Back and Forth:
A Series of Exhibitions
Curated by Grady Gerbracht
at Vacancy Gallery

by Brian Boucher

After a while Sylvia sits down on the wooden picnic bench and straightens out her legs, lifting one at a time slowly without looking up. Long silences mean gloom for her, and I comment on it. She looks up and then looks down again.

"It was all those people in the cars coming the other way," she says. "The first one looked so sad, and then the next one looked exactly the same way, and then the next one and the next one, they were all the same."

"They were just commuting to work."

She perceives well but there was nothing unnatural about it. "Well, you know, work," I repeat. "Monday morning. Half asleep. Who goes to work Monday morning with a grin?"

(Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, page 8.)

 

We take it for granted that commuting is a drag. In New York, traveling along the MTA’s many miles of train track, armed with Walkman or reading material, people try to make the process bearable, or even productive. Whether studying or reading the news or a novel, New Yorkers use their commuting time. People look up in exasperation when disturbed by--egad--a conversation.

A New Yorker comic this summer had a tired woman telling a friend that the real problem is neither the heat nor the humidity--it’s the self-recrimination for not finding a way to escape the city in summer. People smile ruefully at the joke, seeing themselves. For me, it took a frank talking-to from a visiting friend over the summer to make me realize how hostile certain aspects of city life had made me, and my sweaty subway commute was one of the chief offenders.

So for me, curator/artist Grady Gerbracht’s series of exhibitions, Back and Forth presented an affirming, fresh view of a familiar subject. Unlike Pirsig’s friend Sylvia, who watched people commuting sadly, in this series of exhibitions we observe people commuting joyfully--or at least using the time creatively, not just productively. While many of us use travel time to consume information or entertainment, artists in these shows actually use it to inspire or produce. The exhibitions are so well conceived, and the artists so intelligently grouped, that a critical essay seems almost redundant; hence, I offer a rather subjective response.

The not-for-profit Vacancy Gallery sits on a strip of Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood--the nation’s poorest congressional district--through which thousands of commuters pass each day on their way into and out of glittering Manhattan. At the opening of each installation of the series of exhibitions, the gallery welcomed black-clad artistic types as well as Puerto Rican and Dominican neighbors from the block, who welcome the gallery, in turn, seeing it as likely to bring new people and more money into the neighborhood. Similarly hoping that the South Bronx will be New York's next up and coming neighborhood, city government has given tax breaks to businesses to locate in the area. A number of antique stores along Bruckner Boulevard near Vacancy have long drawn customers and the street is constantly abuzz with traffic that could support new commercial venues, though a number of neighboring buildings are currently vacant. As an area on the cusp of uncertain change, then, this was perhaps the perfect venue for exhibitions on the theme of the commute, not only because of the many cars passing by but because, as Gerbracht points out, the term "commute" also implies transformation and change.

In four installations--Mapping the Commute, Appropriations of Public Transit Space, Made in Transit, and Mapping Memory--Gerbracht’s exhibitions explored four themes. Some pre-existing works were chosen for their obvious resonance with the theme; others were created for the exhibitions. The works all share an endearing modesty of scale and ambition, and mark points along a route to a new awareness of regular existence, sensitizing us, as so much good art does, to the quiet beauties possible in the everyday.

In "Mapping the Commute," the opening installation, three artists documented their own artistic peregrinations. Here appeared Christopher Moore’s Home and Studio, in which the mechanical repetition of travel is made at once ridiculous and dear. In a charming found-object sculpture, pushpins marking the Brooklyn locations of the artist’s home and studio on a city map rise and fall with the turning of a crank, like walking feet. Also addressing the pedestrian, Danica Phelps’s Walking 9-5 cleverly turned the commute into the work (in both senses of the word). She became simply an itinerant, walking various routes throughout the boroughs and documenting the process with photographs that capture not only the unremarkable industrial park but also the occasional spectacle such as a burnt-out car. "I give myself a half-hour lunch and two 15-minute breaks," she writes, reflecting how thoroughly workplace time structures are imprinted on our minds. Sara Eichner’s Book of days; March 17 to May 17, 2000 is a set of large, ghostly images of the map of New York, on which the artist traces her daily travels; the routes are occasionally altered, in turn, in order to create more satisfactory drawings. Interestingly, in a group of highly conceptual pieces in which documentation is a central theme, this seems one of the only instances in which aesthetic concerns actually affected the phenomenon being documented.

