Terminal Philosophy: A Cultural History of Airports

My dad is an air traffic controller, so I’ve grown up with a special relationship with airports. These grounded waystations are like family members, some close siblings, some distant cousins. Is there a more interstitial space than an airport? It is the most terminally liminal area: between cities, between flights, between appointments, between everything. The airport is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, missed-connections. The airport is a place made up of no-places.

Above SFO (photo by Brady Forrest)

In the late 1970s, Brian Eno attempted to sonically capture the in-between feeling of being in a airport. He’d already started making “unfinished” or ambient music, but this was his first with a specific, spatial focus. I seem to remember conflicting reports of where Eno came up with the idea for airport music, but he told Stephen Colbert that he was in a beautiful, new airport in Cologne and everything was lovely except for the music. “What kind of music ought to be in an airport? What should we be hearing here?” Eno says he thought at the time. “I thought that most of all, that you wanted music that didn’t try to pretend that you weren’t going to die on the plane.”

In a recent interview in The Believer, Laurie Anderson talks about the in-between of airports and Alain de Botton’s book A Week at the Airport (Profile, 2009), in which he explores Heathrow airport:

Because you go through Heathrow or any airport and you go, What’s behind that hollow cardboard wall? And he decided to find out, so he spent time there, and every time I’ve been through Heathrow since then, I know what’s behind those walls. The way the whole airport shakes every time an airplane lands, you’re like, ‘Am I in a structure or just a diagram of a structure?’ You’re not really sure. Added to the fact that there are no clocks there, either, so you’re sort of lost in this flimsy world, which is the way they would like to keep it.

In Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports (Continuum Books, 2012) he explores the texts of these structures, structures whose flimsy architecture veils stories of spaces in between public and private, screening and secreting. They’re not home and they’re not hotels. Schaberg reads airports as texts to be read, but he also looks at the very idea of reading in airports, which is a common practice. Where else do you get stuck that there’s almost always a bookstore nearby? Ironic that we need the forced downtime of a long flight or layover to do something so rewarding, and I’m speaking for myself as much as anyone as I look forward to that time and meticulously compile what it is I will read while traveling.

Schaberg’s travels through the texts of airports include many actual texts about flying, but also his time working in an airport. Inevitably, 9/11 plays a major part in these texts and his reading of them. If nothing else, that day affected us all when it comes to air travel. Everything from Steven Speliberg’s Terminal (Dreamworks, 2004) to Don Delillo’s Falling Man (Scribner, 2007) runs through Schaberg’s screening machine. It’s an amazingly subtle analysis of a very disruptive event.

“Most of us want to reach our destination as quickly and safely as possible,” writes Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport (University of Chicago Press, 2008; p. 4), which Ian Bogost mentioned in our 2010 Summer Reading List. The book is a cultural history of airport structures. His approach is starkly different from Schaberg’s, taking a distinctly historical view from 1924 to 2000 and how each of these eras dealt with the structure of airports qua airports. Gordon’s text is definitive, taking into account how historical events shaped the built environment of flight through every era. Everything from Roosevelt’s New Deal to 1960’s stewardess wear figures in the story. Naked Airport is a seductive, secret history of a common structure.

Books are always a good idea when traveling via airplane, but I urge you to consider these two texts the next time you leave home. They will enlighten your flight (and your in-betweens) in more ways than one.

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Here’s the clip of Brian Eno on The Colbert Report from November 10, 2011 [runtime: 6:27], in which he briefly discusses Music for Airports:

References:

Botton, Alain de (2009). A Week at the Airport. London: Profile Books.

Gordon, Alastair. (2008). Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schaberg, Christopher. (2012). The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. New York: Continuum Books.

Stern, Amanda. (2012, January). Being an Artist is a Totally Godlike Thing to Do–And I Have a God Complex: An Iterview with Laurie Anderson. The Believer, 10(1).

Return to Cinder: Supergods and the Apocalypse

Grant Morrison describes his growing up through comics books as a Manichean affair: “It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable” (p. xiv). Morrison’s first non-comic book, Supergods (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), is one-half personal statement, one-half art history. It’s an autobiography told through comic books and a history of superheroes disguised as a memoir. His early history of superhero comics is quite good, but it gets really, really good when Morrison enters the story full-bore — first as a struggling but successful freelancer and later as a chaos magician of the highest order, conjuring coincidence with superhero sigils.

