The airport is us

A project for Atlántica by Martha Rosler

I began to fly regularly only a few decades ago. As an itinerant artist, time was now of the essence, and so I flew. Air travel, and most visibly the airport complex of terminals and runways, struck me as markedly discordant with the rest of life. I began to take pictures, but only in transit, while pushing a baggage cart. I didn’t know why I was taking the photos, and I had no plans to show them: before the advent of social media, exhibiting or disseminating photos was expensive in both time and money.

I came to regard the airport, and the air transportation system in toto, as a world apart, and my scrutiny provided frameworks for exhibition. The airport, although not actually cut off from the rest of the landscape, has erected many barriers to easy entry. Yet this system and its physical structures represent a dominant self-image of advanced industrial societies, all the more so as commercial networks and free flows of capital continue to unite the world. In this system we are features of this microcosm and of the worldview it embodies, driven by schedules and nodes. Like trains and other vehicular transport, you may object. Yes, but this far more restrictive system is reflected in a world picture that sits incommensurably on top of the everyday world, overriding its priorities. Indeed, it is not even clear if international airports actually fall within the legal jurisdictions in which they are physically located. In short, these indistinct, liminal spaces exist primarily as administrative constructs. This imaginary network has come to supersede the landmarks and institutions—whether natural landscape features or urban markers, or even forms of social interaction—by which we formerly knew ourselves and our “life world.” At the same time, it is a world that travelers avoid analyzing. Rather, we firmly thrust the whole affair into the dark hole of our felt imaginings relating to loss of control—of being swept off our feet—and to sudden death, consigning it to “nowheresville.”

The romantic and childish dreams of escape and power retailed to us by the travel industry, the ability to fly effortlessly like birds, has a dark reflection in these repressed terrors. Much about the terminal interior is designed, through colorful finishes and advertising, through stores, food offerings, and bodily services, to distract us from the realities of rushing and waiting, and of negotiating the long and often confusing routes to the plane. We hold only fragmentary images of what an airport actually is and of the array of functions it serves in addition to tracking passengers, from cargo and animal handling and storage to detention of deportees to art storage in immense lockers for international buyers, and more. Although air rage may be precipitated by observing the all-too-visible classes of preferential passengers, we rarely stop to consider that the economic, political, and social elites don’t use commercially scheduled airlines at all and are thus not subjected to the nasty things we must endure, such as lining up for customs and security inspections, and, in boarding, hanging back while the privileged settle in. Middle-class people fly in staggering numbers, the poor, both immigrant and native born, go to the airport to fill service jobs, while the poorer still from low-wage economies travel as migrant workers under the sufferance of employers.

In its early days the airport was hailed as a grand social edifice, representing, along with a national airline, the greatness of a city or state, and designed by an eminent architect as a machine for living à la le Corbusier (a lover of planes), and to symbolize our conquest of the present and command of the future. People visited airports to dream of utopia, watching takeoffs and landings while enjoying a drink at the bar. But as air flight has become the primary mode of travel, which few can avoid if they want to partake of the contemporary world, we have turned the airport into the other.  Yet the airport is not other, it is “us”; it acts as our situator and landmark, our home base, lockup, and portal. It is both the promise and its betrayal. It extracts us from our shells only to put us in entirely different shells, ones composed of metal and plastic and schedules and routes, and subjects us to the thousand insults that travel and administrative structures and other people impose.

By the turn of the century we had come to accept, if not transcend, our deep unease of disconnectedness from the earth, when that basic deadly fear was suddenly heightened by the spectre of death at the terminal from an entirely different cause: murder at the hands of fateful enemies. Unlike travel on the ground or on water, where dangers—from predators of every stripe or natural events such as flood or storms—may theoretically assail us at every turn, in affluent countries, at least, the airport terminal, like air travel itself, had promised securely administered protection, no matter how illusory and how often breached. Today’s terminals have been redesigned with increased interior showiness and routes improved with moving walkways and trams; more shopping opportunities are provided, more glossy advertising mounted, more electronic charging stations installed to allure and attract us, but the feelings of apprehension and irritation remain. Yet as the airlines’ promise of care in the air, including meal service, has been revoked, ordinary travelers are packed into ever smaller seats, divided into ever more restrictive price classes, and left to negotiate ever longer trips from check-in to gate. We retain an unsettling experience of scrutiny and contingency that must be endured in order to get to where we intend to go.

The airport is us | Atlántica
The airport is us | Atlántica
The airport is us | Atlántica
The airport is us | Atlántica
The airport is us | Atlántica