In "Appropriations of Public Transit Space," Alex Villar and Gerbracht documented their artistic interventions in New York City subway stations and New Jersey Transit buses respectively. Villar’s video Other Ways documents the artist, deadpan, navigating the incidental spaces of subway stations–the narrow space between handrails, or vestigial-seeming platforms beside stairways–in absurd mini-performances as commuters stream by, dutifully ignoring him. The artist writes, "This video dwells on the dead time when people commute between home and work, the portion of the day when one lives between spaces," transforming seemingly useless space into a metaphor for lost time. (In view of his piece, it was keenly appropriate to find that Villar was taking an inordinately long route from the neighborhood where he and I both live, Washington Heights, to the gallery’s Bronx neighborhood. Talk about lost time.)

A slide show documents Gerbracht’s project, dealing with some of the themes that gave birth to the series of exhibitions: Commutes: New Jersey Transit Series, in which he drew with a dry-erase marker on the window of the #163 bus ferrying him from New York to a professorship in New Jersey. In a form of landscape sketching reminiscent of a speed-drafting exercise, at one stop per trip, Gerbracht quickly traced the view before the bus started again. Like some other works in the Back and Forth series, Gerbracht’s work comments obliquely on human relationships: his drawings are a way of sharing his experience with others--"observers and future occupants of my seat," as he explains. The distancing effect of the commute, the way that public space can throw us back on the private, is thus offset by the artist’s communication of his individual experience. Visually, Commutes is attractively minimal, with abstract squiggles against ghostly backdrops sometimes bleached by overexposure. The spare images, though, indicate Gerbracht’s layered and cerebral gesture, rich enough that it encompasses all four themes addressed by the series of shows: mapping the commute, appropriating public space, making works in transit, and mapping memory. In a poetic touch, the slides were projected on the gallery window to be viewed from the sidewalk outside, reversing the optical trajectory of their creation.

Two artists in "Made in Transit" also address human interaction, one as the substance of his piece. For his piece Commuter Companion, Michael Rakowitz made himself available free of charge to accompany "lonely commuters" to work, thus mitigating the loneliness many feel even while surrounded by fellow commuters. In other projects, the artist has custom-designed portable, inflatable shelters for the homeless and provided climate control in a museum gallery lacking in that standard amenity. Like those works, his piece here involves a disarming act of generosity and community. The process is documented with a copy of the back page of the Village Voice where the artist advertised his services (between "Open Casting Call" and "Make A Difference in a Child’s Life!"); a large city map on which he’s traced the routes of the commuters he has accompanied (with the exception of one trip on a commuter plane); and photographic documentation of the commutes, on bicycles, subways, and airplanes. The regenerative power of art and its ability to create connections among people are poignantly literal here. (In a light-hearted contrast to the piece’s profundity, the artist has printed bumper stickers and t-shirts with a Commuter Companion logo, with C’s carrying coffee cups and racing to catch the train.)

Emily Jacir’s From Paris to Riyadh (Drawings for my Mother, 1976-1996), previously exhibited in PS1’s Greater New York exhibition, documents a sort of transatlantic censorship. Her Palestinian mother, whenever taking Vogue magazines into the Muslim country of Saudi Arabia, blotted out the appearance of women’s flesh on their pages. Jacir’s drawings reproduce the blacked-out passages only, in marker on tracing paper. "These drawings represent the space between a place where the image of woman is banned, and a place where the image of woman is objectified and commodified," the artist explains. The ghostly shapes, sometimes recognizable as human bodies, more often not, point to two sometimes-antagonistic cultures’ complementary neuroses about women’s bodies. At the same time, the piece points to the permeability of borders in an age of easy international travel, to the way that ideas and conflicting world-views can infiltrate opposing spaces, an issue now all the more real.

