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    The Ultimate Detroit Ruin Porn

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Detroit ruin porn is everywhere. High-res husks of decaying factories are still regular fixtures in photo spreads, and the pixilated, shadowy rubble of freshly razed lots still generates clicks in online slideshows. The post-apocalyptic aesthetic that lets us fetishize Detroit's decline is ubiquitous in news reports and documentaries. It's got its own landing page on the planet's most popular blog. It's entirely ubiquitous; it's the dominant visual narrative nonresidents use to understand the fall of the Motor City.

    But no cultural product to emerge thus far can contend with the new king of Detroit ruin porn—a freestyle skiing video wherein a band of white thrill-seekers treat the abandoned, crumbling detritus of a once-mighty American city as an edgy terrain park. 

    There's a legitimate debate to be had over the merits of ruin porn—whether it encourages an exploitative, reductive, misleading narrative about the city, or serves as a powerful, memorable demonstration of economic decline, a portrait of the failures of capitalism. The "Detroit" installment of Tracing Skylines, a newly released ski documentary sponsored by Red Bull, makes a pretty strong argument for the former. 

    "This place is unreal. It's abandoned, it's big, it's dangerous. And it's a challenge." 

    These are the opening lines, spoken by a freestyle skiing pro as cameras pan over emptied factories, shuttered houses, puddles of water in a vacant lot amidst the demolished urban landscape. Then our protagonists do what can best be described as "post-apocalypse skiing," as Brian Bergstein tweeted. Like so many other fictional or semi-fictional end times-flavored culture products, the video focuses on a group of mostly white people doing exhilarating things in a grim, End of Days-esque environment. 

    To be sure, the ski scenes are callous but visually striking—watching a skier making a jump from the second story of a dark, dilapidated factory and stick the landing amidst ashen snow on the ruined floor is undeniably arresting. The contrived narrative that insists the trio of skiers and the film crew are in constant danger is less so. 

    "Normally, when you're hitting urban, the only one putting their life at risk is the skier, but in Detroit, everyone involved is putting themselves in harm's way," one of the skiers says. Audio of police sirens introduces the piece, and an effort to freestyle at an abandoned hospital is cut short, presumably because it's on gang turf. 

    "Some dude who's super sketchy and cracked out" apparently startled the band of skiers, and they claim to have seen an SUV full of facemask-wearing thugs idling before they left. B-roll of graffiti and broken windows and homeless derelicts accompany the segment. 

    This strikes to the very heart of the problem with ruin porn—it's the sum total of what the skiers and the film producers perceive the environment to be. Detroit is a broken place, full of broken things, and why shouldn't they be allowed to make cool-looking videos in the wreckage wherever they want? It's a dead city, after all—who cares if you ski in the post-apocalyptic ruins?

    This is why the media critic Douglas Rushkoff bemoans our culture's "present shock"—our obsession with the now, which he thinks helps explain our love of apocalyptica. In apocalyptic fiction, we're presented with a simple binary, after all—things are either working, or they're not. We're thriving, or doomed. There's little impetus to carefully consider the spate of socioeconomic problems that are actually animating the depicted demise—why toil over issues that will take ten years to solve when we'll be wading through ashes by then, anyway? 

    In an essay for Guernica, John Patrick Leary finds similar fault with the Detroit ruin porn phenomenon. "So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city," he writes.

    But ruin porn isn't just reductive or glib; now we've seen how it sets the stage for more exploitative narratives. The filmmakers surely harbored no ill intent with their ski stunt, but it's built on some pretty perverse logic—that this apocalyptic city is now a danger to anyone who passes through it.

    That they, the jockeys, the tourists, are the ones threatened by Detroit, which might as well be filled with menacing zombies. The residents, who we meet briefly at the beginning and are all black, talk about a lack of jobs—and are themselves cast aside like token minority zombie-fodder in the Walking Dead. They're peripheral, and mostly there to ratchet up tension for our heroes, who want to do some 720s while it looks like the world ends around them.  

    This is surely the apex, the ultimate Detroit ruin porn. It's not the first sports documentary to manipulate well-known cultural cues to enhance drama—but it's certainly the one that looks the most like Dawn of the Dead. And it's some of the best evidence yet it's time to find a new visual metaphor for Rust Belt decline.