45. Transit Reliquary
By the time you read this, I'll be literally thousands of miles away from my computer.
By the time you read this, I'll be literally thousands of miles away from my computer. Like many, I've decided to end my summer with a little vacation to Berlin and Lisbon to reset, recharge, and take a much-needed break from all of my inboxes and screens.
The thought of travel has been lingering in the back of my mind long before I booked this vacation. Having moved from the car-bounded suburbs of South Florida to New York with all of its trains and buses, I've come to value public transit and the important services it provides (even when those systems have their flaws, funding problems, and disrepair). I recently started a new commute to work. In the words of Ezra Pound, I now spend more time waiting on the platform among “these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” While I should probably complain about the extra 45 minutes, I've enjoyed catching up on my reading and my podcasts as I stand squeezed between my fellow sweaty commuters. It should come as no surprise that I've also been following the ongoing nightmare of air travel. Hearing all of these hellish reports of lost bags, long lines, and flight delays and cancellations, I’m reminded (perhaps morbidly so) of airplane boneyards, where retired planes are left to decay. Within this transportation of bodies from one region to another, I’m also thinking about the transit of materials and things, the way we’re still feeling the impacts of shortages an disruptions to our global supply chains.
So for this month’s letter: orbiting from one place to another, what it means to leave or to arrive, the systems we use to transport us across worlds, what we bring with us on these journeys, and the lessons we learn in new places and familiar destinations.
I’ve had the same luggage for years now and, as nice as they are, the increase of bag fees and carry-on restrictions during the pandemic made me a bit nervous to use my usual suitcase with me on this trip. I finally caved to the influential forces of the algorithm and picked up one of Baboon To The Moon's Go-Bags. A few things I love: it's waterproof, it's spacious, and it comes in a whole array of eye-popping colors. I can already tell that this is going to accompany on many more adventures to come. Just don't ask me how I managed to squeeze 2 weeks worth of clothing into this.
For the 2021 Triennial, Brazilian artist Clara Ianni decided to map out the daily commutes of workers at the New Museum. The series, titled Labor Drawings (New Museum), features staff members at all levels of the institution, from security guards and curatorial fellows to registrars and educators. Ianni not only tells us the time it takes for them to get to the museum, but also their routes and preferred mode of transportation, visually represented through wall text to accompany her cartographical line drawings. Inevitably, the distance of the commute correlates to the worker's position in the museum (the lower the pay, the further staff has to travel, while some, based on their role, continue to work from home). Through something as mundane as a commute, Ianni shares the experience of these workers, whose role in the museum's operations may not always be perceived by the public.
Annie Dillard’s Teaching A Stone To Talk tumbles from one adventure to another, taking you from a mountaintop where people gather to watch a solar eclipse to freezing tundras across a whole myriad of wildernesses that animals and humans have called home for generations. Dillard is a remarkable essayist, weaving her ecological encounters into rich histories of exploration across the world, finding traces of divinity and spiritual power everywhere she goes. Her writing is wonderfully poetic and profoundly contemplative, worth a read if you want to lose yourself in nature.
Last summer, I wandered my way into an art exhibition at the New York Transit Museum’s annex inside Grand Central Terminal. The show, appropriately called Transit Sketches, displayed works from artists created while riding the subway system. Their portraits featured commuters of all kinds across the 5 boroughs each reading, sleeping, or waiting patiently for their stop. One of the artists included was Marvin Franklin, an MTA worker who would work night shifts on the tracks then take the train over to the Art Students League for morning classes. Franklin was struck and killed by a train in 2007 but the body of work he left behind reflected the beauty and chaos of the MTA’s numerous strap-hangers.
While we’re on the topic of art and public transit, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Public Works Administration, a new gallery that opened here in New York this past summer. PWA’s entrance is wonderfully peculiar. The gallery is located inside the entrance to the Downtown 1 station right off Broadway. Thanks to the MTA’s ongoing austerity, the little storefronts that were once found in these stairwell entrances have gradually emptied, but projects like PWA and last winter’s Subway Book Review pop-up are reminders that these neglected spaces don’t have to stay abandoned or in ruin and can instead become sites of creative community engagement.