Scott Teplin contributed a set of Subway Notebooks with drawings, reminiscent of those of Robert Crumb, done in transit on the subway between home and studio, like Christopher Moore’s piece. The artist creates back-pocket-size notebooks for subway drawing. The artist does all his drawing during the train’s stops, like Gerbracht. In contrast to the cerebral quality of much of the drawing by other artists in the shows, though, Teplin’s drawings have a slightly creepy quality: bulging eyes, organic tubes with muscle-like striations, unidentifiable orifices.

Susan Jahoda, A.S. Bessa, and Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere were represented in the final installation, Mapping Memory. Jahoda and Bessa’s works adhered to the theme, and the pirate radio performance by Nevarez and Tevere provided a sonic treat for those passing through the area.

Jahoda’s Flight Patterns combines the simple pathos of a dead-letter office with sophisticated theory, drawing on notions of post-colonialism, subjectivity, and of presence and absence. This is language to which I often find myself somewhat allergic, but which in this piece is employed with a light hand and a poetic touch that save it from aridity. Her piece involves eleven letters, telling a continuing narrative, sometimes illustrated with photographs, and traveling to cities around the country. Each seems, ambiguously, to originate with and travel to kin, or to and from the same person: for example, one comes from Agnes Bela-Gera and is addressed to A. Bela-Gera. The name itself is anagrammatic for the name of a mythical West African trickster, Esu-Elegbara, lending her project a dimension of serious play. The sender and receiver don’t exist and the addresses are unknown, but with the collaboration of the postmaster, Jahoda has retrieved the letters to create her piece.

A.S. Bessa’s piece, Clear Title, also deals with absence and with ghostly reminders of passage, or travel, consisting large, framed groups of photographs of spaces in which a performance took place. In each, the artist requested a signature from another person in a specific place, generally cultural institutions: museum, art gallery, bookstore. Months later, the artist returned to photograph the site, where memories of the interaction lingered. The physical changes in the spaces since the remembered interaction indicate the passage of time. Images of the Whitney Museum’s cavernous galleries, populated only by security guards and its walls devoid of art, punctuate the piece’s melancholic tone. With all the photographs representing some sort of real estate, Bessa’s title, Clear Title, introduces an appealing ambiguity: who owns the memories? Who owns the happenings in the spaces depicted?

In the passage from Pirsig’s book that began this essay, the author, his son, and two friends are on a cross-country motorcycle trip. The author’s friend Sylvia is despondent at the seeming sadness of the commuters on their Monday morning drive: "They looked so lost," she says. "Like they were all dead. Like a funeral procession." Pirsig sees no point to mourning, and changes the subject to the swamps and blackbirds he was watching, and gets Sylvia to promise to watch out for these beautiful glimpses of nature. Pirsig wrote his book hoping to encourage changes in our habits of thought; Gerbracht and the other artists in these exhibitions, among other things, sensitize us to new ways of seeing.





