Loco Motion: comments on Ryan Griffis' review 'Walking as Art in LA'

Posted by Sean Capone | Mon Jun 13th 2005 10:53 a.m.

From the recent Rhizome Digest, Mr. Griffis writes in his review of 'A Walk to Remember':
"The language used to describe LA¹s paved circulatory system belies the indifference to the space that lies between points A and B. On the one hand, there is the web of interconnected freeways that allow one to move from destination to destination, as if in some kind of congested time-space portal, and on the other are the ³surface streets,² existing at ground level, where daily life plays out."

I thought I would share a writing I did last year upon becoming a fulltime resident of New York City (following a stay in Los Angeles), a city which pretty much represents the antipode of LA's culture and aesthetics of mobility...

(text follows):
As an artist who has lived in several American cities over several years, I characterize New York City as maintaining a distinct pedestrian culture in contrast to (or, in the case of Los Angeles, opposition to), other major urban hubs in the U.S. This observation comes about through the way in which the city fabric--its architecture and flow-- enfolds about and interacts with the infrastructure of personal transport and mobility--specifically, the public transportation system.

It is no joke that New Yorkers walk and climb more, compared even to other pedestrian cities such as Chicago and San Francisco. In these cities, however, the transportation systems maintain high visibility and contribute to the overall character of the city. The 'El' in Chicago contributes vast tracts of industrial (and highly aesthetic) architectural topography, a multiply-layered vertical (above-ground) surface of transportation to the city which invites a passive, filmic observation of the cityscape. The web of suspension power cabling and street rails which stretch across the streets in San Francisco, on the other hand, overlays a visible 'network' of junctions and flows upon which the fixed routes of bus and charming cable-cars move people about, an ironic ('wired' vs. 'wireless') concession to the city's historical character. By contrast, the subway system in New York (the most depended upon, and reliable, method of rapid transport here), have zero impact on the visual urban identity of the city, designed solely to move and re-integrate people as quickly as possible onto the street again. The metro lines run entirely (sometime several layers) underground, the portals into which are indistinct and unmonumental (unlike, for example, Washington D.C.), and have an overall non-modern edginess which relies less on distinct signage and comforts and more upon the physical activity and wits of its passengers.

Within these 'portal' areas, a subterranean transitional city exists--ranging in sophistication from tedious and labyrinthine to those more akin to an airport terminal (the most highly evolved modern interstitial 'zone') with shops, restaurants, and services such as barber salons. An interesting subset of public 'space' exists here, marked by the continuous flow of passenger traffic and subway arrivals and departures. New York subways are also distinct in the vastness of their terminals, some spanning entire blocks, obviating the need to expel oneself onto the street at all in order to transfer to other lines, or to exit in a range of locations other than that prescribed by the actual station. The train rides themselves do not offer even a suggestion of scenery of any type (until one passes over into Brooklyn); journeys are unmemorable, inactive 'non-events', rarely interpersonal, the relief of which is enjoyed upon conclusion and expulsion from the tunnels.

The Manhattan subways occupy more of a psychological than architectural territory-- an invisible sub-strata of the urban environment, the deep sleep between distant arrivals and departures, rendered with a gross physicality which makes the experience the more embodied of public transportation methods of American cities. Indeed, the intricately threaded and weathered layers of graded catwalks, stairways, and concourses seem more akin to the experience of myths, dreams, or the symbols of the subconscious; the journeys themselves are so psychologically mundane they border on catatonia.
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