As if to follow Kenneth Burke’s dictum that literature represents “equipment for living,” Morrison puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the supergods. “We live in the stories we tell,” he writes, and he’s not just saying that. Morrison wrote himself into his hypersigil comic The Invisibles and watched as the story came to life and nearly killed him.

In Supergods Morrison tells the story in high relief and stresses the transubstantiation between words and images on a page and thoughts and actions in the real world. His works are largely made up of “reality-bending metafictional freakouts dressed up in action-adventure drag,” as Douglas Wolk (2007) describes them, “metaphors that make visible the process by which language creates an image that in turn becomes narrative” (p. 258). If you’re not one for the magical bent, think of it as a strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with a Rortian addendum: If we assume that language creates reality, then we should use language to create the reality we want to live in. Morrison writes, “Superhero comics may yet find a purpose all along as the social realist fiction of tomorrow” (p. 116). He insists that whether we realize it or not, we are the superheroes of this world.

The mini-apocalypse of September 11th, 2001 presented an odd dilemma not only for us, but also for our masked and caped heroes and our relationships to them. On one side, the event questions the effectiveness of our superheroes if something like that can happen without their intervention. Our faith in them crumbled like so much steel and concrete. On the other, after witnessing that day, we were more ready to escape into their fantasy world than ever. The years after that event exemplified what Steve Aylett described as a time “when people would do almost anything to avoid thinking clearly about what is actually going on.”

9/11 is conspicuously missing from Peter Y. Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), as is Morrison, but blurbed by our friends Steven Shaviro and Bruce Sterling, the book provides another look at the link between the printed page and the world stage. As a contemporary companion to Barry Brummett’s Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric, which came out in 1991, Paik’s book provides another peek at the larger picture beyond the page that Morrison alludes to. I do find it odd that there’s no discussion of 9/11, a date that also roughly marks an epochal shift between things that were once considered nerdy and now are not. Morrison rails against the word “geek” as applied to comic book fans saying, “They’re no different from most people who consume things and put them in the corner or put them in a drawer… Anyone who’s into anything could be called a geek, but they don’t call them a geek.”

As much of a nerd as I’ll admit I am, I’ve never really been much for comic books. With that said, I found Supergods enthralling, much in the same way I found the screen stories of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. Intergalactic narrative notwithstanding, Morrison’s prose seems both carefully constructed and completely natural. As my colleague Katie Arens would say, he writes to be read. My lack of comic-book knowledge sometimes made following the historical cycles of superheroes difficult, but Morrison’s presence in these pages and personal touch kept me reading hyper-attentively. Here’s hoping he writes at least half of the other books hinted at herein.

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My own introduction to Grant Morrison came via Disinformation‘s DisinfoCon in 2000 where he explains the basics of chaos magic in an excitedly drunken Scottish accent [runtime: 45:28]:

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References:

Brummett, Barry. (1991). Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Burke, Kenneth. (1974). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hiatt, Brian. (2011, August 22). Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics. Rolling Stone.

Morrison, Grant. (2011). Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Wolk, Douglas. (2007). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.

For the Nerds: Bricks, Blocks, Bots, and Books

I used to solve the Rubik’s Cube — competitively. I never thought much of it until I, for some unknown reason, was recently compelled to tell a girl that story. I now know how nerdy it sounds. The girl and I no longer speak.

Erno Rubik among his Cubes.
Some of the things I grew up doing, I knew were nerdy (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, LEGOs, computers, etc.). Others were just normal. Looking back on them or still being into them, one sees just how nerdy things can be. In a recent column on his SYFFAL site, my man Tim Baker serves the nerds some venom. Nailing several key aspects of the issue, Baker writes,

Thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet anyone can be an expert in anything, well a self-presumed expert. The problem is that people are choosing to become experts in things that might carry a certain cultural currency in fringe groupings but have no real world value. Comic books and niche music scenes are great, and add to the spice of life but no matter how often the purveyors of such scenes repeat the mantra, they are by no means important. They are entertaining and enjoyable but fail to register on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So while cottage industries have popped up allowing those who are verbose enough to make a case that Led Zeppelin is essential to who we are, it does not change the fact that these experts are dabbling in the shallow end of the pool.

