Thursday, May 3, 2012

Airports: The Interview

Sacramento Airport (SMF) Terminal A, circa 2005

A couple weeks ago I was interviewed for the Wisconsin Public Radio show “To the Best of Our Knowledge” for an hour-long program about airports. The fantastic producer of the show, Doug Gordon, discovered my book and read it with flattering care and attention to detail—and he provided me with a slew of potential questions in preparation for my interview.  Here are a few of Doug's questions, with my written responses: 

You used to work for United Airlines as a “cross-utilized agent” at the airport that serves Bozeman, Montana. What exactly did you do? 

Because the airport outside of Bozeman is a rather small one, the airline employees are trained to do myriad things: check in passengers and board them at the gate, but also turn on and off all sorts of machines around the tarmac, load and unload bags, sweep heavy snow off the wings and de-ice the aircraft, vacuum the floors of the planes at night and restock the SkyMall catalogs…the list of tasks goes on and on. As I write about it here, it occurs to me that it was a job that involved numerous cyclical activities, like some sort of religious or mystical practice, spinning things around and around. Of course, it didn’t exactly feel like that at the time. It felt like work.

What was it about that experience that you found so fascinating that you wanted to delve deeper into it?

To put it succinctly, what intrigued me about working at the airport was how it was a site of intense connection and yet also disconnection. What I mean is that airports are all about making connections—to certain places, loved ones, distant destinations, homelands—and yet airports are also able to induce extreme feelings of alienation, abandonment, spacing out, and futility. Particularly around the subject of space, airports require an awkward sort of double imperative: people are supposed to want to leave the present space (of the airport) in order to get to a more special place (back home, a vacation resort, whatever). I think this makes for an anxious state. 

Your book is called “The Textual Life of Airports.” What do you mean by this phrase –“the textual life of airports”?

By "textual" I basically just mean words, and other containers for meaning. Things that have to be read in airports. I use the phrase "the textual life of airports" to refer to the way airports involve layers and layers of written and spoken commands, personal stories, knee-jerk interpretations, ID checks, sudden gate switches, where the bathrooms are (and whether you've just entered the right one, or not), endless calls to distraction (Airport CNN, Hudson News, etc.)—all the demands to read in the airport, and all the different meanings that ‘reading’ acquires in this space. 

In your book, you argue that “airports have been situated as the place to read in contemporary culture.” (p. 2) How so? 

By this claim I mean to point out how reading in airports has been used as a way to promote e-reading (as in a Sony Reader ad I discuss on the book), and also other commonplace imperatives to focus on books, magazines, and other pieces of writing while in the space/time of air travel.  

Besides viewing airports as texts to be read, you also explore the idea of reading in airports. As a matter of fact, the first chapter of your book is called “What Is Airport Reading.” So let me ask you – what is airport reading?

It's pleasure and distraction, stress and boredom, time to kill as well as the most valuable time (don't dally!), it's light reading and heavy matters of safety and security...all at once, constantly converging and crisscrossing. 

You devote a whole chapter to how airports function in fiction after 9/11. How did 9/11 affect the way writers treated airports in their work? 

Well, airports became either more obviously tense and fraught with manic security measures and fear; or, they were just seen to be as bad as ever, as if revealing tensions and fears that were already nascent. It's this sort of question that interests me in the chapter on airports in literary reflections of (or on) 9/11: Did "everything" really change after 9/11? Or was it more accurately just more of the same, only more overt and ramped up? 

You write about “the airport screening complex.” The obvious example is the screening that we have to undergo when we go through the security checkpoint. How does this figure into the textual life of airports? 

The security checkpoint is a site where everyone has to read and respond in very specific ways: interpretation is the most guided here—we might even say hands on. But it is also the most urgent, pressing, and uncertain space for textuality (or meaning). What will people find out or disclose at the checkpoint? What deeply personal stories will be made public (or be successfully concealed) as people take off their shoes and shuffle through the metal detector, or hold their hands high like it's a stick-up and get scanned? 

But you say that screening spreads beyond the checkpoint and that it penetrates all aspects of air travel. (p. 81) How so? 

Screening spreads out across the airport and becomes about entertainment, display, capture (closed circuit security cameras; iPhone videos sent to YouTube), commerce,'s a metaphor that works across many systems, scales, and technologies. 

