that can testify the memories we hold dear. In this modern society, where everything needs to be updated and everyone needs to follow a trend, there’s no more space for such places.
I remember falling in love in a forsaken abandoned factory. The first months of my teenage love spent exploring its halls, decorating its corners with objects found in the street: a dirty couch, a broken lamp.
This isn’t anything new. Redecorating and giving new form and life to abandoned places has always been a mission of contemporary artists. Just think about all the art installations, street art pieces and occupied art galleries that popped up more or less recently: places such as the notorious Rivoli 59, a historic building in the centre of Paris that a group of artists occupied in 1999 in order to host exhibitions and performances. The place soon became the third most visited center for contemporary art in the ville lumière, leading to its acquirement by the city of Paris, that now rents the studio spaces to artists for an affordable rent. But there are many other ways to keep alive such places. One is Urbex.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, Urbex stands for “urban exploration”: an activity that involves exploring abandoned or forbidden places. There are two main currents: the one that finds its excitement in visiting forbidden structures such as bridges and skyscrapers, and the one that focuses on abandoned places. I am far more into the latter, and Instagram agrees: the urbex hashtag #abandoned has more than 5 million public posts. But what do these urban explorers do?
Usually, they enter properties and document what they see through photographs or videos. Their goal is to preserve a building’s history, but also the building itself: urbexers don’t usually share the exact location of the place they’ve visited. This is because urbexers are not vandals, they are actually the exact opposite. Being an urbexer means trying to save the memories of a world which is dying and fading before our eyes. Just looking at the pictures taken in some of such places – asylums, hospitals, orphanages, schools, factories, mansions – will make you feel the presence of something that is not quite here, yet not quite gone. The hunting of echoes from the past, of faces which were once happy, of families now fallen apart, of suffering souls whose names are now only remembered on crumbled walls.
Urban explorer and photographer Tim Frawley says this in an interview: “One of the reasons I love documenting such places is because a lot of them are in the crosshairs of developers nowadays and ready to be torn down, so getting in there and capturing places before they are torn down is pretty cool.” And I completely understand what Tim means.
In an oversharing world, in a social media-based society, what could be more frightening than being forgotten?