Now, if you know me, you know that I’m the last person to be promoting anything resembling growing up, but I will agree that since the widespread adoption of the web, nerd culture often gets completely out-of-hand. It’s also treated as a choice you can make, but as every true nerd knows, we’re born not made. As my friend Reggie Hancock puts it, citing the most recent nerd icon to end all nerd icons, Tina Fey:

Tina Fey is, unabashedly, a nerd. It’s not a badge of honor she wears, but a stink of reality. She’s not a nerd because she likes Star Wars and did an independent study of comedy in junior high school, Tina Fey likes Star Wars and did an independent study because she’s a nerd. It’s not a persona she assumes, she didn’t live with a dumb haircut for years on purpose, but because Tina Fey was born a nerd, lives as a nerd, and will die a nerd.

To the cheers and glee of nerdkind everywhere, John Baichtal and Joe Meno have edited a collection of ephemera regarding every adults favorite plastic blocks. The Cult of LEGO (No Starch Press, 2011) covers the blocks’ history, how-to, and hi-tech.

Nerd touchstones like comics, movies, LEGO-inspired video games (including Star Wars, of course), Babbage’s Difference Engine, and Turing machines are covered inside, as well as the LEGO font, image-to-brick conversions, home brick-printing, Douglas Couplandbrick artists, record-setting builds, and robots — Mindstorms, LEGO’s programmable robot line, by far the most sophisticated of the LEGO enclaves. Here’s the book trailer [runtime: 1:43]:

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If you want to build stuff with more than just plastic bricks, O’Reilly’s magazine, Make: Technology on Your Time, is the grown-up nerd’s monthly bible. Volume 28 (October, 2011) is all about toys and games. There’s a pumpkin catapult, a kinda-creepy, semi-self-aware stuffed bear, a silly, copper steamboat, a giant bubble blower… It’s all here — and much more. Check the video below [runtime: 2:18].

So, whether you know someone who dweebs over arduinos, has fits over RFIDs, or just loves to build stuff, Make is the magazine. It gets no nerdier. Also, check out the Maker Shed (nerd tools and supplies galore) and Maker’s Notebooks (my favorite thing from this camp).

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Oh, and if you can’t solve the Cube, there’s a LEGO Mindstorms Rubik’s Cube solver on page 245 of The Cult of LEGO. The machine takes an average of six minutes. For the record, my fastest time was 52 seconds.

Get on it, nerds.

Boombox Apocolypse: From Mixtapes to Mash-ups

The turntable is easily the most iconic cultural artifact associated with Hip-hop, but the advent and adoption of the boombox had as much to do with its spread and tenacity. Before raps were on the radio, they were on the tapes. Think of the turntable and the microphone as the senders and the boombox and the cassette as the receivers: without recording and playback, Hip-hop wouldn’t have lasted long. The already choked socioeconomic conditions from which it sprang could’ve buried it like so much tape hiss. Two recent books explore the technology of Hip-hop beyond the turntable.

Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes. — Nas

When Hip-hop migrated to the middle spaces between the coasts and big cities, it did so via cassettes. Mixtapes were such an integral part of its spread that I felt weird when I first bought a “Rap” CD (The same could be said for any other underground movement of the time: punk, hardcore, metal, etc.). When it was shared and heard, it was done so on scratchy cassettes. Sometimes these tapes were played in cars, home stereo systems, and Walkmans, but they were more importantly played in giant boomboxes, each occasion allowing producers taking advantage of different aspects of sample-based recording (for a full discussion of these differences, see Schloss, 2004). Unlike today’s iPods, the presence of the boombox was also a public presence. Just as we gather around some screens and stare at others alone, we once gathered around the speakers of boomboxes. When I got my first Walkman and stopped lugging around my Sony boombox, it was a blessing to my back and the sanity of those around me (most notably my parents), but boomboxes remain a part of the iconography of Hip-hop.

