Sunday, September 21, 2008

The hand is greener than the eye

I drove north through Vermont last weekend and stopped at the Interstate rest stop in Sharon, home of the Vermont Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At one point this memorial was just a granite plinth at the entrance to the rest area (where it always used to puzzle me, because it’s engraved with the line from the Gettysburg Address about “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,” and I could never quite figure out how the commemorators were seeing that in the context of the Vietnam War). It seems that in the mid-1990s, the rest area was going to be closed, in part because its septic system was inadequate, but veterans got together and made a case for not only saving the memorial but rebuilding the entire welcome center around it.


So now there’s this extremely interesting hybrid facility, opened in the fall of 2007 as part of an upgrade of Vermont’s whole welcome center system, that raises some questions for me about Vermont's relationship with automobility. There are four components to the new rest area. It’s a functional place for highway pit stops (bathrooms, picnic area, free coffee, tea, and WiFi). It’s a promotional place (with Vermont crafts as well as the usual brochures and information). It’s a much-expanded veterans’ memorial (incorporating a sizeable outdoor memorial area, a central column of names in the main building, and a panel exhibit about the Vietnam War and Vermont’s involvement in it.

And finally, it’s a “green” building that puts its own state-of-the-art infrastructure on display. The geothermal heating and cooling system is invisible, but the new waste disposal system is front and center, in the form of a greenhouse dome that houses a “living machine” where tropical plants and microorganisms process the waste and produce recycled, useable water. (This water is likely to be one of the first things people notice about the place when they come in, in fact, since it greets them—dyed avocado-green and explained by informational plaques—in the toilets).

The educational toilet water is just one illustration of the extraordinary degree of integration and seeming transparency among all the types of display here. Education, commemoration, promotion, and functionality are blended in a way that would make a brand manager weep with admiration. The brand, of course, is “Vermont,” and virtually everything here reinforces it: the native marble and granite in the memorial wall, the expression of “greenness” and environmental consciousness, the complimentary Green Mountain coffee, the views of the hills on the other side of the Interstate, the stories and pictures of the Vermont boys who didn’t come home from Vietnam, the handmade furniture on which you sit to check your email (creating a sneaky sense of sitting in someone’s living room rather than a state-sponsored welcome center).

I happen to love the Vermont brand and consume it avidly when I get the chance. This place, though, raises questions for me. Outside, at least in the parts of Vermont I tend to visit, the state brand always has some welcome rough edges and complexities, so it feels as though real people are always thinking about it and constructing it with their eyes open rather than just pushing a packaged product. There’s something about the Sharon Welcome Center that seems to head in the packaged direction, and I think it has to do with cars, or rather, with the way that they’ve been rendered almost invisible at this place that can only be reached via the Interstate.

I seem to recall that at the old Sharon welcome center, you parked at the bottom of the hill and walked up to the building. In the new layout, cars park at the top of the hill, behind the building, so that you literally leave the evidence of automobility behind you as you enter this beautiful and rather utopian space. Ahead of you are the Green Mountains (the veterans liked the location, we are told in the brochure and on the walls, in part because it is reminiscent of the landscape of the Southeast Asian highlands). I89 is not immediately visible from the building or the lawn.

Trucks and RVs still park down below, so I don’t want to read too much into this new spatial arrangement. But it does seem worth noting that while the septic arrangements have been incorporated into the exhibitionary space in an intriguing, educational, and aesthetically appealing way, the big, underlying infrastructure of the site—the highway and vehicles that are the only means of accessing it, and that constitute the circulatory system of Vermont’s considerable tourism industry—are tellingly pushed to the background. Exposing the septic sytem is compatible with the brand; exposing the role of the automobile would presumably be less so. And the literal transparency of the one—the glass dome that houses the “living machine”—serves as a trick to distract the mind’s eye so that it becomes easier not to see the other machines—the little (or in some cases, not so little) moving rooms that conveyed us here. In this context, it’s hard to decide whether the veterans’ memorial actually helps to sacralize a secular space or whether the memorial itself participates in the sleight-of-hand, opportunistically grabbing a little of the tourist audience while they’re in a receptive and potentially reflective mood.

My own trip through Vermont and back this time was a very speedy one, and I was pretty fried by the time I drove back south again a day and a half later. I was in that fully passive driving mode when I stopped at another of the new rest stops (liquid out, liquid in, and I don’t want to have to think about where any of it came from or where it’s going). But I did pause by the doorway on the way back out to my car to look at a much more traditional temporary panel exhibit that actually did focus on the history of Vermont’s Interstate highways. Other people were breezing past this without a second glance—the space did not in any way encourage contemplation, unlike the Sharon welcome center, which, as its brochure notes, “accommodates lingering thoughtful visits as well as brief highway stops.”

It’s interesting to think about the contrast between an exhibit panel in a classic “non-place” that exposes the mechanisms that created the site, versus a kind of hyper-branded exhibitionary space that serves to mask the mechanisms on which it (and much of the state’s economy) depends. Is the net effect essentially the same, I wonder? We all get back in our cars and drive on, creating wastes of various kinds (CO2, noise, the no-one’s-land of the Interstate corridors themselves) that we don’t want to scrutinize too directly. Perhaps it’s only safe to touch on them in isolated moments, not to bring them too centrally into grander statements about the greenness of the Green Mountain State.

For a New York Times article on the opening of the new Sharon rest area, click here.

For the work of a sound artist who does bring the actual noise of automobility into contemplative spaces, visit this page on Bruce Odland's work.

1 comment:

fjosephine said...

I wonder why the Vietnam vets chose this out-of-the-way location in the first place for their memorial. Am I reading too much into the (no doubt unintended) parallel with the "dirty little war," conducted largely out of sight in a green and faraway place?
In a larger context of memorials, there does seem to be a precedent in naming rest stops after dead people! I have thought about this before: would I feel particularly honored if a highway rest stop were named after me? Is this a remnant of the Romans' cemeteries, crowded close together along the vias, so that travelers would see and say the names of the dead, and therefore they would be remembered?
The car culture overall is not a shy and drooping maiden, so it does seem odd that the "evidence," as you call it, would be hidden. I'd like to think about this more, but the obvious thing that comes to mind is the'liberal," "green" brand identity of Vermont.