From 2005 to 2014, artist Walead Beshty placed glass objects into FedEx boxes and shipped them across the country without any kind of protective packaging. The result was a series of sculptures cracked and scarred by their journey through the national mail system. Beshty was fascinated by the standardized, ready-made qualities of FedEx's proprietary boxes, and made each sculpture exactly to their dimensions. These works actively react to their own transportation, undergoing a series of transformations through the postal system of hands, trucks, and machines that get them from A to B. In the age of Amazon Prime, it's easy to forget just how much work goes into maintaining these operations, and we oftentimes take the fact that a package can appear on our doorstep in a matter of days for granted. As Beshty puts it: "All communication systems formulate the messages they carry in some way."
Pao I (1985) and Pao II (1989) were designed by architect Toyo Ito to be portable structures for the modern-day urban nomad. At the time, Tokyo was one of the densest cities in the world and home to millions of workers. The Pao structures provided the bare minimum of shelter as Ito believed that the metropolis would fulfill other basic domestic functions. Their yurt-like, tented forms are deliberately ephemeral and impermanent, meant to be carried by office workers around the city.
Martha Rosler has been taking photos within airports since 1983. Titled In The Place of the Public, this series of photographs captures the experience of moving through these liminal, commercial spaces. Sometimes you are struck by a sense of loneliness, other times a feeling of alienation permeates these images of airport advertisements, neon-lit walkways, uniform baggage claims, and crowds waiting for their flights. Airports have long been a subject fascination (think: holiday travel movies or even Brian Eno's Music for Airports), but Rosler's series emphasizes the strange, oftentimes hectic quality of these spaces. Rosler discussed the evolution of this series and the politicization of airports in the post-9/11 era in ARTnews. The whole thing is worth a read, but I love this observation in particular: “I came to realize the degree to which the airport’s public spaces constitute routes through its much greater, largely invisible elements. Administrative, maintenance, security, cargo, and customs functions are carried out away from public scrutiny, while the traveler’s endpoint—the plane itself—is often shrouded like a surgical patient by the jetway apparatus.”
Let’s be real, travelling isn’t always a great experience. The process of going from one city to another, or one country to another, means standing in security lines, border checkpoints, and relying on a system of passports and visas to grant you passage. Alfredo Jaar’s 1995 piece One Million Finnish Passports is, well, precisely that. The piece was created to protest Finland’s strict immigration laws, and each of these booklets (as if to represent a million people) are separated from viewers by a glass wall. The sheer volume of these replica passports, and the way they are kept just out of reach, suggest an absurdity to these national regimes of border control and citizenship.
While I love spending time in New York City’s many parks, Out There has been my little way of escaping out into the vast wildernesses of this country. Featuring stories from people whose experiences are underrepresented and under-discussed in the outdoor industry, Out There shows how going out into nature can create opportunities for contemplation, healing, and self-discovery. A few episodes to get you started: Harriet Tubman’s relationship to nature, what it’s like being a trans mountaineer, and a Cherokee woman’s trip to Mongolia to seek ancient botanical knowledge.
There’s something special about driving around in a new place and tuning into their local radio stations. Drive & Listen is a website that recreates that exact experience by allowing you to tune into what’s playing in countries around the world while watching driving videos in the city you choose. This project was created by Erkam Şeker, a graduate student in Munich who was looking for a way to travel during quarantine.
The Pack Horse Library initiative was a Depression-era WPA program designed to bring books to some of Kentucky's most isolated rural communities. These "pack horse librarians" were a team of women rode on horseback through the rugged terrain of Appalachia. The Kitchen Sisters Presents has a great episode about these book-women and the literature they transported. Our local libraries are places where we can read, learn, and access resources. The pack horse librarians fulfilled those community needs through little mobile libraries of their own, not only giving residents access to things like books and almanacs but also helping to address illiteracy in the area.
Unpacked by AFAR is not your average travel podcast. In lieu of travel hacks, must-see stops, and packing essentials, Unpacked asks key questions about the current state of travel and how we can adventure more ethically. As fun as it is to travel, tourism doesn’t always benefit communities—see the displaced communities and environmental destruction in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, cruise ships in Venice, AirBNB’s impact on local housing—and, as many of us return to vacationing, we need to engage in these discussions now more than ever. Some key episodes: “Is It Really Possible to Travel Like a Local?” and “The Truth About Accessibility and Travel.”