Lensman Lyle Owerko set out to document this aspect of the culture with The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground (Abrams Image, 2010), which is not only a visual history of early Hip-hop street technology, but an oral one as well. Everyone from the usual suspects like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Adisa Banjoko, and Malcolm McLaren, to the less-than-usual like DJ Spooky, The Clash, Chad Muska, and David Byrne display and discuss their boomboxes.

The Boombox Project illustrates that the reception of Hip-hop is as important as its inception, and that the boombox played a major role in its early days. It was the site and the sight of the sound in the streets. Here is the book trailer for The Boombox Project [runtime: 0:40]:

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From mixtapes to mash-ups, Hip-hop is the blueprint to 21st century culture (This is the crux of my Hip-hop Theory — much more on that soon). What used to be done via mixers, faders, and turntables is done via software, iPods, and the internet. In the hands of the indolent and uncreative, sampling is dull at best and disturbing at worst — but so is guitar-playing. The tools are neutral. It’s what you do with them that counts. Can I get a witness?

Yes! No one has explored this undulating landscape more than Aram Sinnreich. His Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) is one half theory, one half practice and establishes an argument that sampling is the latest legitimate form of musical expression, an argument that seems silly to both sides of the debate. Busting a sextet of binaries, Sinnreich makes quick work of complex terrain, mixing media theory and musicology, as well as copyright and counterculture. Mashed Up is the most complete book I’ve seen on our current culture of convergence.

In honor of the boombox, indulge me for a few more minutes and check out this video from The Nonce. It’s “Mix Tapes” from their 1995 debut World Ultimate (Check for cameos from members of Project Blowed) [runtime: 3:34]. Dope:

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References:

Oworko, L. (2011). The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground. New York: Abrams Image.

Schloss, J. G. (2004). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-based Hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Sunnreich, A. (2010). Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

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Apologies to the late, mighty Hangar 18 for stealing their title for this post.

Before, Beyond, Beware: Books on Noise and Music

In the words of biographer Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage (no relation) was so full of original ideas that he begged to be misunderstood. He did for music what Duchamp and Warhol did for art: His work questioned and critiqued the establishment in which it existed. Infuriating to many, inspirational to others, his place in the history of art, music, and other creative acts is undeniable. As Kostelanetz (1989) wrote, “Even though these ideas usually attract more comment than commentary, more rejection than reflection, he is, to an increasingly common opinion, clearly among the dozen seminal figures in the arts today” (p. 47). Ironically, his most famous composition 4’33” consists of no written music or planned sound whatsoever: It’s four and a half minutes of silence.

Excerpt from John Cage’s “Water Music” circa 1952.

As a matter of course, there can be never be real silence in human endeavor, which was Cage’s whole point (To wit, one of the many recent books on Cage and his work states it plainly in its title: No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” by Kyle Gann; Yale University Press, 2010). The idea that any sound — be it ambient, noisy, environmental, whatever — can be music is the core of Cage’s aesthetic belief. As he wrote in Silence (1961), “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard” (p. 3-4). We’ve seen this play out in everything from turntables and tape machines to Moog synthesizers and laptops. Musical rules create similarity. Serendipity comes from difference. For Cage, making music was a matter of making music strange.

John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950 edited by David W. Patterson (Routlege, 2002) is the only book out that concentrates on Cage’s early career, and it includes contributions from an international collection of art and musicology scholars. Insights into his early years are rare, and this book is full of them, insisting correctly that revisiting his early years proffers up a deeper understanding of his later work and philosophy. For instance, his time in my adopted home of Seattle marked an oft overlooked turning point. Cage lamented the move to an increasingly urban society until he learned to listen to it — as music. This transition was paramount to his abandoning traditional composition, his shift to a percussive composition style, and his move squarely into the avant-garde.

There has been much writing about John Cage’s music, by him and by others. For the uninitiated, the editor’s introduction does a nice job not only of placing this book in its historical context but also of providing an overview of the writings about and by John Cage.

