One of the most curious aspects of Dan Bell‘s YouTube videos is just how watchable they are. Bell, who has just over 365,000 subscribers, is one of the pioneers of UrbEx [urban exploration], a sub culture of video makers who explore buildings, factories, churches, hospitals, tunnels and just about any other man-made environments that have been abandoned to their fates. Most of this genre of videos are basic documentation, the makers walking through a space with a DLSR, the footage treated a range of usually low key creative liberties taken in post production, some makers adding music, sound effects and on and off screen commentary.
Bell’s videos are split into three main series – Dead Malls, Dead Motels and Another Dirty Room. The first two series are more or less self explanatory; the Dead Malls videos are long walks through malls that have closed and have been reclaimed by rubbish and graffiti, or are down to just one or two stores and are, or are in some state of bizarre stasis where, for example, a single shop remains in a shopping mall because the owner, who also owns the mall, is using the empty corridors as a makeshift museum for a family collection of Hollywood and local history memorabilia. Dead Motels concentrates on abandoned spaces with no visitors beyond the homeless who sleep there and the rats who infest piles of paper and sodden bed sheets. With an uncanny ability to get around locked doors and into empty corridors, Bell finds the remains of the motel rooms, grounds and amenities often literally turned upside down, a whirl of remains that looks like a crime scene. The Another Dirty Room series is a spin off from Dead Motels, where Bell and two on-screen helpers forensically examine a room in a motel that’s been given 1 star rating online. Stripping back the linen to find bugs and sweat-stained pillows using blacklight to reveal spatters and spills of unknown origin, and that CSI-style spray that reveals human fluids such as semen and blood, this is a nightmare from which you cannot look away.
Bell will add to the basic formula some interesting extras such as some crapped-out VHS found footage from the period of the motel or mall’s opening, often from the 1980s and early 90s, clips with vibrating tracking lines that add a sense of camp irony to proceedings. Bell also has a fondness for using Vaporwave music to act as kind of ersatz Muzak in places where the electricity would have long been disconnected. The visual style of the videos is also idiosyncratic. Bell is a big man – tall and obese – who straps down his DSLR at chest height, then slowly walks through the space, a slow side-to-side swaying that’s like being an infant strapped into a Baby Bjorn. Along with this odd mesmerising motion, Bell will sometimes narrate – a bemused but obvious explanation of what we’re seeing, or the occasional fact about a place – and he will often tell the viewer what you will see in a few minutes, a trick from podcasting that tells the audience that, yes, this bit might be a bit boring, but something fascinating is just around the corner!
Bell has his competitors on YouTube, UrbEx being a massive, world wide subculture, and some UrbEx channels have more than a million subscribers. And the fascination is obvious – we try to construct a narrative around these remains – how did this all end in chaos? – and that faint sense of the contemporary sublime that’s summoned up by the vast, empty food courts of some godforsaken mall in the American mid-West, or in the shut-off world of a tiny motel room, have echoes of potent pop culture fantasies – zombies, apocalypse, the end of times. But where the knuckle-head bro culture of many UrbEx videos seem like the natural visual accompaniment to a metal clip, Bell’s videos, for all their sometimes inadvertent goofiness, defuse the ominous, end-of-the-world vibe with welcome wry humour.
Like most genres, the format becomes familiar, and at times tedious, yet I never find myself ready to switch off completely. And it’s worth sticking around for the videos that offer something different. Bell’s NEON DREAMS : SURREAL NIGHT TOUR OF AN ABANDONED MALL [November 2015, 189,333 views] is much like his other videos, but this one, shot at night, and sweetened with some fake muzak and a total absence of narration, achieves a remarkable Lynchian intensity.
But perhaps Bell’s most interesting video is one that is his least dramatic. THE END OF KMART : From Open to Closed to Abandoned! [April 2017, 993,687 views] tracks the slow closing down process of a K-Mart. The video begins just after the closure has been announced with the shelves already looking sparse from a lack of restocking. With multiple visits over the next six months, Bell documents the end of a retail space, with the shelves slowly disappearing, last minute deals offered on fixtures and fittings until, eventually, there’s nothing there. Bell makes one last visit at night and spooks himself in the empty wasteland of the abandoned store. It occurred to me that the video is the exact opposite of Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent Store. Where the German photographer’s image depicts the vastness of consumption, Bell’s video is at the other end of the spectrum, a place where everything has been reduced to nothingness.