SPACES IN BETWEEN PLACES
RETRACING THE COMMUTE
By John Christ

Although one often hears about the triumphal arrival of the computer age, and more to the point, the cyber age, the present slump in the high-tech industry, accompanied by headlines of layoffs, ‘negative profits,’ and the bankruptcy of many an internet start-up, reminds one of the continuing importance of labor to our present economy. These industries are not solely the bastion of pioneer venture capitalists but also of their many employees. Furthermore, in our high-tech world there are still products that need to be produced, transactions that are made face-to-face, jobs that are being downsized, and most to the point for the present essay, we still need to go to and from work, physically and bodily. This is not to deny the many ways in which new forms of communication have changed our lives and our understanding of time and space, but rather to assert that for all the changes they have wrought, good and bad, most of us, including those in the high tech industries, still travel to and from work on a fairly regular schedule. We do not yet perform our labor in offices without walls, to put a twist on an old phrase.1 The commute to and from work remains central to our lives. Highways are continuously expanding to help cope with the congestion of throngs of commuters who live further and further from their places of work. So, when many are talking about the possibilities of working from home connected through a network of wires and satellites, going to far off places without ever leaving the comfort of their ergonomically designed chairs, it is refreshing to attend an exhibition about what is still a part of most of our lives, physically traveling from place to place through the built environment, a journey that is often lonely, costs money, drains off what could be valuable ‘down time,’ and puts us in the face of various institutions that operate for our ‘convenience.’ It is the time and space of the commute, that space in between places, that time understood to be lost, which is here at issue. "Back and Forth: A Series of Exhibitions Involving Notions of Commutes and Itineraries Systematic Travels, Real and Imagined, Over Distances Great and Small, Relating to Labor, Tourism and Exploration." is an exhibition in which a group of artists have explored these issues. It is with this exhibition that this essay puts itself into a dialogue.

My understanding of these projects points to erasure, absence or an invisibility of some sort as a common theme. More specifically, I have in mind the invisibility of particular parts of the city because they are not traversed in one’s daily routine, the lack of spatial and temporal continuity of a bus ride in which space has been divided by a rationalized series of stops, the often overlooked negative spaces in subway stations that slyly impact our behavior, to name a few instances raised by these artists. For the most part, the interconnectedness of places along the commute now and over history is not contemplated, nor is the reason why a train or highway may take a particular path a subject of sustained thought. The space of the commute is familiar and yet remains largely unknown. We pass through regions of the city or country, or more often suburbia, not paying particular attention; these areas are not a part of our world, they are a space, a negativity as it were, we must traverse to get to a place that matters. The space of the commute is intricately connected to that of investment, to the temporal and geographic bulldozing performed everyday by the movement of capital, the ‘back and forth’ of business. We see this bulldozing most articulated in such instances as Robert Moses’s razing and division of entire communities in the Bronx to make room for the Cross Bronx Expressway in the 1950s and ‘60s. More recently, there have been innumerable urban renewal projects in which the displacement of the old often receives quite favorable publicity, as the benefits of tourism, retail, and food often are understood to outweigh their harm, and sometimes rightly so. In a subtler, although no less significant, manner, one can follow the paths of real estate speculators who displace communities more slowly through higher rents and gentrification. The networks of transit, under investigation in this essay, are integral players in these processes; regions gain and lose their status as nodal points on this transport grid as investment patterns continue to shift geographically; districts go back and forth from points on the grid to the more invisible white ground supporting the grid.

My analysis of these issues and projects will be exploratory. I am less concerned with definitive answers than the contribution I can make to a discourse. This discourse will hopefully be productive of knowledge, a knowledge that knows its own limits, does not fear but welcomes further interrogation, and, perhaps most to the point, a knowledge that is useful, that can be put into practice. That is, to understand better the violence of everyday life will hopefully also lead to an understanding of the tactics necessary to counteract it. This essay, therefore, is not written as a critique in the sense normally understood. I am not so much trying to pass judgment on this exhibition as I am attempting to contribute to it. The projects intervene in our experience of transit with questions and observations. I am counterpoising my own questions and observations in a dialogue with these artists. My criticisms, thus, are offered in the spirit of group inquiry and discussion, for the success of this exhibition ultimately rests more on the public discourse that it can generate than on its individual interventions into everyday life, as invaluable as they may be as starting points.

The location of the gallery itself, Mott Haven, a region of the Bronx along the Harlem River, perhaps poses outright some of the questions that will be central to this essay. Vacancy Gallery’s location is probably not often traversed by most of the cultural cognoscenti, myself included. My commute to Mott Haven was via the 6 train, a train on which I had traveled up and down Lexington Avenue many times before although never as far as the Bronx. My only previous experiences of this area were from the window of a bus or the driver’s seat of a car on my way into or out of Manhattan, the significance of the region not really being my utmost concern. It was a relatively short walk from the subway station to Vacancy Gallery past some housing projects, under the Major Deegan Expressway and down Bruckner Boulevard. Although one recognizes the street activity that suggests a sense of community, one also cannot help but recognize the signs of urban violence, of a region once bustling with industry that has been vacated of capital, as its administrators seek more profitable real estate. The scars of this history are clearly visible; one needs look no further than the vacated housing and lots. Mott Haven, we are confirmed in the introduction to "Back and Forth," is a place of transition.