Though his work was arguably as groundbreaking and influential as Cage’s, Iannis Xenakis is a lesser-known and written-about composer. Like Cage, he used strange maths in his compositions. His own book, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (Pendragon, 1971), set out to, well, formalize his mathematical approach, and it illuminates much of his work in the process. In Xenakis: His Life in Music (Routledge, 2011), James Harley sets out to do the same. A composer himself, Harley studied with Xenakis and completed two compositions on the UPIC (Unité Polygogique Informatique de CEMAMu), Xenakis’ computer system “based on a graphic-design approach to synthesis” (p. x). This background obviously informs his writing, but his aim is to give the reader an entry point into Xenakis’ complex techniques and compositions, as well as his intellectual history and his contributions outside of music. I can’t claim to know if he succeeded — math and music both look like alien linguistics to me — but in its updated paperback from, Xenakis should help spread the word about Xenakis’ work and help secure his place in the history of experimental music.

Paul Hegarty’s book, Noise/Music: A History (Continuum, 2008), follows experimental music and noise from the aforementioned John Cage to Japanese noise artist Merzbow (who remixed a track from Xenakis’ Persopolis in 2002), illustrating the vast influence of the former, and if you already think progressive and experimental music is too nerdy for you, then Hegarty and Martin Halliwell’s new book, Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s (Continuum, 2011), is not a book I would recommend. If you’re interested in an overly academic treatment of a selected history of prog rock, then this might work. I feel especially nerdy critiquing a book so nerdy (I have my twenty-sided die at the ready), but there are a few things about this text that need to be addressed.

Buy This Book from Powell's

There are always differences of opinion as to what should be included or excluded in a book about a particular genre or subgenre, and the authors admittedly were not trying to be comprehensive; however, mentioning The Decemberists (in an already questionable chapter about folk) and completely omitting the mighty Mogwai is a glaring oversight and downright reprehensible in a book about progressive music, a book that also discusses Black Metal at length. And while I’m at it, what about Neurosis (one record is mentioned here in passing), Isis, Jesu, Godflesh, Pelican, and Cave In, as well as the many progressive Hip-hop acts (e.g., dälek, Anti-Pop Consortium, El-P, New Flesh for Old, DJ Spooky, New Kingdom, Techno Animal, et al.)? At least a brief discussion of prog-core and progressive Hip-hop seems appropriate. The authors’ close reading of prog’s nerdy bits and album art is not only chronically annoying but also regularly myopic, often leaving them blind to the bigger picture when it matters most.

Even if it misses some key trajectories and follows others too closely, Beyond and Before does a fine job of placing progressive rock in its historical context. Their discussions of the core artists of this movement (e.g., Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Rush, et al.) is solid as well. As I said, the authors weren’t trying to be comprehensive, they run skimpy on Brian Eno and David Bowie (giving Kate Bush as much space as the glam rock dual pillars; prog-pop stalwart Todd Rundgren doesn’t garner a mention at all), but their treatment of Peter Gabriel is worth mentioning. His work is discussed throughout the book, as it should be. He’s been active, innovative, and successful as long as anyone else associated with progressive music. Their inclusion of a chapter on the women of prog is as commendable as it is contemptible (when will female artists cease to be categorized as such and be considered in their own right?). Whereas neo-prog group Porcupine Tree finds a solid home in these pages, Hegarty and Halliwell seem hesitant to classify Radiohead as same, but spend a lot of ink discussing their work, deservedly so (who’s keeping the progressive torch burning brighter than those guys?).

Here’s John Cage performing “Water Walk” in January, 1960 on the TV show I’ve Got a Secret [runtime: 9:23]:

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The peripheries of music are always sliding outward as the universe of sound continues to expand. If you’re bored with your current listening, follow Cage’s own advice that one shouldn’t listen to music that one no longer hears. Make music strange and find your limits. These books discuss a few of the major artists going postal with the envelope.

References:

Cage, J. (1961). “The Future of Music: Credo.” In Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Gann, K. (2010) No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″ . Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press.

Harley, J. (2011). Xenakis: His Life and Work. New York: Routledge.

Hegarty, P. (2008). Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum Books.

Hegarty, P. & Halliwell, M. (2011). Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s. New York: Continuum Books.

Kostelanetz, R. (1989). On Innovative Musicians. New York: Limelight Editions.

Xenakis, I. (1971). Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition. Oakland, CA: Pendragon.