Art for Airports
In June 2005, while in Vietnam, Harrell Fletcher visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. The experience so affected him that he returned several times, eventually photographing every image and caption in the museum. These photographs became “The American War,” Fletcher’s ad-hoc re-presentation of the museum material he had encountered in Vietnam.
As a reproduction of another exhibition, “The American War” raises issues of originality, of context, and of cultural exchange. In a conversation with artist Michael Rakowitz, Fletcher described the work as an example of the “bootlegging” he encountered in Vietnam:
Outside of the War Remnants Museum … people [were] lined up selling stacks of bootlegged books on the Vietnam War. … The books [were] about the Vietnam War, but they were written by Western writers and were originally distributed in Western countries. … The other thing that I found really fascinating was that many of the images in the museum itself were copied from American magazines and newspapers. They just took publications like Life and the Chicago Sun-Times, re-photographed the images in them, enlarged and framed them, and then hung them along with original images taken by Vietnamese war photographers.
Thus, in the spirit of “The American War,” although admittedly without the political weight, I re-present three images from Peter Tonningsen‘s “Flotsam and Jetsam,” which I encountered in the Oakland airport yesterday (only three images are on display in the airport; these, along with seventeen others, are available on his website):
Like Fletcher, I photographed the captions, but I was using a disposable camera so most of the text isn’t legible. I did manage to get a good photograph of the caption specific to the airport, which reads, “Peter Tonningsen collages digital images of discarded objects he gathers along the shorelines of Alameda. Through scale changes and casual arrangement, he allows the viewer to create fictional relationships between the collected objects.”
In his statement about the project (the first two paragraphs of which were on display in the airport and the full text of which is available on his website), Tonningsen writes,
I call this series Flotsam and Jetsam because it is about useless or discarded objects connected to the sea; things I have collected from the shorelines of my island hometown that have been either left behind or washed ashore with the ebb and flow of the tides. … The transformation of this detritus to art appeals to me, as I feel like a child on a spirited treasure hunt, conveying value to what is commonly overlooked. … I like how these objects take on new contexts and new importance in the form I have adopted.
Tonningsen’s photographs reminded me of a few different aspects of Fletcher’s work. His description of the project as “conveying value to what is commonly overlooked” seems relevant to Fletcher’s understanding of photography and of art:
When I was about ten years old my parents bought me a used 35mm camera and I started walking about taking pictures with it. I realized that it was a way for me to point … at things that I found interesting … . When I had the camera in my hands the world became a more visually interesting place … . Largely I think of what I do as an artist as just pointing to things that I think are interesting so that other people will notice and appreciate them too.
In this way, “Flotsam and Jetsam” seems quite similar to Fletcher’s 2004 video piece “Hello Friend” in which various residents of Queens walk around their neighborhood, pick up objects off the ground, and present them to the camera in their open hand. Indeed, if “Hello Friend” had been a photography project, it might have looked something like “Flotsam and Jetsam.”
All this got me thinking about some other questions. What would someone like Harrell do if given the opportunity to do work in an airport? What is the function of art in airports? I don’t really know anything about airport art, but I do know about an album by Brian Eno called Ambient 1: Music For Airports, so I figured that I could start with that.
From Wikipedia, I found a 1988 interview with Brian Eno in which he described his reasons for making Music For Airports:
I thought about making music that didn’t impose its presence. Music that was deliberately made to be useful. Music made to be a part of, what you might call, the acoustic context that you live in. … Obviously, it would have to be a music that didn’t frighten people since they’re already a bit timid about flying. It would have to be a music that could be interrupted, because you have announcements all the time. You’d have to make a music that didn’t demand resolution.
Or, as Wikipedia describes it, “The music was designed to be continuously looped as a sound installation, with the intent to defuse the tense, anxious atmosphere of an airport terminal.”
To me, Eno’s description seems to relate to Nicolas Bourriaud‘s definition of relational art in his 1998 book “Relational Aesthetics.” In that book, Bourriaud attempts to describe the art of the 1990s, which, via installations and performances, seems to evade traditional art criticism. For Bourriaud, this is because the art of the 90s no longer separates itself from its audience, no longer occupies “an independent and private symbolic space.” That is, he writes,
[T]he role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real … . The artist dwells in the circumstances the present offers him, so as to turn the setting of his life … into a lasting world. He catches the world on the move: he is a tenant of culture … .
Eno’s Music For Airports thus seems akin to the work of someone like Gabriel Orozco, who, by putting an orange on the stalls of a deserted Brazilian market (“Crazy Tourist,” 1991), or slinging a hammock in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (“Hamoc en la Moma,” 1993), “keeps together moments of subjectivity associated with singular experiences,” Bourriaud writes. Like Orozco, Eno’s work is so subtle that it might not even be noticed, and yet both seek to produce a common experience for a non-static group of people (airport goers, shoppers, museum visitors), a lasting encounter which for Bourriaud serves as the form (in the most common sense of the word) of relational artworks.
How does an artist like Harrell fit into this framework? To me, the form of his artworks seems similarly to comprise not just the physical objects produced (when a physical object is, in fact, produced) but also the relationships created in order for those objects to come into being. In his 2006 work “Corentine’s Turtle,” for example, it is not enough to say that the work is the turtle itself; rather, to appreciate the work in any meaningful way, we must also include in our understanding of its form Corentine (the eight-year-old boy who wanted the sculpture produced), his family, the other locals whom Harrell interviewed, and all the new social relations that the work’s production fostered.
In this context, what kinds of things might Harrell do in an airport? I can imagine a few possibilities:
- Film interviews with people about where they’re flying and why. Screen the interviews in the airport.
- Offer free classes or lectures to airport goers with too much time on their hands. (This one is shamelessly lifted from Harrell’s website.)
- Work with airlines to create an alternative boarding method (kind of like on Southwest): have travelers board by favorite color, by hometown, by birthday, etc.
- Start a free thrift store/library where people can take stuff and leave stuff.
As Claire Bishop argues in her essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” the difficult task here is to create a social experience that brings people together not simply for its own sake but, she writes, “to provide a more concrete and polemical grounds for rethinking our relationship to the world and to one another.” The risk of ignoring genuine discord, differences, inequalities between people and within the world—that is, the risk of ignoring what Bishop terms “antagonism”—all in the name of building community is here especially high, for in airports, most attempts to make people feel okay, feel together, feel safe, etc., come via shopping opportunities, potentially thwarting what Bourriaud calls one of relational art’s goals: undermining art’s current status as a luxury commodity within a capitalistic system.
Regarding “among friends,” the title of this symposium, I might summarize this quandary by saying that the goal is to make new “friends” without ignoring the fact that “enemies” exist. As Bishop argues, citing political theorist Chantal Mouffe, antagonism and conflict are necessary for a functioning pluralist democracy—in other words, a community without discord is no community at all; or, similarly, if we are all “among friends,” maybe being a “friend” doesn’t really mean much at all.