Mott Haven is in flux. This territory of substitution, exchange and passage is neither Manhattan nor Bronx. It belongs no more to it’s residents than to the commuters that pass through it. It does not belong to The City Administrators who dictate policy there, nor to the recent wave of real estate Investors. That is to say, in addition to the people who live in Mott Haven, there are many parties with vested interests in this contested terrain, none of whom actually control, or exploit it fully, as they would prefer.

This transitional state is part of a larger transformation that the region has been undergoing since at least the early nineteenth century when the area first received its present name. In 1828, Jordan L. Mott opened the Mott Iron Works near the intersection of 134th Street and the Harlem River. In 1850, Mott developed an industrial village in the same region. The ironworks remained in Mott Haven until 1906. Following the extension of the 3rd Avenue el train in 1886, Mott Haven became a more popular area, new row houses were built, and piano manufacturing moved into the industrial areas. However, by the time of the publication of the WPA Guide to New York City in 1939 it was possible to describe this region in less confident terms. "The river front is a jumble of factories, coal- and lumberyards, and railroad yards which make an ugly setting for the Harlem River." Further, the population, it was remarked, while still dense, had been ‘thinning’ as the industrial area expanded. The author also commented on the construction of several new government buildings during the thirties, and one notes not only the nature of these buildings but also that they were not the result of an influx of private capital. They included a Bronx Central Postoffice Annex, Grand Concourse, Bronx County Building, and, perhaps most telling, the Bronx County Jail. Much of the low-income housing projects in Mott Haven were built in the decades following the Second World War. Today, elements of all of these phases of building are still evident in varying states of vitality and decay. And, although the majority of the population is poor, increasingly middle-class blacks are moving into renovated row houses. Curiously, although Vacancy Gallery is located in a location that speaks directly to the issues raised by "Back and Forth," and although the invitation displays two photographs conveying a sense of urban brutality, the projects in the exhibition do not engage in any direct way with the history of this location. Although one cannot help but regret this unfortunate omission, the poignancy of the location along with the exhibition’s statement of purpose, force this background upon the viewer’s interpretation of the work of these artists adding complexities to their projects as well as to our understanding of Mott Haven.2

Grady Gerbracht, the curator of "Back and Forth," contributed his own project to this exhibition. Commutes: New Jersey Transit Series is a project based on the artist’s commute to and from Paramus, New Jersey along the #163 bus route. The images shown represent interventions in the experience of this conventional commute. Relatively abstract drawings are seen on the window of the bus. These drawings are imposed on the views seen through the bus window. Occasionally one gets a glimpse of the artist himself or just his hand in the act of producing these drawings, adding to our sense of the process involved. It is not at first entirely clear what the drawings are meant to represent or what their ultimate significance may be. We slowly come to discover that these drawings are tracings of bits of the passing scene. This inference is confirmed by the artist’s statement.

While the bus paused to let riders on or off, I begin to trace the image onto the glass with a dry-erase marker. The tracing registers the scene outside for only a moment. I stop drawing when the bus begins to move again. When I reach my destination, I get off the bus leaving the drawing behind.

The superimposition of these drawings on the passing landscape allows for connections to be made over time and space, a suggestion that some sense may be made of the path taken by the bus every day. Through this conceptual bridging of space, the time of the commute becomes more fluid. As new connections are set up, the stops along the route get stretched, reiterated, and lose their power to abstractly fix space. The stops however retain their importance even as their fixity is smeared. And one questions the connections that are set up between sites as to their significance. To get to the point, is this merely a game being played for amusement along an otherwise monotonous commute, or do these interventions represent something more significant? The answer, I believe lies wholly with neither one of these options but finds company in both.

