In the mid-to-late 19th century, the city of Paris was undergoing a change. The process was called Haussmannization, and it was a campaign for the modernization of Paris. Thousands of buildings, many hundreds of years old and dating back to the medieval era, were destroyed to make way for Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s broad new streets and open parks. Haussmann’s designs were controversial among Parisians at the time, but they seemed especially biting to photographer Eugene Atget, who would make it his personal mission to photograph and preserve views of vieux Paris, or “old Paris.” The peculiar thing about these images, however, is not necessarily what is there, but what is missing–the majority of his photographs are entirely devoid of human life. In a city as crowded as Paris, views of empty streets are uncommon, and that emptiness translates into a strange surreality. There is something eerie and dreamlike about the desolation; one gets the sense that these are places meant for people to inhabit, and yet they stand starkly empty in sepia tones, stills captured of a city on a knife’s edge between modernity and its bygone roots.
More than 150 years later, beginning in the late 2010s, a niche subgenre of video would begin gaining popularity on YouTube. These videos are simple processions of images, mostly depicting common spaces–department stores, malls, playrooms and playgrounds, school hallways and classrooms. These places, though vaguely familiar to most viewers, are always shown to be empty, often darkened. The images are usually of poor quality and have bad lighting and amateur composition. They comprise the crux of an internet community focused around liminal spaces. The term “liminal” is based on the latin word “limen,” which means “threshold,” and is anthropological in nature, used originally to describe the transitional stage in a rite of passage, between the beginning state and the end state. It has, however, taken on a different, more generalized meaning to the people in these internet communities. It usually refers to a picture of a place that is strangely familiar, but somehow made eerie by emptiness or darkness. A good example of this effect comes in pictures of empty shopping malls. Most viewers will be familiar with the aesthetics of a shopping mall, but only within the context of it being filled with people, talking and laughing and living their lives; removed from that context, it becomes dreamlike, even unnerving. The fact that most viewers will not know the exact location of the place in the photograph and may only remember places similar to it from childhood memories embedded deep within their psyches contributes to this sense of being displaced in time. It’s easy to see how these images make people feel just by reading the titles of the videos: many are called things like “Photos That Feel Strangely Familiar,” and “Places You’ve Seen in Your Dreams.”
Both of the above examples represent the disruption of a strong urge in the human psyche to make sense of our reality through context clues. The human brain is a pattern-recognizing machine; we are wired to locate and interpret patterns as fast as possible. It’s rooted within our biology–the signals our eyes take in are not the images we see and describe to one another, they are disparate photons hitting the cones behind our eyeballs, and what we see is what our brain interprets based on context. This is the reason certain optical illusions work, because our brain fills in what it does not know based on familiar patterns, and it can, and frequently does, get it wrong. We are meant to go through this process as a method of survival, and seeing things just slightly out of place from the way we usually see them can trigger a strong sense of unease in the back of our minds, remnants of old instincts we rarely use in our lives today.
This is, I think, what makes these works so strange to us. The places in Atget’s photos and the locations in liminal space videos are places that are created with the explicit purpose of being used by people. Schools are meant to have kids in them, shopping malls are meant to have customers, and the streets of Paris were paved so that people could walk on them. The removal of that purpose tosses our senses into a kind of shock. We know there is meant to be life here- it’s written in the way we’ve constructed the very places we are seeing–and yet it is gone.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Atget and liminal space videos both focus on images from some kind of nebulous past. In the case of Atget, they are photos of the streets of old Paris, created as a way to remember buildings that might have, at the time, been in danger of being destroyed in the quest for modernity. In the case of liminal spaces, the pictures are deliberately of low quality, as if taken on an older camera, and show spaces that are often difficult to place in time, with flavors of design usually spanning between the 1980s and early 2000s. These works give us the strangest sense of temporality–they are palpably of the past, yet they give us little to actually hold on to in that regard, leaving the time period hazy and uncertain.
