I spent this Easter in an airport.
Technically, I spent it in a 6a.m. taxi to the San Francisco airport, three airports, and two planes. Essentially, though, I had a ten-hour day sitting in an airport. Fortunately, I had bought Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, so I at least spent the day in challenging, energetic company.
Anyone who’s read Hickey can recognize his electric, quick-witted prose—at once cowpunk (not cowpoke), streetwise and high-falutin’. I’m ashamed to say that, beyond an interview in The Believer, I had known nothing of his art criticism. Turns out that Air Guitar is a good place to start, as it’s a memoir in essays; collectively, the pieces add up to a summation of his philosophy of art’s place in the creation, criticism, and maintenance of American culture. His sentences flip the bird at sacred cows (good-naturedly, though); showers love on unexpected items; buries instantly quotable sentences and concise, rigorous Big Statements within voluminous paragraphs; and winds his life’s odd turns—as a grad student, art dealer, freelance critic, reluctant academic, and all-around bon vivant—into succulent, succinct works of criticism. His prose sings, and his wildest meanderings turn on dimes to re-envision something we took for granted. He never loses his thread, exactly, but rather doesn’t reveal what he’s sewing until the most surprising, perfect point at which to do so.
Like all great criticism, Air Guitar gets the synapses crackling, and got me thinking about how culture and its criticism connect to everyday life. So, there I was, draped in the low-volumed but always-present white-noise hum of airports, trying to figure out how they ticked.
Initially, I thought that what bothered/interested me about them was just that I had woken up at 5a.m. to catch my flight. But the irritability persisted as I woke up. As the white noise, burble of indistinct conversation, and overly loud announcements built up, I realized that the cacophony was the same in the airport terminal as it was on the plane. This led to my considering that a plane’s interior—any plane’s—mirrors that of a terminal’s space. They’re the same: The muted blue-and-gray color scheme, the beige and off-white walls, the dull and dim lighting, the uncomfortable metal-and-plastic furniture, the jostling for limited (and cramped) sitting space, the constant beeps and ding-dongs and crinkling fidgets with luggage, the plastic smell that permeates everything.
That inertia, in such a supposedly bustling place, may be the cause of the tingling frustration that’s always in airports. People are always on the verge of snapping. Everyone’s a little on edge, even the flight attendants and cart drivers.
If you don’t bother to look out the window, it’s possible that you could travel from San Francisco to Houston to Jackson without seeing the exterior of a single airplane. (It’s weird, actually, that airports don’t usually look airy, and that there are long stretches that are windowless. Sometimes, they look like Modernist basements.) Even looking out the window, the vista’s the same by necessity—flat, pavement-filled, gray, perhaps a city skyline in the far distance but perhaps not. The flight from San Francisco to Houston could have been the terminal, but with added engine roaring and occasional rocking of the chairs. The most conscious experience of traveling across half the country in ten hours turns out to be of sitting around, waiting for the exciting part to happen. A 2000-mile trip felt oddly lacking in movement.
This, of course, got me thinking at length about Madeleine L’Engle. In her classic children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, she introduces the concept of tesseracts as a way of traveling through space and time. Basically, it explodes the idea of a straight line being the shortest path between any two points:
“Now we will tesser, we will wrinkle again. Do you understand?”
“No,” Meg said flatly.
Mrs. Whatsit sighed. “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words. Calvin talked about traveling at the speed of light. You understand that, little Meg?”
“Yes,” Meg nodded.
“That, of course, is the impractical, long way around. We have learned to take short cuts wherever possible.”
“Sort of like in math?” Meg asked.
“Like in math.” Mrs. Whatsit looked over at Mrs. Who.
“Take your skirt and show them.”
“La experiencia es la madre de la ciencia. Spanish, my dears. Cervantes. Experience is the mother of knowledge.” Mrs. Who took a portion of her white robe in her hands and held it tight.
“You see ,” Mrs. Whatsit said, “if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who’s right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across.”
Swiftly, Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together.
“Now, you see,” Mrs. Whatsit said, “he would be there, without that long trip. That is how we travel.”
A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962 but it’s prescient about we now travel, at least in the experiential sense. Through planes, we fold through space rather than travel in straight lines or, even better, meander to our destinations. It’s faster, but there’s a danger. This tesseract age allows us to miss the steps, and cultures, in-between spaces. Rather, the distinctions between spaces and places are dulled. By boat, train, car, or our feet, we’re always coming into visual and emotional contact with the terrain we traverse. We have a conversation with places and are reminded—and, I think, nourished—of the physical and social diversity of the world in which we live. Travel is a social as well as spatial act. With air travel, though, we can pretend—are forced to pretend—that this bland, bleak airport world is all there is.
This perpetual somewhere starts to look like everywhere. I’m not the first to comment on this deadening uniformity, but I think it branches outward from air travel design and architecture. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on the day before Easter, I glanced at Gabriele Basilico’s photographs of urban landscapes along the California coast, from San Francisco to San Jose. Though the prints were huge, crisp, and often in color, the cityscapes presented were frighteningly similar. Boxy, gray structures and commercial signs as large as small houses were under construction everywhere. This isn’t even the development of suburbia; it’s something a little more deadening. Even San Francisco is starting like everywhere else.
Or maybe it’s just our eyes that are being dulled. Basilico documents the transformation but I couldn’t help but notice that neither his compositions nor angles weren’t particularly interesting. (I was spoiled by just having left the gloriously individualistic 400-photo, four-decade Lee Friedlander retrospective upstairs, but still…) The enormity was the thing with Basilico. The photos, given that they’re shot in major cities, are curiously devoid of people. Even the cars sometimes seem like ants of Mrs. Who’s skirt. The photos of San Francisco that begin the exhibit have little to do with the city I walked through to get to the museum or the city—sliding by in pastels, greens, and neon—I saw as I rode the bus through North Beach and Presidio or even down Market Street.
Tesseract travel leads to tesseract vision—note the closeness to “cataract.” I don’t want to reach the point where I consider airport design to be normative; perhaps it’s time I take a walk or a train trip. Perhaps it’s time we all did.
*With apologies to Pavement.