Will the Swedish automobile maker Saab be alive and functioning a month from now? No one knows.
The company spokesman confirmed yesterday (November 18) that talks are continuing – past the original deadline – with two Chinese firms about a possible purchase. But Saab’s former owner General Motors has veto rights. And so far GM has blocked any sale. It doesn’t want valuable technology licenses to be transferred to potential Chinese competitors.
For Jan Jörnmark, a Swedish economic historian, the potential demise of the once fashionable Saab is just part of the “creative destruction” that makes the economy go round.
Creative destruction – the old disappearing to make way for the new – is somewhat of a specialization for Jörnmark. He travels the world taking photographs of once mighty factories and manufacturing towns that are now abandoned. His original inspiration was Detroit.
For Latitude News, I sat down with him in his apartment in the thriving downtown of Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg.
So Detroit was very clearly the starting point for you, visually?
Detroit was the starting point for this urban exploration movement, which I am part of. It was an artist in Detroit [Lowell Boileau] that started it in the 1990s. He had the first internet site and it’s still there, Fabulous Ruins of Detroit (http://www.detroityes.com/home.htm) and it’s like a competitive advantage. What’s the competitive advantage of Detroit? Well, they’ve got the best ruins in the world so obviously they should be first on the internet, and what’s the second? Yeah, Wallonia [the French speaking part of Belgium that was once the most industrialized region in continental Europe], of course, and Wallonia was the second on the internet.
That was old coal mines and steel mills in Belgium?
Yes, very much coal mines and steel mills, but also mental hospitals, old tuberculosis hospitals, all of this assortment of fantastic places.
So what was the first thing you photographed in Sweden?
The first thing I photographed was an abandoned power station down in Halland, a very, very beautiful place built in 1906, something like that.
…And I visited an old “Folkets Park”, which is really an amusement park that we had in Sweden – the “People’s Parks”. They were all over Sweden, there were probably 600 or 700 in the 1950s and 1960s. Today I don’t think there are more than 100. They have been abandoned because people don’t go to dance outdoors any more. And I found one of these, a very famous people’s park just by chance in the spring of 2004. We were driving by and my wife said, “Look, there is an abandoned People’s Park.” It had been voted the best park in Sweden in 1969… and now it was overgrown, with trees, in total decay. And I was just amazed, because this was Sweden, a very nice, orderly country where we didn’t leave our People’s Parks and our steel industries just like that. And I started to photograph it.
There are very strong emotions tied up with destruction, with creative destruction, and these photographs are imbued with emotion. I wonder if you can describe how it makes you feel doing this work, looking at these pictures?
Well, I’m not very nostalgic. If I had been very nostalgic, I wouldn’t have been able to photograph all these places because I would have been crying my way all over Sweden. To me, it was kind of like seeing the capitalist cycle for real…Even though I had written about it I learned an enormous amount by looking at it. But to many other people, it’s nostalgia: this was the way we grew up in the 1950s and 60s, this was the way that we worked in the 60s and 70s and this is the Sweden that we lost.
I was very struck by an ice hockey rink that you found in Karlskrona in the south of Sweden.
Yes, built in 1963, one of the first indoor rinks in Sweden. Ice hockey was created by these indoor rinks that were built here in the 1960s…Everybody started to love ice hockey. And of course, this rink that I found in Karlskrona was one of the very first… And, of course, now we have these new multi-arenas going up everywhere, and the old fabulous rinks of the early 1960s that everybody loved – where I more or less grew up myself in Karlstad – they are falling apart.
You’ve published four books now, and you’ve taken your own photographs in Detroit. Tell me how you experienced Detroit.
I wanted to write a book about globalization. I had to choose four or five places that were symbolic to globalization and change after 1950 and Detroit was the obvious choice, because Detroit has experienced all of it, its decline from two million people to 700,000 today. There’s nothing comparable in any other city in the world. The ruins are just spectacular and you are able to tell the story through these ruins. I had been there several times before, the first time was in 1980, but I went back in 2009 to explore. I had been exploring all over Eastern Europe and so on, and I had been to other parts of the US before, but then we got to Detroit and we didn’t dare to get out of the car. We went into one skyscraper, and we were terrified in there as well, so what I realized was that I had to get into the sub-culture in Michigan, the urban explorers, and I developed an English site, www.creativedestruction.se , with English text in order to create legitimacy for myself so I could be accepted by these guys in Michigan. And I was accepted and I was able to go with people from Detroit.
When you’re with a local guy, he knows what’s happening, he knows which places are open, he knows which people are on crack, he knows where you don’t want to go, and it’s absolutely necessary in Detroit. You can’t do it without a local. One time my colleague Annika and I sneaked away from the others and in the middle of the night we went up on the roof of an abandoned skyscraper and we stood there 16 floors up on a Gothic skyscraper of the 1970s with a birch tree growing beside us looking out over Detroit. The city is dead, because it is a city that has lost its life and it’s like a scene from Bladerunner or something like that.
Some people say this kind of photography – of a city’s demise – is “urban pornography”, a kind of voyeurism. What do you say to that?
That is just stupid. It would –in effect- mean that you couldn’t photograph anything with negative connotations without being accused of being a ”pornographer”. I know that people in Detroit have that kind of feelings, but it’s a very simple fact of life that the city has declined from 2 million inhabitants to today’s 710,000. Of course, the collapse is of immense interest to the general public.
And the same process you say is going on in Sweden? On a different scale.
It’s the same process. It’s the same process in Trollhättan, in Manchester [UK] and in Detroit. The challenge is, are you able to develop your knowledge about this new world; are you able to be competitive?