Time


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I probably owe an explanation for this earlier post. Sprinkles? Betty Crocker? Modernization? 

Well, yeah. Over the course of this semester, I’ve noticed the extent to which the way I look at the world is influenced by what I’m studying. Last semester, I was taking courses in architectural history, material culture, and airport development, and when I looked at the world around me, I thought about it in those terms. My course load this semester has a different, more historical mixture, and one of my classes stands out for how strongly it has affected how I look at the world.

That course, Making America Modern, 1880-1930, is a junior seminar taught by Jean Christophe-Agnew. It covers the fifty years in America when modernity touched down, the world slid sideways, and everything changed. The foundations set during this time remain in place: we are borne ceaselessly forward by machinery set running over a century ago. 

We find modernity everywhere, in the history of our newspapers, our technologies, our mass culture. And so too in the mundane and everyday: These sprinkles index modernity, telling a story of changes in society, technology, culture, gender relations. The ice cream parlor, their host, was made possible by advances in industrial refrigeration (1870s), the invention of the ice cream soda (1874-6) and the ice cream sundae (1890s), the proliferation of the counter-service soda fountain (1903). The spread of the soda fountain and the ice cream parlor was enabled by the transition from a rural agricultural economy to an urban industrial economy, and it, in turn, enabled the rise of a new public and a non-gendered urban social sphere. 

Modernization is like the Big Bang. It dropped a fiery mix of ideas, sparkling new and bubbly hot, and we have watched them pool around us, solidifying in strange peaks and voids. Sprinkles are one of the hunks of rock hurled out of the explosion, through which we may reveal and understand the past.

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Quick Link: The Times has a piece on the attempts of a small town in Mississippi to endow its water tower with Mississippi State landmark status. The article touches on the importance of “ordinary” or “unimportant” architecture, of the stories that the taken-for-granted parts of our environment have to tell. History made material.

Hernando Journal: Seeking a Tribute to the Ordinary in a Water Tower – NYTimes

So this is incredible: What appears to be an ad-hoc theatre company is staging a moving play inside the New York City Subway system. The play is called I.R.T.: A Tragedy In Three Stations, and recounts the history and development of the city’s subway network as the play hopscotches through stations and trains. 

The show is sold out, of course, and reading this article makes me wish I had taken Site-Specific Theatre and Performance this semester. Quoth the New York Times:

“Tonight, these platforms will be our playhouse,” [Actor Jim] Ford, wearing a tuxedo and a handlebar mustache, told an audience gathered on a Brooklyn subway platform during the prologue. “Conductors will manage our stage. The sound designer is a passing train, and these fluorescents light our way.”

This is reminiscent of, but not exactly similar to, the production of Waiting for Godot that was staged in Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Both productions are examples of showing instead of telling, of exhibition rather than exposition. Godot piggybacked on New Orleans to emphasize the themes of the play, and used the play as a lens to focus the trauma of a post-Katrina city.

It drew power from exaptation: Godot was written before Katrina, for an audience in a different time and place. The setting amplified the play’s themes by finding unexpected commonalities between the characters and the residents of New Orleans. (Godot had earlier found similar success at stagings in Sarajevo and in prisons—Does this material universality somehow diminish its power, or does it enhance it?)

 I.R.T. is different. It was purpose-written for the space in which in it is performed, so the moments of serendipitous connection between the text and the space will be different, a little muted, a little planned. Still clever, but with a self-consciousness to this very public performance: It is meant to be watched, the audience and players are clearly defined, and the frame of theatricality circumscribes the entire performance. (Contrast that with Joshua Bell’s performance in a DC Metro station to see how passers-by respond to art without a frame.) Like Godot, I.R.T is gives its audience a lens, but the lens in this case is more like a pair of X-Ray Goggles, allowing the audience to see history and detail in the ordinarily mundane world of New York City public transit.

I’d like for I.R.T. to inspire a whole series of subway plays, each set in a different time or playing at a different theme. You can imagine heritage cars, or entire heritage trains, filled with actors in period dress. A subway moving through history: an eleven-car train, one car for each decade the subway system has been in existence, each car with different seats, different advertisements, different lighting, different people, the past loosed from the tracks of the MTA Transit Museum and forced out into the real world.

Or plays set in the parks and streets New York City, a kind of historic Improv Everywhere, giving life to the stories that lie latent in our surroundings. The stories are already there. We just have to learn how to listen, how to see.

[In the Subway, Moving Theatre, in More Ways Than One via NYTimes. Earl Wilson photo.]

Silliman courtyard stairs in snow

It’s winter in New Haven. In honor of last Wednesday’s snowfall, and anticipating the snow this Tuesday, I’m going to offer some thoughts on snow. I think snow is fascinating because it has the capacity to completely remodel our environments, to make them new. Snow tweaks our surroundings enough that they become alien, but not enough that they cease to be familiar. I’ve been reading about the environmental psychology of snow and I’ll talk about that more in an upcoming post. Here, I want to focus not on what snow hides or changes, but what it reveals: paths.

In revealing our collective and individual pathways, snow becomes like a four-dimensional instrument. It passively annotates the environment, showing how and where we move. These annotations are known as desire paths, a term introduced in The Poetics of Space, which I am totally adding to the stack of books-to-read on my mantle. Wikipedia reports that Finnish park planners visit parks after the it snows to assess how closely the paths laid out match with the desire paths of the parks users. 

Silliman College courtyard in snow. Outside Byers Hall.

Isn’t that blank triangle in the middle interesting? What can we do with the knowledge that that part of the pathway goes un-stepped on? Two thoughts spring to mind: one, we use the empty space for a decoration (a fountain? a flowerpot? a millstone?). Or two, we invest energy and materials disproportionately when we construct our paths, preparing parts of them for heavier or more frequent foot traffic. Maybe the empty space gets thinner or less durable stone, allowing the pathway to wear equally.

This is another way of seeing four-dimensionally: Looking into the future and attempting to focus on how time will alter your built spaces. The pathways ground into snow are almost reverse echoes, fast-motion forecasts of what will eventually happen in real time. Snow shows our future, and our past.