Built Environment


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The always-interesting Bearings has just published an article about my recent trip to Holy Land, an abandoned religious amusement park about 40 minutes northwest of New Haven. I last wrote for Bearings back in January about a trip I took last summer to the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans. Check out the Holy Land piece here!

[Bearings]

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My mail the other day included a clipping from Seattle magazine, sent to me by my mother, about a Seattle theatre that plans to stage plays in elevators later this spring. The clipping, in its entirety:

Going up? You are if you’re joining Seattle’s edgy Annex Theatre for its series of Elevator Plays. Held in a yet-to-be-determined high-rise downtown, the series features 30-40 60-second plays calibrated for the tight time and space confines of an elevator ride (claustrophobics beware!). Switching elevators to see different plays, audience members get a visceral experience of the ups and downs of experimental theater.

The performance, unfortunately, has been postponed, (here’s a similar project in Louisville, KY) but there’s something tantalizing about using an elevator as a stage. It is a constricted space—temporally, physically, culturally—and it would be a fascinating project to use those constraints in pursuit of an artistic goal. How do you play off of these constraints? Does an elevator play follow (or have time to follow) Freytag’s pyramid? Do you treat the space as a kind of condensed theatre in the round? And how do you address the cultural proclivities—not speaking, even distribution, avoiding eye contact—that  people carry with them into elevators?

Elevators, because of these constraints, can’t be treated as a normal stage. To perform a thirty-second Hamlet or Waiting for Godot in an elevator, to an audience clustered against the back wall, misses the point: An elevator play should not transpose conventions of theatre into a space not designed for them, it should seek out the incongruities between the theater and the elevator and exploit them. It should find the cracks, force them open, and pour itself into them. The plays become thirty-second conversations overheard by the audience. The smallest gestures—hitting a button, shrugging, shifting weight—are freighted with new meaning. 

In this incarnation, the elevator play is a framing device. This is site-specific theatre at its most subtle. The actors and their conversations don’t appear any different than the people we see and the conversations we overhear everyday. The frame’s the thing: By cloaking their activities in the robes of theatre, by putting the frame of art around the mundane, we are able to direct and channel the attention of the audience, focussing it on a thirty-second snippet and encouraging a search for deeper meaning. (See Joshua Bell’s performance in a DC Metro station for how people respond to frameless art.)

The box of the elevator cab stands empty, ready to receive physical or cultural freight. I’m reminded of Jeff Stark’s I.R.T.: A Tragedy in Three Stations, which staged the history of the New York City subway system inside the New York City subway system, and of Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, a book that uses the rise and fall of the elevator as an extended metaphor for racial uplift. An ideal elevator play would be a sort-of meeting of the two, a work staged in elevators that simultaneously played off of the constraints of the elevator and found deeper meaning in its structure and history.

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It is impossible to describe the shock of return. I recall that I stood for the longest time staring at a neatly painted yellow line on a neatly formed cement curb. Yellow yellow line line. I pondered the human industry, the paint, the cement truck and concrete forms, all the resources that had gone into that one curb. For what? I could not quite think of the answer. So that no car would park there? Are there so many cars that America must be divided into places with and places without them? Was it always so, or did they multiply vastly, along with telephones and new shoes and transistor radios and cellophane-wrapped tomatoes, in our absence?

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.

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Ski racks at DIA baggage claim. The point at which ad hoc solutions tilt to institutionalized systems.

The extent to which we are unable to erase the local inconsistencies of our nonlocal systems.

Men’s restroom/tornado shelter, Denver International Airport, Denver, CO.

The New York Times puts Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to close Times Square to vehicular traffic in historical perspective, including one proposal from the mid 1800s:

“Many attempts have been made to get under or over the problem. In 1870, an inventor named Alfred Ely Beach opened a 312-foot-long pneumatic subway line that propelled passengers beneath Broadway from Warren Street all the way to Murray Street. It was short lived.”

Trying to Tame Broadway Traffic — NYTimes

img_0421The repeating patterns that organize our world. Extrapolate, interpolate: Fern-like, a railroad network is equally legible at the level of the tie, the railroad track, the line.

When countries take flight, dreams take wing. Interflug, more than serving as a tangible marker of East German culture, was interesting for what it said about statecraft: It suggested that a state airline is a necessary condition for modern statehood. Interflug is interesting because both it and the state it represented have disappeared; Air Nauru is interesting because it is an outlier, the state airline of the Republic of Nauru, population 13,770. (That’s an Air Nauru 727 in vintage livery.)

Nauru is a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. So what gives a country with maybe a quarter the population of my hometown (also an island, but there’s no Air Bainbridge) the right to have an airline? And airline, moreover, that at one point had a fleet with a seating capacity equivalent to 10% of Nauru’s population? Phosphate.

The vagaries of the global commodities market concentrate wealth in strange places, and cause people to do strange things with it: Air Nauru once flew one of the most comprehensive route networks in the South Pacific, even though most routes were unprofitable and the average load factor throughout the network hovered around 20%. On a 737, that’s about 26 people on a plane designed to carry around 130. To look at it another way, that means one person per row of seats.

But having an airline means you run with the big boys. Note the eponymous Emirates and Singapore planes in the above photo, and the United (US) and Qantas (Australia) planes beyond them. The United Arab Emirates, although a good deal larger in area and population than the Republic of Nauru, is, I think, a fair comparison, an example of how the Nauru model scales up. (Or, to put it another way, how the UAE model might scale down to suit Nauru.)

And although these countries’ airlines have larger planes, longer routes, and more passengers in a day than Air Nauru sees all year, I’d argue they’re not so different. Scale up, scale down. It’s like putting toddlers in suits for weddings: Let me just measure your state and we’ll be able to cut an airline to fit straight away.

Air Nauru is now known as Our Airline (slogan: Let Our Airline be Your Airline). This new name makes the connection between national identity and airline ownership explicit (and ironic, because Our Airline is privately owned and operated). The slogan, cheesy though it may be, speaks to the importance of an airline like this: Nauru gets something from it (a claim to statehood, a chance to be taken seriously, a demonstration of ability) and so does the world (another airline, another state, another voice).

On a larger scale, Our Airline speaks to how we chose to order our existence. It represents, as Interflug did, an alternate reality, another way of seeing and experiencing the world. How do we choose which airline to fly? is really just a proxy query for the deeper question: How do we choose how we want to live?

 

Related: Fly Interflug! and Regionalism in Flight

The New York Times has an article about how the subway trains on the 2, 4, and 5 lines sound as if they’re singing the first three notes to “Somewhere,” from West Side Story. (“There’s a place…”) The sounds aren’t notes, really, but screeches made by the DC/AC inverter, and the difference between them makes them register as a melody to the human ear. Reality as Rorschach test—we see in it what we want to see.

Related: Repurposing rumble strips to make roads sing.

The Economist, in an ongoing feature about Haiti, name-checks Labadee, a chunk of Haitian beach owned by cruise line Royal Caribbean International. The beach

is off-limits to anyone not employed by or vacationing with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, which rents it from the Haitian government. And when the vacationers are ferried ashore from the ship, they are not permitted to leave Labadee: the cruise company’s insurance company won’t cover it. Worlds might collide here, were they not held carefully apart by liability insurance and tall fences.

Places out of place: the remodeling and imposition of a particular vision of reality. How much does proximity matter? Is guilt variable by location? Are we as vacationeers liable for Royal Caribbean’s sins?

 

Looking at a busy week, so the blog will be quieter than usual. Apologies in advance.

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