Sunday, February 24, 2008

Flight Patterns

From Airfields, a new show at Curator's Office.

A new exhibit titled Airfields opened yesterday at Curator's Office in Washington D.C. Curator Andrea Pollan put together a show of prints and lithographs from Oahu-based artist Charles Cohan. Cohan's black and white images of air terminal floorplans from all over the world are juxtaposed against his images of runways, creating a dialogue about topography and the experience of the modern traveler.

Art historian Jaimey Hamilton wrote a monograph on Cohan and Pollan references the text n describing the work in this show:

In these most recent series, Cohan has further meditated on how our relationship with nature has generated a proliferation of non-places. Airports, fast-food chains, and internationally branded wholesale stores are such non-places, reproducible structures not specific to any locale, which distort our sense of scale and understanding of how we impact a global environment. Living on Oahu, about 3,000 miles from the nearest large landmass, has made this condition readily apparent to Cohan. As a result, he has started a number of series about our travel trajectories, and the airports that serve as points of origin and departure. His diagrams show them as emblems of mass-produced architecture and monotonous asphalt constructions. Even though each has its own unique floor plan, they are anonymous enough so that you never get a sense of where exactly you have landed. And unless you study the back of in-flight magazines, the structures do not have obvious unique identities.

The idea of airports as a non-place is intriguing. Perhaps first popularized by Marc Auge's book Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, one of my favorite recent essays on the topic was written by Baltimore-based art historian Kerr Houston when I was the editor at Urbanite magazine. His article, from the May 2007 issue, examined the recently completed addition to the Baltimore-Washington Airport and talked about how airports function as places of transition:

For the majority of visitors to BWI, the airport is merely a transitional space, instead of a destination. Thus James Kaplan’s conclusion, in his fascinating study of JFK, that “what is specifically absent from major airports is any sense of place: An airport is a no-place on the way to someplace.” No one goes to the airport without a larger itinerary in mind; at least, that’s why the gangster Omar, in an episode of The Wire, told his grandma that he worked a job at the airport—no chance that she’d simply drop by at some point, out of curiosity. The airport is a means to an end, not an end.

$1.6 billion was spent to make BWI a non-place of shiny and impervious surfaces. The airport design is largely ignored by the travelers who are numbed and frazzled, and focused solely on getting though security and making it to the gate.

It's interesting to juxtapose Cohan's prints against actual terminal design renderings. Here is one from the design firm Gensler:

Rendering for the new JetBlue Terminal for JFK by Gensler Architects.

Gensler also recently completed a $5 million VIP lounge for LAX. On the inside, the lounge is supposed to offer traveler's a respite from the mind-numbing activity of the airport and it introduces materials not normally seen in an airport, like grass-embedded resins.

The entrance to the lounge, though, belies the space inside. The bar is encased with and hidden by a very non-space kind of aesthetic, one that is very efficient and sterile:

In his essay, Houston recognizes this non-space reality at BWI, but challenges the traveler to reclaim the space:

For a traveler, the airport simply presents a series of necessary steps, but try sitting back, and watching the action at BWI, from a spectator’s point of view: The patterns of travelers can quickly seem foreign, and ritualistic. And the pleasure of the vast window that opens toward the southeast and faces approaching planes is mysteriously deep. When we don’t hope to be somewhere else, the airport becomes a collection of slow, meditative pleasures—and the very act of enjoying those pleasures, without keeping an eye on a departures screen, is almost transgressive. It’s the basic personal pleasure, ultimately, of making a non-place into a place.

Airfields runs through April 5 at Curator's Office. There's a gallery reception on March 15th from 6-8.