We will never forget 9/11. But it has not shaped us

What happened was huge, but the neocons have gone, and the Middle East and the west are not engaged

9/11 changed nothing. Obviously for the victims, and their families, it changed everything, for ever. But in geopolitical terms it was not a transformative event. The kaleidoscope was not shaken. The pieces never were in flux.

We're not supposed to say that, of course. The tenth anniversary of that appalling day requires appropriate commemoration, and, sadly, fan-fare. As such, it cannot simply be a footnote. It must be nothing less than the frame upon which the 21st century rests.

But the historic vantage point of September 11 is illusory. The fall of the twin towers were nowhere near comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The US invasion of Afghanistan was itself not even as significant as the invasion conducted by the Soviet Union two decades earlier. Bin Laden's killing will not outlast the impact and resonance of the death of figures such as Che Guvera, Steve Biko or Mohamed Bouazizi.

9/11 was the day that was supposed to have re-shaped the United States, transformed the Middle East and irrevocably altered our world. It did none of those things.

In the US we were promised, or threatened with, the dawning of a neo-conservative century. White Anglo-Saxon America would retreat behind a wall of steel, venturing forth occasionally to subjugate the hapless natives with another brutal lesson in shock and awe.

In fact, the neo-conservative century lasted another three years. Then hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, followed shortly after by the banking crash, and White Anglo-Saxon America realized you just can't build your walls high enough. Republican war hero John McCain was defeated by a black community activist named Hussein Obama, and Dick Cheney retired to begin work on his memoir In My Time.

Those who predicted change in the Middle East proved more prescient. Just. The toppling of Saddam was supposed to light a beacon of freedom that would illuminate the region. Until we stumbled across the descent into barbarism that was Abu Ghraib.

At the same time, Bush and Blair's reckless adventurism was supposed to have locked west and east into a new dance of death. Then the states of the Arab League gave NATO their blessing to impose a no-fly zone on Colonel Gaddafi, and cheering crowds in Tripoli's Green square celebrated his overthrow by waving the French tricolor.

Yes we have had our glimpse of the Arab spring. But not because of the actions of Khalid Mohammed or Blackwater Security. None of the freedom movements in Tunisia or Egypt or Libya were born on that clear, crisp New York morning.

And whilst much has changed, much has stayed the same. The Palestinians are still without a homeland; the Israelis without security in their own. The richest area of our planet is still ruled by faded monarchies and religious zealots and petty dictators. Their world, and the world of their people, hasn't turned.

Nor, in truth, has ours. The war on terror has touched, but not shaken us. Al-Qaeda have had less lasting impact in Britain than did the IRA, or ETA in Spain, or the Red Brigade in Italy. The fear they instil amongst those who still remember the Stasi is minimal. In Scandinavia, they watch for demons closer to home.

Of course there are tensions. Undercurrents. If you are a Muslim, suspicion and fear are companions. But the fact is those tensions have always been present. Thirty years ago, the signs read: "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish". Today, Muslims and asylum seekers would take their place. Except today, even after 9/11, such signs would be illegal.

Despite the apocalyptic premonitions, we do not live in a constant stage of siege. There are no bomb detectors at our tube stations, or five hour check-ins for our flights. There is a new terrorist hot-line, but hardly any of us have ever called it. Attempts to extend detention without trial have been, and gone.

Inevitably there have been those who have attempted to build a legacy out of the horrors of the previous decade. Nick Griffin was one, until last week, when the bailiffs arrived to repossess his Skoda. His party will soon follow.

Another was Stephen Lennon of the EDL, but his members can no longer march, and he can't walk the streets of his own city unless he is in disguise. Islam4UK never did make it down to Wootton Bassett, or to Luton, where the local Muslim community leaders informed them there presence wasn't welcome.

None of this is to diminish the enormity of what happened ten years ago this September. Or belittle the suffering of those who were directly involved, or touched by its aftermath.

But the neocons have gone. The Middle East and the west are not engaged in a new holy war. Repression and authoritarianism have not cast a long shadow over our society.

9/11 was a day none of us will ever forget. But it has not shaped us. The kaleidoscope still sits, and waits.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.