The American road today is an unerotic place. Viewed from the ever more hermetic car, the world unfolding alongside the highway is abstract and lonely. Even when the scenery is expansive, like the red rocks of Monument Valley, or kitschy-cool, like old Route 66, the apprehension of its beauty is mediated by a mash of myths and images from movies and TV shows absorbed but long forgotten. The heartstrings these scenes seem to tug are rather brainwires.
In 2003, about the time Kristina Leko and David Smithson endeavored to film a road trip through the American west for the multi-channel installation Snoring in America, the USA was bombing the shit out of Iraq. Another image out of the mash, in my head but not in the installation, was a static camera shot of the crackles of light and plumes of smoke over nighttime Baghdad. I remember watching it live in a Dallas hotel room, far from my New York home at the time, and there was the sense of resignation: “I don’t want this, but what can I do?”
The installation at NGBK, so far away too in my current home of Berlin, brought back tinges of that same numb despair. In color screens that depict a blithe, narrative-less drive through some of the great tourist attractions of the Wild West, large-bellied tourists in belted shorts trundle about, and the Stars and Stripes are everywhere. Our protagonists, ostensibly Leko and Smithson, are invisible but for the sound of conversations about what to order and what motel to stay in. Michael Moore, NPR and unidentifiable news programs chatter along from the TV and car radio. Then, visually and sonically interspersed with these scenes, are black-and-white, surveillance-like films of our protagonists sleeping –and oftentimes snoring – in generic motel rooms.
When I described the installation to a friend, he asked, “do you see them have sex”? The answer is, no, we don’t see them have sex, and again, this is no surprise: love and eroticism have nothing to do with the road trip anymore. Not even a heartfelt swell of national pride.
The chance delights of the westward-bound American road trip, as celebrated by Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain and the like, are today seat-belted, air-bagged, power-locked and GPS-ed. Fear of chance infects road travel and, really, American life in general. Except for perhaps in that “other” blue America, businesses that deal in novelty are not rewarded. Wilderness is gated off by National Park Service railings, diners sell variations on the McDonald’s hamburger, the contours of motel rooms in the $30-40 range are formulaic coast-to-coast.
The only real stimulation comes from a dry-humping of nostalgia, and this too gets drowned in milkshakes, ketchup and frying pan grease. As the body of the traveler fills up with junk food and cheap narratives, the distance between it and a direct experience of the American landscape becomes as far as the one between Dallas and Baghdad.
And then, consumption in the pursuit of “feeling” only induces more malaise.
I suppose at the end of a long day driving and not actually experiencing anything you’ve experienced, there isn’t much more to do than snooze, sleep, snore away.
~Mara Goldwyn, a writer living in Berlin
(Images: Kristina Leko, David Smithson, Snoring in America, Installation views; Courtesy of the artists and NGBK.)