Bearing Witness and Playing in Ruins: On the Onto-Poetics of Abandoned Places by Suvi Alt

Abandoned places have received increasing popular and academic interest during the past decade. Drawing on research that examines the ways in which derelict spaces enable contestation of capitalism and power, the paper combines an auto-ethnographic account of visits to several abandoned sites with a theoretical elaboration of Giorgio Agamben’s concepts of ‘witnessing’ and ‘play.’ In discussing ‘urban exploration’ as a practice of bearing witness to and playing with abandoned places, the paper deploys a notion of onto-poetics as a site of transformation connecting poetics, life and the political. Onto-poetics draws on a Heideggerian conception of art, which does not prioritise a preference for the aesthetic, but refers to the happening of being, and which is here understood as opening up a new space for politics. The paper seeks to offer a twofold argument regarding the politics that can unfold in and through ruins. Firstly, I argue that urban exploration is a practice of witnessing the past in the present, yet not in the form of recounting an event as a result of having been present as a spectator, but in the form of listening to absence through the materiality of the site. Secondly, I argue that urban exploration is a free and common use of the order of places and identities: a playing with and using what used to be sacred. The onto-poetics of abandoned places lies in the ruins’ potential to effect change in the way in which one conceives of life as well as one’s environment beyond the ruin.