This makes us uneasy, of course, but we also seem to be continuously fascinated by that uneasiness. There is a clear interest in that feeling of being unmoored in reality. In the same way that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Atget and liminal spaces create a similar effect on a viewer, I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that this fascination seems to become more pronounced at certain moments in time.
Atget’s photography was responding to a specific cultural movement within Paris. Thousands of familiar, timeworn buildings lining the streets of the city were being literally destroyed to make room for this new, unfamiliar vision of France as a glorious light of modernity shining in the center of Western Europe. His images of unnatural desolation would go on to become a strong influence on the French surrealism movement of the 1920s.
Though the interest in liminal spaces can trace its roots to about 2016, many of the videos showcasing series of liminal images were uploaded in the tumultuous months spanning the late spring and summer of 2020. This was a time during which many people were living with a sense of perpetual unease–the Coronavirus pandemic had just begun and little was known about the virus and its long-term effects. Schools were shuttered, jobs were lost, family members got sick and suffered and on occasion died, and there was little to be done but wait it out. Stuck in their homes, alone with their thoughts, many people had emotional and personal crises that would drastically change their lives; what followed was a mass disillusionment with politics and the rituals of daily life under capitalism. Though mapping the sociological and psychological effects of an ongoing crisis is difficult, for many people, it was a time of absolute tonal dissonance, dramatic upheaval clashing with the boredom of endless days in quarantine. In a dreamy way, these liminal images might have been able to capture a bit of that experience, taking depictions of familiar places and defamiliarizing them, making them alien, capturing the very real liminality of life during a pandemic.
There is a fairly popular theory of psychology that is used to (partially) explain why people like horror movies as much as they do. It basically says that horror is so alluring to many because it allows us to experience strong emotions like fear in an environment that is safe, controlled, somewhat disconnected from the viewer, allowing you not only to feel that emotion, but explore it, dwell in it, even enjoy it. And that sort of exploration can help us process real-life traumas–many horror movies deal with broad societal fears in allegory, allowing audiences an outlet for those fears. So it might not come as a surprise, then, that in times when huge, existential ideas are imposing themselves upon us–when the ever-advancing march of progress threatens to alienate you from a city you love, or when the sheer instability and uncertainty of life in the modern world is suddenly brought into sharp relief by a global catastrophe–that one would turn to art that reflects those anxieties as a way to explore those strong emotions.
During the earliest days of Coronavirus, when tensions ran especially high and no one knew exactly what the future had in store, my sister, who was at the time attending college in Pittsburg, Kansas, came to live with us in our childhood home for several months. She set up a bedroom in our basement–her former room had been colonized by my twin sister in the two years she’d been at school–complete with a TV she’d brought from her own house down in Pittsburg, which she’d taken for fear of it getting burglarized while she was away. I remember staying up for hours, into the early mornings on days I might otherwise have been expected to be in school, and just watching TV with my two sisters like we were kids again. I remember, too, when it struck me that this would likely be the last time I ever lived with her. For the first 13 years of my life, I had seemingly taken for granted the presence of this person, my sister, and eventually this pandemic would be gone, and I would go on to have my own adult life, and this would be it. I would probably only see her sporadically, on holidays and in any other moments we could work out time to meet, as we try to weave between the schedules of our separate lives. This only became more clear when I decided to move to Massachusetts to attend school, 1300 miles from my home, eschewing any notion of permanent residence in my family home, barring extreme circumstances like the one that brought my sister back to us, for what would likely be the rest of my life.
This sense of loss is not uncommon. In fact, the passing of time, the certainty of change and the looming notion of mortality that ties into those anxieties may be the only thing all people, living and dead, have had in common.
In this way, these disparate pieces of media–horror movies, Atget, liminal spaces–are a way to experience and examine difficult realities that may feel too big to confront directly. At those times when the grand, poetic tragedies of the human condition are brought into sudden focus, we may begin to discover comfort in that which is familiar yet foreign; in these in-between places in reality, where we find deep discomfort but also some kind of bizarre catharsis–in these places we see in our dreams.