The connections that this process sets up, as I have stated, raise certain questions as to their ultimate significance and power to produce meaning. One is not entirely sure if a continuity is being set up between places or if a juxtaposition is being set up by chance in a manner not dissimilar to that of an exquisite corpse drawing, or then perhaps these options are not mutually exclusive. For example, in one of the images, white ornamental deer in red bows juxtaposed with a street sign and a drawing resembling a pavilion of some sort is suggestive, and also wonderfully playful and absurd. In most cases, however, the process of coming to terms with these images is immediately complicated by the abstractness of the drawings, the difficulty in defining their referent in the environment. These tracings, of necessity do to the period of time available during the loading and unloading of passengers at a bus stop, are drawn quickly and without detail. Perhaps this is telling, for the drawings, like our memories of these same places if we were to take this trip, are vague and unclear, formed in passing as we quickly move from place to place. One sometimes recognizes trees or what appear to be references to the natural environment and at other times one identifies more architectural forms, but their legibility is not consistent. The photographs themselves are also not uniformly clear; they were shot in varying degrees of focus, the depth-of-field oftentimes not encompassing the whole view. These photographs usually do, however, retain their legibility. The views out the window range from gas stations to fields, from doorways to trees, from cars to convenience stores. As a viewer, one is forced to muse on the possibility of connections being set up between the tracings and the views through the window. An attempt is made to set up a relationship, to establish some sense of continuity along the bus route, a sense of social significance absent from the commute. My own inability to forge these connections and make sense of the juxtapositions perhaps says all too much about the logic of the commute and the difficulty of making sense of the geographic cross section it cuts through the environment. That is, this frustration of one’s expectations says as much, although in a different manner, as would a social and economic history of the planning of the bus’s route.

Until now, I have dwelt on the images produced, having neglected their quite noteworthy staging. The images that I have been referring to are slides that have been projected onto a screen that is visible from the front window of the gallery. In this way, the images are viewed not from the sanctity of the gallery space but from the urban space of the sidewalk outside as if peering into the display window of a store. This installation produces a deeper layering of sites and adds further complexities to the interpretive process, ones for which I have not yet accounted. Beyond the simple act of standing on the sidewalk in order to view the images, the window itself becomes the site for the play of more complex juxtapositions. In it one can see not only one’s own reflection, but also that of passersby on the street, of passing cars, and of the buildings across the street. These reflections of the local scene, aspects of life flattened into the two dimensional world of the display, intermingle with the tracings and scenes from the bus window to produce a rich spectacle. This performance was completed during my visit by the improvised harmony of car engines, people talking, and the beat being laid down from a radio in the apartment above. The combination of pedestrians, automobiles, the nearby Major Deegan, the #163 bus and the tracings bring forth new associations in the mind of the viewer. It should come as no surprise that this added layering of imagery does not cause the initial juxtapositions contained within the slides to come into any clearer focus. What does occur, however, is that the discontinuities, abstractness, and effacement of place that were highlighted in the bus route are brought to bear on these other realms. The connections between modes of transport are contemplated. One questions the continuity of the experience of traveling by car, and whether a difference exists between a trip along a highway and one on local streets. It is in the raising of these and similar questions that the real import of this project lies. Before turning to another project, however, I feel it necessary to return to the tracings as individual actions.

