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.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

About this blog

I’ve worked through a lot of ideas about history and heritage in the past dozen or so years, but the car part is new. Here’s my basic position on how history and heritage get produced (and this is far from original, by the way—it’s built on the thinking of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Dean MacCannell , and many others):

* We can never make a simple or straightforward retrieval of anything from the past—there are always present-day mechanisms of collection and interpretation that shape what we know about the past.

* We give this knowledge different names—“history” and “heritage” are two of the main ones—depending on who is doing the retrieving and interpreting, and why.

*We usually want the mechanisms for creating knowledge about the past, like the mechanisms for producing tourist experiences, to be somewhat if not completely invisible. Modern humans have a huge thirst for “authentic” or unmediated experiences, and we’ve developed immensely complex infrastructures to provide them for us!

Those mechanisms, which have been studied in increasing detail over the past couple of decades, include museums, folklife displays, tourist attractions of all kinds, reenactments, parks and preserves, monuments and memorials. One component of all this that remains largely invisible, though, is the role of the internal combustion engine in shaping the contemporary landscape of heritage production. (The Centre for Mobilities Research—CeMoRe to its friends—is beginning to address this question, among others. This isn’t surprising, as this is the home base on British sociologist and influential tourism theorist John Urry. Click here for a paper by him on cars and other kinds of what he calls “weightless mobilities”).

I actually started out looking for ways to study the role of the car in American culture more directly, rather than thinking about it in relation to heritage production. I wanted to do some kind of engaged social scientific research that would contribute some useable knowledge to the current widespread attempt to unplug from our petroleum-powered economy and society. And on the list of things we would need to change radically in order to accomplish that unplugging, it has seemed to me that our use of cars is among the most intractable items. So much of our physical world and so many of our behavioral patterns are shaped by the car, particularly in North America. Remaking these landscapes and behaviors feels like one of the more overwhelming tasks on a long list of overwhelming tasks. Faced with what feels overwhelming or baffling, my typically egg-headed response is usually to design a research project about it.

So this blog represents a first step toward bringing together the intractable social/spatial question of how to shift our car culture for a post-carbon world with the ever-intriguing (well, to me, anyway) set of questions about how we construct our knowledge about the past. How many historic and heritage sites wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the automobile? How does the creation of a North American heritage infrastructure relate to the construction of a car culture, and to the development of various national, regional, and local identities? How do we display and memorialize car culture itself? How is all of this changing (or is it changing?) as the environmental, social, and economic consequences of our reliance on cheap, abundant petroleum become clearer and clearer to us? Is there any way to mobilize heritage display itself to help make the changes that we’re going to need to make?

Those are the kinds of things this blog will address, in the context of looking at some specific roadside attractions. (Note: This isn’t the only “History on Wheels” project – this one is a military vehicle museum in the U.K., and this is a vintage motorcycle club in India, while there are several that are more straightforward projects taking history “on the road” in some way. To my knowledge, though, this is the only “History on Wheels” project looking at the automobility and heritage production combo.)

It’s a new adventure for me to be putting out my field- and research-notes in a more or less public format like this one. But it seems to me that understanding and changing our automobility is a mammoth challenge that demands collective effort and pooled resources on many levels. So I’m putting my thoughts-in-progress into the mix, for whatever they’re worth. I hope to hear others’ in response!