Travels in space

Tue, 18/06/2013 - 10:20 -- damien

Three days after viewing an exhibition of multimedia and installation work at Artspace in Sydney, a show themed around notions of travel and transit, I took a flight to the United States, one of several hundred passengers occupying every available seat on-board the aircraft. For me, the flight was an uncommon, even exciting event, not part of everyday routine, and I assumed the same for many of my fellow passengers. And yet every day, by routine, the same flight conveys several hundred other passengers to the same destination. Every day, someone else occupies the utterly anonymous position of 24F that was mine. Standing in line at LAX waiting to be fingerprinted and photographed, my most individuating features recorded and databased alongside those of thousands of other arrivals that day, my uncommon and exciting experience again merged with everyday routine. My fingerprints became the unnoticed detail of administrative procedure, my face now faceless data filling the immigration officer’s workday.

The activities associated with travel condense one of the central problematics of thinking about everyday life: people engage in ordinary cultural activities partly as a means to define themselves as individuals, and yet mass participation implies a necessary denial of individuality. In a number of very real senses, our experiences of vacation, migration and other journeys can be transformative, even life-changing. Leaving homelands voluntarily or forcibly has tangible and historical effects on those involved and their connection to networks of culture and community. International vacations are often undertaken to refocus one’s life priorities. Even walking the streets of a city, as Michel de Certeau suggests, entails an individual, tactical appropriation of established place.1 At the same time, much of the construction of commercial, political and spatial contexts around individual experiences of travel refuses the significance of biography, difference and affect. The family fleeing civil war or persecution too often becomes simply ‘boat people’ or ‘illegal immigrants’, rendered statistics of state control. The pilgrim to a holy land becomes ‘tourist’. I become ‘24F’.

Of the four works exhibited at Artspace, Merilyn Fairskye’s audiovisual installation States of Mind engages with these themes the most explicitly, offering images of travel as fleeting, even spectral. The viewer stands surrounded by three large screens on to which are projected looping video images taken in a number of international airports. Specific locations are barely discernible. A sign in Arabic suggests, possibly, Dubai. The airline logo on a group of planes on a tarmac suggests, possibly, Singapore. Such detail is not relevant; Fairskye seems more concerned to depict an interchangeability between airports, their familiar décor producing a global everywhere, a global nowhere. Like Starbucks, each airport replicates the safe space of sameness—a kind of user-friendly interface whose icons provide instant orientation and security. In the video, bodies move through the space, unidentifiable and ghostly. Disembodied legs and feet in particular glide across shiny surfaces, leaving a momentary digital trace of their momentum. In this visual emphasis on the ephemeral and transitory, passengers literally fade from view. Here Fairskye makes her clearest technical allusion to the Italian Futurist movement, echoing her work’s titular reference to Umberto Boccioni’s 1911 trilogy of paintings of train stations. But in place of these earlier works’ dynamic and aggressive angles and edges, Fairskye’s videos capture the airport space not as frantic but as oddly serene. Cool and polished surfaces form a predominant aesthetic: chrome, glass and faux marble which reflect mere traces of human presence; huge windows which maintain our distance from tiny bodies working on the tarmac.

Since September 11, the ambiguous concept of airport security has gained new intensities, and Fairskye’s installation plays on these. Standing in the darkened room, viewing the gentle flow of human movement all around, an effect of security is created, curiously soothing. An audiotrack of voices, announcements and generic airport sounds is emitted, unobtrusively overhead. The detail of conversations and locations, like the images, remains just beyond the listener’s grasp. One conversation seems to record a potential emergency situation, briefly directing us back to the ever-present, back-of-mind half-thoughts accompanying air travel. And yet playing as asynchronic atmosphere rather than in direct reference to the video images, the soundtrack underscores the installation as a secure space. It is, in effect, hard to leave.

In her neo-Futurist representation of the airport, Fairskye draws explicit attention to the dynamism of human transit. As she writes on her website, ‘the international airport has replaced Boccioni’s railway station as the principal nexus of human movement, of arrivals, departures and farewells’. Reinforcing this central thematic, the video images are divided into five sections, subtitled: ‘Arrival’, ‘Crossing’, ‘Departure’, ‘Waiting’, ‘Farewell’. Each section reminds us that the airport is a space produced by humans engaged in such activities—indeed, it has no purpose beyond. And yet throughout all of this, like Fairskye’s camera, the space remains unmoved, unchanged. It is at once dependent upon the dynamic energy of passengers, and exists beyond their fleeting presence. This is the paradox central to Fairskye’s work. Her focus is unavoidably human—her images, after all, capture people in various states of kinetic being, sometimes allowing the viewer to register individual faces. But humanity and identity seem strangely secondary to both the flux of motion and the fixity of place. This provokes the question: what are the states of mind referenced by the work’s title? Fairskye’s airports are clearly spaces of intersection rather than destinations in themselves, and the transits she records are not characteristically mindful. Perhaps to operate in the airport mode of automaticity—during states of arrival, crossing, departure, waiting and farewell—frees up a space of productive mindlessness, of not having to plan, calculate or analyse. The airport itself becomes a state of mind to temporarily inhabit; as Fairskye writes, ‘a zone in which we suspend our usual lives’. It is, to adopt Marc Augé’s concept, a non-place, somewhere between departure and arrival, between here and there, and therefore resistant to the signifying cultural accumulations of place.2

