Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hoover Dam: Ecological Destruction as Tourist Attraction

It seems that the Hoover Dam is a must see on the tourist road between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. And it’s true, the man made engineering feat is a sight to behold with its massive canyon straddling the Colorado River on the border between Nevada and Arizona. It’s awe-inspiring, but it is also ecologically disastrous – I would have thought.

I find it curious that a violent carving apart of a mountain and the colonization of the Colorado River to facilitate the irrigation of golf courses in the desert, and cotton fields in Arizona and water needs of southern California would be heralded as a tourist sight not to be missed. And, while there is mention of those who lost their lives because of the harsh conditions during the building of the dam, at the site itself, the dam is presented as a celebration of American engineering achievement that effectively relieves the flooding of the Colorado River. The reality is that today, most years, the Colorado river no longer reaches the ocean. The Hoover Dam might be a visually stunning construction, but it is also a tragic violation of the natural landscape.

All skepticism aside, perhaps the most fascinating thing about our visit to the Hoover Dam was, to my surprise, my experience of acrophobia. Walking across the gravity arch bridge, hundreds of meters above the dam basin, every time I approached the rail and looked over, I became physically anxious, feeling the fear running through my legs and into my chest as my body verged on a panic attack, believing it was in danger of falling over the the railing. I am sure this experience is not meant to entice visitors to stop at the Dam, but it was, for me, the most compelling part of the visit.

Because it is another government-run site, the lack of commercialism is refreshing. Similarly, the generating towers, art deco facilities and sounds of the wind and generators hundreds of meters below the viewing  point, creates a mesmerizing, other-worldliness to a facility that is still in use today. All in all, therefore, it was a conflicting experience, but one people should probably have for themselves. Mine might, afterall, be an uncommon response to what is hailed as one of the great engineering feats of the twentieth century.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Grand Canyon: Replenishing the American Soul

If Las Vegas is mirror to the immense void that sits at the core of the American soul, the Grand Canyon a few hours due East replenishes and revitalizes the spirit. When Paul announced that we were going to the Grand Canyon on our trip, and this was non-negotiable, I protested that it was a tourist trap. How wrong could I be?

It's difficult to find words that might begin to do justice to this extraordinary landscape, because it is unfathomable. To imagine that the Colorado River carved layer upon layer into the rockface as it flowed over two billion years through ravines is just the beginning. Visually, there is nowhere to stand where it is possible to see the canyon in its entirety. Similarly, no photograph can capture how stunning it is, how multifarious its colours, how resplendent its formations as they change with the movement of the sun across the earth. 

The Grand Canyon is, ultimately, a natural formation that becomes as much about the world around it, as it is about the still, silent grandeur of the landscape itself. Not only does it change its glorious colours with the shifting light of day, but the peace and silence as we look down at the mile deep layers of the canyon are an illusion. The canyon is dynamic, in a constant state of erosion because of the wind, the snow, the rain, the plant and animal life, and of course the millions of people that come to visit it every year. Today, visiting at the end of September following a monsoon-like July, the canyon is covered in green, harmonized with the reds and the browns. At the end of the winter, it will begin from different colours, its surface all rock and dirt and the debris carried by the snow as it melts and drifts. 

As we look down, we sense the mystery and unknowability of this enormous land formation, and to be sure, there are secrets that it will never tell. The layers carved by the flow of the river are, apparently, sequential. The oldest are on the bottom, deep in the bed of the canyon, while the youngest layers of rock are on the top. The length, depth, patterns of wear and tear, tell the geological history of the canyon. This has kept scientists busy for decades, as they search to know it, to understand the incomprehensible. And because there are layers missing, there are thousands, even the odd million years that cannot be accounted for in the history of the canyon. These layers are missing and will never be retrieved: they hold the secrets that the canyon keeps to itself. We think we know so much about such wonders, but we haven't even begun to learn what they are, what they mean to themselves, to the world around them.

Finally, I have to say, the Grand Canyon is anything but a commercial tourist attraction. The government run national park is a haven, like the canyon below. The compelling power of the landscape keeps the international crowd with whom we shared its paths, relatively silent, well-behaved, respectful that they are in the environs of one of the seven wonders of the world.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Las Vegas: Witness to the Great American Soul Sickness

Bright lights and not much more
I had no idea of what awaited me in Las Vegas. My image of Vegas has always been an oasis of neon in the desert, a place to get married in a style that promises a good story, probably better than the reality. I had heard of the pervasion of gambling addictions to be seen in the casinos, but most of all, I had heard Las Vegas was fun. I had not anticipated the level to which Las Vegas would be a magnet for the great American soul sickness. This is a city — if you can call this strange Boulevard of excess and anxiety, a “strip” filled with crowds walking like zombies from one hideous casino to the next, a city — without glamour, without depth, culture or character. There is nothing to do here in Las Vegas other than gamble, eat, drink, shop and have sex. All of which, it is hoped, will be done to excess.