As discrete situations of resistance, these acts of drawing take on a more personal meaning. It seems to me that they only gain their public significance through their accumulation. The reason for this lies partially in a point I made earlier, one having to do with legibility, the fact that a new, more social continuity along the route of the commute is not really set up by these individual acts. What is set up, through their accumulation, is the sense of a struggle for meaning. On a personal level, for the artist, these actions may reinsert, as he says, some of the ‘complexities of lived experience’ onto the ‘abstraction imposed on this suburban landscape by the official route map and time table.’ As traces of individual acts these images resemble a process of diversion that, while surely of value to the artist, does not carry public significance. But again, what about the personal importance of these acts, their making of the commute more livable even if only for the individual involved? There are many ways in which one can spend one’s commuting time. Some take the opportunity of a long train ride to take a nap. Increasingly, however, with the pressures to raise individual productivity along with the possibilities offered by new technologies such as the laptop, cell phone and wireless web, the seat of the car, bus or train, has become an auxiliary office. The empty time of the commute has become productive work time. But is this a reappropriation of the time and space of the commute or the further colonization by business of everyday life? There are still those, however, who simply listen to music, catch up on the news, read a book, or just daydream, people who still claim this time for themselves, for their own pursuits. It is in this last sense, that I understand Commutes and also the drawings of Scott Teplin, whatever their obvious merits as drawings may be. They are engaged in a process of making life seem less alienated, which if taken as interventionist acts in themselves smack of what the conservative proponent of change, Michel de Certeau, labels ‘making do.’ This is not to detract from the success of these projects, but to keep our understanding of the acts themselves focused on their accumulated significance, their public and social meaning.

There are some who do not spend their commuting time in any of the above ways. They strike up a conversation with their neighbor. One finds this in particular on commuter trains in which one often recognizes the same passengers every day, as passengers often routinely take the same car of the same train. This kind of quasi-spontaneous socializing is far less common in buses and subways, not to mention on the highway. The space of the commute is arranged so as to maximize seating (and standing) capacity and minimize uncomfortable social situations. An interesting experiment might be to rearrange the seating of a bus or train in such a way that would encourage interaction. Michael Rakowitz has contributed a project to "Back and Forth" which does speak directly to the anomie of the commute. He has run a personal add in the Village Voice offering his services as a ‘commuter companion.’ As he states, "I will make myself available to accompany lonely commuters on their way to work." Needless to say, this project draws attention to the absence of the social in the commuting experience, not the sense of the social interrelatedness of aspects of the landscape as in Grady Gerbracht’s project, but social interaction among individuals. It is in stressing this negativity, this absence of the social, that I believe this project has the most to offer. The acts themselves, or perhaps I should say the possibilities for action as offered in the advertisement, are less interesting, and even a little disappointing. They, like the tracings discussed earlier, offer a more enjoyable way to spend one’s commute, but this remains largely personal. The leap that is not made is that of setting up a situation in which a more public discourse might develop, in which issues might be discussed in an open forum, in which the commuting experience might be interrupted and called into question as a group. The leap from conversation to public discussion, while not ruled out, is certainly not implied in the project’s advertisement. The commute as a possible vehicle for democracy is not put to the test. But perhaps I’m asking too much. The ability to lay stress on the loneliness of the commute and suggest that with very little effort it could be otherwise is in fact a valuable contribution in itself. Perhaps some of us may even greet and start a conversation with our neighbor on our next commute, or maybe this too is asking too much.

As with the design of vehicles that subtly constrain the ways in which we socialize during the commute, the designers of stations too engage in such practices of behavioral control. Other Ways, a video by Alex Villar, draws attention to these practices. Negative, or dead, spaces mold the movements of commuters as they traverse subway stations. Barriers form these spaces, but these barriers are intended to allow movement to take place more effortlessly as much as prevent it. These visible, yet overlooked, spaces are as important as any of the occupiable spaces in determining our trajectory through the station. Although they are ‘negative’ spaces, they are productive spaces, dikes and jetties put in place by a purposive logic of flow maximization. The subway station, therefore, as a space ruled by such a logic has much in common with the space of labor; they are both designed to minimize unproductive movement and temporary stoppages, except in so far as episodes of diversion are planned in order to control workplace discontent. Alex Villar, rather than following the administered flow patterns, dwells in and inscribes the negative spaces back into our sense of the experience of the commute.

Everyday movements are pursued vigorously, in relative disregard to the particularities of the surrounding subway stations. The artist occupies the eccentric negative spaces created by the rails and guides which are designed for optimum transit efficiency. His movements like the movement of passers by is confined and defined by these barriers in an exaggerated fashion.