By contrast, to increase mindfulness of place is one of the express intentions of Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs’ Seeker, a multimedia installation that invites an interactive and reflective relationship between the viewer and narratives of migration. A triptych of floor-to-ceiling screens dominates the darkened space. On the left, bird’s eye video scans silently, if ominously, over an urban landscape. On the right is a series of photographs of rural landscapes from different continents—arid, stark and majestic. Superimposed on these images, patterns of semi-circular digital arcs glide across the topography, combined with a series of phrases drawing attention to histories of conflict and exploitation. In one series, ‘congo resource wars’ arcs into ‘3 million dead’ in one direction, and in the other to the minerals ‘columbium’ and ‘tantalum’ which in turn link tellingly to ‘every mobile phone’. This use of factual detail begins to reconnect images of landscapes with the human histories that are frequently erased from geographical place when it is commodified and exploited as image, as tourist site, and as resource. Facing this display, the viewer stands at a console featuring an interactive digital interface that is also projected on the middle screen. Erasing the imaginary line between art museum and educational museum, viewers are invited to map their family history of migration, marking out graphic links between the global locations of current residence, mothers' and fathers' birthplaces, grandparents’ birthplaces and where they are now. This map can then be saved to a database and also rendered in an alternative visualisation which matches the animated curvature of conflicts on the right screen.

A powerful sense of user control is evoked by interactions with the touch-screen console. In its visual effect and technological potential, graphic renderings of the viewer’s global interventions are reminiscent of spaces of digital surveillance—traffic control rooms, satellite monitoring, perhaps a military installation. Small-scale touch produces much larger effects on the screen opposite, encapsulating the dynamic of exponential global network expansion and the virtualisation of contact, communication and distance. In this sense, viewers are encouraged to consider the ramifications of their own actions in global terms, particularly as the installation juxtaposes individual genealogies of transit with facts pertaining to displacement and violence among various world populations. A dialectic of different kinds of migration narrative is therefore established, although the work ultimately questions the terms on which distinctions are predicated. Should flights of refuge from genocide, for instance, be set up in opposition to colonial voyages of ‘discovery’ in their political and rhetorical framing? Might our own migration histories, often benignly narrated or mythologically altered over time, contain undisclosed elements of trauma? Indeed, might viewers be historically implicated in some of the causes of conflict and displacement documented adjacently? Cmielewski and Starrs open this dialogue by locating traces of their work itself in the ripples of global economic connectivity, ‘every computer’ represented as only two associative arcs removed from ‘2.5 million displaced’. These are uneasy and discomforting prospects, perhaps especially because of their assimilation into the work’s graceful aesthetic construction.

Approaching conventionally unexplored assumptions of travel via kitsch rather than grace is Eleanor Avery and James Avery’s installation OUR DAY OUT yourspace. For some viewers, the title of this work might immediately recall the recently ubiquitous cyber-networking phenomenon of myspace. But what parallels exist between the Averys’ stagey anti-tourist spectacle and online profiles, and with what commentary in mind? Perhaps the artists are offering their site as a panacea for the contemporary ills of myspace obsession and fatigue, as a return to exploration and discovery on a tangible level. Attracted by colour, texture and suggestions of adventure, the viewer is drawn to engage with the installed objects but does not quite know how, like a child standing at the edge of an unfamiliar playground. This is a playground that resists play—deliberately, perversely—instead producing an effect of ambivalence and curiosity brought about by the collision of mismatched objects, oddly uninviting materials, and confusions of scale.

The space is dominated by the giant, unholy entanglement of two recreational constructions. A section of a seaside pier in raw pine (are we in Blackpool? St Kilda? maybe Ikea?) stands beneath a spider-like metal framework supporting what may be a children’s climbing castle, semi-metallic and all-kitsch. Or perhaps it is a cardboard-box spaceship, just landed from the set of Play School. Across the room, a chair-lift is suspended from the ceiling, hovering almost enticingly. The disco glitter of its chairs sparkles in edgy contrast to the transparent plastic sheeting draped carelessly over the blond timber framework. Is this the Alps, Studio 54, or cheap 1960’s sci-fi? Visual references amass out of control. And on either side of the space stand two conspicuously pristine, raw pine picnic tables, introducing an aesthetic of the prefabricated and unused. On one table is placed a plastic model oil rig (or perhaps the Blackpool pier again?), and on the other are several retro viewfinders featuring black-and-white images evoking early space travel. The combined effect of these ironic artefacts is, pun no doubt intended, a trip.

