Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Airport (as) Art

Airport (as) Art, Louis Armstrong International

Joe Sharkey gave my book a kind mention in his column in The New York Times today, "Handy Travel Tips From Those in the Know." Joe had asked me to contribute "an actually useful air travel tip" for this column, and what I came up with was this:

Pay attention to airport art. These days most airports feature wonderful public art installations, and so you can think of your time spent in the airport as an art walk of sorts. If you find yourself in a decaying concourse with no art in sight, don't worry: you are actually part of a giant, living art piece—this is the architectural matrix and social swirl that we recognize as airport life.

It may not seem entirely useful, but I really do mean this. It might sound easier said than done: to take time to pause and enjoy the airport (as) art. But I think that moving through airports with an eye toward abstractions of form, light & color, assembling shapes, movement, and patterns can actually change the experience of flight for the better.

In her book On Beauty, Elaine Scarry claims "at the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering." It may seem like a stretch to go to the airport looking for beauty, but suppose that in the midst of hustling from security checkpoint to departure gate you could actually achieve such a sensation? Of course, the problem is that such an experience can arrest you, and make forward motion suddenly difficult: you've been radically decentered, and are no longer in control of your own body. This isn't the best state, perhaps, to be traveling in. But maybe, with practice, it could inspire a different form of air travel, one more open to contingency and flux.

Contingency and flux: these are words that no traveler (or worker) in their rightful mind wants to contemplate at the airport, but maybe we just need a focal adjustment, or to be open to what Scarry calls "aesthetic fairness": a lateral regard for things that quickly becomes an ethical stance, too, because you are not as quick to disregard something's value. In On Beauty Scarry goes on to add that "radical decentering might also be called opiated adjacency." What would it mean to consider airport scenes not as purely functional (or dysfunctional) spaces, but as adjacent entities in dynamic relation to our seemingly separate movements and mindsets? What would it mean to really inhabit and look at airports as art, spilling all around?