The ‘negative spaces’ that the artist refers to include those in between railings, in between a railing and a wall, on the side of and underneath stairways, dead ends, and other cut-off spaces. Some of these spaces, when traversed, take on an absurd quality, only added to by the artist’s running around them, up and down them, squeezing in-between them, and climbing upon them. The fixation of these spaces into our experience of the station also suggests lost possibilities. An open space underneath a stairway, by its only partial visibility, may foster illicit activities, offer a secluded place of rest, or even shelter a homeless person; these activities are excluded from the plan. By bodily inscribing these spaces back into our consciousness of the commute we are encouraged to contemplate the ways in which our movements are being controlled and to ask to what ends, how what is being aimed at is not a social experience as much as maximum efficiency and bodily visibility.

Sara Eichner, in Book of Days; March 17 to May 17, 2000, also brings to attention the paths traveled and not traveled, in this case by the artist herself. Individual tracings of her daily travels, overlaid upon one another, come together to form an elegant drawing of the artist’s social realm. What are striking are not only the places inscribed and the manner in which these layerings come together to form a recognizable map, but the absent spaces, the spaces left blank. She outlines her process:

This work is based on everywhere I go over certain intervals of time. I record the information and then use it with maps of New York City to create drawings. The routine and non routine travel of my days determines the composition and density of each drawing. Likewise, desire to change the composition determines where I go. The structure of the landscape and urban grid I live in limit the options to control the outcome.

One takes note that she too recognizes the spaces left blank; she attempts to fill them, perhaps as much in an attempt ‘to change the composition’ as a matter of symbolically expanding her social realm. Spaces, markers of absent places, necessarily remain, and they are as much my subject as are the routes taken. Flow through the city, like that through the subway station, is proscribed by a series of dikes and jetties. Unlike those of the station, however, those of the city are often less readily visible. Streets, public transit lines, and the natural topography are the most obvious. Less articulated and tangible but equally significant are the ways in which one’s profession, class, and racial identity contribute to the visibility of some places and invisibility of others. One may not feel welcome or safe in particular neighborhoods; certain ethnic enclaves may simply not offer anything necessary to one’s daily existence; one may not be able to afford to shop for one’s clothes on Madison Avenue; one may never have previously had a purpose to travel to the South Bronx. Alternately, certain sidewalks may be well worn because they lead to a place of employment or a favorite watering hole. Certain ethnic enclaves because they welcome outsiders with the lure of exotic food and gifts may also be better traveled. If one is a tourist or works in the financial district, one may be drawn to South Street Seaport, one of the urban renewal projects mentioned earlier. Sites gain and lose visibility; they shift in and out of focus as different actors chart their travels. The beauty of Sara Eichner’s drawings contain within themselves their obverse, exclusions and vacancies. I do not mean to suggest that an appropriate layering of drawings would yield an even grid or a field of black in which all difference and variety is obliterated. I am suggesting that the social forces at work contributing to the composition of her drawing must be a topic of critique as well as joyful reverie.

At the outset, I stated my ambition to participate in a discourse. I have done just that; I have contributed my thoughts and my inquiries, one’s that will undoubtedly be challenged but hopefully also become more clearly articulated. I have not had the final word. In fact, I have left much unsaid. Although I have stressed the importance of the actions performed by these artists as spurs to reflection rather than as effective acts in their own right, I have not offered my own alternative as to what future actions we may take. Also, I have said nothing of Emily Jacir’s tracings from Vogue as they relate to transnational communication, the invisibility of the body, the instabilities of personal identity, or the experience of international travel. What I do hope to have contributed to is first of all an interpretation of a number of distinctive works of art, and second to a knowledge of the relationships between capital, labor, urban geography and our experiences of commuting.

 

Notes:

1. See "Museum Without Walls," the first chapter of André Malraux’s The Voices of Silence. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

2. For more detailed information on this region and suggestions for further reading see The Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers Project Guide to 1930s New York, (New York: New Press, 1939).