October 8, 2021 | OPINION | By Star Goudriaan | Photo courtesy of the author

On Sept. 30, 2021, prolific critical theorist Jack Halberstam gave a talk at Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center entitled “An Aesthetics of Collapse: Coming Undone with Alvin Baltrop and Pauline Oliveros.” 

The crux of his argument was, as the name suggests, a call for rethinking the unmaking of lifeworlds by basking in or embracing nothingness via the collapse of architecture, anarchitecture, ruin cruising, and eroticism in Alvin Baltrop’s photography and larger cultural trends. 

While Baltrop’s photography of the Hudson River piers has often been regarded in terms of his depiction of gay masculine bodies, Halberstam wants to shift the viewer’s attention to the falling of the edifices. In doing this, the hope is to create a new way of looking at the world that privileges collapse over progress, a snapshot of a particular moment of falling out of oppressive logics of modernity. 

Halberstam explicitly expressed that we live in a moment where climate catastrophe is imminent: The uncontrolled blending of animal and human networks has brought us COVID-19, predatory lending has led to the convergence of speculative capitalism and debt, and right-wing neo-nationalism has visibly taken hold of our political systems. 

The point is that while capitalism displays an image of constant accumulation and surplus, the aesthetics of collapse reminds us that our larger economic world is punctuated by loss, debt, and deficit. And it is not that negative currencies are an inverted byproduct of business as usual but that they are a direct product of the way global neoliberalism functions. 

Halberstam situated Baltrop’s photography in a New York City of the 1970s where buildings were simultaneously naturally falling down and being burnt to the ground in the Bronx by property owners in order to collect insurance money at the expense of inhabitants. 

Halberstam offered an alternative reading of Baltrop’s work not only as homosexual eroticism in an interesting setting, but also as the depiction of collapsing buildings that take on, in themselves, the role of a protagonist. He even showed a photograph where no person was present, pointing to the potential for art making by non-human subjects. 

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins” was brought up during the talk and later in the Q&A. The book touches on similar issues of finding alternative ways of being in the wake of progress. It rings of posthumanism, a philosophy that attempts to decenter and destabilize the human subject in hopes of reimagining agency. 

All very inspiring, but we probably would be amiss to forget the people who were negatively affected by the collapse the photographs depict and by the burning of the Bronx buildings for the collection of insurance money. 

It is important to acknowledge the role that already-existent power relations historically played and still play in creating and being able to, once set in motion, turn away from the collapse.

I would argue that the edifices Baltrop depicts are not canvases of nothingness. They continue to hold, as they come down to us through photography and as they remain haunting that which has now replaced them at their physical sites, specters of meaning, alternative futures, and interpretations of human experience, like sex. 

We also should center the people who are currently being dispossessed and killed by legacies of colonial capitalism, fascism, climate destruction, and the rise of neoliberal politics. 

If these systems mentioned are the things which should be collapsing, it would be difficult to agree that all bodies should engage in a self-negation on par with Fred Herko’s famous leap into death in order to bring about such collapse. 

If you are interested in learning more about Jack Halberstam’s work, don’t hesitate to visit http://www.jackhalberstam.com/bio/ and https://english.columbia.edu/content/jack-halberstam.

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