AI-generated images have been a subject of intense viral fascination lately, but one project has really stood out to me: Better Streets AI. Created by artist Zach Katz, this exercise in street redesigns began by feeding Google Street View images of 'bad' streets (car-dominated, highways, etc) and prompts for 'good' streets (pedestrian and bike-friendly, with more public transit) into DALL-E. Each of these queries result in images that open up the potential for better, people-driven urban design. The transformations vary in scope from small details like more green space or putting in sidewalks on streets that don't have any to larger re-configurations like highways transformed into pedestrian boulevards or multi-lane streets replaced with bike paths and tram lines. It's impressive to see how the AI thinks about re-configuring these street view images to fulfill Katz's prompts, and I'm curious to see what lessons community advocates and urban planners learn from these artificial re-imaginings.
Joseph Rodriguez worked as a cab driver in New York City throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. He began bringing his camera with him on the job, capturing views from the driver's seat. For New York Magazine's 50th anniversary, Rodriguez created a photo essay about this time, including the people he encountered, the conversations he had with his passengers, and long-gone clubs and venues. Although so much of New York has changed (including the way taxis operate), Rodriguez's street photography also shows how not that much has really changed about the city's spirit.
Airport Looks is an Instagram account dedicated to celebrity travel style. It’s funny to see how even among the stars airport style has changed over the years with a shift from dressed-up outfits to increasingly looser, more casual looks that are less about making a fashion statement and more about making it through long flights.
When we think about the Underground Railroad—the network of safe houses and individuals who helped people escape enslavement—we think of perilous journeys from the South up to the North and into Canada. Yet, this wasn’t the only route that existed to help people reach freedom. The Saltwater Underground Railroad was a lesser known path that went from Georgia and South Carolina down to the tip of Florida and the Bahamas. Scientist and educator Stefan Moss created an interactive map that charts out key stops along the Railroad, bringing this critical history to life.
Anthony Bourdain has been on my mind lately. It's hard to put into words how much of an influence he was growing up, especially as my family tuned into new episodes of No Reservations each week. I learned so much from him about traveling, eating, and storytelling, what it means to come to a new place and learn from the people who call it home. In all of his shows you saw his desire to break the patterns and stereotypes that permeate so much of American tourism and food media. I recently revisited Drew Magary's tribute to Bourdain for GQ following his death in 2018. It made me emotional to read the recollections of those who worked with Bourdain throughout his career, and the piece really captures the fullness of his experiences as a chef and traveler, how he welcomed people into his meals and his adventures. As one colleague puts it: "He was such a beautiful contagion. He presented such a fascinating doorway to so many other things that aren't within your narrow doorway of what you do."
Science writer Natalie Middleton recalls the peculiarly wondrous voyage of a cluster of seeds into outer space in her piece “Moon Trees.” It’s one of those stories that sounds too good to be true but, yes, in 1971 NASA sent 400 tree seeds up and around the moon to see how they would react to this journey within an enclosed container without any soil or water to sustain them. As Middleton writes, “Seemingly stripped beyond what they could bear, they were expected to be unresponsive. But the planet longs for the survival of its littlest organisms, and soil can unfurl miracles.” You can find where the seeds of these ‘moon trees’ were planted here.
Marcella Durand’s poem “Traffic and Weather” takes us across ecological striations from the street level all the way up to the sky. I have a soft spot for urban ecopoetics, and this is one that absolutely dazzles me each time I re-read it. Durand wanders across a cityscape, observing the way light refracts from the buildings and mapping out the minute details of these constructed spaces. I love how this poem ends, with a call for observation and re-connection with our surroundings: “They would want more and look to the sidewalks, / their underfoot, their grounds, that which leads them /
from street to street and to all of the avenues.”
I’ll end with an essay by Elizabeth Rush: “Atlas with Shifting Edges.” Rush’s narrative, partitioned into vignettes with mile markers, meanders from one reflection on climate change to another as she drives across the Pacific Northwest. The impacts of climate change on travel and emissions and pollution from tourism are subjects that tend to be avoided lest they ruin the fun of adventure. Yet, Rush’s observations of visitors photographing a whale carcass on a beach, the carbon cost of driving across this landscape, and her experience of evacuating from a hike because of wildfires are all reminders that once familiar travel destinations are changing all around us. She writes, “We wonder what to call the feeling of losing the places that shaped us, a word for the way our very lives drive them further and further into the past.”