Empty life in Las Vegas
Walking along Las Vegas Boulevard, commonly known as “the strip”, my only reference point comes from science fiction film. I am reminded of a city built on a colonized planet, in space, removed from the rest of the world, where life is lived artificially, in a closed environment. The sprawling hotels-cum-casinos-cum-shopping malls have the appearance of being fabricated in minutes, made for show not for function. And as the faithful consumers trudge along elevated walkways between casino complexes, pulled into the belly of the beast, involuntarily, by pathways that demand traversing one casino floor to get to the shopping mall, or the restaurant, or even to cross to the other side of the street, I have visions of the workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, pulled by the machine that ultimately eats them. To make the long transitions easier, consumers carry litres of beer in the hand not holding the shopping bags.  
Paul winning at the slot machines
For all of its fast pace, its freneticism, richness and cultural overload, New York City is more relaxing, more contemplative than Las Vegas. Because in Las Vegas, there is nowhere to sit, unless of course you sit at the slot machine or the gambling table, at the buffet or the musical show, having waited anywhere up to an hour for entry along with your voracious fellow consumers. In Las Vegas, everything is designed to keep gamblers moving to spend the next dollar: time to relax would not be good for revenue. The emptiness of a life spent walking, gambling, eating, drinking, is tiring, even exhausting. Without intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual stimulation to give energy and meaning, to provide pause, the eyes and the feet get tired. Paul and I took to travelling up and down the strip on the bus; it was afterall, the only opportunity to sit.

Sex on Sale
 The contradictions are, unsurprisingly, everywhere. In New York City there is a bank of distributors on every other corner containing free magazines such as: Gothic Writers Workshop, Metro New York, New York Press, The Village Voice. In Las Vegas, there are perhaps more such distributors, and their magazines are all about sex. Prostitutes abound, selling their goods, in casinos, on the street, approaching any and every man, regardless of age, ethnicity, marital status or sexual orientation. Sex, apparently always heterosexual, is easier to find than a seat to sit down and drink your coffee. I don’t fully understand why, but hand in hand with the apparent liberation of sex on sale, comes an obsession, or perhaps it is a necessity, to be married.

Home away from Home
As though walking through the Sultanahmet in Istanbul, hawkers don’t allow you to take two steps without attempting to sell. With the promise of “free tickets” to the best show in town, they want you to “come look at our hotel, we only take two hours of your time, and give you lunch.” I would prefer to pay them the price of the ticket not to have them waste my precious two hours, or better still, not see their “best show in town” at all. Before we realized the scam, Paul and I listened to their rap: they always asked us “are you married?” We began saying no, until we realized, unmarried, there were no tickets. So we said yes, and the questions began: “are you legally married”? “to each other?” “have you got proof of that?” I asked one woman what an illegal marriage might be, and she looked at me as though I had asked her if she was human. It wasn’t the point, what mattered was that she could only offer us the two hours in her hotel, lunch and free tickets if we were legally married, to each other. The criteria are unfathomable for a world in which sex is for sale in abundance on street corners, elevated walkways, and casino floors.

Las Vegas is the ultimate distraction. It is a place to escape, to engage in activities that distract and detract from the dangers of thinking, of feeling, of being in the world, of experiencing an inner life. If ever America needed convincing of the tragedy that is its soul sickness, the evidence is writ large along Las Vegas Boulevard. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet, The Cloisters

Janet Cardiff’s eerie sound installation, The Forty Part Motet (2001) in the Fuentidueña Chapel in the Cloisters is one of those New York events that is drawing immense crowds, and is worth every minute of the trek up to the top of Manhattan, and the long line to enter. The Forty Part Motet is the performance of Tudor composer Thomas Tallis’ (ca. 1505–1585) Spem in alium numquam habui (1556?/1573?) by the choir at Salisbury Cathedral. Cardiff placed a microphone on each individual chorister, recording his voice as an individual. She then places 42 speakers in a circle around the acoustically magnificent Chapel, inviting visitors to wander around from speaker to speaker (placed at ear level) or sit on a bench in the middle of the circle over the course of the 14 minute installation.

Despite the sacredness of the space and the music, and the spiritual nature of the experience, this nevertheless felt like a sound installation in a museum space. The crowds, respectful of the sacred music and the space it created were, as always in New York, dense. This translated into an interruption of the resonance, as the fullness and movement of music was interspersed with the sound of shuffling, whispers, coughing and the odd sneeze. I am certain that I experienced a different installation from the one at PS1 in 2012. For at heart, Cardiff’s piece is about the movement of music – as it shifts and changes across registers and voices, around, across, in and out of the circle formed by the speakers. And, The Forty Part Motet is about how the movement of music creates the space of the chapel. For this reason, the same installation would sound completely different if the chapel was empty, without people.
The Twelfth Century Apse
Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, the meaning of Cardiff’s installation lies in the particularity of the visitor’s experience. This is made clear when we stand before different speakers, from one hearing a deep bass voice, from another the delicate treble of a young choir boy. In the distance, we might hear a tenor or a baritone, but then as we move to the next speaker, that voice in the distance recedes, is out of ear shot, not only because the music has progressed. The piece takes on different forms and shapes as we move to the middle of the circle, and the voices are heard in concert. The Forty Part Motet thus becomes defined by the listener, just as the music defines the space of the chapel, and our perspective of the twelfth-century apse which is on loan from San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia in Spain. Indeed, the apse is wholly altered by the music as it interacts with the sunlight that beams through the window.  

There were moments, no more than glimpses, when a voice usually a few feet, a few speakers away sounded off. Is this an illusion? Is this something created through the separation of the voices, each with its own speaker, and then the alternate coming together, in tune, as the voices reach our ears? Or is it that the voices sing different parts of the anthem and that juxtaposition at post-production makes them sound off? Or perhaps the explanation is more simple, perhaps the choristers are amateurs who hit a wrong note? It’s unclear why the odd note is off, but to be sure, I was not the only one to hear it.  

Lastly, my other question for Cardiff was why this particular piece? Is there something about it that lends itself to the concepts of movement of music, creating space, in its interaction with a medieval chapel? Of course, the piece was not made specifically for this space, but it was chosen by someone as the first modern artist to be invited to exhibit in the cloisters.