Viewing the Averys’ sight-seeing pastiche, Don DeLillo’s classic satirical take on tourism comes to mind. In his novel White Noise, two characters visit The Most Photographed Barn in America where, needless to say, swarms of tourists validate their presence via the act of photography.3 The barn itself is redundant, unseen. The performance of tourist roles and the accrual of mediating images provide a code of mandatory engagement with the hyperreal attraction. So too, the Averys’ work suggests, our alienation from former notions of the real, the authentic and the natural world is so complete that all we have left is gaudy, interchangeable flotsam and jetsam, cyclically discarded and washed up on the shores of contemporary, post-industrial culture. Indeed, the new frontiers of tourism and exploration are located in the endlessly reproducible and immaterial labyrinth of cyberspace. Where yourspace evacuates tourist artefacts of aura, meaning and approachability, myspace steps in as the ultimate tourist destination for our times. We visit profiles as quasi-authentic representations of real life—instant access lookouts on to an inexhaustible human scenery. And just as the success of a stereotypical tourist experience is measured by a documented checklist of compulsory sites, the myspace user accumulates a perfunctory and yet ostentatious list of ‘friends’ as linked cyber-destinations.

In the final work of the exhibition, the very notion of destination is cast into doubt. Norie Neumark and Maria Miranda’s installation Searching for rue Simon-Crubellier is an extended, participatory meander through the terrain of imagination and mythologised place. Through the project, the artists launch a fundamental driving enquiry: ‘Is it possible to bring something that does not exist into existence by searching for it?’ The installation comprises video and sound, maps and documents providing an archive of materials which circles around the fictional Paris street written about by Georges Perec in his novel Life a User’s Manual. While in Paris, the artists stage a search for this street, including a series of video interviews with generally bemused pedestrians in the 17th arrondissement. Tellingly, only a small child engages the opportunity as performance, cheerfully inventing a set of possible directions. By contrast, the playful tone of the on-camera search, itself very much inspired by Perec’s ludic conceits, seems lost on the boy’s more guarded adult counterparts, many of whom are forced to admit a gap in their neighbourhood knowledge. Here, a fascinating collision ensues between the artists’ knowing performance of unknowing outsider, in which specificity is ultimately irrelevant, and the residents’ attempted recuperation of the local, only brought about by this external intervention.

Incorporated into the project is the website The 4th Floor, which elaborates the circular quest by presenting fictional research materials, including clips of a video purportedly found by the researcher, coupled with notes on progress and avenues of investigation.4 To facilitate user interactivity, the video log is databased under a series of spatial prepositions—Above, Between, Inside, etcetera. In this way, a physical process of closing in on the mythical rue Simon-Crubellier is suggested. The website user is drawn into the game, detective-style, in which clips of video and sound tantalise with their obscured hints of scenario and location. At the same time, the project opens a self-reflexive investigation into concepts of space and place, searching and researching, which works to disrupt the teleology of the search narrative. One researcher note reads: ‘Watching the video of different places in Paris with their associated timecode, makes me think about the original meaning of journey, where space and time were inextricably linked.’ These tentative musings gesture to the conceptual and abstract dimensions of space more than the physical, and by doing so the project reinforces the conventional trope of the journey as a primarily philosophical endeavour. The cliché ‘it’s not about the destination but how you get there’ comes all too readily to mind, and ultimately the work risks only travelling full-circle to and from this central point of interpretive departure.

But this may be the point. Working in a cultural terrain where the expansion of mediating technologies seems rather to have a closing down effect—a dense multiplication of coverage of less and less that could be described as new territory—Neumark and Miranda join with the other artists in throwing away the conventional map and instead seeming to return to an epistemology of place based on experience, narrative, even speculation. In this sense, all of the works offer critique of one of the defining phenomena of the current era—the perception of radical change in conventional structures of place and space. As the rhetoric of economic globalisation appears to match our newfound abilities to foster global networks of communication and interaction on an individual level, the tyranny of distance collapses. Space implodes. But such a perception presumes privilege. It is the view from the already stable ground of hegemonic place, whose diversity of human detail remains unthreatened by the globalising wave of cultural subsumption, and whose narratives will continue to be heard. These artists invite us to reflect on this position and to question what propels this trajectory, who or what falls by the wayside, and how we will know when we arrive.

notes: 

1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Trans. Steven Rendall. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984.

2. Marc Augé, Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. Trans. John Howe. Verson, London, 1995.

3. Don DeLillo, White Noise. Picador, London, 1984.

4. Out-of-sync, The 4th Floor, http://137.111.156.26/%7Emaria/4thFloor/index.html.

Merilyn Fairskye, States of Mind; Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs, Seeker, Eleanor Avery and James Avery, OUR DAY OUT yourspace, and Norie Neumark and Maria Miranda, Searching for rue Simon-Crubellier were shown at Artspace, Sydney, 16 February – 10 March 2007.

Robert Payne teaches cultural studies at the University of Western Sydney.