You offer an extensive analysis of Ani DiFranco’s 1999 song, “The Arrivals Gate.” (p. 93-96) Can you tell me about this song? What is it about this song that you find so striking? 

It's this beautiful yet somber song, with a catchy tune about someone who goes to the airport to just watch people and take in the ambience. But then it's an ambient song, too, sort of sounding like an airport—and the ambience ends up being almost creepy, and the person's hobby of going to the airport ends up a little creepy, too. It's a song that feels really uncertain about what sort of space the airport actually is—and this is all pre-9/11. I discuss this song in a chapter called "airport studies"—and this song, like a lot of other things I look at in that chapter, studies the airport, while also serving as a kind of still life or snapshot of the airport. 

You also write about the airport as an art space and you focus most of your attention on the Sacramento airport. You make it sound like this airport might be the artsiest airport in America. Can you tell me about some of the art there? 

Actually, Sacramento was just my local airport at the time that I started researching this topic and writing about the affects of airports. Part of my interest is in taking these "non-places" (the anthropologist Marc Augé's term for airports and other transitory spaces) and thinking about them really locally—almost, I would say, bio-regionally, as in how to do they exist in specific ecosystems and seem to depend on concrete (or perhaps imaginary) boundaries for their definition. What do airports tell us about how humans are inhabiting any given location or region? What animals move about these spaces? I start my book with an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau's Walden: "I have travelled a good deal in Concord..."  This is kind of a joke line, one that shows how Thoreau knows that he's making big claims from limited experience. Likewise, in my book I'm not talking about all airports, or trying to catalog airports once and for all, but rather I treat them as I encounter them—and Sacramento was an airport I spent a lot of time exploring or just sitting around in, waiting for flights.  At the same time, Sacramento does have some spectacular pieces of art, and I try to do justice to some of these pieces throughout my chapters, linking them to broader themes and problems that course throughout the book.   

It makes me think of a “New York Times” article from a few months ago in which you were quoted. You said that we should think of the time that we spend in an airport as an art walk of sorts. Can you explain what you mean?

I said something like while waiting around a terminal or wandering around the concourse, imagine that "you are actually part of a giant, living art piece, the architectural matrix and social swirl that we recognize as airport life.” I really mean this: a slight focal adjustment can make the airport come to life as a vast choreography, one with all sorts of set acts but also full of spontaneous sounds and unexpected scenes. Of course, this kind of airport appreciation has a limit, for if too many people tuned in to airport life in this way, air travel would cease to function very well. We wouldn't necessarily want to go anywhere, if the destination became the airport.  

Do you have a favorite airport? 

I really don't. I sort of fall in love with whatever airport that I'm in at the moment. For instance, I was connecting through Dulles a few weeks ago, and I was amazed by the circuitous routing of passengers up and down escalators, over taxiways, underground, on trains and off again, on people movers that look like something out of Star Wars, and into jammed concourses that look like any other. The airport had its own haphazard feel that was then assimilated back into the familiar fabric and texture of airport life. It could go from feeling so different to absolutely the same, in an instant. And then there were all the United Airlines ads that staged Mileage Plus Visa cardholders proudly displaying their credit cards in simulacral airport spaces. In other words, while schlepping through a subterraneous tunnel, you'd look on the walls and see fake passengers in fake baggage claims and departure lounges, an infinite regress of perceived airport spaces! 

You and your colleague at Loyola University, Mark Yakich, have created a website called “Airplane Reading.” Can you tell me about it? 

It's a site that collects nonfiction narratives from all sorts of people: travelers, airline employees, writers...anyone with a story to tell about the culture of flight. We focus on nonfiction in order to limit the scope of the site, and we publish pieces that are generally under 1000 words.  

Is there any one story that one of your readers has submitted that especially resonates with you? 

I like Ander Monson's piece called "Holding Patterns," which is about rethinking the seat-back pocket as a kind of miniature library, and all the reading material one finds there.  Monson inhabits the airliner seat as a small yet concentrated space that blurs public and private. But there are so many other pieces on the site that are worth reading. It's been fascinating see all these micro genres form out of the general trope of "airplane reading." Mark and I are now in the process of turning a collection of the pieces from the site into a book, and we are quite excited to see what shape it will take. We fantasize about the day when travelers will be able to discover a book called The Airplane Reader among other titles in airport bookstores...